From the stack: Saturn Apartments vol. 3

Hisae Iwaoka’s Saturn Apartments (Viz) is the only title that I’d read prior to its inclusion in the top ten list of the Young Adult Library Services Association’s 2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens. I can’t help but compare this book to Kou Yaginuma’s Twin Spica (Vertical), which earned a place on the main list. I like them both a lot, but I tend to think I’d have argued for Spica to take Saturn’s place in the top ten.

This is mostly because Spica has a stronger underlying narrative. It’s got a clearer arc and digs deeper into its cast of characters. That doesn’t suggest failure on the part of Saturn, as the first two volumes clearly indicate that it has different aims, favoring episodic world-building rather than sequential storytelling. It’s easy to enjoy Saturn chapter by chapter, but it’s easier to become involved in Spica, if that makes any sense.

In the third volume of Saturn Apartments, Iwaoka seems to undertake the construction of some substantial subplots. Stand-alone chapters give way to small story arcs, and threads start to recur throughout the volume. This is welcome in a way, because it shows an intention to give the series more weight, but it also seems like this kind of plotting may not be Iwaoka’s strongest skill.

After two volumes of beautifully drawn, gentle glimpses into Iwaoka’s orbital world, the subplots feel rather clumsily wedged into the narrative. They aren’t unpromising, but their emergence feels abrupt. It strikes me that none of the supporting characters were yet able to carry that much purpose at the time it was thrust upon them. The eventual (and logical) inclusion of Mitsu in that thread may change that, but the sequences are still hampered by an imbalanced quantity of expository dialogue that’s out of step with the rest of the script.

One thing that does constitute a welcome development here is a slight shift in tone. Iwaoki is also expressing more interest in the class disparities that characterize the culture she’s built. There was nothing wrong with her initial approach, affirming the value of unglamorous work in a society, but it’s nice to see her underline some of the unfairness that keeps her fictional society ticking.

Overall, the series is still one of my favorites. Iwaoki’s graceful illustrations and fragile character designs continue to hold the eye, and the underlying concept is as sturdy and productive as ever. I just wish the shift to a different, more complex kind of story felt less awkward.

(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)


From the stack: Chew: Taster’s Choice

It’s time again to look at a title from the top 10 list of the 2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens list assembled by the Young Adult Library Services Association of the American Library Association. The exercise is providing a nice variety of reading experiences, from a gracefully rendered adventure on the high seas to a slice of adolescent life in Guadeloupe. This month’s entry is Chew: Taster’s Choice (Image), the first collection a novel and occasionally nauseating detective series written and lettered by John Layman and drawn and colored by Rob Guillory.

This volume introduces us to Tony Chu, a police detective who also happens to be “cibopathic,” which means he experiences the full history of everything he eats. You may worry about food miles, but at least you don’t have to travel every one of them with your salad. As a result, Chu isn’t a very enthusiastic eater. The gift-curse does have its uses in the course of investigations, and Chu ends up drawing the interest of a strangely sinister Food and Drug Administration. The agency hires him to help solve food-related crimes.

Chu is assigned to work with fellow cibopath Mason Savoy, who is as stout and hearty as Chu is scrawny and drawn. They investigate the death of a food inspector, and Chu becomes smitten with a writer whose unique ability is to write about food so expressively that her readers react viscerally to her prose. Before Chu can pursue this fetching raconteur, he starts to sense that there may be more to the FDA and Savoy than he suspected, and the volume ends with Chu’s life changing drastically yet again.

Layman has a great sense of pacing. The chapters generally charge along at a nice clip, but there’s plenty of space for quirky details and funny set pieces. Guillory seems ideally suited for the material, straddling the line between amusingly absurd and full-on gross. Together, they’ve assembled an interesting cast, conducted some smart world building, and established an underlying plot that seems like it could sustain the series for some time. (Why did the FDA drive the poultry industry underground?) They also create enough of a level of internal logic to make the weirder elements fit quite nicely.

The only thing they haven’t seemed to do by the end of this volume is to figure out ways for Chu to solve crimes without eating human flesh. Given the volume of evidence available at the average crime scene, it seems like cannibalism would be a last resort for someone of Chu’s abilities. There are lots of marginally edible things lying around that are bound to be at least somewhat usefully resonant before starting in on the (not chicken) fingers. Aside from being revolting, the device feels limiting. Much as I enjoyed this volume, I want to see the hero vary his diet.


