GNF 7 – Sailor Twain by Mark Siegal

Sailor Twain cover

Sailor Twain or The Mermaid in the Hudson by Mark Siegel (First Second, 2012)

Sailor Twain was on a lot of “Best Of” lists the year it was published. It has an average star rating on GoodReads of 3.81. All the people I know who have read it have loved it. So why didn’t I?

I wanted to give up reading Sailor Twain, but I didn’t because I felt like I was missing something and that eventually it would click. This is definitely one of those cases where there are a lot of things to love about Sailor Twain, and you just might like them, but for me, it just didn’t come together.

First, I was a little bit put off by the art style. This is a purely subjective assessment. The art isn’t bad, I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I do other styles. Siegel uses charcoal and some of his panels look much more finished than others. There’s also less opportunity for detail. A lack of connection with the art made it even harder to connect with the story, which I felt was too long and a little convoluted. I kept wondering if I was missing something. Is there a legend that I am not familiar with that was making this more confusing for me? Did I just not give the graphic novel the attention it deserved?

I’m pretty convinced that this is just a matter of taste. Sailor Twain isn’t bad, but it wasn’t for me, unfortunately. I’m not unhappy I finished it. There were some beautiful panels and moments when I truly appreciated the art style, even if it didn’t impress me as a whole. I feel the same way about the story. While it ultimately fell flat, there were great moments that made this, at least, a worthwhile read.

GNF 5 – Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary and Bryan Talbot

Something that has helped me find new comics to read this month has been really paying attention to the publishers and imprints. After reading and loving Friends With Boys, I immediately requested a bunch of new titles from First Second, the Macmillan imprint that publishes the book. If you’re at a loss for what to read next with comics, look at who published your favorite graphic novel or one you’re particularly interested in and look at their backlist. You’re bound to find books either by the same artists or with similar art and storytelling styles. I think the publishing industry has a long way to go before there’s imprint recognition in the general public. I know that I for one never paid much attention to imprints or publishing houses before I started working in publishing. But I think publisher recognition is more prevalent in comics. Think DC vs. Marvel. Starting with this post, I’m going to start including all the imprints/publishers on here, in case you want to keep track, too.

dotter cover

Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse, 2012)

I had no idea what Dotter of her Father’s Eyes was about before I started reading, but for some reason it definitely wasn’t what I expected. Author Mary Talbot tells the story of her childhood with a distracted, angry father, who also happened to be a Joycean scholar. She parallels the story of her life with the life of Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s daughter who lived a tragic life.

Mary, within the comic, points out that there aren’t many similarities between her life and Lucia’s. Instead, the parallels are more general. Their stories are about what it is like to grow up as a woman. Lucia fought for independence and freedom as a dancer in 1920s Paris. She suffered a hateful mother who didn’t see the worth in anything she was doing, a father who adored her, but wouldn’t stand up for her and her career, and the lost love of Samuel Beckett. Her parents forced her to leave Paris with them right as her career was beginning to take off and she never regained momentum. Eventually the stress from losing her career and the anger she harbored made her lose control. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed. She lived in a mental institution until she died at age 75.

Mary’s father was distant, distracted, and very short-tempered. Mary seemed to always make him mad, even when she wasn’t exactly sure what she had done to deserve it. When Mary becomes unexpectedly pregnant as a young woman, she marries the child’s father, because she doesn’t see any other way.

Mary and Lucia are both constrained by their societies and their families. Their lives are in deep contrast to the lives of their successful fathers, but also in contrast to each other. Lucia has a life that she wants to lead and she has some success at it, but her family never supports her. Mary never feels like she’s given as much freedom as her brothers and she is always painfully scrutinized by her father.

The difference is the end of their stories: Lucia’s story is tragic. Though I imagine the comic simplifies her downfall somewhat, she never recovers from the few months she was forced to leave Paris. Her dance career is ruined, Beckett calls off their relationship, and Lucia feels like she has nothing left. We know, however, that Mary changes her life. She is no longer married to the man she marries at the end of the comic. She has made a name for herself as a writer. Her father eventually respects her and her decisions, though she never sees him as warm or charming, the way some of his colleagues do.

