Five Graphic Novels

In the dull days of February and March I have read five graphic novels: among the five were one standalone (Encyclopedia of Early Earth), one consisting of a series collected into one edition (Amy Unbounded) and the first three in the series Locke & Key. All provided very different reading experiences.

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg should have general appeal. EowynEncyc of Early Earth Ivey who wrote The Snow Child which I will post about later this week said this about the book: “The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is a delightful accordion of a book. This graphic novel casts a spell like that of Scheherazade – when you sit down with it, prepare to stay until the last page.” And, another writer, Mark Haddon said:”It’s a book about many things – love, snow, god, poisoned sausages … but mostly it’s a celebration of storytelling itself. Strange and wry and funny and beautifully drawn.” It includes a journey to Britanitarka, stories about The Old Lady and the Giant, Dead Towns & Ghost Men and The Great Flood and much about The Gods. I found it unusually calming.Amy Unbounded

Amy Unbounded: Belondweg Blossoming by Rachel Hartman came to my attention after I read and reviewed Seraphina. It was a genuine “for fun” read largely because I enjoy it when one book is connected to another even though neither is actually a sequel to the other. In this graphic novel Amy is reading the epic of Belondweg who was a mythical queen responsible for uniting Goredd (the country in which Seraphina takes place). Blondweg saves Goredd from invaders. In her introduction, Lind Medley says that Amy “lives life with an unbounded spirit and enthusiasm which wins over crotchety old widows, reserved businesswomen, and even makes a careless dragon face the consequences of his actions”. Medley concludes her introduction with this encouraging and inspiring dedication: “Here’s to the turn of a new century, to new heroines and new literature classics, and to being unbounded.”

The remaining three graphic novels I read are the first three in a series and are for a Locke & Key 1different audience, or at least a more narrowly defined audience, than the two above. The first volume is called Welcome to Lovecraft and that is the reason I looked into these books,- the connection to the name Lovecraft, an American author known for his horror fiction. It turned out not to be about the author but about a house named Keyhouse and a town called Lovecraft. Its writer is Joe Hill, the son of two writers and the artist is Gabriel Rodriguez. the introduction by Robert Crais says that “Locke & Key is a graphic novel of the richest kind, presenting a story and characters conceived with all the depth of a full-blown novel, yet perfectly rendered by both writer and artists to take advantage of the graphic medium. ”  The main characters are members of a family whose father is brutally murdered: we are presented with this back story in the first few pages so passing on this information to possible readers is not a spoiler but, rather, a warning. The three children are likeable characters: Tyler, the oldest son feels responsible for not saving his father, Kinsey the middle child and daughter is a sensible, sensitive young woman and Bode is a six-year-old who will play a major role in future volumes.After their father’s death, the family moves to Lovecraft, Massachusetts to live in their father’s nephew’s house. But the past has followed them.

Just so you know, Joe Hill is also the author of the novel, Heart-Shaped Box and a collection of stories, 20th Century Ghosts and is working on a new novel The Surrealist’s Glass.

Locke & Key 2Gabriel Rodriguez is a Chilean artist and the co-creator of the “twisted but wonderful world of Locke & Key. In his biographical note at the back of Volume 1, he asks “that readers unlock their hearts and minds, and accept an invitation into new realms and tales, thrilling experiences, and secret places that his efforts craft into a vivid universe.” I seriously believe it is this unusual and creative art work that has kept my attention for three volumes when I only intended to read one as a sample.

The second book is entitled Head Games and is built around the idea of using keys to open our heads and see everything that is hidden away inside. This concept becomes very interesting when applied to a situation in which Tyler must prepare for a test the next day and has not read the material he will need to know. There are terrific pages showing all the keys  on a  two page spread labelled The Known Keys (excerpts from the Diary of Benjamin Pierce Locke, 1757 – 1799) and a special section entitled “Series Illustrator and Co-Creator Gabriel Rodriguez, for the first time, shares the process involved in developing a page of Locke & Key”. I think these additions enrich these volumes considerably and ensure that they will become references for some readers.

Locke & Key 3The third volume in the series is called Crown of Shadows and the introduction is written by Brian K. Vaughn who says this: “…just look at how perfectly each scene is paced, how thoughtfully every single page is constructed. I once told another writer that while comics can be creepy or unsettling, they’re almost never frightening. Without the benefit of music, sound design, and editing, I think its tough for most fiction to elicit genuine fear.” Vaughn think that maybe Hill and Rodriguez have created some truly scarey scenes. The black and white drawing on the page facing the introduction is a good example as far as I am concerned. Vaughn continues the introduction with this: “And while the supernatural stuff is brilliant (I will never tire of learning about new keys), the reason I’m afraid is because of how much I’ve come to care about Tyler, Kinsey, and especially Bode. Those kids aren’t characters, they’re people.” I have found this to be true for me also: I have invested in these three kids and their mother and what happens to them. Since that is one of the main things I ask of whatever I read, I guess that means that if a graphic novel meets the same criteria as novels and short stories I have finally reached the stage of accepting graphic novels into my reading circle.

