Comic Reviews

Heart of Darkness

heart-of-darkness-coverReview by Matthew Nielsen

Based on the Joseph Conrad novella of the same name, the graphic novel Heart of Darkness (adapted by David Zane Mairowitz and illustrated by Catherine Anyango) is about a man’s journey up the Congo River during the late 19th-century Belgian colonial period. The protagonist, Marlow, works for an ivory trading group, and has been given the task of meet with Kurtz, an exceptionally “efficient” obtainer of ivory.

As the story progresses, the reader is introduced to more and more atrocity, murder, and madness. Whilst much is lost from the original book in this abridgement, certain fundamental elements are powerfully translated from words into picture. So though we may not get the novella’s extended inner-monologues from Marlow, we do get intense imagery than tells a lot in their own right. Likely because the original Heart of Darkness was based off some of Conrad’s own personal experiences, Mairowitz has chosen to include extracts of Conrad’s diary throughout the book. This wasn’t done in the original book, and is an interesting way to link the story with the original writer.

Anyango has illustrated this comic in a way that feels more like fine art than the usual line art associated with the majority of comics. The images come from many angles, warped points of views, and harsh forms of lighting. Sometimes it’s hard to make sense of, when artistic license and style trumps clarity, but this works well with the story’s theme of madness.

The thing that stands out the most are the speech bubbles and boxes. They look really basic, like something easily achievable with the most limited software, which works a little against the artwork style trying to be achieved here. However, the semi-transparent boxes do little to interrupt the artwork itself, so it’s tricky to find better alternatives. Perhaps bold full speech bubbles would have been worse?

Overall, though this book has some very interesting artwork and techniques, the abridged story seems to take something away that the original book had. It feels more like this graphic novel would serve fans of the novel better than people who have not yet read Heart of Darkness. So if this is your first time hearing of the story, perhaps get the book or audiobook first before moving on to the adaptation. However, the Heart of Darkness graphic novel is still worth a look for the art alone.

sample page

sample page


Black Hole

black-hole-coverReview by Matthew Nielsen

Black Hole by Charles Burns is a story of teenagers, drugs, and an STD called the “Bug,” which gives whoever has it a random physical mutation, anything from small growths on the back to antennae coming out of the forehead. Not your X-Men sort of deal; no superpowers, only deformities.

The story follows a handful of characters who are doing their best to cope with the unforgiving life teenagers have to live. Needless to say, the story gets heavy and brutal at points.

The artwork of Charles Burns is truly fascinating. He’s the sort of artist who works as if he’s drawing with white over black paper, and not the other way around. I have never seen such a beautifully black comic. Some of the panels are so complex that you could sit there for a couple of minutes just trying to work out what is going on, but in the end you discover that everything is right where it should be. The mutations, dreams, and drug trips are all fantastically portrayed; the art really sends you on a visual journey that shakes you up a bit. Good thing it’s a graphic novel because you can take your time with each intense chapter; you can take a deep breath and try your best to work things out.

It is a wonderful book! If you’re ready for a dark mind-bending journey told with rich, clean black artwork, then I strongly recommend you read Black Hole.


Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, Making Comics


Review by Matthew Nielsen

Scott McCloud’s trilogy of Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics are all excellent works. They are a great collection of essays entirely in the comics format, entirely about comics.

The first book, Understanding Comics, published in 1994, focuses on the history, perception, and communication of comics, as well as a sophisticated interpretation of the medium as a whole. It is an amazing tool for both comic beginners and those more experienced with comics. If you were to pick up this book for the first time, either as a beginner or seasoned comics veteran, you would learn a lot about not just about comics, but also art and communication in general. It’s fascinating stuff clearly explained through a perfect blend of words and pictures.

The second book, Reinventing Comics, published in 2000, examines the — at the time — current comics culture, and looks towards the potential futures of the digital age. Many of its commentary has now become dated in many ways. However, plenty of the content remains useful to this day. There are multiple examples of how economic ideas, subcultures, and tendencies develop within art. It is also fascinating to see the challenges and ideas that were around back in the dial-up Internet era, and how many of the predictions McCloud made became true.

The third book, Making Comics, published in 2006, explores the challenges that comic book creators must face, the options they have, and the many methods available to produce the comics they want. McCloud provides incredibly useful tools for achieving realistic facial expressions and body language, constructing scenes, and building worlds, and he draws inspiration from North American, European, and Japanese comics, and more. Unlike a simple How to Draw Manga or How to Draw Superheroes, book, it gives sophisticated tips that are useful for all comic genres. Even if you think you already know everything you need to know about making comics, you might be surprised as to how much you learn from reading this book. On top of that, this book has a bonus digital chapter, available on McCloud’s website.

