Review: Habibi, Craig Thompson

Nyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyynnnnnnnnggggg. Come on, dude.

Is what I was saying throughout most of Habibi. I wanted to be saying what I was saying throughout most of Thompson’s previous book, Blankets, which was nothing actually because I was so breathless from the beauty of the story and the illustrations. I wanted that to be the case with Habibi, and occasionally it was, like when the characters were telling each other stories from Muslim traditions. Craig Thompson never didn’t succeed at making his stories beautiful. If he had stuck to this, we’d be having a very different review right now.

Let me back up. Described by Thompson as a fairy tale, Habibi is set in the fictional country of Wanatolia, an Arabian Nightsy place complete with harems and sultans and deserts. Dodola is raising a small boy named Zam, whom she rescued from slavers, on an abandoned ship in the middle of the desert. This is all very nice for Zam, up to a point (that point being the point at which he discovers how Dodola procures rations for them both), but then Dodola is taken away to be part of the sultan’s harem, and then a bunch of depressing stuff happens to both of them, and eventually (spoilers) they are reunited.

Basically, the book starts out lovely, but then gets super rapey. I do not like super rapey books. And here’s what it is: If your book is about real life, and you are careful, you can have a super rapey book. I might not want to read it, but I am far less likely to say “Come on dude” to you. If your book is a fairy tale and it’s super rapey, then that tends to fall into the realm of the unnecessary (as a rule! not always!). If you’re going to show sexual abuse, be prepared to deal with the emotional consequences for your characters. Don’t toss it in there because you need your characters to undergo many trials. When you do it that way, it makes me feel icky. It’s not that I’m trying to hide from the fact that rape is a real thing, it’s that I need books to treat it like a real thing, and give it the weight it deserves.

Leaving out the questionable way Thompson deals with rape in this book, the misery the characters go through was just too much misery. It was too much misery in too episodic and haphazard a way. They bounced from one miserable life to another miserable life, steady being miserable, that shorthand thing of making characters sympathetic by inflicting misery on them. There’s something to be said for putting your characters through hell, and I’m all for it, I really am, I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer as much as the next geeky girl, but you still have to make them recognizable people whose experiences change them. I didn’t feel anything for Dodola and Zam, I just sort of wanted the book to be over.

Boo. I was so excited for this book and I ended up not liking it at all and sort of wanting to give Craig Thompson the look of squinty-eyed wrath at which my family excels. I wish it had been one huge long book of stories from Muslim tradition. That would have been gorgeous and exciting and wonderful. Instead it was occasionally gorgeous and exciting and wonderful, but overwhelmingly unawesome. I’m going to go reread Blankets and make myself love Craig Thompson again.

But don’t take my word for it!

Review: Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale, the Brothers Whedon

Okay, nobody really calls them the Brothers Whedon. But perhaps they should.

The Shepherd’s Tale is the story of Shepherd Book from Firefly. If you are not a fan of Firefly, what the hell, dude? Why are you reading this review instead of watching Firefly from start to finish? I’m only going to spoil it anyway so you might as well trot along and watch it. I promise it will be worth your time. If you are a fan of Firefly, you are probably aware that Shepherd Derrial Book is a man with a mysterious past. From his keen knowledge of what the bad guys are thinking, to the fancy-pants medical treatment the Alliance gives him for free, to the time that one scary guy was all “That’s no Shepherd,” you know the man has a story to tell (“That’s my whole problem with picking up tourists; they ain’t never what they claim to be”).

The Shepherd’s Tale tells that story. It begins at the end, when the Operative has ordered an attack on Book’s home planet, and skips back and back and back in Book’s life. Before he was fighting for his life on a planet called Haven, he was shipping out on a ship called Serenity, and giving strawberries to a bright-faced girl with a parasol; and before that…you’ll have to read it to find out.

But I warn you that it left me unsatisfied. It was clunky. The transitions between time periods were TV show transitions, where Scene A ends, and Scene B starts with a line of dialogue that could have been a response to the last thing that happened in Scene A, but in fact is the beginning of Scene B. It doesn’t work quite as well in comics.

A bigger problem, as far as clunkiness goes, is that the revelation of the backstory of a character in an ensemble cast isn’t interesting when it involves zero interaction with said ensemble cast. As I was reading the comic, I kept being ZOMG, Mal’s going to be upset when he finds out about this! and then feeling sad that I would never, ever get to see Mal’s reaction to it. Book’s story is interesting on its own, I suppose, but I kept comparing it to how amazing it would have been if it had been revealed in dribs and drabs over many happy (well, this is Joss Whedon; over many bleak but enjoyable) seasons of Firefly.

