Category: Graphic Novel

Ghosts

ghostsby Raina Telgemeier

ISBN 978-0-545-540629

“No, girls. November first. It’s a day to welcome back the spirits of the loved ones we’ve lost. I haven’t celebrated in years.”

Cat’s family has just moved to Bahía de la Luna, leaving behind their life in southern California. Cat is sad to be separated from her friends, but the coastal weather will be better for her sister’s health. Maya has cystic fibrosis, and the cool seaside air may help her struggling lungs. Bahía de la Luna turns out to be haunted, and the residents of the town take living alongside ghosts for granted. This terrifies Cat, but Maya is determined to meet a ghost for herself. Unfortunately for Cat, their new neighbour Carlos knows all the best spots as the local tour guide, including the abandoned mission. In order to help her sister, Cat will have to face up to her own fears.

Back in April, I received a preview of the first twenty-three pages of Ghosts at Emerald City Comic Con. I was excited by the potential of the story, because it features sibling relationships—one of Raina Telgemeier’s signature strengths—while venturing into fantasy where Telgemeier is generally known for her realistic contemporary stories. But by summer and early fall, I was seeing a series of blog posts that raised concerns about certain details of the story. I cancelled my pre-order, and put the book on hold at the library instead. Due to Telgemeier’s popularity, I only recently topped the holds queue and finally got to read Ghosts in full.

The strongest aspect of Ghosts is undoubtedly the sibling relationship between Cat and Maya. Cat’s parents have given her extra responsibility as the older sister, because in addition to keeping an eye on Maya, she must also be hyper-aware of the consequences of any choice on her sister’s health. Cat struggles with this role, and when Maya is too sick to start school in Bahía de la Luna, she doesn’t tell her new friends she even has a sister. Like the other members of her family, Cat is afraid of what will happen to Maya, because there is no cure for cystic fibrosis. And Maya is keenly aware of her own mortality, which plays into her determination to meet a real ghost who can help her understand what is waiting for her.

lacatrinatelgemeierAs I mentioned above, other readers have highlighted a couple of aspects of Ghosts that are problematic. Debbie Reese has called out the fact that Ghosts glosses over the history of California’s Catholic missions, which existed primarily to force the conversion of the Indigenous population. The abandoned mission plays a crucial role in the story as the most haunted place in the fictional Northern Californian town of Bahía de la Luna. Others, such as Faythe Arredondo and Laura Jiminez have pointed out additional problems with Telgemeier’s depiction of Dia de los Muertos.

ghostssketchbooktelgemeierFor my part, I noticed that on page 43 and 44, Cat’s mother corrects her when she equates Dia and Halloween. But this one line of dialogue is pretty thoroughly undermined by the fact that later in the story Cat dresses up as La Catrina for Halloween. This image (page 158) is much more likely to stick with readers than a single line of dialogue from early in the book. Telgemeier also includes a Sketchbook page in the back of the book, showing her early ideas for Ghosts as far back as 2008. Maybe it is the fact that these sketches aren’t in colour, but all of the characters look white, causing me to wonder if the diversity of Ghosts may have been grafted on later.

Ghosts will no doubt remain popular due to Telgemeier’s wide readership, and I did enjoy the sibling story, as well as the atmosphere created by Braden Lamb’s wonderful colours. But I hope readers will be aware of the issues that have been raised regarding this story, and also seek out own voices perspectives.

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All Hallow’s Read: Troll Bridge

Cover image for Troll Bridge by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran Original Story by Neil Gaiman

Adapted by Colleen Doran

ISBN 978-1-50670-008-3

“It is good for children to find themselves facing the elements of a fairy tale. They are well equipped to deal with these.”

A young boy in rural England follows an abandoned train track until he crosses under a bridge. There he meets the troll, who declares that he will eat the boy for daring to enter his domain. But the boy is clever and strikes a bargain with the troll, promising to return to be eaten later, after he has lived more of life. After all, someone who has read books, and flown on airplanes, and seen America must be tastier than a little boy who has done none of these things. But as he grows up, the boy becomes desperate to renege on his bargain.

