Today we look at four graphic novels which together show the vast range of the format, in terms of artwork, content, and form.
The Cute Girl Network, written by Greg Means and MK Reed and illustrated by Joe Flood, shows the format at its most traditional: cartoon-like artwork, fully sequential panels, and a standard romantic comedy plot. By “traditional”, I don’t mean to denigrate Means, Reed, and Flood’s work at all–this is a wonderful, funny graphic novel with strong characters and emotional power.
On the other hand, Anders Nilsen’s Rage of Poseidon stretches out in an entirely different direction–literally. The pages of the novel unfold from the covers to create one long sheet. While this long sheet, and the largely comic plotline(s) obviously are meant to evoke a comic strip, the oversized, unwieldy nature of the book-as-object, along with the stark black-and-white silhouetted artwork, make it seem closer to a piece of conceptual art–perhaps blurring the lines between high and low art. The content blurs these lines as well, using traditional stories from Greek and Judeo-Christian religion as source material, but adding a distinctly irreverent overlay.
Bouncing back to a somewhat more traditional format, we have Julie Maroh’s Blue is the Warmest Color. Yes, this is the source material for the controversial, NC-17 film of the same title. It was originally published in France in 2010, but has been translated to English and published here for the first time this year, in time for the movie. As I said, Maroh’s work more traditionally formatted–although the realistic pen drawings, with splashes of blue, are very far from the comic-style work of Joe Flood. And, as anyone who has been following the story of the film knows, it is the content itself is very different from the bumbling rom-com attitude of The Cute Girl Network–here we have a much more explicit and dynamic depiction of sexuality, and an entirely more tragic set of circumstances.
Finally, we have Sabrina Jones and Marc Mauer’s Race to Incarcerate–a graphic rendering of a fairly weighty academic work by Mauer. Jones’s artwork differs greatly from all three of the other novels here, as she prefers a style based in populist/left-leaning political cartooning and pamphleting. At the same time, since this is a statistics heavy nonfiction work, much of the art is given over to a more expressionistic, metaphoric style to drive home Mauer’s points in a peculiarly visual way.
Four very different stories; four very different styles of art; different formatting choices, one of which is a complete break with the codex. These books should confirm for anyone who doubts it that graphic novels are not a “genre”, and may not even be a “format”, but are simply a convenient categorization for an eclectic group of books which use artwork to help tell their stories.
MEANS, Greg & Mk Reed. The Cute Girl Network. illus. by Joe Flood. 176p. First Second. Nov. 2013. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-1-5964-3751-7.
Adult/High School-Clumsy, absent-minded Jack and tomboy skate-girl Jane meet cute when Jane wipes out in front of Jack’s soup stand and Jack gallantly offers her an iced tea to soothe her bruised coccyx. They begin a tentative, awkwardly sweet relationship, but it is quickly imperiled when Jane’s roommates, Nikki and Harriet, find out about the relationship. It seems that Nikki once dated Jack, and Harriet is determined to prevent him from hurting another friend. So Harriet calls in the Cute Girl Network: a loose alliance of women around town who pool their knowledge about the men they’ve dated to warn each other off the bad ones. Harriet uses the Network to drag Jane around town to hear the stories of all of Jack’s past girlfriends. All the while, Jane insists that she can make her own mistakes, setting up a conflict between her friendships and her new relationship. Means and Reed’s gimmick of the Cute Girl Network is just plausible enough to hang their plot on and just silly enough to allow for some great jokes. And Flood’s cartoon illustrations draw attention to the essentially comic nature of the plot. Still, the characters are strong, and even though Jane and Jack are officially adults, teens will quickly fall for the teenlike fumbling of their relationship. A minor graphic novel, but one that is easy to love just the same.-Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA
NILSEN, Anders. Rage of Poseidon. Drawn & Quarterly. 2013. Tr $29.95. ISBN 9781770461284. LC 2019030573.
