This is a dreadful, harrowing time in my country, and such a harrowing, wonderful time in comics. It's a rich and confounding, confusing and delightful time, promise-crammed despite the body blows that comics retailers, publishers, creators, and readers have had to endure and continue to endure. At this moment of real change in the American comics business, I am reminded that I founded KinderComics precisely to learn new ways of looking at comics and to challenge my own tastes and habits. That experience keeps on going, more dizzying and eye-opening with each passing month — and, speaking selfishly, that's a continuing gift to me. As a comics scholar and critic, I'm blessed to have an "object of study" that just won't sit still.
Please forgive a bit of navel-gazing:
KinderComics covers children's and young adult comics from a perhaps unusual angle: I'm a comics fan weaned on (first) newsstand and (then) direct-market comic books, a reader of superhero comic books for nearly fifty years who wavers between nostalgia for and impatience with that genre, and, on the other hand, an adherent of alternative and art comics in the post-underground tradition. At the same time, academically, I'm a scholar-teacher of children's literature and culture. These different experiences and commitments sometimes come into conflict, hopefully in a stimulating, useful way for my readers. I come at young readers' graphic novels with great enthusiasm but also a dose of, I hope, healthy skepticism regarding how they are promoted and judged. This skepticism has been stoked by both my knowledge of the long history of comics and the academic study of childhood as a cultural construct. More than anything, though, I'm just interested in good comics, no matter what audience or bloc they are marketed toward. As I say on this blog's About page,
I'm strongly invested in the idea of comics as a form of art and of text with its own traditions and aesthetics, and...I'm less concerned about work that is "good for" or improving for children, more concerned about work that I find artistically startling and enriching.
In other words, I have an abiding interest in comics' aesthetic form that tends to outweigh even considerations about what works for children and adolescents as readers. And I tend to look at contemporary comics for young readers against a long backdrop of historic comics for and about children, including comic strips and comics magazines; that is, I resist the presentism of the graphic novel era. Further, I resist questions framed in terms of "age-appropriateness" or didactic agenda. As a teacher of children's literature, I often have to field such questions — for example, what age is this book for? — but I tend to fence with such questions rather than answer them outright. A bad habit, maybe — probably a frustrating habit for my students! — but that's me. I'm interested in young reader's comics as an aesthetic revolution, not just a social and educational one. That, for me, is what KinderComics is all about: following a new source of good comics.
With all that in mind, I'm keenly interested in news about the shifting markets for comic books and graphic novels in the US, especially the news that sales in my beloved direct market (that is, the network of comic book specialty shops) are being overtaken by comics sales in the mainstream book trade — plus the news that kid-oriented original graphic novels are surpassing superhero and related comic book serials in sales. Now, these are not very surprising bits of news; in fact, I founded KinderComics with the expectation that this would happen, that it was only a matter of time before the stats reflected these changes. Lately, the stats have been dramatic: if comics sales enjoyed something of a record year in 2019, it was books aimed at young readers that drove that sales spike. Here are a few recent sources that confirm these trends:
One concern of mine — a concern further stoked by the pandemic emergency — is that direct-market comics shops are in a poor position to compete with mainstream bookstores and online retailers when it comes to selling original graphic novels. This is not because comic shops lack expertise or good customer service; in fact, many comic shops do a good job of hand-selling comics graciously, with a personal touch, because they tend to know their customers. But comic shops within the direct-market system do not enjoy the advantages of returnability and deep discounts that an entity like Amazon takes for granted. Structurally, they simply have a hard time competing with high-volume retailers that can afford to sell some books at a loss in return for customer loyalty and bigger returns down the road. As the balance of sales shifts from traditional DM floppy or pamphlet comics to original graphic novels, the decks are somewhat stacked against comic shops. Bookstores, Amazon, and the Scholastic book fairs (Scholastic is by far the number one comics publisher in the US right now) work by different rules. What were advantages when dealing with a fan clientele in the direct market have become liabilities as comics shift their footing to different retail channels. The huge upsurge of comics in children's and YA publishing has everything to do with this sea change.
Even before COVID-19, the challenges of returnability and working with multiple distributors were insuperable barriers to many direct-market comic shops. Rolling with the changes is not easy. The commercial dominance of original graphic novels for young readers requires new arrangements and new thinking, lest comic shops be shut out of comics' most explosive growth spurt in generations.
I'm watching in the shadows of COVID, anxiously, hoping that my favorite comic shops — the kind that combine expertise and passion, carry and promote most genres, and work hard to serve a diverse community of readers — can survive and find the means to adjust to a potentially bright, yet differently structured, future. Beyond outlasting this pandemic, I think adapting to the rise of young reader's graphic novels is the greatest challenge facing North American comic shops today. This is not simply because comic shops tend to be more welcoming environments for adults than for young readers (some shops have already sought to create a more welcoming atmosphere). It's also because the terms of the business make it hard for comic shops to compete for original graphic novel readers. Negotiating new terms and risking new forms of outreach will have to be part of the comic shop toolkit, going forward.
As I said, a rich and confounding, confusing and delightful time. I think I created KinderComics as a way of thinking through this time. Thanks, readers, for joining me.
The Tea Dragon Festival. By Katie O’Neill. Oni Press, ISBN 978-1620106556 (hardcover), 2019. US$21.99. 136 pages.
I read The Tea Dragon Festival during an early morning idyll, propped up in bed with a cat curled up on my lap (our cat Max likes to hang with us when we read). That sounds about right — it’s that kind of book: tranquil, comforting. A purring cat, basking in a morning ritual, is a pretty good stand-in for the semi-domesticated “tea dragons” that populate its world. In fact, here on KinderComics I described this book’s predecessor, The Tea Dragon Society (2017), as an “idyll full of greenness and life” and a “cat-lover’s daydream.” The same goes this time.
The biggest problem I had with this sumptuous book was reading it by diffuse sunlight: O’Neill’s occasional layering of dark or muted colors posed a challenge to my eyes; I couldn’t make out certain expressions and overlapping shapes. I ended up having to turn on my reading lamp and point it directly at the pages — then the expressions popped. So, I recommend reading The Tea Dragon Festival by strong light; then you’ll really get to see O’Neill’s ravishing color work. When well-lit, the book fairly glows.
