Analysis of a Comics Spread

Blankets by Craig Thompson. Marietta, Georgia: Top Shelf Productions, 2003.

Blankets, a graphic memoir, captures the author’s internalized isolation from growing up in a strict religious family in a small midwestern town and the transformative experience of adolescent first love. This experience marks the beginning of Thompson’s receptiveness to “adulthood” and a path that will eventually lead him to reject his faith and recapture his love of drawing. Thompson’s distinctive black-and-white art (Good-bye Chunky Rice, 1999; Habibi, 2011) balances representational precision (especially in facial expressions) with lyrical line, decorative motifs and dark, harsh angularity in expansive spreads that reference religious texts and imagery.

The spread from Blankets shown above appears near the end of  Chapter V: I Don’t Want to Grow Up, which is the middle chapter in the book and a thematic turning point of the memoir. In this chapter, the main characters, Craig and Raina, have shared poignant childhood memories, their vague after-high-school plans, and their thoughts about some of the basic tenets of their shared religion in one night of intense closeness. Craig also silently reflects on how childhood sexual abuse made him feel displaced from his body and fearful and disgusted by the physical transformations of adolescence. Then, at Raina’s invitation, they decide to extend their closeness and sleep together in her bed. When Raina leaves the room, Craig is engulfed by the fiery texts of his religion in unbalanced panels that poke at him. Upon Raina’s return, the text and images become lyrical references to the Song of Solomon, a biblical poem of human love, that continue through full-page spreads of Craig’s reflections on the miraculous beauty of a sleeping Raina after his early-morning return to his own room. The above spread shows Craig and Raina’s first contact in the common space of the living room the next morning. The wordlessness of the spread contains the quiet internalizing of the private communion between Craig and Raina the night before and serves to emphasize a sense of ritual and profundity. The first panel in the spread echos this feeling as a dark background offsets a bright aura around the new lovers. The spread is structured very simply, with square panels atop  differently-sized horizontal panels. This construction also adds to the sense of ritual enactment. In the panels on the left page, Craig lets Raina position his arms in a stance that resembles Christ on the Cross, and indeed in the bottom panel, Craig’s shadow is that Cross. Craig’s passivity here is not the repressed consciousness that helped him survive the hurts and abuses in his childhood, but the quiet intensity of being fully present in the moment. The Christ-like stance and Craig’s expression convey his trust in Raina and now, himself. On the following page, Raina “blankets” Craig with his overcoat and beckons for him to follow her outside. In the penultimate panel, Craig stares at Raina’s bare leg as he bends to tie his shoe and his expression is the pivot point of the spread and perhaps the whole memoir. An open eye and raised eyebrow reveal an awareness and acceptance of his physical desire for Raina, and thereby his own sexuality. This marks the point where Craig is finally ready to “grow-up” and integrate the fractured parts of himself. In the final panel, only Craig and Raina’s bodies are shown (their heads are out of the frame), as they leave burdensome cares and thoughts behind (at least for the moment), and move into a light-filled physical world of new experiences. Overall, this spread quietly embodies the essential themes of Blankets: growing up, experiencing first love and the interconnected complexities it awakens in Craig about his self-image, his sexuality, his religion, and his ability to consciously move forward into his future.

From a librarian’s perspective, this spread shows the power of comics to convey the emotional and intellectual complexities of the author’s personal experience and our shared human experience of “becoming” adults. The simplicity of the panel structure and the “realism” of the characters and their actions makes this spread immediately accessible. The spread also conveys a positive message of handling others (especially when they are vulnerable) with attention and care. I would readily use this spread to recommend this comic to teen and adult readers who enjoy coming-of-age stories and memoirs.

For me, this spread from Blankets beautifully and simply presents a quiet dance-like enactment of our shared humanity. The simple structure of the page, its wordlessness, the expressive faces and gestures, and the symbolic references combine to poetically convey the content of the story as well as universal concepts of moving into our own future with agency.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Review: Spinning by Tillie Walden

This review follows the School Library Journal’s guidelines.

Spinning by Tillie Walden. 2017. New York: First Second. 392 pp.

