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Ta-Nehisi Coates' re-imagining of the black comic hero the Black Panther, is thoughtful, exciting, deeply political, and - sadly - too much for Marvel and its core readers, as the series has been cancelled. But we will have what Coates has already done with the series, as a testament to what hero comics can be.

Vol 1 of Black Panther, titled A Nation Under Our Feet, delivers us into a country in great turmoil. Previous writers - as I learn from various summaries on the Internet - have left the series a legacy of contradictions and tragedies. The country of Wakanda, a technologically advanced African society largely hidden from the rest of the world, ruled by a long line of absolute monarchs with mystical powers able to become the Black Panther. An orphaned king who left his people to be a superhero to the outside world, bringing the destructive wrath of evil supervillains down on the country he left in the hands of others.

Coates begins with a Wakanda in chaos. Unrest, rebellion, revolution threaten. The king, T'Challa, is here no wise and benevolent king, but a confused and conflicted man, not understanding why his people are at war with each other, and with him. The first novel casts T'Challa as, in fact, the 'bad guy' by default, because of his lack of comprehension, his lack of connection to his people. The various rebels seem on the side of good - especially the two renegade warriors Ayo and Aneka. Formerly members of the king's elite, all-female bodyguard (shades of the Dahomey warrior-wives of the king), they have become vigilantes fighting against a brutal leader in northern Wakanda whose regime is one of enslavement and rape of women. It is in this subplot that we most clearly see that T'Challa - and his advisors and military leaders and others of the royal faction - are completely out of touch with the situation of the people, and trapped in an out-moded mythos in which the king's word is unquestioned law, and tradition outweighs true justice. If T'Challa is to learn to become both leader and hero, he has a long way to go.

The artwork, by Brian Stelfreeze, is strong and powerful, with appropriate touches of a softer and more mystical style when the subject matter demands it.

I will be reading all there is of this Black Panther, and sorrowing when the story comes to its untimely end.

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I read Ms. Marvel Vol. 1, written by G. Willow Wilson, two years ago when it was nominated for a Hugo in the Best Graphic Story category. I enjoyed it, and read Vol. 2, and then sort of stopped.

The thing with Ms. Marvel and me is that I find the action parts of the stories kind of boring. What
I enjoy is the inbetween things, the glimpses of her homelife, the depiction of her internal struggles over heritage, culture and religion vs. living in a secular American city, over being a teenager with parents and an older brother and school to deal with vs. being a superhero and trying to fight evil. I enjoy watching her grow up - she is only 16 - and learn the lessons all people must learn, only writ large because her powers have made her larger than life in certain ways.

So I skimmed the comics, paying more attention to her relationships and internal growth than I do to the other stuff. And now it's time to catch up, because Vol. 5 has been nominated for a Hugo, which meant going back to read Vol. 3 and Vol. 4. In these volumes, the personal lessons have been integrated a bit more solidly into the plot, so I enjoyed reading these stories a bit more than the earlier ones.

In Vol. 3, Kamala meets Kamran, the son of old friends of her parents, and at first he seems perfect - they have so much in common, and he too turns out to be an Inhuman. The early warning signs are subtle, but then, abusers are often charming and hide their true natures well. By the time Kamala understands what he really is, he has used his powers to abduct her, imprison her, and try to force her to become a follower of an Inhuman called Lineage. He succeeds for a while in making Kamala feel guilty and at fault for what he's done to her, but when she realises just how much he is on the wrong side, she pulls herself together and kicks butt.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 4 is a bit of a change of pace, almost a sideline to something that is going on in the larger Marvel universe - the Incursion, we learn from Captain Marvel, aka Carol Danvers, and the end of the world, and other huge stuff - but for Ms. Marvel, it's about smaller, more personal things. Meeting and briefly working with her hero Carol Danvers. Saving her brother Aamir from Kamran, who wants to turn him into an inhuman to reinstate himself in Lineage's good graces. Coming out to her mother as Ms. Marvel. Mending bridges with old friends, and classmates. And confronting the emotional bonds between her and Bruno. I enjoyed this the most of all the Ms. Marvel stories so far, precisely because it's about these things, and the superhero action arc is going on somewhere else, with other superheroes taking point.

