A Columbus Day Celebration of Circumnavigation

Around the World coverFiction became fact and dreams materialized in the circumnavigation journeys of three adventurers in the late 19th century, and in celebration of Columbus Day, I wanted to share a graphic novel that narrates their journeys.  In Around the World, Matt Phelan spins these three adventurers’ stories into the whirlwind graphic novel, broken into three sections that detail each of the record-setting tales.

First, meet Thomas Stevens, a miner turned wheelman who dreams of becoming the first person to circle the globe while riding a bicycle.  Only a few years after Stevens, female reporter Elizabeth Cochrane, better known by her penname Nellie Bly, sets out to break the fictional circumnavigation record Phileas Fogg set in Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days.  Finally, not long after Stevens and Bly, mariner Joshua Slocum begins his adventure to be the first man to sail solo around the globe.

Phelan’s artwork in Around the World is subtly gorgeous, full of pretty greens, blues, oranges, and greys.  In addition to the colors, the flowing style works especially well for ocean scenes and for expressing motion.  That said, I often found Phelan’s pages of un-narrated pictures a bit confusing.  In particular, the beginning of each story tends to be hard to understand; then, as the story progresses, the plot becomes clearer.

Nevertheless, I think the unique true stories and beautiful artwork make up for any storytelling deficiencies.  Around the World is a worthwhile read, especially for those who love one-of-a-kind adventure stories and want to commemorate Columbus Day with a little historical dabbling.

Happy Columbus Day!

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Will Supervillains Be on the Final?

Will Supervillains Be on the FinalImagine a world where people with powers could attend a school for superhero training.  Wait, that’s textbook Sky High, X-Men, and even Harry Potter.  So, what is it that makes Will Supervillains Be on the Final: Liberty Vocational, Vol. 1 by Naomi Novik unique?

Picture instead a young superhero entering a prestigious college at 16 because of her unique powers.  Little does she know that one of the teachers and one of her classmates are working together to ruin her academic career.  And the greatest superhero Calvin Washington recently lost his powers after using them to absorb a terrorist bombing, while his archenemy Alexander Bane remains on the loose.  Then add to it all that Leah Taymore’s parents, and even the staff at her new university, expect Leah to fill Washington’s place once she completes her training, while Leah would rather be at her old school instead of a heralded prodigy at the prestigious Liberty Vocational.

While parts of Novik’s graphic novel may feel familiar with the recent inundation of superhero stories, the characters and premise of Will Supervillains Be on the Final? are nevertheless fun and compelling.  I especially like Leah’s roommate Yuzana, an extroverted empath whose superpower enables her to read people’s emotions.

I think Novik’s book, which is listed as volume one of the Liberty Vocational series, has potential.  I was really disappointed that just as the story began to take off, volume one ended and I discovered that a sequel was never printed.  Even though it appears that there may never be a sequel (Will Supervillains Be on the Final? came out in 2011), I hope that maybe one day there will be one.  I’m always sad when a series with promise comes to an untimely end, like Ruse or Herobear and the Kid, but I don’t think that means the books aren’t worth reading, and I always hold onto a faint hope that maybe if enough people demonstrate their interest, the series may someday reignite.

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Real Friends

Real Friends coverFrom the author of Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack comes another graphic novel of a different sort.  Real Friends by Shannon Hale is a memoir that shows the friendship struggles Hale experienced in her early school years.  Hale’s experiences are surprisingly relatable, from the fun moments of dress-up and story-writing with friends to the struggle of wanting to be popular or part of the group one’s best friend is in.  Additionally, LeUyen Pham’s artwork suits the style of the story, and I appreciate some of the themes Hale incorporates.  For instance, Real Friends shows the importance of kindness and reminds readers that sometimes they should avoid certain relationships if they are unhealthy.  I also like Hale’s honesty in not trying to sugarcoat the story, even though she admits in the afterword that she was tempted to change the ending.  Hale’s overarching goal is to let children in similar circumstances know that they are not alone and that they can make it through their own struggles.  However, while Hale’s intent with Real Friends is admirable, I think the book’s purpose overshadows the actual story and probably pushes away her target audience.

I have noticed that graphic novels tend to be a tough medium for serious stories, retellings of classics, and nonfiction.  Often, the result seems contrived, with choppy transitions and wooden dialogue.  Further, sad stories tend to make the whole graphic novel dismal, with no sunshine to break through the clouds.  Like other novels I’ve reviewed that fall into these categories, Real Friends has some merits, but I think Shannon Hale might have been more successful with a regular book instead of a graphic novel.

When I finished Real Friends, I happened to look at the back cover and started perusing the reviews.  That’s when I realized that all the rave reviews were written by adults.  “What do actual children think of the book?” I wondered.  After all, children are the best judges of whether Real Friends was a success.  Though I can’t speak for other children, I do know I wouldn’t have wanted to read a story that sad when I was a kid.  I would have chosen a fun book every time.

