I Am Alfonso Jones, by Tony Medina, Stacey Robinson, and John Jennings

 

The public’s current awareness of dubious law enforcement killings of black Americans seems to date from Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, and the rise of Black Lives Matter in the ensuing protests. Medina’s story synthesizes the details of about a half-dozen of these tragedies into the vessel of Alfonso Jones, and uses the journeys of his shade to unlock a greater, longer, sadder history than most are aware of. Set to play the Old Hamlet in a hip-hop inflected high school production of Shakespeare’s play, Alfonso Jones is killed by a security guard who claimed to mistake the suit hanger in the teen’s hand for a gun. Instead of playing a ghost, he becomes one himself. The severed threads of his life – the crush he was shopping with and about to confess his feelings to, the soon-to-be-released incarcerated father he’d never met, and his friends and frenemies at school – carry on in various ways as he watches his name become famous around the world even as it’s dragged through the mud by the usual suspects. Recalling Stoppard’s exchange in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead about the potential for the afterlife to be a form of transportation, here death is still not a boat, but rather a subway populated by those unjustly slain by police. Between following the lives of his survivors and trying to influence them in his limited way, Alfonso learns that he is the latest in a long line such casualties that extends well before his birth.

 

Medina weaves a compelling story out of disparate elements and scales, handling home life, school life, public life, and afterlife in their turns with exceedingly brief chapters of only a few pages each. Although the story presents a distinct point of view about its events, it remains well-rounded, using the Alfonso’s newfound omnipresence to show how his death has affected everyone, even his killer, in emotionally realistic ways. The rapid shifts between storylines can make the story somewhat choppy and difficult to resolve into a whole at times, but as plots resolve and interconnect, the forest becomes evident despite the trees. Individual characters are well-realized with distinct personalities, even for those mainly in the background. Medina also makes the community a character in its own right, with its own rhythms, symbols, and folk practices, inviting a possibly alien audience to experience Alfonso’s Harlem as a new neighbor might.

 

The art of Robinson and Jennings, even in its unfinished state, is fluid and varied, contributing to the different speeds and scales at which the narrative operates: often intimate, sometimes sweeping, and in a few places, kinetic. Layouts are largely regular, showcasing the setting during long conversations, with occasional inventive splash pages breaking the rhythm for effect.

Afar, by Leila del Duca and Kit Seaton

In a future wasteland, a family of four contends with familiar obstacles to make ends meet, eventually leaving the teenage children to care for themselves while their parents travel to find work just as their eldest discovers a wondrous ability and their youngest gets into trouble. Leila del Duca’s Afar draws from many recognizable sources and lovingly twists them into something unexpected that should reach new audiences. The parents, facing both the father’s unreliability and the mother’s bouts of depression, recall overmatched caregivers from fairytales whose struggles open the door to adventure for their offspring as well as well-meaning but often helpless parents from emotionally realistic sci-fi young adult graphic novels like Space Dumplins. The tale woven for Boetema and her brother Inotu is interesting in that it could easily play out in a more familiar world; the specific sci-fi elements have very little bearing on their relationship or how they interact with their world. They could just as easily be siblings left to their own devices in a contemporary city, forced to flee due to a chance encounter with a less exotic gang, leading to conflict with a corrupt public figure with a non-cyborg bodyguard, and deal with mutual alienation arising from her having a non-metaphysical talent that give her access to a more metaphorical different world.

The story is well-paced, and I often found myself wondering how the plot would manage to resolve in the number of pages left. It doesn’t tie up all the threads, clearly leaving room for another volume or more, but it does get our protagonists to a satisfying place after their journey. The characters feel authentic as brother and sister, and the adults are neither cartoonishly obtuse nor improbably credulous; rather, common motives of self-interest and social norms direct their actions believably.

Boetema’s astral projection sends her sleeping mind to many worlds, some populated by beings clearly inspired by familiar species, while others find her afloat as a vaporous cloud-person or inhabiting an Escheresque rock-giant. Kit Seaton’s art is adaptable to all these, displaying expressions of bewilderment, fear, and awe on alien faces of every description, even when they have more or fewer parts than we’re familiar with. Scale and focus are used to great effect to shift the tone from character to character, or from Boetema’s native world to other realms. Panel layouts vary and are used to convey the context of their content. Earthbound events are shown in panel structures with sharp borders, accommodating the flow of the story with varied shapes and sizes. When Boetema leaves her body, her brief visits are often shown in panels finished in a different manner: sometimes with borderless panels fading into the white gutter, other times with a hard edge against a black gutter. Her longer stays are shown in much the same way as when she’s in her own form. The characters’ own tales get unique treatments, too; when a story arises within this story, it’s shown in rigidly regular panels, an elementary grid highlighting the artifice of storytelling.