Troll Bridge is a graphic novel based on Neil Gaiman’s 1993 short story of the same title. This new edition from Dark Horse was adapted and illustrated by Colleen Doran. Gaiman’s original story can be found in his short story collection Smoke and Mirrors. It is a dark fairy tale that—in the manner of many Gaiman stories—is about children, but not for them. The boy starts out clever and beguiling, talking the troll out of eating him immediately. But that survival instinct takes a dark turn as he grows up and goes to ever greater lengths to avoid being consumed. The little boy who seems resourceful to escape the troll becomes the kind of teenager who describes his first love in terms that make your skin crawl:  “I fell for her like a suicide from a bridge.”

Doran’s work suits the atmosphere of the tale well, equally capable of capturing the fairy tale and the gothic. Some sections have distinct comic-book style panels, but Doran also incorporates large illustrative spreads that suit the fairy tale vibe. Her troll is grotesque and monstrous, and the colours of the illustrations become progressively darker as the boy grows up and innocence recedes. In fact, this is Doran’s second crack at Troll Bridge; in an interview with Comic Book Resources, Doran discusses making an initial pen-and-ink attempt at it in the 1990s.

A creepy adult fairy tale about a dark coming-of-age, Troll Bridge is a perfect fit for an All Hallow’s Read.

All Hallow’s Read is an initiative by Neil Gaiman to encourage readers to share scary books at Halloween. Learn more at:  http://www.allhallowsread.com/

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We Stand On Guard

Cover image for We Stand on Guard by Brian K. Vaughanby Brian K. Vaughan

Art by Steve Skroce

ISBN 978-1-63215-702-7

“They’ve never given a damn about land. This has only ever been about our water.

In the year 2112, Amber Roos watches the breaking news on CBC from her home in Ottawa as the White House burns. Soon, missiles are falling on the Canadian capital in retaliation, killing both her parents as a terrible war for Canada’s natural resources begins. More than a decade later, Amber is surviving alone, roughing it in the wilds of the Northwest Territories as the American military pushes those few who resist ever northward. It is there that she hooks up with the Two-Four, a small, motley band of Canadian resistance fighters. Yellowknife is about to become a hot zone, as the Americans set their sights on the bountiful waters of Great Slave Lake.

Vaughan’s story takes place in a future where the American use of drones has evolved and magnified to include giant robots in a variety of forms. However, the villains are diverse and complex. One major player is revealed to be Canadian-born, but raised in America, and questions arise as to whether Canada may have undertaken a pre-emptive strike after growing fearful about American designs on Canadian resources. Meanwhile, the protagonist has a relatable back story from the beginning of the war, but is pretty cagey about her recent history. I’ve seen criticism of the premise as unrealistic, but in a world dried out by global warming, leaving Canada as “the Saudi Arabia of H20” in the words of Brian K. Vaughan, it isn’t all that hard to imagine the United States going to war to get it the same way they have done for oil in the past.

With an American writer who is married to a Canadian, and a Canadian artist, it was interesting to me (as a Canadian who lives in the US) to see how We Stand on Guard signaled Canadian identity. The title is a great touch, taken from a line in the national anthem. French is sprinkled in largely untranslated, the Tim Hortons logo appears in the background, and the CBC changes from national broadcaster to resistance communications network. Vaughan credits artist Steve Skroce for slipping in a variety of other Canadian references, which make for great Easter egg hunting. Moreover, Vaughan doesn’t seem afraid to make America the villain, albeit in a far-flung future, allowing for a genuine conflict between the two identities.

The Deluxe edition collects the limited six issue mini-series from Image Comics, making this story really a slice of a larger conflict we may never get to hear more about. The issues are presented as chapters, with the original cover art beginning each section. Steve Skroce goes to town drawing outlandish animalistic war machines, but he also has a fine hand for expressive human faces, even in the smaller panels where some artists’ characters become indistinguishable. Unfortunately, many of them don’t get much time to shine before becoming collateral damage. This criticism could go for most of We Stand on Guard; the biggest problem is that there isn’t more, leaving little room to develop a large concept. But the glimpse we do get is brutal and fascinating.

