Category: Graphic Novel

Maus

Cover image for The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelmanby Art Spiegelman

ISBN 9780141014081

“At that time it wasn’t anymore families. It was everybody to take care for himself.”

Polish Jews Vladek and Anja Spiegelman survived the Holocaust and immigrated to America with their son, Art, who was born in Sweden after the war. But the atrocities of the war cast a long shadow over their family. Beginning in 1978, Art Spiegelman interviewed his father about his experiences during the war, and serialized them in comic form. He would ultimately spend thirteen years of his life capturing this history, grappling with the legacy of the Holocaust, and his complicated relationship with his father.

Maus is famous for depicting the characters as anthropomorphized animals, in the tradition of Aesop’s Fables or Animal Farm. However, the visual medium really emphasizes this narrative choice, which allows Spiegelman to approach the unspeakable. Jews are depicted as mice, and Nazis as the cats that prey on them. Nazi propaganda often compared Jews to rats and vermin, so Spiegelman’s technique is an interesting way of turning that prejudice around into social commentary. The metaphor does occasionally become overextended, such as the scene where Anja is hiding in the dark, and is afraid that there are rats, while Vladek reassures her that they are only mice. Spiegelman also sometimes deliberately breaks the metaphor, as in the early pages of Volume II, where panels showing characters from the side show that the mouse faces are only masks.

Maus is certainly a story about the Holocaust, but it is also about Art and Vladek’s tense and complicated father-son relationship. Because he interviewed and recorded his father, the dialogue really seems to capture Vladek’s voice in an authentic way. The story of collecting and preserving the story is as significant to Maus as the Holocaust narrative itself. Maus includes material that Vladek asked Art not to put in the book, and this question of what to preserve is grappled with publicly rather than privately, since Spiegelman puts this scene in the book. On page scenes also show his worries about how to depict his father honestly when “in some ways he’s just like the racist caricature of the miserly old Jew.” Much of the power of the narrative comes from this grappling with the lingering effects of the war on those who survived it. The effects are multigenerational, as Art also confronts his own feelings about being born after the war, while the older brother he never knew did not survive.

If Vladek heavily defines the narrative by his voice, and combative relationship with Art, Anja’s influence on the story is largely a question of her absence. Because she died before Art began documenting the family’s history, the narrative rests squarely in Vladek’s hands, even if it is Anja’s story as well. Art can provide limited memories of his mother from his childhood, but we have access to her experiences during the war only through Vladek’s eyes. Seeing how Vladek behaves with his second wife, Mala, there is much to wonder about how Anja saw things, and what her perspective would have added to the story. Vladek’s destruction of her diaries only adds to that sense of loss, and wondering what more Maus might have been if her voice could have been heard.

Spiegelman’s unusual metaphor of cats and mice approaches the Holocaust in a unique way that lends a fresh perspective to a period of history that is much covered. But Maus stands out just as much for its complex depiction of familial relationships, and the inter-generational consequences of such tragedies. The story of the story adds context and depth to Vladek’s recollections.

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You might also like John Lewis’s March 

March: Book Two

Cover image for March: Book Two by John Lewis and Andrew Aydinby John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

Art by Nate Powell

ISBN 978-1-60309-400-9

“The fare was paid in blood, but the Freedom Rides stirred the national consciousness, and awoke the hearts and minds of a generation.”

Politician and civil rights leader John Lewis has been representing Georgia’s fifth congressional district for the past three decades. Before that, he enjoyed a long career as a civil rights activist and organizer, and served on the city council in Atlanta. The script for the March graphic novel was written with his congressional aide, Andrew Aydin, who wanted to capture some of the memories Lewis had shared with him in their time working together. This is the second volume in what has become a highly-acclaimed trilogy since its 2013 release. Catch up with March: Book One here.

March: Book Two opens on Inauguration Day 2009, and then transitions back to Nashville in November 1960. After successfully integrating the city’s department store lunch counters, Lewis and the Nashville Student Movement continued in the same vein by trying to integrate cafeterias and fast food restaurants. They also turned their attention to segregated movie theatres. However, the heart of the second volume focuses on the Freedom Riders and the March on Washington, as Lewis rises to national prominence within the civil rights movement. Despite covering several climactic events, tension remains high, as the volume closes with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963.