Cover blurbs describe Festival as warm, charming, and gentle. Again, that sounds right. The story skirts pain and hardship; though it evokes some subtle melancholy, its characters are not burdened with difficult ethical decisions or hard losses. The vibe is green, dreamlike, and utopian (with the now-expected traces of Miyazaki). The one potential source of serious conflict appears and disappears in a handful of pages. In fact, the book is so quiet and anodyne that it’s quite a surprise when a fight briefly breaks out:
Like its predecessor, Festival takes place in an eco-topia: an idealized rural culture defined by caring community and respect for traditional crafts. The story, again, focuses on a growing girl who is learning a craft — in this case, cooking — and her interactions with dragons — this time, not just miniature tea dragons but also a full-blown, shape-shifting, often humanoid dragon. This dragon, Aedhan, considers himself the appointed protector of the girl, Rinn’s, village, but has been waylaid by a magical, eighty-year sleep, from which he has only just awoken. He is filled with regret for the years he has missed. Rinn takes responsibility for helping Aedhan get to know her people and acculturate to village life — so, once again, the story revolves around the sharing of memories, as Aedhan moves from outsider to trusted villager. Though longer and more ambitious than the first book, then, Festival takes up the same concerns and exhibits the same qualities.
I like O’Neill’s work for emphasizing, as I’ve said before, loving connection and tender gestures. But I have to repeat another observation too: this book’s delicacy left me wanting more complication, more trouble. I wanted a harder story, something that would show the characters’ values when put to a fiercer test. It’s easy to love the world O’Neill has created, one of sharing and openness, indeed a queer, feminist, anti-capitalist utopia. Clearly, she herself loves the world and its characters. I particularly like the inclusion of signing (American Sign Language) as a plot element, which sharpens O’Neill’s already impressive sense of (in this case literal) body language. The story, though, gives no sense that the apple cart has ever been upset, or the people’s equanimity challenged, by the ordinary work of survival. O’Neill seems to prefer quieter dilemmas, smaller stakes. Festival is sweet and affirming, but its plot evanesces soon after reading, leaving behind an impression of a personal wonderland, exquisitely tended and mostly about the pleasure of its own rendering.
I’ll happily read more by O’Neill: she’s a gifted cartoonist and book artist. Each time I read her, though, I become terribly aware of my own cynicism. Harrumph!
The Oracle Code. Written by Marieke Nijkamp; illustrated by Manuel Preitano; colored by Jordie Bellaire with Preitano; lettered by Clayton Cowles. DC Comics, ISBN 978-1401290665 (softcover), 208 pages. US$16.99. March 2020.
(This is the second in an occasional series reviewing children’s and Young Adult graphic novels from DC. See the first here.)
Paralyzed by a gunshot wound, brilliant young hacker Barbara Gordon (daughter of Gotham’s police commissioner) undergoes rehabilitation at the so-called Arkham Center for Independence — which, surprise, turns out to be a sinister place, a haunted house even, from which patients keep disappearing. Though traumatized, and at first resentful and alienated, Barbara gradually bonds with other patients, and together they form a team to unravel Arkham’s dark secret. This DC graphic novel does not appear to mesh with any version of DC continuity, and its Barbara Gordon differs sharply from previous Barbaras (Batgirl or Oracle). In fact, its DC-ness is nominal, and could be erased with a few minor edits. It’s not a superhero story in the usual sense. Rather, it’s a Young Adult thriller that follows many of that genre’s conventions: young people up against corrupt adult institutions, fighting with official powers, fighting for self-definition, testing their mettle with no outside help. It’s also grounded in an intersectional and community-oriented disability politics that makes it stand out among DC books.
Writer Marieke Nijkamp is an acclaimed author of YA thrillers (e.g., This Is Where It Ends), editor of a disability-themed YA anthology (Unbroken), and advocate for greater diversity in children’s and Young Adult publishing (she served as a founding officer of We Need Diverse Books). The Oracle Code’s plot seems to have been informed by her experience living in a medical rehabilitation facility as a teenager. Her loner hero, Barbara, eventually enters into community, and, with her team, emphatically rejects the idea of being “fixed” (echoing Nijkamp’s criticisms of the trope of curing disability). The book’s politics are obvious and central, and some minor characters and relationships seem designed to make points — or to serve merely as hurdles to Barbara’s ferocious drive. The plot, I think, rushes to a too-sudden conclusion; I can see the story’s somewhat familiar shape from far off. Barbara herself, though, is a distinct character, and the book gives her time and space to be properly angry. If the book preaches, it doesn’t preach to Barbara. Also, the wrap-up wisely lets certain resolutions stay ambiguous; this is no facile overcoming narrative in which all things are made better. The book reflects on the healing value of dark stories — through a series of unsettling embedded tales, like bedtime stories — and itself does not shy away from trouble. The Oracle Code, in sum, is a designedly Young Adult novel that reflects and capitalizes on the disability politics always implicit in the Oracle character.
Visually, The Oracle Code wavers between arid daytime plainness — perfect for a medical facility — and darkly atmospheric nighttime scenes. Illustrator Manuel Preitano favors a naturalism that, for me, recalls the post-Mazzucchelli work of David Aja (though without Aja’s drastic stylization and formalist invention). The intentionally limited color palette (colors are credited to both Jordie Bellaire and Preitano) pits vivid yellow-orange and nocturnal purple-blue against drab olive and icky, hospital-bland greens. Insipid, textureless rooms — like the flat, medicalized interiors we all know, presumably lit by fluorescents — clash with densely shadowed scenes defined by slashing swathes of black and vigorous dry-brush technique. Bright jigsaw puzzle pieces stand out against the general gloom and serve as a braided visual device: a multivalent symbol that variously signifies trauma, fragmentation, reassembly, accomplishment, and, of course, mystery-solving. The layouts are dynamic, shifting, yet steadily rectilinear, except for the embedded “bedtime” stories, which boast curving, swirling panel shapes and a contrasting, cartoonish style. This novel is, as far as I know, Preitano’s longest sustained work for the US market (he has also worked on the series Destiny, NY and several comics for Zenescope), and departs from the sometimes lurid retro aesthetic of his illustrations for the Vaporteppa fiction line, in his native Italy. This looks like a big step forward for the artist.
On balance, The Oracle Code shows the potential of YA fiction that happens to be set in DC’s story-world. It’s more self-contained, and more attuned to the conventions of YA fiction, than I had expected. To me, these are good things. One thing gets to me, though: despite the signs that this book is a rather personal work for Nijkamp, it is copyrighted solely in the name of DC Comics — that is, it’s work for hire (though it bears about as much resemblance to prior Oracle stories as, say, Neil Gaiman and company’s Sandman bore to prior Sandmen). I think that’s a shame, and, honestly, this is one reason I have not been able to muster great enthusiasm for DC’s work with YA and children’s authors. As long as DC graphic novels are centered on company IP and the creators are wholly dispossessed of any equity in the work, as long as DC persists in these damaging comic book industry practices, the promise of its young readers’ line will be dampened. The Oracle Code is very unusual for a DC comic — its focus on a non-superpowered community of young women, and willingness to highlight a young woman’s anger and power, are laudable — but it’s still shackled to DC’s old way of doing things.
