January 30, 2012

Elsewhere: Comics Covers with Brian Wood

I'm not familiar with Brian Wood's work (though the name is very familiar), but I found this history of the cover of The Massive from Io9 to be a lot of fun. Comics and book cover design? Yes, please!

January 26, 2012

"It's about superheroes, but, you know, different"

Picking titles to introduce comics to adult readers is always difficult. Is it good to pick something "easy," like an adaptation of classic literature, or will this leave the reader uninteresting in coming back? Or should I pick something that extends to the limits of the medium and risk alienating the reader? Is it better to pick something "important" like Maus, or will the subject matter1 overwhelm the experience of the medium? Mainstream or art comics? Genre or "literary"? And so on.

Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen are the books I've heard cited most frequently, more or less tied with Maus or Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. These are both examples of what could be called "serious superhero stories": the former is about Batman's middle-aged resurgence in a dark, dark 1980s Gotham City, and the latter is a self-contained story about a group of ex-superheroes putting on their masks again in a dark, dark 1980s New York City. They are both very popular and have received high critical acclaim.

Serious action and internal monologue from The Dark Knight Returns.2
Serious dialogue from Watchmen.3

A related body of work that has gotten less attention is what might be called "weird superhero stories", but that's a bit of a cop-out on my part. It's a weak name for a category because I'm bring together superhero-oriented art comics by the likes of Dan Clowes (The Death Ray and "Black Nylon") and Chris Ware (many stories, including Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth) with more mainstream superhero stories like Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple's Omega, The Unknown and Alan Moore's Promethea or Top Ten. Whereas serious superhero stories might be described as "realistic" as a selling point, weird superhero stories might be described any number of ways: "artsy", "literary", "philosophical", "metaphysical" or just "meta".

The hero, unmasked, explains his motives to readers over breakfast in The Death Ray.4
An excerpt from Alan Moore's metaphysical treatise disguised as a superhero story, Promethea.5

I have many reservations about recommending serious or weird superhero stories for first-time readers. They require a significant understanding of the conventions and history of superhero comics and/or comics in general, and my impression is that they tend to alienate readers without this understanding. I'm wary of recommending Watchmen in particular because its whole purpose was to bring superhero stories to their logical end: a bunch of strong people with funny costumes and deep psychoses acting unethically and immorally in the name of protecting society. What would a first-time reader get out of this? Why would they ever come back for more?

Even at their most un-serious and un-weird, superhero comics are a strange thing. They combine science fiction, fantasy and mythology (in the literal sense, with characters like Thor, and in the literary sense, by retelling origins and other stories over and over again, and so on). Both art and dialogue are often a bizarre combination of stylized and naturalistic. They are inherently silly -- adults wearing tights and capes! -- and often very violent, and they are accordingly criticized as somehow being both too childish and too mature. In some ways, it's a wonder that anyone could find their way into this genre at all, though perhaps these are precisely the things that attract people to begin with.

It's probably clear by now that I'm kind of a grump about superheroes in general and serious and weird superheroes in particular (though I do really, really like both The Dark Knight Returns and the new Omega: The Unknown). Moreover, I recognize that it can be enjoyable and rewarding to start with a layered, referential work and working backwards and forwards to understand it and its medium generally. Still, if a new comics reader wants to see what superheroes are all about, I'd probably start them with something less demanding or strange, like early Spider-Man or Fantastic Four. And if they didn't ask for superheroes specifically, I probably wouldn't suggest them at all.

Top image from Omega: The Unknown. Source: http://www.comicbookresources.com; © Marvel Comics.
1. Maus, by Art Spiegelman, is about the cartoonist's father's experiences living through the Holocaust and about Spiegleman's relationship with his father.
2. Image from http://worldofcartoonsandcomics.blogspot.com; © DC Comics.
3. Image from http://www.amoeba.com/blog/; © DC Comics.
4. Image from http://fuckyeahdanielclowes.tumblr.com/; © Daniel Clowes.
5. Image from http://www.comicscube.com; © Alan Moore.

