A YOUNG GIRL, a primary grade-schooler with a well-worn library card, was enthusiastically reading a riveting memoir when a stern tone descended upon her.
“What is that?” the teacher asked/accused.
“It’s a graphic novel,” came the girl’s reply.
Such works, the girl was told, were unacceptable for classroom “reading time,” let alone for a book report. The teacher’s sharp ruling boiled down to a four-word excuse for banishment:
“Graphic. Novels. Aren’t. Books.”
Here we go again…
Really? Two decades after Art Spiegelman’s landmark Holocaust graphic novel “Maus” won the Pulitzer Prize and helped stake a fresh claim for comics as literature — paving the way for the appreciation of such works as “Persepolis” and “Blankets” and “American Born Chinese” — do a significant number of teachers and administrators remain mired in such backward thinking?
Unfortunately, my rhetoric is rhetorical. These curricular “world-is-flat’ers” are still thick on our school grounds. But it’s time for the culture’s tectonic plates to more rapidly force a shift in academic thought.
As we step into 2014, this lingering bias in curriculum needs to cease. We fervently urge the least enlightened of our educators to catch up with the rest of the class. And to make our case, let us present Exhibit A:
The young girl who faced that rebuke of illustrated books was a relative of mine. And that book (a-hem) in question was “Stitches: A Memoir,” acclaimed author David Small’s poignant personal story of a dysfunctional childhood home — including his adolescent battle with throat cancer, which may have been caused by his doctor-father’s early over-embrace of X-ray radiation. In Small’s masterful prose and liquid pictures, we vividly experience the voiceless boy-patient’s raw emotions.
Even four years ago, quite a few people would have begged to differ with that grade-school teacher. “Stitches” climbed the bestseller list of the New York Times, which deemed the book worthy of review; was named one of the best books of the year by such outlets as Publishers Weekly; and was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. No less than Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist/author/playwright/screenwriter Jules Feiffer said aptly of Small’s masterpiece: “It left me speechless.”
Of the teacher’s wrong-headed thinking, I was left speechless. Her decision was not a mere judgment against one book, but an ignorant indictment of all graphic novels. As blanket criticism, it was unabashedly threadbare.
Consider my commentary here, then, to be a criticism of that criticism. Because what the larger academic problem calls for is not damnation, but persuasion. A struck match. Into Plato’s cave, let us bring truer illumination.
What follows is not some broad indictment of modern American education. I was born into a brood of teachers — the family crest might as well be a chalkboard — and I deeply value what too often is one of the nation’s more thankless and underpaid cornerstone careers. Plus, as an artist who has spoken to thousands of impressive educators — many of whom appreciated my history-themed syndicated comic strip — I applaud those who thoughtfully and passionately help inform and shape young minds, while keeping an open mind themselves. On this front, so many of them “get” it.
What this essay is, at heart, is an extended hand in the name of better understanding — especially as our schools are filled with so-called “reluctant readers” and other struggling learners. We face an educational imperative: Why not use every effective teaching tool at our disposal? Decades of studies have shown the power of visual learning as an effective scholastic technique. Author Neil Gaiman (winner of the Newbery and Carnegie medals for children’s lit) recently noted that comics were once falsely accused of fostering illiteracy. We now know that comics — the marriage of word and picture in a dynamic relationship that fires synapses across the brain — can be a bridge to literacy and a path to learning. Armed with that knowledge, the last thing we need blocking that footbridge is the Reluctant Teacher.
Fortunately, 2013 rises to aid our cause. It was a banner year for graphic novels; top authors ranged from a young hip-hop fan to a heroic septuagenarian congressman writing his first comic — and in between were a couple of world-class cartoonists who also happen to be widely recognized educators.
Great works help beget great change. So here, then, is our examination of 10 stellar graphic novels and illustrated books from the year past (all equally fit for adult consumption, as well). Because the writing is on the classroom wall. As generations are weaned on the Internet, our culture grows ever more visual. And the take-home lesson is this:
Let us meet our young minds where they live.
Let us smartly employ the resources of visual learning.
Let us begin.
IT WAS DALIA ZIADA’s first act of nonviolent protest. The young Egyptian woman had come upon a true-life action hero in a half-century-old American comic book, and had absorbed its lessons of “passive activism.” Right after reading it, Ziada determined she would put these teachings into real-world practice. That night, she would stop a female circumcision.
