I first met Mariko Tamaki at the "Queers and Comics" conference a few months ago in New York where she was leading a panel. I was quite surprised. I didn't know that Tamaki was an LGBTQ graphic novelist. I already knew Tamaki's work in her wonderful graphic novel "This One Summer" which she wrote and Jillian Tamaki illustrated. "This One Summer" still remains one of the most beautiful, touching and effective graphic novels I have ever read in my life. Tamaki's stories mostly involve teen girls coming to terms with their sexuality, both straight ("This One Summer") and gay ("Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me," "Skim"). Tamaki as a writer has an uncanny and affectionate way of capturing the deeply human moments of our lives. Tamaki in person is loud and funny as hell. At the start of the panel, Tamaki turned towards the audience, winked, and said "Hello homosexuals!" The audience, almost all LGBTQ college students holding newly-purchased graphic novels and art supplies, laughed loudly. I realized that I was probably the only straight person in the room. Feeling deeply dowdy and uncool, I slumped into my chair a bit. At that point Mariko Tamaki made eye contact with me, shot me a skeptical look, and then turned towards the panelists. I thought "Oh shit! I've been made! She knows I'm not gay!"
I felt a little guilty about invading this LGBTQ safe space. Fortunately I was not asked to leave. I very much enjoyed the panel. Mariko Tamaki talked about how she went to her high school reunion. Her former high school classmates and even former teachers were very curious about her book "Skim." They wanted to know which teacher Tamaki was referring to in her book. Which teacher romanced her when she was a teenager?! Tamaki states that she was surprised by the question because "Skim" is a work of fiction and not based on her teenage years at all. Still, after reading "Skim" I can understand why Tamaki's old classmates believed that the book was a memoir. The main character of Skim very much resembles a teenage Mariko Tamaki. Any reader can see Tamaki's old teachers raising an eyebrow while reading the story.
"Skim" is a lovely, hilarious, endearing and uncomfortable story. The eponymous main character, Skim, is very easy to like despite her generally irritable attitude towards life. Skim is a high school student and aspiring Wiccan despite the fact that she's starting to suspect that witchcraft may be bullshit. Skim attends a witch's coven in the middle of the forest with her friend, only to discover that the "coven" is actually an AA meeting. Skim sets up an alter in her bedroom full of Tarot cards and candles. "I sprinkled some glitter over my alter and then realized it looked stupid. It took me an hour and two rolls of tape to get it off again." When one character asks Skim- real name Kimberly Keiko Cameron- why her friends call her "Skim" she replies "Because I'm not." Plump and cynical Skim is a pretty normal teenage girl. Skim is drawn by Jillian Tamaki in a way that's reminiscent of the Japanese 18th century okiyo-e woodblock style. Still, Skim is no demure beauty delicately clutching a fan. Skim is fiercely intelligent, resentful, sullen, and unaware of her own loveliness. Skim is thrown for a loop however when she finds herself falling in love with her female English teacher Ms. Archer.
In Mariko Tamaki's story Skim's words may be grumpy but her world is beautiful. Jillian Tamaki's illustrations in "Skim," like in "This One Summer," are quietly stunning. Jillian Tamaki excels in portraying beautiful, realistic details like weeds and flowers growing up against the cluttered of porch of Ms. Archer's house. Oaks and maples and tall waving grasses are silhouetted against the evening light as Skim and her friend Lisa walk home from school. The lovely tree groves and 20th century clapboard houses of the small Toronto suburb where Skim lives stand in peaceful contrast with Skim's adolescent resentments. Skim's resentment, however, gives away to happiness (and some confusion on Skim's part) when Ms. Archer catches Skim smoking behind the school. Ms. Archer lights up too and they start meeting regularly in the woods behind the school. Their relationship advances to the point where Skim and Ms. Archer share a long romantic kiss underneath the willow trees. Skim is blissful, but the relationship is obviously problematic. Skim is underage while Ms. Archer appears to be in her late twenties to early thirties. There is an implication that the school gets suspicious of their relationship. After their kiss (they don't appear to go beyond that) Ms. Archer suddenly starts to keep her distance from Skim. A new teacher appears in Ms. Archer's class. When Skim finds Ms. Archer's house and asks to visit, Ms. Archer remains cool and keeps Skim at arm's length. At the end of the school year, Skim looks at the note Ms. Archer wrote on her term paper. "Kim, I'm glad to see you have developed an appreciation for Romeo and Juliet, as your work here clearly demonstrates. Excellent work. - Ms. Archer" Skim is devastated. It is a pretty brutal "Dear Jane" letter.
"Skim" has a happy ending. You get the feeling that Mariko Tamaki loves her characters too much to leave them unhappy for too long. Even Ms. Archer is allowed to bow out of the story with her dignity intact and her reputation untarnished with whispers of sexual predation. And who can blame Tamaki for loving her characters? The actors in Tamaki's stories are very lovable. You feel like you know them already, that they already inhabit your life. "Skim" is a lovely, sweet and beautiful debut effort by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. I love their team efforts and can't wait for more from them in the future. "Skim" is a definite recommend from me.
My feelings involving Gabrielle Bell's "The Voyeurs" were so strong that a written review seemed insufficient. So I put this particular book review in the form of a short cartoon. Enjoy!
The Merry Misandrist reviews Madeleine L'Engle and Hope Larson's "A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel"
Okay folks, buckle up because I'm about to get VERY controversial here. You thought the last book review about the Israel/ Palestinian conflict touched on some explosive issues? Well, that's nothing compared to this book review. Some sacred cows are about to be gored. So be prepared.
Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" is a terrible book.
Yeah, you heard me. "A Wrinkle in Time" is terrible. As a book "A Wrinkle in Time" has some of the worst characters and some of the most miserable and unrealistic dialogue that I have ever read. The plot is okay-ish and there are some trippy scenes (the image of rows of children on a street bouncing their balls and skipping rope in perfect time remains with me ever since I first read "A Wrinkle in Time" when I was in 6th grade) ... but in the end the characters are awful and the dialogue is horrible. And frankly, if the characters are awful and the dialogue is horrible then the book is beyond hope of redemption. I have never known a book to succeed in writing itself towards greatness or even competence when it is saddled with bad characters and bad dialogue. Period.