Age 12 and up. A coming of age, coming out graphic memoir set against the backdrop of the routines and rigors of the sport of figure skating. Covering the years from middle school through high school, with occasional flashbacks to childhood (most notably the author’s first awareness at age five that she is gay), a move from New Jersey to Texas forces Tillie to find emotional spaces to build a new life for herself albeit one that is still firmly anchored by the dictates of skating: early morning training and practices, after-school synchronized team skating, and weekends away at competitions. In this new life, Tillie experiences  severe bullying, friendships made distant by secrets, first love and the ensuing forced outing of herself, a near-miss car accident, sexual assault by her SAT tutor, fraught family relationships, emotional support from her music tutor and guidance from an art teacher. Dialogue is sparse but exquisite line drawing, a subdued pallet of purples with flashes of yellow, and the exceptional use of negative space, render a full range of emotional content: loneliness and isolation; a joyless drive to achieve in skating competitions, and an increasing desire to connect with others and her life on her own terms. Sketchy unfinished images of Tillie that convey the ambiguity of adolescent emotions and motivations are contrasted with glimpses of the young Tillie’s detailed and confident artwork revealing the trajectory of her future. An intimate and compelling memoir that will resonate with teen and adult readers.

 

Comics and Librarianship

        Nyberg (2010) concludes her essay on changing attitudes about comics and their gradual acceptance by the library community as being influenced by the adoption of the term “graphic novel” which lent a sense of newness and legitimacy to a long-besmirched comics format. The irony of this, acknowledged by Nyberg (2010) and Green (2010), is that since its inception this “new term” has caused headaches in library classification and cataloging systems where it is  both a format and a genre and applied (inconsistently, which is also a problem) to nonfiction works, anthologies and collection. Perhaps it is time to drop the “novel” in favor of graphic-fiction, graphic-nonfiction, graphic-biography, etc. until the scale tips back and a consensus of stakeholders are ready to use the term comics to define the format.

       Considering the history of the comics format in both American culture and the library world, it is encouraging that current debates among library professionals are more concerned with increasing access through cataloging and shelving practices than the  legitimacy of comics in library collections. Still, these current debates are significant and consequential for both library staff and patrons trying to locate specific titles or browse genres, subjects, authors/artists. Tarulli (2010) reminds library professionals that “the nature of providing access to our collections is always advancing and evolving” (p. 214), and that ongoing and receptive communication among library professionals is key.

       Currently in public libraries,  nonfiction comics stand out as being inconsistently cataloged by call number, subject headings and keywords. Many online catalog records for these titles do not even include the word nonfiction. Shelving of nonfiction comics also seems to vary widely. Although Green (2010) was writing about both fiction and nonfiction comics in academic libraries, it is somewhat discouraging that these cataloging and shelving problems, which so profoundly impact patron access, are still with us.  

My thoughts as an MLS student:

  • Please, let’s stop referring to comics and graphic novels as a genre, it is a format
  • Great strides have been made in adding comics to public library collections (with adult collections starting to catch up) and cataloging comics together according intended audience seems to best serve patrons who want this material. While segregating comics serves already-interested readers and browsers, it puts the onus on librarians to expose and cultivate new comics readers through passive and active promotion of these collections.
  • Please, send out the call to public libraries to unilaterally do away with shortened lending times for comics. It is really presumptuous to assume that comics are read quickly.

References

        Green, K. (Nov, 2010). ‘Whaddaya Got?’ Finding Graphic Novels in an Academic Library. Publishers Weekly. Available at: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/comics/article/45109-whaddaya-got-finding-graphic-novels-in-An-academic-library.html

        Nyberg, A. K. (2010). How Librarians Learned to Love the Graphic Novel. In Weiner, R.G. (ed.) Graphic novels and comics in libraries and archives: Essays on readers, research, history and cataloging. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co. (p.26-40)

          Tarulli, L..(2010). Cataloging and Problems with Dewey: Creativity, Collaboration and Compromise. In Weiner, R. G. (ed.) Graphic novels and comics in libraries and archives: Essays on readers, research, history and cataloging. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co. (p.213-221)

A Manga for Experts, Enthusiasts, and the Uninitiated

 

Disappearance Diary by Hideo Azuma, translated from Japaneses by Kumar Sivsubramanian  and Elizabeth Tiernan. 2005, English edition, 2008. Ponent Mon, edited by Fanfare (U.K.) 194 pp., appended with excerpts of an interview by Miki Tori with the creator.

Question addressed: What do I know of the background of this book – about its author, how it came to be written, or the place where it is set, and so on – that might interest the reader and stimulate their desire to read?

 

Disappearance Diary by Hideo Azuma is the author’s account of his life in the 1980s and 90s during which he worked and gained acclaim as a manga artist, twice “dropped out” and “lived rough” by himself in the woods and on the streets, did manual labor as a gas pipe fitter, and received long-term treatment at a rehabilitation hospital for his  alcoholism. Although it is a “personal manga” that recounts abject situations, as the interviewer Miki Tori notes, it is told via images and text with a “delicate distancing” that allows humor to carry the reader through the concerning and disturbing undercurrents of its “reality”.

