Comic Reviews


Hipira

Review by Matthew Nielsen

Hipira, written by Katsuhiro Otomo and illustrated by Shinji Kimura, is a charming children’s book about the adventures of a young vampire. Kimura’s artwork is vividly colourful, rich and finely painted. It is also stylised in a fantastic, crooked sort of way, somewhat reminiscent of The Nightmare Before Christmas

The book is short, but the stories are appealing and fun, and a lot is achieved. It’s good for adults who can appreciate the art, and also good for the kids who want adventures.

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Last Look Trilogy

Review by Matthew Nielsen

The Last Look Trilogy (X’ed Out, The Hive and Sugar Skull) by Charles Burns follows a series of events and thoughts in the life of a young and somewhat unconventional artist named Doug, including his memories, fears, and ambitions. It is a surreal story in which the reader is taken back and forth between various points of a timeline, and even an alternate dreamworld. Reality and dreams are shown one after the other, and in which time and events are shuffled. As the story progresses, the mystery gradually dissolves, and by the end, all elements come together.

Burns makes several references to Tintin, such as the cover of X’ed Out bearing a striking resemblance to Tintin and the Shooting Star as well as evidence of Doug reading Nitnit comics in some panels. Burns also makes references to other comics, seen especially during the dream sequences in which the characters becomes stylized and drawn differently from the “real world” of the story.

Unlike the immense black and white intensity of Burns’ Black Hole graphic novel, the Last Look trilogy uses colour. However, Burns doesn’t hold back on detail, and there remain many strong and bold shadows. Burns’ approach to characters, especially the facial expressions (such as characters sometimes leaving their mouth open during a snapshot photo), adds a relatable kind of believability to the whole mixture.

All in all, if you’re interested in a surreal experience with timeline hopping and strong visuals, you might enjoy the Last Look trilogy.

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Hostage

Review by Matthew Nielsen

Hostage  by Guy Delisle is a graphic novel telling the story of Christophe André’s kidnapping and time spent as a hostage in Chechnya. A young Frenchman working for Doctors Without Borders, André was taken from his office and driven away to remote unknown locations.

Delisle provides a gripping story in capturing the immense expanses of time that André spends in solitude. As days and days go by, the reader is often left alone with André, his prison cell, and the thoughts that go through his mind.

The artwork is stylized and sketchy, but it works, especially with the minimalistic settings and interiors that feature prominently throughout stories like these. Even if the style isn’t immediately your cup of tea, give it a try for the story, and maybe it’ll grow on you. I quite enjoyed this book and found it to be memorable, inspiring, and overall an excellent graphic novel.

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A Chinese Life

Review by Matthew Nielsen

A Chinese Life, written by Li Kunwu & P. Ôtié and illustrated by Li, is a very large autobiography telling the story of both Li and the People’s Republic of China in the post-war period and beyond. At nearly 700 pages in length, this book is an extensive tome that serves as a powerful and surprising testament to the endurance, struggles, achievements, and troubles of Li, his family, and his neighbours.

In contrast to Shigeru Mizuki’s famous manga Showa, which tells both biography and history side-by-side, A Chinese Life is more focused on Li’s life and how history affected it. Because of this, China’s history as a whole isn’t really explore unless Li is in some way affected by it. So don’t expect a full history of China in the  latter half of 20th Century China, but instead of someone’s life in that immense system. Li is and always has been a loyal communist, and goes into details how he saw the world and communism at different stages in his life. He also discusses the various challenges and troubles experienced during his lifetime, ready to honestly express both support and criticism for various moments linked to the politics in his personal history.

Li’s artwork is quite stylised. You could call it non-uniform and somewhat liquidy. It’s very organic. Sometimes this makes it tricky to tell who is who, but usually it’s consistent and there’s a good use of names to clarify things.

I personally learn best through graphic novels, and found this graphic novel to be fascinating. Li is just one person among so many others, but his story is so much like the lives of many others that after reading a biography like this, I’d felt like I’d gotten to know a generation, a nation, and human life itself just a little bit better.

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Chicken Soup & Goji Berries

Review by Matthew Nielsen

Chicken Soup & Goji Berries is written by Naomi Cui and illustrated by Janice Liu. It is a story about the Yang family, a Chinese immigrant family living in Canada, and the arrival of their grandmother (Nainai), who has come to live with them. Throughout the story we see family life and mini-adventures, focusing primarily on how the family interacts and learns from Nainai.

One of the most fascinating elements of this comic is the crossover and mixing of languages. Various characters use a mix of spoken English and Chinese; as stated in the ‘About this Book’ section of the print version, “many immigrant families in Canada communicate to each other in a combination of both English and their native language.” So whilst the children might address their parents in English, the parents would reply in Chinese, which is compellingly explored in Chicken Soup & Goji Berries.