Ziada had been circumcised prior to puberty, and now, within hours, her 8-year-old niece was due for the same procedure. Emboldened by the book, Dalia applied verbal pressure upon her uncle and explained why there would be no genital mutilation in the morning. No hands were raised, no fists were thrown. Ziada won her showdown, and was set on a path to professional nonviolent protest.
In 2011, Ziada, then age 29, stood among the Tahrir Square demonstrators in her Cairo hometown during Arab Spring. She told me that she and her group, the American Islamic Congress, translated and disseminated thousands of Arabic-language issues of the same American comic book that inspired her five years earlier, and that its narrative had inspired some young Egyptians to protest peacefully. As igniter of young minds, its story sparked like flint rock.
The book was “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” a brightly tinted comic published by Fellowship of the Reconciliation in the mid-’50s, as the American civil-rights movement was gathering force. The story spotlighted not only Dr. King but also such fellow icons of nonviolent protest as Rosa Parks and Gandhi.
Today, an Arabic edition of that same book hangs in the Hill office of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). The framed copy symbolizes just how much social power this one comic still holds more than five decades after the congressman discovered it. The physical book is mere pulp, penwork and printing, but the content of its characters, and their messages, is indelible.
Lewis grew up poor, preaching to the chickens on a Southern sharecropper’s farm, but he had access to newspaper comics as an affordable form of entertainment and enlightenment. By the time he was a teenager — well-versed in comics’ unique language — he was prepared to appreciate a strong comic book, and “The Montgomery Story” struck him like a call to action. His trajectory was launched. Young John Lewis’s journey as an organizer of nonviolent protests led him to meet Dr. King while a college student in the ‘50s; delivered him to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, as the youngest speaker (at 23) at the March on Washington; and compelled him two years later to stand shoulder to shoulder with marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge near Selma, Ala., where he was beaten by troopers till he thought he was going to die.
The nonviolent protestors on that day in 1965 were bloodied but unbowed. It was a turning point. Later that year, President Lyndon B. Johnson would feel compelled to sign the Voting Rights Act.
Today, at 73, Lewis himself sits in Washington, striding the halls of power and enshrined as a civil-rights icon. When I talk with him, he seemingly remembers everything from along his long journey, and he certainly hasn’t forgot his sense of the social force fostered by a comic bearing a clear, moral message.
And so, when the moment arrived, he was poised to provide his own literary contribution.
Several years ago, a young Lewis aide named Andrew Aydin was teased by fellow staffers for his passionate comics fandom. Lewis, however, quieted the in-house critics by sharing how his long career as a protestor had been spawned by a single comic book. Moved by this news, Aydin told his boss he should write his memoir as a graphic novel; Lewis agreed — he saw a way to reach a new generation — but would proceed only if Aydin would co-write this sweeping story.
This past summer, just days before the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Lewis and Aydin — working with acclaimed artist Nate Powell — took the first published step in their trek, releasing “March: Book One” (Top Shelf), a stirring, 121-page tale of Lewis’s early years that kicks off a planned trilogy. Like so much about Lewis’s life, the work is a milestone — a landmark that belongs in every school library and every classroom; it will reach and teach the struggle for equality in a way few other books since “The Montgomery Story” can.
The best-selling “March” is to be celebrated, too, because the writers and the artist — through gripping richness of line and speech — place us intensely in each setting. Elegant panels, rendered in black-and-white with lush gray washes, ripple with depth of both field and dialogue. The images and verbal exchanges envelop us; it is being present in the past as immersive experience. And what better way to teach history than as a living and breathing thing?
“March” opens with Lewis and his fellow demonstrators gathering on the Pettus Bridge, as authorities wielding batons and teargas turn the nonviolent protest violent. Lewis was prepared to lay down his life in his fight for rights, and he nearly did as he was hauled to jail. The congressman recalls those wounds so freshly, those emotions so palpably, that he brought his new creative collaborators to this very bridge to summon the memories. Lewis wanted Powell, a young Southern artist, to see the lay of the land as a tangible path toward flashback. If graphic-novel readers were going to feel this pivotal day — virtually experience it physically and psychologically — Aydin and Powell would need to sense it so they could communicate it.
The trio succeeded.
“March” conveys crucial history so powerfully that I would hold this memoir before my young relative’s teacher, ask her to read it — and then dare her to tell me it’s not a “book,” let alone one whose lessons will outlive us both. Then again, I can’t overly fault a sole teacher’s perception when nearby, nearly 60 years ago, Washington itself began loudly decrying the American comic book.
