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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Will Supervillains Be on the Final?

Will Supervillains Be on the FinalImagine a world where people with powers could attend a school for superhero training.  Wait, that’s textbook Sky High, X-Men, and even Harry Potter.  So, what is it that makes Will Supervillains Be on the Final: Liberty Vocational, Vol. 1 by Naomi Novik unique?

Picture instead a young superhero entering a prestigious college at 16 because of her unique powers.  Little does she know that one of the teachers and one of her classmates are working together to ruin her academic career.  And the greatest superhero Calvin Washington recently lost his powers after using them to absorb a terrorist bombing, while his archenemy Alexander Bane remains on the loose.  Then add to it all that Leah Taymore’s parents, and even the staff at her new university, expect Leah to fill Washington’s place once she completes her training, while Leah would rather be at her old school instead of a heralded prodigy at the prestigious Liberty Vocational.

While parts of Novik’s graphic novel may feel familiar with the recent inundation of superhero stories, the characters and premise of Will Supervillains Be on the Final? are nevertheless fun and compelling.  I especially like Leah’s roommate Yuzana, an extroverted empath whose superpower enables her to read people’s emotions.

I think Novik’s book, which is listed as volume one of the Liberty Vocational series, has potential.  I was really disappointed that just as the story began to take off, volume one ended and I discovered that a sequel was never printed.  Even though it appears that there may never be a sequel (Will Supervillains Be on the Final? came out in 2011), I hope that maybe one day there will be one.  I’m always sad when a series with promise comes to an untimely end, like Ruse or Herobear and the Kid, but I don’t think that means the books aren’t worth reading, and I always hold onto a faint hope that maybe if enough people demonstrate their interest, the series may someday reignite.

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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.

beowulf dragon portrait

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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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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Snow White in Gray

snow-white-coverThe sky is gray, and the day is drab.  Only brief spots of colorful red vary the gloomy grayness and the washed out blue sky that occasionally peeks through the fog and clouds.  While this description could easily be of the late autumn days I experienced this week, it actually depicts the scenes of Matt Phelan’s most recent book Snow White: A Graphic Novel.

Although the book begins in 1918, it is set primarily during the 1920s and ‘30s in New York City.  Phelan uses loose watercolor illustrations, primarily grayscale hues, to tell his modernized version of the fairy tale Snow White.  As with Phelan’s other stories, the art is beautiful, and I enjoy his style and portrayal of characters and facial expression.  This graphic novel’s creative combination of Phelan’s art, early 20th century America, the big city, and the timeworn fairy tale of Snow White produce an interesting result.

Snow White is a familiar tale to most people, and Phelan seems to rely on this familiarity, for his story contains few words and no narration besides chapter titles.  To someone unfamiliar with the classic tale of an evil stepmother trying to kill her beautiful stepdaughter and the seven dwarves who help the daughter, Phelan’s story may be quite confusing.  Even though I have read and watched several versions of Snow White, parts of Phelan’s book were unclear, such as Phelan’s version of the magic mirror that the stepmother consults.  The parts that I did not understand were minor, however, and the story still made sense as a whole.

snow-white-illustrationIn his retelling of a fairy tale in which color plays a significant role, particularly in the protagonist’s name, Matt Phelan cleverly integrates his color into the illustrations so that it complements the story.  Phelan’s illustrations are predominately shades of white, gray, and sepia.  However, occasional accents of red emphasize important parts or characters in the story, such as Snow White, the apple, and the evil stepmother.  Then, during the denouement, Phelan introduces subtle, colorful pastels to mark how the mood of the story changes.

Snow White: A Graphic Novel is a creative concept, and Matt Phelan’s illustrations are excellent.  Yet, in spite of how artistically impressive the book is, it has little else to offer.  Besides the unique setting, the story does not introduce enough new twists to the original story to be exceptional or exciting.  For those seeking a clever fairy tale retelling that displays something novel, Phelan’s book is not the answer.  Nevertheless, for a jaunt through a familiar story in a new guise along pages full of Phelan’s beautiful and quirky artwork, Snow White will most likely prove enjoyable.

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Interplanetary Adventures

If you find a device with a red button in a meteoroid crater, don’t push the button…    unless you want to be whisked off your feet into another world.

Far from HomeAfter Zita pushes the aforementioned button to annoy her timid friend Joseph, Joseph is kidnapped and taken to another planet by an evil bounty hunter.  Remorseful Zita instantly pushes the button again to follow and rescue her friend.  Where she lands turns out to be a planet of robots and aliens, but there’s no time for sightseeing, for Zita must locate and save Joseph before an asteroid hits in three days.  Soon, through her kind behavior, Zita has rounded up a ragtag band of trusty, but not necessarily reliable, friends.  The newfound help includes a crafty human named Piper, a giant Mouse who communicates with a printing device on his collar, a blustering and belligerent battle orb named One, the rusty robot Randy, and a soft-hearted alien named Strong-Strong.

Author and illustrator Ben Hatke vivifies the world and characters of Zita the Spacegirl with colorful, cartoonlike pictures that make the story fun.  In addition, he smoothly transitions from panel to panel, making this children’s graphic novel easy to follow and enjoy.

Though the book is primarily an entertaining adventure story, the bravery and kindness which Zita exhibits fill the story with wholesomeness.  Much like in fairy tales where a compassionate and sweet-natured girl, such as Cinderella, wins friendship from animals and humans by her kindness, charity, and courage, so Zita wins unexpected friends through her own caring acts.

Zita the Spacegirl: Far from Home is a story that will delight young audiences and refresh older ones.  At times the story and characters are predictable, but Ben Hatke has a few surprises up his sleeve as the plot unfolds, and he introduces enough twists to make the protagonists creative and likeable.  Zita the Spacegirl: Far from Home is the first installment in the Zita the Spacegirl trilogy, and I’m curious to see where Hatke goes with the sequels.

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