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.

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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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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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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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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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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Across Five Decades: Old and New Black Panther Comics

Black Panther coverIntrigued by the release of the new Black Panther film earlier this year, I decided to try out some of the Black Panther comics which have preceded it.  I started with the only comic book I could find at my local library that had “book one” in the title, which turned out to be a 2016 rejuvenation of the series.  The slender volume I picked up was Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

While I did not find A Nation Under Our Feet particularly coherent or artistically impressive, the comic does provide an intro into the Black Panther world for those who, like me, are curious about the latest superhero Marvel has transferred from comic book to silver screen.  Perhaps the best part of the comic is the last half, which includes a map and history of Wakanda and concludes with a snippet from the very first 1966 comic Black Panther appeared in, where Black Panther features as a character the Fantastic Four encounter.  (Or should I say face?  Black Panther has changed a lot since his first debut 🙂 .)

1966 Black Panther comicIn spite of cartoonish colors and somewhat cheesy dialogue, I found myself enjoying the older comic more than the new one.  The authors (Stan Lee being a prominent one) have a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and use their powers as narrators to talk directly to the audience.  Further, although the artwork is not nearly as slick as in more recent Black Panther installments, I thought it was laid out well and kept the story easy to follow.  Finally, while certain tidbits—such as asbestos being an innovative material—certainly date the comic, I actually found these aspects to be part of the appeal.

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Wires and Nerve: Gone Rogue

Gone Rogue coverWhat defines someone as human?  Can a personable android actually have emotions and thoughts independent of programming?  With the modern advance of technology, these futuristic questions may soon present themselves.  Whether or not humans face this dilemma, though, the concept is still an interesting one to explore, and science fiction opens up a medium in which authors and audiences can examine the questions in fictional situations.  Although androids and the definition of humanity have been present throughout Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, they have remained side issues until the release of her most recent graphic novel Wires and Nerve: Gone Rogue.

Loveable and loyal android Iko is still on her mission to stop the Lunar wolf soldiers, especially the ringleader Lysander Steele, who are loose and terrorizing Earthens.  Meanwhile, Cinder is trying to improve precarious relations between Luna and Earth and is setting in motion her plan to abdicate the throne and establish a Lunar democracy.  On an Earth which is still recovering from the ravages of disease and war, Emperor Kai plans the annual peace festival that may not be so peaceful thanks to Steele and the wolf soldiers.

With these issues as a backdrop, Meyer uses her graphic novel to discuss challenging questions through her characters.  Confronting Lysander Steele at one point in the novel, Cinder tells him, “[U]ltimately it’s our actions that turn us into monsters.  Just as our actions determine our humanity” (194).  While I disagree that non-humans’ actions can make them human—such as the story seems to argue in Iko’s case—, I do think that actions play a part in identity and what or who we become.  Actions flow from a person’s existing identity and then reinforce it.  Lysander Steele and the other Lunar wolf soldiers turn into the monsters they appear to be because of who they are at heart and their consequent choices and actions, and yet just as humans so often do, they blame their behavior and problems on others, even though all the Lunar government could ever do was alter their outward appearance.  In Gone Rogue, Meyer points out that ultimately, no matter what other people may have done to us or whether we are misfits in society, we remain responsible for our actions.

For those of you who have kept up with The Lunar Chronicles and read the first Wires and Nerve graphic novel, the general elements of Gone Rogue are much the same.  Overall, the story seems a little less polished than the first Wires and Nerve, but mostly in little ways, such as misspellings and confusing action scenes.  I also continue to disagree with some of the portrayals of characters, especially how the Lunar wolf soldiers look (more about that in my review of the first graphic novel).  However, the characters and story remain fun and thought-provoking.  I am still undecided about some of the book’s themes, but I appreciate how Marissa Meyer uses her stories to grapple with the challenging issues of responsibility, love, trust, and identity.

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Clever Cartoon Satire

being-there

For the lover of English and word puns

If you’re looking for some clever cartoons, I recommend trying out Wrong Hands by John Atkinson.  I recently discovered this site thanks to a college coworker.  The content of the cartoons ranges from word puns to literary limericks (which humorously summarize the plots of famous literature) to interactive games and commentaries on society and history.  Overall, the cartoons are satirical, but their cleverness makes even the less uplifting ones funny.  Atkinson’s puns and poking fun at famous literary works particularly tickle my fancy because I love reading, writing, and English.  To top it all off, the cartoons are colorful without being garish and have a simple, straightforward style which complements the humor.

For the avid yet critical Shakespeare fan:

literary-limericks-hamlet

For the math nerd:

as-x-approaches-infinity2

For the inner philosopher in everyone:

existentialism

…And the list is endless.  I think you’ll probably find something that makes you smile!

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Cartoons (in order of appearance) retrieved from: “Being There,” “Literary Limericks: Hamlet,” “As X Approaches Infinity,” and “Existentialism.”

Little Robot

Little Robot book cover

One night, a box tumbles off a shipping truck and into a river.  The next morning, a little girl skips school to play by herself, explore the woods near her home, and work in a junkyard fixing broken machines.  When she spots a cardboard box floating by in the river near the junkyard, she drags it onto dry land, opens it up, and finds inside it a friend in the form of a little robot.  While there is some danger and action thanks to an evil robot sent to capture and return the missing robot, the story is relatively quiet and simple.  The artwork is especially pretty, featuring softer lines and more natural colors than in Hatke’s Zita the Spacegirl series.  With no narration and minimal dialogue, Ben Hatke tells a sweet story about friendship in his children’s graphic novel Little Robot.

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