A Mini Masterpiece

Fifteen spoken words, three colors, one hundred and twenty-two panels, and so many emotions depicted without words.  The Last Lonely Saturday by Jordan Crane is a mini masterpiece.

Because the book is so short, I can’t really describe the plot without giving everything away, so I’ll stick to reviewing the style.  Even though it was different from When the Wind Blows in so many ways, it felt very similar.  When the Wind Blows brought its characters to life through dialogue, while this book did so through simple pictures and few words.  The former is about an elderly couple during a fictional World War III fallout and covers several days; the latter focuses on a lonely widower during part of one day.  Despite this disparity, though, both books have a similar quiet tone of nostalgia, love, and tenderness that resonated powerfully with me.  The ending of The Last Lonely Saturday was a teensy bit confusing, but beyond that, this was a thoughtfully-crafted story with an ending that gave the title a new and unexpected meaning.

I especially loved the simplicity of the artwork. The main character was so expressive in his facial expressions and body language, and the basic color palette and understated art style really aids the clarity of the story and keeps the focus on the protagonist.

The Last Lonely Saturday made me feel and think so many things within its short page span and brought the main character to life in a believable and touching manner.  I highly recommend it, especially to fans of When the Wind Blows.


Lovely Apple with a Rotten Core

If you were to ask a magic mirror whether this book were outwardly fair, few would contend that Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman with artwork by Colleen Doran is one of the “fairest in the land.”  However, the enchanting art belies its dark storyline and graphic adult content.

Snow, Glass, Apples is a dark retelling of the classic “Snow White” fairytale.  Instead of using an omniscient narrator, Gaiman tells the story from the perspective of Snow White’s stepmother.  In a twist, Snow White is the monster of the story.  Or at least that is what the queen wants you to believe.  However, the queen seems to be an unreliable narrator, and little cracks in her story leave the audience wondering how much she is covering up.  Not a single character comes off well in this version, even secondary and tertiary ones, and the novel feels like it is wallowing in this all-pervasive evil.  Due to the book’s length and nature, there is no character development or improvement, and the ending is as dark and hopeless as the rest of the story, leaving the reader wondering what the point of it all was.

To give the book’s creators credit, Gaiman and Doran did not intend this novel for young audiences, explaining in the endnotes how they explicitly designed the cover art to appeal to a more adult audience—and with good reason.  To give you an example of how much nudity and gore there is, almost every illustration I chose for this post had to be strategically cropped to omit objectionable content.

In some cases, I think an argument can be made (by others) in favor of graphic novels with sex scenes and gore.  However, the rare instance where I might find that content defensible would be when it helped the development of a valuable theme.  In this story, though, the themes are nihilistic, inscrutable, and not constructive.  After reading the novel once and skimming it a second time in search of illustrations for this post, my takeaway from this rewrite of “Snow White” is that it is about how people are sometimes more like the monsters they abhor than they want to admit.  Gaiman also plays with the concept of an unreliable narrator, and you can quickly spot ways in which the queen is biased in how she tells events, trying to airbrush some of her flaws and overlook her similarities to her monstrous stepdaughter.

Sadly, Gaiman’s storytelling skill and Doran’s amazing artwork don’t reach their full potential because the story is unnecessarily R-rated and has flawed themes.  I think this book really had promise, but the evil it portrays—and seems to revel in—outweighs its aesthetic value in my opinion.

My advice?  Don’t fall for this poisoned apple, no matter how beautiful and tantalizing it may appear.  Perhaps the best lesson Snow, Glass, Apples provides is a reminder of the original “Snow White” advice not to accept an apple from a suspicious-looking stranger no matter how beautiful and alluring the fruit may be.

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Want to check out another graphic novel adaptation of “Snow White?” Here’s my review of Matt Phelan’s take on the fairytale.

When the Wind Blows: Reviews from Flint

When the Wind BlowsDelicate cartoon art, grandparently protagonists, and a quiet yet heart-wrenching narrative—When the Wind Blows is the story of an elderly English couple experiencing the prelude to and fallout of a fictional World War III.  There is so much to like about this graphic novel, but my favorite part is how Raymond Briggs uses dialogue to fashion the two characters and progress the story.

For a more detailed dive into this graphic novel, check out Flint’s review on our sister site.  Flint also recently reviewed Toppi, a very different but equally intriguing graphic novel that you might want to try.

As I was finishing up this post, I realized how When the Wind Blows hits a lot closer to home now than it did a few months ago.  The isolation, fear, and uncertainty that the two main characters experience is something that is affecting so many of us, especially the elderly.  As Flint points out in his review, this story really does remind us of the individual tragedies that too often become meaningless, distant statistics.  This book serves as a reminder not to become callous in the face of tragedy, but to remember who is suffering, not just how many, and I hope this reminder will lead more people to find ways to bring comfort and aid to those in need.

