Tuesday, August 23, 2016

YALSA top ten GNs 2010: Gunnerkrigg Court Volume 1: Orientation

Gunnerkrigg Court Volume 1: Orientation
Written and drawn by Thomas Siddell
Published by Archaia (2009)
Webcomic available at www.gunnerkrigg.com.

Antimony Carver is basically an orphan, though she doesn't know it yet. Yes, she knows that her mother has recently died and that her father has sent her off to boarding school, but she doesn't realize that her father is going to disappear, leaving her at the school for...well, who knows how long? Thankfully, at her new school everything is great, her classmates are very welcoming, nothing weird is going on, and there are absolutely no ghosts, robots, or monsters lurking around.

Oh wait, no, I was wrong. The school is incredibly spooky, filled with strange mysteries, and surrounded by a creepy forest. Plus there are all these classes to attend. Well, at least Antimony is able to (eventually) make some friends, such as Kat, who is a super genius technology whiz, and...Reynardine, some sort of ancient fox demon who is currently trapped in Antimony's plush wolf toy.

Okay, everything isn't that gloomy, Antimony does manage to make friends with a bunch of other characters (including some of the aforementioned robots and ghosts), and there are many fun adventures for them all to get up to. There's also a lot going on in the background, with many of the teachers having mysterious pasts and there being considerably more going on than first seems to be the case. How is everything connected? I'm sure it will all be revealed in time.

Siddell's art hasn't really hit its stride yet in this volume, though comparing the first and last chapters show that he improved dramatically through the course of this book. However, even from the beginning there was something about his art that appealed to me, though at first I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was. While looking back through this volume I realized that I am apparently a sucker for artwork filled big eyed characters with blank/sad expressions (please see exhibit a). That isn't to say that Siddell can't draw expressions well (he does a great job of capturing how the characters are feeling), just that Antimony spends more than a little bit of time looking a somewhat sad and somewhat thoughtful. Adding to this Siddell uses, with few exceptions,  colours that tend to be fairly flat, though this works just fine with the wide-eyed cartoony style of the artwork.

I generally think that fonts either work or they don't, and while my first time through this book I didn't notice the font, this time I did notice it. Siddell has chosen to use Ale & Wenches for all of the character dialogue, and it seems a bit...curly at times. Though you might not notice it at all.

When I first started this project several years ago, my goal was just to read every YALSA top ten GN graphic novel, not review them. And so, for about a month or so I read as many of them as I could get my hands on. Gunnerkrigg Court was the first that made me happy that I had started this project, as it was a fantastic book of which I had never previously heard. I tore through the three volumes a local library had, and then caught up reading the comic online. I've since stopped following it online (I found reading a page a day was very frustrating), but I was excited when I was recently able to pick up reprints of the first three books. I can't wait to catch up again.

Friday, July 1, 2016

YALSA top ten GNs 2011: Saturn Apartments Volume 1

Saturn Apartments Volume 1
Written and illustrated by Hisae Iwaoka.
Published by Viz (2011)

Mitsu has just completed school and is going to continue in his father's footsteps and start working at the window washers guild. Seems fairly normal, except for the fact that his dad was a window washer on a space station that houses all of humanity. Oh yeah, and his dad died while washing windows a few years ago.

The world that Iwaoka has created in Saturn Apartments is pretty interesting. The idea that Earth has been abandoned and that all of humanity now lives in orbit isn't necessarily new, but it's not one that I've seen frequently in comics. There is, however, one pretty gaping plot hole: why does there need to be a window washing guild in the first place. Couldn't robots do it better? Despite this I'm curious as to why people left the Earth, and how the space station itself functions economically and socially, but not enough to read a second volume.

The major problem I had is that Mitsu is basically a non-entity. He's incredibly passive, doesn't seem particularly bright, and doesn't really seem to have any interests or characteristics. If Saturn Apartments was an anthology about various people in the space station (the couple getting married, the scientist trying to breed Earth animals, the other window washers) it seems as though it would be more interesting. Now, admittedly Mitsu is fairly young and is still figuring out who he is, and for some people the story of him discovering himself would be enough, but I didn't feel there was enough of a character there to do the discovering.

Iwaoka's artwork is fairly standard manga-style for the backgrounds, and is generally pretty competent in those regards. The technology she draws, when it shows up, is well rendered and enjoyable. However, most of the indoors scenes look as though they could have happened in the present day. Given how much living space that each person (even the poor people) appears to have, I wonder exactly how huge this space station is (or, perhaps, the better question to ask is how many humans are still alive?). My major complaint in regards to the art is with the way that Iwaoka draws faces. I found the lack of detail she uses weirdly off-putting, as well as making it difficult to judge how old a character was and making me think that the characters were all about to fall asleep.

