Dance by the Light of the Moon – Judith Vanistendael

Published in English in 2010 by Self Made Hero (first published in Belgium, 2007)

I went to a panel of European Graphic Novelists a couple of years ago at the British Library (wrote a little about here), and one of the panelists was Belgian author Judith Vanistendael. Her semi-biographical graphic novel based on her own experience falling in love with a refugee piqued my interest, and I still remembered it as I saw this book at my library one day.

It’s quite surreal reading it now and felt how timely it is, what with the refugee crisis all around us. The book was actually published in 2007, and I imagine the real event was happening even years before that. It is now 2017, and seems the time has finally caught up with the graphic novel.

The first part of the book is told from her father’s perspective (it’s said to be in response to the short story written by the author’s father), the second part is told in flashback by the protagonist, Sophie, to her young daughter.

The man in question is from Togo, who sought asylum in Belgium. Despite prejudice and skepticism, Sophie’s parents try their best to stand by their daughter and open their home to Abou. I found it quite touching actually, and could feel the parents’ mixed feelings in particular. After all it’s not just skin color they had to overcome – that’s probably the least of the problems, it’s the vastly different background and culture, socio-economic factor, not to mention residential status. Abou’s refugee application may not even be accepted and the potential to be deported is looming.

Here we get a glimpse of how complicated and how fragile the refugee application process is. The fact is only a small percentage of applications would succeed, and there are too many factors – at times seemingly arbitrary – at play. In my life I’ve gone through many immigration processes, and I could relate in some ways. You’re at the complete mercy of unknown individuals “up there”, you never know if one single tiny oversight could cause rejection, and once rejected, there’s very little you can do. It costs a lot of time, a lot of money, and not to mention emotional toll. It makes you feel very very small.

The black and white illustrations are very effective, and beautiful in showing the black and white skin individuals. I think this book definitely deserves a wider audience.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

 

My Friend Dahmer – Derf Backderf

First published in 2012. Setting: Ohio, USA, 1976.

I first heard of My Friend Dahmer from Literary Disco podcast. The trio spoke very highly of it, and I think it was mentioned even as one of their favorite or most memorable books of that year that they read as a group. So I snapped this book when I saw it at my library.

I have a certain fascination for serial killers and murderers. I could spend a lot of time reading about them on Wikipedia, and I watch plenty documentaries about them. There’s just something inside me that wants to understand the psychology behind what I think is very unnatural acts.

My Friend Dahmer tells the story of Jeffrey Dahmer, also known as the Milwaukee Cannibal, who killed 17 men and boys. But the book tells the part before he was a murderer. Backderf, the author, was in the same high school as Dahmer, and even though you can’t say they were close friends, they had some interactions. Dahmer may not be Backderf’s closest friends, but it seems Backderf was one of the closest to Dahmer during that teenage period.

The book seems like Backderf’s way to dissect what happened in the past, to question if there was any sign leading Dahmer to become what he was, if anything could’ve been done to prevent the making of a murderer.

I did not (re)read Jeffrey Dahmer’s Wiki before reading this book, though I’m sure I’ve read about him in the past amongst one of my many afternoons spent reading about serial killers on Wikipedia (Tell me I’m not the only one?). Just so I could read the book as it was, without images in my head about what he’d done after.

I must say the foreboding was clear from the first few pages. There was an uneasy feeling throughout the book, from the beginning to the end. It definitely made for an uncomfortable reading. Dahmer had always been an awkward kid, with separating parents at home, and teachers that were oblivious to his drinking problems. Other students, including Backderf, treated him like a mascot – a character that provided entertainment for many, but no real friendship ever formed. It was a lonely existence.

The art is excellent. The blocky, flat, kinda psychedelic way of Backderf’s drawings show the 70s era and the characters in such an amazing way. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it before. Backderf also provided extensive appendix at the end of the book, explaining his sources: interview with various friends, teachers, parents, and Dahmer himself, newspaper articles, and the author’s own memory. The research he’s done was commendable.