Due to the pandemic, San Diego's Comic-Con International has become a virtual event, taking place this week. It started yesterday, Wednesday, July 22, and continues through this Sunday, July 26. This is Comic-Con@Home. Of greatest interest to me are the virtual "panels" spread over the five days of the event (reportedly more than 350 panels in all). These run the usual gamut of pop culture topics, some comics-focused, some not. Regrettably, the panels are entirely prerecorded, which means no live audience interaction, no Q&A. Most will be in the nature of recorded Zoom calls. This bums me out, but is better than nothing — and there are some very promising-sounding panels on offer.
Below, divided by day, are panels that catch my eye or may be of particular interest to KinderComics readers. Note that not all of these panels focus on children's or young adult comics or on education. Some focus on other fannish interests of mine, or on particular creators of note. This is a glimpse into my mind!
Obviously, Comic-Con@Home is already well underway; this post comes late. But many if not all of the panels listed below will be available to view online once this week is over. (CCI says that most of its panels "will also be available AFTER the July 22-26 dates, although there are some that may have a limited time period attached to them.") The panels can be accessed via CCI's online program or their YouTube channel. They can't be accessed before their official start times, but once they're up, they're up. There could be weeks and weeks of good viewing here!
July 22, Wednesday
This first day continues the now-familiar Comics Conference for Educators and Librarians (CCEL), a Wednesday-afternoon tradition since 2016, co-sponsored by Comic-Con and the San Diego Public Library since 2016. All of Wednesday’s seventeen panels, AFAIK, are CCEL-branded, and all are aimed at librarians and/or teachers. Below are the Wednesday panels that really stood out to me; for info on all of the CCEL panels, follow the CCEL link above to the SD Public Library's page:
Teaching and Learning with Comics
3:00pm – 4:00pm
With Peter Carlson, Antero Garcia, and Susan Kirtley, co-editors of the anthology With Great Power Comes Great Pedagogy, and creator-teachers Nick Sousanis, Ebony Flowers, and David F. Walker and Brian Michael Bendis. (I’ve already watched this one, and it was terrific!)
Comics in the Classroom Ask Me Anything: Pick the Brains of Teachers, Administrators, Creators, and Publishers
3:00pm – 4:00pm
The Power of Teamwork in Kids Comics
5:00pm – 6:00pm
Including Gene Luen Yang, Chad Sell, Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks, and moderator Betsy Gomez.
New Kids Comics from Eisner Award Publishers
5:00pm – 6:00pm
Including Jerry Craft, Faith Erin Hicks, Robin Ha, Derick Brooks, Jonathan Hill, and moderator Candice Mack
Words and Pictures Working Together: Strategies for Analyzing Graphic Texts
6:00pm – 7:00pm
Comic-Con Celebrates Fifteen Years of Eisner Librarians
6:00pm – 7:00pm
Including librarians and former Eisner Award judges Kat Kan, Karen Green, Jason Poole, Dawn Rutherford, Traci Glass, and moderator John Shableski.
July 23, Thursday
Graphix: Get Drawn In
11:00am – 12:00pm
12:00pm – 1:00pm
Comics During Clampdown: Creativity in the Time of COVID
12:00pm – 1:00pm
75th Anniversary of Moomin appreciation
1:00pm – 2:00pm
Comics Satire and The New Political Cartoon
2:00pm – 3:00pm
The Brave New World of TwoMorrows
2:00pm – 3:00pm
Comic-Con Museum: A Museum for All Ages
3:00pm – 4:00pm
Teaching and Making Comics
6:00pm – 7:00pm
Including Ebony Flowers, Roman Muradov, Trina Robbins, Sophie Yanow, and moderator James Sturm.
July 24, Friday
Howard Cruse: The Godfather of Queer Comics
10:00am – 11:00am
Absolutely not to be missed IMO.
Last Gasp: 50 Years of Publishing the Underground, Part I
10:00am – 11:00am
Reclaiming Indigenous History and Culture Through Comics
11:00am – 12:00pm
Decoding the Kirby/Lee Dynamic
11:00am – 12:00pm
Raina and Robin in Conversation (starring Raina Telgemeier and Robin Ha)
11:00am – 12:00pm
12:00pm – 1:00pm
History Goes Graphic
12:00pm – 1:00pm
Harryhausen100: Into the Ray Harryhausen Archive
1:00pm – 2:00pm
Water, Earth, Fire, Air: Continuing the Avatar Legacy
3:00pm – 4:00pm
The Annual Jack Kirby Tribute Panel
4:00pm – 5:00pm
VIZ: A Haunting Conversation with Junji Ito
6:00pm – 7:00pm
32nd Annual Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards
Another must for me!
July 25, Saturday
Last Gasp: 50 Years of Publishing the Underground, Part II
10:00am – 11:00am
The Guide: Overstreet's 50th Anniversary
10:00am – 11:00am
Warner Archive's Secret Origins of Saturday Morning Cartoons
11:00am – 12:00pm
Inspired: Personal Stories in Graphic Novels
12:00pm – 1:00pm
Diversity and Comics: Why Inclusion and Visibility Matter
12:00pm – 1:00pm
Personal, Political, Fictional, and Factual
1:00pm – 2:00pm
Latinx & Native American Storytellers
1:00pm – 2:00pm
Tribute to Dennis O'Neil: Beyond Batman
2:00pm – 3:00pm
Gender, Race, and Comic Book Coloring
2:00pm – 3:00pm
Mexico's Magnificent Stop-Motion Seven
3:00pm – 4:00pm
Best and Worst Manga of 2020
4:00pm – 5:00pm
20 Years of DeviantArt: An Oral History
4:00pm – 5:00pm
Adrian Tomine spotlight panel
5:00pm – 6:00pm
Comic Shops : Persevering through Crisis
5:00pm – 6:00pm
Mexican Lucha Libre: History, Tradition, Legacy
6:00pm – 7:00pm
Fantagraphics and IDW: Classic Comics Reprints
6:00pm – 7:00pm
Out in Comics 33: Virtually Yours
6:00pm – 7:00pm
July 26, Sunday
BOOM! Studios: Discover Yours
11:00am – 12:00pm
Jack Kirby 101: An Introduction
12:00pm – 1:00pm
Masters of Style: Woodring, Fleener, Muradov and Hernandez
1:00pm – 2:00pm
Comics about Motherhood and Reproductive Choice
Including Lisa Wool-rim Sjoblom, Leslie Stein, Teresa Wong, and moderator Hillary Chute.
2:00pm – 3:00pm
Inspired by Real Life: The True Stories Behind Graphic Novels
2:00pm – 3:00pm
LGBTQ Comics and Popular Media for Young People
2:00pm - 3:00pm
Superman Smashes the Klan. By Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru. Lettering by Janice Chiang. DC Comics, ISBN 978-1779504210 (softcover), May 2020. US$16.99. 240 pages.
(The first in an occasional series reviewing children’s and Young Adult graphic novels from DC.)
