Tag Archives: Comics

In Defense of Comics, pt. 5: Understanding Comics as a discussion tool

The biggest problem when discussing comics in an analytical way is determining just what they are. It is easier to talk about how they work than to come up with a solid definition, other than the old “I know a comic when I see it” one.  This is particularly true if you wish the definition to cover most (if not all) expressions of comics.

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, a classic work of the Comics Studies discipline, defined comics as:

“Juxtaposed pictoral and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”

In one of the Graphic Novel Discussion Group‘s meetings, McCloud’s definition elicited respect on one level but was hard to defend in toto when combined with some of his other assertions. For instance, his general assertion that writing (the act of inscribing thought in physical space) is distinctly non-pictorial in nature seems hard to defend considering there is a whole species of design – graphic design – that considers writing as a pictorial element (a.k.a. typography). Even within the comics industry, the position of “letterer” has been a long established one and the style of each letterer is often a strong consideration for the development of a particular work’s look.

McCloud violates his own rejection of a single panel as comic (which is asserted on pages 20-21 of Understanding Comics) on page 98 in the third and fourth panels. Granted, he hedges in the next two panels by differentiating between captions and word balloons but I think that’s because the narration is supposed to be framing the picture rather than a part of the world of the picture.  However, it is the introduction of speech and that speech takes time to happen that creates the sequential effect according to McCloud.

His distinction that in-picture indication of sound introduces sound as a narrative element — and thus changes things — doesn’t seem to add up as traditional forms of comics are a species of visual art. How such a sound is conveyed is part of the storyteller’s visual style, most clearly seen in the crafting of sound effect (think of the shape of letters used when you are to hear lightning or a punch to the jaw). Speech or audible sound is still an aspect of the story supplied by the reader’s mind, prompted by the images on the page (be they words or sound effects).

[Cartoon by Bil Keane (copyright holder King Features Syndicate), Fair Use]

So with Family Circus, it is clear that the words are actually speech that takes place in the world of the comic. Really, Bil Keane‘s quotes below the panel are just him avoiding using a word bubble. Maybe this is for sound commercial reasons (designated space on the page), for reasons of composition (to preserve the close-up shot feeling of the panel), or simply for reasons of style.

Further, McCloud misses that there is essentially an unbound panel of text next to the panel with obvious borders that has a picture. (At least) two panels = sequence, no? Here the mind moves from one kind of visual element (pictures) to another (type) and creates a connection, right? This would also apply to the sixth panel on p. 98 (if you ignore that there is no “gutter” – or gap – between the picture and the box with text).

During the discussion, I personally foundered when trying to separate the art of comics from other arts that use sequential methods/techniques. It’s not that I can’t get behind the idea that they are all just parts of “Art” or human communication – a position vigorously defended by a particular participant – but it seems like that kind of flattens out what makes comics differ(ent). Because when I talk about Watchmen, for instance, I don’t think it would be germane to bring in references to the methods of dance or sculpture or broadcast radio.

Part of it to me is that comics are the product of a particular technology, printing. And, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, “the medium is the message.” (1964) Because comics are creatures of print, our eye works a certain way, time is controlled more by how we read than by some static rate of delivery (such as television or radio), and a certain set of senses (sight and touch) are more dominant than others (smell, taste, and hearing).

I was especially flummoxed when asked about animation. My instinct is to treat animated works differently than more realistic film, to include them directly with comics. But animation is film and any distinction there is really just my own (or a general cultural) bias. They work by static broadcast, by use of light that is projected rather than ambient, and incorporate sound directly rather than by visual approximation (sound effect words, sound motion lines, etc.).

And what you would call Building Stories by Chris Ware?  Is it an architectural comic?  A comic box set?  An elaborate game with intricate pictures? A piece of conceptual art?

These distinctions seem a little silly on the surface but they do matter for no other reason than that of marketing. Being able to determine what to call something often guides the producer towards a target audience (and vice versa). If Building Stories is a work of architecture then it will be sold to schools of architecture and design. If it is just a  comic then it will be sold at places where comics are sold. If it is a game then it will be sold at gaming shops. And if it is a work of conceptual art, there might be an installation at some fine art gallery.

But back to Understanding Comics and the discussion it engendered.  One of the participants in this discussuion commented that he thought that McCloud was at his best when he was discussing the nuts and bolts of comic structure (e.g., explaining things such as conveyance of time via panels and the structuring of a story via panel placement) and also when explaining the artistic level of abstraction used to carry the story (e.g., highly detailed art for personal narratives versus pictographic expression for symbolic works). He thought that McCloud failed to really differentiate comics distinctly from visual art as a whole but that his presentation feels inspiring if one doesn’t dig too deeply, echoing an argument that Dylan Horrocks leveled at McCloud in his essay, “Inventing Comics.” (2001)

Horrocks feels that McCloud is writing more of a persuasion piece, which he deems a “polemic.” [As an aside, this feels like a mild misuse of the term as “polemic” tends to refer to a vigorous disputation of an argument rather than mounting a defense for – or presenting a supporting argument for – a position.] Further, that McCloud is trying to build a justification for comics as serious art, thereby uplifting the community of comic readers from their previous status as scruffy-looking nerf herders. Doing so comes by way of a definition (highlighted in red above) that excludes many other things that comics could be said to be without discussing why those exclusions make sense.

