Matthew Nielsen


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.


Adventures of Tintin: Breaking Free

Review by Matthew Nielsen

Tintin is such an iconic character in the comics medium, almost everyone has heard of him, and most have read at least a couple of his albums or seen one of his movies. But The Adventures of Tintin: Breaking Free by J. Daniels (a pseudonym) approaches the character from a very different (and utterly unlicensed) direction.

Produced by Attack International in 1988, Breaking Free takes Tintin, Captain Haddock, and Herge’s general drawing style, and puts them in an entirely new situation. Instead of the usual tales of a Belgian reporter and his friends exploring strange new places, we instead get the stories of a working class Brit with a lot of built-up anger deciding to stage a rebellion against the system.

At first it may feel like they’ve done some sort of “Tintin meets Trainspotting mash-up, with the graphic novel’s various acts of swearing and violence. But that is only part of the story; the rest is focused on the oppression of the working class by their bosses, union leaders, and law enforcement, to which the response must be organized strikes, rallies, and direct action.

The general politics of this graphic novel seem to be Anarcho-Communism, promoting resistance and rebellion against the government, as well as supporting the working-class community in numerous ways. There are also strong messages of anti-racism, anti-homophobia, and general anti-discrimination, so long as you’re not one of the “bosses” or otherwise part of the corporate system of persecution.

So yeah, this is very politically driven, and sometimes downright bizarre. If Tintin is one of your favourite characters, and you don’t want to see him engaged in this sort of politically-charged rebellion, then you’ll probably want to give this book a miss. On the other hand, if you’re just curious to see how Tintin handles a bar fight, this book might be worth a look. And if you agree with the Anarcho-Communist message, then there’s probably even more you’ll enjoy about this book.

Strangely enough, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Tintin converted into a foul-mouthed Brit. There was also an extremely obscure online video series called Teesside Tintin.


Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!

Review by Matthew Nielsen

Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! by Art Spiegelman is a big book. It’s about 36x26cm (roughly 10×14 inches), so when you open it, it’s going to be twice the width. However, the book’s comics make full use of the pages.

This book includes a brief biography of the artist, as well as examples of his early work. We even see the original short Maus comic that led to the world-famous graphic novel. With each project Spigelman seems to draw everything in a new style, paying homage to classic artists and constantly experimenting with the medium.

The book also discusses the artist’s quest to push comics further into the realm of fine art and away from the less-respected disposable view it got in his day and age. This results in cubist comics, rearranged panel comics, alternative romance comics, psychological enquiry comics, and many more. The result is sometimes be so splendidly random that what you see takes you totally by surprise.

All in all, a good book if you don’t mind a little randomness. Definitely read it if you’re interested in learning more about the man behind Maus.


Mom’s Cancer

Mom's Cancer (cover)

Review by Matthew Nielsen

Mom’s Cancer by Brian Fies is a very moving story of a mother in her sixties being diagnosed with cancer and how her three children do their best to help her. It is an autobiography told by Brian, the eldest of the mother’s children.

Events start at the home – the first page showing the mother suffering some kind of stroke. It doesn’t leap to the hospital right away, but instead first shows how the family reacts on that day and waits the next morning, slowly easing up to the diagnosis.

The hospital scenes are done particularly well, capturing the elements of hospital experiences that we can all relate to. During all these challenges, you really grow attached to the characters, as everyone knows people like this, and you admire their courage. As you read, you wonder how it might end; what will happen to the mother? The story is very well done, and unlike some books, the ending isn’t given away early on. I’ll leave you to find out what happens for yourself.

I particularly like the drawing style. Fies is able to capture personality and humanity very well. Extreme detail in comic book art can sometimes limit the personality of a story, while a style that’s too stylized can often become distracting. Fies’ style fits right in the middle of these two extreme, which is just right for this kind of story.

So why the second cancer-related graphic novel review in only so long? Well, that’s because I myself had cancer at one point. I spotted it very early and it was very quickly dealt with by the National Health Service. Within in a week my cancer had been removed, no chemotherapy or radiation treatment. I was extremely lucky, and reading Mom’s Cancer along with Our Cancer Year by Pekar and Brabner has shown in so much depth and detail what could have happened to me and what has happened to so many people and families out there.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but the official website will if you don’t know where you’re going. So if you’re taking a look at the original webcomic, make sure to start on the first page of Mom’ s Cancer.  Or you could pick up the collected book instead, just like I did.

How to diagnose Lung Cancer - Moms Cancer


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.

black-hole-scan


Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, Making Comics

understanding-reinventing-and-making-comics-covers

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.

example-from-making-comics

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.

scan-2-copy


Boxers & Saints

boxers-saints-cover

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