Dragon Hoops. By Gene Luen Yang. Color by Lark Pien. First Second. ISBN 978-1626720794 (hardcover), $24.99. 448 pages.
Recently Gene Yang has been out touring in support of his newest graphic novel, the just-released Dragon Hoops. But of course he hasn't been touring in the flesh; the COVID-19 pandemic has had him—like so many of us—holed up at home, trying to find creative new ways to engage with both his family and his public. Happily, he hit upon the idea of a virtual book tour: that is, promoting Dragon Hoops through a series of Instagram comic strips in which he responds to readers’ questions. These quick comics are formulaic, but the formulas are clever and engaging: Yang repeats shots and gags across the series, making it feel much like whistle stops before a loving audience that tends to ask the same few questions again and again. Of course, these comics are self-deprecating—more than anyone else, Yang is the object of his own jokes. He makes an excellent comic strip character.
Humorous self-deprecation is one of Yang’s constants. He used to self-publish under the imprint Humble Comics, and if you’ve seen him speak you know that he excels at genial self-mockery. Yang plays humble the way Liszt played the piano—it’s his instrument. But don’t let him fool you: he is a gutsy and ambitious narrative artist whose work walks a tightrope between charming accessibility and willed difficulty. Yang takes chances. In particular, his solo graphic novels (as opposed to his many collaborative works) are fearsome high-wire performances. Dragon Hoops is no exception.
Yang’s comics tend to be structurally tricky, thematically bold, and psychologically sharp. His breakout book, American Born Chinese (2006), semi-autobiographical yet fantastical at once, interweaves three stories in three different genres, until a startling moment that turns those three tales into one. The novel oscillates between ingratiating humor and terrible pain (in fact, those two tones are co-present throughout). Mixing myth fantasy, earthbound middle-grade school story, and arch sitcom, American Born Chinese is great comics, capitalizing on the form’s stable-unstable, multimodal heterogeneity to tell an immigrants’ son’s story, one of divided identity or fractured self. At bottom, it’s a story about internalized racism and self-hatred. A nervy book, it freely adapts China’s legendary Journey to the West, while at the same time insinuating a Christian allegory and riffing on Transformer/mecha pop culture. Moreover, it dares a form of grotesque satire, in which hateful, grossly racist anti-Chinese stereotypes reflect the protagonist’s self-loathing (a strategy as impious and risky as Art Spiegelman's notorious animal metaphor in Maus). In sum, American Born Chinese revealed Yang’s propensity for large-scale structural conceits that enact his own ambivalence and complex sense of identity. It was, is, daring.
Yang’s follow-up project, Boxers & Saints, goes one better. A two-volume novel about China’s Boxer Rebellion, it’s a magic-realist historical fantasy in which the twin volumes represent, in a kind of tense counterpoint, both Chinese nationalist (Boxers) and Europeanized missionary (Saints) perspectives. Pitting the story of a young man who is an anti-colonial revolutionary against that of a young woman who is a Christian convert, Boxers & Saints balances Yang’s Catholicism against his pained awareness of Western imperialism and racism, while also critiquing strands of misogyny in traditional Chinese culture. The resulting two-headed novel, rather shockingly violent for Yang, represents a dramatic argument: a psychomachia in which different facets of Yang contend with each other, bitterly. Boxers completes Saints, and vice versa, and both volumes sting. This project shows, again, Yang’s penchant for teasing out self-conflict by counterposing different plots (in this case, different books!) and engineering complex structures. Identity in his books is as tricky as the plots: dynamic and never settled, an anxious balancing act. Yang's ingenious plotting, and an overall sense of high personal stakes, of storytelling wrung from pain, transform what could be flatly didactic into harrowing stuff.
Dragon Hoops aims for this quality too, though it lacks the big structural conceits of the three-part American Born Chinese or two-part Boxers & Saints. It differs in another important way too: this time the tale is not historic, mythic, or crypto-autobiographical, but instead a literal memoir, an account of a year in Yang’s life as a teacher at Bishop O’Dowd High, a Catholic school in the Bay Area. Dragon Hoops is the longest overtly autobiographical work Yang has done. Yet it’s really about (huh?) basketball: on one level, Bishop O’Dowd’s varsity men’s basketball team, the Dragons, hungry for a state championship, but more broadly the entire history of the sport and how it intersects with race, class, and even Catholic schooling. In short, Dragon Hoops takes on basketball as a social force. This is something that the book’s version of Gene, archetypally geeky and sports-averse, has to struggle to understand. The story follows Gene from standoffish sideline observer (he is, at first, simply a storyteller looking for a new story) to ardent booster of the school’s basketball squad. At the same time, it charts a major shakeup in Yang’s own life, and offers multiple stories of struggle and vindication if not redemption. Further, it explores ethical issues involved in coaching, mentoring young people, and even Yang’s own storytelling. In fact, Yang worries on the page about what he is doing on the page. Here the book seems boldest--or perhaps most vulnerable?
Dragon Hoops is long and complex (at about a hundred pages longer than Boxers, it is Yang’s heftiest single volume). Somewhere between intimate memoir, journalism, and oral history, it profiles the players on Bishop O’Dowd’s team, observes the complex social dynamics of their lives, and sets us up for, yes, a nail-biting climax on the court, at the longed-for championship game. Simultaneously, though, it recounts the creation and democratization, or broadening, of basketball, in a series of historical vignettes—while also depicting a transformative moment in Gene’s uncertain career in comics. That career comes to a sort of fortunate crisis when Gene, startled and uncertain, is offered a chance to write, of all things, Superman. Yang thus parallels the team’s story with a node of decision in his own life. In this way, the book explains why he is no longer at Bishop O’Dowd, and becomes a bittersweet valedictory to his seventeen-year stretch there (and perhaps a way of prolonging his connection to the school?). There’s a great deal happening in Dragon Hoops, then—the book’s seemingly straightforward structure conceals yet another gutsy high-wire act.
This book is jammed full. Starting from a prologue in which Gene, reticent and awkward, seeks out Dragons coach Lou Richie, the story shuttles between present-day profiles and historical background, while also packing in loads of on-court basketball action. The team’s season, and Gene’s growing relationship with “Coach Lou,” are the spine of the book, but Yang freely intermixes other elements, with special attention to particular Dragons and how their team collectively embodies diversity. Chapters depicting important games alternate with chapters devoted to key players (in this sense, the book’s structure is very deliberate). Yang uses the players’ backstories both to celebrate basketball as an inclusive and egalitarian sport but also to point out various problems, notably racism and sexism, in the history and culture of the game. One chapter is devoted to a pair of siblings, Oderah, star of O’Dowd’s championship women’s basketball team, and her younger brother, Arinze, now part of the men’s varsity squad; the two are constant rivals, yet fiercely loyal to each other. Another chapter profiles Qianjun (“Alex”) Zhao, a Chinese exchange student on the Dragons’ team. Another focuses on Jeevin Sandhu, a Punjabi student of the Sikh faith—and here Yang focuses on the challenges of assimilation, while also providing, in effect, a brief introduction to Sikhism.
There’s more. Dragon Hoops depicts James Naismith, who invented basketball in 1891; Marques Haynes and his fellow Harlem Globetrotters, who helped integrate the game; Senda Berenson, who launched women’s basketball; Yao Ming, the first star of Chinese basketball to thrive in the NBA; and other notables in the game’s history. Yang smartly interweaves present and past: the chapter on Jeevin also recounts the rise of Catholic schooling and the career of early NBA star George Mikan, a Croatian American player from a Catholic seminary; Yang then acknowledges that Jeevin, as a Sikh, is an outlier in Bishop O’Dowd’s Catholic culture (a scene of Jeevin reciting the Mul Mantar, a Sikh prayer, complements other scenes of praying in the book). Similarly, the chapter on Oderah and Arinzes weaves in Berenson’s story and the rise of the women’s game, including a historic dunk by pioneering college player Georgeann Wells. You can feel Yang matching up elements from past and present to build a tight, cohesive book.
