22 April, 2014

Review: Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet

Beautiful Darkness is a French comic book. (Wait, come back.) I implore you to read it. I understand if graphic novels don't work for you, I absolutely do. This isn't a manga or something you have to read in a specialized manner, It's a straightforward American-style comic book. Give it a try. I want to review this without spoiling any of the reveals in Beautiful Darkness. The story unfolds so elegantly that to disrupt the pacing would diminish the experience. Just put your library request in and come back later. Or keep reading.  (But buying it works too.)
Spoiler Alert: After a young girl dies suddenly in the forest the fairy tale creatures find themselves lost and disoriented in the woods. Aurora, being purest of heart, takes charge of the necessities of food and shelter while her prince forms an exploration team.
Vehlmann and Kerascoet (Kerascoet needs an umlaut on the e, but the alt text commands I know are being rejected by Wordpress. forgive me Kerascoet.) have created an absolute masterpiece. (Dascher's translations are smooth and natural.) It's been quite a while since I read a graphic novel that stayed with me for the rest of the week. Beautiful Darkness is deceptively straightforward, even light. It's a fairy tale in the most traditional sense of the word. Romance and quiet horror play out side by side in Beautiful Darkness while the reader considers the moral choices made within. There's a princess, of course (Aurora) and a prince or two. There are talking animals and girls lost in a forest and quests to overcome. A page from a comic depicting the young girl having lunch with a mouse
Beautiful Darkness is like stepping into a vintage Disney piece. The deceptively simple artwork reminded me of the late 1950's with a bit of Harriet Burns and Mary Blair mixed in. Aurora is separated from her prince by a natural disaster. The book follows her through a traditional fairy tale journey of self discovery as she seeks personal and romantic fulfillment. Like most fairy tale heroines, Aurora asks nothing for herself, she is focused on providing good for others. I don't think it's a coincidence that Aurora shares her name with Disney's Sleeping Beauty. There are enough woodland creatures to satisfy even Walt's mouse fetish. Not everyone in Beautiful Darkness gets their happy ending. It's the trip, not the destination.
* This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

20 April, 2014

Review: The Wedding Dress Diaries by Aimee Carson

The Wedding Dress Diaries is a short prequel to Aimee Carson's Wedding Season series. It's been free at most e-book sites for several months but is also bundled in some versions of Secrets & Saris. As a sales tool, it's effective.
Amber Davis is a wedding shop owner and the best friend of the bride. Parker Robinson is the bride's estranged brother and Amber's childhood crush. When Parker shows up to refuse his sister's wedding invitation, Amber decides to change his mind. While I like the Little Girl Grown Up trope it felt unlikely that Parker wouldn't recognize Amber at all. He's a cop, and therefore fairly observant. I went with it.
Parker is estranged from his family with cause. Amber's knowledge of those causes is difficult for Parker to accept. He's reinvented himself and shaken off the insecurities from his upbringing. In the process he's also become closed and cynical. Parker's not interested in long term relationships, and the bridal shop owning best friend of his little sister has long term all over it. He's right about that, but Amber's been waiting half her life for a chance at Parker Robinson. She's not about to let him get away again. Here I had a bit of an issue.
Spoiler: Parker tells her a one night stand is all she gets. Amber agrees. Minutes later she's leaning on him about HEA and how he needs to open up. I hate when one character is honest about their intentions and the other character completely ignores them in favor of magical thinking. The genre generally rewards this, but it frustrates me.
After an unexpected round of Who's Got The Handcuffs, Parker and Amber head into the sunset. A gender flip could have made this exceptional. Amber's insistence that Parker spend time with his most toxic family member really bothered me. (Emotional abuse is no easier on adult children.) The Wedding Dress Diaries still won me over but I really hope Patrick doesn't buy into Amber's happy family fantasy in the long run.
* This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

10 April, 2014

Revisiting Wonder Woman

While I no longer buy anything but Tiny Titans I used to be an avid fan of the DC Comics line. I subscribed to 20 or 30 titles a month (sometimes more) though the 80's and 90's and read extensively in the back issues of the decades prior. DC has gone to great lengths to throw my business away, so I'm raising my kids to be Marvel fans. There's still a tiny corner of my heart that desperately wants a Wonder Woman movie. Walking out of Captain America: The Winter Soldier I wondered why. Marvel is doing so much to be inclusive. What is there about Wonder Woman, a character I never followed as avidly as the JLA or Batman, that still tugs at me? Was it all based in Linda Carter's television series? (If that's the case why is my dream casting Lupita Nyong'o?) I decided to go back to the beginning - Wonder Woman's second appearance in DC Comics, Sensation Volume 1.

