Unlike fashion, books can’t become so-last-year (unless they started out as the button-down jumpsuit of the literary world). I browsed through books with pictures released in 2018 and below are four of my micro-reviews. I tried to cast a wide net, since there are so many subgenres of what for a long time were just called graphic novels, even if they weren’t novels.
I can only write about books I love and read voraciously to the end, because there are so many books to write about. Why spend time on the ones that I either can’t stand reading or can’t look at because the drawings hurt my eyes? Life is too short and I’m too slow a reader for that kind of torment. I selected four to show variety, kept the reviews short, and because I loved these books: three are graphic memoirs, because, big surprise, I love graphic memoirs, and the other is a collection of fictional vignettes that feel based on somebody’s real life experiences (doesn’t all great fiction feel that way, even fantasy/sci-fi?).
I Am Young by M. Dean
My wheelhouse is not fiction, but the images pulled me into this collection of story vignettes, linked through the characters of Miriam and George, about love, music, growing up, becoming who you are. The drawings are exquisite, loose yet expertly rendered. As I read, I kept trying to figure out how the drawings were created. They carry a weight to them (aided by great paper) that gave them a feel of wood block prints.
The color palette is limited to colors I associate to the 1970s—burnt orange, avocado green, various shades of taupe and grey—which allows the line work to not drown in color. I have trouble reading graphic novels that have heavy color-saturation. It’s hard for me to focus on any one part of the image, like looking at fruit salad and trying to follow the story of how this chaos was once a pile of distinct fruits. So, I really appreciated the reserved color palette, because the line work is so great. (Although I did love the hyper-colored pages when Miriam was tripping on acid!)
The thread that ties each vignette to the others are snippets from letters exchanged between Miriam and George as they go through life not being together. The result is a bittersweet sense of the fleeting nature of young love and how memories of it linger long after the relationship all but disappears. It’s published by Fantagraphics, a company that produces so many awesome books that I was surprised they only represented 0.35% of last year’s comics retail market. So, buy a billion copies of I Am Young and knock Marvel and DC down a peg or two!
Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
This graphic memoir is fabulous. It chronicles Krosoczka’s childhood, raised by his grandparents because his mother was a heroin addict, and shows how he used drawing as a kind of social connector to his peers, family and teachers. So much of this story resonated with me, I barely know how to distill the compelling reason to read this book, but I might go with the characters, if I had to pick one thing (which I don’t, yay!).
The characters feel so real, flawed, lovable (even the heroin-addicted mom). Their dialogue feels genuine (versus dialogue used to dump info needed to push the narrative forward, my least favorite reason to have a character speak in a story).
The book is done almost entirely in comics form, without solid panel boundaries, and rendered in muted colors. There is so much motion and emotion in the way this story is conveyed. As I read, I was reminded of how I felt reading Tom Hart’s graphic memoir, Rosalie Lightning, the controlled looseness of the lines, the spare color palette that creates a kind of gaping hole in your heart as you read. Each chapter in Hey, Kiddo begins with a photograph of a letter, childhood drawing or other memorabilia. These lend authenticity to the story.
Something I’ve found about graphic memoir is that some readers, because there are comics or cartoons in the book, believe the story to be fabricated, even if it’s memoir. (I’ve had people who have read my graphic memoir ask me if it’s a true story. The answer is always yes). People are conditioned to assume comics/cartoons are the domain of children’s fantasies. So, I totally got what Krosoczka was doing by putting these chapter starters in, like little reminders to the readers that these comics characters are real people, going through real-life experiences. The story happened in real life. This is what memoir means.
Krosoczka did the readers a solid kindness by turning his friends and family into cartoon characters so the recollections are tempered by cartoon cuteness. This is not cheating the reader out of the ‘true grit’ of life. It’s acknowledging that Krosoczka’s particular true grit might be too hard to handle outside of his cartoon universe. Hey, Kiddo was published by Scholastic.
Flocks by L. Nichols
So much of this book resonated with me—the use of math and physics to express emotions and interpersonal exchanges, the expressive characters, the story of wanting to belong, but always feeling on the fringe in every social group. Flocks chronicles Nichols’ experience growing up in a fiercely religious environment and the long arduous journey towards self-acceptance as a trans man. Nichols draws himself as a buttoned-eye rag doll whose simple form makes him both relatable and identifiable as other among the rest of the realistically rendered characters.
One of the strengths of the storytelling is in the use of lyric techniques—repetition, in particular. In poetry, repetition creates mounting tension, a beat and rhythm. In prose, it can sound like a mistake. In comics, it can work like in poetry. In Flocks, the repeated panels, particularly the one with mouths from his Christian flock saying hateful things, work like a chorus, a technique as old as Plato’s plays and as familiar as a pop song. In fact, the poetic structure of the book carries the main refrain—that in anyone’s life they will move through and belong to many communities (flocks) and hear everyone else’s voices—hurtful, loving, neutral, bossy, friendly, encouraging.
If I write what I heard the loudest, it will sound corny, but pause for a minute and think about the value of love and community. Sing love, find others who sing love, be yourself in love. I told you it’d sound cornball, but Flocks has so much story and craft in its pages, when I got to the end, I loved this book, cornball and all.
Chlorine Gardens by Keiler Roberts
I read this book cover to cover into the wee hours, stifling my belly laughter so as not to wake my family. Before I read a book, especially one in comics form, I flip through it to sense the feel of the images. I sensed a calmness, the images rendered without color, the characters never seeming to move. Comics are sequential, a kind of moving picture, so stillness feels different. I hadn’t read any of Robert’s comics before, so I thought, huh, I like line drawings, could be an interesting story about motherhood. When I read the back cover blurb by Emil Ferris (author of My Favorite Thing is Monsters, a book I adore), who called Keilor Robert’s soul “funny-as-f**k,” I was intrigued, but I still didn’t expect to be up all night guffawing into my hand, hoping not to pee in my bed.
Here’s the thing about deadpan humor. It’s always unexpected. The six-panel pages recalling Robert’s memory birthing her daughter, Xia, took me back to my own experience when my daughter was born, so was totally relatable. And so hilarious. The mood was more somber for the panels when Roberts was diagnosed with MS. I want to buy a stack of Chlorine Gardens and hand them to anyone who smiles when I say: “The main character has a baby and MS. It’s so funny.” Those people are in my flock.
So, there you have it. I wrote these reviews while recovering from hip replacement surgery. I recommend having a fat stack of graphic hybrid stories at your bedside whenever you come home from the hospital, no matter what was done to your mind or body while you were there. Laughter and feeling connected to the larger community is therapeutic. Ask a scientist. She’ll back me up.
P.S. Science is Real! And Mealtrain, let a friend sign you up for Mealtrain for those postoperative days when you have no idea what food is!
Rebecca Fish Ewan, a poet/cartoonist/writer and founder of Plankton Press, teaches in The Design School at Arizona State University. She grew up in Berkeley, California, and now lives in Arizona with her family. Her cartoon/free verse memoir, By the Forces of Gravity, was published in 2018 through Books by Hippocampus. You can connect with her at rebeccafishewan.com