Archive for the ‘graphic novels’ Category


Though I hope this isn’t the first you’ve heard of it, the Cybils Awards were announced today. I am writing this post in advance so I don’t know all of what won in any category except one – Graphic Novels – and I only know that because I was on the judging panel. Yes, again. What can I say, I like graphic novels and have long been a supporter of them as a “legitimate” reading experience for kids.

But instead of talking about the specific finalists and winners I want to talk a little about a different kind of decision being made with regards to graphic novels in the world of children’s publishing, a question of what gets published and why.

I’ve worked in bookstores the better part of the last decade and I’ve seen a sharp rise in the number of books for all age kids that liberally get lumped together in the category of “graphic novels.” One of the reigning deans in the field, Art Spiegelman, creator of Maus, defines the graphic novel as “a long comic book that needs a bookmark and wants to be reread.” On the surface, this is a fairly inclusive definition and I suspect Spiegelman prefers that inclusion over taut ideological divisions that would perhaps attempt to separate (and forever brand) “good” from “bad.” But there is a sharp divide over the general quality of what is out there and surprisingly a large number of adults who read for children tend to let their guard down because they do not feel qualified to judge graphic novels. I’ve even heard one person suggest that the only person who could judge a good graphic novel from a bad one was another graphic novelist.

Hogwash, I say.

Since we’re talking primarily about books aimed at a young audience here I would counter that it’s just as easy to judge the quality of a graphic novel just as you would a middle grade or young adult novel… or a movie or a TV show or any other storytelling medium. For some, the inclusion of pictures as part of the storytelling seems to stir up some long-buried anxieties over whether or not a drawing style is “good,” whether one can judge based on the idea of artists as somehow more gifted than mere mortals. In truth, wither the book is in a comic panel format (graphic novel), an illustrated story format (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), or a words and picture format (picture books), the same criteria can be employed.

Does the main character have a goal or desire?
Do they face struggled that need to be overcome?
Have they been changed in some way in the process?
Does the reader gain understanding and insight from the narrative, even if the main character doesn’t?

These questions can be answered easily without the aid of a degree in fine art, but far too often I hear of people responding positively to a graphic novel based almost entirely on an emotional response: it was funny, humorous, well-illustrated, beautifully presented. It’s almost like the nervous laughter of literary criticism – if you don’t know how to analyze the story, talk about the pictures!

In the last couple of years I have talked with people about graphic novels showered with praise that I felt would have fallen flat had they been told in a more traditional novel format. In fact, I suspect that editors would have passed on these stories had they not been illustrated as comics. This idea that comics are somehow a leveler of quality, that pictures can make up for weaknesses in narrative, is what I find most troubling. I mean, here we are looking at a great opportunity to bring more young people into the reading fold through graphic novels but we do them a disservice by giving them substandard stories.

Why does this happen? I suspect it’s an editorial situation. If there is a consistency in the division between better and lesser graphic novels that divide is easily (though not universally) a question of publisher. Publishers who specialize in comics and graphic novels are overall much better than those for whom graphic novels are a sideline. First Second, Kitchen Sink, TOON, Oni Press, among others, these publishers tend to get it right, their editorial decisions on what to publish are clearly defined by a house style, a house perspective, and a level of quality that is visible from title to title. Publishers who have, in recent years, jumped on the bandwagon put out novel-length cartoon books that feel like the house is simply out to make a buck. The one exception I’ll note here is Scholastic and their Graphix imprint who seem to have a knack for catching lightning in a bottle.

I am not suggesting that graphic novels be deathly dull or pedantic, or that they take a more literary perspective, but I am asking for fewer of these books I call “cartoons” and more books with actual stories to them. These cartoon books could just as easily be storyboards for shows on the Cartoon Network. They have stock, near stereotypical characters, tired situations straight from old sitcoms, and their resolution either comes in the form a punchline or a tacked-on moral. The narrative arc of these stories is as two-dimensional as the characters who get pushed around inside them, and yet these books have glowing testimonials splashed on their covers from other writers.

So on this holiday dedicated to love, I propose we pause and enjoy books – all books – for what they can give us, and especially to what they can give younger readers. Let’s celebrate the winners of all Awards recently doled out and speak glowingly of the book and its future in all its forms.

Then tomorrow, lets all hunker down to the hard work of asking for publishers, editors, and storytellers alike to make better decisions about the quality of storytelling they produce.

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I think, I hope, we’ve moved beyond the question as to whether or not comics and graphic novels are legitimate reading for kids and teens. But just in case another case needs to be made, or should you find yourself needing just one more piece of evidence to get the last word, I’m throwing this idea out there:

Comics existed before most people even owned books.

So the word itself, cartoon, comes from the Italian cartone which was the stiff paperboard Renaissance artists used to sketch out their paintings. Da Vinci’s notebooks are full of cartoons. All those frescos in the churches, they began as cartoons drawn on the walls. Historically, the cartoon was a representative drawing done in preparation of a finished work. These cartoons were illustration, plain and simple, and they came from a long line of visual representation starting with those cave paintings in the south of France.

