Author: Max Brooks, Caanan White (Illustrator)
Title: The Harlem Hellfighters
Publication Info: Broadway Books, 2014
In graphic novel form, Max Brooks (curiously enough, the son of filmmaker Mel Brooks) tells the oft-overlooked story of 369th Infantry Regiment of the New York Army National Guard. The largely African-American infantry regiment was among the first American troops to be sent to the front lines in France in 1919 during World War I, where they became known for their toughness and valor and earned their nickname “The Harlem Hellfighters” from their German opponents. It’s an interesting story although Brooks relies on a familiar story of racial discrimination at home and the horrors of war abroad. While the story is told from the point of view of a soldier named Mark, there isn’t much to distinguish the characters and personalize the story. White’s illustrations seem to revel in depictions of gore that would fit in with The Walking Dead, but it’s actually difficult to distinguish the characters – black, white, French, and German – from one another. One nice touch is that Brooks includes fragments of contemporary songs and poems to accompany scenes of the war. It’s very cinematic, in fact, which is not surprising since Brooks originally intended to write a screenplay. The graphic novel has it’s flaws but overall it’s a good introduction to the story of the Harlem Hellfighters.
Author: Allie Brosh
Title: Hyperbole and a Half
Publication Info: New York : Simon & Schuster, 2013.
The deliberately crudely-illustrated comics from Allie Brosh’s classic Hyperbole and a Half blog are collected here in book form. Brosh’s writing and drawing based on her life is both hilarious and poignant. Her works on depression and motivation (or lack thereof) are particularly brilliant, and make me feel that she gets me. She also writes a lot about her dogs and their lack of intelligence and a particularly belly-guffawing story of her house invaded by a goose. The colorful pictures also attracted my two-year-old daughter who kept picking up that book whenever I wasn’t reading it. This book should be read by one and all.
Recommended books: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Author: Tony Lee
Title: Doctor Who. Volume 2, Tesseract
Publication Info: IDW Publishing (2010)
Summary/Review: The Tenth Doctor’s adventures from Fugitive continue with his new companions Emily and Matt heading on divergent paths. Emily becomes a stronger character driven to action while Matt consumed by jealousy is drawn to evil. There’s also a 5D spaceship, Martha Jones and UNIT, and Greenwich Park under attack by trees. As I noted on the previous volume, the comic format allows for a visual imagination that would not likely be convincing in a televised format but on the other hand the dialogue seems spare and simplistic.
Author: Howard Zinn, Paul Buhle, & Mike Konopacki
Title: A People’s History of American Empire
When I was a kid I inherited my uncle’s Mad magazine collection which had some comic books mixed in including a three-part series about the Civil War. This was a hagiographic history where all the soldiers called one another “Billy Yank” and “Johnny Reb” done in the style of Classics Illustrated.
A People’s History of American Empire is a very different comic book history. Based on Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as well as Zinn’s own life this is a graphic depiction of the times in American history where the nation failed to live up to the standards of liberty and equality for all. Mainly this involves the repression of people within the United States (Indians, blacks, immigrants, and labor), wars in foreign lands (Phillipines, Vietnam, and Iraq) and intervention into the autonomy of other nations (Iran, El Salvador, and many more) for the benefit of powerful and wealth American elite. A comic version of Zinn narrates the book frequently turning over the story to characters contemporary to the events described. Interspersed in this narrative are stories of the social movements in America such as Civil Rights, labor, and anti-war.
I particular found it interesting in the parts that covered events I’d only heard of or knew nothing about, such as:
- The Black 25th Infantry who fought valiantly at San Juan Hill but were denied credit.
- The Jitterbug Riot
- The counter-cultural protests of R&B fandom in the 1950’s.
- The Diem Regime and South Vietnam “essentially a creation of the United States.”
- The Second Battle of Wounded Knee
- Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
This is a good introduction to the other side of American history in a brief and well-illustrated manner.