These three books are very useful to anyone interested in comics, either as a reader, academic, writer, or artist. If you are interested in comics, I strongly suggest that you read them at some point soon. Check out Scott McCloud’s website for more details.


from Making Comics

Tamara Drewe

tamara-drewe-coverReview by Matthew Nielsen

Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds is a story centred around a writer’s retreat in the English countryside. It starts off from the point of view of university professor Glen, and then moves on to the retreat’s de facto manager Beth. We also see things from other people’s points of view at various times throughout the story. This gives us a wonderful chance to know what everyone is thinking.

When you open the book, you’ll find a mix of panels and blocks of text. The layout is a mix between the kind of thing you’d see in a Raymond Briggs novel (such as Ethel and Ernest) and what you’d see in an illustrated children’s novel (such as The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey), but let’s be clear — this is not a children’s novel, neither in style of art nor in style of writing. It’s a mature, well thought-out, beautifully detailed tale. There are many wonderful scenes of the countryside throughout, along with very relatable expressions and faces. The faces are drawn less photo-realistic and more cartoonified, but not in a silly or jarring way.

I reckon most people who read graphic novels don’t like big blocks of text appearing, but here it works just fine. The panels show people interacting with each other, thinking to themselves, or going through various stages of their day. The blocks of text tell the story from the current POV, always first person and never third person. The text really helps us get into the minds of the characters; it’s wonderful!

Anyway, if you’re up for a story about very real, very believable people, that is also full of the beauty of life through wonderful illustrations, this is graphic novel that I’m sure you’d love.

To learn more, check out Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds.


Boxers & Saints


Review by Matthew Nielsen

Instead of just reviewing one graphic novel, I reckon I’ll review two! Boxers & Saints are two stories by Gene Luen Yang set before and during China’s Boxer Uprising (the uprising from 1899 to 1901). Both books share numerous characters while taking place on different sides of the events. The Boxers wished to fight foreign influence (such as cultural oppression, opium, and Christianity) whilst the Saints wish to remain steadfast in their beliefs and convictions.

Yang does a decent job showing the many sides of the story. I wouldn’t use this as a pure historical source, but more of a rough impression of the historical events. For example, one particular scene has a handgun that looks a bit too modern to be there, a Colt/Browning 1900 (cutting-edge technology at the time, and probably too advanced for that situation) while the other guns there seem to be revolvers and rifles (possibly bolt-action rifles). However, the story did spark my interested in the time period, and I will surely be looking further into the Boxer Uprising. Seeing as how the story includes definite uses of fantasy and vision, making every scene fully realistic probably isn’t all that necessary.

So is the writing any good? I’d say it’s pretty good indeed! Both tales start with a peasant youth growing up in a life of hard agricultural work and confusing society. As the historical events unfold, the two protagonists go through many emotional changes and intense ups and downs. I especially loved how other languages are portrayed. See, as the book is set in China, all of the Chinese speak normally and clearly. However, when a foreigner speaks, their speech is quite poor. Furthermore, when they speak their native language, it is shown in familiar but illegible shapes. These are then translated via caption boxes when necessary. It’s a charming feature that helps the reader see things from the Chinese characters’ perspectives, and I’d like to see more of this technique in other books I read.

As for the artwork, we have bold line art with block colours and little to no shading, depending on the situation. It reminded me a bit of the animated show Daria. Despite normally enjoying detail and shading in artwork, soon I got used to this style, and especially appreciated the way faces and expressions are drawn here. The faces provide a great deal for humour and emotional scenes. I find myself cracking up whenever someone makes a silly or neutral face in the background. Compared to another Yang book, American Born Chinese, I feel that the artwork in Boxers & Saints is better.

In short, I recommend giving these a read, especially reading them in the order of Boxers first and Saints second. I also recommend reading them back-to-back, and not several months in-between, so that the characters remain fresh in your memory.

Boxers & Saints page

The Quest for the Big Woof

quest-for-the-big-woof-coverReview by Matthew Nielsen

The Quest for the Big Woof, written by Lenny Henry and illustrated by Steve Parkhouse, is a British comedic graphic novel from 1991 about the life and mind of Lenny Henry.

The story is pretty straightforward: Henry is in the process of writing gags for his upcoming stand-up tour, but he is hit with a severe case of writer’s block. So one day God shows up to help him. Not in a religious praise-Jesus kind-of-way, but more like a wise teacher Gandalf kind-of-way. This makes for some interesting little adventures into the mind and imagination of Lenny Henry.