January 18, 2012

Genre Fiction Event at Durham County Library

I'm excited to announce that Durham County Library is hosting the event series "Guilty Pleasures: A Celebration of Genre Fiction" starting this Thursday! Although comics aren't addressed in this series, I'm promoting it here in support of organizer Jennifer Lohmann, head of Adult Services at Durham County's Southwest Regional Library. Jennifer's excellent promotion of romance fiction won her 2010 Librarian of the Year from Romance Writers of America, and her work in this field has been especially inspirational to my own goal of becoming a comics librarian.  Thanks Jennifer!

Durham County Library Hosts New Series,
Guilty Pleasures: A Celebration of Genre Fiction

Program:             What is Genre Fiction?
Date:                     Thursday, January 19
Time:                    7 p.m.
Location:             Main Library
                                300 North Roxboro St.
Cost:                      Free and open to the public

About:                  Dr. Barbara B. Moran, of the School of Information and Library Science at UNC-CH, will kick off Durham County Library’s new series, Guilty Pleasures: A Celebration of Genre Fiction on Thursday, January 19 at the Main Library, 300 N. Roxboro at 7 p.m. Moran will define genre fiction and provide an entertaining and informative overview of the major genres of popular fiction.

                                Future programs in the series include author visits from Sarah Wendell, popular blogger on romance fiction, on Sunday, Feb. 12 at Southwest Regional Library; Sharon Ewell Foster, author of the historical fiction novel The Resurrection of Nat Turner, on Thursday, March 15 at Stanford L. Warren Library; and Alice Wisler, Christy Award Finalist and author of inspirational fiction, on Sunday, April 15 at North Regional Library.

                                For more information about the series, contact Joanne Abel at 560-0268. This program is made possible by funding from Durham Library Foundation.

Durham County Library provides the entire community with books, services and other resources that inform, inspire learning, cultivate understanding and excite the imagination. For more information, visit your local library or visit us online at www.durhamcountylibrary.org.

January 12, 2012

New Shelf: Hark! A Vagrant

I was as excited to find Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant under the tree this Christmas (Thanks Aunt Sue!) as I was to find it on the shelf at Durham County Library. The book is a collection from the webcomic same name, and it generally features historical and literary themes, the hilarious likes of which I haven't seen anywhere else. The book's first strip, "Dude Watchin' with the Brontës",1 features Anne's sound criticism of Charlotte and Emily's predilection for dark, brooding men. Another2 depicts a cynical, sarcastic smoker of a Wonder Woman reluctantly rescuing a cat from a tree. Still another, the series entitled "Courtly Love", chronicles the history of a medieval romance that is thoroughly anachronistic and completely believable.

From "Courtly Love"3
These strips are among the funniest I have ever read, and yet I must admit that they are often much smarter than me (cf. Brontës). It doesn't stop them from being funny by any means, but I am happy to report that the book includes an extended set of cartoons that seem to have been made just for me. Each four-panel strip starts with a book cover, either from a Nancy Drew book or from any number by Edward Gorey, and constructs a tiny, tiny narrative suggested only by the cover illustration or its title.

From the Nancy Drew series4

 From the Edward Gorey series5

I can't really explain what it is about these that works so well. Just know that, even now, the room in which I sit is filled with squelched laughter and giggling, as it has been every time I've seen or even thought about them. And really, I think that's the best recommendation I can give.

Durham County Library patrons will find Hark! A Vagrant in the general nonfiction (along with the rest of our comic strip collections) under 741.597 BEATON. Everyone can (and should) see Kate Beaton's work at harkavagrant.com.

Top image from http://harkavagrant.com © Kate Beaton
1. Available at http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=202
2. Available at http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=225
3. Available at http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=282
4. Available at http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=279
5. Available at http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=242

January 8, 2012

New Shelf: 1001 Comics You Must Read

With this review, I am starting a new "feature" here at 741.5 And Then Some, "New Shelf". This will collect all my reviews of books that have just come in, whether it's at Durham County Library or simply to my own collection, regardless of actual publishing date. Enjoy!

In spite of its foreboding title, Paul Gravett's 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die is truly a treasure. It might seem hard to go wrong with a list of 1001 anythings, but this book is laudable for a number of reasons that are worth pointing out.

