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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 Angouleme, 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

Rex Mundi by Arvid Nelson

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Rex Mundi (which is Latin for “King of the World”) is set in the 1930’s in an interesting, highly detailed world similar in many ways but very different from ours.  For instance, magic exists, the Protestant Reformation never happened, the Confederate States were never defeated, and an Islamic state still exists on the Iberian Peninsula.  One thing which is the same is a creeping darkness of the times with war clearly just over the horizon.

The protagonist, Dr. Julian Sauniere, stumbles into a conspiracy that reaches back to the earliest days of the Catholic Church.  Early issues of this series were published before The Da Vinci Code and share with it similar themes about the politics of the Catholic Church and the question of Jesus’ bloodline.  Along the way, Julian finds himself in conflict with the Duke of Lorraine, the most powerful man in France – perhaps even the whole of Europe.

The Duke is plotting to grab power by riling up the French population in ways similar to a certain German dictator of our world though his scapegoats are the Muslims of Europe.  Julian gets captured by the Inquisition along the way but manages to escape with the help of Genevieve Tournon, the Duke’s personal physician and Julian’s ex-lover.  The two flee in search of the Holy Grail, which may or may not be an ultimate weapon, with the Duke and his forces hot on their trail.

Do they succeed?  Or does the Duke overtake them?  And what really is the nature of the Holy Grail?

You’ll just have to read the series to find out.

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Along the way stop to savor the art.  Over the series, there were three different artists but each had a similar enough style that there are no abrupt disruptions of the narrative due to the changes.  The art is what I call “comic book realism.”  There is a good deal of detail with sharp lines and clear, somewhat muted colors.  The figures and scenery look real but not so real that you would call them photographic or painterly (such as in the works of Alex Ross).  It still looks like a comic book but without the exaggeration found in some of the genres (such as superhero or fantasy).

At first the emphasis is more on deep blacks in the figures and in the design elements.  There are large blocks of ebony both within and around the panels.  This leads to the gutters (the space between panels) being negative ones, pushing the scene up from the all black background.  When they are not negative, gutters are often shades of gray, reinforcing a sense of gloom and mystery.  Later in the series there is a wider palette of colors used so that the panels take on a distinct shape against – rather than just bleeding into – the stark black that continues to be the background of most pages.  The colors pop more as the emotions of the characters intensify.  Towards the series’ end, the heavy lines used by the inker to delineate forms becomes softer so the wider range of colors stands out all the more.

To reserve a copy today, click here.

Formats Available: Graphic Novel

Reviewed by Tony, Main Library

Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist by Nancy Goldstein

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Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist is a strange bird of a book.  On one hand, it is a reverent – albeit short – biography of a mostly-forgotten forerunner of modern black women in comics.  Cheryl Lynn Eaton (creator of the web-comic Simulated Life and founder of the Ormes Society), Rosario Dawson (co-creator of Occult Crimes Taskforce), Afua Richardson (artist for Genius), and Jackie Broadnax (creator of the Black Girl Nerds blog) all owe a huge debt to Jackie Ormes‘ trailblazing comics.  Ormes authored and drew four different strips from 1937 to 1954 which appeared in African American newspapers, particularly the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender.

This was a time, of course, when opportunities for African Americans and women, let alone African American women, were limited in the comics industry.  In addition, the series were – mostly – not the kind of simple gag strip that was a major part of the industry.  They expressed many moods and dealt with topics often not touched by other comics.  Her work Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger was very direct in taking on racism and McCarthyism. Another strip, Torchy in Heartbeats followed an educated African-American protagonist as she not only navigated romantic options but also issues of race, environmental activism, and even foreign intrigue.

Due to Ormes’ outspoken political beliefs and activism on their behalf, she was targeted by the FBI during the late 1940’s and 1950’s.  Goldstein has appended excerpts from the FBI file.  These primarily consist of several different interviews that were conducted over the years due to her leftist leanings and the anti-Communist hysteria of the times.  Ormes consistently stated (and nothing to the contrary was definitively documented by the FBI) that she was not a Communist though sympathetic to the Party’s anti-racist and pro-worker principles.