You see, man’s earliest attempts to communicate story came in pictographs. The pictures, spread across cave walls, told a sequential narrative about The Great Hunt or The Battle for Berries or Hunter Tripping on Rocks. These forerunners of the cartoon predate cuneiform and hieroglyphs and other forms of symbolic language. The pictures told the story in much the same way that a wordless picture book or graphic novel does today. Depending on the sophistication of their brains, it would be curious to take a modern wordless picture book back to cave-dwelling man and see if they understood it.

Though it can be a bit of a stretch to call the cave paintings and fresco sketches cartoons they are nonetheless historical artifacts that show that there was a way to “read” before there were words. Up until the Renaissance these cartoons were historical in nature (the Greeks and Romans would illustrate battles from Mythology, they believed them to be historical at some level), but I recently came across what might truly be the genesis of the graphic novel in The Bayeux Tapestry.

Art history majors (and anyplace where the arts are still considered important and taught) know The Bayeux Tapestry to be an illustrated telling of the Norman Conquest and The Battle of Hastings which took place in 1066. The Tapestry itself dates to the 1400s which easily predates the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus by Art Spigelman and the groundbreaking work by the father of the American graphic novel, Will Eisner, by a good 500 years. Cartoons and the sequential narrative are not new.

Last week I was reminded of this when the website Open Culture featured an animated version of The Bayeux Tapestry. I don’t often post media within the blog, but this is worth the diversion.

The tapestry itself is a collection of narrative strips – or panels, to use a modern comic term – that read from left to right and top to bottom, just as if you were reading a book. Because you are, you’re reading a graphic novel from 1476, and the best part about it, it’s non-fiction! It’s not only a cartoon, it’s historical!

I hope this puts a cork in the comics-aren’t-reading argument so we can move on to more important discussions. Like what makes a good comic or graphic novel – and why are there so many mediocre ones out there for kids these day?

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In case you’ve forgotten your middle grade math, the headline translates to Valentine’s Day plus Graphic Novels equals True Love Always. Admittedly a little silly, but this was the year the graphic novel panel essentially agreed on the winners out the gate. That can either be viewed as a unified affirmation of what was good or, more cynically, that there was only one clear choice in each category surrounded by fluff that made the decision inevitable. The truth is probably located somewhere in between.

But first, a little business. If you haven’t done so already, got check out the winners of this year’s Cybils Awards.

Now, there’s plenty I can say about some of the choices in the other categories, most of it surprise about the number of books that weren’t on my radar, but I was on the Graphic Novel panel this year and will contain my comments, briefly, to our selections.

In the elaborate (not) process I use to determine my rankings, I actually had a tie between Anya’s Ghost and Level Up. I would have been happy to have either book as the winner, but here’s the thing about Anya’s Ghost that gives it the edge for me: I had a hard time articulating what it was about it that made me like it so damn much. I understand the mechanics of storytelling, sequential narrative, illustration, and the sort of stories that I like but in the end I was at a loss to articulate it. I felt bad for the publisher, First Second, who sent me an advance copy of the book practically a year ago because I felt like I owed them a review on my blog. I still do, as far as I’m concerned, and maybe I can finally do that. Not today, not here, but soon.

In short, Anya’s Ghost felt like the most complete graphic novel, most satisfying in terms of narrative arc, balance of humor and seriousness, light and dark, and was the most novel-like of the entries.

In the middle grade category things were a little more interesting. For me, mind you. Two of the books I felt sort of disqualified themselves because they didn’t belong in the graphic novel category at all – Wonderstruck is very clearly a middle grade book and should not have even made it to the first round judges, similarly Nursery Rhyme Comics was an anthology and a picture book for older readers, but not a middle grade graphic novel. These personal disqualifications should not be taken as a knock against their quality – indeed, I would have loved to see Nursery Rhyme Comics considered in the picture book category as a finalist – but it did not belong, thus narrowing the field.

A third book, Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, wasn’t even mentioned as a possible finalist in the category by any of the other panelists. I can’t speak for the others, but I found elements of this book troubling at the content level. Throughout the process I have deliberately kept myself from seeking out other reviews so as not to pollute my opinions, but I hope to work this all out in a review and then see what others have said.

With three titles eliminated all that was left was to decide between was Zita the Spacegirl and Sidekicks. The short answer here is that Zita had a lot more going for it in terms of humor and adventure, and by comparison Sidekicks felt slight. The best I can articulate, it was a little like putting any generic comic book adaptation of a Cartoon Network show up against Jeff Smith’s Bone books. With that in mind it wasn’t hard to decide that my first pick was…

Nursery Rhyme Comics.


Yes, despite the fact that I don’t think anthology comic collections should be considered graphic novels (any more than a short story anthology should be considered a novel) it was, by far, a much better quality product. But in the end I had no desire to defend or attempt to justify a variance in my own personal criteria when I was going to vote strongly against Wonderstruck if necessary. And as an aside, even if I did consider Wonderstruck a graphic novel I don’t think it had a solid enough word-image connection, as emotionally compelling, or a strong enough sequential narrative to put it above Anya’s Ghost. I know people think Selznick has invented this great hybrid of storytelling but, really, those of us who have studied film know a storyboard when we see one.

And there you have it, my brief explanation of how the Cybils Graphic Novel Awards shook out from my personal perspective. I don’t know if any of my fellow judges have any plans to discuss their view of the process but if so I’ll happily update this post with links to their examinations. I will say, this was the most unanimous, least contentious judging panel I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.

