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Almost American Girl

In this graphic memoir, Chuna “Robin” Ha chronicles how she and her mother moved to America from Seoul, Korea when she was fourteen. Her single mother wanted to take a vacation with American friends in Huntsville, Alabama, but it unexpectedly became a permanent relocation after her mother remarries. Overnight, Robin has to assimilate into American culture. She struggles to learn English and fit in both at school and with her new family, none of whom seem to accept her. She tries to lose herself in her art as she longs for the familiarity of her home, her school, and her friends in Korea while trying desperately to make her new home in America work. Where does she really belong? What is the true meaning of family?

Robin tells the story of the total uprooting of her life with grace. It appears to be colored in layers of watercolor that appear faded and washed out. The lines are similarly faded and shaky, suggesting uncertainty and impermanence. A teenager’s eternal struggle is laid bare and amplified across cultures here. She also shares with us excerpts of the comics and drawings she created during this time, which not only helps show us how she coped, but how she evolved as an artist.

Though Robin could be bitter and angry towards her mom for the extraordinarily unexpected way she uprooted both their lives, she presents her mom with empathy. Robin shares her mother’s story, and the story of her own birth and the circumstances that led to her being raised by a single mom. I believe this was a serious and deliberate decision in order for the reader to try and understand and emphathize themselves with Robin, her mother, and their situation and circumstances.

While this is a personal story, it is also a commentary on Korean vs. American culture. Robin struggles to reconcile these within herself, but we also see the differences starkly when Robin goes back to visit years after her permanent move to America. Ending the novel on this visit was the perfect way for us to see how exactly Robin changed and where she felt her home really was.

– Kathleen

Ha, Robin. Almost American Girl. 2020.

Palimpsest

In this graphic novel memoir, Lisa Wool-Rim Sjoblom chronicles the search for her birth family. She was born in Korea and adopted by a Swedish family when she was very young. She grew up having extraordinarily contradictory feelings: being told she was lucky for being adopted, not belonging and wanting to know about her birth family, but never wanting to ask so she wouldn’t offend her adoptive family. She tried unsuccessfully to find her birth family as a teenager, but tried again between having her first and second child. With the full support of her husband, Richey, Lisa tries to navigate all the red tape surrounding the Korean adoption agencies. She faces contradictions and even outright lies at every turn. Who does she believe? How can she ever find her birth mother, her blood family?

Unsurprisingly, Lisa is now an adoption rights activist because of her experience. I was horrified and deeply disturbed at the revelations Lisa unveiled about the agencies unwillingness to cooperate with her, and the cover-ups and lies. Transcripts of emails and official documents prove this. All she wanted to know was the truth about her past – why was it so hard for her to get it? Why did she and her husband have to resort to detective work to find out to truth?

Richey proved to be a real MVP. Not only did he fully support Lisa in her mission, he acted multiple times on her behalf to reach out to agencies and people he thought would be able to help her. Nowadays I think it would be a no-brainer for married partners to support each other like this – but to read about it, matter-of-factly and with little fuss, was very encouraging to see.

Lisa is also an illustrator, so the art of this graphic novel was superb. It’s all rendered in a nostalgic warm brown sepia which recalls old documents and thin rice paper. Like ancient Asian art, the perspective is very flat, mostly on one plane without much depth. This allows the rounded figures and their emotional expressions to take center stage – and there are a lot of emotions, but it never feels overwhelming or melodramatic. Though there is at times a lot of text, email transcripts and documents are given their own special panels, and considerable efforts are made to ensure speech bubbles are spaced out evenly.

I have to say this is one of the hardest graphic novels I’ve ever read – but it was worth it. This eye-opening account of one woman’s quest to find her family roots after adoption reveals established, yet disturbing, practices that make it extraordinarily hard for adoptees to find out their own information. The art appropriately conveys all the complicated emotions involved without being too melodramatic. Highly recommended.

– Kathleen

Sjoblon, Lisa Wool-Rim. Palimpsest. 2019.

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.

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.

I Moved to Los Angeles to Work in Animation

In this part autobiography, part how-to graphic novel, Natalie Nourigat shares how she went from working on comics and freelancing in Portland, Oregon, to working as an animator in Los Angeles, California. She attended college to study Japanese business, and started her career drawing comics after school. While visiting an animator friend in Los Angeles, she decided to make the career transition. She shares her job hunting process, especially the process of building a portfolio, the environment of the studio she works in, and what it’s like to live in L.A. She even plumbs some animator friends and coworkers to share their experiences!

