Turkish Delights and Dangers

28_103397706_Turkish_soldiers_secure_the_area_as_supporters_of_Turkey27s_President_Recep_Tayyip_Erdogan-large_trans++ZgEkZX3M936N5BQK4Va8RWtT0gK_6EfZT336f62EI5U (1)What sense do young U.S. readers, bombarded these days by the war of words between our presidential candidates and assaulted by the images and realities of U.S. gun violence, make of recent events in Turkey?  A failed military takeover of the Turkish government on July 15 left hundreds dead and more than a thousand people injured, with thousands more later imprisoned, removed from their jobs, or forbidden to travel internationally.  Just a few weeks before that, a deadly terrorist attack at Turkey’s largest airport, outside cosmopolitan Istanbul, shocked the world.  I follow Turkish news not only because Turkey is an important U.S. ally but because our son lived in Istanbul for four years, from 2009 to 2013.  We learned much about Turkey then and visited there, too.

I wondered now whether any accessible graphic works would aid young readers’  understanding of modern Turkey, with its complex history as anchor of the once widespread Ottoman Empire.  So—with mixed results—I turned my attention to four graphic novels, all aimed at readers tween and up.  All turned out to be enjoyable reads, but only two speak to the complicated, sometimes brutal realities of life in Turkey today.  And, ironically, one of these relevant books never mentions Turkey at all!

618S+7M1IPL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_I first caught up with author/illustrator Tony Cliff’s Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, a 2013 fiction bestseller, and its recently published sequel, Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling (2016).  These swashbuckling adventures, set in the early 19th century when Great Britain was at war with Napoleonic France, feature the daring, sometimes law-breaking deeds of Delilah Dirk.  In both books, this upper class British woman—whose incredible martial arts training, acrobatic skills, scientific gadgets, and penchant for violent “justice” remind me of superhero Batman—is accompanied by Mr. Erdemoglu Selim, the eponymous “Turkish lieutenant.”  His is the voice of reason which only sometimes restrains Delilah, and his superior tea-making abilities and loyalty to the hot-headed woman who once saved his life both are important plot elements in several of their thrilling adventures. 

514nTIdeZEL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_While I was pleased to see author Cliff stress that friendship, rather than a stereotypical romance, unites this unconventional pair, I was disappointed to see how Turkey was used mainly as exotic background for the first novel.  Constantinople (the earlier name for Istanbul) is that work’s first, riotously detailed setting.  Selim is, at first, a lieutenant in the Ottoman Empire’s military.  Yet the duo’s shipboard fights against the pirate captain Rakul, here set on the Bosphorus River and Sea of Marmara, might just as well have taken place on the Indian Ocean, with Mr. Selim being replaced by a native of the Indian sub-continent.   Little that is unique to Turkish culture or politics ultimately figures in these volumes—a fact also re-emphasized by the biases of some British characters in the European setting of Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling.  Its central villain, the treacherous Major Merrick, certainly disdains and lumps all dark-skinned people together, regardless of their country or continent of origin.  Merrick’s views are ones that fueled British imperialism, though no background notes are given about that, the Ottoman Empire, or the Napoleonic Wars in either book.  Perhaps—I am sad to realize—countries being at war need no explanation for some of today’s young readers, particularly ones seeking pleasure rather than information.   

And there is much that is pleasurable in these two graphic novels.  Cliff’s cartoonish illustrations are marvelous in their energetic, fast-paced depiction of action scenes, with close-ups alternating with mid and long-distance shots, many of them wordless.  We seem to tumble, swerve, and swoop right along Delilah Dirk!  These scenes retain a comic tone, too, through the many, sometimes funny faces characters display as they surprise themselves or one another in what might otherwise be high stress situations.  But there do not seem to be real consequences, in emotional terms, to all the blood being shed and death being dealt.  Instead, we get dramatically varied, inventive sound effect words such as “Clang, “FWHOOP,” “CHOOM,” and “KRISH.” 

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Rich, lush colors highlight Cliff’s detailed renderings of scenes, and he wisely employs different, unifying color palettes as the action moves from one scene or time frame to another.  Readers will enjoy the way illustrations sometimes contradict the exchanges between “Miss Dirk” and “Mr. Selim,” showing how these friends sometimes deceive themselves as they attempt to influence one another or trick their opponents. Thinking of these characters’ strong relationship along with their many escapades, I was not surprised to learn that the Disney studio recently acquired movie rights to “the Turkish lieutenant series.”  Real-life events in Turkey would be less appealing to that family-oriented movie company. 

51qqwF3CKNL._SX389_BO1,204,203,200_Similarly, the most dramatic events occurring in 1970s through 1990s Turkey take place mainly “offstage” in Ozge Samanci’s excellent graphic memoir, Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey (2015).  These dramas include war with Greece over Cyprus, coups, and attempted coups.   Nonetheless, by selectively depicting her family’s daily life in the western coastal city of Izmir—including what she herself did not understand as a 6 year-old when the memoir begins—this author/illustrator has created a vividly intimate portrait of their lives, her growth as an individual, and how a restrictive society shaped individual choices and family dynamics.  Sad to say, many of those repressive situations—government limits on mass communications; sudden arrest of people suspected of dissent, followed by torture or beatings; a military sometimes operating on its own; and government officials who “bend” laws to remain in power—still exist in Turkey today.   As the backgrounds in some of Samanci’s illustrations slyly point out, through posters and graffiti on walls, only the names of some  dissident groups have changed.  I believe that reading this memoir will indeed help to inform tween and up readers about life in Turkey today, even though 21st century politics have brought new complications there.   Yet Dare to Disappoint is anything but heavy-handed or heavy-hearted in its storytelling.

Samanci effectively inserts collaged items into the impishly-drawn cartoon   narratives of her fifteen chapters.  For instance, the family members to whom the book is dedicated are represented by “stick figures” actually composed of button “heads” and trailing yarn “limbs.”  Young Ozge’s prized pink ruler is shown several times as an actual plastic ruler, bearing not only the cut out geometric shapes U.S. readers will recognize but also a profile of revered Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk!  (Ataturk’s image is indeed everywhere in Turkey, as frequent in government buildings as Washington’s or Lincoln’s face is here.  Samanci devotes a whole chapter to Ataturk’s influence in the media and schools.) 

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Such creative, unexpected touches as collage or crayoned scribbles lighten this family history, where personal choice is often limited by a harsh, unstable economy, fear of offending powerful government officials, and a rigid educational system that uses standardized tests to slot young people into schools and careers, regardless of their desires or potential.  To satisfy their worried father’s goals, both Samanci and her older sister study and enter fields that deny their real interests, along the way stifling friendships and creativity.  Only after she has graduated from college does Samanci “dare to disappoint” her family, veering off her prescribed course to pursue art as a career.  Today Ozge Samanci is an artist and professor at Northwestern University in Illinois.   

