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Graphic Novelty²

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Kathleen

I'm an artist/librarian in Chicago who loves reading, creating, and playing video games!

The American Dream?: A Journey on Route 66

A lifelong dream of author Shing Yin Khor’s is to travel on Route 66 from Los Angeles to Chicago. Her family emigrated to the United States from Malaysia when she was a little girl, so she grew up both in her home country and her new one. Though she spent the later half of her childhood and early adulthood in the glamorous City of Angels, she had always been intrigued by the mythical ’60s Americana that Route 66 stood for. So with nothing but the bare essentials and her dog, Bug, Shing sets off in her tiny car along the fabled road, hoping to gain better understanding of her adopted homeland, and herself.

This graphic memoir is part diary, part fact book. I learned a lot! Her personal story is littered with the history of Route 66. She divides the book into chapters by the states the highway runs through – first California, then Arizona, then New Mexico, and so on. However, the first 3 chapters are the longest, and so packed with information, that the remainder of the book feels rushed and far shorter by comparison.

Shing’s art is delightful. I can still see sketch lines of the pen or pencil beneath the watercolor, which I adore! It never feels unfinished, though. Her forms and colors are loose and quirky, more concerned with conveying an idea or a feeling than how things actually are. I think this was a good choice, so we readers could feel what was going on in Shing’s head and heart throughout her journey.

In her epilogue, she writes that she took her trip 6 months before the outcome of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. It forces the reader to wonder how the trip might have turned out if Shing, a Malasyan immigrant, had taken her trip after the election – or whether she would have taken it at all.

– Kathleen

Yin Khor, Shing. The American Dream?: A Journey on Route 66. 2019.

Black Canary: Ignite

Dinah Lance wants to do it all. She wants to win her school’s Battle of the Bands with her two best friends. She wants to attend the Gotham Junior Police Academy and become a police officer just like her dad, so she can help people. So what if she and her friends haven’t decided on a band name yet? So what if Detective Lance doesn’t want her to become a cop? Dinah knows what she wants and she knows what she has to do to get it. But someone is very, VERY determined Dinah won’t get the things she wants. That someone is from her mother’s elusive past. Together, Dinah and her mother must confront her past, and Dinah’s future, if they are to defeat the shadowy threat.

I’m older than the targeted middle-grade audience for this graphic novel, so I found the characterization and writing inconsistent. Detective Lance vehemently denies Dinah has powers at the beginning of the book, but once they are revealed, takes her and Laurel out for a nice dinner. I had to do a double take there because seriously… What??? There were also some plot threads that were not explained or explored fully, then dropped, such as with Dinah’s vocal teacher. Honestly, I expected better from veteran middle/YA grade writer Meg Cabot. In this regard I was severely disappointed.

Dinah’s story here is one of breaking boundaries and stereotypical feminine roles. Various characters tell Dinah she’s too loud, too brash, too this or that. Does Dinah pay the haters any attention? No! That’s awesome! But to me it felt like so much effort and energy was focused on this, and ONLY this, aspect of the graphic novel that the rest of the story and writing got left in the dust.

Cara McGee’s illustrations are delightful. They are energetic and easy to interpret for younger readers. The bright colors are fun and attractive to the target audience. There is more emphasis placed on the figures and characters, but the scenery and backgrounds are also well-rendered and not cluttered.

Overall, this is a fine introduction to Black Canary for younger readers, but to older fans, do yourselves a favor and skip it.

– Kathleen

Cabot, Meg, and Cara McGee. Black Canary: Ignite. 2019.

Are You Listening?

Bea is alone, trying not to be scared walking down the side of the road, when she’s picked up by the least likely person imaginable. Lou is the local mechanic and remembers Bea from working on her family’s cars. The two young women, both in denial that they’re running away from something, decide to ride together through West Texas. Though they are practically strangers, they start to connect and form a friendship of sorts, especially after picking up a cat who’s gotten lost. On their way to Lou’s family, they decide to reunite Diamond with her family in the town of West – but no one can tell them where it is, and it’s not on any map Lou owns. The closer they get to West, the more curious and perilous their road becomes. Will these two perfect strangers stick together as things get rough, or go their separate ways?

Tillie Walden keeps getting better and better. Both her art and her writing have improved significantly over the years, and this volume is no exception. They are so closely intertwined it’s nigh impossible to talk about one without the other.

This volume looked and felt more manga-like to me. The characters are rendered stylistically and without much realism, but each was still recognizable. The landscapes too, are stylized – they could be anywhere at all out in the wilderness of the American West. We flip often between the cramped space of Lou’s car and the vast, empty landscapes, which at once forces the reader to be an uncomfortable passenger with Lou and Bea, and yet all alone at the same time.

