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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Comics for Any Time of Year

Assorted FoxTrotAs a new year approaches in just a few hours, I wanted to share a collection of comics that is perfect for any season, from summer to winter and Christmas to Halloween.  Assorted FoxTrot by author and artist Bill Amend features the five-member Fox family.  While the scenario of three siblings, two often exasperated parents, and the travails of school, pranks, and modern life may sound like a rehash of so many family comic setups, FoxTrot brings a fun new perspective to this comic genre.  From cover to cover*, Assorted FoxTrot disperses fresh humor and is a perfect sampling of Amend’s comic strip.  To read the latest, check out the comic at its website, and be on the lookout for a more comprehensive review of the comic in the coming year.

*Literally.  At least in the edition I read, the front and back covers were designed like the packaging on a cereal box, with the characters as ingredients and details like serving size listed on the nutrition label.  Once I noticed the cover design, I thought it was rather clever.

Happy New Year!

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Stan Lee: A Tribute

A 70 year writing career, an estimated net worth of over $50 million, 35 Marvel movie cameos, 121 total acting credits, 69 years of marriage to his wife Joan, and a #1 sense of humor are just some of the statistics that show how impressive Stan Lee was.  While remarkable, though, I knew about other achievements long before I ever discovered those numbers, and Lee’s comics and cameos are why his death has me looking up details about his life.

Stan Lee Civil War cameo

Stan Lee delivering some more of his characteristic humor in Captain America: Civil War

Although I have seen most of the Marvel movies from recent years, I cannot claim to be a truly dedicated Stan Lee fan, having (to my knowledge) only read one comic book he coauthored.  Nor can I rival the lengthy, well-researched bios that dot the Internet in the wake of his death, but I did want to give him a brief tribute.  And that is this: his cameos always made me smile, and the narrative voice I did encounter in the one comic I read had a tongue-in-cheek humor that was charming and timeless.

Entertaining audiences is a special gift, and Lee’s ability to do so makes me think of Donald O’Connor performing “Make ‘Em Laugh,” which claims that everyone wants to laugh and that a comedian who makes an audience laugh is greater than a critically-acclaimed Shakespeare.  Not to disparage Shakespeare, of course, but I do understand the sentiment and enjoy a good laugh like the next person.  In his work, Lee seems to understand that his audiences wanted to have fun and also to be inspired to become superheroes, whether in great or small ways or simply in their imaginations.  I expect Stan Lee will always hold a special place in the hearts of comic book enthusiasts and superhero-smitten audiences, just as he holds a place in every Marvel movie with his quirky personality and signature sunglasses.

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Resources

https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0498278/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1

http://time.com/money/5452625/stan-lee-net-worth-marvel-universe/

Abridged Classics

Abridged ClassicsIn concept, I like the idea of Abridged Classics, John Atkinson’s short, satirical summary of famous literature.  I am very fond of his web comic Wrong Hands, which I reviewed here, but Abridged Classics is missing many of the characteristics I enjoy on Wrong Hands.  What I like about Atkinson’s web comics are his puns, literary limericks, and creative ways of representing concepts from various disciplines, ranging from mathematics to philosophy.  These jokes are relatable and have a more light-hearted satirical style than Atkinson uses in Abridged Classics.

Because of the subject matter and approach Atkinson has chosen, his comic collection faces a lot of challenges.  Those who are fond of certain books may take offense at his offhand comments.  I have to admit, many of the jokes about books I love fall flat because I disagree with Atkinson’s perspective, and the few details he chooses to highlight marginalize the best aspects or the main point of the stories.  While this may be how satire is supposed to work, I did not find it all that enjoyable.  On the other hand, with the stories one hasn’t read or even heard of, the satire loses a lot of its effect because the jokes are only funny for those who have actually experienced the story or at least know the general plot.  I did laugh at a few of these (such as his summaries of Hemingway novels), but the majority left me confused and unamused.  One of the few situations in which Atkinson’s summaries are funny, at least for me, is when they make jokes about books I have read and disliked, which I am guessing is what other readers would find to be true as well.  After all, most of the jokes we laugh at are ones with which we agree, and because Atkinson’s humor often criticizes the texts, it will only be funny for audience members who don’t like the book or see the same flaws in it which Atkinson points out in his jokes.  I also think that these satirical comics might be more enjoyable in a less concentrated dose because the jokes become a bit tired after you’ve read 10 or 15 in a row.  Mixing in other types of comics might be a good solution to this, mimicking the variety Atkinson provides on his website.

If you are intrigued by the premise of this illustrated satire, you may want to give it a try and decide for yourself if Abridged Classics pulls off the task Atkinson set out to accomplish.  In the meantime, though, I think I will stick with his web comics and wait for him to write—and perhaps publish—additional word puns, literary limericks, and jokes about literature, math, philosophy, and more.

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Family Insights from “Baby Blues: Gross!”

From prankster brothers and tattling sisters to hijacked fortune cookies and dad jokes, Baby Blues: Gross! by Jerry Scott and Rick Kirkman brings together the best of the MacPherson family once again.  As it highlights the fun and foibles of family members, this comic collection reminds me why I enjoy Baby Blues so much.  Perhaps the most hilarious moments come not from the kids, as you might expect, but from the parents.  In particular, I think these comics reveal a lot of Darryl’s personality and sense of humor.

Join me on a brief exploration of the comics to understand family dynamics a little better through Baby Blues‘ well of insight.  (Also, for those who are interested in the writer and illustrator’s perspectives, commentary from Scott and Kirkman accompanies most of the comics.)

1. Have you ever wondered why fathers acquire such high-power yard tools?Leaf Blower Manliness

2. Kids’ question of the century and a bit of male psychology.

Brushing Teeth

3. If only pointed word puns could win little girls ponies…but kudos for creativity.

Zoe and ponies

4. Sometimes your own arguments come back to haunt you.Wanda Loses

For more fun, find a copy of Baby Blues: Gross! and keep on reading for yourself.  Additionally, if you are looking for another good collection of Baby Blues, try No Yelling!, which I reviewed here.  I think there is some overlap between the two volumes, but there are plenty of unique comics in each to make them both worthwhile.

Happy reading!

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