Visually, Dragon Hoops is likewise purposeful and designing. Breathless scenes of action on the court, sometimes parsed down to the split second, recall the sort of intense basketball manga popularized by Takehiko Inoue (Slam Dunk, Buzzer Beater, Real). These scenes attain an energy and forcefulness that exceed Yang’s previous work (even the martial violence of Boxers & Saints). There are sequences that fairly set my pulse racing. What makes these explosions of action thrilling is the way the book as a whole carefully measures out its storytelling, and uses the very controlled braiding of repeated imagery to reinforce its themes. Yang recycles and repurposes the same signal images over and over, to point up thematic parallels between past and present, among the different players, and between the Dragons’ quest for the championship and his own concern about going “all in on comics” as a career. Dragon Hoops is a library of key images, reworked and re-inflected (indeed, it could take the place of the vaunted Watchmen when it comes to classroom lessons about braiding!). In fact, it’s a brilliant sustained feat of cartooning for the graphic novel form; the book echoes back and forth, as Yang plays the long game.
There’s a kind of nervousness, though, behind Yang’s cleverness. Dragon Hoops is an anxious, self-conscious work. Like Spiegelman’s Maus—and a great many other graphic memoirs since—it reveals and worries over its own stratagems. The authorial notes in the book’s back matter frankly discuss Yang’s sourcing and his occasional resort to artistic license. Said notes relate to the main story dialectically and at times critically (reminding me of the disarming notes in several books by Chester Brown). In particular, Yang admits that he has cast his wife Theresa as, essentially, his sounding board and proverbial better half: wise and practical, humorously tolerant of his anxieties, and full of advice and encouragement (or reasonable doubts about his judgment, as the occasion demands). Talking to Theresa becomes a means of registering Gene’s doubts about his own project, and the sometimes choppy ethical waters that the project gets him into. Though Theresa makes an impression, she does not really emerge as a full-blown character (and the same could be said of Theresa and Gene’s children). Yang notes that he took “particular liberty” with her dialogue: “I figured I could because, y’know, we’re married.” His notes are full of revealing asides like these, which invite a closer look at Dragon Hoops as a performance and a made thing, not just an artless recording of real-life events.
Yang’s self-reflexive disclosure of his artistic feints happens not only in the back matter but also in the main story. Dig these two successive panels, on either side of a page turn:
In particular, Yang depicts himself worrying over a single compromising plot point: a deeply troubling element of real life that threatens his desired “feel-good” story but that he feels he cannot omit. That ethical sore point is seeded about a third of the way into the book, after which Gene frets and frets over it—until a moment about four-fifths in, when Gene, or rather the book, enacts its moment of decision:
Readers of Maus may be reminded of Art’s insistence that “reality is too complex for comics"—which Yang echoes here, stating that comics are “essentially lies.” (Spiegelman too sometimes casts his wife, Françoise Mouly, as a sounding board whose dialogue makes his work’s ethical complications clearer.) In the case of Dragon Hoops, this sort of self-reflexive gambit becomes a fundamental plot element, in fact a suspense generator, long before Yang reveals precisely why. We spend a good part of the book wondering what he is hiding, and how he will reveal it (of course, this plot tease makes it obvious that at some point he will). This isn’t a terribly original move—graphic memoirs have been depicting the rigors of their own making since at least Justin Green—but here it feels almost like a forced move, as if Yang was compelled to it by unnerving real-world details that he could not wish away. Anxiety over this point fundamentally shapes the book’s narrative structure.
Dragon Hoops, then, perhaps seeks to inoculate itself against criticism. That is, Yang’s self-critical gambits (there are many) may be meant to deflect charges that his expert storytelling massages the truth a bit too much. I’m not sure that such charges would be fair—but I confess I don’t think Dragon Hoops is Yang’s most convincing graphic novel. Whereas American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints continue to hint at mixed feelings even as they aim for conclusiveness and wholeness, this book wants to feel emphatically resolved. Yang’s trademark ambivalence yields to a sort of boosterism. At times, Dragon Hoops seems to apply the “underdog” template of most sports stories rather uncritically; for example, the book registers some complicated thoughts about sports, coaching, and Catholic education that its final pages don’t so much resolve as hush. Me, I would have liked to see more critical engagement of what it means to turn young athletes into media stars. I would have liked to see more of Coach Lou’s self-questioning. Dragon Hoops is smart and honest enough to acknowledge problems in the culture of sports, but still wants us to cheer at the final buzzer. Maybe it’s an ironic tribute to Yang’s storytelling that, in the end, I wasn’t quite there. In any case, the book’s reigning structural parallel—how the courage and tenacity of the Dragons empowers Yang to go “all in” himself, as an artist—feels a bit rigged alongside the terrible dilemmas depicted in his previous novels.
But, man, it's hard to begrudge Yang the effort, because so much good stuff happens along the way. Dragon Hoops captures a culture, community, and season vividly, and is the very definition of what we should want from a major artist: a step in a new direction, and a dare-to-self that plays out in complex ways. No one could accuse Yang of making things easy on himself. And the book has taught me a lot. As my wife Mich and I take our daily break from isolation, walking the quiet neighborhoods around us, waving (distantly) at passers-by, we see a lot of basketball hoops on driveways and in yards. In fact, a couple of days ago, as we walked uphill through another neighborhood, we heard the sounds of shooting hoops before we came upon the sight: a quick dribble, a silence, a thudding backboard, then more of the same. Sure enough: someone was practicing basketball, solo, in a rear driveway, just barely visible above a tall gate. I had this book on my mind, and had to smile.
Stargazing. By Jen Wang. Color by Lark Pien. Song lyrics by Hellen Jo. First Second. ISBN 978-1250183880 (softcover), $12.99; ISBN 978-1250183873 (hardcover), $21.99. 224 pages.
Stargazing, Jen Wang’s follow-up to last year’s The Prince and the Dressmaker, is recognizably by the same artist—one of America’s best comics artists. Yet it’s a very different sort of book. A middle-grade graphic novel about friendship and jealousy among girls, it falls squarely into Raina Telgemeier territory: a school story about finding your complementary opposite and becoming friends, but then pulling back, but then stepping forward again.
As it traces a relationship between two girls, Christine and Moon, Stargazing evokes the camaraderie and intimacy of friends sharing secrets. At the same time, it registers how selfishness and anxiety may complicate our friendships. Wang treats small betrayals among school friends as the stuff of moral drama. In particular, she pays attention to what it may mean to be an immigrant’s daughter driven by certain dreams of success, and how such a driven child might look to another girl, one far from her in class and temperament, for a kind of relief, a liberating counter-example of a life lived more freely or less anxiously. But of course that “other” girl has complications of her own. Along the way, Wang conveys differences of class and circumstance within a Chinese American community, showing how adaptation and resistance may take diverse forms. Building on her own memories of girlhood, and detailing how different families may cleave to different standards and impose different pressures, Wang fashions a portrait of community and an understated story of girlhood friendship with a very particular cultural setting. In short, this is a terrific book.
Female friendship is a, or maybe the, abiding theme in post-Raina graphic Bildungsromane. I’ve noticed various author-artists tacking in that direction (KinderComics readers may recall, for example, reviews of Larson’s All Summer Long or Brosgol’s Be Prepared). At the recent PAMLA conference in San Diego, scholar Erika Travis (California Baptist University) presented on this very topic, drawing on Jamieson’s Roller Girl, Bell’s El Deafo, and Hale and Pham’s Real Friends for examples. She showed how these books stake out the traditional concerns of girls’ middle-grade books, only in comics form. Stargazing leans in that direction too—it’s the simplest, most grounded of Wang’s books, harking back to the slice-of-life of Koko Be Good but framed as a school story. Thematically, it invites comparison to Telegemeier’s recent Guts; for example, in both books characters uses their art to cement relationships. Stargazing, though, shoulders the added complexity of immigrants’ children in a specific Chinese American context. Its protagonist is weighed down by her father’s aspirations for success—perhaps an oblique commentary on the model minority myth—and this complicates, almost undermines, her friendship with her complementary opposite.