But on the other hand, author Nancy Goldstein was previously known for having written histories of dolls. It is Goldstein’s initial interest in dolls that lead to the creation of this biography. Jackie Ormes developed a positive African American doll, produced by the Terri Lee Doll Company, in the late 1940’s.  An examination of the doll’s creation, marketing, and impact – a small part of Ormes’ artistic output – takes up a large portion of the book.

The Patty-Jo dolls were based on the younger sister of her most prolific strip.  Patty-Jo was not as glamorous as her older sister, Ginger, but she was the one given all the pointed dialogue in the strip.  As a doll, though, Patty-Jo had many outfits and hair that was able to be easily styled.  This made her an appealing toy to young African-American girls who had – at that time – very few choices for African-American dolls that were not stereotypical or demeaning.

For readers primarily interested in the comic side of Ormes’ work, there are copious illustrations from her strips, some early drawings, and other sketches.  Her line work is typical of the time in that it is solid, clean, and mostly realistic.  Sometimes the perspective of the human body is odd but oddly enduring at the same time.  I found great joy in just flipping back and forth over the illustrations.

Goldstein knows that this book is somewhat incomplete in documenting the impact of Jackie Ormes and acknowledges so in the Conclusion.  Some of this is due to the general lack of archives for old African-American newspapers in many library collections.  To help rectify this problem, she calls for renewed donation of materials to and funding for several main collections of comic material such as the Cartoon Research Library (Ohio State University) or the Comic Art Collection (Michigan State University).

 Formats Available: Book

Reviewed by Tony, Main Library

Are You Up To The Challenge?

The 1000 Books Before Kindergarten Challenge is a new Library program that encourages all families and caregivers to read at least 1000 books with their young children before they enter Kindergarten. Reading to preschool-age children builds vocabulary, language skills, and helps prepare them with the skills they need for Kindergarten. In as little as 15 minutes a day, families can build the skills for future school and life success.

Who can participate?

Preschool-age children (0-5 years old) in Jefferson County with their family/caregivers.

How does the Challenge work?

Getting Started – Pick up a free 1000 Books Before Kindergarten reading log at any Louisville Free Public Library location and start reading. Reading logs include a list of recommended books and information for parents on early literacy and free children’s programs and resources available at the Library.

Track Your Reading – Each time you read a book with your child, record it in your reading log.

Show Us Your Reading Logs – Each time you and your child reach a milestone listed below, bring in your reading log and collect your prize. Read 1,000 books before kindergarten and your child will receive a free book of their very own.

Plus, every 1,000 book reader will be entered for a chance to win a $500 Barnes & Noble gift card.

Reading Reward Milestones

  • 100 books = a sticker
  • 250 books = your child’s name is displayed at your branch Library
  • 500 books = a bookmark
  • 750 books = a certificate
  • 1000 books = a free book to take home

How can you read 1000 books to your child?

In as little as 15 minutes a day!

The average picture book takes just 5 minutes to read

– and –

3 books a day (just 15 minutes ) for 1 year = 1,095 books

You can even read the same book over, and over, and over.

Suggested Reading Listclick here

Want more useful tips and activities to help get your child ready for Kindergarten? – click here

Twelve Great Reads

Can you believe it? 2013 is almost over. And you know what that means…end of the year time is Best of the Year time!

So here is a list of some favorite comics from the past year. They may or may not have been published in 2013. Many of the titles are ongoing series so I have just named each series as a whole rather than any specific volume.

All of these works can be checked out from LFPL. I have also named the author and main artist for each title (except for #12 where there were multiple artists over the course of its run, sometimes even in the same issue).

Due to the variety of stories being told, it was difficult to rank the items in order of preference. Instead, they are listed below in alphabetical order.


American Vampire by Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque

What if vampires were evolving? What if one of the meanest, low-down gunslingers of the Wild West was the first of a new breed of stronger, faster vampires? Stephen King himself adds his macabre touch to this tale of horror and revenge across the decades.


Batman: The Court of Owls by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo

One of the best of DC’s New 52 storylines. Scott Snyder (who is also the primary writer for American Vampire) deftly continues the building of Gotham’s most important character – the city itself – that he began in the Gates of Gotham. We are introduced to the shadowy Court of Owls and to the Talons, an army of immortal assassins in service to the Court, as they decide to show Batman who really runs Gotham.


