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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Graphic Novels

Habibi by Craig Thompson (Pantheon) Habibi is a fable of`exploitation and the cruelty of the strong toward the weak. It is a love story, though the the kind of love it celebrates--maternal, platonic, erotic--remains elusive throughout. It is also a sermon complete with hell-fire and brimstone and strident pleading about the dangers of the sin of waste. Most of all it is prophecy dressed in poetry's clothing--an artful shriek announcing of the end of the world.

The story is finally an allegory of the soul as woman, and black child, as sexually exploited, enslaved and environmentally raped set in a mythically ensnared fable of extreme industrial development and oriental despotic capital wanton waste. This fable juxtaposes traditional Qur'anic folklore with its modernistic isolation of a child adoptive mother and their unconventional love and resolution. The introduction of magic squares and calligraphic symbolism offers in the end a sustained cosmological twist and depth to the tale.

All of this lovely fable-telling and street-preaching comes packaged in a graphic novel. And what a novel! And how graphic! Author and artist Craig Thompson gives us pages filled with toil, tears, and blood--whether his own or someone else's is hard`to say. The book is beautiful, yes. Every dot, every line tells of human longing and agony. Every panel draws your eye, delights, repulses, demands--requires your attention. Many of the pages, with their intricate arabesque patterns, must have taken endless hours for Thompson to craft. No wonder that nine years have passed since Thompson's last major work, Blankets. The drawings in Habibi are a gift, bought at a price, and it does seem a sin to refuse them.

The story, too, is masterfully crafted. It tells of two urchins, Dodola and Zam, who find each other in the mire of the Arab slave trade. Dodola survives by prostitution and wit, nurturing and protecting Zam until he, too, begins to yearn for her body. Their journey through the filth of a decaying world, through magic and old lore, and through their own damaged souls proves constantly engrossing.

Thompson is not always the most elegant of writers. Sometimes the voice of the preacher oppresses Dodola's more underspoken narration. "Zam was soothed by stories," she explains early in the book. "He didn't realize the precipitation was acid rain," the narrator continues in an apparent non-sequitur, and now Dodola's voice has been lost. Thompson's urge to make explicit the symbolism between his characters' world and our own sometimes gets the better of him. fquot;When the world is on its last breath," Dodola opines,`"the masses will need something to distract them from the destruction--and my body will still be a commodity." Are these really the thoughts of an isolated sex-slave hidden away in an almost medieval modern Arabia? These narrative oversteps betray a lack of faith in either the story or the reader to draw the connections without commentary.

Fortunately these oversteps are few, and the tale is always compelling even at those moments when the text is not. Thompson has given us the finest graphic novel of the past decade, and I will not be surprised, fifty years from now, to see it well-established in the literary harem of university English courses. (I don't think it will be studied in high schools--hardly a page passes without nudity or brutality.) Whether or not this book helps move the world to conviction and repentance, it will endure as a work of art. Habibi is that rare thing--that most literary of things--a pleasure that is also good for you.

The story is finally an allegory of the soul as woman, and black child, as sexually exploited, enslaved and environmentally raped set in a mythically ensnared fable of extreme industrial development and oriental despotic capital wanton waste. This fable juxtaposes traditional Qur'anic folklore with its modernistic isolation of a child adoptive mother and their unconventional love and resolution. The introduction of magic squares and calligraphic symbolism offers in the end a sustained cosmological twist and depth to the tale.

The Rise and Reason of Comics and Graphic Literature: Critical Essays on the Form by Joyce Goggin and Dan Hassler-Forest (McFarland) These 15 essays investigate comic books and graphic novels, beginning with the early development of these media. The essays also place the work in a cultural context, addressing theory and terminology, adaptations of comic books, the superhero genre, and comic books and graphic novels that deal with history and nonfiction. By addressing the topic from a wide range of perspectives, the book offers readers a nuanced and comprehensive picture of current scholarship in the subject area.

