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Favorite Graphic Novels & Comics of 2015

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I’ve been reading graphic novels and comics for a long time, but this year I turned to the form as a way to keep up on book reviews when I was bogged down with work. But once I started, I had a hard time turning away! There are sure to be many more reviews of graphic works at Grab the Lapels. Here are a few of my favorite graphic novels and comics from 2015!


Lisa HanawaltMy Dumb Dirty Eyes

written and illustrated by Lisa Hanawalt

From simplistic crayon or pencil drawings to intricate water color or colored pencil designs, Hanawalt uses the full range of her talents and demonstrates that, like Picasso, if an artist learns the rules, she can break them, too. The book has no chapters or anything like that, as it is mostly pieces of small works–comics– such movie reviews, images of animals wearing hats for fashion week, small comic strips, and large two-page spreads of things like lizards wearing clothes hanging out in some sort of Keith Harring meets Hieronymous Bosch. Themes include nudity, sex, lizards, dogs, and horses.

She makes me remember that play and playfulness are good things when she remembers her love of love of Breyers plastic horses. Really, adults don’t seem to get it because we’re so repressed; the questions and observations that we have daily are shoved away because they’re too strange. Hanawalt lives in the strange and indulges in head space; it’s not a vacation for her.

Read the full review here!


pond coverOver Easy

written and illustrated by Mimi Pond (read our interview here)

Over Easy begins May 23, 1978. Margaret is the only character in a diner called The Imperial when the manager, Lazlo, comes spinning into the scene. At the time, Margaret is an art student, and the world of blue collar workers fascinates her. She exchanges a drawing for a free meal, but the restaurant is about to close for the day, so Lazlo gives her an IOU. The story then jumps back to how Margaret wound up at that diner and why she is interested in drawing.

Over Easy was a fascinating read. I always wanted to know what bitchy waitresses Martha and Helen would do next, and I wanted to see in what way the cooks were trying to be smooth poets and cool guys. Lazlo held the whole thing together with his whimsical personality and strange rules. I didn’t want to befriend these people, but I liked being the outsider peeking in.

Read the full review here!


Jillian TamakiSuperMutant Magic Academy

written and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki

A fantastic look at intelligent teenagers and their hopes, fears, and disappointments. Tamaki treats that age group with dignity by allowing them to be themselves. The students care about relationships, death, the meaning of life, systems that oppress them to make them better consumers, and whether or not to go to prom. Almost the entirety of the book is set up in one-page increments until you get closer to the end. This book was a great one to engage me and also give me space. You can easily pick up and put down SuperMutant Magic Academy thanks to the short nature of its design.

 


Marie PommepuyBeautiful Darkness

written by Fabien Vehlmann

illustrated by  Kerascoët (the pen name of co-illustrators and husband and wife Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset)

I never include books written by men at Grab the Lapels. In fact, there is no full review of Beautiful Darkness on GTL. But, the illustrations are so vital to the story, and those are done in part by Marie Pommepuy, so I’m including this bewildering fairy tale in my favorite graphic novels of 2015.

It’s easy to read this book quickly (in less than an hour). The water color images have a sort of innocent look about them, which is emphasized and shattered when the characters do awful things! There is a Lord of the Flies feel to the story, though the characters aren’t on an island; they are for some reason released from the body of a dead girl that’s rotting in the woods. Keep in mind that this book is a work of conceptual fiction, so you won’t get the full resolution you seek in traditional fiction.

An exquisite collection that you have to experience to believe.


 

Step Aside PopsStep Aside, Pops!

written and illustrated by Kate Beaton

This comic book had me in stitches. Beaton’s collection is entirely in black and white. The drawings are what some might call “cartoony” or haphazard, but the style fits the content in a way that emphasizes the playfulness of the messages, and the speedy nature of today’s society. Everything is fast and on a deadline, thus Beaton’s drawing style reflects that.

Beaton explains, “When I get asked to describe my comics, the easiest thing to say is that it is historical or literary or pop-culture parodies.” Most pieces are only 3-6 frames long, making it easy to pick up and put down this book if you only have a minute. I had a lot of fun reading Step Aside, Pops!