From the stack: The Zabîme Sisters

I’m working my way through the top ten books on the 2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens, one of which is the late Aristophane’s The Zabîme Sisters (First Second). It follows three girls from Guadeloupe through their first day of summer vacation, and it does so with a degree of clarity, honesty, and restraint that’s quite surprising and very refreshing.

Bossy M’Rose wants to watch a fight between the school bully and one of his targets. Attention-hungry Célina wants to hang out with some girlfriends. Timid Ella just seems to want as pleasant and peaceful a day as she can manage. They cross paths with classmates who have their own agendas and concerns. Manuel is trying to figure out what to do about his father’s broken pipe. Euzhan has smuggled some rum out of the house to share with her girlfriends. Some things go well, some go badly, and some just go.

Aristophane’s approach to slice of life is meticulously subdued. His narrative never overpromises, maintaining a steady pace of event but never inflating those moments into more than just moments. It’s a day, not an epic, and there’s comfort and familiarity in the string of anticlimaxes. The pleasure of The Zabîme Sisters is in its simplicity and candor.

Part of that candor comes in the form of sharp little bits of exposition that Aristophane sprinkled throughout the narrative. When Célina joins her family for breakfast, Aristophane offered this narration:

“Célina got up after making them beg her. She took particular pleasure in being pleaded with and in feeling indispensible. When she got this attention first thing in the morning, she felt especially content.”

These bits of omniscience are frank and illuminating, but they’re never intrusive. They add wonderful layers to the events, and they rarely flatter their subjects. Aristophane isn’t mocking his characters, per se, but his assessments are unsparing. But they reveal the emotional complexity of the characters, too, and they add weight and clarity to their actions. It’s a terrifically successful technique, and it lifts the book to a higher level.

The art has the same kind of chunky, inky beauty that I find so appealing in the work of Iou (Sexy Voice and Robo) Kuroda. Just about every panel is absorbing in its own way, with shifting perspectives and an eye-catching haziness. There’s a blend of precision and abstraction that adds interest; you’re always sure of what you’re seeing, but the rendering has enough oddity and expressionism to keep refreshing the way you see it. (Publishers Weekly ran several preview pages from the book.)

I’m actually kind of embarrassed that this book largely escaped my attention before making it onto the top ten list. It’s the kind of thoughtfully inventive work that always excites me, and its unique elements and techniques cohere in really admirable ways.

Other reviews in this intermittent series:

  • Set to Sea, written and illustrated by Drew Weing, Fantagraphics

You can nominate titles for the next Great Graphic Novel for Teen List, and you can take a look at the current batch of contenders.


From the stack: Set to Sea

After the announcement of one of my favorite annual award programs, the Great Graphic Novels for Teens, I decided it might be fun to look at all of the books in the top ten this year. Since the list is always interesting and varied, it’s less of a homework assignment than a usefully structured pleasure.

I wish I could claim some metaphorical design in my first choice, but it was made at random. There’s nothing random about Drew Weing’s Set to Sea, though, which publisher Fantagraphics describes as “part rollicking adventure, part maritime ballad told in visual rhyme.” If that last part sounds a little pretentious, don’t worry. Fantagraphics’ solicitations always sound a little pretentious, even when they’re absolutely true.

Weing’s story does have the shapeliness of a poem, and it has the careful structure of a three-act play. It follows a would-be poet as he becomes an unwilling participant in the kind of seafaring adventures he tries to set to verse. In spite of his imposing size, he’s a tentative sort, and the brutality of life at sea takes a while to penetrate. When it does, he still maintains his artist’s viewpoint, and Weing neatly persuades us that art of any sort is better with some life experience to inform it.

That may seem to be a little ironic, given that Set to Sea is Weing’s debut graphic novel. He’s an experienced creator of webcomics, though, and that’s where this book was born. Consequently, each page is a single panel, but each of those panels is so attractively detailed and evocative that the storytelling structure never feels rigid. Instead, it comes across as economical and precise while still filled with event and emotion. It’s a quick read, but it’s very satisfying, and it just invites you to revisit the story again.