The irony is not lost on Lewis that back when he was a teen, it was Congress itself that wrongly tarnished the popular perception of comics in the United States — and in doing so, decimated much of the field for decades. In 1954, a Senate subcommittee bought into the faulty science of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, whose book “Seduction of the Innocent” — with his since-discredited “studies” linking comics and juvenile delinquency — stoked a McCarthy-era hysteria against the books, and led to a highly restrictive Comics Code of ethics that creatively crippled the industry. With some exceptions, comic books — so hugely popular during their World War II infancy — were now commonly viewed at worst as a threat to our children, and at best as pure pop-culture trash.
In recent years of the long recovery, how far we’ve finally come. With each eminent work like “March,” more institutional anti-comics obstacles fall. But as Lewis knows well, ignorant biases die hard.
The twist in all this is that Lewis has yet again become a pioneer: He is the first sitting member of Congress to publish a graphic novel. And in December, he and his publisher provided a free digital issue of “March” to every politician in the Senate and House — and even bundled each copy with another book worthy of Congress’s intellectual attention:
“Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story” — the comic that has ignited minds from Alabama to Egypt.
At last, two great graphic novels sit in prominence in the nation’s House.
If only they were deemed worthy of enriching the country’s every schoolhouse.
2. BOXERS & SAINTS
THE WELL-SPOKEN WOMAN stepped to the mike with a tone of both jesting confession and sincere curiosity.
“So I’m one of those maligned educators who was initially resistant [to graphic novels] and then was converted by a reluctant reader,” admitted the middle-school teacher, who, during an audience Q&A, sought guidance on tailoring lesson plans to narrative comics.
For those of us on this graphic-novel panel last April at Washington’s Politics & Prose bookstore (I was moderating with four creators), her words were eminently encouraging.
This — this — is the intellectual place all Reluctant Teachers should strive to arrive at. Moved and motivated by the students themselves, these leaders are willing to do the homework necessary to be better educators. They are eager to understand the scholarship behind small sequential pictures because they grasp the big picture: Approaches are ever evolving to reach grade-school minds.
One comics-maker who understands firsthand the questions posed by that Northwest Washington schoolteacher is Gene Luen Yang, a tremendously gifted storyteller. Before Yang was a two-time finalist for the National Book Award, he was a high-school teacher who observed up close how some students respond better to visual learning.
As a tool for teaching, comics remains a relative toddler. Smart educators know that illustrated storytelling engages many students in ways that straight prose cannot — but where do we go from there? At the intersection of all this, Yang wisely realizes, is media.
Sitting in that wooden classroom desk now is a profoundly different experience from even a generation ago. When digital images whir by in a fully multimedia world, today’s young eyes so commonly process images and audio, text and graphics within a single screen or document — without memory of a time when information was synthesized in less multitracked ways.
It’s no wonder that the gap from Internet consumption to linear prose on a dog-eared page has become such a yawning chasm — emphasis, for the next Gutenberg-averse generation, on yawn. Online life stimulates the brain’s pathways like a dense urban grid; the repetitive ping-ponging eye action of reading a line-by-line hard copy of “Fahrenheit 451,” by contrast, is the gray-matter equivalent of a dusty country road. A most pedestrian route. (Is it only a matter of time before it’s the Tumblr-jacked students who dream of burning their paper books?)
What Yang understands is that comics storytelling — by virtue of combining two disparate media — more closely resembles the modern multigraphic experience of going online. Fortunately for such juiced-retina readers, Yang’s comprehension of that dynamic translates to the page.
In September, Yang released a two-book epic titled “Boxers & Saints” (First Second Books/Macmillan) — companion tales set during the Boxer Rebellion. Appropriate to the contrasting content, the stories are pitched quite differently: “Boxers” is a brightly colored adventure tale of sweep and swift action, as the Boxers — these farmers-turned-warriors — leave their villages on their bloody march to Peking. “Saints,” on the other hand, is a quieter, mostly monochromatic story of Chinese Christians on the rival end of this dawn-of-the-20th-century clash.
“Boxers” particularly flashes elements of a superhero book — Yang even knowingly invokes the visual language of an American caped-hero comic — as villagers inherit empowering identities with enough drama to fuel both a Marvel arc and a Chinese opera.