Christine, studious, high-achieving, and serious, contrasts sharply with her new neighbor Moon, impetuous, high-spirited, and hyper. The former is quiet and restrained, and driven to academic success—partly by her well-meaning but at times insensitive father. The latter is a spitfire: bright and scattered, cheerfully defiant of rules, and prone to cold-cock other kids who are mean to her friends. Christine is the idealized academic success, Moon the subject of nervous gossip. Christine’s family is well-off; Moon’s single mother struggles to make ends meet. When Moon and her mother move into the guest home rented out by Christine’s family, the two girls strike up an unlikely friendship, and Moon’s energy rubs off on Christine, whose reserve begins to melt a bit. Moon introduces Christine to K-pop and dance. Christine’s family introduces Moon to Chinese language class (but it doesn’t take). The two bond, in a series of delightful scenes. Moon confesses to Christine her belief that she, Moon, is not an ordinary Earth girl but rather a creature from the stars—that one day she will return to a home on high. Sharing this with Christine is a gesture of friendship.
Christine, though, prompted by anxieties about academic success and social approval, backs away from that friendship. A small betrayal bumps up against a major crisis, as Moon has to face a serious, life-altering event—and Christine, dogged by guilt, has to own her past behavior and, somehow, move forward. She struggles. She hides. But hiding can't last forever. This outwardly simple plot is treated with the utmost delicacy, and a great many insinuating cultural details that enrich the context. More to the point, its resolution is moving: every time I reopen the book I get choked up. Wang is that good.
While Stargazing may be in, broadly speaking, familiar territory, it isn’t generic at all. It seems to be a dialogue around Chinese American experience and different ways of being a Chinese American girl. It evokes specific familial and communal settings with a brilliant economy. At the same time, it’s aesthetically gorgeous: Wang’s cartooning and layouts boast an elegance and lightness of touch that are rare. The book’s use of negative space—of unenclosed figures and the whiteness of the page—give it a free-breathing, eminently readable quality. The same delicacy with character and emotion seen in The Prince and the Dressmaker comes through here, abundantly; Wang knows how to capture the finest nuances of expression. This is simply first-rate comics—and highly recommended.
Are You Listening? By Tillie Walden. First Second. ISBN 978-1250207562 (softcover), $17.99; ISBN 978-1626727731 (hardcover), $24.99. 320 pages.
Are You Listening? boasts colors unlike any I’ve seen in other comics. It blends and dapples contrasting colors in rapturous ways I literally haven’t seen before. And that heady palette is crucial to the transporting effect of the story: a dreamlike road trip, or wayward, puttering anti-quest, which eventually turns into something more intent and directed.
On this odd, minimally detailed trip, the two protagonists, Bea and Lou, both young women with things to get away from, motor through a color-drenched mystic vision of west Texas landscape. They are pursued by indistinct and merely functional antagonists (less men than shadows). En route they find a cat, a perhaps-magical one, whose mysterious nature provides some shape and urgency to the trip. Logic is not the story’s strong point — but, oh, is this an easy book to love. Tillie Walden strikes again.
One of Walden’s strengths is dialogue among women, especially young women. From prickly defensiveness to guarded care to unguarded tenderness, she traces the growing relationship between Bea(trice) and Lou, two queer fugitives whose friendship and love may remind readers of other tender pairings in Walden’s work. They are funny together, and sharp-edged enough that their growing bond feels earned rather than programmed. Just watching Lou teach Bea to drive is a pleasure. The dynamic between these two is the heart and soul of Are You Listening?. On the other hand, the book’s ventures into Miyazaki-esque fantasy are not worked out as thoroughly, or really worked out at all, on anything other than a symbolic level — which is to say that the story feels great but sort of collapses when you try to summarize it. Okay. Why do I still dig the book so much?
It’s solidly in Walden territory, recalling the romantic dyads and love-motored plots of several of her earlier books, though without the rich social surroundings evoked in Spinning or On a Sunbeam. It’s perhaps a Thelma and Louise homage, crossed with the more elusive Miyazaki of films like Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle, where a felt sense of symbolic fitness matters more than the literal working-out of plot-logic. At its heart are half-hidden losses and traumas that eventually come into the open, via revelations handled with a thankfully discreet touch: the terror that Bea is running from, the bereavement that has propelled Lou out onto the highways. Re-reading the book, you can see these things signaled early on, with moments of barely-quelled panic, ragged intakes of breath, creepy and confining interiors, and enigmatic, triggering exchanges. Walden has a gift for gnawing suspense as well as bruised tenderness, and Are You Listening? is a straight-up master class in how to pull readers into the minds of brave but anxious protagonists. The book invites trembling.
That said, Are You Listening? isn’t Walden’s best-plotted book. Truth to tell, it’s the first one by her that has nudged me toward ambivalence — that is, toward some delicate balancing of swooning gratitude against the sense that something hasn’t quite worked. But, okay, I’ve grown fairly besotted with Walden's comics — meaning that I’ve fallen head over heels, in such a way that I doubt that I can render a dispassionate judgment. Who can blame me? Walden draws like anything: beneath the fragility of her line lies an unassuming confidence in form, an ability to draw just whatever she needs and ditch the rest. You’ll find here nary a trace of underdrawing, tentativeness, or fuss. My guess would be that she works as hard as hell to make her comics look like no work at all — that behind these beautiful pages is plenty of the usual agonizing effort of the comics artist. If that’s so, Walden hides it superbly; the images seem to have arisen spontaneously from some lovely Other Place. And her use of color? Damn. The coloring here, pressing on from what was already delicious in On a Sunbeam, makes a world.
Most of all, though, what matters is the writing of character. Bea and Lou, like so many of Walden’s heroines, balance sweetness with strength and rawness with principle, revealing reserves of determination and agency when the story pushes them hard. They are worth rooting for. At the same time, Walden has the wisdom not to insist on affirmation and closure on every front — here, as in other books, she leaves you with a live wire of ache, even to the end.
Walden has a gift for intimacy in the face of big things: quiet spaces amidst the panorama of unfurling landscape (west Texas, or, as in Sunbeam, deep space). This is her stock in trade: moments of reunion, reconciliation, and self-discovery against the backdrop of a huge, obscurely glimpsed world. On that score, Are You Listening? delivers in spades. Hell, I’ll read anything this artist does — she makes my eyes mist over.
Pumpkinheads. By Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks. Color by Sarah Stern. First Second. ISBN 978-1626721623 (softcover), $17.99; ISBN 978-1250312853 (hardcover), $24.99. 224 pages.
Pumpkinheads is a breeze of a graphic novel: a busy, boisterous story of roughly six hours shared by two high school seniors one Halloween night. It follows Deja and Josie (Josiah), two seasonal workers at a Midwestern pumpkin patch (replete with corn maze, hayrides, petting zoo, etc.). Deja and Josie are wistfully anticipating graduation and goodbyes, but insist on sharing this “last” Halloween together, which turns out to be a bit of a crazy night. What starts with a gesture of farewell ends by hinting at the possibility of shared times to come.
Deja, who seems to have dated every other girl and boy at the patch, comes across as the more socially conscious and proactive of the two, while Josie, a “most valuable” employee and pumpkin geek, is shy, passive, and obtuse. Deja aims to help Josie talk to another patch worker, a girl he’s been mooning over fecklessly for the past three years—this may be his last chance to break out of his shell and strike up a relationship with her. Yet finding that girl in the big sprawl of the patch proves a challenge, as the two run into one colorful mishap after another. Outwardly, the suspense has to do with getting Josie to that girl, but what really matters is the relationship right in front of us: Josie and Deja. The book hints and hints at the special nature of their friendship—will they recognize it before the night is through?
