2 Graphic Novels: Habibi and Kiki de Montparnasse

Habibi by Craig Thompson (2011)

habibi

I read Blankets by Craig Thompson a couple of years ago and found it very good and nostalgic (unfortunately I didn’t write my review on it). It’s about many things but what I remember the most is it’s a coming-of-age story about a protagonist who struggles with the Christian religion that he’s born in. Some struggles I’m familiar with, as I was born in the same faith environment.

Thompson’s second book, interestingly, touches again another subject that I have keen interest on – the other popular religion, Islam. I was born and raised Catholic/Christian in the country with the biggest Muslim population on earth, while retaining some traces of Buddhist religion from my ancestors. So though I end up rejecting all faith and not religious at all, I’d always be fascinated by the story and history of religions.

It seems that Craig Thompson has similar fascination, as he explores Christianity in his first book and Islam in his second book. Perhaps I’m bound to love Habibi based on my background that I stated earlier, and I did. It’s an absolutely beautiful book. And like Blankets, its number of pages alone (672 pages!) indicates the ambitiousness of the scope.

How do you even do graphic novel of 672 pages? I can understand normal book, which you can edit many times before it goes, especially with the use of computer these days. But how about drawing? Do you perhaps do a rough drawing of the entire book first, make sure the pace and plot are all right, before drawing in the details? I’d love to know his process.

In essence, Habibi is a love story between the two characters shown on the cover. Met as a little girl and an even younger boy, Dodola and Zam are not related by blood, but what they go through together create as strong a bond as any blood relation. In the harsh world they live in, their love fluidly changes according to time and circumstances, as they have only each other to cling on. The word Habibi means “my beloved”.

I kept trying to figure out the setting of the book, but I couldn’t. The architecture resembles Turkey, the landscape resembles Arabian dessert, and the clothing looks a mix of Moroccan. I couldn’t figure out the period too, as it seems to start sometime in the past, but goes to modern time in the course of the book. I think it’s on purpose that it wasn’t set in a particular real life country or time, more like an alternate universe with all the Islamic elements. I love how the book touches on the common heritage of Christianity and Islam, and the slight differences between the books (the Bible and Quran).

In reading Habibi I’m continually impressed by what Thompson did. The narration isn’t linear, the subject matter is deep, the illustration intricate, and he takes story telling with graphic novel as a medium to a completely new level. Simply amazing.

Mee’s rating: 5/5

Kiki de Montparnasse by Catel (Illustrator) and José-Louis Bocquet (2007)

Kiki de Montparnasse

This book tells the story of Alice Prin – who later was nicknamed Queen of Montparnasse and often known as Kiki de Montparnasse. She was a favorite model of many Parisian artists in the twenties. Hemingway wrote an introduction to her autobiography (one of the two books Hemingway ever agreed to write introduction for).

I read Kiki de Montparnasse not long after Habibi. That probably affected my reading a little, as I thought Kiki was way TOO linear (something that I never thought would be a bad thing). It literally goes from one event to another, like historical notes, almost text-book like. At this time this happens, next this happens, next that happens.

I also suffered a similar experience with reading Pablo, in the way that the book zips through who’s who in the roaring twenties in Paris, mainly painters in Kiki – a slightly different group than those appear in Pablo, but also writers, photographers, and film makers (the majority of whom I still don’t know). To make sure you get everyone, the book provides an extra index of people-you’re-supposed-to-know at the end, with a page of description for each person.

Both Pablo and Kiki are told from a woman model point of view in similar period of time and setting – the woman on the sideline, the muse of the famous male artists. I wonder how many of those they had back then? Probably plenty.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

Buddha by Osamu Tezuka (Vol 1: Kapilavastu)

buddha vol 1
First published in Japan in 1972, published in English in 2004

Buddha is an 8-volume manga by Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka is best known as the creator of Astro Boy, which I never watched or read, but I knew Tezuka has also produced some more grownup manga, like Buddha. This is my first time reading his work, as I noticed the big volumes readily available at the Westminster libraries.