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Note: I just discovered that Real Friends was apparently successful enough to merit a sequel.  Best Friends was released two days ago and appears to pick up where the first book leaves off.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Besides a chance trailer and a friend’s hearty recommendation, I began Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse with very few expectations and little info.  I came out of it quite satisfied, with many pros and only a few cons.

Positives

One of the best bits of this reboot is that it is a fun celebration of the character Spider-man and the comic world.  The film provides an entertaining exploration of parallel universes and how many ways the Peter Parker Spider-Man we all know could have turned out differently.  In fact, I noticed that the film created an unstated Spider-Man formula.  The hero is not one person.  Peter Parker doesn’t equal Spider-Man.  Instead, power from a radioactive spider + a desire to help others + personal loss + a leap of faith = Spider-Man.  This creates an “everyman” theme, reminding the audience that a hero can be anyone.

Spider-Man poster

In fact, this formula ties directly into some of the movie’s other key themes.  When Miles Morales attempts to quote “with great power comes great responsibility” to a disillusioned Spider-Man, Peter Parker abruptly cuts him off.  Previous Spider-Man movies, especially the Tobey Maguire trilogy, emphasized this theme, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse instead focuses on “leaps of faith,” perseverance, and second chances.  While those may sound cheesy, I found the themes more broadly applicable to real life than the original heroic themes.  After all, we constantly take risks and choose to be vulnerable.  Being determined enough to try in the first place and try again when something doesn’t work out the way you want it to is critical in life.  Yet, as the movie shows, fear often paralyzes us from taking the leap.  Pride stops us from asking for second chances or trying again.  And our relationships and lives suffer, even as we attempt to protect ourselves.

Another aspect of the movie I enjoyed was the style and artwork.  Into the Spider-Verse introduced me to a fresh perspective on Spider-Man movies as it incorporated comic-style animation in an impressive, creative, and entertaining way.  I especially like the way the movie uses comic panels and textboxes to make the movie appear to be a literal comic book come to life.

Negatives

I only have a few minor criticisms.  First, if you have a tendency to experience ocular migraines, you may not want to watch this movie, or at least parts of it.  Several scenes are headache-inducing with their psychedelic palettes and flashing lights.  Also, I occasionally found the soundtrack very jarring, and the grating moments in the music seemed disconnected from the rest of the movie and its overall style.  And a final tiny criticism I have is that the final fight scene felt really long, and the action was hard to follow during it.

Wrapping It Up

Until my friend recommended Into the Spider-Verse, I hadn’t seriously considered watching it.  The trailers and other ads hadn’t really piqued my interest, and I was becoming more and more burnt out on superheroes in general and Spider-Man in particular.  But I ended up having a blast watching the 2018 animated reboot.  I hadn’t expected that moviemakers would be able to add anything worthwhile to the current Spider-Man film portfolio.  With its creative aesthetic, thoughtful themes, fun characters, and freshened up storyline, though, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a pleasant surprise.

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Beowulf Revisited

Beowulf coverThe epic poem Beowulf is one of my favorite readings from ancient and medieval literature.  I have read and listened to it multiple times, for personal fun and for class assignments.  After discovering Gareth Hinds through a blog I follow, I investigated his portfolio further and discovered his graphic novel rendition of Beowulf.  I was intrigued to see how he handled a distinctly oral text in a visual format, so I found a copy through the library and sat down to read it.

While the graphic novel had a few redeeming qualities, such as several excellent pieces of artwork, it also had some fundamental flaws.  Perhaps the biggest strike against it is the fact that the story would be almost impossible to follow for readers not already familiar with the original poem.  The narrative and dialogue portions are placed in large textboxes that look identical and make it unclear whether the narrator or one of the characters is speaking, and it is almost impossible to decipher who the characters are because the book omits speaker tags and doesn’t clearly identify each character.  Additionally, I noticed a weird imbalance between text and pictures.  The book would either have huge sections of text or several pages with no text at all, which decreased the narrative clarity even more.  A mantra in the visual fields is to “show, don’t tell.”  Here, Gareth Hinds seems to have been flipflopping between the two extremes, instead of balancing his use of text and visuals.

beowulf dragon portrait

My favorite art from Hinds’ Beowulf and one of the redeeming parts of the book

My guess is that a classic in graphic novel format is intended to be more accessible to younger readers and to pique their interest in the original text, but the confusing narrative and often gory pictures do not seem to suit a young audience.  With a few exceptions, the artwork was underwhelming as well.  The monsters and humans looked a little silly with narrow, stretched bodies and faces.  I thought that overall the artwork lacked the gravity and dark grandeur of the poem, as did the translation that Gareth Hinds used.  Some people may prefer A. J. Church’s translation, but I think Seamus Heaney’s is richer and captures the poetic elements better.

