Category: Reviews

My Favorite Comics Anthologies

I love anthologies. I love seeing new work, being introduced to artists and approaches I have never seen before, and, of course, getting a solid read. Maybe it’s being placed next to other, different styles, but sometimes the best work an artist has done is a little story that appeared in some anthology. And yes, many anthologies suck. Or they are full of little pieces that never satisfy your hunger for something transportive. But sometimes the opposite is true and an anthology blows you away with the quality of the pieces it contains or the new possibilities for the medium that it shows you. These days, most anthologies seem to be one-shots. But even when there were serial anthologies, such as Dark Horse Presents, Last Gasp, Zero Zero, and Top Shelf, there were never too many in the market at once. The anthology, it seems, is never an easy venture for a publisher. But, again, I love them and want new ones to be created. So here’s a short list of some of my absolute favorites.

Raw Vol. 2 No. 1.

I think it’s difficult to understand the impact of Raw. Even these days when there are graphic novel sections in book stores and libraries, Raw stands out for its quality. Imagine it in the late 80s. Way ahead of its time. Vol. 2 No. 1 was the first issue I saw and it’s incredible. There is work by Charles Burns, Justin Green, Joost Swarte, Lorenzo Mattotti, Basil Wolverton, Ben Katchor, and of course a chapter from Spiegleman’s Maus. On top of that, this issue contains Richard McGuire’s iconic comic “Here.” And the disturbing little comic “Paul” by Pascal Doury broke my little teenaged mind.

Comix 2000

I chipped in to buy one of these when I heard the concept. Basically, the french publisher L’Association decided to put together a brick of a book, a 2000 page anthology of wordless comics about the new (at the time) millennium. Obviously the anthology contains a lot of french artists, but there are works by Americans such as Chris Ware, Jessica Abel, and Nick Bertozzi. And there are also works by artists from Spain, Norway, and Japan. There is definitely some work whose inclusion I question, but the overall effect is inspiring. There are just so many styles on display here. Also, since the stories have to be wordless, some artists get very creative with what they do visually. In fact, this is the work that convinced me to try my hand at wordless comics. There’s no coincidence that the first Kit Kaleidoscope story came out in 2000.

Nosotros Somos Los Muertos #3

In 1998 I was in Barcelona and bought the first five issues of this Spanish-language anthology. Issue 3 is my favorite with work by Federico del Barrio, Sequeiros, Martin Tom Dieck, Muñoz, Javier Olivares, and Thomas Ott (among many others). It also has Mattotti’s work “El Secreto del Pensador,” which Fantagraphics later published as Chimera. I can barely read a word of this book, but I love it.

Drawn & Quarterly, Volume 3

The Drawn & Quarterly anthology was always good, but things got really nice when they stepped up their production values and put out the anthology in large volumes. In this volume there are stories by Blutch, R. Sikoryak, and Franco Matticchio. The biggest revelation in this volume comes with the reprints of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley. Many of us had read Ware extolling King’s strip and here he was able to show us what he was so inspired by. The King-themed end papers by Ware are also a treat.

Kramer’s Ergot 4

This is the issue when Kramer’s Ergot stepped up from being a quirky little anthology to a force to be reckoned with. This issue introduced me to so many artists I had never heard of and whose work I would have probably never bought. The styles on their own didn’t appeal to me, but somehow together they became something incredible, an awe-inspiring rush of color and audacity. What anchors this book, and what the other issues tend to lack, is the long, solid read of Harkham’s own “Poor Sailer.” This provides the narrative satisfaction one often looks for, letting the more experimental works not have to hold up the entire impact of the issue.

Nowbrow 7

As a publisher, Nobrow always has some of the best printing on its books. The anthology is no different, often giving artists a certain palette of spot colors to work with. This not only makes the colors vibrant, but gives a cohesion to the various works. Nobrow is a bit like the old Blab! in that it includes comics and full page illustrations. In terms of comics, this issue has solid reads from Jillian Tamaki, Eleanor Davis, Ethan Rilly, and Joseph Lambert. Overall this is just a beautiful book full of fulfilling little stories. It’s just quality all the way through.

How to Create Graphic Novels by Rodolphe Töpffer

Rodolphe Töpffer usually wins credit for being the first comics artist. He put multiple panels on a page and employed the new advancements in printing to get his work read. He may not have used word balloons, but most of the elements of contemporary comics started with him. What I didn’t know (and maybe you didn’t either) is that he also was one of the first theorists about this new medium. In 1845 Töpffer wrote Essai de Physiognomie, his thoughts on what made littérature en estampes (as he called it) so special. Sorry, Will Eisner.

I learned this because a new translation was recently published under the title How to Create Graphic Novels, translated and edited by John McShane. While I understand the need for a better title than “Essay on Physiognomy,” “How to Create Graphic Novels” is a bit misleading. Still, this is a very interesting little book and I’m really glad this new edition exists.