The Art Gallery at the end of this volume and the expanded lexicon of the keys are updated and equally impressive as the same features in the second volume. The fourth volume is entitled “Keys to the Kingdom”. I wonder how long I can hold out?

Have you tried a graphic novel yet? Choose carefully and get recommendations from those who know your reading habits. I started with Jeff Lemire’s Essex County and that choice made a very big difference in my attitude towards graphic novels.


7 Generations Series by Robertson and Henderson

This is a series of three graphic novels which I decided to look into after reading Sugar Falls by David Alexander Robertson and illustrated by Scott Henderson.

Book 1 is entitled Stone and introduces Edwin, a young aboriginal man who has Stoneattempted suicide and whose mother is desperate to have him come to understand his past in order to help him move forward. The book tells the story of Stone, a young Plains Cree man from the 19th century. It describes Stone’s vision quest, ancient ceremonies for warriors, his marriage and a powerful relationship between brothers and it addresses the matter of fate. The authenticity of the art work adds considerably to the richness of the story.

ScarsBook 2 is called Scars and the main character is White Cloud, a young Plains Cree boy caught in the epidemic of small pox which swept the prairies in 1870 and caused devastation. White Cloud’s family attempts to escape the plague by fleeing from their village. The book tells the story of White Cloud’s efforts to survive and move forward and the reader sees why this story c0uld be important to Edwin who needs to summon similar strength if he is to survive.

Book 3 is titled Ends/Begins and it tells the story of Edwin’s father and his father’s brother at the residential school. There is  a powerful poem at the end of this book. Here are the last two verses

Empty ’til the numb, now painEndsBegins
Now drain us of the living rush,
Living, but we are estranged,
Estranged and broken by the touch.

The broken circle ends/begins,
Ends among the stolen ones,
Stolen, though reclaimed again,
Reclaimed, but somehow still undone.

These realistically drawn graphic novels, at only 30 pages each, would be one of many excellent choices to use as a teaching tool for challenged readers who want to read about adult issues or learn about their society. They would also be a good choice for adults who need to broaden their reading horizons. It goes without saying that they have plenty of appeal for readers already familiar with graphic novels! There is supposed to be a Book 4 titled The Pact so keep an eye out for this one.

Sugar Falls by David Alexander Robertson & Scott B. Henderson

Sugar FallsThe story in this graphic novel begins in a high school at the point at which an assignment is given to a class to examine the question of residential schools. The novel is directed at young people but equally informative for adult readers. Daniel is the student doing the assignment and his fellow student, April, offers to help him with his project by putting him in touch with her grandmother (her Kokum) who is a survivor of the residential school system. April arranges a meeting between Daniel and her Kokum at the latter’s workplace. April’s Kokum explains that the story must be told in the Round Room which contains all the sacred medicines and allows her sit on the star blanket of the four directions where she will be safe. April’s Kokum wears traditional clothing and explains that this is always brightly coloured because of Round Room Sugar Fallsthe bland clothing that the students were made to wear in the residential schools. Kokum also explains that she is holding the eagle feather “to honour the past and move forward with courage, honesty, and truth.” She lights some sweet grass and prays: “Here in this circle of life where we are cleansed we can trust in this momentous time.” She helps Daniel get started by telling him that she thinks it will work best if he asks her a question and so he does. “Why did you have to go to the residential school?”Kokum explains that she must start at the beginning when she was about five years old and was tossed out of the house. What she didn’t know at the time about her mother was that she had been a survivor of the residential school system. The young Kokum had to shelter under an overturned canoe for a very long time. She was Under Canoe Sugar Falls

discovered by a man who took her home and accepted her into his family.Happy Family Sugar Falls

But when she was eight years old things changed again and she had to go away to a residential school. Before she went her father took her to a place called Sugar Falls and gave her the best advice he could.At Sugar Falls

He told her that “Relationships…that’s where we find our strength as a people. The beat of the drum represents the strength in our relationships, between our ancestors, our traditions with Mother Earth, and with each other. Knowing this will keep you strong. Always remember these teachings by thinking of our time here at Sugar Falls.”

Kokum went to residential school but not without considerable resistence. That resistence continued until she figured out ways to cope with it. Her story is one that everyone should read and be fully aware of in order  to understand what she and others in North America went through at the hands of those who claimed to know best.Violence at Sugar Falls

What do you know about the Residential Schools in your country? What do you think it would be like to be put in such a school where instructors spoke a language very different from yours and you were not allowed to use your own language? If this happened to you when you were only eight,  do you think you  would have been able to forget it?

