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Maus by Art Spiegelman (1991) 296 p.
Alongside Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Art Spiegelman’s Maus is one of the most renowned graphic novels of all time, and one of the first examples usually cited when people say the genre is capable of being Real Literature. Subtitled “A Survivor’s Tale,” Maus is a true account of Spiegelman’s father’s experience as a Polish Jew sent to Auschwitz during the Holocaust. The book’s only unrealistic quirk is to portray the various races and nationalities as animals – Jews are mice, Germans are cats, Poles are pigs and so on.
Given the amount of acclaim the book has receieved – it won the Pulitzer Prize, the only comic book ever to have done so – I knew I’d read it eventually, but was reluctant to do so. The reason for this is because I’m sort of burned out on the Holocaust. I know it was a terrible, awful thing, and that we must never forget it, but I’m at a point in my life where I’m not really interested in hearing any more about it.
I found Maus to be an excellent book nonetheless, not because of how it deals with the Holocaust, or even because I like graphic novels, but rather because of the way Spiegelman chose to present the story. It is not a simple, straightforward account of his father’s experience. Rather, it’s presented as a meta-narrative, with a mouse-version of the author visiting his father in Queens, interviewing him about his experiences. It also deals with the results of the book’s success, since it was originally serialised – in the second half we see a world-weary Spiegelman sitting at his drawing board, which is teetering atop a pile of Jewish corpses.
The most important effect of this story-within-a-story is that we see Spiegelman’s father from his own eyes, presented as the man he truly is. And that man is, despite being a Holocaust survivor, an asshole. He treats his wife like a slave, rarely gives his son any respect or recognition, is an almost perfect caricature of a stingy Jew, and – ironically – is racist towards blacks. Spiegelman clearly has little patience with him, finds him difficult to deal with, and tries to avoid spending time with him apart from interviewing him for the book. He feels guilty about it, and guilty about having an easy life after what his parents went through, but none of that guilt is enough to cancel out the generally negative feelings he has towards his father.
This is the crux of the book – a Holocaust survivor’s story does not end with liberation by American troops. It’s something they carry with them for the rest of their lives, and something that goes on to affect everyone around them. Some of Vladek Spiegelman’s flaws are doubtless a result of his time in the camps – his stinginess, for example, and his obsession with never letting food go to waste, stem from a time when he had to fight for every tiny thing he had. At one point he draws his son a diagram of the hiding place they constructed in Poland in the early years of the war, saying “It’s good to know exacty how was it… just in case.” His son seems to take this as being for the comic, but I got the heartbreaking impression that perhaps, in the back of his mind, Vladek never felt wholly safe again after the war.
But other flaws of Vladek’s are certainly just a part of his nature, and serve as an example that just as not all Germans were bad, not all Holocaust victims were good, either. “It wasn’t the best who survived, nor did the best ones dies,” Spiegelman’s shrink (a fellow Holocaust survivor) tells him. “It was random!” At another point, a reporter asks Spiegelman to “tell our viewers what message you want them to get from your book?” Spiegelman replies, “A message? I dunno… I never thought of trying to reduce it to a message. I mean, I wasn’t trying to convince anybody of anything.”
The scenes in Maus between Spiegelman and his father were, for my money, the best parts of the book. The Holocaust scenes mostly failed to move me, as most Holocaust scenes do. I think I’ve been desensitised. Is it perhaps wise to tell young children about it? I recall it being part of the curriculum in primary school. They showed us photos of mass graves and everything. I don’t think it’s too intense for young minds to handle – quite the opposite, in fact. I couldn’t quite grasp the seriousness of it at that age, and then it’s part of so many books and films that you just sort of grow up with it, and now I’m 23 years old and perfectly aware of what happened… and yet it’s such an immoveable fixture of the 20th century, such a solid part of history, that it fails to move me to the extent it should. I don’t believe that I’ve ever sat down and thought about it and been horrified that it happened – and I don’t believe I’m capable of doing so, either. (What does disturb me is something that only occurred to me recently, while I was actually in Germany, or perhaps when I watched “The Reader” – the fact that a whole nation willingly and consciously allowed it to happen.)
