Comic Reviews


Exit Wounds

Review by Matthew Nielsen

Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan is set in Tel-Aviv, Israel, 2002 and follows the story of Koby, a taxi-driver living with his aunt and uncle. He hears news of a suicide bombing in a nearby town and that one of the victims is currently unidentified. This news is brought to him by Numi, a young woman doing her mandatory military service. We discover early in the story that Koby rarely meets or talks to his father, and that Numi is his father’s lover. The story’s journey forward is in trying to figure out whether or not Koby’s father died in that blast.

I will say that I did not like this book very much. This might be due to the overall feel of the book, especially the main character — a general sense of grumpiness, frustration, and even, at times, mean spirits. However, there are also lighter moments, and Modan is able to capture a great range of expressions with minimal amounts of lines.

The artwork consists of selective bold lines filled with block colours. There is next to no shading — no line art cross-hatching, cell-shading, or even gradients. However, the line art itself is sometimes different shades than just plain black, which does create some depth. The absence of shading makes it all feel a bit like looking at a diagram. In general I don’t like the style. Some elements of it appealing: everything is pretty clear and bold, and faces are surprisingly recognizable, but I love detail too much, so this is not my cup of tea.

It’s up to you. If the artwork appeals to you, and if you’re willing to give the grumpy world of Koby a chance, then Exit Wounds might be worth a look. But I didn’t really enjoy it myself.


Cartoon History of the Universe

Review by Matthew Nielsen

Larry Gonick has written numerous educational comic books, including The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry, The Cartoon Guide to Calculus, and even The Cartoon Guide to Sex. But this review focuses on his most famous work, the six-volume Cartoon History of the Universe.

To give an idea of the scale we’re dealing with, here’s a list of all the books in the series:

  • The Cartoon History of the United States (1987) – 400 pages
  • The Cartoon History of the Universe I (1991) – 368 pages
  • The Cartoon History of the Universe II (1994) – 320 pages
  • The Cartoon History of the Universe III (2002) – 320 pages
  • The Cartoon History of the Modern World (2007)272 pages
  • The Cartoon History of the Modern World II (2009)272 pages

So we’re dealing with well over 1900 pages here! I’ll talk about the History of the United States at the end, so starting off withThe Cartoon History of the Universe I, it does indeed provide a history of the universe, but only for one chapter. In fact, at about 50 pages in we’re even done with the dinosaurs, and now it’s on to ancient humankind. So… yeah, a lot is abridged. Even within the book, Larry Gonick (who features as the narrator) mentions how he wishes he could show more, but simply cannot due to time and space constraints. It is a shame though, because learning things can be so much more interesting when they are in comic format.

Anyhoo, the books move on. The way they’re set-up,  the Universe ends and the “Modern World” begins around the time that Columbus discovers America. Go figure. To be honest, the word “Modern” gets used in so many different ways by so many different people that it could easily be whatever you want it to be. Perhaps there was some kind of special publishing reason to change the title between books, but going from “Universe” to “Modern World” doesn’t feel that consistent. I’d prefer if they were all just titled Histories of the World I-V.

Still, Gonick gets the job done, and provide informative, oftentimes humorous, and certainly energetic history lessons, with important bits of information taken from all around the world. There is, of course, stuff missing, but for anyone interested in history in general, The Cartoon History is a great starting point. While I’m at it, I’ll also recommend Crash Course’s World History video series (available for free on YouTube).

As for the illustrations, Gonick’s style is pretty toony, and if you’re okay with that, then there’s not a problem. However, it does get quite messy at points, sometimes faces get oddly distorted, and occasionally the general style of the whole chapter seems to change. For example, in the first book the last chapter felt almost like someone else, not as skillful, had drawn it. Fortunately, the first chapter of the second book went back to normal. Aside from these occasional changes, the art style remains fairly consistent. Furthermore, whilst Gonick may draw toony people, he does a good job on the bits of detail that he chooses to highlights (for example, ancient statue designs).

