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Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio

On Monday, May 4th, 1970, the National Guard opened fire on Kent State students peacefully protesting the Vietnam War. Thirteen seconds and sixty-seven shots later, four students were dead and nine more wounded. Derf Backderf recounts the weekend leading up to, and the events of, that tragic day. Rising political and social tensions, both in the state and nationwide, coupled with angry students and fed-up, sleep-deprived Guardsmen, created a ticking time bomb which exploded into Monday’s events.

Backderf (who also penned My Friend Dahmer, which Nancy’s reviewed) used interviews, eyewitness accounts, and archival materials to build the narrative, from multiple viewpoints. Most prominently, we see the last days of the four students who were murdered. We see what the Guardsmen, campus and Kent police, FBI, and other law enforcement agencies’ responses were throughout the weekend. We see reactions of Kent citizens (who were not college students) and beyond to a lesser extent. Though much is still unknown about the event, this is as comprehensive a picture as you can get.

The presentation of this book, through the difficult subject matter, is exceptional. The entire book is in black and white. Figures are long and lanky, outlined in thick black ink, evoking a ’60s and ’70s art style without being too distracting or hokey. Though it’s text-heavy, great care is taken with especially wordy sequences so that panels aren’t cluttered. Chapter breaks are given at the start of each of the four days chronicled here, and timestamps in especially important spots. At some points where maps and aerial view shots are needed, there are arrows indicating movement of people, and numbered labels to help put the sequence of events together. There is also an extensive notes section at the back Everything is laid out very clear, in black and white (forgive the pun), making this hard read a little easier to get through.

No doubt about it: this is a very difficult read. Though the events here took place in 1970, many elements still hold true today. Paranoia, clashing ideals of the young and old, misinformation and generalization of a population… sound familiar? Your morbid curiosity compels you forward to the tragic conclusion, hoping for answers that unfortunately cannot be revealed or provided, whether through willing silence or simply being lost to time.

The stellar presentation of the difficult subject matter has already put this graphic novel at the top of my 2021 best reads list. A hard read, and a hard won one. Required reading for all.

– Kathleen

Backderf, Derf. Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio. 2020.

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics

Tom Scioli presents this unofficial Jack Kirby biography in “first person.” The author’s note at the beginning states that the prose was adapted from sources such as interviews, where Kirby recounted events in his own words.

Jack’s parents were from Galacia, though Jack and his brother David were born and raised in the Bronx, New York City. Jack’s childhood was rife with childhood gangs, Sunday and pulp comics, and his mother’s stories. As he grew up, he took odd jobs before breaking into an artistic career by drawing the in-between shots in animation. Eventually he started drawing comics. The biography details his career, first drawing comic strips, then superhero comics for both Marvel and DC, including his creation or co-creation of many, many characters we know and love today. We also see his personal life, from getting married, to time served in World War II, to his many, many collaborations with other creators, to his children being born and his parents and brother passing away, and how they all eventually made their way into his work – art imitating life.

The “first person” literary device was extremely effective. Though Kirby is gone, through this graphic novel, “written” in his own words and with his own distinctive voice, he lives again. The intimacy and immediacy of the narrative would have been lost without it. There are some passages that are in what I believe to be German and Hebrew, which only add to this effect. Though no translation is provided, you can get the gist of what’s being said from context =) There are some instances where different characters “speak” in the same style, but their exposition boxes are in different colors to indicate the shift.

Not only was the “prose” in the characters’ own words, the art was in Kirby’s own style. There were plenty of examples of his work, in the style of the times. As the book went on, you could see it change and evolve. The touch that was most fun for me were the pencil smears. The exposition boxes, speech bubbles, filler space, and some illustrations all had pencil smears on them. It wasn’t overpowering – everything is still legible – but it added an earthy, tangible touch to the book: like you’re holding a precious original instead of a mass-produced item.

