Four new graphic novels address the appeal of running away and the impossibility of escaping your past, for good or ill.
If youâ€™re even vaguely interested in graphic novels, youâ€™re probably aware that Craig Thompson has a new book coming out. Thompsonâ€™s 2003 graphic novel Blankets told an autobiographical coming-of-age story and floored everyone who read it, winning all kinds of awards and making a star of its author. His long-anticipated follow-up, the utterly engrossing Habibi, is at least as gut-wrenching and even more substantial in size and scope.
Just to be clear, this book is not for the faint of heart. In the first few panels, our nine-year-old heroine, Dodola, is sold into marriage by desperate parents whose village is suffering from drought. Dodolaâ€™s new husband is no brute, but even so . . . sheâ€™s nine years old. Thus begins her journey through the world as a headstrong and beautiful Arab girl. Fortunately for Dodola (and us), her husband is a scholar, and he teaches her to read and write. She learns the stories of the Qurâ€™an, the work of the great poets, the Thousand and One Nights. Then, abruptly, marauding thieves kill her husband and kidnap the girl. Sheâ€™s brought to a slave market, where she finds and rescues a three-year-old orphan boy, Zam. From then on their fates are linked. They escape and live for a while on a ship marooned in the desert, but their need for food and water leads them to be discovered and separated. Each of them endures years of torment, accumulating scars, grieving and longing for each other. Itâ€™s pretty brutal.
But itâ€™s also beautiful. Dodolaâ€™s and Zamâ€™s stories are interwoven with the stories they learned as children, the underpinnings of Islam. This lends not only beauty and texture but also meaning and redemption to their suffering, and Thompsonâ€™s handling of the religious elementsâ€”something that might have been awkward or controversialâ€”is restrained and graceful. His black-and-white drawings, often incorporating Arabic script, are at times floaty and feverish but always perfectly clear. He breaks up dreamy exposition with tightly structured action sequences, and the pages couldnâ€™t be prettier. As always, his economical writing is deeply moving. Habibi is a book not to be missed.
A CHILDâ€™S-EYE VIEW
Another story of a childhood spent in hostile surroundings, MarziÂ by Marzena Sowa, takes the opposite tack. Marziâ€™s story, especially at first, seems like it could be happening almost anywhere. In fact itâ€™s set in Poland during the 1980s, as the country was rebelling against communism. Itâ€™s only as Marzi grows up and gains understanding that the impact of the political situation starts to become clear. For most of the book sheâ€™s a wide-eyed, innocent daddyâ€™s girl with completely typical attitude problems, arguments with her friends, difficulty eating her vegetables, fights with cousins and so on. Itâ€™s fascinating and often hilarious to see huge world-changing events like the Chernobyl explosion and factory-workersâ€™ strikes from the point of view of a regular little girl absorbed in her own life.
A FINE ROMANCE
Entirely different but equally charming is The Scrapbook of Frankie PrattÂ by Caroline Preston, a fictional memoir told in gorgeous full-color collages. With postcards, news clippings, ticket stubs, receipts, catalog pages and drawings that look like illustrations from vintage fashion magazines, Preston tells the coming-of-age story of Frankie, a bright young girl who graduates from high school in 1920 and goes to Vassar on scholarship after her father dies. She gets herself into numerous romantic entanglements, all of them ill-advised, and seems constantly on the verge of abandoning her dream of becoming a novelist. But Frankie is stubborn and scrappy, and she manages to take care of herself in a world where most girls like her just want to be taken care of. The happy ending is a little sudden, but itâ€™s a pleasure to watch Frankie develop and learn to trust her nobler instincts until they pay off.
