Friday Reviews: Three Graphic Novels

Folks, let's not forget tomorrow is Free Comic Book Day! Click on the link and enter your zip code to find a shop giving out yummy cartoon goodies near you.

And in honor of that (and because I've had an astonishingly good run of comics reading lately), I'd like to present my take on three great recent graphic novels.

(Please note I'm starting a new convention of linking to the publisher pages for books I review. That way you can take a look and find out more about the book, and you don't even have to go to Amazon. If you want to get yourself one AND make me happy, I recommend clicking over to to find your local indie bookstore.)

American Elf: Book Two
by James Kochalka
(Top Shelf Productions, February 2007)
At the panel on comics and interstitiality at MoCCA the other day, the question of web comics came up (they do kind of fall between your traditional publishing categories, yeah?) and I realized that two of my favorite comics of the last year started out as web comics. One was Nick Bertozzi's The Salon, originally serialized on (it's not there now, but the book is out from Griffin). And James Kochalka's American Elf: Book Two is the second collection of his daily diary comics, published every single day at Being a book person, I tend to prefer reading the stuff in book form than on the web (there's enough to read on the web already!). And this collection was certainly worth the purchase price. (Seriously, I bought this one, with my own money, at full retail price, from the Top Shelf booth at ComicCon... causing faux-astonishment to the ALP, who says that booksellers are notorious cheapskates when it comes to buying books.)

James Kochalka is a rock star and cartoonist, both on a small indie scale but getting bigger all the time. I admit, I'm not a huge fan of much of his work -- the frog character with a permanent erection, the story of a bizarre superhero team titled "Super F*ckers", the somewhat sentimental reflections he published on the birth of his son -- the combination of frat boy gross and cutesy just doesn't work for my tastes. But when it comes to documenting the moments of real life -- often gross, or cutesy, or sentimental, or unlikely or embarassing or oddly beautiful -- Kochalka totally rocks.

The comic came from his commitment to making a four-panel comic about something that happened to him, every day. Except he draws himself as an elf, and some of his friends as animals or aliens. It makes for a long, oddly wonderful story. I read the book all the way through over a couple of days. But I like to open it at random, too -- every page has a day that makes me laugh out loud. Here, randomly, is February 26, 2004:

[picture of Eli, infant son, holding James' head]
James: Hey!
James: Eli stuck my nose in his eye. Now my nose is going to get pink-eye!
Amy [James' wife]: That's the second time you said that today.
James: Well, it's contagious.

I don't know why so many of these strike me funny -- it's like the things your family says that crack you up. The simple, quirky drawings are perfect for this kind of real-life whimsy. The subjects are primarily James, his wife and his kid -- the centers of his universe -- and then comics conventions, rock shows, drunken nights with friends, writers' block, chores.

I like to tell people this is a book about after happily ever after -- about living a good life, every day of it. It is thoroughly rich and delightful. I hope he's able to keep doing this for another dozen books.

by Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie

(Drawn and Quarterly, February 2007)
This one I admit I didn't buy. I didn't even take it home. I read the entire thing while staffing a book table at the PEN Festival, during that boring period for the bookseller when the panel is actually speaking and you can't hear it, as opposed to before and after when people buy the books. But I feel lucky for the downtime, because I got to read this unexpected and charming story.

Set in Abidjan, the major city of the African nation of Ivory Coast, in the 1960s, the story is set in an atmosphere of prosperity. The introduction helpfully outlines the period, as well as the country's later decline, in simple terms: corruption, ecological irresponsibility, the usual. But in the time the story occupies, it's a place where teenage girls can get up to no good in the same way any in Western nations might do.

Aya, the title character, is the bookish one of her group; despite her conservative father's objections, she's studying hard and means to be a doctor. Her best friends Adjoua and Bintou, however, are into partying and boys, and their entanglement with a rich businessman's son and other playboys (not to mention each other's fathers -- ew!) leads to major drama. It's all light-hearted but believable, even when things get serious. And the last panel of the book changes everything!

I've been told there's a sequel in the works. I've also heard that Aya has potential to be a crossover hit. I believe it. This could work as an older teen novel, and also serves as a needed counterpart to prevailing perceptions about African life in fiction and nonfiction. I'm selling it and recommending it daily -- definitely worth a look.

Shutterbug Follies
by Jason Little
(Doubleday, October 2002)
Jason Little was the sole cartoonist on Monday's MoCCA panel, and he graciously gave me a copy of his book (autographed with an on-the-spot drawing of the main character) after the show. I'm amazed I hadn't come across the book before -- I read it on the subway home, and totally loved it.

It seems to me what Little has done is successfully update Tintin (the stories of the intrepid boy reporter by Herge, which I used to get in my stocking every Christmas and read greedily, instantly -- my first introduction to graphic novels, though I didn't think too much about it at the time).

Little's hero, Bee, is a female amateur photographer who works at a 1-hour photoprocessing lab (and actually works, unlike Tintin, who never seemed to find the time to make a living as a reporter in between solving mysteries). The violence is more realistic, as Bee (invading her clients' privacy, of course) stumbles on some mysteriously fresh photographs of murder victims and follows her nose down a dangerous path. And the ending is much more ambiguous than in the old adventure comics, allowing for the collateral damage that such heroics leave behind.

But it's still a rip-roaring story: suspense, mystery, (awkward) romance, and some truly sinister bad guys. And the clear-line style is very Herge-esque, with lots of fun color effects with the photo negatives.

Obviously, Jason Little is a major talent I somehow missed the first time around -- I blame my relatively recent entry into the world of comics. Shutterbug Follies is still available in hardcover -- I'll be ordering some for my store's graphic novel section, and I'll sell ya one if you stop by.

That's all I got today. Enjoy Free Comic Book Day -- see you in the comic shop!


Anonymous said…
Hi, I've just discovered your excellent site and will link to it. I'm a graphic novelist (gnovelist)/comic artist in London. I'll be in N.Y.C. in September and it would be great to visit your bookstore - which one is it? Also would like to send you a review copy of my book and would appreciate your emailing me where to send it, if interested. Details and a preview are on my website:
Anonymous said…
I just had to comment on the ALP's assessment of Booksellers as cheapskates...well, he's right! (At least, I know I am.) Except that we're also notorious for spending A LOT on the really, really good books that we can't live without.

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