 

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What is “foreign” in Turkey’s everyday life will be more accessible to American readers because of the ways in which Samanci zeros in on aspects of childhood that transcend borders.  The desire of a preschooler to be like her school-going sibling; an elementary school student’s adulation of a kind, attractive teacher; the seemingly endless hour at the end of a boring school day, minutes counted down one-by-one: all are captured by this gifted author/illustrator.  Her mainly black-and-white pages use color tellingly, highlighting dramatic moments, realizations, or settings.  The book’s cross-cultural experiences extend beyond childhood into more adult terrain: first boyfriends, juggling school with part-time jobs, the social pressure to marry, and even a terrifying attack and near-rape by a stranger are also recounted here.  By the memoir’s buoyant conclusion, when Samanci surfaces atop a sparkling, collaged fish to encourage us to “Come, let’s swim against the current!,”  we understand how she has struggled to reach her open-hearted, triumphant sincerity.  Her final words to readers are a joyful, well-meant challenge: “Do you dare to disappoint?”

Samanci’s memoir debuted in 2015 to glowing U.S. reviews and positive ones in Turkey’s liberal press. One reviewer there called it Turkey’s first graphic novel.  Dare to Disappoint was and may still be under consideration for publication in Turkish there.  Yet I suspect that Turkey’s current government, criticized by Samanci in her online blog, may make such publication unlikely, if not impossible.  Other graphic works from and about Turkey are scarce.    Anthologies about comics in the Middle East such as Muqtatafat (2016) focus on translating Arab language works—from countries such as Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan—rather than works from Westernized Turkey, with its Romanized alphabet. 

61exQG62lDL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_Ironically, to get a further sense of how suppressed groups live under a military regime, and how teens’ choices and friendships are constrained by the laws and customs upholding such regimes, readers might look past Turkey or any other clearly-identified country.  Author/illustrator Faith Erin Hicks’ new graphic novel, The Nameless City (2016), colored by Jordie Bellaire, spotlights these questions in an adventure-filled, fantasy novel centered on two teens—a ruling caste young man named Kai and an impoverished, homeless young woman known only as Rat.  Her people powerfully refuse to use the names given to their pre-industrial city by its succession of conquerors.  That strategically-valuable city, located at a juncture on what might be the central Asian steppes, is prized by different ethnic groups, another distinction drawn here between conquerors and the conquered. 

Unlike Delilah Dirk who challenges authority for excitement, honor, and—at times—for the satisfaction of righting wrongs done by others, Rat dangerously bounds across rooftops, avoiding armed soldiers, to find food! She and other conquered people in the Nameless City do not have enough to eat. Rat does not have the choices and privileges that Delilah has.  Her ethnic identity—different from Kai’s—is another feature that sets her apart . . .  a difference even sharper in this novel than race is for Mr. Selim in Europe.  Harsh choices, rigid laws upheld by the military as well as police, and punishment of any kind of dissent—all were part of Ozge Samanci’s Turkey and typify Turkey today.  And, as Samanci notes in her memoir, some Turkish dissenters belong to that country’s ethnic minorities.  In The Nameless City, both Kai and Rat have to learn to see past their racial differences to become friends and allies.  There are parallels between life in Hicks’s mythical city, 19th century racial bigotry, and its unfortunate lingering into the 21st century.

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I recommend Hicks’ book, the first volume in a trilogy, not just for the issues it addresses but for its engaging characters and detailed, energetic illustrations.  I look forward to the trilogy’s second volume, The Stone Heart, scheduled for publication in Spring, 2017.  It is enticingly previewed here.  I can only hope that by next spring the news from Turkey will be better, life there safer and more comfortable for its citizens and the refugees it now shelters.  

 

 

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Following Aaron Copeland’s Dream

2955What would composer Aaron Copeland have made of the Jewish Film Festival in Bozeman, Montana, now in its second season?  The Jewish, Brooklyn-born and raised Copeland (1900 – 1990) made notable use of his klezmer-infused, cityscape youth in many musical pieces, yet Copeland is probably best-known for musical works emblematic of the expansive American West.  The Billy the Kid suite (1939),  Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944)—all regularly performed by high school orchestras and aired on public radio stations—were created by the bar mitzvahed, agnostic son of Russian Jewish immigrants.  Originally, their family name was Kaplan. 

99 lpcoverCopeland himself credited his early fascination with the pioneering American spirit to movies.  He explained, “I suppose in one sense it’s a feat of the imagination . . . . But after all, a kid in Brooklyn would’ve seen movies with cowboys in them. . . . I did go out to the southwest fairly early in my career. And, I don’t know, every American kid grows up with a sense of cowboys and what the west must have been like.”  Coming full circle, Copeland’s musical scores for films include one for a Western, The Red Pony (1948), based on a John Steinbeck story collection.  (Copeland’s first, award-winning film score was for the movie version of another Steinbeck work, Of Mice and Men [1938],  set in the ranch land of Depression-era California.)  

I thought about the unlikely conjunction of Brooklyn and Bozeman the other night, as my husband Don spoke about watching a Jewish Film Festival offering with our son Daniel, who now works for Montana State University-Bozeman.  A few days earlier they had also gone out to another movie revival, part of a series of classic Westerns, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). 20160618_202756 What feats our imaginations can indeed accomplish!  As a tween, I loved singer Gene Pitney’s crooning of that movie’s title song so much, played a 45 RPM record of it so often, that I always hear Pitney’s lush voice over the film credits—even though the Pitney version was not released until weeks after the movie’s debut.  I guess Gene Pitney is part of my Brooklyn-bred, city kid’s dream of the American West.

062316 Bozeman (1)Now that I too have visited Bozeman, walking its friendly streets and viewing the magnificent vistas of the aptly-named Big Sky state, I appreciate Copeland’s musical renditions of the West—ebullient, witty, solemn, grand—even more.  He really got so much of it so right!  Yet the West Copeland dreamed about and created really never contained just one melody, and nowadays it contains many more.  There is a Jewish Film Festival now in Bozeman, with wailing klezmer clarinets somewhere in the air. And before that, there were Jewish merchants in Montana as early as the 1870s, with a synagogue established in Helena in 1890.

Today, there is also probably sitar music along with the two great Indian restaurants we visited, and perhaps Korean drums, Arabic ouds, and Japanese  flutes, too.  (Our son helps international students find their niches at the university.)  And the songs and chants of the Black Feet and Crow peoples, among other tribes, have always been there . . . .

519WmtwdLoL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_Sometimes reality is better, richer, and more complicated than one’s dreams—worth the extra effort to discover and explore.  Sometimes, though, dreams may  turn out to be dismaying or disappointing. I was delighted a few years ago when the Western Writers of America considered a biography I had written about a 19th century Northern Paiute leader —Sarah Winnemucca: Scout, Activist, and Teacher (2006)—for one of its prestigious Spur Awards.  I felt a little like Aaron Copeland back then, in my own much smaller way another Brooklyn-born kid imaginatively taking part in and recreating the Old West.  

