Archive for ‘Graphic Novel’

January 12, 2011

Book Review: Stitches by David Small

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by David Small

W. W. Norton Company
(September 2010 paperback, $14.95, 329 pages)

In the well done graphic novel the story surpasses both words and illustrations. With Stitches, David Small brilliantly writes and illustrates such a graphic novel.

Stitches is a sad autobiographical tale of Small’s childhood in Detroit, Michigan in the 1950s and the bulk of it is drawn from the memory of boy from age 6 to 15. A child of a wretchedly unhappy home where furious silences speak louder than screaming fights, the reader enters a world in which a mother’s silent fury is realized by a cough, a slam of a cabinet or the placement of a fork on the dinner table. For reasons unknown to Small as a child, his mother sets the dour tone of the household for hours, days or weeks at a time.

The youngest son of a radiologist father and a 1950’s housewife mother, Small brilliantly illustrates the tale of his neglected youth as a byproduct of his parents miserably unhappy marriage. Because words are never assigned to the deep unhappiness that envelopes his childhood, each family member develops a language to process the frustration and anger. Small’s father beats a punching bag in the basement. His older brother Ted bangs on his drums. Small gets sick. Born an irritable baby prone to bouts of colic and respiratory illness, he gets home-treated with shots, medicine and enemas. Thanks to the marvels of 1950’s medicine he also receives multiple sessions of high dosage radiation therapy for his sinusitis, administered by his father.

A growth appears on Small’s neck at age 11. Brought to attention by a friend of his mother, it takes three years for his parents to actually pursue diagnosis and treatment. The growth turns out to be a malignant tumor due to the repeated radiation exposure. This truth he discoverers on his own rather than being told. He undergoes radical neck surgery. His right vocal chord is cut and he is left without a voice. The surgery leaves his, “smooth young throat slashed and laced back up like a bloody boot.” Small struggles to find a voice and to conquer the demons of his youth.

This is a jarring tale. However, it manages to avoid the maudlin pitfalls of the “survivor” who overcomes tragic odds. It does not make Small a stereotypical “hero” who conquers the demons of his past. These are the all-too predictable pitfalls in many graphic novels. Instead, this tale is a truthful look at a painful past. With insight, Stitches illustrates memories of place and time which take the reader into Small’s consciousness. At times whimsical and magical, then is suddenly devastatingly sad and harsh, Stitches is moving yet it is never burdened with self-pity, or miraculously, with spite.

Small’s ink lines and washes are masterful. His use of space and expression illustrate volumes of words that are never spoken. He perfectly captures adult expressions from the eyes and understanding of a child: his mother’s crushing fury, his father’s aloof distance, his grandmother’s inconceivable insanity, a disapproving and confused frown from his parents friends and the kind eyes of his psychiatrist. Minimal use of ink and dialogue paint the greater picture of Small’s vulnerability during his childhood. Small remarkably and exquisitely captures the essence of the time and place without imparting distorted feelings or superimposing adult interpretations. This cathartic memoir of deep, disturbing loss is ultimately a testament of acceptance, forgiveness and moving on.

– reviewed by Sweetman

November 30, 2010

Fiction + Hollywood = A Very Beautiful Love Affair?

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Hollywood films frequently borrow from literary (and sometimes not so literary) writers. This year, everything from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, graphic novels Tamara Drewe by Posy Simonds and the Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O’Malley, Elizabeth Gilbert’s heartfelt memoir Eat, Pray Love and the biopic on Allen Ginsberg, “Howl,” appeared on the silver screen.

What’s missing from this list? A little Gothic romanticism perhaps?

Indie filmmaker Cary Fukunaga (“Sin Nombre”) has a new adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre set for release in March 2011 and starring Mia Wasikowska (“Alice in Wonderland,” “The Kids Are All Right”), Dame Judi Dench (does she really need an introduction?), Michael Fassbender (“Inglourious Basterds”), and Sally Hawkins (“Tipping the Velvet,” “An Education”).

Since the last good film adaptation of Gothic fiction was Alfred Hitchcock’s take on Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” let’s hope that Fukunaga’s “Jane Eyre” doesn’t disappoint. Check out the trailer below.



The other Hollywood-Book news is James Franco – actor, writer (his short story collection Palo Alto was published in October), PhD candidate in English literature at Yale, MFA student, performance artist, soap opera star and visual artist – is confirmed to host the Oscars with Anne Hathaway who, as far as we know, is only an actress. After hosting the Oscars, Franco will bow out of attending any post-award parties to clime Mt. Everest, end world hunger, negotiate a renewed cease fire between Israel and Palestine and rescue a kitten trapped in a tree.

October 25, 2010

CanLit Award Predictions

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CanLit awards season is heading into its last few weeks (our big three prizes will all be handed out by mid-November). Thus, it’s time for predictions, and, if you are a real lit-junkie, some serious bets. First, a few quiet observations.

What everyone is perhaps not so quietly talking about is Kathleen Winter’s triple nominations for the Giller Prize, Governor General’s Award and Writers’ Trust prize for her novel Annabel. It is Winter’s debut novel after her 2008 Winterset Award winning short story collection boYs.

