Who’d have thought the popular award-winning Canadian novelist, poet and short story writer would put out a comic book. I’m amazed.
And Angel Catbird is amazing! Harking back to early comics of the 1940s, this entertaining story has all the elements of the genre. Surviving a near fatal collision with a car, his beloved cat Ding, an owl and a DNA changing serum, our Hero Strig Feleedus is transformed into Angel Catbird. The once-quiet scientist now has a six-pack, owl wings and a cat’s tail and must come to terms with his new abilities. There are some funny scenes as he learns to supress his baser instincts.
Evil villain Dr Muroid; part human, part rat, commands an army of rats he intends to humanise, feminise (eewww), and take over the World! If only he can get his clawed little hands on the formula. Meanwhile, down at Club Catastrophe, Cate Leone prepares for war … Part Femme Fatale and half cat, Margaret wanted Catbird’s a love interest drawn sexy but not gratuitously, as befits a feminist author.
In her introduction Atwood explains that even though she is “a nice literary old lady”, she drew comic book characters as a child and has never stopped; influenced by early comics such as Little Lulu, Mickey Mouse, Rip Kirby, Mary Worth, Marvel and Dick Tracy, and the later political satire of Walt Kelly’s Pogo.
Nature Canada, a cause close to Margaret’s heart, has added the odd footnote to the story – suggestions on how to protect both cats and the environment. The statistics are interesting without lecturing.
I’m hooked and can’t wait for Volume 2 – due out in February 2017.
It seems apt to be writing about American cartoonist Raina Telgemeier’s latest graphic novel Ghosts (released September 2016) after a night or two of ‘dark and stormy’ wild weather across the country. I lay in bed snuggled up with my children to keep warm, making up spooky stories to tell them as the wind lashed the trees. It was the kind of weather that gets one imagining something eerie in the air… like ghosts, perhaps.
Ghosts is a little bit different from Raina’s previous, award-winning, autobiographical graphic novels Smile (2010) and Sisters (2014). For fans expecting another story from her real life, she points out this is her first true fiction story “not at all based on real stuff.”
However it does similarly revolve around two sisters:
Eleven-year-old Catrina and her family are moving to the small coastal town of Bahía de la Luna because her younger sister, Maya, is sick. Cat isn’t happy about leaving her friends, but she tries not to complain because she knows Maya will benefit from the clean, cool air that blows in from the sea. As the girls settle in, they learn there’s something a little spooky about their new town…
Have a peek at an excerpt of Ghosts set in the missions of foggy northern California and during the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos).
Raina’s illustrated stories of her life growing up appeal to 7, 17 and 37 year-olds alike. I thought it was curious that my copy of Raina’s book Smile had gone missing from my bedside table one night and when I went to check on my young son, supposedly asleep in bed, I found he had taken it and was totally absorbed and asking for more – I suspect it was the smiley face on the cover that attracted him. He quickly became a big fan of Raina’s despite the content of her books being from a female perspective and about sisterhood and female friendships. This is a great reminder not to gender stereotype readers’ interests.
Moreover, graphic novels are a great hook for reluctant readers. I like to think of Raina’s comics as ‘gateway graphic novels’ and wanted to meet Raina partly just to thank her for really igniting my son’s reading. I also blame Raina for my son wanting a pet fish (her fish poo scene had him in hysterics) as well as his first iPod for his birthday (just like her character in Sisters, although in her case it was a cassette player, being the 1980s). Happy Birthday son – you’re also getting Ghosts for your birthday too!
Raina’s talk at the IBBY Congress My life as a Comic and Comics are my life
The title of Raina’s talk at the IBBY Congress My Life as a Comic and Comics are My Life highlights how interchangeable these two aspects are for her. Indira Neville, from the National Library of New Zealand in Auckland – and a cartoonist in her own right – introduced Raina by acknowledging her impact on making a greater space for women in comics. Raina then talked about her influences on her comic-making as a child.
Raina shared her early influences and inspirations as a child growing up in the 1980s in America (like me) such as the Care Bears, the Smurfs, Strawberry Shortcake and Scooby Doo cartoons. Perhaps a reminder not to write off children’s seemingly vacuous television viewing. She was talking about my childhood too! She also highly rates the comic series Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Waterson and Bone by Jeff Smith as both being important in her becoming a cartoonist.
