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Nexus Graphica
by Mark London Williams

Other Nexus Graphica Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
R. Crumb's Kafka, replete with link to slide show
Fear and Trembling in the Penal Colony
Scott Pilgrim
NY Times Introduces Its Graphic Novel Bestseller List
Kid Houdini and Silver Dollar Misfits
Scalped #25
Recent Books of Interest

Kafka by David Zane Mairowitz (text) and Robert Crumb (art) Fantagraphics Kafka
Not a new book at all, really -- well, for me it was, having just come across a copy from Fantagraphics, but it's been out for awhile in different editions. It's a terrific guide to Kafka's life and work -- Mairowitz deftly sums up Franz' family/Jewish/pre-Holocaust European experiences and influences, and Crumb's heavy inkings lend the exact tones of darkness to recreations of both Kafka's life -- and work. I have an entirely new "appreciation" of In The Penal Colony, for example. In looking up just how late I was in getting 'round to this book, I came across this adept insight from an Amazon citizen-reviewer named Kerry Waters: "Does Crumb understand the deep connection between himself and Kafka? Is the book intended, at least on one level, as a gag? a book about 'Crumbka?' ... I suspect that Crumb knows exactly what he's doing. But what I do know is that Kafka is about more than just Kafka. And that's what makes doubly intriguing." Word, Kerry. Scary, existentially bleak-yet-prescient, redolent, well-illustrated word.

Scott Pilgrim, Vol. 5 by Bryan Lee O'Malley (Oni Press) Scott Pilgrim, Vol. 5
If you like Scott Pilgrim -- and if you don't, why the heck are you reading this paragraph!? -- the fifth installment of the Canadian twentysomething's magical realist (or video game realist -- or just plan surrealist) adventures with his marginally employed compadres (Depression era bulletin: now we're all marginally employed! Alas, we're not all 20, anymore!) He's still trying to fully woo/win the mysterious Ramona -- he thinks -- but has to work his way through the game-like "levels" of her past loves. That formula is on full display here, with a couple of twists -- and some seemingly high emotional stakes at the end -- but primarily, if you already know "Pilgrim's world," this volume won't necessarily hold any new surprises. It seems -- as with even the best late second act/early third act writing -- to be setting things up for the finale, in this instance, coming our way in Vol. 6.

Scalped #5: High Lonesome, Pt. 1 by Jason Aaron (script) and R.M. Guera (art) (Vertigo) Scalped #5: High Lonesome, Pt. 1
Reviewers of this column may recall how much I liked the first collection of this series, taking 70s-era incidents from Lakota Tribal and American Indian Movement history, and reworking them on the bleak, literally-and-metaphorically sere Prairie Rose reservation. Throw in drugs, gambling, and ultra-violence borne of poverty, and you have a riveting, if despairing, story. Whether it's an accurate reflection of current Native American realities is also an open question, but it's certainly well-done noir. In this start of a new story arc, a self-loathing African American con man arrives at the rez to pull a last caper. His race seems important in the opening panels, where he pretends empathy a Native co-passenger on a bus, for various historical transgressions. But our con man is both a historical and amoral -- a rootless sociopath. What further wreckage he'll leave on the rez remains to be seen, but his first murder is already shocking, in its utter casualness. Never cheerful, but reliably compelling.

Into the Volcano: A Thumbnail Guide to Graphic Novels for Parents
(The annotated Nexus Graphica version)

In this column, I'm annotating a brief "guide" to graphic novels that I wrote for the parents at my youngest son's school. It's the time of their annual spring fundraiser, which comes with a handbook to the evening's festivities. This year, they wanted some handy "how to," and "where to" type guides within the booklet, so it would have some "evergreen" value -- as we say in both the journalism and ad businesses.

The idea came up that I should write something about writing -- books for young readers on the march. Or perhaps, the briefest of "rough guides" to the world of graphic novels.

That came about, because I'm one of the ardent "graphic novelist advocates" in youngest son's library -- where I volunteer once a week. I am often donating pertinent volumes to their collection.

Ah, but what constitutes a "pertinent volume" for K-6th graders? (also keeping in mind that the answer for, say, K-2, is "completely different" -- per Monty Python -- than it is for "6"). Most parents are "civilians" when it comes to comics and graphic novels -- or do I mean most family's have non-fannish household cultures?