One of the pleasures of reading Gene Luen Yang is watching him play — and take risks — with sources. American Born Chinese gives the Chinese literary classic Journey to the West an Americanized (and Christianized) spin, while riffing on sitcoms, Transformer-style mecha, and Yang’s own boyhood as an immigrant’s son. The recent Dragon Hoops (reviewed here in March) folds the history of basketball, reverently sourced, into its account of Yang’s last year as a high school teacher. Yang’s five-volume run on Avatar: The Last Airbender (2012-2017), his first collaboration with Japanese art team Gurihiru (Chifuyu Sasaki and Naoko Kawano), is a sequel to the beloved TV series (2005-2008). The Shadow Hero, Yang’s 2014 graphic novel with artist Sonny Liew, revives an obscure Golden Age superhero, Chu Hing’s Green Turtle (1944-1945), giving him a new origin and feel. Yang’s latest, Superman Smashes the Klan (now gathered into one volume, after a three-issue serial release last year), draws from an antiracist storyline in the Adventures of Superman radio serial in 1946, but adapts it freely.
Superman Smashes the Klan interweaves several threads from Yang’s previous work. Once again, he plays with DC Comics and Superman lore; again, he collaborates with Gurihiru. Once more, as in The Shadow Hero, he treats the superhero-with-secret-identity as an overt assimilation fantasy, in a period American setting. It’s the best of his DC projects by a long shot: the most obviously personal, the most graphically whole, consistent, and readable. It’s also, I think not coincidentally, the one that comes closest to the children’s and YA graphic novel genre that Yang is best known for.
This is one of the more interesting of the many 21st-century reinterpretations of Superman’s origin. It happens that my wife and I have been reading it at the same time as another reinterpretation, Tom De Haven’s prose novel It’s Superman! (2005). De Haven’s is a free retelling of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original, late mid-1930s Superman, done up as nerdy, name-dropping historical fiction in the vein of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000). It’s Superman! digs hard into that vein, stressing economic misery, political unrest, migration, segregation, and pervasive everyday racism in tune with its Depression-era setting. Also, it’s peppered with cameos by real-world people, neighborhoods, architecture — you name it, De Haven has researched it. Add in sexual knowingness, lurid violence, and odd character studies of crooks and victims, and you’ve got a very “adult” riff on the Siegel and Shuster model, something not too far from De Haven’s other comics-themed historical novels. Don’t get me wrong: It’s Superman! is a terrific book, one I’d like to teach when I get around to doing an all-Superman course. I think it would teach well alongside Superman Smashes the Klan, as both replay Superman’s origin in early 20th-century period (the mid-30s for De Haven; 1946 for this book) — and both stress Clark Kent’s moral education, his growing awareness of social injustice. Yet the two books are quite different.
De Haven’s Clark never finds out where he came from; though he suspects that he is not from Earth, he never learns about planet Krypton. The book only hints at Clark’s origins. De Haven works hard to suggest how this lonely, alienated young man might turn to reporting, and to his unrequited love for Lois Lane, as a way of becoming “just like everybody else.” Yang and Gurihiru’s Clark, on the other hand, learns more about his extraterrestrial origins — there’s more SF in his story. He too, though, longs to be like everyone else, to assimilate — so much so that he hides his light under a bushel, downplaying or even failing to recognize some of his powers. He befriends young Roberta and Tommy Lee, children of a Chinese immigrant family that has just moved to Metropolis, and combats a militant, White supremacist Klan group that terrorizes them. At the same time, he must confront his fears of revealing his own alienness, and frightful visions of himself and his birth parents as green-skinned monsters.
This Clark starts out not knowing about Krypton, but gradually learns of it (through a familiar plot device: a bit of leftover Kryptonian tech). In the course of fighting the Klan, Clark discovers the full extent of his powers, hidden from him by his own desires to assimilate: a clever way to explain how the running and jumping Superman of early Siegel and Shuster became the flying Superman with X-ray vision that we know now. But much of the story belongs to young Roberta (Lan-Shin) Lee, whose worries about fitting in mirror Clark’s, and whose empathy with him proves key to unlocking his potential. Yang and Gurihiru give us brief flashbacks to Clark’s origin, while focusing on his anxious way of passing among humans in the present — an anxiety Roberta knows all too well. The book's nonlinear retelling deftly frames the old origin story as a fable of assimilation (à la The Shadow Hero). Roberta and Clark, both immigrants uncomfortably aware of their alienness, together foil the Klan and stand up for a vision of Metropolis — implicitly of America — in which everyone is “bound together,” sharing the same future, “the same tomorrow.” In this way, Superman Smashes the Klan makes its antiracist parable integral to Superman’s own process of becoming.
Superman Smashes the Klan is not subtle; after all, it’s a value-laden fantasy of nation, like so many American superhero comics — and it obviously courts a young audience (Young Adults, says the back cover, but I’d say middle-grade). The book wears its values on its sleeve. Also, the period setting seems idealized: for example, Inspector Henderson of the Metropolis PD is here portrayed as African American, which tends to suggest a very progressive Metropolis for 1946, one in which the Klansmen’s anti-Black racism makes them outliers. This may be too easy. Though the story acknowledges that racism takes many forms, the masked Klansmen provide an obvious, simplistic focus (I’d expect a YA novel about racism to be more ambiguous and challenging on this score). On the other hand, the book allows some of its racist characters to grow: young Chuck, nephew of the Klan’s leader, learns to reject his uncle’s ways at the boffo climax — at which a bunch of kids help Superman save the day, own his identity, and face down xenophobia.
Superman Smashes the Klan, then, dares to hope — as children’s texts so often do — that the openness and innocence of the young can redeem a society riven by bigotry and corruption. This utopian vision is familiar to anyone who studies children's literature; it's obvious. Yet, obvious or not, this is just the kind of Superman story I prefer to read, one in which Supes clearly stands for a decent, humane, inclusive ideal. It’s on the nose, sure, but that doesn’t bother me much. It could make a terrific animated film, in post-Spider-Verse mode (we can only hope).
That said, Superman Smashes the Klan is not as effective, I think, as Yang and Liew’s Shadow Hero, which more daringly uses superhero tropes to create a layered, ambivalent assimilation story. This is a Superman comic, after all, hence constrained; the nervy, potentially offensive gambits in The Shadow Hero are not to be expected. Yet Yang has taken some interesting risks in reworking Superman’s origin; it’s good to see the truism that Superman is an immigrant being put to real use. It’s likewise good to see Superman sprung free — liberated — from the suffocating weight of “DC Universe” continuity. I'm a little sad that this has to happen in a distanced period setting, rather than a contemporary one. (I'd love to see this book spawn a series of timely, obviously relevant Superman GNs set in the present day, for the same audience.)