Read the full review here!


This One Summer coverThis One Summer

written by Mariko Tamaki

illustrated by Jillian Tamaki

This One Summer is the story of fifteen-year-old Rose heading to Awago Beach for summer vacation, just like they do every single year. Rose meets up with her summer vacation friend, Windy, who is a year-and-one-half younger. But trouble starts brewing when Rose sees her parents argue and pull apart from each other.

Though This One Summer is a slice-of-life story that takes place over about ten days, it is full in the way that it captures the entirety of the difficulties of being a teenager.This One Summer took me back to my younger teenage years. I could relate to the difficulties that Rose faced when her parents argued the whole vacation and the isolation she experienced as a result. Some of what Rose thought she knew was changed as she watched different scenarios between her parents or the older teens, or even discussions with Windy, unfold to prove her preconceived notions wrong.

Read the full review here!


My first comics pick for 2016 is Lynda Barry’s newest book, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, published October 2014 by Drawn & Quarterly. How I didn’t know about this book earlier is a mystery to me, but I’ve had many individuals say it will change my professional and creative life. I got this book for Christmas this year. It seems to actually be printed on one of those black and white composition notebooks that you’d use in school. Here’s the description from the publisher:

For the past decade, Lynda has run a highly popular writing workshop for non-writers called Writing the Unthinkable – the workshop was featured in the New York Times magazine. Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor is the first book that will make her innovative lesson plans and writing exercises available to the public for home or classroom use. Barry’s course has been embraced by people of all walks of life – prison inmates, postal workers, university students, teachers, and hairdressers – for opening paths to creativity. Syllabus takes the course plan for Lynda Barry’s workshop and runs wild with it in Barry’s signature densely detailed style. Collaged texts, ballpoint pen doodles, and watercolour washes adorn Syllabus’ yellow lined pages, which offer advice on finding a creative voice and using memories to inspire the writing process. Throughout it all, Lynda Barry’s voice (as author and teacher-mentor) rings clear, inspiring, and honest.

barry cover

 

Meet the Writer: Mimi Pond

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Meet the Writer: Mimi Pond

 

Mimi Pond

Photo from the Village Voice

Today I got a chance to speak with author Mimi Pond. Pond is a cartoonist who started working in the 1980s, with work in National Lampoon, the Village Voice, and The New York Times. She won the PEN Center USA award for Graphic Literature Outstanding Body of Work, with a special mention for Over Easy. Pond has written for television, including the pilot episode of The Simpson’s entitled “Simpson’s Roasting on an Open Fire.” You can follow her on Twitter or check out her website.

At the end of October, I reviewed Pond’s graphic novel, Over Easy, and praised the marvelous characters and greenish-blue water colors to capture the feel of an era now gone. Mimi Pond was kind enough to answer my questions about Over Easy below:

Whom did you picture as your audience when you were writing Over Easy?

pond coverI really didn’t consider the audience. I really just wrote the book for myself. It was an absolute compulsion. If there was any audience at all, perhaps it was my co-workers. I just hoped that I was capturing the way things were, and, very gratifyingly, most of the folks I worked with way back when have responded very positively to it. Also, it seems to have resonated with many people of my generation who found themselves in similar situations.

At first, I was thrown off that Over Easy is described as a fictionalized memoir. What led to that decision?

Although truth is often stranger than fiction, reality is much more slow-paced than fiction. I wanted, as I said, to distill the essence of the experience without being literal. I did not want to be hindered by the day-to-day facts. I also didn’t want anyone to sue me.

I found many of the characters in Over Easy a bit repulsive, but I really loved them, too. I never had trouble keeping them apart because each is unique. How did you find that sweet spot?

Thank you! Well, so many people came and went through the restaurant that if I’d done it as non-fiction it might’ve read as a Russian novel. I had to make composites of multiple cooks and waitresses. It’s important in telling a story to make each character unique and serve as a counterpoint to the other characters.

ding dingWhat’s the deciding factor when choosing between simple square frames or a more dynamic page, such as the dinging bell that consumes the middle of the page on Margaret’s first day as a waitress?