Feeling two-thirds the heat as Kathleen Winter is Emma Donoghue, up for the Writers’ Trust and GG for her novel Room. The novel was also short-listed for the Man Booker earlier this fall.

There are lesser hopefuls that may surprise Canada with a big win after all. David Bergen’s new novel The Matter With Morris has had its share of recognition this season. It is up for the Giller and may just take the cake out of Winter’s mouth.

That said, it would be doggishly ironic if Sarah Selecky’s This Cake Is For The Party won the Giller. This is her debut work and has created considerable buzz in critic’s circles. Perhaps if the GG and Writer’s Trust accepted story collections, it would also approach taking those awards.

On to my predictions: be warned, the following is purely unfounded speculation.

On November 2, Michael Winter’s The Death Of Donna Whalen will win the Writers’ Trust award for fiction. In non-fiction, Sarah Leavitt will win for her graphic memoir Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me.

A week later on November 9, Emma Donoghue will win the Giller Prize for Room.

And in mid-November the Governor General’s Award for fiction will be presented to Kathleen Winter for Annabel. In non-fiction, Allan Casey will win for Lakeland: Journeys into the Soul of Canada.

August 4, 2010

Dog Days of Summer

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August is the time of summer when the sun, heat, and humidity (for some of us at least) crescendos to the maddening point. What to do on those 100 degree days when your air conditioner is broken and the city pool fails to charm? We suggest pouring yourself a glass of iced tea and sitting back with a good book. After reviewing several recommendations in summer reading, we at this give you the best of the best recommendations, including some of our own.

Alan Cheuse at NPR lists Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad as one of his summer reading picks. Structured like a music album, including an “A” side and a “B” side, Egan’s prose and talent shine on every page in what Cheuse calls an “episodic safari” that “stands as a brilliant, all-absorbing novel for the beach, the woods, or the air-conditioned apartment or city stoop while wearing your iPod.”

The folks at O Magazine (the magazine by Oprah) recommend The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, a novel about Rose Edelstein and her discovery, at age 8, that she can taste feelings in food. Rose’s gift brings her both pain and a special connection with a science whiz kid, George as Rose unwinds her family’s secrets in this unique coming-of-age novel.

Oprah’s gang also recommends Justin Cronin’s The Passage, the apocalyptic vampire sensation of the summer. In her review for the magazine, Bethanne Patrick says “Let others quibble over whether The Passage is thriller or literature; we see it as vital, tender, and compelling.”

Lucia Silvia, the book buyer for Portrait of a Bookstore, an indie bookstore in Studio City, California, recommends Karen Valby’s Welcome to Utopia: Notes from a Small Town. What begin as an assignment for Entertainment Weekly magazine ended up as Valby’s obsession for the curious magnetism of a town almost entirely divorced from pop culture: no fast food joints, no movie theaters or video rental stores, no bookstores. Silvia notes that “Valby’s account [of the small town] reads like a book-length New Yorker article — compulsively readable and deeply affecting.” Perfect for those of you who’ve plowed through every back issue The New Yorker has to offer.

Over at Flavorwire’s “grown-up summer reading list,” Stephanie Anderson, manager of WORD (an indie bookstore in Brooklyn), recommends China Mieville’s “fantastic and mindblowing” novel Kraken. Anderson also recommends John Water’s recent memoir Role Models, “a fantastic collection of hero worship” from the demented mind that brought us the film “Pink Flamingos” and, oddly, the family-friendly “Hairspray.”

The Southern Indie Booksellers Association has selected a basket full of books they call Summer Okra Picks, “great southern books, fresh off the vine” including the novels Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson and The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove by Susan Gregg Gilmore

Graphic novel fans have something to love during those long summer days, too. Graphic Novel Reporter has a long list of recommendations for kids, teens, and adults. Try reading The Playwright by Eddie Campbell and Daren White, “a dark comedy about the sex life of a celibate middle-aged man.” Or the 15th anniversary edition of Howard Cruse’s semi-autobiographical Stuck Rubber Baby, a graphic novel about “a close-knit group of young locals yearning to break from the conformity of their hometown through civil rights activism, folk music, and an upstart communality of race-mixing, gay-friendly nightclubs” that “is both deeply personal and epic in scope” with “an unforgettable supporting cast.”

this contributing writers had a few favorites to recommend for the summer, too.

Jordon Chiarelli recommends Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Jordon says, “Toole committed suicide more than 10 years before his manuscript even saw the eyes of a publisher in 1980. Chronicling the memorable slacker, Ignatius Reilly, around the rich city of New Orleans, the novel’s authour posthumously won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981.”

Jordon also recommends Look at the Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut: “When Vonnegut died a few years ago, we expected representatives of his estate to ransack his rough and personal work. They did. A collection of his unpublished fiction is the best of his worst, however it reminds us of how undeniably gifted and talented Vonnegut was.”

John Coleman said: “I always try to read The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson every summer. It’s a good beach book, full of adventure, and is easily taken without too much seriousness. Its island party story makes summer in the city bearable.”