Recommended books: Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen
Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Côte d’Ivoire
Author: Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie
Publication Info: Drawn and Quarterly (2007)https://othemts.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.php
This beautifully illustrated graphic novel is set in Yop City, a working class neighborhood in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire in the 1970’s when the nation was prosperous and chic. Abouet deliberately sets out to tell a story about Africa that is not about poverty and warfare. The story is centered around the daily lives and flirtations of three young women. <SPOILER> Of course there is some heavy stuff here when one of the young women becomes pregnant and is forced into marriage with the son of a wealthy Boss, but Abouet plays if off for comedy with the grown-ups as comic caricatures. </SPOILER>. Oubrerie vibrantly illustrates this book bringing out the beautiful colors of the clothing and the city as well as the humanity of the characters. I learned about this book via The Hieroglyphic Streets, where you can find more reviews, and apparently there are sequels that are worth checking out too.
Recommended Books: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.
Pride of Baghdad (2006) by Brian K. Vaughn and Niko Henrichom is a graphic novel based on a true story of four lions escaping the Baghdad Zoo after an American bombing raid. Unfortunately the premise is better than the execution. Mind you, the illustration for this book are gorgeous in their detail, even in the grim and gory parts. In my little experience with graphic novels it seems that more time spent on the art the less the story is fleshed out in an interesting way. That seems to be the case here as the anthropomorphic big cats head out on their adventure into somewhat contrived situations and corny dialog. It’s not as bad as all that, it’s a great story, I just think it could be better. I don’t want to give things away but the most moving part for is simply the words imposed over the last two page spreads.
Marjane Satrapi returns with another harrowing, introspective, and funny graphic memoir in Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return (2004). Picking up where Persepolis left off, one can forget any preconceived notions of the difficulties of adolescence. Sure Marji is facing mood swings, sudden changes in her body and unpopularity among her peers. She’s also coming-of-age in a foreign country and she’s all on her own. Her family is still in Iran in the midst of a bloody war and repressive regime.
Sent to live in Austria, she soon finds herself unwelcome at the home of relatives and in a convent where she was sent. So she finds a room to rent and begins study at a French Lycee. At school she befriends a group of punks and anarchists but never fits in even with these marginals. She slowly descends into loneliness, depression, drug abuse, and life on the streets of Vienna.
And so she returns home to her family and friends in Iran. Of course this is not the expected panacea as people of Iran have been living with war, repression and martyrdom. Marji has difficulty relating her own troubles in such context, and yet they are still vividly real to her. Always the rebellious youth, and even more reckless due to learning Western ways, she mouths off to authority but manages to scrape by without punishment. Her life becomes one of study by day and illegal parties by night. Despite the obstacles she is able to attend university for art studies and marry the man of her choice, although neither work out as well as she hopes. At the end, after her divorce and realizing once again that there’s very little opportunity in Iran, Marji leaves Iran once again.
I’ve never much liked comic books and only recently have begun reading graphic novels so I have some preconceived notions of the genre being dominated by male author/illustrators creating fantasy worlds of violence and unrealistically busty women. So I find it ironic now that I’ve read Fun Home and Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (2003) by Marjane Satrapi that the format is a great outlet for the autobiographical stories of women.
Persepolis is the first in a series of an ordinary child growing up during the time of the Iranian Revolution and the war with Iraq. It’s eye-opening he sudden changes from a Western-leaning society to Islamic theocracy from a child’s eyes where the changes mean wearing a veil to school and finding that popular culture items like a Michael Jackson cassette are contraband. Home life and public life become very different as Marji and her family attempt to cope with the changes wrought by the repressive regime. It’s eerie how much this book reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale especially since it is reality not fiction (although I figure Atwood was inspired by the Iranian Revolution as well as Fundamentalism in the United States when writing her novel). Young Marji is close to family and family friends who are persecuted by the Ayatollahs’ government and finds simply growing up in Iran increasingly dangerous. As the story concludes, Marji’s parents send her off to school in Austria where she should be safe and have a chance for a free future that few in Iran have.
This book serves as a good reminder that when we as Americans think of our “enemies” — Iranians, Iraqis, Arabs, Islamic people — we see them as faceless masses hellbent on our destruction. Through Marji we see that people are individuals and families with hopes and dreams and desires to live their lives based on their own choices. I enjoyed this book and the artwork immensely and learned a lot. I recommend it highly.
