Belgium!

Welcome to Marwencol by Mark Hogancamp and Chris Shellen. Princeton Architectural Press, 2016. 9781616894153. 278pp

Gene: Did you ever see a documentary called Marwencol?
Sarah: The name sounds familiar but I don’t think I did.
G: It’s about Mark Hogancamp. He’s had kind of a sad life. He was married, he was in the army. After he got out his wife divorced him and he became an alcoholic living in, I think, rural New York. He went out with some friends one night a while back and got totally plowed — his blood alcohol level was 3.0 or so after this incident. He was drinking boilermakers — whiskey and beer, whiskey and beer. And he admitted to some guys that he’s a cross dresser. After the bar closed down, these guys beat him so badly he was in a coma, unconscious, for 9 days. Lots of brain damage. It knocked him back decades. He had been an artist, he drew a lot, but when he woke up he had to relearn how to walk and talk and it was awful.
And so — I want to admit I’m doing a piss-poor job of summarizing his life, you should see the documentary — he got these 1/6 scale action figures and started taking photos of them. Outside the trailer where he lives he created a World War II era Belgian village he calls Marwencol. There’s a character that’s him, Hogey. There are Nazi SS characters who are stand-ins for the guys who beat him up. There’s a bar, Hogancamp always wanted to own a bar.
Continue reading “Belgium!”

Ordinary Heroes

Something Terrible by Dean Trippe. Iron Circus Comics, 2016. 9780989020756. 32pp.

Trippe tells the story of something terrible that happened to him in his childhood in crisp and expressive four-panel pages that are nearly wordless. The sexual abuse he suffered is indicated in only two frames: in one showing him and his abuser as shadows, and in another with his underwear on the floor, the threats he heard written underneath — “If you tell anyone, I’ll kill your family.” He goes to the police and endures a court case, but his true turning point is watching a Batman movie that shows the hero’s origins in a terrible childhood loss. Trippe sees that he can turn his pain into a way to become a hero. He still struggles as an adult, especially with the fear (constantly reinforced by TV police dramas) that he’ll end up abusing someone, which he depicts as holding an imaginary gun to his head. He eventually finds a way to live his life as his own sort of hero, including an epilogue on how hard it was to have to repeat his story so many times after its initial publication. The story is brief and tremendously powerful. Trippe wrote it primarily for people who had been abused, but I think his message about the power of fiction will speak to others as well.

On The Road

On The Camino by Jason. Fantagraphics, 2017. 9781683960218. 186pp.

To mark his 50th birthday, Norwegian cartoonist Jason walked the Camino de Santiago from St. Jean Pied de Porte in France to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Along the way he stays at hostels, meets fellow pilgrims, and washes his socks and underwear quite a bit (it looks like he packed light). There’s lots of time for him to think and walk, and there’s also ridiculous moments, like a nice conversation in a restaurant suddenly interrupted by a cover of “Hotel California” played at full volume.

This graphic novel is done in Jason’s usual deadpan style. Every page is a 2 x 2 panel grid featuring people drawn as anthropomorphic animals. I love that it’s black and white — his drawings are marvelous, and somehow the lack of color makes me enjoy them more. And the story makes me feel closer to him — on trips alone, I’m notorious (at least in my own mind) for not talking much with other people and just walking from one place to the next.

Did this make me want to walk the Camino? No. Or at least, if I ever do, I won’t stay in hostels because of the bedbugs. When Jason mentioned them I shuddered.

Photographer, Awake At Night

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me by Bill Hayes. Bloomsbury, 2017. 9781620404935. 304pp.

I love Oliver Sacks. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat made me laugh during community college (and convinced me my psych teacher wasn’t totally insane), and lead me to his other books and essays. Years later I finally heard his silly, totally smart and curious voice, on Radiolab, and I realized he was even stranger and more driven than Robin Williams made him out to be in the movie version of Awakenings. I started to see him in my mind as my crazy, science obsessed uncle.

