Graphic Novel Review: The Dusk Society

(Note from Kevin: A few years ago, I was a reviewer for The Graphic Classroom. I really enjoyed the way we look at graphic novels with a lens towards the classroom. The site got taken over by another site, and then … I guess the owner of The Graphic Classroom stopped doing what he was doing. Which is fine. But I still had some reviews “sitting in the can” so I am finally digging them out to share out here.)


Story Summary: A boring town becomes the center of a fight between the forces of evil and the forces of good. No. We’re not talking Metropolis. We’re talking Pembleton, and the forces of good are a fledgling squad of teens known as The Dusk Society. The force of evil? A character named Pierceblood who wants to rip the fabric of dimensions in time and destroy the world so that he can start it anew in his own vision of paradise. This event is conveniently happening just in time for the night of Halloween. Along for the ride are Dr. Frankenstein and his monster; Count Dracula; and a few other faces from classic horror stories. I wish I could tell you more but the story gets sort of convoluted at times and the writing here is fair, at its best, and schlocky, at its worst. For one thing, I wish the four teenagers who become The Dusk Society were further developed by writers Sidney Williams and Mark Jones, but the writers seem to reach for every cliché in the comic book, to the detriment of the story. In the end, I didn’t really care if they defeated Pierceblood or not. That says a lot about a book from my reader’s perspective.

Art Review: The artwork here by illustrator Naresh Kumar matches writing, with the cover art being the scariest thing in the book, in my opinion. There wasn’t the usual crispness I associate with Campfire graphic novels. Even the Aswang, a mythical Asian creature, lacked punch needed for a horror story. Ironically, Pierceblood himself looks a little like a loony panhandler, not a powerful being about to take over the planet with his evil dominions.

More Information:
• Paperback: 88 pages
• Publisher: Campfire (June 7, 2011)
• Language: English
• ISBN-10: 9380028636
• ISBN-13: 978-9380028637

In the Classroom: There are probably some high school students who might get a kick out of the Goth-like elements of the book, and some kids may connect with the four teenagers who slowly realize their talents and come together as a team. Or maybe they will relate to getting stuck in detention together by a know-it-all teacher who sees their best qualities at last. I don’t see the book as a real teaching tool, however.

My Recommendation: There’s nothing too inappropriate in here, and maybe that is its short-falling: in order to avoid offending the targeted readership, the writers pulled their punches on what might have been a truly scary story.

Peace (in the book),
Kevin

 

Graphic Novel Review: Tall Tales (Great American Folktales)

(Note from Kevin: A few years ago, I was a reviewer for The Graphic Classroom. I really enjoyed the way we look at graphic novels with a lens towards the classroom. The site got taken over by another site, and then … I guess the owner of The Graphic Classroom stopped doing what he was doing. Which is fine. But I still had some reviews “sitting in the can” so I am finally digging them out to share out here.)

Story Summary: This collection of previously published graphic tall tales by Stone Arch Books brings together the humorous and sidesplitting stories of Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, John Henry and Johnny Appleseed under one roof. I won’t use hyperbole here to sell this collection. Suffice it to say that if you are a teacher with tall tales in your curriculum (you know how you are), then TALL TALES: GREAT AMERICAN FOLKTALES should be part of your collection. There’s plenty to love in these story, and the use of the graphic novel format is perfectly aligned because the pictures tell the story, and stretch the tales beyond imagination, just as one would expect. I sort of wish the collection had added a lesser-known story or two (maybe Sally Ann Thunder Ann or someone like that. Sally Ann often gets regulated to sidekick status with Davey Crockett). There is something unique and wonderful about the bizarre structure and exaggeration of the American tall tale, and this collection is yet another way for students to gain access to that rich folklore of storytelling.

Art Review: The illustrations in all four of these stories are wonderfully done. Some, like the Paul Bunyan story, are wacky and outrageous. Others, like the John Henry story, are muted, and allow the story to unfold in its own time. The weakest of the bunch of probably Johnny Appleseed, which sort of seems like the throwaway story of the collection (or maybe that is just my opinion of that tall tale, which never did much for me). There, the artwork is fairly plain, and after reading the other three pieces and viewing the art magic of the tall tales, one feels sort of let down by the Appleseed story.

More information:

• Paperback: 144 pages
• Publisher: Stone Arch Books (January 1, 2012)
• Language: English
• ISBN-10: 1434240681
• ISBN-13: 978-1434240682

In the Classroom: It’s no secret that American tall tales are a main element of curriculum at a certain grade (in some states, it is second grade; in others, third or fourth grade). TALL TALES: GREAT AMERICAN FOLKTALES is a great addition to other resources, and the use of graphic stories to tell the tales might make it more inviting to some students. And hopefully, the introduction of classic characters such as Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill will open the door to investigation of lesser-known (but still very interesting) characters of tall tales, which staked their claim as classic oral storytelling around campfires before becoming serialized in newspapers, eventually coming into their own as books and short stories (and now, graphic novels).

My Recommendation: I highly recommend this tall tale collection for any classroom. While it might fit nicely in the elementary curriculum, I suspect that even middle and high school students would get a kick out of revisiting some old friends and their outlandish escapades in the wilds of American history.

Peace (with hyperbole and more),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Mal and Chad (Food Fight)

(Note from Kevin: A few years ago, I was a reviewer for The Graphic Classroom. I really enjoyed the way we look at graphic novels with a lens towards the classroom. The site got taken over by another site, and then … I guess the owner of The Graphic Classroom stopped doing what he was doing. Which is fine. But I still had some reviews “sitting in the can” so I am finally digging them out to share out here.)

 

Story Summary: Stephen McCranie’s graphic novels about Mal and Chad (a boy and his dog) are a nice balance between solid storytelling, gentle humor, and the difficulties of being a smart kid in a typical world that still frowns on genius. Mal, the protagonist of McCranie’s series of books (FOOD FIGHT being the second in the series), is an overly intelligent boy who hides his smarts from his family and the world for fear of being further ostracized from kid culture than he already is. Chad, his dog, is his faithful, talking friend who gives advice to Mal. The books capture the two friends as they off on adventures. In MAL AND CHAD: FOOD FIGHT, the main story centers around a series of bad dreams that Chad is having, involving a lion on the loose, and Mal is determined to help Chad overcome his fears. So, he invents a device that allows him to enter Chad’s dreams to help his canine friend confront the lion, and his fear of cats. Unfortunately, things go awry, and the genius boy and his dog scramble to save the day. Secondary stories here involve Mal’s difficulties in making friends at school, but even that story arc is told gently, with humor and with respect for McCranie’s character, who often comes across with a bit of Calvin (from Calvin and Hobbes). That’s not a bad thing at all.

Art Review: One look at the boy, Mal, will reveal the influence of Japanese Manga art on McCranie and his vision of Mal. With bulging eyes and a large round face, Mal is very expressive. And Chad is cute, too, as a little white dog with a smile on his face. The black-and-white inside pages are filled with interesting uses of panels and perpectives, and when the lion appears, McCranie wisely uses the extended length of the frames to make the creature loom large in both Mal and Chad’s vision, but also ours, the reader.

More Information

• Reading level: Ages 8 and up
• Paperback: 224 pages
• Publisher: Philomel; Original edition (January 19, 2012)
• Language: English
• ISBN-10: 0399256571
• ISBN-13: 978-0399256578

In the Classroom: MAL AND CHAD: FOOD FIGHT is a thoroughly enjoyable story, and McCranie successfully weaves in the main plot with minor storylines that bring out the full character of Mal to the reader, even if they have not read the first MAL AND CHAD book. From a teaching standpoint, the influence of Manga on the art of the graphic novel might be worth pointing out. But from the standpoint of talking about kids who are different, Mal is a perfect example of a kid who feels left out the social circles and is trying desperately (and humorously, at times) to connect in with his peers. This storyline might open up some interesting dialogue in the classroom.

My Review: I really enjoyed MAL AND CHAD: FOOD FIGHT and look forward to reading more of Stephen McCranie’s work in this series. This collection of MAL AND CHAD books is perfectly attuned to the upper elementary school audience, with no violence or profanity to worry about. I highly recommend MAL AND CHAD: FOOD FIGHT for the classroom or school library.

Peace (with yer dog),
Kevin

 

Book Review: The Best of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

http://asburyandasbury.typepad.com/.a/6a010535893544970c017d428ba16e970c-800wi

Good lord.

If you want to laugh at some of the more absurd humor writing to be found on the Internet, then visit McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Or you could buy this book: The Best of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Why spend money on a book when the content is free online? Because books rock, that’s why. Books are the ereaders of the present. Plus, writers go hungry all the time. Feed the writers.