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Not Pulp

Pulp cover“I guess when you’ve lived this long, your silences can say as much as your words,” Max muses to himself (51).  In a way, this quote encapsulates the tone of the noir take on Western pulp fiction known as Pulp.  Author Ed Brubaker and artists Sean Phillips and Jacob Phillips craft a brief but compelling exploration of justice, racism, growing old, and even the story-writing business itself.

Max Winters never thought he would have to plan for the future because he never expected to live to see it.  But now he is old, his heart is failing, and his past is full of regrets and decisions he tries to whitewash or forget.  Even his moderately successful career as a pulp fiction writer in 1930s New York City is swirling down the drain as his publisher cuts budgets.  When he sees injustice though, Max still goes in with fists swinging, just like he used to out West as the real-life robber he characterizes in his stories as the Red River Kid.

From beginning to end, the story and its biased narrator—Max himself—make the reader wonder whether Max was a Robin Hood vigilante seeking justice or a robber out for his own gain.  When an opportunity comes along for Max to relive the glory days with a robbery in New York City, will he resume a life of crime for “good intentions” like providing for his wife Rosa?  Is this even his real motive?

Pulp illustrationRising to meet the compelling storytelling is equally compelling artwork.  I really liked the approach the artists took.  Using two color palettes, the story clearly distinguishes between flashbacks and the present.  The action flow is clear and includes some nice visual parallels between Max’s past and current experiences.  I also like how the art imitates the style of pulp comics, but with more muted colors for Max’s old age to reflect the bleak outlook that has come from years of loss and regrets.

Pulp is in many ways anything but pulp fiction, though.  It’s not light and fluffy, but dark and heavy.  With its noir themes, profanity, and violence, this is not a novel for kids, but I think a teenage or adult audience could find Pulp worthwhile.  I wouldn’t call it fun, exactly, but I did enjoy the visual and storytelling artistry and really appreciated the ideas the novel explored, although I disagree with many of the main character’s decisions.  Having said that, Max’s defense of those in need and code of ethics, blurred as it is, do make me admire him in a way.  He is no perfect hero, but I can appreciate his attempts to help others when passerby choose to look the other way.  I think Max’s struggles with right and wrong, growing old, and regret make him a tragic hero with whom readers can relate.

While our lives are unlikely to lead us to decision crossroads as extreme as the ones Max faces, I do think we have moments where we ask ourselves questions similar to those Max Winters articulates.  If-that-happened-what-would-I-do type scenarios and second-guessing our decisions.  I just hope we would make better moral judgment calls than Max, but with perhaps some of his courage and determination to do the right thing no matter the personal cost.

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Artemis Fowl: The Graphic Novel

Amazon.com: Artemis Fowl: The Graphic Novel (9780786848829): Eoin ...Eoin Colfer’s creative take on the world of fairies, dwarves, goblins, trolls, child geniuses, and crime lords (Russian, Irish, Chicagoan, or otherwise) remains one of my favorite modern series of children’s fantasy.  I’ve read it in book form, listened to Nathaniel Parker’s masterful audiobook adaptation, am currently re-listening to it, and just read the first book in its graphic novel version.

Book one of the graphic novel series, adapted by Andrew Donkin and illustrated by Giovanni Rigano, turned out to be a fun new format of the story.  The plot and dialogue remain true to Colfer’s work and even creatively work in some backstory by including “files” on each of the characters that tell about their background, family members, criminal record, and more.  This saves the book from lengthy textboxes of narrative explaining who people are and also suits the novel’s frame story, which claims that the book is part of research fairies are doing as they monitor Artemis as a potential threat.

For readers unfamiliar with the story, I think the graphic novel adaptation would be easy to pick up.  I wasn’t blown away by the artwork, but it worked for the story and flowed smoothly during action sequences.  My only disappointment is that none of the characters look the way I pictured them.  They are all too exaggerated and cartoony (imagine that!), and the fairy people are rather ugly, which I don’t think should be the case for all of them based on the book.  However, graphic novel depictions of characters rarely satisfy me when I’ve read and loved the original book, so this isn’t a deal-breaker.  I’ve just learned to live with it.

I think the regular book form of the Artemis Fowl series is engaging enough to captivate young readers, but the graphic novel is a decent alternative for those who might not want to read a full novel.  My first taste of the graphic novel Artemis Fowl books was pleasant enough I might even give the next installment a try when I’m looking for a graphic novel to read in the future.