So why is "A Wrinkle in Time"- widely considered a classic piece of children's fiction- such a bad book? Well, before I get into that in depth let me just give my own personal history of "A Wrinkle in Time." As I mentioned before I read "A Wrinkle in Time" in middle school. Indeed "A Wrinkle in Time" is not a self-contained book but the first part of a quadrilogy. There are four books, all of which I read in middle school. The first book involves Meg and her creepy-ass little brother and an unmemorable teen boy love interest traveling across space to rescue Meg's dad. The next two books are also not very memorable (one involved Meg traveling inside her creepy-ass little brother's mitochondria or something). The last book, "Many Waters," I remember reading and actually enjoying a little bit probably because Meg and her creepy-ass little brother weren't in that book at all. Instead Meg's older twin brothers time travel back to before the Great Flood where they meet Noah (of "He built the Ark" fame) and Noah's family. It was kind of interesting and ethically complicated too because the older twin brothers knew that Noah had to build an Ark before the Great Flood came but that Noah couldn't fit all the human civilization in his boat.... so a lot of good people were about to die. That was a lot more interesting to me than Meg and the creepy-ass little brother battling Nameless Cloud of Evil in "A Wrinkle in Time." Plus Noah and his family were about waist-high to modern humans and all the women were topless for some reason. I remember that.
Anyway, in the "A Wrinkle in Time" series the first book seemed to be the worst to my 12-year-old brain. Back in those days I tended to blame myself if I found a book to be difficult to like, especially a book with a respected legacy like "A Wrinkle in Time." Clearly I was too dumb to understand it or appreciate it. Now that I'm almost forty I've managed to accrue enough self-esteem to realize that no.... no.... 12-year-old me was right. "A Wrinkle in Time" really is a bad book.
So let's review the plot of "A Wrinkle in Time." It starts off strongly enough. Meg Murry, age fourteen, is being kept awake by a ferocious thunderstorm in the middle of the night. She creeps into the kitchen for a snack, where she meets her little brother Charles and their mother. The family settles down for a cozy little midnight snack of liverwurst and cream cheese sandwiches and hot cocoa. So far so good. In fact, this intimate and sweet scene is probably the best in the book. When Meg says that she hates liverwurst and wants a tomato and cream cheese sandwich instead, Charles pulls out their last remaining tomato from the refrigerator. "All right if I use it on Meg, Mother?" Charles asks. "To what better use could it be put?" their mother replies. It's a beautiful exchange. Two sentences, awkwardly spoken (like all the dialogue in "A Wrinkle in Time") but nevertheless indicating that Meg's family is loving if a bit intellectual. Meg has a safe space to go to despite all her troubles at school and fighting with teens.
Anyway, don't let the beginning scene fill you with hope about the rest of the book because the story goes downhill fast. The Murry family's midnight snack is interrupted by a dotty old woman named Mrs. Whatsit. L'Engle obviously wanted to portray Mrs. Whatsit as an adorably eccentric woman but instead Mrs. Whatsit comes of as an insane old bag lady who's about as funny as Jar Jar Binks. Mrs. Whatsit makes Meg take off her wet boots and socks, stinking up the kitchen as everyone is trying to eat. Then Mrs. Whatsit demands sandwiches, falls off her chair (ho ho, how funny!), and lays on the floor, refusing to get up. "Have YOU ever tried getting up with a sprained dignity?" Sigh. At this point the Murry family should call the police and have Mrs. Whatsit bundled off their property. They don't though.
The book goes on. Mrs. Whatsit leaves. The Murry family makes breakfast before school the next day and the reader starts to get her first taste of the awfulness of the dialogue that marks the rest of "A Wrinkle in Time." Meg's older teen brothers scold her over the breakfast table and oh boy is the conversation badly-written! Not only is the dialogue unnatural and stiff and unlike anything a human being would say let alone a teenage boy.... it also seems to be about 60% mansplaining. As I reread "A Wrinkle in Time" I couldn't help but be amazed at how many of the scenes seem to involve some male figure mansplaining or acting in a condescending manner towards Meg. Her older teenage brothers mansplain to her and her mother. "You have a great mind and all, Mother, but you don't have much SENSE. And certainly Meg and Charles don't ... Don't take everything so PERSONALLY, Meg! Use a happy medium for once!" says Sandy, Meg's sixteen-year-old brother. And frankly if a sixteen-year-old boy has ever used the term "happy medium" naturally in a sentence then flying centaurs really do exist. Meg's creepy little 5-year-old brother Charles also mansplains to her ("You have to be patient, Meg") but some of the most problematic mansplaining comes from Meg's fourteen-year-old love interest Calvin. "Come on, Meg. You know it isn't true, I know it isn't true," Calvin says in one scene after Meg becomes understandably upset over the implication that Meg's dad may have disappeared because he fell in love with another woman. "And how anybody after one look at your mother could believe any man would leave her for another woman just shows how far jealousy will make people go."
Wow. So many problematic ideas in that statement. Yes. It is impossible for a man to leave a woman if the woman is beautiful. Beautiful women never have unfaithful husbands. Oh, and dear reader, please read the sentence "And how anybody after one look at your mother could believe any man could leave her for another woman just shows how far jealousy will make people go," and imagine those words coming out of the mouth of a fourteen-year-old boy. If you find that you can't imagine that at all, congratulations. You know how actual people talk.
Scene after scene in "A Wrinkle in Time" is filled with this horrible, unrealistic dialogue. I don't know when I started to realize that "A Wrinkle in Time" was just a flat-out terrible book. Maybe it was when Meg randomly made what was supposed to be a joke but comes out as weird word salad. "Mother, Charles says I'm not one thing or the other, not flesh nor fowl nor good red herring." (Meg, seriously..... what the fuck?) Or maybe when Meg and her mother have a conversation but they sound less like a mother and daughter and more like some 26th century robot actors trying to interpret ancient 20th century flesh-people plays for modern robot audiences. "I'm blessed with more brains and opportunities than many people," Meg's mom says casually to Meg, "But there's nothing about me that breaks out of the ordinary mold." Bravo Madeleine L'Engle! What amazing dialogue! *air kiss.* I have never read such natural conversation since that infamous bad Japanese video game translation: "All your base are belong to us."