“Nation building,” as Horrocks calls this effort, seems kind of quaint nearly a quarter of century after the book’s first edition. In the intervening time, comics, comic nerds, and comic fans of all stripes have garnered the respect that McCloud was working towards. Comics are regular parts of academic studies and art galleries, and receive high-toned collections of previous works. Comic fans come from increasingly diverse backgrounds and feel no shame in hiding their passions. Comic industry insiders find that their work no longer traps them in the lower ends of the publishing industry.

And while I tend to like the basic idea, I also have felt the need to add a little meat to McCloud’s definition in this series of essays about comics by mentioning both cultural and historical factors that also have made comics what they are today. Even so, I feel like I am still very, very far off getting to just what makes a comic a comic. However, Understanding Comics did give our discussion a great starting place, and my sense of what is a comic was altered through that discussion. For that alone, I would recommend the book for anyone who wants to explore these questions.

Plus, it’s a fun read!


If you are interested in discussing these titles or other works of sequential art, please join LFPL’s Graphic Novel Discussion Group. Meetings are held at the Main Library on the second Monday of every month, starting at 6:00 PM.

At our next meeting (October 9th), we will be talking about Monster Comics!

The Fun Family by Benjamin Frisch

So-o-o-o, um, yeah…

…let’s just say that The Fun Family by Benjamin Frisch is anything but fun. I’m warning you now. It is probably one of the most messed up comics this side of the works of Daniel Clowes or Kaz. Don’t blame me if you have nightmares, especially after viewing the final page.

This graphic novel is an investigation, albeit phantasmagorical, into the spiritual despair of our current age of ever-mounting anxiety and nostalgia. The tale begins with cartoonist Robert Fun, Frisch’s stand in for Bil Keane, and his family having lighthearted fun at Thanksgiving time. Their holiday meal is interrupted by an automated message from the hospital that Robert’s mother has died. It is this terrible news that cracks apart the family’s facade of harmony and seeming perfection.

Marsha Fun, Robert’s wife and mother of their four children, is clearly unhappy with Robert’s work and his detatchment from the family, which only gets worse after Grandma’s funeral. Eventually, Marsha decides that she can no longer sit on her simmering disappointments and asks for a divorce. The children – Robby, Molly, Mikey, and J.T. – are left to cope with the turmoil in their own ways.

Granted, the adults in this work are clearly self-absorbed which is a fault that many readers will not be able to get past. In a work that initially models a perfect family, it’s fracture is bound to lead to finger-pointing. That the parents should have stepped up will stick in the reader’s craw, no doubt. I would argue, though, that this is one of the many points that Frisch is making along the way, that family dysfunction often occurs at the expense of children.

Despite the trauma, The Fun Family is completely worth the ride. The story clearly works as a deconstruction of that old comic strip chestnut, The Family Circus, and other kitschy Americana. Warning number two, here there be creepy porcelain dolls, Big Eye art, and angel painting!

But more importantly, the work examines – breezily – different spiritual approaches found in modern times. The first is represented by Molly, who sees (or thinks she sees) Grandma in angel form, finding solace and direction through communication with the spirit. The second is Martha’s kooky path of ever-shifting psychological self-investigation of the Human Potential Movement variety, combined with New Age elements. The third is Robert’s own retreat into self-expression as a means of organizing his life, first as the creator of the comic strip and later of sacred paintings. The final path is that of Robbie, the oldest child, who lives, and works as a replacement artist on his dad’s strip, in order to recreate a childhood tableau in which he felt secure.

It is arguable – and is argued strongly by the story’s ending – that this final approach is deeply troubling and damaging as a project. Life continues to move on, people continue to change, and such moments in time were perhaps not as real as they may have seemed at the time. To dedicate one’s life to pursuits that strip mine the past, to succumb to unironic nostalgia, leaves one continuously chasing a dream that can never be realized. This way opens one to a constant sense of disappointment, even despair.

Formats Available:  Graphic Novel

Reviewed by Tony, Main Library


If you are interested in discussing this title or other works of sequential art, please join LFPL’s Graphic Novel Discussion Group.

Meetings are held at the Main Library on the second Monday of every month, starting at 6:00 PM.

Upcoming meetings will take place on the following dates:

  • Monday, June 12, 2017 – Wonder Woman

**Note: The live-action movie Wonder Woman will be released on June 2, 2017**
  • Monday, July 10, 2017 – Marvel’s Spider-Heroes

*Note: The live-action movie Spider-Man: Homecoming will be released on July 5, 2017*
  • Monday, August 14, 2017 – Warren Publishing

 

Top Picks: Graphic Novels of 2016

Well, time has rolled around again for my annual best of list.  This year, I’m going to go about it a little differently.  I’m choosing one selection from each of the 2016 meetings of the Graphic Novel Discussion Group.

The list is in chronological order by month rather than any ranking by preference.  I have included the topic we covered for that month as well.  There are some of the selections where I have only listed the stand-alone work or the series as a whole.

All right, let’s get to it…

Craziness, that’s all I’ve got to say!  If you like the tough-kid Borribles series (a major influence on writers like China Mieville) and the twisted narratives of David Lynch‘s movies then you will love this graphic novel by Farel Dalrymple.

 

This is an incredibly detailed 24 foot-long panoramic drawing by Joe Sacco that tries to capture the full events of just one day of battle in World War I. The set also includes a 16-page booklet to give viewers some historical context.