I just want to mention that the introduction to this book is both helpful and confusing. It gives a bit of background on Töpffer and goes over what parts of Essai de Physiognomie of have been cut for this edition. But the unrestrained enthusiasm and unfocused chronological jumps make it hard to tell when the opinions being described are Töpffer’s, his time period’s, or the editor’s. Also, almost half the introduction talks about contemporary works. I understand that McShane is trying to contextualize Töpffer’s influence, but it makes for a muddle of times and ideas that obfuscate more than illuminate. That being said, McShane’s translation of the main text is very readable and engaging.

Panels as hyperbole.

As Töpffer’s original title implies, most of his book concerns facial expressions and how what characters look like reveals their personalities. Töpffer does mention some other ideas in the beginning. The one I found most interesting is that an artist can use multiple panels in quick succession as a kind of visual hyperbole. Yet he doesn’t say much more than that; most of the book discusses physiognomy.

I was concerned when I first saw this term used. Physiognomy usually goes hand-in-hand with prejudice. The very idea of it, that we can judge people’s personalities based on their looks, is the definition of pre-judging. And yet so much of what we do as artists in comics is based in this. We convey character through visual signifiers. This is something that has always troubled me since there are so many examples of how this can go horribly, even fatally, wrong. All you have to do is look at the hooked noses and dark skin in the history of Disney villains to find one example. While he never mentions racial profiling or caricature used as warmongering, Töpffer understands that physiognomy has its limits. He emphasizes that the types of visual signifiers he discusses are about drawings and don’t always relate to “nature.” He says, “these signs never present, neither when considered in isolation, nor when considered together, an infallible criterion by which to judge the intellectual or moral faculties.”

What is so refreshing about his approach is his sense of play. Töpffer says that an artist doesn’t have to go to school and study anatomy. All they need to do is sketch faces, no matter how simple, and play around with the features. See what happens when you move the eyebrows, the lips, or the nostrils. Observe what kinds of characters reveal themselves from these shifts. He then encourages artists to mix up these signifiers. He shows the result of drawing a mouth that denotes laughter with eyes that imply crying. It is this subtle interplay between these different features that Töpffer feels is the medium’s strength and what advantage it has over the novel. And so we see, even in the earliest essay on comics, this bid to prove that it is as worthy a medium as writing.

This is a short book, but a fascinating one. I can see how some of Töpffer’s ideas could be easily made into exercises for a class on creating comics. And again, I was really charmed by Töpffer’s tone. He is an enthusiastic proponent of this new medium, but he is also a practicing artist who is thoughtful about the realities of what he is doing. This book helped me not only respect Töpffer but like him.

You can get the book here. 

The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories by Bruno Schulz

I was lead to Bruno Schulz by the Brothers Quay. Their version of Street of Crocodiles is one of my favorites of their films. Now having read the source material, I can see a connection in the dream reality and empty city streets of both. But the Brothers Quay have a cruelty in their work that Schulz’s work lacks. In its place, Schulz has a Romanticism that lies in contrast with the Modernist settings and conflicts of his writing.

Schulz was born in 1892 in a small town in Poland, Drohobycz, where he basically stayed his entire life. He was a writer as well as an artist. In fact, he taught art to high school students as a way to support himself. Personally, these details draw me to him since they are a fun house mirror of my own biography and I must admit I hoped that Schulz’s drawing and writing may have merged at some point. Yet if there is a Schulz comic, it is locked in the lighthouse in Hicksville. As far as I can tell, the only melding of his writing and drawing came in the form of illustrations for his stories.

From the accounts, Schulz was a modest man who focused on the development of his art more than the grooming of his image. Yet he did begin to acquire a small amount of fame in his early forties. Unfortunately, and tragically, this fame coincided with the start of the Second World War. The Nazis came to power. And Schulz was a Jew. His artistic abilities got him noticed and a gestapo officer ordered Schulz to paint murals on the walls of his child’s playroom. Yet another officer had a grudge against Schulz’s officer and so used Schulz as a means of exacting his revenge. Schulz was shot dead in the street.

Apparently, Schulz had been working on his masterpiece, entitled The Messiah. The manuscript of this work didn’t survive the war. The murals did however, as did his two collections of stories, Cinnamon Shops (known in the U.S. as the Street of Crocodiles) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. These are collected in the book I read.

