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A Graphic Novel/Memoir Extravaganza!

September 1, 2009

In the last two months, I’ve read nine graphic books, either novel or memoir. It’s been fun seeing such a great variety of the genre, and I thought it was about time to discuss them! In reverse chronological order, then:
Scott Pilgrim Vol. 1 by Bryan Lee O’Malley
French Milk by Lucy Knisley
Freddie & Me by Mike Dawson
Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch by Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli
Incognegro by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot
The Dreaming, Vol. One by Queenie Chan
Bayou, Vol. One by Jeremy Love

ScottPilgrimScott Pilgrim Vol. 1 by Bryan Lee O’Malley
Chris recommended this series, in a wonderfully written review of volumes one through five (all of the published ones so far) that you should go read to find out more about the actual books. I’m not going to lie; this series is a big departure for me, much closer to what people think of as comics than any other graphic book I’ve read. And as such, I wasn’t a huge fan of it when I first read it. I think I mentioned it on a Library Loot vlog as ‘weird.’ But now I’ve had time to think about it, and I find myself really curious about the characters! What will Scott get up to next? So I’m going to go ahead and put the second volume on hold. And hopefully approach it with a more open mind this go round! :)

FrenchMilk French Milk by Lucy Knisley
This is a travel memoir; Knisley spends a month of her college senior year living in Paris with her mom. I loved the drawing style, which is very much ‘sketches I happened to draw in a Parisian cafe.’ And I thought it was refreshing of Knisley to acknowledge culture shock-that some days, she didn’t feel like being in Paris, trying to speak a different language, etc. That being said, I thought the book was a bit random. Like a real journal, it didn’t really tell a story. And to me, at least, a published book needs some kind of arc to it. So while I enjoyed reading this, I didn’t love it. I think the editor could’ve done a better job. That being said, it was still neat to read a book by someone about my age! :)

Freddie&MeFreddie & Me by Mike Dawson
I read this memoir, which is about Dawson’s love of Queen from childhood through adulthood, for the Dewey’s books challenge. Dewey said she really enjoyed it, because it reminded her of her childhood. I had the same reaction to this one that I did to French Milk: it was an interesting read, with some awesome moments, but it lacked a unifying story arc that I find necessary in a book. Dawson was a British boy who moved to America when he was young, but not before he discovered Freddie Mercury. The book follows his school years relatively closely, and I thought this early part was the strongest. After that, it kind of jumps around, combining important parts of Dawson’s life with his memories of Queen. I’m glad I read it, since Dewey felt such a close connection with it, but I think as someone a generation younger, I felt a bit more disconnected. Still, there are some beautiful, funny, and poignant parts.

MissFinchFacts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch by Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli
I’d already read the short story version of this, and I thought it was really interesting and clever. The graphic novel version made the narrator more personal, with a definite resemblance to Gaiman! And since the story takes place at a kind of freak show/underground circus, the illustrations really added something. That being said, there was a comic book feel to it that didn’t appeal to my personal aesthetic sense. And I really don’t like it when skinny women are portrayed in a book with huge p*rky br*asts (trying to avoid creepy Google searches) and almost no clothes. So that made me a bit cranky. Honestly, as much as I love Gaiman’s novels, I can’t say I feel as strongly about his graphic books (which is funny, since it’s what he’s most known for). I think my eyes are still trying to adjust to traditional comic drawing, since I never read them when I was younger!

IncognegroIncognegro by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece
After several lukewarm reviews, you’ll be happy to know that I adored Incognegro! First of all, the title is still super awesome. :D And it’s set in the 20s, one of my favourite time periods. I don’t want to give you the wrong impression, though; this is far from a flapper romp. Zane Pinchback is a reporter from the South who now lives in Harlem. He’s light enough to pass as white, so he takes trips down South to report on lynchings, which the white papers simply ignore. That’s backstory; the book is about Pinchback going down to investigate a murder his own brother and been accused of (and arrested for). It definitely has a noir-ish feel to it, but it’s more of a hint than a full-on theme. While the book is necessarily sad, the plot tells a good adventure story, and I hope there’s more in the series. Zane is based on the real-life founder of the NAACP, which I find fascinating. I really want to read a bio of Walter White now!