Stylistically, I’ll say that I find the book a bit too clean and antiseptic to conjure the desired sense of period; Gurihiru’s neat, smart artwork strikes me as too textureless and bland to evoke a mid-1940s Metropolis. I’d have liked to see a grittier city setting, with more grimy particulars, so that Superman’s bright, heroic doings would stand out by contrast. On the other hand, Gurihiru’s pages are dynamic, inventive, and ever-readable. The book combines the snazziness and roughhousing energy of most superhero comics with clear-line legibility. It’s fetching and fun to look at, and Yang and Gurihiru are clearly sympatico (their Avatar collaboration obviously prepared them for this). If only most DC comics were this free and confident of their aims.
The recent news that Marvel is teaming up with Scholastic — that is, licensing Scholastic to produce a series of original graphic novels for young readers starring Marvel heroes, to be published under the Graphix line — gives me hope that we may see a flood of comics with similar aims. That announcement came as a surprise, but perhaps it shouldn't have: after all, young readers' graphic novels are the thriving sector in US comics publishing today. Maybe, just maybe, US-style superhero comics, not just movies, TV shows, and goods based on such comics, can once again become popular, widely available children's entertainment. Having lived through (and, for a time, invested emotionally in) the revisionist adultification of superheroes in the 1980s to 90s, I find this prospect oddly exhilarating. I wonder what Yang thinks — and if he is keen to do more books of this type.
Man, what I wouldn’t give to teach a sequence like so: Siegel and Shuster’s first two years of Superman (1938-1940), De Haven’s retake, The Shadow Hero, and Superman Smashes the Klan. I bet that would kick off some great conversations.
PS. Gene Luen Yang has been on the board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund since 2018. In light of the infuriating recent news out of that troubled organization, his frank and reflective remarks on Twitter have been illuminating. Yang — wisely, I think — values the Fund's mission over the current organization, while also pointing out the good work done by current CBLDF staffers. It's quite a tightrope walk — and recommended reading for those who've been following the news of the CBLDF, and the comic book field's larger sexual harassment and abuse crisis, on this blog.
PPS. Gene Yang is slated to take part in three virtual panels at this week's Comic-Con@Home: The Power of Teamwork in Kids Comics (today, Wednesday, July 22); Comics during Clampdown: Creativity in the Time of COVID (Thursday, July 23); and Water, Earth, Fire, Air: Continuing the Avatar Legacy (Friday, July 24). These events, like most panels making up Comic-Con@Home, will presumably be prerecorded, hence without live audience Q&A, which is a shame. But, still, there should be some interesting back-and-forth among the panelists, and Yang is a great ambassador and thinker on the fly. See comic-con.org or Comic-Con's YouTube channel for further info.
Gender Queer. By Maia Kobabe. Colors by Phoebe Kobabe. Sensitivity read by Melanie Gillman. Oni Press, ISBN 978-1549304002 (softcover), May 2019. $17.99. 240 pages.
Glad to get to this one, at last.
Gender Queer bills itself (on its cover) as both a memoir and a guide. It does both well. As a memoir, it is intimate, recounting a personal story about the push-pull of body and mind, self and society. It is as candid as it must be, as discreet as it can be. This is Maia Kobabe’s story, told with autographic frankness. As a guide, it gestures beyond the personal, giving an authoritative (though not universalizing) perspective on gender dysphoria, asexuality, and the politics of being a nonbinary subject in a binary culture. Actually, it works well as a guide because it works as a story — meaning Gender Queer is authoritative because Kobabe lived it. The book demonstrates how comics, by interweaving picture, word, and symbol, can evoke the general through the particular; how graphic memoir can do the work of political as well as autobiographical witness. Gender Queer credibly witnesses to tough issues precisely because Kobabe does not assume that anyone else has lived with those issues in precisely the same way; that is, the book honors the specificities of eir life (Kobabe uses the Spivak pronouns e, eir, and em). The quirks of eir own experience make the book what it is—yet sharing those quirks brings a vivid honesty that will speak to readers whose circumstances are very different from the author’s.
Gender Queer is bookended by scenes of teaching and learning. In the opening, Maia struggles with eir autobiographical cartooning class, taught by MariNaomi (part of eir Comics MFA at the California College of the Arts); e resists the idea of sharing eir “secrets” on the page. Overcoming that resistance is prerequisite to the very book we are reading, and Kobabe depicts eirself tearing away a kind of veil to share eir story with us. In the closing, Maia teaches eir own comics workshop to tweens and teens at a local library, but struggles again: e reproaches eirself for not coming out to eir students, that is, not sharing eir nonbinary identity and preferred pronouns. Oddly, then, this coming-out story ends with an instance of not coming out, and of self-blame. The book is open about troubles and misgivings of this sort, as well as the familial and social awkwardness of negotiating new pronouns. In one striking scene, Maia’s aunt, a lesbian and committed feminist, responds to the pronoun question by challenging Maia’s perspective on FTM transitioning and genderqueerness, suggesting that these things may stem from misogyny, from a “deeply internalized hatred of women” (195). Maia is troubled by this challenge, of course, but the scene plays out with a delicate touch (eir aunt is properly supportive, not an adversary). Thus Kobabe is able to field a sensitive question, perhaps even to defuse the likely skepticism of some readers. I confess that these admissions of awkwardness and trouble swayed me; it was good to see Kobabe dealing with the struggles of family and friends without rancor or caricature. Gender Queer is that kind of book: humanly complicated, and willing to lean into complexity and trouble (it pairs well with L. Nichols’s Flocks in that regard).
As an autographic, testimonial comic, Gender Queer adds to the fund of helpful cultural resources available to queer and gender-nonconforming young people. At the same time, it testifies to how Kobabe has drawn upon cultural resources in eir own journey: books, comics, Waldorf schooling, homeschooling, and art teachers (two depicted here, MariNaomi and Melanie Gillman, are queer cartoonists themselves). In Maia’s quest for self-understanding, books loom large: e is a voracious and self-documenting reader, a lister of books read and re-read. Kobabe’s account suggests that storytellers such as Neil Gaiman, Tamora Pierce, and Clamp served eir as resources for self-fashioning. A now-poignant passage recounts how Maia, a delayed reader at age eleven, taught eirself to read so as to devour the Harry Potter books (the irony of which, at the present moment, cuts like a knife). At a key moment late in Gender Queer, Kobabe turns to another book, neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland’s Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain (2013), and even conjures Churchland as a character, an expert witness whose testimony about “the masculinizing of the brain” affirms Maia’s sense that “I was born this way.” This flourish is perhaps a touch too triumphant: Kobabe gives no sense of the intellectual debate around Churchland’s ideas, but simply invokes her as a bookish authority and solution. In any case, Gender Queer is, through and through, the record of a reader’s life.