Raina was also a huge fan of realistic fiction such as that of Judy Blume and of Beverly Cleary and her stories of sisters Beezus and Ramona. Raina was interested in what kids her age were doing and was enamoured with For Better and for Worse by Lynn Johnston – in this comic strip the characters grew up every year alongside her and her family in real life so they felt like friends or neighbours to Raina and for her, lives blurred between reality and comics – much like her own work does.
A seminal comic she received was from her father, Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa, which ends with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. She said she cried for two days after the ending and was fascinated with how “comics can make you feel a huge emotional response” – this resonated with her from a young age. She credits Barefoot Gen with waking her up to the power of storytelling.
“Comics can make you feel a huge emotional response.”
Another spark was a 1st grade teacher who set a year long assignment of diary writing where the teacher would write back and forth to the students in diaries they were keeping. Raina helped illustrate her school annuals and yearbooks and she kept an illustrated journal all through school and college, drawing her day in a visual diary. She still keeps a weekly comic diary. She says “all my influences get chucked into a blender and what comes out is my own original work.”
Raised in San Francisco, Raina went to the School of Visual Arts in New York, “having been enamoured with the city due to shows like Sesame Street”, and there she studied illustration and comic-making. She made mini-comics “back in the pre-internet days” and distributed about 7,000 copies of her her mini-comic ‘Take-out’ (7 issues, 12-pages black and white). She sold them for a whopping $1 a piece and would be thrilled when she received a cheque for $2.50 for selling a few comics. Her advice at the conference on how to get good at drawing comics? “Trace and copy is a great way to learn how to make shapes.” Simple as that.
Raina frequented comic conventions to promote her work and was approached at one by Scholastic Book Group, who were kicking off Graphix – an imprint of Scholastic. Raina had only done short comics up to that point so wasn’t sure what to do for a larger book so they asked her what she really liked reading herself as a kid. Answer: The Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M. Martin, which just happened to be in Scholastic stable of books and wow, two weeks later she had a book contract to illustrate the beloved series. She lifts the dialogue straight from the books and each of the four books took a year to make. Initially in black and white they have been reprinted in colour and since then have been on the New York Times Best Sellers list (colour sells!) She says she can see herself across several characters in The Baby-Sitter’s Club but Kristy is her favourite and of course the character in her comics she can relate to the most is herself… She went on to write and illustrate several graphic novels about her experiences growing up, also published by Scholastic.
Warning: Contains graphic content (of a dental nature) Smile (2010) depicts the aftermath of an incident that led to Raina having her teeth reconstructed between the ages of 11-15, after falling over and damaging her permanent front teeth. This was a very self-conscious time of life and her graphic novel lays bare these awkward years and the accompanying bullying as well. There is something innocent and wholesome about Raina’s stories and she comes across as cheerful but there were certainly no smiles when she presented a photo in her talk of her gruesome dental files from this time period. Set in the time covering the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco, Raina says in Smile: “I survived a major earthquake. I guess in the grand scheme of things losing a couple of teeth isn’t the end of the world.”
Sisters (2014) was based on one panel in Smile about a family road trip and delves into the relationship with her younger sister Amara and wider family dynamics many readers will relate to.
Raina can’t wait to be a big sister. But once Amara is born, things aren’t quite how she expected them to be. Amara is cute, but she’s also a cranky, grouchy baby, and mostly prefers to play by herself. Their relationship doesn’t improve much over the years, but when a baby brother enters the picture and later, when something doesn’t seem right between their parents, they realize they must figure out how to get along. They are sisters, after all…
Present-day narrative and perfectly placed flashbacks tell the story of her relationship with her sister, which unfolds during the course of a road trip from their home in San Francisco to a family reunion in Colorado.
What’s the drama with Drama?
After the dramas in Smile came the real Drama (2012). Set in middle school years, partly Raina’s intent with Drama was to honour the technical people who do the work behind the scenes in school drama and stage productions (as opposed to the select few who make it on stage). Drama is a homage to these friendships and the camaraderie that occurs between them. In the story are twin boys who are gay, just like her best friends were at school. On the controversy of having young gay students depicted in Drama, she says she is pleased Scholastic backed her and notes her based-on-a-true story graphic novel is actually indicative of the real world compared to fantasy-driven comics which get less questioned. Moreover she says:
“I hear from kids thanking me for validating their existence.”