 I am still honored to have a wall plaque above my desk that declares my book to have been a finalist in the WWA’s 2007 Best Western Juvenile Nonfiction Competition.  Even though I had dreamed of winning the award, I probably would not have enjoyed displaying it in my office nearly spur-banner2-300x174as much. Each Golden Spur Award is an actual, three-dimensional gilt spur mounted on a similar wall plaque—a reality I could never have appreciated without a wry smile and shake of the head.  I admit to my limited experience and world view here, which make spurs still the stuff of other people’s lives, of history and the movies.  For me, some connections between Brooklyn and Bozeman still remain best left to the imagination. . .  unless and until Daniel shares other global airs now current in Bozeman, ones following Aaron Copeland’s dream.

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Relishing Something New

 51uULz0-aJL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_A health crisis recently overtook our family, with my son Daniel suddenly in the hospital a long way from our home.  Now that his health is more stable, the problem being addressed, I find myself thinking about those questions and bits of wisdom that often seem distant from daily life.  The whys and hows of existence.  The truths underlying old clichés such as “Take time to smell the roses.”  The reasons we have rituals to mark special occasions and milestone events.  Aptly, I already had a copy of author/illustrator Lucy Knisley’s brand-new memoir about her own special occasion, Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride (2016), at home.  The charms of this comforting, entertaining memoir led me to catch up with Knisley’s earlier, award-winning memoir, Relish: My Life in the Kitchen (2013).  Her focused, lighthearted take there on two pleasurable daily activities sometimes overlooked in life’s bustle—eating and cooking—was just the tonic I needed.  (Although, of course, a wedding of some sort may someday figure in my adult son’s future.  No pressure there, son.  All in your own good, long lifetime.)  

Lucy Knisley surprised her family and friends when, after three years apart, she and her former live-in boyfriend, John, became engaged.  They had separated because Lucy wanted to have children but loveable John did not.  Remaining friends who visited one another, sometimes vacationing together even as they dated other people, the late-20s couple finally got together when John changed his mind about kids.  Something New somethingnewblog1depicts these events plus the following year, when Knisley’s whole family (including her retired caterer mother) became involved in planning and hosting her large do-it-yourself (DIY) wedding.  Her memoir is a satirical critique of the Western wedding industry, a humorous look at strange wedding traditions world-wide, and a wry, self-mocking expose of how Knisley’s obsessive involvement with fine, locavore cuisine and handicrafts took over her life during that wedding-planning year.  Along the way, she continues the exploration, begun in Relish, of her close relationship with her free-spirit mother, with whom she lived after her parents’ divorce.  

Sometimes Knisley’s cartoonish drawings illustrate the text, as in the circular panel showing John’s restless, midnight retrieval of an heirloom wedding ring from his family’s keepsakes box.  At other points, drawings expand the text.  For instance, after a visit with John that takes place during their separation, she writes in a narrative box that “John gave me a squeeze and sent me home to New York.”  The panel, however, download (17)shows sad-faced Lucy hugging her cat, with the word “GLOOM” in thin mauve letters dominating the rest of the panel.  Throughout this work, the author/illustrator also cleverly uses photographs and photo-montages to both illustrate and comment on events.  These include entire pages filled with cut-out magazine photos of brides and montages of actual wedding invitations Knisley had accumulated.  I looked forward to these “real-life” pictures of the characters, places, and related items in this memoir—and you will too! 

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Double spread pages devoted to such humorous topics as “Should I Go to This Wedding (A Flowchart)” and “”A Few Theme Weddings I Kinda Wish We Had Done” are also lively, clever elements here.  Knisley deftly alters frame size or abandons frames altogether at apt moments, also effectively zooming in or out and altering perspective, throughout the memoir. An “Afterward from John,” written by the groom but drawn by the bride, and Knisley’s final “Thank you,” illustrated with their wedding photos conclude Something New in a gracious, satisfying way.  Readers teen on up—and perhaps some a bit younger, if they have been involved in formal weddings—will appreciate this sharp-eyed, light-hearted treatment of one of life’s seriously joyful special occasions.

51BPsomYd0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Relish: My Life in the Kitchen (2013) follows Knisley from infancy, “a child raised by foodies” in New York City and later in upstate New York, through her college years.  This memoir is infused with Knisley’s belief that her most “vivid memories jog [her] brain with the recollection of how things tasted.”  These “taste-memories” are introduced early on, depicted as colorful, wordless balloons by the creative author/illustrator.  Later, instead of the interspersed photographs found in Something New, Knisley interweaves sprightly cooking directions and recipes for some of her favorite foods and dishes.  Readers will, for instance, learn how to best prepare mushrooms as well as how to cook huevos rancheros and sushi rolls. 

Throughout, Knisley pays tribute to the spirit and skills of her caterer mother, who imparted her own delight with fresh foods and cooking to Lucy at home and at work.  Readers tween and up will appreciate Lucy’s misadventures at a similar age helping out at farmers’ market stalls and, a few years later, working as a junior caterer alongside her mother.  They will also enjoy her adventures with food and travel as a 14 year old visiting Japan and, as a college student, her encounter with Italian food and culture.  Those aromatic, jam-filled croissants! Food is also a bond between Lucy and her gourmet father, even after her parents’ divorce when she is six.  Great meals figure in mutual visits between her dad’s New York City apartment and upstate New York, with Lucy’s mother still preparing some of his most savored dishes. 

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Her “life in the kitchen” has shaped Knisley’s philosophy—beliefs set out near the Alex Award-winning book’s conclusion.  There is much to mull over in adult Lucy’s realization that “eating is a social act.   It’s a treat, even when the food is bad.”  The memoir’s final panels contain other knowledge its creator wants to share.  They show her at a stove, tasting a dish she is preparing.  She smiles—perhaps at its taste but certainly as well at another important realization.  She is doing “What I love.  And doing those things with excitement, curiosity, and relish.”   

Cuisinart-Immersion-Blenders-300x275 (1)I am happy that my son already acts on similar beliefs.  (A bit of a “foodie” himself, Daniel enjoys cooking, and last year we re-bonded over the pleasures of a new immersion blender.)  I think Daniel’s appetite for life will sustain him as he faces medical adversity with the same empathy and gusto that have led him to travel the globe, tasting food and “tasting” cultures that most of us Westerners will never encounter.  So many great meals, new places and people, and wonderful books ahead of him!  Now added to my own pile of to-be-reads: Lucy Knisley’s autobiographical travelogues French Milk (2007), An Age of License (2014), and Displacement (2015).

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Teachable Moments

0511_tree_reg (1)Now that it is summer vacation time in North America, more of our young people’s teachable moments will take place outside of school.  Graphic works can play a part in the lessons they learn—especially in areas often given shorter shrift in today’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) focused  curriculum.  Today I look at two recently-published graphic works which will entertain and instruct a range of school-weary readers.   These books focus on life lessons that extend beyond the classroom—and impart this wisdom in creative ways both old and new.

s558472801427611443_p147_i2_w640Veteran author/illustrator James Sturm has given us Birdsong: A Story in Pictures (2016).  Sturm’s end notes link this wordless book to the Japanese storytelling tradition of kamishibai, which once delighted children throughout Japan.  (Kamishibai is the focus of my March, 2014 Gone Graphic and is also mentioned in the June, 2014 and June, 2015 posts.) While Birdsong is being marketed by publisher Toon Books for early readers, appropriate for grades K -1, I agree with the reviewer who felt its wordless pages have “an almost universal appeal,” not limited to any age range. 

CfSd1qeWIAANSU_Empathy and kindness are taught in Birdsong, which shows cruel children who are magically transformed into monkeys.  Captured and then themselves put on heartless display, the unhappy young simians with help escape to the countryside.  There, with their new awareness, they show kindness and generosity towards the turtles and birds they once tormented.  Birdsong’s full-color pages also encourage imaginative thought and storytelling skills, as each left-hand page is left blank, save for a decorative side border.  Readers can and will be inspired to “fill in” these blanks, with their own versions of who the magician is who transforms the children, how they are captured, and what leads one captor to free them.  Imaginations will also be fueled by thoughts about what kinds of lives and adventures the pair will now have.  Will they remain monkeys, or will they ever again be human?   

8267509_origAlso, readers could be asked when this story takes place.  How modern, ancient, or perhaps timeless is its setting?  The child protagonists could be wearing medieval play costumes and the magician could be a modern hermit dressed in ragged clothes . . . .  The carnival barker might be wearing an old-fashioned, 19th century barker’s bow tie and hat, while the audience could be wearing unfashionable clothes or garments that are up-to-date with mid-twentieth century styles.  Geographically, Birdsong’s landscapes might be Western . . . but they could also be Asian, too.  The wildlife Sturm selects—a tiger and those monkeys—enhances the mysteries there.  Furthermore, while the children, carnival barker, and some audience members are Caucasian, the side-show  audience is multi-racial and the magician’s angry features leave some doubt about his ethnicity. Tellingly, the one facial close-up Sturm draws—still using the minimal, semi-realistic style for which he is known—is of the two imprisoned, sad monkeys, their eyes glistening . . .  perhaps with unshed tears.

sota4-2-7b6e986e09088d51Limiting each page to one image makes Birdsong accessible to even pre-readers, but its appeal is definitely more widespread—not only to multi-age readers but also to other artists.  In White River Junction, Vermont, where James Sturm lives, one musician has composed a piano score to accompany a community “showing” of Birdsong.  Another performance artist and musician has created a kamishibai version of the book, accompanied by a half dozen words and his own musical phrasings.  Perhaps this wordless book will inspire a summertime theatrical activity in your neighborhood!  It might also spark further interest in the relatively small but rich tradition of wordless books, the focus of Gone Graphic’s April, 2015 post. 

ORIGINAL-FAKE-2The relationships between performance, art, and community are key plot elements in the fast-paced, frequently-funny Original Fake (2016), written by award-winner Kirstin Cronn-Mills and illustrated by E. Eero Johnson.  Its narrator, high school junior Frankie Neuman, is a visual artist who feels unappreciated in his family of extroverted dancers and singers.  When Frankie gets involved in law-breaking “performance art,” helping a world-renowned artistic prankster leave satirical, often scurrilous art pieces in public places, Frankie finally feels powerful and successful.  An extra ego boost is the attention paid to his own anonymous public art works—pieces designed to erode the social standing of his self-centered sister Lou.  But how unhappy does that younger teen deserve to be?  What kind of relationship does Frankie really want to have with her?  And what will his relationship with his exuberant parents be, now that their quiet son is mysteriously staying out all night, disobeying rules and being questioned by the police?

Original Fake addresses substantive emotional as well as social issues.  Besides the question of artists’ rights to trespass on and use city or private property, Frankie also experiences his first real crush and heavy petting.  He has to puzzle out his relationship with beautiful, untrustworthy Rory and figure out what kind of relationship he wants to have with her cross-dressing, reliable cousin David.  Gender identity, gender fluidity, and sexual orientation are also broached in how Frankie and Lou’s parents dress and perform.  But do not conclude that these thorny issues make Original Fake a solemn or heavy-handed book!

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Frankie’s wry voice, the over-the-top puns, and the outrageous nature of some of the book’s art pieces pack lots of humor into this novel. The cartoon-like features and body language Johnson uses in illustrations further the work’s  semi-serious nature, setting the visual tone at a different level than more realistic images would.  Original Fake’s bright spirit is also promoted by the bold, orange-and-black color scheme used throughout it.  Besides the paint “trails” introducing new chapters and shifts in scene, colorful brushstrokes often bedeck page edges, drawing readers back to the plot and character-centric art.   The innovative format Cronn-Mills and Johnson have chosen for their collaboration is also effectively entertaining.

tumblr_o5wg807Jlf1r0yglfo1_1280 (1)Original Fake is part of a new trend—the hybrid novel, part text and part graphic novel.  (The February, 2014 Gone Graphic focused on this trend.)  Some of Original Fake’s graphic pages illustrate the text, while others take the place of traditional prose.  Near the work’s conclusion, seven graphic pages effectively convey Frankie’s surreal dream, as he works through his thoughts and emotions, both painful and painfully funny.  The book’s happy conclusion is also presented in a color-saturated image, accompanied by words seemingly painted in bold brushstrokes. 

452188_509f42095a91400f80046f3ec7728f89Unlike Birdsong, set in the nonspecific countryside, Original Fake has a very specific urban location—mine!  Minneapolis, its suburbs, and landmarks are named as well as detailed by Mankato-dweller Cronn-Mills and Minneapolitan Johnson.  It is lots of fun to read about such familiar streets and sights.   One way to select some summer reading might be to look for books set in your own community, state, or region.  As performance artists—real life ones such as Banksy, referenced in interviews by Cronn-Mills—and Original Fake’s fictional ones know, looking outward is a great way to look inward, too.  I hope you can make the most of summer’s teachable moments, whether planned or spontaneous. 

 

 

 

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Ten Plagues and Two Graphic Novels

10Command56For a few days in spring, before cable TV and streaming media, actor Charlton Heston once dominated North America’s television airwaves.  Sometimes on the same weekend, Heston’s rugged features and sonorous voice would bring Biblical times to life at Passover and Easter.  Network TV always broadcast The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben Hur (1959), both starring the Midwestern actor.  For generations of viewers, Heston embodied Moses and noble Ben Hur, whose epic path intersects that of Jesus.  As I sit here munching leftover Passover matzoh, I am reminded of those reverent, stirring films—and the ways in which today’s popular culture, including graphic novels, has expanded and shifted awareness of Biblical icons.