You will also find footnotes throughout the book illustrated by extra large asterisks, and the bottom three panels or so of the pages often go into more illustrated details. These confused me at first, but quickly I got used to them. As for historical accuracy, I can’t say for sure, though with any historical writing  you’re bound to find the occasional thing that contradicts what other historians have said. You’d best use your best judgement and research to deal with that. All in all, I found these five history books incredibly enjoyable to read. Not only did I learn a great deal of world history, but I also had a lot of fun with the many jokes and curious cartoons. I personally always learn the best from comics, so this was a terrific resource.

To finish up, let’s quickly look at The Cartoon History of the United States. It was written before the other five history books, and it shows. Here Gonick’s art style is much messier and much more stylized. And despite there being more pages in this one book than in any individual books of the other five, there is less content, since there are often less panels on a page, more full-page illustrations. Gonick does go into a lot of detail about the US, but the art style has really put me off of this.

So that’s a full recommendation for The Cartoon History of the Universe I, II & II and The Cartoon History of the Modern World I & II. Due to the messy and art style, I do not recommend The Cartoon History of the United States as much. But it’s still useful historical information, so if you don’t mind the style, you might give that a look too.


Maus

Review by Matthew Nielsen

Maus by Art Spiegelman is among one of the most famous graphic novels of all time. Available in either two volumes (Maus I & Maus II) or as The Complete Maus, this book is truly something special.

This autobiography has Art Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, recounting the hardships he faced before and during the Holocaust of World War II. This is the central story, but what is also told is Spiegelman’s relationship with his father as he tries to get Vladek to recount all the events. The graphic novel actually starts with Spiegelman visiting his father’s house, sitting down and talking to him. Vladek narrates the story in his somewhat broken English, but when characters speak within that story, their speech is normal. As a result, we feel like we’re sitting with Spiegelman listening to Vladek tell his story. At the same time, we see Vladek’s tale very clearly, and are able to keep track of the simultaneous timelines with ease.

Reading this story feels more like hearing it. We hear Vladek describe the town he grew up in, the people he knew, the happy times he felt, and then the desperate and terrifying times — the brutal and unforgiving hatred that surrounded him and his peers. As you read, you often wonder “How on earth did Vladek survive this?” but of course you know he did because he’s there in the frame narrative telling the story. Yet the situations become so desperate and horrible you sometimes almost question them. If it were a fictional story, you might not let the writer get away with it, but because it is real, you can only nod your head and remember that real life can be truly monstrous.

In Maus all characters are depicted as certain animals. Jews are depicted as mice, Poles as pigs, Germans as cats, and so on. It is somewhat cartoony but at the same time the story remains very serious. This art decisions is the most curious thing about the book. If Maus were realistically and meticulously detailed, it would certainly read differently. I’m not sure if it would read better. Having the characters drawn this way makes it a little easier to deal with all the Nazis atrocities that happen within the story. These mouse-people look quite adorable, but then we see the kinds of things that happen to them and we experience a strange mix of emotions: sadness and terror mixed with a kind of surreal absurdity. We know they represent Jews, but if we were unaware of that, we would only see mouse-people stuck in seriously brutal situations. It’s quite peculiar, and yet surprisingly powerful.

World War II has countless stories, countless victims of a countless variety. Here is one story from one man, and it is a very potent one.


The Bible: A Japanese Manga Rendition

Review by Matthew Nielsen

There are several manga Bibles out there, including Manga Messiah and The Manga Bible: From Genesis to Revelation, and they are different enough from each other that I might write articles of each of them some day. However, for now here’s The Bible: A Japanese Manga Rendition, which features various contributing artists.

If you’re curious, I was raised a casual Christian, and turned myself into a more serious Christian during my youth before becoming agnostic and finally atheist. During my Christina period I sat down and read the entire Good News Bible. It took me a very long time, but I read it all. Since reading the Bible, I’ve been fascinated by adaptations of it, including animated stories and graphic novels. These can serve as a kind of synopsis or super-abridged version, and I like revisiting and re-studying the biblical tales.