Yet what attentive teacher couldn’t also mine this two-book set (combined, nearly 500 pages) to teach themes of religion and race (Yang was attracted to this history as a product of his Chinese Catholic community) — as well as the narrative sense of offsetting sympathies, when humanity feels divided, righteously pitted on either end of a sword?
The Obstinate Educator — the one with no shelf space for graphic novels — might be disgruntled to learn that on the strength of “Boxers & Saints,” Yang this year became the first graphic novelist to be a two-time finalist for the National Book Award (his first nod was for 2006’s “American Born Chinese”).
Although Yang ultimately didn’t win the big prize for Young People’s Literature, he’s a relentless talent — on the page and in the classroom. And if the industry ever plans to stage a comics rebellion upon the American education system, Yang — careful storyteller that he is — will be just the man to plot it.
3. THE FREDDIE STORIES
AS THE WOMAN in the chunky glasses and funky-cool hat strode up the podium — taking center stage beneath the National Book Festival tent last autumn — twin gifts imminently became obvious.
First was that voice, as warm and inviting as afternoon bathwater. Folks were somewhat loosely spread out across the phalanxes of folding chairs, but her conspiratorial vocal tone caused the listeners to be rapt as one.
Then there was that second magnetic quality: This woman had a knack for ticking off so many skewed human truths — rat-a-tat-tat — that the room’s shared humor soon came to a full beautiful boil. As she waxed insightful about the mysteries of the mind, it was as if each of our own craniums were peering into a fun-house mirror, recognizing both its reflection and the wonderful warp.
It is not by accident that this woman is such an uproarious docent into our own wacky wiring. Lynda Barry, one of the fest’s featured speakers, was an alt-weekly cartoonist for years, building a devoted following for “Ernie Pook’s Comeek” — a feature whose lines and emotional tone could sometimes be sharp and frantic. More recently, though, Barry has moved into academia; as a professor at the University of Wisconsin, she teaches courses that plumb the ways and means of creativity — leading inventive exercises that unlock cranial traits and tics and curiosities. She has her students assume names taken from terms for parts of the brain, for instance; even after the semester’s long past, your classmates might only call you Hippocampus around the ol’ campus.
This is the merry mischief that helps open her students’ minds to understand their own gray-matter grid, where languages verbal and visual cause the brain to spark electrically across the hemispheres. Barry is fascinated by how we process words and pictures in our heads, because she is passionate about how this dynamic text-image relationship plays out on the page.
Would that we could see Barry’s brain activity if she were wired while creating her latest comic book, “The Freddie Stories” (Drawn + Quarterly).
Barry says that her favorite comic strip as a kid was “Family Circus,” because its nuclear warmth and order ran so counter to her own troubled childhood. To peel back the cover of “The Freddie Stories” — which collects some of her old comics and adds a prologue of new strips — is to venture to some dark places.
Young Freddie, who seems to be grappling with both his mental health and his sexual orientation, is under siege from without and within by profound fears and anxieties — some clearly real, others perhaps manufactured. Homes are lost to arson, friends are lost to cruel words, and we grow concerned for the boy’s well-being. The trick here is, no matter how many horrors Barry visits upon her protagonist, he always rings multidimensional and real — even when he’s so fleshed out that he sort of makes our own flesh crawl. Can we really call all his adventures flights of dark fantasy when anyone’s tortured adolescence might feel plenty horrific from the inside?
This is part of Barry’s storytelling genius. Whether she’s giving a cheery festival talk or spinning a chilling tale of childhood, she expertly strings together those home truths of humanity.
As an educator who promotes comics as a classroom boon, Barry is also ever aware of the pictures. Nearly every panel of the new book is dominated by uncramped block lettering — which results in often compressing Freddie’s visual existence into a fraction of the frame. Even in his own book, poor Freddie is externally hounded not only by worldly terrors, but also by wordy terrors. As his psychological makeup tries to withstand daily life, even the physical makeup of the page conspires against him.
The images, as tight as they are, resonate with everything we need to know about Freddie’s mental state. His environment is so jagged and ragged, the only edge sharper is Barry’s piercing levity. We laugh but to keep from shuddering.
Is “The Freddie Stories, ” you might ask, too chilling for the children — say, middle- and high school? Well, measured against the actual adolescence of many kids, enjoying a little schadenfreude at Freddie’s fictional expense is positively a laff riot.
