Saturday, March 22, 2014

An Explosion of Graphic Novels

We haven’t had a round-up post in awhile! I’ve been hoarding up my reviews for the graphic novels I’ve read in recent months to eventually combine into one big graphic novel post, and here it is at last. Boom, graphic novel explosion! I enjoyed all of these so the reviews may be light on snark, but hopefully you’ll find something that sounds interesting enough for you to track down and try out yourself! Here we go…

This graphic novel memoir of indie cartoonist Lucy Knisley is a whole lot of fun. It focuses on her life with regards to the influence cooking and eating has had on it, from her days as a kid growing up in NYC, all the way to her present life as a cartoonist. Each chapter has a different theme or story, with the topics of food and eating either as the main component of the narrative or woven into it. One chapter I particularly enjoyed focused on her transition from Manhattanite to country kid when she moved upstate with her mother at a young age. The descriptions of eating raw, garden-fresh tomatillos made me drool a little, and her admission that she never made it to REAL country kid status due to the fact that she couldn’t really accept animal mortality as a part of life was both funny and real (the drawings of her looking horrified at a neighbor beheading a chicken and the carnage when a raccoon got in the coop were wholly relatable). Some of the other chapters cover such diverse foodie topics as her appreciation for junk food as well as the finer things (a paradox her parents can’t wrap their heads around), and stories of eventful trips to Mexico, Japan, and Europe. The full-color illustrations are charming, and the author’s voice is funny and engaging.

In reading this, you get a strong impression of the idea that for her (and all of us really), food, family, and friends are all linked. You can see how these forces have shaped her life in ways both big and small, and it makes you think about your own food-linked memories and the ways what you eat has played a role in your life. I think a book is especially successful if it can get a reader to connect or interact with it on some level, and this book certainly did that for me. I found myself mentally writing my own graphic novel to depict some of the major and minor food-related episodes in my life (first chapter: the battle with fish-paste-filled croissants and my inadvertent pouring of yogurt over my cereal during a study abroad in Japan). To add even more to the reader’s ability to interact with the book, there are fully-illustrated recipes interspersed between chapters. Fried mushrooms?! Yum, count me in! Decadent-sounding carbonara recipe? Yes, please! There’s also an afterword with a collection of photos from her youth to show us the non-illustrated versions of some of the people/places/things that appear in the novel. All in all, I enjoyed this one a lot, and even if you’re not traditionally a graphic novel fan, I would recommend it to you if you’re into food (and who isn’t, really?). Rating: 4 French Fries (As a side note, this book became infinitely more awesome when I noticed that in a drawing of young Lucy reading at the dinner table, her book is Sabriel! Good taste in food AND books. :D)

I adored this one. One of the author blurbs on the cover warned me that when I sat down to read the book I would finish it all in one go, and that’s exactly what happened. It is very (here comes one of my favorite words…) mythopoeic!!! (Seriously, Mythopoeic Society, you guys should probably check this one out.) It is full of whimsy and moments that made me laugh out loud, but it is also so solidly rooted in the tradition of the myths and fables passed down from time immemorial. It’s a book telling the story of a man who tells stories, and stories within stories unfold before the reader. Matryoshka doll stories! A little bit meta, and in the very best way. I don’t want to ruin the magic of reading it for yourself so I won’t delve too deeply into details, but the basic plot concerns a man traveling the world in search of something, and he both tells and gathers stories along the way. The conceit of “Early Earth” is fascinating—a time before the dinosaurs and now lost to us today that had people and cities and religion and legends, much like the ancient ancestors of our own modern era. This setting allows the story to have features reminiscent of aspects of our own world (such as Inuit- and Viking-like cultures), but also allows it to be different from what we know, with three moons and magic and powerful gods.

The stories themselves feel both foreign and intimately familiar. Within them you’ll find old myths and elements in new clothes, performing their usual functions and also being built upon in new ways—sky trees, sirens luring sailors to their doom, a story of a jealous older brother murdering the younger, and a great flood, just to name a few. They show the stark power storytelling can have, with children being sacrificed to appease gods and a clan war that has gone on for ages, all as a result of tales passed from generation to generation. The characters’ modern speech is funny, especially when juxtaposed with the distant-feeling setting and the mythic nature of the subject matter, and while the amusingly anachronistic exchanges between characters made me laugh, there is no denying the depth and power these kinds of stories have. They resonate somewhere deep in our collective human consciousness, and they demonstrate the universality of storytelling and the ideas, emotions, and fears that have driven it since the dawn of human history.

