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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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.

Making Comics: A Resource


Do you want to make comics, or maybe just have a better understanding to be able to critically read and evaluate? These two desires drove me in high school not only to read and draw my own, but also to try and find resources on how to effectively tell stories in the comic book medium. A great tool that I found was the book Making Comics.

What NOT to expect

If you are looking for a step by step guide of any kind, or if you are looking for an anatomy introduction or beginners course in perspective look elsewhere (Figure Drawing for Dummies). Scott McCloud, the author, is interested in principles, not formulas. While this does not mean that the above are not present in abbreviated form, this book’s primary focus is on broader principles. McCloud is interested in presenting options and information, not teaching a color by numbers approach.

What to expect

Scott McCloud’s book is unique in that it is actually a comic book itself. This means that while he is teaching principles, the book itself is demonstrating the very things he is talking about. He discusses in depth the use of page layout and its interaction with pacing and intensity. He talks about art, and using it on its own and in conjunction with words to most effectively communicate ideas, emotions, and story. All the while, the pages of his book visually reinforce everything he is discussing.


Scott McCloud’s book Making Comics is by far the most valuable resource I have found for learning the principles surrounding effective comic making. It is easy to read, but eminently approachable and useful since it is in comic book form itself. Scott has studied this art form his whole life, and he is able to concisely communicate core ideas in a natural way. Whether you want to make comics, or simply be better equipped to read and evaluate the comic books in your personal collection, this is an excellent resource.


Faithful Through the Final Voyage

Illustration from The Last Convert of John HarperFew ships or voyages have garnered as much attention as the RMS Titanic and its disastrous maiden voyage.  At the time of its launch, the passenger liner was one of the largest, most opulent ships in the world, and it featured a new safety system which caused some people to declare the Titanic “unsinkable” (Tikkanen).  Since its sinking, the Titanic has attracted even more fame thanks to books, movies, and an exhibit of artifacts recovered from the wreck.  The Last Convert of John Harper by Art Ayris presents a brief picture of the life and ministry of Reverend John Harper and tells of the sinking of the Titanic, on which Harper was a passenger.

Neither the art nor the storytelling of The Last Convert of John Harper is exceptional.  As I have noticed in other graphic novels about historical events, the style of this genre often harms the clarity of the story, and this is the case for parts of The Last Convert of John Harper.  Nevertheless, the execution of the book is more than adequate, and the research the authors put into the book is evident.  Above all, the story makes the book worth reading.

The Last Convert of John HarperBorn in Scotland, John Harper begins evangelizing at a young age.  Art Ayris shows Harper’s journey from being a street evangelist to becoming a respected minister.  In Glasgow, Scotland, Reverend Harper helps establish the Paisley Street Baptist Mission.  Requested to be a guest minister at Moody Church in Chicago, John Harper travels to America and preaches there in the autumn of 1911.  Following his return to Scotland, Moody Church asks Harper to return in the spring of 1912.  John Harper accepts the offer and boards the Titanic with his daughter Nana and his sister Jessie.  As Ayris reveals how Harper’s path leads him and his family to the Titanic, the author also highlights Harper’s multiple near-death experiences which precede his final voyage.  Partway through the graphic novel, the focus shifts from John Harper to the construction of the Titanic and the convergence of lives on that fateful ship.  The Last Convert of John Harper reveals the flaws in the Titanic’s construction and narrates the events and mistakes during her voyage which lead to her sinking and cost the lives of more than half her passengers and crew.

In the midst of the disaster, however, John Harper remains true to his calling.  He continues to preach, sacrifices opportunities to escape the ship to safety, and impacts other people’s lives in ways that will change them forever.

Works Cited

Tikkanen, Amy.  “Titanic.”  Encyclopædia Britannica.  Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.  2016.  18 July 2016. <www.britannica.com/topic/Titanic>.

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Two Tales of a City and a Storm

Every natural disaster leaves behind stories of misery, of courage, of cowardice, and of perseverance, and Hurricane Katrina is no exception.  Eleven years ago, the huge hurricane swept the Gulf Coast, leaving 2,000 people dead and thousands homeless, particularly in flooded New Orleans.  It was a time of great trial, but the adversity led to many great and many small acts of heroism.

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans

Drowned CityDrowned City by Don Brown is a graphic novel which details the emergence of a small storm near Africa that soon whirls into a tropical storm, then a Category 5 hurricane.  When Katrina hits low-lying New Orleans, the city is only partly evacuated and is unprepared for the water that breaks the levees and floods the city.  During the flooding, people are stranded on rooftops and crowded in the Superdome.  As the water recedes, aid to the city is slow and disorganized, and the crowded conditions in the New Orleans Convention Center and the Superdome become squalid.

In Drowned City, author and illustrator Don Brown stitches together facts and personal accounts of what New Orleans was like after Katrina hit.  Brown researched his book well, and his book provides a concise narrative about Hurricane Katrina’s effects on New Orleans.  However, the subject matter of the story is inherently dismal, and Drowned City focuses more on the suffering citizens and incompetent relief organizations than it does on the heroes who helped those in need or the lessons people learned.  Don Brown did an excellent job of writing and illustrating Drowned City, but the content and focus make it far from uplifting.  Perhaps the situation was as dismal as Brown depicts it, but I wonder if, in the search for historical accuracy and realism, Don Brown missed many of the stories of hope, of kindness, and of lessons learned.

Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship, and Survival

Two Bobbies

An example of a story that illustrates hope and kindness is the picture book Two Bobbies.  It is an account of two animals Katrina left stranded, animals who were lost like so many pets during the evacuation of New Orleans.  Two Bobbies by Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery and illustrated by Jean Cassels narrates the true story of how the dog and cat friends Bobbi and Bob Cat survived Katrina by sticking together and how they found a new home.  Well-written and -illustrated, Two Bobbies sweetly captures the pair’s story and friendship.

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The Forgotten Man

The Forgotten Man coverSince comic books and graphic novels took off as a genre, fiction has dominated their pages in the shapes of superheroes and fantastical settings, stories, and characters.  In recent years, however, this trend has started to change.  As publishers and authors have begun to recognize the potential of the comic book, the genre has expanded to include history.  The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes, adapted by Chuck Dixon and illustrated by Paul Rivoche, is a recent example of this trend.  Amity Shlaes first released her book The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression in 2008.  Then in 2014, a graphic edition of The Forgotten Man appeared.

The graphic edition of The Forgotten Man is narrated by Wendell Lewis Willkie.  During the Great Depression, the real-life Willkie was head of the power company Commonwealth and Southern.  Later in his career, Willkie unsuccessfully ran for the presidency against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940.  In The Forgotten Man, Willkie is telling his wife “Billie” about the Great Depression.  The book is a mixture of Willkie’s personal experiences, snapshots of other people’s stories, and the effects of the New Deal; this mixture combines to form an overarching tale of the Great Depression.

Because of the chronology of The Forgotten Man, characters enter, exit, and reenter the story, and threads are picked up, dropped, then continued.  This organization can make the story confusing and choppy at times, but a helpful “Cast of Characters” is located in the back of the book with the portraits, names, and brief biographies of each main character.  Also, when the story shifts from the past to Willkie’s present, Rivoche helps clarify the transition by using black-and-white illustrations for the past and sepia for the present.


Wendell Lewis Willkie

Although The Forgotten Man has lost some of its clarity and historicity by being turned into a graphic novel, I think the new form has several advantages.  As I have discovered since reading the book, its graphic edition is curiously appropriate, for it was in the 1930s that the funny pages of the late 19th and early 20th centuries developed into the comic book (“Graphic Novel”).  In addition, the illustrations combine with the story very well.  The bleak pictures and brief shots of people, places, and events tell the story effectively.  As readers meet the characters of the 1930s in the pages of this book, they learn the characters’ faces along with their names.  Unlike in regular history books, which might introduce a new individual with one or two photographs, in The Forgotten Man characters’ presence in the story obliges their appearance.  This will familiarize readers with the faces of famous men like Franklin Roosevelt, infamous men like Leon Trotsky, and forgotten men like Andrew Mellon.

Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes

When I heard about the graphic edition of The Forgotten Man, it caught my interest.  My sister had read and enjoyed the original book, and I wondered how well a history book about economics and the Great Depression would adapt to a graphic form.  Despite a few drawbacks, I think that the graphic edition of The Forgotten Man is a success.  The new version allows Amity Shlaes and her coauthors to pull back the curtain of history and show their audience a glimpse of what life was like for Americans during the Great Depression – for the powerful politicians, for the suffering poor, for the persecuted rich, for the forgotten man.

Works Cited

“Graphic Novel.”  Encyclopædia Britannica.  Encyclopædia Britannica Online.  Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015.  Web.  14 Sep. 2015 <www.britannica.com/art/graphic-novel>.


The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaption


An information-heavy story with substantial narration lifted directly from the actual 9/11 Report, this graphic story by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón gives an informative glimpse into the events surrounding 9/11–both the terrorist preparations leading up to it and the aftermath. The book concludes with several recommendations on ways the U.S. can improve its efforts to combat terrorism.

While the artwork is inconsistent in quality and the panel layouts are confusing in places, this “graphic adaption” manages to make the 9/11 Report more accessible and easier to grasp. For this, I would recommend this book.