The element that was least effective for me, and took me out of the experience at times, was the character design for Kirby himself. Every other character had small eyes, sometimes mere lines and dots for pupils without the whites, which was common practice at the time. Jack Kirby had big, anime-esque eyes. I imagine this was a deliberate choice made to differentiate him from other characters, but it looked weird and out of place. In that vein, a “cast of characters” page and yearly (or decade) timestamps would have also been helpful for navigating a dense read with many people in it.

The end of the book has a meaty “Notes” section, a bibliography, and an index.

All in all, this was an enlightening and endearing look at one of the most influential people in the comics industry. I learned a lot, and it was a real treat to get an “insider look” on how Kirby worked, and how his work was influenced by his eventful life. The “first person” prose is what makes this biography so special. Coupled with the resources at the back, I could easily see high school students using this graphic novel for a biographical project. Recommended for anyone who wants to see how comics were made.

– Kathleen

Scioli, Tom. Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics. 2020.

Seen: True Stories of Marginalized Trailblazers: Edmonia Lewis

Seen: True Stories of Marginalized Trailblazers is a graphic novel series, newly published in September 2020, that focuses on highlighting historical figures of different colors, races, gender, and sexual orientation. The first volume is about Edmonia Lewis. She was a Black/Native American sculptor who lived and worked from 1844 – 1907. Throughout her childhood, she created Native American wares (baskets, moccasins, and the like) with her aunts. She was educated at the abolitionist Oberlin College, which was radical for the time. A scandal at Oberlin caused her to move to Boston and seek out a sculpting tutor. After a few months, she opened her own studio and was successful in selling marble busts of abolitionist figures. In order to better connect her work with fine art, Edmonia moved to Rome in 1866. She spent most of her remaining life there, working and creating, until her death in London in 1907.

While a small, short graphic novel, it is positively packed with information. The writing is straightforward and matter-of-fact, with little embellishment or fuss. But Edmonia Lewis’ story was so fascinating that it doesn’t feel dry at all! This series is obviously made for the classroom: there are definitions sprinkled throughout for words students might not be familiar with, a reference list, and a teaching guide for grades 6-10 at the end.

My only complaint about the presentation is that the book is much smaller than I expected. The small size, of course, makes for small font. For how text-heavy this graphic novel is, it could have been bigger to more easily accommodate bigger text. Younger students and those needing special accommodations for poor eyesight will struggle with it.

Also journalistic in presentation was the art. Precise line and color work made for not only a clean foundation for all the text, but more accurate depictions of Edmonia and her artwork. As far as I could tell, the illustrations of her sculptures were very true to life – er, well, marble!

I highly enjoyed this first in a new series, and learning about their flagship heroine: sculptor Edmonia Lewis. She was an inspiring figure in both life and work. I imagine students will enjoy it as well, even if they are made to read it for school 😉 Highly recommended and can’t wait to see what other figures they highlight.

– Kathleen

Walls, Jasmine, Bex Glendining, and Kieran Quigley. Seen: True Stories of Marginalized Trailblazers: Edmonia Lewis. 2020.

Paying the Land – Take²

I realized shortly after wrapping up this review that Nancy had already reviewed this graphic novel in April. Read her post here!

Joe Sacco travels to the Mackenzie River Valley in northwestern Canada. This is where the indigenous peoples called the Dené have lived for generations. This is also where mining and fracking have taken place, as the area is rich in natural resources. The Dené, and other peoples indigenous to the area, have challenged treaties in order to officially have the land recognized as theirs, even as the mining and fracking are taking place and creating jobs that are otherwise hard to come by.

Through mainly interviews, and a little bit of historical research, Sacco presents a work that successfully presents both sides of a sticky issue. The presentation is interesting in that it’s heavy in both journalistic and oral history elements. Much of the testimony is from in-person interviews and storytelling, which is an important part of the Dené culture. What Sacco does is weave these interviews and stories with history and his own observations. It does make for dense reading, even if it’s in graphic novel form.