Disappearance Diary and its creator are highly acclaimed in the Japanese manga industry. In 2005, the book won the Grand Prize from the 9th Japan Media Arts Festival Manga Division and the Excellence Prize at the 34th Japan Cartoonists Association Awards. The author, Hideo Azuma, is a revered manga artist who is credited with being the “father of lolicon” a popular if controversial subgenre of manga.

While appreciated by manga experts and enthusiasts, Disappearance Diary is also ideal for readers unfamiliar with manga. Azuma’s interesting, absorbing, funny, and unsettling story is told as manga and is largely about manga. Throughout the book but especially in the second section which covers Azuma’s early years and rise as a manga artist, a reader is almost unconsciously learning about manga, both the industry and its visual language. For example, a reader new to manga learns something about “roughs”, inking, adding backgrounds, editor’s expectations, other artists, subgenres and consumers demands. At the same time, readers are exposed to many of the stylistic and formal aspects of manga. For example, Azuma depicts himself as a “chubby little guy” with one overlarge and hooded eye. Both his “cuteness” and his distinctive eye are aspects of the visual language of manga. Similarly, many of the females in the book are depicted in a “cute and sexy” manner common to a lot of manga and explored/ exploited more fully in the lolicon subgenre. The publication of the English edition of this manga as a left to right read also enables new readers to learn and perhaps become more curious about manga before wrangling with the awkwardness of reading a book from right to left.  

In his introduction, Azuma tells the reader that “This manga has a positive outlook on life, and so it has been made with as much realism removed as possible.” Despite Azuma’s cool and distanced look into his life, a sense of his physiological anxiety comes through in the drawings of himself and textual observations. A reader does not come away feeling they now know Azuma. In fact, his story leaves a reader more curious than ever about him (as and artist and person), his wife (how does she put up with him!), and manga.

 

Pro-Comics Statement by Tom & Eileen

Pro-Comics Statement for a public library supervisor

We believe comics belong in libraries because a diverse range of readers want to read them. Like traditional print books, ebooks, and audiobooks, comics are a format that covers fiction, including genre fiction such as fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, and adventure, and, nonfiction, including  biography, memoirs, and narrative nonfiction. The quality of specific comics can be judged using the same professional evaluation standards applied to other library materials, most obviously picture books (fiction and informational), that use text and images to convey meaning to the reader. The American Library Association (ALA)  has recognized excellence in comics with Caldecott, Newbery, Printz and Sibert awards. The comics industry’s Eisner awards recognize excellence in the comics format in a broad range of categories (best artist, best webcomic, best teen comic, etc.) and are respected by comic experts and enthusiasts as well as library professionals. Library and publishing industry journals review comics and routinely include them on general or format specific annual “Best Books” lists.

Library professionals agree that picture books, which convey meaning through text and images, are the fundamental building blocks of the early literacy mission of libraries. To become literate in the twenty-first century, readers of all ages must be able to navigate, interpret and analyze multimodal formats that combine text, visual images and graphic elements (Serafini, 2012). Comics are an impactful component for building multimodal literacy among readers from elementary school through adulthood. The visual components of comics are also a bridge to struggling readers and new or second language learners and can build both literacy skills and confidence. Most importantly, comics can evoke the full range of emotions and satisfaction that defines the reading experience, including  joy, empathy, contemplation, curiosity, and the acquisition of knowledge. Comics are an integral part of well-rounded library collections.

 

References

“Book & Media Awards”, American Library Association, November 30, 1999. http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia (Accessed April 2, 2018) Document ID: 71433187-a9a4-c294-6185-08e41c6ff0d6

Serafini, Frank.(2012). “Reading Multimodal Texts in the 21st Century.” Research in the Schools 19, no. 1: 26-32. http://queens.ezproxy.cuny.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.queens.ezproxy.cuny.edu/docview/1284528261?accountid=13379

 

Facing My Fear of Superhero Comics

Question addressed: What happen to me as I read?

As a reader, I am not a fan of the superhero genre although I do have some basic familiarity with a few of the most popular characters. As a librarian seeking to know more about superhero comics, I feel intimidated. Where do I enter? Which stand-alone volumes, series, or sub-series are essential or pivotal to understanding the characters and storylines? The changing covers, compilations and intermixing of the characters make it difficult for me to determine with confidence where I am in a series or storyline. Library cataloging and shelving practices are not always helpful. Here are some reflections on what happened to me as I read two comics featuring female superheros.   