Andrea, John, Sarah, Emily, (and fearless leader Liz) it was a pleasure and an honor working (briefly) with you all!

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I am, again, a Cybils judge in the graphic novel category this year. As I write this my fellow judges and I are just finishing up with our reading and will shortly begin the process of choosing a winning title from among the finalists. In my experience reviewing graphic novels I have come across a number of people – smart people who are very good at analyzing literature, mind you – who wonder how I can tell a good graphic novel from a bad one. What makes a good graphic novel different, they might ask, than a comic? The assumption that comics are automatically of a lower quality I get, because it’s similar to the artificial classification between literature and what some call junk fiction (i.e. genre fiction).

I’m not looking to pick at the worry-wound that is the divide between high and low art, but I have been thinking about the choices I am about to make as a “judge” and feel like exploring this a bit.

I used to teach Art and English to middle school kids a few lifetimes ago. One of things people always asked (and sometimes still do) is “How can you grade Art? It’s such a subjective thing.” The fallacy of this line of thinking is that people confuse the mechanics of creating something with the arbitrary notion of “art.” In publishing this sometimes shows up as a question of whether or not something has “literary merit” as opposed to just being a good story. But these labels and qualifications have nothing to do with the creation and execution of these works. I don’t have to like every great work of art or literature, but I can still respect the quality of the effort that was put into them.

So getting back to grading middle school art students (and how this fits in with judging graphic novels) what I used to tell my students was that every blank sheet of paper, or canvas, or pile of ingredients had the potential to be anything, to be great. Because of this, every project had the potential to be an A, and that’s where every project grade began. From there each project had a set of criteria it had to meet, concrete deadlines or specific instructions to be followed, and how well those were addressed would whittle away or support that A grade. And because my students were often resistant to projects before they began them, I found it easier to make my criterium deceptively simple.

  • Was the work completed on time?
  • Did you use class time well?
  • Did you follow the directions I provided?
  • Is this honestly your best effort?
  • Did you sign your final project?

Removing the stress of whether or not I would think their work was “good” from the grading equation allowed them to focus on the more important aspect of the project: paying attention to the details and putting forth a best effort to come to a creative solution to the problem. Remove good and bad and that internal voice of judgment gave them the confidence to be creative without worrying what anyone else thought. And when the projects were finished and we held in-class critiques the kids would call each other out on the criteria and not based on whether or not they liked the finished project. When you hear one student tell another “Oh, no, you did not put your best effort into this, because I saw you goofing off!” even the issue of grading becomes secondary.

This applies to any creative endeavor, writing certainly can be appreciated for its quality even when the subject or style bores or distracts, and with graphic novels it comes in handy when deciding between two different titles with different styles and subjects. Story quality counts, certainly, but with sequential storytelling the visual elements also have to be taken into account. Like a picture book the word and images need to work together, and by working together I don’t mean that the style of the art must reflect the nature of the story, though this can’t hurt. In the end it might seem like my criteria is arbitrary, but all judgments are personal so these criteria exist as a way of establishing a set of groundings beyond the old “gut feeling.”  These are some of the things I look for in a graphic novel

  • Is there a satisfying narrative arc from beginning to end?
  • Does the art contribute meaning to the story that is not otherwise expressed in the words?
  • Is there imagery or symbolism  incorporated, and if so, is it unique or relevant?
  • Could this story have only been told in this format?
  • Would this story be as interesting if it were told as a traditional fiction narrative?

With the idea that every unread book has the potential to be great, after reading a graphic novel I find that I can better understand what did or didn’t “work” for me by using the criteria above. It isn’t an absolute guide, but in cases where I am having a difficult time articulating whether I liked a graphic novel, or why I liked it, these can be helpful.

The quality of the art isn’t mentioned above but that’s because it’s a secondary or parallel issue for me. I don’t care how beautiful the artwork for a graphic novel is, if the story is boring or weak or reprehensibly clichéd, then the book is a failure for me. Gild a turd any way you want, it’s still a turd. Tell me a story I’ve read a thousand before, but give me a unique visual or some clever symbolism to hold onto, and you’ve got my attention. I’ve read mini comix that employed stick figures with more humor and insight than all the Hollywood comedies put out last year. The rudimentary art didn’t bring down the quality of the comic any more than a huge Hollywood budget is a guarantee of art.

If past is prologue, I predict that somewhere in the midst of Cybils judging I’m going to have to compromise. It never fails, my first choice picks almost never get chosen by the group as a winner. That’s okay because the process is a little more like the Supreme Court laying down a ruling rather than a jury delivering a unanimous decision. There will always be splits and divides, and that’s okay because in the end, no matter what committee confers whatever award, or what one critic or reviewer says about any particular books, one simple rule should take precedent over all others for readers:

Read everything and judge for yourself.

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A New Year’s Eve cold and a truckload of graphic novel reading has kept me quiet lately. Well, it’s kept me from blogging and talking with a normal voice around the house at least.

