Monday, September 29

Jack and the Box

by Art Spiegelman
Toon Books 2008

Earlier this year when the first batch of Toon titles came out I was less than enthused. The problem as I saw it then was that the titles seemed little more than traditional comic book fare with expensive paper, better printing, and hard covers. I couldn't reconcile the content with the cost and felt that they were best suited for libraries who would do well with studier bindings, not with the general consumer (picture book readers) who would tire of the titles quickly.

Now with the second round of releases I'm finding this less to be the case, but its book specific. Spiegelman's Jack and the Box isn't merely " a first COMIC for brand-new readers" as it says on the cover, it's actually a subtle and sophisticated tool that helps introduce readers to the concepts in reading and understanding comics. It is a primer on comic literacy at the simplest level, and clever. I doubt Spiegelman could have delivered anything less.

The book opens simply enough with a single illustration of Jack (Rabbit) being given a new toy. Two simple word balloons establish the order of both reading left-to-right and lead the viewer's eyes to follow the action accordingly. With a flip of the page we are now presented with a double page spread of four equal sized panels. There's the conflict of the first panel (Jack can't open it), the tension in the second panel (watching the box, waiting for something to happen), the action in the third panel (a clown pops out of the box, jack-in-the-box style, scaring Jack), and a punchline in the fourth panel ("Ha ha!" "What a silly toy!"). With a few words and some simple pictures a first encounter with a jack-in-the-box is turned into the core joke on which all future variations will be built. Since humor is generally derived from the unexpected turn, from the deviation from what is expected or established, Spiegelman can now train young comic readers to learn how to read for visual cues and verbal repetition. It's a winning combination and, to the casual reader, a subtle lesson in how to read comics.

Jack now has a series of comic adventures with the toy, each four panels across the spreads, built on the idea of an uncooperative toy and its unexpected behavior. We've been told it is a very silly toy so we aren't surprised to see it talk back or misbehave. There's the slightest hint of Cat in the Hat style mischief, and a sense of a child's play world being realistic to the child but confusing to adults, which adds another layer to the book. As the comic stories add and build, and the chaos grows, there is a need for release at the end that comes in Jack explaining all that has transpired to his curious parents, the denouement so to speak. Order is restored, and Jack now safely has mastered the silly toy the same way the reader has mastered the complexities of a comic narrative.

While there are other books out there for the picture book crowd that work within the comic framework (Regis Faller's Polo books, for example) there are few that work this hard, this effortlessly to train readers to the art of comic literacy. I hope that Toon continues to build off this lesson with their other titles.

Wednesday, September 17

Baker Cat

by Posy Simmonds
Red Fox / Random House 2004

A mean old baker and his lazy wife have a cat who literally does everything for them. He sweeps, he peels, he slices, he mixes, he rolls, he ices, he bakes, he does the washing up, and at the end of the day is sent exhausted into the storeroom and told he has to ear his keep by catching mice. Exhausted, the poor marmalade tabby collapses while the mice have their way.

The mice take pity on Baker Cat and strike a bargain: if Baker Cat promises to leave them alone they'll get the baker to leave him alone. The plan involves spinning yarn to look like mouse tails, trophies of his night's work that the baker uses as a gauge to determine how much to reluctantly feed him.

And for a while it works, until the free reign of the mice depletes the larder and the baker threatens to turn Baker Cat into fur gloves if he can't make meringues and tarts appear by morning. Again, it's the mice to the rescue, and the next morning they have set a trap to make the shop look infested by all sorts of vermin. Fed up, the mean baker and his lazy wife ditch the shop, leaving it for Baker Cat and the mice to manage on their own, free of human oppression.

So many questions!

First, if the cat is this accomplished, why doesn't he go into business for himself? Oh, that's right. He's a cat. But then, he's already dealing with customers and working the kitchen so clearly he has some extra-feline skills. Perhaps it's an opposeable thumb. Is it because he needs humans to get the supplies? Well, the mice are excellent thieves, so that takes care of that.