It’s purely instinctive. Sometimes you want something big and splashy to break things up.  It’s also all about pacing. Watching movies has been probably more educational to me than looking at comics. You can learn a lot by studying the way films are edited.

On your website, you write, “Reading Over Easy, I hope you all have a sense of just how different things were in the late 1970s and early 80s.” I didn’t always agree with the choices people in Over Easy made, but I loved that it is an intimate look at a specific period and accepted the 40 year difference in time as a factor. Has the response from your readers been one of understanding, or are they holding the characters to today’s standards?

It’s kind of fascinating how many young people are completely SHOCKED by the characters’ behavior. For those of us who lived through that time, it’s just the way things were. Mostly, however, people seem to see it as a window into a different world.

You also mention on your website that your daughter Lulu is a comic artist, too. Can we expect any mother-daughter collaborations in the future?

That would be nice. Lulu isn’t a cartoonist per se, but she is fully capable of doing comics. Both she and her brother are very gifted artists. Her brother has done some comics. I would like to see both of them do more at some point, if the spirit wills them!

Thank you so much to Mimi Pond for stopping by! You can get your hands on a copy of Over Easy at Drawn & Quarterly.

Over Easy

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Over Easy

pond coverMimi Pond’s graphic novel Over Easy (Drawn & Quarterly, 2014) captures a period of transition from hippies to punks in the 1970s. The description “fictionalized memoir” threw me for a loop. Was the main character, Margaret, Mimi Pond? Did these stories actually happen? Is Pond simply changing names to protect the other people in Over Easy? Or is it that she can’t remember exactly what happened, so she had to make some up? According to a post on her website, Pond was inspired by a restaurant in which she worked and includes a photo of all the waitresses from that time, suggesting that the graphic novel is pretty realistic overall. I’m able to move forward with a modicum of distrust, and I will refer to Margaret as a character, not the author.

All images are pen with watercolor in blue-ish/green shades. The simple color palate gives the images an old feel, whereas a full color palate can cause a graphic novel to seem too cartoony. Bright colors would not have matched with Pond’s sketchy style, and it would have been hard to take this serious story, well, seriously.

Over Easy begins May 23, 1978. Margaret is the only character in a diner called The Imperial when the manager, Lazlo, comes spinning into the scene. At the time, Margaret is an art student, and the world of blue collar workers fascinates her. She exchanges a drawing for a free meal, but the restaurant is about to close for the day, so Lazlo gives her an IOU.

The story then jumps back to how Margaret wound up at that diner and why she is interested in drawing. Margaret attends San Diego City College during a time when grants are plentiful. Quickly, she tires of hippy students, their all-agreeing attitudes, and the crappy 70s hippy art they produce. She applies to and attends the California College of Arts and Crafts to be far enough from her parents in San Diego, but still close to home. But, before she can actually finish college, Margaret is informed that the grant money has run out.

This is when we get back to that diner. Margaret heads into The Imperial with her IOU and falls in love with the place. To be fair, the cooks are misogynistic dicks (one cook calls every waitress a “lying whore”), the waitresses are bitches (they call each other “cunt”), and these are totally Margaret’s people—neither hippies nor punks. The rest of the graphic novel introduces readers to the cast of characters in the diner, some of the customers, and describes Margaret’s climb from college dropout to dishwasher to waitress.

The plot of Over Easy sounds almost too, well, easy. Yet, Mimi Pond captures a moment of change in American history and details the internal responses of one citizen. Really, the book is character and observation driven. The characters are just delightful, and Pond’s drawing style makes the connection between what these people are saying and how they look. I especially enjoy how everyone has a cigarette hanging out of their mouths, even during work hours in a restaurant.

page 50

page 50

The cooks eye people on the streets suspiciously, suggesting their intense desire to leave right at 3:00 and not have to hang around and make orders a few minutes before the magic hour. They stare at the clocks, counting, watching, waiting. Helen’s wide open mouth and shrill directions show how dire the situation really is, even though it’s not. And so, someone must run to the door. I can picture these characters having better things to do with their lives, and they want out! The cooks and waitresses spend most of the day name calling and copping feels anyway; they’re exhausted.