Firefly comics just make my heart hurt from missing Firefly. I hate it that the show was canceled, and the movie was insufficiently successful to cause future movies to get made. I wanted so much more. I wanted Saffron to come back (and maybe in my head, she comes back and happens to mention to Mal that she didn’t kiss Inara NOT THAT I HAVE THOUGHT ABOUT THIS TOO MUCH OR ANYTHING). I wanted Inara’s and Shepherd Book’s backstories revealed, slowly, with reaction shots and snide comments from the rest of the crew. I hoped possibly there would be an episode where the Alliance tried to use Simon’s worthless parents to get at him and River. I may or may not have invented a whole scenario where Zoe got pregnant and Jayne was adorably overprotective of her.

Basically I just want Firefly back. I want it back. Please come back.

Review: Exit Wounds, Rutu Modan

Exit Wounds was a gift from Ella, formerly of Box of Books and now of Now with Pictures. Ella is fantastic. She has a series of picture vignettes about her imaginary ancestors that you really need to go investigate right now. (Here is the first one.) One time she drew an awesome picture of a memory I shared with her about playing hurricane with my sisters as a kid. Recently I came home from a smashing day of discovering $3 margaritas, and found, fittingly, a box of books on my doorstep from Ella. It contained Cold Comfort Farm, Exit Wounds, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Ratking, and The Circular Staircase. I was so excited! Having been in a minor graphic novel slump, I started with Exit Wounds. When I opened it, I discovered Ella had enclosed this adorable picture of a platypus. Yay.

Exit Wounds is all about a taxi driver in Tel Aviv called Koby Franco who is contacted by a woman named Nuni. Nuni, who has been romantically involved with Koby’s estranged father Gabriel, has begun to worry that Gabriel was killed in a recent train station bombing. She hasn’t heard from him (in several weeks, as it turns out); one of the bodies from the explosion has not yet been identified; and when Koby visits his father’s apartment, he finds it empty, with mold growing on the food in the kitchen. Though Koby is disgusted with his father for his father’s many affairs, particularly this most recent one with the much-younger Nuni, he begins to worry. He says this, which I love:

I thought I would never want to see him again as long as I lived. But now I realized that I was always sure we would meet again, sometime in the distant future. We’d finish the fight we’d been having our whole lives and then he would finally apologize.

(I sometimes worry that I’m ruining things for you by sharing the best (to me) bits of a book I’ve read. Like if I read Lolita and quoted that line about making it up very gently in my review. Only that line really depends on context to achieve its maximum chilling effect, and I think the thing I’ve just quoted is poignant anyway. Notice how I haven’t actually said the line from Lolita. By the way, you should read Lolita.)

Exit Wounds is a lovely and strange and unpredictable story. With a plot that could incline towards melodrama (a fault of which, again, I am generally extremely forgiving), Exit Wounds is surprisingly quiet and restrained. There’s never a big reveal, or a Shocking Plot Twist™, just a lot of small character moments that show you how little people are knowable, even the people theoretically closest to you.

I also liked it that Exit Wounds talked about the way its characters look. I really love it when comics do this. Sometimes they leave it alone, because it’s easy for a traditional book to say “it was like a Greek face, very pure in outline” or “an abrupt deficiency where the suave sign of benevolence should have risen”. In a graphic novel your artist has to be able to draw what you’re describing, and artists’ styles differ so much. A beautiful character can look all weird and elongated if that’s how the artist draws, and then I am always thinking, Wait, do the other characters notice her freakishly long neck and toothpick wrists? So I like it when a graphic novel hangs a lampshade on it. (“I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”) Nuni talks about being self-conscious about the way she looks, that she’s not beautiful and slim and all the rest of it. Yay to Rutu Modan for having a non-slim-beautiful woman, and yay for depicting it in pictures and then talking about it.

Graphic novel slump semi-busted! I would now like to have a streak of graphic novels to read and enjoy as much as I did Exit Wounds. Meantime I am reading one issue of Sandman a day, right before bed. I tried this once before, when I was reading it for the first time, but I only made it halfway through A Game of You before I had to give up and read it all at once. This time I know what happens in the end, so it should be okay.

Also read Exit Wounds:

A Striped Armchair
Book Addiction
Boston Bibliophile
Largehearted Boy

Did I miss yours? Tell me!

Review: I Kill Giants, Joe Kelly and J. M. Ken Niimura

Sigh. Sigh. Sigh. Sigh.

I will never stop sighing. Every time my eye falls on this book, I heave a huge sigh. Oh, expectations. I am your slave and you always make my life more difficult if you possibly, possibly can. Why are you like this? It has been ten thousand years since I read a graphic novel that made my heart sing. Yes. Ten thousand. That’s how many years it has been. I haven’t read a graphic novel that made my heart sing since the year 7990 BCE.