 

  • The Sandman series (by Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III) – Sandman Overture

sanmanoverture

Neil Gaiman finally returns to his award-winning, beloved Sandman series with a prologue tale that explains just how Morpheus was captured in the very first issue of the series.  The art by J.H. Williams III is gorgeous and appropriately psychedelic as befits the adventures of the Lord of Dreams across the galaxy as he attempts to right a wrong from long ago.

 

roadtocivilwar

This volume of the first Civil War series collects the prequels to the main tale.  In it we get to see how key players such as Doctor Strange, Mister Fantastic, Namor, Professor X, and Iron Man form the ultra-secretive Illuminati, as well as how Spider-man is drawn into the conflict between the forces of government control and those superheroes who wish to retain their autonomy.

 

  • May 2016: We did not have a meeting in May so I’m going to put up a comic that I read in 2016 and just loved, Gotham Academy!

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Gotham Academy is a prestigious boarding school with a ton of secrets.  Mystery, magic, and the bonding of a special group of students make for a creepy thrill-ride.

 

Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin have beautifully crafted a future where all our expectations about privacy have been turned upside down after a major event that shuts down the Internet for good.  In this world, our main character, a private investigator, and his femme fatale client break rule after rule in search of her missing sister.  Along the way they stumble into a conspiracy that threatens to shake the very foundations of this new social order.

 

Strangers in Paradise was the 13 year project of indie comic writer and artist, Terry Moore.  It was a complicated series of interlocking stories told in a realistic style with a dedicated fan-base addicted to the intensely personal quality of the main characters’ interaction. It mixed several sub-genres – romance, crime drama, and autobiography – while always feeling fresh and compelling.

 

  • Valiant Comics – Harbinger (by Joshua Dysart)harbingah

Honestly, I could have picked a few other titles such as The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage, Archer & Armstrong, or The Eternal Warrior as my favorite Valiant Entertainment selection but Harbinger is the title that originally attracted me to their line of comics.  It is the tale of Peter Stanchek and other teens like him who have psionic powers and are trying to escape Project Rising Spirit, who have been holding them prisoner and conducting experiments on them.  Joshua Dysart‘s pacing is tight and his dialogue is crisp, letting the reader get to know the characters while keeping thrills coming one right after the other.

 

A classic and a cornerstone of many introductory Comic Studies courses, Scott McCloud‘s Understanding Comics is more than just that.  It is also an entertaining comic in itself.

 

Mike Mignola has created one, excuse the pun, hell of a quintessentially quirky supernatural comic character with Hellboy.  This trade is a collection of the various one-offs and other ephemera about Hellboy that were published in other titles.  Also, there is a short story, King Vold, that was created especially for this particular compilation.

 

Well, what can I say?  Doctor Strange is one weird dude and so are most of his stories.  I honestly can’t pinpoint a particular one that I’d suggest because I tend to like him best when he is part of a team, be it The Defenders, the Illuminati, or as Dr. Doom’s sidekick in Jonathan Hickman‘s Secret Wars.

 

lrv1n24

This series is hard to quickly summarize because there have been three different creators, all brothers, with different visions who have participated across the 30+ years of its existence.  The primary two creators have been Jaime Hernandez, whose focus has been on the punk scene of a primarily Latino community in California (presumably East Los Angeles), and Gilbert Hernandez, who has spun out a rich set of stories about a mythical Latin American town called Palomar (and the immigrants in the U.S. who’ve hailed from there).

My personal favorite are the stories that focus around the characters Maggie and Hopey, also known about town as the Locas.  You can see them in action in the above now-iconic picture from Love & Rockets #24.

 


If you are interested in discussing these titles or other works of sequential art, please join LFPL’s Graphic Novel Discussion Group. Meetings are held at the Main Library on the second Monday of every month, starting at 6:00 PM.

Upcoming meetings will take place on the following dates:

dciomfeb2017

Formats Available:  Graphic Novel

Reviewed by Tony, Main Library

Graphic Novel Round-up – Strong, incredible, daring females!

Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Vol. 1: BFF by Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare

moongirlndd

Imagine having a colossal T-Rex as pet in the modern day Marvel Universe.

And on the other end, imagine having a plucky and fearless teenage girl as a pet.

 

Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat! Vol. 1: Hooked On a Feline by Kate Leth and Brittney Williams

pwhellcat

Patsy has been to hell and back (literally) but nothing compares with having to find a job in New York City.

 

Spider-Woman, Vol. 2: New Duds by Dennis Hopeless and Javier Rodriguez

spiwom

Reporter Ben Urich joins Jessica Drew as she attempts to make a new life for herself separate from the Avengers.

A surprise Silver Age character joins their motley crew as they set out on a comical road trip across America.

 

Lumberjanes, Vol. 4: Out of Time by Shannon Waters and Noelle Stevenson

lumbajays4

Jen and the Lumberjanes find a way to save the day, again!

If you haven’t been introduced to Jo, April, Mal, Molly and Ripley you are seriously missing out.

A hilariously entertaining ragtag band of brave and wondrous girls.

 

In the Sounds and Seas by Marnie Galloway

insoundsnseas

A deep and thought-provoking wordless graphic novel.

If I had to make a pile of nice things to leave for a house guest to look at during a visit, this would be in it.

A positively beautiful book, check it out.

 

Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier

ghostsraina

A fantastic graphic for kids and teens (and adults!) about the Day of the Dead and letting go of the things that scare you.

Telgemeier magically and subtly conveys how at the end of the day, love transcends life and death.