A good deal of the things I’ve been reading have been as a Cybils Graphic Novel finalist judge and I really cannot talk about those books because them’s the rules. I have been keeping a sort of “diary of a judge” post running as I go so that on the 15th of February I can let the world know what was going on during the process. Not me giving away secrets about the other judges or gossip like that (like I’m clued in enough for gossip) but the process of how I came to the decisions I made. Or am making at the time. It’s weird to talk about the future in the past tense when it’s happening in the moment.

But to be fair, I have been reading a lot of other things as well, I just haven’t had a chance to write or review them. Which means that down the road there’s going to be a flood of catching up I’m going to have to do. That said, there are still some general things I can say about all the reading I’ve been doing lately. Hopefully it won’t sound too vague.

One thing I’d like to see less of are graphic novels about characters with powers or who fight crime. If there’s one thing that makes the graphic novel novel is how it differentiates itself from comic books. It’s just too easy to use the inherent action of superhero comics to give a story a false sense of plot and character development. Far too often the main character’s growth is patently shallow, and if you removed the action sequences (which more often than not have little to do with any inner character growth at all) what you have left is a laughable pamphlet that reads like a 1950s sitcom plot synopsis. “When the Beaver attempts to tackle a problem on his own he quickly discovers there is strength in numbers.”

What are monsters? What do they stand for? Aside from scaring us, or our hero, there has to be a reason they are there. Either they represent a surrogate for a tangible fear or they express a larger concept or idea. If they are merely obstacles to drive a plot or provide a character something to defeat, if they aren’t organic to the story, what’s the point? And if they are symbolic of the main character’s struggle, is it perhaps too much to ask that they be incorporated into the story in a way that they aren’t so heavy-handed, leaden, or obvious?

Fight scenes. They make for good action scenes, especially in a visual medium like graphic novels, but can’t we do something more creative in conveying struggles? A battle of wits, a battle of logic, I’d even take a bake-off as a climax provided it was chemistry that ruled the day. Honestly, sometimes when I’m reading a graphic novel and a fight scene is ramping up I feel as if I’m watching a Chuck Norris movie… which is fine if I’m reading a Chuck Norris graphic novel. Sadly, I haven’t come across a Chuck Norris graphic novel yet.

Finally, I understand – honestly, I do – that a writer or artist can only tell the stories that drive them. But there’s a line between the universal story told personally and what is so personal that reads like therapy. I acknowledge that there can be some great literature and art from pain and grief, that deep emotions can be mined to stunning effect, but no one wants to feel as if they’re going through grief counseling and psychoanalysis as a bystander. Maybe that’s just me.

So aside from my weekly Poetry Friday posts and the occasional check-in I hope to be back to the Grimmoire and delve into some new territory here in the coming weeks.

For you regulars, I thank you for your patience, and or you occasionals, for your kind attentions.

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I always feel like nerdy Navin Johnson from The Jerk anytime I get picked for something, so just imagine Steve Martin jumping up and down and shouting the title of this post for the full effect.

This year I am again on the Graphic Novel panel, although I wavered quite a bit over whether to make it my first or second choice after poetry. I still feel very much like a sham when it comes to poetry, and probably always will. Even if I were to publish shelf-loads of chapbooks (or even one) I would feel this way. I don’t know why poetry makes me feel this way though I suspect that somewhere in my educational past I was told something that put me in my place.

No matter, I think I’m better suited for judging graphic novels this year. Better informed, I should say. I think there’s going to be quite a strong showing of titles and it may be difficult to choose one over the other.

One of the things that judging graphic novels reminds me of are the back-to-school nights when I was teaching Art in middle schools. The question foremost on parent’s minds (as well as with students) was how I could consistently grade something as individual, idiosyncratic, and subjective as creative output. To their minds, creativity was something mystical that seemed outside the realm of quantitative judgment, going hand-in-hand with the idea that a talent was given at birth and not learned. Similarly I find, many feel a graphic novel is a form of storytelling that doesn’t follow the same rules as traditional narratives and so there must be some different, mystical set of rules for determining quality.

While it’s true that there is a different vocabulary for the mechanics of graphic storytelling, in the end the story needs to satisfy the reader on the same level as traditional narratives. Characters have to be complex and well-developed, there has to be a sense of narrative arc that flows from a central conflict or theme, and there needs to be a satisfying resolution. There is an added visual element to the decision to be sure, but the most lavishly illustrated and colored graphic novel is nothing more than a collection of pretty pictures if there’s no story to back them up.

In the past I have seen some interesting finalists for the Cybils Graphic Novel category that, to me, were clearly chosen for their graphics and not their storytelling. I cannot say whether or not the panelists felt the lack of story was compensated by the strength of the art or if they simply couldn’t see the narrative flaws but it does make for some interesting discussions when it comes time to select a winner.

As I said, I think this is a strong year for the Graphic Novel category and I’m looking forward to having to make some tough decisions down the road.

At this point almost all the judges have been posted over at the Cybils blog, and there are some mighty impressive people involved all over the place.

What are the Cybils? Oh, no, you did not just ask me that!

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I just finished a trio of “graphic novels” and they’ve put a tempest in my teapot again about the term. Despite their Library of Congress subject demarcation as graphic novels the phrase that would best describe these three books are comic book, comic adventure, picture book with pretensions.