One cannot read these stories as one reads most stories. Schulz’s work has less in common with the plotting of traditional narrative and is closer to the lush metaphors of Romantic poetry or the thick movements of oil on canvas. His stories are dream-like and surreal. He is often compared to Kafka, but where Kafka stays focused on one image and takes it to its conclusion, like in The Metamorphosis, Schulz offers us image after image. His writing is like a decaying bouquet, heavy with perfume and hinting at a vigor fading. I see Borges and Márquez as echoes of Schulz. Yet, as I mentioned, there is a strong Romantic element to Schulz’s writing. One aspect of this is the emphasis on the emotional and the personal over the universal. The pieces barely hint at plot and instead hinge on the expression and changes of mood. Furthermore, there are many odes to nature in these stories, such as an entire chapter to spring dusk in The Street of Crocodiles and a long description of the end of summer in the short story “Autumn.” Yet, in the end Schulz is a recorder of the city. We see dark streets, bustling shops, and haunting city parks.

But my attempts to explain his work do not do justice to Schulz’s inventiveness. For in the midst of his hallucinatory descriptions we also come upon strangely humorous narratives. For instance, “My Father Joins the Fire Brigade” starts with a journey through the darkness by the narrator and his mother:

We entered the wilted boredom of an enormous plain, an area of faded pale breezes that enveloped dully and lazily the yellow distance. A feeling of forlornness rose from the windswept space.

Such drowsiness and lethargy give way to the image of the narrator’s father in a full suit of armor, gleaming like an avenging angel. He is engaged in an argument with the housekeeper about the lack of raspberry syrup in the house. As it turns out, the father is captain of the fire brigade and lets the men under him stay at his house. And they love raspberry syrup. The housekeeper thinks they are a bunch of free loaders, but the father sees them as noble heroes. He tells the housekeeper: “Unable to experience noble flights of fancy, you bear an unconscious grudge against everything that rises above the commonplace.” The story goes on to end with an organized display of acrobatics by the father and his men, but this quotation gets at the Modernist concerns of Schulz’s writing. The city deadens colors and takes the romance away from people’s lives. Yet in this story the father, like Don Quixote, refuses to give in to the status quo of commonness. He wishes to rebel with his adherence to “noble flights of fancy.” This is echoed in the chapter “Tailors’ Dummies” in The Street of Crocodiles:

Only now do I understand the lonely hero who alone had waged war against the fathomless, elemental boredom that strangled the city. Without any support, without recognition on our part, the strangest of men was defending the lost cause of poetry.

And perhaps Schulz’s own art serves a similar function. There is something beautiful and fantastic to be found even in the most gray and base of city scenes. One only has to be sensitive enough to perceive it.

In all honesty, these stories sometimes made me sleepy as I read them. I was lulled by their dreaminess to fall into my own dreams. This says more about my lifestyle than it does about Schulz’s art. Yet it does point to the concentration needed to engage with his stories. This concentration is rewarded with images and worlds that seem of an older time and yet like nothing else you’ve read before. Let Bruno Schulz live on in your imagination.

** My biographical information about Schulz comes from the book, specifically the foreward by Jonathan Safran Foer. Schulz’s writing was translated from Polish by Celina Wieniewska.

There is a long discussion of Bruno Schulz at The New Yorker.


(written August 25, 2012)

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

When I read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, I was pleasantly surprised by the deftness of its writing. So I decided to try Jackson’s final, and some say her best, novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

In some ways it is Jackson’s infamous story “The Lottery” and her quintessential haunted house story The Haunting of Hill House put together. But this is not simply a remixing of former stories, but instead a reworking of former themes in a tale that is its own fully realized world. The strength of voice in this book comes from the narrator, Mary Katherine Blackwood, or Merricat. She is at once an adult and a child. She is the only one of her remaining family able to venture out into the world and yet is the most in a world of her own making. The fact that we quickly get the information that she hates dogs and taking baths right next to the fact that most of her family is dead lets us know that this is a character whose moral compass may be off, whose view of the world is unsettlingly childlike.

Basically, Merricat lives with her sister Constance and Uncle Julian in the family house, which is isolated from the rest of the town. This isolation is both due to the class pride of the family and the hatred of the townspeople. The rest of the Blackwood family is dead, except for an estranged uncle, due to a poisoning at the dinner table. Someone put arsenic in the sugar bowl. Constance was accused because she had been the cook and didn’t touch the sugar bowl. The mystery of who is responsible for the arsenic isn’t much of a mystery and isn’t the point of the book. It’s not a detective story. Instead it is an exploration of character, mood, and sisterly love.

The tense but static existence of the sisters and Uncle Julian is broken by the arrival of a cousin, Charles. He begins to drive a wedge between Merricat and Constance, or at least Merricat fears he will. And it is here that Jackson’s writing is at its most economical and evocative. For while Charles seems obsessed about money, what also becomes apparent about his manner is his unconscious male privilege. He disturbs the pattern of the female run Blackwood house, but never asks permission or pardon. He doesn’t even seem to acknowledge he’s disturbing anything at all. That ability not to have to notice is the hallmark of privilege. Jackson captures this perfectly without having to name it or even call much attention to it.