For the most part, Pond uses basic square frames for her images, but some pages use a central object around which other images or words thematically tie together. Pond doesn’t do this too much, which is a relief. Some graphic novelists confuse clutter with style. Here’s an example: the bell that alerts waitresses that their order is ready tying together with the struggles (laid out like order checks) Margaret experiences on her first day as a waitress:

ding ding

The large swirling words “DING DING DING DING DING DING” intensify the feelings that Margaret experiences as she gets confused, makes mistakes, and gets it wrong.

There are a number of places where the design choices don’t work as well. A page that has six simple frames seems easy enough, but the thoughts may appear at the top and bottom of a frame. If someone is thinking or talking near the top of the next frame, my eyes would go from top of frame to top of frame, causing me to miss what’s on the bottom of a frame. Here is an example:

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I don’t typically like slice-of-life stories because they seem important only to the author. Yet, Mimi Pond shows why the 70s were an interesting time in America using unique viewpoints. While everyone around her is ingesting coke, weed, and speed, Margaret only snorts coke once after a fellow waitress offers it to sooth Margaret after a fight in the kitchen. The effect is not good, and we don’t hear about Margaret doing drugs again. She does, like her coworkers, find multiple sex partners, though Margaret’s rule is “don’t sleep with coworkers. Her coworkers’ rule seems to be “anything goes.” It’s hard for me to fathom having sex with everyone I find cute or snorting coke like it’s the most normal thing on the planet, but Pond integrates this part of the 70s culture in so smoothly and has Margaret comment on it in a way that shows she’s analyzing her surroundings. While I can’t relate, I can understand, and is that not the point of reading?

Over Easy was a fascinating read. I always wanted to know what bitchy waitresses Martha and Helen would do next, and I wanted to see in what way the cooks were trying to be smooth poets and cool guys. Lazlo held the whole thing together with his whimsical personality and strange rules. I didn’t want to befriend these people, but I liked being the outsider peeking in. The characters are like dysfunctional roommates or relatives, giving both a sense of love and hatred to each other. Riding along with Margaret while she navigates her life made this graphic novel a page turner.

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By “lying whore” she means waitress. page 71

Above All

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Above All

Why do covers with real people not look like the characters?

Above All by Rebecca Brooks is romance from Ellora’s Cave (July 2014). The story follows Casey, a 34-year-old woman who had her heart broken after her boyfriend of 7 years, Nick, moves on. Casey moves 200 miles away to Paper Lake, home to a campground. When we meet Casey, she’s been living in a cabin at the campground for a year, which is part of her pay for working there. Her family sees her choice to live such a rustic life–she did abandon a PhD in Art History program in NYC–a big waste.

But Casey can’t say no to jumping into the freezing lake each morning, nor can she say no to the beautiful Bonnet mountains. Later, she finds it very hard to say no to Ben, a 26-year-old young man in cooking school who camps at Paper Lake with his friends one weekend…

Above All is a novel both predictable and puzzling. Very few romances ever surprise me; typically, surprising stories don’t end with the main characters together. Romances pretty much always have a man and woman who start off hot and heavy, spend a long time apart because something keeps them apart, one character (usually the woman) chases the other only to be heartbroken by a cousin/sibling/gay friend who appears to now be dating the person chased, and then a grand gesture that reunites the couple, elevating them to happily-ever-status. Does predictability ruin a romance? Not really; it’s a billion-dollar formula for making women squee, and Brooks hits all the right notes for squeeing once she gets her characters having sex.

Some problems in the beginning:

At first, Casey is sad about losing Nick. He’s finally published his book that he worked on for years, the one for which Casey was a dutiful reader and commenter, but Nick’s acknowledgments say, “Above all, thank you to Aubrey Peterson…” Who the frick-hole is Aubrey Peterson?! *insert rage and anger* When she does meet Ben as he checks in to the campground, Casey refers to his “puppy-dog” eyes/facial expression so many times I kind of want to hurt something. The whiny vowel sound of the “y” and the pop sound made from “pup” grated on my ears over and over. However, I am aware that not all readers think about things like word sounds and I may be alone in my complaints. Worse still was the way Ben kept showing up at Casey’s–and employee’s–cabin, which was not right near the campsites. Even Casey calls Ben a stalker at one point, echoing my own concerns. Stalking someone enough doesn’t make for a romance, it makes for a case of stalking.