As titled, Buddha tells the story of Siddharta Gautama, on whose teaching Buddhism was founded. I have only a rough idea of Siddharta: how he was a prince born in India, and in opposition to the caste system he renounced his identity and went on a journey until he attained enlightenment and became Buddha.

Knowing that, I expected volume one of Buddha to jump straight to his birth and early childhood, however it is not the case. In volume one: Kapilavastu Tezuka takes his time to introduce the other characters (some invented, some possibly historical), but most of all, the caste and society system of the time. The birth of Siddharta practically just appeared in a few pages of the 256-page manga.

Though that surprised me a little, it makes sense. Siddharta is born a prince as the highest caste (Brahmin). There needs to be a balance, other characters that are born as the lowest caste (slave and pariah) who will show the flaws and cruelties of the caste system.

Kapilavastu is the place where Siddharta was born – in Nepal, just close to the border with India. There’s a map at the beginning of the book, showing places that we visit in that volume and future ones. So I wasn’t quite right about Siddharta being born in India, but very close.

Animals have quite an important role here. One of the teaching of Buddhism is that animals are just as important as humans (hence the preference not to eat animals), and according to the story I was told as a child, upon Buddha’s death 12 types of animals come to give him respect, and those become the symbols of Chinese zodiac as we know it until today. Animals seem important in the story of the Buddha and I like how this is used by Tezuka early on in his retelling. (Disclaimer: I’m not a Buddhist so my knowledge is pretty limited, mainly gained from some older family and even so the beliefs and teaching have been very watered down I assume.)

Some qualms: some attempts to modernize are downright silly (e.g. comparing a big city in Nepal at the period with New York or Paris. WHAT. I’m really curious whether this is just the translation problem.), some attempts to be funny are not funny (e.g. jokes at serious times seem misplaced), and the nudity seems unnecessary (I wonder whether women being bare-chested is the norm for its time and place?)

Negative point notwithstanding, I enjoyed the compelling story, and I love to learn more about the making of the Buddha, and Tezuka’s take on it. Hubby who is not a big reader is devouring volume after volume of this series, faster than me! I’ll definitely be reading more and gradually finishing the series.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Osamu_Tezuka_1951
Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989)

 

Filmish: A Graphic Journey Through Film – Edward Ross

filmish - edward ross
200pp. Published in Nov 2015. Kindly sent by the publisher SelfMadeHero.

When I saw Filmish in recent SelfMadeHero catalogue, I knew it would be the right graphic novel for me. Regular readers may know that I work in the film industry, specifically post-production house. Though what we do is often more technical than creative, everyone I know in our company loves movies. Many aspire to and do their own shorts or full length films independently.

As any informative non-fiction, it is often hard to guess the level of the book until we read them. With this graphic novel too, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I possibly thought somewhere along the line of beginner’s guide to film history. I was slightly wary that it’s going to be a repetition in different format of the many script writing classes that I’ve taken in the past.

It actually went in different direction. Edward Ross, who is a British (Scottish? He lives in Edinburgh.) comic book artist goes more in depth than “brief history of film”. He divided the chapters into interesting themes: “The Eye”, “The Body”, “Sets and Architecture”, “Time”, “Voice and Language”, “Power and Ideology”, “Technology and Technophobia”. Rather than simply going chronologically, Ross takes individual tools of movie making, and discusses the use of them by giving a lot of film examples.

In fact, some pages in, and I felt inadequate. Despite watching 50 to 100 movies per year, there are still so many movies that I have never watched. I would say from the films mentioned and covered in the book: a third I have watched, a third I know but have not watched, and another third I had never heard of. The majority of the panels are drawings of movie scenes, so if you know the film, you get it straight away. If you don’t, well it takes a little more effort. There are quite extensive foot notes at the back of the book explaining each page, and specific panels on the page. I’m usually one who is quite obsessive about reading foot notes, but for this book I let myself relax a bit so I could enjoy the flow more, and only stopped to look when I was really curious about certain panels.