If you're a modern Wonder Woman fan, this is long before she became Superman's love interest, a pairing I have always had problems with. Back in the beginning Wonder Woman had no concern over being more powerful than her man. Diana focuses on Steve as the first man she's seen in her hundreds of years of eternal life. She's fascinated by him and falls in love. But Diana doesn't give up her immortality just for a boy. Yes, she's intrigued by him (and pressures her mother to allow access) but she doesn't leave the island for passion alone. The island is threatened by the global conflicts that will become WW2. The goddess instructs one of them to escort the fallen pilot back to the world to serve her there. Diana volunteers for the suicide mission. Her mother, obviously, says no.
Check Out His Fedora!

 Diana disguises herself to compete in a physical challenge designed to find the most physically adept of the Amazons. These women have not lived lives of lazy indulgence. For hundreds of years the daughters of Aphrodite have challenged themselves to continually improve. They strive to run faster, aim truer and defend themselves confidently. When Diana's deception is revealed her mother's reaction is not one of anger but of pride. Of course Diana is the most qualified, and of course she should be the one chosen to protect her people. Her mother presents Diana with her uniform and Diana pilots her invisible plane back to America.

Steve is badly injured so she leaves him in the hospital and explores her new world. She dress shops, she scandalizes the town by the scanty nature of her costume, she encounters (and defeats) low level criminals. In so doing, Diana comes to the attention of a P.T. Barnum type who offers her a job playing "Bracelets and Bullets" on the stage. Diana confidently accepts. She has time to kill so why not earn the currency of this nation? It is Wonder Woman's complete assurance that strikes me about this early appearance. She lacks the self doubt of other super heroes. Diana expediently assesses her options and selects the best routes open to her. She's a problem solver who refuses to be intimidated or exploited, even by people above her in power (her mother) or experience (her employer). When offered more money, Diana declines. She is driven by her personal goals, not fortune. When her manager attempts to cheat her she apprehends him and regains her pay.

Street Harassment Stays In Style
It's not only Diana's confidence that reminds me why Wonder Woman endures as an icon despite the mishandling of her copyright owner. It is the unequal power dynamic between her and Steve. In this first appearance Steve has nothing but respect for her abilities. When he sees her perform physical feats outside of his own he's not threatened. He laughs when she returns to rescue him and acknowledges her superiority.

The book closes with a reiteration of her femme identity and an establishment of the dual life that will carry her through the next several volumes but the bones of Wonder Woman are laid. Diana is an intelligent soldier impervious to the opinions of others. She is living her life without apology or explanation. If DC is interested in doing justice to the original conception of Wonder Woman then Lupita is exactly right for the role.

08 April, 2014

Review: Fall Guy For Murder by Johnny Craig

Johnny Craig is one of those artists we'd call mid list if he was an author. Prolific, talented, a cult favorite, but unable to adapt to a new publishing house. Tales From The Crypt, the Crypt-keeper, if you're a child of the 80's you may not recognize these horror icons as originating in the comic aisle. EC Comics was a casualty of the CCA but back in the day it was up there beside Marvel and DC and a host of other companies as a major player for your Saturday dime. Craig was one of their best artists, but he was also one of their slowest and least adaptable. When the horror line folded he wasn't suited to cross over into superhero work. With the 1950's on the rise, I hope work like Craig's gets a second life. Fantagraphics is doing their part by issuing a number of EC collections based on specific artists instead of specific titles or years.

