Matthew Nielsen


Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Review by Matthew Nielsen

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind by Hayaeo Miyazaki present a world in which several centuries ago, great god-warriors roamed the world and engulfed everything in flames. When the flames faded, a vast poisonous forest appeared, guarded by enormous insects. Humanity’s numbers have dwindled severely, and most live beyond the poisonous forests – in the deserts and on the mountains. The Valley of the Wind is one such place. And it is here that the Valley’s princess, Nausicaä, begins her journey through nature, conflict, and hope.

Nausicaä is immense. Most pages consist of 10-11 panels; thus the book is bigger than the usual tankōbon (the pocket-sized manga books usually 5” by 7”) with pages of 7” by 10”, allowing for full appreciation of Miyazaki’s intense details. With Nausicaä, not a single page is wasted. At no point did I feel there was any time-consuming filler: everything had a purpose. The action scenes were intense, the dialogue scenes were informative, and pacing was juuuust right. Furthermore, each of the seven volumes had their own build-ups and climatic moments, and each major event was more impressive than the preceding one. It is clear that what Miyazaki delivers in his films is also, well and truly, delivered here in this manga series.

Compared to a feature film, Nausicaä’s story lasts much, much longer. On top of that, the amount of characters we discover, the detail to which they are developed, the world that is shown to us, and the deep journeys into mind, soul, ethics and conflict are all phenomenal! You may be familiar with the animated film adaptation of this story, of the same name. It too was created by Miyazaki, along with the forerunners of Studio Ghibli (and is often considered to be Studio Ghibli’s first feature film). However, despite having the same creator, the animated film has significant differences, primarily due to the story length limitation. It would probably have taken three to five films or even an entire animated series to fully tell the original story as it appears in the manga series.

Essentially, what Miyazaki did with the movie version was rearrange various characters, with motivations altered, which created a sort of “alternate reality.” The most similarities are in the first two of the seven volumes of the manga, with similar events happening. But after that, whilst the film goes one way, the manga series goes another. Despite being different from the original source material, the animated film is still incredible in its own right, an absolutely amazing piece of art.

I strongly recommend you watch and read this story if you haven’t already. If you enjoyed Miyazaki’s animated film masterpieces like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, you will not be disappointed with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind . It is truly a memorable experience.

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Persepolis

Review by Matthew Nielsen

Available as both two volumes or a complete edition, Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran before, during, and after the Iranian Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s.

The book covers many years of Satrapi’s life, from her as a young child through to her early twenties. Throughout we also learn about Iran and how the nation, its people, and everyday life changed during the shift from the Shah’s rule to the Islamic Republic. Satrapi tells of her journey, beliefs, political views, and behaviour, about being raised by supportive avant-garde parents, and about how her family had to hide their efforts and ideas from the powers that be. A large portion of the book also focuses on Satrapi’s time in Austria as an expatriate, and the trials she faced there.

The story is told very well, and we quickly get to know much about Satrapi’s personality, experiences and family. The art is quite stylized with a kind of “naive art” feel to it.

If the style appeals to you and if you’re curious to learn more about some of Iran’s history told through the eyes of Satrapi, then this book will be for you. I very much enjoyed reading it.

On top of that, there is the animated film Persepolis, written and directed by Satrapi along with Vincent Paronnaud. It is loyal enough to the book that you’ll get the same story from watching it, but different enough that you’ll get an alternative, but possibly equally enjoyable, experience.

 

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Ghost World

Review by Matthew Nielsen

Ghost World! Daniel Clowes’ classic graphic novel is the story of two young women in their teens: Enid and Becky. Clowes is very good at capturing how people (at least certain people) talk about others and the world around them. The main characters feel that a lot of these people lead sad and creepy lives. But surely that’s how many of us see the world? We see others as rotten, crappy, lame, or weird as all hell. You might not want to admit it, but plenty of people out there freely say it casually among each other, and this story certain shows you that side: the personal conversations we have with our closest friends about those we like to feel superior to.

The art is done in black, white, and a funky aqua or something. I love it! Clowes does a great job capturing all the sorts of facial details and expression, making them often gross, weird, or surreal. But that’s life — there is a lot of grossness and weirdness in the world. Some artists might polish away some of these things, making their characters all look more charming, but Clowes keeps the strangeness all there. Though sometimes the faces look a bit derpy, but that’s realistic enough too. All this reminds me a lot of Daria. So yeah, if you liked Daria, there is a good chance you’ll like this, but Ghost World is a bit meaner in comparison.

If you’ve seen the Ghost World movie, you’ll find that the book is in many ways quite different, and the arc goes off in a different direction. Just keep that in mind if you already saw the movie.  Not sure how much you’ll relate to the main characters of Ghost World, but maybe it’s worth finding out. Give it a look!

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In the Shadow of No Towers

Review by Matthew Nielsen

In the Shadow of No Towers by Art Spiegelman explores the thoughts and personal experiences of the artist during and after the September 11 attacks. He was there in New York City when it happened, and witnessed the damage and chaos that took place.

This is a pretty large book, about 26cm x 37cm (roughly 10 inches by 14.5 inches), and pretty thick despite having only 42 pages. This is because the pages are thick bits of card. This not only adds strength, but — because the book is mostly made up of double-page spreads — allows all the content to be viewed without a crease going through the middle of the artwork. These comics were originally published in a large newspaper format, which is why the book has been structured this way.

Spiegelman discusses so many serious things here, but a lot of the stories are drawn in the style of historical and classic American newspaper comics. There is a section discussing all the influences on this graphic novel, and even a series of pages showing primary source material that he was inspired by (for example, a Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strip).

In the Shadow of No Towers is a surprisingly short read, but that doesn’t make it any less intense. Definitely worth a look!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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