[For those worried that I’m talking about Cybils-nominated titles, fear not.  But out of some weird desire not to be too negative I will not be listing the titles and authors here. If I do feel compelled to comment I’ll do so in formal reviews at that other blog of mine.]

Yes, this is me once again railing about using “graphic novel” to describe books intended for children and young adults that, to my thinking, fail to earn that title. It has become a hip way to market certain titles with comic book elements that (presumably) elevates them from some lower level of contempt. I don’t know if publishers are consciously aware of this, are parading their ignorance, or simply trying to gild a turd for revenue, but it irks me something fierce when I see inferior quality books heralded by reviewers because they cannot be bothered to see that the emperor is naked.

Just to be clear, what I expect from a graphic novel aimed at children and young adults are the same things I expect from fiction, movies, and any other art that falls under the general category of storytelling. I don’t believe that simply stringing out a weak picture book plot over twice as many pages with five times the number of illustrations is a substitution for quality.  I don’t think that a mystery series that goes from point A to point B without an ounce of characterization makes it good just because it appeals to readers.  I don’t care how proficient the art is, if you wouldn’t publish the story as a fictive narrative then i see no reason to publish it without demanding the same sort of story revisions authors are asked to perform.

When I pick up a book that uses sequential storytelling as its genre here’s what I look for:

  • A main character with a clearly delineated goal or conflict
  • Secondary characters with their own, occasionally conflicting, objectives
  • A resolution that provides either the main character or the reader with a sense of having gained something from the experience
  • A reason why the story needed to be told in a graphic format

You might be surprised at how many “graphic novels” fail to provide many if not most of these points.

For many of the “graphic novels” intended for younger audiences there seems to be this notion that a punchline is good enough, which aligns them closer with a comic strip than a graphic novel.  Picture books can often get away with this punchline structure, and I would argue that many of the “graphic novels” that resemble comic strips could be boiled down to much better, funnier, picture books.  In some ways, the “graphic novel” becomes proof of flabby writing.

But often the question I’m left asking when I finish a “graphic novel” is: why did someone (or several someones, since publishers and editors are involved) feel this story needed to be told and published in this format?  The equivalent is sitting in the theatre after a movie wishing you could have not only your money but those lost two hours of your life back.  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve felt this way with “graphic novels” from large publishing houses.

I think moving forward I’m going to attempt to identify “graphic novels” according to the criteria above in my reviews and see if it holds up. It may turn out that I’ll come across a book that fails on most counts but is still satisfying.  I can’t think of one off the top of my head – perhaps you can – but maybe by this time next year I’ll have identified a trend or adopt some other set of criteria that works better.

As it stands, here’s hoping for better graphic novels and fewer “graphic novels” in children’s literature in 2011.

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Last week I was bopping through my blog feeds and whatnot and opened some links to news stories and blog posts that interested me, that I’d hoped to get to later in the day.  Hours later, after I’d nearly forgotten them, I clicked through them to refresh my memory and see what was worth reading and what was a passing fancy.  The first story was about the drug cartels in Mexico who are fighting back on President Calderon’s war on drugs and seemingly winning.  Bodies are showing up hung from bridges and dumped in the streets, but it isn’t just political opponents who are dying, its journalists who dare to report on the country’s war, throwing the press into having to decide between self-censorship and protecting the lives of their reporters.  The next article I click on is about a newspaper editor in Alaska who went to cover a town hall meeting held in a public middle school who was detained and handcuffed by the candidate’s bodyguards and accused of trespassing.  Trespassing, at a public event held in a public place, by private security hired by a politician?  These two things together reminded me of the gubernatorial candidate in New York who threatened to “take out” a reporter who had (admittedly) badgered the candidate.  I’ll grant you, being a member of the press doesn’t give carte blanche to be belligerent, but threatening to kill a journalist (it was captured on video no less) doesn’t buy any sympathy.

This attack on the media in two neighboring democratic countries was troubling enough, but then I went one step further.  Clicking on something I didn’t consider to be too controversial I chanced on an article by author Alexander Chee about teaching the graphic novel to college students.  Everything was great until the second paragraph when he began examining why the graphic novel’s interest had boomed in the last ten years… and came up with an analogy to pre-Nazi Germany.  Now, I realize that mentioning Nazis or Hitler is a shortcut to hyperbolic demonization, but what Chee was talking about was something different.  He was taking a cultural look at what went on before, when the art was mirroring or criticizing the culture surrounding it, and in the 1930s there was a boom in the German Expressionist “picture novel” which was usually a collection of woodcuts that told a story.  We would recognize the form today as a wordless graphic novel.

Chee has this idea about an “Age of Euphemism” that connects then with now, but as an artists with an understanding of history I’m sure he also is aware that the movement of artists in the early part of 20th century – the actual, physical relocation from country to country – could serve as a sort of canary in a coal mine for the way things were (and are) headed.  Or perhaps they were more like rats leaving the sinking ship, as they always seemed a jump ahead of persecution.  Picasso and others left Spain before the Fascists took over, German Surrealists bolted to Paris as the Nazis decried “deviant” art.  They stayed around long enough to reflect and report on what they saw and knew when it was time to get out.