AmericanBornChineseAmerican Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
For some reason, I was under the impression that this was a memoir. It wasn’t actually until the end that I realised one of the storylines definitely wasn’t a memoir. This is definitely fiction! It involves three distinct storylines: one mythological one about a monkey king who wants to become a god, one about Jin Wang, a young Chinese-American boy who moves from China town to an almost all-white neighbourhood, and one about a white high schooler named Danny and his cousin Chin-Kee who comes to visit and embodies every stereotype about Chinese people. (For the record, I thought that Jin Wang one was the memoir part-I mean, the names are almost the same too, so I’m sure it’s autobiographical fiction.) I loved the mythology story and found Jin Wang’s to be a touching coming-of-age one. The Chin-Kee storyline was pretty painful, but that was the point. The three come together in the end in a fun twist. I definitely very much enjoyed this (the drawing style appealed to me), and I’ll be reading more of his books in the future.

AliceinSunderlandAlice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot
Have you seen the movie Moulin Rouge? The first time I saw it, I was utterly confused and disoriented for the first twenty minutes; the constant cuts made me vaguely sick, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. But then, it all started to come together, and soon I just loved it. That’s what reading Alice in Sunderland is like. It’s a totally post-modern, genre-defying, pro-comic manifesto that’s also a history of Lewis Carrol (aka Charles Dogdson) and the British town of Sunderland. Since Talbot’s taking a stand that comics are art (he calls the Bayeux tapestry one of the first comics, which I thought was such an interesting view point!), he makes the book a pastiche of styles. I’m sure this isn’t a graphic novel for everyone, and I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to the genre, but I loved it and plan on rereading it at least once!

TheDreamingThe Dreaming, Vol. One by Queenie Chan
The Dreaming was my introduction to manga, a genre that has never appealed to me at all. But this storyline sounded really neat (twins find themselves at a boarding school in the Australian bush where creepy things happen), and it’s written by a woman (a lot of my concern about manga revolves around the portrayal of female characters), so I went for it. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, I have mixed feelings. It just felt too shallow for me. The plot moved along at a fast pace, but none of the characters felt like real people, and I wasn’t sure why I should care what happened to them. There was a total cliffhanger ending too, but I don’t find myself dying to get the second volume. That being said, I just read it, and I’ll probably feel differently about it after awhile (like my reaction to Scott Pilgrim). It takes me awhile to process books outside of my comfort zone! :)

BayouBayou, Vol. One by Jeremy Love
The last one, which I read just last night, and which I definitely loved. This too ends on a cliffhanger, and I want the second volume right now! (Of course, it’s not published yet.) It’s a dark story, set in the 1930s South, that revolves around the miscarriages of justice black people suffered at the hands of whites. But that’s not what the book is about; it’s merely what begins the plot (which I’m not going to summarise; I didn’t know what would happen going in, and I think it works best that way). There’s a marvelous blending of folklore and fiction here; it’s like Southern gothic magical realism awesomeness. The Bayou is personified, and you’ll see giants, monsters, faeries and more. As if that wasn’t enough, the drawing is absolutely beautiful. The muted colours, Love’s vision…I want to frame the whole book page by page and decorate a wall with it. I highly, highly recommend this! And if that’s not enough, go read Nymeth’s review and Chris’ one; they’re much better at this sort of thing. And they have pictures of the art!

30 Comments leave one →
  1. September 1, 2009 11:25 am

    I’m really glad you enjoyed Bayou, American Born Chinese and Alice in Sunderland! Well, I’m glad you enjoyed the others too, but those I haven’t read yet :P French Milk in particular has been on my radar for a while, but yours is not the first good-but-not-great review I see. And since my library doesn’t carry comics, I kind of want the ones I invest in to be great. If you’re wondering, they have a special one-for-every-five-books-I-read rule and thus don’t violate the ban :P

  2. September 1, 2009 12:43 pm

    It is nice to see people finally taking to graphic novels, publicly. For such a long time, anything that was related to comic books was either considered too geeky or too childish, which was just wrong. Some of the most engrossing, well written and mature (not in the dirty way) piece of literature I have ever read have been graphic novels. Thanks for sharing the love!

  3. September 1, 2009 12:53 pm

    Wow, I’ve got to get hold of French Milk!

  4. historyofshe permalink
    September 1, 2009 1:00 pm

    I’ve wanted to read Bayou ever since reading the review on Nymeth’s blog, and your blurb about it fortified that want! I think I need to go make a trip to the bookstore… now.

  5. September 1, 2009 2:09 pm

    Despite your lukewarm reviews on both The Dreaming and French Milk, both look very interesting and I’ve added them to my list. I’m really looking forward to French Milk in particular.