And now I'm caught up with Ms. Marvel and ready to read Vol. 5 for the Hugos.

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I keep meaning to read more graphic novels, but somehow it's mostly during the Hugo season that I actually do, and that's because of the Best Graphic Story category. I've enjoyed several of the specific volumes I've read for the Hugos, but somehow I rarely follow up on the multi-part stories.

Monstress Volume 1: The Awakening, written by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda, is another of those graphic novels that was enjoyable while reading - though also deeply disturbing - but I'm not at all certain I'll be continuing to read it (unless more volumes are nominated for Hugos in future years). Not because it isn't a good story, because it is. But after lots if attempts, I've come to understand that I shy away from reading graphic novels because it is physically difficult fir me, and few stories are compelling enough to override that.

Some of those who read these reviews know that I have severe multiple chemical sensitivities and am bedbound due to multiple disabilities. What this means is that I can't read anything printed on paper - it's too toxic for me, especially paper with lots of ink, like graphic novels. So everything I read must be electronic. But because I spend all my tine lying in bed, everything I read, I read on an iPad. Any other device is too heavy. And I have arthritis and poor eyesight. There's no reader out there that allows me to read graphic novels without a lot of pinching and swiping around each page to get all the important dialogue and visual detail. And by the time I've read a few pages, my fingers and my eyes hurt. So.... I tend to shy away from graphic novels. Nonetheless, I will do my best to read those nominated and not let my circumstances bias me against the medium. So.... On with my thoughts on Monstress.

Visually, Monstress is a stunning piece of work - intricately drawn, dense but never 'busy,' a feast for the eyes. Takeda blends artistic traditions to create marvellous images, though she is at her best with inanimate subjects - architectural designs and atmospheric backgrounds, clothing, machines, furniture, and so on. Her living characters seem curiously unfinished, rather like dolls.

The narrative is complex and disturbing, set in a post-war, almost post-apocalyptic world where two enemy civilisations, still opposed but not actively at war, appear to be recovering from a cataclysmic event. On one side, the human federation in which considerable power lies with the all-female sorcerer-scientist order of the Cumaea; on the other, the non-human Arcanes, rumoured to have access to powers or beings known as the monstrum.

The story focuses on Maika, an Arcanic, a former slave of the Federation, living with other escapees and dispossessed arcanics in a sort of demilitarised zone between the two nations. She possesses powers she cannot use at will or control, though they appear when she is in great distress. She is connected in some way to the catastrophic event that ended open warfare between humans and arcanics. And she is seeking the truth about her mother and herself, a truth that she believes can only be found among the Cumaea.

At the beginning of the story, Maika has allowed herself to be captured and enslaved by humans. She and several other Arcanics, all children, have been claimed by the Cumaea as slaves, but from almost the beginning it is clear that the Cumaea - like other humans - see the Arcanes as animals and so fit subjects both for torture by those who seek pleasure in the children's pain, and scientific experimentation by those who seek to know more about the Arcanes and their power.

The story is hard to read, even harder to look at. Takeda's brilliant artwork is often used to portray scenes of humiliation, torture, vivisection, and violence. In an afterword to the first issue, Liu talks about the genesis of the story in her grandparents' memories of war and xenophobic hatred and violence - based on timing, I'm guessing her grandparents would have been survivors of the invasion of China by Imperial Japan, or both. Malka is a refugee, an orphan, an escaped slave, an amputee, a victim of war and violence and racial hatred, and she carries within her the power to wreak vengeance, or to simply spread violence indiscriminately as survivors of trauma often do. She has the capacity to be a monster, and it stems from her suffering and pain. It's one hell of a story, relevant in all times of violence and war, about what these all too common pursuits of humanity can do to our souls.
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Reading the Hugo-nominated graphic stories for the year reminded me that I had enjoyed several of those I'd read last year, and so I decided to check out Vol. 2 of Ms. Marvel to see if I was still as interested in the story and character as I had been last year.

