Thursday, December 27, 2012

Graphic Novel Super-Review

For whatever strange reason, I have accidentally waited until the end of this year to read any graphic novels. Four years ago, I was firmly against reading them. I thought that comics and graphic novels were stupid. I said I hated looking at the pictures and only wanted words. Clearly, I am a giant, snotty snot. Now, I count some graphic novels among my favorites: Craig Thompson's Blankets and Habibi, David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp, the entirety of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series (my favorite is volume nine) and David Small's Stitches are, in my opinion, the art form at its peak. Of course, I am still a snot about it; I refuse to stoop to the level of reading "comic books" with superheroes. Maybe one day I'll read them (I hear so many good things about some of the Batman comics, so I'll probably start there).

Every year, then, I like to sample some of the graphic novels out there, trying to spread myself out over the various options--fantasy, memoir (I am of the opinion that graphic novel memoirs are superior to written-word memoirs), "realistic" graphic fiction (I hate the term "graphic fiction" because it makes it sound sexual and violent...which it frequently is, so I guess it's fair). Here are the results of my experimentation this year:

The Stuff of Legend, Volumes 1-3
I saw book one in this series when it was first published. It was on display at Borders (I'm only saying this because I really miss Borders. A lot) and I looked at it but decided to ignore it. Erin Morgenstern (author of The Night Circus, which I loved dearly) mentioned on Twitter that she was reading the series, so I decided to give it a try, too (I'm easily influenced only when it comes to books, I promise).

The premise, that a boy gets kidnapped by the Boogeyman and his toys have to rescue him, is interesting. The art is beautiful (I feel like such a fraud saying something like that as I have no real knowledge about art). The storyline, after three volumes, is starting to get a little convoluted. There is a lot of what feels like complication for complexity's sake: this character betrayed everyone! This character is king of the toy animals! This character has a brother! It's more boring than it is exciting when so many twists and turns pop up.  I'm not sure that I will continue with them.
My rating: 4/5 (collectively and individually)


Sailor Twain
Every time I go about making my to-read list on Goodreads, I will find myself deviating from the list just because I want to be free to make my own choices (which is silly, since I chose which books to put on my list in the first place). One of the books that led me astray (sorry, The Orchardist, but I probably won't get to you before my winter break is over) was Sailor Twain, a graphic novel by Mark Siegel. I encountered it in Time's best graphic novels of 2012 and it sounded like something I would enjoy: 1887. The Hudson River. Steamboats. Mermaids. Love. The book is enchanting and (to use that deplorable word) "unputdownable"--I found myself unable to stop reading it because it was so alluring and fascinating. The charcoal artwork struck a perfect balance between cartoony and realistic. With narratives both romantic and fantastical, I was hooked.
My rating: 4.5/5

Tale of Sand
This book is based on an unproduced script from Jim Henson. It is billed as a surrealist adventure movie, and I liked the concept of turning the project into a graphic novel, so I decided to go for it. Lush, gorgeous artwork, but a storyline that is too absurd to follow. There is nothing comprehensible plot-wise to keep me invested. Fast read (almost no words) and worth it for the pictures.
My rating: 3/5

Fables, Volume 17 (Inherit the Wind)
I may have mentioned that I love fairy tales. Thus, it seemed fairly obvious that I should start reading the Fables series, which is a story about fairy tale characters escaping their homelands and resettling in New York City among us "mundanes". I couldn't resist such an alluring premise (which, of course, sounds a lot like Once Upon a Time...whatever). The series, now in its seventeenth volume (plus two Cinderella spin-offs, two one-off graphic novels, one actual novel, a 9-volume series about Jack of Fables and a spin-off series about the lady-Fables), has lost its edge. For me, the concept was most interesting at the beginning of the series, where we got to see how familiar fairy tale characters are acting in the modern world. As the comics keep coming out, new storylines have to be created to keep the series going, and they become less interesting: some of the Fables have moved to a different world! Mister Dark! And in this volume, someone needs to take on the mantle of the North Wind.

The fundamental part of these comics, that the characters are fairy tale people, gets more and more diluted and distorted. New characters who have no archetypes to be compared with are less intriguing, and some of the most interesting characters have been marginalized (I am looking at you, Snow White and Bigby Wolf). Volume 17 was not a disappointment, but it was not an improvement, either. The storyline, as I mentioned, goes off on its own tangent that seems to exist only to complicate.  I get frustrated with a storyline that gets complicated in a very obvious manner; it screams "we thought our original idea would be enough, but it's not so HERE YOU GO DEAL WITH THAT!"
My rating: 4/5

Saga, Volume 1
I have previously read Brian K. Vaughan's Y: The Last Man comic book series and was overall pretty pleased (I cannot remember much about the way it ends, but remember feeling vaguely irritated). I have been hearing great stuff about the first volume in his new series, a fantasy/sci-fi space opera (which sounds like something I would totally avoid). There's an interstellar war with some goat-people and some robot-people and some "regular" people and also there are ghosts and magic trees and glowing swords. I will continue to read the series, which (also) has lovely artwork, interesting characters and a promising storyline (which, unfortunately, does not get very fleshed out in the first volume).
My rating: 4/5

Building Stories
My previous experience with Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, was not so marvelous. I had heard lovely things about it, but I found it confusing and boring with unattractive art (which shouldn't matter, but there was no "at least the pictures were pretty" to salvage it for me). People have been raving about his new effort, Building Stories, because it is so experimental and high-concept. It is not a graphic novel in the traditional sense, because it is not a book. It is a box. There is a box in my bedroom right now filled with fourteen different pieces--a fake newspaper and a fake Little Golden Book among them--that tell stories about different people who live (or lived) in an apartment building. The argument that most people give for this book being so great is "it's proof that print as a medium cannot die!" and I think that's a silly reason to like Ware's experiment.

That said, I did like it. I enjoyed picking it apart, opening the box every few days and taking out a couple of the components. I liked the disorientation of having fourteen objects to read (but I was tired of reviews saying that it's so genius because it mirrors the "messiness of real life"--stop trying so hard), and I liked the stories they told, which were sometimes funny but always heartbreaking in the best way. Chris Ware's simplistic art style grew on me. While there is no "right" order to reading Building Stories, I like to think I (randomly) read them in a very logical order.
My rating: 4.5/5

Woo! That's the end of this super-review.
See what I've been reading lately!

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