The plot of "A Wrinkle in Time" is only marginally better than the dialogue. Meg, Charles and Calvin travel across space with the help of three witches so they can rescue Meg and Charles' dad. Oh, and they have to battle a Nameless Cloud of Evil. The Nameless Cloud of Evil doesn't really have a motive. It's just an Evil Cloud that consumes planets and turns civilizations into Orwellian dictatorships. Meg and Calvin rescue Meg's father from one of these planets but they have to leave Charles behind and Meg almost dies when they time-warp (or "wrinkle") off the planet. In another hair-tearingly awful example of Madeleine L'Engle's stiff, unnatural dialogue, we get a scene where Meg lies on the grass close to death. Meg's dad hasn't seen her since she was a little girl and Meg's dad also has been imprisoned in a hellish suspension for half a decade. Instead of weeping over his daughter or laughing in relief over his release from prison or screaming in horror over the fact that his youngest son is still imprisoned across space ... Meg's dad decides to chat about physics with Calvin. "Time is different on Camazotz, anyhow. Our time, inadequate though it is, at least is straightforward. It may not be even fully one-dimensional, because it can't move back and forth on its line, only ahead- but at least it's consistent in its direction." Yeah, sure, fine man. So are you going to start CPR on Meg? Or...?
Hope Larson adapted Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" to graphic novel format in 2012. L'Engle originally wrote the book in 1962. Larson's illustrations are competent but not very memorable. Larson frankly sacrifices too much of her own talent in order to remain slavishly faithful to Madeleine L'Engle's original text. The adaptation is bulky, retaining too many scenes that really should have been cut. "A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel" would have really benefited with a more ruthless editor. I would have loved an abridged version of "A Wrinkle in Time" with maybe an adapter who was unafraid to re-write some dialogue. A lot of the problems with Larson's "A Wrinkle in Time" adaptation have to do with the source material, however, so the graphic novel already started out with two strikes against it.
Because, as I have said before, "A Wrinkle in Time" is a really bad book.
After each Passover Seder my family would always enthusiastically exclaim "Next year in Jerusalem!" before finally- FINALLY!- getting down to the enjoyable task of eating dinner. We would say this phrase happily not because we actually wished to go to Jerusalem but because we were relieved that the hours-long seder was over. "Next year in Jerusalem!" was the ending bell. It was the phrase marking the end of an evening full of dull prayer and queasy justifications for God killing a bunch of Egyptian babies. We never really thought about what the phrase literally meant. Nobody at our seders in reality wanted to go to Jerusalem. And if any of us felt a little guilty about our lack of yearning for Israel, a quick read from Guy DeLisle's excellent comic memoir"Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City" would have quickly squelched it. In "Jerusalem" DeLisle demurely and amusingly portrays his year in Israel with his wife and two small children. DeLisle's Jerusalem is a city of hellish heat, awful traffic jams, frustrating bureaucracy, intimidating military presence, and seething anger occasionally boiling over into all-out war. Next year in Jerusalem? No thank you. I'm good.
Guy DeLisle is a French-Canadian cartoonist and self-described atheist with Catholic roots. His wife Nadine DeLisle is of similar background and she works as an administrator for the famous international medical aid group "Medicins Sans Frontieres" ("Doctors Without Borders" for us 'Mericans). When Nadine is transferred to Jerusalem for a year to assist MSF in the poverty-stricken Palestinian areas. Guy DeLisle and their two young children accompany her. The book opens with Guy DeLisle trying to calm his fussy two-year-old daughter on the 20 hour flight from Montreal to Tel Aviv. A stout elderly Russian passenger sitting next to DeLisle offers to calm the toddler despite speaking no English or French (the only two languages DeLisle speaks). The old man and the toddler play happily for hours. DeLisle notices, while watching the two play, that the old Russian has numbers tattooed on the inside of his right forearm. "Good God! This guy is a camp survivor." The rest of "Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City" is not at all a flattering picture of Israel so it is interesting that DeLisle chose to open his book with this reminder that Jews are very much the oppressed as well as the oppressors.
One in Jerusalem, the DeLisles settle in. Compared to some of Guy DeLisle's past abodes (Pyongyang springs to mind) Jerusalem is not too bad. It is nevertheless a grim place, full of cement apartment buildings, construction, armed military police, traffic, heat, daycares that close at only 1pm (boy did that part trigger me!) and grim little grocery stores that sell no beer, pork, or wine and are closed Friday through Saturday. DeLisle is tempted to shop at a nearby modern supermarket that sells all the forbidden foreign foods and is open all week. His wife's work colleagues forbid it. The supermarket is located in an area full of far-right Jewish settlers known for attacking and displacing impoverished Palestinian villagers. Supporting settler-owned businesses is a no-no. DeLisle refrains, regretfully. He can't help but notice ruefully, however, that plenty of Palestinian women shop at the same shiny supermarket. DeLisle enviously watches the women in their hijabs walking back to the bus stop with their bags full of Creamed Wheat and Campbells Chicken Noodle soup.
