|Oct/Nov 2004 Book Reviews|
I grew up on comics.
Right now, if I close my eyes, I can see my brother and I standing in the checkout line with our father at Food World (whatever happened to that grocery chain?) eyeing the Archie Comic Digests. We went grocery shopping only the Saturday after payday, and spending extra money was not something my family was able to do all that often. The Archie (or Jughead or Betty & Veronica) Digest was a special treat. Once given the go-ahead, we were careful to make sure we got the most for our money, the most stories and the most pages. And then that was it for two more weeks, unless we lucked into some money along the way. We kept all the comics we bought in a box at the bottom of our hall closet, until they finally and completely fell to pieces. To give you an idea of how long that sort of destruction took, when we finally moved out of my childhood home in 1983, we still had the Classic Comics my grandmother bought in the 1940s after my uncle and mother were born. Until that major move, we hardly ever threw any comic books away.
So yeah, I grew up on comics.
Archie and his gang are still going strong, and so are a variety of Disney comics for kids as well. Lately the "all ages" market has started to see some other activity though, some long overdue new blood. And I could bore you right now with statistics and studies, both pro and con, that weigh in on the "does reading comics while they're young make children better readers when they're older debate," but who cares really? Reading comics is just reading, and if the story is good, it doesn't matter what format it is written in. I can only tell you that I loved comics when I was six, and I still love them now, thirty years (eep!) later. So here's a look at a few of the titles available today for children. And just like Archie, you don't have to be under the age of ten to enjoy them.
Jimmy Gownley started publishing Amelia Rules! in 2001. It centers around the misadventures of a group of elementary school misfits from the perspective of fourth grader Amelia. There's also Reggie, Rhonda and Pajamaman, who wears his pajamas every day (we have no idea why). In the early issues Amelia and her mother go to live with her Aunt Tanner after her parents divorce; this is how she meets the other kids. Unlike Peanuts, the adults are an intricate part of the storyline, with both Amelia's mother and father making appearances and most importantly, Aunt Tanner, who is the anchor in Amelia's life. This is not because her parents are distant or dysfunctional, but because Amelia just happens to adore her aunt. And because the comic is all about Amelia, it also becomes about Tanner a bit as well.
So what happens? Amelia realizes that through the all-powerful elementary school system of categorization, she has become a nerd without realizing it. Reggie dresses like a superhero, Rhonda and Amelia fight, Pajamaman wears pajamas, Amelia visits her father, former rock star Tanner almost becomes famous again, and lots of angst ridden moments occur at Joe McCarthy Elementary School, whose slogan is: "Weeding out the wrong element since 1952." (God save us all from the suburbs, please.)
There are some serious moments in Amelia which sets it apart from the kids comics I grew up on. Her parents are divorced after all, and she misses her father. She had to leave all of her friends behind when she moved with her mother, and their new home with Tanner is tenuous. But the problems are not insurmountable and not unexpected. They are, in fact, familiar to most of Amelia's readers. This is part of Gownley's charm, that he can express what it is to be a child in 2004 while still holding on to the innocence of decades past. Sometimes, even now, it is just all about playing hide and seek with your friends, and Amelia does that and more with some outstanding graphics and charming storylines. This is the comic for the early reader, boy or girl. It's available as single issues of the ongoing series, or you can buy the two trade paperback collections.
Slave Labor Graphics
Oh, man... Pirate Club. (I already feel like I'm channeling Brad Pitt.) In theory this is not an all ages comic, it is an adult comic written about children. But even though I read it and thought it was hysterical, I think it will appeal even more to older kids and teenagers. A little warning up front: the word "shit" does show up in the first issue (most appropriately in my opinion), and the boys are more than a bit fascinated by the opposite sex. As far as I'm concerned, this makes it perfect for just about any twelve year-old boy (or even girl), but it's up to the parents to make that final decision for themselves.
Somehow this comic manages to be both obnoxious and harmless. I'm not sure whether to laugh at the boys or be appalled by them half the time. They are absolutely committed to making their lives something other than dull, however, which is a pursuit that must be supported at all costs by any decent, red-blooded American, right? In more than one review of the comic, I have seen the movie Goonies mentioned, as in a "these boys are a rougher, tougher, somewhat more maniacal version" than that wholesome group of kids. There is that same hint of possibility in both the comic and movie however, that "go ahead and see what happens next because it could be anything" flavor to the pages. Very cool... crazy, but cool.
