January 2013

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Graphic in Nature

I never expected to be urging readers to seek out a book on economics, and yet when I was putting together this month's column on graphic novels I found myself consumed with Michael Goodwin's Economix: How and Why Our Economy Words (And Doesn't Work), in Words and Pages. Frankly, this nonfiction title is far more entertaining than it has a right to be, given its subject. As someone who barely survived micro and macro economics courses in college, I approached it with no small amount of trepidation, but Goodwin knows his audience is likely nervous about the topic, and he invites readers to get comfortable and give him a chance. I was hooked after five pages, which is pretty much one of the larger literary surprises of my life.

Dan Burr's illustrations are spare and realistic, and his faces in particular are quite impressive. He nails the famous folks who are easily recognizable, which is a relief. (Thank you for not making me guess which Roosevelt I'm looking at.) Goodwin has also written himself into the action; he appears throughout and talks directly to readers, while not shying away from calling out the idiots who have made hay of international business and politics over the years. It is highly unlikely that most readers will be aware of Adam Smith's philosophies or be able to quote him at will, but within a few pages, Goodwin makes clear that he is well worth investigating, and more pointedly, that his famous work, The Wealth of Nations, has been misquoted more than once. The message here is to beware those who quote Smith for their own purposes. And everyone quotes Smith. All the time.

From the development of socialism and capitalism to the impact of railroads on the early U.S. economy, the ways in which far too many economic theories are bundled together into the mishmash we call American capitalism to why 1920s Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon was too powerful for too long, Goodwin pings from one powerful historic moment to the next while cracking jokes, raising eyebrows, and illuminating all the dark corners of economic theory that come his way. He warns us about academics who enjoy lecturing on the way things work on paper while ignoring their real world ramifications and points out the careful balance that needs to exist between public and private power in order to keep everyone successful, happy, and wise. This balance is endlessly elusive (as proven by our own current economic problems), but the many different ways we try to find it or avoid it makes for a soap opera of sorts that fuels the momentum of this book. Honestly, I can't believe how captivating a book has been crafted about what most of us would agree is one of the dullest subjects on the planet, but that's what we have here. This is a title that belongs in high school classrooms, college course lists, and on nightstands around the world. And, if you were wondering what to get your Congressperson for Christmas...

Eugene Byrne and Simon Gurr have crafted another history title of note with Darwin: A Graphic Biography, which will be published in February. I've read many books on Darwin, and still think there are not enough in the world, yet find it easy to recommend this new one to teens. In detailed, shadowed black-and-white drawings, the authors provide a "really exciting and dramatic story of a man who mostly stayed home and wrote some books." The standard facts are included: Darwin's childhood and early attraction to natural science, his voyage on the Beagle, and his long contemplation of evolution that led to writing and publication of The Origin of the Species. But the facts are not what make this telling of his life so good.

Byrne and Gurr frame Darwin within the fanciful setting of a wildlife program filmed for "Ape TV," and the narrative is peppered with plenty of pithy footnotes, as well as some intense discussion of evolution. The apes interject infrequently, just enough to bring in the humor, but keeping the story from devolving into silliness, and the poignancy of Darwin's life and the challenges he faced on his path to the truth (in a shared role, thankfully noted here by Alfred Russell Wallace) are not overlooked. More importantly, the authors manage to introduce some timely intellectual discussions without intimidating readers who might be fairly new to Darwin's biography and make clear that the conclusions he reached were not casual or na´ve. It's a careful tightrope Byrne and Gurr walk of making their subject accessible, while not reducing his ideas to talking points. I think they have done a great job with Darwin, while injecting some unexpected humor into a very serious subject. Taken alongside Economix, this slim volume proves further the harmonious relationship that can be found between nonfiction and the graphic novel format.

Looking to fiction, Zahra's Paradise by pseudonymous Amir and Khalil is powerful, devastating, and brutal. I say all that up front because the topic, Iran's Green Revolution, is one that might make some teens reluctant to give it a chance. But if I can make you understand how this book can change the way you view the world and give you a deeper appreciation for living in a democracy, then you will understand why it should be given a chance. Just don't expect a sweet and gentle story. It starts with dead puppies (damn), and from there, the narrative of a missing son and brother apparently lost in the labyrinthine world of the Iranian prison system becomes hard to put down. Amir and Khalil had something important to share about Iran with Zahra's Paradise, and they did it straightforward and effectively: they told the truth and then dared us all to believe it.

