Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Graphic Novels: Reviews & Challenge Wrap Up

Persepolis and Fun Home are reasons why people should read graphic novels. Those who follow my blog know my husband is a regular reader of graphic novels. He introduced me to them early on in our relationship, helping me to understand that graphic novels are so much more than just books with pretty pictures and blurbs.

I eagerly signed up for the Graphic Novels Challenge at the end of last year, looking forward to diving into my growing TBR stack of graphic novels. Admittedly, this was the one challenge I figured I would finish before the end of the year. Piece of cake, I told myself. And yet, here I am only a day and a half away from ringing in 2009, and I nearly did not make it. Despite the pleasure I find in reading them, they still tend to play second fiddle to my usual reading choices.

After finishing The Cellist of Sarajevo, I had a choice to make. What book should I read? How should the year go out? Looking over my reading this year, I still have yet to find that book that completely wowed me. I could try and figure out which book in my TBR Collection might be the one, but somehow, that did not really appeal to me. I did not want to feel like I had to rush through any book, especially one that might be good enough to earn my highest rating. Maybe I start on another review book, after all, I have quite a stack of those. And then I saw the books I had chosen for the Graphic Novels Challenge sitting in a corner on my bookshelf, where they sat all year. With a little time on my hands thanks to a planned vacation, I decided to make a mad dash attempt to finish this one last challenge.

The Graphic Novels Challenge required that I read at least six graphic novels this year, and I had agreed to read eight. I managed to read one book for this challenge earlier in the year. My husband had slipped a copy of Criminal Volume 1: Coward onto my TBR pile a while ago, sure I would like it. He was right. And it was a great way to start off the challenge: a crime fiction graphic novel about a thief, caught in a tight spot.

Next up was Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, both books 1 and 2. Persepolis has gotten quite a bit of attention in recent years, and a movie was even made based on the books. In many ways, Persepolis is Marjane's coming of age story, of her finding her footing at a tumultuous time in her country as she grew from child to womanhood in Iran during the Islamic and Cultural Revolutions. And yet this book is so much more than that. The novel touches on the toll war takes on ordinary people; oppression, specifically that of women; and about the difficulties of being an immigrant, including the loneliness and hardships of starting over. It is also a story of endurance and strength, of hope and dedication.

What stood out for me most in the novel was how Marjane's parents stood up for her and supported her choices, even when they knew she was going to make mistakes. Their love for their daughter came through in the pages, as did her love for them in how she portrayed them.

This is a story that could have been told with just words, but it would have been a much longer book. The author's choice to tell her story through words and art is very effective. It is the combination of words and pictures that draw the reader in. The black and white artwork is bold and stark, fitting for the story told. The characters are well developed, their individual stories and feelings coming to life on the pages. I was moved to tears and laughter as I read the two volumes of Persepolis. This is one I cannot recommend enough.

* * *

I followed that up with Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, an autobiographical graphic novel. Fun Home is another book that is much more than what it appears to be on the surface. The book tells the story of Alison and her father, of their relationship before and after his death. She never quite felt like she understood him when she was growing up and it was only after she came to understand and accept that she was a lesbian that she learned her father had long hidden his own homosexuality, hiding it behind a wife and three children. Alison's story is tragic on many levels, but there is also humor and clearly love for her family etched in just about every frame. It was only after her father's death that she was really able to know the man. The reasons surrounding his death raised their own questions and doubt in her. While her mother chose to stay with her husband all those years, it was quite clear that she too had suffered, and her pain and resentment emanated off the pages.

An aspect that stood out for me throughout the novel was the juxtaposition of Alison and her father. How similar and yet different they were. Alison could not help but compare herself to her father, looking for commonalities and perhaps answers about her own identity. This was brought out in both words and through the artwork in a very natural way.

Alison Bechdel's artwork was very telling. She captured the emotions of those in her book. Much like I found with Persepolis, the author's story could very well have been told solely in words, but it has a much more powerful and meaningful effect told in graphic novel format.

One facet of the book that will attract book lovers is Alison and her father's love of reading. At one point in the book, while describing her parents, the author writes, "I employ these allusions to James and Fitzgerald not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms." [pg 67] True to her word, Alison Bechdel's entire book is full of literary references and comparisons. One of my favorite quotes from the book is "I didn't understand why we couldn't just read the books without forcing contorted interpretations on them." [pg 200] I am sure many of us can relate to that sentiment.

Both Fun Home and Persepolis deal with heavy topics. In both cases, the authors open themselves up to the readers, sharing their painful stories. These are books well worth taking the time to read, even by those who shy away from reading graphic novels.

* * *

I did make one substitution for the Graphic Novels Challenge. Instead of reading Aleksandar Zograf's Regards From Serbia, which I still plan to read at some time in the future, I picked up the copy of Dave Sim's Judenhass, which my husband sneaked in between the graphic novels I had yet to read.

