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November 27, 2013

Mental Health in Comics

We had another great visit with Professor Ching's evening class in Children's Literature and Materials at the University of Maryland's graduate College of Information Studies. We tend to haul a few boxes of books up there to show examples of great books, but spend more time discussing the history and relevance of comics. I always enjoy the back and forth with the students that follows since its fun to talk comics with bright and interested people.

Here I'm circling back to follow-up on a few questions raised or books we discussed, as well as to offer resources helping you find other great books we recommend, especially those in our collection.

As promised our Recommended Graphic Novel List is available as a Google doc that we periodically edit to add more titles that make it into our various collections.


You will also find more recent reviews on The Comics Stacks (my comics related blog) and on the Takoma Park Maryland Library's Comics Page.


After the jump (and in following blog entries) I'll suggest books that relate to some of the topics we discussed, starting with 3 books on mental illness.


Mental Health in Comics.

On whether there are any graphic works about mental health issues, here are a few notable titles that we have in our collection:

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me. By Ellen Forney.
(Gotham Books 2012)
A graphic memoir of a woman's struggle with bi-polar disorder, therapy, and the chemical maintenance of mood and personality. Black and white art, chiefly ink and brush cartooning. Funny, bright, friendly, open and honest. Excerpts from her journal and sketchbook give additional insight to her state of mind during her long process of coping recuperation and analysis.
Adult: Nudity, drug use, bi-sexuality.
(741.5973 FORNEY)

How I Made it to Eighteen: A Mostly True Story. By Tracy White
(Roaring Brook Press 2010)
previously reviewed here.
Young Adult: Suicide attempts, bulimia, adult themes.
(J YA 741.5973 WHITE)

Psychiatric Tales: Eleven Graphic Stories About Mental Illness. By Darryl Cunningham.
(Bloomsbury 2010)
Darryl Cunningham worked for many years as a nurse in a hospital's acute psychiatric ward. Here he inks a few short pages on a each of a half dozen diagnoses (dementia, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and others) discussing each with compassion and discernment. Artwork is black and white ink work with simple sparse icons for people, and an emphasis on composition.
(741.5973 CUNNING)

Other books on the topic exist but these are a few recent and notable ones.

Posted by Dave at 04:18 PM

November 14, 2013

Smash: Trial by Fire

Good-hearted but impulsive kid contracts super-powers, tries his best -- but being a hero is never easy.


We featured this book at our most recent Comics Jam, projecting the book up on the screen to read with the kiddies of the after-school crowd. A fun read-aloud, the dialogue is clever and funny, the story lopes along at an easy pace once it gets rolling. The feel is something of a cross between Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Spider-man -- though unlike Greg Heffler (protagonist of the Wimpy Kid series) fun-sized hero Andrew Ryan isn't, you know, a jerk. He's a good kid who idolizes the local superhero named Defender, trying to live up to his example. Even without powers Andrew attempts to make his world a better place, to confront bullies or help kids in need (in one sequence attempting some dashing derring-do involving a tire swing to rescue Halloween candy from the greedy clutches of sidewalk goons -- with the usual disastrous results).

Andrew's life is made yet more messy when his hero is captured by archnemesis superbaddy Magus, and in an accident that follows a botched transfer of powers the hero gets 'sploded all over the place. Bystander Andrew is a block away from the incident but fallout from the blast strikes him and he soaks up all of the heroes abilities, just in time to save himself from his own persecutors.

Grade school angst and daily trauma are complex enough without having to learn how to save the world, but as Spidey's Uncle Ben said: with great power comes great responsibilities, and Andrew is willing to meet the challenge face first and at high velocity, earning his hero name and giving a title to the book.

The art is loopy and cartoony and amusing, with bright colors and iconic characters. Not terribly fussy about background detail except where the story requires it, the focus is on the personalities of the story. Expressive faces, animated gestures, high impact action sequences, the characters emote well and manage sight-takes that act as punchlines in standalone panels. A 3x2 horizontal panel format works well to propel the story even if the book is an odd size for the shelf. It stands out, physically and metaphorically: kids are always hungry for young characters that remind them of themselves, but the superhero genre has few personalities to which they can relate. Smash is one that works well at this level.

It's odd there aren't more books like this considering the demand. But established superheros from the mainstream companies have to strike a balance between drawing in new (if not younger) audiences and also remaining faithful to the canon. Transgressing the orthodoxy tends to alienate the legion of fans who shell out 4 bucks plus per issue as they hit the racks of the comic shop every Wednesday.

Every few years we see a series starring a kid superhero (Zinc Alloy, Power Pack, et al. Battling Boy most recently) but few seem to stick around or find a formula that lasts long enough to make its own audience. Looking forward to see if an author can find a formula that works and is durable. I'd love to see a superhero version of Bone, Amulet, Tintin, Calvin and Hobbes, Asterix, etc. --a series that truly manages to be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Smash doesn't try to be, but given the cliche-heavy genre of superhero comics he's a worthy starter hero for kids eager to see themselves on the page flying around in a cape and bashing into things.

Posted by Dave at 06:28 PM

November 08, 2013

Graphics Memoir

I recently had a chance to visit Emerson high school in Washington DC to talk with students about their graphic novel memoir projects. I brought with me a stack of great books to provide examples of what can be done with the format. Here's a selection of the best of them:


Smile, by Raina Telgemeier.
Memoir. Dental disaster complicates adolescence. Clean lines, cartoony characters, bright colors. The art is generally in a 2x3 column format which fits a digest sized paperback well. The shorter paper size makes the story roll by swiftly. An easy introduction to comics memoir.