Book two recounts the increasing force with which non-violent protests were met as the civil rights movement gained momentum. Powell continues to walk the fine line in depicting the events truthfully but without exploiting the horror. However, the severity of the violence undeniably increases in this installment. The violence did not come as a surprise to the activists. In fact, Freedom Riders signed wills before undertaking their journeys, which were designed to test whether the Supreme Court decision that integrated interstate buses was being upheld in practice. Lewis also describes watching news coverage of protests in Alabama, where activists faced fire hoses and police dogs, resulting in what “looked like footage from a war.”

As in the first volume, Lewis is not afraid to chronicle philosophical differences within the movement, and his worries that as the number of protestors swelled, the new recruits lacked the discipline to adhere to the principles of non-violence. At the back of the book, the original draft of his speech for the March on Washington is included. The comic itself depicts the intense negotiations that surrounded certain aspects of his wording, which led to him delivering a highly revised version. While Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is the most famous address from this event, Lewis’ speech is powerful in its own right, and receives a six page spread. Yet the book also highlights the many other players and contributors, while also remaining Lewis’ story. Malcom X makes a brief appearance, though Lewis clearly disapproves of his philosophy. Dr. King is depicted respectfully but sometimes critically, without the idolatry that often surrounds his legacy. But Lewis is most interested in A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the architects of the March on Washington. Rustin, in particular, was the logistical brains of the operation, but could not play a prominent public role because of his communist connections and homosexuality. March memorializes his key contributions.

March continues to move back and forth between Lewis’ life story, and Barack Obama’s inauguration. The first volume used a slightly stilted frame narrative of Lewis recounting his childhood to two boys who visit his office with their mother, who wants to teach them about the history of the civil rights movement. The second volume is purely Lewis reflecting alone on his experiences as the inauguration progresses, which works more smoothly, and also creates some interesting juxtapositions. Lewis’ election as chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee is placed alongside Obama taking the oath of office. The scenes depicting famous speeches given at the March on Washington are followed by the opening words of President Obama’s inaugural address. Aretha Franklin sings “My Country Tis of Thee” in 2009 as Freedom Riders are beaten in the streets of Alabama in 1963. This creates an effect that conveys the breadth of history, even as the closing on the church bombing creates a sobering, cautionary finish. There is always a backlash.

March: Book One

Cover image for March Book One by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

Art by Nate Powell

ISBN 978-1-60309-300-2

“The thing is, when I was young, there wasn’t much of a civil rights movement. I wanted to work at something, but growing up in rural Alabama, my parents knew it could be dangerous to make any waves.”

Politician and civil rights leader John Lewis has been representing Georgia’s fifth congressional district for the past thirty years. Before that, he enjoyed a long career as a civil rights activist and organizer, and served on the city council in Atlanta. The script for the graphic novel was written with his congressional aide, Andrew Aydin, who wanted to capture some of the memories Lewis had shared with him in their time working together. This is the first volume in what has become a highly-acclaimed trilogy since its 2013 release.

March opens on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as the march from Selma is about to be confronted by troopers armed for a riot, then flashes forward to Inauguration Day 2009, when Barack Obama is about to be sworn in as the first African American president of the United States. The frame narrative takes place in Congressman Lewis’ Washington D.C. office when a black woman from Atlanta arrives with her two sons to see the office of their representative. The congressman begins to tell the boys about his early life, and the beginnings of the civil rights movement, and continues through the desegregation of Nashville’s lunch counters in 1960. The transitions between past and present are not always smooth, but have the effect of emphasizing the currency of the narrative, and its continued relevance to the present moment.

March is part autobiography, and part civil rights primer. It both chronicles Lewis’ childhood on an Alabama farm with former sharecroppers for parents, and his early involvement in civil rights with the Nashville Student Movement. The early days are particularly interesting, as they show differences within the movement, and how the younger generation of activists made an impact by refusing to accept the more modest rollbacks of segregation that some older leaders were pushing for. The book also depicts the organizing and training that goes into building an effective and coordinated strategy for a movement. One particularly powerful scene shows activists roleplaying, insulting and abusing one another in order to prepare for the challenges they will face at the lunch counter sit-ins.

The graphic memoir format is particular suitable for illustrating the abuses faced by early civil rights activists, and Nate Powell powerfully captures the fear and tension in his art. The decision to illustrate the book in black and white renders these events in all their stark ugliness. The violence is not sugar-coated, but nor is it gratuitous. Notably, part of John Lewis’ introduction to the civil rights movement was the 1956 comic Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Story, which was an educational comic designed to teach the principles of non-violent resistance. March carries on in that tradition.

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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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Also by Raina Telgemeier:

Sisters

Drama 

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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