I adore Raina’s books, I think this one is my very favorite of hers.

 

DC Comics: Bombshells, Vol. 2: Allies by Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage

dcbombshells2

Wonder Woman!  Batgirls!  Supergirl!  Stargirl!  Batwoman!  Mera!  Zatanna!  Catwoman!  Amanda Waller!  Big Barda!

Need I say more?

As World War II storms across Europe some of the most extraordinary women in the DC universe band together to fight an old villain rising from the grave.

 

Ms. Marvel Vol. 4.: Last Days by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

msmarvl4

In my opinion the very best of the Ms. Marvel volumes so far.

When the world is ending do you keep fighting or give up?

Or…dance it out!

Jersey City and Kamala are just the best.

Not to mention a cameo from Carol Danvers herself!

Formats Available: Graphic Novel

Reviewed by Heather, St. Matthews

My Top Ten Graphic Novels of 2015

Man, 2015 was a killer year for the graphic novel format and especially for the library’s ever-expanding collection of graphic titles (thanks to LFPL’s graphic novel selector and manager of the Newburg Branch, Kerry Hunter).

I’ve been sitting on this top ten for so-o-o long because I keep on changing my mind about what should make it and what shouldn’t.  Since it’s way beyond late for best-of lists, let me drop it on you as is…ten picks in alphabetical (rather than rank) order.

Many of the titles are ongoing series so I’ve just named each series as a whole rather than any specific volume. I have included artists when listing creators but some titles have multiple artists so then I’ve only listed the writer.

  • Batgirl by Cameron Stewart/Brendan Fletcher — Barbara Gordon is off to college, living in a new part of town, and Batgirl is changing along with her! The stories are well-paced and the art by Brendan Fletcher is a fresh change of pace from typical superhero fare.

batgirl

  • Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick/Valentine De Landro — Imagine The Handmaid’s Tale if it was a women-in-prison exploitation film…set in space!  The art by Valentine De Landro perfectly reflects the 1970’s grindhouse aesthetic that co-creator Kelly Sue DeConnick is evoking.  However, rather than titillating the male gaze, DeConnick serves up an entertaining kick to the groin of Patriarchy!

bitchplanet

  • Deadly Class by Rick Remender — Set in 1987, this tale of punk rock rebellion mixed with a twisted take on the classic boarding school setting is a non-stop thriller.  Rick Remender once again deftly develops his outsider character, here named Marcus Lopez.  Lopez clearly has a lot of heart, screwed up as it may be, as he trains to be an assassin and falls in love with the wrong girl.

deadly class

  • Finder by Carla Speed McNeil — Whoa! It is hard to describe this series as Carla Speed McNeil, both author and artist, has spent the better part of 20 years developing this sci-fi/fantasy tale about a futuristic society that may or may not be here on Earth.  The main character, Jaeger, is the titular Finder, his aboriginal society’s title for a certain kind of shaman.  Issues of race, class, the nature of work, the power of reading, magic, and sexuality are all explored as we follow Jaegar’s travels.

finderthird

  • Ms. Marvel by G.W. Wilson — Kamala Khan is a nerdy but cool first generation Pakistani-American teen just trying to get through school and keep up with her fan obsessions (one of whom is Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel) when she is exposed to the mysterious Terrigen Mist.  Once exposed, Kamala finds herself with new powers, ones that she she uses to keep her hometown safe – even though she has strict immigrant parents, a curfew, and the constant monitoring of the Inhumans to boot.

msmarvel

  • Nimona by Noelle Stevenson — Nimona is one heck of a little hell-raiser and don’t you forget it!  She forces her way into the life of the villain Lord Blackheart so that she can become his apprentice.  As Lord Blackheart battles his arch-nemesis Sir Goldenloin, he finds Nimona just may be too wild to guide.  Noelle Stevenson’s art can be said to be simple and cute but is sophisticated enough to portray the darkness of the soul when needed.

nimona

  • Outcast by Robert Kirkman/Paul Azaceta — Demon possession is tackled by Robert Kirkman, the writer who brought us The Walking Dead.  Kyle Barnes’s life has been ruined by demons by the time he meets Reverend Anderson, who is trying – and failing – to successfully perform an exorcism. The art by Paul Azaceta is creepy, allowing the story to breathe as it unfolds at a psychologically compelling pace.

outcast

  • Polarity by Max Bemis/Jorge Coelho — Can a drifting young man with bi-polar depression be a superhero?  This question is explored in a visually stunning tale from Max Bemis and Jorge Coelho.

polarity

  • Phonogram by Kieron Gillen/Jamie McKelvie — I’m a sucker for comics about music and Phonogram is just that.  But it’s also about identity, magic, the nature of reality, and really great tunes!  Kieron Gillen is an old hipster for sure but he’s got none of the out of touch boringness that such a label suggests…yes, Gillen knows how to keep you coming back for more.  Jamie McKelvie renders the characters and the setting in crisp lines but the real magic is in his facial expressions…every character is clearly their own.  This is a boon as many comics with what I call the “indie autobiographical style” of art fail to strongly differentiate anyone but the main character.

phonogram

  • Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Wiebe — Quick synopsis: four party-hardy women in a medieval world roam the countryside and slay monsters.  Yeah, this could have been stereotypical sword and sorcery fluff but Kurtis Weibe slips in subtle, convincing character details for all four warriors along the way. He also is great with writing banter so I found myself laughing all the way, too.  Roc Upchurch was the artist on the first few issues and his character designs are gorgeous.

ratqueens

 

If you are interested in talking about these comics or others, LFPL’s Graphic Novel Discussion Group is the place for you!  The Group meets at the Main Branch on the second Monday of every month at 6:00 PM.