4. HIP HOP FAMILY TREE
(NOTE: Hover your mouse over each panel to get the party started.)
IF ED PISKOR had spent more of his high-school years on campus, he might not be the cartoonist he is today.
Up till now, of course, we’ve dwelled on how incorporating comics into the curriculum can especially benefit some types of struggling students. But how can comics help you if you never go to school?
Piskor and I are talking at the 2013 Small Press Expo, which is held each September in Maryland, just outside Washington. The 31-year-old artist is recounting how hard it was at times to be home-schooled during his prep years; he became very sick at age 15, he says (he declines to go into further detail about the extended illness), and teachers only came to his Pittsburgh-area home several hours a week to provide instruction.
This is no scenario to be wished for, but it did have at least one silver lining: Piskor had countless hours to pour into his pencil-and-paper obsession. He grew by leaps and bounds as a cartoonist, and with so much time working in creative solitude, he could experiment at length as he drew comics about his pop-culture interests: pro wrestling, and gritty ‘70s-era films — and, most intensely, hip hop.
This past fall, Piskor delivered a passion project that is his best realized vision to date: the large-format, 112-page comic, “Hip Hop Family Tree” (Fantagraphics). From beginning to end-paper, the comic is testament to attention to detail. Splashed across the cover is the title rendered in bold graffiti typography. Crack the cover and you’re greeted with the perfectly yellowed aesthetic of a vintage book; only the new-comic smell immediately gives away that you’re not holding a well-kept ‘70s relic.
Some cartoonists strive to create comic books that reflect the would-be literary import of the term “graphic novel.” (It’s an inexact term popularized by the comics legend Will Eisner that many in the industry still wrestle with.) Piskor — who got his first big break drawing for the late-great Harvey Pekar, that blue-collar bard of autobiographical comics — puts on no pretensions: He just wants to make “cool comics.”
Yet by delving into music and mining his encyclopedic knowledge of early hip-hop culture for narrative gems, Piskor has come up with a stunning piece of docu-journalism through the medium of limited-palette comics. From the musical prophets to the profiteers, from the MCs to the VIPs, the cartoonist keeps all the plot-lines playing out harmoniously in concert. This comic, it has flow.
Bouncing from the Bronx to Harlem to Times Square, “Hip Hop Family Tree” flashes Piskor’s slick narrative moves, as a culture’s origin story is largely conveyed through a troupe of key real-life characters — be they on the playgrounds, under the spotlights or behind the scenes. And making this textured world come alive is muscular, thick-lined art that utterly evokes the era.
Yet given this achievement, where does that leave Piskor’s place in the classroom? In a spin of irony, the man who often was out of school now belongs in every school that will have him through this book. His “graphic novel” satisfies a distinct need in classrooms and libraries: Literate comics that reflect a facet of life many students actually care about.
“Hip Hop Family Tree” depicts a time before the quest for conspicuous riches overshadowed much of the music’s highest-profile culture. Fittingly, Piskor’s book feels just as real and authentic as the retro rap it celebrates.
5. THE GREAT WAR
AT THE BALTIMORE COMIC-CON last September, awards-night emcee Bill Willingham took the mike and settled in. Willingham, the writer/artist behind the dark-fantasy comic “Fables,” had an elaborate sleight-of-tongue planned. For a while, the audience seemed to have no idea where the cartoonist was taking us. Gradually, though — like a large “splash panel” illustration being inked — we could glimpse where the veteran storyteller was headed in this sonorous end-around.
The context was this: Visual language is viewed by many as the less sophisticated kid brother to verbal language — as if when the arts are grouped for discussion, comics must pull up a seat at the card table for the tykes. Prose novels are the mature form of creative expression, the thinking goes; sequential art is the potentially embarrassing teenager trying to party-crash and bum some booze.
But Willingham, as the kids say, flipped the script.
With an anthropologist’s care, the cartoonist laid out the history of visual language, tripping through the 17,000-year-old (give or take, oh, entire centuries) cave paintings of Lascaux and other acts of ancient sequential art. His point was this: It is visual language, in fact, that is the wise, old Obi-Wan in this relationship. But if the Johnny-Grunt-Lately verbal form of expression accords its elder a little respect, perhaps the visual artists will show him a thing or two.
That speech comes to mind because Joe Sacco, one of the world’s preeminent comics journalists — a master at captured dialogue from political hot-spots — has gone wordless.