So this is a novel that lends itself to many interpretive strategies. For instance, you could see it as being about female space constantly being invaded by male forces. The world of Merricat and Constance first has to survive cousin Charles and later the male firefighters. This is helpful, but it doesn’t capture the whole complexity of the book. No one interpretive strategy acts, as Lethem calls it in his introduction, as a key to unlocking the book. Instead, the various possible critical angles from which you can approach this book demonstrate its complexity and subtlety.

Nothing in this book is simple. It is a story about family homicide and societal intolerance, but also sisterly love. Yet that love is both heart warming and claustrophobic. It counterbalances the darkness in the book, but also compounds it in the end. Likewise, Merricat is an entertaining narrator with a wicked sense of humor, but also a disturbing and disturbed person. Likewise, one could see the ending as a both a victory and a chilling tragedy.

Overall, this is an amazingly written book. I think Merricat Blackwood should be considered one of the classic unreliable narrators of American literature. So why isn’t Jackson’s novel part of the canon? It may be a case of genre bias; her work is classified as horror and horror is not seen as being serious. It could also be a case of sexism. Henry James is called a genius for his unreliable narrator in Turn of the Screw, but not Jackson. Also, the reviewers in Jackson’s day were mostly men and male writers who explored the kind of darkness Jackson does were called brave. Jackson was called “neurotic.” Also, at that time critics were looking for art that made big statements and had epic scopes in terms of plot and stylistic exploration. Jackson instead is narrowly focused. She has small casts of characters and never claims to be the voice of her generation. But her focus is scalpel-like. When she cuts, she cuts deep. And it’s disturbing.

As a final note, in the novel the Blackwood house is not compared to a castle until near the end of the book. Yet the title is We Have Always Lived in the Castle. “Always” implies a long period of time. So the title then implies that the state we find Merricat and her sister in at the end of the book will persist for quite some time. So this book becomes the origin story of the haunted house tale the locals tell each other for years to come. They don’t know where the story began, but they are still troubled by it. Much as we are with Jackson. Everyone remembers “The Lottery,” but most people have forgotten who wrote it and probably never knew that the author wrote many other works. Let me assure you that Jackson is not a one-hit wonder. She is a powerful and fearless American writer.


(written August 21, 2015)

Comics and Narration by Thierry Groensteen trans. by Ann Miller

I picked up this book having struggled with The System of Comics translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. While I loved the direct analysis of that book, much of it was difficult to understand. Part of that was just due to reading theory; it takes some time to get into someone else’s mode of thought and terminology. But part of it was due to the stilted sentence structures and odd choices of words. So I was surprised to find Comics and Narration so readable. Sure, there were complicated ideas and I had to slow down and even reread passages at times, but by and large the book was engaging. I even found myself charmed by the tone, something I would never say about the previous book. So this begs the question: did Groensteen’s writing get better or is Ann Miller a much better translater than Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen? My French is too elementary for me to know for sure, but comments Groensteen has made on-line (see comments here) point to the latter. Melissa Loucks and the writer at Critical Takes also think this.

That being said, this book is an extension of The System of Comics, so a working knowledge of that book is necessary to engage with this book. One drawback to that is that it makes this book feel like a series of appendices more than a solid entity at times. Still, Groensteen’s ruminations of narration and rhythm are insightful. What I always appreciate about Groensteen is that he grounds his theory in an analysis of actual texts and his ultimate goal is how his theory can be practically applied to actual texts.

Like Barbara Postema, Groensteen states that a single panel “can evoke a story” (23). Yet he sides more with Scott McCloud in further stating that a single panel cannot be a narration, since, by definition, a narration needs a beginning and an end. Still, he discusses comics’s relationship to time and that sequence creates a sense of time and that the gutters leave space for the reader to fill in. This may not sound like anything new, but Groensteen breaks things down even further into shownintervened, and signified. These categories indicate the level of engagement of the reader. The shown is what is exists in the panel or “that which the monstrator displays to us” (37). The intervened is what the reader assumes to have happened between panels (38). As Groensteen implies, the length of the intervened can create rhythm. He offers a page by Jason (on page 150) in which the intervened is mostly just the back and forth between two characters talking, while the last panel offers a longer intervened time. So the final panel introduces a new rhythm, and so a new scene. Lastly, signified, as I understand it, seems a bit like connotation. It is when what is shown is not literal, but figurative. The image alludes to an idea or feeling. We might call this a visual metaphor or symbol. The example Groensteen uses is on the cover of the book and on page 49. In it, Jimmy Corrigan turns into a child while talking to his mother. Neither is he literally a child, nor is his mother literally standing next to him. Yet the conversation evokes these feelings and memories for Jimmy. This idea that Jimmy is remembering a previous time with his mother and therefor feels childlike and helpless is signified by the images (39). Groensteen’s overall point with this is to give us a new way of ascertaining “artistic achievement” (41). Stories that simply show and in which the intervened is simple to deduce from the shown are more simplistic works. Works that engage the reader further and make us try to understand the signified are more complex works.