I’ve checked out Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return from the public library, so look for a review of the sequel soon.
Here is another venture into the graphic novel for me, or as the case, the graphic memoir. Alison Bechdel writer and illustrator of the classic comic Dykes to Watch Out For writes about her life and her relationship with her father in Fun Home (2006). Bechdel’s father was a high school English teacher, a director of a family funeral home (the “fun home” of the title), and an obsessive house restorer in a remote town in Central Pennsylvania. When Alison goes away to college and realizes she is lesbian. She comes out to our parents, only to learn that her father has been having homosexual affairs for years, and often with young men who worked as their babysitter. Short afterwards her father dies in an accident that Bechdel believes may be suicide.
Fun Home is both touching and funny as Bechdel explores her father’s secrets and the way in which they were similar despite being polar opposite. This work is steeped in literary illusions. In lesser hands that would be rather pretentious, but here it works. Fiction is a way Alison and her father communicate both in life and spiritually. Much of her father’s life is a fiction and in many ways that fiction holds deeper truths than reality. Also many of the works cited so perfectly parallel events in Alison’s life that it’s eerie.
The book is framed by the myth of Icarus, with Bechdel contending that it was her father rather than herself that fell from the sky. Her childhood in a Gothic home with the family business in the funeral home reminded her of Charles Adaams’ comics. Her mother is an amateur actress who Bechdel compares with an idealist from a Henry James novel. Her father is more of a Gatsby-esque figure, deliberately since he was obsessed with Fitzgerald. Their town of Beech Creek resembles the illustrations from The Wind in the Willows. Her mother’s performance in The Importance of Being Ernest takes place at the same time that her father has to go to trial for cavorting with minors (paralleling Oscar Wilde’s own trial for homosexuality). Reading Ulysses for a college seminar course turns out to occur as Alison is on her voyage of discovery in literature and her sexuality.
I could go on listing all the literary parallels that weave themselves through this rich narrative and strongly illustrated book, but instead I’ll finish by saying that this is just a really good read and worth reading and reflecting upon.
I decided to take a break from my usual reading patterns and explore two intriguing phenomena. The first is graphic novels which my public library now has an entire section devoted to and I’ve heard a lot of buzz about their art and creativity. The second is steampunk, a genre of science fiction based on possible but not probable technology from the 19th century. With this twin interests in mind I checked out the following books:
The Remarkable Worlds of Professor Phineas B. Fuddle by Boaz Yakin, Erez Yakin and Angus McKie.
Two English scientists Angus and McKee learn that strange climactic changes and invasions of even stranger creatures are caused by the time travel exploits of the eponymous Prof. Fuddle. Apparently Fuddle decided to travel through time to share technology with earlier cultures in order to prevent violence and warfare. Instead he creates a time paradox of multiple, overlapping universes.
Angus and McKee follow Fuddle through time in an attempt to reverse Fuddle’s interventions. Most of the plot is nonsensical but fun as the two English scientists visit pharaoh’s Egypt, ancient India, and medieval England. They get in and out of scrapes, and eventually find Fuddle and return him home. Or do they?
The best part of this book is the illustration with colorful, chaotic scenes of ancient cultures adapting to modern technology that come out as cross between Where’s Waldo? and William Hogarth.
The 4thRail Review
The Five Fists of Science by Matt Fraction and Steven Sanders
This graphic novels sets off a battle of Mark Twain, Nikola Tesla, Baroness Bertha Von Suttner vs. JP Morgan, Thomas Edison, Guglielmo Marconi, and Andrew Carnegie. Tesla and his assistant invent a giant robot which Twain and the Baroness see as a means of creating world peace on the theory that no one would want to face the annihilation of this massive weapon. Meanwhile Morgan and Edison construct a giant tower to tap into the dark arts and gain power for themselves through human sacrifices. Inevitably the two sides go into battle with good triumphing over evil. Or does it?
I liked the quirky use of historical characters in this book although I feel it could use more text and dialog to fill out the narrative.
This is something I’d like to read more of so if anyone has any good graphic novel or steampunk recommendations, let me know in the comments.