Years ago I read the series Planetes by Makoto Yukimura, which is about a similarly mundane space job (in that case they're garbage collectors). I really loved it, and was excited when I heard people mention a couple of other manga series were said to be similar. Those two being Twin Spica and Saturn Apartments. I found both of them to be huge disappointments when I originally read them, and rereading Saturn Apartments years later doesn't change my opinions about it in any way. However, if you want a less technical, more character focused science fiction story you might enjoy it.

Monday, February 15, 2016

YALSA top ten GNs 2016: Nimona

Written and drawn by Noelle Stevenson
Published by HarperTeen (2015)

The titular Nimona is a young shapeshifter in a magical kingdom, who sets out to become the sidekick of evil villain Ballister Blackheart. Except that it turns out that Blackheart isn't, well, that black of heart. Years ago he had been training to be a hero at The Institute, until an "accident" happened, and he lost his arm. Since The Institute didn't want a one armed hero, he turned to villainy (and built himself a rad robot art). Of course while Blackheart hates The Institute and wants to bring about its downfall, he doesn't actually want to kill anyone while he's doing it, though Nimona has no such compunctions. Of course, even if Blackheart is not quite the villain he seemed at first, Nimona has some secrets herself.

Stevenson has two books on the 2016 YALSA list (this one and Lumberjanes, though she only co-wrote that one), which is impressive enough. It's even more so when you realize that these are her first two published books. Despite this, Stevenson clearly has comics down, and there's a reason why Nimona has received so much acclaim. Blackheart and Nimona are great characters, who are both more than what the first seem to be, while the world that they live in is fascinating.

While theoretically a D&D style fantasy world with magic, dragons, people wearing medieval armour, and jousting competitions, it's so much more than that. Blackheart is a scientist (albeit an "evil" one), along with all the computers, advanced technology, and weapons that that entails. But there are also TV channels, bank machines, modern doctors, and tea bags (only invented in the 20th century). And while I'm sure this sort of anachronistic world will bother purists, I love it.

Plus, this book is just funny. The first page I ever read was Nimona and Blackheart watching a bad horror movie, and out of context it's amusing, but left me wondering just what this comic was even about. However, looking back on it that page does get at what this comic is about, because at it's heart this comic is about the relationship between Blackheart and Nimona. While Blackheart may hate The Institute, he clearly cares about many of the people around him, and despite Nimona constantly bothering him, and going against his orders, he seems to have hopes that he can help raise her into an adult with, at the least, a slightly better moral compass. In between all the humourous scenes, Stevenson definitely manages to include a fair chunk of pathos in this story.

Stevenson's art is great. It's not going to win any awards for realism (everyone's hands and feet are tiny and weird, most people's eyes are just dots, etc.), but she's incredibly good at showing how the characters feel through their body language and facial expressions. Nimona is constantly moving, even during basic conversations, and this really helps to share her personality with the readers. Stevenson's colours are fairly flat compared to a lot of modern comics, but it works perfectly well for the story.

Nimona started as a webcomic, and while the first three chapters are still online, most if it was taken down when the print volume was released. I feel this is kind of unfortunate, both because I doubt having the whole comic online would prevent people from buying the comic, and also because the art is presented at a larger size than in the print version (which is printed unfortunately small). Keep in mind though, that some (all) of the comics still online were redrawn for the print volume.

Monday, January 25, 2016

YALSA top ten GNs 2012: My Friend Dahmer

My Friend Dahmer
Written and illustrated by Derf Backderf.
Published by Abrams Comic Arts (2012)

To be totally honest, I had absolutely no interest in reading this graphic novel about Backderf's experiences growing up with the murderer Jeffrey Dahmer. While I'm aware that there's a lot of interest in true crime and serial killers, it's really not an area in which I find myself particularly interested. Despite this lack of interest, and the unsettling content, I found myself enjoying My Friend Dahmer far more than I had expected. However, be forewarned, this is an incredibly depressing look at someone's real life spiral into a nightmare.

Backderf went to school with Dahmer throughout junior high and high school, and interacting with him on a peer level gave Backderf a different take on Dahmer than many of the adults in his life. However, while the title of the book implies that they were friends, the reality is far more complicated. Backderf (and his actual friends) may have found Dahmer to be at times entertaining, and encouraged him to act out in public, but while they used him as a sort of mascot they weren't people who really interacted much outside of school.

Throughout the book Backderf makes sure to repeatedly say that he does not not want to make Dahmer into a sympathetic character, and that while Dahmer's home life had many problems, it in no way excused his later actions. The Dahmer that Backderf knew was an incredibly troubled youth, who seemingly isolated himself in a way to deal with the terrifying thoughts that were constantly filling his mind. Dahmer spent much of high school drunk (in class!) and yet apparently not only did no teacher ever notice, but Dahmer managed to graduate (and briefly went to university). In some ways this book can be seen as a criticism of Dahmer's teachers and parents for not noticing that something was horribly wrong with him.

