Big Dreams… Of Murder!

Agatha Christie by Maria Isabel Sánchez Vegara, illustrated by Elisa Munsó, translated by Raquel Plitt. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2017. 9781847809605. In the series Little People, Big Dreams.

I’ll admit that I was confused by the series name Little People, Big Dreams. Are all the biographees short? No, turns out they are all about women who had some aspiration in childhood that led to their achievements as adults. In Agatha Christie’s case, she thought up better endings for the books her mother read aloud to her. She grew up to learn about poisons as a nurse in WWI, and later created the legendary detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. She wrote mystery novels that became famous all over the globe. (The afterword notes that her books have been translated into more than a hundred languages and that her book And Then There Were None is one of the ten most-read books in the world.) This book is both an accessible biography for kids who won’t be reading Christie’s novels until they’re older, and an encouragement to explore their interests.

I wish I had Gene’s eye and vocabulary for illustration so I could say something more informative than “I really liked it!” The pictures are black and white pen drawings full of detailed patterns and swooping lines. Each page has an accent in red, and the faces are simple and appealing.

On The Wings Of Lots Of Dead Birds

Audubon: On the Wings of the World by Fabien Grolleau & Jérémie Royer. Nobrow, 2016. 9781910620151.

I’m not someone who longs for walks in primeval wilderness, I don’t read history books, and most biographies leave me cold, but this beautifully drawn and colored graphic novel was amazing. Audubon was obsessed with painting the birds of America. He left his family behind to undertake dangerous trips into the unsettled wilderness to paint the birds he found there. Two moments that stand out to me: Audubon climbing into a hollow sycamore tree to investigate the thousands of swallows nesting inside, and shooting at a flock of pigeons in which birds may have numbered over a billion. (The most shocking thing about the book was the cavalier way he killed so many birds so that he could pose them in lifelike ways to paint. He’d sometimes be so captivated by them that he let them live, but those exceptions were few and far between. It was more like: “Look at that beautiful bird!” Pow!) The scientific community in the U.S. wasn’t supportive of Audubon’s work — they saw him as an artist, not a naturalist — so he eventually had to travel to England to find support for his famous book.

I often say that the key to pursuing one’s artistic goals is a supportive spouse or partner, and Audubon’s wife goes above and beyond in terms the number of years she spends without him, raising all their children. (I’d love to read a graphic novel about her life next.)

Pair this with Nick Bertozzi’s epic Lewis & Clark to try to give the comic readers in your life a love of nature and history. It’s too late for me, but I’m sure that could work for someone with fewer plant allergies.

You’re Gonna Make It After All

Maker Lab: 28 Super Cool Projects: Build, Invent, Create, Discover by Jack Challoner. DK Publishing, 2016. 9781465451354.

Make: Props and Costume Armor: Create Realistic Science Fiction and Fantasy Weapons, Armor, and Accessories by Shawn Thorsson. Maker Media, 2016. 9781680450064.

I’m really happy that some libraries have started including makerspaces in their services. The hands-on exploration and learning of the maker movement is a great fit with the library’s more traditional learning methods via books and videos. Now that I’m offering maker activities at work, I have to ask myself “What’s a maker activity and what isn’t?” My own working definition is that it must have some problem solving or design decision involved, and that the learning aspect of the activity can be successful even if the final product isn’t beautiful or operational.

Maker Lab and Make: Props and Costume Armor really point to the huge spectrum in making. Maker Lab looks just like the experiments and educational activities that used to go in science fair books and kid magazines. Remember learning about growing crystals by making rock candy? Totally in there. Unlike the books I devoured in my youth, it also shows you how to make a cardboard amplifier for your smartphone. Make: Props and Costume Armor features near-professional-level fabrication, mold making, and painting. It looks like the sort of thing that the Mythbusters do when they’re not busting myths. After my first encounter with the 501st (at Dragoncon), I was curious how they made their armor. Turns out it involves softening a sheet of plastic in your oven and using a homemade vacu-former. Yikes! This book covers that and more: many are definitely the kind of projects that will expose you to toxic fumes and household fire hazards.

Totally Killer

The Killer Volume 1 by Matz and Luc Jacamon. Archaia, 2009. 9781932386448. 128pp.

The Killer Volume 2 by Matz and Luc Jacamon. Archaia, 2009. 9781932386561.  176pp.

Gene: The Killer Volumes 1 and 2, my pic for our book club!
Sarah: Do you want my first reaction?
G: Yes!
S: I went to an exhibit on Martin Scorcesse and there was a little thing in there about a film he directed for Roger Corman. (Many great directors directed a film for Corman because he would hire you before you were well known.) And apparently Corman said “You can rewrite the script however you want as long as there’s nudity every 15 minutes.” So I felt like this was one of those movies.
G: Ow!
S: There was murder, there was darkness, and there was nudity every 15 minutes.
G: Well it’s about a killer for hire, he’s French.
S: The whole book is so French! They translated the words in the word balloons but not the sound effects.
G: The book was originally published in French. It’s very hard to translate sound effects because they’re part of the image — changing them would require the art to be redrawn. It’s easier to change the letters in the balloons because they’re isolated. That’s why in manga you usually see sound effects in Japanese.
S: Good to know!
G: I love the coloring of these graphic novels so much. It’s subtle and amazing. It’s from the mid 1990s so I’m not sure whether it was done digitally, but probably not.
The story starts with the killer waiting to shoot a doctor from an apartment where he’s holed up. The guy doesn’t show up, doesn’t show up, doesn’t show up, so the killer reminisces about other jobs he’s done. He thinks about a job he had three months earlier, another rich guy who he killed next to his swimming pool. There’s a picture of the guy sitting next to the pool with his hand on a drink and you don’t realize until you flip the page that the guy is dead already. Loved that.
Continue reading “Totally Killer”

One More Year Of Drug-Addled Sadness And Hilarity

One More Year by Simon Hanselmann. Fantagraphics, 2017. 9781606999974. 200pp.