The character-driven narrative combines with tropes familiar to readers of young adult urban fiction and the complexions of the main characters to openly appeal to audiences that might not otherwise pick up a sci-fi graphic novel; the post-industrial future setting and fantastic sci-fi elements, in turn, make a similar entree to comic readers less likely to pick up a book featuring brown faces than green ones. Both potential readers are in for a treat.

Couri Vine, Issues 1 & 2 by Vanessa Shealy and Leah Lovise

IMG_20170510_214804Couri Vine #1: Young People for the Leader

This is a fine introductory outing for Couri, combining tropes of children’s literature with good old-fashioned pulpy sci-fi. An outsider ripped from her everyday school & community life by revelations about her family and her world that she alone can resolve, Couri follows in the footsteps of Monica Huges’ Olwen in Keeper of the Isis Light with many of the lunar trappings of Paula Danziger’s This Place Has no Atmosphere. Lovise’s character designs are distinct and her linework approachable without being overly cute; rendering of sci-fi stables like robots and spacecraft bear recognizably classic influences, often with a whimsical twist. Panel structure is regular and easy to follow, generating some of its own vernacular for communicating speed and flow.

Couri Vine #2: Journey to the Planet Earth

Couri’s adventure takes her far from home in pursuit of her history and a way to rescue her grandfather as they tale takes on both the timeline of ecological disaster and the family drama which has created the world she inhabits. This issue incorporates more action and intrigue, expanding the mystery by explaining part of it. The map endpapers, which will hopefully continue throughout the series as a world-building supplement to the text, incorporate more than what the plot touches on and bring contemporary elements of ecological concern into the sci-fi setting.

Maps to Taps

I was selected by my supervisor to attend the annual ESRI User Conference in San Diego this past June. Much geospatial fun was had, as was a surprising amount of fun with the marketing crew. Story Maps were on everyone’s lips, and I set out to collect material to make one upon my return. Life ensued, as did laziness, but I’ve finally produced my first original Story Map, combining my interests in mapping, transit, beer, and some fun writing to string it together. View it below or click here to view it in a new tab.

Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq by Sarah Glidden

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In the tradition of graphic novel journalism such as Sarajevo, Fixer and Palestine, Rolling Blackouts takes the reader into a world touched on only lightly by the nightly news. Glidden chronicles her travels with friends in a journalism nonprofit as they follow the aftermath of the Iraq war from Kurdistan to Syria, picking up stories from those they meet along the way as well as from the group itself as they contend with what it means to be journalists, friends, and Americans in the modern era.

The key to the tale is transparency; it seems that practically everything makes it onto the page in one way or another, and Glidden scrupulously details when dialogue comes verbatim from a voice recorder, and when it is condensed from multiple episodes into one. This comports well with the general behind-the-scenes nature of the action taking place. Even as the author discusses the challenge of making the work itself, she is presenting her journalist friends grappling with similar issues of the ethical complexity of crafting a narrative from the plotlessness of life. Even the seeming promise of a tidy arc in the form of an Iraq War veteran travelling with them fails to materialize in the way the reader, author, journalists, and in fact the vet himself expect.

As a result, the drama is low-key and frustratingly diffuse, a situation which is echoed by the characters themselves. There’s little by way of action, and little more tension apart from the anxieties of doing a good job in an ever-more poorly defined field. Much of the appeal comes from the plainspoken outsider perspective on journalism as a trade, hearkening back to its popular conception in the pre-Watergate era. There’s a good deal of discussion about journalistic ideals, but the degree to which the practice of the craft is revealed is a surprising highlight.

The art, which in this copy was still mostly uncolored, suits the workaday ethic of the story well. The focus is on faces, which are simple, expressive, and well-differentiated, which is a vital factor in a story where the characters are fairly average folks mostly talking about stuff in normal clothes. Nonetheless, the depiction of the middle eastern streets, homes, and scenery where all this talking and thinking take place are not given short shrift, but are detailed worlds in their own right. The panel breakdowns are highly regular, with occasional wider vistas for context. One choice in depicting the real mechanics of reporting in a distant land does stand out and serves to further emphasize the author’s commitment to showing the process of journalism: when speaking to subjects through an interpreter, the speech of the subject is represented as a speech balloon overlapped by one from the interpreter, at once showing the voice of the original speaker and illustrating how it is, for the interviewer and their audience, well-meaningly eclipsed by the words of others.
More comics journalism by Glidden and many others can be found at Cartoon Movement.