Style-wise, Gender Queer favors spareness and economy. Scenic backgrounds are few, and deliberate; Kobabe’s panels often consist of head shots against color fields. Conversation, reflection, and expression are everything. Pages typically follow a grid, whether unvarying or, more often, a bit relaxed, letting the white of the page show through:
On the other hand, Kobabe lets rapturous, full-page drawing take over every so often. Clearly, eir minimalism is a considered choice, as confirmed by certain passages that break with the general sparseness. Dig for example these two facing pages:
Though Gender Queer is discursive and text-filled, it never feels clotted. Kobabe’s organic hand-lettering and use of unbordered elements give the art breathing room. The pages include telling pauses, open bleeds, and dialogic exchanges that add up to a accessible, even brisk, read.
Disarming is a good word for Gender Queer: the book’s honesty about dysphoria and bodily phobias may trouble some readers. I myself started the book in, admittedly, a guarded or hard-hearted mood, skeptical of the family ethos depicted: the utopian, back-to-the-woods values, the homeschooling, every little thing that I could interpret as a sign of sheltering or self-indulgence. Of course I was being pigheaded, and wrong — as the book’s warmth and complexity so clearly showed me. Gender Queer is moving and informative, an invaluable memoir and guide.
Briefly, in follow-up to my post of June 30:
Further reporting by Michael Dean for The Comics Journal reveals a long history of administrative neglect, failed oversight, and abusive workplace practices at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. In particular, the testimony of former CBLDF Development Manager Cheyenne (Shy) Allott reveals a pattern of harassment by now-departed Executive Director Charles Brownstein back in 2010, and other disturbing details have come to light, including Brownstein's arrest for drunk and disorderly conduct (2003) and Brownstein's harassment of sometime CBLDF Deputy Director Mike Scigliano (circa 2008-2009). Allott's testimony, reported in detail by Dean, has only now become public, due to a binding non-disclosure agreement she was strong-armed into signing when she left her job at the Fund. The CBLDF has released Allott from that agreement.
Current CBLDF Board President Christina Merkler officially responds to some pointed questions from The Comics Journal here.
I want to support the CBLDF, and take some comfort from Merkler's promise of "a top-to-bottom rebuilding of Fund management, which includes modernizing our Board governance and communicating in a transparent style more representative of the people working for the Fund." Further, she has declared:
We must better understand and explain why the Fund did or did not support previous causes important to our members, update our choices of imagery used in our publications and add deeper pre-hire background checks for prospective employees of the Fund. Finally, there will be a new infusion of Board members that reflects all that comics have to offer, with more representatives of our constituents, particularly creators and retailers.
All that sounds promising. But the history of breach of trust here is profound. The Fund needs to shed daylight on every aspect of its workings. For too long, it has run on a shoestring, with an Executive Director unaccountable to anyone, a dispersed, out-of-touch Board that has let things slide, and a lack of due process in its own ranks. I have lost faith in the organization and hope for serious change.
Frankly, this issue has gotten me all tangled up. I consider myself a free-speech liberal, for whom the protection of freedom of speech is key. To me, freedom of expression is the fountainhead from which other freedoms flow. So I believe in the mission of the CBLDF. It's disheartening to see what strikes me as a spirit of illiberalism growing among progressives who consider First Amendment activism to be simply a marker of privilege, or at odds with the fight for social justice. I tend to think that such critics value freedom of expression too lightly. Yet it is hard to argue with them when institutions like the CBLDF operate in shadows, neglectfully, unjustly, and jeopardize, through their inaction or complicity in wrongdoing, the very cause they are supposed to be fighting for. The CBLDF must align its First Amendment mission with a broader fight for civil rights and social justice.
UPDATE, JULY 12: Over at The Daily Beast, Asher Elbein provides a thoughtful, tenaciously argued overview of the US comics industry's sexual harassment and abuse crisis, pointing out that "sexual harassment is a labor rights issue" and placing the crisis in the context of the industry's long history of abusive practices. Elbein's perspective usefully counters the misleadingly upbeat metaphor of weeding out a few "bad apples" from the industry; he shows how the system has been rotten in so many ways from the start, and requires systemic change. Recommended reading.
Coming-of-age stories about young witches have definitely become a genre in young readers’ graphic novels: a means of blending fantasy and Bildungsroman, and of telling stories about gender and sexuality, sometimes about other forms of difference, and about resistance versus conformism. Generally, these witch stories offer gender-conscious, often queer-positive, fables of identity. Post-Harry Potter, but often rejecting the Potter novels’ emphasis on passing in the mundane world, they also seem influenced by Hayao Miyazaki and the magical girl franchises of anime and manga. Here are reviews of three graphic novels about witches that came out, one after another, last fall:
The Okay Witch. By Emma Steinkeller. Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-1534431454 (softcover), Sept. 2019. 272 pages, $12.99.
A girl named Moth, a misfit in her Salem-like town, discovers that she comes from a line of superhuman witches, her mother is more than three centuries old, and her family is entangled in the history of the town and its witch-hunters. Moth’s grandmother has retreated into a timeless, otherworldly utopia for witches, while her Mom has embraced the mortal world and sworn off witchcraft. Grandmother and Mom argue over Moth’s destiny, while Moth seeks her own way. There’s an intriguing story hook in this middle-grade fantasy, which poses an ethical dilemma about retreating from, versus engaging, an imperfect world — and suggests an allegory of America, in which women of color (Moth and family) expose and challenge the culture’s white-supremacist and patriarchal origins (the witch-hunters). However, The Okay Witch seems tentative and underthought, hobbled by blunt exposition, shallow characterization, and patchy drawing. Steinkellner’s characters are designedly cute and expressive (her style reminds me of Steenz), and she seems to grow into the work as she goes, but the results are unsteady. The breakdowns and staging of action sometimes confuse, the settings lack texture and depth, image and text do not always cooperate, and distractions such as crowded lettering and jumbled perspectives dilute the impact. The novel is progressive, hopeful, and charming, much more than the pastiche of Kiki’s Delivery Service suggested by its cover, but still strikes me as a derivative, uncertain effort.
Mooncakes. By Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker. Lettered by Joamette Gil; edited by Hazel Newlevant. Roar/Lion Forge, ISBN 978-1549303043 (softcover), Oct. 2019. 256 pages, $14.99.
Mooncakes is a Young Adult fantasy about witches, werewolves, and demons, set in a world where magic is — well, not commonplace, but not unheard of either. More than that, it’s a gentle romance between two sometime childhood friends, now young adults: Nova, a witch who lives and works with her grandmothers (also witches); and Tam, a genderqueer werewolf and a refugee, running from cultists who seek to exploit their power. Even more, though, Mooncakes is a paean to community: a culturally diverse, queer one that helps Nova and Tam bind demons and face down their adversaries. The complicated plot hints at a world in which the relationships between technology and magic, humans and spirits, and the living and dead could take volumes to explore. Xu’s drawing is organic and expressive, her pages lively variations on the grid, with occasional dramatic breakouts. The settings are richly textured, the colors thick, a tad cloying. The emotional dynamics are enriched with grace notes of characterization (Xu and Walker know when to take their time). That Nova is hard of hearing is a point gracefully handled, neither central nor incidental. The story is finally a bit too pat, and reworks some shopworn elements — again, there’s that whiff of Miyazaki, with animal spirits and talk of a young witch’s apprenticeship. Yet the distinct characters and budding romance make it click.