This feeling is also touched upon in Maus, actually. Spiegelman’s shrink says “Look at how many books have already been written about the Holocaust. What’s the point? People haven’t changed… maybe they need a newer, bigger Holocaust.”
Spiegelman, when writing Maus, didn’t just set out to re-tell his father’s story. Doing so was irrevocably wound up with the story about his own relationship with his father. Maus is largely a book about the Holocaust, but it’s also a story about living with a difficult father, about being greatly impacted by something one never experienced, about guilt and anger and love and how they can mix up with each other. Maus is a much, much stronger book than it would have been if Spiegelman had made it purely about his father’s experiences – but then, I doubt that was even an option.
I’m not going to compare it to Watchmen, because I’ve never seen a clearer example of apples and oranges. But suffice to say that, like Watchmen, Maus is absolute proof that comics can be great literature.
Amulet: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi (2008) 187 p.
I’m well aware that Amulet is aimed at children, but I adore Kazu Kibuishi’s Copper comics, and love his covers for the Flight anthologies, and I read a review somewhere that compared Amulet to the works of Miyazaki, which was all I needed to hear to shell out ten bucks. Amulet: The Stonekeeper is the first graphic novel in a series, which follows the adventures of a young girl as she and her brother are drawn into a fantasy world after moving to a house in the country following the death of their father.
Comparing it to a Miyazaki film is a bit generous, but it’s certainly good kid’s adventure story, with monsters and alternate worlds and quirky little robot characters. Kibuishi indulges in his passion for awesome vehicles, and the final image in the book is particularly neat. It’s a fairly simple story but strong on art, and I’m sure I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I was nine years old. As it was I was still pretty happy with it; I mean, it only took me about half an hour to read all 187 pages. (I finished this more than a week ago, just forgot to actually post the review.)
It did seem a little dark and gloomy, though, compared to his bright and airy Copper comics. They spend a lot of time underground, and even when they emerge it’s into a rain-soaked pine forest.
Anyway, I thought this was a pleasant enough children’s tale; I won’t rush out to buy the sequels, but I can definitely recommend it to kids and parents.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume II by Alan Moore (2004) 224 p.
Volume II of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has the advantage that all such sequels have, namely that it begins with the team already assembled and can jump direcly into a story. This volume opens on Mars, where various imagined inhabitants are fighting for control of the red planet, and the first chapter ends with the “molluscs” being routed, and invading Earth – beginning with a space capsule landing at Woking, Surrey.
And so Volume II is largely a retelling of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, with the disparate League being tasked with defending England from a Martian invasion. Moore continues to inject his universe with fictional characters drawn from the collective imagination of mankind, often with a diabolical twist – one particular appearance, in issue five, was simultaneously horrifying and hilarious.
Moore has more space to explore the characters in this issue, and Hyde in particular is more well-developed, yet on the whole I still felt like both characters and plot were far too fleeting. Perhaps it’s one of the constraints of the comic book’s short format, or perhaps it’s Moore’s own fault. I had a similar problem with Watchmen, which despite being magnificent, had only a few truly grand characters; Rorschach, Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan dominated that novel, while Nite Owl and the Silk Spectre felt stunted. Similarly, the two main characters in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Allan Quatermain and Mina Murray – feel less developed than Hyde and to a lesser extent Griffin (whose betrayal seems forced in simply for the sake of it).
The appendix of Volume I contained a pulp fiction short story featuring Allan Quatermain, which I felt was tedious and not worth mentioning in my review, but the appendix for Volume II features a more intriguing “Traveller’s Alamanac” to the fictional world of the League. Since it is populated by fictional characters, it is likewise a world cobbled together from the vast work of human mythology and fiction. This turned out to be rather less interesting than I thought it would be. While Moore draws from sources ranging from The Odyssey to House of Leaves, the simple equation of history means that the vast majority of fictional realms are drawn from works at least several centuries old, and sometimes dating back to antiquity. And so the reader is typically drawn across a series of islands and archipelagos dreamt up as a simple fantasy or allegory by writers and poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and unless the reader happens to be an English Literature major, they’re unlikely to recognise most of the references. A sampling:
“We find an island called Lanternland by some, where great Demosthenes burned midnight oil, and putting in to shore upon my command upon its soil saw men to glow-worms turn: each Lord and Lady dressed with glass and gem that caught the shine of wanton candleflame. Jewelled crest and diamond hem, blazing they pass, no two the same, their radiance divine.