Sacco is the recent author of “The Great War” (W.W. Norton & Co.), a mesmerizing, 24-plate illustrated panorama of “July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme.” Panel by panel, the bloody history literally unfolds before our eyes as the British— most notably the Devonshire Regiment — fight and fire and sustain some 57,000 casualties in a single day. The sweeping artwork is silent; the actions tucked into most every square-inch of art-space speak volumes.
(Sacco notes that this radio-silence approach to storytelling “made it impossible to indict the high command or laud the sacrifice of the soldiers”; for extensive text, the graphic novel is packaged with companion prose by scholar Adam Hochschild.)
The Maltese-born Sacco has reported from Bosnia and Palestine and Iraq, but through all the danger zones, it is “the Great War” that has fascinated him since his childhood in Australia. The long, violent slog over the slimmest of turf, and the psychology behind sanctioned mass killing, stirs him to mull how an identical human instinct — such as the ability to organize — can lead us to towering achievement, yet also bring us to scientifically precise slaughter.
It is the sheer scale of Sacco’s 24-foot accordion panorama that hammers home how massive a collective undertaking the 1916 battle was.
Inspired by a friend, Sacco had Matteo Pericoli’s “Manhattan Unfurled” in mind when he created “The Great War”; also in his thoughts was the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Norman Invasion. In such works, running an eye along the sequential art seems to provide not only coherent viewpoints, but also inherent points of view.
Sacco’s panorama, for instance, consciously elides time, as we move from troop preparation to troop devastation to, at story’s end, the poignant digging of gravesites. This is artwork so intricate and accurate, you can lose yourself in the well-choreographed flow of bombardments and batallion aid posts and German barrages. These are the front lines as Crumb-like cross-hatched lines — countless rounds of precision inking that build the physical. Sacco takes us into the sandbagged trenches, where in a brilliant trick, the troops register simultaneously as visually specific yet as a mass of the faceless — sacrificial men who will die by the hundreds as they run headlong into the guns.
So much about size and scope and tragic enormity can be lost in the translation when a student is perusing a textbook or half-sleeping through an in-class film. But when gazing at Sacco’s painstakingly epic battleground, one reality can emerge as loud as a Howitzer:
The individual act of walking into withering gunfire is courageous, but when war’s machinery chews up so many young lives, the human condition, Sacco says, can feel futile.
Let’s hope getting this book into students’ hands for spirited discussion is not.
6. THE PROPERTY
Illustration by Michael Cavna/TWP (based on publicity headshots)
THERE ARE MANY battle plans for waging a World War graphic novel.
For Joe Sacco, going wordless in “The Great War” removed the burden of reporting history as “comics journalism” — in which sending up word balloons for his text is his standard issue.
For Art Spiegelman, author of the landmark “Maus” epic, depicting the Holocaust through his father’s riveting flashbacks brought the pain and horror fully to the page. (When the cartoonist revisited his files to create his recent “MetaMaus” retrospective, Spiegelman told me the experience was wrenching, reducing him to tears.)
And then there is Rutu Modan’s latest approach. For her graphic novel “The Property” (Drawn + Quarterly), the Israeli cartoonist sought to write a family comedy with the Holocaust as historic backdrop.
Somehow, Modan pulled it off.
Modan burst onto the world stage in 2007 as her gripping graphic novel “Exit Wounds” — about a young woman who roams Tel Aviv in search of a missing lover amid bomb attacks — won international acclaim. This time out, it is an old woman in search of real estate lost while fleeing Warsaw during World War II. Because land had been nationalized, Modan describes, recovery of property by survivors was near-impossible prior to the ‘90s, and remains difficult to this day.
“The Property” is rife with the memories of war and the present-day challenges of bureaucracy in Poland, but Modan does not creatively live there — perhaps, in part, because she’s never actually lived there. Modan’s family is from Poland, but as a nation, it’s been a nonentity to her for much of her life.
Modan’s foremost gift is creating people who feel utterly real — in body and in spirit, in the flesh and in the kvetch.
To capture a sense of physical reality, Modan does something perhaps no other globally known cartoonist does: She hires actors and models to stage every scene, every frame of her comic. This is an astoundingly painstaking approach, but the effect is a loose “clear line” style that, more often than not, simply nails the anatomy. In subtle ways, a displacement of weight, or realignment of posture, or balance of moving bodies — movements that can prove artistically elusive to all but the most skilled and trained — reads to the eye just “right.” There is reflected reality in so many such poses.
