Since I’ve always championed the merits of reading comic books and graphic novels, I was ecstatic to see some choice additions in our new stock. I devoured, in quick succession, Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie based on David Bowie’s early life, and Neil Gaiman’s Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire. After briefly surfacing to join the world, I dove back into three more graphic novels and revisited one from before. The result? I had no idea which one of them to choose for an in-depth review as I had greatly enjoyed them all.
Upon closer inspection, however, I noticed a similarity: they all focused on growth through journeys. Visually, most featured simplistic drawing styles (although Robert Hunter’s Map of Days has some mind boggling compositions in it) and limited colour palettes.
Isabel Greenberg’s debut The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, put her on the map in 2013, along with her love of stories and the art of storytelling itself. In it we follow a storyteller separated from the woman he loves due to an uncanny phenomena. He is from the North Pole and she from the South, but the effects of the magnetic field cause them to repel each other instead of being in each other’s arms as they crave. The solution they settle on is to simply spend their lives with each other with the distance between them acting as a part of their day-to-day life. To while away the time they tell each other stories. The novel begins with her asking the storyteller to tell her how he came to her, one she has heard many times but has not yet grown tired of. It’s easy to see why. The storyteller launches into his tale and we are treated to one of the best life histories ever written. He travels the world encountering distant lands and strange creatures like ogres and warrior nations like the Hals and Dags that inhabit Early Earth. Along the way he experiences divine intervention (both helpful and hindering) from the god Birdman, and his children Kid and Kiddo.
The three gods make a return in Greenberg’s second graphic novel, The One Hundred Nights of Hero, joining a new cast featuring Cherry and her lover Hero. When Cherry’s diabolical husband makes a twisted wager with his friend Manfred over whether he can seduce Cherry in the time he is away, the two women must band together to save Cherry and keep their relationship a secret. Hero decides to tell Manfred (and later the guards and anyone in the vicinity of the castle are added) a story every night to stall the seduction. In the tradition of The Arabian Nights, Hero keeps Manfred (and us) enthralled with her interwoven stories that eventually put both women in danger and save them as well. While both graphic novels take place in the same universe, The One Hundred Nights of Hero is a standalone story and is actually the one I read first.
Both books show off Greenberg’s superior storytelling ability and her love of the medium as well. Sporting primarily black and white pages, there are well-placed splashes of colour that accentuate the dramatic moments of the story and help make her pages beautiful and expressive. Both are odes to storytelling, containing multiple stories within a frame tale, all of them gripping and highly imaginative. In her simplistic drawings Greenberg manages to convey great amounts of emotion and just as importantly, moments of quiet and contemplation, allowing the reader to absorb the events in each panel fully.
Where Greenberg’s books have small pops of colour, Robert Hunter’s Map of Days is a technicolour explosion on each page, as his complicated compositions take on a creation myth of his own making. Gone is the god with the head of a bird and his children, instead we have nine celestial siblings who each create a corner of the universe and retire. The ninth sibling is responsible for creating Earth and becomes obsessed with the Sun. Later an unnamed narrator discovers a way to the being through the grandfather clock in his grandfather’s house and he soon must navigate his way around the being as the first living creature the sibling has seen in years.
Map of Days is a visual masterpiece; Hunter’s illustrations are lush and ethereal. His characters don’t show much emotion and there are no speech bubbles. Instead blocks of text dot the pages that are more image-centric. The end result is a dream-like narrative which the narrator relates to us from a point in the future. The images are motionless compared to Greenberg’s where there is constant movement from wind, water and falling leaves on almost every page. Map of Days allows for slower reading as we are forced to observe each panel on the page which shows a small change in the characters’ actions. The lack of in-panel dialogue also distances us from the events, reinforcing the distance the narrator has from this story as well. Many small grids and rectangular panels make up the neatly structured, orderly pages making for an immensely beautiful, contemplative story that is more than just fantasy.