Review: Dare to Disappoint: Growing up in Turkey, by Özge Samanci


 

Dare to Disappoint: Growing up in Turkey felt like it should have been a longer tale. Özge Samanci’s early ears are richly detailed; as the protagonist ages, though, the granularity of the narrative stretches out, with discrete events replaced by more overarching sketches of longer periods of time and emotion. This may simply be an artifact of memory: disjointed and episodic recollections of early years giving way to more comprehensive understandings of later phases of life. This flow breaks down, though, near the end of the book when Özge decides to break with her and her father’s expectations to pursue a career more meaningful to her. She reaches her decision point, but the audience is left with an inspiring moral on the virtue of risk-taking, but little evidence apart from the book in their hands as to how it unfolded for the protagonist.
The narrative is snappy and funny, with an informed but child’s-eye view of the dynamics of Turkish society in the waning days of the Cold War. Quite interesting are the hints and mentions of events and dynamics which go unexplored here, but which tie into well-known historical and current events: Samanci’s elementary-school version of Turkish independence, featuring a map  with a purple blot labelled “Armenian,” a discussion of anti-leftist and -Kurdish censorship sprees by authorities, and a confrontation with a devout Muslim student illustrating the relatively elite, western, and minority perspective of the author’s experience.  The quirks and strange perceptions of childhood are brought to life by Samanci’s fluid line, spare watercolor, and charming mixed media collages at the opening of most chapters. This is a graphic novel with precious few hard-edged panels. Scenes take place in isolated vignettes floating in whitespace or splashed across an entire page, but never does a full page of conventional rectangles appear. Never does this hinder the flow of the story; rather, while Samanci’s figures and faces are simple and expressive, her layouts add dimension and energy, practically dragging the eye across the varied spreads.

Review: Deep Dark Fears, by Fran Krause

This title was provided to me at no cost for review purposes by the publisher.

Fears seem to share some properties with dreams, as both spring from similar irrational, twilight corners of the mind. While it’s practically axiomatic that among the most boring things one can discuss is the weird things seen while asleep, I’ve long found discussing fears to be far more interesting and instructive. Unless one subscribes to the notion that they’re somehow prophetic or expressive, a dream is easily dismissed as random in origin and meaningless without some kind of post-hoc rationalization. A fear, though, whatever its murky provenance may be, is important. Fears shape the way we act, which shapes the world. They can also be illuminating about their owner, as one’s fear may be another’s fancy.

Krause explores 100 fears in all, each a tidy first-person narrative expressed in a handful or two of panels. The linework is soft and casual, colored as with watercolors, pairing well with the somewhat shaggy but never violated panel borders and narrative captions. Overall the effect is to help crate a rather creepily accessible setting for the gleefully strange and horrible vignettes. Some end in humor, others in irony, most in disaster. I found that my favorites involved cause and effect at work in the young mind: the boy who thought his departed grandfather would be flushed away just as his goldfish had been, or the child beset by nightmares of huge grasping robot named Dracula, knowing only that Dracula was something too scary for her to be allowed to watch. Among the hundred, though, there are many which adhere to common tropes: loss of teeth, things in the dark or otherwise unseen, and social mortification. The ones which hit home were those that I thought were unique to me. The blurb mentioned that Krause based the strips “on idiosyncratic and universal ‘deep dark fears.'” It would seem that among my fears is that my fears are not entirely my own.

Review: Seconds, by Bryan Lee O’Malley

After a phenomenon like Scott Pilgrim, anything Bryan Lee O’Malley did next would naturally invite comparison. Seconds certainly has some things in common with Pilgrim, particularly by way of personalities, and even in terms of conventions which replace conventional exposition with a pithy caption. Our protagonist, Katie, is seemingly the polar opposite of young Mr Pilgrim, though: a skilled overachiever, career-focused to the point of self denial, and about to open the restaurant of her dreams after years of work running Seconds, her first popular and well-regarded eatery. What she does have in common with the previous spawn of O’Malley’s pen is an unusual living arrangement — she lives in an apartment upstairs at Seconds — and an uncanny ability to adapt in all the worst ways to bizarre situations.

O’Malley’s characters are highly stylized, in a much-hipper-than-reality sort of way, but still able to convey emotion well. The story mechanic breaks the narrative at critical junctures, leaving a great deal of whitespace on the page as the grid of panels also breaks as each new reality replaces the old. Combined with a change in palette in which everything reddens, the reader is primed to see what comes next, especially as the complications mount and the story’s position on the recursively iterating tree of possibility drifts further and further from any familiar reality.