“Not far away an oracle is found: a bottle in a crypt upon an isle where did sweet Bacchus make a vineyard grow. The bottle speaketh with a crackling sound, and I did like its augurs not at all. We sailed south, past the Lotus-eater’s land of yellow sand and endless afternoon. A fellow there his care will soon forget in fragrant blooms, where hides worse slavery yet. Ogygia too we passed and left behind, where fair Calypso walked in violet meads, and so we came to find instead a place, a curious atoll by an island near…”
And so on. Moore’s breadth of literary knowledge is astonishing – he appears to not only be aware of the entire human canon, but to have actually read it all – but crafting as fictional traveller’s guide in which the reader is strung from brief description to brief description is not a valuable use of this knowledge. I actually had trouble finishing the appendices in both volumes, and it made me suspect that without the visual aid of the graphic novel, Moore would not be a particularly good writer.
But then, one can’t review a graphic novel and not fairly take into balance its visual aspect, and Volume II is marvellous, with some lovingly detailed scenes of chaos and terror as Martian tripods stalk the land. Incidentally, Steven Spielberg would appear to have closely copied Kevin O’Neill’s visual interpretation of the Martian tripods for his 2005 film. (Also, was it just me, or is the scene where Hyde tears open the casing of a fallen tripod and tells the Martian inside “Welcome to England!” a direct homage to Will Smith’s “Welcome to Earth!” in Independence Day?)
Despite its flaws, Volume II is still a good read, and more entertaining than Volume I – though I suspect this is simply because The War of the Worlds is a timeless classic, and a better story than the fairly generic outing Moore came up with for Volume I. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a solid set of graphic novels, but still doesn’t even begin to compare to Moore’s magnum opus, Watchmen.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume I by Alan Moore (1999) 176 p.
A case of deja vu. Just as the last book I read, Count Zero, was quite good but didn’t live up to its groundbreaking predecessor Neuromancer, Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is an excellent comic which (understandably) fails to match his groundbreaking Watchmen.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is probably shoulder-to-shoulder with V for Vendetta as Alan Moore’s most famous creation after Watchmen. The concept is essentially a “Justice League for Victorian England,” operating on the premise that famous works of 19th century fiction were real, and their heroes are recruited into the titular League to protect the British Empire. Beginning with Mina Harker from Dracula and Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, the League soon enlists Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man, and Allan Quatermain from King Solomon’s Mines. Many of the supporting characters, and even minor background figures, are also from famous works of fiction, and spotting them is half the fun. Sherlock Holmes and the Artful Dodger are impossible to miss, but I feel like dozens went right over my head.
The artwork is quite different from Dave Gibbons’ in Watchmen; sort of scratchy and cartoony, with as much emphasis and exaggeration as possible without actually breaking the boundaries of realistic illustration. The League of Extraordinary Gentleman takes place in an alternate universe in more ways than one, with the British Empire being far more industrially advanced than it really was at the time. One early full-page image shows a gargantuan half-completed bridge stretching across the English Channel, and the cityscape of London swarms with cranes, airships, bridges, tunnels and towers.
The premise is excellent, but the plot is a standard adventure story, with villains and infiltrations and fights and narrow escapes and nothing particularly original. Moore clearly enjoys poking fun at the tropes of the Victorian era – particularly with villainous foreign stereotypes – but this doesn’t even begin to compare to Watchmen‘s masterful deconstruction of the superhero genre.
The League of Extraordinary Gentleman is nonetheless a good, solid graphic novel, which I enjoyed reading, and I didn’t hesitate to order the second volume. Just don’t expect it to be on par with Moore’s much greater Watchmen.