First, it covers the entire timeline of a pretty broad definition of comics. It begins in 1837 with Rodolfe Topffer's The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, so it aligns itself with what might be called the Modernist school of comics history, that which requires comics to be mechanically reproduced. Drawing this line can be problematic, but I think it's reasonable not to include the Bayeux Tapestry1 in a book like this. The end of the timeline is Craig Thompson's Habibi, which (according to Amazon2) was released September of 2011. As 1001 Comics was released just a month or so later,3 that's pretty quick turnaround and, for now, pretty up-to-date.

The book is also noteworthy because of its global perspective. Maybe my experience is unusual, but I have only rarely come across discussions of comics that acknowledge any work done outside of the United States, Canada (because of Drawn and Quarterly Press), England (thanks to DC Comics' "edgy" imprint, Vertigo) and sometimes Japan. 1001 Comics wisely includes a wealth of works from France and Belgium, the most baffling exclusions from the list above because of their long-held high regard for comics, but it goes far beyond as well. Flipping through the pages just now, I have found works from Korea, Argentina, India, Mexico, Spain, Italy, Germany, Cuba, Italy, the Netherlands, Israel, Algeria and Croatia. Most of these countries and their regions are in the minority, of course, but it is nevertheless a refreshing departure from the norm.

There is also a broader-than-usual perspective on what sorts of work "must be read". 1001 Comics includes long and short works, all sorts of genres (including mainstream superhero stories, so it's not just a list of art comics), standalone "graphic novels" and serials (or at least selected runs of serials, such as the Bendis/Maleev period of Daredevil), fiction and nonfiction, and, most surprising to me, comic strips like Little Nemo in Slumberland and Calvin and Hobbes. There are almost no single-panel gag or political cartoons, placing the book mostly within the McCloud school of what counts as comics and what does not. Also surprising is the inclusion of works like Max Ernst's A Week of Kindness and Lynd Ward's God's Man: these kinds of "silent novels" of the 1920s and 30s tend to be relegated to proto-comics status for one reason or another, and it's good to see them here.

Returning to the purpose of this blog, 1001 Comics the kind of book that is especially suitable for libraries. It would be appreciated by patrons who are already comics-lovers because no one (surely!) can have already read all the comics listed, and also because best-of lists are always good for passionately agreeing or arguing with in one's own head. Folks who are new to comics or skeptical of their worth would also find this book to be worthwhile because of the huge scope addressed above. The outstanding diversity of works included would quickly fend off any "I hate superheroes" or "it's just kid's stuff" or "they're too violent" concerns that are all too common among wary patrons and wary librarians alike.

The book also has potential as a collection development tool because it goes far beyond  reviews of new releases that (as I understand it) are the primary tool for selecting works of any kind. Since comics have held such an odd place in the public library for so long, collections can be spotty and unfocused; this book provides a well-organized set of reviews that could be used to fill in gaps of history, geography, genre or any other sort. The book is not without flaws, but they are mostly negligible.4 I'm very happy that Durham County Library acquired copies of 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die, and I'd recommend it for any public library system of any size.

Durham County Library patrons will find 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die in the general nonfiction (along with the rest of our comic strip collections) under 741.597 ONE.

Top image from http://arquivocomics.blogspot.com/2011/10/1001-quadrinhos-que-voce-precisa-ler.html, © Universe Editions.
1. The Bayeux Tapestry, created in the 1070s, depicts events leading up to the Battle of Hastings with sequential images, and Scott McCloud, for one, considers it to be essentially a comic; more about the tapestry at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayeux_tapestry
2. Habibi at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Habibi-Craig-Thompson/dp/0375424148/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_1
3. 1001 Comics at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/1001-Comics-Must-Read-Before/dp/0789322714/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1326027212&sr=1-1
4. If you must know, I think some of the genrefication is off (Ghost World is not really a "teen" work in my opinion, and "reality drama" doesn't count as a genre). I also when, after reading an engaging description of a work, finding that it was impossible to find. There is no mention of whether foreign-language works have been translated into English, which seems pretty significant for a non-scholarly, English-language book like this. I was sad that so many reviews didn't include illustrations, but that's more of a publishing limitation than a flaw. Finally, I find it strange to have an index of titles in the front and and index of authors in the back. But again, these are much more than balanced by the positives that the book offers.