The answer is yes and no. I'm still quite interested in the character of Kamala Khan and how she manages to combine being a superhero with being a teenaged Muslim schoolgirl still living at home. The parts of the comic devoted to dealing with that and with the life lessons she learns in being a superhero are still quite worth reading and in my opinion make up the best parts of the narrative. The actual comic book adventure criminal-fighting stuff is less interesting to me.

For now I suspect I'll skim the plot stuff and devote most of my attention to the character bits, and see where that gets me.

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I'm not a big comics/graphics fan. I rarely search out graphic novels, and my tastes in this form of narrative are heavily influenced by my preferences in both visual representation and subject.

Of the five finalists in this category, three are graphic novels/narratives and two are web comics. The first of the graphic novels is Neil Gaiman's The Sandman: Overture, drawn by J.H. Williams III. Most people have suggested that this is the odds-on favourite, and it's easy to understand why. First and foremost, it's The Sandman, and when you consider that even I have read The Sandman and been blown away by it, that's saying something. This prequel is a more mature work, in which Dream must take responsibility for a decision that will result in the end of the universe unless he can find a way to correct his error. It's thoughtful and beautiful and powerful and the story and art are so amazingly wound together and support each other. It is another masterpiece from Gaiman, and there's not really much more that needs saying.

The Divine, written by Boaz Lavie, with art by Asaf Hanuka and Tomer Hanuka, is an interesting piece. Inspired by a photograph of 12-year old twin child soldiers who were leaders of an army of Karen refugees fighting a war of resistance against the state of Myanmar, the story has been transmuted in the creator's hands into a narrative focused on Western (specifically American) involvement in Asia and its backing of exploitative and genocidal regimes. Mark, a former demolitions technician, is persuaded by an army buddy to join a short but highly paid mission to the (fictional) nation of Quanlom. Once there, he finds himself in the midst of a battle between government forces that want to explode a volcano to access the mineral wealth inside and a child army that is all that remains of the indigenous people who sought to preserve their way of life. Magic confronts bullets, as Mark chooses to side with the indigenous people. Intriguing story, decent art, but unfortunately the characterisation falls short. Mark's friend Jason is a caricature of the ugly American soldier, and the children are somehow made too supernatural to be sympathetic.

Invisible Republic Vol 1, written by Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman, is a rather compelling beginning to a story about (as I understand it so far) the rise and fall of a political regime. The story unfolds in two time periods. In the story's present, a frame narrative set in the unrest and upheaval of the end of the Mallory regime on the colony of Avalon, down-on-his-luck and discredited journalist Croger Babbs, looking for a story to revive his career, stumbles on a priceless manuscript - the memoirs of Maia, the cousin of the vanished dictator Arthur McBride. The narrative cuts back and forth between Babbs' investigation and the events described in Maia's papers. In the issues contained in Vol. I. We really see only the beginnings of both storylines, but there's more than enough of interest there to make me want to keep following the story. The suggestions of parallels to the Arthurian legends are an additional draw for me though this may not be true of everyone.

Erin Dies Alone, a webcomic written by Grey Carter, art by Cory Rydell (dyingalone.net), is an ongoing story about a woman who hasn't left her apartment or physically interacted with another human being in two years. She sits around doing nothing much except smoke weed and shop online - until her imaginary friend, a raccoon in a red bandana, lures her into reviving her old gamer instincts. Both from the characterisation and the style of the art in the scenes set in Erin's reality - grey, monotone, faintly drooping - Erin is in the grip of serious depression. Overlying this narrative exploring Erin's pain and depression are some very funny representations - sometimes even parodies - of popular video/online games and common situation in the gaming life. The question is, will gaming bring Erin back to herself, or take her further away? There's a complexity and ambiguity about this narrative that lifts it above the ordinary.

The other webcomic nominated in this category, Full Frontal Nerdity by Aaron Williams (ffn.nodwick.com), is a humorous look at nerd life and culture, with particular focus on gaming, comics and media. The art style is very basic cartooning, and there is no ongoing narrative, although portrayals of familiar gaming situations are spread over several individual strips. It's often funny, and portrays the obsessions and idiosyncrasies of gamers and gamer culture with a knowledgeable and kindly eye, but in my mind it lacks the extra "oomph" an award-winning work ought to possess.