The Midwinter Witch. By Molly Knox Ostertag. Color by Ostertag and Maarta Laiho; designed by Ostertag and Phil Falco. Scholastic/Graphix, ISBN 978-1338540550 (softcover), Nov. 2019. 208 pages, $12.99.
The Midwinter Witch rounds out Ostertag’s middle-grade Witch Boy trilogy — though I dearly wish this wasn’t the last book, since she has created such a beguiling world and winning family of characters. The series keeps getting better, and this volume hints at conflicts and potential that could sustain even deeper explorations. Here, Aster (the gender-nonconforming “witch boy”) and Ariel (a character introduced in the second book, The Hidden Witch) and their friends attend the Midwinter Festival, a yearly reunion of Asher’s extended family. There they compete in a tournament that requires each of them to face their fears: Aster’s of defying a strictly gendered tradition, Ariel’s of not fitting in, of being the orphan and odd witch out. Acerbic and defensive, Ariel is not sure she can become part of Asher’s very welcoming family. A dark force from her past looms up, luring her to a different path and leading to a confrontation that is all too quickly resolved — I wanted to know more about Ariel’s particular darkness and its source. The payoff, though, is lovely and affirming. The Midwinter Witch is a remarkably sure-handed work of cartooning, enlivened by deft, often silent, characterization, artfully designed pages that mix the grid with bleeds and multilayered spreads, and felicitous coloring. Overall, it’s a marvel of elegant, empathetic storytelling — a new high for Ostertag.
By way of conclusion, I invite KinderComics readers with insights into this genre to weigh in with comments! I'd love to hear from readers with a strong interest in this kind of story; I'm eager to gain a fuller sense of the witch's tale, where it comes from, and what it might mean for culture and for comics. I see literary, cinematic, and anime/manga influences in this genre, but still find myself wondering, why is the witch's tale flourishing now, as a comics genre? How does the treatment of the witch's tale in comics differ from its treatment in prose?
My posts to KinderComics usually focus on the pleasure of reading, and usually contain at least one image. The following post does neither. I trust my reasons will be clear:
Over roughly the past two weeks, the US comic book and graphic novel community has been roiled by revelations of sexual harassment, abuse, and predation committed by prominent and admired creators (see here, here, and here for starters). Implicit in the coverage of these outrages is the understanding that habits and presumptions in the field at large have to change, that too much of the field has been complicit in covering up or downplaying, or simply nodding toward and tolerating, these outrages for too long. Even known instances of harassment and abuse, as in the case of Scott Allie at Dark Horse, were let slide, or palmed off with inadequate in-house reprisals that don’t seem to have changed anything.
Comics in the US is dealing, belatedly, with the same injustices that have marked other cultural fields, including children’s publishing (recall the sexual harassment crisis of 2018: see here, here, and here). This is not the first #MeToo moment that the US comic book field has had, but it may be the loudest, most impactful, and most propitious of those moments — one that, I hope, will spark not only short-term outrage and equally short-term promises of change, but real, sustained, systemic change: to editorial and personnel practices, mentoring and networking practices, comic-con culture, and the things that all of us stakeholders in comics say (or fail to say) to one another. Quick bursts of performative outrage won’t matter in the long run; what will matter is recognition of the field’s general complicity in these matters, and taking practical steps to propel the field out of complacent gear-lock and into active attention, to alert status. This will be a matter of more than pledges; it will have to be a practical matter of who gets hired, whose voices will get amplified and believed, whose words will reverberate in the proverbial room where it happens, and what comicdom’s gathering spaces do to set policy and expectations. Fan spaces such as cons have been pushing for stronger anti-harrassment policies and new etiquettes and safeguards (see for example here, here, and here); professional spaces both inside and outside of cons must do the same.
I have no special wisdom when it comes to addressing these issues. In fact, I’m troubled by my own record of bland complicity in the unthinking sexism of our society — and of comics culture. Despite recoiling from the more obviously sexist and misogynistic content of many comics, I’ve often been blinded by complacency. I will have to work proactively to expand the scope of my empathy and recognize the scope of what I just don’t know. What I do know is that I’m a participant in this culture and share in its problems, and that concrete, deliberate policies will mean more than vague affirmations. A proactive commitment to anti-sexism is needed, and that’s an ongoing thing, not just a matter of signing a pledge.
Of special concern to KinderComics is the news out of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a long-lived nonprofit that works to protect freedom of expression in the comics field. The CBLDF, I believe, has a crucial mission — but its reputation has been damaged, its future jeopardized, by its failure to address sexist, and sexual, wrongdoing within its own organization. This week, longtime executive director Charles Brownstein has resigned under pressure, due to renewed and intense public outcry over his sexual assault of a comics creator at a convention in 2005 (and other charges that have come to light once more). The convention incident became known in 2006, thanks in part to investigative journalism by Michael Dean of The Comics Journal. The CBLDF, however, kept Brownstein on, despite damning coverage. Though the Fund reportedly took punitive and rehabilitative measures with Brownstein, the shadow cast by his misconduct has dogged the organization. This past couple of weeks, the Fund drew severe criticism on social media, Twitter particularly, with prominent industry voices pledging to withdraw or withhold support from the Fund unless Brownstein were removed (and, some added, the CBLDF board took steps toward serious internal reform). Brownstein’s resignation was reported by the CBLDF on Monday, June 22.
This was long overdue — and now the Fund is being called to answer publicly for its years of supporting Brownstein.
Again, I believe that the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund does essential work on behalf of comics creators, publishers, retailers, librarians, educators, and readers. Formed in 1986, incorporated in 1990, the Fund “provides legal referrals, representation, advice, assistance and education to cases affecting the First Amendment right to read, create, publish, sell, and distribute comics and graphic novels.” More simply (I’m quoting the CBLDF website here), the Fund “help[s] individuals and businesses who are being criminally prosecuted because of the comic books they read, make, buy, or sell.” Further, it “help[s] libraries gather resources to defend graphic novel challenges.” This is a mission that matters to me greatly — and I believe it matters to the future of comics for young readers. Some organization needs to carry on that mission.
