The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa book coverIn this graphic novel, Ehwa lives with her mother, a single parent and tavern-keeper, in a rural Korean town in an unspecified era. Over the course of the book—the first in a trilogy—Ehwa goes through puberty, slowly learning about sex, sexuality and relationships. Her education is fitful; she picks up bits and pieces from her peers, from adults’ overheard conversations, and from observing her mother develop a relationship with a traveling salesman.

The text is a bit too precious. Ehwa is both ignorant unaware of her own body, to the extent that she thinks, at age 7, that she’s deformed because two boys tell her that everyone has a penis. In contrast, she is unrealistically aware of emotions. At thirteen, she’s saying, “A few times, I’ve picked tiger lilies and left them on this bridge in case he comes by… but every time I check I see that the flowers are still here, wilted and dried up. Like Mom with her gourd flower, I left the tiger lilies here as a sign for him. But it looks like only the butterflies noticed.”¹ A little too sweet and a little to aware— of her own emotions and the emotions behind her mother’s actions— it doesn’t feel realistic. She’s incredibly conscious of herself, but without the self-consciousness that paralyzes many teenage girls. More believable, and more interesting, are the dirty, not-quite-good-natured teasing of Ehwa’s mother’s customers at the tavern and the similarly half-in-good-fun and half-mean clashes between Ehwa and her contemporaries.

The art is gorgeous and takes equal billing with the text: both propel the story. The text tries a little too hard to be poignant; the art succeeds effortlessly. The simple black-and-white drawings somehow manages to convey complex facial expression and portray Ehwa’s development and her continuing but changing curiosity and concern about her body. It’s worth it just for the art.

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¹ P. 114-115

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The Color of Earth

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Courtney is not terribly excited that she and her parents are moving into a creepy old mansion with her great-uncle (or maybe he’s her great-great uncle – her parents don’t seem quite sure). She’s also not terribly excited about a new school full of the kind of snobby rich kids her snobby not-rich parents really wish she’d befriend. On the other hand, her uncle’s collection of books on goblins and spells look pretty cool, especially since there are goblins lurking in the house and on the shortcut home from school (shortcuts being critical if you’re trying to avoid being mugged by middle-school bullies).

The first four issues of the Courtney Crumrin comic books, Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things is an adorable shout-out to all of us nerds who spent middle school more or less unhappy, alone, and misunderstood, with only books to keep us company. Courtney’s adolescent angst is counteracted by her adventures and her confidence – and stubbornness – in the realm of the weird and the magical. We wished for magical/Jedi/etc. powers to prove that our perceived difference from our peers was real, and made us special; Courtney has those powers, but still sits alone at the lunch table. That’s life for you!

The black and white art is excellent, in a stylized, creepy sort of way. The blandness of Courtney’s parents is emphasized by a level of androgyny in their depictions, and blank eyes lend extra spookiness to most of the faces.

Courtney Crumrin and the Night Creatures is nowhere near a complete story, but I’m used to comics being serialized and there are several more Courtney Crumrin volumes after this one, so it doesn’t really bother me that this is the start of something rather than anything complete. It does feel a bit weird to review it at this point; these are definitely more initial thoughts than the more complete processing and analyzing I do after finishing a novel.

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Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things ~ Courtney Crumrin on Wikipedia
Ted Naifeh

Rapunzel's Revenge CoverRapunzel didn’t grow up in a tower in some grim European forest: she grew up the pampered daughter of a witch in a sumptuous manor surrounded by a high wall in something like the American West. She was shut up in a gaint magical tree (it’s a tower-like structure) after she discovered that outside the manor were miles and miles of nasty mines run by the witch – whom Rapunzel had always called Mother – and in which her real mother worked as a slave. Bored in the tower, Rapunzel began to practice acrobatics and figured out that her ever-growing hair, when braided, could be used for the rope and lasso tricks she learned from a guard when she was younger. Thus, she frees herself and sets out on adventures in this rather Wild West.

This leads me to the book’s awesomeness:

Weaponized hair. Weaponized hair!
No damsel-in-distress, handsome-prince-to-the-rescue thing.

Alas, now I must discuss the book’s less-than-awesomeness.

As seems to be becoming usual, I was disappointed by a lack of use for the niftiness of the comic format. The most blatant failure of Rapunzel’s Revenge was overuse of first-person narration/inner monologue. An occasional thought-block in a comic can be used to great effect, but overuse weakens the narrative and denies the art its central role in conveying the emotional states of the character. If the character is speechless, you don’t need use words to tell us that she’s speechless.

Mostly, I just had a sense of potential unrealized; the concept is great, but it never rises much above silly.

Maybe it’s time for me to give up on graphic novels that didn’t start their lives as comic books. I just keep being disappointed.

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Rapunzel’s Revenge ~ Shannon Hale
My review of The Goose Girl
My review of Enna Burning

Skim Mariko Jillian TamakiSkim – so named because she’s not – is a goth Wiccan at a preppy, all-girls private school. The ex-boyfriend of a classmate kills himself, and suddenly the school is talking about death and suicide all the time, which makes it extra-fun to be the resident goth. And it’s always extra-fun to be queer and have a crush on a teacher.

It’s well-written and the art is good. It did not trigger a rant about graphic novels that don’t use the form, so that’s a definite plus. The territory covered is not particularly unique, though it’s dealt with well; the melodrama of high school is all there, but it’s understated enough that the book isn’t melodramatic. I appreciated the situationalism; you can see how Skim’s friendships occur because these people were thrown together, as many high school friendships happen. I really wish it was more fleshed out; Skim’s pudginess, her status as one of two Asian Americans in her school, are barely touched on at all, and even her sexuality and spirituality are only superficially covered. I was enjoying it, I was intrigued, I wanted to know more— and then it just ended. Abruptly. As this review is about to do.

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Skim ~ Mariko Tamaki ~ Jillian Tamaki

Aya Miriam Newman Reviewing YA Lit for Adult Readers In college, my playwrighting professor taught us that the first – and perhaps most important – thing a playwright had to do when embarking on a new work was to answer the question, “Why does this story need to be a play?” If you can’t explain why something is best presented in that difficult form, perhaps what you’re looking at shouldn’t really be a play.

I really wish more graphic novel creators asked themselves that question.

Aya has a good story: older teens navigating the turbulent waters of family expectant, personal desires, romance, and sexuality. It happens that this is taking place in the late 1970s in the Ivory Coast, and thus we, your standard American reader (of any color), get a glimpse of how life is different and yet exactly the same someplace else.

But perhaps it shouldn’t really be a graphic novel.

Visually, it was uninteresting – a straightforward panel layout, typically a 2×3 grid, never deviating from strictly outlined rectangles – with boring art, sometimes poor placement of speech bubbles and no real sense of movement or flow between images. It also lacked visual or textual break between sections; where a prose work would have chapter or section breaks, or a well-designed graphic novel might have a wordless splash page, a change of border or style, or a title heading the new section, it merely had page breaks, often leaving me to flip back and forth to see if I’d missed a page. I’m a huge fan of comics and graphic novels; unfortunately, Aya didn’t take advantage of the many opportunities the form offers.

Actually, perhaps its composition of brief vignettes slowly coalescing into a sense of overarching plot would have been better served as a play.

Oh, the irony.

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Clement Oubrerie ~ le blog de Clement Oubrerie
Aya