Ben-Hur_posterNowadays we have ready access to many more films—including silent versions and remakes of those Heston classics.  Mainstream movie retellings of the Old and New Testament generally are as reverent as those 1950s award-winners and their ilk were.  World cinema has also given us access to classic retellings of religious traditions outside the Judeo-Christian one.  Many graphic versions of religious narratives have also been created—and used successfully—to communicate and teach their views to youngsters and non-believers.  Yet other graphic novels in this genre function in a different way—to question and comment on their stories, to examine and explore other ways of interpreting these Biblical tales.  They are akin to some homespun homilies or what is within Judaism an ancient tradition of written interpretation known as midrash. Today, I look at two graphic novels which raise new questions—and answer some personal ones, for me—about Biblical icons from my own youth: Moses and David.

I always wondered about the ten plagues visited upon the Egyptians at Moses’ command.  Did he or stubborn pharaoh Ramses feel any guilt or regret at the torments inflicted upon Egypt’s people, land, and creatures, until Ramses finally heeds God’s injunction about the Israelites: “Let my people go!”?  The Jewish Passover tradition of naming these plagues during the holiday’s two ritual meals or seders is, we are told, the way we acknowledge that ancient suffering, taking no pleasure in it.  But what was it like to incite and experience blood, frogs, insects, wild animals, animal death, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and—worst of all—death of the firstborn?  Had Charlton Heston and director Cecil B. DeMille really gotten it right?

51M6vOzoAXL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_The graphic novel The Lone and Level Sands (2005), written by A. David Lewis and illustrated by mpMann, with colors by Jennifer Rodgers, suggests how much better that Hollywood epic might have been.  As Lewis notes in his Introduction, his book was designed to fill “the most gaps” in the book of Exodus—particularly “in the human reactions of Ramses, Moses, and their respective people.”   Its main character is Ramses, rather than Moses, as Lewis reimagines Ramses’  life not only through its Biblical account but through the multiple lenses of Islam’s Koran, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” and—yes—director DeMille’s widescreen, Technicolor film.

Words and images deftly give us moving details about Ramses the man and family member.  We learn that Ramses’ father once called him by the nickname that the grown pharaoh later affectionately used for his own, now-adult son—“little apricot.”  And it is Moses’ knowledge of this old family nickname that convinces Ramses that this bearded stranger really is the adopted cousin he has lewissands1-143x225not seen in forty years!  In addition to eloquent, formal court pronouncements, Lewis’ characters also speak awkwardly or hesitantly when overcome by emotion or sickness.  Leaving his mysteriously, frighteningly ill wife, Ramses stutters, “. . . I  . . . I will return soon, beloved . . . “    Larger, bolder print conveys sound effects and startled utterances, such as musing Ramses’ “GAH!” when an arrow—with a resounding “SCHHHWOKK!!!”—pins a plague frog to the wall behind him.   We see and hear Ramses make and break promises to release the Israelites, as a seemingly supernatural force, speaking through his relatives and advisors, urges him to renege.  In Lewis’ fleshed-out version of Exodus, the Egyptians are in this way always doomed to pay for their misdeeds.  As Ramses laments over the lifeless body of his wife, “—What cruel author assigns us to this fate?”

09-19-2006 03 (2)The Lone and Level Sands also contains scenes which have us overhearing the interactions of brothers Moses and Aaron, as each leader sometimes doubts himself or his brother. We even hear their sister Miriam’s annoyance with prophet Moses’ characterization of God as male:  “Hmmp. “’His,’ eh, Moses.” followed by what seems to be his standard reply, “<Sigh>.  It matters not, Miriam. . . “   That Miriam and this exchange are placed literally at the periphery of the page reinforces how marginal her concerns are to the main characters here.  Along with fleshing out central characters in the book of Exodus, Lewis also offers comments from minor Egyptian priests and palace guards and from unnamed, individual Israelites, as they suffer slavery and anticipate their escape.

09-19-2006 03 (3)Illustrator mpMann does a great job of highlighting the experiences of central characters and filling in events.  Close-ups of distraught faces alternate with more distant views in panels of different sizes and shapes, and emotional reactions are sometimes conveyed by inserting a reaction shot panel into the distressing scene.  Word balloons extend outside panels to unite events, while  we sometimes view events from an overhead or lower perspective as well as straight on.  Some strongly emotional events are drawn without frames.  One particularly notable example of this is the double page spread in which readers see Egyptians lamenting the “animal death” that plagues even their guarded or hidden animals, and which even extends to the rotting of just-slaughtered meat.  Bold, thick lines reinforce the intense dramas being enacted throughout the novel.  Many  illustrations use the color black densely enough to resemble the chiaroscuro of wood cut prints.   The plague of darkness is, as well,  conveyed appropriately by all black panels, in which only the white words of dismayed, frightened characters appear.

09-19-2006 03 (1)Colorist Jennifer Rodgers cues readers to shifts in tone with different, appropriate color palettes.  Moses’ supernatural transformation of staffs into snakes is awash in eerie green, while nighttime events are frequently signaled by cool purple as well as black.  Violence and anger are backgrounded by reddish-orange.  Although The Lone and Level Sands was originally self-published in black and white, Rodgers’ work here is a strong, seamless addition to the overall success of this powerful book.  Readers tween and up will do well with the formal court language that is interspersed throughout the novel.

The simple language in author/illustrator Tom Gauld’s 55_goliathcover_v4Goliath (2012), though, makes it accessible for  even younger readers.  Ironically, it is older readers—ones already accustomed to the traditional Bible story of giant warrior Goliath’s defeat by the slingshot-wielding shepherd boy David—who may be disconcerted by Gauld’s version of this encounter.  He totally up-ends our expectations, giving new life to the Gershwin brothers’ irreverent song about the Bible, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”  Here, the bold victory that supposedly sets David on the path to anointed kinghood is shown to be mere happenstance—and a false triumph to boot. 

After using Biblical phrases to introduce the war between the Philistines and Israelites, Gauld presents solitary Goliath in a series of wordless goliath1pages.  This Philistine’s evening routines are calm, harmless ones, as the cartoon-like figure, drawn with only a hint of features and no apparent musculature, is shown far apart from his army camp.  This Goliath is a mild-mannered clerk rather than a fierce warrior!  He is too meek to protest effectively when an army bureaucrat has the bright idea of encasing huge Goliath in armor and then positioning him to challenge and perhaps frighten the Israelites into surrender.  Goliath is as trapped by expectations of him as is the bear chained up by the Philistines.  That animal is forced to defend itself in fights that Goliath is too tenderhearted to watch.   Humorous elements, such as bits of Goliath’s armor continuing to drop off, make witnessing his discomfort both more bearable and somehow dismaying.  As in The Lone and Level Sands, we know how this story ends.