Deja and Josie are complementary opposites, but both love, in an unselfconsciously nerdy way, the corniness of the pumpkin patch and its attractions. Where they differ is in their attitudes toward sociability. Josie is the type to wait for good things to come to him — he doesn’t know how to initiate a relationship — but Deja tells him that he must make choices and act on them if he is to get anywhere with anyone. The plot consists mainly of their walking, talking, and solving minor crises at the patch: together they run into various of Deja’s “exes,” navigate the fudge shoppe, s’mores pit, and corn maze, and reunite a lost child with her mom. There’s a lot of funny, rowdy action, but, again, what matters is their dialogue, which telegraphs an unacknowledged depth of feeling between the two. We readers perhaps get to know them better than they know themselves.
Scriptwriter Rainbow Rowell captures the offhand, familiar quality of friendly banter; you can believe that Deja and Josie have known each other for a long time. Cartoonist Faith Erin Hicks supplies (as the book’s back matter makes clear) the layout and rhythms, pacing and punctuating the action with wordless panels full of significant glances and sly, well-observed business. Theirs is a felicitous collaboration, intently focused on the two leads, their comical backdrop, and their dawning self-awareness. The results are seamless and fun to read.
Pumpkinheads is perhaps thematically slight, reflecting Rowell’s stated desire to do something “light and joyful.” It may be utopian; certainly it's idyllic and matter-of-factly progressive. Tonally, the book echoes many middle-grade stories that anticipate high school without the critical awareness of social power and inequity typical of YA fiction. Set in an idealized Midwest, it skirts questions of racism and homophobia (Deja, a queer young woman of color, is treated as wholly accepted and socially unremarkable). Implicitly, the book promotes body positivity: Deja is (as Rowell describes her) chubby, and one scene deals subtly with fat-shaming, but her beauty and vivacity are never in doubt. Josie, in contrast, is the very image of cornfed white Midwestern handsomeness. The supporting cast is discreetly diverse (though we learn little about them). Mainly, this is a charming story about discovering the depth of a relationship, equal parts ebullient comedy and quiet romance. Rowell and Hicks understand and love their characters, and Hicks draws their interplay with a keen eye for pauses, insinuations, and unspoken currents of feeling. In the end, Pumpkinheads is succinct, pleasant, and remarkably well crafted: a model middle-grade graphic novel, thematically unexceptional maybe, but sweetly human.
Kid Gloves: Nine Months of Careful Chaos. By Lucy Knisley. First Second. ISBN 978-1626728080 (softcover), $19.99. 256 pages.
Kid Gloves tells of author Lucy Knisley’s pregnancies and miscarriages, and finally the birth of her and her husband’s child. Blending memoir, childbirth education, and self-help, the book also offers, at times, sharp criticism of both sexist birthing institutions and natural childbirth truisms. Between chapters of personal narrative, Knisley inserts brief interchapters devoted to “pregnancy research”—actually, a mix of contextualizing details and Knisley’s pointed editorializing: often humorous, sometimes exasperated. These interchapters are didactic but droll, and not impersonal; they resonate with Knisley’s own story. The larger personal narrative takes us through Knisley’s miscarriages and resulting depression, then on through the conception, bearing, and delivery of her child—itself a traumatic, life-threatening event (due to eclampsia and seizure). A lot of scary stuff is replayed in this story, but also a great deal of joy and good humor. Knisley comes across as a friendly but not uncritical guide to the vagaries of pregnancy, opinionated, blunt, and confidential. She relays her story from a safe retrospective distance: her introduction shows Lucy and the baby, weeks after delivery, doing okay, and the narrative captions reassuringly carry us along. That is, the story is recounted in hindsight, rather than rawly dramatized. All this is delivered (sorry!) via Knisley’s reliably excellent, toothsome cartooning, dynamic yet readable layouts, and beautiful colors—signs of her offhand mastery of the craft. Wow, can she make comics.
I admit I approached Kid Gloves a tad nervously, unsure of whether Knisley’s writing would be equal to her subject. My first experience of her work, her memoir Relish (2013), had frustrated me with what I took to be its unexamined entitlement, skirting of emotional complexity, and preference for glib affirmation over fierce self-examination. Knisley does not do raw confessionalism or self-damning underground memoir. While her work does take on hard things, she tends to adopt a position of earned confidence and matter-of-factness (again, self-help is a useful point of reference). Her rhetorical construction of self is not the fractured self of Green or Kominsky-Crumb, nor the compulsively self-questioning, reflexive self of Spiegelman or Bechdel (though she does indulge here in comically grotesque caricatures of her changing body and its trials). Knisley the narrator seems secure even when Kid Gloves depicts the depths of depression or the harrowing trials of illness and emergency. It is a reassuring sort of memoir that offers a sane perspective-taking rather than an unsettled, open-ended questioning (in this, it reminds me of what Ellen Forney has done in her memoirs of bipolarity).
Indeed, at times Kid Gloves skates over complex things much as Relish did. For example, in a sequence that my wife Michele called to my attention, Knisley recalls the aftereffects of one of her miscarriages, and what she characterizes as her mother’s insensitive response:
You might think that this characterization would lead to a considered treatment of her mother throughout the remainder of the book, one that would balance daughterly love and forgiveness against frustration and critique. But Knisley accepts this tension between mother and daughter as an unresolvable, and moves on, not revisiting these hard feelings but tucking them away. (You won’t find here, for example, the extended, ambivalent treatment of parent-child relationships that you’ll see in Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do.) I worried that this key moment, which comes early in the text, would cancel Knisley’s piercing depictions of depression, that she would paper over complexities in the quest for a feel-good equanimity such as we so often see in popular memoir and self-help books.
Knisley, however, proved me wrong. Her narrative goes on to address challenging issues, including her and her husband’s anxieties, her triggers and preoccupations, the wrenching bodily demands of pregnancy, and her tense relationship with childbirthing dogma. The actual birth of her son, accomplished by cesarean and blurred out by medication, brings an explosive change to Knisley’s pages, suggesting lingering trauma and loss. Further, when her own life hangs in the balance, Knisley switches focalization to her husband, with drastic changes in her technique. There are moments when her always decorous, conspicuously well-designed pages become unsettled and the delivery of her story becomes most piercing. The book’s climax moved me beyond my expectations.
Michele read Kid Gloves before I did, and told me frankly that the book raised up some difficult memories for her. This was perhaps another reason why I approached the book with a bit of dread. It’s true that reading it brought up some of my own memories of how Michele and I wrestled with medicalized childbirth and its outcomes. Frankly, I was surprised by how much Knisley criticizes natural childbirth rhetoric and embraces what she calls “hospital-based interventions” (even as she recounts what were arguably cases of medical malpractice). Kid Gloves, it's fair to say, takes a jaded view of the power struggles between obstetrics and traditional midwifery. These notes brought up memories of our own childbirthing experience; they also got me to question Knisley's wisdom. At times, the old feelings of impatience regarding her writing came back to me. There was a whiff of unexamined entitlement about Knisley's weighing of women’s “choices” in childbirth (“as long as everyone’s healthy”), and behind her settled self-presentation I sense a certain hardheadedness. But, still, Kid Gloves is a forthcoming and bracing story, one that will surely prove inspiring to many readers going through the childbirthing experience or seeking to put it into perspective afterward. By book’s end, I felt grateful for the ride.
In sum, Kid Gloves uses the all-at-onceness and richness of the comics page to tell a story that is at once personal, instructive, and political. I don’t quite love it the way I love comics that tell of childbearing from a rawer, less protected place (check out Lauren Weinstein’s superb Mother’s Walk), and I note that Knisley continues to walk the knife’s edge between personal exploration and tidy, marketable endings. But Kid Gloves marks a step forward for her as a writer, and I recommend it.
KinderComics, alas, has been away for too long. This spring and summer, I have had to channel my energies elsewhere. I hate to admit it, but my academic-year workload does not make room for frequent blogging, and when the summer or intersession comes around, well, then I end up having to advance or complete other long-simmering projects. Lately I’ve had to cut back, refocus, and make a point of not driving myself nuts! Still, I am going to push for several reviews this summer; I want to keep KinderComics alive. The field of children’s comics is too important, and my interest in it too intense, to let go.