ThePrivateEye
Join us on June 13, 2016 as we explore the future-noir world of The Private Eye by Brian K. Vaughan (co-creator of the New York Times best-selling series Saga) and Marcos Martin.

Formats Available:  Graphic Novel

Reviewed by Tony, Main Library

In Defense of Comics, pt. 4

 

Display Sign for Graphic Novels

Welcome back to the series! 

So let’s talk comics.  Specifically, just what are comics?

Comics can be said to be stories told with pictures all the time and words some of the time.  As such, the forerunners of comics made their appearance very early and can be found all over the world.  It can further be argued that comics are some of the oldest verifiable stories in human history.

Cave paintings found in Africa, India, and Australia tell the story of early people’s hunts. Later on, Egyptian friezes, ancient Greek pottery, and Mayan codices all convey stories of everything from an individual’s life to the end of the world. Tapestry was used to celebrate and perpetuate historical events (e.g., the Bayeaux tapestry depicts the events of the Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror).  Japan’s Choju-Giga paintings laid the foundations for today’s Manga as far back as the 12th Century. Closer in time, William Hogarth’s “A Rake’s Progress” – exhibited at the Soanes Museum in London – is a classic work of art that follows the life and rapid decline of Thomas Rakewell, the titular rake.

While related and influential, these predecessors of modern comic books are more properly examples of something broader than comics, sequential art (defined by Will Eisner as, “an art form that uses images deployed in sequence for graphic storytelling or to convey information.”). (Eisner, 1996, p. 6)  These works deployed a variety of media to visually convey their story but those were not some combination of paper, pencil, and ink (as found in modern comic strips, comic books, and manga).  More importantly, they were not the products of a printing process with an eye towards mass forms of distribution, purchase, and consumption.

What, you say?  Comics are not consumed in a mass manner as are movies, TV, or radio.  They may be mass produced but still each reader has to take the singular item (be it comic book, graphic novel, or manga) and use it on their own.

True, the act of reading itself is generally an individual pursuit.  This point ignores obvious instances where it is not, such as author readings and reading of texts in educational settings.  It also stops analysis at the instant of initial consumption without placing that consumption in context.  Much of the reading of comics is done in anticipation of talking about it with others, a behavior pattern that often starts early as experienced comic fans initiate the new reader (ex: an older brother declares his love of Thor, loans his favorite issues to his younger brother, and asks what his sibling thinks of them).

Comics these days are also big business.  They feed into the movie and television industries to the tune of billions of dollars, as well as pushing up sales in bookstores and check-outs in libraries.  That they are so widely spread across the landscape of pop culture, it is inevitable that they will be discussed in some manner by many people on a daily basis.

If you haven’t been following this series of articles but are interested in some of the history of why modern comics are paper-based mass commodities, check out the previous installment. Or if you’d prefer to start at the beginning, you can go directly to Part One.

Also, if you would like to talk about comics further, please join us for the Graphic Novel Discussion Group at the Main Library.  Our next meeting will take place on Monday, December 14th, at 6:00 PM.  The topic will be Webcomics.

GraphicNovelGroup_Webcomics_Main

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Works Cited: Eisner, W. (1996). Graphic Storytelling & Visual Narrative. Tamarac: Poorhouse Press.

Article by Tony, Main Library

Something for Everyone in Five Comics Books

Whether you have always loved comics or you never picked one up in your life, if you want to read about cape-and-tights heroes or curl up with something trendy and artsy, then this list has something for you.

The Arrival – Shaun Tan

The Arrival is proof that a good story doesn’t even need words. A stunning narrative of an immigrant’s experience in a new and alien land, it’s like having someone play solos about hope and isolation on your heartstrings.

Barbarian Lord – Matt Smith

This is the comic book that Vikings would have written if Vikings wrote comic books. Sure, there are other comic books that try to capture the age, or even just borrow the aesthetic, but Barbarian Lord reads like a deadly-serious re-telling of one of the Icelandic Sagas.

Marvel Illustrated: The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde; Roy Thomas; Sebastian Fiumara.

It’s a hard task to adapt a longer book to graphic format, but Marvel does a fantastic job with The Picture of Dorian Gray. Taking a dark, psychological, Gothic novel and adapting it successfully to graphic format – that’s nothing short of a miracle.


Astro City: Confession– Kurt Busiek; Alex Ross; Brent Anderson.

If you never read comics because you felt superheroes were flat characters and the world they are set in simplistic, Confession will change your mind. Smart, sensitive, and nuanced.  The storytelling will keep you glued to the page.

Hellboy: The Chained Coffin and Others – Mike Mignola

Although the third in the Hellboy series, this volume of short stories speaks to the soul of the series: respect for the source material. If you like gritty, pitch-perfect renditions of folklore and mythology, and a bit of dry humor on the side, this is the book for you.

Formats Available:  Graphic Novel

Reviewed by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Originally posted on LFPL’s Teen Blog at http://blogs.lfpl.org/teen/2015/01/07/something-for-everyone-in-5-comic-books/

In Defense of Comics, pt. 3

I had originally intended this segment to be a discussion of how comics can be differentiated from other visual arts but points in my original post have generated some very good questions from readers that should be addressed first.

