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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

What I’m Reading: Graphic Novel Roundup

So far behind on reviews, but without a desk to man anymore, I have no more excuses to not catch up.

Today here are 3 very different but all very well done graphic novels.  Before I get to the specifics here, I want to point out that while I greatly enjoyed all 3, I would bet there are very few people who would also like all three.  They are very different-- different genres, different artistic style, different tone, and different pacing.  So just because they are all graphic novels or just because they are in this one review or even just because I liked all 3, please note that I am not saying they are in any way readalikes for one and other.  Each review will comment on who the book would best appeal to AND will include its own title specific readalike options.

Enough preamble, on to the reviews...

I am not alone in my love for Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples and their exemplary Saga series.

As I first described it in this post:
Saga, by Brain K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples.  Romeo and Juliet meets Star Wars; Doesn’t take a lot of pages to set up the world and backstory, just jumps right in; Broad appeal across ages and backgrounds; The characters have hope and are likeable; The characters are easy to relate to; The storyline isn’t as dark as a lot of what we’ve discussed; The graphics are beautiful; Along with Walking Dead, the most popular genre graphic novel series right now.
That’s the basics, but here is more about the appeal and the art from my most recent review of Volume 3:
... In fact, what is most remarkable about this series is how well rounded it is. Saga is deserving of all of the accolades and awards it has been receiving. It combines an interesting and compelling plot with wonderful characters, and has great art work. It is clear and crisp.  The pictures and color choices reflect the tone as appropriate; sometimes beautiful happy things are happening, while others times evil, divesting, and dark actions are occurring-- the art helps to differentiate the tone. I would even go so far as to describe the art as beautiful, even when it is illustrating events themselves that are not pretty.
All of these comments still hold true about the story and the art; however, what is different here is that in Volume 4, the overall story has taken a MUCH DARKER turn [which is fine with me, but could be hard on some readers].  Our narrator--baby Hazel-- is aging.  She is a kid now; not a baby swaddled in blankets. She has a personality, can speak for herself, is making her own relationships with people. Her existence can no longer be denied, and the war that is ravaging this world has been kicked up a notch (actually more like 5 notches, but not spoiling the big twist here). So has everything else.  While this has always been a gritty, and at times violent and sexually explicit series, all of it is dialed up now.  It is not gratuitous though.  In fact, it is entirely appropriate given the change in tone.

The world created in Saga is one that fans don’t ever want to leave.  Vaughan and Staples draw you under their spell and hold you hostage while you read. Each time I complete a new volume, I am sad that there is not another page to turn.  That is the overall appeal of this series. You can’t look away from the art because it is colorful, detailed, full of emotion, and simply beautiful (even when the pictures are detecting awful things). And then there is the complex, intriguing, and compelling story itself.

It is a tale “as old as time.” Star-crossed lovers, war, trying to keep a marriage and family together in the midst of strife and conflict, etc..., but Vaughan and Staples still manage to keep it all feeling fresh. With a cast of nuanced characters (good, bad, and in-between), an exotic, yet still very familiar, space setting, and a storyline which is dramatic, sweeping, and moving (without being maudlin), this is an engaging series for a wide range of adult readers.

Much like the praise I give the Locke and Key series for being the very best example of horror storytelling right now regardless of format, I feel similarly about Saga but for Science Fiction. It is the very best example of what a SF story should be and do, it just happens to be in a graphic novel format.

Three Words That Describe This Book: dramatic, nuanced characters, compelling

Readalikes: You can find my past readalike suggestions for this series here.

The dramatic and intricate plotting, large cast of characters, and a story that intertwines war and family all remind me greatly of George R R Martin, however, the pacing is NOT a match for his book series.  Rather, I would say Saga is a great choice for fans of the Game of Thrones TV show who think the books are too slow.

Two other science fiction authors who are writing the very best of today’s SF and also capture the appeal of Saga are John Scalzi and Ann Leckie.  Try Redshirts or Ancillary Justice.