I’ll have a review of 5 Worlds: The Red Maze up later this week, and then a few (probably short) ones between now and Labor Day, in order to keep the engine humming. Thank you, readers, for checking out or revisiting KinderComics. I’ll keep pushing.
There has been a great deal of news on the children's comics front during my four-month absence. Would that I could go into all these stories in detail:
Besides all that news, awards have been given out:
My gosh, what a busy and exciting field. Keeping up is a challenge! I hope to do a better job going forward.
A sad postscript
When it comes to public-facing scholarship and comics criticism, one of the most inspiring figures to my mind was the late Derek Parker Royal, co-creator, producer, and editor of The Comics Alternative podcast. Derek, a major critic of Philip Roth, Jewish American literature and culture, and graphic narrative, passed away recently, leaving a grievous sense of loss in the hearts of many. He was a scholar, innovator, and facilitator of a rare kind, generous, engaged, and prolific, and will be greatly missed in the comics studies community. He brought many people into that community; for example, at the Comics Studies Society conference in Toronto last weekend, his longtime collaborator Andy Kunka spoke movingly of how Derek encouraged him to enter the field. I will think of Derek whenever I post here, and the soaring example that he set.
RIP Derek. Thank you for your scholarship, your advocacy, and your spirit.
On a Sunbeam. By Tillie Walden. First Second, 2018. ISBN 978-1250178138. 544 pages, softcover, $21.99.
Tillie Walden has an uncanny gift for, and dedication to, comics. Her newest book On a Sunbeam (compiling and adapting her 2016-2017 webcomic of the same name) is a gift in itself: a queer romance that starts as a young adult school story—an acute exploration of tenderness, social anxiety, and the keeping of secrets—but then blossoms into a breathless adventure tale. At the same time, it's a paean to queer community and found family, while also being, wow, a space opera. I'm not kidding. In other words, On a Sunbeam is a miracle of genre-splicing and of unchecked, visionary cartooning—one in which Walden does whatever she wants, while yet upholding a traditional, eminently readable form. As soon as I got a copy, I was pulled along, pretty much helpless, for an ecstatic 540-page ride.
The story ought not to work, in theory. On a Sunbeam is galaxy-spanning science fantasy in an undated future, one governed less by grounded scientific extrapolation, more by poetic metaphor. The spaceships resemble fishes, swishing across the skies and through the cosmos on fins. Buildings float through space looking exactly like earthbound buildings: a church, say, or a schoolhouse. This is deliberate; Walden treats space like terrestrial geography, only bigger. Ditto architecture. Much of the action involves the repair of damaged or derelict buildings out in space, by a "reconstruction" team whose job falls somewhere between renovation and archaeology. They deal in statuary, stone, and tile as well as high tech. Often the settings don't feel like "space" at all—until they do. No one wears spacesuits, though everyone's bodies must somehow adjust to being in deep space. Oh, and the cast seems to consist solely of women and genderqueer characters. What sort of universe is this? To hell with what would work "in theory."
The story, for its first 2/3 or so, shuttles back and forth between two main settings: an upper-crust boarding school (in space), and the Aktis (or Sunbeam), the reconstruction team's spaceship. But it also shuttles back in forth in time, across a gap of years: the "school story" part of the plot happens in flashback, five years past, while the story's "present" follows Mia, formerly of the boarding school, now a (green) member of the Aktis crew. Walden skillfully uses layout and coloring variations to set these two timelines apart (and ultimately to bring them together).
What really ties these timelines together is the bond between Mia and her schoolmate Grace, a socially withdrawn girl of unknown origins. Grace and Mia share a romance that is tender and profound: a genuine love story. However, their bond breaks when Grace is mysteriously summoned home from school. Her home is an enigma. Mia longs to see Grace again, but the years go by and a reunion seems impossible. About midway through the book, though, Mia and her Aktis family undertake a fantastical quest for Grace's homeworld, tying the book's several plotlines together. The final third brings the Aktis (and us) to an otherworldly setting worthy of Jack Vance or Keiko Takemiya.
On a Sunbeam has tremendous emotional and tonal range. The anxious school scenes of the first half capture budding relationships, first steps toward intimacy, and uneasy social maneuvering, resonating with Walden's great memoir Spinning. The bonding of Mia and Grace recalls, for me, the lyrical evocation of young and growing love in the book that introduced me to Walden, the dreamlike I Love This Part. Walden is great at conjuring the rivalries and vulnerabilities of young women in social groups, the tension between ringleaders and outliers, and the no-bullshit demeanor of girls among girls, at once strong and fragile. On a Sunbeam carefully builds the relationship of Mia and Grace, two believably different young women, into a deep, unqualified love; their unspoken understandings and gestures of mutual care and self-sacrifice make them a couple to root for (and the book, delightfully, suggests that queer romance is common in their school and world). Yet Mia's later initiation into the Aktis crew creates other deep relationships, both among the crew and between Mia and every other member. The tenderness of the Grace/Mia dyad suffuses everything that comes after, and what begins as a rough, contentious team gradually becomes, emphatically, a family, one of Mia's own choosing yet defined by complex bonds with and without her.
The book's range broadens dramatically in its final third, as the plot upshifts with a vengeance: Walden leaps headlong into phantasmagorical SF, but also abrupt, jolting violence, frenzied cross-cutting, and nail-gnawing suspense. This is the very stuff of pulp adventure, yet made more urgent by a reservoir of earned emotion. Lives are risked, a world uncovered, and secrets revealed (my favorite being the backstory of Ell, the ship's non-binary mechanical whiz). I could hardly hold on to my chair during the last hundred pages!
Yet mostly On a Sunbeam is a story about love. The word that keeps coming back to me is tenderness, and Walden hits the tender spots again and again, not with cynical knowingness but with the thrilled self-discovery of an explorer who has just realized what her explorations are about. Relationships deepen, and at some point we realize—that is, Walden shows us—that On a Sunbeam is not simply the story of a single idealized love but of loving community, and of what it means to take others as they are. It's a story about unlike people forging bonds of mutual respect and care.
Among the many exciting climaxes in the book, the most important ones, to me, are embraces. On a Sunbeam wears its heart on its sleeve.
All this is delivered with the utmost grace, with a style whose delicacy reminds me of C.F. (Powr Mastrs) and whose out-of-this-world gorgeousness calls to mind Takemiya and Moto Hagio, those masters of shojo manga SF. Remarkably, Walden's style hardly ever betrays signs of underdrawing; the characters and panels seem to have found their perfect form without hesitation. Her style might be considered a variation on the Clear Line—clean contours, no hatching, and the use of contrasting solid blocks of color to solidify form—but without the cool meticulousness and literal, mimetic colors that such a comparison would imply. She's freer, and her light, unfussy lines are elegance itself. This is the more remarkable because her characters, emotionally, are all about undercurrents and anxiety; Walden renders their struggles with an unerring economy even as they're going through hell. Open white space, blocks of color and of darkness, the selective paring of background details—all these artistic strategies bring the story into crystalline focus. The spareness and cleanness of Walden's pages belie, or rather render all the more piercingly, the struggles going on among and within her characters:
In my comics classes, I like to say that every book of comics teaches you how to read it, becoming its own instruction manual. That is, no generalized understanding of "comics" as a whole is going to make every new comic you encounter easy to understand, because comics aren't as formally stable and consistent as that. Instead, the form shifts, or artists shift it, toward new strategies and purposes—but attentive readers will learn how to read in a comic's particular way. I think about this when I see pages like the above, or On a Sunbeam's climactic pages:
Coming at these pages unprepared, sans context, I would hardly know how to read them. But it's a testament to Walden's skill, and the gripping human story she tells, that these spare pages speak volumes to me now. On a Sunbeam is full of payoffs like this; it's masterful. It's also moving and exhilarating. As I said, uncanny.
PS. I was sorry to miss Walden's conversation with Jen Wang at L.A.'s Chevalier's Books on Oct. 8. But I look forward to her signing and exhibition at Alhambra's Nucleus gallery on Feb. 22.
First Second Books provided a review copy of this book.
(Note: It was particularly challenging to scan pages from On a Sunbeam, a roughly 6 x 1.5 x 8.5 inch brick!)
The Unsinkable Walker Bean and the Knights of the Waxing Moon. By Aaron Renier. First Second, 2018. ISBN 978-1596435056. 288 pages, softcover, $18.99. Colored by Alec Longstreth.
Eight years ago—my gosh, eight years ago—author-artist Aaron Renier and colorist Alec Longstreth gave us The Unsinkable Walker Bean, a gobsmacking pirate yarn and reckless feat of cartooning. It was, is, absurd and terrific, overfull and bursting with notions. Far-fetched and outrageous, rigged to the point of obsessiveness, it’s also generous and heartfelt, and a gushing testimony to Renier’s love of world-building. Reviewing it was a thrill. Now Renier and Longstreth are, yes, back with a second Walker Bean book that I can only describe as more of the same, but longer and even more ambitious: The Unsinkable Walker Bean and the Knights of the Waxing Moon, an adventure at once hectic and transporting, overbusy yet oddly soulful. When I first read it, it drove me a bit nuts, so mazy and bewildering is its plot. When I re-read it, though—well, I think I got it.
The world of Walker Bean consists of salty pirate tales (in the Stevenson tradition) blended with high fantasy. It takes place in an odd variation on the known world that mixes real and invented geography, in an unspecified period that feels like a dreamlike rewriting of the nineteenth century. Walker is a shy, bookish boy, frankly a nerd: brilliant, but fragile and sensitive. People treat him as a softy, but he has steel in him; on the other hand, he can be a bit of a pill. Most unwillingly, Walker gets pressed into nautical adventures that carry him far from his home on Winooski Bay and introduce him to supernatural forces and secret histories. The first book concerned a magical skull, two monstrous “sea-witches,” and a seafaring quest, much of it aboard a tricked-out ship called the Jacklight, which could travel over land as well as wave. In that one, Walker was joined in his travels by Shiv, a powder monkey, and Genoa, an intense and mysterious adventuress. They are still together in the new book, and make for a sturdy triad (in a sort of Harry-Ron-Hermione way).
Knights of the Waxing Moon shares the spirit of its predecessor, and offers continued treasure-hunting, with many of the same characters (as well as many new ones). But there’s less sailing, now, because the story takes place mainly on the same haunted archipelago where Walker and friends were stranded at the end of the first book: the Mango Islands. Basically, this is a “mysterious island” tale. Something happened on the archipelago long ago, something that still casts a long shadow. Competing treasure-hunters, some much older than they appear, seek a source of power—a magical metal—and again supernatural agents and occult histories are high in the mix. Mistaken identities play a part, as do bemusing visits to the past. Mysterious shadow-beasts that guard the islands add a whiff of Miyazaki: the environment seems neither benign nor malevolent, but sublime and indifferent. As in the first book, the stakes are high, the violence consequential, and the scares properly scary; Walker and friends experience sadness, anxiety, and loss along with ripsnorting adventure.
If I faulted the first Walker Bean for getting lost in its unlikely, careening plot, I have to say the same of the second. Plot-wise, Knights is the equivalent of juggling cutlasses and cannonballs—tricky, that is. I confess that on first reading I had trouble following the story’s logic, its links and reversals, its mad, ambitious sprawl and ballooning cast of characters. In fact, I finished my first reading—a breathless, late-night binge—in a knot of frustration. For a moment, I thought of the book as a failure: a dream that had gotten hopelessly blurred en route. Hallucinatory flashbacks, inscrutable clues, magical MacGuffins, and sudden, disorienting setpieces, not to mention the many new characters, make Knights a challenging, even frustrating tangle. Transitions are often abrupt, and essential details and connections are sometimes left for the reader to intuit. The relationships among the characters are not easy to chart: motivations are shaded, and alliances form or fail on the spur of the moment. Doppelgangers and ghosts abound. Our three young heroes are called upon to change, and Genoa in particular goes through a startling self-discovery. So, there’s a lot to take in. A lot.
So confounded was I by my first reading that, in defiance of my schedule and good sense, I reread the book immediately—and reread the first book too. The second time around, Knights seemed to click: I grasped a number of hints and foreshadowings, better understood certain transitions, and, in sum, could more easily negotiate the plot-rigging. If on the first pass Knights seemed jumbled, with a hiccoughing rhythm and befuddling climax, on second read the book revealed an insinuating story with elaborately braided details, a designing shape, and knowing callbacks to its predecessor. As a self-standing graphic novel, Knights may seem overdense, or over-egged, but as one leg in a longer journey, a further unveiling of a big, big world, it’s a marvel.
Although Knights spins its own distinctive yarn, it does require readers to know the first book intimately (not for nothing did First Second reprint the first a few weeks ago). It refers back to its forerunner constantly, in ways both obvious and subliminal—and this was part of my problem on first reading, because I needed the first book in front of me in order to follow the second. Some of these callbacks fulfill mysteries teased out in the first book, while others deepen the mystery, or extend the original’s meaning. Knights, in short, asks to be read alongside its predecessor. At the same time, it outdoes the first book for scale and strangeness: for one thing, it’s about a hundred pages longer. Even then, it seems more compressed, with (often) denser layouts and too-small balloon text. Still, it’s an organic outgrowth of the first book. Revisiting the first, I notice that its back matter includes teasing “sketches of book #2,” and sure enough I do see elements that made it into Knights:
Renier clearly had some of this second book in mind more than eight years ago. Knights, then, is both a close sequel and yet its own strange animal.
The trickiness of the book’s plot may prove a trial for readers. Yet I take some delight in the way Renier refuses to talk down to us. Clearly, he digs a nested, baroque plot. In fact, his approach to story recaps, on a larger scale, the complicated maps, diagrams, and inventions that he so lovingly draws into the book. I like that. Still, I’d say that the plot is too compacted, and its logic a bit too implicit; this 280-page yarn packs in 500 pages’ worth of complication. At times Knights surrenders clarity for momentum, and, like the first book, sprints through transitions and critical moments that rather beg for a long double-take. What’s more, certain details are left dangling--bait for the next sequel, presumably, but maddening. For example, one of the book’s narrators, a crucial source of exposition, is left shadowed and unidentified, and Walker’s unscrupulous father, briefly glimpsed, remains a nagging loose thread. (I dearly hope it won’t take another eight years to tie off that thread.)
More than anything, a passion for worldmaking through drawing animates the Walker Bean books, and on that score Knights of the Waxing Moon matches its forerunner. It piles up, graphically, vividly, a surplus of environments and space, creatures and ships, devices and talismans, all rendered with breathless excitement. Renier, as he zooms ahead, leaves behind a trail of small delights: details that pop out upon rereading, to be savored or puzzled over. In fact the galloping momentum of the story and the luxurious world-building are at odds, making the book at once a sprint and a sightseeing tour, a plot-driven adventure and a dungeon master’s guide (oh man, Walker Bean is a role-playing game just waiting to happen). Judged by the standards of tight, Tintin-esque adventure, the book is a failure—it packs in too much stuff to attain that kind of crystalline form—but as a celebration of drawing worlds into being, man, it’s something. Renier and Longstreth once again turn out beautiful pages and spreads, with a loose, feeling line and sumptuous palette; at the same time, Renier tries out new things in layout, pacing, juxtaposition, and braiding. A labor of love, I cannot help but think.
Love and feeling are big for Renier. Both Walker Bean books brim with emotion: characters weep, fret, and startle—gulping, gasping, reacting. They sometimes panic. They get on each others’ nerves too, reproving and arguing with one another. They worry for each other. Walker and his cohort, and even the heavies, wear their emotions near the surface, and many scenes are raw with feeling. Even the quietnesses can be supercharged. Take for instance this loaded moment from early on, as Walker, feeling abandoned, starts an angry letter to his beloved Grandpa, but then thinks better of it:
Scenes like these show that Renier values not only the pleasures of drawing but also the vital emotive connection between characters and reader. Some of the relationships in Knights are tumultuous—in fact, testing or reaffirming friendship in the face of severe trials is a large part of what the book is about. The sheer feelingness of Walker Bean is a necessary balance to the baroque plotting and ecstatic drawing. Renier cares about his adventurers, and faithful readers will too.