I can see this book being used in some film classes. The watch list grown from reading it itself is a great start to direct any movie aficionado to watch movies that are worth watching. I can also see myself dipping in and out of the book a few more times in the future.

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – The graphic novel style akin to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics makes Ross’s advanced film theory easier and interesting to digest. But I’m thinking the audience for Filmish is possibly smaller and needs to be more keen than Understanding Comics. Would recommend it for any movie enthusiasts, but not so much a real beginner.

 

Blue is the Warmest Color / Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes

Two graphic novels I read most recently:

Blue is the Warmest Color – Julie Maroh

blue is the warmest color
First published in 2010, published in English in 2013, translated from French by Ivanka Hahnenberger

I watched Blue is the Warmest Color film 2 years ago and really liked it, and since then I’d been meaning to read the graphic novel it was based on. A visit to the library offered this opportunity.

I don’t read YA novels, but I guess much of my dose of “YA”-ness is provided through graphic novels. Blue for instance is a classic coming of age story between two girls, how they come to term with their homosexuality, the exploration of foreign territory, and the real life implications after the so-called honeymoon period is over.

Much of the story in the book has been changed in the film, however this is one of those cases that I think the movie is better than the book. It seems to often happen with short stories and graphic novels. I was very impressed with the film – it was so fresh. Very rarely would I excuse a 3-hour movie – it has to be very special to take my life for 3 hours – and watching this 3-hour coming of age French (!) drama I was never bored at all.

blue film

Highly recommend the movie. And the book too for that matter, but only if you like the movie :). The use of Blue in both media is very effective and visually striking, though I’m not sure if there’s a meaningful symbol behind it apart from being a symbol of attraction. And the title most of all I think is very catchy and memorable. In a way the 2 things are probably the main reasons the film is told to adapt from the book (without the use of blue there are very few similarities). It works cinematically. Just look at that poster!

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Dotter of her Father’s Eyes – Mary M Talbot and Bryan Talbot

dotter of her father's eyes

Dotter of her Father’s Eyes won the Costa Book Award for Biography in 2012, which is no mean feat for a graphic novel. I read The Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot a few years ago, and in Dotter he collaborated with his wife Mary M Talbot (he the illustrator, and she the writer).

This book contrasts the biography of Mary M Talbot herself, with that of Lucia Joyce – the daughter of James Joyce. Mary’s father James S. Atherton is a dedicated Joycean scholar. So this is a story of two daughters and their fathers – who never crossed path, so there are 2 parallel story lines.

I, for one, was quite confused at the beginning about who is who. Mary’s change of name to Talbot added to my confusion, creating a disconnect with the name Atherton – her father’s. I have also not read any James Joyce, so I know very little about the man, not to mention his daughter.

I quite enjoyed this graphic novel, but would probably appreciate it more if I’m a fan of Joyce.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

 

Black Hole by Charles Burns

black hole

I love graphic novels, but I’m always dreading the time I have to write about them. How does one put into words something that works visually? For me at least, it’s a challenge.

Black Hole was drawn in strong style of black and white. It is set in an alternate world, similar to our world (or U.S.A world, Seattle to be exact) in the 1970s, at the time of sexual liberation, and the age of sexual exploration.

There’s a strange disease spreading in the area, transmitted by sexual contact. The symptoms are different for each individual. Some are outwardly grotesque (anything in face area), some are less obvious (anything that can be hidden within clothing). It ranges from disfigured face, gross skin rashes, to having extra mouth in the neck, or a tail. Those who can’t hide their disease go somewhere in the forest and live as outcasts. Akin to fatal sexual disease like AIDS, there’s no known cure, so if you got it, you cross to the other side of the line and become “the others”.