The art style is no-nonsense. Care is taken to render both the scenery and characters in a realistic manner. Clean cross-hatching is used for the shading. Though it’s nice to look at and study on a technical level, it somehow feels sterile and dry. I suppose that has to do with the subject matter, but a little more personality in the art would have been welcome in order to make the interviewees come to life.

Though the storytelling and art are a technical marvel, I personally felt there was heart and soul missing from this very real story about very real people. I agree with Nancy that this would be an excellent resource to use in the classroom.

– Kathleen

Sacco, Joe. Paying the Land. 2020.

Maids

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.

-Nancy

Paying The Land

“From the ‘heir to R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman’ a masterful work of comics journalism about indigenous North America, resource extraction, and our debt to the natural world”

Author and illustrator Joe Sacco is known for his insightful graphic novels Footnotes in Gaza, Palestine and The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo. He is a well-regarded comix-journalist who immerses himself in different locations around the world to interview and understand his subject. He once again does this with this recent graphic novel, as he journeys to the subarctic Northwest Territories of Canada to stay among the First Nations Dené tribes.

Sacco begins the book by having some elders share how they used to “live in the bush” at least part of the year, which means their families were living off the land and were often nomadic. Men and women shared duties, with no gender division because if you were alone in the wild, you needed all the life skills, not just half, to survive. This lifestyle began to change with permanent settlements which resulted in specific gender roles, technology such as snowmobiles replaced the dog sleds, jobs in the industries that were advancing into the area and the enforced residential schools run by the government. Not only was a way of life disappearing, but their surrounding habitat was changing, as oil, gas and diamond mines were wrecking the environment.

There was so much to cover and Sacco ably shows the research and time he poured into this project. He interviews several chiefs (who have different ways of looking at the economy vs environment issue), activists, trappers, oil workers, priests and elders. Different chapters tackled some of the big topics – a changing way of life, land claims, and residential schools.

The chapters on the residential schools really stood out, as they devastated the families and tribes in both Canada and the US. Children were ripped from their cultures and identities and told that they must conform to European-type standards. And while those schools have been thankfully closed for a while now, their insidious legacy lives on. The transfer of dysfunction has now moved from their abusers who were strangers (at the schools) vs bringing home that dysfunction to their families so now abuse exists within families. Parental disengagement is rampant, as is extreme alcoholism. These unhealthy cycles are now being passed down to other generations, years removed from the residential schools. Another excellent graphic novel that touches on this disengagement from their tribes and families is The Outside Circle.

At 272 pages, this a dense piece of non-fiction that will take multiple sittings to finish. In fact, even after finishing it, you will want to go back and look at certain chapters to gain even more information. I would suggest that this text-heavy graphic novel could be used in the classroom as a supplemental resource to trying to fully understand some First Nations issues. As with any complex issue, there are no easy answers and Sacco questions after many interviews “Is there really such a thing as the best of both worlds?”. He admits that because he not Native American there are some issues that simply can not be understood. While he was given much access to the communities, there are certain people, events or situations he could not be privy to.

The black and white art shows a comix vibe, which is meant for mature audiences. Not only are the pages filled with a lot of text to convey information, but the pictures are also detailed and precise. Whenever he includes himself in a scene, he draws himself in an exaggerated caricature style, yet everyone else is drawn accurately and with respect. The beautiful landscapes are lovingly drawn in, so then the juxtaposition of seeing how some areas have been destroyed is heartbreaking.

This was a deep and reflective look at life for the Dené, and Sacco tried to wrap it up with a nugget of hope as young activists there are trying to work on a myriad of issues. I would suggest you pair this well-researched book with other books written by #ownvoices authors to get a nuanced view of the joys and struggles of people who live in that region. Thank you to NetGalley for an advance online copy of this thought-provoking story.

-Nancy

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.

The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman

Everyone knows Superman. Big guy, born on the planet Krypton but raised in Smallville, Kansas. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Fights for the ideals of truth, justice, and the American way. What you might not know is the fascinating story of how the idea of Superman was born.