For some reason, I thought this one was fiction (I must have gotten mixed up with another graphic novel), but I didn’t mind at all once I realized it wasn’t. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised. The information is conveyed in a no-nonsense, yet conversational manner, as if you were speaking to a trusted mentor. The perks of working in animation and living in L.A. are definitely highlighted, but Nourigat makes no effort to hide the less-pleasant aspects, nor tries to diminish how hard she and others worked for their current positions. Knowing next to nothing about the animation industry going into this book, I feel like I’ve learned a lot about it now that I’m done. Mission accomplished for Ms. Nourigat =P

The layout and art (unsurprisingly, since she is a comic artist) are wonderful. Most often, the illustrations in a panel only contain a few elements (such as two people) either without a background or a minimal one, and are colored in two or three complimentary pastels. It reads in a straightforward way as well; I was never once confused about where to read next. The art and layout are clean and uncluttered, to allow the information in the text to take center stage. This one is more text-heavy than your average graphic novel, but I never once felt bogged down by the text due to the clean art and simple layouts.

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Page 4 of the graphic novel, showing the general layout and art.

Before I read this book, I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have known where to start looking if a patron at work had asked me for information about getting into the animation industry. Now, I have a resource! The information is presented thoroughly and succinctly with little fuss. Even those new to graphic novels will have no problem reading this. A solid how-to that fills a niche market.

– Kathleen

Nourigat, Natalie. I Moved to Los Angeles to Work in Animation. 2018.

Grand Theft Horse

Nancy and I both hope you all are having a wonderful holiday so far! For my post this week, here’s a review of a graphic novel that starts on Christmas Eve… that makes it a Christmas story, right? =P

Gail Ruffu is a wanted woman. Her crime: Grand Theft… Horse? Believe it or not, it’s true! She was the first woman since 1850 to be charged with such a crime. However, she had very good reason. In order to protect Urgent Envoy from the brutality of horse racing, and an apathetic co-owner, Gail stole him from the racing stables on Christmas Eve 2004 and spirited him away to a boarding stable. She told no one where he was, though the co-owner, a former friend of hers and a lawyer to boot, cracked down with a lawsuit, hired a private investigator, and resorted to blackmail to try and get Urgent Envoy back. Gail stood her ground even as she lost all her money, her training license, and her way of life. She lost it all in order to do the right thing – but will it pay off in the end? Can she win the case that’s gone all the way up to California’s Supreme Court?

… Wow. Just wow. This is a tale so big it seems unreal, but it really did happen! The author, G. Neri, is Gail’s cousin, and upon hearing the story from Gail herself, he thought, “That would make a great book!” (Introduction page). There’s more than just the story of Urgent Envoy’s case here: Gail’s childhood and early adulthood are touched on as well, to explain how she grew to love horses and ended up in the racing circuit. The writing is succinct, tense, and conversational, as if Gail herself were telling us the story.

The artwork is tense, too. Corban Wilkin’s linework is blocky, angular, and even so, curiously expressive. He managed to not only convey horses accurately, but give them expression and personality without making them caricature-like. I finished a painting of horses in the fall that took me TWO YEARS – so believe me when I say, what Wilkin did was no easy feat. In fact, I’m jealous. I’m ready to scrap my whole painting X,D

This graphic novel is part Western, part legal drama, and part animal lover’s tribute. Above all, it’s an underdog story. Gail went up against impossible odds for the sake of a horse’s well-being. You’ll be rooting for her the whole way through.

– Kathleen

Neri, G., and Corban Wilkin. Grand Theft Horse. 2018.

Best Reads of 2018

It’s that time of year again! Here we’ve compiled our list of the ten best books we’ve read in 2018, and their consequent reviews, in no particular order. Enjoy!

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Superman: Grounded

Kathleen: Superman knows he’s not like any other man, but that doesn’t stop him from striving to emulate the best in humanity. However, he feels his moral center is deteriorating, and he’s unsure what to do. “What does Superman stand for? What does he mean to the regular citizens of this earth?” Clark asks himself. Well, he decides to go for a walk to clear his head. In his odyssey across the United States, he sees citizens going about their day and helps anyway he can. This book is the best iteration of Superman, and the struggle between his alienness and humanity, I’ve ever read. If you’ve run into Strascynski’s work for other superheroes, you’ll love his interpretation of Superman.