In order to accurately portray what language is being spoken at what time, the comic by default shows written Chinese when characters are speaking Chinese, and written English when they are speaking English. On the web version, you can translate the Chinese to English by scrolling over the speech bubbles, and likewise you can translate the English to Chinese by scrolling over those sections. This creates a very natural and effective way of showing the cultural crossover, and I found it to be a new and enjoyable reading experience. Conversely, the print version accomplishes this effect by having the comic pages, which feature the default text, on the right-hand side of the page spread and then, on the left-hand side, the text is isolated over a white background (in the same location as before) but with the Chinese and English swapped/translated (as seen in the image included in this article). Whilst the print version’s reading experience isn’t as swift and fluid as the webcomic version, it’s still well done and doesn’t get in the way much at all of the reading experience.

This use of language plays an important role in seeing the problems that some characters can have with communication. For example, one chapter show the challenges involved with Nainai not knowing how to speak English, as well as Xinxin (the youngest child) having trouble speaking Chinese, as she is still in the process of learning the basics.

The artwork is fantastic, with delightful drawings overall and excellent character design that gives each individual a unique appearance without it being either jarring or over-the-top. The webcomic version has the first chapter in full-colour, and while the black & white (for print) and blue & white (for webcomic) pages are good, the full-colour pages are even better and I would enjoy seeing the whole comic that way. Likewise, I’d like to see even more of the story continued, as well as more examples of cultural crossover, challenges and potential conflict. But as it stands, for what it is, it’s a really good comic already.

The characters are very likable, the story has fun little surprises, and overall it’s a short but enjoyable journey of family members connecting with each other. I look forward to checking out more work from Cui and Liu in future. If you’re interested in seeing the comic for yourself, you can find it at http://www.chickensoupcomic.com/.

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Thoreau at Walden

Review by Matthew Nielsen

Thoreau at Walden by John Porcellino is a short biography of the writer Henry David Thoreau and his time spent writing in a secluded countryside home at Walden Pond. With only a small vegetable patch for him to grow what he needed for food, Thoreau spent the rest of his time writing, thinking, and observing nature.

Porcellino creates a calming, patient, and contemplative journey. His artwork, although very simplistic and stylized, works very well with the overall mood of the writing. There is very good pacing throughout, with pausing and silence playing powerful roles. At the end of the book is a detailed and helpful notes section, along with source references on Thoreau. It’s a short read, but it’s a good read and I recommend it.

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Mrs Weber’s Omnibus

Review by Matthew Nielsen

Mrs Weber’s Omnibus is a collection of comics written by Posy Simmonds for the British newspaper The Guardian. The comics themselves were usually simply known as “Posy” in the paper, and have also been previously released as multiple other, smaller collections, but here they are all in one big omnibus. However, the collection does not include other work by Simmonds, such as Tamara Drewe and Gemma Bovery, which are separate graphic novels. The comics focus on a range of characters, interconnected either with family ties, romantic relationships, and friendships. These characters (the “Heeps,” “Webers,” and “Wrights,” along with others) interconnect and meet up with each other often. Throughout the first three quarters of the omnibus, we slowly see these characters change and grow, but only somewhat and some of the time.

The main aspect of these comics that work so well is seeing the various discussions and conversations of the time period. Being written and set in the late 1970s through to the late 1980s, the families discuss and adjust to the changes of those time periods, and how they compare to the ideals they grew up with. During the last quarter of the book, we see a lot less of the families that featuring primarily throughout the rest of the collection, and instead see more of other characters, such as a grumpy writer J. D. Crouch. Thus, as a stand-alone book, it seems to have a lack of closure, but in the context of a long-running series, it doesn’t seem so strange.

Due to this nostalgia, it might seem that these stories would mostly appeal to British people, or more specifically, British people who were in their 30s-50s during the 1980s. However, even if you don’t fit these categories, it is interesting to take a glimpse into the everyday life and concerns for this group of people. You may be surprised to find how much you can connect with them, as well as all the things you were unfamiliar with, such as various dated idioms or long lost widespread concerns.

Most of the artwork is either in black and white, or black and white plus an additional colour like red, but there are a handful of colour pages here and there. It is a very thick and sizeable book. The page size is just right for the content, but the book thickness is a tad distressing and can lead to lots of potential damage when reading, so take caution. It’s the kind of book that seems to be best read on the table at home as opposed to on the go.

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Book of Hope

Review by Matthew Nielsen

The Book of Hope by Tommi Musturi follows the life, thoughts, memories, and daydreams of a middle-aged Finnish couple living in the countryside. It focuses initially on the husband but later features the wife as well.

The story feels slow but, at the same time, also like it’s happening over a long period of time. In a way, this does fit the mood of some people in the latter half or third of their lives spending time together in a peaceful, but also uneventful, countryside. The artwork in the book provides excellent examples of sequential comics illustration. Musturi has done a great job with the comics medium, and many pages could be extracted on their own as fine pieces of visual sequential art. The style itself is bold and consistent, reminiscent of various contemporary North American cartoons.