Can you tell McSweeney’s has affected my writing voice? Because it has, and that lighthearted snarkiness (which sometimes becomes heavy-handed ridicule) is what makes the pieces collected in this collection such as collector’s edition.

With pieces focused on types of font (told from the prickly perspective of an angry Comic Sans), to how to become a better writer (which would not likely include writing a blog post about this book, to be frank, if my name was Frank, which it isn’t), to the absurdity of being hailed a conquering hero for plugging in a wireless router (don’t ask), to more Shakespeare references than you can shake a stick at (although, to be frank again — and I’m still not — the collection goes a little heavy on ol’ Will but I guess dead writers have it coming to them), to the ongoing debate about the plausibility of the Death Star trash compactor in Star Wars (who knew there was so much to say about it? Not me.), this book is a barrel of laughs … in the shape of a paper-bound square that, unlike a barrel, would not hold much tasty wine for the reader.

Still …

There’s more … much more …. but if I told you more, I’d have to open the book up again … and I’m not doing that. At least, not yet.
🙂

Peace (on the pages),
Kevin

 

Graphic Novel Review: Tales of Sand

(Note from Kevin: A few years ago, I was a reviewer for The Graphic Classroom. I really enjoyed the way we look at graphic novels with a lens towards the classroom. The site got taken over by another site, and then … I guess the owner of The Graphic Classroom stopped doing what he was doing. Which is fine. But I still had some reviews “sitting in the can” so I am finally digging them out to share out here.)

Story Summary: Surreal is the only way to really describe TALE OF SAND, which is a graphic novel based on a “lost” screenplay by Jim Henson, of Muppet fame, and his writing partner, Jerry Hujl. The screenplay was found collecting dust in the Henson archives and was given over to the very talented graphic novelist Ramon K. Perez, whose vivid illustrations tell the tale of a stranger known only as “Mac” set in motion on an adventure in the American southwest. I can’t even begin to do the story tangents justice here, except to say that the narrative shifts from scene to scene, from danger to danger, just like particles of sand blowing in the wind of chance and imagination. (Think Rod Serling and the Twilight Zone, and you will be in the right ballpark.) There are hints of old Westerns, and rampaging football players, Arabs in the desert, the continuing image of an unused cigarette, bombs and guns, and elaborate champagne dinners, and so many oddball twists that it seems clear to me that only a graphic novel could capture that kind of energy of story. (And it is even clearer why Hollywood kept turning down the screenplay.) In fact, once you buy into the surreal nature of the story, TALE OF SAND becomes magical, unpredictable and thoroughly enjoyable.

Art Review: Perez is a master of surreal imagery, and the oversized nature of TALE OF SAND provides him with a large canvas from which to work. There are overlapping images, colorful splashes contrasted with pencil sketches, multiple storylines unfolding in adjacent frames, and yet through all that craziness, Perez keeps the reader completely focused on the travails of Mac, with his square jaw that echoes of Clark Kent and eyes betraying confusion over his predicament of being caught up in something outside of his control. Perez immerses the reader in the story with the visuals, and if you stay with it, the artwork becomes the main narrative device. (I particularly loved how the savage football players talked in x’s and o’s, like a football play handbook).

More Information:

• Reading level: Ages 8 and up
• Hardcover: 152 pages
• Publisher: Archaia Entertainment; 1 edition (January 31, 2012)
• Language: English
• ISBN-10: 1936393093
• ISBN-13: 978-1936393091

In the Classroom: This book might have value for upper high school students, or university students, around the ways that surrealism can be used in narrative writing, and how art connects to story. Also, for those with an interest in Jim Henson, the introduction and ending of TALE OF SAND provides inside information about Henson’s work and the development of this story. Those small pieces of writing gives the book some historical weight, particularly now with the pop cultural resurgence of The Muppets.

My Review: I was fascinated by TALE OF SAND and completely dove into the surrealistic nature of the story. I RECOMMEND this book for upper level HIGH SCHOOL students, but teachers should know there is one scene that shows the naked chest of a woman near the end of the story. I don’t think middle school readers would follow the narrative with any interest, given its surreal format.

Peace (with Henson),
Kevin

Comics Collection Review: Zits (Sunday Brunch)

(Note from Kevin: A few years ago, I was a reviewer for The Graphic Classroom. I really enjoyed the way we look at graphic novels with a lens towards the classroom. The site got taken over by another site, and then … I guess the owner of The Graphic Classroom stopped doing what he was doing. Which is fine. But I still had some reviews “sitting in the can” so I am finally digging them out to share out here.)

Story Summary: With all of our focus on graphic novels, it is easy to lose track of the power of the daily comic strip. The connections between art and words and character coupled with the confines of just a few panels is something magical when done right (and painful when done wrong). SUNDAY BRUNCH: THE BEST OF ZITS SUNDAYS by the partnership of Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman is a massive collection of comic strips featuring a the growing teenager, Jeremy, and his two befuddled parents, Walt and Connie, as they weave their ways around life. The comics have perfect pitch (at least, to me, as a parent of a teenager) but what sets this collection apart from some others are the guest narratives of other comic strip writers and artists as they talk about their own inspirations. These short narratives are interspersed throughout the book by comic strip colleagues, and the personal writing provide a wonderful lens into how comics played a part in nurturing writers and illustrators. It’s interesting to see how subversive comic strips were for so many of them – tales of flashlights under covers abound. Add to that the little annotated notes that Scott and Borgman put beneath most of these comics to explain where the ideas for the jokes and art came from, and you have an insider’s view into the world of newspaper comic creations. And you can laugh while you learn.

Art Review: What sets the comic strip Zits apart from most of its brethren is the art, and I was really fascinated by the explanations for some of the experiments that Borgman (the primary illustrator, although the book gives some nice insights into the partnership between the two collaborators) provides as he works all sorts of echoes of modern art into a comic strip. There’s also some nice commentary on the impact of the shrinking comics sections on artists, and what that has meant to how an illustration perceives their canvas.

More Information:

• Paperback: 256 pages
• Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing; Original edition (November 1, 2011)
• Language: English
• ISBN-10: 1449407978
• ISBN-13: 978-1449407971

In the Classroom: I have lots of comic collections in my classroom. Calvin & Hobbes remains a hit. When we talk about having variety of reading materials, we should consider comic collections as another way to draw kids (particularly, boys) into reading. SUNDAY BRUNCH: THE BEST OF ZITS SUNDAYS is a great collection that would fit nicely in the bookshelves of a middle or high school classroom. From a teaching perspective, the narratives around the impact of comics on writers and readers might open up doors of discussion around the kinds of reading and writing that your students do outside of school. What are they reading that we never see? It’s worth finding out.

My Recommendation: I highly recommend SUNDAY BRUNCH: THE BEST OF ZITS SUNDAYS for middle and high school classrooms, and for the teacher with teenagers in their lives – either sitting there in that desk or lounging around at home.

Peace (in the frames),
Kevin

Book Review: How About Never? Is Never Good For You?

I suspect I am like a lot of readers of The New Yorker magazine. On the day it arrives in the mail (usually a Tuesday or Wednesday), I flip through the pages to read all of the cartoons, either chuckling and sharing with my wife, or scratching my head to figure out just what the heck the joke is. I end up at the last page, where the Caption Contest takes place (my neighbor recently won) in order to see if I could have done better (not likely).

I then move on to articles and forget the cartoons. But Bob Mankoff’s whole professional life is constructed around cartoons, and the editor of cartoons at The New Yorker has a fantastic new book out that explores his life as a cartoonist and brings us into the inner workings of how cartoons get chosen by the magazine. The book — How About Never? Is Never Good For You? — is jam-packed with cartoons and comics, as Mankoff shows off his own work (which I now recognize by the dot style of drawing) and a host of other artists whose work I read every week.

Mankoff even promises to show a reader how to win the Caption Contest, and then admits that that promise was a ruse to get you reading his book. His style of writing is like his style of cartooning — witty, sly and engaging, in a voice that let’s us know that while he takes his job seriously, he’s not above poking fun at anything and everything, including himself. And after all that, he does in fact give some insider views on the Caption Contest. So, there.

As I was reading the book, though, it occurred to me many times just how difficult it would be to make a living making cartoons. So many get rejected. So few get published. And yet, you have to make a handful every week, knowing that you will be lucky if one gets chosen. Mankoff tries to solve some of this years ago when he co-founded the Cartoon Bank, which is now part of the New Yorker family. The Cartoon Bank is a data-base of comics that can be purchased for use, allowing some income stream for artists. Mankoff has that kind of sensibility to support artists.

