Rapunzel’s Revenge

25 11 2008

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Rapunzel’s Revenge is written by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale (her husband) and illustrated by Nathan Hale (no relation). Shannon Hale has written five fictional novels for teens (and won a few awards for them) but this is her first work in a comic format.

Nathan Hale has written and illustrated two other works; The Devil You Know and Yellowbelly and Plum Go To School and provided illustrations for Balloon On the Moon.

Published in North American in 2008 by Bloomsbury, Rapunzel’s Revenge is recommended for audiences between 10-14.

Rapunzel’s Revenge is a fun western and fairytale/fantasy genre mash up. The story’s magic is of a shamanistic-harnessing-of-life-energy variety and is utilized by a very few characters and so contributes more of a narrative enabling framework. The most of events of the story and the actions of the protagonists are grounded in the physical, more realistic and pragmatic, western adventure context. The writers have a lot of fun with the potential of both genres’ conventions without relying too much on either to provide easy plot device resolutions. The story has really excellent pacing and despite the staying conscientiously age-appropriate the two principles have engaging and nuanced personalities (to the extent that character development is desirable in an energetic adventure).

The art is much better then might be expected considering the genre and intended audience. Comics for younger audiences often have over or under designed pages, utilize excessive palettes and are too visually conflicted. Comics have great potential to be vivacious and dynamic but it shouldn’t be assumed that children or young adults can’t respond well to, or deserve, art that is attractive, nuanced and well-balanced. Nathen Hale is not a comic artist that takes a patronizing approach to drawing for young adults. His page designs are creative but utilitarian and the use of color is thoughtful and vivid – even at its most fantasist it never tips into giddy over-saturation.

Early in the book there is a nice set of pages [16,17] that have very little text and rely on the art to convey the emotional weight of the story. Rapunzel sees her real mother for the first time since her early childhood. Hale uses very effective panel-within-panel illustrations to match imagery of unfolding, present, events with some very beautiful but simple illustrations of remembered events. The two-panel sets contain both a color and sepia panel and then Hale follows those images with another page with long, narrow alternating color and sepia panels. This succeeds in conveying a complex, very emotional event, visually and the way Hale has handled the scene makes immediate intellectual and emotional sense. It’s the comic medium working at its most effective and it’s great to see this kind of talent and thought going into a comic for younger readers.

I think the age range recommended by the publisher is a bit limiting. While the content and reading level is probably fine for most readers between 10 and 14 this story is the sort of adventure that has the potential to appeal to older readers.

Hale, Shannon (w), Dean Hale (w), and Nathan Hale(i). Rapunzel’s Revenge (2008), Bloomsbury U.S.A. Children’s Books. ISBN-10:159990070X





Runaways

25 11 2008

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Runaways is a property of Marvel Comics and is published in both pamphlet format and trade paperback collections. To date there has been two complete volumes with a third still in progress. The series was initiated in 2003 by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Adrian Alphona who stayed with series for close to two volumes, departing with issue 24 of volume two. The second volume, up to issue 30, was subsequently completed by Joss Whedon and Michael Ryan. The current, third volume of the series is being written by Terry Moore and illustrated by Humberto Ramos.

Marvel rates this series as T+ TEENS & UP (Appropriate for most readers 13 and up, parents are advised that they may want to read before or with younger children.)

Runaways is constructed to subvert many of the conventions of superhero comics. The runaways, a group of teenagers who discover that their parents are members of a super-villain cabal and choose to rebel against their elders, have a very loosely constructed idea of themselves as a team and they don’t adopt a cohesive group identity, theme or begin wearing costumes. There is a higher ratio of female characters, the group expresses a number of different levels of diversity (age, ethnicity, sexual orientation) and the character design intentionally avoids aesthetic cliches or exploitative representations. There is a level of seriousness and consequence to the story arcs and a verite to the dialogue and relationships that is usually a bit absent from superhero comics. If there was ever a North American superhero comic to engage young women, this is it.

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Three of the new issues from volume three have been released and Terry Moore’s approach to character development is promising. Moore has focused on developing the relationship between Xavin and Karolina – how many comic series have really good writing about alien lesbians? It’s definitely a rarity.

Getting used to Humberto Ramos’ interpretation of the characters may take some time. While he seems a great match to Terry Moore the stylistic precedent set by the Vaughn/Alphona team left readers ambivalent even about the work of prestige contributors Whedon and Ryan. (One of the aspects of mainstream comics that readers must eventually reconcile themselves with is the existence of characters as the commercial property of the publisher. Beloved writers and artist will move on and loyal fans have to reconcile themselves with the inevitable changes to characters and narrative tone.) The first two volumes of this series are so well regarded that subsequent creators have yet to prove themselves in comparison.

