August 7th, 2011

Graphic Narrative Review Mega-Post!

Graphic Cultural Production Mega-Post

I wasn’t exactly sure what to call this review post because it will include reviews of graphic novel, a graphic memoir, and a picture book with some narrative content (Gene Luen Yang’s Level Up, Adrian Tomine’s Scenes from an Impending Marriage, Jason Shiga’s Empire State: A Love Story and Lynda Barry’s Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book).

Lynda Barry’s Picture This (Drawn & Quarterly 2011) is the most experimental of the four “graphic” texts I am reviewing in this post in that there are long stretches and pages where there is little narrative and the reader is meant to make meaning out of sequencing and image juxtaposition. This work allows Barry to explore her process of drawing, coloring, and story composition. We can see Barry’s playfulness in this work as she constantly calls attention to her own insecurities as an artist and as a graphic narrative writer. She often appropriates certain forms, such as coloring books and pattern-making books to great effect. At certain points, I seriously wanted to cut out the patterns that were included to make my own versions of certain repeated shapes, whether in the form of a ghost, moon, or what have you. Barry also includes a well-known figure from her comic strips, that of Arna and Marlys, who act as readerly mediators as Barry shows us various technical approaches to creative constructions. The other major figure is the near-sighted monkey, who is a genuinely spritely figure, always of course wearing glasses. One element that is not really revealed, though, is how Picture This was made. Were pages painted or created and then scanned? Some of the pages show considerable detail and texture, to the extent that you want to touch them to see if they have depth, ridging, or contouring, but then you realize that they are entirely flat pages. It does much to show you the amazing production quality that Drawn and Quarterly has put into this book and we are immediately reminded of Shaun Tan’s The Arrival in this regard. A fun work!

Adrian Tomine’s Scenes from an Impending Marriage (Drawn and Quarterly 2011) is a tiny little square of a book. We see one influence in terms of this packaging later on in the actual short memoir when Adrian’s fiancé suggests that one of the wedding mementos could potentially be a comic that Tomine included for every guest who attended. What we learn from Tomine’s Scenes from an Impending Marriage is that the “character” Adrian likes to exert enough control in wedding planning that he takes a very active part in many of the activities involved in that event, whether related to construction of the wedding invitations or selection of the DJ. In some respects, the “bridezilla” is Adrian. Tomine’s gift is that he’s always able to construct a narrative that exposes flaws of the figures being represented and at the same time allows us to laugh both at them and with them. While an extremely short work, the narrative trajectory is well-crafted and ultimately satisfying!

Gene Yang’s Level Up (First Second 2011) is a collaborative effort. In this case, Yang focuses on the writing, while Thien Pham illustrates. I absolutely loved this graphic novel for the simple that it focuses on gaming. In this case, the main character, Dennis Ouyang must somehow balance his love for gaming with parental expectations. His father, in particular, wants him to become a medical doctor, while Dennis focuses on getting better and better at gaming. When Dennis’s father unexpectedly dies just as Dennis is graduating from high school, Dennis uses that moment to escape from the clutches of his father’s expectations and to fully engage his gaming habits. Unable to balance his interest in video games with his academic studies in college, Dennis is eventually expelled. At that point, however, the narrative takes on a supernatural element that has been characteristic of Yang’s other works: four guardian angels come to help Dennis out, help him get reinstated in school, and ultimately push him to fulfill his destiny: to apparently become a gastroenterologist. As with all of Yang’s work, the stories always combine a mix of domestic drama with family elements, racial politics, and humor. I particularly enjoy Yang’s work because he’s quite conscious of a panethnic cast. Indeed, two of Dennis’s study buddies in medical school are of different Asian ethnic backgrounds. Of course, those who are fans of Pac-Man and other such early era games will delight in Yang’s many gaming references.

In an earlier post, I reviewed Jason Shiga’s Fleep and Bookhunter, which were both out of SparkPlug Comics. Here, I turn to Jason Shiga’s Empire State: A Love Story (Abrams ComicArts 2010), which focuses on an Asian American character named Jimmy, who has fallen in love with Sara, a bookish, but nevertheless hip young woman who has moved to New York. Shiga’s work is, in this case, bolstered by the work of the digital artist, John Pham, who employs colors to help denote different time periods within the graphic novel. The main narrative storyline concerns Jimmy’s trip to New York, one ostensibly taken to profess his love to Sara. These panels are drawn in a bluish hue. The pink panels focus on the past; readers discover, for instance, Jimmy’s hometown connection to Oakland, a city he does not seem to want to leave behind. We further understand that Jimmy’s connection to his mother is particularly strong, but it is also a familial bind that leaves him without much room to grow personally. Thus, Sara presents Jimmy not only with a love interest, but also a model for taking on new experiences and new challenges. Sara’s characterization is quite interesting because she is seen to be an intellectual. In one of the most poignant sequences, we see that one of Sara’s gifts to Jimmy is a tote bag from New York’s famous Strand bookstore. She is often the individual pushing Jimmy to read a certain book. The focus on books is certainly an element that tracks over from Shiga’s earlier BookHunter. As the graphic novel moves into the final arc, we see that Jimmy must tarry with a significant rival for Sara’s affections, thus ramping up the tension in the plot. In terms of the style, Shiga reminds me most of Tomine in that he makes such effective use of minimalist panels, in which voiceover, captioning or dialogue or thought bubbles do not appear in a set of panels. This approach requires the reader to work harder to make “sense” of the narrative and force particular interpretations.

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