A limited color palette of grey tones, sepia, and white reflects the quiet and monotony of Goliath’s days, with only a doddering wanderer and a young shield bearer for company.  This boy’s repetition of gossip about “fierce” Goliath, his strength and mighty deeds, is so far from the truth as to be funny.  When Goliath sees that the bear has escaped, he begins to have thoughts about new possibilities for himself.  Yet he waits just one day too long to put his escape plans into action.  We with Goliath heardownload (15) the Biblical phrases with which David approaches, proclaiming  his intent to slay the giant, before we see him.  And then—horrifyingly—we see centered on one full-page panel a rock . . . just a rock.  We know even before turning the page that this is the ordinary stone that will doom Goliath.  The “Thunk” that accompanies the stone’s hitting Goliath’s forehead is a stark contrast to the rolling, majestic Biblical phrases that accompany the following panels, where “victorious” David cuts off the giant’s head and takes it off in a sack to secure his destined future as a hero and, eventually, a worthy king.  Rather than satisfaction at the end of this Biblical incident, we feel dismay.  At this point, having become acquainted with Gauld’s humanized version of Goliath, readers see his death as a loss, David’s bravery a hollow triumph.

What truths lie behind the stories and reputations of heroes or leaders, real or legendary?  How else may their stories be interpreted or fleshed out?  Readers young and old who are challenged rather than dismayed (or possibly even offended) by such questions, particularly when they touch upon established religions, will appreciate the 51GhqiFdpeL._SY401_BO1,204,203,200_midrashim I have discussed today.  Those intrigued by the skeptical Miriam in The Lone and Level Sands might enjoy her heroism in the picture book Miriam’s Cup: A Passover Story (2006), written by Fran Manushkin and illustrated by Bob Dacey.  Older readers might enjoy author/illustrator J.T. Waldman’s graphic novel about Queen Esther, Megillat Esther (2005).  Its sumptuous black and white images and story may be previewed online here .  

Ben-Hur_2016_posterAs for me, I am awaiting my library copy of Punk Rock Jesus (2013), a compilation of the limited comic book series by author/illustrator Sean Murphy.  Its controversial story of a cloned Jesus Christ received as much critical acclaim as it raised sometimes indignant feedback!  And, even though it received mixed reviews, I think I shall try to download director Ridley Scott’s 2014 big-budget film Exodus: Gods and Kings.  I want to see how well actor Christian Bale managed to fill Charlton Heston’s shoes!  We all will have to wait until August, 2016 to see the latest remake of Ben-Hur, starring Jack Huston.  Until then, the exceptionally popular 19th century novel upon which it is based—Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur; a Tale of the Christ—is available free online at Project Gutenberg.

 

 

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After the Brussels Bombings: Rethinking Heroes and Villains

tintinThis is not the blog post I had planned to write on April Fools’ Day.  But reverberations from the recent Brussels bombings (and now the Lahore attacks) shifted my attention, compelling me back to 9/11 and its explosions.  Read on.

Playing pranks seems less funny these days.   Never to everyone’s taste, practical jokes designed to shock or frighten people can cause emotional overload in our post 9/11 world.  That is especially true this April Fools’ Day, just a week after terrorist bombings in Belgium’s capital city of Brussels.   In solidarity with victims there, people on social media have posted pictures of Belgium’s best-known cartoon character, Tintin, crying in horror.  This boy reporter has been popular with kids and readers of all ages for more than eighty years, even featuring in a recent successful film, The Adventures of Tintin (2011).  Tintin’s tears—given his brave globe-trotting adventures—are meant to contrast innocent, noble emotion with the evil callousness of these cowardly attacks.  Tintin is the hero held up in contrast to villainous terrorists.  Yet real life is never that simple.

Tintin_in_America_Particularly in such early volumes as Tintin in the Congo (1931; 2002 – 2006) and Tintin in America (1932;1974; 2011), this Belgian character often displayed the racism of his creator, Herge (pen name of author/illustrator George Remi).  Belgian Herge (1907- 1983) was also anti-Semitic.  Although these attitudes moderated during the course of 25 Tintin volumes, some of Herge’s illustrations remain offensive, his plots cringe-worthy.  I am not alone in noting the irony of Tintin’s being used as a symbol of humanitarian unity this past week.  Actual wars have been waged against and in defense of the colonialist, prejudiced views sometimes found in Herge’s works.  And, while unforgiveable, the murderous acts of some terrorists can also be traced back to social inequities bred by such political systems.  Of course, terrorists often act out of their own racism and religious prejudice, couched in the rhetoric of warped religious righteousness.   It was another sort of cartoon image—a depiction of the prophet Mohammed, deemed sacrilege by Islamic terrorists—that was their rationale for slaughtering staff at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo magazine in 2015.  Now, hate-filled Al-Quaeda may have targeted Christians in Lahore, Pakistan on Easter Sunday, killing both Christians and Muslims in that attack.

61v5SVT4HUL._SX360_BO1,204,203,200_Graphic literature has addressed such acts of violence in many ways.  Some graphic journalists, such as Joe Sacco, realistically examine the complex, simmering tensions and hostilities that may lead up to and explode in violence.  (His Palestine (1996), Footnotes in Gaza (2009), and Journalism (2012) were discussed here in October and December, 2015).  The identity and sometimes even the possibility of unadulterated heroes and villains are called into question in his works.   Precisely detailed events, even when rendered through conflicting narratives, and realistically-drawn faces and figures are Sacco’s style.  Yet other graphic literature depicts the physical chaos and emotional mayhem of violent acts in more surreal ways.

41W6DQNGD9L._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_Acclaimed author/illustrator Art Spiegelman, who lived in lower Manhattan during the 9/11 attacks on its Twin Towers, created an astonishing memoir of what that day and its aftermath were like for him, his wife, and two children.  In the Shadow of No Towers (2004)—designed initially as ten over-sized, double page newspaper supplements—first appeared as a semi-regular feature over two years.   Its full-color pages are unified by the image Spiegelman said remained “burned onto the inside of [his] eyelids several years later . . . the looming north tower’s glowing bones just before it vaporized.”  Vertically or horizontally, this skeletal image appears in each supplement, often bracketing or anchoring other drawings that deliberately yoke fantasy to the bizarre realities of that violent day.  The “inner demons” of a homeless person appear alongside skewered images of political leaders; Spiegelman himself sometimes appears as a mouse, a characterization made famous in his earlier, award-winning family history Maus (1980 – 91; 2011) ; and political emblems such as Uncle Sam, the American eagle, and the Statue of Liberty break frames, appearing as ominous or ridiculous figures in the aftermath of Manhattan’s devastation.  For Spiegelman, these figures have ceased to be the reassuring patriotic icons of previous generations. 

nowtowersinterior

Spiegelman’s human characters—including his family—are drawn as awkward cartoon figures, with minimal features and sometimes garishly-colored faces, reflecting the nightmare of that September morning and the following days.  Characters from cartoon history also populate this memoir.   Spiegelman uses kid characters such as the early 1900s Katzenjammer Kids, mid twentieth-century family man Happy Hooligan (here “Hapless Hooligan”), and the long-running duo of Maggie and Jiggs to  comment sardonically about political events in a post-9/11 world.  Boldfaced capital letters shriek
“THE SKY IS FALLING!” while at another point Spiegelman declares the “OSTRICH PARTY” would better describe US politics than the Republican elephant or Democrat donkey.  There are no heroes here—only survivors.

images (15)Even this book’s villains are depicted farcically—a grinning Al-Quaeda leader is drawn with a dog’s long snout as he holds a bloody scimitar.  Similarly, Saddham Hussein, the dictatorial leader of Iraq, is drawn as a supposedly easily-squashed spider, punningly labelled an “IRAKNID.”  Mocking terrorists and anti-U.S. regimes in this way makes the immensity of the 9/11 attack seem even more horrible, U. S. efforts to retaliate and prevent further terrorism somehow ludicrous.   The complex content of In the Shadow of No Towers, including the detailed comics and U.S. history covered in its extended afterword and collage end papers, makes it best suited for readers teen on up.