She-Hulk: Deconstructed, vol. 1 by Tamaki (writer), Leon (artist). Marvel Worldwide, 2017

Fluid artwork and uncluttered text and panel/page design made it easy to enter into the story of the emotionally scarred Jennifer Walters as she tries to resume “normal life” as a lawyer while keeping her She-Hulk persona at bay. The straightforward plot is laced with humor and pathos and Jen’s backstory is alluded to throughout. Still, questions nagged at me as I read: What exactly happened to leave Jen so emotionally damaged? How did Bruce Banner die? Who is Hawkeye? Even though this comic is volume one, I kept wondering if I should have read something else first? After reading this comic, I discovered a short introduction that addressed most of my nagging questions. Unfortunately, this introduction is easily overlook (small text and oddly located on the title/publication information page). If I had read this introduction first, I would have been more confident in my reading and enjoyed the comic more. Obviously, superhero fans do not need this introduction but if attracting new readers is important, relocating this introduction so that it is more conspicuous seems a small concession.

Ms. Marvel: No Normal. Vol. 1  by Wilson (writer), Alphona (artist).  Marvel Worldwide, 2014.

Although I had some familiarity with the basic “Hulk” superhero, I know absolutely nothing about a superhero called “Captain Marvel”. Despite or because of  this ignorance, I never felt bogged down with questions about the backstory of this superhero and its relevance to this Ms. Marvel comic. Also, I could enter this comic with confidence since it is the beginning of Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel’s superhero story with the main theme being Kamala claiming this new identity as another component of her multifaceted identity. Kamala emerges as a complex character with a range of emotions surrounded by similarly “realistic” characters. There is not much of a plot but as a series opener it successfully drew me in and made me want to read more. As a librarian, this is a comic that I could recommend with confidence to other newcomers to the superhero genre from early teens through adults.

Censorship: Managing Professional and Personal Convictions

The existence and activities of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) underscores the need for libraries to remain vigilant and ready to counter challenges to comics professionally and quickly. Critchfield and Powell’s (2012) account of a comics challenge orchestrated from within by nonprofessional public library staff is a cautionary tale on many levels but perhaps most importantly on the consequences of losing control of the narrative as it plays out publicly. With the exception of having a challenge policy in place, the Kentucky Library in this account dealt with the challenge professionally, yet the challengers were able to cast themselves to the public as righteous victims of unfairness rather than employees undermining the library’s mission and abusing the responsibilities of their position. Forced to assume a reactive stance, the Library eventually regained control of the narrative but at what longterm cost to community and employee relations? In today’s polarized and sensationalized media climate, losing control of the narrative (facts and emotions) can happen quickly and be exponentially consequential.

In reviewing the CBLDF Case Files of more recent challenges, it is disheartening that legitimate professional dialog can be used to propel challenges based on hate or intolerance. When This One Summer by Tamaki was honored with a Caldecott in 2015, legitimate discussions about the unconventional application of the traditional age range of the target audience for this award became fuel for challenges to this book rooted in an anti-LGBTQ agenda. Of course, librarians and others should embrace passionate professional dialog, but given the history of challenges and censorship associated with the comics medium, framing and keeping positions contextualized is essential. (Note: Just to be clear, I enthusiastically applaud the choice to honor This One Summer with a Caldecott.)

Librarians must also be mindful of self-censorship. Are collection decisions for comics impartially based on budgets, collection needs, and community interest or does a review reference to a controversial subjects depicted visually have an unspoken impact?  When censorship debates emerge, is silence a form of support? Professional librarianship calls upon practitioners to be “against censorship” but it is naive to think that as individuals we will never find ourselves called upon to collect and/or defend materials that we find personally offensive. It is only professional guidelines and practices (and respect for the First Amendment) that prevent us from becoming the “well-intentioned” censors described by Critchfield and Powell (2012). If we step out of our professional role while practicing our profession, we must be honest with ourselves and willingly accept the consequences.

References

Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. (n.d.) Resources. Retrieved from http://cbldf.org/resources/

Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. (n.d.) Case Study: This One Summer. Retrieved from http://cbldf.org/banned-challenged-comics/case-study-this-one-summer/

Critchfield, R. & Powell, D.M.(2012). Well-Intentioned censorship is still censorship: The challenge of public library employees. In Valery Nye and Kathy Barco (Eds.), True stories of censorship battles in America’s libraries (pp. 8-13). Chicago: American Library Association.