As I quoted above, in this book Groensteen employs the terms monstrator and monstration first coigned by André Gaudreault (as I understand it). I’m excited by this because I too have taken to using monstration. However, I avoid the term monstrator, because I want to get away from the linguistic obsession with who makes the utterance. For me, narration is what is told and monstration is what is shown. I don’t care who the narrator is (unless it’s important for the story). Groensteen, however, is concerned with enunciation and so the monstrator decides what to show and the monstration is the effect of that decision (86). Furthermore, Groensteen makes the monstrator a subset of the narrator. For him, the narrator is the “high[est] enunciating source” (94). The narrator then selects what is told and what is shown, in the roles of the reciter and the monstrator. So Groensteen’s theory is couched firmly in structuralism. While I personally don’t wish to use these terms, they do allow Groensteen to theorize about the various roles the two play, which he discusses on pages 90-95.

The other major theme in this book, which I briefly mentioned above, is rhythm. Groensteen mostly discusses panel layout, but also considers how words affect rhythm. While I liked this, I wished that he had gone further. Layout creates rhythm of course, but so does the relative visual density of the panels. So does the amount of time in the intervened. As I showed above, Groensteen hints at this possibility. Again, the fact the Jason chooses to end his page with a panel that implies a longer space of intervened time creates a change in rhythm to the end of the page. If Groensteen didn’t say this explicitly, he pointed the way. In other words, he has invited us to continue where he left off, which is one of the great gifts of well-written theory.

Overall, I’m glad this book exists. First, it proves to us English readers that Groensteen can be an accessible writer. It also gives us new modes of analysis and jumping off points for our own theorizing. Comics and Narration is both useful and inspiring.


(written February 1, 2016)

Citizen 13660 by Miné Okubo

When I was in the seventh grade, I read Farewell to Manzanar and was told that it was the only book about the U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans during World War 2. Fifteen years later, I found out that this wasn’t true. There was in fact another book about the internment and one that was published long before Farewell to Manzanar (1946 versus 1973). Moreover, it was told from the point of view of a young adult, not a child, which meant it had many more details about life in the camps. More incredibly, it was a story told in words and pictures.

I’m not sure whether or not it’s the picture book aspect of Citizen 13660 that has made it less popular than Farewell to Manzanar, but I think it can be a strangely empty book for people who are unaccustomed to reading visual narratives (I definitely felt this upon a first reading). The text in the book is encyclopedic in style. There is no characterization, no dialogue, and little opinion. Details are given matter-of-factly. On the one hand, this makes the things depicted all the more monstrous, because they are so out in the open. But on the other hand, it can make the book seem a little flat.

That is, until you look at the images. Like a picture book, there is one image per page, set above the text. This separation is not popular in graphic novels today, but in Citizen 13660 the separation creates a tension between the text and the images. This is intentional, because the art serves to subvert the encyclopedic narrative. As Megan Kelso says in her review of the book, “new meaning arises from the discord.”

Citizen 13660 page 12

First of all, there is the nature of the figure drawing. Okubo was trained under Diego Rivera and her figures have a similar roundness and abstraction to them. Faces convey emotion, but are not heavily detailed, and everything is inked in a simple line black-and-white. One curious effect of this is that in some panels it is difficult to tell who is Japanese-American and who is not. On page 12 Okubo says that “people looked at all of us, both citizens and aliens, with suspicion and mistrust.” The accompanying image makes effective use of the intersecting lines of a bus window to highlight the figure of Okubo herself and underscore the tension. Yet when one looks at the other figures depicted in the bus, Okubo is not obviously more Japanese than any of them. This is due to the simplicity of her art of course, but it also adds a counterpoint to what is going on. She is a citizen like the rest of them. She isn’t any different. In fact, Okubo had been painting mosaics at a military base, Fort Ord, when talk of internment began (ironically). So while the text mentions a growing desire to make the Japanese-Americans into untrustworthy others, the image shows sameness. The reality the art depicts is not the one that the history book narrative allows space for.