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P.S. With all the formats, you would probably think I have already watched the movie too, but I have not and probably won’t anytime soon because it doesn’t look like it remains true to the series—but that’s a thought for another day.

Violet Evergarden in Film Form

Violet Evergarden movieWhen I saw Netflix was releasing a movie sequel to the Violet Evergarden anime series, I was excited to see the story continue.  The movie was visually beautiful, much like the original series.  However, not much happened in the 90-minute runtime.  The plot was rather simplistic, and it felt like the scriptwriters took the story for a 20-minute TV episode and stretched it to cover an hour and a half instead, without adding any depth or plot intricacy.  I actually thought that Violet’s initial assignment was going to end after the first portion of the movie and that then the film was going to show her completing other assignments or delve more into her personal life or past like in the TV show.  Instead, Violet’s job as a tutor at a private girls’ boarding school and her interactions with her student and her student’s adopted sister turned out to be the whole plot.  While the story was pleasant enough and had nice moments involving loyalty, friendship, and sisterhood, I don’t think the plot would have even made a particularly great episode in the original series.  This movie had a lot of promise, but I felt disappointed after I finished it and slightly bored as I watched it.  If someone could produce a film that capitalized on all the potential the anime series has in terms of plot, mystery, themes, characters, and beautiful animation and music, then I think that would be a movie well worth watching.  This one, though?  Not so much.

If you haven’t seen the original series, check that out instead.  I highly recommend it.  My review of the TV show is available here.

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A Noir Masterpiece

Blacksad coverThink a dark version of Zootopia.  Then add superb art, mystery, action, thoughtful themes, and impressively realistic dialogue and characters, and you have Blacksad by Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido.

This graphic novel follows the cat detective Blacksad as he solves crimes and avenges and protects those who are unable to defend themselves.  In addition to the compelling plot, the story raises important questions about justice, racism, revenge, and social and moral problems.  The book is serialized, and each story arc focuses on different themes as the plot revolves around a new scenario and set of characters.  Canales and Guarnido skillfully use the text and art to move the story forward and promote the exploration of each message.  One of my favorite parts of the books is the visual characterization of each member of the story (see featured image for an example).  The characterization in this book is unique and incredible.  Guarnido combines animal and human features to create characters who visualize their personality traits.  For instance, Blacksad is a lonely nocturnal hunter, a little wild and dangerous, just like the black panther features evident in his half-feline half-human appearance.

Blacksad action panel

While Blacksad does contain profanity, violence, and a few scenes with nudity, this gritty graphic novel is not one to pass up if you’re a comic enthusiast.  The story is a page-turner, the characters are realistic and riveting, and the art and dialogue are masterful.  Few graphic novels have Blacksad’s level of artistry or smooth flow of action and dialogue.  With its compelling art, story, and themes, Blacksad is what I would call a triple threat in the graphic novel world.

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Comic Resources: Reading and Designing

Like many of you, I am hunkering down at home for the time being.  While I’m not bored, I know a lot of people are probably struggling to adjust to this unexpected break from normal activities and keep themselves (or their kids) occupied.  I’ve seen a lot of suggestions that people use this time to start a hobby or learn a skill they’ve always wanted to try, so I thought I’d provide some reading and design resources for any comic book enthusiasts out there.

This is also a fun opportunity for me to dabble and doodle a little myself.  It’s been a while. 😊


My first strawberry!

Want to Read a Comic? — Hoopla

This site is a great resource for reading comics.  Hoopla has a large collection of comics, ranging from newspaper comic collections to graphic novels by acclaimed authors and artists.  If you have a local library, check their website to see if you can gain free access to Hoopla through your library membership.

Hoopla’s interface works well with both laptops and cellphones.  If you double tap the screen on your phone while reading your comic, you can zoom in and scroll through the pages panel by panel so that the text is easy to read.

Want to Create a Comic?

idea springboard

Use reality as a springboard for your comic creativity.

Tip 1.  As with writing a regular book, start with what you know.  Consider what you can draw well and then think of a story that will incorporate these elements.  (See featured image for examples of how I applied this to my own sketches.  Leaves, trees, flowers, and simple animal shapes are what I’m comfortable drawing).  Try to choose a story that deals with topics, settings, or characters you are familiar with.  You can add fun or fantastical elements, but familiarity is often the best foundation for a story.

Tip 2.  If you’re uncomfortable committing to a design, practice drafting your art with a pen.  You can discard what you don’t like because this is just practice. Consider using scrap paper or the blank sides of used paper so that the pressure is off for you to maximize each page and you don’t feel bad about throwing your sketches away if they don’t turn out.  This is the brainstorming stage, the rough draft, so just relax and have fun!  You need to get your ideas down before you will have anything to work with.  Also, you won’t know what you like or dislike unless you explore a little first.  Try something new and see where it takes you.