Unless Gunnerkrigg Court and The Unwritten count. Just, like, no graphic novel has blown me away for a while now. I loved Bayou and Ordinary Victories, but those were, as previously mentioned, ten thousand years ago. I wanted I Kill Giants to rock my world, and although it was good, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting (hoping).

I Kill Giants is good. It is good! It’s good! It’s about a ten-year-old girl called Barbara who claims that her goal in life is to hunt and kill giants. She wears bunny ears and acts up in school, and for reasons that are not explained, she is terrified to go upstairs. She resents and quarrels with her older sister, who is attempting to take care of everything at home, the cooking and the talking about problems. But Barbara isn’t having any. Nor is she interested in discussing her issues with the guidance counselor at work, who tries to talk to her about her problems with the teachers and other kids.

The thing is, the thing is — here’s the thing. I am not the biggest fan this world has ever seen of magical realism. It’s all well enough in its place, and sometimes I like it a reasonable amount, but most of the time I would say I would rather have magic, or realism. Not some half-ass both-at-once deal. I make exceptions for Salman Rushdie. That’s it. Just Salman Rushdie. If, upon mature reflection, you find yourself not to be Salman Rushdie (or, I guess, okay, Helen Oyeyemi), then make the smart decision: Don’t write magical realism. JUST PICK A SIDE.

Please tell me what graphic novels to read. I’m begging you. I miss them. I want to reread the Sandman, but when I get done with the Sandman, I want to have something equally amazing to read. Surely there is something? I want the Diana Wynne Jones of graphic novels! Which is…yes, the Sandman. Shut up. I want the other Diana Wynne Jones of graphic novels! I will perish if I do not get this straightaway!

I spent this whole weekend in my pajamas watching movies, writing blog posts, and reading Sandman. This may mean that I don’t deserve any good graphic novels, or it may mean I had a long and stressful week and deserve good graphic novels times infinity. I’m inclined toward the latter.

Believe these reviews, not mine:

things mean a lot
Rebecca Reads
The Zen Leaf
Stuff As Dreams Are Made On
Reading Rants
Book Sake

As ever, please tell me if I missed yours!

Runaways (vol. 1), Brian K. Vaughn and Adrian Adolpha

Runaways has been sounding wonderful to me for a while now. It’s a comic book about a group of kids whose parents turn out to be supervillains. The kids witness their parents sacrificing a young woman; duly horrified, they run away from home. Their parents are supervillains and they all run away! Supervillains! Their parents are supervillains! As premises for comic books go, this is a fun one. With runaway children, and parents that are supervillains. It was adorable and charming in many ways.

I am sitting here heaving huge sighs of unhappiness, because I wanted to and in many ways did like this book. It made reference to The Prisoner. The kids all have different powers and do different things. I think it’s possible that if I had read this book in single issues, one at a time over several weeks, rather than in a big compendium of the whole run of comics, the problem that bothered the crap out of me would have bothered me less. But I didn’t do that. I read it all in one day, on the drive to and then back from visiting my grandmother.

Briefly, what stopped me enjoying Runaways was race stuff. I wasn’t happy with the portrayal of the only set of black parents. I’m about to spoil a whole bunch of things about this volume of the series, so if you don’t want to know, stop reading. Fairly enormous spoilers follow.

First of all, there are twelve parents, but the guy to shank the poor, innocent, teenage girl at the beginning is the black father. Then it’s the black mother who shoots the cop nonfatally, and subsequently, when the cop gets shot fatally, guess who does it? The black father! Oh, yeah, and check out the backstory. All the parents were engaged in their various activities when they were summoned by the Super Evil Evil People, who then set them on the path to supervillainy. One set of parents were scientists, one time-travellers, one mutants being persecuted, one aliens checking out the earth, and one magicians. Guess what the black parents were doing before they became supervillains? They were petty thieves! They robbed people with guns! That’s what they did before they became supervillains. Nice, eh?

Oh, but wait, I am not quite done. Hold for the really huge spoilers. When the book starts, and the kids are first running away, the parents get a note that basically says Dear parents, I still love and trust you and will tell you where we are soon; and then throughout the book you are always wondering who the mole is. Personally, I was hoping that the note was part of a cleverly masterminded plan to fool the parents. I was hoping that, and ignoring evidence to the contrary, because–why? Because I didn’t want the mole to be the one of the kids never really under serious suspicion of being the mole. But it was. It was the black kid. Who then dies in the final battle.

