What Are You Reading? December 15, 2014

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

I’m catching up on my reading list and I finally got around to opening up Andi Watson’s Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula. it’s a fun black and white graphic novel with just a hint of romance. Watson is a comics author that is trying his hand at a longCover form graphic novel and he’s pulled off a brilliant balance between simple lines and illustrations and a charming story.

The book begins in the Underworld with Princess Decomposia dealing with her bedridden father (the king), his crazy neediness, all the kingdom’s business dealings, the responsibility of finding a new chef. She is crazy busy, trying to keep all the balls in the air, and stressed beyond her limits.

What I appreciate about Princess Decomposia (Dee to her friends) is that she is the quintessential caretaker to the entire underworld. As she walks from one end of the castle to the other she receives state papers, long letters, and updates about the political goings on. In addition, she spends her days negotiating with foreign dignitaries trying to balance her fathers wishes, the good of the kingdom, and peace.

On top of her more than stressful duties she must hire a new chef. She finally settles on one, Count Spatula. His first action, before even getting the job, was to take careDecomposia of the princess which is something no one else in the castle thinks to do. She has been running around all day, hasn’t eaten and feels lightheaded. He not only rushes to her side, he also pulls tea and muffins from his chefs hat and gets the job. But more importantly, he begins a friendship with the princess.

The illustrations are lighthearted and simple but that is not to say they are simplistic. Instead, Watson takes care to use very few lines to communicate emotion and humor. Although the counts face is not much more than a heart shape with a few lines, he is able to convey a full range of emotions. The other characters are less simply drawn but no less expressive.

Count Spatula is a good guy, even for a vampire, who loves sweets and has a flair for the dramatic. At one point he concocts a set of dessert that rains delicious lemon curd into the guests. His meals are a success, maybe too much of a success for the kind to be happy.

The king is taking an extended, hypochondriac-induced vacation from his royal duties but he is more than happy to direct the court from his bed. And Dee (princess Decomposia) is stuck trying to be both a ruler and a servant to her father. Eventually, with the thoughful council of Count Spatula she begins to delegate and gain some control over her life and her sanity. But, that isn’t what the king wants … he wants to have his cake, and eat it too.

The king decides the count has to go and so he sends her away for a day in the above world. When Dee decides to take the count with her, it leads to a terrible confrontation between the king (who not sick but is rather lazy and selfish) and the princess.

In the end, Dee is in charge of the kingdom and Count Spatula is in charge of the kitchen, but more importantly they are in charge of supporting and loving each other. This is a great story for emergent readers, readers are are just beginning to read graphic novels, and romantics alike.


TRICKSTER: Native American Tales, A Graphic Collection

Trickster Cover

Maybe I should not have been surprised but I was. I made assumptions based on nothing more than a topic, and I was wrong. I recently had the pleasure of reading, marveling, studying, and reread Matt Dembicki’s Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection three times before I discovered he’s a White guy. I had assumed he must be Native American because, well,  because it is a great collection of Native American stories that doesn’t pander or insult or generally make me cringe!

While thinking about blogging about this book I was confronted by a few problems. You see, it is a collection of Trickster tales, Native American folktales where the story might not start at the beginning, may not progress in a chronological order, and sometimes the end was simply where the story stopped but there was no conclusion. Some stories meander, some have morals, some seem scary, but most are thoughtful and make me laugh out loud.

The individual stories are short, disruptive in the brevity of language and the wide array of artistic styles. The stories follow each other, bouncing from an almost creation story about Coyote disrupting the arrangement of  stars in the sky, to a tale of a mean crow kicking sea anemones,to a Choctaw tale about how rabbit got a tiny tail. And many other stories, all providing another tale, another style, another look at the world.

Trickster P5

Coyote and the Pebbles
by Dayton Edmonds, art by Micah Farritor (p. 5-18)

Raven the Trickster Story  by John Active, art by Jason Copland (p. 19-32)

Raven the Trickster Story
by John Active, art by Jason Copland (p. 19-32)

Rabbit's Choctaw Tail Tale  words: Tim Tingle, pictures: Pat Lewis (p. 79-88)

Rabbit’s Choctaw Tail Tale
words: Tim Tingle, pictures: Pat Lewis (p. 79-88)

The collection is substantial in heft with thick, smooth glossy pages. The array of stories and illustrations make the books a dense experience. Each time I sat and wrote or started thinking about writing the book took on the characteristics of a black hole; all my ideas hovered on the edge and lingered there as time passed, and I continued not to write.

Where to start . . . That was my issue. How do I talk about a book that contains more than what is seen between the covers? Alex, my 8 year old son, and I read many of the stories together. I could write about the stories he loved, or the conversations about the illustrations we had, but then I’d have to talk about his unique life. But that is not my place, his is not my story.

I could address my own connections to the book, but then I’d have to go into race, ethnicity, gender, age, learning, reading, and identity. All the stuff that just doesn’t seem pertinent to the book, but seems so important to my own read of the collection (damn you Louise Rosenblatt).

I read the book again but this time I read it all, from the table of contents to the end pages . Yes, I was going to write about a book without reading EVERY SINGLE WORD of the front and back matter.  I admit this in much shame.