[On a side note, these are the 2 readalike suggestions I referred to in yesterday’s post. I used the most current Locus Recommended Reading List to identify these because I was looking for other examples of today’s best speculative fiction that would appeal to a wide audience. I am quite familiar with both of these authors and titles but I needed the resource to jog my memory.]

Now for something completely different, the YA, girl power , summer camp comic, Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson with art by Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters, and Brooke A. Allen.

Lumberjanes  is set at a girl scout summer camp and features five female best friends.  It is fun, but it is also intelligent.

First I want to talk about how the comic is organized and the art and then I will move into why it is so great. The comics are loosely framed around the various badges that the girls need to earn.  However, as they are doing traditional badge earning exercises, they also uncover a supernatural force that may be up to nefarious things deep in the woods. But our Lumberjanes are up for the challenges both real and supernatural.

As a result of this frame choice, the storyline is not always continuous as we move from badge adventure to badge adventure, and it gets a bit fantastical at times. However it works well for a few reasons.  One, it adds suspense. We are not sure what is coming next and are being primed to expect anything. Two, it keeps the pace very fast. We are not bogged down by every moment of their lives at camp, just the key adventures, yet there is enough banter about other stuff that we get a sense of the overall experience they are having.  And three, it mimics the entire sleep away camp experience.  I went to YMCA camp for a few years as a teen and the memories are just like the way this comic is written-- snippets of the most interesting things we did, somme may be a bit embellished, all strung together without much filler in between.

The art is bright, spunky (like the girls), and in a color palate that matches the natural setting.  It is accessible art that appears childish at first glance, but has a level of sophistication and detail that is revealed upon closer reading.  Fans of graphic novels in general will appreciate the technical skill here much like fans of Saga do.  I also love how each girl’s personality is enhanced by the way she is drawn.  The art tells us so much about who each of these young women are. The very best graphic novels use the words and the art to tell the story. Lumberjanes is not an exception here.

Now I want to move into why so many critics and readers LOVE this series, myself included, and that comes from the overall appeal of the story and its message.

It is girl power without trying to pander to the girls and young women it is written for.  I am often upset by “feminist” stories that try too hard to promote girl power.  We need  positive and strong role models for young women; I understand this greatly as the mother of a 13 year old daughter, but many of the options fall way too short.

Not in Lumberjanes though. Here, these young women are simply their awesome selves. They are the best of friends who are also completely different and unique from one and other-- and that in and of itself sends a powerful message to young women. But the important thing here is that they just ARE. The authors and illustrators are not hitting us over the head with this point. It is refreshing.

Also, there is no “love storyline.” There is no boy to make the girls feel better about themselves because he likes them.  In fact, there is one vignette where they meet the boys campers, and....well you need to read it for yourself.  Again, the best word to describe it is “refreshing."

The comic is also very smart and slightly subversive--both which I love for myself and my teenage daughter. A small example is how the girls use expletives like: “What in the Joan Jett are you doing?!”; “Holy bell hooks!”; and “Where the Phillis Wheatley were you?” 

This book will appeal to 7th graders through high school and the moms of kids this age. It will also appeal to anyone who has ever been a scout or gone to sleep away camp.

Three Words That Describe This Book: fun, witty, refreshing

Readalikes:  Lumberjanes is a great option for older kids who started with Babymouse and then moved on to Raina Telgemeier and now want something more.

Goodreads has this list of recommended reads for fans of Lumberjanes; a list which includes many girl friendly comics.

In terms of novels, these are harder to find.  As I mentioned above, too many YA novels that try to be empowering to young women, just try too hard.  They are not as effortless as Lumberjanes. I have had to earn finding these readalikes because this was not easy.  Most books featuring best friends, spunky female leads, and NO love relationships are only found in middle grade novels.  That is sad! I know lots of girls (my daughter is one) who crave this type of story and read at a high level.  I have had to go to adult books appropriate to a YA audience here.  Again, that is sad!  So here are 2 suggestions I think would work (you can click through for my longer review of these books):
Okay, last one. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True story of the First Computer written and Illustrated by Sydney Padua.