You could read it online, obviously, but the physical package is very handsome and worth the investment. In dimension, it’s like a diary or sketchbook that a traveler would carry, appropriately enough. Kevin (Robot 6) Melrose listed its cover as one of the best of 2010, and he’s quite right. The book itself wound up on a number of Best of 2010 lists, including Andrew Salmond’s and Martin Steenton’s at Forbidden Planet International, Brigid Alverson’s at Robot 6, and the Vulture blog of New York Magazine, and Glen Weldon of NPR’s Monkey See counted it among his most memorable comics and graphic novels of the year.

Set to Sea offers a wonderful beginning to this little project of mine. It’s artistically successful on every front, but Weing’s substantial craftsmanship never overwhelms the simple, heartfelt story he’s telling.

Other reviews in this intermittent series:

You can nominate titles for the next Great Graphic Novel for Teen List, and you can take a look at the current batch of contenders.


Great Graphic Novels for Teens 2011

They just announced the results of one of my favorite awards programs, the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens list. Here’s the full roster. Here are the top ten from that pool.

The number of Japanese comics in the top ten has dropped from three last year to one this year (Hisae Iwaoka’s Saturn Apartments from Viz), and I suspect this is simply a reflection of the fact that the indigenous young-adult comic market seems to get stronger every year.

I’m very fond of a lot of the Japanese comics on the list: Natsume Ono’s House of Five Leaves and not simple, Mitsuru Adachi’s Cross Game, Yuki Midorikawa’s Natsume’s Book of Friends (all from Viz), and Nobuaki Tadano’s 7 Billion Needles and Kou Yaginuma’s Twin Spica (both from Vertical), and Kaoru Tada’s Itazura na Kiss (Digital Manga). I’ve also really enjoyed what I’ve read of JiUn Yun’s Time and Again (Yen Press), the only Korean title on the list.

Since I’m always looking for things that give a little structure to blogging, I think I’ll use the top ten list as an impetus. Just for fun, I think I’ll read and review everything on it that I haven’t already read and reviewed. Any suggestions as to where I should start?

And what are your thoughts on the list overall? Are you delighted by any particular inclusions or aghast at any omissions?

Second looks

I thought I’d kick the week off with quick looks at a couple of second volumes of series that made promising first impressions. One is a shôjo title that’s off the beaten track (a male protagonist, no romantic plot elements, and a supernatural, episodic vibe), and the other is a josei series that plays around with that old shôjo spirit.

The second volume Yuki Midorikawa’s Natsume’s Book of Friends (Viz) has all of the charms and strengths of the first. All of the four stories are solid, and the art is still lovely and delicate, but there’s one chapter that really resonated with me.

In it, protagonist Natsume has an entirely unexpected experience. He meets an adult who can do the same things he does, namely see and communicate with supernatural creatures known as yôkai. Natsume has been steadfast, even a little paranoid, about keeping his abilities a secret. Experience has taught him that he’ll be ostracized if he reveals them, so finding another person like him is jolting. Natsume moves through phases of suspicion, curiosity, hope, disillusionment, and eventually acceptance and relief.

As a gay kid entering college, I felt something very similar to Natsume’s sense of isolation and strangeness. Mercifully, even in a small-town college in the Midwest, I managed to meet gay grown-ups who were living the kind of productive, happy lives I had only cautiously imagined. They had good jobs, and some of them had partners, and the fact that they were gay wasn’t a hindrance to any of that. Even if I didn’t end up liking all of them or finding them entirely admirable, the examples they provided were a tremendous comfort to me. Midorikawa captures that process and those feelings with accuracy and sensitivity. I have no idea what her intent or inspiration for the story were, but the argument she makes for the power of an adult role model is persuasive and moving, so much so that I think I’ll nominate it for the Great Graphic Novels for Teens list.

Another nice element of this series is the added value of the creator’s notes. These sidebars often run to the drippy and chatty, but Midorikawa makes good use of them. She talks about her process, the challenges of trying to craft stand-alone stories with recurring themes, and the hooks that she finds for herself that help characters and stories fall into place. She also explains her resistance to larger panels, and while I get it and think her compositions are often lovely, it would be nice to see the occasional blown-up spread.