Judenhass is a different kind of graphic novel. It is more message than story. I am really not sure what to say about this one. It is powerful and moving, and it made me feel angry and ashamed for the world's part and lack of action during one of history's most terrible moments, that being the Shoah, or Holocaust. Judenhass is Dave Sim's remembrance not only to the horrors of the time, but the prejudices and ill will that lead up to it. The author writes that given the views and prejudices about Jews for so many years, centuries even, the Shoah, was, in fact, "inevitable." The images throughout book are haunting; the quotes from respected as well as those not so respected historical figures, including political leaders, authors, and other well known people say it all.

In the Acknowledgments and Bibliography section, Dave Sim writes:
Unfortunately in this age of diminishing attention spans it seems to me that there is also a need for distillations of the facts that allow even the slowest reader and the most reluctant teacher to comprehend and convey some measure of the enormity of the Shoah and the profound level of enimity against Jews which made it possible. I hope that JUDENHASS--with roughly a 25-minute reading span--will serve that purpose.
It most certainly does.

* * *

I followed the serious reading material up with something lighter. Andi Watson's Slow News Day was the perfect segue. A wannabe TV sitcom writer takes a job as an intern for a small town newspaper in England. The newspaper is struggling and advertising is slowly edging out the actual news stories to try and keep the paper afloat. Katherine Washington is hoping her experience at the paper will provide insight for a project she is working on. She is teamed up with the Wheatstone Mercury's sole newspaper reporter, Owen, who takes his job very seriously. It is no surprise that he resents the young woman's encroachment on his turf, especially someone who is not as dedicated to the job and the outcome as he is. Both comic and touching, Andi Watson's novel is delightful and entertaining.

* * *

Next up was Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Long Way Home by Joss Whedon and Georges Jeanty. This particular graphic novel picks up where the television series left off. Where once she was the only vampire slayer on earth, she is now one of many, and she has taken it upon herself to help train and organize those like her to fight demons and vampires. In this novel, Buffy and friends are threatened by an old enemy and an army that want Buffy dead. With Joss Whedon at the helm, it was no surprise that the witticisms and humor from the TV show came out in the graphic novel as well. Light, action packed and fun, it was good to visit with Buffy, Willow and Xander again, if only for a short while. Even in the comic world, Willow is the witch no one should dare mess with.

I finished off my graphic novel marathon with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Volume One by Alan Moore, Kevin O'Neill, Ben Dimagmaliw and Bill Oakley. Set just before the turn of the 20th century, six extraordinary literary figures are united to fight against an evil that threatens to level England. I had seen the movie version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen years ago and was curious what the graphic novels might be like. This first installment proved to be a rollicking adventure. Mina Murray of Dracula fame held her own amongst the men she fought along side: Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Hawley Griffin and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen were filled with colorful artwork and stories that were impossible to put down. They were a cap to an enjoyable graphic novel adventure.

* * *

The Graphic Novels Challenge gave me the opportunity to finally read those graphic novels I had been meaning to get to for some time. I wish I was better equipped to discuss the artwork of these novels in a way that they deserve. While words and art both tell the story in these books, the artwork itself is what most stands out and makes these stories what they are. The images on the pages say so much more than words could ever say. I admire the artists and their ability to tell a story through art so effectively.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
by Marjane Satrapi (translated by Mattias Ripa & Blake Ferris)
Pantheon, 2003
Nonfiction (Graphic Novel); 153 pgs

Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return
by Marjane Satrapi
Pantheon, 2004
Nonfiction (Graphic Novel); 187 pgs

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
by Alison Bechdel
Mariner Books, 2007
Nonfiction (Graphic Novel); 232 pgs

by Dave Sim
Aardvark-Vanaheim, 2008
Nonfiction (Graphic Novel); 77 pgs

Slow News Day
by Andi Watson
SLG Publishing, 2002
Fiction (Graphic Novel); 160 pgs

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Long Way Home
by Joss Whedon and Georges Jeanty
Dark Horse Books, 2007
Fantasy (Graphic Novel); 136 pgs

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Volume One
by Alan Moore, Kevin O'Neill, Ben Dimagmaliw, and Bill Oakley
America's Best Comics, 2000
Science Fiction (Graphic Novel); 192 pgs


  1. Congrats on completing the challenge, Wendy! Sounds like you had fun reading all of the graphic novels.

    I really have to add the two Persepolis books to my wishlist after reading so many great reviews from fellow bookbloggers. And thanks for the recommendations!

    Happy New Year to you, Wendy! :)

  2. I'm impressed by how well your last-minute strategy worked out!

    I've never been all that interested in graphic novels, to be honest, but I might make an exception for that Buffy one. Thanks for the great wrap-up, Wendy!

  3. I've found myself poo-pooing the idea of graphic novels as worthwhile reading until I read Maus by Art Spiegelman. This book moved me beyond tears. The visual aspect of the graphic novel helps deliver the message so profoundly. This book did something to me that Anne Frank's diary did not do....brought the Holocaust to life visually. Since then I've read Maus II, Persopolis 1 and 2, and Blankets by Craig Thompson. My sons both read graphic novels and in fact have some of the ones you listed. Thank you for adding this to your blog for the end of the year. I am definitely going to be adding some of those to my must-read in 2009 list. And don't worry I no longer look at graphic novels the same way. I was a fool!!