You know, I like this. I'm not looking to tear it apart, but it's so... odd. It's odd in a way I can only call British but without support. It's from that part of the country where the world of nursury rhymes still live, where people possess animals as slaves as well as pets. It isn't alarming or distressing that there is a cat wearing an apron pushing a broom across the shop floor, it appears folks rather expect it. No one seems concerned with cat hairs on their breads - they probably have hairier food in their cottages just down the lane.

But here's another thing: Baker Cat is a passive protagonist. Baker Cat works, Baker Cat suffers, and in the end is too exhausted to do anything about it. Okay, you say, Cinderella didn't exactly make her own dress or conjure her own ride to the ball. Ah, but she had a dream, a desire, and in her longing she was provided for. Not Baker Cat, he just waits until the mice rescue him. And rescue him. And after the mice have twice rescued him he is rewarded for his lack of efforts by gaining a store that the mice help run. It's like a cross between The Cinder Girl and The Shoemaker and the Elves, but with animals, and with less ambition. Baker Cat may not be mean like his former owner, but he sure is lazy.

At least Baker Cat and the mice live in harmony, and the mean and lazy are vanquished.

Simmonds is a cartoon artist, and there are elements of her cartoon work present here. Spreads in the picture book alternate between full page illustration and smaller, panel-free progressions across the page. She has an engaging style slightly reminiscent of Raymond Briggs crossed with William Steig. I came across his while looking up her graphic novel Gemma Bovary and I have to say I preferred this quite a bit.

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Why I didn't think of this before I'll never know, but here on out I'm going to try and link the cover to someplace where you can purchase the book at hand. I'm not out to necessarily shovel business for gain, I'm only thinking that maybe I could save folks some time if they're interested.

Wednesday, September 10

Here Lies Arthur

by Philip Reeve
Scholastic 2008

It's said history is written by the winners, but who writes the legends?

The Legend of King Arthur is one that weaves fact and folklore into an irresistible tale of medieval knights, battles and romances, intrigue and mysticism. As legends go Arthur's is as mailable as they come. Defender of Britons against the Saxons, crusader for the Holy Grail, the Arthur of legend is of a man who speaks both to and for a Christian God while receiving gifts from Pagen mistresses in lakes.

Playing against the backdrop of familiarity, Philip Reeve's Here Lies Arthur takes the legend of Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon, and presents him as he might have been: a boorish, petty warrior with a thirst for conquest and the gift of a good Public Relations man.

Arthur, nicknamed the Bear, and his band of knights roam the countryside like Medieval Mafia offering protection from the Saxons in exchange for tribute. Those who remain loyal to others find their villages laid to waste. To ensure a smoother, more peaceful transition (and to avoid fighting wherever possible) Arthur has his storytelling friend Myrddin arrive in advance telling tales and spinning yarns about the man who will unify them once and for all. There is magic woven into this spin doctoring, a cheap magic designed to fool the superstitious, and Myrddin has dedicated his final years toward convincing one and all that Arthur is the leader they need in these troubled times.

Ah, but the thing here is who is telling the story of the creation of the legend.

When Here Lies Arthur opens we are in the midst of a raid on a small village. In the chaos a young girl named Gwynna escapes by slipping into the river and swimming downstream. When found by Myrddin, this girl with her ability to hold her breath underwater provides him with the opportunity to help the Bear unify a local band of knights behind him. After that, Myrddin decides to take Gwynna as his servant but must pass her off as a boy in order to keep her close by. It's Gwynna - now the boy Gwyn - who tells the story of Arthur as she knew him, from the height of his limited empire, through his days with Gwenhwyfar and a preposterously creaky round table, to his last sad, almost pathetic moments. It's a great adventure, full of battles and questionable alliances, and it lays down a nice little spin on the idea that great legends often mask the ugly truths behind those tales. In this case the clue is in the title's verb.