MERRIMENT ON MOTORBIKES
And finally, an idea Iâ€™m surprised hasnâ€™t been tried before: a graphic novel adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucerâ€™s The Canterbury Talesâ€”on motorcycles. This retelling is done by Seymour Chwast, one of the founders of the influential Push Pin Studios who has already adapted Danteâ€™s Divine Comedy. His irreverent humor makes him an even better fit for Chaucer, who never left a good fart joke untold. And nothing goes better with fart jokes than motorcycle touring. (Itâ€™s not entirely clear just why the pilgrims are riding hogs, but that doesnâ€™t matter.) Most everyone in these 24 travelersâ€™ tales ends up being thoroughly mocked, both in the smartypants dialogue and in the simplified but pointed drawings. The book works either as an introduction to Chaucerâ€™s original text or as an alternate take for those whoâ€™ve read it many times already.
As a follow-up of sorts to his illustratedĂ‚Â Dante's Divine ComedyĂ‚Â (2010), graphic artist Chwast embraces a kindred spirit in Chaucer.
Though the credit reads "adapted by Seymour Chwast," "transformed" or "subverted" might be more precise. Here the pilgrims who tell the tales ride motorcycles, with the artist himself as the host and Chaucer waving from a sidecar. They spin stories of lust in which characters seduce each other with jaunty language: "Hey, babe, let's party!"; "Come here, big boy. Show me your stuff!" Yet Chwast recognizes that he is doing in large part what Chaucer did, "writing in the English vernacular of the time." As these tales comment upon and interrupt each other, Chwast aims to illustrate nothing less than the human condition, filled as it is with profound differences between men and women, romantic betrayal that barely pays lip service to monogamy, jealousy taken to lethal extremes and fables that have morals that are a little too pat for the narratives they accompany. There are plenty of beheadings, repeated bursts of flatulence and, as the cartoon Chaucer explains, action "complete with swash and buckling." There is also a cross-cultural expanse to the epic storytelling, with biblical figures, Greek gods, Roman emperors and Arabian legends all represented within this graphic condensation of Chaucer's classic into tales that are often as little as a few panels each.
Not quite the achievement that theĂ‚Â Divine ComedyĂ‚Â was, but a work that finds an artistic common denominator for Chaucer and Chwast.Copyright Kirkus 2011 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
A delicious cover: the Wife of Bath on a motorcycle, in semimodern garb and wearing a self-satisfied grin. The same clever decanting of old wine into new bottles carries us through all 20-plus Chaucer tales, if compressed a bit. Chwast used the same approach for Dante's Divine Comedy (2010), which was well received. But the missing ingredient in both works, for this reviewer, is color: the freewheeling, stylish hue characteristic of Chwast's half-century-old Push Pin Studio. Whereas the cover sports striking orange, green, and black, the interior pulls back into black and white. Perhaps Chwast was trying to evoke William Caxton's medieval woodcuts for the Chaucer stories. Indeed, Caxton's illustrations feature elaborate design explicitly tailored to a colorless medium, but Chwast's portfolio has centered on color to complement his clear-line penwork, which here looks rather unfinished. VERDICT Chwast's entertaining adaptation suffices as casual reading and can serve as a pathway to the original for students with Chaucer as class assignments. Just keep in mind that the award-winning artist was drawing with one hand behind his back. Includes cartoony nudity and bawdry.--M.C.[Page 58]. (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Reimagining a 14th-century masterpiece for a modern audience proves to be extremely difficult. Readers who want a very fast survey of the Tales will be satisfied, for famed designer Chwast summarizes everything, not ducking the Miller's enthusiastic bawdiness and the Prioress's pious anti-Semitism. Some of his updatings are clever: the pilgrims travel on motorbikes, and their dialogue frequently uses contemporary slang; in addition, the cartoony style and overall design sometimes work to emphasize a story's point. On the other hand, Chaucer's work hasn't lasted so much because of the tales' plots but because of the personality each pilgrim shows and the subtle way Chaucer handles the interaction of tales and tellers. Chwast's more bombastic approach creates an amusing surface, but doesn't really try to translate the substance of the original. While his bare-bones style simplifies some elements, the elements of the stories stay well-defined. (Sept.)[Page ]. Copyright 2010 PWxyz LLC