Archive for the ‘Comics and graphic novels’ Category

Once in awhile it’s nice to get a refresher course on why [insert genre here] is so great. Such was the case when I sped through three graphic novels in a row: El Deafo by Cece Bell, and Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and Sisters. Aside from the great storytelling and fun artwork, each memoir took advantage of the graphic novel format, doing things that are difficult–if not impossible–to do in text-only novels:

el deafo

1. The bunnies. El Deafo is Bell’s memoir of growing up as the only deaf kid in her school/community. Her hearing aids made her conspicuous at a time when all she wanted was to be a normal kid with a true best friend. So, what better way to emphasize the importance of hearing than to depict every character as a rabbit? Those long ears sticking out of everyone’s head made it impossible to forget Bell’s fixation on sound. And it made the humor in the book that much goofier. (more…)

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ShadowHero-Cov-final1Grab a timer. I challenge you to name all the Asian and Asian-American superheroes you can think of in one minute. Go.

OK. Who did you come up with? How many were you able to name?

My point exactly. Unless you’re a diehard comic book buff, that was probably a frustratingly long and fruitless minute. When was the last time (or first time) superhero blockbusters, and their inevitable summer sequels and spin-offs, have featured persons of Asian descent gowning up in spandex to save the world?

Enter storytelling geniuses Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew. Their graphic novel, The Shadow Hero, hits all the marks of a great comic book–vibrant action sequences, ruthless villains, hero-defining moments, vigilante justice, justice in upholding the law–while finally giving a face to the mysterious Green Turtle. Take a step back, and his origins story is also a playful and nuanced exploration of the Chinese immigrant experience in pre-WWII America, as well as Chinese history, culture, and personal identity.

Growing up in Chinatown, teenager Hank Chu’s biggest dream is to carry on the family grocery business. Then there are his mother’s loftier aspirations for him. In a comedic turn of events involving a bank heist, a high speed car chase, and an appearance from a caped hero called the Anchor of Justice, Hank’s mom becomes determined to transform her reluctant son into the first Chinese-American superhero. Appropriately, Hank’s initial crime fighting escapades are downright embarrassing until, in true superhero tradition, personal tragedy propels him to embrace a new identity as the Green Turtle.


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ad-boxersboxBoxers and Saints may be the first book on this blog to get double reviews from Jen and me. Here’s her take, and mine is below. Major spoilers ahead!

Two weeks ago I wrote about book hype and how it can raise or lower your expectations for a book. Since September, the most-hyped book on my radar has been Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang. It took months for my request to arrive at the library, so in the meantime I read a ton of reviews and grew increasingly psyched. It had everything going for it: starry-eyed praise, a chilling trailer, a historical setting I knew nothing about, and an ingenious setup–telling both sides of a conflict through a two-volume set.

Luckily, it lived up to the hype. I loved the characters, the humor (Yang gets bonus points for putting humor in a book about a bloody revolution), the art. He also avoids one of my pet peeves: too often, stories set in other countries star characters who speak broken English, which is idiotic, since they’re obviously speaking their native language even if the book is written in English. Thankfully, everyone in Boxers & Saints speaks naturally, and it’s the missionaries who butcher the grammar as they attempt to speak Mandarin to the villagers. Also, whenever we see foreign soldiers talking in their own language (French, English or German), their words look like gibberish, or drunken attempts at drawing Chinese characters (if you squint, you’ll notice how each character corresponds to a letter of the alphabet. With enough patience, you could decode what they’re saying. I managed to find “e” and “a” before my eyes crossed in dizziness).