The atmosphere is pretty creepy and nightmare-ish for the majority of the book. The black and white style adds to the eeriness and claustrophobic feeling, which is really perfect for this story.

I found the themes and the visualisation very interesting and unique, but like some reviewer on GR pointed out, the book lacks resolution. It’s the all-too-common case of book starting very strong, but the author doesn’t know how to end it in a satisfying way. But really, everything else up to the end is a remarkable achievement.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Literary Disco’s great episode on Black Hole

Pablo (Art Masters Series) / Nutcracker – E.T.A. Hoffmann

Pablo by Julie Birmant and Clément Oubrerie

pablo graphic novel (art masters series)Pablo is the latest in the Art Masters Series published by Self Made Hero (a British graphic novel publisher). The earlier two were Vincent and Rembrandt, the former telling the life of Vincent Van Gogh I have written about here before.

The review copy has come at the perfect time, as I just came back from my New York trip, in which I saw tons of Picasso’s works in the Met and MoMA. Prior to that I’ve seen a couple of his paintings and many sketches in London. I haven’t got a chance to go to Picasso museums in Barcelona and Paris. But really looking at his works in New York and knowing there are lots more around the US, I could sense how prolific Picasso was as an artist. The amount of works he produced are staggering.

So for such a prolific artist, who lived a long life (Picasso died at the age of 91 and he’s said to die painting at his death bed), it must be a challenge in itself to pick a period of the great painter’s life to tell. Interestingly, the graphic novel Pablo chooses to tell the story with the framing of a somewhat obscure woman: Fernande Olivier, a bohemian artist who became Pablo’s mistress for 7 years.

Picasso later on would have many other women in his life. Not uncommon among great artists, he would call them his muse, be attracted to a new muse when the current one has run out her course. The timings of the relationships were often overlapped, but they had to accept it nonetheless. Two of former mistresses would kill themselves not long after Picasso died. (These I learned more later after reading the book, from 2015 BBC documentary: Picasso: Love, Sex, and Art —  also coincidentally came out at the right time for me. Seems you can watch the full version on youtube.)

However the important point of his relationship with Fernande was that she was the only mistress who was with him before he reached fame and fortune. Knowing that, the framing of this tome of a graphic novel is perfect, because the story told from Fernande’s point of view starts when Pablo Picasso is a newbie painter arriving in Paris from Spain, and revolves around his struggles as a poor artist living in Le Bateau-Lavoir.

Poor Pablo and Fernande

This book is 342 pages, and quite heavy. It seems that it was originally published (in its original language French) as 4 smaller books, and they are subtitled: Max Jacob, Apollinaire, Matisse, Picasso. But it’s been published in English by Self Made Hero as one big book with no sections or chapters. The drawings are beautiful throughout and full color. Some of you might remember the style of illustration from Aya de Yopougon — the same artist: Clément Oubrerie.

The problem I had reading the book was finding who is who in this early 1900s Paris setting. In that period there were a mix pot of (now well-known) artists, poets, authors, and Fernande and Picasso met tons and tons people. Some of them I’ve mentioned above: Max Jacob, Apollinaire, Matisse. Gertrude Stein is also one who makes constant appearances. In most cases the book assumes that we should know these side characters / famous people, which is understandable because there can’t be enough time to explain everybody’s back story (there are dozens of them), but I found myself having to Wiki quite often. It’s quite a good crash course though if like me you want to know more about people you feel you have to know more about. Ha!

I do feel sad for Fernande at the end. She sticks with a man when he’s poor and nobody, but is dumped when he reaches success. A story that seems to keep repeating itself throughout history. And for Fernande this is not even her story, but that of the Great Pablo Picasso, she just happens to be there at the beginning. She draws a short straw.