This I think is the essence of what makes her work so popular among readers young and old alike – they can find themselves in her stories: in the sibling spats, in the humiliating experiences, negotiating friendships and in the minutiae of school and home life.
What other comics and books does Raina recommend for readers who love her graphic novels?
She gave special mention in her presentation to: El Deafo (2014) by Cece Bell Raina rates it as: “The best middle grade memoir about hearing loss you will ever read.” Okay, it may be the only one. Roller Girl (2015) by Victoria Jamieson. A graphic novel adventure about a girl who discovers roller derby right as she and her best friend are growing apart. Sunny Side Up (2015) by Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm. From the brother-and-sister creators of Babymouse, Sunny Side Up follows the lives of kids whose older brother’s delinquent behaviour has thrown their family into chaos.
Have you ever seen a book and known you just had to read it–not because you thought you would actually like it necessarily, but because not reading it was just–inconceivable? Well, that’s how I felt when I saw Star Trek, Green Lantern: The Spectrum War.
I’ve never really gotten into reading graphic novels, unless you count the Asterix and Tintin books I used to read when I was a kid. And I don’t know much about the Green Lantern, except that he’s, uh, green, and he, well, carries a lantern. But I am a Trekkie!* And even though I’ve never really felt the need to read much Trek fiction, I just had to read this! Resistance was futile!
And you know what? I loved it! The artwork beautifully captures the rebooted Star Trek characters, and as I read, I could literally hear Chekov, Spock, and Bones talking in my head. What’s not to love about a book that does that?
I mean, OK, the Superhero-Trek mash-up was a little goofy, but reading it put a smile on my face, and sometimes that’s just what you want a book to do.
And while we’re talking about Star Trek, last weekend Mr K had the brilliant idea of sending the kids to see Finding Dory while we went to see Star Trek Beyond, and I have to say I had a fantastic time! It was funny, exciting, and even touching. Bones and Spock were hilariously paired up, Kirk was his usual arrogant self, and new-girl Jaylah kicked butt, which was awesome. In the August issue of Empire, director Justin Lin said:
In making Star Trek Beyond, I wanted to embrace the essence of Trek
And that is exactly what he did. It’s Trek as it should be!
No, but seriously, it IS zombie awareness month. What’s more, it’s nearly over and I haven’t even revised my evacuation plan or topped up the first aid kit in case of the Zombie Apocalypse. I deserve to get my brains munched, frankly.
But fear not! For your library is practically overflowing with zombie-related reading and viewing. So here are my picks of the best of the shambling undead.
Better check out some fight sequences and bone up on your best zombie combat moves –
The Walking Dead – We’re between seasons with everyone’s favourite zombie horror TV series, but why not got back and rewatch the first season before Rick went feral and facial hair took over his face? You know, back when the post-apocalyptic world was a kinder, gentler, better groomed place.
Warm Bodies – A zombie as a romantic lead? Seems a bit unlikely but that’s the premise of this film starring Nicholas Hoult of TV show Skins.
World War Z – Where the zombies are fast and really good at climbing, the little monkeys. But are they a match for Brad Pitt in “action” mode? Well, they give it a good try at least…
I am Legend – Not technically zombies because they’re not dead (much like the ones in World War Z) but if you spend time quibbling about such distinctions during the apocalypse you’ll likely become someone’s afternoon tea, so just enjoy the ride (and make note of Will Smith’s survival skills and strategies).
Shaun of the dead (we’ve got this as a double-DVD combo with Hot Fuzz). Just the rom-zom-com to lighten the mood a touch.
Board up the windows and hunker down with some reading material –
If anyone had told me that I would become a huge fan of fantasy graphic novels with an anthropomorphic badger and more, I would have suggested they change their prescription.
Don’t get me wrong – I like graphic novels, well, some anyway. I give a wide berth to superheroes and the like, but Grandville and the nicely put together Detective Inspector LeBrock and his terribly English, monocle-wearing sidekick Detective Sergeant Roderick Ratzi have me hooked.
The Grandville books are set in a steampunk world with murder, greed and political conspiracy as the themes. When I reserved the first book in the series I had no idea they were fantasy, or that my would-be heroes were animals. While most of the characters are anthropomorphic animals, there are a few “doughfaces” representing humans.
England has recently won independence from superpower France (Napoleon won!). The far right have bombed Robida Tower, with the English being accused. Having created the fear, the scheming politicians/moguls plan to unite their citizens in a war against terrorism, thus overcoming any further socialist republic tendencies. They are working on the explosive finale, but not if our heroes have anything to do with it.
Archie LeBrock is no gentleman when it comes to dishing out justice and the body count is high in Grandville, the first book in the series. Think working-class Le Carré, Conan Doyle, Ian Fleming and pure fantasy. The steampunk theme is a perfect match for the characters and the stories, and adds an extra quality to the whole series. I found myself studying the background instead of just reading the words and moving onto the next frame.
The English resistance movement have struggled against France and have won independence, but at what cost? LeBrock and Ratzi find power does indeed corrupt and they have to face the unthinkable in the second title in the series, Grandville Mon Amour. Once again they burrow their way through the political system to find the rotten apples at its core. As a wee sideline, we get a small hope that Archie might find love again.
I love the sly digs, the twisted, quite fictional history and the visual and verbal puns which are a large part of the pleasure of reading these books. Despite my initial wariness (I mean, fantasy!?) I will read these books again and wait for the next two that will finish the series. I’m yet to read book number 3, Grandville Bete Noir, having saved it for a treat.
It would be hard to find a graphic novel less like standard comic books than this.I loved the almost Beatrix Potter-like watercolour drawings and the moving story of teenage runaway Helen and her pet Rat. Her story evolves, her past and her reasons for running away slowly becoming obvious as Helen tries to deal with her fear and self-loathing and find her place in the world. An excellent combination of a sadly familiar story with a satisfactory ending, enhanced by beautiful drawings.
Have you ever had your reading tastes altered by a book, as firmly as I have? Ever tried reading graphic novels? Put a book back on the shelf after spotting the word “fantasy” and thought, not for me? I have enjoyed having my head turned by all of these books and will be more open-minded (I hope) in future.
Working in a library, there are at least two absolutes:
There are hundreds of thousands of books I could read
I am never going to read them all
With this in mind, I have found the solution. Never again will I have to worry and fret about all those classic titles that cause me shame to admit I have never read. With my new tool, I can sound as if I know the plot to the biggies and nod sagely when people discuss the nuances of character development in The Clan of the Cave Bear or the sense of place in Death in Venice.
I love comics, and am always on the troll for good ones. Yesterday I asked Twitter “Comics peeps – do you have any recommendations of comic/graphic novel memoirs or biogs? Or something sciencey?” and got some great ideas for comics reading – most of which are at the library (phew):
The covers alone say so much about the diversity of imagination you can find in graphic novels. A selection from our latest April new titles. If you haven’t explored this genre before I’d encourage you to give it go.
I’ve just been reading (and looking at) a book which I feel like recommending to everyone. It’s the story of a hunting, shooting, fishing Kiwi bloke called Stag which might not sound like it has appeal to many women. But… this book, Stag Spooner; wild man from the bush by Chris Maclean, has everything.
First its a great story – as well as being a hunter, Stag was a talented artist who created what could be New Zealand’s first graphic novel. This is included in the book and will seem immediately familiar to people today. Stag went off to fight in World War II and made a bit of money designing envelopes and Christmas cards for his fellow soldiers to send home to their families. Examples of these also fill the book. Check the family archives – there might be one of these among your grandparent’s World War II memorabilia. Stag’s story also harks back to a time when hunting and fishing opportunities were far richer and many families supplemented their diet and their income by what they could shoot in the hills or catch in rivers and the sea.
Stag was very much an individual as photographs in the book show and also a man for whom his family was very important. The rest of his life story makes compelling reading, as does the story of how this book came to be.
Stag Spooner is also a beautifully produced book. All the elements – the cover, the layout, the quality of illustrations and paper are just as a good book should be.