Most cartoonists I’ve worked with have experienced some kind of cartooning-related injury. Turns out drawing for hours on end, whether on a computer or desk or whatever, isn’t great for the body. This nonfiction graphic novel isn’t trying to replace a qualified healthcare provider for illustrators, but it does give a lot of useful advice for those who draw a lot (or, like me, spend all day hunched over a computer) and want to avoid pain and injury. After a discussion about not ignoring pain (a devious looking lightning bolt with evil eyebrows) and indications that it’s time to see a doctor (if your neck is tied in an actual knot, just call 9-1-1) there’s an explanation of repetitive stress injuries with an anatomy lesson. (Great, except that even thinking about my spine and how it moves always makes me queasy.) I desperately need to reread10 the section on posture, and I think we’d all be better off thinking and training like we’re athletes — changing how we work, getting enough rest, stretching, etc.
This is one of the more useful and approachable nonfiction comics I’ve read, and it’s right up there with Ellen Forney’s Rock Steady (which offers advice on living with bipolar, based on experience) in terms of its approach.
Nunavik by Michel Hellman. Pow Pow Press, 2017. 9782924049358. 149pp.
I couldn’t make it to TCAF again this year, so I’m making it up to myself by ordering a few French and French Canadian graphic novels. I loved Hellman’s Mile End, a graphic novel about the neighborhood of the same name in Montreal, so ordering this was a no brainer. And it turns out to be a sequel, kinda — it starts with a conversation about it between Hellman and Pow Pow’s publisher on a bench in front of Wilensky’s, and then with Hellman trying to draw another book about his neighborhood before finally setting out on a trip to Canada’s north. (His wife thinks it’s an odd sort of mid-life crisis.)
Hellman flies via prop plane (with lots of stops) to Kuujjaq. The guy next to him on the plane wants to know if he’s going to hunt, find a girlfriend, or to escape child support payments, and can hardly believe he’s a tourist. But after they land he shows Hellman around, and it gave me a great sense of the place, a thriving metropolis of the North with about 2,200 people, a giant junk yard, and a rather sad bar scene. Hellman goes outside after a night of drinking to witness both the northern lights and an idiotic four-wheeler crash. And that night sets the tone: the people are friendly, the place is gorgeous and scary, and it’s beautiful and frustrating and somewhat exhausting to people from the south. He heads north to hike over tundra to Pingualuit Crater, traveling a bit with a film crew trying to capture a caribou migration, and generally has a trip I’d love to make (except for those low-flying, exceedingly long rides in prop planes). Hellman Includes bits about the local history and culture. Most unexpected fact: the Inuit love to golf, and villages have courses in the tundra. And I learned about the Dorset culture for the first time, a race of “giants” who inhabited the area before the Inuit.
Gene: This book was originally published in Polish —
G: I bought this for my daughter, whose name is shortened to B.B. And yeah, those endpapers, looks like the inside of a perfectly laid out beehive, which is nifty, and the illustrations are just expletively great.
Apparently Poland produces great picture books, because there’s that imprint, Big Picture Press, that publishes so many in English. (Welcome to Mamoko is one of my favorites. They also published Under Water, Under Earth.) But I was wowed by this book so had to buy it for her.
S: It’s cartoony and cute!
G: Kinda. But there’s no black lines around the images, it’s more the style of pieces of color being used to create the pictures.
S: It looks like Mary Blair‘s work.
G: (It does.) Honeybees have been around for millions of years — they coexisted with the dinosaurs. This two-page spread describes what they were like, apparently they were more like wasps, before they started getting food from plants, and at that point they got hairier so it was easier to transport pollen.
(turning page) This is a huge and beautiful picture of a honeybee.
S: That is so great.
G: Queen, drone, and worker, in scale. Honeybees have four wings, which I hadn’t realized. And very gruesome looking horror mouth parts.
The basic layout of this book is there are two-page spreads with, across the bottom 1/10th, some bit of text about the images above. On the anatomy page there’s some content about that, including that their wings beat 230 times per second and that they can reach a speed of about 20 mph.
S: That’s pretty fast.
G: And why you can’t run away from a determined bee.
