Posts tagged ‘graphic novel’

January 12, 2011

Book Review: Stitches by David Small

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STITCHES: A MEMOIR
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

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July 30, 2009

Review of Britten and Brulightly by Rachel Heston Davis

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Britten and Brulightly
by Hannah Berry

 

The world of comic books and graphic novels is sadly lacking in female contributors, but new voices are beginning to appear on the scene. One such writer is Hannah Berry with her debut graphic novel Britten and Brulightly, published first in Britain but recently released in the United States by Metropolitan Books. With a confident artistic style and a unique take on the PI/murder mystery angle, it establishes Berry as a woman cartoonist able to think for herself. She neither crafts a female-centric story nor imitates a male style just to fit in.

 

Private investigator Fernandez Britten became a detective to uncover truth and help people. But after sixteen years he’s uncovered nothing but pain and infidelity in the lives of his clients. Now middle-aged, Britten feels the despair of a powerless man who’s seen too much ugliness. He sports purple bags at his eyes and a weary demeanor.

 

But when young Charlotte Maughton asks him to investigate the death of her fiancé, Britten feels a long-lost spark of enthusiasm. The case will take him to the publishing office of Charlotte’s father Maurice, to the home of a cheating spouse from a previous case, and to a popular restaurant where the waiters have ears like sponges—and shaky loyalties.

 

Right from the start, Britten and Brulightly demands to be taken on its own terms. Far from the hard-edged, chain smoking private eye of comic books past, Britten empathizes with his clients to the point of depression. He moves this literary genre beyond just fitting puzzle pieces together, to a place of philosophical musing about truth and emotional well-being. He comes to believe that some mysteries deserve to stay buried, turning black-and-white notions of justice into a gray area.

 

Berry’s unique art matches the tone of the story. Shades of gray and washed-out colors emphasize Britten’s depressed state, along with bleak building interiors and rainy days outside. The confident drawing manages stark realism and a cartoonish flavor at the same time, with each character given exaggerated features (Britten’s nose rivals that of Cyrano de Bergerac, and Charlotte Maughton could cut a block of cheese with the hard lines of her cheeks).

 

Perhaps the most striking of Berry’s inventions is Stewart Brulightly, a talking teabag who resides in Britten’s pocket. Brulightly serves as comic relief, making quips on the action and gazing after pretty women, much to Britten’s chagrin. But he’s also a mirror, reflecting a side of Britten that was lost long ago—enthusiasm, humor, a zest for love and life.

 

To Hannah Berry’s credit, the authenticity of this talking tea bag is never questioned by the reader. There’s no hint that Britten is imagining him for fun, or going mad and hearing voices; Brulightly is just another character. The story takes him for granted, and so does the audience.

 

The novel has only one weak point: side characters who function as stereotypes. Maurice Maughton is the powerful-but-blackmailed man trying to threaten the investigator away. His rich wife oozes frigidity and contempt. Charlotte is the grieving lover desperate for answers. Britten’s religious neighbor spews unbelievably self-righteous lectures.

 

But apart from that, Britten and Brulightly is a handsome first work for Berry. Fans of old-school detective mysteries will find a fresh voice here, art-lovers will spend time examining every page, and other women cartoonists will be inspired by the high quality of the work. Readers’ reactions to the storyline will vary depending on their views of truth, human suffering, and the possibility of redeeming a broken life.
~ review by Rachel Heston Davis

 

 

Rachel Heston Davis lives in southern Illinois with her husband and two pet rats. An aspiring YA author and graphic novelist, Rachel spends her days having adventures on the page with her favorite invented protagonists. Check out her blog Up and Writing.

June 25, 2009

Female Force – kind of…

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Bluewater Productions, a graphic novel and comic book production company, announced the addition of two new titles to their “Female Force” series: Barbara Walters (due in October) and Caroline Kennedy (out this week). Female Force is a line of biographical comic books “featuring some of the most influential women of our time” and includes issues about Hilary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Michelle Obama.

 

I haven’t read anything in the Female Force series so I can’t comment on the actual quality of the illustrations or writing, though I have a sinking feeling they’re probably a lot like those biographical illustrated books about dead presidents I was forced to write book reports about in 3rd grade. The type where adults tried–and actually believed–they could win the hearts and minds of children with a few snappy drawings and we wouldn’t think we were learning.

 

The graphic novel and the comic book world is notoriously male-centric and, aside from a few willful educators, I’m not sure who is the intended audience for “Female Force.” While Bluewater does get props for choosing living icons, so far the women selected for “Female Force” mostly represent a white, affluent class of women (Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey excepted) who are already visible role models to the graphic novel fans even remotely likely to pick up the bio-comics.

 

The comics are aimed at age 13 and up, according to the Bluewater website, and I’m curious: Are they merely an illustrated laundry list of all the ways Caroline Kennedy is a “strong female role model” (as Bluewater states is the purpose behind the line)? Or is an attempt made to examine the constraints individual women face as they challenge the gender paradigm? Is the controversy behind Palin’s pick as veep contender, in attempt to draw Hilary voters away from Barack, discussed at all? Or does each woman exist in her own bubble of female awesomeness? Where’s the larger community here? The movement that propelled all these women forward?

 

“It’s not necessarily about wielding political power,” Bluewater president Darren Davis said in the press release for Kennedy’s book. “But rather through the sum [of] their influence they shape the debate.” That’s assuming Female Force acknowledges a debate at all.