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The Outside Circle

Cover image for The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellingsby Patti LaBoucane-Benson

Art by Kelly Mellings

ISBN 978-1-77089-937-7

“One of the most devastating outcomes of colonial policy in Canada is the over representation of Aborginal people in the criminal justice system and of Aborginal children in government care.”

Pete is a young Aboriginal man wrapped up in the gang life, struggling to support his younger brother Joey, and his mother Bernice, who is addicted to heroin. When a fight with his mother’s boyfriend sends Pete to jail, he discovers how illusive his crew’s loyalty really is. Promises to pay for a lawyer go unfulfilled, even after he carries out a Tribal Warriors vendetta against an inmate who is a member of another crew. Eventually, time served and good behaviour gets Pete admitted to a traditional aboriginal healing centre in Edmonton, where the program aims to help First Nations people process their history in order to help them understand the cycle of abuse in which they have been trapped. There Pete must face the many ways he has failed his family and himself in order to begin to make changes in his life.

Though Pete is a fictional character, the program to which he is admitted is a real Native Counseling Services of Alberta facility located in Edmonton, called the Stan Daniels Healing Centre. Author Patti LaBoucane-Benson is a Métis woman who has worked for two decades as a counsellor and researcher for NCSA. Pete is a composite of people she met and experiences she has had during this career. Artist Kelly Mellings visited residential school sites, Aboriginal communities, and conducted extensive research in order to help him understand the world he would be depicting. The result is a powerful story about the impact of alternative justice programs.

Art from The Outside Circle Despite its grounding in research and educational intent, The Outside Circle does not feel didactic or forced, and much of that is down to Mellings’ exceptional and detailed artwork. The book makes a strong first impression with an extremely striking cover and end pages that employ a limited black, white, red, and gray colour palette. Mellings describes this as evoking a noir feel, but I was also reminded of traditional west coast Aboriginal art that tends to primarily employ red and black. The interior illustration style is primarily realistic and detail-oriented, although many visual elements are symbolic or spiritual in nature. For instance, a mask tends to appear over Pete’s face when he is angry, whereas the appearance of a bear represents reconnecting with his heritage. The deep connection between spirituality and healing in the program depicted here did leave me wondering about how we can best support healing for Aboriginal people who are not religious, but this is not a weakness of the book so much as an area for further inquiry.

In addition to being well illustrated, The Outside Circle makes good use of text, and even photos. A full page is dedicated to showing Bernice signing away her parental rights, but instead of the actual legal document, the text on the contract describes Canada’s long history of forcibly separating Aboriginal children from their parents, first with residential schools, then the 60s Scoop, and finally the modern foster care system. Although the book is largely digitally drawn, there is a multimedia aspect as well. When depicting the history of residential schools, some of the illustrated panels are replaced with historical photographs. Together with Mellings’ illustrations, they powerfully evoke pain and a history of abuse and neglect.

Beautifully illustrated, and grounded in real life, The Outside Circle is a powerful story of one man’s struggle to reconnect with a culture that has only fragmentarily survived repeated and deliberate efforts to stamp it out.

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Boxers & Saints

Cover images for Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yangby Gene Luen Yang

Color by Lark Pien

ISBN 978-1-59643-359-5

ISBN 978-1-59643-689-3

“What is China but a people and their stories?”

 

As the youngest son, Little Bao never expected fame or glory. But when he learns how to harness ancient powers, and transforms into a mythical warrior, he rises to become a leader in the Boxer rebellion. This nationalist movement seeks to oppose foreign imperialism and the spread of Christianity within China. Little Bao believes he is fighting for his country, but so many of the people who are dying are his countrymen, both his allies within the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, and those Chinese citizens who have converted to Christianity. Meanwhile, in a village not far from Little Bao’s home, Four-Girl grows up without a proper name, cursed and rejected by her grandfather for being born on a day of ill-luck. Unable to find acceptance within her family, she embraces their belief in her devilry, and gives herself over to the new foreign faith that is sweeping the land. Though she finds acceptance among the Christians, and finally receives a proper name, her lack of true faith is driven home by her visions of Joan of Arc, who sacrificed so much for her country and her religion. But do these visions mean Vibiana should become a religious martyr like Joan, or renounce her foreign faith in the name of patriotism?

