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Review: Biographical Comics series

Teachers, librarians, and parents are always looking for engaging biographies to hand to children. That is why it isn’t surprising that manga publisher VIZ has decided to release a series of biographies originally published by Shogakukan. Whether or not children will enjoy them enough to look for more biographies and/or more information on the subjects profiled is another matter. Both volumes released so far are cute and mostly enjoyable, but they both also have flaws that keep them from being top-notch selections.

Mother Teresa: Modern Saint of the Poor (Biographical Comics)
Written by Yoshihiro Takita; Illustrated by Sayori Abe
Ages 9-13; Grades 5-7
VIZ/Shogakukan, April 2012, ISBN 978-1-4215-4323-9
152 pages, $9.99

The Wright Brothers: Challengers of the Air (Biographical Comics)
Written by Keiko Imamura; Illustrated by Kaoru Oobayashi
Ages 9-13; Grades 5-7
VIZ/Shogakukan, April 2012, ISBN 978-1-4215-4321-5
152 pages, $9.99

First the strengths. Both The Wright Brothers and Mother Teresa were originally written and published in Japan, so they are not comics using a “manga style” to cash in on current popularity. That means that many of the trademark features of kids’ manga are present: wacky humor; the usual manga language of chibis (humorously distorted figures), motion lines, and other visual cues; and “can-do” attitudes, which translate surprisingly well from action comics such as Bakegyamon into comics about helping the poor and mastering powered flight. Oobayashi’s style in The Wright Brothers is simple and rounded, while the sharper edges of Abe’s art are a good choice for illustrating the deprivation surrounding Mother Teresa. Both writers take a “hit the highlights” approach, touching briefly on hardships faced by the protagonists, before quickly moving focus back to being cheerful and working hard, common for juvenile biographies.

Unfortunately, in their rush to tell a perky story, all of the creators stumble. In The Wright Brothers, time moves oddly and readers are often confused by when something is taking place. Halfway through the book, the brothers and their sister Katherine go from looking like young adults to looking middle-aged—complete with wrinkles and hair loss—all in a span of only four years. Perhaps the family members did age that quickly, but there is no text to explain it if it happened. Equally problematic are the bonus materials at the end of the book. There is a map, overlaid with details about important events in the Wright brothers’ life, which is a useful idea. Unfortunately the map is too faint to be able to read easily, with the boundaries of the land looking like nothing more than background swirls at first glance. Additionally, there are details mentioned on the map, and the following timeline, which are not mentioned in the main story, even though events such as The Wright Aeronautical Company’s merger with former rival Glenn Curtiss seem to be important parts of the Wrights’ life.

Mother Teresa does a better job of keeping readers clear on the progression of time and skips the map entirely in favor of a timeline that clearly matches the story. However, adult readers unfamiliar with manga humor may not be comfortable with the often jokey tone of the story. The humor does serve to make Mother Teresa more of a real person, rather than an always perfect saint, but adults will need to be aware that the jokes were meant in good faith. The other problem with Mother Teresa is the generic nature of some of the characters. Several of the nuns and priests are not given names, not even in the character introduction page. Without source notes, it is impossible to tell if they are meant to represent one person or if they are amalgamations of people who worked with Mother Teresa. Both books do contain short bibliographies, however, and the books listed are not all Japanese, increasing the likelihood of finding them in the United States for classroom use.

Overall, these two entries in the Biographical Comics series do succeed at being light, quick overviews of the lives of major historical go-getters. The bright covers have a whiff of “educational” about them, but the manga format may serve to attract readers reluctant to pick up a prose biography or even a graphic novel biography from a Western creator. But they are not perfect works and, as the figures profiled are fairly well-known and extensively chronicled, the books are not must-haves. Get these if you have additional money and need more graphic non-fiction.

This review is based on a complimentary copy supplied by the publisher. All images copyright © VIZ/Shogakukan.

Snow Wildsmith About Snow Wildsmith

Snow Wildsmith is a writer and former teen librarian. She has served on several committees for the American Library Association/Young Adult Library Services Association, including the 2010 Michael L. Printz Award Committee. She reviews graphic novels for Booklist, ICv2's Guide, No Flying No Tights, and Good Comics for Kids and also writes booktalks and creates recommended reading lists for Ebsco's NoveList database. Currently she is working on her first books, a nonfiction series for teens.

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