Great swaths of color are used here: moody, cold blues and purples, dull oranges and pinks. The detail that impressed me most were the circles of light used to convey the passing of streetlights as the characters drive by. The colors suit the story, which is set in winter, perfectly, as well as the secrets the characters are hiding from each other and the isolation they feel even as they are stuck together in a tiny car.

This surreal, yet very real, story is ultimately a muse on human connection. A must-read for any fan of Walden’s work, and for those who like a dash of surrealism in their graphic novels.

– Kathleen

Walden, Tillie. Are You Listening? 2019.

Grayson (Vol. 3): Nemesis

With Mr. Minos dead under mysterious circumstances, Helena has assumed his role as director of Spyral. This leaves Dick Grayson stuck with Agent 1, Tiger, as his partner. One of Helena’s first assignments is finding out who is murdering rival spies. That someone appears to be setting Dick up. In an attempt to leave Spyral and return home, Dick meets with Batman – only to find that Bruce can no longer remember him, or remember he was even Batman. He turns to other members of the Batfamily, the only ones who are able to help him solve this latest mystery. However, not all of them are happy to see him again, especially as they thought he was dead…

First of all, I was cheering Helena’s rise to power. Break that glass ceiling! I’m sure Helena has her own secrets, and we will uncover Mr. Minos’ and the rest of Spyral’s, as the series goes on.

I have to admit this one lost me a bit, as I don’t recall Batman becoming an amnesiac at any point during the New 52 – then again, I haven’t read a whole lot of it. However, it did make for an interesting development in that Batman was NOT there to save the day for his protégé for once. The rest of the Batfamily has to get Dick out of this conundrum on their own, which I know they can!

The art has been consistent, and consistently excellent, as they’ve only had Mikel Janin as the artist so far. In my opinion, this is the best design move they could have made. The plot has so many twists and turns that the artist and art styles constantly changing as well would just be too much.

Looking forward to the next volume!

– Kathleen

Seeley, Tim, Tom King, Mikel Janin, and Jeromy Cox. Grayson (Vol. 3): Nemesis. 2016.

Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride

Graphic novel artist and author Lucy Knisley chronicles the story of her wedding here. She starts, of course, with the first date she and her now-husband John went on. They dated, broke up, and got back together when he proposed in her apartment in New York with his grandmother’s ring. As an artist, Lucy wanted to make her wedding completely her own. She takes readers through her process of planning and making a wedding, navigating family and friend input, and much more. And of course, she takes us through her special day at the end.

I have to admit I couldn’t read this all the way through. I skipped to the middle, then the end after the first quarter of the book. It wasn’t what I was looking for – I had been hoping to read the experiences of a fellow bride-to-be who also completely eschewed wedding traditions, but that just was not the case. I also had a hard time getting past what I see as a fundamental incompatibility in the couple. But, that’s a post for another day.

Knisley is an accomplished graphic novel artist who had a few under her belt before Something New was published, such as Relish: My Life in the Kitchen (2013) and An Age of License (2014). Because of her prior experience, Something New is very well-put together. It’s laid out in chapters, which tell a specific part of her story. Each chapter wraps up nicely while also serving to further the overall narrative, just like a traditional novel. Just as in Jarrett J. Krosoczka‘s Hey, Kiddo, the title page for each chapter is a photograph of the wedding, momentos from the wedding, and so on. I’m a fan of this literary device for graphic novel memoirs, which reinforces to the reader that we are reading about someone’s real life, not just a fictional story!

Just like the layout, the writing and art are straightforward and intuitive. It’s very easy to read, even for those who are new to graphic novels. The linework is clean, and the coloring realistic though a bit on the saturated and cartoony side. While sometimes speech bubbles may overlap the blank space between panels, it’s otherwise uncluttered. Not only does Knisley write about her personal experience, she sprinkles in facts and figures about the wedding industry, which may be helpful to brides. All is written in a conversational tone.

Something New blends memoir and nonfiction in a straightforward, yet expertly executed, way. For brides looking to make their special day their own, yet nod to traditions, Knisley will be very helpful, and will help them feel not so weird or alone in their choices!

-Kathleen

Knisley, Lucy. Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride. 2016.

Batman: The Long Halloween

What better graphic novel to review for Halloween week than this definitive Batman title? ;D I have read this one before, years ago, but came back to it for this week’s review.

This June wedding in Gotham City is an event to be remembered, on many fronts. The groom is Johnny Viti, the nephew of Carmine Falcone, one of the two biggest crime lords in Gotham City. Falcone himself tries to pressure Bruce Wayne and his company into laundering money, but Bruce refuses. Later that evening, on the rooftop of GCPD, Batman, police commissioner Jim Gordon, and ADA Harvey Dent make a pact to take down the Falcone family. They will bend the law if necessary, but never break it.

