Graphic Novels

Spotlight on Graphic Novels: The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks, Illustrated by Caanan White

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I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not very familiar with the Hellfighters. They were mostly a footnote in the European history class I took in high school. To my credit, at least I knew they existed. When I saw that The Harlem Hellfighters was (1) a graphic novel, (2) written by Max Brooks, and (3) available for review, I jumped.

There were a lot of things I liked about this book. The story was very well researched. You could tell that Brooks wanted to do justice to the story and that he knew accuracy was the way to do it. It is a fictionalized version of the Hellfighters’ history. It was, however, very well done. Even though you knew that the characters were fictionalized, they were realistic and relate-able.

The artwork is fantastic. It’s largely linework with a spectacular sense of light and dark and negative space. It feels a lot like a woodblock print or a woodcarving, with very bold lines. It does become a bit chaotic when some of the panels are similar, but overall is very striking.

The only thing I really wish we saw more of was the individual characters’ reactions to the events in the story. We’re introduced to about four or five very interesting characters at the start, but the focus doesn’t stay on them. There was a lot of history to cover, so this is understandable, but it does take away from the possibility of very interesting character developments and examinations.

Overall, though, I was very impressed. The story originated as a screenplay that Brooks wrote, but was adapted very well. Hopefully that movie gets made one day. 3.5/5

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Let’s Talk | Comics and Graphic Novels [Video Post]

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In which I talk about comics and a bit of their history and context.

Spotlight on Graphic Novels: Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

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Boxers & Saints is a duology that I’ve been wanting to get my hands on for a while now. It was surprising to me, then, when (1) my library had a copy, and (2) those copies were checked in at the same time. I didn’t even have to think twice. I snagged them off the shelf and checked them out. At the time, I was reading 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami and needed a bit of a relaxing read.

Boxers and Saints covers

Boxers & Saints tell two different stories about the Boxer Rebellion in China. One follows a Boxer, a rebel leader fighting against the forceful Christian sects that had arrived and been spreading into inland and rural China. The other follows a girl who converts to Christianity at the time. The Boxer Rebellion was a very bloody and violent time in both Chinese and Catholic history. You can read more about it here.

Some highlights

Artwork from Boxers

-Yang works hard to show the way that religious doctrines clashed in the formation of the rebel group, the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, and how other existing religious/political factions paved the way for its development. On the down side, the story focuses far less on the group’s history than on the emotional responses that led to rural villagers joining the movement.
-Yang depicts the rigid way that missionaries at the time approached proselytization and how culture clashes fed into conditions for violence. He also shows how the Christian missionaries were used as resources and provided social goods for members of the community. Though Boxers largely depicts the more harsh aspects of the missionaries in China at the time, it also makes sure to humanize the individual who were part of the church, if only briefly. This makes the violence resonate.
-The story focuses on a young man who helps to form and lead the Righteous and Harmonious Fist. Yang makes a point of using this character as a means to show the sometimes self-interested developments in the movement.
Artwork from Saints
-Yang talks alot about how the people came to believe themselves to be empowered by supranatural beings and entities, taking on the powers and personalities of existing Gods. This was interesting, but a bit unapproachable at times to someone not in the know. In Saints, Joan of Arc was invoked. That was a bit more approachable and poignant for me. I especially liked how the community leaders jumped on the idea of a young Chinese girl seeing and having a connection with Joan.
-I wish there had been more history involved. The history was in the story, but at times without context.
-The art was simple, but was able to convey nuance and humor.

Overall, there often wasn’t enough historical context for my taste. It made some of the story harder to follow than it needed to be. I gave the pair a 3.5. I liked the second installation, Saints, more. It had some interesting portrayals of the Church’s missionary work in China and was a bit more approachable.

Spotlight on Graphic Novels: Habibi by Craig Thompson

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Habibi by Craig Thompson

Habibi follows Dodola, a young Arab woman, and Dodola’s adopted son, Zam. Dodola was sold into marriage at a very young age and, though her husband allows her something of a childhood and ensures she is educated, Dodola is eventually kidnapped and forced into slavery and prostitution. It is as a slave that Dodola, then an early teenager, finds Zam, a three-year-old slave who she takes in.

Dodola and Zam escape their captors and flee to the desert. They live in isolation for years until they are found and Dodola is captured for the sultan’s harem. Zam is alone and Dodola is again enslaved. They are determined to find one another again.

The art in Habibi is beautiful. It integrates the story, biblical tales, and Arabic script beautifully.

The story itself was disappointing. Habibi could have been an interesting story about motherhood, love, and freedom.

As the story progressed, the relationship between Zam and Dodola became less and less familial. This is somewhat expected. Boys grow up, after all, and relationships can be changed by this. But there wasn’t a lot of foreshadowing for this change on Dodola’s part. Throughout the book, she refers to Zam as her true child, even rejecting her own biological children because they were not Zam. It was very strange and discomfiting to then see their relationship change to a less familial and more romantic relationship. It seemed out of place.

