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Monday, March 16, 2015

Three kind of odd, kind of edgy graphic novels for high school (maybe)

High School students have a remarkable range as readers.   Some haven't really read a book since their fourth grade teacher read them Charlotte's Web out loud.  Some read three huge books a week.  And in between those two extremes is an unbelievably wide range of preferences, abilities, interests, and prior knowledge.  The three graphic novels I am about to review are not good choices for someone who has never read a graphic novel before.  They are not good choices for someone who only reads a couple of books a year.  And they are probably not good choices for someone whose reading tends toward the predictable or conventional.  But for the thoughtful, quirky, and/or adventurous high school reader who is comfortable with stories that are perplexing, odd, or decidedly inside the twilight zone, these might be a good fit. 

Novgordodoff, Danica (2014) The Undertaking of Lily Chen.  New York:  First Second.

Deshi Li is from the mountains of Northern China.  His brother, who was of marriageable age, has died unmarried.  According to an ancient custom, it is Deshi Li's responsibility to find a wife to be buried next to his brother.  With his family's savings in hand, he goes off to hire a grave robber to set him up with a recently buried corpse.  When he is helping the grave robber dig up a body in the middle of the night, they are discovered and somehow in a short bit of time, Deahi manages to incite the grave digger to want to kill him, to find a living girl who he thinks might make a good bride for his brother (if he can manage to kill her), and to find himself helping that girl flee from her family.  From there it is one part adventure story, one part offbeat romance, and one part quirky road trip.

The artwork is quirky -- the figures are long and lanky or fat and bunchy, and the backgrounds are often hauntingly beautiful watercolors.  There are some stylistic elements from ancient Chinese illustrations.  Like the story, the artwork ranges from breathtakingly beautiful and strikingly ugly (intentionally so).

There are some sexually suggestive scenes and some vulgar language in this book.  It is probably the sort of graphic novel that high school teachers want to keep behind their desk and only loan out to the sort of student who would not be offended by such a thing (there is nothing in the story worse than what you would find in Shakespeare, but I still advise caution.)  Certainly not appropriate for any student younger than high school.

Gaiman, Neil; Zulli, Michael (2005)  The Last Temptation.  Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse.

So it turns out that when Neil Gaiman was still writing The Sandman comic book for DC, one of his big fans was the rock star Alice Cooper (seriously) and it turns out that when Alice as working on a concept album, he had his agent contact Neil about collaborating on a graphic novel.  Gaiman met with Cooper, they discussed the project and Gaiman (along with artist Michael Zulli) put together a haunting and odd little story.

Young Steven, trying to prove to his slightly older friends that he is not a wuss, goes into a mysterious theater and meets the Showman (who looks remarkably like Alice Cooper.) Steven meets the performers in the show and soon finds himself not only watching the show, but part of it.  The boundaries between what is happening on the stage and what is happening in his real life start to drop, and the Showman starts to tempt Steven with all manner of Faustian bargains.  Steven must decide whether to be true and loyal to the world he knows and loves or to succumb to the temptations the Showman offers.  In the end,. the Showman is revealed for who he really is, Steven makes the right choice and wins (though he loses too, a little bit).  Think of it as kind of a horror story with a hopeful ending. 

The art is beautiful, though often creepy.  The whole book is in black and white, but it works.  Zulli does have a tendency to track his panels across the two page spread which can make them a little tricky to figure out how to read at first.

There are rotting zombies and beheadings in this book and a few very subtle references to sexuality and drug use, but the overall message of the book is decidedly against those things.  I would suggest that teachers read this one before putting it in their classroom library.  High school only for this book.

Malkasian, Cathy (2010) Tempeerance.  Seattle:  Fantagraphics.

This is a fascinating but odd story and it is difficult to describe.  Pa and two girls live in the forest.  Pa is chapping down trees to build a giant walled village (it actually looks more like a boat than anything else).  Minerva trusts Pa.  Peggy does not.  When Pa is beating Peggy (and perhaps hoping to rape her, it is unclear), a man steps from the woods and tries to stop him.  Minerva is struck by how perfect the man is, but Pa beats him senseless.  Peggy flees, but Minerva pleads with Pa to let her fix the man he has beaten.  Pa relents, but chops off the man's leg anyway.

Then we skip forward in time.  Pa is gone to who-knows-where.  Peggy has never returned.  Minerva has taken charge of the ship-village and makes up stories of their brave Pa who is out there somewhere fighting glorious battles for them.  She has healed the man from the forest, made him a wooden leg, and, since his memory is damaged, has made of a history for him in which he is a powerful fighter, hero of many battles in which he fought alongside of Pa, and he now protects the city as Minerva's husband, Lester.

Eventually, though, Lester goes off in search of Pa, an insurrection threatens Minerva's rule of the city, and Peggy comes back on the scene.  I will leave off the part about the birds, and the part about the living puppet that Minerva makes our of Lester's wooden leg because at this point it would only confuse you.

The amount of detail in the art is stunning (the story is nearly 250 pages long and Malkasian seems to be the sole creator).  Pa is a truly horrific character -- mostly because of the way he is drawn to look like an utterly normal (but very angry man).  Lester's loyalty and compassion in spite of his damaged mind are beautifully rendered in his face and stance.  And Minerva, with her bulbous nose and plain features evokes sympathy as she tires to hold her world together.

Readers who are not flexible and adaptable to new worlds within a book will likely be frustrated by this story.  Some readers, though, may be quite taken by it.  Best for high school, and again, teachers will want to read it before putting it in their classroom library. 

It is an interesting and engaging (but very odd story) with plenty of opportunity for readers to discuss both the iconography and the symbolism in the text.  Apart from a very subtle suggestion of a possible rape, there is no sexuality in here.  No vulgarity either.  The violence, however is striking and sometimes disturbing. 

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