Nineteen-year-old Mehdi has vanished in the street revolutions that shook Tehran in June 2009. His mother and brother, a blogger who narrates the story, search endlessly for him in the hospital, the morgue, and online. They post fliers, they question fellow protesters, and with the help of a surprising source, his brother hacks into a prison computer system to discover some of the government's secrets. No one will confirm Mehdi's imprisonment until his family can confirm first that he was imprisoned. Which they cannot do without someone confirming he was arrested and imprisoned. Is he alive, is he dead? Is he really missing if the officials declare no one is? These are questions that plague the families of so many of the young men and women who marched in defiance of the regime three years ago. In its final pages, Zahra's Paradise moves beyond Mehdi's tale to include all of the names of the missing, along with information on the thousands who have vanished over the years since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979.

Ultimately, what happens to the characters in Zahra's Paradise is inevitable. But for all its sorrow, all its despair, this is also a story of triumph. The authors are saluting those who dared to change the world, and that is no small thing. Teens will not help finding the commitment of these young adults to be a remarkable achievement, and after reading Zahra's Paradise, they will be hard pressed not to pay more attention to the events in places like Iran. It's a small world we live in, as Amir and Khalil make clear, and full of stories we need to hear.

For much lighter fare, Oni Press is releasing in February the first collection of Bad Medicine, Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir's occult mystery series, which is really a blast to read. This first volume provides the necessary backstory with Doctor Randal Horne, a haunted (literally) surgeon with a conscience, who leads his crew of misfits as they seek to find out why a seemingly headless murder victim has an invisible head and is spreading the lycanthrope virus in a small northern town. Along the way, the many disparate personalities in the group get melded together, from the tough NYPD detective to the forensics specialist who seems more skater boy than scientist and, of course, the crusty doctor from the CDC who thinks he knows everything and can't stand Horne but fortunately might be a pain in the ass, but isn't a stupid pain in the ass and, thus, a nice addition. (I hate it when writers toss stupid into the mix just because they want a convenient dupe for the plot.)

The monsters are smart and scary, both on the street and in the office, and the team's evolution is nice to watch. Everyone has a reason for wanting to be part of this crew, especially Horne, who is perpetually seeking redemption and likely will never find it. Christopher Mitten's art is crisp and realistic, and while there isn't a teen character, there's plenty of teen appeal. Consider it a more realistic version of the BPRD, with the requisite silver bullets and occasional bloody death.

The protagonist of Fred Chao's Johnny Hiro can certainly appreciate the over-the-top drama of Bad Medicine, as his day begins with a T-rex breaking down the wall of his apartment building and scooping his girlfriend out of bed. Forced into heroics, he chases her via the NYC rooftops until Mayumi is able to phone Mayor Bloomberg and the troops -- meaning a ton of cops -- arrive. From there Hiro's life and Chao's story unfold in one hilarious moment after another. The apartment destruction results in a comic courtroom drama with his landlord, a run-in with an old classmate at the Met finds him fending off some white collar sword-wielding rōnin, and trying to keep his restaurant job means dodging angry dockworkers and some chefs very protective of their lobster. Your average everyday moments are full of outlandish excitement for our hero, no matter how hard he tries to live the sanest, most ordinary life possible. Of course all of this crazy prompts him to have an introspective moment or two (with the occasional help of Mayor Bloomberg and David Byrne), but readers should not come to this title expecting deep reflection. Chao's goal is a good time and he delivers. With a healthy dose of sardonic wit and winks to Godzilla and pretty much every chase film ever made, Johnny Hiro is full of awesome. If you liked Big Trouble in Little China, then you will know what you're getting into here, and relish every blessed page.

Antony Johnston's quieter story of intrigue and espionage set during the waning days of the Cold War shows Berlin to have been the quiet center of international conflict. The Coldest City has everything a spy novel needs: governments with dueling priorities, operatives left far too long out in the wild, and loyalties that shift with the needs of the moment. At the center is a murder mystery and an agent with no allies and a host of enemies. The story hinges on what she uncovers after arriving in Berlin and how fast she can stay one step ahead of whomever might be trying to kill her.