The questions all refer back to the following statement:

“Comics are not just for kids and never really were except for those with some deep investment in an arbitrary highbrow/lowbrow distinction. This distinction is one based on historically constructed relations that give privilege to very debatable aesthetic principles.” (Buchanan, 2014)

You’ll notice that this paragraph is – primarily – composed of two assertions, one about the appropriateness of comics to any particular age group and another about the standards for judging a form of art.  The latter point also expressly questions such standards based on an – ancillary – investigation into how such standards are derived (or rather, constructed).  Implied in the standards are further questions regarding the nature of this “authority” (i.e., what fits a certain category of art, who can or should enforce standards for the categories, etc.).

Let’s look at the first assumption, often expressed by critics of comics as some variation of “comics are just for children,” and how it fails to hold up as something other there than a pat dismissal of the art form.

For the sake of discussion, let’s define comics quickly as publications that tell stories with pictures on paper using pencil and/or ink that may or may not incorporate words.  It’s not the only – or even best – definition but it conforms well to the general understanding of what makes a comic.  In the West, broadsides and their descendants, mass publication newspapers, have included such stories – either editorial or entertaining – in some form since the 18th Century.

These information outlets have hardly been within the purview of children in that time.  Other than following the comics page, children have used newspapers mostly for mandatory research into a current or historical event for class.  With the rise of the Internet, the modern media-savvy child is less likely to read the printed newspaper than ever before.  Further, children’s input into mass publication newspapers has rarely extended beyond the comics page.  Only a few features such as comics page war-horse Slylock Fox have solicited input from and encouraged participation by kids.

Mass publication newspapers are owned by, created by, and published for adults.  As cartoons (and comic strips) have been a staple of newspapers for over 200 years, it would indicate that they are deemed appropriate for adults.  The function of the comic strip was to leaven serious publications with some light-hearted fun, helping to increase circulation.  It is this aspect of joviality that gave the comic its name, separating it from the more serious (in intent) “cartoon.”

The evolution of the comic strip to the comic book was tied to the fortunes of the newspaper in the era between the First and Second World Wars.  The earliest comic books were simply republications of strips in a different format.  The first monthly comic book, Comics Monthly, was published in 1922. It lasted for 12 issues and reprinted various comic strips from 1921. During the Great Depression, publishers even created comic books for give-away just to keep their very expensive printing presses running.

Traditional comic books have been consumed by adults continuously since the 1920’s.  During World War II, about 44% of servicemen read comics regularly and another 13% read them occasionally. (Gordon, 1998, p. 139)  According to the U.S. War Department, comics accounted for approximately 25% of all printed materials sent overseas to soldiers in 1944. (Gordon, 1998, p. 140)  Figures for comic book readers over the years are notoriously hard to pin down but adults have become the dominant demographic as generations of comic fans have grown older and continue to read them.

So why were comics supposedly just for children?

Looking back to the period before World War II when this cultural attitude took root, the newspaper was often considered a lower form of information than literature or scholarly studies.  It was literally disposable.  Comic strips – one of the least important features – were especially ephemeral, viewed by many as nothing that an adult would think twice about.

Even the stand alone comic book was thought to be a cheap publication akin to pulp magazines rather than a proper book.  The lurid or gaudy figures that dominated comics in those days – private detectives, action adventurers, funny animals, and superheroes – were deemed inappropriate for “literature.”  The stories were seen as less coherent and less meaningful, as something that appealed to the under-developed tastes of children.

Further comics were under attack during the late 1940’s to early 1950’s.  The attacks were part of a general paranoia about the rising demographic of the “teen” and its potential delinquency.  It culminated in the Comics Code Authority, a self-regulating board for the comics industry, which enforced a series of rules which guaranteed that comics in the U.S. would be suitable for children.  Unfortunately, the industry was also stifled from developing for many years, so much so that mainstream comics ended up reinforcing the idea of the art form being “just for children.”

How this all changed is something for another article, though.

If you would like to talk about comics further, please join us for the Graphic Novel Discussion Group at the Main Library. The next meeting will take place tomorrow, May 11th, at 6:00 PM.

GraphicNovelGroup_Planetary_Main

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Works Cited:

Buchanan, A. (2014, September 25). In Defense of Comics. Retrieved May 10, 2015, from http://blogs.lfpl.org/readers/734/

Gordon, I. (1998). Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

 Article by Tony, Main Library

In Defense of Comics, pt. 2: Take the Challenge!

In a previous article, In Defense of Comics, I closed with a challenge to those who do not normally read comics to try one out.  Of course, picking a title to get started on can be difficult for the novice.  But as I was working up a best of list for this year’s graphic novels, it struck me that this could be a perfect opportunity to assist the those who would like to take me up on that challenge.

The list below comprises some of my favorite comics which I read in the past year (whether or not they were published in 2014).  There are twelve titles in alphabetical (rather than rank) order.  Many of the titles are ongoing series so I have just named each series as a whole rather than any specific volume.  I have separately given both the author and main artist for each title (except for those titles where the author and the artist are the same person). 

To make it easier still, all of these works can be checked out from LFPL.  You can click the title and it will take you to the item’s record in our catalog.  If it is not available at the branch you wish to go to, you may have the item shipped there by placing a request (using the button on the right hand side of the entry). 