Though in the end I didn’t find the story that interesting, I greatly enjoyed the use of sequential art. The Book of Hope is a very good utility for art students, especially those in the fields of illustration and comics. As for storytelling, the graphic novel is good in some ways but could be better in others.

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War Is Boring

Review by Matthew Nielsen

War Is Boring: Bored Stiff, Scared to Death in the World’s Worst War Zones is a graphic novel memoir by David Axe and Matt Bors that follows elements of the war journalism career and life of David Axe. Though it is based on the webcomic of the same name, I have not read that, and so will just be discussing the graphic novel itself. The story takes place in many locations including Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor, and even Somalia.

At first I expected an insightful telling of what it is to be a war journalist, as well as some history, background, and information related to the wars and other events in the locations that the story takes us to. However, we mostly focus on the thoughts and feelings of the main character, David, and less on the places that he’s reporting in or the situations he’s learning about. This results in a potentially more captivating form of storytelling that other comics journalism, such as the work of Joe Sacco. In most of Sacco’s journalistic comics, we are first given lots of information, either from interviews or historical documents, about the events he is researching. Then we are given a glimpse of the author’s emotions as well as the challenges that he experiences throughout his research. In War is Boring, however, we get very little information about anyone but the main character, which means we get a stronger connection to the main character himself.

Reviewing an autobiographical account can be tricky, because when we are judging the actions of the main character, at the same time we are judging the author. Autobiographies can be written in many ways, such as open and honest accounts that expose both positives and negatives, heavily biased accounts that warp and shape the story being told, and even limited accounts that only expose certain aspects of the author. War Is Boring is of the open and honest type. On one hand, I felt the focus on David’s negative traits made it hard for me to empathize much with him. On the other hand, I do respect Axe for being willing to depict the negative aspects of his account and opinions.

The artwork isn’t bad. The level of detail is consistent throughout. However, I feel something about the way the characters are drawn could have been better; they feel a tiny bit “off” to me. However, all in all, the art gets the job done fine.

In the end, I feel the book could have done with telling us a lot more about the locations and elements being researched. Also, throwing in more positive aspects about the main character, or at least discussing the actions in more detail, would have helped give the reader more empathy for the protagaonist. If people like Joe Sacco and Sarah Glidden can provide informative and captivating accounts of their journey, then surely others can too.

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With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child

Review by Matthew Nielsen

With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child by Keiko Tobe is a manga series about a mother, Sachiko, raising her autistic son, Hikaru, while also exploring the lives and challenges faced by the other family members and their friends. The story is what some would call “edutainment,” a mix of entertainment and education; not enough of one to be purely informative but not enough of the other to be purely for show, a mix of practicality and performance. An example of this is, while the story does have comedic and dramatic moments, there is also frequent dialogue that emphasizes awareness and facts regarding autism, even to the point where some elements feel like tiny PSAs. This is not necessarily bad, but it can feel a little jarring from a purely storytelling perspective. However, it also makes the story highly informative for the most part. The story has taught me many things. Not just about autism, but also about Japanese culture in general thanks to the culture/translation notes sections at the end of each book.

The volumes are quite down-to-earth and focus on relatable real life problems. From English volumes 1-8 we see Hikaru grow from a newborn baby into a junior high student. The growth is quite gradual and many obstacles must be overcome. As the series progresses and Hikaru matures, we begin to focus less on him as his problems either have already been addressed with counter-measures put in place, or we’ve already seen it all before. Instead, the narrative begins to look more on subplots of other characters, with their own potentially relatable issues.

Tobe has written an honest, informative and dedicated work. Many of the ideas on, not just autism, but parenthood in general, that are put forward in this journey, seem most agreeable and healthy. I’ve seen many parents, and children, who could have really done with a book like this in their life, if only they had the interest to read it and the knowledge of its existence. An interesting feature in With the Light is how Tobe deals with antagonists. Instead of them being designated simply as “villains,” the reader is often given the chance to see the antagonist’s point of view and motivations, and thus is able to empathize with their problems. The main characters work towards cooperation and many of the antagonists become either neutral parties or even allies in the journey.

As someone with Asperger’s syndrome, and someone who loves learning via comics, this book was ideal for me. It is perfect for anyone else out there who enjoys both manga and has a keen interest in learning about autism.  I truly learnt a lot about myself, as well as what my parents had to go through raising me, and also about my autistic peers. That is why it immensely saddened me when I found out, half way through English Volume 8, that Keiko Tobe passed away during the course of writing the series. I only realized it when I landed on the last completed chapter. It was followed by two very rough layout chapters, and the rest was bonus material. I am sure that if Tobe had been able to complete the manga, we would have seen Hikaru grow up to have become a productive working adult, but now that day shall never come. However, despite the series being unfinished, I still recommend With the Light to anyone interested in both comics and parenthood and in autism in general. I just wish Tobe could have stayed with us longer and had the opportunity to tell us even more wonderful stories. Thank you very much, Keiko Tobe, for the journeys you gave the world.

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