February 2014

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training


As I hope many of you are aware, we are witnessing a good moment for graphic novels, and Sara Ryan's outstanding Bad Houses is a perfect example of why. This coming-of-age story takes readers into the complicated worlds of Anne and Lewis, who meet over someone else's treasured belongings in their tired Oregon logging town. Lewis works for his driven, controlling mother who runs estate sales while Anne is wrestling with the realities of life with her sentimental, sad mother, who is a compulsive hoarder. Against a backdrop of the estate sale subculture (which Ryan and illustrator Carla Speed McNeil brilliantly portray), Anne and Lewis become a couple but still keep secrets. Tensions rise, emotions flare, and in Anne's life in particular, things blow sky high. Ryan's message is that the truth will set you free, but the question is whether all of Bad Houses' troubled characters will survive the fallout.

While the two protagonists and their families are quite engaging (Anne in particular is laboring under the tremendous pressure of a living with a hoarder and her coping mechanisms are wearing thin), it is the peek into the world of estate sales that initially drew me in. As Ryan explains in a brief afterword, garage sales are for things people want to give away while estate sales are about items that people keep until the end. These aren't castoffs but personal treasures, things with value to their deceased owners. So as buyers line up outside and then poke and prod their way through old photo albums, china and records, Anne and Lewis view the spectacle through very different lenses. For Lewis, this is his mother's business, but for Anne, it is a place to try and understand how things can matter so much, which of course brings the narrative back to her mother.

Because McNeil's visuals pack a punch all on their own, the depiction of Anne's struggling emotions and her overstuffed house are doubly effective. As her mother clings to deep meaning in the most average of items, and Lewis's mother methodically prices and sells everything that falls in her path, the emotional challenges for our protagonists mount. Add to this a potential connection between their two families, and the issues raised by life in a tired town and Bad Houses becomes an elegy for life in the post-economic boom. Every moment is gray and stark in Failin, Oregon, and Anne and Lewis are facing a future that either slides into the gray or pushes for something more. Ryan shows how hard it is to be the kind of brave they must be and in the process makes a very quiet story something truly special. Bad Houses is a standout and not to be missed.

In Little Fish, author and illustrator Ramsey Beyer shares her experiences of year she left her small Michigan town for art school in Baltimore. Taking full advantage of the graphic novel format, Beyer shares excerpts from the zines, blog entries, and offbeat lists she kept during that period and then complements them with a more conventionally illustrated story of the people she met and the things she did. This makes for a memoir that is equal parts Lynda Barry and Rookie magazine and should have great appeal for high school students contemplating that first move away from home.

Beyer gives her readers everything, from an inside look at her family and close childhood friends, to all the fears and trepidations she felt upon first arriving at school. There are good times with her roommates and new friends along with maximum stress as her classes kick into high gear. Everyone she meets is different from who she has always known, and yet when she goes back home, there are changes to consider there as well.

For anyone who has left home, Beyer's scrapbook will read as remarkably familiar but that does not mitigate its power or enjoyment. As she thinks about issues big and small (from cutting her hair to changing her major to dating a friend), the thoughtful and funny list-making continues. Little Fish is thus a unique guidebook and certainly a perfect gift for pending graduates.

Johnny Hiro is one of the funniest comic book characters out there and his latest title Johnny Hiro: The Skills to Pay the Bills depicts another outstanding series of escapades for Manhattan's favorite sushi chef. Author and illustrator Fred Chao clearly has a good time with his character and that enthusiasm is palpable on every page. Of course it helps that Johnny's adventures are a bit wilder than the standard twenty-something. For example, as Johnny navigates the insanity of his sushi job along with an unexpected run-in with his ex-girlfriend (while current girlfriend Mayumi stands by), suddenly King Kong arrives and he has to be the hero.

From conversations with Mayor Bloomberg about burying the King Kong appearance in a Hollywood filming story, to a major twenty-something identity crisis and the machinations of a sabotaging catering crew, Johnny always perseveres but it's never easy. The main point this go-round is deciding if he is indeed living the life he wants to live, in the place where he wants to live. These are universal questions and yet Chao fuels them with a lot of life and produces another volume in a continuing tale that is as delightful as it is original. Johnny has immense appeal.

Countering the can-do attitude of Kong fighting Johnny, Briony Hatch is a young girl who is more likely to read about her dreams then set out to live them. In their comic of the same name, author Penelope Skinner and illustrator Ginny Skinner take on an adolescent girl's longings to emulate her favorite fantasy hero (Starling Black) while tossing in a cranky ghost who will either set our heroine on the path to enlightenment or into a permanent bout of depression.

First, Briony is a rather unremarkable teenager. The most extraordinary thing about her is that she knows this, and embraces the fantasy life that reading the adventures of Starling Black gives her. The problem is that Starling Black is not giving Briony all the answers she needs anymore. She can't tell her what to do about her overwhelming sense of sorrow or the cantankerous elderly ghost who is squatting in her bedroom and demanding her pre-death slippers be found. Clearly, Briony has a mystery to solve, and until she does nothing is going to make sense.

Briony Hatch is a British publication and it carries a sly sense of humor that manages to be both sweet and poignant at the same time. Briony is quite appealing, and her struggle to find her way into being an extraordinary person (while simultaneously solving the ghost situation) is lovely to watch. The authors, sisters Ginny and Penelope Skinner, have created a powerful force for good in this character and given wallflowers everywhere someone to emulate.