The constant clashes between Israel and the Palestinians are considered the Platonic ideal of "it's complicated." When it comes to the issue of Israeli settlements v. Palestinians Guy DeLisle is obviously biased since he receives most of his information from his wife and her MSF doctor colleagues who see the suffering of the Palestinians up close. DeLisle, however, wisely keeps his own views of the conflict confined to his physical observations. DeLisle draws the thuggish Israeli soldiers and settlers who tote massive automatic rifles on their shoulders everywhere they go, whether to the zoo or to a cafe. DeLisle draws his Palestinian art students at a women's college in Abu Dis. The women are all veiled, all thin, and shockingly under-educated about art even when they are majoring in artistic studies and drawing. DeLisle draws the ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim where "Families average seven kids, and considering how exhausted I am with two, I can only imagine how the women must feel." (This observation of DeLisle's is accompanied by a quick sketch of an ultra-orthodox Jewish woman, pale and exhausted beneath her wig, surrounded by five children and noticeably pregnant with her sixth.) DeLisle draws the baseball-sized rocks that Palestinians hurl at Israeli soldiers, only to be met with tear gas in response. DeLisle draws the nets that stretch between opposing buildings in the city of Hebron. "(The nets were) put up to protect passersby from objects thrown at them by settlers living in adjacent houses. Now, they toss down all kinds of trash that hangs there disgracefully."
One aspect of Israel that comes as a surprise to DeLisle is how divided Israeli Jews are when it comes to politics in their country. The rest of the world sees Israeli Jews as a monolithic block fighting against the Palestinians. The truth is the exact opposite. The far-right Israeli settlers torment Palestinian villagers populations by expanding illegal settlements into Palestinian cities. The moderate Jewish population of Israel are appalled at the actions of settlers and criticize the right-wing Israeli government for turning a blind eye towards the abuses perpetrated by Israeli settlers towards Palestinians. A group of ex-Israeli soldiers founded a group called "Breaking the Silence" where they recount how the Israeli government forced them to block off Palestinian streets, board up Palestinian businesses and evict Palestinians from their own homes for no reason except to allow Israeli settlers to move in and take over. Horrified that they were being forced to do this, the Israeli soldiers give tours of settlements to foreign tourists, describing the oppression visited upon Palestinians by the Israeli settlers. According to the founders of "Breaking the Silence," far-right Israeli settlements are backed quietly (and illegally) by the right-wing Israeli government. The moderate Israeli media is likewise sympathetic towards the suffering of Palestinians at the hands of far-right Israeli settlers. Plus there are divisions between the ultra-orthodox and reform Jewish community in Israel. The Talmud forbids the ultra-orthodox men from working so ultra-orthodox communities live off the taxpayer money generated by working reform Jewish populations. It is understandable that reform Jews are resentful towards the ultra-orthodox populations. In one scene in "Jerusalem" DeLisle travels with a tour group of mostly women in the ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim. DeLisle notices one ultra-orthodox man yelling in Hebrew while tying his shoe. DeLisle doesn't understand Hebrew and assumes the man is just talking on a bluetooth. "He talks out loud, his eyes fixed on his shoes. In fact, he's talking to our group, asking us to leave the quarter. But since he can't be seen speaking with women, he's using this indirect approach.
It's not surprising that the Jewish population of Israel is so divided among itself. We Jews are a very argumentative sort. It's rather like the joke my grandmother recounted in a book she wrote. It goes, and I paraphrase, "There was a Jew who was stranded on a desert island. Fortunately he had a lot of resources so he built himself a farm and a house and a garden and a synagogue and a second synagogue. When rescuers came to the desert island, they admired all that he had built but they were curious. 'Why did you build two synagogues? You're the only person on this island.' The Jew replied, 'Oh, that's the synagogue that I DON'T go to.'"
DeLisle's own self-portrait seems to indicate his wish to at least appear unbiased. DeLisle draws himself rather adorably as a benignant, clueless, almost "Hello Kitty" type of observer. The cartoon face of DeLisle consists of two rather surprised, clueless and good-natured black dots for eyes and a stylized, pie-slice nose. One panel DeLisle drew struck me as particularly cute and perhaps the epitome of what it means to be an expatriate used to surviving long periods in the harshest corners of he world. When DeLisle wakes up one morning to find his driver's side car window smashed and the radio stolen, he has no choice but to drive the window-less car to a repair shop and get the window replaced. The portrait of DeLisle driving with his coat buttoned past his nose to protect his face from the highway-speed gusts of wind and sand blowing in through his broken window struck me as oddly hilarious. Just another clueless yet good-natured white expatriate adapting to whatever challenges a foreign land throws at him.
After a year Nadine's shift with MSF in Jerusalem ends and the DeLisles get out of Israel just in time. The Israeli government, perhaps annoyed that MSF helps Palestinian populations, targets the houses of MSF administrators with "demolition notices." The DeLisle's house is given a demolition notice. "They say it was illegally built." Some MSF administrators doubt this, believing that the demolition notices are an intimidation tactic by the Israeli government to keep MSF out of Palestinian territories. As the DeLisles head to the airport at Tel Aviv on their way back to Canada, Guy DeLisle stops by a house where a Palestinian family has just been evicted and a Jewish settler family is moving in. DeLisle sees a large bearded man in a yarmulke standing on the roof of the house. As the bearded man watches the DeLisle family leave to board the cab to the airport, he smiles. "It's my house now!" the bearded man yells. It's a depressing full circle. The oppressed have become the oppressors. It is why, in my opinion, the truly Jewish among us say "Next year in Jerusalem." Always next year. Always the next time. Not now. Let it remain a dream. If we go now, we will see it for the cruel reality it is.
Graphic novels and novelizations epitomize the phrase "A picture is worth a thousand words." Straight-up novels can only convey so much through mere words. Graphic novels, especially well-drawn graphic novels like the graphic novelization of Neil Gaiman's "American Gods," convey a massive amount of information in terms of detail and setting and emotion that simple words on a page can't show. Neil Gaiman's words are literally the same in the graphic novel as they are in his book, but like Shakespeare's words gaining new meaning when his plays are placed in different settings by innovative directors, Gaiman's dialogue and characters take on new meanings in the graphic novelization of "American Gods" that they definitely did not have in the book. Gaiman is aided by the extraordinary illustrators P. Craig Russell, Scott Hampton, Walter Simonson, Colleen Doran (expertly imitating 19th century illustrator Kate Greenaway's work in her graphic novel interpretation of Gaiman's short story about a female convict from Cornwall who is banished to the American colonies) and Glenn Fabry (whose masterfully-drawn and -ahem- straightforward illustration of a bashful plump Omani souvenir merchant who hooks up with a sexy djinn made me have to tilt the book a bit while reading at Starbucks).