Just about the only thing this graphic novel shares with Lumberjanes is the “girl power” angle.  Seriously, nothing else at all is the same here.

Same with Saga. All the two share is a loose “science fiction” genre grouping.

Since this review compilation is getting long, and this book is quite complex (and I was running a program all afternoon), let me share with you the publisher’s description before I get to my comments:
THE THRILLING ADVENTURES OF LOVELACE AND BABBAGE . . . in which Sydney Padua transforms one of the most compelling scientific collaborations into a hilarious series of adventures. 
Meet Victorian London’s most dynamic duo: Charles Babbage, the unrealized inventor of the computer, and his accomplice, Ada, Countess of Lovelace, the peculiar protoprogrammer and daughter of Lord Byron. When Lovelace translated a description of Babbage’s plans for an enormous mechanical calculating machine in 1842, she added annotations three times longer than the original work. Her footnotes contained the first appearance of the general computing theory, a hundred years before an actual computer was built. Sadly, Lovelace died of cancer a decade after publishing the paper, and Babbage never built any of his machines. 
But do not despair! The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage presents a rollicking alternate reality in which Lovelace and Babbage dobuild the Difference Engine and then use it to build runaway economic models, battle the scourge of spelling errors, explore the wilder realms of mathematics, and, of course, fight crime—for the sake of both London and science. Complete with extensive footnotes that rival those penned by Lovelace herself, historical curiosities, and never-before-seen diagrams of Babbage’s mechanical, steam-powered computer, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is wonderfully whimsical, utterly unusual, and, above all, entirely irresistible.
Lovelace and Babbage is a complex fiction/nonfiction, prose/comic hybrid.  It is quite experimental both literally and figuratively.  Literally because Padua devotes much of the space in this steampunk graphic novel to prose and combines an alternative history story with all of the actual history in great, well researched detail (in the form of copious appendices and endnotes).  Figuratively this is experimental because the great machine she is depicting in all of its whirling gears and steam power glory was only an experimentally hypothesized computer.  There is no way to know if it would have ever worked.

I also love how Padua not only supposes an earlier coming of the computer, but she also pokes fun at how we use this amazing machine today. For example, Queen Victoria likes cat pics.  There is a lot of that witty, knowing glance humor here.

The art is black and white which works to enhance that it is set in the past, but that does not mean it is simple.  Rather, with no color Padua gives us amazingly intricate pictures of a fantastical machine that could have been the first computer ever built if only... Color would have ruined the overall tone.

I should note that this is a methodically paced story.  While each chapter has a new adventure (hence the title), the aforementioned detailed notes slow the adventures down, even if you do not read every single word (Which is a personal preference issue here, you do not need to read all the words in order to enjoy this book.) But rather than seeing this slower pace as a negative [as I have seen some reviewers say], I think it was deliberate. Padua is slowing the story down to remind us how ponderous and difficult this "analytical engine” would be to use even if it had existed in the 1800s.

One final note, with its Victorian setting (a Becky frame preference), I was going to like this book no mater what.

Three Words That Describe This Book: steampunk, fiction/nonfiction hybrid, experimental

Readalikes: Although this is technically a graphic novel, I think the first level of appeal here is that this novel is steampunk through and through.  What is steampunk you ask? From the Goodreads page on the subgenere:
"Steampunk is a subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in an anachronistic Victorian or quasi-Victorian alternate history setting. It could be described by the slogan "What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner." It includes fiction with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes. "
For more steampunk suggestions, click here. Also, here is my review of Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, a steampunk zombie novel.

For a more literal readalike combo of alternative history and comic books try Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman.

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