Hawkeye by Matt Fraction and David Aja

Action and comedy mingle in this fast-paced look at the life of the non-powered superhero. It’s just a man with a bow tackling problems with femme fatales, Russian mobsters, and the training of a sidekick…er, partner. The writing by Matt Fraction is quick and witty, and the art by David Aja is a perfect fit.


I, Vampire by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino

A minor character from J.M. DeMattheis’ run on House of Mystery is now the star of his own title in the New 52 universe. The background of Andrew Bennett, the titular vampire, is revealed along the way as he battles the plans of his lover, Mary Queen of Blood, to lead a worldwide vampire revolution against humanity’s dominance over other species.


The Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra

Imagine a world where The Manhattan Project was but one undertaking of a long-running government program to investigate and master exotic science for the benefit of the U.S. Many important scientists from the mid-Twentieth Century work there but one, Robert Oppenheimer, is harboring a secret of his own that will threaten the very existence of The Projects.


The Massive by Brian Wood and Kristian Donaldson

The Massive is not just another post-apocalyptic tale. It examines what it would mean to be an ecological activist in the wake of multiple events that trigger permanent disastrous climate change. Brian Wood – best known for creating DMZ and his work on various X-men titles – keeps this exploration from becoming didactic or boring by focusing on the mystery of a disappearing ship which the main characters are seeking. Plus they have to battle pirates!


Mind the Gap by Jim McCann and Rodin Esquejo

This para-scientific thriller is about a woman admitted to the emergency room after being beaten into a coma and what her place is in an unfolding conspiracy. The protagonist, Elle Peterssen, finds herself conscious but separated from her body. She is in an indeterminate spiritual realm and wants to get back to the real world. While Elle struggles to return to everyday life, there is a lot of drama involving her friends, her family, and a mysterious stranger who seems to be orchestrating events from the shadows.


Morning Glories by Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma

Morning Glories is part prep school drama, part Lost-style conspiracy, and all fun. Nick Spenser – creator of Infinite Vacation, a title that almost made this list – keeps the intrigue and the action going without skimping on characterization. Love them or hate them, you definitely want to know what happens to these characters.


Revival by Tim Seeley and Mike Norton

What if a zombie outbreak happened only in a small, rural Wisconsin town? And said town has to struggle with the reintegration of its newly revived citizens into society? Not only that but it has to face the pressure from the rest of the world that is pushing at the boundaries of a CDC quarantine zone. Revival is subtitled “A Rural Noir” and that is exactly what it is. Tim Seeley doesn’t back away from showing the macabre and horror inherent in the situation. What else would you expect from the creator of the infamous Hack/Slash series?


Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Two alien races are at war but love unites a couple of soldiers from each race as they are pursued by their respective forces who wish to punish them for their treason. They also have to figure out how to take care of their newborn child and deal with overbearing parents! Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ space opera never turns into corny pastiche even though its core story is as old as Shakespeare and is filled with stock science fiction trappings like space battles, mercenaries, and robots.


Saucer Country by Paul Cornell and Ryan Kelly

This series has been described by its creators Paul Cornell and Ryan Kelly as “The West Wing does The X-Files,” and they deliver on the promise of those words. Arcadia Alvarado, the Governor of New Mexico, is about to make a bid for the Presidency when she is abducted by aliens. As her staff struggles to keep her campaign from faltering, Arcadia hires Professor Joshua Kidd, a Harvard sociologist who has studied alien abduction, to help her get to the truth of UFOs and the alien agenda.


The Shade by James Dale Robinson

The Shade (a.k.a. Richard Swift) has been a super-villain since the Golden Age of comic books, primarily serving as nemesis to both the Jay Garrick and Barry Allen iterations of The Flash. But he is also an immortal who gained his powers in the same period which saw Charles Dickens rise to fame. In fact, Dickens was a great friend of The Shade when he was still a normal man. In this series we find The Shade in a morally ambiguous place as he has decided to change his super-villain ways and save his descendants from assassination by a mysterious opponent.

-Tony-