In "American Gods" a man named Shadow, a guy who just served his time in prison for robbery, is offered a job by a "Mr. Wednesday" as a bodyguard. Shadow is at loose ends. He's an ex-criminal, his wife died while he was in prison and he has no job and nowhere to go. He is almost given no choice but to accept Mr. Wednesday's job. Mr. Wednesday turns out to be the personification of the Norse God Odin who, along with other pre-Christian Indo-European gods and various mystical figures masquerading as immigrants, is planning a war against various new gods such as the god of the internet and the god of television.
In the original novel "American Gods" Neil Gaiman is rather vague in describing Shadow physically. Shadow is a large, burly guy. "He was big enough and looked don't-fuck-with-me enough(.)" Gaiman implies in the book that Shadow is rather swarthy, leading a white prison guard at the beginning of the novel to ask him "And what are you? A spic? A gypsy? Maybe you got n***** blood in you. You got n***** blood in you, Shadow?" This exchange does not translate well in the graphic novel since Shadow is drawn as unambiguously black.
Shadow's blackness in the graphic novel of "American Gods" adds dimensions to the story that are missing in the book. The scene where Mr. Wednesday an old white man, intimidates Shadow into being his bodyguard takes on an uncomfortable sheen. The fact that Mr. Wednesday turns out to be a Scandinavian god, a figure in a pre-Christian culture that is fetishized by white supremacists, only makes the situation more uncomfortable. When Mad Sweeney, a leprechaun who takes on the form of a 7-foot white trucker with a baseball hat, punches Shadow in a bar it's hard not to see a MAGA-era hate crime. Mad Sweeney's baseball hat reads "The only woman I ever loved was another man's wife.... my mother." Still, it looks a lot like a MAGA hat. When another old white god, Czernobog, talks to Shadow about "your master" Mr. Wednesday the phrase suddenly acquires a bad implication that is missing when Czernobog says the same thing to a racially-undefined Shadow in the book.
I generally liked "American Gods" as a book though it did rehash a lot of Neil Gaiman tropes, like the former-fertility-goddess-now-forced-to-be-a-sex-worker plot line, that he already covered in his "Sandman" series. I adore the "American Gods" novelization for its extraordinary illustrations and multiple dimensions it brings to Neil Gaiman's book. If I have any complaints it is mostly about how women are portrayed. Most of the old goddesses in the book seem to be either sex maniacs (Bilquis, Bast (yes, the cat goddess)), or motherly figures who stand at the sidelines of the male-initiated plot lines, dipping in only occasionally when Shadow is in a tight spot. Even Lucy Ricardo from "I Love Lucy" shows her breasts! The reanimated corpse of Shadow's wife also seems mostly sex-defined (she died while giving a blow-job to Shadow's friend) who makes a half-hearted pass at Shadow. Shadow turns her down. "You're dead babe," he says in one of the best lines of the book.
Only one woman, a white feminist college student named Sam whom Shadow gives a ride to, appears to avoid being defined by sexual activity. Nevertheless Sam is mostly a ham-handed stereotype of middle-class white progressives, a privileged young woman who enjoys living the rough adventurous life a bit knowing that she has a soft place to fall. "I figure you're at school," Shadow says, "Where you are undoubtedly studying art history, women's studies, and probably your own bronzes. And you probably work in a coffee house to help cover the rent." He's exactly right in his assessment too. "How the fuck did you do that?" Sam asks, shocked.
Sam seems to see poverty as something to experience as an adventure tourist rather than an inescapable life trap. After picking her up hitchhiking on a cold country road Shadow drops Sam off at her aunt's wealthy suburban house. Sam is basically me in my twenties, I have to admit. And frankly Gaiman's parody of white feminist college students with his character of Sam touched a few nerves. Her scene with Shadow is easily the most badly-written part of "American Gods." Even the fantastic P. Craig Russell adaptations can't rescue the scene entirely.
My views on the portrayal of women in "American Gods" aside, the graphic novelization of Neil Gaiman's book is amazing. It has some of the best illustrations I have seen in years. The pictures evoke a wonderful sense of place, emotion, character and wonder that stretches almost beyond the parameters of the original book. A definite recommend!
I just wanted to write a quick book review of "Anya's Ghost" by Vera Brosgol. "Anya's Ghost" is a young adult graphic novel and a pretty decent little ghost story. In "Anya's Ghost," a sulky and disagreeable teenage girl named Anya tumbles down an abandoned well and meets a shy, polite ghost named Emily. Emily died in the 1920s after her family was murdered. According to Emily, the murderer chased her out of the house, whereupon she tumbled down into the same abandoned well, broke her neck, and died of dehydration. Emily's spirit languishes in the well for 90 years because she is unable to leave her bones. When Anya gets rescued, Emily is transported out of the well too because Emily's finger bone accidentally gets tangled in Anya's belongings.
The plot is decent but not too memorable. There are some twists that regular readers of thrillers and ghost stories will probably see coming a mile away (though the twists were a little surprising to me). More impressive however is that "Anya's Ghost" is a graphic novel told with NO narration boxes! Now that is very hard to do. In most graphic novels narration boxes are provided to give the artist a break. One quick narration box like "Later Emily and I went to the mall" and a panel showing Anya and Emily in a mall saves a whole bunch of drawing. Without a narration box the artist has to show a series of panels of Anya getting off her bed, Anya picking up her purse and Emily's finger bone, Anya walking down the stairs with Emily drifting after her, Anya walking out the door, Anya walking down the street, Anya walking to the bus stop, Anya sitting at the bus stop, Anya getting on the bus, Anya paying the driver, Anya sitting in the bus as it heads towards the mall, Anya getting off the bus, Anya walking inside the mall, Anya walking in the mall as Emily drifts beside her looking curiously at the shop windows.... all this to convey to the reader that Anya and Emily go to the mall. This type of purely visual storytelling can last pages and is a helluva lot of work to do for a graphic novel artist.... work that can be eliminated by one narration box of "Later Emily and Anya went to the mall." The lure of the narration box is strong with every graphic novelist. It's a great way to cheat a bit. Vera Brosgol resists the call of the narration box however, relying on dialogue and character as well as her own art skills to advance the plot in "Anya's Ghost." She pulls it off too! With no narration boxes the reader is able to get a much fuller view of Anya's world and Anya's character. This type of visual narration also helps stretch out suspense. Without going into too many spoilers here I will say that there are some GREAT, almost Hitchcockian suspense scenes going on at the end of "Anya's Ghost" that are magnified by the lack of narration boxes. I was on the edge of my seat watching Anya try to save her family and fix a frightening situation.