Looking at the graphic novel scene today I don’t necessarily see the same sort of commentary about society that the woodcut picture novels contained, but I do see a dangerous trend in the way the media is treated with scorn and disdain and how seemingly complacent society has become about it.  Ten years ago the discussion was about media bias, and the minute journalism went on the defensive it lost the battle.  Those who frame history get to define it, and those who defined the press as being part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” hammered that message until it was believed, unquestioningly, as truth.  The natural evolution was to completely dismantle the press through co-option and counter-programming (propaganda and double-speak) and finally, threatening the press openly without fear of reprisal.  It’s ironic to me that the people worried most about our current president’s “socialist” agenda are themselves behaving like police-state fascists.

With daily newspaper circulations dwindling faster than the final sands in an hour glass, with journalists under threat and attack, and with the majority of citizens getting their “news” from commentators who mask opinionated rhetoric as fact, I’m afraid the canary in the coal mine right now has fallen off its perch, its breathing labored.  I’m looking around at the artists to see if they’re getting ready to scurry away.  In the early 1980s I remember how we were all afraid that the superpowers had their fingers on the nuclear button and we were a heartbeat away from annihilation.

This feels much worse.

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The revision work is slow but steady.  But every once in a while I need a break and that means playing around, usually on the computer.  Playing around usually means unfocused wandering, clicking through from one site to another, opening new tabs and travelings down new electronic avenues that lead to new alleys, until thoroughly lost my trail home is all but lost.

Among my recent wanderings comes this, an article on how Japanese manga has become a global cultural phenomenon.  For me, what’s great about this it is from a French perspective, originally published in the magazine Esprit.  There’s a bit of a two-for-one as reporter Jean-Marie Boussou not only examines manga’s cultural rise in Japan, but firmly places it within the context of the post-war French cultural shift that took place in the 60’s and 70s, and why it has grown in popularity among 30-somethings in France.

Absolutely fascinating, and once again the internet lets me know how much we don’t really know in this country about anything non-American.  There are French cartoonists mentioned right and left that I feel I should probably know — that I’m sure every French man and women knows in passing if not from first-hand experience — that leaves me feeling ignorant.

In France, as my generation came of age, we had to make do with comics aimed solely at a particular subculture: elitist, male, at once intellectual, schoolboyish, and more or less rebellious. They were built on the zany absurdity of Concombre masqué, the frenzied wordplay of Achille Talon and the icy eroticism of Jodelle and Pravda – and were far too sophisticated for the mass market. Charlie Mensuel livened up this highbrow cocktail with a dash of Peanuts, Krazy Kat, and Andy Capp, and the work of Italian cartoonists like Buzzelli and Crepax. But if the French censors tolerated Charlie Mensuel with his cerebral, sophisticated eroticism for the offspring of the intellegentsia, they were merciless in their attacks on the popular fumetti of Elvipress, filled as they were with sultry creations that would have set a mass readership dreaming. Jungla, Jacula, Isabella, Jolanda de Almaviva, and their scantily-clad adventurer sisters were barred from display and condemned to under-the-counter obscurity.

Whew!  I’m scrambling for Google to help fill in the gaps in my sorry comic and graphic novel education. Who’s writing like this about American comics and world comic culture these days?  What are all these French comics, and are they available in translation here?

I grant you, I should be doing revisions on my essay — which, compared to all this, feels puny and insignificant and not at all as interesting.  But isn’t that the point of the internet, to have all this diversion at the ready for when you need to get pulled away from things you ought to be doing?

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It’s sad, but not totally surprising.

Over at Comic Book Resources they’re reporting that the DC imprint of graphic novels for girls, Minx, is no more.  From the announced launch the element that struck me oddest was DC.  I think DC comics and I don’t immediately think “girls” or “graphic novels” really, I think Batman.  I think Superman.  I think of a publisher that made their name as the chief competitor to Marvel for the better part of half a century.  Guy stuff.

Also, anytime you start a subdivision aimed at a specific core market you’re acknowledging (a) that you have been neglecting that market, which connotes a sort of guilt, and (b) you’re attempting to correct the problem through a form of market segregation.  DC started Minx because the noted there were a lot of teen girls reading manga.  Imagine if they took similar steps back in the 60s by starting an imprint of comics aimed at black children by giving them their own imprint, a sort of separate but equal for the comic book world.

The problem is that what girls — or any consumer for that matter — wants isn’t their own culturally specific art, media, or entertainment as determined by a single entity, what they want is true integration across the board.  If the observation is that girls are reading more manga the conclusion isn’t that they want their own comics brand but they want comics with female characters in them.  DC sort of got that part right. Castellucci’s Janes books, Good As Lily, The Re-Gifters, all of them featuring female characters.  If that was all it took wouldn’t everyone be beating down the door for that untapped market?

Recently I caught a talk given by J.J. Abrams, one of the creators of the TV show Lost, talking about what he calls the mystery box.  It’s about wanting to know what’s inside that drives dramas, their secret heart, what makes them tick.  During the talk he shows a clip from Jaws.  I’m not going to recount the whole thing here, so if you want the full experience jump over here and give it a look and then come back.  The thing he identifies though, what he says the film is about, it isn’t what we think of with Jaws.  It isn’t the shark, it isn’t the totentanz for three men in a boat, it’s about one man in personal crisis, a crisis of the heart.  This is the core of the film and the essential secret, the mystery within the box, because without this the film is dead.