The second volume of Yuki Yoshihara’s Butterflies, Flowers (Viz) settles into a pattern of mildly smutty silliness that I very much enjoyed. In the first volume, we met former rich girl Choko Kuze, whose family’s financial decline led her to the life of an office worker. She quickly discovered that her borderline-insane boss, Masayuki Domoto, used to be one of her family’s servants, and that his boyhood devotion still lurks within her demonic supervisor.

With the set-up out of the way, Yoshihara can really dive into the R-rated shôjo goofiness. Buttterflies, Flowers runs in a josei magazine (Shogakukan’s Petit Comic), but it has all of the mechanics of a high-school romance. The antics just have a slightly more adult flavor. Instead of a school festival, Choko must participate in a company competition for office newbies. Instead of a Domoto fan club full of sempai, there are senior office ladies to seethe with jealousy. And the question of sex is addressed a lot more frankly, though not with anything resembling seriousness.

There are some great bits amidst the generally okay bits, and it’s undeniably good natured. It’s not josei in the way that books like Bunny Drop or Suppli are, but it’s fun and does its best to make sex silly. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Just one more link

The American Library Association’s Young Adult Library Services Association has posted its 2010 list of Great Graphic Novels for Teens which, as you know, is something of an obsession of mine. Here are the Top 10.

Update: Just because I’m curious about these sorts of things, I broke down listings by publisher to see who got how many. Marvel scored the largest number of listings, divided about equally between their super-hero properties and their comics adaptations of other works of fiction. Viz came in second in terms of the number of recognized titles and actually had the largest number of books, by which I mean that multiple volumes of individual titles earned spaces on the list. If you add up all of its individual imprints, DC ranked next with seven titles and the same number of books, with three coming from its super-hero line and the remainder coming from imprints.

Marvel – 10 titles, 10 books, 1 title in the Top 10
Viz Media – 9 titles, 15 books, 3 titles in the Top 10
Del Rey – 5 titles, 5 books
First Second – 4 titles, 6 books
Tokyopop – 4 titles, 5 books
Dark Horse – 4 titles, 4 books, 1 title in the Top 10
Yen Press – 3 titles, 5 books
DC Comics – 3 titles, 3 books
Cinebook – 2 titles, 3 books
IDW – 2 titles, 3 books
Candlewick – 2 titles, 2 books
DC/Vertigo – 2 titles, 2 books
Hill and Wang – 2 titles, 2 books
Oni Press – 2 titles, 2 books
Archaia Studios Press – 1 title, 1 book, 1 title in the Top 10
Bloomsbury – 1 title, 1 book
Bodega Distribution – 1 title, 1 book
BOOM! Studios – 1 title, 1 book
Classical Comics Ltd. – 1 title, 1 book
DC/CMX – 1 title, 1 book
DC/Zuda – 1 title, 1 book, 1 title in the Top 10
Disney Press – 1 title, 1 book
DMP – 1 title, 1 book
HarperCollins – 1 title, 1 book
Henry Holt – 1 title, 1 book
Image – 1 title, 1 book, 1 Top 10
Image/Shadowline – 1 title, 1 book
Pantheon Books – 1 title, 1 book, 1 title in the Top 10
Quirk Books – 1 title, 1 book
Simon & Schuster/Aladdin – 1 title, 1 book
SLG Publishing – 1 title, 1 book, 1 title in the Top 10
Top Shelf – 1 title, 1 book
Walker and Company – 1 title, 1 book

Time is running out

The list of nominations for the 2010 Great Graphic Novels for Teens has been updated over at the Young Adult Library Services Association’s site. October is the last month to nominate a title. Anyone can nominate a book, as long as they aren’t the creator or publisher of the work, and the book needs to have been first published between Sept. 1, 2008, and Dec. 31, 2009. Click here to nominate something. It’s easy!

From the stack: A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge

adIt’s impossible to capture the scale and scope of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina, and a smart creator wouldn’t even try. Josh Neufeld is a smart creator, and he’s a talented one, and I like the approach he takes to A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge (Random House). Instead of trying to capture everything, he focuses on the experiences of a handful people who lived through the storm and are muddling through its aftermath.

His subjects offer a socioeconomic mix, from upper to working class. Some of them stayed in New Orleans through the storm, and others watched it unfold from a distance. Again, I don’t think Neufeld is doing this to try and tell “the whole story” so much as to offer different vantage points on what the city and its residents endured.