Structure-wise, Renier may be aiming for the kind of unfolding epic that Jeff Smith crafted in Bone. Feels like it. But he isn’t working within the same serial format, one that allowed Smith an unhurried pace, a gradual unspooling and deepening of his imagined world. Nor is Renier publishing with the same momentum as, say, Kazu Kibuishi, whose Amulet series has yielded eight roughly 200-page volumes in a decade. The Walker Bean books are different: jam-packed, overstuffed, sort of obsessive. They bespeak, again, a love of drawing and knotty, puzzle-like storytelling. Renier, I think, loves world-building in a way that can barely be corralled into sensible, well-structured volumes (though he does strive mightily after an overarching structure). His penchant for overstuffing recalls, for me, Mark Siegel et al.’s elaborate 5 Worlds series, except it’s less mediated, more personal: not the result of a carefully managed collaboration that subsumes individual quirks, but the result of one artist running wild. And, you know, I kind of love him for that.
Readers who loved the sheer outrageous overspill of the first Walker Bean will also dig the second. Me, I’ll reread these books and take pleasure in them, again and again. In this age of well-shaped, well-behaved, and precisely marketed graphic novels for children, Walker Bean is exceptionally weird, hence wonderful. My gosh, I hope for a third volume. And more....
First Second Books provided a review copy of this book.
The Unsinkable Walker Bean. By Aaron Renier. First Second, 2010. ISBN 978-1596434530. 208 pages, softcover, $15.99. Colored by Alec Longstreth.
(This review originally ran on the now-defunct Panelists blog in June 2011. I've revived it here and now because a sequel to Walker Bean is promised this fall. Ever the fusspot, I have not been able to avoid the temptation to trim and update, albeit slightly. - CH)
Piracy on the high seas—storybook piracy I mean, the kind we know mostly from echoes of Stevenson and Barrie—remains an adaptable, nigh-bottomless genre. The piratical yarn lends itself to the dream of an infinitely explorable world, to lusty romance, oceanic myth, and shivery deep-sea terrors, all of it salted with enough bilge, filth, and real-world cynicism to sell even the flintiest skeptic. The golden age of Caribbean piracy, which even as it happened was a set of facts angling to become a myth, helped redefine the pirating life as radically democratic, an anarchic space of freedom—ironic, since it grew out of colonialism and the Thirty Years’ War. That age bequeathed us a roll call of larger-than-life persons, Calico Jack, Anne Bonny and Mary Reade, Blackbeard, and the rest: real-life opportunists from whence Stevenson distilled his great, demonic “Sea-Cook,” Long John Silver, Treasure Island’s indelible villain.
Silver’s slipperiness lives on, I suppose, in Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, ever scheming, ever sidling away to scheme another day. Pirates of the Caribbean reinvigorated the old genre, but with a heaping dose of hypocrisy. For example, in Bruckheimer, Verbinski, and Depp's third Pirates film (2007), the multinational juggernaut that is Disney pits globalization, in the person of the über-capitalistic East India Company, against scrappy piratical “freedom,” represented by Sparrow and his fellow rum-soaked scumbags. Huh? Couched in terms of post-9/11, post-Patriot Act resistance to a neoliberal mercantilist New World Order, that movie of course made shiploads of money. Such irony. So, the myth of the high-seas pirate carries on, its popularity an index of how we feel about the tug o’war between hegemonic authority and the individual will to live and indulge.
Cartoonists in particular seem to love pirate tales and other nautical yarns, maybe because such tales make the world feel larger, maybe because they give license for scruffiness and odd character design (think Segar), maybe simply because the high seas invite so much gushing ink. A fair handful of graphic novels from recent times either plunge into the deep sea or sail off to faraway places: Leviathan, That Salty Air, Far Arden, The Littlest Pirate King, Blacklung, Set to Sea, et cetera (I bet readers can name a few others). Aaron Renier’s The Unsinkable Walker Bean (released, what, eight years ago now?) dives into the genre with a hectic, dizzying 200-page story and a surplus of delicious inky craft.
Written and drawn by Renier and colored by Alec Longstreth, Bean is a beautiful, odd book aimed squarely at young readers, the first of a promised series that, it seems to me, aims to mix a carefully rigged Tintin-esque plot with the jouncing unpredictability and eccentricity of Joann Sfar, whose organic approach to both plotting and drawing probably provided inspiration. The materials are familiar enough, but the execution is, wow, crazy. The results strike me as imperfect but delightful.
Walker Bean (a cartoonist’s surrogate?) is an unlikely pirate: a nervous, sensitive boy prone to doodling and mad invention, slightly pudgy and bespectacled to make him seem an unexpected hero. His emotions are worn near the surface. The plot tests his ingenuity and bravery, offering plenty of swashbuckling and catastrophic violence in the bargain. It’s sometimes bloody and boasts some real scares. Walker’s world looks like a farrago of eighteenth and nineteenth century elements—costume, settings, ships—but frankly it’s unreal, a synthetic alternate world. Per the map on the frontispiece, that world is like a distorted view of ours but bears fanciful names (e.g., Subrosa Sound, the Gulf of Brush Tail, and cities like New Barkhausen and Tapioca) alongside real ones like the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Anachronisms abound, such as a middle class child’s bedroom casually appointed with books. Stops along the way, such as the colorful port of Spithead, teem with diverse character types who lend the storyworld a distinctly postcolonial vibe.
The plot, a mad, churning mess, begins with mythical backstory: a child’s bedtime story about the destruction of Atlantis. Then it veers sharply into pure breathless adventure. Young Walker, to save his ailing grandfather, must brave the high seas in order to return a maleficent artifact to its home in a deep ocean trench. That artifact is a skull of pearl formed in the nacreous saliva of two monstrous sea “witches”: huge lobster-like monsters who caused Atlantis’s fall. The skull is itself a character, evil, cackling, and seductive. One glimpse of it can send a person into shock or even death.
Walker’s grandfather, an eccentric, bedridden admiral, entreats the boy to dispose of the skull, while Walker’s father, Captain Bean, a vain, greedy fool, plots to sell the skull for maximum profit, egged on by one “Dr. Patches,” a fraud and a fiend. The action, which zigzags unpredictably, includes long stretches on a pirate ship called the Jacklight. There Walker becomes an unwitting crew member, working with a powder monkey named Shiv and a girl named Genoa—an able thief and fighter who more than once nearly kills Walker. That's as close as the book gets to the excitements of courtship.
The pearlescent skull is said to be a source of great power, of course, but keeps tempting would-be possessors to their doom (there’s a strong hint here of Tolkien’s one Ring). Donnybrooks and sea battles alternate with creepy scenes of the skull exerting its influence and big, splashy encounters with the horrific witches. Pages vary from minutely gridded exercises to explosive full-bleed spreads. Plot-wise, there are double-crosses, shipwrecks, and weird critters aplenty, a burgeoning cast of supporting players, and moments of tenderness, confusion, and self-realization. Walker, Gen, and Shiv are all well realized. Walker himself becomes the true hero that the title promises. In the end, things are resolved but other things left open, setting up Volume Two.
Renier has not worked out his story perfectly. Honestly, I didn’t retain most of the plot details after reading through the first time; the story ran by me at a mile a minute, and I couldn’t catch it. The plot twists confusingly like a snake underfoot, and logical stretches are many; even for a pirate yarn, the book strains belief. At one point, the remains of a smashed ship conveniently drift into port. At another, the Jacklight, having been completely wrecked, is rebuilt and transformed into an overland vehicle (with wheels) in the space of a single day. In short, Renier leans on plot devices that don’t convince. What’s more, the storytelling is at times more exuberant than clear; certain double-takes and surprises confused me. Pacing and story-flow sometimes hiccup. What we’ve got here is a patently rigged plot set in an overstuffed story-world that is still in the process of being worked out. Walker Bean is a generous story, almost risibly full, but sometimes it's hard to believe.