In this video from the Marvel Comics site, Terry Moore talks about his own response to Runaways and some of his plans for the series.

(An aside: a lot of the imagery used in the video is from cover designs and character art by Jo Chen.)

Vaughn, Brian K. (w) and Adrian Alphona (i). Runaways: Pride and Joy v1(April 2004), Marvel Comics. ISBN-10: 0785113797





Leave it to Chance

25 11 2008

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Leave it to Chance was written by James Robinson and illustrated by Paul Smith and ran, intermittently, from 1996 and 1999. A collection the first 4 issues of the series was published in 2002 under the title Leave it to Chance Book One: Shaman’s Rain. Subsequent collections – Trick or Threat and Other Stories (2003) and Monster Madness (2003) – have been published but a number of issues remaining uncollected. The series ended inconclusively and is currently discontinued.

I couldn’t find a concrete statement of the age rating appropriate for Leave it to Chance but I would place it at around 12+ for bloodless but perilous action and noir-ish dystopian view of social and political corruption and narrative complexity. Reading level is probably 9-12.

It was published by Image Comics, an imprint started in 1992 by North American comic industry insiders to free them from the contractual obligation to relinquish character rights to publishers. Image Comics began to redefine the role of writers and creator in the North American comics industry and the result was a number of very successful and unprecedentedly personal and creative works.

Leave it to Chance won a number of prestigious awards in 1997; the Harvey Award for Best New Series, and the Eisner Awards for Best New Series and Best Title for Younger Readers.

Having been published in the late 1990s Leave it to Chance pre-dates the introduction of tankobon format manga to North American bookstores and its subsequent popularity young women, an audience that had, and still remains, elusive to North American comic publishers. LTC, while in many ways a product of established comic book reader nostalgia, was a genuine attempt to write a comic divested of the genre conventions that had failed engage, and in some cases repelled, young women. It is a genre work that has a tendency to sentimentalize the young heroine and most of the dramatic tension comes not from character development but from the invocation of detective and noir conventions. Despite this LTC stands as an intuitively appealing, well written and illustrated work with the potential to transcend genre-niche readership.

The art work has a clear and energetic quality while maintaining a lot of aesthetic notes from the ligne claire and and early Will Eisner works that Paul Smith clearly admires while utilizing a slightly more robust line weight. Smith captures the best potential of the bright, colorful panels balanced with lots of atmospheric black – the panel and page designs have a lot of impact and don’t read as dated.

LTC really succeeds both visually and narratively as a pastiche of adventure and mystery influences. It would be nice to think that this really great example of pure adventure could be taken out of its older aesthetic context and unburdened of some of both its success and perceived shortcomings as a “comic for girls” and just enjoyed as a really fun and attractive adventure. There seems to be teen audience for detective stories with a supernatural element and some darker social themes – Deathnote?

Robinson, James (w), Paul Smith (p), and Jeremy Cox (c). Leave it to Chance Book 1: Shaman’s Rain (2002), Image Comics. ISBN-10:1582402531





The Good Neighbors

25 11 2008

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The Good Neighbors is written by Holly Black and illustrated by Ted Naifeh. Both are from the United States. Holly Black has written a number of fantasy novels for young adults including the very popular Spiderwick Chronicles – this is her first graphic novel. Ted Naifeh both writes and illustrates a number of comic series for people of varying ages but tends to focus more on works for a teen audience. (His comic Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things has also been included in this bibliography.)

The Good Neighbors is published by Scholastic Press under the Graphix imprint and is rated 14+.

Naifeh’s art of this book is an effective balance of stylization and representation. He knows when to contribute and withhold detail so the page have a complex moodiness without being too brimming with visual content. There is a great use of ink washes and textural line work that suits the narrative which also strives to balance realistic and fantastic elements. It does succeed in being a modernist invocation of Arthur Rackham’s – perhaps the unequivocal master of fairie illustration – intricate and compelling line work, and ability to synthesize the beautiful and gruesome. (Just after writing this I found an interview with Naifeh where he talks about this exact same thing – check it.)

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Black conveys an interesting sense of creepy ennui and the pacing has a sporadic quality that still manages to feel engaging. If anything it feels very reminiscent of real life – if in real life the local coffee shop had both human and goblin clientele. Both the writer and artist are very comfortable with this type of material and their collaboration has the seamless, happy feeling of an auspicious creative confluence.

The urban fantasy tone of the art and the narrative take the fairie trope to a new level of maturity and complexity without losing the sense of eiriness of the genre. It’s much more reminiscent of the thematic and psychological complexity of Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market then other popular fantasy for young women which makes this an exciting book for girls who have always had that feeling that they don’t quite fit in…

Black, Holly (w) and Ted Naifeh (i). The Good Neighbors Book One: Kin (2008), Graphix. ISBN-10: 0439855624





Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things

25 11 2008

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Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things is a comic series written and illustrated by Ted Naifeh.

The ongoing series is published by Oni Press and is rated Y: Youth (7+) Y – Youth (7+) “Bring the kids! This title is entirely appropriate for your little ones. No sex, no profanity, no disturbing themes. And while there may be action, there’s no violence. (Think ‘G’ or ‘PG’.)”

Courtney can be a bit of a caustic personality – she’s the kind of girl who keeps her composure and wit intact in the most trying circumstances. An adventure story can always benefit from a strong and charismatic personality at its center and as an iconoclast who questions authority and takes responsibility for her own actions Courtney is a role model for the skeptical and disenfranchised.

Naifeh’s artwork achieves a great balance of cartoon and detail work. The settings are always carefully balanced and fully imagined (his cross-hatching technique is really solid) while the characters have very simple faces that really show Naifeh’s talent for conveying complex expression. Considering the lack of actual detail used to draw Courtney’s face she can convey an amusing and very intelligible array of expressions.

The stories themselves balance a lot of narrative elements. Courtney’s relationships with adults are explored quite subtly and gradually over the course of the narratives – both her difficulty with her benighted parents and her growing trust and affection for her Uncle Aloysius and Calpurnia Crisp, the mentor he assigns to watch over her. Courtney’s connections with other children create much of the complexity in the stories. Her growing experience with magic may create the framework but there are always some social or emotional dynamics being negotiated.

courtnet-panelThe age rating of this title seems a bit skewed. Courtney’s adventure’s are bloodless only in terms of representation – people really do come to bad ends in this series. By volume two the moral ambivalence of both other children and adults has become an established motif. And Tommy Rawhead and Bloody Bones? That goblin isn’t just sort of scary – he’s REALLY scary. Seems better for a mid teen audience, 12+ at least.

Another good interview with Ted Naifeh…

Naifeh, Ted. Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things v1(2003), Oni Press Inc. ISBN-10:1929998600





The Professor’s Daughter

25 11 2008

profsdaughter-pageThe Professor’s Daughter is written by Joann Sfar and illustrated by Emmanuel Guibert.

It is published by First Second and rated as… I couldn’t find a rating. But more about that later.

The art in this book is so beautiful and Guibert’s technique is quite unique. First Second posted this video of Guibert working on drawings for another of his works, Alan’s War.

It seems likely that Guibert’s talent for conveying physical expression would be noticeable regardless but having two of the characters completed swathed in bandages throughout the narrative really draws attention to his skill. The panel layouts are very simple which allows one to focus on the gorgeous balance of color and shading.

Sfar’s writing is really wonderful with most of the exchanges imbued with levels of humor that transcends the dialogue. The adventure moves at a surprising pace. Both feats of daring and courtroom drama are handled with amusing alacrity. The Professor’s Daughter works as both a riff on Victorian English social norms and a tribute to the era’s popular narratives combined with a modern, infectious energy and cleverness.

An attempt to rate this book based on age would be difficult. Its clever, absurdist approach to plotting and urbane humor won’t resonate with “all ages”. It would be nice to think that some clever young thing would not only know where to situate this thematically but also really appreciate the humor of this odd love story.

An excerpt has been provided on the First Second website.

Sfar, Joann (w), Emmanual Guibert (i) and Alexis Siegel (translation). The Professor’s Daughter (2007), English ed., First Second. ISBN 10: 159643130X





More About After School Nightmare

25 11 2008

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After School Nightmare is a shojo manga written and illustrated by Setona Mizushiro and licensed in North America by Go! Comi.

The series is complete at ten volumes and is rated OT (older teen 16+)

Mizushiro Setona began her career drawing dōjinshi and was published for the first time as part of a dōjinsh circle in 1985. She continued to work on dōjinshi until she debut as a mangaka in 1993. [1] She has worked on nine other manga series (shojo, sports, yaoi genres) since 1998.

The translation and positive critical reception of Mizushiro’s After School Nightmare, and other manga for a 14+ and 16+ female audience, does seem to indicate a conceptual shift towards exciting, complex and challenging comics for young women that transcend the conventional North American genre expectations. The market for manga for young women has now become sufficiently established in North America that the medium and genre doesn’t need a reference point to the North American comic market. Manga for young women now exists so sufficiently in it’s own sphere that works like After School Nightmare can be assured of reaching their target audience. This is enabled through the inclusion of many shojo titles in bookstores and libraries and a reading public that knows where to access these works.

After School Nightmare is about a school whose students participate in a class that compels them to descend into a dream world where their most essential psychological selves are manifested. Once in the dream world the students must compete to locate a hidden key that will allow them to graduate from the dream class – but what awaits them upon graduation is shrouded in mystery.

The protagonist Mashiro Ichijo is a character who is struggling to live his life as a young man despite manifesting increasingly evident female sexual characteristics. When Mashiro is initiated into the dream class he manifests as a young woman – his hidden self.

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A possible inspiration for After School Nightmare is Chiyo Rokuhana’s 2003 Kodansha award winning josei series IS: Otoko demo Onna demo nai Sei (IS stands for InterSexual, the subtitle “neither man or woman”). The stories in the manga are fictionalized retellings of the experiences of intersexual people Rokuhana has interviewed. Another possible influence could be Takako Shimura’s Hourou Musuko (Transient Son), which also began in 2003, about two gender-ambiguous school children though this is a lighter, slice of life, narrative.

The issue of the protagonist’s sexuality aside, Mizushiro seems as influenced by European gothic fiction narratives. Mashiro is a perfect template for an unreliable narrator as instability and lack of self-awareness are integral to gothic literature’s psychologically complex themes. While well intentioned, Mashiro’s failure to master his/her feelings is damaging to the other characters on repeated occasions and in a very literal sense in the dream world where much of the story takes place.

The suspense and horror elements of the text heighten the complexity of Mashiro’s struggle with self-identity. The horror comes from the way the internal monsterousness of the dream world’s participants is manifested – again drawing on the gothic themes of the shadow self and dédoublement.

The narrative structure of After School Nightmare is takes good advantage of the potential for suspense that the serialized publication format provides but the page layouts and sequencing are also carefully designed to save surprising or frightening visuals until subsequent pages. Following moments of intimacy or intense conversation between characters Mizushiro often visually pulls back on the follow page to reveal that there is an observer participating in the scene from a distance. This cinematic, suspense building effect is used in scenes in both volume one when Mashiro sees Sou in conversation with young woman through a series of courtyard windows and later in volume three when Shinbashi sees Mashiro and Sou in an unguardedly intimate moment.

Mizushiro uses the the very minimalist and cold architecture of the school itself to emphasize mood, disjuncture and isolation. The building where the story takes place is very present in the visual language of the story but often in such a nuanced way that it’s easy to overlook.

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Mizushiro generally uses a very light and consistent line weight even in sequences that represent a lot of action. This restraint allows her to use black very effectively to give particular scenes added psychological emphasis or to quickly evoke a sense of dread. The dream scenes that depict Fujishima’s enraged dream form, tragic past and the reason for her hatred towards men are full of inky blacks that are generally absent from most other scenes.

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A seminal scene in volume three where Mashiro literally confronts a full manifestation of his feminine side takes place in a vacuum with an almost completely black ground. This atmospheric use of negative space conveys Mashiro’s isolation both from others and facets of his inner self.

After School Nightmare is so visually and textually full of symbolism that one begins to strongly suspect that the entire narrative will resolve into metaphor. Each character’s dream self manifests as visual symbol of their inner turmoil and each dream participant enters the dream wearing a series of three orbs that, shattering under duress, signal the end of the dreamer’s strength and precipitate their return to the waking world. One of the more resonant symbols is a key that must be located within the story’s dream world. Locating the key allows the finder to finally graduate from the haunting psychological landscape of the dream classroom.

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It’s probably obvious in the way I’ve written about After School Nightmare that I haven’t finished reading the series. Initially I found some of the themes and the way they were emphasized a bit off-putting. Subsequent reading has revealed that, while the story has remained entertaining, there is a lot happening in the text and an early judgement would inevitably be an inaccurate one. When I look back at my earlier comments on volume 1 I feel a bit of chagrined at how flippant I sound but I’m glad that I chose to write about a manga that’s so interesting and surprising.

The characters are really starting to become engaging – perhaps I’m being seduced by the complex and brooding gothic ambience (or am I really just thinking of Sou when I say that?). I really like Mashiro and I’m eager to find out how the situation resolves for this interesting and sympathetic character.

I also had an opportunity to be politely corrected in my description of Mashiro as transgender. Looking back, I have to agree that there is textual evidence that Mashiro is intersexual. This lead to research (not only to make sure I properly knew what it means to be intersexual) into other manga that have intersexual characters. I’ve mentioned two already but there are a few others (Nabari no Ou? I have to follow up on that…). Needless to say, I’m learning a lot.

Mizuhiro, Setona (w,i) and Christine Schilling (translation). After School Nightmare v1(Oct. 2006), English ed., Go! Comi. ISBN-10: 1933617160

Images: Color panel, cover art for After School Nightmare v3, panels from After School Nightmare v1

[1] Go! Comi (2008). Creator Bio. Go! Comi. Retrieved on 2008-11-11.








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