Lauren Redniss’ latest book is an odd duckling among graphic novels. Rather than following any kind of paneled format, it contains passages of text interspersed with vibrantly-colored photogravure etchings and atmospheric pastel drawings that take up the entire surface of the page, resulting in an effect that is more like a book of hours than Peanuts. Those who enjoyed Cynthia Barnett’s book Rain will find an evocative companion in Thunder & Lightning.
In Thunder & Lightning, Redniss seeks to depict how weather has shaped our world and how we have adapted in a constant attempt to better predict and manipulate the weather. She has gathered the research of a wide variety of historians, scientists and environmental activists, and heavily peppers the text with their quotations, always opting for clear, plain-spoken statements from the mouths of experts rather than a summary of their findings. From this, fantastic stories emerge — of how the US military experimented in making their own rain during the Vietnam War, of hidden utopias in an Icelandic archipelago covered in permafrost year round, of the outdoor air conditioning engineered to cool the Kaaba in Mecca — along with poignant anecdotes of the natural disasters that are still fresh in our memories — Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Irene, the Chilean mine collapse, the summer wildfires in California. Through these tales, one becomes infected with Reniss’ wonder towards the sky and what it might bring, for even as we deepen our understanding of the climate and learn to create clouds, the forecast remains mysterious.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, the moment that set the history of the rest of the 20th century in motion. Believed at first to be a war that would take weeks or months to settle, the war dragged on for four long, tragic years until the armistice was signed in 1918. Many new titles have been written that bring a better understanding of this period and the catastrophe of the war.
R.G. Grant’s World War I: the Definitive Visual History, from Sarajevo to Versailles is a terrific introduction to many facets of the conflict. DK Publishing, partnering with the Smithsonian, brings manageable text and countless period photographs here to best explain the personalities, weapons and cultural artifacts of the time period. In The Long Shadow: The Legacy of the Great War in the Twentieth Century, David Reynolds discusses the ramifications of the war, and rethinks some of the theses that have become too-easy explanations for its causes and results. He also looks at its decades-long impact on the art and literary world and how it brought about Modernism. Howard Blum’s Dark Invasion: 1915: Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Tale in America is a fascinating tale of espionage and intrigue is. New York City and other American cities were targeted by German spies to discourage munitions and other supplies from going across the Atlantic to the Allied forces, long before United States troops became officially embroiled in the conflict itself.
Novels set in the time period are perennially popular, such as the Maisie Dobbs mysteries. Now, that series’ author, Jacqueline Winspear, returns with the elegiac and stunning The Care and Management of Lies. Two very different young women come together in the backdrop of the war that has taken away the men in their lives. And Max Brooks’ graphic novel The Harlem Hellfighters is fiction rooted in the heroic tales of the famous African-American 369th Infantry Regiment who fought for France due to antiquated, racially-motivated rules within the American Expeditionary Forces.
Mimi Pond is an artist and illustrator, whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Seventeen and on the animated series, The Simpsons. In her new graphic novel biography, Over Easy, Pond revisits a unique time and place: the late 1970s in Northern California. During this time of transition, the beat and hippie cultures were fighting a rear-guard action to stay culturally relevant; punk was new on the scene and grabbing everyone by the throat, lyrically and sometimes literally; and disco was just starting to die a slow overly choreographed and elaborately coiffed death. Pond abruptly finds herself tossed out of art school in her final year when her financial aid runs dry. Sitting in the Imperial Café, a popular local diner and one of her favorite places to sketch, she takes a chance and asks the diner’s manager and comical free-spirit, Lazlo, for a job. He hands her an application and tells her to only write one thing: the funniest joke she can think of. Pond lands the gig and finds herself in the exalted position of dishwasher. The work is hard, long, and brutal, but it clearly gives Pond the perfect vantage point to observe the hothouse environment of the diner. From the sexual roulette and rabid drug use that seems to be her co-workers' chief occupations to the dreams and ambitions that each holds dear, Pond sees all. Seizing an unexpected opportunity, Pond graduates to waitress and takes the chance to reinvent herself personally, and finally finds acceptance as a member of the diner’s family.
Pond’s illustrations are cool and clear, the slight cartoonish-ness of them playing well against the serious themes. The monochromatic colors speak to the nature of the transitions happening in this period with the promise of color reserved for a world not yet born. The illustrations resemble a series of sketches done mid-shift on the back of napkins and menus, stolen moments of observation while clearing a four top. The unconventional tale moves at a staccato pace like a free-styling beat poet at open mic night. It is a story that stops but doesn’t really end; perhaps a hint of more to come? You will find yourself wondering what will become of this child of hippies on the cusp of the Reagan-era love of materialism and excess. Will she stay true to herself while navigating the changing times? Perhaps it isn’t too much to ask that Pond grace us with further unique volumes of her work and share her incredible talent as a storyteller.