So, on to the story. John, "Bearclaw" (a perfectly normal boy with a need for a dramatic nickname), and later J.J. and Mike, are all young men of hopeful adventure. They are tree house, skateboard, "let's get in a boat and sail the high seas in search of treasure" kind of boys. Or, more realistically, they are "get in an old rowboat and try to make something happen that will make this day less boring than all the ones that came before it" kind of boys. Having spent way too many summer afternoons sitting in a lawn chair in our back patio absolutely praying for something, anything dramatic to happen, I can appreciate the burning desire for excitement that fires up the young men of Pirate Club. As creator (and illustrator and co-writer) Derek Hunter recalls in Issue 1, he spent his entire childhood as a "houseplant" and now offers up Pirate Club as an ideal of what all those other kids were doing outside that he missed out on.
So who should read Pirate Club? I asked my husband if a twelve year old girl or boy should read a comic that said the word "shit." He looked at me like I was crazy. John and his crew have a treehouse with a skull and crossbones, a boat and big dreams. You decide if it's ready for your kids.
Once I've discovered a fabulous title, I'm hard pressed not to rave about it to everyone I know, as often as I can. Right now that book happens to be something I found at my local comic shop, believe it or not. There are some amazing stories coming out of the comics industry--words and pictures that are startling and shocking and utterly unforgettable. To me, hands down, Vertigo Comics' Fables is the best in the business.
The hook is so simple and so beautiful that I can hardly stand it. Fables takes place in our world, the real world, but it concerns the lives of fairy tale characters. They live in primarily in New York City (some in Upstate NY) and work beside us, walk beside us, seem just like us. They live in Fable Town, a high rise complex in the city that is protected from prying "mundy" eyes by a healthy dose of magic. The comic follows their community as they settle internal problems caused by all the easily relatable problems of politics, love and war. There is also the larger threat posed by the "Adversary," the unnamed monster who drove the "fables" from their worlds into our "mundy" world, losing many of their loved ones in battles along the way. While the plot is great, particularly the most recent story arc which was outstanding, it is the fun that writer/creator Bill Willingham is having with his characters that really draws the readers in. We know them, we have been hearing stories about them since we were children, but under Willingham's guidance we realize that we know nothing at all, and the truth is that the citizens of Fable Town are a lot more complex than folks like the Brothers Grimm ever gave them credit for. (Don't even get my started on how off base dear Uncle Walt was!)
First there is Snow White. To understand her rather steely demeanor, it is necessary to consider her abysmal marriage to former husband Prince Charming. Charming is a philanderer who had an affair with Snow's sister, the often forgotten Rose Red (Disney never even mentioned her). This was no big surprise, though, as Charming had a track record before Snow that was less than stellar. You do recall the ending of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, right? Big celebratory balls with lots of dancing and dear Prince Charming taking the heroine off to live "happily ever after." Well, Beauty, Cinderella and Snow now form one of the more caustic versions of the First Wives Club. Charming is ever present in Fable Town, annoying the wives, while looking for mundy women with a few extra dollars he can charm them out of. Some things never change.
Beauty and the Beast have made the trip to NYC as well, although his countenance is less than reliable. Whenever the couple are fighting, the Beast reverts back to his animal appearance, forced to remain that way until Beauty cools off. As they are suffering financially (like almost all fables, they made the journey to our world with practically nothing, and it's not like they have a lot of marketable skills) the couple are the poster children for marriage counseling. They prove to be an amusing side note in the larger storylines, though, and a chance for Willingham to play for lots of laughs.
The Three Pigs also have serious family issues (and I really can't stress that enough in their case), Bluebeard is just as nefarious as you would expect, Little Boy Blue is a hopeless romantic, Old King Cole runs Fable Town (well, he's the figurehead anyway), Bigby Wolf--as in "the Big Bad Wolf"--is the tough talking sheriff who seems to be patterned after Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon and Al Pacino in everything else, and Goldilocks, well, hell, Goldilocks is a gun toting revolutionary who has a very troubling relationship with Baby Bear. I can not stress how troubling. Oh My God. Prepare to let Willingham rock your world and destroy any fond memories you have of the three bears story. That's all I'm going to say... really. (Just Oh My God!!!!)
Beyond the major players is the fun of figuring out who everyone else is. Even the most minor characters seem to have a background in fairy tale or fable. Weyland Smith, is based on Weyland the Smith, the mythical god of Saxon legend who ends up in Fables with a gift for blacksmithing. Jack of All Tales dresses with a six shooter and Confederate flag motif which dates to his Blue Ridge Mountains history as a storyteller in Appalachian myth. Reynard the Fox is found in medieval verses where animals acted as humans; he shows up here in his fox form only. These are just the ones I was curious about and researched. I can only imagine the origins of dozens of others who appear in only a panel or two.