I liked the art and the simple color distinctions between Mary’s story and Lucia’s story. I also loved the little interjections from Mary about her husband’s art. Whenever he got something wrong, she would point it out, but he didn’t redraw the pictures. It showed their collaboration process, but I thought it was also an interesting commentary on the way we tell stories and how other people perceive them. The inconsistencies are small. Mary really only corrects her husband’s art twice, but I think it was effective to leave them in there with only Mary’s commentary.

I liked this comic a lot. It taught me something about Lucia and I think the parallels between Mary and Lucia’s story are there. It makes sense to tell them together, a fact I think surprised the character-Mary in some ways.

GNF 4 – Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

saga cover

My love for Brain K. Vaughan and his particular brand of storytelling began with Runaways. I just think the concept behind Runaways is so good and the characters are funny and easy to relate to. I’ve been reading graphic novel-style comics for a while now, but Runaways was my first foray into the more traditional realm of serial comics and it was great.

I’ve been hearing buzz about Saga all year, but Vasilly is really the person that made me want to pick it up and read it as soon as possible. It wasn’t soon enough.

I love Saga. There’s really no ifs ands or buts about it. Fiona Staples’s art is a revelation. It’s detailed, beautiful, and Vaughan and Staples’s imaginations put together is a sight to behold. I went into Saga more or less blind about the story and I think that that’s the way to do it. If you haven’t read Saga yet, just trust me on this one, okay? It’s good and it’s worth your time. Now close out of this blog post and don’t read anymore!

If you have read Saga, then you know there are a lot of things to love. There are dozens of different kinds of creatures and that’s what we’ve seen so far. There are government conspiracies, an all-consuming war, star-crossed lovers, a whole universe to explore, and characters that you grow to love in just a few short panels. My favorite characters ended up being secondary ones in this series. Izabel is instantly lovable and comedic relief, plus I actually cared about her character. I hope she’s not actually gone! I was also always excited when The Will showed up with his truth-telling cat.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like the main characters, because I did. I think they will only get more interesting as we learn more about them, and I was particularly excited to see Marko’s parents show up, but I think the introduction to their story made them a little bit less interesting. Once we find out more about their pasts and how they came to give up fighting in the war, I think they will become slightly more interesting and less one dimensional. They are the heroes, but there’s not a whole lot interesting about them yet. In this part of the comic, it felt like all the action was happening around them and they weren’t doing much of anything.

I suppose that’s a little unfair, because they were fighting for their life. But to me, the more interesting characters are ones we don’t necessarily know what to expect from. Is Izabel really helping them? Or is she only looking out for herself? What about The Will and his ability to compartmentalize right and wrong so it suits his own morals? I think Alana and Marko will become a little bit more interesting and a little bit more unexpected as they learn more about each other.

There’s also the fact that the story is narrated by their daughter. I think this is such a good way to frame the story and I love the way it’s represented in the lettering. It made the final little cliffhanger so good. Those last few panels with the shocked look on Marko’s dad’s face? And the stern look on his mother’s? So realistic. I can’t wait to read more about their dynamic.

I can’t believe I have to wait until this summer to read the next collection. I wish I’d started reading this one when it came out in the issues, though it might have been even more torturous to wait each month for a shorter chapter. I wasn’t surprised that I loved Saga, but I was a little surprised how much. I think, for me, it was really the complement of the art by Fiona Staples and the storytelling from Vaughan. They really are a creative match made in heaven.

GNF 3 – Blue by Pat Grant

blue by pat grant

Blue by Pat Grant is a story about us vs them. The story takes place in a seaside Australian town and is narrated by an older man who is recalling the “good old days” when there were no blue people in town. The blue people look different from you and me: they have many legs, their skin is blue, they eat weird food. I think you can see where this is going.

Blue as a metaphor isn’t a very complicated one. Pat Grant set out to tell a fairly common story. It’s so common, it’s the plot of a movie I’m sure you’ve all heard about: Stand By Me, based on the Stephen King story “The Body.” Grant actually had something very similar happen to him as a kid and he decided to include it as an important part of this comic as well. Even as I was reading it, it felt more like an homage than a ripoff, especially since the overarching themes are so different in Stand By Me and Blue.

Something else that makes Blue stand apart for me is the fact that the narrator is not sympathetic at all. When he tells his story about being a kid in this town right around the time it started going bad, you can see that he absolutely didn’t learn anything from what he witnessed on the day Blue takes place. He is completely blind to everything around him. We can forgive him for this when he is a child, but when the art reverts back to the present and we see his adult self, no more mature than he was as a teenager, you know that he hasn’t really grown up at all.

The art in Blue might be off-putting for some people, but I was so reminded of the cartoons I grew up watching as a kid, like Rocco’s Modern Life. The shapes of the characters and the buildings, plus the emphasis on the crude and the gross, reminded was reminiscent that style of 90s cartoons that were at once disgusting and interesting to look at. The crudeness suits the characters and it’s in such contrast to the absolutely stunning, surreal backgrounds that Grant includes. The comic is colored entirely in blue and tan, which is visually interesting and also lovely.

There is an essay at the end of the book that is at once interesting and unnecessary. It didn’t complete this comic for me in any way, but I enjoyed reading it and it did shed some light on why Grant wrote Blue. I didn’t need the why, but I appreciated it. There is a moment towards the end of the comic that felt particularly relevant to Blue, though:

Part of life when you live at the arse end of the world is that your story never seems to intersect with the grand narratives. Bigger histories from more populous places quickly morph into mythologies, but the smaller stories on the fringes are often nudged out of the collective consciousness and lost forever.

Blue feels at once wholly specific to a place and universal. There are bigger histories about outsiders and insiders, about immigration, about new communities versus old, but the fictional town in Blue is simply a microcosm of all of that and it becomes a part of the bigger history and the grand narrative.

I didn’t think I had a lot to say about Blue. It’s an unassuming comic that seems simple on the surface, but it’s rich, layered, and interesting. The story is simple and classic, but the characters, the setting, and the art make it into a much deeper exploration of identity, as a person, a town, and a culture, even at the expense of others.

GNF 2 – Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks

Friends With Boys Cover

I’ve always wanted brothers. Not just brothers, but older brothers, which was, obviously, impossible from the minute I was born. I have this romantic idea of what it would be like to have an older brother: someone who’s protective and loyal and loving and funny and sometimes obnoxious. In that way Friends With Boys was a little bit of wish fulfillment for me. I loved seeing Maggie’s relationship with her brothers, even if it was a little bit more complex than what I imagine.

The title of Friends With Boys is a little bit misleading, because it’s more about Maggie and her first year in high school, trying to understand the relationships between her brothers and the other boys at school. Maggie, like her brothers before her, was homeschooled until it was time for her to start high school. Unlike her brothers, though, Maggie is facing high school on her own, because her mother has left. Maggie’s father, the local police chief, has been trying to keep things normal around the house, but it can’t stay that way for long, especially since Maggie has also been seeing a ghost. When she makes new friends at school, Lucy and Alistair, her brother Daniel is surprisingly upset about it. Maggie is just trying to understand the world she lives in, which feels too overwhelming and confusing at times. Why are her twin brothers Zander and Lloyd fighting? Why doesn’t Daniel like Alistair? Why does the captain of the volleyball team seem to hate Alistair, too? Why did Maggie’s mom leave? And why is there a ghost following her around?

I loved everything about Friends With Boys. I loved the drawing style. Each face is so expressive and each panel meaningful and so nicely drawn. I’m in love with the way Hicks draws faces and I couldn’t get enough of the characters. I felt like they were real people and I loved them. They are all different shapes and sizes and just feel human.

Friends With Boys is funny and sad and heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time. Plus there’s a ghost, so, you know. I feel like it is really easy to compare Friends With Boys and Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgot. They have similar plots, though I connected more with Friends With Boys. It’s a little bit more light-hearted, especially when it comes to the ghost, and, as I might have mentioned, I loved the characters.

