Zita the Spacegirl

Zita the Spacegirl starts with Zita and her best friend Joseph being thrown through a portal to a bizarre and distant planet. It turns out the planet is doomed, but a sect of natives believe that Joseph is prophesied to save them. Zita, alone and in over her head, sets out to rescue him.

From there the story explodes. Action, drama, and some fascinating twists keep the comic rolling along. The art is sketchy but dynamic, and the characters are wonderfully engaging and likable. It says something about the writing when such a large cast fails to feel crowded – everyone gets a purpose and a chance to shine. Author/artist Ben Hatke has a deft hand for characterization and drops just enough detail to let his audience fill in the blanks.

The characters manage to feel both fresh and familiar to fans of science fiction. There’s a charming rogue a la Han Solo, his furry and loyal companion (who happens to be a giant mouse), a grandiose killer robot, a dim but sweet and loyal giant and many others. But the biggest presence in the story is Zita herself, who rises to meet every challenge with tenacity, creativity and compassion. I found myself cheering for her at every turn.

Despite the book’s intended audience, there are some dark aspects. Death, conflict and abuse of power feature heavily in the series, particularly in the third book. Some scenes are intense enough to concern young or particularly sensitive children (and adults) and likable characters occasionally suffer terrible fates. Despite this, the sense of hope pervading the series is strong enough to feel that everything’s going to be okay. I thoroughly enjoyed my reading and can think of several kids I’ll be lending these copies to.

Sources

Hatke, B. (2012). Legends of Zita the Spacegirl. New York, NY: First Second.

Hatke, B. (2014). Return of Zita the Spacegirl. New York, NY: First Second.

Hatke, B. (2010). Zita the Spacegirls. New York, NY: First Second.

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Well-Intentioned Censorship Is Still Censorship

Comics face some unique challenges in regards to censorship. As Critchfield and Powell discuss in Ch. 2 of True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries, the visual nature of the medium makes potentially objectionable content much more explicit, and the librarians that conspired to keep Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen out of the hands of the general public obviously thought they were doing a service for the parents who were unable to personally shield their children; however, their actions kept anyone from enjoying the book. That kind of moral judgement is dangerous to impose and it is regrettable that any librarians thought the limiting the free flow of information would benefit their community.

While it is surprising that a librarian would advocate censorship, it is not surprising that patrons would object to the content in comics out of a misguided preconception that they are aimed at children and should therefore be free of controversy. According to the CBDLF, everything from Maus to Bone has been challenged within the last five years.[1] Critchfield and Powell lay out some ways to respond to concerned patrons who want a book reshelved or removed from the library catalog. Their suggestions emphasize unity of message, such as passing the buck to the library director rather than claiming control over library policy, and maintaining the dignity of their station by not getting drawn into debate.

It is important to keep in mind that what is objectionable to one patron will not offend another, and that the loudest voices should not dictate others’ access to works. On multiple occasions, Bone was challenged for depicting its characters drinking and smoking, on the basis that substance abuse should not be portrayed in children’s books.[2] Is it fair for that moral stance to rule supreme over those who might not care? It is unpleasant to consider a situation where the power to veto a work is available to every single person in the population. This seems to be a scenario where many concerned individuals should keep in mind the old Internet axiom: “Don’t like, don’t read.”

[1] http://cbldf.org/banned-comic/banned-challenged-comics/

[2] http://cbldf.org/banned-comic/banned-challenged-comics/case-study-bone/

Sources

Banned and Challenged Books from the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. (2016). Retrieved May 3rd, 2016 from http://cbldf.org/banned-comic/banned-challenged-comics/

Critchfield, R. & Powell, D. M. (2012).  Well-Intentioned Censorship Is Still Censorship. In V. Nye and K. Barco (Eds.) True stories of censorship in America’s libraries (pp. 8-13). Chicago, IL: American Library Association.

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Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb

“The fire will only stop when there is nothing left to burn.”

In Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb, Jonathan Fetter-Vorm paints a bleak picture of scientific progress. The story he tells is harsh and straightforward; there is little embellishment or speculation beyond the recorded events he draws on for his work. The art is sketchy but grounded and well arranged. Occasionally the borders fall away and the images run together, usually at key moments of technological exposition or to show the terrifying power of the nuclear bomb. The book is wonderfully paced and builds from the early sections, which are light and inquisitive, to the tense and weighty but inevitable climax.

Making a narrative out of history is tricky work. In order to create this work, Fetter-Vorm has to maintain a delicate balance between crafting a story from events and respecting the pain of history’s participants. For the most part he succeeds without resorting to exploitative representation of the Japanese citizenry’s fate. The only time the art turns gruesome is in the portrayal of Nagasaki’s end – in a powerful sequence, the narration drops out entirely and leaves us as silent witnesses to a few children. A subsequent wide shot of the immediate aftermath avoids details and instead presents a mass of corpses in vague silhouette.

The book is well-researched and contains a large amount of the science behind atomic bombs, presented in an informative but accessible manner. I came away with a vastly increased understanding of both the mechanics behind nuclear energy and the politics behind its development and implementation. It seems like Fetter-Vorm withholds judgement on certain aspects of the program, showing the horrors of the bomb but also the reasoning behind its use. The most striking sequences are still the snapshots of the bomb’s power and destructive force, where Fetter-Vorm takes full advantage of his visuals. The strength of his message is shown without need of words.

Some further sources suggested by Fetter-Vorm after the bibliography, for those who were intrigued by his book and wish to know more:

The Atomic Archive: http://www.atomicarchive.com

The Atomic Heritage Foundation: http://www.atomicheritage.org/history

Else, J. (Director). (1981). The Day After Trinity. Chatsworth, CA: Image Entertainment. Film.

Hershey, J. (1989) Hiroshima. New York, NY: Vintage.

Kelly, C., ed. (2007). The Manhattan Project. New York, NY: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.

Shinozaki, M. and Hirata, T. (Directors). (2006). Barefoot Gen. Chatsworth, CA: Geneon USA. Film.

 

Sources for this review:

Fetter-Vorm, J. (2012). Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb. New York, NY: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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Getting Into Webcomics: A Pathfinder Reading Guide

Getting Into Webcomics

A pathfinder for new readers to experience the diversity and breadth of the medium of webcomics.

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Cataloging Comics in Libraries

The question of how to catalog comic books is a complicated one. Few are created by a single author or artist, and many are connected to other novels within a series, setting, or publisher. Do you put superhero books alongside graphic retellings of classic novels? What about nonfiction books? Do you separate the books into their own category, like you would for mediums such as movies and CDs? Or do you set them free to roam among the general book population, where a patron seeking a copy of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere might find its graphic adaptation alongside the text?

When I was a young child, the local library kept its comic books in the nonfiction section, as Nyberg mentions in “How Librarians Learned to Love the Graphic Novel.” In those days there was only a smattering of comic books, and they all fit onto one shelf in the 741.5, second one up, about knee high. It was the perfect height to camp out in the nonfiction section and have a steady supply of comics within arm’s reach as I polished them off. As the years passed my library acquired more graphic novels until they necessitated their own section off the YA wing. Nowadays, the only works kept in nonfiction are anthologies of obscure newspaper comics with little modern appeal, such as Krazy Kat and Pogo.

Comic books have many, many points of reference for cataloging. Modern systems such as RDA offer a more comprehensible approach and the potential to do justice to the many points of access each comic offers – crediting the publisher, author, character, artist, colorist and so forth. But this still does little to fix the problem of shelving comics in libraries. What is an intuitive system to one librarian will be incomprehensible to other librarians or patrons, or leave out key categories of interest. How to accommodate both readers who want every X-Men series in chronological order and readers who want to find everything Chris Claremont has ever written? Even with electronic assistance, there is no clear solution.

Sources

Lyga, A. & Lyga, B. (2004). Why graphic novels? In Graphic novels in your media center: A Definitive guide. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited. (pp. 1-14).