Given a choice between the graphic novel and the original epic poem, I would choose the poem every time.  If you are interested in reading Beowulf for yourself, I recommend trying Seamus Heaney’s translation.  Heaney’s version is available in book format, as well as in audio form online for free  (Part 1 and Part 2 of the audio version).  For more thoughts on the original poem, here’s my review at our sister site Thousand Mile Walk.

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Dear Mr. Watterson

“The surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that it has never tried to contact us,” Bill Watterson once quipped.  How appropriate that quote seems, coming from the creator of Calvin and his alter ego Spaceman Spiff.  After years of enjoying random Calvin and Hobbes collections that my brothers owned, I was surprised and delighted to learn how much more there is to both the comics and their creator.

Dear Mr. Watterson portraitI encountered Dear Mr. Watterson while scrolling through movie suggestions online.  Intrigued to see that this was a documentary, I read the film’s description and decided to give it a chance  Now those of you who are true Watterson fans probably know that he is a recluse and values his privacy.  So you may be wondering how this documentary handles Watterson’s personal story and whether it invades his life in any way.  I know when I saw the documentary called Dear Mr. Watterson on my computer screen, my first thought was that it would be about Bill Watterson and might cross a line by prying into his personal life.  Despite initial misgivings on this point, though, I decided to find out what it was really about.  I’m glad that I did because the film is not what I had expected and is surprisingly good.  Rather than divulging Watterson’s “secrets” in some sort of scandalous fashion, the film tactfully avoids Watterson’s life for the most part and focuses more on his work, his influences, his legacy, and why Calvin and Hobbes is so popular worldwide.

Dear Mr. Watterson is charming and fun.  The music is cheerful and accompanies the comic exploration perfectly.  Most of the documentary consists of interviews, and I enjoyed hearing other comic artists share their thoughts on Watterson and his work.  Putting faces and voices with the names of all these famous comic artists was especially neat.  I never thought I would listen to an interview with Bill Amend or other artists whose work I have perused in the Sunday funnies.  Watterson has left an impressive legacy behind him, having inspired and influenced many modern comic artists in their work.  Additional interviewees include cartoon museum curators, syndicate administrators, and other people involved or interested in the comic world.

Calvin and Hobbes first strip

Calvin and Hobbes debut in their first comic strip.

In addition to appreciating the new perspectives the film provides on Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes, I especially enjoyed the beautiful colors and the animated renditions of Watterson’s watercolors, which would begin as sketches and then fill with pools of color in a very artistic fashion.  One of the challenges in documentaries is supplementing interviews with footage that shows the story instead of telling it, and I think the animations of Watterson’s art are a tasteful solution that keeps the documentary visually interesting.  Often, these colorful displays of Calvin and Hobbes art accompany Watterson’s witty quotes, which gave me new insight into his personality and perspectives and often left me with a smile or a laugh.

That ability to bring joy to his audience is key to Watterson’s success, I think.  Through Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson found a way to touch people in a surprising way as they shared in the characters’ emotions, humor, and adventuresome spirit.  Calvin and his tiger friend remind their audience of many things, from the preciousness of friendship to the fun of imagination, and I think that touchstone with readers is what has made these characters so timeless.

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Fairy Tale Comics: Fair or Foul Fare?

Fairy Tale ComicsI was browsing in the children’s section at my local library when a brightly-colored book caught my eye.  Pulling it off the shelf, I saw it was a collection of fairy tales retold as comics.  Curious, I flipped through several pages.  I noticed that a different artist had created each story, leading to a wide variety of artwork and writing styles.  A fan of fairy tales, I was intrigued by the concept and decided to give the book a try.

As with many collections of short stories by various authors, Fairy Tale Comics compiled by Chris Duffy is a mixed bag.  Portions of the comic book fall into the obvious pitfalls that face a work of this sort.  Some of the installments are simplistic in their artwork and narrative, explaining too much of the story with dialogue rather than showing the reader what is happening.  While I can’t know for sure what most young readers would think of these stories, I know I would have preferred regular fairy tales with beautiful illustrations and more poetic writing to oversimplified comic versions.  Additionally, in some of the stories already familiar to most audiences such as Snow White or Hansel and Gretel, the comic retellings lack innovation, causing the story to fall flat.  That said, the brevity of the stories does mean that the bland ones don’t last long, and I think the good tales outweigh the underwhelming ones.  The book includes multiple stories that are well-told and humorous.  These contain artwork that complements the story, interesting dialogue, and fun twists on old tales.  My favorites were stories that I had never heard of before, perhaps because I was not comparing the comic version to some other retelling I had read, but I think they were also genuinely good comic adaptations.  “Puss in Boots,” “The Prince and the Tortoise,” “The Boys Who Drew Cats,” and other stories are a lot of fun and make Fairy Tale Comics a worthwhile read.

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