Joe Shuster is a quiet kid growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. He likes to read comic books: the pulps, adventure stories, and detective mysteries, but the science fiction stories are his favorite. He dreams of becoming an illustrator some day, because of his talent for drawing. Through a cousin, he is introduced to Jerry Siegel, a writer with the same passion for comics. Together, they prove an indomitable team of not only creators, but friends.

When they came up with the character they called “Superman,” it was already after a series of successful and unsuccessful publications together, but they knew they were onto something big. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it as big as they thought. Through a string of corporate manipulations, Jerry and Joe were coerced into selling the rights to Superman. These two boys had basically built the superhero comic industry, and they were getting nothing for it. Joe was just content to get a paycheck and provide for his family, but Jerry was ready to fight for more. What’s more important? Staying silent and getting by, or raising hell and demanding change?

Though the book does center more on Joe, Jerry’s story is so entwined with his that it’s almost a dual biography. And though I knew their names, I had no idea how much Jerry and Joe had gone through to get Superman, the first and now arguably the world’s most popular superhero, published. At the time, between the World Wars and during WWII, there were biases and discrimination against Jewish people, which is partially why it was so hard for them to sell their work. Ultimately it was why it was so easy for publishers to manipulate them. Their story is heartbreaking, but ultimately hopeful… like someone else we know, huh? 😉

The art is wonderful. It’s soft, more painterly than graphic, with very little of the hard lines and shading that we’re used to from superhero comics. The warm palette it’s rendered in evokes the nostalgia associated with the time period and the wonder of two teenagers deep in the creative process.

The best thing about the book is, it’s meticulously researched. There is a bibliography at the end for further reading, and a comprehensive notes section. I found the story so fascinating that I read through the notes! I am planning to check out a few of the materials listed in the biography, so I can learn more about Jerry and Joe’s story. This is essential reading for all Superman fans, but anyone interested in the history of the comic publishing industry will love it too.

– Kathleen

Voloj, Julian, and Thomas Gampi. The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman. 2018.

The Secret Loves of Geek Girls

I put this book on hold at work thinking it was a collection of fictional stories in graphic novel format. What I got was an interesting mix of mini memoirs, both written and in comic format, written and illustrated by many different female creators. I was surprised, but didn’t enjoy it any less 😉

The central theme of the stories is love, which is interpreted many different ways. The majority of the stories, of course, deal with romantic love. From dating mishaps to long-distance relationships to exploring sexuality, it’s all covered here. The love of friends, comics, nerd culture, video games, and fictional characters are all covered here as well, though of course the most impactful are those that deal with real relationships. That the creators are all sharing their own experiences makes it all the more emotional and resonating.

The format varies from story to story. Some are all written word. Some are strictly comics. Still more are a mix of both: written word with one or two illustrations or a few short comic panels that emphasize a point. No two stories are alike, because no creator worked on more than one story.

As ever with anthologies, there are some great stories and some not-so-great stories. I personally found more on the “great” end of the spectrum. There were a couple I finished by skimming and only one or two I skipped entirely after the first few paragraphs. Hope Nicholson, the editor, did a very good job of making sure the quality of the content was top-notch! A few that stood out to me especially were:

  • “Minas Tirith” by Marguerite Bennett
  • “Waxing Moon” by Meags Fizgerald
  • “Yes, No, Maybe” by Meagan Kearney
  • “How Fanfic from an American Girl Captured an English Boy” by Megan Lavey-Heaton
  • “Love in the time of Ethernet: Geeks & LDR” by Natalie Zina Walschots

The love of fandom and for significant people in the authors’ lives permeates all, along with self-love and acceptance. These girls are geeks and proud of it! The confidence and vulnerability in all these memoirs are at once inspiring, comforting, and heart-warming. Some of the stories have a little more mature content, but not enough to where I wouldn’t give it to an older middle-schooler. If you’ve got any younger geek girls in your life who need a confidence boost, hand them this. It’ll be just what the doctor ordered.

– Kathleen

Nicholson, Hope (editor). The Secret Loves of Geek Girls. 2016.

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