On Halloween night, Johnny Viti is murdered, and a Jack O’Lantern is left next to his body. This starts a string of murders in Gotham City: a member of, or someone close to, the Falcone family is murdered on a holiday, and the killer leaves trinkets relating to that holiday with the body. The killer becomes known as “Holiday.” Batman, Gordon, and Dent are thrust into the web of lies and double-crosses that’s standard territory in the mob. The men even begin to suspect each other. If they can’t trust or rely on one another… how can they work together to solve the case?

This story, originally published in 1996-1997, partly inspired the 2008 movie The Dark Knight (in the 2011 edition I read for this review, there is a conversation between director Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer about how the graphic novel inflienced the movie). On a timeline level, this makes sense, as The Long Halloween chronologically takes places after the events of Batman: Year One (1987)… which partially inspired 2005’s Batman Begins 😉 This graphic novel, together with Year One and The Dark Knight Returns (1986), I believe made a big difference in the way that Batman was written and published thereafter. I believe these graphic novels marked the start of the shift from Batman’s historically campy, fun style, to the much more serious tone we see today.

With that in mind, for it’s time, the story was groundbreaking. Today, it is the perfect example of what a Batman story should be. We see three ordinary men who are trying their best to do the right thing, in a morally corrupt city. We see that they are not perfect, but fallible. We see the main villains as ordinary men, like our heroes, instead of the supervillains (though many members of Batman’s rogues’ gallery make an appearance). The mob characters serve as a foil to Batman, Gordon, and Dent: while they are also human, and therefore fallible, they are morally corrupt but believe they are doing the right thing. Many a comic was published before this one where the heroes always did good, and the villains were always, unequivocally, bad. It makes the events and climax that much more tragic.

The art is reminiscent of The Dark Knight Returns, and continues the style of Year One. The figures are rendered in a hard, blocky style, with little use of soft lines. The environments are rendered more simply, with buildings in the same blocky style, or with just one color, so that much of the reader’s focus is on the characters and their expressions. Usually there are only a few colors used in a single scene or panel, to set the tone and again allow greater focus on the characters and the story. Big blocks of black are used as the only method of shading, creating a stark and gloomy noir-like mood. This is used to phenomenal effect as we guess at Holiday’s identity and second-guess all the character’s intentions as we move through the story.

The Long Halloween is a must-read for every Batman fan, but especially for those who are also fans of The Dark Knight film trilogy. The story, in which you question the integrity of both the heroes and villains, is compelling and was one of the first of it’s kind at publication. The art is effective in it’s seeming simplicity. The Long Halloween is a landmark Batman story that has rightfully earned it’s place as an important and influential title in the hero’s history.

– Kathleen

Loeb, Jeph, and Tim Sale. Batman: The Long Halloween. 2011.

Kathleen’s Annual Spooky Musical Marathon

Well-known fact about me: Halloween is my favorite holiday. Little-known fact about me: I love musicals. Whether they are movies with songs or written for the theater, I love them all. I hum show tunes under my breath while doing every day tasks. I love to dress up, do my makeup, and go to the theater with my fiancé to see them on stage. The experience of live theater is simply unmatched. However, most of the time, tickets are too expensive, or we’re too busy – luckily for me, many musicals have been recorded or remade into movies 😉 I have an annual viewing of these musicals every Halloween:

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  • Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas/Corpse Bride

I mean, come on! You can’t have a spooky musical marathon without a little Tim Burton animation 😉 Of the two, I personally favor Corpse Bride, in which Victor accidentally marries himself to a corpse named Emily while practicing his vows for his arranged marriage to a girl named Victoria. The muted color palette of the land of the living versus the color of the land of the dead challenges your expectations; you’d probably assume it would be the other way around! The three main characters’ struggle to reconcile their misunderstanding and make the most of a bad situation is inspiring to me. While Nightmare is a classic, it just doesn’t do too much for me. I find the Nightmare-inspired levels in Kingdom Hearts more fun than the actual movie… however, Zero is just the cutest lil ghost puppy and I love him.

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  • Jim Henson’s Labyrinth

This cult classic starring the late David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly is a new addition to this year’s rotation. In a moment of frustration, the imaginative Sarah wishes the Goblin King would take her baby stepbrother, Toby, away. To her astonishment, the Goblin King shows up and abducts Toby. Sarah must navigate his realm, where nothing is as it seems, and outwit the master trickster himself to save her baby brother. The world building is whimsical and dark. All of Jim Henson’s creatures are crafted beautifully. And, of course, who doesn’t enjoy Bowie’s music?

