Read It

Read It: You’ll Never Know by C. Tyler

You'll Never Know Book One by C. Tyler

My final recommendation for this past week and a half run is You’ll Never Know Book One: A Good and Decent Man by C. Tyler.

This is a beautiful and moving memoir about Carol Tyler’s efforts to find out what happened to her father in World War Two. It is truly among the most accomplished releases of the last five years. Maybe ten. It is such a testament to how communicating through comics is a unique and singular creative choice of expression. From the layouts of her pages to the physical production of the book itself, You’ll Never Know holds up in service of the story from cover to cover.

Fluid and expressive, Carol takes us through her journey to unearth the secrets of her father, who after decades of adamantly refusing to discuss the past, is suddenly ready to talk. Somewhat. In the process, she discovers more about her family and herself than she expected. It’s a challenging relationship that Carol reveals with such sincerity, it’s difficult not to relate.

The design of the book is meant to resemble a family photo album or scrapbook, and that’s exactly what Carol is making for her father. The story weaves in and out of two modes. The first is what could be seen as a behind-the-scenes look at what she had to go through to get this book made. The second is the scrapbook itself telling her father’s life history. A lot of storytelling devices are employed to accomplish this, but Carol’s skills as a cartoonist and illustrator, her cohesive style, warm coloring, and personalized lettering/calligraphy, all come together perfectly to tell such a layered story.

It’s a faster read than I expected, but it lingers in the brain because of its richness. It stays with you and makes you think of your own family. This book was heavily featured in our second Dig Comics segment, where it was used to show an adamant non-comics reader that there’s something for her. There’s a really lovely moment between Carol Tyler and this woman that I will probably always remember. You can watch the segment below, as well as a look at one of the pages. Click on the image for a series of images.

This graphic novel is the first in a trilogy. It’s followed by You’ll Never Know Book Two: Collateral Damage, released last year. The third and final installment is expected next year.

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Read It: Chicken With Plums by Marjane Satrapi

Chicken with Plums by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis is the better-known work and deserves all its praise (and I also highly recommend it), but I want to spotlight one of Marjane Satrapi’s other works that is just as moving.

Chicken with Plums is a graphic novel about the last eights days of her great uncle’s life in November 1958. Nasser Ali Khan was a well known musician in Iran but when his instrument (a tar, a lute or guitar-like instrument) gets damaged, he’s unable to find a replacement good enough and falls into a bed-ridden depression. The story is tragic but there are moments of humor and hope that prevent it from feeling like a dirge. Anyone who feels a connection or longs for a connection to creativity of some kind should get something out of this. Ali Khan essentially loses his muse, and the reveal of the whys and wherefores behind that loss is heartbreaking. In other words, yes I cried.

Satrapi once again masterfully depicts Iranian culture of the time, and in that respect it serves as a great companion to Persepolis. For sheltered Americans like myself, these kinds of glimpses into countries not are own are so valuable. From simply watching or reading the news, reading about names and events can start to have a dehumanizing effect. Things just seem to happen on a broader scale, all defined in simplistic terms of “good” and “bad”. This country did something. Oh, well is that good or bad? Zooming in, you discover that the Country didn’t do anything. Many human beings within the country are doing lots of things. And a lot of those things might be really familiar to a lot of the things that I do. It doesn’t mean there aren’t differences, it just means they are human differences. Families and friends, and the love and heartache between them, exist everywhere.

As with Persepolis, Satrapi has turned Chicken with Plums into a feature film directed by herself and comics artist/filmmaker Vincent Paronnaud. Unlike Persepolis, the movie is live action, although some animation is used as visual effects. The French-language Proulet aux Prunes replaces the tar with a violin but otherwise appears very faithful to Satrapi’s graphic novel. The movie debuted last month at the 68th Venice Film Festival and will screen throughout France next week. No plans yet for an English subtitled version but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time. Here’s the trailer so you can practice your French. It looks good.

Read It: La Perdida by Jessica Abel

La Perdida by Jessica Abel

La Perdida by Jessica Abel

This graphic novel initially reads like a travelogue or memoir of writer/artist Jessica Abel’s time in Mexico. In fact her art style feels like a sketchbook she’s making while she travels. But the main character is named Carla, not Jessica. Maybe it’s to allow her the freedom to fictionalize when necessary or to maintain some people’s anonymity. And then, over halfway through, it slowly and then abruptly reveals itself. I don’t want to say too much because the surprise made the final third a gripping page-turner and one of the most exciting discoveries I’ve read in awhile. Definitely read La Perdida by Jessica Abel.

La Perdida tells the story of the very absorbed Carla, who traveled to Mexico City in the hopes to “find herself”. Her estranged father is from Mexico and she’s attempting to discover her roots. But she ends up falling in with a sketchy cast of characters who are bitter about tourists and American commercialism yet don’t mind taking advantage of them by selling t-shirts to try to make ends meet. As Abel describes it on her site, “A story about the youthful desire to live an authentic life and the consequences of trusting easy answers, La Perdida—at once grounded in the particulars of life in Mexico and resonantly universal—is a story about finding yourself by getting lost”.

The graphic novel, published by Pantheon Books, was heavily informed by the time Abel spent living in Mexico from 1998-2000, which is when the story takes place. After you read it, check out her website. It has a great special features section that gives extensive background and supplemental information about her stay in Mexico and creation of La Perdida. It includes letters to home, photographs, a playlist, a cocktail recipe, sketches and more.