It's an interesting take on the power behind the throne. Myrrdin has but all his eggs in one basket and is willing to overlook Arthur's weaknesses because he feels that his importance as a polarizing figure are more important. Sometimes it's difficult not to see the parallels with modern politics where, say, a presidential advisor might be the one secretly behind the scenes pulling strings and diverting public attention. As Reeve has Gwynna/Gwyn slip in and out of various circles on influence we see the legend as it might have been, from the eyes of dull villagers trying to survive, through the adreneline charged eyes of the knights, to the cloistered whispering of the ladies of the house.

A few words of caution here. Yes, I realize this story is told from the perspective of a girl, but anyone who ditches this book because of the fact is doing themselves a great disservice. Gwynna is a tough, resourceful narrator who discovers she is much happier being one of the boys (especially later when Myrddin has her become a girl again in order to keep eye on Gwenhwyfar for him). She's a keen and wary observer, full of mischief, and a a growing sense of consciousness that allows her to question what she sees as clearly wrong.

It's easy to want to go looking for connections with previous tales, to match the Old English names with the ones we know today. Reeve plays with all the elements anew, almost deliberately seeming to debunk as much as he can, so for those who find the legend of Arthur sacrosanct you may wish to take a pass at this. You'd be missing out on a great yarn, but you'd wind up arguing with the book's recombined narrative.

Also, don't go looking for this book with the awesome UK cover (top) because Scholastic decided to wimp out and go with something a little more fantasy looking. I can understand not wanting the face of a boyishly handsome Arthur on the cover of a book narrated by a girl, but did Scholastic have to go with the dull electric sword (middle)? Couldn't they at least have been bolder and gone with the German cover(bottom)? Hmm, maybe that German cover wouldn't work either.

Normally I like to wait until a book is out before reviewing it, but this one has me busting at the seams. I'm sure advance copies are floating around already, but otherwise keep an eye peeled around the end of October.

This post is is also over at Guys Lit Wire today. Also, a bunch of us guys who review for Guys Lit Wire are part of a group interview today at Innovative: A Word for the Wri-teen.

Monday, September 8

The Bad Book

by Aranzi Aronzo
Random House / Vertical 2007

So many words to choose from, so many possible titles. People, people, don't give your book titles that can serve as their own reviews.

Okay, so maybe it isn't the worst thing I've seen, but I'm trying to remember now why someone thought I would like this. Basically it's like a snarky Hello Kitty comic, cute but sarcastic. More like a Batz Maru squared, actually, because the main characters are Bad Guy and Liar. In a collected of super short, often pointless cartoon stories, Bad Guy and Liar engage in the type of shenanigans that might pass for humor in a flash animation pop-up box on the internet. Bad Guy in summer is squirting a hose and SPLASH! he squirts you in the last panel. Bad Guy trips Liar and has a good laugh until he sees blood, then Liar lifts his head and says "I was lying" while an arrow points to the red pool and notes it's tomato juice. Ha ha, it is to laugh.

Thoughout there are photo spreads of a highly marketable Bad Guy doll riding the escalator rails, dressing badly, and generally mugging for the camera. Cute, but not quite cute enough.

Aranzi Aronzo are actually a pair of Japanese young women who are big on cute crafts and have a passel of cute books to their credit. It is part of the Japanese cute movement (kawaii) that would include the likes of pandas, bunnies and, no doubt, the Queen of Sanrio. As marketing, well, I guess there's always an opening for something between Strawberry Shortcake and Ugly Dolls, but I'm not feeling it here.

Oddly, this title was lurking in the YA section at the library. Perhaps in a world of lowered expectations some might find this amusing. I can't imagine a pair of teens or even tween pulling something like this together and creating an American kawaii empire of their own. Perhaps it might even be amusing.

I need to remember who suggested this to me, and then I need to make sure I take those suggestions with a grain of salt in the future.