Backderf's art style is in no ways realistic, but he manages to capture the characters in a way that shows off who they are. The almost cartoony/caricatureish art gives characters the opportunity to express the emotions that they're feeling (and contrasts with Dahmer's frequently emotionless face), but is also effective at creating a sinister atmosphere during the more unsettling parts of the book.

In addition to his own personal recollections, Backderf interviewed dozens of his former classmates and teachers, and extensively used interviews, news articles, and other sources to create as accurate a timeline of events as possible. Despite his copious research a problem I had with this book (and, it seems, many of the nonfiction books I've read that have been on the YALSA lists) is a lack of context. While the text frequently alludes to what Dahmer ended up doing, it is only in the footnotes in the back, and the blurb on the inner front of the dust jacket (which I missed) that it actually says what he did (Dahmer killed 17 people). And sure, how many people are going to pick up this book and read it (and not read the blurb) without knowing anything about Dahmer? Probably not many other than me. Still, I think it would have been valuable to include in the introduction.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

YALSA 2016 Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens

Every year since 2007 Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) section of the American Library Association (ALA) has created both a long list and a top ten list of "great graphic novels for teens". You can see all the lists here. Previously they had included some graphic novels on their "best books for young adults" lists.

That means that this is the tenth year that they've done this list! Awesome!

A couple of years ago I was invited to give a guest lecture on the history of comics and graphic novels for children and young adults. I looked at the YALSA lists and realized that I had read less than half of the book on the top ten lists (and hadn't even heard of many!). As a so called "expert" on graphic novels in libraries I didn't really think that this was appropriate, and decided to read as many of the volumes that I hadn't read as possible.

I then decided to review them as I read (or reread) them, and I've been (very slowly) doing so since December 2013. I've so far written reviews of 39 of the now 100 title long list. At my current rate I will finish in about four years.

This page will eventually contain links to all the books from 2016. Here's the full list of nominations from 20016, and the top ten list. They occasionally have weird formatting or credits.

Before this list had been released I had read 0.6 of the entries (vol. 1 of Lumberjanes and the first issue of Squirrel Girl).

Also, how is Giant Days not even on the long list?

Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova.

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans by Don Brown.

Lumberjanes vol. 1-2 by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters, and Brooke Allen.

Ms. Marvel vol. 2-3 by G. Willow Wilson, Jacob Wyatt, Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa, and Elmo Bondoc.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson.

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson.

Sacred Heart by Liz Suburbia.

A Silent Voice vol. 1-3 by Yoshitoki Oima.

Trashed by Derf Backderf.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl vol. 1-2 by Ryan North and Erica Henderson.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

2015 Reading

In 2015 I read 500 graphic novels. Yes that is insane. I read some good stuff, and I also read a lot of crap.

What did I count as a graphic novel? Well, I was kind of haphazard to be honest.

Things that counted:

  • Gen13 Bootleg: Grunge: the Movie - It only collects three issues.
  • Tell Me Something by Jason - It's only like 48 pages long.
  • The Viz 2015 sampler
  • Image Firsts Compendium Vol. 1 - A bunch of #1s. I think these are literally just the $1 issues with the staples cut off and bound together.
  • Costume Quest: Invasion of the Candy Snatchers - The digital version I have is 59 pages, which includes a bunch of pages which aren't comics.
  • Things I had read in previous years and reread in 2015.
  • Station 16 - Only 54 pages long.
  • Books I read digitally (on Hoopla or otherwise).
  • Collections of comic strips. - Just Cul de Sac I think.

Things that didn't count:

  • Single issues that made up a storyline that have been collected. - Mostly lots of old X-Men comics.
  • Island - The anthology that Brandon Graham puts out. It's a magazine?
  • Other single issues that were pretty big. - Marvel Super-Hereos #2 Summer Special from 1991 claims to be 80 pages long on the cover. (It is terrible by the way.)
  • Prestige format things that were 40-60 pages or so long. - JLA/WildCATs, some Sabertooth thing, some other stuff.
  • Webcomics I read online.
  • Team Cul de Sac: Cartoonists Draw the Line at Parkinson's - A bunch of this is comic strips, but I decided not enough was.
  • The volume of the Authority I read because it had an annual and a story that weren't collected in The Authority by Warren Ellis/Mark Millar collections.

Things I read that collected other things but only counted as one thing:

  • Essential Marvel and DC Showcase Presents volumes. Collect various Masterworks/Archives, but only count as one each.
  • BPRD: Plague of Frogs Omnibus collect three smaller volumes, but I only counted once.
  • etc.

The 500 does include both manga and non-manga , and here's the breakdown.