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The Plague Widow

Nancy: I enjoyed Brian Wood’s seven-volume Northlanders series, with the fourth volume being my favorite. The story takes place in the frozen Volga region in AD 1020. A plague has come to the seven hundred person settlement, so the local priest counsels strongly that the settlement goes under quarantine and those who show any sickness be banished. But what they don’t take into account is how claustrophobia sets in, and they find they locked the greater danger inside their walls with them. Hilda, a young beautiful widow with an eight-year-old daughter, is caught in the crosshairs as her former status as a wealthy woman is stripped when her husband dies of the plague. Destitute, with a long winter ahead, she struggles to survive. The excellent art by Leandro Fernandez captures the isolation of a Viking settlement in turmoil.

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Fables series (link to Deluxe Edition Book 1 and Deluxe Edition Book 15 and Series Recap)

Kathleen: Y’all thought I was done singing the Fables praises, eh? Not even close =P Those fairy tales you thought were fiction? They’re true, and the characters live among us. The Fables fled from their Homelands after a ruthless Emperor rose to power and took the Homelands for himself. In modern New York City, the Fables have built new lives for themselves, but the Emperor is just a world away, and he’s looking for them. Fables is one of, if not the best, long-running graphic novel series that isn’t a superhero comic. Thus, the writing doesn’t suffer from the usual tropes that plague superhero comics, especially as far as characterization. The art by Mark Buckingham is consistently top-quality as well and has become a personal favorite.

Marys Monster

Mary’s Monster

Nancy: An ode to Frankenstein, this is a poetic and beautifully evocative book about Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, the author of the classic 1818 novel. This fictionalized biography by Lita Judge details Mary’s life from childhood onward and is told in free verse. Dark and lovely, the art brings Mary to life, just as Mary brought the creature Frankenstein to life. Judge’s moody black and white watercolor illustrations, paired with the sensuous verses, effectively show the ideals and passions that ruled Mary and her poet husband Percy. Mary’s tumultuous life helped shape her into a masterful writer and led her to create an unforgettable novel. She and her creature won’t soon be forgotten.

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The Ghost, The Owl

Kathleen: A little girl appears on the edge of a forest lake. She can understand the language of animals – which means she’s no longer living. She’s so small, scared, and confused, that Owl promises to help her find out what happened to her. Some of the other animals think that Owl should mind his own business, but he knows it’s the right thing to do… and will do it, no matter what anyone else says or thinks. This graphic novel was executed brilliantly. There are no panels whatsoever. Only the art connects the speech bubbles: the lines are graceful, sinuous, and gently guide the reader where they’re supposed to go next. It’s so brilliant, intuitive, and unlike anything I’d seen before, that I had to read it all over again as soon as I finished.

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Rebels: A Well Regulated Militia

Nancy: “A historical epic of America’s founding” and is very accurate in describing this exceptionally good graphic novel by Brian Wood and Andrea Mutti. It gives a window into the Revolutionary War era based in the NE corner of our new nation in the late 1700’s. Divided into six chapters, Wood first gives us a lengthy portrait of the fictional character Seth Abbott and his journey from farm boy to one of the well-respected leaders of the Green Mountain Boys. Then we are given shorter non-linear vignettes of other loyalists and patriots and their contributions to the war. Make sure you check out its sequel These Free and Independent States about Seth’s son John during the War of 1812.

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DC Showcase Presents: The Trial of the Flash

Kathleen: Barry Allen is about to start his life over again when the Reverse Flash escapes from his Speedforce prison and vows to end it on Barry’s wedding day. The Reverse Flash targets Fiona Webb, Barry’s bride to be, just as he targeted Barry’s first wife, Iris West. In the aftermath of the ensuing fight, the Reverse Flash is dead, Fiona suffers a mental breakdown, and Central City is torn on whether or not the Flash is a murderer. The jury must decide if Flash’s past heroic feats earn him a “get out of jail free” card, or if he must be held accountable for his actions like any other man. This is a run from the ’80s, and the writing contains the best of both the goofy, totally-out-there subplots of older comics and the moral gravity of modern comics.

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Star Wars: From A Certain Point Of View

Nancy: I love Star Wars! I love short stories! Together this anthology was a win-win for me. Forty authors celebrated forty years of Star Wars by contributing a story of a minor or supporting character from the ending of Rogue One to the finale of A New Hope. This book is a must read for all Star Wars fans. It strengthened and filled in gaps in the narrative and this new canon was a treat from beginning to end.

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Hey, Kiddo

Kathleen: Acclaimed children’s author Jarrett J. Krosoczka presents a memoir of his childhood. His grandparents took him in as his mother went to jail for heroin addiction, and her brothers and sisters (Krosoczka’s aunts and uncles) were going off to college. Krosoczka explains how he came to terms with his feelings about his unusual family through drawing and writing stories. Though I have not been exposed to his children’s works, I can without a doubt say that Krosoczka is a master of his craft. The illustrations in this graphic memoir, with their squiggly lines and limited color palette, are among the most effective I’ve seen in a memoir. Reproductions of family artifacts within also drive home the personal nature of this story and help make it more real to readers.

