“Boxers” by Gene Luen Yang (First Second, 2013)

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From the author of the award-nominated graphic novel American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang, comes an epic and original undertaking on the catastrophic event known as the Boxer Rebellion. Yang uses an innocent simplicity to the story and artwork that leaves the reader contemplating the big picture. One part of a diptych, along with Saints, this is the first graphic novel ever to be nominated for the National Book Award Longlist.

The year is 1898 and the place is China, but the country that has been so familiar and known to its inhabitants is changing. Foreign missionaries roam the countryside, converting Chinese to the new Christian faith, while foreign soldiers roam around bullying and robbing Chinese peasants. Little Bao is a young boy who has had enough of these “foreign devils.” Secretly learning martial arts from a stranger in town, he feels his calling from the old gods of China and recruits an army of Boxers. They begin to mount their defense, fighting back against the foreigners, killing and freeing the Chinese. Their final showdown will be at the great city of Peking.

Boxers does an excellent job of explaining the history of the period, as well as revealing the mythology and beliefs of the people in mounting their defense. While the story has a feel of fiction, it is a moving tale that remains true to the history and culture. It is an excellent example of how some graphic novels can go one long step further than just a regular work of nonfiction.

Originally written on October 2, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

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You might also like . . .

Pyongang  A.D. New Orleans  People's History of American Empire  9/11 Report: A Graphic Novel

“A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge” by Josh Neufeld (Pantheon, 2009)

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Originally serialized in SMITH Magazine, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld is a remarkable graphic novel that manages to capture both the raw look of a city attacked by natural forces, but also to reveal the emotions and reactions of people who remained in the city, as well as those who watched from afar.  Told from the viewpoint of six New Orleanians, they each experience Hurricane Katrina differently, but ultimately suffer loss.  There is Denise, who experiences the pandemonium at the Superdome.    Abbas, and his friend Mansell, who live out the storm first within the market that Abbas owns and runs, and then on the roof as the water level rises.  The Doctor, who remains in the French Quarter throughout the hurricane, a haven for others, miraculously unscathed.  Leo – a comic book collector – and Michelle who leave New Orleans in time, but lose everything they own.  And Kwame, a Pastor’s son, who leaves before the storm and has his life irrevocably changed.   A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge is the next great graphic novel in a growing genre of journalistic or non-fiction graphic novels, that combine words and art to tell incredible stories of real life and real happenings.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on June 18th, 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

For an interview with Josh Neufeld check out BookBanter Episode 14.

“A People’s History of American Empire: A Graphic Adaptation” by Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki and Paul Buhle (Metropolitan Books, 2008)

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Activist, author, and teacher Howard Zinn is probably best known for the consistently bestselling A People’s History of the United States, with the help of writer Mike Konopacki and artist Paul Buhle, he now presents A People’s History of American Empire: A Graphic Adaptation.  With the popularity of books like Persepolis, 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, and Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, the genre of journalism through graphic illustration is a growing one, and now has a solid member with Howard Zinn’s book.

A People’s History of American Empire begins at the beginning with the growing American colonies and subjugation of minorities on the North American continent.  The book does not hold back in putting blame on the US government, as we pass through the civil war, and the World Wars, spending time in revealing the apparent need of the government to be in charge of everything.  It becomes obvious that something strange has been going on for over a century, where the American government seems obsessed with controlling the governments and peoples of developing countries in Central and South America.  The term “empire” is key for the book as it extols on America’s need to be dictating the actions of other countries.  As we reach the 1960s, the authors go into detail about the transference of this “American Empire” from the Americas to the Middle East, when oil became such a necessary natural resource.  The book does an excellent job in showing just who it is that suffers most: the poor, whichever country they may be in.  Many die and A People’s History shows that this is considered a necessary sacrifice, for ultimately it’s not Americans dying.

A People’s History of Empire is a sobering look at American history through the actions of its government, its presidents, and its politicians.  The artwork aids the writing, in showing an emotion and character of the people and events, making a stronger impression on the reader.  It reveals a true history rarely seen or discussed in history books that makes the reader wonder at times why so many other countries revere the United States as the land of the free, with the amount of blood that has been spilled in its past over personal gain.

Originally written on July 26th, 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation” by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon (Hill and Wang, 2006)

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Naturally, this graphic adaptation has been getting a lot of flack from different people related to the September 11th attacks, because they still feel that comics are for a child’s enjoyment, to entertain and encourage a child’s humor, and they don’t know that in some ways they can do more than books in both informing through words and explaining through art.  Sometimes a lot more can be said through a picture with words.

I have to say though, after sloughing through this graphic adaptation of the 9/11 Report, I will not be reading that long and important source any time soon.  The graphic novel is heavy and complicated enough to get through.  But if one wishes to get the complete story of not just exactly what happened on September 11th, 2001, but all the events leading up to it with the terrorists and the state of our foreign policy with the Middle East, then pick up this graphic novel and take it all in . . . it’s all there.

Apart from the introduction from two of the commissioners of the 9/11 Report, the graphic adaptation begins with a four-way split streamline of the four planes, when they took off and under what circumstances, what happened on the planes with the hijackers, and what the eventual resulting attack was.  What makes this quite fascinating is that by charting them all together one can see the initial plan of having all the hijackers carry out their plans at the same time, but due to different circumstances and delays this was not the case.

In the next chapter, the authors go into detail on how the FAA and different government bodies could have and should have done things differently according to all their previous regulations.  It does prove that had everyone been doing what they should have, some of those planes may not have hit those targets, or at least something else and less devastating might have happened.

The rest of the book is spent going into the history of the circumstances that led up to the hijackers boarding the planes.  It’s heavy reading, but the pictures make it a lot clearer and easier to understand.  One gets a full picture on everyone and what they were doing, and how many different people and places were involved.  It’s actually quite surprising.