Turns out, Matt Dembicki who put this beautiful, infuriating book together is a White guy. I assumed he was Native American … ’cause it’s a book about Native stories that was done well. I was shocked and amazed (and ashamed) by my own assumption. Then, I read the Contributors pages and I noticed some things that helped. All the story tellers were Native American – they all identify tribal affiliations. Another note, there are 6 women and 18 men. On the other hand, is almost impossible to assign race/ethnicity to the illustrators as none of them identify themselves, and only 2 of the illustrators are women.

What impressed me most was the egalitarian way in which credit was given and the way Dembicki writes about the understandable challenges of getting storytellers to participate in the project, “I wanted the stories to be authentic, meaning they would have to be written by Native American storytellers (p. 225)”. He knew what he knew and he knew what he didn’t know. That always impresses me. Finally, he got a bunch of storytellers and a bunch of illustrators and the storytellers — the experts in Native American storytelling — selected the artists to work with. Dembicki continues “The point wasn’t to westernize the stories for general consumption, but rather to provide an opportunity to experience authentic Native American stories, even if it sometimes meant clashing with western vernacular” (p. 225). There is was. This is why the book works … it isn’t about making the stories Western, it is about telling Native stories to a wide audience.

Ishjinki and Buzzard  by Jimm Goodtracks, Illustrated by Dimi Macheras (p. 173-184)

Ishjinki and Buzzard
by Jimm Goodtracks, Illustrated by Dimi Macheras (p. 173-184)


Ishjinki and Buzzard by Jimm Goodtracks, Illustrated by Dimi Macheras (p. 173-184)

I love that. Because, that is exactly what the collection, as a whole, does. It upsets the status quo of children’s literature, of folk tales, of the Western ideal of story and Native Americans. There is love and death and lies and sometimes the good guy does not win. Sometimes there is not winning or losing, there is simply a story. Sometimes there is gross stuff about gross animals and old men being gross (my son especially appreciated those). Some of the artwork is breathtaking and should be in a museum, some is silly and belongs on a bubble gum wrapper.

Who should read this collection? I can’t think of anyone who should not read it. It is great for novice readers and experts alike because of the wide array. But, take it in small pieces instead of the entire work all at once. Give the illustrations room to elaborate, to challenge, to push, and to compliment the written stories. And then go back for me.

Cardboard by Doug Tennapel

Cardboard Cover

One of the issues teachers face when trying to integrate graphic novels into the classroom is a lack of general knowledge about the medium. Some interesting research shows that teachers want to use these books but do not know enough about how to read comics in general or how to evaluate graphic novels in particular (see Thomas DeVere Wolsey’s blog).

Although I started this blog with SUMO, I must admit it is not a great book for novice graphic novel readers. On the other hand, Cardboard by Doug TenNapel is a great graphic novel to start your exploration of the media. TenNapel is the author of other works such as Ghostopolis and Power Up (you might see a resemblance between Mike, the father in Cardboard and Hugh the protagonist in Power Up).

What makes Cardboard a great  graphic novel for novice readers is something I call alignment. The words and images in graphic novels should support each other and push each other to make a greater whole than either one or the other is capable of on it’s own. When images and words are closely aligned, they support each other without pushing too many boundaries. When the alignment is irregular, disturbed, or even completely disconnected (in works such as V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloydor, or American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang) the works are more complex and difficult to read and understand. For some books,the complexity of story, words, and images makes for genius, but that may not be where you want to start.

One metaphor I have been playing with for understanding how words and pictures work together is that of constructing a house. You can think of the words as the framing of the room. What shape does it take? Are there lots of windows or just a few? Are the ceilings vaulted? The words  provide the structure for the story. Then there are the  images, which make up  the walls, floors, paint, carpet and furniture that give you a sense of what the room should be used for and for whom it was constructed. You can have the frame or the finishes, but you need both to have a room.

Cardboard uses a rich but straightforward palette of warm tans and browns that provide a kind of  comfort, even when people and cardboard monsters are at war – but I’m getting ahead of myself and the story.

Cardboard pagesMike is a construction worker who is out of work. He’s also a father, a very bad cook, and a widow. He has no job, no wife, no support of any kind but he does have a great kid, Cameron.

Cam_Close upThe novel begins on Cam’s birthday with Mike realizing he doesn’t have a dollar to his name for a present. He ends up buying a big cardboard box from roadside toy stand for 79 cents (yeah, people in stories actually stop at those stands). Turns out the big cardboard box is full of magic or alien technology or space voodoo and one thing leads to another – including the creation of a cardboard-come-to-life boxer named Bill, Cam’s arch nemesis, Marcus, stealing the technology to make more magic/alien/voodoo cardboard which of course leads to an evil cardboard King Marcus attempting to take over the world, or at least the neighborhood.

The story is fast paced with Good and Evil clearly demarcated with a sprinkling of personal redemption. Best of all everything, literally, works together to solve the problems that come alone (and alive) int eh story. The coherent narrative is a pleasurable experience with just enough creep-factor to keep it from edging into a  moralistic contrivance. TenNapel’s drawings are closely aligned with the words giving the reader a good story. The people looks like people, the rats look like rats, but when they combine, they look awesome!cardboard3TenNapel’s use of a connected color palette full of tans and browns, along with his consistent use of regular paneling that only breaks in times of high stress. There are  brilliant/gross touches throughout- such as when Marcus’s best friend Pink Eye defends himself by giving a one eyed cardboard monster an instantaneous and massively nasty case of conjunctivitis. There is references to body functions (including cardboard blood, a beating cardboard heart, and cardboard spit). All of this combines for a solid story where the images and the words support each other.