Saturday, January 23, 2010

Getting Graphic

First there were comic books, beginning, I kid you not, with The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck in 1842 before progressing to Al Smith's Mutt and Jeff, Hergé's Adventures of TinTin, and the familiar superheroes of DC and Marvel, among them Superman, Batman, and the X-Men (with a few -Women thrown in for good measure, all astonishingly busty yet narrow-waisted). For many, many years, there were comic books, not to mention related endeavors like Mad magazine. Then somebody clever started making comic books into video games, superhero movies proliferated like hydra heads, Japanese manga and anime acquired a U.S. fanbase, publishers began popping comic strips into volumes, "comic book" adventures showed up in website and blog formats on the Internet, and author-artists even started writing books that were basically really long comic books... So the graphic novel was spawned, like a comic book swamp creature, only with even more scales and a dramatically jagged maw. (Click here for Wikipedia's history of the American comic book.)

While initial graphic novel offerings for the under-18 crowd tended to target teens, I am happy to report an increase in middle grade titles. See, for example, my August 2009 review of Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute by Jarrett Krosoczka, a book which launched a very fun series for second and third graders. And then there's the most talked-about offering of recent weeks, CALAMITY JACK. The second book by Hale, Hale, and Hale—who really should form a law firm—just did a blog tour, which means you'll find reviews of it all over the place right about now. Nevertheless, it's going to be the lead singer in my post today, since it is also the book that got me looking around for other titles, AKA backup singers.

There is some talk that Calamity Jack suffers from sequelitis, which simply means that it has to compete with the author's previous book, in this case Shannon Hale's award-winning Rapunzel's Revenge, illustrated by Nathan "No Relation" Hale. And indeed, this is a different story. But why shouldn't it be? In comparative terms, the new book has an equally dire villain, but less of a tall-tale feel—it trends more in the direction of fairy tales, or at least, fairy tales as influenced by steampunk. Plus Shannon's husband Dean got involved, so it's no wonder Calamity Jack reads even more like a guy-appeal action-adventure than its predecessor.

I have a soft spot for tricksters, and Jack of "Jack in the Beanstalk" fame isn't just any old trickster; he's inspired multiple stories in Great Britain and the United States, the "Jack tales." Here the Hales make him a reformed bad boy trying to win the heart of a good girl, one lasso-braided Rapunzel. Meanwhile, he's up against the giant Blunderboar, literally a big businessman who's oppressing Jack's hometown of Shyport. Con man Jack turns his cleverness to the mystery of the giant ant attacks, attempting to find a connection between the encroaching monsters and the giant even as he schemes to rescue his own mother, who is a prisoner in the giant's lair and the reluctant baker of some very questionable bread along fi-fie-fo-fum lines. Jack is assisted by Rapunzel, along with his small green-winged buddy, the pixie Prudence, and a dashing doofus named Frederick Sparksmith III. The authors and illustrator further entertain themselves—and us—with creatures like the Jabberwock, a guard-monster who attacks anything that flies (leading to a final twist in this already twisty adventure).

A lot of the plot points are over-the-top, but they're meant to be. After all, we are talking about a place where magic beans grow into sky-high ladders and giants consider humans tasty snacks. I will note that the Hales chose to make Jack a Native American, a potential challenge when others have been stepping on indigenous toes right and left of late. Yet Jack's ethnic heritage, while treated with a bit of appropriate appreciation, mostly comes off with the casual air attached to the particulars of anybody's life because it's just what they're used to. Unlike the designers of the Bloomsbury covers that are the source of recent brouhahas, the Hale crew places their brown hero right smack in the middle of the book jacket—and, not coincidentally, of the story.

Another graphic novel that has gotten a lot of attention recently is Matt Phelan's THE STORM IN THE BARN, which won the 2010 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, prompting me to move it to the top of my To Be Read pile. When some people complained about the award going to a graphic novel, awards committee member and Horn Book editor Roger Sutton stated:

As far as I'm concerned, historical fiction is an invented tale which not only takes place in the past but proposes to shed some kind of light on an actual event or situation of historical import. The Storm in the Barn has all the ingredients of great fiction—astute characterization, evocative atmosphere, a compelling story, a theme rewarding consideration—and gives us a unique vision of the Dirty Thirties. How is it not historical fiction? [quoted in a School Library Journal article.]
Having read the book, I completely agree. The Dust Bowl era means more to me now that I've watched Jack Clark's family struggle to survive it. And really, this particular era is famous for having been understood through the photography of Dorothea Lange and others, both at the time and in history studies since then. In point of fact, as the author's end note makes clear, these same photos inspired Phelan to write the book. I would say that for a Dust Bowl story, the visual format is more than usually appropriate, not less!

I am also struck by how well Phelan incorporates fantasy elements, subtly personifying the lost rain and having him hide (perhaps sulking?) in a barn—but Jack notices something's up and gets the courage to investigate. This is a young Jack, a shy Jack, a kid who worries about his sick sister, is bullied by older boys, and is rebuffed by his tightly wound father when he tries to help with repairs around the farm.