Nyberg, A.K. (2010). How librarians learned to love the graphic novel. In Weiner, R.G. (ed.)Graphic novels and comics in libraries and archives: Essays on readers, research, history and cataloging. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. (pp. 26-40).

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Laika by Nick Abadzis

Nick Abadzis’ Laika is a fascinating and heartbreaking read. It’s a historically accurate, painstakingly researched biographical comic about Kudryavka, more widely known as Laika, the dog who was the first living creature to reach space.

Abadzis’ art style is cartoonish and flat. He rarely breaks the panel borders, except in a few key scenes that stand out more for it. The dialogue, when paired with the art, feels stilted. You never quite forget that the characters are speaking Russian rather than English. Despite this, the story is strong and emotional – you want to cheer for the little dog who will eventually be named Laika, and the knowledge of what is to come makes everything before it difficult to accept.

The human characters move the plot along but don’t add much otherwise. Their trials and aspirations in communist Russia at the height of the Cold War are barely enough to keep one’s attention in between the parts which focus on Laika. The humans are at their best when interacting with Laika in one way or another, as antagonists or loving caretakers or reluctant tools carrying out the will of a corrupt and ambitious government. The specter of Russia’s pitfalls hang over them – the comic starts with one character’s release from the notorious Gulag – and in the end they all must do things they don’t agree with in order to remain safe.

Historically, it is difficult to say how literal the story is. Some conversations may not have been verbatim, although the phases of the moon represented in the art were apparently 100% accurate to the dates shown. However, Abadzis’ recounting of Laika’s life story feels real. Through the comic he does an excellent job of bringing Laika, however briefly, back to life.

References

Abadzis, N. (2007). Laika. New York (NY): First Second.

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Will Eisner’s Contract with God

Eisner is one of the biggest names in comics, and rightfully so. From the first page of this comic the art and atmosphere establish a sketchy, melancholy and bittersweet feeling. The old-fashioned hand lettering is vaguely Hebraic, switching to strongly Hebraic on the title pages. The Jewish community around which the stories revolve has a distinct feel. To me, personally, it feels like my grandparents’ Brooklyn neighborhood.

Eisner seems like he’s writing from personal experience. The dialogue, the philosophies, and the culture feel genuine. The stories are humble but engaging; the first one, of a pious Jew who undergoes a crisis of faith, is epic in atmosphere but minute in scope. They’re almost all downer endings, some rising up to bittersweet. The lines are a gorgeous balance of sparse and detailed. The world Eisner draws comes across as tightly and heavily populated.

The comic’s emotional content is strong and grounded. The characters’ expressions are powerful. The medium lets Eisner communicate exactly what he wants to show the audience. This ability is shown most clearly in the emotional climax of each story, where the characters faces are twisted by grief and desperation until they barely look human. Eisner plays around with the medium, employing and disguising the gutters between panels as the story calls for. Some panels are rigidly defined, while others float within scenes, and still others have no borders at all.

One specific thing that stood out to me is Eisner’s portrayal of non-Jewish women. He draws them as beautiful and exotic temptresses, a status symbol and mistress for successful Jewish men. In the fourth story, Cookalein,  Kathleen is shown naked and barechested, with a cross hanging between her breasts. Her Christianity is on display with her body, equating the two. Jewish women in the comic are flabby, shrewish, and mundane, but Christain women are exotic and sensual.

The final story was the most fascinating and complex one. Half a dozen different storylines jump in and out of the plot like a soap opera. There is infidelity, sexual awakening, and sexual menace. A woman gets raped, a fifteen year old boy is violated. Of the two the woman comes off better – she is able to talk about it and receive help, while the boy stays quiet and shuts down, all while other expect him to become a man. Its not a story with easy answers.

This comic was difficult to read, but I’m glad I did so. I feel a connection with the setting even as I am repulsed by the many of the values espoused by the characters. Eisner is an absolute genius storyteller, and everything in the comic, from the lines to the layout to the letters themselves, support his vision perfectly. I’ll be passing this one along to my parents.

References

Eisner, Will. (1978). A Contract with God. New York, NY: DC Comics.

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