Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

McCloudMcCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press, 1994. Print.

Genre: Craft Book, Comics

Summary: McCloud delineates the history, present, and future status of comic books. He succinctly defines comics in opposition to other art forms. He also grapples with weighty artistic concerns encountered by all artists in all stages of their careers. (Which, if you’re an artist struggling through a bout of the blues, you must read Chapter 7 of this book!)

Critique: McCloud has a dazzling ability to handle with ease and aplomb the most complex theories and philosophies related to art and art history. He breaks down ideas and concepts you’d expect to find only in esoteric Ph.D. dissertations. But his words are plain, compelling, and enlightening.

McCloud3 McCloud2No wonder this became the seminal work that landed comics and their close cousin, the graphic novel, on the main stage in preceding decades! Students learning to write essays should read this book! Teachers should encourage their students to use McCloud’s comics approach to present research in a clear, dynamic way. (Let’s face it: if I’d known I could write my research papers for school as graphic comics, I’d have been a happier teenager!)


Primates: The Fearless Science by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks

primatesOttaviani, Jim, and Maris Wicks. Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas. New York: First Second, 2013. Print.

Genre: Nonfiction (ish) Graphic Novel

Summary: Combined narratives of Louis Leakey’s “trimate” women Jane, Dian, and Biruté. At a time when women were shooed away from the “men’s work” of science, all three women find unusual and unexpected support from eminent anthropologist, Leakey. As a result, all three get to live their dreams and indulge in their passion: studying and advocating for primates.

Critique: Each woman’s story is engrossing. The obstacles they face are staggering. That they took off alone into the wilds armed with journals and grit is sobering. Be warned though: at times, the font proves a little hard to read and there is quite a mixture of font styles to simulate handwriting or typewriter typing. Jane Goodall had hand-written scrawl for text bubbles, then cursive for her diary. Dian Fossey ‘s uses a rough all-caps, while Birute Galdikas’s accounts get a stylized typeface. More problematic than the font-frappuccino is the authors’ note explaining that certain aspects of these true stories had to be fictionalized in order to make the overall narrative arc work. I don’t personally agree with that tactic because it loads the reading experience with niggling doubts. For instance, it is so cool to think that poor Jane Goodall’s mother had to relocate with her daughter to Africa because it would otherwise be improper for a woman to go traipsing around unescorted or unsupervised. But maybe that was one of the made-up bits…? A reader won’t know until she gets a chance to look it up online, but that lures the attention away from reading the book in the first place. Ultimately, what should alone as spectacular work of nonfiction is shadowed with uncertainties.

The Savage by David Almond

Almond-The-SavageAlmond, David. The Savage. Illus. Dave McKean. New York: Candlewick, 2008. Print.

Genre: YA Novel Graphic Novel “cocktail”

Summary: Blue’s father dies. To help Blue cope with his grief, the school counselor encourages him to write in a journal. Rather than write about his feelings, Blue delves into a fantastical story about a savage boy who lives in the woods nearby. Overtime, Blue’s life and the Savage’s life begin to overlap with frightful results. Blue might be able to heal from his grief if he can tame the beast within.

Critique: To date, I have yet to find a mixed-format book I did not like. Mary Losure’s Wild Boy, Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, and now David Almond’s The Savage add to a growing list of what I call “cocktail” books because of how they combine and shake up different storytelling mediums. Books that mix novel prose with graphic art panels make for an intense and dynamic means of storytelling. Pictures may or may not play off the words. In some cases, they may strike a direct counterpoint to the text, rambling off to tell their own tale. But the dissonance allows younger readers to become more sophisticated consumers of complex stories.

In this “cocktail” book, Dave McKean’s artwork is bold, splattered, and smeared. It invites the eye as much as it repels and repulses. How appropriate considering how our subconscious mind can have the exact same feel. All at once, it can lure us in with the promise of reckless abandon, while simultaneously disgusting us with its nightmare parades!


The most immersive textual parts of this story come from Blue’s journal entries. In these sections, we find Almond’s masterful ability to capture the perspective, voice, and aching soul of a young narrator. Almond achieves similar brilliance in The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean as Telt by Hisself. But there are other sections of text written from a more mature and knowledgeable Blue. These sections feel less intimate and a little too self-aware.

For those who know Ness’s A Monster Calls, this book will feel indisputably similar. Both deal with young boys undergoing personal turmoil and acrid grief that manifests in monstrous forms. Both boys deal with bullies. Just like Conor in A Monster Calls, Blue transforms into the Savage (his monstrous subconscious) to confront and fight his bully. In both books, fighting violence with violence drains much of the emotional resonance out of the story. There seemed to be a missed opportunity for empathy. For all anyone knows, these bullies endure an abusive life at home more savage than anything Blue or Conor have ever known. What impact would it have on the protagonists to witness their oppressors becoming the oppressed?  Besides, the real fight in either story is not with some external demon, but with the monster that lurks inside the heart of every human.

This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

This One Summer CoverTamaki, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. This One Summer. New York: First Second, 2014. Print.

Genre: Nonfiction Graphic Novel

Summary: Every summer, teenage Rose and her family go vacation at Awago Beach. She can always count on collecting rocks, playing with her friend Windy, and having an all-around good time.

However, one summer…this one…everything changes and that changes everything. Rose’s parents are fighting, Windy is a little more immature than Rose remembers from last summer, and Rose’s mom is in an inexplicable funk. She refuses to go to the beach to swim, she shuts Rose out of the grown-up conversations, and pretty much ignores her daughter. Meanwhile, there’s a really cute guy working down at the corner store where Rose and Windy go to rent horror movies. He’s way too old, but he’s still really cute, and maybe he likes Rose…or has noticed her. Kinda. But the drama of the older teens hanging at the store takes a turn for the tragic, roping in Rose and her mother.