So on to the manga Bible itself. This graphic novel features a wide variety of contributing artists and covers such prominent Old Testament stories as Adam & Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, Saul and David. And then it moves on to the New Testament with the life of Jesus. Among the many things this manga Bible left out include various Judges, prophets such as Elijah and Elisha, all the minor prophets, and basically everything Old Testament after David (including the Judah/Israel split and the various exiles). The New Testament leaves out stuff too, such as Paul and the Book of Revelation. So you won’t be getting a full shorthand for the entire Bible here, despite this comic being well over 550 pages in length.

Personally, I’d have expected a manga, of all things, to be able to work with the amount of material the Bible supplies. Have you seen how many volumes of One Piece, Bleach, and Naruto they’ve got out there? Looooads! But then again, I reckon there are a lot more people out there willing to buy twenty volumes of One Piece than of a Biblical manga. Still, it’d be interesting to see a full-length manga adaptation. It’d be a job with a lot of work though.

Despite a lot of stuff being left out from the original source material, this manga Bible actually adds some new things to the story! For example, there’s a scene in which Moses hears that he was adopted, and we then see him trying to cope with this heavy information in his room. It’s nice little extras like that which add more personality and feeling to the stories.

Various of the Old Testament scenes are drawn humorously, with exaggerated expressions and actions. There are also moments that leave you thinking “That Tower of Babel is looking preeetty flat.” It can feel strange to see over-the-top manga expressions in a biblical story. But overall I like the Old Testament artwork, and it certainly gives you a feel of the place, putting you right there in the action. All the clothes and buildings certainly have that “Biblical times” look to them.

And then there’s the New Testament. I honestly don’t know how many different artists worked on this book – it did not say within the book itself; it mainly just said that it was by “Variety Art Works.” Despite not knowing who the main artists behind this particular project were, it still does feel there was one group working on the Old Testament and another, very different, group working on the New Testament. I didn’t much like the New Testament art at all. Well okay, there was the occasional panel that was good, but most of them looked pretty bad, especially when it comes to facial expressions and construction.

So that’s accuracy, story, and art covered, but here’s one thing I rarely discuss: printing! Yes, there are a number of errors with how this book was published and printed. This includes grammar mistakes, repeated words, print that comes off the page, and incorrect numbering. My library copy even featured someone’s annotation in which they scribbled out a page number in pencil and wrote the correct one next to it. Later publications may have fixed these errors, but the edition I got clearly needed a lot more editing.

So that’s pretty much all I have to say about that. In short, this manga bible takes some of the highlights of the Bible, and puts them together in a manga story, first with good artwork and then with not-so-good artwork.

If you’re interested in getting to know Bible stories a little better, or if you’ve already read them but just want a little refresher course, then this manga Bible might be your cup of tea. Even if you are not that interested in the Bible, it might be interesting to take a quick peek to see how these artists drew all these different characters and stories.


99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercise in Style

Review by Matthew Nielsen

99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style by Matt Madden is an exercise in taking a simple one-page comic and reinterpreting, reinventing, and even reincarnating it in many different ways. The template comic is 8 panels long. It depicts a man working at his desk, heading downstairs, answering a question from his girlfriend, and then opening his refrigerator. Pretty straightforward, right?

However, the ways in which Madden adapts this template comic make each reiteration feel very different. These changes include simple perspective switches (such as the characters’ girlfriend’s point of view), rearrangements (making anagrams of the template’s speech text), stylistic changes (turning the whole thing into a single political cartoon), tributes to other artists, changing the emotions of the characters, changing the narration technique, and so many more.

Whilst the book is technically 224 pages long, there are only about 99 pages of comic; the rest is reserved for text and the titles of the sample itself. This was a wise choice, as it gives each example its own space and allows the reader to fully experience each version properly.

99 Ways is definitely worth a look, and will most likely provide some good laughs. I’d also highly recommend the book to any artists who are either highly experimental or explorative in their styles, as 99 Ways provides many different points of inspiration. To learn more, visit the author’s website.