I’ve always sort of known this about Jaws, but what I realized while listening to Abrams is that when some cultural phenomenon like Jaws — or a graphic novel like Watchmen, or a TV show like Lost, or the Harry Potter books — garners attention what follows is the parade of imitators desperately hoping to cash in through imitation.  But what they see, what they copy, isn’t what makes the original resonate with people.  What is copied is the artifice, the exterior, and not the core or the mystery.  Sequels to Jaws weren’t about a man in crisis, they were about the shock of the shark, and as such became pale (and laughable) imitators.  The core of the Harry Potter books is no different than a Cinderella story with a bit more Grimm added to it, but the immitators only saw wizards and magic and dragons that adorned the outside of it.

Back to Minx.  DC saw girls reading manga and said “hey, we can do that!”  But what they created were comics, not manga.  The stories were more decidedly Western when perhaps it was a Japanese cultural perspective that was the draw.  DC/Minx saw the shark, they never tapped the mystery box, at least that’s my take on it.  But get this explanation:

Multiple sources close to the situation agree Bond and DC aren’t to blame for MINX’s cancellation, and that this development should be seen as a depressing indication that a market for alternative young adult comics does not exist in the capacity to support an initiative of this kind, if at all.

Are they kidding?  Yeah, well, we saw that girls liked comics so we started an imprint just for them, but no one really bought them and so we have to conclude the market really isn’t there. No, Minx, from my perspective the alternative young adult comic market does exist, you just didn’t really bother to understand what that market wanted.

You want to know what I think is the most telling part of the news release?

Nevertheless, CBR News was told that Random House, DC’s book trade distributor, has not been able to successfully place MINX titles in the coveted young adult sections of bookstores like Barnes & Noble.

That’s the killer.  Barnes and Noble decided the books should be buried among the bound collections of guys with tights and the girls don’t like going there.  I worked there, I know.  Reason?  That aisle is full of grown men leering through the manga and teen boys acting like jerkworms arguing over alternate Batman universes.  Everyone knows that what B&N says, goes. And if Minx was even going to have a chance at the market they knew they needed better placement than Fanboy Alley.  I bet a face-out in YA of Minx titles might have told a different story then the one we’re hearing about now.

So long, Minx.

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Which is harder, having to pick out your favorite dessert from all the desserts in the world or having to pick your favorite among a selection of five? On the one hand you can take everything into consideration but you could also find it hard to choose among favorites; on the other hand having a narrower selection can help you focus your decision but you might end up wishing you had another choice.

Does this have anything to do with being a judge on the graphics novel panel for the Cybils this year? Yes and no. I think the parallel is there when it comes to trying to narrow down the selection of possibilities — graphic novels in this case — but as for working off a shortlist I think the analogy breaks down when you consider it was five people trying to agree on a choice. So then I guess it’s like being at a restaurant with a bunch of people trying to decide on which dessert they’re going to split. It might not be your favorite dessert, but why are you complaining? You get to eat dessert!

I’m going to break this down by category, and I’m only going to be discussing my personal thoughts in the matter. I will not name names (you can go to the Cybils site for that), I’m not going to comment directly about anyone’s choices, and I’m not going to reveal the secret handshake of the gn panel. There will be a peak into the process but only to illustrate my involvement. If you’re looking for dirt, sorry.

Middle Grade & Elementary — The Shortlist
Robot Dreams written and illustrated by Sara Varon
The Courageous Princess written and illustrated by Rod Espinosa
Yotsuba&! #4 written and illustrated by Kiyohiko Azuma
Artemis Fowl written by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin; illustrated by Giovanni Rigano and Paolo Lamanna
Babymouse #6: Camp Babymouse written and illustrated by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

The Winner
Artemis Fowl

What was I thinking?
Looking at the list my first thought was that the category seemed awfully broad, which also made it seem unfair. You would have different expectations for a second grade early readers and a middle grade fiction meant for sixth graders, but in this category you’ve got a cute widdle baby mouse up against a heartless pre-pubescent evil genius. Still, there are those books where the quality would trump the reading level, so looking for the best qualities should yield the correct winner no matter what.

Here’s my first problem: the book I feel belongs here, and would want to win, isn’t here. It’s shortlisted, but in the teen/YA category. Its The Arrival. There was a bit of back-and-forth about this from my fellow judges once I brought up that while I felt it could be appreciated by an older audience I found it more appropriate for the middle grade set. The issues it covers — immigration, stranger-in-a-strange-land, government oppression — these are heavy topics but not outside the scope of the tween audience. Not everything in the book would be readily accessible, but I found its picture book formatting and its limited narrative more in keeping with a middle grade book: indeed, if you were to write the story’s narrative as it’s presented you would find it necessary to explain much of what it only hinted at between the panels.

While this does not make it bad, it makes it bad for a teen reader who is going to blow through the illustrations, glean the basic story, back-fill the missing parts with what they’ve already learned in elementary social studies, and not fully appreciate it at all. This is one of those books (like the picture books of Adam Rex, btw) which I almost feel are more for adults than kids. My total opinion, of course, and it doesn’t change the fact that it wasn’t nominated for this category. So why am I even talking about it again? Oh yeah, that’s right. It would have been my first choice.