The comic has gone through four major story arcs since its inception, three of which are available in collected form (the fourth appearing soon). The first, "Legends in Exile" is the weakest, but it suffers from having to provide an enormous amount of back story. With "Animal Farm" the series hit its stride and has only gotten better ever since. There are a few fun, one-shot issues scattered between the arcs and an outstanding special issue, "The Last Castle," which provides critical background on the final battle with the Adversary before the surviving fables left their country behind. All of the stories are engaging, dramatic and often funny, although Willingham never strays far from his theme of wars and isolation. This is a serious comic in many ways, and it has come out under the Vertigo banner for good reason. It is for mature readers, not children, and if you don't believe me, just read this hint one more time: Goldilocks and Baby Bear. I mean please, how obvious do I have to be? (And no, there's no graphic artwork on that score, but still you get the message.) For older readers, certainly for teenagers, this is great stuff. It's sophisticated enough to hold their attention but still fun and accessible. And it beats anything on tv, believe me.
I love Fables because this is the story that I wish I had written. It combines familiar characters in a setting we recognize but then throws it all off kilter by making these figures so utterly and completely fresh and new. Who would possibly have brought together Old King Cole, Snow White, Little Boy Blue and one of the flying monkeys from Oz and had them be the key town staff? Rose Red and Jack of the Beanstalk as fighting lovers? Bluebeard as some sort of evil Donald Trump? It is so much fun to see who shows up, and the well of opportunities here is virtually limitless. Willingham clearly knows this and is giving his adult readers a chance to indulge in all those childish storylines that they had to leave regretfully behind somewhere around the age of twelve. Now they are not only a guilty pleasure, but an intelligent and erudite one as well. People fight for love and freedom in Fables. They struggle to maintain a fair democracy, yet find themselves forced to make tough choices about the price that must be paid for security. Lines are crossed to keep each other safe. I wish I could say that these stories are bloodier, scarier than the "real" world, but I don't think that is true anymore. We have become a society that fits easily into fairy tales, with promises of a happy ending but lingering questions over the cost of such happiness. Remember, the original tales were stories told in the oral tradition as warnings and threats, and they abounded with descriptions of parents (not step parents) who abandoned or tortured their children. These were scary stories, the place where nightmares lived and breathed and there were no dancing princesses in glass slippers and diamond tiaras. In Fables some of that scariness has returned, wrapped in grand adventure, adult humor and just enough romance to make even the most jaded reader smile. The artwork by Mark Buckingham and Steve Leialoha has been woefully ignored in this review, but only because I was so caught up in the storytelling. The art is gorgeous, realistic, and each one of cover artist's James Jean's painted covers seems better than the last. It is all a first class package and one that I can't seem to get enough of.
You probably spend a lot of time every month saying there is nothing good to read, that it's all about dirty politics (don't get me started on election year publishing), inane chick lit, pointless dry, dull "literary fiction." Now is your chance to be brave and bold. March forth into your local comic shop and ask them for the Fables backlist. Or, just go online and buy the trade paperbacks. I guarantee you will not be sorry. This is one of the best things I have read all year, one of the best stories I have read ever. Fables is why I keep reading, it's that good. And you should not be missing it.
Courtney Crumrin is a limited series that currently has three trade paperback collections out. It is the perfect choice for anyone who likes their heroines with a lot of spunk and no small amount of sarcasm. Courtney is odd, angry and not shy about letting the world know how she feels. The fact that she is now living just a few blocks away from Goblin Town and spending a lot of free time with the Night Things just gives her more opportunity to be annoyed. And more chances for us to laugh at the things she says and does.
Courtney is the brain child of Ted Naifeh, who seems to have taken a little bit of Nancy Drew (the penchant for mysteries anyway) and added a lot of Tori Amos's angry young womaness with maybe some of Lucy Van Pelt's superiority complex and dropped his creation into the most dysfunctional family in the world... which includes a great uncle who is very involved in a lot of things that go bump in the night. Courtney is determined and fearless and utterly frustrated by her insipid parents. She also wants to belong somewhere to something, to be part of something that matters. How could you not love her?