For a Mature Audience due to themes of sex and drug use.
Letting it Go is Miriam Katin’s gorgeous new graphic novel, in which she tries to come to terms with her past as a Holocaust survivor. Due to her past, Katin had come to despise all things German. When her son moves to Berlin, she realizes she must somehow come to terms with Germany if she is to maintain a relationship with her son.
Born in Hungary during the Second World War, Katin eventually immigrated to Israel in 1957 where she worked as a graphic artist for the Israeli Defense Forces. She went on to work for the MTV Animation and Disney Studios. She wrote her first graphic novel, We Are On Our Own, at the age of 63. Although Katin is writing about very heavy subject matter, the overall tone and art remain fairly light and at times, humorous. At once literary and accessible, Letting it Go reveals Katin’s daily life with her husband in New York while calling on the likes of Kafka to reveal her inner fears.
Done in colored pencil, Letting it Go works exceedingly well as a graphic novel. Katin is able to reveal details and nuance in her art, letting us inside her psyche. The mostly panel-less comics flow nicely with the fairly free-form text. The mix of black and white and color also nicely juxtaposes past and present. Like Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, this would make an excellent introduction to nonfiction graphic novels.
Countless books have been written about Abraham Lincoln, some of which cover his mental health issues. In The Hypo: the Melancholic Young Lincoln, Noah van Sciver portrays Honest Abe’s depression in a way rarely seen so clearly. Starting from the point of Lincoln’s arrival in Springfield, Illinois, in 1837, van Sciver’s words and pictures bring to life the world of this place and time in American history. Lincoln comes to work as a lawyer with John Stuart, while also serving with the Illinois state legislature. Soon after getting to Springfield, he meets the philandering but good-hearted Joshua Speed with whom he shares an apartment and who becomes his closest confidant. Working at their two-person law firm, Lincoln meets Stuart’s cousin, Mary Todd, and is introduced to society life. Although Abe and Mary Todd quickly fall in love, her family disapproves of his low social standing, and each of their mental health issues hasten the dissolution of their engagement. Lincoln has a total breakdown, and is “nursed” back to health by a doctor using methods such as bloodletting and mercury treatments. Mary Todd’s own undiagnosed issues are manifested in debilitating migraines. With the help of Speed and other friends, they are eventually reunited, engaged again and married.
Completely rendered in black and white, Van Sciver’s pen-and-ink, crosshatch style is perfect in telling the story of our beloved sixteenth president’s pre-wedlock years. He captures Lincoln as often ill-at-ease, bumbling, and very much prone to sadness, but who is also occasionally able to command a room with amusing tales, poetic language, and political finesse. The frontier, with all its grime, poverty, and its class divide is also intensely illustrated, placing the reader directly into the setting. Readers of David Herbert Donald’s biography Lincoln, Joshua Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy, and those interested in the biopic of the legendary president (starring Daniel Day-Lewis) will find much to appreciate in this graphic presentation.
Graphic novels depicting actual events can be incredibly successful or dismal failures. In the case of The Silence of Our Friends, happily, the former is true. This semi-autobiographical story of the race tensions and riots in 1968 Houston deals with events largely unknown or forgotten. In the months before the demonstrations in and around Texas Southern University began, co-author Mark Long’s father had moved his family from San Antonio to Houston. Jack Long’s career was that of an on-the-scene reporter for a local TV station’s news department. To get a more accurate perspective of the situation, Jack Long befriended an African-American man, Larry Thompson and both families tentatively got to know each other. As the movement grew more heated, a deadly riot broke out on campus and both Jack Long and Larry Thompson found themselves in the middle of a murder trial. A well-known quote of Martin Luther King, Jr. is the source of the work’s title: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
A great benefit to the format of the graphic novel is retelling a story of this nature in a new, evocative manner. Eisner-Award winner Nate Powell’s flowing line drawings capture the era, and add to the storyline. In particular, Long’s recollections of his family’s internal issues are captured in the images if not directly confronted in the text. The words pull no punches with the overt racist attitudes of the day, including uncomfortable language. This book is highly recommended to readers interested in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s and those who are looking to better understand the value of the graphic format.