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Oct/Nov 2007 Reviews & Interviews

A Fall Celebration of Comics & Graphic Novels

Reviewed by Maryanne Snell


The Professor's Daughter
By Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Giubert
First Second 2007
1-59643-130-X

Buy now from Amazon! The Professor's Daughter by Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert is the kind of book that makes the best use of the comics medium. Starting mid story with Lillian and a walking, talking mummy leaving the museum to go to lunch, no explanation is given as to what has come before, and none is needed. What follows is a charming love story set in a classic horror milieu. There's violence, comedy, pathos, and melodrama as the mummy and Lillian run from museum officials, the police, thugs, and the mummy's father. The plot twists and turns are delightful; as the action escalates so does the comedy, until suddenly Queen Victoria is being tossed into the Thames. Sfar's storytelling is excellent, but Guibert's art cannot be over praised. Painted in a lovely palette of browns, blues and blacks, the pictures leap from the page. As the book progresses and the mummy more fully comes to life, or perhaps as Lillian's perception of him changes, the panels transition from being monochromatic to full color; each one a detailed masterpiece. While mostly a flight of imagination, the story raises questions, without giving answers, about the ethical implications of the ownership of antiquities, and imperialism. It has all of the elements that make a great graphic novel, and is highly recommended.

 

The Black Diamond Detective Agency
By Eddie Campbell
First Second 2007
1-59643-142-3

The cover of Eddie Campbell's The Black Diamond Detective Agency promises an epic tale of a newly industrialized America with twists, turns, and heart-stopping thrills; and it delivers. In 1899 a train is blown up, and a safe with unknown contents stolen. The only suspect is a man named John Hardin, who denies any involvement, and was seen rescuing victims from the wreckage. The Black Detective Agency starts an investigation, as Hardin does the same, in an attempt to clear his name. What they uncover involves graft, counterfeiting, kidnapping, and unexpected ties to Hardin's past. Campbell's pacing is impeccable, building suspense while dropping clues at just the right moments. The scene leading up to the train explosion is fantastic; as the panels show idyllic scenery and excited people, he subtly ratchets up the tension with the text. Campbell's art beautifully captures the essence of an America moving forward into industry; the settings are realistically, rather than romantically, rendered. He is a master of silent panels, and uses them to great effect, both to indicate isolation and extreme noise or emotion. While the story is one of mystery and mayhem, at its core it is an exploration of grief, and a meditation on what progress means when it goes wrong.

 

Deogratias
By J.P Stassen
First Second 2006
978-1-59643-103-2

A recent article put forth the idea that the reason people don't care about the genocide taking place in Darfur is because of how the information is being given; it's easier for the mind to recognize one person's pain and suffering than the suffering of thousands. If that's the case, Deogratias by J.P. Stassen will go a long way in affecting how people think about Rwanda. The book focuses on the experience of one Hutu boy, named Deogratias, during the methodical massacres of the Tutsi people in Rwanda. As the book begins, Deogratias has lost his mind because of the horrors he's seen, which are revealed in flashbacks. His remembrances begin benignly; his flirtations with two Tutsi sisters are the stuff of normal boyhoods. They turn dark however, as the days leading up to the massacres approach and the people around him reveal themselves to have monstrous tendencies. The book succeeds in invoking a sense of horror by keeping the perpetrators human; any exaggeration would lead to a sigh of relief that "this couldn't happen here". An informative introduction gives the historical context and larger perspective of the genocide, and the inclusion of a French army sergeant gives a powerful counterpoint to Deogratias' feelings about what he has witnessed. As Deogratias spirals toward his conclusion, Stassen raises compelling questions about the place of revenge and violence in Rwanda and its surrounding countries. While it can't be truly described as enjoyable, this graphic novel is an incredibly important work, and should be widely read.

 

Gothic Classics: Graphic Classics Vol. 14
Edited by Tom Pomplun
Eureka Productions 2007
978-0-9787919-0-2

Graphic Classics Volume 14 tackles the topic of classics from the gothic genre. Featuring longer selections than other volumes, the book contains extensive versions of the novellas "Carmilla" and "The Mysteries of Udolpho," as well as shorter pieces such as "The Oval Portrait" and "At the Gate". "Carmilla" is adapted well by Rod Lott but it shines due to the art of Lisa K. Weber. Her heroines are wispy and wide-eyed, and her delicate penciling and shading lends a ghostliness to the tale. "The Mysteries of Udolpho" is also gorgeously rendered; Carlo Veraga's art is truly beautiful, and offsets the creepiness of the story. Also included in the volume is Trina Robbin's adaptation of Jane Austen's satire of gothic novels, "Northanger Abbey". Austen's satire is all the more humorous when read in company with the very novels she mocks; for example, the young women of her story scandalously read "The Mysteries of Udolpho". Anne Timmon's lovely, classic "girl comic" art style is perfectly suited to the piece. The shorter pieces succeed on the same level, with concise adaptations and well suited artists. This collection achieves what many anthologies do not—having a cohesive feel throughout, with each story as enjoyable as the last.

