Today we have three very different graphic novels. Matt Kindt’s Red Handed, a gorgeous, full-color novel with an intricately structured plot has been the source of a bit of debate. Kimberly over on Stacked.com, while granting the novel’s interest, found its experimental structure ultimately frustrating. And when I gave the book to one of my teen volunteers, she had a similar reaction. On the other hand, Booklist gave it a starred review, and PW called it “nothing short of exceptional.” VOYA hedged somewhere in between, giving the book a 4Q for its “dazzling techniques” but just a 3P, doubting its popularity with teens. As you’ll see from my starred review below, I side with Booklist and PW. While I see the book’s challenges–and it required a second read for me to grasp all its intricacies–I found those challenges to be well-worth the effort.
In contrast to Red Handed, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Raven Girl is simplicity itself, having been designed (and succeeding wonderfully) as a “new fairy tale.” Teens who know Niffenegger from the book or film of The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003) may be baffled by the change of style and topic, but Niffenegger has actually been creating illustrated books for years, with such intriguing books as The Adventuress (2005) and Three Incestuous Sisters (2006). Personally, I find her visual works to be far more successful than her novels, and I hope teens pick up this new one.
Somewhere between these two poles of complexity we have Zander Cannon’s Heck. In one way, this novel is a straightforward, linear story, illustrated in pure black and white. From another angle, though, it is a sly commentary on Dante’s Inferno and much else besides. Between these three novels, we can see the large range of artistic style, plotting, and theme in the modern graphic novel.
* KINDT, Matt. Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes. 272p. First Second. May 2013. Tr $26.99. ISBN 978-1-59643-662-6. LC 2012025793.
Adult/High School–Kindt’s twisty, mind-bending graphic novel seems at first to tell the stories of several eccentric crimes in the town of Red Wheelbarrow: a woman who steal chairs; an art thief who uses the proceeds of his first theft to become a real art dealer; a woman who steals street signs to “write” a novel; a businessman who meticulously plans an office fight so he can sue his company. The only connecting thread at first is Detective Gould, who solves all the crimes, and an enigmatic real-estate agent named Tess. Meanwhile, Kindt intersperses the stories with a comic strip called “Tess’s True Heart”; the story of Detective Gould’s wife’s career running an art gallery; and, most provocatively, an ongoing dialogue between two unnamed characters about the nature of crime, and whether such a thing as a victimless crime truly exists. As the novel comes to its close, the crimes all fall into place as pieces of one master plan that calls into question everything Detective Gould thinks. From the town’s William Carlos Williams-inspired name to the several art-related crimes, this is a novel as much about art as it is about crime, and it should provoke much thoughtful analysis even before the connection between the crimes is made clear. Kindt’s gorgeous artwork evokes classic detective comics and masterfully distinguishes the novel’s several time-periods and settings. Though it can be enjoyed as a relatively straightforward crime caper, this novel practically begs to be reread and contemplated at length.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA
NIFFENEGGER, Audrey. The Raven Girl. illus. by author. 71p. Abrams. May 2013. Tr $19.95. ISBN 978-1-4197-0726-1. LC 2012039266.
Adult/High School–In this gorgeous illustrated story, a postman and a raven fall in love and give birth to the eponymous raven girl, who has the body of a human but speaks in raven caws and longs to be like her mother. In college, she meets a young scientist who is willing to try to turn her arms into wings. But a young man from her school has fallen in love with the raven girl and sees the scientist’s experiments as unnatural and harmful. In the acknowledgements, Niffenegger explains that she wrote the story as a “new fairy tale” to use as the basis for a dance by Wayne McGregor of the Royal Ballet in London. Ballet and fairy tales have a long intertwined history (think of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty), and this new tale should be a glorious addition to the tradition. The beautifully understated tone perfectly captures the strangely propulsive logic of the fairy tale, and the story revels in fairy-tale themes of transformation, maturation, love, and jealousy. But the most impressive element of the book is its glorious design–from the page layout, to the paper stock, to (most importantly) Niffenegger’s beautifully hesitant pen-and-ink drawings, The Raven Girl is a delight to hold and take in. Lovers of fairy tales and some graphic novel fans should find much to love here.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA
CANNON, Zander. Heck. 284p. Top Shelf. Jul. 2013. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9781603093019.
Adult/High School-In this cheeky re-working of Dante’s Inferno, former high school football star Heck Hammarskjöld inherits his father’s estate, only to find that it contains a gateway to Hell. Soon, with the help of Elliot, his old water boy and constant admirer, Heck has set up shop taking messages back and forth between Earth and Hell, but in one of their first excursions down, Elliot is attacked by a demon and is just barely held together by mummylike wrappings. Now, in his latest adventure, Heck and Elliot must go further into Hell than they have ever gone to deliver a letter to the husband of the woman Heck loves, battling demons both literal and figurative. While Cannon has enormous fun tweaking Dante’s conception of Hell and joking about society’s (and even the Catholic Church’s) ever-changing conceptions of what merits damnation, at heart this graphic novel is a serious morality play, with the conflicted relationship between Elliot and Heck (who feels responsible for Elliot’s condition) at its center. Cannon’s artwork-pure black-and-white tones (with no shades of gray) juxtaposed against highly cartoonish drawings-mirrors the story’s tension between uncompromising morality and satiric humor. Teens drawn in by Cannon’s quirky humor may be surprised by the challenging questions posed by this wonderful novel.-Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA