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.

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.

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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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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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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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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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Summer Reads Reviewed

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Tokyo Ghoul

What happens when college student Kaneki finally goes on a date with his crush Rize? Well, she turns out to be a ghoul and tries to eat him. When the smoke clears on this situation, Kaneki is part-human, part-ghoul, and must figure out how to live as a different person – holding to his “human values” (not eating people, etc.) while dealing with his nature (only human flesh can satisfy his hunger).

It’s a philosophical sort of manga, with references to Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Herman Hesse (“Who would be born must first destroy the world”). Volumes 1-8 were very interesting, albeit extremely disturbing and violent in places. If extreme violence makes you uncomfortable, maybe pass this series up–the manga seems to get progressively darker and more grotesque.

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The Coldest City

The Coldest City is a sparse, slow-burning, noir graphic novel set in Berlin near the end of the Cold War. A missing list containing the identities of all the secret agents operating in Berlin (on both sides) is the linchpin around which this story moves.

As a spy thriller, the graphic novel is well set up, but knowing that it was a spy novel, I found some of the plot revelations predictable. Unfortunately, unexpected plot twists are half the fun for me in spy stories–getting my mind blown by third-act revelations. That said, the graphic novel has an interesting set of characters and enough layers that, even with a somewhat obvious conclusion, it’s still interesting.

Also, The Coldest City is apparently the inspiration for the film Atomic Blonde? I did not know.

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