Graphic novels (aka GNs) are the hot "it" item for both studio development folk and young readers (and bookstores desperate to figure out a model on how to keep the doors open), but they also seem... scary, if you're not used to them. You don't want your 4th grader reading the new Joker graphic novel -- and what's this new R-rated Superhero movie hitting theaters, anyway?

So originally, then, I thought of a "top ten" guide -- a near-dozen of the most young-reader friendly GNs and collections, spanning both superheroes and otherwise -- to bring "sequential art" to a reader, and a household, near you.

Then I found out the word count for said fundraising book was 350 words! About a third of a typical Nexus Graphica column!

So there went the "ten" list, and instead, I crammed a broad intro/view to comics and graphic novels, into a few paragraphs, hopefully providing a springboard for parents who might never know who Hal Jordan was, or Joe Chill, or Promethea, or Scott Pilgrim, or anyone else from the "sequential" universe.

The copy for the "guidebook" follows in italics:

I write this the day after The New York Times instituted its first-ever "graphic novel bestseller list," and it's no surprise to any parent who has been within 50 miles of a cineplex -- or roamed a bookstore with their young ones -- that the graphic novel's "moment" on the literary landscape has fully arrived.

In the school library, we scramble to keep up, and stock on our shelves accessible titles for our readers. Thus, as great a "visual text" as something like Alan Moore's Watchmen is, or as girl-friendly as Cecil Castellucci's Plain Janes series is, our readers here aren't quite ready for them.

If there's a graphic novel reader in your house, they may have checked out our copies of Jeff Smith's Pogo-like fantasy opus Bone, or copies of the Akiko series, described as a cross between "Little Nemo" and Japanese anime.

What can they read outside the library? Or on a road trip? Here are some quick suggestions -- a starting point -- broken down into broad categories:

Here -- with no room for a "top ten" list -- I broke the guide into two extremely broad areas -- to familiarize parents with the most basic underpinnings of the genre:

While there's a trend in superhero titles to be edgy and R-rated (that rating again!), there are many great "beginning" titles for costumed adventurers, providing plenty of thrills: Grant Morrison's 50's-esque "Superman" reboot, All-Star Superman, Batman, the Dark Knight Adventures, based on the animated series (as opposed to the Christopher Nolan films) and the Marvel Adventures series, featuring most of that imprint's "franchise players" in all-age friendly adventures. For somewhat more sophisticated readers, both The New Frontier and Marvels offer "origin stories" of both the DC and Marvel universes, respectively, in mild PG-13 form.

Adventures and Fantasy:
Not everyone in a graphic novel has to have cape. There have been some terrific, recently published adventures as well:
Into the Volcano, by Don Wood, kind of an updating of "Danger Island" for new readers, as kids head to Hawaii to visit mysteriously lost relatives, only to find themselves taken literally into a roiling volcano, that's about to blow; Rapunzel's Revenge is a fun, old west spin on the Rapunzel tale, as the titular heroine slings her long hair like a bullwhip, when encountering baddies; and Kid Houdini and the Silver Dollar Misfits is kid-friendly while offering enough gothic elements -- magic, children orphaned to a dark carnival -- that it will get your reader ready for when she does finally read some Alan Moore. Or Neil Gaiman.

Which will be soon. In Middle School.

Kid Houdini and the Silver Dollar Misfits In the "adventure" category, we reviewed both Rapunzel's Revenge and Into the Volcano previously in this space. Kid Houdini is a new entry here, published by Viper Comics. It's just creepy enough -- in reimagining the great illusionist's childhood -- to serve as a "gateway" comic to those older, darker -- inevitable -- titles.

As for the superhero list, it's admittedly the thumbest of thumbnails -- but again, the "guide" was written for parents who don't wait around for new issue Wednesday.

As graphic novels proliferate, and as their range of subject matter expands -- into history, science, etc., -- the degree to which comics will find themselves in school libraries (budget issues notwithstanding) and syllabi remains to be seen.

Not that I want to see prose fall by the wayside, natch. Just routinely augmented. A book in the hand is a book -- and any conversation it provokes is a good thing.

Your thoughts, about "early reader" comics and GNs -- and the many many we obviously missed in our all-too-brief overview -- are both welcomed and encouraged. Write in!

Copyright © 2009 Mark London Williams

Mark London Williams writes the Danger Boy time travel series, and is currently working on a comic book version of same. He also works as a journalist covering both entertainment and politics, for the Hollywood trade paper Below the Line. Wednesday is his library day.

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