Nonfiction lends itself particularly well to the graphic novel format, and there are two recent titles that prove this while tackling vastly different subjects. In Jonathan Fetter-Vorm's Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb and Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks's Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas, the science is solid, the history riveting, and the characters remarkably relatable despite their extraordinary lives.

Ottaviani has made a career out of writing graphic novels on science subjects and this time looks at three women who studied chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. Goodall, Fossey, and Gladikas are excellent biographical subjects who possess surprising backstories, stupendous accomplishments, and all sorts of complications with their mentor, paleontologist, archaeologist, and anthropologist Louis Leakey. Ottaviani waded deeply through their writings to give readers a look at who they were before they departed on their wildlife adventures and then into the sharp learning curve they inhabited once they got into the field. These women rewrote all existing knowledge of primate science. So Ottaviani had a lot of good to work with in Primates; happily, he told a solid collective story to boot.

Beginning with Jane Goodall, the author links the stories of the young women through their meetings with Leakey and with each other. Wicks draws them, and their subjects, in a friendly, informal manner, making sure to include their particular characteristics such as Fossey's boots, Goodall's sneakers, and Galdikas's bare feet. Different fonts keep their thoughts separate even when they meet, and it is easy to follow the threads of each storyline. Primates is informative, engaging, and unexpectedly compelling. Beyond that, it was lovely to read about these women, these scientists, and see all that they overcame on the way to making history. They stopped the world in their own ways, and they made it start again with a whole new understanding.

On a very different topic and in a very different style, Trinity is a stark black-and-white exploration of not only the history of Manhattan Project but also how the development of the atomic bomb led to the Cold War and changed the way governments considered conflict and consequences. Fetter-Vorm is evenhanded in his consideration of the bombing of Japan, and makes clear that the race against Germany to understand and use atomic energy was critical to the free world. However, by focusing on the struggles of many of the scientists involved, most famously Robert Oppenheimer, the author makes this a heartfelt history of a deeply complicated topic. He makes readers understand how the bomb was built and tested and dropped, and he also makes them think about what building and testing and using it meant to the world. Trinity is a serious and powerful read; it's perfect for the classroom and a valuable title for teens and adults.

Finally, for young readers, SMASH: Trial of Fire by Chris Bolton (with art by Kyle Bolton) is a funny story with bright artwork and a nice wide size that early readers should enjoy exploring on their own.

In Andrew Ryan's world the Defender is the big (very Supermanish) hero, and Andrew really wishes he could be him. Our tiny hero has some bullying issues to sort out at school, his older brother is annoying to the extreme, and nobody understands him. Then, in the midst of an exceedingly crappy day, Andrew ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time, like a lot of other future superheroes, and at the hands of a mad scientist villain ends up with all of Defender's powers. The problem is that while Andrew is capable of a lot of super things, he doesn't know how to do any of these things. Plus he's a kid, and this is one seriously steep learning curve.

SMASH has a lot of humor, especially of the eye-rolling Teen Titans kind. He's a good kid whose heart is in the right place, and if he can just figure out how not to fly into buildings, then he might save the day. Bolton makes Andrew extremely believable and lets him fulfill a few kid fantasies along with the more serious hero stuff. Kyle Bolton's artwork is perfect; the faces are very expressive, and he captures Andrew's alternately confident and overwhelmed expressions with aplomb. Elementary-schoolers are going to get a lot of joy out of this one, and I hope a sequel, set up by the final pages, will be released soon.

COOL READ: Mike Madrid (author of The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines) is back with a look at the golden age of comics with Divas, Dames & Daredevils. This is not only a very worthwhile and exceedingly interesting history of female characters from the 1940s, but it also includes a ton of comics themselves. Entire stories are reproduced here, all only a few pages long, exactly as they originally ran in anthologies of the period. Readers get to enjoy the exploits of such adventurers as "The Blonde Bomber," "Mysta of the Moon," "Lady Satan," and "Gale Allen and the Girl Squadron," who -- no joke -- "protected the planet Venus from all manner of evil alien races and one slimy, carnivorous monster after another."

In the midst of the sort of wild acrobatics and devastating punches that post-WWII comics are famous for, Madrid points out several subversive plots. In the section entitled "Daring Dames," he features Penny Wright, a newspaper reporter; Betty Bates, a lawyer; and Jill Trent, "Science Sleuth." Trent is notable not only for presenting "the proto girl geek of comics" who is dedicated to finding scientific solutions to crimes but also for her relationship with her assistant Daisy, as the two were sometimes shown sharing a bed (including in the issue in this collection). What's really surprising about their relationship is that it occurred at a time when heterosexual couples usually slept in twin beds ŕ la Lucy and Desi, so Jill and Daisy were seriously ahead of the game in a lot of ways.

There's some expected racism in the comics, many of which were published during the war, so the Japanese and Germans are brutally depicted, and gender roles are often a bit much to take. When Pat Parker, "War Nurse" sneaks onto an aircraft to help fight the Germans over London, hero aviator Don Fraser threatens to spank her. "But Fraser has no time to spank Pat, for Von Ritter's stukas are circling over London..."

So are they dated? Well, yes, but that doesn't mitigate the comics' overall entertainment or the fascinating peek Divas, Dames & Daredevils gives us into mid-century pop culture. I'm pining for Mysta of the Moon who lived in her lunar science citadel and spread all of mankind's knowledge to the universe. I also wouldn't mind finding out how things turned out for Jill and Daisy or if Pat Parker ever turned the tables on Don and gave him the spanking he deserved...

Colleen Mondor reads a lot of comics and blogs about them and other literary and polar things (really) at chasingray.com. You can also follow her on Twitter.