 

Glister #1
By Andi Watson
Image Comics (2007)
978-1-58240-853-8

The first issue of Glister, by Andi Watson, is very possibly the loveliest comic I've read all year. Introducing the wonderfully named Glister Butterworth, "a girl who's a magnet for the weird and unusual," this issue tells the story of her encounter with a literary ghost. After receiving a teapot in the mail, Glister discovers that it is home to a writer who, in an attempt to clear his reputation after the debacle of having an award for the worst ending of a book given in his name, needs to finish one last book. He calls on Glister to help, which she agrees to do, but when she finds herself taking dictation about a series of unfortunate events to rival Job's, hijinks ensue as she tries to rid herself of the haunted teapot. Glister is an unflappable and adorable heroine, from her mussed hair to her matter-of-fact acceptance of the presence of a ghost. (Her reaction is explained to a great extent by the practical manner with which her father heads out to roust a troll from under their bridge.) Watson maintains a light, yet subtly off kilter tone that is reminiscent of the best children's authors. His art is deceivingly simple, it has a welcoming, sketchy appearance, but every line is perfectly placed. A nice twist at the end of the book resolves the story sweetly, and the volume is finished out with a new story from Watson's Skeleton Key series, which is a welcome surprise. With humor, a thoughtful story, and a wonderful heroine and world, Glister is the perfect gift for young girls, and a must read for adult fans of the fantastic.

 

Black Metal
By Rick Spears and Chuck BB
Oni Press (2007)
978-1-932664-72-0

Black Metal tells the story of Shawn and Sam Stronghand, junior high age twins who prove that heavy metal isn't just music, it's a lifestyle. Orphaned in early childhood, the dark and brooding boys live with an overly chipper foster mom and annoying little brother. When they discover the music of Frost Axe, the blackest of metal, their true identity as the Roth, King of the Goblins of Hell is revealed to them. With the legendary sword of Atoll, (and their snotty-nose kid brother), they fight demons, goblins, and devils in their attempt to reclaim their rightful position. Taking on the tone of the best heavy metal anthems, Black Metal is epic and sprawling, yet tightly paced. The brothers speak in a stylized speech pattern that is pitch perfect, and their interactions with the trappings of the modern world are incredibly humorous. Likewise, the boys' dark identity and the reality that they're still pre-teen boys causes some hilarious moments, as when the boys are hurling taunts at demons in the midst of a fight, leading one of the demons to ask, "A butt sniffing butt hole? How is that even possible?" While it's amusing, however, the book works so well because it's presented completely seriously; there's no mocking or satirical undertone. Chuck BB's art is creepy yet cute, with the thickness of his lines depending on how hardcore the character is—Shawn, Sam, and the demons are drawn with a thick, dark line, whereas Shawn and Sam's foster mom and brother are light and cartoony. The obvious love of the creators for their subject makes this book, which could have gone horribly wrong, work so incredibly right.

 

Last Call: Book 1
By Vasilis Lolos
Oni Press (2007)
978-1-932664-69-0

When two boys sneak out in a stolen car, playing a mixtape with the playlist decided by "Satan himself," they run into trouble they never expected. When the car stalls out, they find themselves colliding with, and then riding on, a mysterious train. Filled with strange looking passengers, the train is spooky and disconcerting, and terror awaits the boys in the unexpected. Murder, shadow men, and the question of what exists outside of the train are only some of the situations in which they find themselves embroiled. The atmosphere of the book is reminiscent of the films of Hayao Miyazaki, where children find themselves in strange situations that are likewise indecipherable to the reader. (Although, the reader is given small bits of information that the characters aren't privy to—as the ticket on the back cover indicates that the train is interdimensional.) A perfect example of this tone is a scene where one of the boys eats bubblegum which expands and transforms his face into an unsettling mask. The character design is suggestive of Japanese horror comics, with people who range from the outrageously overweight to having a face covered in scales, to one with a long, snakelike neck. While the main characters aren't incredibly likeable, their attitudes as teenage boys are the reason, and therefore it isn't a flaw. The book ends in a cliffhanger and with the reader's hope that the release of the next volume is speedy!

 

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