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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Highs and Lows of “Hilo: The Great Big Boom”

The Great Big BoomJudd Winick’s third Hilo book has its ups and downs.  Compared to the first two books, Hilo: The Great Big Boom has a much weaker opening.  However, I think the plot of the third book is stronger than the second.  The story is more interesting, and I appreciate the change of scenery that accompanies Hilo and D.J.’s journey to rescue Gina, who was sucked into a portal at the end of the second book.  As Hilo and D.J. search for Gina on a strange planet, readers get to ride along into a new setting, meeting unusual interplanetary creatures along the way.  In addition to the stronger plot and revitalized setting, I think it’s necessary to note that, because this is a series in which humor is important, the third book has better jokes than Saving the Whole Wide World.

One aspect of the series that has drawn me on has been the larger story arc that encompasses all the books.  I like how Winick reveals more about Hilo’s past as the robot’s elusive memories return.  Some of the developments in The Great Big Boom feel a bit silly—including the explanation for the book’s title—, but Winick does introduce some intriguing elements.  For example, Hilo becomes hesitant to use his powers in fights, and this places his friends in danger.  Hilo’s self-doubts are sympathetic flaws, and I like how Winick uses them to round out Hilo’s character.  Hilo has to wrestle with the question, “What do you do when you don’t want to harm anyone by using your powers but could endanger your friends by inaction?”  Hilo’s struggles bring surprising depth to this children’s book.

When I began this series, I thought it was a trilogy.  I must admit I was a bit disappointed to learn that it wasn’t because I think more than three books is a bit excessive.  The second and third book might have been stronger if Winick had packed more into them and finished the story with The Great Big Boom.  However, time and the next book (or books) in the series will tell whether or not Winick was wise to stretch the story out.

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Wires and Nerve

THE PREMISE

Wires and Nerve coverWhen I heard that Marissa Meyer was creating a graphic novel sequel to her sci-fi fairytale series the Lunar Chronicles, I was intrigued.  Unlike the previous books in the series, Wires and Nerve spotlights Iko, the android with a faulty personality chip that makes her more human than robot.

As an android and the ninth wheel on a team with four romantic couples, Iko is definitely the odd one out.  Iko’s human friends have all found their place in the world and are now heroes, but Earthens have yet to recognize the part Iko played in saving the world.  Worst of all, Iko is feeling useless, and as Iko explains, “No android likes feeling useless.  It’s in our programming to make ourselves as useful to humans…as possible” (66).  Iko’s plan for how she can be useful to her best friend Cinder is a surprising and daring one.  Cinder needs someone to covertly capture the rogue Lunar wolf soldiers who are terrorizing Earth and return them to Luna for trial.  Dress-loving romantic Iko decides that she is the secret agent for the mission.  After all, the worst damage a wolf soldier could inflict would merely mean a trip to an android parts store, right?

STORY AND STYLE

Iko

Marissa Meyer crafts a story that remains true to the style she created in the Lunar Chronicles.  Her writing is clever and fun.  In spite of the change in genre, the tone of Wires and Nerve is surprisingly similar to the previous books, and the characters remain largely the same.  Iko and Thorne’s characters transition the best, while Cinder, Winter, and Cress seem a little bit stunted compared to their old selves.

I think when authors take a story and then turn it into a graphic novel—rather than starting the book as a graphic novel from the ground up—they often sacrifice clarity, tone, or character development to make the new visual style work.  I’ve noticed this trend in books like Matt Phelan’s Snow White, Art Ayris’ The Last Convert of John Harper, and Amity Shlaes’s The Forgotten Man.  However, what these books and Wires and Nerve lose is gained back in different ways, especially in the artwork.

ARTWORK

I really like Doug Holgate’s art in Wires and Nerve.  The action is easy to follow, the characters are dynamic, and the scenery is detailed and interesting.  As a standalone graphic novel, the artwork is good; however, as a sequel to the Lunar Chronicles, I do have a few problems with the graphics.  Except for Iko, the characters from the original series don’t look like I expected them to.  In particular, the wolf soldiers look wrong.  They are kind of silly—a little bit like trolls or ogres, not like men who have been genetically modified to have wolf characteristics.  These failings are pretty significant to me, but the other aspects of the story, style, and art help balance out problems with characters’ appearances.

Iko

CONCLUSION

While Wires and Nerves is not quite on par with the rest of the Lunar Chronicles, it is still a fun sequel.  The new graphic novel layout limits the storytelling at times but also adds some freshness and originality.  Author Marissa Meyer successfully integrates the graphic novel format with the style, setting, and characters from her previous sci-fi fairytale novels.

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