Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Building Stories by Chris Ware (A Graphic Novel Quick Recap)

Building Stories was the perfect cap off to my graphic novel reading spree in conjunction with SJSU iSchool's INFO 281. Although I may not continue with my written recaps, I am inspired to keep reading. There has been so much fresh material added to the graphic novel scene in recent years, and I'm excited to keep exploring. But first, my final annotated bibliography write-up...

Building Stories by Chris Ware

Presented in a cardboard box similar to a board game - which itself serves as part of the storytelling package - Building Stories defies being neatly boxed up into any typical categories. It is not just a “book,” but a container within which Ware has included an assortment of fourteen separate publications that vary in size and format. While tied together by consistent artwork and stories that overlap within the same world, the medium of delivery ranges from a large cardboard foldout and faux newspaper to a “Little Golden Books” style book and pamphlets of different dimensions. The experience of reading Building Stories was like participating as a voyeur, catching glimpses into the lives of Ware’s characters as their stories are revealed in snapshots, short anecdotes, and sometimes longer sequences. As I gained increasing insight into the characters, it was clear that the title Building Stories functions two ways: first, referring to stories about a building (and its inhabitants), and second, in terms of the process of building (i.e., constructing) stories. And, in terms of story construction, Ware has delivered a most uniquely constructed storytelling experience. The effect, for me, was profound. I have emerged from my reading, feeling as if I have developed a deep connection with this fictional place and its people. I feel like I have gained sacred insight into the characters’ vulnerable, precious inner lives; and, while their life experiences are not mine, I can recognize myself in their small moments of raw human emotion, such as loneliness and longing, that Ware has captured and portrayed so well.

Here by Richard McGuire (A Graphic Novel Quick Recap)

Here by Richard McGuire

Here is a strikingly unique graphic novel, which is difficult to sum up without experiencing firsthand. The basic setup is that McGuire depicts a single corner of a room - or the space that room otherwise inhabits - capturing snapshot moments that take place in it, but across different times, from prehistoric periods to eras far into the future. Each two page spread represents at least one such time, although there may also be cutouts within pages that depict different embedded times. Some sequences or juxtapositions within the book make logical sense. For instance, there is a spread that shows a series of people holding babies in various time periods. In this, we see continuity over time, and how life is cyclical. At other points, the connections are not so apparent, such as when McGuire leaps to prehistoric times when the area was swampland or a future that reveals the area flooded and existing underwater. These scenes suggest the random nature of life and our lack of control. While I attempted to keep track of the different times - and McGuire aids with this by using distinct color palettes for various periods - I ultimately surrendered myself to the reading experience, not trying to understand it all, but simply immersing myself. Rather than walking away with a neat storyline, I emerged as if I had experienced a bizarre trip of emotions that ranged from appreciating tiny and palpable everyday moments to sensing the enormity of the universe and the incomprehensible expansiveness of infinite time. And, as I look around my own home, I can’t help but also imagine an overlay of what has occurred here during times past and present.

Stitches by David Small (A Graphic Novel Quick Recap)

Stitches by David Small

Voicelessness is a key theme throughout David Small’s memoir Stitches. David grew up in a household where members did not communicate and with the legacy of a great-grandfather who destroyed his vocal cords when trying to kill himself by drinking Drano. He himself becomes physically mute after having throat surgery for cancer that his parents hide from him and that his doctor father eventually claims responsibility for causing due to over x-raying his own child. David’s childhood experience of this dysfunctional silence is mirrored in his graphic novel, which features many sequences devoid of text. While David was alone then, observing his family’s tragic history without anyone to confide in until he eventually connects with a counselor, Stitches invites readers to stand as his witnesses. As readers, we are able to escape into his fantastical dreams and nightmares, and we are confronted with zoomed in views of his physical stitches, which simultaneously reflect both the trauma that he has endured and his path to healing. I was deeply moved by Small’s memoir. He authentically portrayed his feelings of fear and anger, while sensitively acknowledging the cyclical roots of hurt in his family. This is well encapsulated in the ending dream sequence that reveals his grandmother in an asylum, and his mother “sweeping the path clearing the way for [him] to follow.” He ends simply with: “I didn’t.” Breaking his family’s pattern, Small has reclaimed his voice through the telling of this story, and his strength may hopefully inspire others that it is possible to also forge their own, healthier paths in life.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Y, The Last Man (A Graphic Novel Quick Recap)

Y, The Last Man (Book 1)

Y, The Last Man is a graphic novel that fits into the apocalyptic, dystopian science fiction genre. Told through jumps in timeline and geographic location, the story depicts a scenario in which all humans and mammals with a Y chromosome - in other words, all boys and men - suddenly die unexpectedly in one instant. There are just two exceptions to the mass extinction: Yorick “Y” Brown and his male Capuchin monkey named Ampersand, both of whom add a lot of whimsy to the story. As is typical of the genre, readers follow how the remaining society react in different ways to survive, from the wives of dead congressmen who storm the White House to the Daughters of the Amazon who celebrate the demise of men. The range of characters who span the globe are differentiated seamlessly with simple shorthands such as enclosing dialogue translated from other languages within < and > angle brackets, and time and location are clearly announced as headings at the beginning of each transition. While the adventure tale is humorous and entertaining, it also raises questions about the status of women by drawing attention to the fact that men continue to hold the majority of leadership positions as “99% of the world’s landowners...95% of all commercial pilots...85% of all government representatives” and so forth. I think this would be an easy book to sell to my high school students since it is an engaging read and transfers well from other popular stories such as The Walking Dead; a bonus is that it might also get them to think about gender issues at the same time.