And then he got sick and, after writing a few more beautiful essays, he died back in 2015. Now I’ll never get a chance to say hello and tell him what his writing meant to me. (I’ve been very fortunate — I’ve met several of the authors whose writing meant this much to me, and they’ve been very kind despite my incoherent blathering: Lloyd Alexander, Judy Blume, Ursula K. LeGuin. )

Which brings me to Bill Hayes’ marvelous book. It’s not just a love letter to Oliver Sacks, it’s a love letter to the people of New York City. Hayes captures his joy at meeting and photographing people, at getting to know Ali who works at his local newsstand, and at all of the one-off interactions with random strangers he wouldn’t have anywhere else. Best of all, Hayes captures falling in love with Oliver Sacks, and all of the wonderfully awkward moments as their affection for one another grows. Sacks seems startled by it all — he hadn’t had a relationship for 30 years and didn’t come out publicly until (I think) On The Move  was published. The moments of pure, private Oliver Sacks in the book are a joy to read as he comes out of his shell. Plus there are glimpses of wonder as Sacks ponders and writes and just sits thinking and chatting.  Sacks’ death from cancer happens off-page but the moment had me sobbing.

I cannot imagine writing about so profound a loss when it’s so fresh. In the postscript, Hayes says he wrote most of the book “in Rome in a single five-week period less than six months after Oliver died.” It’s brave and beautiful and I’m so happy he was able to write it.

Really real friend friends

Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham. First Second, 2017. 9781626724167. 224pp.

I feel like I’m seeing Pham’s name and artwork everywhere. I loved The Bear Who Wasn’t There (am I imagining the scene with a giraffe on a toilet?) and I’ve got Isabella for Real near the top of my to-read pile. And she also drew a full length graphic novel with Shannon Hale (Princess in Black, Rapunzel’s Revenge (I know she’s written a lot of other cool books, but those are my favs))?!? When does she sleep?

First, the art: fantastic. Pham captures the red-headed Shannon’s everyday antics and really brings her imagined games to life, too. She’s right up there with Raina Telgemeier. Wow.

The story: This is Shannon Hale’s story, based on her memories of elementary school friendships. (There are awkwardly beautiful pictures of Hale at the back for comparison with the character’s look, along with an author’s note about the story.) Shannon loves her friend Adrienne so much! But in second grade, others want her attention, too, and then Adrienne moves away. Shannon makes another friend, Tammy, who clearly wants Shannon’s friendship while all Shannon wants is for Adrienne to come back. And then she comes back. It’s painful to to read, and it only gets worse as girls form grade school cliques and Shannon moves in and out of them — lots of social anxiety, lots of stomach cramps. It’s saved from a didactic after school special vibe and comes alive because Shannon doesn’t always do the nicest thing, and like in real life it’s often not clear what she should do. (I’m leaving this where my high school aged daughter can find it.)

Renaissance Woman

Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story by Peter Bagge. Drawn & Quarterly, 2017. 9781770462694.

Bagge’s first biographical comic, Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story, was the kind of history-is-stranger-than-fiction book I love, so I was pretty excited that he’d written another one. And it’s about Zora Neale Hurston: writer, folklorist, and star of the Harlem Renaissance. It doesn’t disappoint: it’s full of the same kind of outrageous behavior, headstrong self-confidence, and perseverance in doing what needed to get done. Her life had family troubles! Literary feuds! Scrapes with death in rural Florida while collecting folklore! (There was a woman with a knife in a turpentine camp who felt Hurston had been putting the moves on her man!) And lots and lots of romantic relationships! (See also the previous parenthetical!)

There is a but coming: Hurston’s very full life, complex political beliefs, friendships and sometimes enemyships with a list of influential people as long as your arm means that you get plunged into the middle of  her life without a lot of lead up or context… until the notes section at the back. The notes, arranged in order by the page they explain, have the same tone as the comics with lots more detail. I just wish the information from each section could be combined better with the notes. I’ll be first in line for any future biographies by Bagge, but now I’ll be sure to flip back to the notes section as I read them.

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.