In the wake of a fellow agent's murder, British agent Lorraine Broughton has been sent to find the important list he might have had at the time of his death and uncover who knew about its existence. Everyone lies to her, which is to be expected, but the pace at which events on the ground move is nearly overwhelming. Johnston keeps his plot tight here, short clipped dialogue, quick meetings, sudden discoveries. Even the quieter moments, as Lorraine ponders what she does and does not know and opens up with other agents in the city (which was essentially spy central), are fraught with tension. Johnston makes sure readers are always holding their breath for what might come next, and while Sam Hart's stark black-and-white drawings can't compete with the big screen splash of 007's latest, they perfectly fit the sharp danger Lorraine finds in Berlin. There are twists and turns and while Johnston tosses a few timely meetings in along the way, they are nothing readers wouldn't expect for Bond, either. He makes sure all the questions are answered and all the clues uncovered, and yes, the ending comes with a kick worthy of old-school Kevin Costner. Though written for adults, this one deserves notice from older teens who will appreciate the atmosphere, the danger, and every dramatic moment.

Less violent but no more realistic, Thien Pham's short and lightly worded Sumo is the story of former football player Scott who seeks athletic success and inner peace in Japan as a student of the ancient wrestling form. In glossy pages, washed in muted tones of green, orange, and blue, Scott's story unfolds from the breakup with his longtime girlfriend back home, to his failure to make it to the NFL, and finally his decision to travel to Japan and enter into a regimented training schedule that dominates nearly every aspect of his life. What he seeks is purpose or direction, something that will help him find himself again. Pham is not obvious about any of this, thankfully, but it all becomes clear as Scott learns, makes friends, and remembers his life before. As competitive as sumo is, Pham manages to write about it in a most noncompetitive way, and he makes clear that the fight is not the point, but the preparation for the fight, accepting the challenge of the fight, is everything. The message is subtle, the artwork simple but quiet. Scott is a noble hero on the quest of his life. Reluctant readers will especially be comfortable with Sumo, and while I don't often send titles in gender specific directions, Sumo is a book that should be put in the hands of teenage boys at every opportunity. It will help them think like a sumo wrestler, which clearly is a very good thing.

Finally, David H.T. Wong takes on a bunch of seriously skewed American history courses with his saga of the Chinese who came to North America in Escape to Gold Mountain. From the Opium Wars of the early nineteenth century that sent so many Chinese citizens looking westward, to the discovery of gold in California, construction of the transcontinental railroads, and the booming cannery industry, Escape to Gold Mountain is a piece of historical fiction based on the author's family's immigration experiences. He touches on major legislation that sought to limit Chinese immigrants from citizenship and separated their families, and shows more than one gut-wrenching episode that should resonate strongly with readers following the current immigration debate in the U.S. It's all very historic and yet achingly topical, and thus very hard to ignore.

Escape to Gold Mountain is forgotten history, and all the more important for teen readers in particular, because it has been so overlooked. Wong does a solid job of bringing his characters to life and making the narrative both informative and emotional. Readers will want a happily-ever-after for these people and feel real emotion for those who receive only despair upon arriving at Gold Mountain. As a fan of both American and Canadian history, I found this graphic novel quite compelling and perfectly suited for the illustrated form.

COOL READ: Oleg Lipchenko has illustrated a new edition of Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits that makes the ultimate of nonsense poems accessible for a new generation. Lipchenko's style is reminiscent of nineteenth century fairy tales, and the muted palate of blacks and browns used throughout lends itself well to the aura of old world fantasy that permeates Carroll's poem. Lipchenkno's interpretation of the characters brings humor and pathos to the words, creating sympathy and hilarity at every turn of the page and providing some direction for those who get lost while trying to follow Carroll's very twisted direction. Honestly, The Hunting of the Snark still doesn't make any sense, but the humor leaps off the pages here, and the classic feel and old world charm are hard to beat. Carroll aficionados will love this edition big time, but older readers, seeking the best way to appreciate his poem, should find Lipchenko a very worthy guide. It's a picture book, but The Hunting of the Snark is ageless, and it certainly looks and feels that way turning these pages.