When traditional superstition steps into the everyday, Neil Gaiman’s oeuvre stands as a high-water mark. O’Malley invokes shades of Gaiman as Katie is sternly warned and yet sallies on into the dangerous unknown, but for better or worse, he does not  drop upon his protagonist the full weight of her transgressions, allowing for a happy ending for just about everyone. Seconds is a tightly-woven story, compact in concept, straying only rarely, which makes for a highly satisfying tale.

Review: The Sculptor, by Scott McCloud

David Smith is a sculptor at the end of his rope, having blown his moment in the spotlight of the New York art scene and possessed of little save his idiosyncratic set of promises to himself. While spending his last few dollars in a diner, he is joined by his uncle, who he soon realizes is not the man he remembers. Death, bound in human form until its last link to the living is broken, offers his host’s nephew the power to make the shapes in his mind reality in exchange for a hard limit on his remaining time among the living: 200 days. By the end of the first part, David is a real character. Not simply a sad sack, nor merely a victim of his own introversion and iconoclastic tendencies, his backstory and path to the state in which we find him are crisply laid out, but not with the excessive precision often lavished on exposition to get it out of the way; the other characters draw these details to the surface for us as the tale progresses. His chance transformation into a viral video star puts him in contact with guerrilla actress-slash-bike courier Meg and her found family of artists and hard-luck strays like himself. McCloud takes pains not to make their relationship seem too foreordained or too permanent. David’s grim chess-playing benefactor advises against it for her sake, but it does eventually and surprisingly gel distressingly close to the end, and in a way which canny readers might realize well in advance of the explanation will make the plans hatched by the lovebirds as the clock ticks down all for naught. Meg herself is not some insubstantial MPDG without well-developed problems of her own. McCloud presents her experiencing repeated depressive episodes, and her long-term friends take issue with what they perceive as David’s unseriousness, unsuitability to assist, and even his role in enabling her resistance to taking her medication, all of which underscore Death’s advice.

McCloud has long been highly self-critical about his artistic skill, generally citing a lack of dynamism in form as his weakness. While his in his now quarter-century old ZOT! comics he sometimes managed to make a flying superhero look a bit stiff, here he makes a poor stiff, David — forbidden from superheroics by Death — look quite expressive, indeed. His power to reshape matter can be exercised by mere touch,but McCloud draws him as an artist immersed in the creative process, using muscle and motion to conduct stone, steel, glass, wood, etc., into new forms like an emphatic maestro leading an orchestra. He dives into blocks of stone, rolls up sidewalks, and bends I-beams with his bare hands.Outside the panels, the McCloud reaches deep into the toolbox he examined in Understanding Comics and uses the layout to help set tone and even suggest when a world beyond David’s intrudes. In every two-page opening, at least one panel bleeds to the edge, perhaps leading in or out of a scene; in scenes of great passion,be they artistic, carnal, or otherwise, the panel boundaries contract to almost nothing, and the action flows uninhibited from panel to panel. The dichromatic color printing is used to good effect as well, with blues fading from bold to atmospheric, allowing the city to be present but distant in some places, and suffocating in others without requiring too much heavy linework.

The Sculptor is a great modern low fantasy story which could have easily gone any number of directions under its establishing premise, but chose to be a well-grounded exploration of its characters and how their grand and banal motivations in turn betray them and drive them to leave a mark before shuffling off.

Review: The Good Inn, by Black Francis and Josh Frank

My familiarity with the Pixies’ music is shallow at best, and nonexistent when it comes to Black Francis’ solo work, so I can’t speak to The Good Inn as a work reflective of any lyrical tendencies. In fact, when the characters break into song (as they do occasionally), the tunes I found myself reaching for to make words into music in my head were nursery rhymes. Nonetheless, this is an interesting work, taking on shades of Stoppard and Gilliam in following Solider Boy as he traverses newly-minted fiction, lost fiction, speculative reality, and known reality. Based on what the introduction claims is the first known narrative adult film, now known only from stills and remakes, this tale in screenplay form fleshes out the skin flick by giving the male character a life before he comes on screen, and continues as he tries to move beyond it. It’s convoluted and even confusing at times to be sure; I’ll admit to backtracking more than once to suss out what was happening; even then, I’m sure it would make more sense on screen, or at least be forced into some sort of visual sense on its way there. I came upon The Good Inn while looking for new graphic novels to read, but while the art is sequential, it’s rather too sparse to be a comic book; illustrations appear only every few pages. The art has a casual and expressive line to it, and in places can be absorbing as one tries to map text to image. It would be interesting to see this screenplay produced, even on a very small scale.