Luke Healy’s How to Survive in the North was the last one I read and ended up being a strange combination of the previous two. The snow and ice (which naturally features in a fictional narrative of real life Arctic expeditions) is reminiscent of the icy landscapes in Greenberg’s work, and the limited four colour palette imbues each page with the richness of Hunter’s work. However while Hunter’s colours make for a warm, almost suffocating atmosphere on each page of dense flora and fauna, Healy’s use of colour helps bring the remote iciness of the Arctic into sharp relief.
Based on the diaries of Ada Blackjack and Robert Bartlett, Healy’s work traces their expeditions up north. Clean lines, not unlike Hergé’s for Tintin, dominate his pages, while his characters have minimal design. Healy’s characters are up against formidable odds in this story, facing shipwreck and polar bears in the middle of nowhere. Bartlett and Blackjack’s stories are being read by a fictional professor in the future who spends his sudden sabbatical in the university library researching their records. Healy sympathetically renders his characters and how they deal with their situations- even if their circumstances are self-inflicted- allowing for a fascinating recounting of historical events and the hardships one has to endure when undertaking such journeys.
Read together, these four graphic novels have taken me to strange worlds and back, giving me a greater appreciation for this genre and all its potential. Read separately, I’m sure they’ll delight any fan of visual narratives and wonderful storytelling.
I had seen the prose version of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred on our shelves for quite a while now and it had slowly turned into one of the “I’ll get to it later” books (you can imagine just about how many books I have on that list). Well in the time it took me to not read the prose version, Damian Duffy and John Jennings came out with the graphic novel adaptation which I devoured over two afternoons.
The story follows Dana, an intelligent and brave black woman, and her husband Kevin (who is white). Dana and Kevin live in 1976 and are just moving into their new apartment when Dana is struck by a sudden and intense bout of dizziness. When the feeling subsides, she finds herself rescuing a little red-haired boy named Rufus from drowning. It is the early 1800s and Rufus is the white son of the slave owner Tom Weylin. Later Dana will be called every time Rufus finds himself in life threatening danger (which is quite often). What translates as several months or even years in the past ranges from a few minutes to a few weeks in 1976, adding to Dana’s increasingly paranoid state as she does not know when she will vanish. Dana finds out that Rufus Weylin is an ancestor of hers who had children with a slave named Alice, also one of Dana’s ancestors. As such, Dana is determined to make sure that no permanent harm comes to Rufus and that her existence in the past does not jeopardize her family tree. As Rufus grows older, Dana must contend with the fact that he is a slave owner’s son and that no matter how hard she tries; there are some things she just can’t change about history.
The duo behind this graphic novel is Damian Duffy, the adaptor, and John Jennings, the artist. Both Duffy and Jennings have long worked to promote the work of black artists and as Duffy explains in the blog posts on his website, Kindred is a project that has excited both of them for several years (he’s done an entire set of blog posts on the entire project and they make for a fascinating read at http://damianduffy.net/blog/).
Jennings’s art is rough and kinetic, each panel and figure reflecting the danger and uncertainty of the time while making the emotions of each character almost palpable in their depiction and simultaneously making sure they don’t lose their humanity. I imagine paragraphs in the prose version that may be spent developing Rufus’s character and his moral ambiguity are represented here in uncertain facial expressions and dialogues that convey Rufus and Dana’s hesitance around each other as they both are drawn to being friends while also being kept separate by the inescapable circumstances of pre-Civil War Maryland. Duffy and Jennings’s respect for their source material is evident as Kindred feels like a commendable standalone work, it does not require any prior knowledge of the novel making it justifiably a New York Times bestseller.
Butler’s original novel has had quite an impact on fans of science fiction, people of colour, and those who identify as both, as evidenced by Nnedi Okorafor’s introduction which helps us place the original text in terms of its importance. It gave black people a voice in a genre where they were unused to seeing themselves or their stories and allowed others to dream that they too could write like this while also highlighting a dark period in American history. That the story is sad and the ending inevitable goes without saying, it is impossible to imagine Dana escaping the past unscathed. However, this invitation to revisit the horrors of slavery and the terrible acts humans inflicted on each other is unfortunately as pertinent an issue today in Pakistan as it is in America and this graphic novel thus becomes one we must all pay attention to, regardless of where we find ourselves placed in the world.
Before this review begins I have a small confession to make: upon the first reading, I didn’t really enjoy How to Talk to Girls at Parties. I found the art distracting, the girls a bit wonky looking and the story too simple to do anything other than just to breeze through. I quickly finished it and sat back thinking ‘Well, that was sweet, but it lacks Gaiman’s usual richness’ (this was me being immensely snobby and pretending to be a fine connoisseur of graphic novels, in case you were wondering).
I logged on to Gaiman’s website and found the original short story that the graphic novel was based on. Here I found the lyricism and rhythm I associate with Gaiman’s work. The way he writes often makes the reader want to read aloud the story and share it with those around them and if you’ve heard enough recordings of Gaiman reading his own work you understand how he would read it out, where he would pause and speed up, with the effect that I often hear his voice in my head when I read his prose. There is a distinction here though; I have never heard Neil Gaiman’s voice when reading his comics (The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr. Punch being a notable exception-probably because this seems to me to be one of his most personal graphic novels written).
How to Talk to Girls at Parties won the Locus Award for Best Short Story and one can understand why. It’s adaptation as a graphic novel makes sense as these days it seems all things Gaiman are being put out in various forms whether they’re radio adaptations, digital versions of his more obscure work in the form of the Humble Bundle, or graphic novels (speaking of which, I’m sure that soon we’ll be hearing about a graphic adaption of “I, Cthulhu”, also on his website, soon).
The story’s premise itself is simple enough: two young boys accidentally end up at the wrong party, meet odd girls and escape before they end up being irrevocably changed.
After enjoying the short story (also known as actually reading the words, something I may have skimmed when I first picked up the graphic novel), I revisited Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon’s version of it and found it much more enjoyable the second time round. Their use of watercolours adds a tint to each page that is both somber and soft; there is a hint of menace and immense possibility in the wishy-washy sky as Enn and Vic walk to the party. Each set of pages has an overall colour tinting it, from light green to pale yellow to reds and purples that warm the pages, suffusing them with a form of nostalgia that is hard to pin down to any one element on the page. The colour permeates the story’s words as well, infusing each of Enn’s encounters with the strange girls at the party, drawing us into the seemingly present moment in which those conversations are taking place while at the same time reminding us that Enn is recounting all this from the future, from his actual present.
The characters are each imperfect and confused about their presence, whether it’s at the party like Enn, or on a wider scale of cosmic misplacement as in the case of the girls. Like all good sci-fi, this short story forces us to consider our position as finite beings on this planet and highlights the lack of communication that bars proper understanding between the sexes, even if it takes this breakdown of communication into a new direction. Enn is the embodiment of anyone who has felt awkward around the opposite sex, worrying about the seemingly innocuous task of simply talking to a girl in order to ‘get’ anywhere with her while Vic is the stereotypically good-looking and confident best friend who tries in his own way to assuage his friend’s fears over talking to girls. Enn’s gripe over how when as children we start in the same way and then the girls suddenly become “in a very real sense, young adults” while the boys get left behind, was a moment that made me chuckle- having sometimes felt older than some of the boys I’ve met in my life myself.
The girls themselves are transient in this story, each obviously odd and yet dropping profound observations about humans that are all too relatable even though they tend to go over Enn’s head. One of my favourite lines is from the second girl Enn meets at the party who despairs over being “embodied in a decaying lump of meat hanging on a frame of calcium”. Who hasn’t had that sort of an existential crisis before (although it may not have been so eloquently stated)? The ending of the graphic novel is a bright crescendo of swirls and rays, of nostalgia and the fantastical future, allowing for the reader to be taken on a cosmic journey along with Enn from the now questionable safety of a human kitchen on Earth.
Though I initially questioned the presentation of this graphic novel I later found myself appreciating Bá and Moon’s illustrations and the subtle clues they had put in about the girls’ otherworldliness in their surroundings. I understood the story’s implications better, suddenly more was at stake upon my second reading and there were more ideas to ponder about including the fragility of human relations, the yearning to be understood, and of course the power of poetry because “you cannot hear a poem without it changing you”. The graphic novel is still an easy read, even the second time round, but it’s a valuable one and I would recommend it to any fan of Neil Gaiman.