March, Book One (A Graphic Novel Quick Recap)

March (Book One) written by John Lewis

March is the personal historical narrative of Congressman John Lewis and his active participation in the civil rights movement. Book one covers Lewis’s childhood growing up in a family of sharecroppers in Alabama and shows how, from an early age, he demonstrated core values that would guide the rest of his life. The illustrated retelling of how he protected the farm chickens reflected his belief in nonviolence and respecting life; and when he defied his parents, escaping to school rather than helping at the farm, he asserted his commitment to education. Lewis continually proved himself to be a standout leader early on, preaching in his teens, connecting with Martin Luther King, Jr. as a college student, and co-founding and chairing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The book depicts Lewis’s involvement in organizing peaceful sit-ins in Nashville, which were sadly met with violence portrayed through menacingly dark hues in the comic, and how Lewis remained courageously steadfast in his commitment to establishing equal rights. While I am familiar with the most commonly told stories of the civil rights movement such as Little Rock, Dr. King, and Rosa Parks, it was refreshing to revisit the period both in a graphic novel medium and from Lewis’s perspective since he was integrally involved, but is not always highlighted. His story reminds me how the movement truly required the concerted efforts of many people, not just a few individuals, and this is important to keep in mind when attempting to affect change in the present.

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf (A Graphic Novel Quick Recap)

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

Derf Backderf wrote and illustrated My Friend Dahmer recounting his personal experiences with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer before the murders, back when they were in high school together. Growing up in a small town in Ohio, Backderf and his friends not only noticed Dahmer, but were perhaps the closest thing he ever had as friends. They did not cruelly bully him as others did, but sadly he was not much more than an oddity to them. His strange behaviors - such as how he mimicked a speech impediment and faked seizures - were their entertainment, and they even went so far as to create a “Dahmer Fan Club.” While Backderf’s group was not aware of the seriousness of Dahmer’s issues, Backderf holds the adults in their lives accountable for not noticing the issues at all. Whether it was Dahmer’s parents who were too busy fighting with one another or school teachers who were oblivious to the fact that Dahmer showed up to school drunk regularly, Backderf raises the concern that they failed to recognize any of the warning signs and get him help. At the same time, Backderf clearly asserts that as soon as Dahmer commits his first murder, he becomes fully responsible for the crimes. Backderf’s storytelling and artwork work extremely well together with details such as a “Congratulations” sign with the C askew signaling that things are off kilter from the beginning. Working at a school, this tragic real-life tale moved me, and I am reminded how critical it is to notice all students and speak up when my intuition kicks in.

Friday, June 17, 2016

This One Summer (A Graphic Novel Quick Recap)

This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki

This One Summer immerses the reader into a nostalgic summer retreat at Awago Beach with the adolescent main character Rose, her parents, her friend Misty, and other characters from the surrounding small town. The coming-of-age story reflects Rose’s perspective as she observes those around her and tries to make sense of what she sees. She follows the drama of teenage “Dunc” who works at the local mom-and-pop shop and won’t take responsibility when a girl becomes pregnant and identifies him as the father. When witnessing her parents fight, Rose makes assumptions about the reasons, but it turns out she is unaware of deeper roots. She may not be able to understand all that she observes, but she is noticing details that she was likely oblivious to in the past. As she explores Awago Beach, discovering the literal trash hidden behind people’s fences, she simultaneously becomes aware of the emotional baggage that others figuratively carry. She even gains her own role in their webbed stories when spotting someone in danger and getting them help. Working in a school, I can predict concerns regarding some of the language, but I found it works to realistically portray the experience of children transitioning from a sheltered and protected existence to a more expansive worldview that includes grittier elements and suffering. Overall, I enjoyed the beautiful artwork of This One Summer and feel it effectively transported me to experience the summer along with Rose, while also reconnecting me with my own childhood emotions.

Ms. Marvel: No Normal (A Graphic Novel Quick Recap)

As I am now halfway through SJSU iSchool's 1-unit course on Graphic Novels, I have to say that this has turned out to be a most fun experience. And, as I continue to read a wide array of graphic novels, I gain new appreciation for the medium.

I started off by reading The Arrival, and while I wasn't sure that I loved it, I did find it to be a thoughtful read with beautiful artwork. After that I read Hawkeyeand while I know that it has been well received and lauded, the story was just okay to me. Next, I read This One Summer, which has also been widely recognized, and I liked it enough, but I still didn't love it.