Just as important as the writing in this book is the art, and it’s beautiful. The color scheme of grayscale highlighted by color here and there is very effective, and all the sinuous lines and patterns in the drawings create a kind of hypnotic effect that drew me into the story as much as the words and characters. Another cool feature I loved is the font, which was made from the author’s own handwriting!

The only thing about the book that left me a little nonplussed is how quickly it ended. I was completely on board with a little deus ex whale (that being an inherently myth-related thing itself, of course!), but after the meandering stories I was surprised that the loose ends in the main arc got tied up and resolved in about a single page. I fell prey to the old appendix trick—I didn’t realize there was an appendix, so as I got closer to the end I thought I still had plenty of pages to come in the main story. But this really didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book at all, and the stories and background in the appendix were wonderful as well. Overall, an imaginative, enchanting book with an expert balance of humor and depth, and pretty pictures to boot. Folklorist, myth-nerd types will have a heyday with this one, and I highly recommend it even if you wouldn’t categorize yourself as such. I want MOAR, Isabel Greenberg!!! (Also, there is a really cute sled dog sidekick!) Rating: 4.5 Varieties of Snow

I, like many other denizens of the internet, have spent many a hilarious hour reading Allie Brosh’s inspired blog, Hyperbole and a Half. You know that one friend of yours, who can be telling any story, even about something that would be really boring if it had happened to you, and make it completely engaging and hysterical? That’s Allie Brosh. With excellent comedic timing, perfect word choice, and self-deprecation, she recounts episodes from her life both quotidian (fear of spiders, for example) and ridiculous (such as channeling dinosaur power after donning a Halloween costume) in nature, to laugh-out-loud humorous effect. Her signature MS Paint-style illustrations add to the humor in ways it’s difficult to properly articulate, and elevate the reading experience beyond laugh-out-loud to possibly-choke-on-your-tea-from-laughing-so-make-sure-you-have-a-friend-nearby-to-whack-you-on-the-back.

The book does not disappoint on any of these fronts. In fact, I’d say it exceeds them. There are some stories from the blog included in addition to a lot of new material, so you definitely don’t have to be a fan of her website to appreciate or understand the book. Her style of storytelling through prose interspersed with lots of illustrations translates well to book form, and the humor translates effectively, too. One of my favorites from this volume involved a vicious goose invading her house and tormenting her and her boyfriend—as I was reading and laughing I was thinking to myself that this was maybe a story where the titular hyperbole was coming into play. But no! She had anticipated this reaction from her readers and included actual photos taken during the invasion to serve as proof that real life can be just as ridiculous as the things authors dream up!

Not everything is sunshine and rainbows, though. Her always-confessional style of narrative plumbs some dark places in the stories that recount her recent struggles with depression and anxiety. You might think this would be a bit of a downer, but that’s not the case at all. It is deeply affecting to read of her struggles with these issues, but what’s more powerful is her ability to find humor in them. It never feels flippant or like she’s making light of it, but she is somehow able to take what she’s been dealing with, examine and talk about it in a way that forges a connection with the reader, find something funny in whatever is going on, and turn that into a weapon. Kind of like laughter and boggarts, to put it in Harry Potter terms. On one page I would be crying as I read her spot-on explanation of what being depressed feels like, and then turn the page and snort my own snot in a guffaw as she described the infinite laughter loop fueled by a dried up piece of corn she found under the fridge. Writing that can do that to a reader is pretty brilliant, I’d say, and it’s inspiring to see the raw honesty, incredible bravery, and surprising humor with which she talks about tough things.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It has a balance of funny stories about episodes from her childhood/other times in her life, and insightful, empathy-inducing ones concerning some of the issues she’s been dealing with recently. The common denominators across the board are her inimitable voice, her crazy drawings, and her insane ability to drive a person to nose-scrunching, stomach-aching laughter. Like all the best humorists, Allie Brosh is able to discover the hilarity in the simple and mundane, but she can also find it in darker places, too. I dare you to pick up this book and see if you don’t find yourself bursting out laughing. Rating: 4 Simple Dogs (My absolute favorite Hyperbole and a Half story isn’t included in the book, but you can read it here. It’s about nightmares and scary stories and it’s HILARIOUS.)

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, by Lucy Knisley
Published by First Second (2013)
Read in February 2014; from the library

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, by Isabel Greenberg
Published by Little, Brown and Company (2013)
Read in March 2014; from the library

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, by Allie Brosh
Published by Touchstone (2013)
Read in March 2014; eARC from publisher via NetGalley*

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

1 comment:

Alyssa L. said...

It was so good! Let me know what you think of it!

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