I suggest that one volume (or series) be read each month in 2015 so that you can become comfortable with the medium.  Notice I said medium not genre.  The works below span several genres – and only two can be said to be of the superhero genre – but they are all clearly using the comic medium.

So, here goes:

Bandette by Paul Tobin & Colleen Coover

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Bandette is a teenaged thief but she’s the most stylish and fun thief you’ll ever meet.  Watch as she defies both the police and the criminal underworld with her wits and panache in this giddy adventure appropriate for children but charming enough to capture adult hearts.  Line art by Colleen Coover is in the Franco-Belgian style and colors are applied in a painterly manner harking back to America’s (then-contemporary) view of Paris in the late 1950’s or 60’s.

 

Battling Boy by Paul Pope

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Son of a fierce warrior god, Battling Boy comes to Earth for his initiation rites.  He lands in Acropolis as it is menaced by a series of monsters and quickly becomes its latest hero (now that the city’s former defender, vigilante Haggard West, has recently died).   Paul Pope, both author and artist, brings his edgy punk rock style to this tale that will appeal to superhero, fantasy, and manga fans alike.

 

Fatale by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips

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Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips continue their award-winning approach to this tale of crime noir (of course) mixed with horror in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft.  The book’s title gets its name from the main character, femme fatale Jo, who is stalked across the 20th Century by an ancient evil power.  The art is perfectly pulpy and creepy as befits a tale filled with crooked cops, Nazi spies, Satanic cults, snuff films, and other dark matter.

 

Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel

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Ghostopolis is a boy’s adventure tale.  The protagonist, Garth Hale, is accidentally zapped to the spirit world by failing ghost hunter, Frank Gallows.  In the spirit world, Garth meets his grandfather’s ghost, Cecil, and the two go on a quest to find a way back home for Garth.  Along the way, the evil ruler of Ghostopolis tries to take control of our hero as Garth has manifested powers that the spirits do not have.  TenNapel‘s art is energetic and the page layouts are well-designed to keep the reader engaged in the story and ready to flip to the next page.

 

The Grand Duke by Yann & Romain Hugault

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The Grand Duke, gorgeously rendered by Romain Hugault, is a non-fiction tale set in the waning days of World War II.  It centers around a unit of the Luftwaffe and the Night Witches, a real life women’s air corps that flew for the Soviet Union, as they battle it out in the skies over Eastern Europe.  Despite knowing how history turns out, the author keeps the reader engrossed as both sides raggedly pursue war’s end against great material odds and low morale.

 

Hopeless Savages by Jen Van Meter & Christine Norrie

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The perils of punk rock parenting in suburbia with romance, intrigue, and reality TV are explored in this quirky, hip collection of tales.  Due  to the number of artists that have worked on the series over the years, there is no one style that dominates other than it’s all in black and white.  

 

Lazarus by Greg Rucka & Michael Lark

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Lazarus is a dystopian tale set in the near enough future that it sometimes feels scary, as if all that it would take for the events in the story to happen is a few bad years where government breaks down and corporations step into the void.  Lazarus’ main character, Forever Carlyle, is her family’s main protector and enforcer of the harsh set of formal and informal rules that keep them in power.  While in many ways a stereotypical strong female protagonist, Forever comes across as very real.  Rucka deftly shows us how her contradictions and weaknesses form Forever’s motivations.  Michael Lark‘s art combines science fiction and crime elements in a perfect blend with colorist Santiago Arcas‘ subtle use of shade and tone.

 

Peter Panzerfaust by Kurtis Wiebe & Tyler Jenkins

peterpanzerfaust
Peter Panzerfaust is a retelling of the J.M. Barrie classic story.  The setting is World War II and the charismatic Peter helps a band of orphans survive the German invasion of France.  Soon the group is pursued by an SS officer that Peter wounded in their escape but they are also given assistance by members of the French Resistance, including the alluring Tiger Lily.  Tyler Jenkins manages to blend fantasy art and combat action art into a style akin to noir but which is much more lively and fantastic in tone.  His composition moves the story along effortlessly, shifting from standard panels to open space with ease.

 

Scalped by Jason Aaron & R.M. Guéra

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Scalped is a dark crime noir story that takes place mostly on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home to the deeply impoverished Oglala Nation (also known as the Lakota).  This is a sordid environment where the very worst in people is explored during an undercover assignment taken on by the reservation’s own prodigal son, F.B.I. Special Agent Dashiell Bad Horse.  Readers are witness to harrowing drug and alcohol addiction, ultraviolence, and spiritual desolation as Bad Horse attempts to bring to justice the reservation’s Chief Lincoln Red crow, a former Native American radical now turned mob boss.  Grim and dirty – even ugly at times – art by R.M.  Guéra helps convey the sense that the world the characters live in is terribly damaged.

 

The Superior Foes of Spider-Man by Nick Spencer & Steve Lieber

superiorfoes

Spider-Man is one of the quintessential characters that people think of when they think of superheroes. However, this is not your quintessential superhero book. In fact, neither Spider-Man nor any other superhero appear in the tale much at all. No, this is character-driven book that looks at the other side of the equation, what it would be like to be a supervillain.  Much like another recent Marvel title, Hawkeye, this comic rests on a sturdy foundation of humor and rough art to convey the working class nature of its characters (i.e., the Sinister Six) as they clumsily attempt to carry off a variety of criminal jobs.