In short, the black characters seemed disproportionately criminal and wicked compared to the others, without any real plot reason for them to be that way. And the longer the book went on, and the more I wanted to find it fun and awesome, the more I felt I could not find it fun and awesome because I was so uncomfortable with the race stuff. Frown.

Burma Chronicles & Love and Rockets

And now for some comics that did not rock my world but count towards the Graphic Novels Challenge anyway:

Burma Chronicles, Guy Delisle

Once again Guy Delisle, French-Canadian animator and cartoonist, went a-traveling to a faraway land with an oppressive regime.  In this case, his wife Nadège was working for Médecins sans Frontières (MSF); Nadège, Guy, and their small son Louis take off for Burma (Myanmar) for a year.  Delisle notes at the beginning of the book that the UN has recognized the regime and calls it Myanmar, but that many countries, including Canada, have not.  Hence Burma.

If I hadn’t read Pyongyang first, I think I’d have liked Burma Chronicles better. Burma Chronicles is charming, with keenly noted observations of day-to-day life in Burma, but Pyongyang was so chilling and scary that it was hard for this one to live up to it.  Because Delisle was in Burma longer than he was in North Korea, he got to know people better, but you’d never know it from the book.  He has an eye for detail but not an ear for conversation.  His wife’s present throughout the book, and I never had any idea what she was like.

This isn’t to say that I no longer love Guy Delisle.  At first his wife believes that they will be going to Guatemala rather than Burma, and Delisle immediately pops Star Trek into the DVD player and starts playing it in Spanish.  A man after my own heart.  I love watching Buffy in French.  Plus there’s a picture of him trying to bathe his son in a shower that’s worth the price of admission all by itself.  Tip: Don’t try to bathe a baby in the shower.

Love and Rockets, vol. 1, by the Hernandez Brothers

Am I stupid?  Stupid in the head?  Very, very stupid?  I think I must be extremely stupid, y’all, because I swear to Jesus, I was reading these stories and they did not make sense to my brain.  I have heard that Love and Rockets is glorious.  It may be glorious but it is right over my head.

Any thoughts on this?  If you loved Love and Rockets, please tell me what I’m missing.  I have heard good things!  I don’t want to lose a good graphic novel series around being a fail reader.  Should I persist into volume two?  Now that Delisle has given me a taste for travel writing, do you have any recommendations along that line?  Good travel books?  Anyone?

Pyongyang, Guy Delisle

I first heard about Guy Delisle over at A Life in Books, when Lesley reviewed Pyongyang, and since then it seems he’s been popping up all over the place.  Delisle writes travelogues in comics form of the time he has spent living in countries with oppressive regimes, which is a slightly weird thing to be known for, but never mind.  Pyongyang chronicles Delisle’s two-month stay in North Korea, where he is supervising the animation of a children’s cartoon.

From the first page I loved Pyongyang.  Delisle starts by excerpting the travel information he’s received about going to North Korea.  “Do not do anything on your own,” says one of them, and indeed Delisle is not supposed to go anywhere without his guide.  The guide is responsible for ensuring that Delisle sees and hears the best of North Korea, and is always taking him to see monuments of Kim Jong-Il, or pointing out “volunteers” cleaning up roads or picking up trash.

Delisle has an excellent eye for small, chilling details of life in North Korea.  At one point he notes that only married men with children are permitted to travel outside of North Korea.  He leaves it at that, but the implication is obvious.  What creeped me out the most is when Delisle realizes he hasn’t seen any handicapped people since coming to North Korea.  He asks his guide, and the guide says there are none.  Everyone in North Korea is born strong and healthy and intelligent.

I always think it must be very difficult to end a travelogue.  The obvious ending to a travelogue is, And then I went home, but that’s not necessarily very satisfying, particularly if, as in Delisle’s case, you have been writing about some serious, important issues.  Pyongyang doesn’t just end, it has an ending.  Props, Guy Delisle.

I am afraid that Burma Chronicles will be unable to meet the standard set by Pyongyang, but so far it is also good.  Updates as warranted.  This review brought to you by the Graphic Novels Challenge!  Which I’d completely forgotten about, along with all my other challenges, until I noticed that someone else had read Pyongyang for the Graphic Novels Challenge, so I guess I cannot really say that this review was, in fact, brought to you by the Graphic Novels Challenge.  That reminds me, I bet some of the books I have read recently can go towards some of my other challenges, and I didn’t even notice.  Dear, dear, dear, I am plainly teetering on the edge of senility here.

Other people reviewed it too:

A Life in Books
A Striped Armchair
The Captive Reader
The Bookling
Helen’s Book Blog

Have I missed yours?  Tell me and I’ll add a link!