Another part of "Anya's Ghost" that I loved is the character of Anya. At the beginning of the book Anya is not a very sympathetic character. Even by moody teenage girl standards Anya is pretty nasty. She's in a bad mood all the time. When she falls down the well and meets EMily, she is very dismissive of Emily's tragic story and existence. Emily is such a polite and sweet little soul and Anya is very harsh towards her. Anya spends about two days down in the well. Then, while she is asleep, Emily hears two boys talking by the well. Emily wakes up Anya telling Anya that somebody has come and she needs to yell for help. Anya immediately does so and is rescued. Yet, as Anya is finally pulled up from the well, Anya makes no move or gesture to help Emily leave the well, like take a bone with her so Emily can finally leave the darkness and see the outside world. As Anya sees Emily's saddened face as the only person Emily has spoken to in 90 years leaves her behind...... Anya does nothing. Emily literally saved Anya's life and Anya doesn't do anything in return. When it later turns out that Emily DID leave the well with Anya, it was clearly through an accident on Anya's part and not through any intentional action where Anya wanted to help Emily in some way.
There is a really solid character arc with Anya. Throughout the story you see Anya slowly realizing how disagreeable and ungrateful she is towards her family and friends and how she needs to improve. It's hard to write a good character arc. It's even harder to write a good character arc in a graphic novel with no narration boxes! I was wowed by Brosgol's writing and pacing abilities. Her drawings are very attractive if a bit stylized. The pictures lay out the story cleanly. The dialogue and pacing keep the plot tight and pretty compelling. The characters are very well fleshed-out (with a few exceptions such as a silly subplot involving a boy Anya likes and the boy's popular girlfriend) and the book overall is a very satisfying read. If you have an hour to yourself (the story goes fast, you can read it in 45 minutes) and a hot cup of coffee do give "Anya's Ghost" a read.
David Sedaris' "Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002" is delightful, hilarious and a very easy read. Like all of Sedaris' humor, however, every third or fourth joke in the book hides a barb. Sedaris will insert a deeply unsettling fact about his family amid an essay full of quirky humor, hoping that the reader is too busy laughing to notice. It's a little hard NOT to notice though. "Wait a second, did he just say that his sister committed suicide?" "Wait, did he imply that his neighbor's 6-year-old daughter is severely neglected and he's too mentally ill to do something about it?" "Wait, did his youngest sister just have a miscarriage and nearly bleed to death and then was kicked out of her mother's house two weeks later because the sister was still on drugs?" It often feels like Sedaris wants to make us laugh by telling stories about his family.... but his family has such horrifying problems that it's difficult for Sedaris to gloss over the sadness in order to bring the funny. Sedaris is better at being consistently funny than his sister Amy Sedaris though. Amy Sedaris' humor seems to barely contain a frightening insanity. Every time I see Amy Sedaris on TV, I'm always afraid that she's about to grab a knife and slit open her own throat, cackling in terrifying glee as she chokes on her own blood. No seriously, Amy Sedaris scares the shit out of me.
David Sedaris is very honest that his diaries from 1977-2002 is heavily edited, and understandably so. He describes the years between 1977 and 1983 as "the bleakest. I was writing my diaries by hand then. The letters were small and, fueled by meth, a typical entry would go on for pages- solid walls of words and every last one of them complete bullshit." Names have been disguised and content has been streamlined for clarity and entertainment. At times Sedaris' edits are a little clangingly obvious. One entry from October 5th 1997 has Sedaris complaining about having to sit through "another endless preview for 'Titanic.' Who do they think is going to see that movie?" Eyeroll. Clearly that last sentence was added on by 2017 David Sedaris for ironic effect. More intriguing is when mid-eighties David Sedaris comments on pop culture obsessions that we have now forgotten. One entry from September 28th, 1986 has this tasteless joke: "Q: How did they know Christa McAuliffe had dandruff? A: They found her Head & Shoulders on the beach." I had to do a quick "Bing" search. Christa McAuliffe was the teacher who died in the Challenger explosion. Apparently they were able to recover enough of her remains to bury her in her home town.
David Sedaris' diary entries are mostly a catalogue of his observations of the slightly quirky habits of everyday humans. "T.W.'s best hunting dog just died. He has her kidneys and her spleen in a jar in the front seat of his truck. After work he planned to take them to the vet." from 1981 is a typical entry. Another typical entry from 1990 is "Dad's been a real terror lately.... (H)e yelled at me for picking a meatball with my fingers. It was on a dish in the refrigerator and he accused me of touching a lot of them before deciding on the largest. I think he worries that I'm spreading AIDS." It really is unbearably sad that David Sedaris' father thinks Sedaris has a fatal disease and instead of being worried about his son, Sedaris' father only frets about catching the disease himself. David Sedaris' relationship with his father, like his sister Tiffany's mental health, is one of those aching, bleeding wounds that seep through the humor that David Sedaris uses as wound packing.