At this point, my husband was joking that I must just be super critical. Worried that this may indeed be the case, I started to read Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio. I figured this would be a slam dunk "like" for me since I love listening to NPR-style radio shows and podcasts. Instead, as I read it, I suddenly missed the interesting art of the other books that I had just read. As much as I was enjoying the content, I put Out on the Wire on hold and instead decided to pick up something that might be more visually artistic. This led me to Ms. Marvel. I had finally found a match for my reading mood, and I am in love!

Ms. Marvel: No Normal written by G. Willow Wilson

The first volume of Ms. Marvel introduces Kamala Khan, a teen whose family is Muslim and of Pakistani descent. While Kamala navigates typical adolescent issues such as boys, fitting in, and asserting her independence from her parents, she also discovers her superpowers, which include being able to change her physical appearance. When Kamala first uses her powers, she transforms into her idol, the blonde-haired Carol Danvers version of Ms. Marvel. Kamala gains attention for her heroic actions as Ms. Marvel, and so she continues to use this identity when helping others. At the same time, she comes to embrace her own strength, and thus, while keeping the moniker and basic costume, she ends up reclaiming her own physical appearance otherwise. I have never been able to relate well to superhero comics until reading Ms. Marvel. There are still classic superhero elements that I would expect, such as when the mysterious mist falls upon the city, when Kamala shape shifts or changes size, or when the villain The Inventor enters the story. These elements are so expertly weaved into the story, though, and Kamala’s reactions and thoughts make them relatable as the reader. For instance, when Kamala becomes aware of her abnormal powers, she has an utterly normal struggle deciding whether to confide in her best friend Bruno since she he tipped off her parents that she had snuck out of the house. Kamala, as Ms. Marvel, is an emerging superhero who is wonderfully human, and I look forward to following her adventures and growth.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Marvel's Hawkeye, Volume 1 (A Graphic Novel Quick Recap)

After reading the serious and reflective book, The Arrival, I jumped into the more colorful, quick-paced, and humorous world of Hawkeye. It was not easy for me to get into the book since I am not naturally drawn to the typical art and storytelling of superhero comics, but then again, Hawkeye is not necessarily typical and I was pleasantly surprised by the clever and stylized presentation within Hawkeye.

Hawkeye, Volume 1, written by Matt Fraction

While Hawkeye exists as part of the Marvel superhero world, and the main character is a member of the Avengers, the comic sets itself apart from the outset by explaining: “This is what he [Hawkeye] does when he’s not being an Avenger.” Readers get glimpses into Hawkeye’s character when observing him interact with his counterpart “Hawkeye” Kate Bishop and with neighbors he helps. They see his ordinary human flaws, such as how he cannot figure out his TV remote and his Freudian slips of saying “sex” instead of “set.” Still, even as Hawkeye is humanized and as he lacks superhuman abilities, the volume does intersperse action, including through Hawkeye’s arsenal of special arrows, from his net and acid arrows to his suction-tip and boomerang arrows. Thus, even though the story is filled with humor - storytelling from the canine point of view of Pizza Dog being one of my favorite examples of this - there remains room for adventure with villains such as the Tracksuit Draculas and Madame Masque. Without having previous context of the Marvel world, I felt like I was missing references and inside jokes when reading Hawkeye. Also, while I have heard from others that the comic is a fresh and innovative entry in the superhero genre, I was unable to gauge how this is the case since I don’t have a basis for comparison. All the same, I found the writing to be witty, I particularly enjoyed the art of David Aja, and my interest is piqued enough to try reading more Marvel in the future.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Arrival (A Graphic Novel Quick Recap)

The SJSU iSchool summer term recently began, and I am excited to be enrolled in a 1-unit course on Graphic Novels. The main assignment for the course involves reading ten graphic novels and creating an annotated bibliography with brief responses about each title. While I will eventually turn in my responses in a single document at the end of the course, I figured it would be fun to also archive my reflections on this blog as I read each title. So, here we go!

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

The Arrival portrays the story of a migrant man who leaves his wife and daughter to go to another land where he does not know anyone, he does not know the language, and he must try to find his way until his family is finally able to join him. A notable aspect of the graphic novel is that it is told entirely through images, without any text. As such, the silence of the reading experience mirrors that of the migrant, who has embarked on his journey alone. Although the pencil drawings are realistic in style, the subjects and landscapes feature fantastical elements. Just as character designs root the story in our human experience, the unrealistic creatures and settings allow the story to transcend time and place. The story does not focus on any single history, but instead reflects a universal migrant experience of arriving at and coming to belong in a new place. Fantasy elements also immerse the reader into sharing feelings of displacement since the language, foods, and landmarks are as foreign to the reader as to the migrant. It took me time to adjust to reading The Arrival since there were no words and I was not initially sure what to think about the fantasy features. But, having finished the book, I am left reflecting on how the book not only depicted a moving migrant story, but also served as a simulation of sorts for me as a reader. I am realizing that the “arrival” has been as much mine as it was the main character’s.