861343Younger readers, however, would understand and appreciate how more mainstream comics quickly reacted to 9/11 and its aftermath.  Marvel Comics produced two tribute volumes honoring victims of that attack and the first responders who came to their aid.  In Heroes (2001) and A Moment of Silence (2002), superheroes such as Captain America and the Hulk worked alongside firefighters and police—the “world’s greatest heroes.”  Profits from these volumes were donated to families of the killed and injured.   DC Comics superheroes appeared   in two other collections: 9/11: Artists Respond (Volume 1, 2002) and 9/11: The World’s Finest Artists Tell Stories to Remember (Volume 2, 2002). While heroism was not called into question in these and similar works, villainy sometimes was. 

bu9J4QkThe first comic book issue of Spiderman to appear after the Towers fell dramatized this shift.  Its all-black cover represented the emotional impact of this attack on native New Yorker Peter Parker, the teenager who is secretly Spiderman.  He explains that no one, not even superheroes, could imagine the events of 9/11, that some things are “beyond words” and “beyond comprehension.”  Strikingly, in this issue 36 of Spiderman, even supervillains are shown mourning the loss of innocent lives.  Their horror speaks to the enormity of terrorist acts and, remarkably, to the shreds of human decency within even the greatest villains.   Food for thought and discussion for all of us here, whatever our ages.

Before the Brussels and Lahore bombings, I had already thought of revisiting the concepts of “hero” and “villain.”  My focus today was going to be on two fine graphic 51niH6CC-pL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_novels that challenge traditional views of this dichotomy: author/illustrator Noelle Stevenson’ Nimona (2015), and Baba Yaga’s Assistant (2015), written by Marika McCoola and illustrated by Emily Carroll.  Both books feature teens who for their own reasons want to be villains, not heroes.  And both reveal surprisingly sympathetic aspects of the fantastic villains with whom they apprentice.  I see that the American Library Association has just included these books on their61yD87GEkBL._SX352_BO1,204,203,200_ 2016 Update of recommended graphic novels for grades 6 -8.   This adds further luster to Nimona’ s nomination for several national awards, and Baba Yaga’s Assistant’s place on the New York Times best-seller list.  Enjoy these books yourselves, even as you introduce them to readers tween and up.  Both bear rereading, too, for illustration details and shifting color palettes that deepen characterization and plot. 

61kKFmJgB8L._SX366_BO1,204,203,200_Perhaps these graphic fantastic fictions will also provide springboards into a discussion of terrorist villainy.  As for me, I am waiting for my library copy of a related nonfiction graphic work: Terrorist: Gavrilo Princip, The Assassin Who Ignited World War I (2014; 2015).  I hope author/illustrator Henrik Rehr’s book for teens will shed some light on recent events for me even as it illuminates the past.  In our atomic era, sadly, the phrase once used hopefully about Word War I—“the war to end all wars” —suggests cataclysm rather than peace. 

 

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Let’s Be Visually Literate!

tumblr_lyq5t2z1Wg1qg2xvoo1_1280“Comics are the gateway drug to literacy.”   This remark by Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the graphic memoir Maus, A Survivor’s Tale (1980-1991), is not as controversial nowadays as it would have been in the 1950s.  Back then, some communities banned and even burned comics, fearing they would seduce kids into criminal behavior.  Today, many teachers, librarians, and parents recognize how comics and other graphic literature draw kids into reading.  Some school districts, as in Maryland, have even made comics the the linchpin of their reading programs.  Yet the literacy promoted by these programs too often leaves kids visually illiterate—unable to make connections or draw conclusions about the pictures and design of graphic works.  This kind of half-knowledge can be as limiting and potentially dangerous as any other.  So, in today’s post, I will provide some recommendations, cautions, and comments about visual literacy—and its relationships to diversity issues, past and present. 

7086607The punning logo of one fine specialty publisher—“Toon into Reading”—refers both to its focus on graphic works and their recent use in the reading curriculum.  Established art designer and editor Francoise Mouly founded TOON Books in 2008 (together with her husband Art Spiegelman) because she wanted to offer American kids the rich comic book experiences she had growing up in France.  In the 1990s, Mouly had also seen how comics held their young son’s attention, keeping him from becoming a reluctant reader.  Toon Books, however, excels at even more than these admirable goals.  It helps kids develop visual as well as verbal literacy. 

Through end notes and online guides, it offers adults ways to help young readers examine and think about the images in TOON books.   This publisher’s website also engages young readers with online activities, read along videos, and texts in multiple_8830053 languages.  That its recommended reading lists, categorized into four distinct levels, range beyond its own publications further testifies to Toon Books’ knowledgeable sincerity.  Level One is designated for brand-new readers, Level Two for emergent readers, and Level Three for “advanced readers” ready to tackle chapter books.  Its newest category, labelled Toon Graphics, is aimed at ages 8 to adult, reading above 3rd grade level.  Although many teachers and librarians may appreciate these distinctions, I myself dislike such prescriptive labels, particularly if they are used in rigid or restricting ways.  I would rather make a dictionary available as youngsters select their reading on the basis of content or cover appeal.  Being stymied by a word or unable to puzzle it out by context then becomes a mystery to solve—another achievement!

__3075142_origI recommend you peruse Toon Books’ entire catalog, but I also want to spotlight two of its recent publications.  Written and Drawn by Henrietta (2015) by Argentinian author/illustrator Liniers is a Level Three novel available in both English and Spanish editions.  Its colorful, charming rendering of a young girl’s first venture into cartooning is also insightful.  We see the fears, fascination, and whole-hearted fun typical of her age, identified as K-3 in the catalogue and further targeted by an accompanying Teacher’s Guide for Grades 2 and 3.  I love how Liniers in a two-page spread introduces an amazing variety of words and images for “hat”!  This plot-related spread is also a great, seemingly effortless teaching moment.   At the Toon website, readers can also watch short videos of Liniers (pen name of Ricardo Liniers Siri) interacting with fans while wearing one of his special hats.