  6. September 1, 2009 2:43 pm

    Oh man, what an awesome amount of goodies here!!!! Luckily, most are already on the wish list or I’ve already read them though.

    Bayou and Incognegro are both very high on my wish list, so it’s great to hear that you loved both of those ones!

    I had to laugh when you said that you wouldn’t recommend Alice in Sunderland as an introduction to graphic novels. While I actually agree with you on that point, it was my first ever graphic novel read. And I absolutely adored it. There was just so much going on that it took me forever to get through the book. I’d actually love to read it again, too.

    Sorry you didn’t enjoy The Dreaming more. I actually have the first two in that series on the shelf and on my RIP list. I’ve only read a few manga so far, so I’m probably not a good judge, but that feel you mentioned of it all just moving too fast…that’s been the case in each of the manga I’ve read. And while I can enjoy the story, that rushed storytelling just doesn’t sit right with me either. But I’m still hoping maybe I just haven’t read the “right” ones yet.

  7. September 1, 2009 3:03 pm

    It’s comics not graphic novels, sorry pet peeve.

    I haven’t read all of those but just adding my two pence (I want to do some reading before I go to bed so I’ll be quick).

    I have that Neil Gaiman comic signed (more on that at my blog…well coming soon when I can be bothered posting about it), but too be honest it isn’t very good. Zulli is usually a brilliant artist but here he seems to have phoned it in, still good but not to his usual high standards. Also, I much prefer Gaiman’s comics to his novels, which I’ve always found to be slightly lacking in that…um, you know that thing that makes a good book a brilliant one.

    If you enjoyed Alice in Sunderland then read The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, also his work for 2000AD was pretty good.

  8. September 1, 2009 5:00 pm

    ‘Scott Pilgrim has been on my radar for a while now, but I’ve not read it yet. Incognegro looks very good, what a great idea. I admired American Born Chinese, which is the only one of these I’ve read.

    If they didn’t cost so much, I’d read more of them.

    Off to the library…..

  9. September 1, 2009 6:20 pm

    I wasn’t much impressed with the graphics of the Gaiman story which is why I never picked it up in graphic novel form. I do really enjoy the story itself though. In defense of the representation of the woman in the graphic novel (and I’m defending something I haven’t really seen other than a few images, so forgive me) the story is based on Frank Frazetta’s image of The Cavegirl:

    I’ve never really been too impressed with any graphic novel adaptation of a novel or short story, though, mostly because I always feel that the story itself is better. Graphic novels, again in my opinion, tend to be much better if they are specifically written for that format.

    You certainly did get through a lot of them this month, good for you!

  10. September 1, 2009 6:57 pm

    Can I suggest Murder Mysteries as an excellent one of Neil Gaiman’s graphic novels? There is a line in it that’s one of my favorites in all of everything, so my perception may be skewed, but Murder Mysteries is one of my favorite Neil Gaiman stories ever.

    I’m glad you liked Bayou! It is so beautiful (and frightening).

  11. September 1, 2009 7:16 pm

    American Born Chinese was my introduction to graphic novels, and I loved it, too! So many here that I’d like to read, but I think French Milk will be at the top of the list.

  12. September 1, 2009 8:55 pm

    Ok, so you have to keep reading Scott Pilgrim! It just keeps getting better and better and…you get the picture ;) It’s really cute and funny and a little serious at times. I think it actually has something to say. I enjoyed it!

    Incognegro sounds really good! I really have to get that one and of course it will be all your fault. I think Miss Finch sounds really good too! I’ve had my eye on that one for awhile actually.

    So glad that you enjoyed Alice in Sunderland and ABC and Bayou! Weren’t they great? I think you liked Alice a little more than me…that one just sort of overwhelmed me to the point where I lost interest a few times. But Bayou was just amazing!!! I can’t wait until we get some more of that!

  13. September 2, 2009 5:51 am

    I think that I am one of the only people who did not really dig ABC. I got through it, but man, it just didn’t jive with me.

  14. September 2, 2009 6:43 am

    I desperately want to read Bayou, but my library doesn’t carry it :(! Maybe one day I will be able to buy it.

  15. September 2, 2009 3:28 pm

    I’ll be reading American Born Chinese sometime in the next week or two, so I’m looking forward to that (I skipped that part of your review).

    I’ve been hearing good things about Bayou, but I think it might be a little too creepy for me.