The pictures are also the place where Okubo’s emotions become clear. On page 18 she tells of registering at one of the Civil Control Stations. The text simply states the rules regarding this and the fact that she did it. There is no point of view provided. Yet in the illustration above Okubo is giving a stern look to one of the soldiers and he is looking back at her with an expression of surprise. Likewise, on page 59 she talks about curfew at Tanforan and the roll call done by the house captain twice a day. Again, plain factual text. Yet in the picture Okubo seems to be sticking out her tongue at the house captain. On page 108 is perhaps my favorite scene. In the text, Okubo tells the reader that every room was inspected for “potentially dangerous tools” and the like. At the very end, she mentions that her room was almost not inspected due to a sign on her door. And that’s it for the text. The image, however, depicts the inspection of her room. The house captain is going through her drawers while a soldier stands guard. The soldier looks at Okubo with a harsh expression. Okubo looks back, her glance similarly stern. Yet she holds a pair of scissors in one hand and a piece of paper in another, and on her head is a floppy spiral cut out of paper, a whimsical counterpoint to the mood of the scene. Since Okubo is an artist, many of her tools could be construed as being “dangerous” by suspicious minds and yet the image shows the absurdity of such a claim. Not only does the image show a different reality than the text, but also the art within the image, the paper spiral, similarly resists the assumptions made by the other people in the scene. Art is the only sane response to such surreal inhumanity and the only possible recourse for resistance.

Citizen 13660 page 108

So it is the words in the book that provide the stark reality, just like it was the wording of Executive Order 9066 that made the internment a legal reality. Through words, people are able to convince themselves that stealing others of their civic rights is acceptable and even necessary. Words have the ability to create a new reality, but do so at the expense of human emotion. So it is left to visual art to subvert the inhumane effects of words. And that is exactly what Okubo does all throughout Citizen 13660. So the book is not simply an act of trying to remember the past, as Farewell to Manzanar is; it is a book about the necessity and humanizing power of art.

Megan Kelso wrote an insightful review of the book, but it seems to no longer be available on-line.


(written May 30, 2009)

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert

The story of Helen Keller is a famous one and one that has been told many times. So if an artist were tasked with telling the tale, there are many possible versions of the story to look to for inspiration or perhaps fall into the trap of imitating. Yet what Joseph Lambert has created is not simply a Classics Illustrated retelling Keller’s autobiography or a static version of The Miracle Worker, but a book that lives and breathes as a graphic novel, using the medium to its full advantage. Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller is a book that should be on everyone’s permanent “best-of” lists.

Lambert had the challenge of making an old story new again yet readable to an all-ages audience. Upon flipping through the book, the first thing one notices is how Lambert has chosen to depict Helen’s world. Forms only appear in rough outline, with color denoting the separation of self and other. Over the course of the book, sign language starts appearing in the darkness, gradually to be replaced by words. The visual device both accents Helen’s isolation– she is literally in blackness– and makes it clear how she comes to understand language. The images and words in Helen’s world get more complicated as her understanding grows.

Lambert uses the static medium shot in vogue among people like Jason and Chris Ware. Of course, it is also also a style used by the early newspaper strips, such as King’s Gasoline Alley. Here the technique serves to let the drama unfold naturally without any potentially bathetic use of close-ups or fancy framing. Still, at times I felt too separate from the action. For instance, I didn’t understand at first that Annie was spelling words out on Helen’s hand. Since the hands were so small I didn’t realize the significance at first. Yet in general, the restrained compositions of the book make the actions of the characters come to life by heightening the small changes in their faces and posture.

Yet this book has more going for it than its formal decisions. One thing I’ve always felt that comics tend to lack is depth of characterization. For all the talk about “literary” comics, I think the majority of comics don’t get to the complexity of characterization that literature does. Yet Lambert’s book is not guilty of this fault. Overall, this book is a close character study of Annie Sullivan. We come to understand why she is uniquely able to get through to Helen, seeing both depictions of her experiences and expressions of her temperament. And Lambert doesn’t put Annie on a pedestal or candy-coat things. Annie is hot-headed and quick to vindictiveness. And by the end, I began to feel that she was too possessive of Helen. Not only does she keep people away from Helen, but it becomes clear that Helen’s sense of reality is mediated by Annie. Helen’s knowledge that the warmth that she feels is actually the sunlight through the trees or the fact that a story is fact or fantasy is dependent solely on Annie Sullivan. And in the end, we see the possibility that this is too claustrophobic a reality. Yet again, what Annie does is just an amplified version of what all parents do. On top of that, who else and how else could Helen be reached? And so, I was left thinking that it couldn’t have been any other way.

Such musings point to the complexity of Lambert’s book. Lambert doesn’t shy away from these complexities and he notices (or creates) many subtle details. And, thankfully, he doesn’t judge. For instance, on page 52 we see Mrs. Keller’s day and how being a housewife in that era was a full-time job. After nine panels depicting her work, her husband and brother return home (from doing what?) and her brother asks with unthinking privilege, “Dinner ready?” We understand Lambert’s point if we choose to, but he doesn’t belabor it. Nothing more is said and Mrs. Keller goes off to make dinner as a woman of her time would. This scene is not simply a feminist political statement; it helps to underscore Annie Sullivan’s reality. If she cannot have the job teaching Helen then what autonomy she has will be gone. Again, no character says this, but we understand it due to Lambert’s staging.

