Happy Halloween! My graphic novel horror pick this year is Delphine, which takes some classic fairy tales and subverts them.
Once upon a time…there was a college student (who remains unnamed throughout the story) who falls in love with the mysterious Delphine. The two had been on the cusp of a new romance when she was called back to her hometown to care for her ailing father. While she had promised to stay in touch, she doesn’t, thus sending this substitute Prince Charming on a quest to find her. This young man finds excuses to explain what is happening at first but soon enough realizes these disturbing experiences are not normal. There is symbolism that is recognizable from fairy tales- a poisoned apple, a coven of witches, a group of dwarves, a kindly woodsman and a big bad wolf- but it is all jumbled together in a manner that can not be understood. All the while, his lost love Delphine remains out of reach.
The art is done in duotone, with browns dominating, giving it a moody shadowy vibe. The paneling structure is straightforward, often four to six panels per page. Only the chapter breaks give you full-page illustrations with additional color. Most of the town inhabitants are gaunt, with extreme features that are caricatures of villains you would see in fairy tales. While at first, the illustrations seemed lackluster, they grew on me and matched the ominous tone of the narrative.
Twisted tales are popular and often overused storytelling devices, but in this case, it really works. Elements of fairy tales and horror are braided together well, and you will wonder what you would do if you were dropped into a macabre village with no escape!
Set on the Hawaiian island of Maui, single mother Charlene has been caring for her infirm father and young son Brandon alone for years. When her father dies, Charlene is unmoored and decides to go to medical school, when her musician brother Rob returns. While Rob seems like a nice guy, a fight with his father years ago had left Charlene with no one else to help when their father slipped into dementia. Charlene, Brandon, and Rob teeter through dysfunction as they try to come to a new equilibrium with this new family dynamic. It was an interesting look at how people process grief, and as someone who lost their mother a bit over a year ago, I could relate.
Despite its short length, this story packs a punch. Illustrated in black and white with grayscale, the only additional color used is orange. The panels show a slice-of-life in an environment we often correlate with paradise, but for this family, it is anything but. There is a theme of fire, in the sugarcane fields nearby, but the fire also symbolized rebirth, such as when fire (or trauma) burns your life to the ground. Life is messy, and there is no straight line to success.
Author and illustrator R. Kikuo Johnson expertly showcases a true-to-life look at grief and family dynamics. Bittersweet and tender- adults who are facing new chapters in their life will relate.
Based on the gruesome 1933 double-murder in Le Mans, France, this story details how two sisters killed their employers and their crime might have had roots in the class struggle of that time period.
Christine and Léa Papin were two very close sisters who came from a poor family and had been sent to be live-in maids to help support their mother. Christine had been working for the Lancelin family first and asked for her sister Léa to be hired to help with the heavy workload and long days. The mother and younger daughter condescend to the sisters and eventually work up to abuse. Christine and Léa bond together, and there are some uncomfortable hints of a sexual relationship between the two, but eventually, they reach a point where they won’t put up with the two women any longer.
Author and illustrator Katie Skelly has a distinctive cartoony art style, that is replicated in her other graphic novels- simple lines that give the impression of the scene without drawing extraneous detail. Backgrounds are minimal, often with blocks of monochromatic color. The panels are streamlined, often only three to five per page with white gutters. I would like to comment on the noses- I am seeing more and more artists who simply draw a few lines to symbolize noses (Noelle Stevenson, Fran Krause) that are minimalist and somewhat off-putting.
This was a fast and interesting read, and people might not realize until the end that it is based on a real crime. The pacing of the first two-thirds of the story was excellent, with flashbacks to the sister’s past, but their final breaking point came suddenly. The ending was abrupt and almost too light-hearted to be non-fiction, so readers might come away thinking it is simply a fantasy horror story. To learn more about the real-life Papin sisters, start with this Wikipedia article. But all in all, a solid graphic novel that might push readers to think about the exploitation of workers and how stress and bias can break people.
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is an extraordinary and ambitious graphic novel. Equal parts memoir, murder mystery and coming-of-age drama, the art in this book is beyond amazing and was a perfect read during this upcoming Halloween season.
New author Emil Ferris has created a story set in Chicago in the late 1960’s, with the story framed as a graphic diary written in a notebook by Karen Reyes, a ten-year-old girl living with her single mom and older brother. Told in a non-linear fashion, the graphics tell as much of the story as the text does.
Karen’s upstairs neighbor Anka is discovered dead, with clues pointing to a murder, although the staging appears to be a suicide. As Karen pieces together information gained from observation and a taped interview that Anka’s husband lets her listen to, we learn that Anka’s past may have led to her being murdered. We get extensive flashbacks to Anka’s past in Nazi Germany in which she was a child prostitute and later Holocaust survivor, and these revelations go far in explaining adult Anka’s haunted behavior.