The book practically ends at Dahmer’s first killing. I spent the next couple of days reading about the details of his subsequent murders and watching some of his and his parents’ interviews. It was chilling. A good chunk of the interviews were focusing on the “why”. And after what must’ve been hours and hours, nobody, including Dahmer himself, seemed to get any closer to the answer. Dahmer died in prison in 1994, so I guess that is the end.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

 

Tamara Drewe and Aya of Yop City (Graphic Novels)

Tamara Drewe – Posy Simmonds (2007)

tamara drewe

I watched Tamara Drewe the movie many years ago, remember liking it, and thought I wouldn’t mind reading the graphic novel to see it in different format. So I took it when I saw it at the library.

The setting is charming: a writer’s retreat somewhere in England countryside, where writers go to have all services done – meal, cleaning, laundry presumably, leaving them all the time in the world to ponder and write. I can only imagine how much this may cost.

In the oldest story structure style of a stranger coming to town, Tamara Drewe is a former inhabitant of the small town who went to make a pretty successful writing career in London, now back to her old family house with a nose job and glamorous London life under her belt. At one point she even starts bringing a drummer boyfriend who’s been in a band!

This feels like a really grown-up graphic novel. Simmonds often write in prose and paragraphs with illustrations on the side, in addition to the usual comic panels. The characters and conflicts in the story are realistic and down to earth. The open marriage relationship between the married couple host of the retreat is particularly interesting and believable – all the characters are. Love how all the threads come together at the end. The literary backdrop is a bonus.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Aya of Yop City (Aya #2) by Marguerite Abouet, Clément Oubrerie (2009)

aya 2

Aya of Yop City is the second book in the Aya series. It picks up a story thread from the previous book – which I read years ago, so it took me a while to remember. The premise isn’t complicated however, so it almost doesn’t matter whether you’ve read the first Aya or not.

The series is set in the idyllic Ivory Coast in the late 1970s. It seems rare to find books set in Africa that are not about bad things happening, and Aya fills in that gap. I love how it just tells the story of average middle class people with their middle class problems – that felt like it could happen anywhere in the world, except that this is in Africa.

But in some other ways it also felt uniquely African. There’s a baby in dispute at the beginning of the book (as pictured with Aya on the cover – but he is not Aya’s baby), and I love how the baby being passed from one hand to another and is essentially taken care of by the whole village. There’s a little note at the end of the book about the African culture related to this, how spoiled a woman would be after birth, how mom and grandmother would take care of her, while sisters, sister-in-laws, cousins would take care of the baby, and the rest of the women in the village help with the cooking and cleaning. In the weeks following, the mother would go from one door to another in the neighborhood to introduce the baby, sort of a ritual to make it part of the community. As it grows up, the whole village would keep watch together. Such a nice image.

Aya herself is a great main character. She is the sensible one amongst the other crazier characters. She is a good student and she clearly has dreams and goals for her future that is not simply playing housewife. Just like book one, book two also includes a recipe, this time Kedjenou Chicken. (I have yet to try the recipe in the first book =/ )

There’s interview with Abouet (who’s migrated to France at a young age) at the back of the book with a quote that’s especially poignant even to this day:

“As an African from the West, I would like to point out that the French had the black Africans brought over to do the jobs that no on else wanted to do. As long as the Blacks stayed in their assigned place – as supermarket attendants, house maids, street sweepers, in child and geriatric care, or at most, as artists and athletes – all went very well. But now some of the offspring and young children of those first arrivals are doing more than that. At the price of a difficult struggle, they are becoming company owners, managers, intellectuals, and they are more visible. These Blacks sense more discrimination because they have abandoned their role. This kind of racism is more frequent when the economy is doing poorly.

Today’s real danger is not idiotic racism and the increase in nationalists. We know how to deal with it — it is evident in ordinary attitudes which convey the worst paternalistic and condescending cliches that symbolically destroy Blacks even more surely than the overtly racist insults.” (Interview with Angela Ajayi at Wild River Review)

Mee’s rating: 4/5

 

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

 

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