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Jokes and the Unconscious, a collaborative graphic novel written by performance poet Daphne Gottlieb and graphic artist Diane DiMassa (of Hothead Paisan fame) is a brilliant, sometimes savage, sometimes heartbreaking story about coming to terms with death, sexuality, and living in a horribly imperfect world filled with pain, cruelty, callousness, lack of understanding and empathy, ironic co-incidence, and sometimes love and tenderness and just enough transcendence to make it possible to keep on living.

The narrative is framed within one summer in the life of the protagonist, Sasha, during which she works as a billing clerk in the hospital where her oncologist father, now on his deathbed, formerly practiced. However, the time frame shifts through Sasha's life, telling her story, her family's story, and the story of her father's illness and death in a mostly non-linear fashion. Along the way, it also addresses misogyny, date rape, child sexual abuse, domestic violence, patients's rights, ablism, Holocaust survivor issues, and a host of other issues, some of which may be triggering.

It's not an easy book, especially for those who may be dealing with loss of a parent or some of the other situations dealt with, but it's honest and it's worth reading and thinking about.

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Several years ago, Alison Bechdel wrote an amazing personal narrative in graphic format called Fun Home, which addresses her own early life, her father's struggle with his repressed creativity and sexuality, his suicide, and her own coming out. The novel has received accolades and been adapted as a musical.

Now Bechdel returns to memoir, focusing this time on her relationship with her mother, in Are You My Mother? A more complex, and much less linear work, it is rich, multi-layered, and uses the graphic format to present intuitive connections between its many strands of narrative in a particularly effective manner.

The themes that Bechdel struggles with throughout the memoir - creativity, self-love, self-hate, sexuality, self realisation and awareness - are illustrated and embedded in a web of relationships, familial, romantic, analytic. Bechdel remembers her past experiences with her mother, dreams about her mother, talks about her mother in analysis, writes about her father and then her mother, relives aspects of her relationship with her mother in her relationships with lovers and therapists, and all the while, as an adult at various points in her life, talks to her mother, her lovers, her analysts, about all of these things. And woven into this is a discussion of Virginia Woolf and her experiences in resolving her family issues through writing (notably with To the Lighthouse), the theories of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, and the evolution of Adrienne Rich as a poet.

As Kate Roiphe says in her review of Are You My Mother, "There’s a lucidity to Bechdel’s work that in certain ways (economy, concision, metaphor) bears more resemblance to poetry than to the dense, wordy introspection of most prose memoirs. The book delivers lightning bolts of revelation, maps of insight and visual snapshots of family entangle­ments in a singularly beautiful style." [1]

It is a more demanding work than Fun Home, but it is a wise, insightful and rewarding work.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/books/review/are-you-my-mother-by-alison-bechdel.html?_r=1

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First, the confession. I'm not a huge fan of graphic novels. I read comics when I was a kid in the late 50s and early 60s, and since then, I've read and enjoyed a few graphic novels, from The Dark Knight and The Swamp Thing to Sandman and V for Vendetta to Persepolis and Fun Home. So I'm not what you might call a sophisticated reader of this kind of work.

But I know something about narrative, and something about art - and I know what I like. So here are my impressions of the five nominated works in the Best Graphic Story category.


Rat Queens, Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery
written by Kurtis J. Weibe, art by Roc Upchurch

Well, holy shit, this was a wild romp. A swordpunk D&D experience featuring four very weird and warped and wonderful women, doing what mercenary adventurers have been doing (at least in fantasy) for generations - getting drunk, stoned and laid, upsetting the mundanes, and being sent off on quests so everyone else can get some peace and quiet.

The characters are well-developed, the action is fast and furious, the artwork is well worth looking at closely, the dialogue is snappy and the plot has twists, turns, and lots of interesting sidestreets that one hopes will be explored in later volumes. I can see myself looking for those later volumes just to see more of these unlikely heroines.



Ms. Marvel, Volume 1: No Normal
written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Adrian Alphona and Jake Wyatt

I came to this a complete Captain Marvel/Ms. Marvel virgin. Oh, I read a lot of comics back in the day - that day, for me, being the late 50s and early 60s - but while I read many of the D.C. Universe hero comics, i'd really only gotten into a few of the Marvel Universe heroes, like Spiderman and Fantastic Four.

So I knew nothing about Ms. Marvel before reading this fortunately, that did not get in the way of my enjoyment. The writing is good. I laughed out loud before even getting off the first page. The main character, Kamala Khan, is a teenager dealing with classic teenager issues like finding out who you are and where you fit in - but a young Muslim woman being raised in a traditional Pakistani family, she's living in between two worlds, facing racism and stereotyping outside the Muslim community, and patriarchal attitudes within her community. This aspect was handled very well, as was the process of learning to be a superhero after suddenly being granted special powers. I rarely read superhero comics any more, so I have no idea if the complexity of character shown in this work is common these days, but it certainly made reading this a pleasure.



Saga, Volume 3
written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples

Saga seems, ultimately, to be the story of Hazel, the narrator - although in the volume she is a newborn and hence not yet a major character. Her parents, Marko and Alana, are fugitives, being pursued by a dazzling variety of entities, including a robot prince with a television for a head, a bounty hunter and his companions - a truth-detecting cat and a recently rescued six-year-old slave girl - a vengeful ex-girlfriend, and two sweet gay journalists.

The reason Marko and Alana (and Hazel, and Marko's mother Klara, and a rather grisly young ghost girl Izabel) are on the run is because their people - the inhabitants of Landfall and those of one of its moons, Weave - been at war for generations and leaders on both sides fear that news of love for each other might cause a loss of morale.

The narrative follows all the parties - both the fugitives and their pursuers - and the situations they encounter. If this volume is characteristic of the series, every significant character has a backstory, and a development arc, and none of them are exactly heroes or villains, just people trying to make the best of the hands they've been dealt.

I enjoyed this, but somehow it just didn't grab me in a way that made me want to see what had gone before, or what is still to come. Maybe if the story was centred on those sweet gay journalists....



Sex Criminals Volume 1: One Weird Trick
written by Matt Fraction, art by Chip Zdarsky

While it's true that books and sex are two of my favourite things, the combination of the two in this graphic novel did not exactly send me soaring, if you know what I mean. It might have been the balance - way too much sex, not enough books - or it might have been the somewhat repetitive nature of the narrative.

The narrative begins with an adolescent girl named Suzie who discovers that when she has an orgasm, she is able to enter a jewel-toned euphoric state in which time is frozen, which she calls The Quiet. She ends up masturbating a lot, and when she gets older, having sex a lot. She becomes a librarian, but then her library is threatened when they don;t have enough money to pay the mortgage. At a fund-raising party, she meets a guy named Jon who can quote Lolita and brings him home - where she learns that he can enter the same state, only he calls it Cumworld. I prefer her name for it, maybe because I'm a woman.

Next we are treated to a great many pages in which Jon tells Suzie every detail of his sex life to date, interspersed with what seem to be flashforwards to the two of them stopping time and trying to rob a bank, but being foiled by another woman who can function in The Quiet. This is the overly repetitive part I was talking about.

Then, because they didn't see the flashforwards, they start planning to rob the bank Jon works at so the library will get the money needed to pay the mortgage - which is owed to the same bank. So it turns out that there's such a thing as the Sex Police who monitor the behaviour of people who can do what Suzie and Jon do, and this is how our protagonists become sex criminals. Interesting story, but it still needs more books.


The Zombie Nation Book #2: Reduce Reuse Reanimate
written by Carter Reid

Carter Reid did not submit his nominated work to the Hugo Voters Packet, and I had zero interest in spending twenty dollars on it when I'm not a huge fan of graphic narratives to begin with, so I was not able to evaluate the exact work he was nominated for. I did, however, spend a few hours paging through the strips archived on his website (zombienation.com) and found myself rather underwhelmed, particularly when I compare this to the other nominated works.