My pick was Robot Dreams. I believe I was the only one who wanted this as the winner. Another wordless tale like The Arrival, I felt there was actually a really good character arc and one that was totally age appropriate. There’s friendship and embarrassment and loneliness and abandonment and a whole lot of really great issues that middle grade readers would totally get and not feel preached to. I found its extended storyline to be the most complete and contained and the resolution satisfying without being predictable. Yea, Robot Dreams!

Last on my list? Artemis Fowl, an unimaginative comic book adaptation that, at times, bored me silly with its pacing and often slipped into the thing I hate the most about superhero comics — narratives over action panels explaining what a character is thinking or doing. It’s like voice-overs in movies, there’s good voice-over and there’s bad voice-over and then there’s voice-over that ruins everything else. This one is somewhere between bad and worse. In general I find adaptations troubling — whether book to movie, movie to book, book to graphic novel, comic to movie — because there’s always that problem of the two not syncing up. You can say ‘try not to think about the elephant in the room’ but you’ll find yourself thinking about the elephant in the room: in this case, the elephant is the original book, which I also didn’t think that much of.

But I was determined to take the comic graphic novel on its own and it still lost me. It took me a while to figure it out but it comes down to the character of Artemis himself. Here, with his big head (Manga inspired?) and his emotionless face he reminded me of nothing less than a pre-teen Ernst Stavro Blofeld. That’s right, the bald baddy from Bond movies. In those films Blofeld serves as the foil against which Bond reacts. Blofeld has no backstory, none that’s relevant at least, he merely wants to blow up the world, steal the gold, kill Bond, whatever the plot needs to keep Bond moving forward. He’s a 2-dimensional cutout and that’s all we need because he isn’t the star of the film. And that’s the problem, I don’t buy Artemis Fowl as anything more that a 2-d character and I don’t find the story compelling as a result. I don’t care if the faeries get him or kill him, I don’t care about his missing father or his demented mother, I don’t care… and that’s the point where you lose me.

But I was outvoted. C’est la Guerre.

Teen/YA — The Shortlist
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
Flight #4 edited by Kazu Kibuishi
Laika written and illustrated by Nick Abadzis
The Professor’s Daughter by Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert
The Plain Janes by written by Cecil Castellucci; illustrated by Jim Rugg

The Winner
The Professor’s Daughter

What was I thinking?
I work the other direction on this one, what I was thinking was yes! Actually, I had two first picks and would have been happy with either winning, The Professor’s Daughter and The Plain Janes. As different as they are to one another I felt they both had merit and would give them both the award if I could. When the majority went for The Professor’s Daughter I was happy to let it go at that.

Push-to-shove, The Plain Janes does have some clunky transitions at times, and I think it traffics in some visual stereotypes that could have (and should have) been avoided. The frumpy drama girl? Really? Please. The cop from casting central? I hear your donut calling. I’m also a little unsure of the transition from big city to small town but I forgive it these problems because it deals in teens dealing with teen problems in a graphic novel. I understand there’s a second Plain Janes book due out soon and I’m looking forward to it.

There are some I have spoken to outside the gn panel who didn’t “get” The Professor’s Daughter. I think I can pinpoint the problem in a single word: European. There are many who do not get certain picture books for the same reason, that there is a very different sensibility for the picture book in Europe, just as there is in graphic novels and sequential storytelling. Compare Tintin with any of his American contemporaries from the 1950s, say Will Eisner’s The Spirit. That’s the difference, and The Professor’s Daughter gets its strange rhythms from that tradition. And I liked that it as coming from a different place, a place almost more in keeping with a horror movie from the 1930s, one with a sense of humor and a strange sense of the fantastic. One thing I will say, I was never really sure where the story was headed… and I mean that in a good way!

So why, if I felt so strongly about The Arrival, didn’t I give it either my top two spots on this list? Simply, it canceled itself out. I didn’t feel it belonged in this category and couldn’t vote for it as a teen/YA winner. There was some brief discussion as to whether we, as judges, could move books between categories as we saw fit (I believe there was a question about the age appropriateness of Robot Dreams belonging in this category) but in the end even if I had voted The Arrival for teen/YA it didn’t have enough support for a win.

I need to make a side note here about Flight. This collection of stories by various artists is the graphic novel equivalent of a short story collection. As with most collections of this kind some stories are going to hit, some will flop, and a room full of people aren’t going to decide on which are better than others. Something I had pointed out to me recently, something I knew but never thought about long enough to articulate, was that generally the only collections that work are single-author collections. Where the stories may vary the connecting thread of a single author’s world view is always present somewhere, if only in the punctuation.

Another problem I had with Flight is that much of what it contained, while suitable for teens, would really only be appreciated by a true young adult, a person in their 20s questioning and considering and exploring their place in the world. The pieces in Flight are more mature and they benefit from a reader with a variety of experience. This is the second year in a row that one of the Flight volumes has been nominated and, like as much as I did, I just can’t see it ever winning.

So that’s that.  I hope I don’t need to remind anyone who has gotten this far that these are my opinions and, well, you can take them for what they’re worth.  I enjoyed my duties as a judge and hope I get the opportunity to participate in the Cybils in the future.

Y’all can start in with the brickbats now.

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