graphic novels

published drawn narratives by other folks

2011-2012 school year over

I submitted my grades this morning. The quarter and the school year are officially over. This is the first year I’ve ever taught a graphic novel, Fun Home. I’m going to teach it again next year, because the students did pretty well with it in spite of its many challenges. A few weeks ago, I saw a student from the previous quarter and he told me that he usually hates to read, but that he loved Fun Home. Teaching it is obviously putting the potential of graphic narrative on more people’s radar. But I also feel that by reading it students are introduced to The Great Gatsby, Ulysses, Camus, and Greek myth. The main worry I have about teaching the book is that students not very savvy about gender and sexual orientation assume that the fact that Bechdel wants to wear boys’ clothes is a sure sign that she is a lesbian. I do address that, as does Bechdel in the book, but not everyone is so quick to give up their gendered stereotypes. And this quarter when I showed the class a video of Bechdel, the students mumbled about how butch she looked, similar to how the class two quarters ago was shocked by her appearance. By the way, the picture above is a list of themes in Fun Home that the class generated and a corresponding list of page numbers that show scenes that demonstrate each theme. I used this photo to help me come up with prompts for the in-class essay on the final.

Now I need to read Are You My Mother?

some quickie positive reviews

I’m tired of seeing that negative review at the top of the blog. So here are some quick, positive reviews. Two films and one graphic novel.

House. If you’ve never seen a weird Japanese commercial, then look some up on YouTube. Once you’ve done that, imagine that same kind of style– the sudden earnestness, the cheesy music– applied to a haunted house story. Then you might have some idea of what Nobuhiko Obayashi’s  House is like. As it turns out, Obayashi actually did direct commercials in Japan after doing art house flicks. The melding of that sensibility with horror makes for a discordant yet fresh movie. House is like no other film you’ve ever seen or ever will see. Anyone attempting to make a movie like it would most likely produce self-parodying camp. This movie is sui generis. The bizarreness of the filming is only enhanced by Obayashi’s need to do every in-camera special effect that he can think of. The result is a movie that you don’t know whether to laugh at or be frightened of, and in the end you find yourself having both reactions. At the same time. But beneath the oddness, there are some other forces at work, without which the film would simply be an oddity. One is the post war theme running through it. It’s not heavy-handed (thankfully), but the aunt who lives in the house lost her fiance in the war and is still awaiting his return. She has lived all these years with the pain of war. The seven young women who enter the house are innocent. The have grown up after the war and are oblivious to its pain. And so the house’s treatment of them comes across as a kind of jealousy or perhaps a desire to show the girls a suffering that they have never known. Tied with this is the theme of young women coming of age. The seven girls are balanced between still being children and being self-directed adults. And the terrors of the house itself are the terrors of a child’s imagination. In fact, this is literally true. Apparently, Obayashi approached his ten-year-old daughter and asked her what scared her. She recounted the heavy futons, the scary clock, and the well of her grandfather’s house. These frights appear in the film. And I think this birth in a young girl’s mind gives them some of their power and connects to the previous theme I mentioned. Basically, I ended up really liking this movie even though I was really doubtful I would in the beginning. Once I gave over to its style, I found myself being charmed by it, as well as disturbed.

Ristorante Paradiso, by Natsume Ono. I bought Ono’s not simple some time ago, because I liked the art. It was so different than any other manga’s style. It was more like stuff I’d seen from alt comics artists in the U.S. Yet I didn’t like not simple. The story felt forced. It read like an earnest young person wrote it. But I just read Ristorante Paradiso and I enjoyed it. It’s not a great book, but I found it charming. Others, such as Johanna Draper Carlson, didn’t like it, finding it sappy and limp. I can understand that reaction, but for whatever reason the book worked for me. Basically, it’s about a young woman finding her estranged mother whose new husband owns a restaurant in Italy. The restaurant is staffed entirely by attractive older men and the young woman finds herself becoming enamored of one, despite her desire not to. Some readers couldn’t see the cuteness in the men, but I could. And I also understood the lack of drama in the book. All the characters are too damaged or reserved to push any tension to a breaking point. So many growing conflicts in the book peter out or get avoided. Again, for some this is a letdown, but for me it fit the characters. And I saw the restaurant as a kind of heaven where all wounds were healed. Yes, this is a bit sappy, but maybe that’s what I needed, because it worked for me.

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. I just got done watching this and I think I need to see it again. Many times. I’ve loved the Brothers Quay work for a very long time. Since high school, I think. This is a live action movie for the most part, the story of which is very reminiscent of Angela Carter’s The Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman with its mad, yet sinister inventor and animated tableaux. Describing this movie is perhaps the wrong thing to do, but it unfolds a bit like a dream. While the story makes sense in a way, the appeal of the movie is not to your logical sense, but to your aesthetic ones. When I say I want to see this movie many times again, I do. That’s not only to piece together more of the plot and themes, but also to enjoy its sumptuous visuals. Like all Brothers Quay films, it’s best to watch The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes late at night when you are not fully awake, but too conscious to be asleep. Like the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, this film explores what film can do. I really think this is a must see film for anyone who loves film.

buying Annie Sullivan…

I just read Joseph Lambert’s Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller. It’s a really good book and I’m working on a little review of it. But before I get to the book itself, I want to describe how I bought it. I first heard about the book on Joseph Lambert’s blog. At first I though about looking it up on Amazon, but decided to try my local bookstore’s website instead. It turned out that the bookstore had two copies. So I went by and bought one. To me this is the ideal purchasing experience. I didn’t have to deal with any marketing hype and I got to support my local independent bookstore. I love this particular bookstore so having another excuse to go and hang out in it was nice. Yet I think this story also points to both the advantages of the internet and the inroads graphic novels have made into bookstores. The internet is not always the most effective marketing tool, but for those– like me– who know what they’re looking for, it makes finding things so much easier. And the fact that my local bookstore has graphic novels, and not shelved in the sci fi section, is a huge leap forward for comics. As a corollary, I haven’t set foot in a comic book store in years.

teaching Fun Home: group 2 early reactions

So we just finished reading chapter 2 of Fun Home in my class. I had the class split up into groups and their assignment was to come up with a point about the text that they wanted to make and then find at least two pieces of evidence as support for that point. I gave them some sample points, such as looking at how Bechdel and her father were similar or how literature was used as way to understand life. But something happened that I didn’t expect. Three groups had the same point and that point was that Bruce Bechdel was gay. I was taken aback. First, it seemed more factual than arguable, but I had to remind myself that by the second chapter there are still only hints to his sexuality. And Bechdel herself even admits by the end of the book that she can’t be sure what her father’s sexuality was (230). But the real reason I was surprised was that I was amazed that his sexual orientation was such an interesting thing that three groups made it their focus. Again, it’s never said directly in the first few chapters, so maybe that mystery attracted the students. But I was worried their interest boiled down to “Oh my god! He’s gay!”

Also, while discussing Bruce Bechdel’s interest in obelisks (29), I mentioned that they could be seen as phallic symbols. When I said this three young women burst out with giggles.

We’ll see how the rest of the book goes, but I’m a little worried about the maturity level of this group. I usually teach at night and in those classes the students tend to be older. I’m teaching a day class now and I think I have a lot more recent high school grads.To look on the bright side, maybe this book will open their eyes to the world a bit more. It may mean that they won’t be able to get very deep with the text, but broadening their view of the world is not such a bad effect.

Actually, on that same theme, I think I got them past the “oh my god! he’s gay!” reaction. We had discussed after chapter one how Bruce is obsessed with artifice, how it is more important to him than his family. Or, more accurately, his family is part of his artifice. Luckily this came up again and it was written on the board when we were discussing Bruce’s homosexuality. Also on the board was another group’s point that Bechdel and her father both don’t show emotion. So I ended our discussion by positing the idea that all these points connect. Perhaps his homosexuality and his fear of being discovered force him to repress his emotions and drive him to put up a facade. The class went very quiet when I said this, which I hope was a sign that they were really considering it. If so, instead of seeing Bruce as just a gay man, the students can hopefully see Bruce as a suffering man. This way, he isn’t an other, but another human being.

teaching Fun Home: random thoughts 1

So I’ve been teaching college writing for awhile now. Around nine years (and I still haven’t learned what a sentence fragment is…). The place I’ve been teaching for the past seven years requires that a book length work be taught in 1A (the first transfer-level writing class). This year, I’ve decided to teach Fun Home. Not only have I never taught it before, I’ve also never taught a graphic novel before. What I want to do here is just get out a few thoughts. My goal is to eventually put the thoughts together into some kind of coherent essay, or maybe comics essay, but right now I just want to list a few things. By the way, we’re only up through chapter 5 now.

  • Before starting the book I had one student ask me at least twice: “why are you having us read a comic book?” I took this as the old “comics are for kids” bias. As it turns out, this guy reads manga. So I don’t know why he persisted with the question. Maybe he was hoping we could talk about Naruto together or something. I guess I should ask him.
  • I was able to put a piece of McCloud’s Understanding Comics into our reader. I’m not sure how helpful it was yet. So far, his terms have only been used by students a few times.
  • I taught my students the terms narration and monstration and have been surprised by how willing the students are to use them. I think Fun Home is a good text for using these terms.
  • A lot of students thought the character of Alison Bechdel in the first chapter was a boy. They were shocked when I had to disabuse them of that. In a way the mistake is fitting and I even wonder if it may have been intentional since the conflict between she and her father over gendered appearance is a large theme early on.
  • Students have an easier time seeing the differences between Bechdel and her father than seeing the similarities.
  • Most students buy Bechdel’s theory that her father committed suicide. The ones who wrote about it pointed to the impending divorce and how it would threaten his quest for perfection. They also mentioned how being around so much death in the funeral home probably affected his view of it.
  • The language and the allusions are definitely challenging for the students, but I expected that. As it turns out, the students can often figure out the meaning of words they don’t know by looking at the images. As for the allusions, I have assigned them to present on the chapters in groups and one thing each group must do is take on a research topic, such as Daedalus and Icarus for chapter one. It seems like it’s been helpful.
  • I have one student whom I know is homosexual and he read the book all at once even though we are going chapter by chapter. He said he loved it. But he was also the first to agree when I brought up the criticism that the book reinforced negative gay stereotypes.
  • Students can’t really read visual symbolism, besides the obvious, like Bruce Bechdel carrying the column like Christ carrying the cross (7). Bechdel’s frequent visual isolation of family members alludes them and I have to point that out. However, they are obsessed with how Bechdel draws eyes, especially her father’s.
  • I have one student who believes that Bechdel’s girlfriend in the book is a stand-in for the father. He claims that she looks and acts like the father. I don’t buy it, but it’s an interesting theory and he has some evidence.
  • Tonight I showed them one of the videos about how Bechdel made the book (this one) and they were all shocked when they first saw her. One student exclaimed, “she looks like a dude!” And we’ve already gone over the part where the young Alison was interested in the butch dyke in the restaurant. It never ceases to amaze me how I can discuss concepts of gender with students, but when something specific like this comes up the old categories reassert themselves. And I don’t even think Bechdel looks that masculine. Maybe that says more about me than it does about my students.
  • I thought this might be a “coming out” for me. But I still have never told my students that I also create comics.

Alice in Sunderland: initial reaction

So I started reading Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland last night. I’ve enjoyed Talbot’s previous work and Alice got some great reviews. “Ground-breaking!” they say. “Reinvents what can be done in comics!” they cry. I feel like I’m missing something, because the book feels a like a mess to me. The different art styles seem jarring more than liberating. And the story (of which there really isn’t one) seems like Talbot did a bunch of research and just threw it on the page without any digestion or consideration. There’s just no hook to the book that draws me in. It’s simply page after page of unrelenting visual cacophony and encyclopedic text with some post modern elements thrown in. There’s no real pacing or thematic development. And as for “ground-breaking,” I’ve seen similar approaches elsewhere, such as in the work of Dave McKean and, more specifically, in The Fate of the Artist by Eddie Campbell and Snakes and Ladders by Campbell and Moore. I feel like I should keep going to give Alice in Sunderland a fair trial, but the thought of that doesn’t sound like “an entertainment.”

Then again, I was very tired when I started reading it. Maybe I was just cranky.

links and thoughts

I just discovered the animation work of David OReilly. It’s immature macabre slapstick on the one hand and aching longing and regret on the other. Funny, offensive, and strangely moving. So here: Please Say Something and The External World. David OReilly’s blog here.

While at times propping up straw characters, Gabby Shulz’s “Sick” has grabbed me. Maybe it’s because I especially relate to this chapter.

On a completely different note, here are some examples of the incredible strength and beauty of the human body.

So I bought a few French comics from BD Net: Thomas Cadene’s Sex Tape, Bastien Vivés’s Dans Mes Yeux, Manuele Fior’s Cinq Mille Kilométres par Seconde, Winshluss’s Pinocchio, and Merwan and Vivés’s Pour L’Empire 1: L’Honneur. My French is almost nonexistent, but I’m picking my way through the books. I have to say that almost every time I see comics from France I think, “this is how comics should be.” There’s more to be said about that I’m sure, but one thing that struck me about this bunch of comics is that many of the artists don’t use panel borders. Sure, there are panels, but no hard edges to them. For Fior and Cadene, the panels end where the color ends. But there are no drawn borders enclosing the images. In Dans Mes Yeux the panels also have no borders and are not square. Each panel occupies a discreet space and is surrounded by a lot of white, so are easy to differentiate from one another. But the shapes vary. Still, they all tend to be of a similar size and almost every page has six panels on it. I bring this up because I’ve recently begun to feel that panel borders are too hard, too artificial. The box-shape of them stands out to me too much. I don’t know why. And reading these comics I feel like someone is whispering to me, “then just get rid of them.”

On a related note, I didn’t use panel borders when I did Litmus Test 3 (way back in 1997). It seemed to me that fairy tale stories shouldn’t have panel borders. I was probably influenced by storybook illustration. Anyway, Tom Spurgeon reviewed that issue and complained that the lack of panel borders added nothing to the stories. My step-father read the review and thought it weird that panel borders were so expected that the lack of them must only be done for a purpose. But my step-father didn’t read comics. He wasn’t stuck in the idiom in the way I suspect Spurgeon was. I am always struck by how narrow people’s reading expectations are. My own included.

The Library of America’s Lynd Ward Vol. 1

I discovered that my library had the new Lynd Ward boxed set put out by The Library of America. So I checked out the first volume that contains Gods’ Man, Madman’s Drum, and Wild Pilgrimage. Yes, I’ve read all these before. I even have the old collection of Ward’s stories, Storyteller Without Words (which I paid a lot of money for since it’s long out of print). So I’m not actually going to review the stories here, but instead the book itself.

Let me sum it up and say that this is the ultimate edition of Ward’s woodblock novels. For one, the cover is truer to Ward’s own design sense than the Dover editions (I’m glad Dover has made Ward’s work available and affordable, but the covers are not very good). The book is also huge. The Library of America printed the stories as Ward did, with one image per page. In Storyteller Without Words, Abrams decided to put multiple images on a page, which greatly changed the reading experience. Also, the print job in the current book is much better than the slightly muddy reproductions in the old Abrams book. The one thing that I liked about Storyteller Without Words that the Dover editions didn’t include were the introductions by Ward. Luckily, The Library of America volume has them all. And they made the smart decision of putting them at the end, not to get in the way of the art or to intrude on the visual silence of the stories. Also, the typeface is much more readable than in the Abrams book, which had a thick sans serif font that didn’t match Ward’s work. There is also a detailed chronology of Ward’s life listed at the end.

So this is it. This book is beautifully printed and put together. Quite simply, it is a gorgeous edition and it gives Ward’s art the attention it deserves. Actually, I want to buy the complete set even though I already own all these stories (I probably won’t any time soon, so if you were looking to get me a gift…). If you can’t afford the price, see if your library has it like mine does.

A book like this needed to exist and I’m glad it finally does.

The Wrong Place by Brecht Evens

The Wrong Place
Brecht Evens

If you pick up and look at this book the first thing that will jump out at you is the art. On the one hand, the wild watercolors seem full of raw energy, while on the other hand being very controlled and intentional. It’s an amazing feat that Evens pulls off. Still, we have all seen comics that have wowed us visually, but left us unfulfilled in all other respects. To adapt a line from The New Yorker film critic David Denby, “we may be ravished by the” art, “but we’re famished by everything else” (March 28, 2011). Fortunately, this common disappointment is not true of The Wrong Place.

There are many things I could point out, but what I want to focus on is the characterization. The Wrong Place is the story of two friends: Gary and Robbie. Gary is rule-bound and gray (literally) while Robbie is an overgrown child or a modern Bacchus. It would be easy to overdo characters like this. You could make Gary grumpy and caustic, while Robbie could be reckless and unmindfully dangerous. But Evens doesn’t do that.

While Robbie may be noticeably unencumbered by the worries of adulthood, he’s actually a decent guy. Sure, he misses Gary’s party, but he takes the time to catch up with him later. And while he woos women, he’s never a schmuck about it. It’s hard not to like him, actually. And we begin to see why everyone in the story is so enamored of him.

And Gary is no sad sack. Sure, he’s nowhere near as full of life as his friend, but he isn’t bitterly jealous or shut off from the world. The book starts out with a party that Gary throws and his character is defined from the outset. First he tells a liquor store clerk that she can’t come to the party, then we see that he has the chairs in his apartment lined in neat rows, and later he tells three women that they have to smoke underneath the oven exhaust fan. So we see that Gary is no wild and crazy guy and is instead full of little rules. Still, he wants to have a party. He keeps encouraging people to drink and dance. But they don’t. The lifelessness of the party is not Gary’s fault entirely. All anyone there talks about is Robbie. In fact, that seems to be the only reason people came to Gary’s party in the first place, for a chance to see Robbie. And so while we understand that Gary is a tepid man, we also see that everyone else is more pitiful than him. Gary at least tries to have fun on his own and live in the present moment (within certain rules of course). No one else is able to do that. The book ends with a phone conversation in a hair salon. The woman in the salon is talking with her friend who spent a night with Robbie. Everyone in the salon looks over and listens to the conversation. No one is in their own life; they are all straining to get a little piece of Robbie. So by contrast, Gary seems brave and noble. He is trying to live his own life, no matter how small. And while we see how unable he is to break out of his own limitations, we also admire him in a small way.

It is this complexity that really makes this book something special. That combined with the amazing art make this book truly exceptional.