Panel from p317 of Boxers

Gene Luen Yang draws on Chinese history and mythology in these two companion volumes. This intriguing time period (1894-1900) provides ample scope for the story, and it is mythology and the costuming of Chinese opera that give Yang room for artistic flair rather than pure visual realism. Lark Pien uses bright colours to bring the Chinese warriors to life, while Vibiana’s visions of Joan of Arc are defined by the use of light, and a warm, golden glow. The difficulty of communication between the two sides is driven home by a clever lettering technique on Yang’s part; dialogue that would have taken place in Chinese is conveyed in English, while Western languages are represented by an invented, Chinesesque script that is only rarely subtitled.

Panel from Saints p86

Vibiana, known to her family as Four-Girl, appears only twice, and briefly, within the pages of Boxers. In Saints, she takes center stage, showing one of the many ways in which Chinese converts might have been drawn to Christianity. Together, the two volumes tell the story of a brutal resistance that rose up in response to a brutal foreign power. Neither side comes away clean. It is the barest glimpse of the complexity and tragedy of the Boxer rebellion, and in acknowledgement of this fact, Yang provides a suggested list of Further Reading on the subject.

The decision to split Boxers & Saints into two volumes is an interesting one, because the two timelines are braided together. However, actually intermixing them would result in long asides from one story to the other, and the tones are very different. Boxers focuses on an outward battle, while most of Saints is about an inward struggle. Yet either one without the other does not give the full scope of how each side was wronged, and suffered. Though Saints is the shorter volume, and clearly better read after Boxers, they are both better read in short order so that they can complement one another.

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The Sculptor

Cover image image for The Sculptor by Scott McCloudby Scott McCloud

ISBN 978-1-59643-573-5

“My dreams keep growing, Harry. Even while my options keep shrinking.”

Twenty-six year old sculptor David Smith (no, not that David Smith) seems to have peaked early. After alienating his wealthy patron, the only bridge left unburnt in the New York art community is his childhood best friend Ollie, who is now a gallery curator. But even Ollie can’t get New York’s art collectors to look twice at David’s work. David is poised to spend his birthday drunk and alone, when he runs into his great-uncle Harry at a diner. A little the worse for the drink, it takes David a while to realize that Harry has been dead for years, and that the being inhabiting Harry’s visage is none other than Death himself. Death/Harry makes David an irresistible offer: the ability to sculpt anything he can imagine with his bare hands. The catch: he only gets two hundred days to do it. With his family long dead, David feels like he has nothing to lose if he can’t achieve artistic greatness. But then Meg drops into his life out of the blue the very night he strikes the irrevocable bargain.

Through David’s character, a typical tortured young artist, Scott McCloud confronts age-old questions about the significance of art and the desire for a personal legacy. Once David has the ability sculpt anything he can imagine, he is faced with the problem of deciding what he really wants to create, and what message he hopes to convey with his work. His first efforts fail miserably, as he can capture nothing but abstractions of everyday moments that are meaningful to no one but himself. As his numbered days slip through his fingers, David takes to the streets, not as a super hero, but as a street artist, secretly transforming pieces of Manhattan into sculptures in a desperate bid for attention.

Much like the gift of sculpting, David’s new love interest, Meg, isn’t quite as perfect as she initially appears. Though David persists in idealizing her, this prototypical Manic Pixie Dream Girls is an actual manic depressive who refuses treatment for her bipolar disorder. Their romance is somewhat bland, but it’s difficult to be too hard on McCloud when he describes David as “40% me” and David and Meg together as “70% my relationship with my wife, Ivy.” Abrasive and alienating as David is, he does need to connect to someone in order to overcome his tendency to spiral towards isolation and obsession. McCloud admits that the story itself is a simple one, but adds that “god is in the details. You have to fill the idea out properly.” In the case of The Sculptor, the filling is the art, 500 pages of it meticulously rendered over five years.