Also working in visual concert is the lettering, which is light and unassuming enough that it often recedes, forcing the eye to reckon first with the strong, blunt colors of our characters — most of whom have personalities to match.
Modan also has an acute ear for relationship truths. In “The Property,” the old woman — who can pivot from doting to cantankerous on a dime – is based on the cartoonist’s own grandmothers; they were women of Warsaw who lost relatives in World War II, as well as property and, ultimately, their homeland. In the graphic novel, the woman, Regina, is irascible and impossible but always lovable.
So what can young readers glean from all this? The upside is clear: Warm characters and relationships — particularly the sly back-and-forth between grandma and granddaughter — make this an accessible and unintimidating way for teen students to approach the larger fallout of war.
7. MARBLE SEASON
Illustration by Michael Cavna/TWP
WHAT REASON does a kid even have to seek out a comic?
For all this talk of their visual and verbal cross-appeal, Gilbert Hernandez isn’t so sure print comics are some magic educational elixir in 2014.
“I think comics could be a good learning tool if they’re only my comics,” quips Hernandez, the “Love & Rockets” rock star of a cartoonist (along with brother/co-creator Jaime Hernandez).
Jokes aside, Hernandez sees comics as falling ever off the radar of the next generation. The youngest would-be readers have too much content on too many screens competing for their eyes. Comic books, as well as newspaper comics, are less and less a common experience.
The California-based cartoonist does have hope for comics, however, if parents and teachers are willing to introduce kids to the art form before their age hits double digits. The early exposure is everything.
The current environment for comics contrasts sharply with the semi-autobiographical world Hernandez builds in his recent all-ages graphic novel, “Marble Season” (Drawn + Quarterly). The story, set in the early ‘60s, plays out true to a child’s summer day: Time feels irrelevant as a suburban neighborhood’s kids — most of them tweens and teens — come and go in a loose, random series of encounters and dares, taunts and teasing and spur-of-the-moment friendships. The threat of the physical is present, but so is the promise of a newly discovered toy or ball or game. It’s the pleasure of the pressure-less — adults are off-frame and nearly unmentioned, and with their absence comes the remarkable freedom from the darkening cloud of grownup tumult; instead we get tracts of inviting white space set against the lightly lined skies.
Although Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” rarely dated its references or events, the fixed-era “Marble Season” feels like a kindred time-capsule to Charlie Brown’s strip. Even visually, Hernandez eschews dramatic angles for mostly straight-on perspectives — seldom letting the characters in frame come in for an uncomfortable close-up, or stray too deep from view. The effect is one of warm reassurance: We know these kids — perhaps many readers have been these kids — and even their sudden moves feel like safely familiar choreography.
“Marble Season” is such a pleasing story, it could convert many next-generation children into comics readers. And because it’s a safe-for-all-ages work, we could get it in their hot little hands according to Hernandez’s wishes: While the kiddoes are still impressionably young.
8. BATTLING BOY
AS SEVERAL COLLEAGUES and I toured a cartoon and rare prints collection at the Library of Congress, I was transfixed by a ’40s Sunday original of Alex Raymond’s syndicated adventure strip “Jungle Jim.” As I gazed at the titular hero wrestling a coiled tiger on its haunches, I then became aware of the cartoonist on my left, who was also studying this original up close.
“What do you think of his tiger?” I said with understatement.
The cartoonist next to me was “Calvin and Hobbes” creator Bill Watterson. I figured: Who better to ask?
Right there, I was reminded of the undying allure of the deftly depicted fantasy/adventure scene.
All of “Calvin and Hobbes’s” boy-and-tiger banter rang with artistic genius, of course. But Watterson’s flights-of-fantasy scenes — from stomping dinosaurs to Spaceman Spiff — elevated an entire facet of the strip, which ended nearly two decades ago now.
And I’m reminded of some of my favorite Calvin imaginings when I read “Battling Boy” (First Second), Paul Pope’s new space/superhero/adventure fantasy comic.
It’s not that the two works are analagous; it’s simply the notion that Battling Boy — a wiry, blond teenager who’s learning to fend off monsters as he fights for his life — could be how Calvin might have imagined himself as an adolescent superhero. At least if Watterson had spent the week binge-reading Moebius and Jack Kirby.