  16. September 3, 2009 2:28 pm

    I haven’t read a graphic novel in a while but your post makes me want to go get one now! :)

    I read French Milk last year and I really liked it. I think what really struck me was that she also used photographs and I thought that was a bit different.

  17. September 4, 2009 3:55 am

    Nymeth, I definitely wouldn’t *pay* for French Milk! And I wasn’t wondering about your ban at all; that’s your own guilt speaking up! ;)

    Jen, I’d never read graphic novels/memoirs before getting into blogging, but now I’m glad that I have. If you haven’t read Alice in Sunderland, Talbott takes a strong stand for comics as well!

    BermudaOnion, I hope you enjoy it more than me.

    HistoryofShe, I think you can read it online too!

    Amanda, The Dreaming was interesting-I think I just need to adjust.

    Debi, you’re so smart, no wonder you loved Alice in Sunderland as your first graphic novel! I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels that way about manga.

    Uenohama, see, in my mind comics are a certain *style* of graphic novels, like manga. I think I’d call Scott Pilgrim a comic book, but not the others. Of course, I’m not an expert! ;) I love Gaiman’s novels, but I think it’s because he resonates with me personally. :D Thanks for the rec!

    CB, that’s why I’m glad my library has such a great selection! Are your students reading Scott Pilgrim?

    Carl, thanks so much for linking to that image-I don’t know much about art, so that’s really interesting! I agree; this was my first experience with a graphic adapation, and I think I prefer straight-up graphic novels/memoirs. I also think I prefer the ones where the artist and writer are the same person!

    Jenny, “Murder Mysteries” is one of my very favourite Gaiman short stories too! I’m nervous that I’m too attached to it to read a graphic adaptation, lol.

    JoAnn, I think American Born Chinese would be an awesome intro to gn!

    Chris, I will-I promise! :) I can’t wait until the next volume of Bayou is out too!

    Christina, I thought about putting it down at first because I am SO creeped out by monkeys. And I definitely went faster through the Chin-Kee parts. But I still enjoyed it! :)

    Lu, that’s how I feel about Skim! You should tell your library to buy Bayou!

    Alyce, can’t wait to see if you enjoy it! I didn’t think Bayou was THAT creepy; more sad than creepy.

    Iliana, I forgot to mention that-I did like the photographs! It made it feel even more like a travel journal. :)

  18. September 4, 2009 6:34 am

    I love The Dreaming series and I hope you do give the other two in the series a go. I need to check out Alice in Sunderland as I really enjoyed One Bad Rat by the same author.

  19. September 4, 2009 8:50 am

    I thought Scott Pilgrim was a little weird too — I loved the first part, but then when all the dance battling happened I was like, what the heck? I should have liked it, since I usually like cheesy stuff like that, but it just seemed odd :)

  20. September 4, 2009 12:40 pm

    That makes no sense to me, the term graphic novel came about because of the need to distinguish it from the serial comics; however, it’s a marketing term and shouldn’t have any weight because it undermines the correct term ‘comics’. By using the word, you add weight to the credence that ‘comics’ are immature and not adult whereas ‘graphic novels’ are literary, complex and ‘better’.

    I understand what you mean by using the term graphic novel but in my eyes, all of those are comics. As Robin Williams said:

    “It’s interesting now that they’re doing, they all kind of realize, with all the adult comic books or graphic novels for those who are trying to upscale themselves… Is that a comic book? No! It’s a graphic novel! Is that porn? No! It’s adult entertainment!”

    or even Neil Gaiman (quoted from wikipedia) responding to a comment about him writing graphic novels “meant it as a compliment, I suppose. But all of a sudden I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening.”

    But I suppose in the end it doesn’t really matter, it just is one of the few things I get annoyed about.

  21. September 5, 2009 10:38 am

    I’m so glad you enjoyed American Born Chinese! I’m teaching a Children’s Lit course online for a university in Oklahoma, and my students will be discussing American Born Chinese in the coming week.

    It’s a marvelous book for discussing visual stereotypes and specifically the way Yang uses stereotypes to subvert stereotypes. Much like Art Spiegelman does in Maus I and II.

    I haven’t read any others on your list, but I see a few I’ll be looking for!

  22. September 10, 2009 1:05 pm

    Just linked your post for Color Me Brown Links

  23. September 13, 2009 6:00 am

    Ooh I see I’m not the only one who’s a bit comic-book-crazed these days! I’ve only read one of the books you reviewed (American Born Chinese), so I skipped over your review of that one, but I’ve now added a bunch more to my wish list! Bayou sounds especially good!


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