Such incredible restraint and trust of the reader are the hallmarks of a cartoonist in complete control of his craft. That and the deep understanding– and at times frustration– we come to feel for Annie make this a truly remarkable book.

The main quibble I have is with the ending. I think it may have required a firmer authorial hand. Lambert depicts the events of the plagiarism trial against Helen and allows a certain amount of vagueness about what actually happened, at least in terms of how much Annie Sullivan may have coached Helen to cover up the truth. This works and it creates a sense of doubt in the reader about Annie’s methods and we can see it creates doubt for Helen about her own sense of reality and herself. Yet the important thing is the relationship between Helen and Annie. With the trial we see a whole new side of that relationship; a strain is put upon the trust that the relationship is founded on. In other words, what is Helen thinking? How does she feel about Annie now? And this is left unanswered. The book ends here. It’s as if a door is opened in a house and a new room is revealed, but we are quickly told that we cannot enter and must in fact go home. And so I feel that the main relationship in the book, the one between Annie and Helen, is left in limbo. And so the book ends more with uncertainty than resolution. On the other hand, maybe I’m accusing Lambert for lacking the very thing I lauded him for earlier: lack of drama.

Besides this minor reservation about the choice of ending, I find Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller to be an incredibly strong book. In fact, it’s a book I’m going to add to the short list of graphic novels I will suggest to people who don’t read comics. It is such a solid work with such unassailable strengths that it will appeal to almost any reader. This is a book more people should be talking about. I hope it gets the attention it deserves.


Other reviews:

Rob Clough The Comics Journal website


(written August 27, 2012)

Manga in Theory and Practice: the Craft of Creating Manga by Hirohiko Araki

Manga in Theory and Practice: the Craft of Creating Manga
by Hirohiko Araki

The creator of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure has written a book which, he claims, reveals the secrets of creating manga. He calls these secrets “the golden way” and his book is a map pointing us along that way. Are you excited to peel back the curtain and see what it really takes to be a great mangaka? Me, too! Let’s take a look…

One hard-earned secret that Araki shares with us is that we should write good dialogue. And how should we go about learning how to do this? What are the guidelines? What are the things to watch out for? Araki says: “look at the dialogue on many manga’s front pages and think about why they make you want to read further” (25).  In other words, we figure it out for ourselves. Thank you, master!

Another step on “the golden way” is to make good characters. How does one do that? According to Araki, a budding mangaka must ask themselves “am I making good characters” (42)? So you make good characters by intending to make good characters. That’s a great trade secret that will surely make you a famous artist! He also tells us that when we have a hero and a villain that we should make them different. He says that he often bases his characters on “the duality of light and shadow” (56).  I don’t know about you, but I have never considered thinking about the fight of good versus evil as a metaphor of light versus dark. Such a useful secret!

And did you know that “characters and setting are indispensable” (43)? I’m sure a lot of you, like me, were intending to create an entire story with no characters and absolutely no setting. I’m glad Araki set us on the right path!

Then Araki tells us the secrets of storytelling. He boldly proclaims that “manga need stories” (84). Okay, but how do we make a story? Well, there are four parts: the introduction, the development, the twist, and the resolution. You know that story structure stuff you learned in your high school English class? Exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution? Remember? Basically, do that and you’re on the golden way. Thank you, sensei!

Et cetera, et cetera. You get the point.

Look, I don’t care what you think about JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. A lot of people love that manga and it has been going for a long time. But this book is crap. Either it says nothing (to make good characters, make good characters!) or it tells you stuff you’ve heard a million times before. As a guide for creating comics this book is almost completely useless. It is just too vague and too lacking in depth. This book may be of interest to fans of Araki’s work because he talks a little bit about what he was thinking about when he was creating his various manga. But even that doesn’t tend to go much deeper than “I thought that this would be a cool idea.” And there really isn’t that much artwork in here, at least not enough to justify buying the book for that reason alone.

All that being said, I found a few things interesting. One, Araki has very diverse influences. At one point he talks about how much he loves a book-length interview between François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock (13-14). In another, he praises the dialogue of Ernest Hemingway (107). And later he tells us that he got the idea for the crazy character poses in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure after seeing Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne in Rome (140). The point, which he does make, is that we should look for influences everywhere and that manga is an art form like any other. Like the rest of this book, these aren’t new insights, but I liked seeing them confirmed. The other thing I really liked was seeing two pages of Araki’s rough layouts (186-187). What struck me was how loose and unprecious they were. They were basically squiggly lines, dialogue, and sound effects divided up into barely delineated panels. Except for one panel, there wasn’t any figure drawing at all. Really, all he was doing with the roughs was working out how he was going to divide the story beats up across the two pages. It was about planning rhythm, not worrying about how things were going to look. To make an odd comparison, this is similar to Alison Bechdel’s approach to creating Fun Home. Seeing Araki’s roughs next to the carefully drawn finished pages (192-193) provides more of a lesson than anything else in the rest of the book.