Ursula K. Raphael recommends summer non-fiction reading with The Portable Patriot: Documents, Speeches, and Sermons That Compose the American Soul, edited by Joel Miller and Kristen Parrish. Ursula notes, “Not only does the book fits nicely into my purse for something to read, but it contains the a majority of documents that were (and, in some cases, still are) very influential in the shaping of the United States. This is an excellent reference book, packed with important information about the history of America. It has less to do with politics, and more to do with people believing & striving for something greater than themselves.”

Lacey N. Dunham writes: “I always enjoy reading short stories during the summer because they’re the perfect length for sitting in the sun while eating ice cream. Greg Hrbek‘s heartbreaking family story “Sagittarius,” reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 2009 and Danielle Evan‘s story about adolescent sexuality, “Virgins,” forthcoming in her book Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self were two of the most memorable I read this summer. I also enjoyed Brando Skyhorse’s novel-in-stories The Madonnas of Echo Park, a sweeping collection narrated by various Mexican immigrants and first generation Mexican-Americans living in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park.”

August 3, 2010

From Book to iPad: The Digital Graphic Novel

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Remember the “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories from when you were a kid? You read a page or two and then the narrative stopped so you could decide where you wanted to go next:


    If you decide to follow the dark hallway in the haunted house, go to page 14.
    No way! If you decide to leave through the back door and into the overgrown yard, go to page 18.


Inevitably, I always ended up either a coward or dead and yet I continued to hunt out the latest adventure from the library.

Cognito Comics and Tall Chair Inc. have introduced a sleeker, multimedia driven (not to mention more adult) concept that drove the books I loved as child. Calling it “a new immersive graphic entertainment experience,” the companies have teamed up to create Operation Ajax, a narrative non-fiction telling of the 1953 CIA backed coup to overthrow Iran’s prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, an event that shaped present political conflicts in the Middle East.

More than a graphic novel, Operation Ajax comes with an iPad app that will allow the reader to open up a world of additional information, from historical photos to original documents, without leaving the narrative. Several publishers, including Penguin, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette, have piloted similar “enhanced texts” for both novels and non-fiction books, The New York Times reported, but Operation Ajax, alongside the Tall Chair Active Reader app, is the first such for graphic novels.

In addition to historical documents and footnotes, Operation Ajax is an animated narrative. In an advanced reader’s copy mock-up on flash, I read part of Operation Ajax as Cognito Comics’ Executive Producer Daniel Burwen guided me through the text. The animation is fortunately sparse, a decision that differentiates the animated graphics in Operation Ajax, an enhanced graphic novel, from the animated graphics of something like Persepolis, the film. It’s a fine line to walk, and Burwen acknowledged as much during our conversation. Originally packed full of animated panels, the Cognito Comics team realized “less is more,” Burwen said. “We wanted something more elegant.”

Elegant also applies to the hidden passageways that take the reader beyond the narrative to embedded historical documents. Burwen emphasized that the Tall Chair Active Reader provides a reading experience different from clicking on links in a web browser and then making your way back to the story. The goal is stay within the pages of the book by having all the factual information and research that inspired the novel effortlessly available.

Burwen, whose professional background is in games, said he was looking to do something “with more of a social impact.” Although a fictional character created from an amalgamation of government agents is the conduit for telling the story in Operation Ajax, the narrative non-fiction follows historical events.

Investigative journalist Stephen Kinzer, author of All the Shah’s Men, the best-selling book about the CIA-backed Iranian coup, is working closely with the Cognito team to check historical accuracy on the illustrated spin of real events. Kinzer is also writing introductions to each chapter.

Operation Ajax will be available online this fall.

June 16, 2010

iPad Resolves Graphic Novel Controversy

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In time for Bloomsday, Apple reversed its decision to reject panels of Robert Berry’s graphic novel adaption of James Joyce’s Ulysess , titled Ulysess Seen, that contained nude drawings. Both the author and the publisher noted the irony that Joyce’s novel was the source of controversy 75 years ago in the U.S., after the U.S. appeals court overturned an obscenity ban on the novel but thanked Apple for reconsidering their case. In an article for The Washington Post , Berry poses a question about content, created by artists, and sellers of that content who must make decisions about what is acceptable to offer to a range of customers: “Who decides the way we see new content on these very exciting new devices: The artist reinterpreting them for a new and exciting venue, or the grocer or newstand seller who knows nothing about the content but talks incessantly about the kind of product they have to offer?”

Apple’s conservative taste in graphic novels also extended to a graphic novel adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest by Tom Bouden, which featured several panels of men kissing. Apple allowed the graphic novel for it’s iPad after resubmission. Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller noted that “we made a mistake.”

Apple’s initial decisions in both cases begs the question as to how much the visual element was the reason for the ban. The iPad carries hundreds of novels where nudity and same-sex relationships are discussed but, because the onus is on the reader to visualize these scenes, Apple can more easily justify offering these novels to their customers.

Read selections from Robert Berry’s adaptation of Joyce’s novel here.