As children’s and young adult graphic novels have become a staple in libraries across the US, comics have repeatedly appeared on the lists of “most challenged” books, and the kinds of cases the CBLDF has worked on have changed, as has the Fund’s promotional literature. Much of the CBLDF’s outreach these days goes beyond the diehard comic book hobbyists who were its main public at first, and the Fund now organizes convention panels and produces resources aimed at librarians, teachers, and parents. CBLDF staff have sought to promote inclusivity, spotlighting women, queer, and trans creators of comics, celebrating anti-racist comics, and putting on progressive convention events. They have, most definitely, defended young people’s right to read freely. So it’s disconcerting to hear stakeholders in the comics community declare the organization obsolete or hopelessly rearguard or corrupt. Yet the CBLDF brought this on itself — which is why the voices of its severest critics should be heard, regarded, and discussed.
We’re going to need a new model CBLDF, or a new organization that does the same sort of work. The injustices in the Fund’s own history, though, cannot be ignored.
The challenge here is to get beyond regretful mea culpas and into the active position of doing something substantial. I believe there needs to be a public accounting by the CBLDF board, and revision of its charter to address issues of sexual harassment in comics culture and within its own ranks. I hope the organization will exhibit the will and courage to address this problem — a great deal depends on what they do next (the most recent statements from the Fund give me some hope). I also believe that a legal empowerment fund, comparable to that once attempted by the now-defunct nonprofit Friends of Lulu, is desperately needed for women, and for queer, trans, nonbinary, racialized, and disabled persons, working in the comics field. If the CBLDF can’t or won’t participate in civil suits, then another mechanism is needed to help support the victims of harassment, stalking, manipulation, exclusion, and bigotry in our community.
These are alarming times, for so many reasons — but, again, they are also propitious times. Things can be done, concretely, spiritedly, vocally, forcefully. I hope they will — but of course hope has to be an active, doing thing, not a matter of waiting for the ship to right itself.
Science Comics: Cars: Engines That Move You. By Dan Zettwoch. Edited by Dave Roman; designed by Zettwoch and Rob Steen. ISBN 978-1626728226 (softcover). 128 pages. $12.99. First Second, May 2019.
This one came out in 2019, but I missed it. As much as I dig publisher First Second, I’ve skipped over Science Comics, their didactic middle-grade nonfiction series on topics ranging from dinosaurs to robots, rockets to trees. I should have been paying attention, since the series, launched in 2016, has yielded nineteen books (and counting) and looks like a solid hit. Under editors Casey Gonzalez and (now just?) Dave Roman, Science Comics has welcomed diverse artists and writers, yet the books are strongly branded, sharing a common dress and size (128 pages). Collectively, the series is quite an editorial achievement, as opposed to the creator-driven work First Second usually champions. I suppose that’s one reason I’ve stayed away — but also, I admit, I share the general distrust of children’s informational nonfiction, a critically unloved genre despite outstanding work by creators like David Macaulay (and despite how much time my family and I have spent poring over DK Eyewitness Books). Expository nonfiction for young readers is often slighted as functional, utilitarian stuff, and it’s true that nonfiction books of the Baby Professor type — mechanical and unlovely — are everywhere. I tend to look askance at books that ignore or instrumentalize the pleasures of character and plot. So it took a great cartoonist to get me to try, at last, Science Comics: Dan Zettwoch.
I first read Zettwoch in the avant-comix anthology Kramer’s Ergot, then followed him to his first graphic novel, the neglected Birdseye Bristoe (2012), and to Amazing Facts and Beyond (2013), a bundle of mock-didactic, believe-it-or-not strips in collaboration with Kevin Huizenga. Zettwoch’s work is distinctive and, for me, always a draw. He is the master of the cutaway diagram, the cartoon schematic, the absurd yet precise infographic: a successor to both Rube Goldberg and Robert Ripley. Somehow, he manages to be meticulous and loopy at the same time. What’s more, his work often pays tribute to bygone technologies by showing just how they worked. Zettwoch’s cartooning peers into the mechanics of things, rendering them with clarity and joy — so an informational comic about cars would seem like a natural for him. It is.
While Science Comics: Cars boasts a few recurring characters who age over the course of the book, it’s not a character-driven narrative; unlike, say, a Magic School Bus adventure, or (I gather) some other Science Comics, it’s not framed as an individual or group journey. The recurrent figures are reminders of the book’s historical through-line, but mainly Cars is a workout for Zettwoch the diagrammer. Though automotive history gives the book an arc and shape, Cars comes closer to encyclopedic Eyewitness style than to a graphic novel. It’s a reminder that comics do not always need traditional strong “storytelling” in order to engage us the way stories do. The book may be organized thematically but coheres graphically.
Zettwoch divides the book into four chapters, or “strokes,” named for the modern internal combustion engine’s four-stoke cycle: Intake, Compression, Power, Exhaust. Within these, he repeats certain graphic elements that together lend a sense of order; that is, the book finds its form by braiding and varying key images, layouts, and design conceits. For example, the first two chapters both begin with accounts of historic automobile rides that serve to establish phrases and layouts that recur later. At the same time, Zettwoch throws in, unpredictably, myriad diagrams, charts, and sly jokes, and this graphic playfulness turns Cars into a series of discrete spreads that almost stand by themselves, poster-like. The book demonstrates comics’ diagrammatic nature and the power of design to cluster and clarify big gobs of information — but it also gets a bit drunk on the sheer pleasures of the page.
Cars is densely informative, and a feat of design. It excels at the engineering history of autos — but less so, alas, at the social. The book wants stronger thematizing: some social and political threads that would make it, in the end, more than a compendium of wonders. The final chapter, Exhaust, hints at deeper themes, discussing fossil fuels and noxious emissions; belatedly, it suggests the damage automobiles have done to the environment (the globe is shown wreathed by auto exhaust). I figured I was being set up for a reflection on the harm as well as advantages bred by cars — but, no, Zettwoch skitters in other directions, devoting four pages to an insanely detailed chart of trucks, another spread to “Weird Cars,” and then other pages to the histories of car horns, car stereos, etc. A final section covers electric cars and the possibility of driverless cars but gives no sobering sense of the challenges posed by car culture and our reliance on personal vehicles, no sense of ecological or social consequence. Nor does the book deal in detail with automotive safety. It’s as if it can’t face up to harder issues. Instead, it’s a blithe valentine to cars that any gear monkey could love. I get a sense of failed follow-through and of implications left unexplored — that is, I found the book’s finale disappointing.
To his credit, Zettwoch’s version of car history is fairly inclusive, honoring women as engineers and innovators and spotlighting non-white figures as well. The book offers a bright, affirming view of a shared car culture. Yet Cars does not come to terms with what the overabundance of autos might mean for our common future. Zettwoch’s love of automotive engineering comes through, but the “science” part of the project feels incomplete without reckoning on the environmental impact of automobiles. Road not taken? Opportunity lost, I'd say.
That said, Cars remains a dazzling exercise in show-and-tell, a master class in comics as diagramming and design. Though it may not quite add up, it overflows with ingenuity and pleasure. As it turns out, Science Comics can be interesting comics indeed. I’ll read more, with hope.