Peace (in the cartoon),
Kevin

Over at MiddleWeb: Review of Create Compose Connect!

c c c kevinI wrote up a review of Troy Hicks and Jeremy Hyler’s new book at MiddleWeb: Create Compose Connect (Reading, Writing, and Learning with Digital Tools). I find the book useful in a lot of ways, particularly as it shows ways to enhance learning with technology with some specific projects.

Peace (in the review),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Writing On the Wall (Social Media – the First 2000 Years)

It really is true: there’s nothing new here. Not with Twitter. Not with Facebook. Not with blogging. Not with any of the social media that we keep saying has “upended” traditional media. In this fascinating look at social media over the past 2,000 years, Tom Standage digs deep into our historical roots to show how the flow of information along social lines has been one constant thread through various phases of civilization.

Writing On the Wall is a fascinating read (and I heard about it from a book review column a friend of mine does at the Boston Globe, where her focus was books about social networking), starting off with Cicero in Rome, asking friends and allies to make sure they sent news of politics and government via notes, complete with comments, delivered by friends, and then moves into the use of pamphlets and scrolls and the printing press and more communication systems from the past that eerily echo the present.

In fact, Standage argues that the media empires that are now starting to fade (ie, newspapers) are the anomaly of history — in that the power to curate information and spread it out fell into the hands of a relative few (ie, publishers and editors and reporters) — and that if you look before and after that blip in time, you can see how prevalent the impact of widespread information is by “the people.”

And all of the same arguments back when Plato was railing against written text (as inferior to oral tradition), and when the Church was railing against Martin Luther and the Reformation Movement, and when the elites in the Arab world were worried about coffeehouse gatherings, and when the King of England was railing against Thomas Paine, and … well, it goes on and on, this railing against the power to publish being put into “the wrong hands” and what information might do to us. Sure, some of what gets published in any space is lies, distortions and more, but when the flow if open and moving, a reader has a better chance of judging veracity and weighing the impact of information, and good will prevail.

Right?

Standage writes:

“…social media is not going away. It has been around for centuries. Today, blogs are the new pamphets. Microblogs and online social networks are the new coffeehouses. Media sharing sites are the new commonplace books. They are all shared, social platforms that enable ideas to travel from one person to another, rippling through networks of people connected by social bonds, rather than having to squeeze through the privileged bottleneck of broadcast media. The rebirth of social media in the Internet age represents a profound shift — and a return, in many respects, to the way things used to be.” (page 250)

Peace (on the wall),
Kevin

PS — here is a talk that Standage gave to Google about social media:

 

 

Book Review: There Will Be Bears

The only time I went hunting for real, I was a teenager with a friend on his family’s farmlands. We each had shotguns and we were looking for deer. At some point, a flock of geese flew over us and I raised the gun, pulled the trigger and took a life from the air. It was a perfect shot (right through the neck) but I remember the feeling of dread, and the tiring hour spent trying to find the bird (we had no dog), and then the realization that “Since I shot it, I need to eat it” as we brought the goose back to his house, where his mom helped me dress it and cook it. The meat was gamey and I hated every bite. I never went hunting again.

I was remembering this story as I read the novel There Will Be Bears by Ryan Gebhart, in which the protagonist, Tyler, is coming of age and is determined to join his aging grandfather on an Elk Hunt in the Grand Tetons. Tyler’s life is a muddle, with his family’s finances causing stress and difficulties, and his best friend is his grandfather, Gene. But, his grandfather is ill with kidney failure, and as the day of the hunting trip nears, his grandfather is shipped to a nursing home.

The two decide to break out of the nursing home and go on the elk hunt anyway, against the wishes of Tyler’s parents and the doctors. Oh, and there is a grizzly bear with a mean streak roaming the elk hunting grounds, and Tyler’s fears and trepidations grow even as he refuses to give up on his rite of passage in his family. The story pushes towards a climatic moment in which the elk are hunted, the bear appears and Tyler realizes some important thing about life.

There Will Be Bears is a solid tale, told well, with the reader burrowed down into the confused head of a teenage boy. This book doesn’t take a stand on hunting, and in fact, keeps an emotional balance, thanks to the strong character of the grandfather (who turns out to have a story of two of his own, including his status as grandfather).

Peace (in the hunt),
Kevin