Pope brings all his skills to the table for this book. The action scenes are dazzling; movement and smoke and explosions are rendered in beautifully fluid lines (the ink laid down just so); and the man/monster clashes feel epic.
The dialogue is kept relatively minimal, but this is the sort of book that could turn a reluctant reader into an aspiring wordmaster.
Just like “Calvin and Hobbes” so often used to do — and, in the case of my young relative, still does.
9. WOMAN REBEL
SO MANY BIOGRAPHICAL histories are so solemn and worshipful — it’s refreshing to see one that has as much fun as its subject had.
Peter Bagge was tripping through history’s pages to find a woman pioneer’s story to render into art. As he scoured about, the Harvey Award-winning cartoonist noticed a frequent factor: Many of these early 20th-century women making headlines curiously had no children. Following that line of physiological logic, all roads led to one home:
Margaret Sanger, that pioneer of birth control, had profoundly altered her era — and so earned a place beneath Bagge’s comics microscope.
With his exaggerated, rubbery and rounded style interacting with this woman rebel’s unbridled and oft-boundless life, this brainchild of a graphic novel is a creative congress that gives Ms. Sanger something she never had in her own life:
A perfect marriage.
“Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story” (Drawn + Quarterly) is factual biography as wild ride. In researching Sanger, Bagge (so well-known for his comic “Hate”) discovered over-the-top escapades from a person who curated a somber image for politics’ sake. He knew he’d struck narrative gold.
Bagge’s line is as spirited as Sanger’s life; with her expressive eyes and protruding lips shining beneath blazing auburn hair, Sanger holds center stage as a trailblazer irrepressible.
Bagge also deftly manages to pack considerable text into these pages — without the words ever overwhelming the images — and 18 pages of post-story indexed references help do some of the historic heavy-lifting.
As for educators, we offer one caveat, however: Sanger’s intimate story, in a scene or three, seems a mite too randy for your middle-school library; teachers would be advised to leave the moments of bodily bawdiness to the high-schoolers.
WHO BETTER to deliver young-adult literature to classrooms and libraries than a creator who was a “reluctant reader” himself?
“Zits” comic co-creator Jerry Scott was a prep freshman in Arizona — and the new kid, to boot — when he had a near-impossible time reading Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe.”
“Reading it was really hard — it was the worst frigging book,” Scott told me earlier this year.
“There were no pictures at all. … I don’t think I’m alone in this vast sea of alienation that a lot of kids feel.”
That feeling helped spawn this year’s “Zits: Chillax,” an excellent illustrated novel that features all the lead characters from the popular King Features strip — as lanky teen Jeremy Duncan angles to go to his first rock concert.
In terms of nomenclature, the emphasis here, by the way, is on “illustrated novel” — in contrast to the graphic novel, these “hybrid” works contain sizable stretches of straight text (“Chillax” is 240 pages, with cartoon art cumulatively accounting for roughly half those).
As successive generations of readers move away from daily comic strips, “Chillax” also reflects a significant marketplace shift: It’s just the latest illustrated kids’ novel to come from a newspaper-strip cartoonist. Scott and Jim Borgman follow on the heels of “Pearls Before Swine” cartoonist Stephan Pastis, who this year released the kids’ book “Timmy Failure,” and “Big Nate” creator Lincoln Peirce, whose feature soared in popularity after launching on PopTropica.com.
And perhaps they all can give a little thanks to Jeff Kinney, the Maryland-sprung writer/cartoonist who created the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” mega-franchise.
In recent years, Kinney has helped engage a new generation of young readers — largely those pre-teen grade-schoolers who will read healthy swaths of text if broken up even only occasionally by deceptively simple art and hand lettering, which function as winking visual cues of a non-threatening aesthetic.
As this trend continues to swell, it’s looking like the Decade of the Hybrid Novel. And the kicker about this emergence: Many parents and educators have embraced the illustrated novel as transitional tool.
Now, between the graphic novel and the hybrid novel, let’s hope the persistent empty prejudices against such works will fall. Because graphic lit’s current biggest battle is not one of providing quality stories, but of recasting public perception of the illustrated medium — and educators stand smack on the front lines of shifting perspective.
VIDEO & ORIGINAL ART: Michael Cavna
ANIMATION: Sohail Al-Jamea, Tom Racine and Michael Cavna
INTERACTIVITY: Darla Cameron
(Images under copyright used by permission of the creators.)
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