I last wrote about my love for Hanselmann’s comics years ago, and I can assure you that his tales of Megg (a young, green witch), Mogg (her boyfriend, a cat), Owl (yeah, an owl) and the other folks they know are only getting better. (In this case that means sad and gross.)  Megg can only deal with her emotional problems by getting high, which she does often, leading to a lot of puking. Mogg isn’t really there for her, though he’s usually right next to her on the couch. They’re both freeloading off of Owl, who seems determined to work hard and escape the black hole of bad decisions that his “friends” pull him into. Owl’s attraction to Megg and his lack of a non-stoner social circle keeps him circling the drain that their lives are destined to be sucked into. At the end of the last book, Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam, there were hints that Megg was on the verge of trying to change her life. And that hint is still somewhere in this book, too, if it’s not just me hoping for that on her behalf.

Wow, that sounds a bit depressing. This book and the others are also riotously funny, especially if you can laugh at the grossest of lowbrow humor and giggle at sadness. My favorite bits in this one were Owl trying to treat his friends to a fancy French dinner for his own birthday (horrible choice), when Owl briefly works with Megg and Mogg’s boss at Hot Outdoors (they turn it into a nightclub), and the high school flashback episode (Owl made me soooo sad). And of course Werewolf Jones, the world’s worst father, is disgusting. He’s super pathetic when he turns back into a human.

When I saw Hanselman at the Fantagraphics booth at last year’s Short Run Comix Fest I didn’t know what to say. “I love your work!” seemed too generic. “I love it when Werewolf Jones and his kids poop on Owl’s bed!” seemed overly specific (and I didn’t really want anyone to overhear me saying that). I chose silence. I think it’s just too weird for a non-stoner in his mid-40s to talk about his love for these books, except in a short review like this.

Bookmobiles!

Bookmobiles in America: An Illustrated History by Orty Ortwein. Createspace, 2015. 9781514813171.

Bookmobiles in America definitely looks self-published: the pictures are black and white and sometimes low resolution, and there is the occasional misspelling (though let’s be honest: too many books from mainstream publishers have them, too). But the research is top notch, the writing is enthusiastic, and the book is much-needed. Ortwein gathered information from libraries all over America and delved into historic documents to tell a fascinating story.

There’s a section on early mobile libraries, which were often small wooden cabinets moved from city to city and left in non-library buildings. There’s a page on the man who may have been the first bookmobile driver: John Sanderson of the Perambulating Library of Mealsgate, England, who rotated mobile collections between cities using a kind of wheelbarrow. (There’s a picture and it’s great.) The earliest American bookmobiles were horse-drawn When automobiles and trucks were first used, the drivers were often library janitors. Custom-built bookmobiles followed. Military mobile libraries during World War II increased not only reading among the soldiers and sailors but support for libraries after the war.

Politics, weather, geography, money, and even the fuel shortages of the 1970s influenced the look and use of bookmobiles from state to state. Mobile library service was even shaped by segregation, a topic too rarely covered in library history. The WPA library projects of the thirties initially tried not to rock the boat over race. Later they collaborated with black philanthropic societies to fund depository collections and bookmobiles for black communities. Even then, the WPA estimated that there were two million people without access in areas served by whites-only libraries. Some of libraries that did serve blacks had separate bookmobiles for their black and white patrons.

The pictures are just delightful and make the book worth picking up even if you don’t read the history. There are historic bookmobiles galore, including boats, planes, streetcars, and converted military vehicles. But I recommend you do read the text. Don’t miss the story of a bookmobile in rural Montana in the 1950s that showed movies at a local tavern (chosen because they had electricity) called the Dirty Shame, Jr!

I Love Beets

Polska: New Polish Cooking by Zuza Zak. Quadrille, 2016. 9781849497368.

This cookbook checks all my cookbook-requirement boxes: gorgeous food photographs, delicious ingredients, dishes I’ve never tried, instructions that aren’t too fiddly or time-consuming, and the very first page I flipped to had a recipe I want to make: roast beetroot slices with a garlic-filled white bread sauce. It’s worth reading through the recipes and not just skimming the dish names — there are alternate preparations, as well as recipes for sides, that sound great on their own, like a creamy cucumber and dill salad that’s tucked in the meat section with a recipe for breaded turkey escalope. Add the gorgeous cover and I’m completely sold. (It’s even prettier in real life than the picture: the reds are glorious, there’s spot gloss, relief, and an elegant gold accent. If this book was a dress, I’d wear it all the time.)