Fall Guy For Murder and Other Stories is focused on Johnny Craig. Artistically, Craig was a very precise artist. His characters are ugly-pretty in the popular noir fashion of the day. As collected in Fall Guy they are predominately white, which was typical of the books as well. Craig's women have sharply angled faces with slashing brows and nipped waists. They're angry gold diggers looking out for themselves, taking the steps necessary to get what they want. His men are a series of failed Don Drapers, tired of the nagging, unable to meet the demands placed on them. Domestic violence is part and parcel of the murder plots. And yet. Craig's women are also sympathetic. They're placed in worlds they may have little control over and they lash out because of those limitations. Many of them are deeply loved by the men they are exploiting. Some of them reciprocate.

Craig generally worked on his own scripts and adaptations, giving his work an unusually cohesive feel. While his tales of vampires and schemers are fairly predictable to a modern reader, they are ruthlessly logical. Craig foreshadows his reveals with precision and care. He thought about his panels, the placement of objects or people. He thought about his twists, how they worked with their set up and the emotional payouts they contained. Even when the story reads as tediously familiar the art draws the viewer in. His work still pulls you into rooting for his poor doomed underdogs.

While Fall Guy For Murder focuses primarily on white characters there was a very interesting piece set in Haiti. I'd like to see if Craig had more non-white characters in his horror because what looks on the surface like a typical colonization story turns into something far more interesting. I'd like to think it's by design, but the few pages of the tale don't support a wide reading of his intent. The early depiction of the childlike Haitian people so eager to please their "B'wana-Steve" is typical of the period. They speak in childlike and imperfect english. They beat their drums and dance in joy while the white people marry. Their joy is in serving the white man as completely as they can and yet... In the end, he is betrayed. In itself, this isn't so interesting. The black servant shown as duplicitous is typical. Even the method of betrayal fit established stereotypes. What gives me pause and made me wish for more to examine was the reasoning behind the betrayal. The Haitians give "B'wana-Steve" exactly what he claimed to want. They don't inform him of the horrific repercussions of his desire, they only fulfill it. His word is his bond. Even his death won't free him of his fate as they solidify his punishment into an eternal sentence. They deliver him into hell with a joyful heart. I think Craig offered this revenge fantasy deliberately, and I'd like to think it brought a moment of pause to the young readers who encountered it.

07 April, 2014

Review: Julio's Day by Gilbert Hernandez

Anne Elizabeth Moore wrote a pretty excellent review of Julio's Day. You should probably click through and read it first. My experience is less with the text of this specific book and more with the Hernandez brothers body of work. Love & Rockets is so popular there's an even more popular band named after it. Any best of comics selection invariably includes a few pages of Hernandez work, invariably featuring murder or sex (generally non consensual).  Their art falls into the stylized realism end of graphic novels. The lingering focus on physical imperfections lets you know this isn't some lightweight superhero stuff. The grunts come off the page when they fuck. This is how you know it's literature, darling! Life isn't pretty!

Julio's Day is the work that finally convinced me I just don't like the Hernandez's work individually or collectively. No matter how much critical acclaim they accrue, they leave me feeling bamboozled. In the case of Julio, the conceit is that we're going to follow this man through the hundred years of his life, a page at a time. (His mother lives to about one hundred and thirty because that's how Gilbert rolls.) We hit all the predictable points for a Hernandez work. People will be molested, people will be murdered, ugly diseases will strike, sex will be shown, women will go mad. It's all so meaningless in it's meaning laden run through history. The plot twists are cheap and random, unearned left turns taken for the sake of exploration looping back into pulled punches of revelation.

Darling, listen, life is filthy. It's a filthy place. The very earth we depend on for our food will send parasites to kill us and poison future generations. The mud will rise and destroy our homes, obliterate our families. (Often at the exact moment the plot demands inexplicable random deaths to smooth over pointless truths.) Death cannot be sanitized. The past is a place where everything was left unsaid, the forefathers kept their secrets in their chests, their loves silent, their desires repressed. It has to be that way! If it isn't then our glorious open freedoms are nothing but brightly colored flags waving in the hot breeze of self satisfaction! What's the point?