814000I was “wowed” by Hansel & Gretel (2014), authored by award-winning Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti.  Published as a Toon Graphics (ages 8 to adult), this work is accompanied by a teacher’s  guide demonstrating how this fairy tale may provoke discussion among tweens and teens as well as  adults.  Noteworthy here is how much deserved attention the guide’s authors pay to the arresting black and white images as well as Gaiman’s resonant language and narrative.  Four and a half pages are devoted to “Visual Expression,” along with the six and a half pages given to the tale’s written words. Perspective, angles, and multiple interpretations of silhouetted figures are among the visual elements aptly noted here.  I myself observed how Mattotti used silhouettes so well to portray ominous, predatory intent, with the witchlike character looming spiderlike at one point, while long or swirling white lines effectively convey flight or other kinds of motion.  At the Toon website, readers can also watch short videos of Gaiman dramatically reading aloud parts of the tale and discussing “comics and scaring children.”

Of course, there are other tools out there to enable tweens on up to become visually literate or develop further visual sophistication. Now classic works on this topic include Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993), Reinventing Comics (2000), and Making Comics (2006).   (I briefly discussed the impact of these works here in March, 2015, along with McCloud’s own great graphic novel, The Sculptor [2015]).  Older teens and adults who enjoy theories and the history of ideas might also appreciate the multiple-award winning Unflattening (2015) by Nick Sousanis, excerpted and linked to reviews at his website

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One kind of tool I would caution about is aimed at readers who use tablets or mobile devices to view the growing number of comics and graphic novels available on line.  Some downloadable apps such as Amazon’s Comixology offer digital readers a “guided view” through the text—a so-called “cinematic experience” which removes the need for personally making connections between images, connecting images and words, or rereading a work.  Instead, one can follow along the path the company’s “skilled comics fan” has set for readers willing to follow it.  Little or no personal visual literacy or ongoing engagement is expected from individual readers. That is quite a different outlook than Francois Mouly’s goals for Toon Books.  In an interview, she has said, “With all our books, we do lesson plans of the ways to not just read the book, but reread the book. . . . [Our] ambition is . . .  to make something that can be reread.”

51eJOJChT9L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_The benefits of such visual—as well as cultural and, of course, written—literacy are numerous.  I was reminded of this recently when I caught up with the anniversary compilation of Will Eisner’s The Spirit: A Celebration of 75 Years (2015).  Influential author/illustrator Eisner—for whom the prestigious Eisner Awards are named—was active in comics as creator and teacher from the 1930s until his death at age 87 in 2005.  Although I had heard about Eisner’s long-running comics series, first published between 1940 and 1952, with its masked crime-fighter the “Spirit,” I had not read it.  I did know and admire his great graphic novels, including The Contract with God Trilogy (1978 -95; 2006) and Fagin the Jew (2003; 2013, reviewed here in December, 2014).   In Eisner’s version of that famous character from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Eisner protested Dickens’ and early illustrators’ stereotyped depiction of Jews.  At the same time, Eisner, himself Jewish, confessed that he too had been guilty of comparable prejudice, as in The Spirit his “stories . . . designed as entertainment . . . [were] nonetheless feeding a racial prejudice with this stereotype image.”

1498077-113_1That prejudiced stereotype was about Blacks.  It is the recurring character of “Ebony White”—the Black boy or teen who assists the Spirit—whose caricatured appearance and language is so breathtakingly offensive in this series.  Is the fact that Ebony’s deeds are always brave and honest a strong enough counterweight to reclaim the humanity visually denied to this character?  In 2008, director Frank Miller skirted this question by omitting Ebony White from the live action movie he made based on Eisner’s series.  (This PG-13 film was, regardless, not well-received.)  The compilation volume I read is introduced by writing luminary Neil Gaiman, who rightly praises the series’ many visual and storytelling innovations in the crime fighting genre. Yet Gaiman never mentions the character of Ebony White! 

How is one to address this question?  Is it enough to say, as Eisner did late in his life, that back then he did not know any better?  And that all cartoons in some sense depend on stereotypes for their images?   Even Francois Mouly echoes these truisms.  In an interview she is quoted as having said that when and how an image is looked at determines half its meaning.  She also remarked that “Cartoonists have to use clichés.”  Is omitting or ignoring Ebony White the way, then, to deal with this question today?  What about the pain of Black readers who unknowingly come across this visually grotesque character as they discover or delve deeper into Eisner’s works?  Some of these issues are addressed by writer and critic Carol Borden in a 2010 online essay, “The Biography of Ebony White.”  Journalist and comics historian Jet Heer also writes about ways Ebony White both fit and did not fit racial stereotypes typical in 1930s through 1950s cartoons..   

61iN6udp5EL._SX379_BO1,204,203,200_These questions are, unfortunately, not ones that can be relegated only to examination of the past.  The cultural and visual literacy with which we create and approach books remains controversial, as recent responses to the children’s picture book A Birthday Cake for George Washington (2015) show.  Its publisher Scholastic withdrew this book from distribution after much social media criticism of its depiction of slavery, centering on Hercules, the slave chef owned by our first president. 

Although Hercules was perhaps the U.S.’s first celebrity chef, after the fictionalized events in this book he later fled to freedom—a fact relegated by the publisher to end notes.  This was one criticism of the book.  Another was of the uniformly smiling slave faces throughout the book.  Even its author Ramin Ganeshram was not happy  with the illustrations by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. (She also wanted a different conclusion for the published text.)   While Ganeshram mentions that the “overjoviality” of these images also disturbed her, there is a further way those gleaming white smiles in evenly dark faces distressed me.  They were too like the stereotyped minstrel show “blacked up” faces once used to gleefully mock Blacks.  Is it possible that somewhere in the chain of command at Scholastic there was an initial failure of visual and cultural literacy that overrode Ganeshram’s objections?

Hercules1A probable portrait of Hercules by renowned American painter Gilbert Stuart depicts a clear-eyed, serious man—neither smiling nor frowning.  Perhaps that image might have been included and otherwise used as inspiration in A Birthday Cake for George Washington. (Perhaps libraries which hold copies of this book might insert or display this image, appropriately captioned, in or near it.)  Even so, I know that I remain uncomfortable with Scholastic’s having ceased publication and distribution of this problematic book.  Their decision smacks too much of the burning and banning of books once common in Nazi Germany as well as the 1950s comics-fearing U.S.A.  And I am in agreement with the maxim that “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”  Visual literacy is one vital component to such collective memory.

SP 09And it is visual literacy which provides one creative response to the issues raised by Eisner’s racist images of Ebony White.  The anniversary compilation of Spirit stories concludes with two later homages to the series.  In one of these—“ Last Night I Dreamed of Dr. Cobra,” written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Daniel Torres—Ebony Black only appears as an image, in a photograph framed and displayed on a tabletop.  He is remembered, his existence and worth validated, whatever discomfort this stereotypical character might have caused during the 1940s and 50s and certainly causes now.  Visually astute readers will catch this reference.  “Last Night I Dreamed of Dr. Cobra” was first published in 1998.  It was later collected in a volume of nineteen homage stories by multiple authors and illustrators, Will Eisner’s The Spirit: The New Adventures (2009;2016).    I am curious to see if and how Ebony White appears in other stories there, just as I am interested in reading other current and forthcoming volumes published by savvy Toon Books.  Such treasures provided by my library card!

 

  

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