When I do read graphic narratives, my preference is for those that are, if not necessarily funny, satirical or insightful, at least telling a good, interesting story. Unfortunately, Zombie Nation appeared to offer none of these things to any significant degree. Some of the one-off strips were mildly amusing, but the story arcs didn't grab me and the artwork was uninspiring.

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V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd (illus.)

My partner, who is far more conversant with graphic novels than I am, recommended that, since I had seen and been intrigued by the film V for Vendetta, I might be interested in reading his copy of the source novel.

So I did, and found that while I enjoyed the film, I enjoyed the source even more, because there are more ambiguities and more questions. While both treatments of the material have as their themes (at least in part) an exploration of fascism and the question of what degree of response is justified – the classic ends and means debate – the film treats V more sympathetically, more heroically, removes the explicit anarchism of the original material and fails to remind the viewer that fascism generally takes power with the people’s tacit consent (in the novel, the fascist regime is legally elected, while in the film, they take power following a (deliberately created) crisis.

I’m very glad I read the original. It made me think, even more than the film did.

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Funhome: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel

I found this to be a compelling example of memoir as graphic narrative. Of course, Bechdel is one of the best graphic novelists out there – the Dykes to Watch Out For volumes are an amazing blend of storytelling and political satire, as well as being a record of life in the US during a period of great social and political change from a lesbian perspective. Mark my word, future social historians are going to be citing the DTWOF all over the place.

But personal narrative is a different kind of storytelling, and much harder to do successfully, and Bechdel has done it brilliantly.

Funhome: A Family Tragicomic is an honest, poignant and often painful story of the artist as a baby dyke, in which the processes of growing up different, coming of age and coming out are paralleled against the slow revelation of a family secret – a father’s struggle with his own sexual difference – that ends tragically.

In reading Funhome, it is impossible not to think about the role that society’s demand for the appearance of “normalcy” and the suppression of difference, especially sexual difference, has played, and continues to play, in the personal and family lives of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered, two-spirited and otherwise queer people. Bechdel’s father pays an enormous price for attempting to compromise with society’s demands – as do all the other members of the family. Bechdel herself, a generation later, faces fewer barriers in coming out and in her story, contrasted with that of her father’s, we see the hope she has begun to emerge from the shadow of secret desires that surrounded and coloured her childhood.

I found it to be an intensely moving book. It’s interesting to me that while I am not a big fan of the graphic novel, two of the most interesting personal narratives I’ve read in recent years – this book and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis – have been graphic works by women who adopt a relatively simple style. Stripped to its essentials, the messages become even stronger.

Naturally, because the book is an honest examination of sexual themes in a young girl’s life, there have been howls of protest about it, particularly since it has been assigned in at least one university level English course. Visually, there are some panels that do contain sexual images. And of course it’s a book about growing up gay with a father whose repression of his own homosexuality leads to all sorts of unhappiness. To those who protest, I can only say, "grow up – and acknowledge that sex is a part of growing up while you’re at it." The panels in question are narrative, not erotic, and as such are less sexually charged than at least half of the billboard ads you’ll see walking down the street in any North American city. Frankly, I think this book should be required reading for every high school student in North America.

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Invasion of the Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel

Bechdel is a genius. But than, you all knew that, already, didn't you? For more than 20 years now, Bechdel has been showing us what America looks like through the eyes and experiences of a group of gender outlaws - the Dykes to Watch Out For and their friends, lovers and families. This latest volume looks at how the Dykes are dealing with the war on terror, the debate over same-sex marriage, and all the other major issues facing America in the early years of the 21st century, while struggling to manage all the weaknesses that the flesh is heir to in their own lives, and trying to find a little happiness here and there amidst all that's going on around them.

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Chicken with Plums, by Marjane Satrapi

In her latest graphic novel, Satarpi, the author of Persepolis, the two-part personal memoir of a young Iranian girl growing up during the Revolution, and Embroideries, a look at family life and relationships though the eyes of the women of Satrapi’s family, turns her vision to the life – and death – of her great-uncle, musician Nasser Ali Khan.