There’s Denise, who has no means of evacuating, and she ends up at the convention center, waiting for help that seems unlikely ever to come. Abbas sticks around to protect his family’s convenience store. Twenty-something Leo and his girlfriend, Michelle, evacuate, as does young Kwame with his family. A doctor stays put, confident in the sturdiness of his historic home.

Neufeld refrains from imposing a narrative on these survivors, instead illustrating their individual stories and interspersing them as they chronologically unfolded. Their testimonies are all vivid and engrossing, and Neufeld renders them with detail and restraint. There’s terror, anger, and sadness, but there’s also perseverance and hope.

It’s a durable and valuable work, and Neufeld’s illustrations hold up to the content. Like Rick Geary of the Treasury of Victorian Murder series of books, Neufeld doesn’t illustrate for photo-realism. His style is still evident, though he’s scrupulous in rendering people and settings.

I remember text pieces in this vein from my newspaper days, when a sensible reporter would get out of the way and let people tell their stories. (As Neufeld is illustrating these stories instead of merely transcribing them, there’s obviously a higher degree of difficulty.) There seem to be fewer of those kinds of meaty, personal portraits that flesh out major events. I miss them, and I’m glad to see Neufeld translate some of that same journalistic spirit into comics form.

(This review is based on a black-and-white “advanced reader’s edition” provided by the publisher. It’s one of those books with a really interesting provenance, so I encourage you to go read Tom Spurgeon’s interview with Neufeld to find out more. I nominated this book for the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens list. Anyone can nominate a title, assuming they aren’t one of the book’s creators and/or don’t work for the publisher of the book being nominated. Creators and publishers can certainly nominate the work of others.)

From the stack: Johnny Hiro

For me, the cake of Fred Chao’s Johnny Hiro (AdHouse Books) is the relationship between the titular protagonist and his fetching girlfriend, Mayumi. As a bonus, Chao slathers plenty of icing on the cake.

untitledJohnny and Mayumi are young, in love, and living in New York City. That means they work too hard, live in a kind of crappy apartment, and never seem to have enough money at the end of the month. But they have each other and all of the affection, support and loyalty one could hope for; they also have cats. Those things go a long way to compensate for the overworked, underpaid grind.

They also have distractions. Johnny is sort of a mayhem magnet. Simple errands can thrust him into the thick of a swarm of knife-wielding kitchen ninjas. A night at the opera can end at sword-point, surrounded by laid-off IT guys who’ve taken up the way of the samurai to avenge their failed dot-com. Peaceful slumber can be disturbed by a hauntingly familiar, dauntingly large lizard that’s eye-level with their walk-up.

Other similarities to Spider-Man aside – he’s got the beautiful girlfriend, the Manhattan setting, and the struggling 20-something thing down – Johnny isn’t exceptional or adventuresome. He’s tenacious, though, and he’s developed a resigned acceptance to the nuttiness. (He’s a little more prone to being starstruck, though, as evidenced by the eclectic celebrity cameos Chao throws into the mix.) I’m crazy about Mayumi; as Chao draws her, she’s lovely in the way real people are lovely as opposed to more conventional comic-book arm candy.

So basically, what we’re dealing with here is a loving, functional couple dealing with the occasional outburst of genre mash-up, based on whatever Chao pulls out of the pop-culture junk drawer. The results are generally terrifically entertaining, and I don’t think there are nearly enough loving, functional couples at the center of popular entertainments. It doesn’t always work perfectly; some of Chao’s pet pop culture isn’t always mine, and some of the celebrity cameos end up feeling a little strained. Overall, though, it’s crisp, warm-hearted, smart entertainment.

The book runs on affection – Johnny and Mayumi’s affection for each other, Chao’s affection for New York, and Chao’s affection for the sci-fi and fantasy tropes he folds into his stories. I’m still surprised (and disappointed) that this book didn’t survive in pamphlet form, but I’m thrilled that Chao and AdHouse provided a handsome collection of the published and unpublished issues of what was supposed to be a six-issue series.

(I periodically nominate something I’ve read for the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens list, and I did that with Johnny Hiro. Anyone can nominate a title here, provided they aren’t nominating their own work or something published by their employer.)