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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What I'm Reading Graphic Novel Edition: Mr. Wonderful and Chew

Tonight's class includes a discussion on Graphic Novels so I thought I would catch up on my reviews of the two graphic novels I finished recently: Mister Wonderful by Daniel Clowes and Chew: The Omnivore Edition by John Layman and Rob Guillory.

Daniel Clowes was the first alternative comic writer to really break out into the mainstream.  His characters are generally misanthropes and/or people on the edges of "normal."  However, his focus on the people on the periphery of polite society is a commentary how we are all outsiders in one way or another.

In order to underscore the universality of how we all feel like a weirdo at times, he uses exaggeration and the grotesque in his stories and art.  This makes for a slightly surreal quality to his stories, but they are firmly grounded in reality.

Clowes is most popular with 25-45 year olds who are regular graphic novel readers; however, with his growing popularity, numerous awards, and even an appearance alongside Alan Moore on the Simpsons, Clowes is being read more by the casual graphic novel reader too.

I personally love Clowes, but it is important to note that I fit into the above category of traditional Clowes fans.  To the right here you can see a page from Mr. Wonderful.

Mr. Wonderful takes only an hour or two to read and savor. For those who vaguely remember seeing it somewhere else before, it was originally serialized in The New York Times Magazine.

Mr Wonderful hits at all of the Clowes appeals I mentioned above, plus a few more I will mention now.

The pages are busy and require your attention, but they are not hard to follow.  He uses every inch of the page to tell you a story.

Clowes employs a clear style which he introduces from page one and sticks to throughout.  Once you get in the groove of his storytelling methodology, you are good to go.

The story itself is merely a slice of life peek into our eccentric main character, a divorced man looking for love.  He is set up on a blind date by friends and this graphic novel is the story of that date.  We get glances into both parties' backstories and specifically into the mind of Mr Wonderful himself.

This is a quirky, fun ride through a blind date from hell that might just lead to an ulikely relationship.

Three Words That Describe This Book: quirky, slice of life, outsiders

Readalikes:  Mr. Wonderful reminded me of HBO's Bored to Death.  Mr. Wonderful and his misadventure could easily be used as a plot line for the Jonathan Ames character on the show.  Interestingly, Ray, another character on the show, is a comics writer himself.  Click here to see artist Dean Haspiel's drawings used on the show.  It all overlaps perfectly.

Clowes' storytelling  has always reminded me of the novels of Jonathan Lethem.  As a readliake here I would specifically suggest Chronic City or You Don't Love Me Yet.

In graphic novels, I also find Chris Ware a good readalike option.  Both men write alternative comics with outsider main characters and a literary fiction-esque story line. You can't go wrong by giving Jimmy Corrgian: The Smartest Kid on Earth a try if you like Clowes.

The work of graphic novelist Adrian Tomine and David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp (link to my review) are also good options.

Now on to the next review.  Here is how I learned about Chew: Jose at work read it and said to me, "You have to try this graphic novel. The main character is a guy who gets a psychic impression from every bite of food he eats." That was enough for me.  I put it on hold and am now totally addicted to this smart, scary, and thought provoking graphic novel series.  I am holding my breath for Volume 2 to be released on December 20th.

Here is the link to the official website for the series, which includes examples of the art.  In particular, I think the picture on the right really captures the series' tone and style.

From that same site, here is the creator's description of the series:
Tony Chu is a cop with a secret. A weird secret. Tony Chu is Cibopathic, which means he gets psychic impressions from whatever he eats. It also means he's a hell of a detective, as long as he doesn't mind nibbling on the corpse of a murder victim to figure out whodunit, and why. It`s a dirty job, and Tony has to eat terrible things in the name of justice. And if that wasn`t bad enough, the government has figured out Tony Chu`s secret. They have plans for him… whether he likes it or not.
The world in which Tony is a detective is also a near future dystopia where some type of horrible bird flu has killed millions of people, and now, chicken as a food source has been completely outlawed for our own safety.  Or, as we come to question, is that just what the government is telling us? Why? What is the big secret?

Tony's powers move him to the biggest, baddest government agency in this new world...the FDA!  His job is to stop illegal chicken consumption; however, his powers have created many enemies who are out to get him.  We meet Tony's celebrity chef brother, his partners, and an intriguing restaurant reviewer with powers of her own. There are many more interesting characters, but you will need to discover them on your own.

As this first compendium ends, Tony is just on the edge of discovering what is really going on in regards to the outlawing of chicken.  Many factions are closing in on him, from different sides, and I want to know what is going to happen! (see my above comment about holding my breath for Vol 2)

The drawings are dark, edgy, and colorful.  There are a lot of sharp jagged lines to keep you uneasy.  The page is used in many different ways to tell the story, from full page illustrations, to extreme close ups, traditional panels, and oversized ones.  Again, the presentation fluctuates to add that unease to the story which is truly gratifying.

I would best describe the series as gruesome and funny, in equal measure.  It has all the trappings of both a great dystopian novel, with the thought provoking story lines and chilling social warnings as well as the comforts of a solid detective story.

This is a dark (bordering on horror), character driven story with cliff hangers, shocking plot twists, and an extremely interesting frame.  But it really is also funny. Tony is a great protagonist.  If you like him, you will love the series.

Chew is not for the weak stomached, but it is also one of the most original stories I have read in a long time.

Three Words That Describe This Book:  original, dystopic, uneasy mood

Readalikes:  Chew is clearly heavily influenced by the drawing style, themes, and storytelling method of Robert Kirkman and his enormously successful Walking Dead series.  Both series use a similar drawing style, but more importantly, they use a near future, dystopian setting to provide social commentary on the world today.  Chew also uses the classic Kirkman storytelling techniques of a large cast of characters, many subplots, and shocking, cliff hanger endings.  Without Kirkman, there would be no Chew, but that is a good thing.  It is nice to see someone begin influenced by Kirkman while still telling a engaging and original story.

Joe Hill's Locke and Key series is also a great readalike.  I have read and reviewed all 4 compendiums here, here, here, and here.

The novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender also features a protagonist who can taste the emotions of the person who made her food, but I would only suggest this novel to Chew fans if the cibopath part of the story is their favorite part. The tone and mood of the two stories are very different.  In Bender's book, no one is eating murder victims.

Chew is much more in line with near future dystopian stories, especially those which are character driven such as Never Let Me Go by Kazou Ishiguro, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde, and of course, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

Don't forget to check out what my students also read for class tonight.

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