Phelan's use of color is another strength: this dusty land is mostly depicted in black and white, or rather, grays, sepias, and the occasional blue, the latter either to represent night or the missing moisture. The Storm in the Barn is a beautiful, moving tale, undoubtedly the best of the five I'm highlighting in today's post. (Note for Worried Parents: The book does include a brutal roundup of jackrabbits, although Phelan's characters end up being sickened by their own violence against the animals. As the author points out, such roundups really did take place during the difficult Dust Bowl days.)

I picked up Eleanor Davis' THE SECRET SCIENCE ALLIANCE AND THE COPYCAT CROOK because Betsy Bird recommended it for a so-far non-existent graphic novel award for middle grade readers. I can see why she liked it! The idea of a book in which young scientists group together may sound like teacherly didacticism, but that's really not what's happening here. We get a feel for Davis' tongue-in-cheek style on page 3, where she profiles her main character, Julian Calendar, as "OUTWARDLY A NERD," then pulls a page-turn with "But inwardly..." and says, in an even more detailed diagram, AN ULTRA NERD.

I don't think I've ever seen an artist use labels quite so effectively. On certain key pages, Davis labels everything, which nicely links the book to the idea of a science textbook or a technological diagram. But the labels are funny as well as informative. For example, in a museum director's office, we get multiple items such as "Senegalese Marka Mask," "Egyptian Canopic Chest," and "Assyrian Winged Bull Statue," followed by, down in one corner, "Japanese Noodle Soup Packages."

At his new school, Julian tries to hide his scientific genius and overall nerdiness, but eventually fails—attracting the attention of two unexpected fellow science nerds. One thing I like about the book is how Davis uses another character to show us that a kid can be bad at school exams, yet still be very bright and scientifically inclined. But you've got to be paying attention to learn lessons here; mostly the story is an adventure involving the theft of ideas and valuable museum pieces. The three kids in the SSA use their smarts in entertaining ways, creating practical jokes and incredible vehicles as well as solving a mystery. A marvelous series start!

The second volume of Kazu Kibuishi's Amulet series, The Stonekeeper's Curse, actually came out in September 2009, but I jumped back to read Book One, THE STONEKEEPER. This book is squarely directed at anime and manga fans, and it is beautifully crafted. (The series is another Betsy Bird pick.)

I have to warn you, the parents have it rough here. Emily and Navin's father dies in the first few pages, and when they move into a creepy abandoned family mansion, their mother is taken captive by a gruesome monster. Peril and horror abound, though it all seems rather controlled somehow and there is even a certain amount of cuteness, e.g., in the form of a goggle-wearing pink rabbit named Miskit who looks like an escapee from a cereal box. Even so, the many monsters do have a high tentacle count, or in some cases, fangs. This is pretty darn good storytelling—if your nine- to twelve-year-old is a budding horror fan, he will probably really like it. While boys seem like the obvious audience, the main character and bearer of a helpful yet perilous amulet is a girl, accompanied by her younger brother. So readers of either gender should be intrigued.

The last book I'll bring up is actually for an older audience of adults and teens. But if your middle school kid likes manga and/or vampire books, wears a lot of black, and thinks Harry Potter is way too goodie-goodie, consider handing her Thomas Siddell's Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 1: ORIENTATION. Antimony Carver is a student at Gunnerkrigg, a place which turns out to be much more than a school. Like Harry, she has lost her parents; unlike Harry, she aids and abets a creepy-cute little shadow creature and, after her stuffed animal is possessed by a demon, keeps it. Definitely darker than Hogwarts. But the book is well done, and certain kids are going to eat it up, utterly at ease with Siddell's odd mixture of pagan gods and robots. Despite what I've said about plot points, not to mention a really scary fellow student with bleeding-ink eyes, Antimony herself is on the side of good and is an appealing heroine (unlike Courtney Crumrin—yikes!). One of her teachers seems to fight evil on a regular basis, although he's not much of a mentor and Antimony questions his motives in classic teen fashion. Fortunately, Antimony's best friend Kat is a science nerd who proves capable of rescuing Antimony when she finally gets in over her head—or under her head, basically lost in the Underworld. (Note that the Gunnerkrigg books are an Internet-to-page transplant.)

Whenever I go to the bookstore, I see teens sitting around on the floor in the graphic novel aisle reading, oblivious to passing feet. From a children's literature standpoint, I don't see graphic novels as an inferior alternative to traditional fiction; instead I consider them hooks for young readers, especially the reluctant ones. Graphic novels are just getting better, the way picture books shot forward as a genre 15-20 years ago (and in an even earlier wave led by Maurice Sendak). The popularity of manga among middle school students, the acclaim given to experimental projects such as Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the transformation of best-selling works such as Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider books into graphic format, the success of Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid books (another Internet transplant) and Jennifer and Matthew Holm's Babymouse series, the renewed interest in Jeff Smith's Bone books, and the off-the-charts artistry of Shaun Tan's The Arrival and Tales from Outer Suburbia all herald a shining new age for this evolving genre. I'm not sure I would call it golden—perhaps titanium?

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