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Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic History of Women’s Fight for Their Rights

Here in graphic novel form is a history of women and their struggle to earn rights. Women warriors, rulers, writers, speakers, leaders, of all colors, from antiquity to today, are included. The name, years of birth and death, a portrait, and a short story or biography (including direct writings or quotes were applicable) are included for each woman.

The overall narrative is constructed as an AI classroom, in which school girls asked about how women got the right to vote. As the AI teacher shows us, women’s right to vote was very closely entwined with other rights: labor, birth control, civil, and disability. The fictional girls in the story learn from the immersive AI environment, but also from each other.

Though text-heavy and stuffed full of information, I found it to be an easier read than expected. The time stamps were very helpful. There are also chapter breaks, often with a fun two-page spread of a big scene with multiple women related to that chapter title. Trying to guess all the real and fictional character was a lot like playing “Where’s Waldo”! Each chapter (for the most part) followed a different time period, and the art would change slightly accordingly to reflect that time. It would even change within chapters according to place: for example, going from the Mayan Empire to the Vikings to the Celtic Empire.

What surprised me the most was simply how many women were featured here. Most were given 1-2 pages dedicated just to them; some, like women of the Civil Rights movement, were grouped together on one page. The writings and quotes accompanying each woman made reading about them so much more interesting and immediate. A great deal of research was done for this book to show, rather than just tell, how women created and continue to create change. Highly recommended.

– Kathleen

Kendall, Mikki, and A. D’Amico. Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic History of Women’s Fight for Their Rights. 2019.

What Unites Us: The Graphic Novel

Journalist Dan Rather wrote What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism in 2017. This is the graphic novel adaptation of that book, which is a series of essays. The graphic novel is broken up into chapters, each talking about a specific topic on American patriotism. The first chapter defines patriotism and it is that definition that guides us through the rest of the book. Through stories both personal and historically significant, Rather illustrates how patriotism has evolved since he was a child. As patriotism encompasses many forms, so too does Rather talk about patriotism through the lenses of inclusion, exploration, and more.

The illustrations were lovely. Though they were minimalistic, to let the writing take center stage, they were still carefully crafted. Each line has purpose, with no frills or fuss. Red, white, and blue are the only colors used. Often, a whole panel will be red or blue, though some combine the two. For example: red can be the entire foreground and blue the background. Very occasionally the two will mix into what looks like a watercolor bloom.

Rather himself was the main “character,” who served as the narrator for the book. He “speaks” his essays to us, which gave it a nice personal touch, as if you were having a conversation with him. He mentions various public and historical figures, all of whom are drawn true to life.

While overall the book was thought-provoking, and I appreciated that he did not sugar coat yet remained optimistic… it’s a white man’s optimistic view of American patriotism. I would like to see, and will be seeking out, graphic novels which speak to women and BIPOC’s points of view on America then and now, and what we can do to make this country better for everyone. This graphic novel was published in a series called World Citizen Comics, more of which I’ll check out.

Happy Fourth of July for our American readers!

– Kathleen

Rather, Dan, Elliot Kirschner, and Tim Foley. What Unites Us: The Graphic Novel. 2021.

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked The World

I loved Brazen! Stories of 29 kick-ass women are shared- spanning centuries and continents.

I only recognized a few names- Margaret Hamilton, Josephine Baker, Temple Grandin, Betty Davis, Nellie Bly, Hedy Lamarr, Mae Jemison and Peggy Guggenheim. The other twenty women were new to me, but now I want to know more about all of their lives!

Author and illustrator Pénélope Bagieu gave each woman three to five pages and would start their story at their birth before proceeding chronologically and would touch on what made each woman so unique. Many of the women are from years past, but Bagieu is able to capture the time period and mores of the era, to showcase how the woman (or sometimes women as there were two groupings of sisters) were rebels for their generation. She covers their lives in broad strokes, glossing over many aspects of their lives, yet sharing the fundamentals and getting to the essence of the story. These stories were also perfect to read in bite-sized portions, I could read about a few women at a time, and looked forward to the next time I could pick up the graphic novel and read a few more short biographies.

Nellie Bly

Each page typically has nine panels and is done in a cartoony manner, yet is accurate in how the women looked and their various environments. Color is used sparingly, to add contrast or to heighten the effect of a momentous event. Bagieu saves the real artistry for a closing two-page spread that is filled with color and symbolizes what they stood for. I looked forward to how she would convey their lives and what art style she would use- Art Deco, Surreal, Nouveau, Impressionism (both Neo and Post) or Modern Art are among the different types. My favorite was Betty Davis’s, for I had to turn it sideways to understand it, and all it’s parts perfectly came together to form a complete picture and vibe.

I applaud the diversity found within, for Bagieu choose an Apache warrior, a Chinese empress, an astronaut, a volcanologist, a Greek gynecologist, athletes, singers, painters- even a bearded lady! I do wonder where she got her information from, for a brief work cited would have led additional weight to her character studies. But I have spent time myself looking up additional information about the women in this book, and that is always a good sign of a strong non-fiction book when I want to know even more about the subject or person at hand. In the end, she lists 30 additional women to learn about, and I’m all in for reading another book about more brazen women!

-Nancy

The Disney Bros.: The Fabulous Story of Walt and Roy

This slim graphic novel presents the start of the Walt Disney Company’s story. Together with Ub Iwerks, brothers Walt and Roy Disney start their own animation studio in 1928. Walt is the face of the company and the creative force; Ub is the main artist and animator; and Roy handles the business and financial aspects. We see the little studio grow and push the boundaries of animation – first adding sound, then color, then a full feature-length animated film called Snow White in 1937. We see the animation studio grow into a media conglomerate and a theme park revolutionary. We also see the Disney brothers and Iwerks grow together, then apart, then together again to create something the likes of which the world had never seen.

For everything it tried to accomplish – present Walt in a neutral light, track the founding and building of the company – it fell short in every case, because it was too short. Disney history, especially that of the man Walt himself, is fascinatingly convoluted and I felt there was a lot of context missing from it as a result of the short length. It felt from the art style and writing that this was supposed to be for middle-grade or YA readers. In that regard, I can appreciate the effort; as an adult reader, I found too much lacking for it to be particularly educational or enjoyable. It really needed to be the length of Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics (208 pages to Disney Bros’ 112) for it to be effective from a narrative standpoint.

It was more effective in its presentation. There were chapter breaks in order to give young minds (and older ones) a breather 😉 The colors were bright, cheerful, and very Disney-fied. Though it was hard to distinguish individual characters from one another, the figures were drawn in a visually pleasing manner: short, lean bodies with big heads and bulbous noses, recalling cartoon strips popular at the time.

While I didn’t enjoy this as much as I hoped, middle grade and YA readers will get an abbreviated look at how the Disney company started. The “Further Reading” section at the back will allow them to further satiate their curiosity.

– Kathleen

Nikolavitch, Alex, and Felix Ruiz. The Disney Bros.: The Fabulous Story of Walt and Roy. 2020.

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.

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