This slim volume would be an excellent resource in the hands of adults who are in a position to educate young people regarding the gross indignities which have been practiced upon their fellow Canadians and thereby expand their understanding of their fellow citizens: an excellent introduction which could be expanded by further research.Honour Sugar Falls

Used independently, this book has much to teach and will encourage further investigation. As Kokum says to Daniel when he thanked her for telling him her story: “You honoured me by asking to hear it. Telling these stories is how we will create change. We need to look at the past to teach others our stories and then look forward, together, with knowledge and healing.”

“Sugar Falls is based on the true story of Betty Ross, Elder from Cross Lake First Nation” -from inside back cover.

“This book was created in remembrance and respect for those who attended residential schools and those who were affected by their legacy.” -also from inside back cover

Note: the book does not say that it is sweet grass that is burned but it seems likely that it was. If I have been mistaken, please let me know.

Britten & Brulightly by Hannah Berry

Britten & Brulightly
This is another first for me: the first review I have done on a graphic novel. This one is British and was published in 2008.

We learn right away that our protagonist is very depressed. The lack of colour tells us this  as do the words “spiteful inevitability” attached to the words “the sun rose”. And then on the second page, we are told that our narrator has stopped bothering to look out the window because the sky would look “bruised and tender” anyway and you might not be able ” to see it through the weather.”

Then we learn that our man opened a private investigation agency ten years ago. His aim was to serve humanity and right wrongs.  But after all that time, he says “the only wrongs righted have been on my [his] tax returns.” His experience of humanity has not been much better: they have included “either jealous lovers seeking justification for their jealousy, or vengeful lovers seeking dirt on jealous lovers,” On top of that, he writes, most of them paid him to tell them what they already knew and those who didn’t would have figured it out eventually. “None of them liked what I had to say.”

He had become known in his field as “The Heartbreaker.”Britten 2

His name is Fernandez Britten and he is often thought to be a foreigner which he is not. He has a partner but his identity only becomes apparent gradually. The partner’s name is Stewart Brülightly and some readers will discover his identity sooner rather than later. I’m not bragging but the last name I suspected was a clue from the beginning. For those who have difficulty suspending belief, remember that we all talk to someone, sometimes a dead loved one, human or animal, sometimes ourselves, sometimes an enemy: the possibilities are endless.

Then Fernandez gets a note which he describes as “peppered with formal niceties”, “a command wrapped in silk and thrown through my window”, “a letter from someone who got what they wanted.” He called the sender,  Charlotte Maughton, and arranges to meet her at Benson’s at twelve. He asks how he will know her and she replies that she will know who he is. So he asks how she will know who he is and she tells him he is to wear a red flower. He wants to know if a hellebore will doHeliotrope for Britten and she asks if it is red. He says “reddish” and she replies, “Wear that.”  All very mysterious wouldn’t you say? And all drawn in the same dark shades. The only colours that appear are the green sweater  and orangish tie of Marvin Kelp, Britten’s office neighbour and a few brownish tones in Charlotte’s hair plus a light blue background on some pages about Gregory Murch and his daughter and a red sweater worn by a waiter.

Ferandez attaches the hellebore to his vest and sets out for Benson’s pointing out to the reader along the way which eating establishments are meant for things such as finding someone to solve a problem quickly, which are for arranging an alibi, which are for discrete discussions and which had waiters who would remember  or forget what they heard depending upon the size of the tip.

Charlotte MaughtonEnter Charlotte Maughton, whom Britten describes as “gliding past the troubled clientele” and looking like how he imagined “a swan might if it were on lithium.”

Britten explains that he is a “researcher”, a term he prefers to “private eye”. He asks what line of work Charlotte is in and her answer is that her father is in publishing and so she is not in any line of work. Britten gets right down to business. “You mentioned something in your message about….”

Charlotte fills in the blank: “Murder?” And so the stage is set. Charlotte believes her fiancé was murdered. And so Britten has a serious case and the real “joy” of this particular graphic novel begins in earnest. The mystery is like any other and the reader’s “joy” in the unravelling…uh, well joy is a pretty strong word in Britten’s world so I won’t go that far. But it is enjoyable to try and work alongside Britten and see if one can figure it out. If you haven’t tried a graphic novel and like mystery books, this might be a good place to try out such a novel. It will read quickly …only 100 pages…and you’ll be able to add a new genre to your reading experience.

Hannah Berry’s website states that she lives in Brighton with a cat, a tortoise and a beloved Frenchman. She teaches/tutors courses on graphic novels and is also a writer, illustrator, occasional lecturer and editorial gun-for-hire.