I couldn’t figure out what time or place they were supposed to be in. It may just be that it’s hard for me to conceive of a country that has plumbing, electricity, and modern automotives that also has a section of its population that doesn’t know that it exists. It’s also hard to see a country with those amenities condoning slavery, especially given political pressures that exist in the world. I could normally attempt to ignore this, but it stood in such contrast and really segmented the plot and the character’s journeys.

Overall, I was disappointed. I gave this a 3 of 5.

Get your copy of Habibi here: http://www.bookdepository.com/Habibi-Craig-Thompson/9780571241323

Spotlight on Graphic Novels: Manifest Destiny Vol. 1

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Manifest Destiny (available on ComiXology) follows the adventures of Lewis and Clark as they traverse the unknown western regions of North America. Unlike the journey we’re told they took, this highly fictionalized version features buffalo-men, zombies, and, of course, Sacagawea. This was a fun read, though not always a smooth story.

The story starts off with an exploration of land on the west side of the Mississippi. The crew has been sent with the limited knowledge that monsters may lie west of the river. They’re past the point of help or turning back.

They are attacked by buffalo headed, human torso-ed creatures.

Buffalo Minotaurs in Manifest Destiny

Then, in an attempt to escape, they’re chased into an abandoned outpost. Things there, however, are anything but safe.

The novel features some great art and creative monsters.

More horrors face the expedition than the men expect.

The men are consistently led astray be Lewis and Clark. Clark is convinced that he is strong and brave enough to take on the unknown, and his pride won’t let him return to safety. Lewis is compulsive about seeking knowledge of the new life forms. Though Lewis is afraid, he wants to further the biological sciences.

The characters were interesting. However, the plot seemed to jump around without much regard for how it was foreshadowed or how the events were building.

On the plus side, there’s a fun Little Shop of Horrors feel to the first volume that I thought was very well done.

Admittedly, I read the first 97 pages and then let it sit for two weeks. That doesn’t speak much to the story being particularly engaging. It often seemed to alternate between random plot points and subplots that dragged. Overall, I’d rate it a three. There’s a lot of room to build, but also a lot of promise.

Spotlight on Graphic Novels: The Return of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke

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Zita the Spacegirl
The Return of Zita the Spacegirl is available here.

Overview: We open to Zita, a human girl of elementary school age, on trial for destroying an asteroid, stealing a spaceship, and interfering with the migration habits of an endangered species (All of these done in pursuit of good). Zita is sentenced to imprisonment and to working in the mines searching for a crystal that her warden will use to invade Earth and takeover. Zita must escape and defeat the warden before it’s too late and all of Earth is destroyed. The only way to do so will be to gather up her friends (quirky robots, some space pilots, and other animated objects) in order to save Earth.

The villain
Zita is an intrepid young girl with an immutable sense of good, easily a great role model for young children. However, she is questioned about how her good acts may impact others. When she’s brought up on charges, we see that even though she has been doing good, there have been repercussions: potentially endangering others, theft, harming a species. Though it’s clear that Zita has done good, I think it’s also a good reminder that we can’t always foresee the ramifications of what we do, but that thinking them through is still a necessity.

The humor is in the tradition of both traditional superhero stories and web comics. It’s nothing a younger child couldn’t understand, but it also appeals to a broader audience that includes adults.

Zita also has a focus on teamwork and collaboration with adults that I think is awesome. It’s not uncommon to see television shows and comics that downplay the role of adults and teamwork in a successful endeavor. Zita features a cast of characters that help her that includes two adults who, unlike many stories, are not blundering fools or overwhelmingly suffocating for the main character. Instead, the supporting characters are valuable and fun to meet and watch.

Zita's friends to the rescue!
The artwork in Zita is great. It features striking contrasted colors, high color saturation, and design that draws on webcomic and more traditional comic traditions.

Rating: 4
All photos in this post are creations of Ben Hatke.

Spotlight on Graphic Novels: Chew #1

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Chew #1 is available on ComiXology electronically or in print form here*. 

After a Bird Flu outbreak, the Constitution was amended. Now chicken is illegal. Tony Chu is a vice cop for the Philly police department. He’s sent in to examine D-Bear, a chicken smuggler with an underground chicken restaurant. But Tony is a cibopath and can see visions through the food he eats, and there’s more than just chicken in the soup.

Image

Highlights:

  • There’s a really great color palette in this series. Going back and forth between eye-catching color and muted, dark tones, the pages are stunning.
  • The artwork catches exaggerated expressions and has  a great sense of humor and timing.
  • The sense of humor extends to the writing and storyline. It’s funny enough to think about some guy walking around and seeing into people’s lives just by eating, but the characters all have humours names and proclivities. For instance, Tony’s brother is named Chow and went on a tirade about the chicken ban on national television.

Chew is funny and has a lot of room for growth. Be warned it’s pretty graphic as far as gore goes. It’s not for the feint of heart.   

*Amazon recently acquired ComiXology, but ComiXology’s current electronic viewing system is optimized for the comic. I don’t know if Amazon’s has been updated to host at the same quality.