In the first book, Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things, our spunky heroine and her incredibly screwed-up parents have run through all their money and lost their home, so they leave the city to live with her great uncle, Professor Aloysius Crumrin. While Mom and Dad talk about remodeling the mansion (no doubt dreaming of getting Uncle Al's money before he is gone), Courtney lets her curiosity lead her around the house and into the nearby woods, where she quickly learns that everything is not what it seems. There are creatures in the night... very creepy creatures. As the story unfolds in the succeeding books, she learns about magic in the family (Aloysius has a larger role in in the second book) and other, very scary worlds that exist right next to our own. Through it all Courtney perseveres, although striking a deal with the Goblin King might be a lot easier than trying to get her parents to grow up. (I might be stretching here, but I think that Naifeh must have read Christina Rossetti's poem "Goblin Market" at some point, because Courtney seems to be wandering around in the same territory by book 3, and struggling with the same scary monsters.)
It's a no-brainer that any fan of Harry Potter would love Courtney. But she has a much broader appeal than that. I think she is fabulous, funny and smart and full of lots of snarky comments that I wish had been coming out of Nancy Drew's mouth when I was a kid. The cool thing is that she is still fun for me to read, and I have all three trades. For the future Goth chick or the kid who is a little too smart for his or her own britches (and there is a lot to appeal to male readers in these stories), Courtney is the perfect series to get your hands on. She just keeps getting better and better and is giving me something else to look forward to every year.
So what else is out there? For teenagers, or anyone who ever felt misunderstood, Gloomcookie, from Slave Labor Graphics, is the wildest, coolest, most outlandish Goth comic out there, period. It has consistently been a nice surprise, always delivering on its promise of staying out of the ordinary and true to its goth roots. There are currently two collections of available, with a third due out soon. For the not quite ready to be goth crowd, Little Gloomy, also at Slave Labor, is a solid bet. It features cute younger versions of Frankenstein, the Werewolf and crew all accompanying Gloomy, the child protagonist, as she falls into one adventure after another. I cannot stress how cute Gloomy is, or sweet; she reminded me a bit of the old Little Lulu comic strip. And for the record, I'm no more closet goth than anything else... can you even be goth if you grew up on a Florida beach? But Gloomcookie is just so funny and sweet with a mix of Vincent Price B-movie horror and Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks romance (if one of them was kinda dead) that it is a can't miss choice for me. And Little Gloomy, well, any comic that makes you laugh is worth the money these days. I mean really, it can't be all Batman all the time!
And for the future Batman fans, DC Comics has several titles aimed at the younger set that highlight their marquee heroes. There's Batman Adventures, Superman Adventures and Justice League Adventures. The Bat title was slated for its final issue in August, but trade paperbacks are available, and there is usually some version of the Batman animated series in print every year. Superman Adventures just came out in digest size and is a real good value for the money. All of them offer the standard superhero fare, with a milder form of action and danger (no Joker shooting Batgirl in these pages).
A very cool take on the superhero mythology is available from Oni Press (I love Oni Press, really I do!) called Sidekicks. This title, in a handy digest size compilation, follows the adventures of Terry Highland as she attends Shuster Academy, otherwise known as "superhero high." Terry is following in the footsteps of a father, a former sidekick, and like everyone else at Shuster (teachers and students), has super powers. They learn all the standard school fare and suffer all the typical adolescent traumas while also learning how to be better sidekicks. It's a very original idea and manages to be both funny and endearing, a great bet for the preteen and up crowd.
Finally, if you like ponies, lemonade, robots or thwarting alien invasions, don't pass up a new graphic novel from AmazeInk, Emily and the Intergalactic Lemonade Stand. Emily is plucky, her robot sidekick Juicer is stalwart, the aliens want to turn Earth into a theme park (oh, the irony!) and there are ponies! Also check out theastonishfactory.com, an all ages publisher and their flagship title Hero Bear & the Kid about a stuffed bear that comes to life and the adventures that ensue.
I will admit now (if it isn't already obvious) that I have a healthy comics habit that I support each month with about a dozen regular titles and a few graphic novels. It's money that could be spent on other things I'm sure, but I don't see any pressing need to do that just yet. The comics I read are smart or funny or sobering, but all of them promise me a combination of great art and writing. I credit my former local comics shop and the guys who currently ship my comics cross country for me, Famous Faces & Funnies in Melbourne, Florida, for stretching my boundaries a bit. They weren't afraid to steer me away from the majors like DC and Marvel (who are great and I still support with dollars every week) and into the many wonderful independents who keep the industry from getting stodgy and dull. It was through their influence that I've been able to discover all of the comics I mentioned here. The staff at Famous Faces also always treated their youngest customers with as much respect as the typical single male types that are the comics buyer cliché. You could do a lot worse than introduce your son or daughter to a place like Famous Faces and the kind of amazing stories that live and breathe behind its doors. We could all do a lot worse.