The Williamsburg Book Club Message Board › TIME TO VOTE: DECEMBER (Graphic Novel Month)
The poll to vote for December's selection is up until next Monday morning (10/24). It's graphic novel month. Descriptions below, vote here.
1. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (240 pages)
As alienated kids go, Jin Wang is fairly run-of-the-mill: he eats lunch by himself in a corner of the schoolyard, gets picked on by bullies and jocks and develops a sweat-inducing crush on a pretty classmate. And, oh, yes, his parents are from Taiwan. This much-anticipated, affecting story about growing up different is more than just the story of a Chinese-American childhood; it's a fable for every kid born into a body and a life they wished they could escape. The fable is filtered through some very specific cultural icons: the much-beloved Monkey King, a figure familiar to Chinese kids the world over, and a buck-toothed amalgamation of racist stereotypes named Chin-Kee. Jin's hopes and humiliations might be mirrored in Chin-Kee's destructive glee or the Monkey King's struggle to come to terms with himself, but each character's expressions and actions are always perfectly familiar. True to its origin as a Web comic, this story's clear, concise lines and expert coloring are deceptively simple yet expressive. Even when Yang slips in an occasional Chinese ideogram or myth, the sentiments he's depicting need no translation. Yang accomplishes the remarkable feat of practicing what he preaches with this book: accept who you are and you'll already have reached out to others.
2. Black Hole by Charles Burns (368 pages)
Starred Review. The prodigiously talented Burns hit the comics scene in the '80s via Raw magazine, wielding razor-sharp, ironic-retro graphics. Over the years his work has developed a horrific subtext perpetually lurking beneath the mundane suburban surface. In the dense, unnerving Black Hole,Burns combines realism—never a concern for him before—and an almost convulsive surrealism. The setting is Seattle during the early '70s. A sexually transmitted disease, the "bug," is spreading among teenagers. Those who get it develop bizarre mutations—sometimes subtle, like a tiny mouth at the base of one boy's neck, and sometimes obvious and grotesque. The most visibly deformed victims end up living as homeless campers in the woods, venturing into the streets only when they have to, shunned by normal society. The story follows two teens, Keith and Chris, as they get the bug. Their dreams and hallucinations—made of deeply disturbing symbolism merging sexuality and sickness—are a key part of the tale. The AIDS metaphor is obvious, but the bug also amplifies already existing teen emotions and the wrenching changes of puberty. Burns's art is inhumanly precise, and he makes ordinary scenes as creepy as his nightmare visions of a world where intimacy means a life worse than death.
3. The Alcoholic by Jonathan Ames (Author), Dean Haspiel (Illustrator) (136 pages)
With stints as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter under his belt, Ames tries his hand for the first time at the graphic novel. Beautifully illustrated in moody, expressionist panels by Haspiel, The Alcoholic tells the story of Ames' alter ego, Jonathan A., and his self-destructive love affair with the bottle. Jonathan's taste for liquor begins, as for many with his affliction, during illicit high-school parties. From there, his binges follow their own unique trajectory, keeping pace with an undistinguished college career and following him into an oddly successful livelihood as writer of hard-boiled detective fiction. Ames lends a quirky flavor to Jonathan's occasionally nightmarish narrative by eavesdropping on his relationship with his aging great-aunt; the perplexing estrangement of his best friend, Sal; a heartbreaking romance with a woman he refers to as "San Francisco"; and a drunken midlife tryst with an octogenarian dwarf. Yet Jonathan's tale is ultimately a universal one, reflecting the struggles all of us have in navigating the tributaries of career and relationships while keeping personal demons at bay.
4. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel (232 pages)
Starred Review. This autobiography by the author of the long-running strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, deals with her childhood with a closeted gay father, who was an English teacher and proprietor of the local funeral parlor (the former allowed him access to teen boys). Fun Home refers both to the funeral parlor, where he put makeup on the corpses and arranged the flowers, and the family's meticulously restored gothic revival house, filled with gilt and lace, where he liked to imagine himself a 19th-century aristocrat. The art has greater depth and sophistication that Dykes; Bechdel's talent for intimacy and banter gains gravitas when used to describe a family in which a man's secrets make his wife a tired husk and overshadow his daughter's burgeoning womanhood and homosexuality. His court trial over his dealings with a young boy pushes aside the importance of her early teen years. Her coming out is pushed aside by his death, probably a suicide. The recursively told story, which revisits the sites of tragic desperation again and again, hits notes that resemble Jeanette Winterson at her best. Bechdel presents her childhood as a "still life with children" that her father created, and meditates on how prolonged untruth can become its own reality. She's made a story that's quiet, dignified and not easy to put down.
5. Monsters by Ken Dahl (208 pages)
Now, here's a book that lends itself wholly to the form. Monsters is a semi-autobiographical story of Dahl's experience after contracting herpes and letting it infect not only his body but his psyche. Half novel, half bizarro health class film strip, Dahl's decidedly uncomfortable illustrations and brutally honest storytelling make this the best comic you'll ever read about herpes. Or, maybe, anything. The memoir of illness is a creative nonfiction staple that, optimally, marries the story of an interesting personality to information and counsel about a malady the reader or someone the reader knows may someday contract. Since sickness tends to be unattractive, such books are seldom clinically illustrated. Merging autobiographical comics and disease info, however, Dahl defies the genre's visual reticence. And because the complaint in question is sexually transmitted herpes, there are other reasons for visual reticence. But alternative comics, at which Dahl is the dabbest of hands, have never seen a pudendum, whatever its condition, and blinked. So there are plenty of afflicted genitalia on view, also mouths (oral is as common as venereal herpes), and because they're intended to underline Dahl's craven fear (he commonly draws himself inside a giant herpes cell or morphing into one), they represent worst cases only. The information Dahl parcels out as he spills his misery—almost entirely psychological and unnecessary, though he spun it out for five years—is sound, and his self-flaying humor throughout is marvellously ludicrous.