  4. I have never read a graphic novel before. I am a little skeptical. But i have heard great things about Persepolis, maybe I should start from there.

  5. Congratulations on finishing the challenge! I've read one graphic novel. It was good, but I thought it was expensive considering how long it took me to read it.

  6. Hey, does Mina have a bigger role in the comics, because the movie definitely didn't do her enough justice? So I figure everything that you read has been a longer format than the standard comic book issue, right? I have read something similar, courtesy of Carl I managed to enjoy Hellboy volumes. ;)

  7. Well done, Wendy! My mad dash to complete my last three novels for the TBR didn't work... :(

    I still haven't got the itch to start reading graphic novels. I decided to give the manga challenge a go, so I hope I make good progress with it. :D

  8. Jusr wanted to pop in and wish you a happy New Year. I just recently began reading graphic novels (have just reviewed Maus I + II) and hopefully will read more next year. Well done on yours.

  9. Yay, congrats on finishing the challenge!

    I agree with you, Persepolis and Fun Home are powerful indeed. If you get a chance I recommend Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi. Not quite a follow-up to Persepolis but just more stories about the family.

  10. Great job, Wendy. I'll be referring back to your list when I'm ready to try this genre.


  11. Melody - Thank you! I really enjoyed doing this one, even if I put it off until the last minute. LOL

    Persepolis is amazing. I hope you will give it a try!

    Florinda - Haha! I am too. I didn't get through the graphic novels nearly as fast as my husband said I would, but I knew I'd at least get them done in time.

    I really only read this particular Buffy graphic novel because it was written by Joss Whedon, I admit. :-)

    Staci - Maus was one of the first grown-up graphic novel I read. It was amazing. I am glad you liked it as well. There really is a lot more to graphic novels than a lot of people assume. It's been great to run into other bloggers who don't snub their noses at them (which, like you, is what I did before having my eyes opened to their value). :-)

    Eliza - If you do give it a try, I hope you will like it.

    Kathy - Thank you! My friend said the same thing other day when she was looking for a graphic novel for her son. My husband, on the other hand, who is really into graphic novels, thinks they are worth the price considering how much work goes into them--and they're fun to reread, he says. I guess it just depends on how devoted you are to them.

    Daydream - Mina does play a bigger role in the graphic novel than she does in the movie. She was my favorite character in the book.

    The League of Extraordinary Gentleman in this case was the compilation of individual comic books that covered an overarching storyline. My husband reads both comics and graphic novels, but I prefer the graphic novels. Comic books are too short for me and I like to have the entire story in my hands as opposed to having to wait for each installment. Probably why I prefer watching TV on DVD now. Haha!

    Alice - At least you tried! You did have some big books there though and it's better to savor them. :-)

    Good luck with the manga challenge. My husband reads manga regularly, but he hasn't been able to persuade me to try it yet. I do like anime though. :-)

    Bogsider - Thank you! I hope you have a wonderful New Year too.

    I really liked the Maus books. I'll have to take a look at your review.

    Iliana - Thank you! Those were my favorite of the bunch most definitely. I noticed that Satrapi had written another one. I'll definitely look for Embroideries since you recommend it! Thank you.

    Shana - Thanks! I do hope you'll try it. There's a wide variety of graphic novels out there, spanning all genres and categories. You have a lot of options. :-)

  12. "Persepolis and Fun Home are reasons why people should read graphic novels."

    I couldn't agree more! I'm so glad you loved them too. And I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on them.

    Also, I second Iliana's recommendation of Embroideries.

    Congrats on finishing the challenge!

  13. Nymeth - Although my husband has been a big influence in my exposure to graphic novels, this challenge definitely expanded my horizons too. I'm glad I took part in it this year.

    Thank you!

  14. Your graphic novels marathon sounds fun! I really enjoyed Persepolis too, and I found a bargain price copy of Embroideries last week and had to get it. I'm still very new to them but I'm looking forward to reading more graphic novels next year.

  15. Nat - It was a lot of fun, although I ended up taking a nap near the end. :-) Finding a bargain price on a book you want is always a great reward. I look forward to seeing what you read next year in the graphic novel category. :-)

  16. That is nice to hear you know. I would like to read the league then and yet have the amazing experience of reading a graphic novel. So far I haven't been as able to, but I have yet to. Great post.

  17. I picked up Persepolis a while back but haven't yet gotten a chance to read it. Thanks to your review I'll move it up to the top of my pile.

  18. Daydream - I do hope you get the chance to give it a try!

    Stephanie - I hope you enjoy it!

  19. Persepolis is my first and only graphic novel to date, but you're definitely right in saying it is a reason to read more. I have a few that I've had my eye on...just need to get my hands on them! I didn't even really realize graphic novels existed until this year (um, last year).

  20. Trish - Persepolis is definitely a good place to start. Have you considered reading Maus? That's another really good one.

  21. I would love to read Maus--actually went to the store with that in mind and couldn't find it so got Persepolis instead. I'd also like to read The Watchmen.

  22. Trish - I want to read Watchmen too; hopefully before the movie comes out.


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