The book (as I’m sure the 9/11 Report does also) is clear in pointing out that while the Bush administration was certainly to blame in some cases, the previous Clinton administration was very much also, and even had everything been working smoothly, the attacks may still have not been prevented.  One can say they would’ve never happened had Clinton carried out the assassination of Usama Bin Laden, as he’d planned in the late 90s; but one can also say had Bush focused on terrorism in the Middle East when he came into office, as all his advisors were telling him (specifically Richard Clarke), then again September 11th may never have happened.

While I’m sure the graphic adaptation covers nowhere near the same ground as the actual report, it nevertheless serves its own unique purpose in making everything more succinct and clearer and easier to understand as a whole.  It’s the perfect book to keep in one’s library so that one day in the future one can pick it up again, read it, and understand exactly what happened and more importantly why on September 11th, 2001.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on August 16th, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea” by Guy Delisle (Drawn and Quartely, 2007)

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This is another book — recommended to me — in a growing genre of what I guess can be called “illustrated journalism” or “illustrated memoirs”: writers telling their stories of real life through the medium of graphic novels. Of course, another big author in this genre is Marjane Satrapi, with her greatest achievement being Persepolis, and her story of living in Iran when the Shah was overthrown and the country went through some devastating times. She followed this with Persepolis 2 — which I have yet to read — a sequel of her going back to Iran, and most recently Embroideries, which I did read and while I found it interesting — a group of women meet for tea to discuss their lives as Iranian women and it seems much like one of the salons on the 1920’s, where they discuss in secrecy things that shouldn’t be talked about — I felt the book too short and didn’t go into enough depth.

Nevertheless, Satrapi and Delisle are two members of this growing genre and with the way graphic novels and comic books are continuing to increase every year in sales and support, I’m really happy that this nonfiction style is also continuing to grow because, much as you can say a lot with words and you can say a lot with pictures, uniting the true presents a whole new insight: not only do you hear the author through his or her words, but you see the emotion in the illustration and an empathic bond inevitably develops.

The author and artist of Pyongyang, Guy Delisle, works in animation and spends some time in North Korea where a part of animation has now been outsourced and there he works with a company, but the story isn’t about the animated movie he is working on, it is much more about his experience in living in this relatively unknown country. One cannot help but get the feel of entering a new and undiscovered country for the first time.

North Korea caters, naturally, to its visitors and especially its tourists, so we see a world where there are buildings, towns and structures everywhere, and yet most are run down and have no power. Yet, when the tourists arrive, all of a sudden an entire floor of the hotel is filled with light and life, as well as two of the restaurants on another floor. While the menus aren’t exactly five-star, they nevertheless have fresh goods and Delisle enjoys it, but after some weeks the quality goes down until the next group of tourists arrive, whereupon fresh melon is served once again! His most memorable description is of ordering French toast and being served with a slice of white bread on which has been sprinkled milk and warmed in the microwave.

But one really sees in this book the scary world that North Koreans are subjected to under the rule of their president Kim Jong-Il, and while this is a communist regime, one can’t help but see stark similarities with just about every ruler, president, and emperor in the history of civilization. For example, the North Korean government goes to extremes to portray Kim Jong-Il and his deceased father and predecessor Kim Il-Sung as almost looking identical and perfectly alive and healthy. All supporters of the government wear pins of one or the other, or a pin of the two, as well as showing constant voluntary support of their government in building shrines to one, the other, or both, and making paintings and erecting statues, and improving their country by painting a bridge or cleaning a street — it can be seen everyone, as Delisle travels around the country. The northeast part is off limits, government controlled and where, according to the rumors, are all the camps containing the prisoners and rebels. Each supporter constantly proclaims his blind faith to his president; on the radio are about three stations where songs are repetitively played that cry out the greatness of the government and the president, and the listeners are fully expected to sing along.

Tourists are not allowed to travel alone around North Korea and must be accompanied by an interpreter and staunch government supporter all the time (unless they are with the UN), who’s job it is to respect the tourists beliefs and yet to convert and enlighten him or her to the ways of their great president and supreme government. One of the most entertaining chapters of the book is when Delisle visits the great museum made for Kim Jon-Il, where everything within extols his greatness and reveals apocryphal facts about his life, such as his penning over 15,000 works before the age of twenty, and how many leaders around the world support his ideal and think him great. What’s funny is that Delisle, viewing these artifacts and gifts, is quick to point out how they are either inaccurate or not actually real. And yet the supporters believe without question and while they may listen to other ideas, never shirk their duty to constantly say good things about Mr. Jong-Il.

The book does fail somewhat in going into depth with this world, and it seems once the astonishment of this unknown land passes, Delisle tends to focus a little too much on his day to day machinations and trying to work with the North Korean people, which while interesting at first, tend to get repetitive when there is so much more to explore and see.

Near the end of the book, he focuses on how he makes paper airplanes out of scrap paper and throws them from his hotel window, hoping they will make it to the river and be free, which is the last image of the story, while a hulk of a building grows on the other side of the river where a movie theater will be built, and even though Delisle has explained this is what this is, the reader knows it’s not going to be used for Hollywood blockbusters, and had Delisle researched and investigated more, we would’ve been given further details of this mysterious country.

I will, however, add that since reading this, playing a new Xbox game called Mercenaries, where the point of the game is to make deals with all the different factions in the demilitarized zone of North Korea and capture all the wanted military of North Korea, it has at least opened my eyes and awareness of this oppressed and dark country.

It will be an interesting day, when the communist government either collapses, or is more likely overthrown, and the stories, experiences and information start pouring out about what life was like in North Korea during this time.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on August, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.