The other half of the book is Karen’s coming-of-age story, with her sharing how she feels like a misfit at her school. Karen’s missing father is Hispanic and her mother is originally from Appalachia, so she already feels she does not match her citified classmates. She is obsessed with B-grade monster movies and pulp horror magazines, plus her growing attraction to girls led to her losing her best friend. We also get insights into the family with her mother’s cancer diagnosis and hints that her brother Diego has a dark secret.
But what sets this story apart is the art and the author’s choice to represent Karen as a werewolf, with the device being that Karen perceives herself as a monster. Only once will you see how Karen really looks. Ferris’s unique cross-hatching style and impeccable detail to cityscapes and backgrounds will astonish you. She captures the essence of people, although many of them are drawn in an exaggerated caricature manner. Others are drawn with a monster motif, matching how Karen draws herself. Many of the pages are in black and white, but she selectively uses subdued colors to help with telling the evocative narrative. That a new talent could create such a book is remarkable, and Ferris deserves the attention she is receiving.
For all my praise, this book is not perfect. The length of the book is quite daunting and the narrative is much too much. While I was sucked into the art, I kept on putting the book down because it could get overwhelming at times. The dense characterization and jumbled chronology make you question the interconnected stories and how the past and present were all related. However, I know a sequel is in the works and it will be a must-read. I am anxious to know how Karen and her family’s story ends, and how the monsters in her mind and in her life will come into play in this singular saga.
*This was originally posted on a friend’s blog as a guest post in 2018, but I am now putting it on my blog as well*
I was sold on this graphic novel as soon as I read murder ballads in the title! I’ve long been a fan of narrative songs that tell a story, with Appalachian inspired murder ballads being particularly appealing to me. I have paired a mini-synopsis of each story with a rendition of the song it is based on. Often these songs have been covered by many artists, but I selected versions that were most well-known, or I just really liked the singer.
Author and illustrator Erik Kriek is actually Danish, but took an American type of ballad, and turned it into a new type of art. He didn’t just adapt the song straight into comic form, instead he interpreted the lyrics to tell a fresh story, sometimes to my liking and sometimes not. The art was in duotone, with a different color for each tale. Reminiscent of scratch art or wood reliefs, Kriek’s black inks were evocative of Appalachian landscapes and times gone by.
Pretty Polly and the Ship’s Carpenter
This song is the oldest of the bunch, as early versions were sung in the British Isles hundreds of years ago. In it, a woman is enticed by a sailor who promises he will marry her, but when she becomes pregnant because of their liaison and pushes for marriage, he instead kills her. He is racked by guilt and supposedly Polly’s ghost haunts his ship, wanting revenge. I did not like one of the last panels because I don’t see how Polly would ever forgive him.
The Long Black Veil
A man is having an affair with his best friend’s wife, and one night while heading home after a rendezvous, is mistaken for the killer of a local man. Not willing to betray his lover, he is hanged for he had no alibi. This story has a neat twist, that I always guessed at, but is not explicitly said in the song.
Johnny Cash is king, thus I shared one of his renditions, but Mick Jaggar did a good version of the song with The Chieftains.
Made famous by singer Steve Earle, this story tells of a young black man who heads into Taneytown against his mother’s advice. Upon arriving, he is set upon by a white mob and kills one of them in self-defense on his way back home. He later finds out an innocent man was accused of the crime and was hung.
When Nellie’s husband is away, the hired man comes to terrorize her as she is left alone in a remote cabin. The most violent and graphic of all the dark stories. Although justice is served, there is an uncomfortable indication at the end of the story, when you infer that Caleb left behind a reminder of that terrible night.
Where The Wild Roses Grow
Kriek took the most artistic license with this song written and sung by Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue, and because I was already a huge fan of this moody ballad and video, I didn’t enjoy this adaptation as much as the others.
An escaped convict meets a young woman who helps him saw off his chains, and who is easily seduced by him. Despite this, he threatens to kill her if she doesn’t hand over money that he assumes was hidden by her father who was known for robbing several banks. The conclusion was rather talky and clunky, and I didn’t think it was a good match for this murder ballad.
This book sent me on many music journeys, as I enjoyed listening to ballad after ballad, and reminding me of family vacations in the Appalachian region where my parents took my younger sister and I to music festivals and to watch clogging. So while this post became more an ode to music than to the book, it was a fun read and I’m glad I discovered it!
