Saturday, May 14, 2005

COMICS: Graphic Novel cornucopia

A few years ago I re-discovered the joy of the public library, having moved to an area with an excellent one. Best of all, they stock a pretty decent selection of graphic novels, so my cash-poor self has gotten to check out stuff like Craig Thompson's "Blankets" and that huge "Palomar" collection from the Hernandez brothers. Here's a few recent reads:

"The Originals" by Dave Gibbons. The artist behind "Watchmen" and "Give Me Liberty" returns with this hardcover graphic novel, a breezy, heartfelt tale of youth and violence. Set in an unspecified future or alternate history England, it takes place from the eyes of teens Lel and Bok, who want to join the hover-bike riding gang "The Originals," whose mortal enemies are the greaser crowd, The Dirts. We watch buddies Lel and Bok work their way into Originals membership, rising up the hierarchy and eventually learning a few valuable lessons. Despite the title, it's actually not the most original story, but Gibbons tells it with style and feeling. His art is done in black and white with gray tones, and has a clean, classic look as always. Gibbons does a nice job building up his imaginary world, which has a kind of "Clockwork Orange" vibe to it. Still, "The Originals" doesn't quite rise to the level of classic - I would've felt a bit cheated if I'd paid the full $25 for a 160-page graphic novel. Wait for the paperback, and give it a spin. Grade: B

"Persepolis: The Story of A Childhood" and "Persepolis: The Story of A Return" by Marjane Satrapi. Satrapi's not the world's fanciest artist, with basic, simple linework and cartooning, but what a story she has to tell, of her days growing up in revolution-wracked Iran. One of the best autobiographical comics I've read in a while, Satrapi does a magnificent job reimagining her child's eye view of Iran's changing political scene, continuing up until she's shipped away to school in Europe at the end of Book 1. I actually found Book 2 even better, as a more mature Satrapi experiments with the freedoms found in Europe, all the while still tied deeply to her homeland. When she returns to fundamentalist-controlled Iran as a rebellious teenager, the two worlds don't mesh as she might hope. Like "Maus," which it's compared to, this is a smart, gripping use of the comics form to tell a story without a single cape or hero in sight. It's worth reading by lovers of great comics and great stories alike. Grade: A-

Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes by Joe Casey and Scott Kolins. Avengers fanboy that I am, I actually bought this one. It's a collection of the recent 8-issue miniseries billed as a kind of "between the panels" look at the early days of Marvel's superteam The Avengers. It's given pretty swanky hardcover treatment, the better to enjoy Kolins' great artwork, detailed and dense with fantastic coloring. Casey does a nice job filling in the blanks of the classic 1960s Avengers tales, showing the team coming together in the early days with the widely different personalities of Thor, Iron Man, The Hulk and Captain America all having to mesh. Some nice insight into Captain America, a man "out of time" and forced to readapt to the modern world. It's really pretty mandatory that you read the original issues this springboards from, though, as most of the "action" takes place off panel or in brief flashes, which makes it pretty disjointed if you're not a huge Avengers fanboy. It's insular superhero comics aimed at a pretty select audience - recommended for those who are part of that group, though, myself included, as a nice bit of nostalgia in a purty modern package. Grade: B+

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