Welcome to the gutter: not only the proverbial cultural ghetto to which the comics medium has been traditionally relegated throughout most of its existence, but also the term that defines the formal and theoretical characteristics that determine the way meaning is created in sequential art. As the commonly used term for the space between the panels on the comics page, the gutter also signifies the theoretical space in which the reader performs the suturing operation that ultimately enables the interpretive act, based on the assumption that the relationship between two consecutive images is not an arbitrary one. This is similar in some ways to the use of editing and montage in cinema, and in other ways to how readers of prose texts continuously fill in various kinds of gaps and elisions to create dynamic forms of meaning from the static symbols that make up any text.

But the gutter, as the deliberately open space where some form of suturing or hermeneutic activity is required in order for the reader to attain a first level of closure, is also distinct from similar formal characteristics of other media. The gutter could be said to constitute the single element that defines comics as a separate medium rather than a subgenre of literature or the graphic arts. Individual comics texts may feature conventional gutters in the form of open white spaces between panels or, as in much of comics pioneer Will Eisner's work, they may employ page layouts in which the images bleed into each other in different ways. But whatever the design particulars may be, there still remains a theoretical space identifiable as a "gutter," where readers

must intuit and define the relationships between different (elements of) images. It is this kind of reader activity that remains central to understanding the comics medium, and it is still the defining element for both author and reader interaction with the medium. Within the diverse body of texts that make up what we recognize culturally as comics the only medium-specific element that cannot be removed or altered without affecting comics' identity as such remains the gutter.' This is not the case, for example, of speech balloons or cartoonish design elements.

It hardly seems a coincidence that the term we have come to use for this single defining quality of the medium has such negative real-world connotations. For no matter how much energy is poured into efforts aimed at improving comics' reputations both inside and outside of academic circles, they have so far remained firmly situated in the gutter of Western culture. Obviously, euphemistic and distinctly apologetic terms like "graphic novel" are employed in a bid for cultural legitimacy by academics and readers not wishing to be misidentified as someone who would enjoy the lurid adventures of superheroes and swamp monsters. Will Eisner and comics theorist/author Scott McCloud have been at the forefront of this battle to rescue the medium from the prejudices and negative associations that continue to surround it, offering more serious-sounding alternatives like "sequential art" and "sequential narrative" that have — predictably — failed to catch on in general usage.

Whether this fight to legitimize comics as a medium "like any other" is gaining ground in our culture or not (and it does slowly but surely appear to be doing so), the battleground formed by this debate is fascinating in its own right, and that is where this book enters the fray. The Rise and Reason of Comics and Graphic Literature collects contributions from a diverse group of international scholars on various aspects of comics, lending a critical academic perspective to debates surrounding the medium's history and its formal characteristics. The essays in this volume also investigate problematic aspects of comics terminology and semiotics, as well as the major genres that have come to play defining roles in our associations and preconceptions surrounding, and sometimes clouding, the ways in which we perceive and decode it.

Part One, entitled "Origin Stories: History and Development of the Genre," showcases a selection of articles that provide historical frameworks for understanding the recent development of the comic book from various academic perspectives. The authors in this section have focused on the contemporary academic and critical re-appraisal of comic books as a form of literature, while introducing readers to forefathers of the genre like Hogarth and George L. Carlson, as well as to the development of the genre in publishing history.

Part Two, "What We Talk About When We Talk about Comics: Theory and Terminology," addresses some of the more problematic aspects of academic approaches to the medium, such as the lack of consensus on what terms to use, or even what theoretical framework to apply to narratives that combine words and images. The complicated nexus of meaning and cultural prejudice surrounding the medium has prompted a large number of terms, each of which has proved problematic in its own way, from comic strips to the more recent "graphic novel" or "sequential art." This section then, offers a variety of interdisciplinary critical perspectives on the debates surrounding theory and terminology.