 

Thief of Thieves by Robert Kirkman & various artists

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This is a straight up heist tale about a veteran thief working a last big score with his crew, the comic equivalent of Ocean’s Eleven. One twist is that this veteran, Redmond, is not just working for himself but to save the life of his wannabe yet ne’er-do-well son, Augustus, from a major crime boss to whom Augustus is heavily indebted. The art varies (as different artists were utilized over the run of the series so far) but as a whole, it is a mix of noir and mainstream comic styles that are appropriately gritty.

 

Watson and Holmes by Brandon Perlow & Paul Mendoza

watsonandholmes

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson together again!  Sort of.  This time, they are a pair of African-Americans who investigate crimes in New York City.  The art is not easy to pigeonhole into one genre though the use of color and setting do clearly give it the feel of a mystery.  Everyone from Doyle‘s classic tales, from Inspector Lestrade to Sherlock’s Irregulars, makes an appearance at some point as the duo are embroiled in a case that involves drugs, gangs, and guns.

Reviews by Tony, Main Library


If you are interested in discussing these titles or other works of sequential art, please join us at one of the following LFPL book discussion groups:

Graphic Novel Discussion Group @ Main

Meetings are held at the Main Library on the second Monday of every month, starting at 6:00 PM.

Graphic Novel and Comic Book Discussion @ Fairdale

Meetings are held at the Fairdale Branch on the first Tuesday of every month, starting at 6:00 PM.

In Defense of Comics

Some – as I will call him – Random Dude recently told me, “Why don’t you read a real book?  You’re an adult, aren’t you?”  This person overheard me discussing a graphic novel with a friend and felt compelled to be a jerk, it would seem.  Jerk?  Yes, I wrote that (and wished I had said it to him rather than pointedly staring until he walked away).

The guy is a jerk for two reasons:

  1. Comics are real books. They’re not “texts” in the manner understood by structuralism where narrative can exist outside of a formal literary manifestation (common examples in structuralist writings are cinema, music, or art).  Comics have clear “beginning, middle, and end” structure and are created with an eye for some form of codex.  Even web-comics typically mimic either the comic strip or the comic book or are repackaged as such for general consumption once obtaining enough popularity to be commercially viable.
  1. Comics are not just for kids and never really were except for those with some deep investment in an arbitrary highbrow/lowbrow distinction. This distinction is one based on historically constructed relations that give privilege to very debatable aesthetic principles.

Long gone are the days when it could reasonably be said that a culture is only developed and leaves its legacy in the rarefied fields of arts and literature.  Comics, film, video games, and other pop culture artifacts are not just effluvia that can be ignored.  They shape and reflect the contours of modern society, like it or not.

The French have considered comics to be a “ninth art” (following architecture, sculpture, painting, dance, music, poetry, cinema, and television) for the past fifty years.  The term arises from a series of articles starting in 1964 by Maurice De Bevere (known by his pseudonym Morris) in the French weekly Spirou.  While Morris questioned whether comics should be considered the ninth or the seventh art (as cinema and television developed after comics), the term became accepted widely in France.

One of the largest comic conventions in the world, the Angoulême International Comics Festival, has been held every year in Angoulême, France, since 1974.  The prestigious Grand Prix de la ville d’Angoulême prize is awarded at the Festival to creators for their body of work and/or contribution to the development of comics. This year’s recipient is Bill Watterson.  He is, of course, the reclusive creator of the beloved Calvin and Hobbes comic strip.

Another example closer to home is actually a very old one at this point.  In 2001, Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize “for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life” for his work, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & ClayThe story is completely the product of comics, particularly the unique social circumstances of the late 1930’s that helped to produce the superhero genre and the American comic book industry that we know today.

Historically, the comics industry is a subset of the larger publishing world.  Like publishing in general, comics vary greatly in the type and quality of individual works but taken as a whole respond to the real and/or perceived demand of consumers. In the era of Chabon’s story, the demand for a superhero character had been building for some time due to the cultural stew of adventure tales, science fiction, and crime stories that were popular at the time.  A superhero combines all these genre elements in one brightly-colored package.

But comics and cartooning are so much more than superheroes.  So in the spirit of honest dialogue – the kind of dialogue that Random Dude was not interested in having – I will be posting a series of articles about comics in order to explain them to those who are unfamiliar.  I don’t know how often an article will appear or how long this series will run but I do hope that you’ll follow me on an exploration of this vibrant art form.

Before I go, I want to let you know that this week happens to be the annually sponsored American Library Association (ALA) event known as Banned Books Week (September 21st – September 27th).  This year, in partnership with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), Banned Books Week will be spotlighting graphic novels and the history of comic book censorship.  As the CBLDF web site states:

Comics are one of the most commonly attacked types of books, with challenges and bans happening every year. In the last few years, attempts to ban critically acclaimed graphic novels Persepolis and Barefoot Gen made international headlines. Other comics attacked in recent years include all-ages classics like Bone by Jeff Smith, which made ALA’s list of the ten most challenged books in 2013, as well as acclaimed books for adult readers like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

If you haven’t ever read a graphic novel or a comic book, I challenge you to try one out.  Come on in to your local library branch and we’ll help you find something that suits your tastes.  And if you do read graphic novels and wish to talk about them, I encourage you to come to LFPL’s Graphic Novel Discussion Group, which meets at 7:00 PM on the second Monday of every month at the Main Library.

GrNoDiGr

 Article by Tony, Main Library