Despite the tang of inescapable sadness that bleeds through regularly in David Sedaris' humor, I have to admit that "Theft by Finding" is mostly light, hilarious reading. You also get to track Sedaris' path from mentally ill drug addict who is borderline homeless to a wealthy writer. It did not happen overnight. Sedaris started out being a mediocre artist who spent his evenings smoking crack and ignoring the domestic abuse going on in the neighboring apartments. He relied on financial help from his parents and occasionally construction jobs. In the nineties Sedaris got a humiliating job as an elf for a mall Santa during the holiday season. He wrote an essay about the experience, and it turned into a surprising success. Sedaris was offered a book deal and wrote "Barrel Fever." Suddenly Sedaris was getting offers from agents. He was being called by "The New Yorker" and asked for interviews by NPR. The rest is history. Sedaris (over a period of years, it must be noted) got sober, got a boyfriend, and became a well-known writer and humorist. The last few years of Sedaris' diaries are smooth sailing despite the fact that he overlaps with 9/11 at that time. Sedaris' life is stable and happy and his less-jagged humor reflects that. In an entry from 2002 Sedaris writes "We've gotten ourselves a mortgage broker named Marcus Paisley, a man we obviously chose for his name. Hugh spoke to him yesterday morning and spent the rest of the day imagining future calls. "I'm starting to see a pattern here, Paisley, and I don't like it." It's a silly joke, yes, but it's a happy silly joke. It's a Dad joke. It's an indicator of the long road from the late seventies meth-fueled diary entries from David Sedaris' youth. And David Sedaris lived happily ever after.
I am an unabashed fan of the beginnings of scary stories. I love the slow build-up of fear in horror novels. I adore the first bump in the attic, which the nervous young couple wave off as "Oh, the house is just settling." Page 13 of the book is more satisfying than page 130 where people are actively dodging body parts. The zombie genre in particular is great at the slow build-up. We all love the beginning chapters where the disease, the contagion, starts out as a whisper. There is a mere news report, something strange in a small village far off in Russia or Lesotho that the main characters dismiss but we readers know with a thrill is merely the first sign of something more ominous. Then a few more news reports start trickling in. Then a few more. Then suddenly a small country stops accepting flights in or out. Then larger nations start putting forth quarantines. The main characters with gratifying stupidity reassure themselves that this is nothing, just a panic over a stupid sniffle, but we the readers squirm in delight over the mounting storm clouds. Some writers, like Max Brooks are fantastic at prolonging that delicious build-up in "World War Z." Some writers, like the utterly frustrating Josh Malerman, blow the whole beginning. In Malerman's "Bird Box" the mounting fear takes up three paragraphs before Malerman stuffs his main characters inside a house for the rest of the novel.
I love slow build-ups, which is why I loved the graphic novel adaptation of Volume 1 of Stephen King's "The Stand: Captain Trips." After the awfulness that was "Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born" I approached my second foray into Stephen King graphic novels with some trepidation. I needn't have worried. "The Stand: Captain Trips" is far faaaaar better than "Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born." "The Stand" is narrated in plain English instead of the god-awful fake Tolkien/ ye Olde Weste style Stephen King unwisely used in "Dark Tower." Secondly the misogyny dial was turned way down in "The Stand." Female characters are still pretty secondary in "The Stand" but at least they have actual character traits and aren't flat witch/bitch/virgin-who-must-die archetypes.
Thirdly, and best of all, "The Stand: Captain Trips" has fantastic illustrations. I was bowled over by the detail drawn by artists Mike Perkins and Laura Martin, two old hands at Marvel Comics. Like any good plague novel, "The Stand: Captain Trips" has a variety of locations so Perkins and Martin needed to accurately portray a whole bunch of difficult-to-draw locations like Times Square, a top-secret bio-research lab, a jail, a gas station in the middle of Texas, Washington DC, a nightmarish dreamscape of corn fields, and more. The illustrators handle each setting very well and with great professionalism, and thus are able to really show how the deadly virus "Captain Trips" was able to spread from a military biowarfare lab in Nebraska to across the entire United States.
The plot of "The Stand: Captain Trips" Volume 1 is all slow build-up and oooooo is it delicious! The book starts with the wife of a military commander being shaken awake by her panicky husband in the middle of the night. "We need to go! Now!" Unquestioningly she obeys. Her husband is fearful. Before they get into the car and drive off, he lifts up his forefinger, testing the wind. He is reassured by the direction of the wind. They have time. But before the couple drive off he starts coughing. First occasionally, then constantly. By the time the car crashes into a gas station in Texas, the couple are dead. Their lymph nodes are swollen to golf ball size and their throats are full of mucous.
The first volume of "The Stand: Captain Trips" details the spread of a deadly weaponized flu code-named "Captain Trips" that has been allowed to escape a military research facility in Nebraska. The government tries to restrict the spread of the disease while at the same time reassure the public to not be alarmed. Stephen King wrote "The Stand" in the early nineties before everyone had smart phones so there is a real anachronistic belief that the government can tamp down information on a spreading plague. The TV news gives soothing reassurances while government agents in biohazard suits burn piles of bodies with mucous-smeared faces. Even by nineties standards it seems a little unrealistic that people wouldn't realize that whole towns were dying mysteriously. Wouldn't someone wonder why they hadn't heard from Mom and Dad lately?
Finally someone is able to sneak a camcorder behind a quarantine line and is able to film government agents dumping bodies into a river. his footage is delivered to a TV studio and all hell breaks loose. The president is finally forced to appear on TV to reassure the American public that there is no truth to the idea of a deadly plague sweeping across the US. The book ends with the president then coughing, taking a drink of water, and telling his staff that he's going to lie down for a little bit because he doesn't feel well.
"The Stand" is a multi-part series involving pre-apocalypse, apocalypse, and post-apocalypse parts. I love the pre-apocalypse parts the best which is why I loved Volume 1 of "The Stand." I don't know if I will read the next few volumes. Maybe. I feel like I've read the best part already and it was loads of fun. For people like myself who think the beginnings of horror novels are the best parts of horror novels, I heartily recommend the graphic novel of "The Stand: Captain Trips."
The graphic novel of "The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born" was not a good book. It was as if the gods of my reading list decided that throwing amazingly good graphic novels like the adaptation of Neil Gaimon's "The Graveyard Book" was just too much of a good time. I had to be brought down to Earth. So the truly crummy adaptation of Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" found its way into my hands and boy was it bad. Hoo boy.