Drama (also by Raina Telgemeier)
has a similar feel, look, and format, though it tackles tougher issues: romance, teen crushes, and homosexuality. This is a fictionalized memoir based on real persons, but despite the slightly more tricky subject Ms Telgemeier manages the same breezy optimistic gentle tone, illustrating angst rather than making her readers undergo it.

How I Made it to Eighteen, by Tracy White.
By contrast readers live through the trauma of How I Made it to Eighteen, as the narrator works her way through it. Subtitled "a mostly true story" we read the therapy-journal of 'Stacy Black' as she explains how and why she ended up in Golden Meadows Hospital following a self destructive act after an argument with her boyfriend.

Simple black and white ink-work belies complex themes. Ms White's art manages to show tension and conflict by the images she chooses to use and the composition/placement of her images. Most panels are clinical white, with thin line drawings. Key panels are saturated in black where it serves the mood.

This is a good book to show how un-fussy art can sometimes serve a story better than hyperkinetic panel placement or jagged word balloons.

As for story, it serves well as catharsis or even therapy itself. The fact that she proves an unreliable narrator, discovering her problems as she works them out adds a believability to the experience.

The Cute Girl Network, by Greg Means, MK Reed; art by Joe Flood.
Girl crashes skateboard, meets boy, eats soup. Despite the meet-cute, true love is endangered by Jane's extended network of well-meaning girl friends, who are available as a resource to compare notes on what a disaster the hapless soup vendor is. Despite hints they may be good matches for each other, it's possible Jack's ADD and Jane's determined friends will doom true love.

Joe Flood's art is a friendly mix of realistic settings and loose-lined easy cartoon characters. Awkward and endearing like the romantic leads themselves, it feels like I know these folks, from slackers to hipster you grew up with them, knew someone like them. A bedroom in a closet, chainlink fences in the backgrounds, conversations in stairwell -- anyone who has been young and on their own in a city will recognize urban living, urban dating, hanging out.

Born of a conversation between authors MK Reed and Greg Means, the dialogue is well served by having a male and female author playing off each other. The women of the book discuss and ponder and kibbitz and comment on each other's lives. The dudes, well one buddy lobs bombs at the introspective protagonist and gives him bad advice, but they're not given to having long complex involved conversations about their feelings. They lack the vocabulary to be more than hapless, if not hopeless. Guys are overmatched when facing the deep emotional resources of the Cute Girls Network. Yet somehow Jack muddles through, a sweet good natured mess.

Little Nothings (series), by Lewis Trondheim
Bemused vignettes of every day life as depicted by France's 2nd greatest current comics auteur.

As a kid, doctors offices were a wasteland of boredom. The New Yorker would stall death by ennui by providing tiny windows into adult 'humor' in the form of one-panel cartoons sopping with ironic whimsy. I rarely got the joke, but heck at least it was cartoons. I realize now some part of my lack of understanding was context. What happened before and after that snippet was not explained, and in some part you had to be in on the joke to get the joke (the joke most often being: 'adulthood' --or 'privilege', really, what you might now call 'first world problems').

Well Little Nothings provides that context, showing the lead-up and resolution to those small epiphanies of ordinary life. Each page completes a haiku of a moment, with something like a punchline, though eliciting more of a smirk or chuckle or shaking your head. The string of them allows for something like a narrative though without any greater meaning other than borrowing the experience of living an adult life as an amused observer. Which proves highly satisfying.

Characters are cartoony animals in realistic backgrounds (a la Art Spiegelman, or the Scandinavian cartoonist Jason) allowing for that 'everyman' quality. Line art is squiggly, overwashed with pastel watercolor, easy on the eyes and suited for humor. Students can learn how simple art can be while still examining adult subjects, or at least smirking about them.

Aya (series) by Marguerite Abouet; art by Clement Ouberie. Translated from French.

Think 'Archie Comics times Shakespeare', Not strictly memoir this is realistic fiction, though it is based on Margarite Abouet's experiences growing up in the Ivory Coast in the 1970's-80's. The easy day to day drama of life in a large modern African town or small city, Ms Abouet manages to intertwine many characters' storylines together in a bright charming weave. This comedy of errors unravels over five volumes, culminating in a satisfactory climax.

Panels are saturated with warmth and light, watercolor and ink in vivid hues evoke the feel of a summer that lasts forever. Certainly African, but recent and familiar, these stories could happen in small town anywhere, with 20th century concerns and realistic personalities.

Characters are distinct, funny, spunky, each well imagined and full of their own rich internal lives. A great book for teens in that it deals realistically with issues of love and envy and hope and personal image.

The Photographer, by Didier Lefevre and Emmanuel Guibert.

A photographer travels with Medicins sans Frontieres to war-torn Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of the country. Gets burned out, tries to make it home.

A mix of photography and comics art, this is a powerful depiction of life in these harsh and often beautiful mountains. Intriguing given current events, from an outside perspective little seems to have changed in the decades intervening. Farmers and shepherds still try to scratch out a meager living on rocky soil and forbidding slopes, while conflict between local armed warriors and an outside occupying force endanger everyone caught in the crossfire. This is an important work of graphics reportage, armchair travel to dangerous places, and definitely worth reading.

Posted by Dave at 04:49 PM