Adult/High School–Before content comes form: Nilsen’s attractively packaged graphic novel consists of a single, long sheet of paper that accordions together to fit between the book’s covers. Each “page” consists of a silhouetted, woodblocklike illustration, accompanied by a subtitle, and represents a single panel in a series of comic strips. Seven in all, these strips range in length from one to20 panels, but all address the same issues: the interaction between the mythologies of ancient Greece and Judeo-Christianity, and the continuing relevance of each. Despite the weighty subject, Nilsen’s primary mode is humorous: the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac as seen by Isaac, who is represented as a modern video-gaming teenager; the life of Poseidon after the Greek religion has passed on, climaxing in his destruction of a water park named The Rage of Poseidon; Jesus hitting on Aphrodite in Heaven. But the overwhelming prize of the collection is altogether more desperate: a strip called “The Girl and the Lions,” in which Athena–feeling old and obsolete, much like Poseidon in the title strip–tries to grapple with the reality of the Christian message that a God might not impersonate a human but actually become human. A very fast read, but one that leaves the reader’s mind provoked long after finishing it.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA
* MAROH, Julie. Blue Is the Warmest Color. tr. from French by Ivanka Hahnenberger. 160p. photos. Arsenal Pulp Press. 2013. pap. $19.95. ISBN 9781551525143; ebk. ISBN 9781551525136.
Adult/High School–Clementine, a high school sophomore, experiences an “awakening at first sight” when she spots a blue-tressed young woman arm in arm with her girlfriend on a crowded city street. They lock eyes, but just for a moment. That mysterious young woman haunts her dreams in a very sexual way, causing Clem to question her life and further doubt her relationship with new boyfriend. Clem’s diary entries provide the storytelling device, with Maroh depicting the teen’s mid-1990s high school past in a melancholy, grayscale palette, with hopeful hints of cerulean. She follows Clem through an emotionally tumultuous period as she struggles to come to terms with her sexual identity in the face of homophobia at home and among her friends. Clem reluctantly goes to a gay bar with her friend Valentin, only to finally come face-to-face with her blue-haired dream girl, Emma. True happiness is just out of reach, as the older Emma spends a year as a friend, mentor, confidant, and the object of Clem’s deepest desires. Maroh superbly builds tension between the two as their passions smolder before finally igniting in explicit, passionate sex. But Emma is reluctant to leave her longtime girlfriend, Sabine (who similarly helped her come of age as a lesbian and artist) to fully commit to Clem. Their ultimate partnership comes at a high price, one that takes its toll on Clem. A true tragic love story with echoes of Romeo and Juliet, this graphic novel will resonate with a wide audience of teens, no matter their orientation.–Paula J. Gallagher, Baltimore County Public Library, MD
JONES, Sabrina & Marc Mauer. Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling. illus. by Sabrina Jones. 111p. New Press. 2013. pap. $17.95. ISBN 9781595585417. LC 2012049688.
Adult/High School–The content of Jones and Mauer’s reworking of Mauer’s seminal title of the same name (The New Press, 2006) should be familiar to politically savvy readers, but never gets less depressing. Beginning the 1970s, the United States began a steep incline in its incarceration rates, which, as of the most current data, dwarf ridiculously those of supposedly harsh prison states such as Russia and Iran. The reasons for this increase are multifaceted, but the authors focus much of their attention on the War on Drugs and the racial biases inherent both in that policy and in the criminal justice system as a whole. On the question of racial bias, they offer an extraordinary quotation from former Atlanta Police Chief Eldrin Bell: “If we started to put White America in Jail at the same rate we’re putting Black America in jail, I wonder whether our collective feelings would be the same, or would we be putting pressure on the President and our elected officials not to lock up America, but to save America.” Mauer’s complex and nuanced treatment is perforce simplified–which may leave this work open to charges of inaccuracy–but at the same time the stunning illustrations here allow access to Mauer’s work to a whole new body of readers–a group that Michelle Alexander, in her foreword, explicitly labels as teens. It is to be hoped that more sophisticated readers, and those with doubts as to this book’s accuracy, will be lead back to Mauer’s original work.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA