Archive for the ‘ Graphic Novels Challenge ’ Category

REVIEW: “Maus” by Art Spiegelman

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale
I – My Father Bleeds History
II – …And Here My Troubles Began

Art Spiegelman
Penguin Books, 2003

[WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE, 1992]

CHALLENGE(S): 451 Challenge, Book Awards Challenge, Graphic Novels Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 25 May 2010

I have read Holocaust stories before. Like most people, I am familiar with the Diary of Anne Frank, and I have both read and watched several World War II novels and movies. There is something about such large-scale, institutionalized violence that makes me go back to that period again and again, trying to make sense of it – to really feel what it must have been like, on both sides. As Spiegelman himself notes, it is not something that you can easily get your head around, and in general I have come away from such narratives without really understanding.

That is, until Maus.

I was rather reluctant to begin reading it at first. The art is not a style I find particularly prepossessing, and in the beginning it seemed off-putting; oddly childish for such a serious subject. Spiegelman has drawn each character as a particular animal loosely corresponding to their race – the Germans are cats, the Jews mice, the Poles pigs, the Americans dogs, and so on. All of the panels are in black and white, and to my mind they are over-filled, which made it slightly tiresome to read. However, this is personal preference, and once I began reading my lack of affection for the aesthetic style simply ceased to matter.

Maus is the semi-autobiographical memoir of one man’s survival, from pre-war Poland to the dreaded Auschwitz to his final escape at the end of the war. It is also the story of one man’s conflicted relationship with his father, his guilt for his own lack of understanding, and the way the effects of the Holocaust have echoed for generations. The first part of the book covers from the mid-1930s to the winter of 1944, during which time we follow Vladek Spiegelman as he meets and marries Art’s mother, gets called up to the army and becomes a prisoner of war. The second part begins after his escape from the POW camp, when he is betrayed to the Germans and taken, with his wife, to a concentration camp. The narrative switches neatly and seamlessly from past to present, following the story of how the book was created as well as the tale of Vladek’s experiences.

From the beginning, Vladek is not what you might call an easy man to like. He is difficult, suspicious, money-oriented and perhaps a little bit arrogant. He is also resourceful, brave and intelligent. His character is written large across every page, in many ways – as Art himself later remarks – a Jewish caricature, and he only grows more cantankerous as the book winds on. Art’s narrative here is unflinching: he writes with compassion, love, and impatience, a conflicted mixture that any adult child of aging parents can identify with. It is clear his father drives him crazy – it is also clear that he loves and wants to understand him. He is forced to act as both the loving son and the objective chronicler, and this dual role is very difficult to handle, particularly after his father’s death. Nevertheless, he incorporates his personal struggles into the story with an honesty that is as surprising as it is touching.

The memoir itself is vivid and nuanced. There is no attempt to set this up as merely a victim-and-oppressor narrative; we meet Jews who are not necessarily nice people, such as Vladek himself, and his millionaire father-in-law – good people who nevertheless come to horrible ends – Poles who will help them, but only for a price – even one German shell-shocked by the extent of the brutality he encounters in Birkenau. Nor does the Vladek survive through a mixture of luck and his own good nature, as is at times too common in fictionalized accounts: Vladek takes an active part in everything that happens to him, always aware, always looking for a way to escape and to survive. Those attributes which make him manipulative and annoying in the present are the same characteristics which kept him alive in the past, and thus the relation of his experiences serves as an explanation for the current story as well as a story in itself. In short, Art Spiegelman gives us the real story of his father’s life, unencumbered by attempts to simplify the conflict or diminish the pain it inflicted.

I am fairly confident that Maus will continue to haunt me for a long time to come. It is a compelling, amazing read that ends on a beautiful note which (I confess) almost brought me to tears. It is also painful, shocking and uncomfortable: like seeing all the negative parts of human nature on display in excruciating detail. In spite, or possibly because of, this, I found it deeply moving and difficult to put down. Highly recommended.

RATING:

CymLowell

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REVIEW: “Will Eisner’s The Spirit” (Vol. 1) by Darwyn Cooke

Will Eisner’s The Spirit

Darwyn Cooke
DC Comics, 2007

Finished 3 May 2010

I was reading a book on the history of graphic novels (specifically, comics of the “Golden Age”) and when I read the synopsis for Will Eisner’s The Spirit I thought it sounded like another series I would really enjoy. So when I saw this book at the library I had to pick it up. Of course, it’s not the original, but I didn’t know that to begin with, and in any case it was still quite enjoyable. From the Goodreads summary:

Darwyn Cooke – the visionary creator of the acclaimed DC: THE NEW FRONTIER — turns his attention to the classic Will Eisner creation The Spirit in this amazing hardcover collecting the first six issues of the new series from DC Comics plus the BATMAN/THE SPIRIT special! In these thrilling tales. Cooke maintains the “spirit” of Eisner’s creation but brings his own original sensibilities to the character. The Spirit, a.k.a. Denny Colt, Commissioner Dolan, and his Daughter Ellen are reintroduced in this go-for-broke, shoot-the-lights-out collection of crime stories filled with action, adventure, humor and sexy girls!