Palestine

Reviewed by Matthew Nielsen

Palestine by Joe Sacco takes place in occupied Palestine and is set over the course of two and half months in the winter of 1991-1992 (around the end of the Second Intifada). This graphic novel is a fusion of journalism and comics that explores the country through a series of experiences, interviews, and slices of everyday life during the time Sacco stayed in Israel and Palestine. If you’re looking to hear a Palestinian side of the Israeli-Palestine conflict as told by a Maltese-American journalist-cartoonist, then this is your chance.

I feel that the journey Sacco takes in this book is told well and in great detail. Not just in the words written, but in the cartoons drawn. The way people are portrayed is quite stylized and caricature, but as the book goes along, the art begins to feel a bit more realistic as the mind adapts to it. The style really works well in many scenes, conveying the numerous feelings that take place throughout the book. Furthermore, inanimate objects such as vehicles, weapons, landmarks, etc., are often drawn with strong detail and remarkable accuracy.

Palestine: The Special Edition adds 32 additional pages that provide a very informative “Behind the Scenes” sort of deal. I find this sort of thing fascinating. In these extra pages Sacco expores numerous things, such as his experience in Cairo before heading into Palestine, times he was scammed, and excerpts from his journal.

I tend to skip introductions until after I read the whole book first. I have found time and again that introductions (and even the synopsis, at least in the case of an edition of All Quiet on the Western Front) can contain major spoilers, damaging the biggest thrill of reading a story first-time. It’s certainly true with the introduction to Palestine. So just a head’s up there.

All in all, as a great piece of writing and artwork, I recommend this graphic novel. When it comes to Palestine as a piece of politics, that’s up to you. For more information, visit the website for Joe Sacco’s Palestine.


Kicking at the Darkness

Review by Matthew Nielsen

This time we’ll take a quick look at the 24-page comic book Kicking at the Darkness by frequent Cloudscape contributor Colin Upton. It is a piece of nonfiction set on the European western front of World War II during 1944-1945, at the very end of the war. It primarily focuses on one of the earliest of the Canadian Army’s encounters with victims and survivors of the Holocaust.

Upton does an excellent job providing accurate details of weapons, scenery, and other historical elements, while also portraying very relatable characters and maintaining a uniformed and flexible art style throughout. He is able to capture a wide range of human emotions and body languages, which is a nice change from the stiff, mechanical techniques used in such war comics such as Commando or The War Picture Library.

Sadly this book is a special, limited-edition release. In order to get a copy, you’ll either need to visit the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (the organization that published this book) or order a copy from Colin Upton’s own website.  This book may only be 24 pages, but the story within is well worth the read.


Ghosts

Review by Matthew Nielsen

Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier (writer/artist) and Braden Lamb (colorist) centers around Cat (Catrina), a preteen, moving with her family from sunny southern California to gloomier, rainier northern California. The move is due to Cat’s younger sister, Maya, having been born with cystic fibrosis; the climate is supposedly healthier for her.

They soon find that the small but friendly town they move to has a strong connection with ghosts and the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). This leads to various adventures and challenges as Cat tries to adjust to this new place and with her sister’s ever-deteriorating health.

The book is a fairly short read, but it is filled with fine colouring and clean line art. Telgemeier’s style is like that of mainstream contemporary North American animation, with strong bold lines and vibrant colours. The body language and expressions of the characters are very enjoyable, and all-in-all it feels like an excellently polished piece of work.

I recommend this book – especially for those who enjoyed such animated series as Steven Universe and Over the Garden Wall. It’s fine for adults, teens, children; anyone in the mood for a good little story. Check it out on the Ghosts website.


Moomin and the Comet

Review by Matthew Nielsen

The Finnish characters the Moomins have been featured in numerous comics, novels, animated shows, and even theatrical performances. However, the book we’ll be looking at today is from the original newspaper comics by the Swedish-speaking Finlander Tove Jansson. Moomins are creatures that somewhat resemble hippopotamuses, and live in the surreal valley of Moominland, along with many other unique creatures and peoples, such as the very small young woman Little My, who is in fact not human but a “mymble.” The era the characters live in is somewhat timeless, but you will see modern things such as jam, radios, and guns now and then. The Moomins are very well known in not only their homeland Finland, but also Korea, Japan, and many other nations. In Finland the Moomins can be found on stamps, postcards, stickers, magazines, and everywhere else. Back in 1945, when the first Moomin story was published, Finland was still a young nation, and the Moomins became a big part of the country striving to achieve a national identity.