Tip 3.  Vary the tools you use to figure out what suits your project’s style and your personal preference.  The beginning of a hobby or a project is the best time to explore your possibilities so that you don’t unwittingly limit yourself.  If you become hooked on the first medium you try (pen, pencil, charcoal, etc.), you may never discover that you really love something else even more.  This will also give you more tools in your artistic tool bag so you can adapt your medium to suit particular projects.

Additional Resources

Happy reading and drawing!

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The Last Unicorn

TLU illustrationWhen a reclusive unicorn discovers that her kin have been disappearing and she may be the last unicorn in the world, she leaves her forest to find out where the other unicorns have gone.  This simple premise begins The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, a short novel that follows this magical quest along many creative twists and turns.

I read The Last Unicorn a couple years ago.  When I found that there was a graphic novel adaptation, I was curious to compare the two.  I enjoyed both versions and discovered that they both have qualities that make them worthwhile.  The original novel is quite dark but has thought-provoking themes and clever narrative and dialogue that bring the characters to life.  Beagle’s novel is simultaneously simple and intricate.  But perhaps that is what the best fairy tales are like—using a predictable formula of unicorns, wizards, princes, and enchantment to explore complex themes and scenarios.

Beginning in 2010, Peter S. Beagle adapted his story into a six-issue comic with art by Renae De Liz and Ray Dillon.  These issues were then compiled and released as a graphic novel in 2011.  The Last Unicorn graphic novel captures the same charm, mystery, and magic that enchanted me about the novel.  This surprised me because I have often found graphic novel adaptations unsatisfying.  The artists and the author in this story, though, united the art and text with skill so that the two elements became a greater whole instead of lessening the quality of one or the other.  The art is beautiful and illuminates Beagle’s clever dialogue and captivating narrative.  In fact, the colorful images helped lighten the dark tone of the original novel, which is unusual because I normally find that graphic novels darken stories rather than brighten them.  My only slight criticism of the art is that the depiction of the unicorn is reminiscent of anime—with her big eyes and long waving mane—and does not match the style of the other characters and artwork.

Whether you’re looking for a fun graphic novel or are already a fan of The Last Unicorn, I think you will find this graphic novel adaptation a satisfying read.  So take a leap and enjoy the mystery, poetry, magic, and beautiful artwork of The Last Unicorn!

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A Flower for the Winter

Violet Evergarden letterI am no connoisseur of anime, but I have dabbled a bit.  One series that I watched on impulse last year was Violet Evergarden.  This seemingly simple show turned out to be quite touching.

From the moment she awakes in a hospital, Violet’s only thought is where “the Major” is, if he is all right, and when he will give her a new mission.  Her preoccupation might seem unusual, given the fact that she has just lost both her arms in battle and now has robotic prosthetics.  In fact, a lot about Violet is unusual.  Why does she seem so emotionless?  Why does she care so much about the Major and her missions?  How did she lose her arms?  The mystery of who, or what, she is and what happened to the Major is a driving force in the story of the anime series Violet Evergarden.

Eager to end her convalescence and begin her next mission, Violet accepts the position that Colonel Hodgins, one of the major’s old acquaintances, offers as her next assignment.  The job is to work as a letter-writer for a company that hires “auto memories dolls” to ghostwrite and deliver messages to people around the nation, working from the capital city Leiden.  At the CH Postal Company, Violet witnesses auto memories dolls translating people’s emotions into written messages.  Wanting to understand other people’s emotions too, Violet determines to train to become an auto memories doll.

Violet Evergarden header

This series is not only beautiful with its gorgeous animation and soft piano soundtrack but also develops thoughtful themes.  Violet Evergarden learns many lessons through her letters and her travels as an auto memories doll, and the audience gets to share these experiences with her.  The story’s topics range from the meaning of love to friendship, war, courage, and family.  An especially poignant part of the story is Episode 10 “Loved Ones Will Always Watch Over You.”

One of my favorite aspects of the show is how it explores the power of letters.  Sometimes written words can express ideas better than any other medium, and letters can even become treasures to be reread through the years.  The challenges Violet and her coworkers face as they try to turn other people’s ideas and emotions into letters is something that resonates with me as one of my passions is to become a better communicator and transform others’ messages so they can reach their audience.

Like its name, this show really is a flower.  The story is seemingly simple, but full of sweetness, beauty, and depth.  Violet Evergarden brims with the vivacity and color of a garden that blooms evergreen—a place for quiet comfort and refreshment, tears and smiles and growth.

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