In Part Three, "Out of the Gutter: Comics and Adaptations," authors discuss a number of intermedial adaptations that have been sourced from comic books. As these authors suggest, one of the reasons that the comic book medium has become the locus of increased critical, public, and academic debate in recent years is the growing number of films, video games, TV series, and even acclaimed novels by authors like Neil Gaiman based entirely or in part on comic books. This section of the book features in-depth case studies of comic book adaptations, and addresses the wide cultural impact of such adaptations.

From the late 1930s onward, superhero narratives have dominated the American comic book industry. Even after the celebrated deconstructionist work of Alan Moore and Frank Miller in the late 1980s, men in tights have remained the defining force within the American comic book marketplace, as well as the basis of the most common prejudice surrounding the medium.

Part Four of this volume, "Men in Tights? The Superhero Paraodigm," looks at how superheroes have traditionally been linked to dominant agendas in American politics throughout history, and how this tradition has become increasingly problematic in a post-9/11 world. This section also analyzes the heritage of the superhero tradition in contemporary graphic novels and comic books from a political perspective.

Finally, Part Five, "Drawing History: Nonfiction in Comics," investigates how non-fiction comics have become a growing subgenre in the comic book medium that has met with sustained commercial success since the introduction of works such as Art Spiegelman's Maus. Such work has become part of the literary "graphic novel" movement, as well as an essential element of new methods in pedagogy. The articles in this section likewise address some of the medium-specific ways in which the comic book form opens up both problems and opportunities for the presentation of non-fictional narratives ranging from (auto)biography to historiography.

The editors of The Rise and Reason of Comics and Graphic Literature invite readers to engage with this remarkably dynamic, yet consistently underrated medium. The essays collected here provide historical and theoretical inroads into the comics medium, and analyze it in concert with other media, themes and narrative genres. We have brought together essays that, in various ways, address both meanings of "gutter," and have sought to explore a range of issues in comics studies, making this a particularly adaptable reference work. As comics studies grow — and they do so at an almost exponential rate — many instructors in disciplines such as film, art history, literature and new media feel a growing push from colleagues and students alike to acquaint themselves with the comics medium. We hope that anyone with an interest in comics — professional or otherwise — will find in this volume a useful and informative collection of essays that address the main issues in current comics studies and debates.

Ode To Kirihito by Osamu Tezuka and Camellia Nieh (Vertical) if you are new to manga, this classic tale by the godfather of the genre will wean you from any notions of its being a childish medium.  This story has a compelling complexity of adult themes that explores ambition, heroism, political corruption, the nature of science, medicine, love, sexual politics, mental illness, being outcast, cultural strictures, and the nature of truth and appearance. The story makes a compelling read and takes surreal turns, while never abandoning its essential social realism.

It may or may not be contagious. There seems to be no cure for it. Yet, Monmow Disease, a life-threatening condition that transforms a person into a dog-like beast, is not the only villain in this shocking triumph of a medical thriller by manga-god Osamu Tezuka. Said to have been the personal favorite of the artist, who held a degree in medicine, and surprisingly attentive to Christian themes and imagery, Ode to Kirihito demolishes naive notions about human nature and health and likely preconceptions about the comics master himself.

From pregnant vistas of the Japanese countryside to closed rooms full of sin and redemption, Tezuka astounds for more than eight hundred continuous pages, his art in turn easefully concise and flamboyantly experimental, his inquiry into our most repugnant instincts and prospects for overcoming them unflinchingly serious. Incorporating elements of the often lurid and adult-oriented “gekiga” style for the first time, Tezuka entered into his fruitful late period with this work.

A promising young doctor, Kirihito Osanai visits a remote Japanese mountain village to investigate the source of the latest medical mystery. While he ends up traveling the world to discover what it takes to be cured of such a disease, a conspiracy back home attempts to explain away his absence. Hinging upon his fate are those of his loved ones: an unstable childhood friend and colleague trapped between factions of the medical establishment that nurtured him; a fiancée emotionally transformed by Kirihito’s mysterious disappearance; and a stranger who becomes his guardian angel, a sensual circus-act performer with volatile psychological secrets.