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – a packed graphic novel of an interesting period of Pablo Picasso’s life, beautifully illustrated, but the appearances of many side characters means readers may need to do their own research on the side to know who is who, which can slow down the reading experience

Nutcracker – E.T.A. Hoffmann

I’m going to slip in a short review of Nutcracker by E. T. A. Hoffmann. It’s out of season I know, but this book came to me from its New York publisher by mail a few years ago, and I never managed to read it in December, as it is such a short month with the holidays at the end! So this time I just decided to finish it even after Christmas has passed.

nutcracker

Most of us know about Nutcracker from the famous ballet the story is adapted to (which I knew little about anyway, but after reading I went to see bits of it on youtube). The book was originally written in German in 1816. The version of the book I’m holding (pictured above) was illutrated by Maurice Sendak and first published in 1984, right after the 1983 production of Nutcracker by Pacific Northwest Ballet. Sendak has apparently designed the sets and costumes of the ballet production, which was new information to me, since I only knew Maurice Sendak as a children books illustrator!

The story itself is almost like 19th century version of Toy Story, in which toys come alive when nobody is looking. Except that in this tale the toys come from faraway kingdom, and there are kings and queens, princes and princesses, knights and monsters, and lots of rats.

In the preface, Maurice Sendak talks about how different he found the original story is with the ballet production (which itself had gone through many versions in Europe before it was brought to United States, in which again the ballet went through various versions). Since I have not yet seen the ballet production in person, I don’t know how it is in relation to the original story. It’d be interesting to go back to the book sometime when that happens.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5 – a classic tale, illustrated by one of the most well loved illustrator, though I found the story to be rather simplistic compared to other children classics that I loved (e.g. Alice, Peter Pan)

 

The Boxer – Reinhard Kleist / Pyongyang – Guy Delisle

The Boxer – Reinhard Kleist

The Boxer - Reinhard Kleist

The Boxer is another recent release by SelfMadeHero which I acquired soon after Vincent by Barbara Stok (which tells the partial life story of Vincent Van Gogh). The Boxer tells the true story of Harry Haft, a Polish who as a 16 years old was taken to Auschwitz. He was then fighting and surviving as a boxer, serving to amuse the German officers. It is clear to him, and to us readers quite early on, that to win the boxing matches was a complex choice, as the losers often, if not always, got killed soon after.

Though lots of literature and films have taken the subject of holocaust, I don’t think I have ever heard any surviving as a boxer, so the book piqued my interest. It’s interesting to learn about the untold stories, the minor paths that some people have taken. At the end of the book, there are a few pages of article titled “Boxing in concentration camps”: “For decades, these men were forgotten about, almost as though they had never existed. Journalists and historians have now started compiling information about some of the boxers…”

Half of the book was set in the camp, and the second half after the camp. Sadly, life after camp for Harry was almost as difficult as most of his family died and he set on a journey to find the girl he loved in America. The drawing is all in black and white, and at times felt harsh and cold, in many ways illustrating what Harry went through. So it was really unexpected when I teared up at the end. I thought the ending was especially profound.

Mee’s Rating: 4/5

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea – Guy Delisle

Pyongyang - Guy Delisle

I have a weird fascination about North Korea. I’ve been to DMZ (the South and North Korean border), I’ve read Nothing to Envy, and I’ve been wishing to visit the hermit country for a while now. In Pyongyang graphic novel, Guy Delisle tells of his experience living in the capital for a few months as a lead animator for work outsourced by his French company to a team in Pyongyang.

I have read many articles about the situation in Pyongyang and what you would find when you visit as tourist e.g. can’t go anywhere without a guide, how the city looks so empty and artificial, how so much part of the city is without electricity including the hotels the foreigners stay in, the godlike status of Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il, and so on — and these are all in the book as well. If you know very little about North Korea, many things in Pyongyang will surprise you, even for me I still find them informative, and not less fascinating!

This is the first book I read by Guy Delisle, and I’ll be looking out for more for sure. I love his simplistic illustration style. I look forward to reading his books on Burma, Shenzhen (China), and his latest: Jerusalem.

Mee’s Rating: 4.5/5

 

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