The particular book I’m reviewing is a collection of the newspaper comics that covers the Comet Saga, and one of the collaborations between creator Tove Jansson and her brother Lars. Tove Jansson based Moomin and the Comet off the second Moomin novel: Comet in Moominland. In this particular saga, a comet is fast approaching earth. The heat is so intense that it even starts drying up the land itself. Moomin, his girlfriend Snorkmaiden, and their friend Little My go forth to find out more about the comet and discover if anything can be done. Even though both the comic and the original novel were written and illustrated by the same person, there are some differences to accommodate the different chronology of the comic. For example, this is the novel where Moomin actually meets Snorkmaiden for the first time, whilst in the comic, he already knows her.

It helps having some familiarity with the Moomins before diving into this particular saga, and if you don’t, prepare to be a little perplexed with some of the visual designs and the world. Despite this, there is always a lot of humour, adventure, and fun. Jansson’s line art is full of expression and freedom, and there are oftentimes creative approaches to panel gutters (such as using an electric cable to divide panels). Because this story was original individual newspaper strips, the pacing is different from, say, a comic book, since some kind of standalone point has to be made every three panels or so.

Though the comic was originally printed in black and white, spot colour has been added for this collected version. This added colour works well for me. I appreciate the distinct ambiance in both the story’s original black and white, and its updated colourised format.

If you’ve become wondering about the surreal, fun and surprisingly true-to-life world of the Moomins, you can find out more by picking up Moomin and the Comet or one of the many, many other Moomin comic collections or novels. To learn more about all things Moomin, visit the official Moomin website.


Seraphim

Review by Matthew Nielsen

Seraphim: A Tale of Love and Courage is a pair of concurrent ongoing webcomics by Anat Rabkin, updated with one page for each comic each week. At the time of this writing, both A Tale of Love and A Tale of Courage have just over 200 pages each.

The two stories are set several centuries apart in a warrior’s guild in Constantinople. Both stories follow young men, orphans who have been taken in by the guild to be trained as knights’ squires. The world is that of an alternate reality: A Tale of Love takes place around the late medieval period, whilst A Tale of Courage takes place in more modern industrial-age times. Throughout the two stories there are occasional parallel moments, such as a shared character’s first appearance occurring on the same chapter and page number of both comics.

A Tale of Love follows the story of Clou, who, aside from being an orphan and squire, is also a very kind-hearted individual. Despite being looked down on by most of his peers, he is also gifted in his academic abilities. So far much of the story has been spent dealing with the challenges he faces in day-to-day life, and the secrets he has locked away within. He has a strong attachment to his knight, Becker, who has enough trouble trying to deal with his squire’s philosophical questions of morality, let alone the other problems that come along the way.

A Tale of Courage centres around Gilad, who is more willing to express anger and frustration than Clou is. The knight he is training under is very different from most. Sir Altor, a blind man who gets around disguised as an old beggar, is a very tough and demanding teacher. As the story continues, we learn more about both Gilad and Altor, and meet some of their friends along the way, including Gilad’s childhood friend Nav.

So far I have very much enjoyed the characters and their development. Rabkin keeps avoiding the traditional fantasy cliches by instead going through different, more interesting, routes. I liked what I’ve seen of the story up to this point and want to see more, as well as find out what choices these characters make as the stories continue. I already have a long list of favourite characters, and can easily picture this story being told in even more detail, such as through a written novel. On top of that, the full-colour aspect is very appealing (including the use of textures throughout the stories).

When it comes to the art and style of the story, I feel that Seraphim could benefit from more world building — not just more detailed background information but also more clues as to just how much impact the characters have in the world. Also, whenever blood is spilled in the story, it would benefit from being grittier and more realistic.

But aside from that, I’m keen to see where Rabkin will take Clou and Gilad next, and so far I’ve very much enjoyed the Tales of Love and of Courage. You can read Seraphim yourself on the official Seraphim website.