Chicken with Plums is a meditation on the importance of art and love, set within the story of an artist who has lost and cannot replace the instrument that allowed him to express himself with passion, who carries within him an earlier loss of a love that gave him a passion to express. Without his instrument, Khan is overwhelmed with a sense of futility, has no desire to live any longer, and decides not to eat or drink again. Chicken with Plums is the story of what happens, among his family and friends, and in his own heart and mind, during the eight days it takes for him to die. Khan’s memories, fantasies and visions and the thoughts and actions of those around him, unravel the personal history of the artist that has led him to such a decision and illuminate the culture that has helped to shape his life and choices and the effect that the political and social changes in Iran over the first half of the 20th century have had on that culture.

Dark material, certainly, but at the same time full of life and celebration of the pleasures of life, and very powerful in its impact. It reminds us that, like the author's favourite family dish that serves as the book's title, there is no sweet without the sour, nor sour without the sweet.

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The Sandman Papers: An Exploration of the Sandman Mythology, ed. Joe Sanders

Neil Gaiman's The Sandman - taking the entire run of the comic series as a whole - is a remarkable work. The individual stories within the arc of the work are intelligent, entertaining, highly literate examinations of interesting and often powerful themes and ideas. The characters are intriguing, fascinating. The plots are occasionally straightforward, more often intricate and entrancing. Plus it's fun to read and it looks cool.

So it's no wonder that The Sandman has achieved that lofty status which demands that people start writing critical papers about it. Which is where The Sandman Papers comes in.

The critical essays collected in this volume cover a range of topics, and the success of the collection can be seen in the fact that, having read the papers, I now want to go back read The Sandman again so I can "talk back" to the essayists in my mind, and decide whether I agree with their insights and arguments or not.

As with any critical collection, I found some essays of greater interest than others. As one might expect, having a deep appreciation for the works of Shakespeare, I was particularly interested in the essays that focused on Gaiman's use of the Stratford Bard as a character, and riffed on the themes of some of his plays. In choosing to incorporate "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "The Tempest" within the narrative of The Sandman, Gaiman makes possible multiple levels of exploration of the themes of dream and reality, creation and creator, as is made evident in the three Shakespeare-themed essays in this collection:

"Of Stories and Storytellers in Gaiman and Vess's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'" by Joe Sanders
"Prospero Framed in Neil Gaiman's 'The Wake'" by Joan Gordan
"Aether/Ore: The Dreamworld Descends to Earth" by Alan Levitan

I also enjoyed Leonora Soledad a Paula's "Imaginary Places and Fantastic Narratives: Reading Borges Through The Sandman," particularly since she mentions some of the same echoes of Borges' writing that struck me in my reading of The Sandman, such as the resonance between Gaiman's depiction of Destiny's garden in "A Season of Mists" and Borges' "The Garden of Forking Paths."

One essay in the collection has left me spinning the wheels in my braincage over something that's also an issue in the Joss Whedon universe - what type of character does the author choose to kill when someone "has to die." In Whedon's buffyverse it was Tara, the wholly good and apparently expendable lesbian. In Gaiman's "A Game of You," it's Wanda, a transwoman, and Maisie, a black woman, and the only black character.

David Bratman devotes a large part of his essay "A Game of You - Yes, You" to countering arguments made by Samuel Delany (in the introduction to "A Game of You") and writer Rachel Pollack that the deaths of Wanda and Maisie raise questions of how queer characters and characters of colour are presented in cultural products. Bratman argues that Wanda has to die because she is the character we are most engaged with, that we experience her struggles all the more intensely by seeing her die, seeing her identity erased in the funeral her family gives her, and then seeing her in Barbie's dream, imaged as a "pretty" and apparently female-bodied woman - a Real Girl at last, but only after she's safely dead. Bratman gives a little space to Maisie's death too, but his only counter to the criticism that here is another Magical Negro who dies to save the white main character is that other characters die too - those other characters being Wanda, the talking animals, and the male villain.

Now, I respect and enjoy Gaiman's work, and in a world where everyone else (especially everyone else writing from a position of serious privilege, such as white and either heterosexual or passing males) wasn't busy killing off the queer, trans and non-white characters in their work, I would have a different reaction. but the problem is that everyone else is killing off those characters, when they write them in at all. So - I disagree strongly with Bratman's arguments in this essay.