After Casey accepts this young man stalking her, she decides she wants to have sex with him–his kisses are just too damn good. When she goes to unbuckle his belt, though, he pulls away and says he has to get back to his friends at the campsite. For the rest of the book, this moment is deemed one of running away, as in Ben runs away because he’s the kind of man who runs away. I was puzzled, though; Casey and Ben had only briefly talked 2-3 times. Why should he jump right in bed with someone just because he likes her? I saw him as more gentlemanly, but the moment is forever held against him as a black mark.

Once Casey and Ben start having sex, things pick up:

There is sex. Lots and lots and lots of sex. Once Casey and Ben do get it on, they don’t stop. They’re hiking, but stop for sex. They’re boating, but stop for sex. They’re going to eat food, but stop to have sex (so much wasted food in Above All). They jump in the freezing lake, and once Ben’s dick stops turtle-ing, they stop for sex. My response was very George Takei: “Ohhhh, myyyy.” The scenes are superbly written. Brooks pays attention to details, like using a condom every time (though not for oral sex), wiping up cum strings from Casey’s mouth, the clit as a pleasure center, etc. Never does the sex feel cheap or gratuitous or make me think, “Oh, please.” It’s realistic. The details are very good, and this book is bound to make you cross and re-cross your legs as you read.

The puzzling bit comes from the fact that Casey and Ben don’t really talk to each other. Ben knows nothing of Casey’s relationship with Nick, nor does she talk about being in a PhD program. He does come upon (stalk) her once and see that she is painting, but then leaves her alone. The only significant thing they discuss is that Ben wants to open a bakery, but his parents want him to be an Italian chef. I felt like food is food; it’s not like his parents wanted him to be a lawyer instead. Plus, he’s 26. But, this is a big point of contention for Ben. Other talking? It doesn’t happen when Casey are Ben are together in a situation where clothes can come off. When Casey misses Ben during their separation, she remembers “the first night in the cabin, the rock ledge on the mountain, the rowboat, the lake, the woods themselves.” These are all places they’ve had sex. What else is there? After the characters do hook up, not once do Casey or Ben say “love.” Although dubbed a romance, and despite many mentions of heartbreak and hearts wildly beating, there is no “love.”

There are a few situations in Above All for which Brooks provides readers with some really, truly fun dialogue or phrasing that made me like her characters. Casey’s old lady-friend Lee tries to fix Casey’s huge, tangled, curly red hair before a date, but Lee can only shake her head and say, “That’s between you and your god, but may I suggest investing in some detangler?” When Ben returns to the campground to find Casey chopping wood, she realizes, “At one point the prospect of running into him again with an axe in her hands might have been quite appealing.” During their time together at the campground, Casey convinces Ben to jump in the lake with her one morning, and I giggled as I read:

She went to pull his towel off to wrap hers around him so they would both be together in the towel, skin against skin. But Bun pulled away quickly, a look crossing his eyes.

“No way,” he grimaced. “You’ll never want to come near me again.”

“What are you talking about?” Casey paused, confused.

“The cold!” he cried.

Casey laughed and ripped off his towel with one hard tug, but his hands flew straight to his crotch.

“I’m shriveled up like a sack of times! Tinier than a fingerling potato!” he cried as he leapt, buck naked, up to the cabin, his adorable butt a moon of white bounding over the path.

Over all, I do recommend Above All by Rebecca Brooks for its hot sex scenes that are sure to get you eyeing your partner over the pages, and for the way she got me thinking differently about relationships. Who am I to assume that all pairings have to be about love? Perhaps Casey and Ben, in some unwritten future, do fall in love and say it. I’d also recommend this book just for the scene during which Ben enters a women’s restroom and crawls under a locked door.

 I want to thank Rebecca Brooks for sending me Above All for review in exchange for my honest opinion. Please check out more about Ms. Brooks writer life at her Meet the Writer feature here on Grab the Lapels!