A great part of the jokes are British cultural references. However, though I lived in Britain for the first 22 years of my life, because Big Woof was written the same year as I was born, a lot of the pop-culture specific jokes didn’t connect with my cultural experiences. Those jokes would be better understood if you were touch with Britain’s comedy and were born, say, before 1980. However, the rest of the jokers don’t require such a knowledge of pre-90s British culture. That’s where I found myself laughing the most. My favourite parts of the book were when Henry talks about his childhood and personal history; short stories of a young man of Jamaican-heritage growing-up in England and experiencing discrimination or being tempted by peer pressure. Stories like these have quite an impact when juxtaposed with comedy.

The artwork syncs-up very well the jokes. Parkhouse manages to capture life, emotions, and absolutely hilarious faces. He has done a downright wonderful job in terms of artwork. The artistic references make even those unfamiliar with the exact references pretty intrigued at the styles produced. I found myself laughing so much at some of the quirky drawings alone.

Though I found much of the writing somewhat lacking, the number of cultural tributes, different styles and the highly energetic artwork of Parkhouse really push the book up again. It’s worth a little look if you come across it. It’s pretty obscure, but you might be able to get it used on I found mine when I was helping out in my high school library (more like a bookshelf, to be honest); they had wanted to throw it out! But I saved it, and it is mine now!


How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less

how-to-understand-israelReview by Matthew Nielsen

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less is an autobiographical graphic novel by Sarah Glidden that explores how she, an American with Jewish heritage, went on a birthright trip to Israel in March, 2007. The birthright trip is a charity-funded service that allows any Jewish person from anywhere in the world to receive a free trip to Israel, possibly in hopes that they may choose to move there.

During the birthright tour, Glidden is exposed to much of Israel’s history and many different perspectives about its political situation, as well as the everyday life of a lot of Israelis. Throughout the book Glidden weighs-in various differing points of views, some that challenge her preconceptions and some that confirm. It is fascinating how the various histories, ideologies, and life stories are explored through this journey. Glidden is able to describe everything from her deep political opinions to her feelings of sometimes alienation and sometimes assimilation, and lots of other stuff in between.

A lot of Glidden’s thoughts are told not just through captions and text, but also through more metaphorical imagery. This blurs the lines of reality, and connects us even more to Glidden’s personal journey.

The comic is done in both ink and watercolour. The lighting and colours are always spot on, and background objects and buildings have everything in the right place, nothing over-simplified. The people and characters are a tad more stylized, though without the lifeless uniformity. I like it; the more cartoony depiction of the people adds a sense of honesty and life.

So if you’d like to see Israel through the eyes of a questioning Jewish-American, then this book might be for you. There are several other books about the region and the situation, including Joe Sacco’s Palestine, and it’s always worth getting a lot of people’s experiences and points of views about things. I’m glad to have travelled to Israel once again through this writer’s journey.


Our Cancer Year

our-cancer-year-coverReview by Matthew Nielsen

Our Cancer Year by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner (illustrated by Frank Stack) is an autobiographical book by two writers at once. Harvey and his wife Joyce tell about a year in their lives in which they move house and work at their jobs, and then, as the title suggests, cancer comes along to make everything all the more complicated. What I love about this graphic novel is how detailed the narrative is! We learn about Harvey and Joyce’s living situation and the neighbourhood, but we also get into their heads to explore all the things they were going through. A very challenging time for both of them.

This graphic novel is more focused on the writing than the art. Stack’s art style is able to show everything that needs showing, but it’s also a sketchy mutating sort of deal that feels quite scribbly at times. From what can be gathered from the story, Harvey Pekar probably had an average income, and with that it’s hard to hire a whole team of artists to get to those immaculate levels of detail that some of us crave. Good job nonetheless. It’s like having a house when you want a mansion; in the end, a house’ll do just fine.

Anyway, if you want to share the challenges of Harvey and Joyce, if you want to get to know these two, and how they behave and think through seriously refreshing and brutal honesty, then give this book a read!

True Loves

true-loves-vol-1-coverReview by Matthew Nielsen

True Loves by Jason Turner and Manien Batoma is a romance comic set in Vancouver, Canada, that tells the story of True, the owner of a used clothes store, and Zander, a grocery clerk with a positive attitude. The story starts with True in a relationship with Dirk, a busy and well-to-do man, but the two aren’t on the same wavelength. When Zander comes into play, True finds that he’s someone she can relate to more. The book balances the perspectives of both True and Zander, equally following the life of one, then the other, while also presenting the times they meet up together.

The characters are likable, believable, and all-round good people. The story has a positive vibe to it, but plenty of realistic challenges come along as well.

The artwork, by Turner, whilst not at the level of detail of, say, the average manga or superhero comic, still shows everything that needs to be shown, and in a bold, clean, and clear style. The comic flows really well at a fine pace, and if you want to read it fast, that can be done no problem.

Be ready for a good little graphical trip to Vancouver with a short and sweet story. I’m looking forward to reading the next volume.