Contemporary video artist JH and Sarah met on a dating app, and hit it off right away. They meet on Skype regularly for hook ups. Though Sarah is elusive, cold even, JH can’t stop thinking about her, and starts to become obsessed. Despite his best efforts, he can’t seem to convince her to meet in real life. When finally she does cave, she asks him to meet at a swinger’s party, and asks a vow of abstinance lasting months while she’s on vacation. JH will do anything she asks, if only for the chance to get close to her. When she gets back, will they finally have a chance?
This is a very adult graphic novel that focuses on the juxtaposition of emotional intimacy in the age of online dating. We only focus on the “relationship” from JH’s point of view. We see him struggle with trying to connect to Sarah, but just like him, we readers are left to wonder about and draw our own conclusions about how Sarah is feeling. The most effective panels are of JH, alone, staring at his computer screen or his phone, waiting for an answer.
Though there is nudity, there is very little explicit sexual content. Instead we experience JH and Sarah’s sexual acts through visual metaphor, some of which are JH’s video art pieces. I found the cliff sequences quite clever: JH and Sarah are falling down a cliff, holding onto swords or daggers that make marks in the cliff face. For the most part they are parallel to each other, but sometimes they cross. Sometimes the sword or dagger marks wobble with increased or decreased frequency. To me this suggests the level of excitement or involvement that both parties have in the sexual act.
Though some of the mind games shown here probably went over my head, as I’ve never dated online, I was impressed by the artwork and the alternative ways that sexual acts were portrayed. We see two young adults struggling to find what they need, when they might not even realize they need it. Though I tend to roll my eyes at the “intimacy vs. technology” cliche, I found this one to be the most effective I’ve read so far.
Hobo Mom– what a title, I had to read it just based off that. But I also read several positive reviews on this atypical story, so I decided to give this short 62 page graphic novel a try.
This subversive tale flips gender norms, by having the mother Tasha be the parent that walked out on her spouse and child. Her ex-husband Tom is a locksmith who is a caring and kind man and has a close relationship with his daughter Sissy. We begin the story by witnessing Tasha ride the rails and her attack by a man that makes her reconsider her travels. She wants to get to know her daughter, who has no memory of her, so obviously Tasha has been gone for years at this point.
*Spoilers* Tom is reluctant to welcome her back, and only agrees if Tasha does not reveal to Sissy that she is her mother. Sissy enjoys Tasha’s company, but never picks up that Tasha is her mother, although she does realize that Tasha makes Tom uncomfortable. Tom tries to forgive Tasha and wants her to stay, and there is a very graphic adult interlude at one point. But Tasha’s wanderlust proves too strong, and off she goes again leaving a trail of pain behind her.
While the book cover was in full color, the illustrations are in black and white except for some slight pink shading done in dot matrix, with simple clean lines. Although the art was uncomplicated it still was able to convey intense feelings, especially through Tom. The last pages showing Tasha’s thoughts was especially effective as she dreamed of getting away when she was with her family, yet thought of them when she left.
We never find out why Tasha does what she does for with the story’s short length, this really is more a slice-of-life tale, we don’t truly understand the motivations or background of either parent. As a mother myself, I struggled with Tasha’s choices, finding them incredibly selfish- for I think “finding your best self” can be self indulgent in real life. While I never want people to feel trapped and unhappy, I feel there is worth in holding yourself accountable to others.
Annie is a cosplayer – she makes costumes for fictional characters and dresses up like them for conventions and for fun. Verti is a photographer and aspiring videographer. They meet and become friends. They spend a summer together making videos, posting them on YouTube, and attending conventions to meet other fans and participate in cosplay contests.
There isn’t so much an overarching story here as it is a series of related vignettes. There is very little plot, character development, or conflict. There really isn’t that much about cosplay. To me, it felt like a few stories about two flimsily-written girls and their screwing around over a summer – and they happen to like anime and cosplay. The hows and whys are omitted, plopping us right in the middle of their story (such as it is) without exposition. There are some stabs at themes of loneliness, attachment in the digital age, and even existentialism, but they felt half-baked and tossed in because, “Why not?”
The art is subpar. It’s drawn simply, which provides easy access to the book, but I found it overly simple. Many panels are one color, or two variations of, and it sort of reminded me of two-color prints. Normally I would have enjoyed it more, but the writing was so paper-thin I just couldn’t get into it. Overall, I found this one really frustrating and disappointing – I am wondering why it was so hyped.
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is an extraordinary and ambitious graphic novel. Equal parts memoir, murder mystery and coming-of-age drama, the art in this book is beyond amazing, and was a perfect read during this Halloween season.