So this book talks about the birth of the Gunslinger. He was once a 14-year-old boy named Roland who lived in some Old West hellscape that is probably a post-apocalyptic Earth. Bits of our time remain, most notably guns. Mankind has forgotten how most machines work but some old six-shooters still remain and the man who wields these guns achieves the holy status of "Gunslinger."
The plot is overly-complicated so I'll keep it simple. Roland and his band of teenage boys represent the Alliance. They are hunted by an evil man named Marten Broadcloak and his bad of assassins. Broacloak has figured out how the ancient weapons of the old times (clearly rusty tanks) can be brought back to usefulness by refining oil into gasoline and using the gasoline to get the tanks moving again. Roland stops Broadcloak from taking over by luring Broadcloak's profoundly stupid assassins into a box canyon where the assassins are munched by an extra-dimensional tentacled nightmare called the "thinny."
This book is awful. It's narrated in an irrtating cross between Old West jargon and ersatz Tolkien. The dialogue is thudding and humorless. The characters are profoundly unlikeable. The various alliances are too complicated and frankly too uninteresting to figure out. The male characters are interchangeable and the women are either witches, bitches or virgins who must die in order to give the male hero purpose.
The bad writing all on Stephen King. The terrible illustrations, however, are not his fault. Jae Lee and Richard Isanove need to take the responsibility for that. Each setting and character is drenched in shadow. The landscape is soaked in inky black in order to spare the illustrator the laborous task of having to draw backgrounds. Everyone is in silhouette so that I couldn't tell who was talking. Is Roland talking now? One of Roland's four boy companions? Marten Broadcloak? Someone else? Roland's girlfriend had blond hair so I could recognize her. Going silhouette is a stylish way to avoid having to draw faces (which is difficult to do in graphic novels) but everyone is so shadowy I couldn't tell one character from another. There were so many cheap illustrator cheats in "The Gunslinger Born" that the book is just generally visually ugly and hurts the eyes.
Crummy book. Please avoid.
I have a bit of a confession. I am not a Neil Gaiman fan. He writes only one story. Don't get me wrong, Gaiman writes that story well..... but it's basically just one story. The central gimmick of a generic Neil Gaiman story is: What happens when an ancient god has to take a modern form? That's the plot of "American Gods," and "Good Omens" and "Anansi Boys" and most of the "Sandman" series. I loved a lot of the "Sandman" books.... but after a while I get the gist. When I opened "The Graveyard Book" I was half-expecting to read some story about "Paul" with the golden hair who works with solar panel technology. "a-PAUL-o," get it? Wink, wink? Nudge, nudge?
Anyway, I opened "The Graveyard Book" and found a Neil Gaiman story that I had never read before. Not only is the tale free of the usual Neil Gaiman tropes (well, mostly free)... but it is also a truly original fantasy tale. It's a story with an extraordinary setting that I have never seen in any other tale. The concept of "The Graveyard Book" is beautiful, sad, idyllic, loving, and strange. And very, very human. I loved reading every page of "The Graveyard Book."
When did I first realize that "The Graveyard Book" wasn't a typical Neil Gaiman tale? Probably by page 2. We are in a house late at night. A man and a woman lie in bed, their throats slit. Their five-year-old daughter lies nearby, her throat slit too. The murderer with the knife just has one victim left: the baby. He steps into the nursery, not realizing that the 14-month-old child has crawled curiously out the door that the murderer carelessly left ajar. Unaware of the danger or the fact that his parents are dead, the baby crawls down the street and into the gloomy graveyard at the end of the road.
Already this is pretty dark stuff, even by Neil Gaiman standards. Men killing children? Babies crawling alone down dangerous dark streets into graveyards? This is more Stephen King territory than Neil Gaiman. Gaiman himself realizes that he had better lighten the atmosphere quickly. As soon as the baby crawls into the graveyard, he's greeted by the ghosts. The spirit of a plump Victorian-era woman and her husband float out curiously to look at the baby. They are immediately enchanted by him. They are also curious as to why the baby is (unlike most living humans) able to see them. The ghosts themselves, though drawn with a blue hue by the amazing Kevin Nowlan and always-reliable P. Craig Russell, are solid enough. The are able to pick up and comfort the baby. And thus the baby is adopted by the ghosts, given the name "Nobody Owens" (his adoptive ghost parents are named Mistress and Master Owens) and raised in the graveyard.
A child growing up in a graveyard sounds grim but the amazing illustrators of "The Graveyard Book" make the ancient British burial grounds look like an idyllic Garden of Eden. Nobody "Bod" Owens has a childhood full of loving if rather old-fashioned ghost guardians, a home of beautiful ancient marble graves twined around with magnificent old trees, and (in a rather creepy touch) plenty of happy ghost children playmates courtesy of the 19th century's high child mortality rate. Bod's more practical needs are met too through the character of Silas, an austere paternal vampire who is able to leave the graveyard occasionally to pick up food for the child. Between the fussy, loving, old-fashioned ghosts and the vampire who feeds the human child instead of ON the boy, Neil Gaiman cleverly inverts supernatural tropes. Like his down-on-their-luck gods in "American Gods," Gaiman reverses and gently mocks ancient human fears of the supernatural.
I do have a few tiny quibbles. The graveyard Bod grows up in is HUGE! Acre after acre of picturesque ancient British landscape, gothically beautiful trees and marble statuary make up Body's graveyard and it appears to take more square kilometers than the city of London. It's beautifully drawn. The artistic license taken with the graveyard's size is forgivable, I suppose. Maybe it's drawn that way on purpose, seen as larger than it really is through a child's eyes. Certainly it looks idyllic and you can't help but feel a little jealous of Bod for growing up in such a gorgeous paradise.
In any case, "The Graveyard Book" is the most original fantasy story I have read in years. The illustrations are gorgeous and the characters of the ghosts and Silas and Mrs. Lupescu (Bod's firm yet protective werewolf tutor) are wonderful. "The Graveyard Book" is a very sweet, very warm, very human and very British story that is an utter delight to read.