My Fav Things is Monsters

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters

Nancy: The review for one of my favorite books wasn’t even on our blog, as I had written it as a guest post for Reads & Reels! 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. 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.  But what sets this story apart is the author’s choice to represent Karen as a werewolf, with the device being that Karen perceives herself as a monster. I eagerly look forward to the sequel and answers to the mysteries found in this unique book.

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Batman: White Knight

Kathleen: I had to make an honorable mention here. After Batman force-feeds the Joker an unknown medication, the Joker seems to be… cured? The newly reformed Jack White, along with Harleen Quinzel, is crusading to deliver Gotham City from the Dark Knight, whom they’re painting as the biggest criminal of all. Other than the corrupt Gotham Police Department, of course. Some in Gotham support White and his message, while others believe it’s all another Joker scheme, albeit more elaborate than usual. This one turns every assumption you have about Batman on its head and makes you question whether he’s doing good – or if he’s just another criminal trying to prove that he’s a hero. The art is appropriately dark, moody, and carefully detailed in a Gothic style.

There you have it! Our list has DC representation from Kathleen, as that is her favorite publisher, but surprisingly Nancy’s list did not include two of her usual favorites- Marvel and Image. Smaller publishers got a shout out on both lists which is a great development. We hope you check these books out and enjoy them as much as we did!

-Kathleen & Nancy

Lost Soul, Be at Peace

From the author of Honor Girl comes another graphic memoir – this time, about Maggie’s time in the eleventh grade, after the events of Honor Girl.

Maggie’s an only child now that her brother moved away for college. She lives in a huge house with a dad who’s absorbed in his work and a mom who’s busy with everyone but her daughter. Teetering on the brink of failing eleventh grade and dyeing her hair purple can’t make them notice her. The only one Maggie can rely on is her cat, Thomasina. Tommi for short. Except when Tommi disappears inside their own house, that support disappears as well. Maggie searches top to bottom and finds nothing but a door to nowhere and a ghost of a boy named Tommy – but no sign of her grey cat. Tommy is searching too – but he’s not sure what for. Together, Maggie and Tommy search for her cat, his past, and the meaning of growing up.

It’s been a long time since I read Honor Girl, and I think the art style has changed a bit. I remember Honor Girl looking slightly fuzzy, unfinished almost, to convey the uncertainty of young love and teenage girlhood. Lost Soul, Be at Peace‘s characters are a bit more manga-like than I remember, but overall is a bit more polished. That’s funny when you take into consideration the supernatural elements – but at the same time, it doesn’t feel supernatural. It feels, in fact, quite natural for Maggie to be talking to a ghost! This is more about coming to terms with your history and realizing that you’re not a child anymore. It’s a quiet but powerful sentiment, one we all come to at some point. I look forward to more from Maggie Thrash, who manages to convey such complex emotions so succinctly and elegantly.

– Kathleen

Thrash, Maggie. Lost Soul, Be at Peace. 2018.

Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide

Graciela Iturbide is a famous photographer who was born in Mexico City in 1942. But, she didn’t start out wanting to be one. She wanted to be a writer when she was a girl. However, Graciela was from a wealthy and conservative family, and young girls simply didn’t have careers in the arts. When they grew up, they married, had children, and kept house. Graciela did do that for a time – until her daughter passed away. Then, she turned to the camera and what had before been only a hobby became her life’s work. She travels her home country of Mexico, and abroad to India and the United States, capturing portraits, landscapes, and birds. She looks for symbols, true reality, and death behind her lens. Her work has gone on to receive worldwide recognition and awards… and she’s not done yet.

This is quite an interesting graphic novel. It’s a memoir, a retrospective, a catalog of photographs, and an artist’s biography. Like Iturbide’s photographs, the art is all in black and white. The reason she only photographs black and white is, that’s how she feels reality is captured. Her photographs are a study in value and symbolism. There are a few within the book, and they are marvelous. The artist recreates some in his illustrations, and they are delightfully true to the source material. They are rendered with strong black lines but with gentle washes of grey to give tone.

Iturbide’s work strives toward understanding. Understanding her Mexican culture, the role of women and femininity, the juxtaposition of rural vs. modern life, and much more. Her work is held at many prestigious museums, including the Getty, who published this graphic novel. I hope it is the first of many portraits of modern artists and their work!

– Kathleen

Quintero, Isabel, and Zeke Peña. Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide. 2018.

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