But that's why one reads critical essays - to look at arguments, and decide whether you agree with them or not.

There are a number of other interesting essays in the collection as well, exploring all sorts of things, from Orientalism in "Ramadan" and female power in "The Kindly Ones" to the implications of Dream's wardrobe. There's probably something for just about any fan of The Sandman.

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The other day, I was watching the news - something not done lightly these days - and started thinking what the world would be like if, instead of all these various shades of skin pigmentation that have meant so much and been used to justify such callousness and hatred and bloodshed and injustice over the centuries, we were all the same shade of brown. A silly, rather superficial thought, because I know that the drive to identify a group as Other has much deeper roots than a difference in skin tone - that's the excuse, not the reason for hatred, xenophobia, slavery, and other delightful inventions of human society.

But my partner [personal profile] glaurung_quena reminded me that this was, in fact, one of the shifts in reality that is forced to happen in Ursula K. LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven, so then I had to go find the book on our shelves and re-read it.

Rather co-incidentally, while I was re-reading it, we also watched V for Vendetta, and the juxtaposition of the two in my mind led me to greatly ponder the nature of terrorism and the desire to solve the (perceived) problems of the world.

In both cases, we have a situation where the current situation is clearly wrong. It deserves to be, needs to be, should be changed. But how? In The Lathe of Heaven, the problems are too big, too vast, too well-entrenched, for any ordinary mortal, or group of mortals, to change - LeGuin was writing of a world in which climate change had already done a great deal of harm, for example. And in V for Vendetta, the hold of a fascist police state combined with the power of a complicit media has made it very difficult for more than small, individual acts of resistance (the preserving of a Koran, for example) to be envisioned.

And into both worlds, there comes a person who has the desire to change the world for the better, and who acquires the means to do so.

In The Lathe of Heaven, George Orr, the man whose dreams can change everything - past, present and future, falls into the power of the mostly altruistic Dr. Huber, who only wants to make the world better - for himself, and for everybody - but operates without humility, without the wisdom to see that he cannot know what will be better and what will be worse, and what will be the effects of forcing such dramatic, repeated shifts in reality on the minds of people and the fabric of time and space. And in the process, he violates the person he is using to make all this happen. The Lathe of Heaven looks at two very key questions for the one who would change the world: does any one person have the right to decide what is best - or even better - for all, and do the means justify the ends?

V for Vendetta focuses more on the second question, although its answer to the first is implicit - perhaps, if the people join and consent, if they all become the revolution. V reminds me of Moses - a flawed leader, allowed to bring his people to the edge of the promised land, but not worthy to cross over with them, because of the weight of his mistakes. Or perhaps an active variant of the sacrificial lamb, the scapegoat, who takes upon himself to do the things that should not be done, but must be done, and accepts his exile from the new world his acts have created.

It is interesting that both works leave the second question - that of means and ends - open. Because that's always been the kicker.

In The Lathe of Heaven, we learn that the world would already have been destroyed had George Orr not changed the continuum as he lay dying from radiation poisoning some years before the opening events of the book. But the crisis brought on by Huber's use of Orr's gift would not have been survived without Orr's dreaming creation - or is it a creation? - of the Aliens who are gifted with the same abilities he is, but who have learned how to use them wisely, if at all, and, it seems, in some kind of communal state which at the very least allows for the possibility of consent among the changed.

In V for Vendetta, could the revolution have a chance of happening without the murders of those who build the fascist state in the first place? Would it have been more ethical if V had killed the leaders and creators out of pure revolutionary fervour rather than for revenge? Are the means justified if the one who does them takes the blame and the punishment, but leave a legacy for others to continue with cleaner hands?

I like reading - and watching - things that make me think, even if I'm not really sure of my answers either.
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I've recently finished reading Marjane Satrapi's Embroideries, a graphic novel which depicts the after-dinner talk of a group of Iranian women, and in the process gives the reader a comprehensive and at the same time humorous introduction to Iranian gender politics.

Very much worth looking at, as are Satrapi's earlier graphical works, Persepolis I: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return.

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