McCloud is best known for theorizing about comics in comic form, particularly in Understanding Comics (1993). But for the most part, The Sculptor is not one of McCloud’s formal experiments, or a demonstration of the breadth of possibilities extant within comics. McCloud is telling a story, intent upon pulling the reader into his world. However, we do get glimpses of McCloud’s deep understanding of the medium and all its possibilities. When David finally realizes that Harry cannot possibly be his dead uncle, two blank pages convey his glimpse of Death’s true form hiding behind Harry’s face. Many of the best sequences tread the line between fantasy and reality, such as an apparent dream sequence that turns out to be public performance art, or the moment when David plunges his bare hands into solid stone as if it was liquid.

McCloud’s rendering of New York is life-like but not stereotypical, a feat which he credits to Google Streetview. Thanks to the constant availability of actual images of New York City, McCloud didn’t feel he needed to drop in iconic sights such as the Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge to help set the scene. Some of it, however, must be credited not to reference images, but to McCloud’s own ingenuity. When David walks through Times Square, hood up, head down, we don’t see the towering screens that normally define that scene, and the duotone colour palette precludes the requisite neon. Instead, McCloud locates the reader with snippets of sound, speech bubbles that float down from above carrying the chatter the advertisements that fill the ubiquitous screens overhead.

McCloud’s solid art and excellent layouts elevate a middling narrative to a commendable re-entry into the world of fiction for one of comics’ iconic voices.

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This One Summer

Cover image for This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamakiby Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

ISBN 978-1-62672-094-7

Rose’s family has been going to Awago Beach every summer for almost as long as she can remember. It is her perfect summer refuge, filled with long, languid days on the beach, and nights spent gathered around the campfire laughing and telling stories. In the cottage next door lives Rose’s summer-time best friend Windy and her mother Evelyn. But this year, something just isn’t right at Awago Beach. Rose’s parents are fighting, her mom seems depressed, and Rose and Windy find themselves at odds over Rose’s obsession with Duncan, the older boy who works at the local convenience store. Rose’s parents are too caught up in their own problems to be there for the daughter the way they should be, and Rose’s anger and confusion slowly poison the summer as she lashes out at those around her.

The biggest challenge to immersion in the world the Tamaki cousins have created is putting up with Rose, who is a decidedly unlikeable protagonist. However, Rose’s behaviour finds a perfect counterpoint in Windy, and it is the fraught dynamic between the two girls that drives This One Summer. Rose is a little older than Windy, and considers herself more sophisticated. She is sometimes bored with Windy’s childish antics, and she thinks nothing of telling her younger, chubbier friend that her thighs look fat, or than she shouldn’t drink so much soda. But if Windy is less mature than Rose, she is also the one with her heart in the right place, and she often sees the truth of a situation when Rose cannot. As much as Rose longs to leave childhood behind, she needs Windy to keep her honest. The two girls hover on the brink of womanhood, each about to cross over in her own way, even as the older female characters find themselves coping with problems the two girls are not yet fully capable of understanding.

Page from This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian TamakiJillian Tamaki’s gorgeous blue-toned illustrations are the stand-out in this volume, and her work has been recognized with both a Caldecott Honor and the Governor General’s Award for illustration. Tamaki beautifully renders the Northern Ontario landscape, and other tiny bits of Canadiana, such as a University of Toronto bumper sticker, and Timmies coffee in the cup holders, bringing the setting vividly to life. Her lines are extremely expressive, and she has a talent for conveying a great deal through the body language of the characters. Although originally drawn in black and white, the blue-saturation adds an incredible mood and atmosphere to the story. What should be a beautiful summer is imbued with a sense of foreboding, and impending loss of innocence as Rose’s mother’s depression seems to seep over everything.