Most importantly, Yang tells a complicated saga through compelling characters, and the story has enough complexity for me to appreciate the shades of gray. As Jen said, there are no winners in Boxers & Saints. Everybody loses. Under different circumstances, Vibiana and Little Bao might have been friends, but the pull of history–and Yang’s masterful storytelling–was too much. While each volume stands on its own, they’re infinitely better when read together (it makes the most sense to start with Boxers)–hence my insistence on calling the series a book instead of books. Yang kept the surprises coming, and I didn’t even know what I was missing until the last page of Saints. (more…)

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boxers saintsIt’s been over two months since I finished reading Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang, and I’m still thinking about it. Told in graphic novel format from the perspectives of two Chinese teens on opposite sides of the conflict known as the Boxer Rebellion, Volume One follows Little Bao, while Volume Two tells Four-Girl’s story. Their narratives intersect briefly as children growing up in rural China during hard times, and then dramatically in a clash of allegiances as the Boxers, a pro-nationalist movement, march towards Peking in an effort to dispel the foreign powers–and their foreign religion–from China by force.

Yang sets the scene with ease, using Little Bao’s passion for folk opera, Four-Girl’s home life, and a host of mortal and supernatural characters, to give us insight into the cultural, social, and political situation influencing China as the 19th century drew to a close. Yang also portrays Chinese culture–even its more outlandish superstitions–with sensitivity and skill. Having read other books about China, I appreciate that his characters are influenced by, but don’t embody these superstitions. Rather, they come across as fully fleshed individuals with human motivations. (more…)

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The universe recently conspired to throw three books my way, which I read one after another. They’re all quite good (one of them excellent), with a running theme of extreme oddity:

1. Bake Sale by Sara Varon (Aug. 2011)

Cupcake, a bakery owner, spends months holding extra bake sales so he can afford to visit Turkey with his best friend Eggplant. For Cupcake, the main attraction is the opportunity to meet Turkish Delight, a famous pastry chef who just happens to be friends with Eggplant’s aunt. As odd as the plot sounds, it’s really the most normal (and boring) part of this book. The real attraction lies in

–the baked goods recipes sprinkled throughout (I haven’t felt this hungry after reading a book since Redwall)

–the joyful, colorful artwork. Varon’s book takes place in a world inhabited by creatures like Eggplant, Potato and Avocado, whose names perfectly describe the species/food item you’d expect them to be (with the addition of arms, legs and opposable thumbs)

…which means there’s quite a bit of casual cannibalism. Because Cupcake is really a cupcake (at one point he laments the drying out of his frosting at a Turkish bath), and he eats cupcakes too. We might as well be reading about anthropomorphic sheep dining on lamb chops.


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There’s a slew of sequels and companion novels coming out in the next few months, and instead of just listing them, I present, in the spirit of Pseudoscience, a plot of anticipation level vs. expected surprise:


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I recently bought Dawn of the Bunny Suicides as a gift for a friend. For anyone unfamiliar with the genius of Andy Riley, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a collection of cartoons showing plump, would-be adorable bunnies in the act of creative suicide. Death by potato masher, lawn mower and Quidditch broom are just some of the highlights (fellow geeks, rejoice—Star Wars and Doctor Who both get to shine). And before you call PETA on me, take a look at the book, because it’s bound to have even the greatest Watership Down fans chuckling.

What puzzles me is why these books get shelved in the adult section. The deadpan, often cynical humor seems perfect for YA. Same goes for the amazing xkcd collection…¥et they’re rarely found outside of bookstore gift displays or adult comic book sections. Wouldn’t it make sense to also stick a copy with the YA graphic novels? On a related note, I’ve found the opposite problem with books like Persepolis, which, despite being required reading for West Point cadets, usually get cataloged only as YA. (To go even more extreme, there’s always the well-hashed controversy over It’s a Book!) It seems that the liberal use of illustrations in books confounds the normal rules of marketing. What a shame, because pigeonholing them in one category is a surefire way to limit readership.

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What’s wrong with this picture?

If you’re thinking it looks eerily like an adult Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes, you’d be right. Two bloggers have drawn their version of the grown-up troublemaker as a father. That’s Calvin with his WIFE—who happens to be Susie (yes, that Susie).

I can’t decide whether to be amused or disturbed. Sure, the comics are pretty funny (there’s two total, here and here), and Hobbes makes a welcome return. Calvin, in truly ridiculous form, has even named his kid Bacon (what’s that short for, Begonia)?


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