It’s pretty much a superhero-type story, except in this case the main character, Denny Colt, is presumed dead after an accident, shoved in a tomb and forgotten about. Except for the fact that he’s not actually dead: the ‘poison’ he ingested simply made it look like he was. So, he comes back to life and takes advantage of his deceased status in order to fight crime as the vigilante “The Spirit.”

The art was somewhat – simplistic, shall we say, but the stories were engaging and I enjoyed the book. It definitely helps to know the back story before you start reading, as the author apparently presumes his readers are all male comic book fans from way back (don’t you hate it when authors do that?). I wouldn’t really count this as a “Graphic Novel” per se since it’s actually a collection of comic books, but it needs a category so that’s where it’s going for the time being.

When it comes down to it, it was kind of blah. A fun, quick read, but not one that left a lasting impression or about which I have much to say. I’m still interested in tracking down the original, though, so it wasn’t all bad!

RATING:

REVIEW: “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home

Alison Bechdel
Houghton Miffin, 2006

CHALLENGE(S): Graphic Novels Challenge, GLBT Challenge (mini)

Finished 18 April 2010

When I saw that this book had finally come in at the library, I actually did a little dance of readerly joy. I enjoyed Essential Dykes to Watch Out For so much that I was delighted to have the chance to read Bechdel’s graphic novel/memoir. I already had a deep fondness for her artistic style and knew she had a brilliant sense of humour, so I was pretty much guaranteed to enjoy this even before I turned the first page.

From the Goodreads summary:

Meet Alison’s father, a historic preservation expert and obsessive restorer of the family’s Victorian house, a third-generation funeral home director, a high school English teacher, an icily distant parent, and a closeted homosexual who, as it turns out, is involved with male students and a family babysitter. Through narrative that is alternately heartbreaking and fiercely funny, we are drawn into a daughter’s complex yearning for her father. And yet, apart from assigned stints dusting caskets at the family-owned “fun home,” as Alison and her brothers call it, the relationship achieves its most intimate expression through the shared code of books. When Alison comes out as homosexual herself in late adolescence, the denouement is swift . . . graphic . . . and redemptive.

I remember once discussing characters in a TV show with my mother. I felt particularly empathetic towards one of the male characters, and said so, remarking that I saw a lot of myself in him (sadly, I forget which show we were watching now). She stared at me for a moment, and said something which more or less boiled down to: “I’d never have thought of relating to a character that was not female.” Cue astonishment. She wasn’t exactly being judgmental, but her declaration brought me up short. Why did I connect with this character so much, when he was a guy (which, at that age, was pretty much akin to saying “another species”)? Did it matter that he was a guy? Eventually, I came to the conclusion that humanity is something so basic that it transcends those constructs like gender that we attach to it; something which had apparently sunk into my subconscious well before it actually filtered through to my conscious brain.

Reading Fun Home was like going through a similar experience, only this time from Bechdel’s point of view. Her discoveries about her father and his sexuality, running parallel to the acknowledgement of her own, were well told and conveyed significant emotional punch. The story was obviously centered on the father-daughter relationship, but it also spoke more generally about the parent-child bond and that moment when you realize, to your astonishment (and sometimes horror), that your parents are not demi-gods but human beings, with their own thoughts, feelings and secrets that you are not always privy to. It was also the story of Bechdel’s coming to terms with who her father was and who he wasn’t; accepting both his successes and his failures as a real, live human being rather than solely in his role as ‘her father.’

What particularly appealed to me was Bechdel’s manner of approach: level-headed, objective and analytical, with a dash of sardonic humour. There was no attempt to form arbitrary moral judgments or direct the reader’s opinion, just an open exploration of facts and feelings. I particularly appreciated her ability to relate her emotions without becoming cloying or cliche – she may be a tad cynical at times, but her unflinching honesty is as refreshing as it is entertaining.

Quite frankly, there is very little I can say against this book. Bechdel has an uncanny knack for cutting right to the heart of the matter, and her illustrations were wonderful (as always). The insightful literary analysis in the commentary and the deft intermingling of Bechdel’s own coming-out story was just the icing on the cake.

A book that challenges intellectually and emotionally, while still managing to make you laugh aloud. Definitely recommended.

RATING:

Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight

Introducing a new feature! I’ve been thinking lately that I really should take a closer look at what some of the other bloggers around are reading. Some of their reviews are fantastic, and  I can’t wait to get my hands on a lot of these books. So I thought I would take some time share the ones that particularly caught my interest each week.

  1. Gods Behaving Badly at eclectic/eccentric [World Religions Challenge]
  2. Fun Home at layersofthought.net [GLBT Challenge]
  3. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao at Musings of a Literary Dilettante [Awards Challenge]
  4. Purple Hibiscus at GAL Novelty [Social Justice Challenge]
  5. The Secret Wife at Reading the Past [Royal Mistresses Challenge]

I also have a new challenge to participate in: the Graphic Novels Challenge! I’m only going to count the ‘real’ GN’s like From Hell and so on for this one, because it gives me a good excuse to read them. I’ll be participating at Expert (10+) level this year.