I’ve known about Order of Tales, Evan Dahm’s sequel to Rice Boy, for quite a while now, but I was waiting for him to finish it before I read it all through. Apparently that happened some time ago, so we’re cleared for take off! This is the best panel so far:
36. Flight (Volume One) by Kazu Kibuishi (2004) 208 p.
I read Flight Volume Two earlier this year, but declined to include it because I didn’t consider a comic anthology to be a book. Since I’ve subsequently deemed Watchmen worthy of inclusion, I may as well slide a little further and admit Flight. BREAKING ALL THE RULES, BABY!
I was originally attracted to the Flight comics partly because they’re edited by Kazu Kibuishi, renowned for his amazing Copper webcomics, and partly because they have the most staggeringly beautiful covers. Check out this wallpaper version of Volume Four:
I would do hideous, depraved things in exchange for a hypothetical (but thick) graphic novel chronicling the beautifully drawn adventures of the lucky bastard riding the bird on all the Flight covers.
What I get instead is an anthology of very short comics, some of which are good and some of which aren’t. There are two Copper stories included in Volume One, Maiden Voyage and Picnic, and Khang Le (who has some excellent paintings of fantasy and sci-fi scenes on his website) has a nice story in there as well. The rest are mostly okay but nothing special, ranging from wacky detective mysteries to typical plotless, epiphany-driven narratives. They all share a common theme of flight, whether literal or metaphorical, and a lot of them do a good job of capturing the nostalgic childhood spirit of adventure. On the whole, though, Flight is mostly about style over substance, with a lot of very pretty but ultimately pointless stories.
Those covers sure do kick ass, though.
Pages: 11, 113
Heath Ledger was from my hometown, so when he expired from TOO MUCH DRUGS back in January I was subject to a cacophony of wailing tributes and memorials about what a great guy/Australian/actor/etc he was, became extremely fed up with it, and stuck firm to my opinion that any father of a three-year old daughter who dies from a drug overdose cannot possibly be a good person.
But a went and saw the Dark Knight today and holy fucking shit. I no longer find it at all difficult to believe that playing such a demented, twisted character contributed to his death somehow. That’s the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in the can right there.
Even aside from Ledger’s performance the movie is brilliant, being not only the best superhero movie ever made but also the best movie of 2008 so far (and I saw There Will Be Blood this year). I dislike the idea of superheroes. If you grow up with them and therefore reserve a soft and tender spot of your heart for your childhood heroes, you may find it difficult to judge them without bias. They’re fundamentally silly. I’m sorry, but that’s all there is to it.
But The Dark Knight is more of an action/thriller film than a superhero movie, with scenes reminiscent of Heat or The Departed, dealing with corruption in the police force, desperate hostage scenarios, and disturbing themes. There’s some excellent cinematography, a great soundtrack… really everything a jaded cynic like myself could ask for. I was thoroughly impressed and more than a little pissed off at Ledger for getting himself killed and thus depriving us of the Joker’s presence in another Batman movie.
While on the topic of superhero films, I also learned that a trailer had been released for Watchmen. If you hadn’t heard, it’s halfway through production and slated for an ’09 release date. The word that comes to mind is “ill-advised.” Particularly when the director is Zack Snyder, whose
most notable only accomplishments are Dawn of the Dead and 300.
The trailer was somewhat painful to watch, especially because it made me realise that this wouldn’t actually be a bad movie if a better director was at the helm. Watchmen does not, of course, need to be a movie – it’s a story about comic book heroes that’s successful because it’s a comic book – but it could be a damn good one if it was done properly. It’s just highly unlikely that Snyder is capable of doing that. The trailer goes to great lengths to portray the heroes as total awesome badasses when the entire point of Watchmen was that they’re not. I could use the phrase “the entire point of” to give you another dozen examples of why this movie will be an embarassment to everyone involved in its production, but I won’t, because right now I’m still riding that Dark Knight buzz.
If you haven’t already seen it go do so, and every ten minutes imagine what it would be like if they’d kept the original Batman theme.
30. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2000) 636 p.
The second Pulitzer Prize winner I’ve read this year, the second Chabon novel, and the second story about an Eastern European immigrant coming to live in New York with his cousin, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is over 600 pages long; a daunting read. But it was brilliant enough that I breezed through it in only ten days. For most of that time, the novel was engaged in a vicious struggle with Life of Pi for the position of my second-favourite book of the year (Watchmen is unassailable). Somewhere around page 450 Life of Pi was sent down the ladder licking its wounds to sulk in third place.
As a set-up, I’m going to let the blurb speak for itself, partly because it’s one of the only blurbs I’ve ever noticed to be at least decently written.
One night in 1939, Josef Kavalier shuffles into his cousin Sam Clay’s cramped New York bedroom, his arduous, nerve-wracking escape from Prague finally achieved. So begins the friendship and partnership that will create The Escapist, a comic strip about a Nazi-busting saviour who liberates the oppressed around the world. It makes their fortune and their name but Joe can think of only one thing: how can he effect a real-life escape for his family from the tyranny of Hitler?
Mostly, however, because I hesitate to give any further description than that. This is the kind of book where you want to discover everything for yourself. Suffice to say that it is a vast epic, spanning a large amount of time with a heavily nostalgic feel for a long-vanished era, from the stately mansions and streetlamps of Prague to the steamy streets of New York City to a frigid military base in a desolate land. I’d immediately identified Chabon as a grandmaster of the English language when reading Gentlemen of the Road, and Kavalier & Clay further reinforced this belief. The sense and feeling of New York City at the brink of World War II, in a vanished era of airships and newsreels and the rise of comic books, is perfectly captured by Chabon’s vivid descriptions and elegant prose. As the duo venture through a tangled spiderweb of bildungsroman, the book leaves behind an impression in the mind of certain places, people and events that are so beautifully described they almost feel like actual memories: the fog-bound Murnau River at night, the bohemian mess of an artist’s studio in Greenwich Village, or the bold, impregnable grandeur of the mighty Empire State Building that dominates the most critical junctures of the story.
The novel jumps across space and time, written occasionally in the manner of a textbook studying the rise of the comic industry, with regular footnotes about the fate of this artifact or that character. In Chabon’s hands this technique works wonderfully, and most readers would never even notice the frequent shifts in narratorial voice, which jumps from inside a character’s mind to the voice of a comic book narrator to the notes of a scholarly researcher. Many sections, especially some of the early chapters, could stand as excellent short stories in their own right. The fourth part of the book, entitled “Radioman,” lasts only sixty odd pages and yet was one of the greatest passages of fiction I have ever read. If I can ever write something as good as that I will die a happy man.
This book succeeds on every level. Characters, plot, pacing, style, everything. It’s like the exact opposite of the last book I read. I feel like I’m not saying enough but, again, it’s better to just read it without any knowledge. By far one of the best books I’ve ever read and recommended to absolutely everyone.
One of my favourite webcomics, Rice Boy, recently concluded after a staggering two years and 439 pages. Finishing something. Man, I wish I could do that.
Rice Boy is the story of the titular “rice boy,” a small, innocent, limbless thing living in a surreal world filled with bizarre and dangerous creatures. His adventures begin when he is sought out by The One Electronic, one of my favourite fictional characters ever: a long-coated robotic man with a monitor for a face, which flashes early 20th century footage to roughly correlate to whatever mood he’s in.
T-O-E and his comrade Calabash have been tasked with finding the messiah by God, who has kindly allowed them to live for as long as they please until they accomplish their mission. So far they’ve spent three thousand years becoming increasingly disillusioned by countless false candidates, who often go mad with power and wreak havoc upon the world. Rice Boy is the latest in a long line of failures and fuckups – but T-O-E has a good feeling about this one!