Critique: 2015 Caldecott Honor Book and 2015 Michael L. Printz Honor Book! Artistically, this graphic novel achieves a lot through its sophisticated treatment of texture, shadow, even sounds. Water acts and feels like water, despite being locked onto a two-dimensional surface. In one series of scenes, Rose encounters boys calling their girlfriends sluts. Naturally confused by the behavior, Rose tries to talk to her mother about it. But the conversation is swiftly shut down because her mom does not like hearing the word slut. But as they walk home, it’s all Rose hears in the whisper of her flip flops: slut slut slut….

A omnipresent sense of foreboding haunts nearly every page of the book. Part of that comes from excellent mise-en-scene, or the hints and symbols lurking in the “stuff of the scene.” For example: traffic and business signs litter the family’s journey to the cottage telling them to stop, turn back, don’t go on. It’s as if the background knows they are headed for trouble.

The text tackles many of the difficult issues facing girls and women. Body image. Puberty. Motherhood. Sexuality. Cultural expectations (What makes a “good girl,” a “good mother” vs what makes a “bad girl” or a “bad mother”). Pop culture representations (Why are girls in horror flicks the reason other people get brutally murdered? Why are girls portrayed as intrinsically stupid or helpless in those movies? Was the choice to essentially “decapitate” one of the girls on the cover of this book an homage to the horror movie genre?).

The authors payed special attention to syntax and punctuation in order to authentically create the adolescent tone of voice. In the opening, Rose narrates: Awago Beach is this place. Where my family goes every summer. Ever since…like…forever. It pays tribute to that evolving sense of self that makes every new utterance matter more than all the antecedents that came before.

In terms of storytelling, the book ends on uneasy footing. It is hard for readers to conclude whether any growth in the characters has actually occurred because the opening images pretty much match the closing images. Synthesis seems to have skipped this story. Rose and her mother gain a slightly less slanted footing, but only by accident, or hearsay. They still seem bound for a future cataclysm, some head-to-head, no-holds-barred fight, the outcome of which we readers will not get to see. And that’s a shame given the unflinching honesty author and illustrator devoted to the rest of the book.

The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation

the-gettysburg-address-a-graphic-adaptation-mcconnell-hennesseyHennessy, Jonathan. The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation. Illus. Aaron McConnell. New York: William Morrow, 2013. Print.

Genre: Nonfiction Graphic Novel

Summary: Hennessy and McConnell use the innovative and fast-moving format of the graphic novel mode to tell the story behind the Gettysburg Address, what prompted it, what it changed, and why it mattered to America and the world.

Critique: The cover of this book claims to retell this moment of history through Lincoln’s words. I was immediately drawn in because Lincoln is one of the most eloquent writers e.v.e.r. I assumed from that cover claim that the graphic novel would rely only on Lincoln’s writings. It turns out that is not the case, but the book hardly suffers as a result. Hennessy’s script is excellently composed and draws on a ton of primary sources. The writing is clear, even when dealing with ideologically or philosophically tough stuff. And combined with McConnell’s excellent artwork, each page is densely loaded. But the arc is compelling, engaging, and hard to put down.

The book opens like a movie with a series of live action scenes: a family returns to the war carnage on the front lawn of their home. Cut to: President Lincoln receiving word of the outcome of battle at Gettysburg. Then the narrative steps back and an omniscient narrator takes over. Acting like the voice-over in a film, this narrator begins to explain what is going on. The imagery takes on more of a mix-and-match composition. Sometimes a page might have as many as 9 panels, and each one is treated like an individual block of information, rather than one piece in a sequence of actions (which is what you usually get in graphic novels). Often the panels are briefly footnoted, informing the reader who or what is being depicted. Senator So-and-So from Tennessee 1865 or Governor Whatshisname from Maine 1848 or the Such-and-Such building.

But overall, the artwork works hard to embody the principles under discussion in the text. For instance, as the text presents the two founding ideologies of the nature of government in America, the artwork depicts the busts of the two historical figures alive and debating their sides from atop their marble, museum columns. At other times, the imagery is a little tougher to follow. For example, when the text shares a quote from a then-famous newspaper, the picture gives readers a drawing of the newspaper building or printing house with a word bubble popping out of a window to contain the quote. Or to represent the idea of sovereignty, the artist has Lincoln holding a shiny white ball with a modern power on/off button (such as the one you see on your computer). At first glance, it seems as if Lincoln is holding the precursor to Apple’s iPod. (Judging by the look on his face, he clearly wishes it were less literally “appled” and more pocket-friendly.)

Structurally, the book takes what I call the rabbit hole approach. It establishes the “present” moment: the political climate, the historical context, what happened at Gettysburg and why Lincoln needed to make a speech there. Then, it dips down the rabbit hole of time and moves backwards, to that “four score and seven years ago” when the Founding Fathers were first conceptualizing a new form of democratic governance. Then it dips further down, or shifts further back, and back again, and back again, going all the way back to the conditions of North American continent post-dinosaurs. Then it walks the reader forwards again getting all the way to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Hugely effective, efficient, and easy to follow. Given all the recent conflict between communities and policing authorities, this book made for a sobering, yet illuminating read for the mature and leveled way it navigated issues like abuses of power, authority over the masses, and more!

Whether you have kids tapping into this era of American history, or you’d like a refresher, this book is well worth nabbing off the shelf! (And if you read it now, you’ll be able to look super-knowledgeable in all your patriotic 4th of July conversations coming up!)