From plutocratic Taipei and racially divided South Africa to backwater Arabia and modern Osaka, ambition and desire beckon “normal men” to behave uglier than any beast. Riveting our attention on deformity and its acceptance like The Elephant Man by David Lynch, Ode to Kirihito examines the true worth of human beings through and beyond appearances.

From Publishers Weekly: Starred Review. Tezuka earned the nickname "godfather of manga" not just by the length and prolificacy of his career but by the moral commitment he brought to such projects as the award-winning Buddha. His works deal with the most profound questions of human existence. Kirihito combines medical melodrama and anguished debates about guilt and redemption. The hero, complacent Dr. Osanai Kirihito, believes he's been assigned to study people suffering from a new, fatal disease that degrades them into doglike beasts. When the transformation hits him, too, he realizes that the cause is not what he was told and that the condition can be controlled. However, Kirihito soon finds out how violently society reacts to anyone who looks different. He also discovers that the medical establishment has betrayed him and now wants him to disappear permanently. Fleeing through episodes of brutal exploitation, he tries to find a place where he can function as a human being; he winds up as a combination of Jesus Christ and the Count of Monte Cristo. While Kirihito struggles with himself and other vividly drawn characters, the operatic plot swirls from one passionate scene to the next, reinforced by Tezuka's apparently simple but strikingly expressive line work.

Watchmen by Alan Moore (Absolute Edition: DC Comics) graphic novels have reached a level of defusion in mass culture, that we have decided to begin reviewing some of the better ones available. Of course the other reason is that we have several reviewers who happen to be avid fans of the medium and have offered to offer general reviews on some of the newer items becoming available.

This legendary graphic novel has mystery, genuinely complex characters, amazing ideas, superb artwork, and a terrific ending. I started it knowing almost nothing of adult comics, but still having high expectations because the one thing I did know was that this book was considered a landmark. Even with demanding expectations, nothing about it disappoints.

It tells the story of a group of aging 'costumed adventurers'. Not true superheroes, since they have no special powers, but people who put on costumes and fight crime. This is actually a rather odd way to behave, and the text examines the strangeness from multiple angles, with excerpts from the memoirs of one 'mask' and psychiatric reports on another.

Into this setting comes one person, Dr Manhattan, who really does have incredible, almost godlike powers after surviving a physics experiment gone bad. Dr Manhattan is exploited by the US to win in Vietnam and generally dominate the world, but it's an unstable superiority because his powers have left him alienated from and uninvolved with human life.

Following riots, the government has outlawed costumed vigilantes, except for those it controls, Dr Manhattan and an unscrupulous adventurer called the Comedian. When the Comedian is murdered, one clearly unstable vigilante who has ignored the ban, Rohrshach, becomes convinced there is a plot afoot to kill off all masks. Meanwhile, the government is finding out it doesn't really control Dr Manhattan. When he decides to disappear to Mars, Russia's aggressive response to the sudden US weakness may bring on WW III.

As all this happens, we watch developments from many perspectives - not only the main characters, but a newsstand owner in New York, his customers, and a long-retired superhero how living in a California rest home, surrounded by mementoes of her thrilling past - and haunted by a secret she hopes to keep from her daughter, another masked vigilante. 

The Watchmen often gets compared to Dark Knight Returns, but while that is a great comic, it is still a superhero comic. The thing about The Watchmen is that it's really not a superhero story so much as a human story. Superheroes, or "adventurers" as the story calls them, are the protagonist, but other that the Dr. Manhattan character the other could have been written as any authority-type profession.

I first read this as a comic collector in the '80s. I appreciated the story itself back then, but there is so much detail that it took a couple of readings to really appreciate everything that is going on in the book. But it is well worth the effort.

To avoid giving away plot points, I'll point out details that on re-reading really added to the story. Rorschach's sugarcubes, his disgust with handling women's clothes, Silk Spectre first arriving on Mars, Adrian's "Republican serial villian" comment, the original Silk Spectre kissing the Comedian's picture at the end. The additional "excerpts" that were at the end of the original comments are also brilliant.

See also