I know I’m being pretty harsh, but I was excited to read this book. I always like to hear about how comics artists think about their craft, even if I disagree with their thinking. But this book was so bland that there really wasn’t much to agree or disagree with. It was like going to listen to the director’s commentary on a DVD, excitedly hoping to get insight into a film you loved, only to have the director say stuff like “I just like the color blue.” And then the intro was so overblown, claiming to reveal secrets and demonstrate a “golden” way that halfway through the whole thing I thought it had to be an elaborate joke. I mean, at one point he talks about “the golden ratio” of beauty. You know what that is? You draw a line in the middle of the head and that’s where the eyes go (127). That’s it. A line in the middle of the head. Not only is it bathetic to the point of absurdity, it’s basically just the same advice given in every drawing book ever written. Maybe Araki actually believes that creating manga can’t be taught and we all have to figure it out by ourselves. But if that’s true, why make us pay for this book? Just to be a jerk? No, I think Araki really believes in this book and believes he is providing a service. And looking at reviews of the book on-line, maybe he is. My question is: did the U.S. readers who loved this book never pay attention in English class?

Here is a brief list of books that are infinitely more useful than this one:

Drawing Words & Writing Pictures

Making Comics

Draw Out the Story

Pen & Ink: the Manga Start-up Guide

Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga.

Panther by Brecht Evens

A lot of children’s books are pretty creepy when you think about them. Many of them involve child abandonment or characters who seem whimsical on the surface, but reveal themselves to be agents of chaos. Think of The Cat in the Hat. He’s funny, but also incredibly destructive and unsafe. The new graphic novel by Brecht Evens takes the unsettling nature of many children’s books and turns that up a notch. But interestingly, he never tips it over into pure horror. Everything remains unnervingly ambiguous. It’s a horror story told as a children’s book.

Panther is about Christine who lives alone with her father. Her sickly cat, Lucy, has just been put to sleep. Into the midst of this childhood sorrow, held by a larger sorrow connected to her missing mother, steps the spotted form of Panther. Panther charms Christine and seems to be the answer to her loneliness. But from the outset, his predator’s eyes and ever-changing visage let us know that things are far from okay. Then Christine’s stuffed animal Bonzo goes missing, obviously connected to the appearance of Panther. Bonzo returns, but is it really Bonzo? And why doesn’t he corroborate Panther’s story? Events culminate in Christine’s birthday party, where Panther invites a few more of his friends into Christine’s world. Like the new Bonzo, none of them seem to know what is appropriate to say and do in front of a young girl.

The art here is really gorgeous. The color choices harken to the primaries of children’s books, but they are often paired with murky blacks. The effect is art that is both vibrant and unsettlingly dark. The focus in Panther is much tighter than in Evens’s previous books, so there is not as much breadth of setting and character. Yet in some ways, the character of Panther makes up for that by his constantly changing form. He is usually recognizably a cat, but the style shifts. Many times, the style echoes that of some children’s book artist, but it also changes to match the mood of the dialogue. The changes are beautiful, but also unnerving. They make you feel early on that Panther is not a creature to be trusted. There is something dishonest about his very appearance. Then there’s Panther’s dialogue. The sickly green cursive shows both his desire to sound refined and the rotten, ingratiating nature of his speech. He is desperate to charm Christine. Whenever he says something that she doesn’t like or that disturbs her, he changes his story immediately. And yet, we get the idea that he truly cares for Christine in his own way. The question is: what is his intention? But this begs another, deeper question. From whence does Panther come? Is he from inside Christine herself, or her version of a real person in her life, or is he a denizen of some fantastical world?

Panther shares a bit in common with Evens’s earlier short story “Bad Friends” in Night Animals. That story also involves a young woman, though older and just entering puberty. It also involves a growing cast of fanciful characters who become increasingly bestial and lecherous. Yet Panther doesn’t follow a clear trajectory. While things definitely get more and more out of hand, the character of Panther seems to want to try to keep control of events and protect Christine even though he is the one introducing the chaos into her life. Also, “Bad Friends” is more obvious about what happens to the main character. While Panther does show things, it still remains ambiguous.

This ambiguity means that Panther is less satisfying in terms of plot. The story opens up more possibilities than it answers. On the one hand, this lets the reader figure things out. Again, is Panther Christine’s creation or the mask of an abuser? On the other hand, this ambiguity means there’s less to hold onto. Yet the beauty of the art makes me want to pick up the book again and again and try to unlock its secrets. If they can be unlocked. What Evens has managed to do is create a tone that hovers between the creative joy of childhood imagination and the unfathomable terror of barely contained amorality. The fact that most the book walks that line without falling too heavily into either camp makes for a captivating, if completely unsettling, reading experience.

(written May 20, 2016)