Literature requires a point. Too often dark themes are mistaken for depth. There's no depth to Julio's Day. A man is born and a man dies. In between he is a witness to other's lives, living almost none of his own. His experiences are alluded to, they are suggested, where the experiences of those around him are flung out like depressing offerings to the fates. When Julio's great-nephew urges him to walk out of the closet and embrace the sun I wonder whose sun is he referring to? In their family legacy of early death, molestation, abduction, murder and madness where does Julio's great nephew see himself? His casual devaluation of the sum of his great uncle's scarcely examined life is the ultimate rejection of Julio himself. Julio's true day is being lived inside himself, away from the reader's eyes. The parade of anguish that we're offered is to let us know we're reading something capital-I important without rising to the challenge of really showing us the depths of the man.

28 March, 2014

Review: Secrets And Saris by Shoma Narayanan

After reading The One She Was Warned About I wanted to check out another book by Narayanan. Secrets & Saris surprised me by being having some fairly controversial content. Shefali Khanna is a recently jilted bride overseeing a child care center in a new town. Neil Mitra is a television personality with too much baggage to start a new relationship. This is a conventional start for Harlequin so I wasn't prepared for where the story went. Narayanan bit off more than the page length allowed her to fully chew. The relationship between Shefali and Neil felt as though I were watching them through a zoetrope, their conflicts circling back as quickly as they'd cleared.
Shefali is a very traditional woman. She was prepared for an arranged (but not hasty) marriage when her fiancé leaves her at the altar. Never having planned for a life beyond wife and mother, she breaks with her family to explore what she wants from life. Shefali is confident, capable and engaging. She also ends up with a HEA despite her best efforts. Shefali spends way too much time telling Neil what he thinks, feels or wants and far too little time protecting herself. She repeatedly agrees to things she knows will make her unhappy. Passive aggressive might be her middle name.
A confident woman of Indian heritage looks skeptically out at the viewer
Mills & Boon cover
For his part, Neil is an enigma. His heritage is brushed over as irrelevant, except for two odd scenes. The first, an obvious plot device, involves him not being expected to understand Bengali. The second has Shefali ruminating that Neil's mother appears more culturally conservative than her own. This was a point I would have liked to explore. Neil's family was less traditional than Shefali's, so why did she interpret Neil's mother that way? Was it only her clothing, or was it in the fetish/appropriation sense? In a way Neil serves the same role the half-Indian hero does in most of his appearances. His heritage makes him mildly exotic without informing much of his personality or the plot. Unlike most, Neil is culturally identified as Indian, not English.
The major conflict between Shefali and Neil involves abortion. I suppose you could say it's Shefali's uncertainty about Neil's commitment or their inability to fully express their feelings. I'd disagree. Neil's hangups are tied directly to children, as are Shefali's. She's ready to start a family and he is not. Shefali decides to marry Neil with the hope of changing his mind over time. (Oh honey, no.) In the end I admired Secrets & Saris more than I enjoyed it. While I liked the ambition, at the book's close too much was swept aside. 
Spoiler Zone: Neil has a child from prior relationship. He pressured his former partner into having the child instead of terminating the pregnancy. Shefali is surprised he is raising his daughter alone, apparently expecting Neil to have then asked a female relative to raise her. Although a devoted father, Neil decides not to have more children. Narayanan lightly touches on how Neil feels entitled to dictate how both women use their wombs but shies away from the point by book's end.
*This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

27 March, 2014

Review: Unforgotten by Tohby Riddle

This is a somewhat atypical graphic novel. Instead of a full narrative, the images are used to illustrate what is essentially a poem. The fairly simplistic text furthers the narrative of the images along without really integrating into them. I'm not certain the text is needed at all.

There's a deep sense of history in Unforgotten, mixed into a dreamlike state for the angels to move through. Riddle has created a lovely mixed media rumination about caregiving. The message is portable to caregivers, parents or protestors. It is not easy to care for others, to work toward good. Self care suffers. The caregiver's needs can be invisible against the chaos and clamor of the needy.  Eventually, we all need external care to move forward. A lovely but not essential book.