So begins an epic and intriguing voyage into the creative fantasy of writer and illustrator Evan Dahm. His art is not great, I’ll say that up front (I suspect this may be partly due to time constraint, since his side projects are often of a much higher visual quality). It’s Dahm’s wild imagination that makes Rice Boy a gem of a webcomic. This is fantasy as it’s supposed to be – creating fresh concepts and ideas, not retreading stale old genre tropes that wore out three decades ago. Throw determinist philosophy and religious parables into the mix and it’s a winning combination. Go ahead and spend the small hours of a rainy night reading through the archives – one of the technological age’s greatest pleasures.
19. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986) 416 p.
I didn’t intend to include a graphic novel (read: comic book) on my list of 50 books, because it’s not really my kind of thing, but Watchmen is no ordinary comic book. It is widely regarded as a masterpiece, hands-down the most critically acclaimed comic book ever made, and was listed on Time Magazine’s 100 greatest novels since 1923.
Watchmen is set in New York City in the 1980s of an alternate world, in which masked “superheroes” are real and have altered society and politics in some very thought-provoking ways. It follows the trials of a group of mostly-retired superheroes who are drawn back into a noirish world of crime, conspiracy and danger after the murder of one of their former colleagues.
Like all good storytellers, Moore and Gibbons do not spoonfeed the reader. Many small details about this intriguing world are minor images hidden in the background. In the first chapter alone, the astute reader will note that Vietnam has become the 51st state, Richard Nixon is still the President, the USA is building missile silos on the moon and the doomsday clock (a recurring motif in a book overflowing with them) stands at five minutes to midnight.
Watchmen is about superheroes in the same way that No Country For Old Men is about cops and drug dealers. It deconstructs one of the most iconic images of America, developing flawed heroes with complex psychological profiles. All but one lack superpowers, they all have deep problems, and some have nagging doubts about the ultimate purpose of fighting petty crime in a world threatened by nuclear annihilation.
This is the overall vibe emanated by Watchmen, a Cold War text down to its very bones. I’ve always found superheroes to be a laughable, childish, outdated element of pop culture, but Watchmen treats them realistically and examines the effects they would have on society: the police strikes, the swaying public opinion, the inculpability of vigilantes and the aforementioned failure to address society’s real problems. Early in the novel, in a flashback to the 1960s, we see a USMC-lieutenant turned crimefighter discussing the problems America faces, among which he includes “student protests” and “black unrest.” The very awesome character Rorschach, dressed in 1920s tweed pants and overcoat, executes both a serial rapist and the average mugger without remorse, while his diary reveals the workings of a disturbingly warped mind. A major character who is employed by the government and held in high regard by the people of America also has a history of sexual assault. The world of Watchmen is like our own: everything is uncertain and relative, and morality is hard to pin down.
Flipping through it at the bookstore, I found Dave Gibbons’ artwork to be relatively bland and generic, the typical American comic book style familiar even to someone who never reads comic books. When I started actually reading it, I discovered that there were much deeper layers to it than I thought. Apart from the minor details found in every frame, the way the frames themselves move is beautiful, resembling film techniques in the way they segue into a flashback, create ironic contrasts or suggest deeper symbolism to images in nearly every panel. I did not even realise until after finishing it that the chapter entitled “Fearful Symmetry” is itself perfectly symmetrical through its dark and light coloured panels. Just as the story redefines the traditions of the comic book narrative, the artwork redefines the traditions of comic book illustration, with a particularly welcome relief from motion lines and transcribed sound effects. (I would have loved to link to a YouTube video of the Simpsons episode featuring a campy Radioactive Man beating villains up to colourful splashes of “SNUH,” “BORT” and “MINT,” but the Fox Corporation is excessively rabid about its copyright. The fuckers.)
The ending – which is foreshadowed like crazy, and which I was sure I had predicted – was both what I expected, and completely not what I expected. I like that.
Anyway, I could talk forever about this awesome story, but it’s difficult to do so without giving away a lot of plot details. Suffice to say that it’s a richly thematic masterpiece of symbolism, philosophy and humanity, with beautiful artwork, a great story and deeply memorable characters. It’s the best book I’ve read this year (granted, it had the unfair advantage of pictures) and the pinnacle of 20th century comics. It can be bought from the Book Depository for just over 20 bucks. Buy it.