Friends With Boys is just so charming, I think you’ll find yourself smiling along. There are no neat endings with this comic, though. Many of the questions above are never truly answered, but that was okay for me. I can see some readers being frustrated with it, but I was perfectly okay with a small glimpse of Maggie’s life. And, because the world is an awesome place, you can read the first 20 pages of Friends With Boys online, just to see if you’ll fall in love with the characters and artwork as much as I did. Check it out at the Friends With Boys website.

GNF 1 – Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

9781770460607I started off Graphic Novels February, also known as Comics February, by reading Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton in January. I had checked out all these great comics in preparation for February and I just couldn’t wait.

I’ve been reading Beaton’s webcomic on and off for a few years now, but not necessarily consistently. It’s always good when I need a laugh combined with a literary or historical reference. I loved that Hark! A Vagrant included explanations for the comics, because they can be a little specific and if you’re not familiar with what the comic is referencing, the joke will be lost on you. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, because that just means that I have new things to explore. I did appreciate it, though, when Beaton gave a little bit of context.

I’ll admit, my favorite comic by Kate Beaton isn’t even one in this book or on her full site. She took a picture of it and uploaded it here, to her Tumblr. It’s one of those things where just thinking about it will send me into a fit of hysterics. I was hoping to find another comic like that in Hark! A Vagrant, and while there were quite a few that made me laugh out loud, there were none that I loved quite as much as Tolstoy’s poop shelf.

Fortunately for me, Beaton’s sense of humor and mine line up pretty well. I find immature and silly jokes to be very funny. I love the low brow combined with the high brow. Beaton delivers in spades and I can’t wait to keep reading her comics.

January 28 – The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

The Lats Policeman cover

There’s something about a neo-noir novel (or movie, or tv show, or comic) that I can’t pass up, especially one with a great premise. The Last Policeman is about the end of the world: it’s coming and everyone knows the date. Asteroid 2011GV1, or Maia, is heading straight for earth. No question, it will hit. If you and everyone you knew only had a few months to live, what would you do? Hank Palace decides to keep working as a detective, even though most everyone else has given up. When he’s called into investigate an insurance salesman’s suicide, he’s convinced that it’s a murder. Even though no one quite believes him, he finds himself caught up in a story that’s much bigger than one man’s death.

The Last Policeman is a successful crime story, but that’s not really why I loved it. The crime itself and Palace’s attempt to solve it took a backseat to his observations about a world on the brink of destruction. People are committing suicide regularly, drug use is rampant and heavily controlled by whatever police force is left, and society is barely holding itself together.

While I was reading The Last Policeman, I kept wondering what it is about this gritty genre that I like so much. I’m not a big fan of traditional noir, mostly just unfamiliar with it, but there’s something about a noir story with a contemporary setting that I love. It’s partially growing up on crime shows and airport thrillers, combined with a desire for something a little bit deeper. For me, noir embodies this combination of action, plot, melodrama, and introspection that I just find irresistible. The stories seem so far from reality (at least far from my reality), but they still speak to this universal darkness, but also a kind of hopefulness.

I admit to a certain blind spot when it comes to the neo-noir. The Last Policeman occasionally dragged and I honestly wasn’t invested in the actual crime solving so much as the character study of both Hank Palace and our world right before it ends. There is also a sort of necessary blindness that comes from the first person narration: we only see each character as Detective Palace sees them. Unfortunately, he sees everyone as a little bit one-note, but that was consistent with his character and didn’t bother me, especially since the details about society as a whole were so poignant.

Suicide is a major theme in The Last Policeman. We see a character commit suicide, another one is suspected is suspected of it, and another one is revealed late in the book. Though it’s hard to pin down noir as a genre, the cynicism and hardness of the main character is always one of the first things that makes me think of noir. There are a lot of ways the cynicism can play out throughout the film or show or book, whatever it might be, but I like it best when there’s something to give the main characters a glimpse that their cynicism might not be the only answer to the world.

I started to say that I thought Palace is different from a lot of noir antiheroes because in a lot of ways he is very earnest, and moral almost to a fault. But that seems like a common theme in the noir genre as well, because the detectives are flawed, but also determined to find the truth at the expense of everything else. Maybe because it is the one honest thing they trust.

I won my copy of The Last Policeman from Quirk on Twitter.