Here are pictures of the hive, doing different things in there, and how the workers raise a queen. And then a honeybee mating picture — they do it in the air, as the queen is trying to fly off to establish a new hive!
G: Most of the eggs are fertilized during this mating flight, and those become workers, or new queens if they’re fed royal jelly. Unfertilized eggs hatch in to drones.
G: There’s a little bit about the waggle dance, swarms — the image is so complicated and layered I can’t imagine anyone creating it without a computer, but I’m probably wrong — there’s a complexity to some of these images that reminds me of medical illustrations.
There’s some info on biomimicry, pollination (including other pals that pollinate, like the death’s head moth), small bees, cave people, ancient Egypt (where they kept bees in nifty, stackable clay vessels), the diet of the Greek gods, and then here’s dead Alexander the Great, who was transported home in a huge pot of honey after he died (to preserve him). There’s a lot on Slavic cultures, and more on the Polish culture than I’d normally expect to see in a book on bees, because of the book’s origin. St. Ambrose is the patron saint of bees! And Napoleon and Josephine changed the fleur de lis to a golden bee design, to wipe away all traces of the kings who’d ruled France before him. Here is a fake newspaper broadside with miscellaneous bee facts.
S: Way more text on that page.
G: Some bits on domestication, and then beekeeping through the ages. Weird Polish history note: beekeepers were held in high regard, and in medieval Poland they had a lot of power, including being able to sentence people to death, which was the punishment for anyone who stole bees.
S: The medieval beekeeper uniforms are fantastic!
G: Bee hives people make (including old styles from other cultures), beekeeping equipment which is fascinating if you’ve never seen it, and then the crazy thing — people make beehive sculptures (in Poland!).
S: I see Jesus.
G: … and St. Francis, Adam and Eve, demons, soldiers…the list goes on. This is my favorite page in the book. I need to see if my friend Dave, who keeps bees, can build something like this.
Hearst’s previous collections, Unusual Creatures: A Mostly Accurate Account of Some of Earth’s Strangest Animals and Extraordinary People: A Semi-Comprehensive Guide to Some of the World’s Most Fascinating Individuals, were two of my favorite booktalking titles in past years. Hearst has a great eye for lesser known animals and people and includes the most interesting and entertaining facts about each. Now he has a book on constructions: from the famous (Stonehenge) to the humble (various Paul Bunyan statues scattered across the US) to the odd (El Pulpo Mechanical, a massive robotic octopus originally built for Burning Man). He even includes one that’s not man-made: the cathedral termite mounds in Northern Australia. Each gets two pages: one big illustration and a description of what it is and why it’s cool, along with an occasional quiz or poem. It’s perfect to pick up and browse. Hearst has composed albums for his previous two books, I hope he’ll do one for this, as well.
One way to write a good chess book is to put the game in the background and use characters and situations instead. Saul Ramirez, a rookie middle school teacher in over his head as a chess team coach in the U.S.’s poorest ZIP code, is a great real-life character. Thanks to his past as a scholastic chess player, he is both a neophyte and an expert who puts himself and his team into tense situations: State Championships, National Championships, fund-raisers, chaperoned trips. Each chapter, from the first (“Go Big or Go Home”) to the last (“Visualize Your Win”) is titled and themed after the lessons about the game and life Ramirez tried to teach to his players.
Playing chess is more than just learning the moves. Ramirez’s troops felt overwhelmed at their first tournaments when they saw other teams had uniforms. (Ramirez scrambled to get the team t-shirts for subsequent events.) Ramirez made a beginning chess coach error when he didn’t protest his players being paired against each other. If they hadn’t been beating one another, the Henderson Middle School kids could have packed the winner’s podium. But there was one mistake Ramirez avoided: he fought for his only female player’s right to compete at State and National events, despite the extra expense of added adult supervision and hotel rooms on road trips. He also made getting good grades a requirement for team participation.
The Champions’ Game is an emotional roller coaster related by someone who was in the front seat on the wild ride.
Sarah: Mary Roach is awesome at writing books on a topic and giving you all of the cool things you want to know about and not any of the dumb stuff you don’t want to know about.
Gene: Science-ey topics.
S: Yes, she’s a science writer. She wrote one about what happens to your body after you die, called Stiff.
G: I listened to that while driving to North Dakota last year.
S: They’re great on audio. That one had everything you might want to know about donating your body to science. There’s one about the digestive system, the alimentary canal.
G: That’s called Gulp.
S: And Packing for Mars, which is the only one with a long title. I still talk about things I learned from that book, it’s great in conversation.
G: That one’s about the science needed to go to Mars, and how it’s being developed?
S: Yeah. One of my favorite things from that to bring up in conversation, which is why you should invite me to parties, is that there’s a science behind pet food, dog food especially, to minimize the amount of shit that it creates.
S: They want to make really efficiently digested foods so there’s less poo. You need that if you’re on a spaceship because you don’t want to generate a huge amount of waste.
G: But this book is not about shit?
S: The subtitle to this is The Curious Science of Humans at War. Picking it up, I wasn’t sure this was a good topic for Roach, but she always picks the absolute best topics. She’s not talking about missiles, or about being a spy, or any of the stuff that’s been covered elsewhere. She’s got a chapter on the U.S. military’s fabric and fashion designers, she talks about the kind of fabrics you need if people are going to shoot at you. How they’ve changed some of things about the fabric because of IEDs, how they’ve changed some things because of the way fires start in tanks.
Sarah: I grabbed this book because the projects in it are really cool, and I thought you might like it because it makes use of all of your half-finished knitting and crochet projects. If you get started on something and don’t know how to finish it, or get started and it doesn’t look like you thought it was going to look, or if you buy something from the thrift store and want to know how to use it for something else, this is how you do it.
Gene: (looks at a picture of a project, laughs out loud)
S: This one reminded me of the sound suits made of doilies in the Nick Cave book you love.
G: Is the shirt part of this project?
S: This is two projects. A t-shirt with a really fancy multicolored doily sewn to the front of it, with a circle of buttons sewn around it, and then on top of that, the model is wearing a sweater that juuuuust comes to nipple level? It’s sleeves and a neck and just the very top of the body.
G: A long-sleeved half turtleneck sweater. It is very sound suit-ey. I like it.
S: How to take a half-finished thing and make it into something else…
G: Can you make a sweater that’s just from the nipples down, too? A tube-top sweater?
S: Keep reading! (laughs)
G: Oh my god! That looks really unfortunate!
S: It’s a skirt that’s made out of some really plain knitting, maybe a sweater that’s been chopped up, and she’s put on some patterned ribbon and a zipper and a doily and put on some new edging…
G: “Skirt with pot-holder in front” Holy crap. This looks like sweaters I’ve seen in photos from Mongolia, of people packing up a ger.
S: It’s really little pieces made into bigger projects. It’s not overly twee, it’s not cutesy.
G: But there’s kind of an adorableness to this.
G: (laughs at another page)
S: There are some garments where people are wearing a t-shirt underneath, and some where they SHOULD be wearing a t-shirt underneath. Stuff that doesn’t totally work as a functional item of clothing.
G: This one is an apron dress worn by a little girl with no shirt on underneath. Paper, plastic and yarn…
S: This is kind of cool, I think she got this bag used, mostly as-is. It’s greeting cards that have holes punched along the edges and then they were crocheted together into this bag.
G: Did you come from a family that had crocheted beer can clothing?
S: No, but I have made a crocheted library card hat.
S: I bought the beer can pattern and made a library card hat. It’s cool to wear for outreach — people can tell you’re from the library, they recognize their cards on the crown.
G: Some of these things look demonic.
S: They do! Which is kind of why I like it. There’s a pair of gloves in here that are just tremendously disturbing. This one is nice, they took a piece of crochet and made an iron-on from a photocopy of it, then put it onto a sweater.
G: I think we have different definitions of the word “nice.”
S: You can’t duplicate any of these projects exactly, because so much of each is based on stuff that the author found, which I kind of like. There are so many craft books that say “here, copy this perfect, beautiful thing” or more like “fail at copying this perfect beautiful thing and then hate yourself.” This is the opposite of that. It’s just ideas, to get you to think differently about creating and about what you can make from what you have.
G: I think someone could re-market this as post-apocalyptic craft fashion, maybe turn it into a book about re-knitting the clothing of the dead (or repurposing their handmade potholders, at least).