Although Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations have garnered much of the praise and attention devoted to This One Summer, it is also a Printz Honor book, an accolade which is awarded to YA works for their literary merit. The story deals honestly with slut-shaming and fat-shaming, in a way that interrogates how young girls end up picking up misogynistic ideas and behaviours from the culture around them. Mariko Tamaki isn’t one to spell out the resolution clearly, and This One Summer moves with the rhythms of real life rather than in the neat arcs we often take for granted in our fiction. We never know exactly how Jenny ended up in the lake, or what she decides to do after she wakes up in the hospital. And there is only the most subtle hint that Rose has come around to see the problems with her attitude, when she makes up with Windy, who calls her out on her shit.  The admission is a subtle one, but gives a certain amount of hope for Rose’s character going forward. However, those who dislike ambiguous endings may still find themselves unimpressed with the story arc of This One Summer.

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El Deafo

Cover image for El Deafo by Cece Bellby Cece Bell

ISBN 978-1-4197-1020-9

“Superheroes might be awesome, but they are also different! And being different feels a lot like being alone.”

When four-year-old Cece suddenly becomes violently ill, she wakes up in the hospital unable to hear, and has to be outfitted with a hearing aid. The next year she starts kindergarten at a special school for deaf kids where she learns lip reading. But when first grade rolls around, it is time for Cece to go to her neighbourhood school, where she will be the only deaf student. Trying to fit in at a new school is challenging enough, but Cece also has to wear the phonic ear, a large, two-part hearing aid that allows her to hear her teacher so that she doesn’t have to lip read all the time. Cece desperately wants to be taken for normal, but the phonic ear constantly draws attention to her deafness, and makes friendship complicated. Trying to make sense of her difference, Cece conjures up the character of El Deafo, who turns her disability into a superpower. Then Cece’s dream becomes a reality when her classmates realize that Cece can hear their teacher wherever she is in the school thanks to the microphone component of the phonic ear.

El Deafo is autobiographical but stylized; it draws on Cece Bell’s own personal experience of deafness, but the characters are portrayed as cartoony rabbit-like creatures, giving it a certain distance from real life. The graphic novel format gives Bell ample opportunity to experiment with the visual representation of sound. When the batteries in Cece’s hearing aid start to fade, the big black letters in the speech bubbles fade to grey and then go blank. When people fail to look at Cece so that she can read their lips, the speech bubbles are empty. But best of all is the way Bell shows that while Cece can sometimes hear the sounds just fine, they aren’t clear enough to understand; these speech bubbles are full of nonsense words, leaving the reader just as lost and confused as Cece.

Image from El Deafo by Cece BellWhile El Deafo is definitely about hearing loss, friendship is also a major theme. Cece just wants to find a friend who will treat her normally, and not make a big deal about her deaf friend, or do inconsiderate things like turn the lights off at a sleepover, leaving Cece unable to lip read. Cece’s first friend doesn’t make a big deal about her hearing, but she is also bossy and doesn’t want Cece to have any other friends. Her second friend is much less bossy, but she calls Cece her “deaf friend” and speaks so loudly and slowly that Cece has trouble reading her lips. However, there are complications and misunderstandings even with those friends who do treat her well, often because Cece struggles to pluck up the courage to speak up for herself.

Stories about kids with disabilities tend to contain a certain amount of bullying, but while the other kids in El Deafo are sometimes rude and inconsiderate, they are rarely outright mean. However, their behaviour still often results in Cece feeling excluded and lonely. Mostly, however, El Deafo is about Cece’s own internal conception of what it means to be deaf and therefore different. As much as she needs to find a good friend who accepts her and treats her well, she also needs to accept herself. One of the most heart-breaking moments in the story is when Cece refuses to learn sign language because she is worried people will stare at her. Bell is careful to point out in the afterword that these are her own personal memories from childhood, which aren’t always fair to the other people in the story, who were mostly well-intentioned but didn’t necessarily understand what they were doing wrong. Cece’s El Deafo character doesn’t just turn deafness into a super power; El Deafo is Cece’s more assertive self, the one that is brave enough to stand up and explain when something that her friends are doing is actually making things more difficult for her. Cece’s struggles with communication are complicated by her deafness, but not solely due to it, and many of her experiences will be recognized hearing readers, as well as members of the deaf community.

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