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  • The Phantom of the Opera

This classic Beauty and the Beast type story takes place in Paris in 1881, where we see the titular Phantom’s obsession with chorus girl Christine Daaé unfold. For her part, Christine is caught between her fascination with, physical attraction to, and desire to save the Phantom, but also her love of her childhood friend and betrothed, Raoul. Joel Schumacher’s rendition is beautifully rendered in a gothic style. While not particularly “scary” in the traditional sense, it’s frightening to see the lengths that an obsessed man will go to win the heart of a woman, and frightening how the Phantom is cast as a tragic figure more often than a creepy one… But if it’s Gerard Butler, it’s okay, right??? /sarcasm

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  • Repo! The Genetic Opera

I was introduced to this movie by a high school friend, and was instantly fascinated. In a not-so-distant future, a corporation called GeneCo offers transplants to the population of a world that’s suffered from an epidemic of organ failure. There is a price to their services, however. If a patient fails to pay, the Repo Man will hunt them down and take the organ back by any means necessary. Science fiction, horror, black humor, drama, and tragedy are blended here in a catchy rock opera format. You are drawn into the world and not let go until the end, when you sit back and ruminate upon it some more.

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  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

This Stephen Sondheim production based on London’s urban legend is my favorite musical. I’ve seen the Tim Burton movie, and a YouTube upload of the original 1982 run with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, dozens of times. I’ve seen two different live productions: one with a boy not worth mentioning during my college years, and one with my fiancé just a few years ago. That last production was easily the best I’ve ever seen.

Now, you might be thinking. Why the heck is THIS your favorite musical, Kathleen? It’s about a couple of crazy cats who kill people and bake them into pies! Well, yes, but also no. It’s the allegory that really makes it my favorite. The entire story is a metaphor for the way society “eats,” or takes advantage of, the lowly, the disadvantaged, and the castoffs. It’s why the climax of the story is so satisfying, when one of those castoffs finally gets his comeuppance against the high society person who wronged him.

… Or something =P

Any of these musicals your favorites, too? Any more spooky ones to add to the list for next Halloween? ;D

– Kathleen

Cheshire Crossing

What do Alice Liddel, Wendy Darling, and Dorothy Gale have in common? Well, everyone thinks they’re crazy. Each girl has claimed to have gone to a different world and had fantastical, yet harrowing, adventures. They are sent to Cheshire Crossing under the pretense of getting the best medical care. However, Dr. Rutherford, the director, and Miss Poole, their nanny, actually BELIEVE the girls. Dr. Rutherford believes he can teach the girls to control their powers to step in and out of alternate realities – and whatever other powers they may develop. Alice, having none of it, tries to escape. As Wendy and Dorothy try to stop her, the girls accidentally unleash the Wicked Witch upon Neverland, where she teams up with Captain Hook. Can three untrained girls and their nanny possibly have a hope of fixing their mistake?

Nancy reviewed this one for School Library Journal, and at her encouragement I took a stab at this one too. Andy Weir and Sarah Anderson are a lively creative team. They took the question of “What happens after happily ever after?” and decided that for these girls, ever after was not so happy. They are a little more grown up, and perhaps a little more hardened, than you remember, though they have not lost their original charm. It made for a fun romp across the real world, Neverland, Wonderland, and Oz.

I have to admit, like Nancy, it too left me a little confused as to which audience it was meant for. The writing and themes were undoubtedly for a YA audience, but the illustrations skewed years younger. If I didn’t know any better, at first glance I’d say it was a middle grade graphic novel, because of the straightforward panel layout, rounded forms, exaggerated features and facial expressions, and bright colors. In this way, this graphic novel is not as effective as it could have been. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have because I couldn’t get past the disconnect between the writing and the art.

For the target audience (I’ll say upper middle grade to YA), Cheshire Crossing is a fun, empowering take on classic female characters, and going off the cliffhanger ending, with much more in store.

– Kathleen

Weir, Andy, and Sarah Andersen. Cheshire Crossing. 2019.

Grayson (Vol. 2): We All Die at Dawn

After crash-landing in the desert with his partner Helena, the deadly Midnighter, and a baby containing the heart of the Paragon, Dick has no choice but to walk to civilization – 200 miles away. To save the baby, Dick will walk. Midnighter follows, determined to take the baby, and the heart, for his own purposes. He asks questions that Dick himself is trying to get to the bottom of. Why does Spyral need the pieces of the Paragon? Who exactly is Mr. Minos, and what is his endgame? Will their questions on the secrets of Spyral die with the four in the desert, or will they live to figure it out?

The action and intrigue continue from Volume 1. We do see here a gentler side of Dick’s character, as he cares for the baby and plows onward through the desert. Midnighter is a little-known character, so it was nice to see him make an appearance in this volume. As we don’t yet know his motivations or alignment with Spyral, he only adds another layer of intrigue that we can unravel later on.

… I could go on, and leave a proper review, but I believe this panel, which is probably the greatest known to man, will just about sum up:

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My work here is done ;D

– Kathleen

Seeley, Tim, Tom King, Mikel Janin, Stephen Mooney, and Jeremy Cox. Grayson (Vol. 2): We All Die at Dawn. 2016.

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