Read It: The War At Ellsmere by Faith Erin Hicks

The War at Ellsmere by Faith Erin Hicks

Private school is where to go for the best education, right? That’s what Juniper thinks. Her hard work has won her a scholarship to the prestigious Ellsmere Academy where she’ll finally be able to surround herself in studies and like-minded intellectuals that get along. Well… not quite.

The War at Ellsmere by Faith Erin Hicks is a perfect graphic novel for pre-teen or teenage girls. The book has a fresh tone that doesn’t take itself too seriously but doesn’t shortchange the characters’ emotional states. There’s humor but it’s grounded in the story, which expertly captures childhood dynamics among girls. There’s also a little hint of fantasy but it’s used sparingly and imaginatively.

Jun is instantly likable. She has a tough, cool exterior but it’s clear she’s worried she’s made a mistake going to private school. The cast is kept small, and everyone retains a unique look and voice, instantly recognizable. From the cover, Hicks’ art initially appears to have a Scott Pilgrim vibe to it, but it quickly becomes clear that she’s doing her own thing and doing it so well because she’s always serving the story. You always know how Jun is feeling because of her strong command of portraying facial expressions and body language – clearly, honestly. Her environments are so consistent, you never drop out of the story. It’s all so effortless and charming.

If you like that, check out Hicks’ current webcomic Friends With Boys, a fascinating tale about a girl entering public school after being raised home schooled her whole life. Once the entire story gets serialized online, it’ll be published as a graphic novel by the excellent publisher First Second Books, likely sometime in February 2012. Judging from what’s up now, it may surpass The War At Ellsmere.

Faith also has a sillier webcomic called The Adventures of Superhero Girl that updates every Tuesday. It’s also published in the free alt-weekly newspaper The Coast, published out of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Read It: Richard Stark’s Parker by Darwyn Cooke

Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter by Darwyn Cooke

If you like crime fiction and caper stories, I have a pair of graphic novels that are required reading for you.

Parker is a cold criminal who is nearly killed when his wife and partner turn on him for money. Parker then methodically goes about seeking revenge, which brings him in conflict with the mob. Author Donald Westlake created the character after walking over the George Washington Bridge, where he was struck by how the cold steel bridge responded to the gusting wind and speeding cars. That speed, solidity and tension was transformed by Westlake into Parker, who debuted in the 1962 crime thriller The Hunter by Richard Stark (a pseudonym). The book was a hit and kicked off a series of crime novels starring Parker. It also inspired a number of movie adaptations (Point Blank, Full Contact, and most recently Payback starring Mel Gibson) but Westlake never allowed the use of Parker’s names in those movies, perhaps a statement that he never felt they were authentic enough. In fact Westlake has never allowed any adaptation to use the Parker name until a recent series of graphic novels.

Starting in 2009, illustrator Darwyn Cooke has been releasing graphic novels with the full approval and cooperation of Donald Westlake and his estate. Sadly Westlake didn’t live long enough to see the release of the first book, but he collaborated with Cooke during its creation. The Hunter and The Outfit are both wonderful adaptations that use the medium of comics to really enhance the feeling of being in the early 1960s, and seeing this compelling yet dangerous man named Parker go to work. Cooke uses differing storytelling devices and stylistic changes to lay out the various capers. His skills at depicting this world make for a fully engrossing and cool read.

The original plan was to adapt four books but there has already been talk of expanding it to five. The third book is expected to be The Score, where Parker joins a group of criminals for an ambitious heist of an entire town. It’s scheduled for next summer from IDW Publishing.

Richard Stark's Parker: The Outfit by Darwyn Cooke

Read It: Egg Story by J. Marc Schmidt

Egg Story by J. Marc Schmidt

Like yesterday’s Elmer, this is another story that might make you think twice about eating poultry. But this is played more for laughs, making for a very enjoyable light read with plenty of cleverness, and even a little heart-string tugging.

Egg Story by J. Marc Schmidt is a very cute and silly story about a small group of eggs that make a run for freedom. After being purchased at the grocery story, the eggs decide to leave the refrigerator and live life to the fullest while the human of the house is away for the weekend. Unfortunately freedom isn’t easy. One falls in love. One begins to crack from the stress. One decides to become a ninja. Not everyone survives.

Bill Reed did a review back in 2007 where you can see some pages from the book.

This great comedy has a lot of absurd fun. You can buy a copy from publisher SLG Publishing.

Read It: Elmer by Gerry Alanguilan

Elmer by Gerry Alanguilan

What if chickens suddenly gained the ability to think and speak as well as humans?

What starts out as a funny gag quickly becomes a very sobering look at human and animal rights, and a metaphor for race relations. It also gives a pretty compelling argument to stop eating chickens, although I don’t know if that was the intent.

Published by SLG Publishing, Elmer tells the story of one bitter chicken’s discovery of his father’s past, which reveals the history of how the world responded to talking chickens. Elmer is beautifully illustrated by Gerry Alanguilan, who proves himself to be just as skilled a writer. Things might end a little too pat for some but considering the journey the book takes, I can excuse it. The characters deserve it.

Alanguilan is a Filipino comic book artist who has done a lot of inking work for big corporate superheroes, so it’s really a delight to see him tackle something like this. He also runs The Philippine Comics Art Museum, which helps reveal the rich comics history in the country. And he’s quite active on YouTube, where he posts videos of himself drawing, telling jokes, and doing random things to the camera. (This silly video from January 2009 where he gives “hey baby” looks to the camera has nearly 4 million views!) Here’s a video montage of some of his artwork: