Tag Archives: magical realism

Mighty Jack (Graphic Novel)

Author/Illustrator: Ben Hatke

Colorists: Alex Campbell & Hilary Sycamore

Mighty Jack, vol. 1

My rating: 5 of 5

Jack’s summer promises to be anything but enjoyable–his mom’s working extra this year to support her kids, so Jack’s left to take care of his sister Maddy who never talks and needs extra-special care. He can’t even spend the time he’d like making friends . . . and that girl who lives down the street and practices swordplay in the yard sure does look like she’d be an interesting friend. A family trip to the flea market  changes everything, however, as an unusual man sells Jack a pack of weird seeds, promising they’ll change his life. They certainly do that! For one thing, Maddy gets remarkably excited about these seeds, pouring herself into planting and taking care of them. For another, well, the seeds sure do seem to be magic–as in, some of them get up and move, some have faces, others explode or give you special abilities if you eat them. Crazy cool stuff, but pretty dangerous, too. Enter the sword-swinging girl from down the street. Lilly is entranced by the incredible things Jack and Maddy have growing in their back yard, and she knows how to deal with the more dangerous stuff. Maybe this summer won’t be so bad after all.

Wow. I have loved Ben Hatke’s work ever since I first read Zita the Spacegirl, and Mighty Jack was certainly not a disappointment. It sort-of plays off the whole Jack and the Beanstalk story, only it’s re-imagined to such an extent that it doesn’t really feel like a retelling at all; it’s brilliantly original. As with the Zita stories, the characters, art, and story are all fresh and rich, colorful and inviting. It all just draws the reader in in such an enjoyable way. I loved all three of the main characters, the way they fit together, the way they grow throughout the story, the way their flaws influence the progression of the story, all of it. Extra perks to the author for strong female characters, for a cool homeschooler, and for including a character with autism, all of whom are a rich part of the story. I loved Jack and Maddy’s mom and Lilly’s brother as well–yay for developed and interesting supporting characters. Bonus points for the cameo of characters from the Zita stories–the guy who sells Jack the seeds and basically jump starts his whole story is a crossover character, and his placement in this story was fun. Regarding the art in particular (besides the obvious fact that it’s awesome), I loved Hatke’s skill in giving subtle expression to the characters, especially in the way he showed so clearly how Jack is just at the age where girls are becoming interesting and how he totally has a crush on Lilly, but how their relationship grows to be so much more than that. It’s powerful, how much he can express with so little. Also, I totally love the color palette used in this graphic novel. Mighty Jack is a graphic novel that I would highly recommend for anyone, regardless of age, although it’s technically children’s fiction–great story that I’m looking forward to continuing in future volumes.

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The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch (Graphic Novel)

Story by Neil Gaiman/Art by Michael Zulli/Lettering & Adaptation by Todd Klein

My rating: 4.5 of 5

WARNING: Mature Audience/Partial Nudity

Our narrator invites to listen to his tale of a most unusual evening, one he might not have believed himself had he not experienced it himself. A couple of his friends convinced him to come along and help them entertain an out-of-town guest who shall, for purposes of his story, be called Miss Finch–a strange woman to be sure, a biogeologist with an awkward personality and a great desire to see extinct creatures like Smilodon alive in their natural habitat. As fate would have it, the party winds up in a bizarre underground circus of questionable taste, but fate takes a strange turn when they arrive at an exhibit in which one individual is to have their greatest wish granted . . . and Miss Finch is the one chosen individual.

I first read “The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch” in Gaiman’s Fragile Things as a short story, which I found quite outstanding and memorable. This graphic novel adaptation is also quite intriguing, staying close to the spirit of the original short story. It’s this strange blend of magical realism and an almost macabre oddness that gets under the skin somehow. Typical Gaiman, that, I suppose–his stories have a way of being unsettling but brilliant in ways I didn’t even know stories could be. Zulli’s art is just perfect for the story, bringing together that darkness and unsettledness and all the totally out there aspects of the circus in a way that fits and ties everything together. I love the departure from a typical comic-book style; it’s more neutral tones and semi-realistic styles that work really well for this story (and are much more what I prefer in general). I would definitely read more of this artist’s works (and am pleased to see that he appears to have illustrated a few other Gaiman graphic novels!). I think for those who enjoy Gaiman’s work or who are looking for a different but quality graphic novel, The Facts in the Case of the Disappearance of Miss Finch would be a great choice.

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Sing No Evil

Author: J. P. Ahonen/Illustrator: K. P. Alare

My rating: 4 of 5

Previously published as Perkeros

WARNING: Mature Audience

Perkeros–an avant-garde band just beginning to find its place in the local music scene. Band members include art-student keyboardist Lisa, singer/guitarist Aydin (who keeps mixing pizza with his music), bassist Kervinen (it’s hard to tell which of his stories are for real and which are a product of too much experimentation in the sixties), and drummer Bear (who is, in fact, a bear). And Aksel, the lead guitarist whose extreme nerves and obsessive perfectionism (plus just obsession) over the music may just be enough to shatter the band. Certainly enough to get him ousted from the house by his pragmatic girlfriend. But when the members of Perkeros encounter the seemingly impossible and horrifying results of music gone wrong in another band, it may just be enough for them to reconcile their differences.

Sing No Evil was quite a unique find, and I’m glad to have read it. For one thing, I think it’s the first actual Finnish book I’ve read–I don’t know whether there just aren’t many released in English or if I’m just blind, but I almost never see books by Finnish authors here in the U.S. So that was neat. Plus, this is an extremely dynamic and engaging graphic novel, although I’m rather baffled as to how to classify it. Imagine if Kazu Kibuishi took over the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel–you might end up with something kind of similar. The art style is really nice, and yes, kind of reminiscent of some of Kibuishi’s work. I like the character designs a lot, and the music scenes are fabulously trippy (the cover is a great example of this, actually). But the story itself is this weird (but fascinating) mix of new-adult slice of life stuff–your basic story of young adults trying to work a band into the mix with relationships, work, and higher education–along with some really trippy quasi-demonic deathmetal stuff. It’s kind of creepy (one of several reasons I would label this an adult graphic novel). Of course, there’s some random magical-realism stuff thrown in, too, like Bear being a bear and also being a legitimate member of the band . . . but also being the only animal in this sort of situation in the story. I quite enjoyed the mix in the story, however challenging it was to classify, and the mix of drama, adventure, and humor was nicely balanced. Also random but fun, there are any number of random references just thrown in–I almost died laughing when I saw that Bear’s winter home had a sign saying “Sanders” over the door. Anyhow, I don’t think Sing No Evil is for everyone, but for those interested in a dynamic new adult/fantasy graphic novel with a focus on music, it might be interesting to try.

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My Neighbor Totoro (1988 Movie)

Studio Ghibli

My rating: 5 of 5

Satsuki, her father,  and her little sister Mei move to an old, slightly decrepit house in the country to be closer to the hospital where their mother is being treated. It’s a big change, but it’s also an adventure, and both girls are delighted, especially when they find the house is inhabited by soot sprites–tiny spirits that the adults can’t even see. Even better, Mei encounters a large, friendly spirit calling himself “Totoro” during her explorations while Satsuki is at school. (Satsuki’s a tiny bit jealous about that.) But one rainy evening when the girls go out to meet their father’s bus, Satsuki gets to meet Totoro as well! It seems that not only are their new neighbors glad to welcome the family to the area; the forest spirits are as well. Good thing, too, because it will take everyone’s help when Mei goes missing.

My Neighbor Totoro is one of those movies that never gets old and that has something for everyone. My two-year-old niece adores it, and my dad does too. It’s a wonderful story for many diverse reasons. Just as a start, the animation and the music are wonderful. Joe Hisaishi has some of the most interesting and beautiful film scores out there, and the score for this movie is no exception. And yes, the art isn’t always as detailed in some scenes as the modern CG stuff that’s created today, but the form, the details that the artists choose to capture, and the overall flavor of the place and time that is evoked is absolutely stunning. The characterizations of the children–everything from the art to the scripts to all the tiny details–is incredibly captivating and believable. Satsuki is the quintessential big sister trying to hold it all together and mother her little sister while still being just a kid and worried about her mom’s health herself. And Mei is so full of whimsy and imagination and childish impulses and mannerisms. I love the way in which the culture and community of a rice-farming community in late 1950’s Japan is presented, too, with all sorts of details. And the way in which the wonders of the spirits and traditional beliefs and fantasy are all woven in is just lovely and charming. In short, My Neighbor Totoro is a sweet, lovely animated movie that I would highly recommend to basically anyone of any age.

Note: I watched the 2005 English dub for this movie. It’s excellent.

Written and Directed by Hayao Miyazaki/Produced by Toru Hara/Music by Joe Hisaishi/Starring Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning, Tim Daly, Lea Salonga, & Frank Welker

 

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The War at Ellsmere

Author/Illustrator: Faith Erin Hicksthe-war-at-ellsmere

My rating: 4 of 5

In a tale as old as boarding school accepting scholarship students, Jun enters the prestigious (read “stuffy”) Ellsmere Academy on the merits of her academic achievement alone. Not surprisingly, she runs into just the sort of problems you’d expect–snotty rich kids, uncomfortable uniforms, bullying. At least she excels at the school part and she’s not so concerned about making lots of friends. Unexpectedly though, Jun and her roommate Cassie swiftly become fast friends in spite of their distinctly different personalities. And together, the two friends determine to make it through the year at Ellsmere regardless of the problems that get thrown their way.

I’ve never really read much Faith Erin Hicks, but I was pleasantly surprised with what I found in The War at Ellsmere. As mentioned above, the plot isn’t anything particularly outstanding: poor kid, rich school, bullies, rivalry, the one friend who sticks around no matter what. Pretty standard stuff. But what Hicks does with these typical plot elements is pretty spectacular, actually. The art is bold and expressive, which definitely helps. But where she excels the most, I think, is in crafting believable, interesting characters that the reader enjoys and empathizes with. Jun and Cassie are definitely two such characters, and their interactions totally carry the story. On a side note, the touch of magical realism thrown in at the end was . . . interesting. It worked with the story, but as with Larson’s Mercury, it was surprising and difficult to mesh with the rest of the graphic novel. Still, for those who enjoy a high-school graphic novel with great characters, The War at Ellsmere is definitely on my list of recommendations.

 

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Mercury

Author/Illustrator: Hope Larsonmercury

My rating: 3.5 of 5

In 2009, Tara Fraser runs through the town of French Hill in Nova Scotia, passing the burned out remains of her old family home–the place she’d lived most of her life. Little could she imagine the deep ties she unwittingly retains with her ancestress Josey Fraser, a girl who grew up on the very same homestead back in the 1850’s. But when Tara finds an unusual quicksilver-containing family heirloom in her mother’s old jewelry box, the ties that connect these two girls begin to reveal themselves, uncovering a history of unexpected fortune and tragedy both.

My experience reading Mercury was really kind of mixed. I really love what the author tried to do here, melding the stories of these two girls. And I think overall the way the story revealed both of their stories side-by-side was very effective. But I found the extreme similarities between them rather forced at times; their own appearances were too similar, as were the relations between them and their best friends (who were also remarkably similar). I guess this is something that works better for the middle-grade audience this seems to be intended for, but it was counterproductive for me as a reader. On the other hand, I did like the characters and their stories. And I loved the setting, both in historic and present-day Nova Scotia–it’s pretty rare to find graphic novels set in Canada, so that’s always fun. The art was nice too, definitely a western (non-manga) style, but in a modern graphic-novel sense, not in an annoying comic-book sense. The other thing I found notable about this story was the touch of magical realism thrown in towards the end of the book. From reviews I’ve seen, this is pretty typical of Hope Larson’s writing, but I definitely wasn’t expecting it, so it really threw me. On the whole though, Mercury was a nice graphic novel, most recommended for a middle-grade or high-school audience, but with enough depth to be appreciable by adult readers as well.

 

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