Ah, but how it testifies to the love of craft! The book’s colophon describes in detail Renier’s process of drawing and hand-lettering (on good old-fashioned Bristol board) and then the shared process of coloring (where the digital takes over). All tools and techniques are duly described, even razor-work and the use of Wite-out to vary texture. The descriptions are aimed at any reader; no prior knowledge of technique is assumed. It’s as if Renier and Longstreth wanted to let young readers in on their trade secrets. The book’s coloring, it turns out, began collaboratively:
Using some old, faded children’s books for inspiration, Aaron and Alec created a custom palette of 75 colors, which are the only colors used in this book. Coloring a big book is easier when one has only a limited number of colors to choose from, and it makes the colors feel very unified.
The results do exhibit an aesthetic unity, without disallowing the occasional eruption of tasty graphic shocks. In any case, the blend of line art and color—handiwork and digital—is gorgeous. Renier, if not yet a surefooted storyteller, is a terrific cartoonist. Vigorous brush- and pen-work, lush texturing and atmosphere, dramatic staging, complex yet readable compositions, and even formalist games—all these are in his ambit. Examples are legion. For instance, check out this panel depicting a bumpy ride:
Or this much quieter one, depicting a secret hideout:
Renier’s commitment to the work and talent for conjuring strange places and characters show in every page—and every page is different. This is first-rate narrative drawing, stuffed with beauty and promise; it takes the gifts shown in Renier’s first book, Spiral-Bound, and boosts them to a new level.
Finally and most importantly, Walker Bean has soul. It makes room for emotional complexity. Minor epiphanies and finely observed silences, scattered across the book, make it much more than an opportune potboiler. Behind the book is a thumping heartbeat that testifies to a reckless love of comics and adventure. This is a yarn without a whiff of condescension: mad, high-spirited, and cool.
(Volume Two is due this October. Hmm, what difference will eight years make? Also, note that KinderComics will be on summer break between now and Monday, August 20, 2018.
New Shoes. By Sara Varon. First Second Books, March 2018. Hardcover, 208 pages. ISBN 978-1596439207. $17.99. Book design by Danielle Ceccolini and Sara Varon.
New Shoes, a genial, unlikely fable, follows a cobbler named Francis who wants more than anything to make the perfect pair of shoes for his favorite singer, a pop star who is coming to his town. To that end, he hopes to enlist his traveling friend, Nigel, to secure the needed supplies—but Nigel, it turns out, is missing. So Francis, aided by another friend, Rhoda, embarks on a quest to get the supplies himself (and find Nigel). The thing is, Francis is a donkey, Nigel is a squirrel monkey, Rhoda is a macaw, and the singer, Miss Manatee, is just that. New Shoes is an animal fable—and not in the purely metaphorical sense of, say, Spiegelman’s Maus, in which human characters wear mask-like animal faces. No, these animals are meant to be animals, even though they’re anthromorphized. Francis, despite wearing clothes and shoes, is emphatically a donkey. Rhoda is a bird (she flies). And so on. In this world, varied animalness is the point. Once again, Sara Varon (Bake Sale, Robot Dreams, Chicken and Cat, Sweaterweather, etc.) has created a funny animal comic that is, yes, funny, but more than that.
New Shoes takes place in a tropical world inspired by Guyana. Francis and Rhoda’s quest entails journeying into “the jungle,” i.e. equatorial rainforest, and the book lovingly details Guyanese flora and fauna. Varon gives labels for myriad critters: black curassow, golden-handed tamarin, three-toed sloth, and so on. Ditto for plants: cecropia, philodendron, bromeliad. In other words, the book packs in a lot of zoological and botanical information.
More than that, New Shoes implicitly reflects Guyanese culture: an Anglophone Caribbean mix with a complex colonial history and diverse population. Signs in Francis’s village are in English, village buildings are small, colorful, and individual, and Varon’s myriad animal types may stand in, allegorically, for Guyana’s mingling of East Indian, African, Amerindian, and other peoples. Miss Manatee, “the River Queen,” is a calypso singer, and listening to calypso on phonograph records seems to be a cultural constant (record players are an important prop throughout). Varon’s version of Guyana is perhaps utopian but based on direct experience: her husband, John Douglas, former boxer and Olympian (1996), is from Guyana, and her visits there, specifically to the town of Linden, seem to have shaped if not inspired the whole book. The specific cultural and geographical influences of Guyana make New Shoes stand out among Varon’s animal tales—and the characters’ varied animalness implicitly celebrates Guyanese diversity. Thus New Shoes espouses cooperation and harmony-in-difference without dealing explicitly with race, ethnicity, or postcoloniality. This charming fable rests on a complex, if largely implied, cultural foundation.
I was struck by the book’s depiction of labor and economy. Even as it extols friendship and community, New Shoes focuses on acts of exchange: goods for goods, goods for work, and work for work. Yet money plays no role; barter and trade are everything. Rhoda agrees to help Francis on his quest in return for a pair of shoes. Francis offers bread to passing herons, who in return counsel him to seek help from some capybara. Later, Francis trades bread to the capybara and some river otters in return for swimming lessons and advice. Later still, he settles a debt with Harriet, a jaguar, by offering her his guidebook to rainforest animals, and then the two make a further exchange: some of Harriet’s plants, and advice on how to take care of them, in return for a pair of Francis’s shoes. While the book also depicts acts of spontaneous, uncompensated kindness—say, a neighbor helping a neighbor—much of its action involves establishing reciprocity and trust through barter. Tellingly, these exchanges are not merely economic but also build goodwill and community. If some characters seem altruistic, others, by contrast, appear self-interested—yet all of them come together civilly through the act of trading. What’s more, the worst offense in the book turns out to be thievery, when a character decides to take something for nothing rather than making an honest trade. Varon’s utopia, then, is not without practical considerations of trade and work, but couches those in terms of communal ethos rather than capital. New Shoes could spark some fascinating exchanges with young readers about use value, exchange value, and perhaps even alternatives to commodity capitalism!
Varon’s work has a distinctive charm. Her stories, as New Shoes amply demonstrates, tend to be about not only moving the plot forward but also taking an interest in the world, imparting information about geography, culture, or beloved pastimes. They represent the work and the pleasure of learning. At the same time, Varon uses animals and other “nonhuman” characters to convey feelings of friendship, love, and loss (most piercingly, I think, in her breakthrough book Robot Dreams). Along the way, she scatters moments of droll, deadpan humor:
Varon's telltale graphic style is very readable. Her character designs are distinct and unmistakable; every character looks different from every other one (and I can see some influences she has cited, including Jay Ward and William Steig). The figures are clean and shadowless, yet outlined by robust brush-inking. Her bright, unshaded pages boast discrete forms and solid, eye-popping colors, yet also a complex mixing of hues (as in the varied shades of green that make up New Shoes’s rainforest).
Inked on Bristol board but then colored in Photoshop (as is Varon's SOP), New Shoes happily blends old-school and digital methods, combining springy linework with subtle coloring. Layout-wise, Varon alternates between framed and unframed images, favoring big, open spreads and full bleeds. Often, single images take up a page or spread; alternately, Varon may go for a page of two or three (or, very rarely, four) panels. Clarity and momentum are all, and New Shoes fairly carries the reader along.
Sara Varon has become one of First Second’s signature authors. I had the privilege of interviewing her, back in 2009, at the International Comic Arts Forum in Chicago, and it has been a pleasure to see more and more of her work—work that explores friendship and community for the benefit of young and old readers alike. New Shoes charmed me right off, but keeps growing in my estimation as I think about it—another delightful, subtle, low-key triumph.
First Second provided a review copy of this book.