As you can see I read far more non-manga (441) than manga (59). If you look at the monthly stats you'll see that while I started fairly strong in regards to manga (11 read in January), I soon dropped off (5 read October-December, none read in June!).
The overwhelmingly amount of manga that I read (37!) were published by Viz. Second place was Tokyopop, who haven't published anything new since 2011!

Manga I read were very heavily series based. Of the 37 published by Viz that I read, 24 of them were 20th Century Boys. All six of the Tokyopop titles were King of Thorn.

For non-manga I read far too many Marvel comics.

The publishers from whom I read ten or more titles were
Marvel: 175
Dark Horse: 45
Image: 38
Boom: 21
DC: 20
Wildstorm*: 15
Vertigo: 13
IDW: 12
Valiant: 10

"Other" consists of every publisher from whom I read only one book. 

17 of Boom's titles were Irredeemable/Incorruptible (and I read all of those in January/February. Boom and Marvel were almost on par for the first two months).

If you include Wildstorm and Vertigo with DC they would have 48 books and be the second largest publisher.

* Wildstorm is kind of a special case, since I counted things that had been published under other imprints for them. Two volumes of Gen:13 Bootleg were published by Wildstorm when they were at Image. The volumes of Stormwatch and The Authority I read (that reprinted work originally published by Wildstorm) I counted as Wildstorm, even though they were printed by DC. The New 52 Stormwatch was set in the mainstream DC universe, so they were included in DC's number.

Here's a chart (with some terrible colours, thanks Google...) showing how much of each publisher I read each month. This combines the manga and non-manga lists, so Dark Horse gains 3 books, while Fantagraphics, DC, and NBM (not on this list) gain 1 each. Viz moves into 4th place, and DC is now tied with Boom. Fantagraphics also joins the "10 books" club.

I read the most graphic novels in September (61), when my goal was two a day, and the fewest (13) in July when I read a bunch of non-comic books I guess.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

YALSA Top Ten GNs 2012: Zahra's Paradise

Zahra's Paradise
Written by Amir. Illustrated by Khalil.
Published by First Second (2011)

As of this moment I have read 482 graphic novels this year. Yes, that is a completely absurd number. Yes, I am insane.

The perhaps more interesting number is "1". That is the number of graphic novels I have failed to finish this year. Considering the quality of some of the stuff I have finished, that there was only one graphic novel I didn't finish seems to indicate that it was truly terrible. Except it wasn't. The book in question was fine, I just couldn't face reading any more gothic literature after it being chosen as that month's genre for my book club.

However, if I wasn't reading it because it was on a YALSA top ten graphic novels for teens list (and for some reason I'm trying to read them all) I never would have finished Zahra's Paradise.

The plot at first claims to be about a mother finding her son after the the political protests which happened in Iran in 2009, and there are places where the book seems to be from her point of view, but for the most part it seems to be about her other son. Of course, it doesn't help that both characters are complete ciphers and that we learn basically nothing about them, their feelings (beyond "this situation is not good" in regards to the arrests after the protest), or their interests. The missing brother is better developed, but at the same time the book takes a strangely long amount of time telling us about how much he loves ice water. I'm also really not fond of the main young female character, who seems both politically active (helping to uncover government secrets), and weirdly naive.

Of course, this book tends to take a long time to tell you anything. It is densely written, and almost every page is filled to bursting with words. In some comics this is fine, but here it really seemed like I was slogging through dialogue and character's thoughts that didn't add very much to the story. I think this demonstrates Amir's background as a journalist, since overwriting comics can definitely be an issue for those coming to the medium from more prose heavy ones. (Show don't tell!) Despite the general wordiness of this comic, it also seems to leave out a lot of background information that would help people (especially young people) make sense of what's going on (and why).

Another problem I had concerning the writing was the number of foreign words used in this book. That's a pretty common thing to see, and it's normally not that big of a deal, but despite having footnotes translating some of the words and _two_ glossaries there were still words and cultural references the meaning of which I had no idea. (Though admittedly, reading the glossaries probably gives you the best context for Iran's political system.)

In comparison to the writing, the art by Khalil is actually pretty good. I don't think I ever had problems following what was going on, and I appreciated the hand lettering (which I assume he also did, nobody else is credited). The combination of the art and lettering styles reminded me of old Mad Magazines, which is a little disconcerting when you consider the content of Zahra's Paradise. There are also some pages that I think look really great (see below), but more in the way that political cartoons do, making me wonder where most of the artist's experiences lie.

I can understand why this graphic novel made it onto the YALSA list: it was fairly topical at the time, it exposes people to other cultures and ways of life, and its plot is centred around a young person. But, I don't think it manages to provide enough context for people to understand the whys of the story, and fails at making the characters seem human enough to care about. If you want to read a graphic novel dealing with Iran's political climate you should read Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, and if you want to find out more about the 2009 political unrest in Iran, well, there's always the Wikipedia article.