Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Jan Berenstain 7/26/1923- 2/24/2012

Sad news came the other day for many of us as we heard the news that Jan Berenstain had passed away on Feb. 24 from complications from a stroke. Her husband, Stan, met her in art school in the 1940's and five years later they were married. The first Berenstain Bears book, The Big Honey Hunt, didn't get published until 1962. Since then, the husband and wife team have managed to create a series of books that have sold more than 260 million copies in multiple languages around the world. They have had TV specials and a CBS cartoon series (that won an Emmy) and a PBS cartoon series with the theme song performed by Lee Ann Womack.
Stan Berenstain died in 2005, but their son Michael stepped in to help his mother continue to produce pictures and stories that would teach and entertain young readers. According to some of the reports I read, Jan Berenstain was still making pictures for the series right up to the day before her stroke.
Asbury Park Press did a story on Jan's passing and noted the first book originally credited Stanly and Janice Berenstain as the creative team. On their second book, Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) changed their moniker to Stan & Jan Berenstain. Geisel also tried to talk them out of doing bear stories noting there was Yogi Bear, the Three Bears, the Chicago Bears (and Cubs), Smokey Bear, and Maurice Sendak's Little Bear. When the bear books by Stan and Jan began to sell well, Geisel told them to run with it and began putting Berenstain Bears on the covers.
There have been many great influences on artists over the years, and many cartoonists have been influenced by the cartoonists before them. While the Berenstains were not cartoonists or comic artists in the strictest sense of the words, their styling, line work, and colors certainly were an early influence on many future artists, cartoonists and animators to come. Certainly the world was made a little better by their contributions, and they will definitely be missed in the future.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Campfire Books wins two big awards

Campfire Books, an Indian-based publisher which started out creating graphic novels of classic literature and then branched out into mythologies, biographies and original stories, has carried home two key awards from Comic Con India's first ever awards panel.
Illustrator Amit Tayal took the honor for Best Artist for his work on The Jungle Book (see the post below), where he was recognized for creating a visual look to the story that worked and was not overshadowed by the Disney product (which has been an iconic look for the book and many publishers and studios have tried to compete with). Personally, I liked Tayal's art on Ali-Babba & the Forty Thieves- Reloaded more than The Jungle Book, although I think Tayal does a great job of capturing action and motion in a static frame. Congratulations to him for such a great honor.
The other award Campfire won was also a major one- matter of fact, it was the Oscar's equivalent to Motion Picture of the Year. The Best Graphic Novel Award went to Nelson Mandela: The Unconquerable Soul, written by Lewis Helfand (who has written quite a few of Campfire's books) with art by Sankha Banerjee (who worked with Helfand on a very insightful biography on The Wright Brothers). Congratulations to this team of creators. I am sure that with 9 nominations and two winners, Campfire is very excited about the direction they are going in with the stories they are choosing to tell.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Book Review- The Jungle Book

Released at the end of January, I couldn't get to The Jungle Book until recently. Published by Campfire, this is a part of their classics series. Adapting this piece of beloved literature was put into the hands of scribe Dan Johnson, who also worked on Campfire's Robinson Crusoe and Oliver Twist. Dan has been a regular at our library's last two mini-cons and has already said he plans on making the trip to this year's event on June 15. Knowing that, I still decided to give a very honest assessment of what did and did not work in this version of the Jungle Book. So here goes...

If your only experience with the Jungle Book is the Disney animated film, then you will find there is much to discover and enjoy in this book. It has been awhile since I read through Rudyard Kipling's collection of animal tales, but this one takes the stories of Mowgli, a baby adopted by a pack of wolves and raised by the Law of the Jungle. While he is being raised among the wolves and being educated by Baloo the bear and watched over by Bagheera the panther, there is always the knowledge looming that Shere Khan the tiger is waiting to kill Mowgli. Shere Khan is referred to as being lame. This doesn't make him weak, it just means he is not fast enough to hunt like other tigers. Shere Khan feeds off of the easy pickings of livestock and humans. His lack of speed also means the tiger will stand and fight, and no creature in the jungle wants to have to go toe-to-toe with a predator of that size. This makes Shere Khan a great villain- ruthless, self-important, exploiting the weaknesses of others to his gain, acting on the belief that might makes right, and failing to face and adapt to his own weakness.

Dan Johnson does a fantastic job of turning long, descriptive narrative by Kipling and breaking it into three parts- setting, dialogue, and action. The print version of the Jungle Book needs those added passages of description and background to make the story clear. Johnson knows that with a visual + written format, not as much of this is needed. He can get to the business of telling the story with a high pace, or with emotional moments played out in the dialogue between characters.

Amit Tayal illustrates this story. The look he choose for this book was cartoonish- moving at times towards a Sergio Aragones style. It didn't really work for me at first, but then I realized it would've looked sillier if realistic, beautifully rendered animals were seeming to speak to the man-cub. Tayal's pencils really come alive when there is an action sequence to draw, creating tension even when you know what is going to happen.

Overall, the Jungle Book is well-written and holds your attention over the span of 104 pages. The art may take some getting used to, but if it grows on you this will be a very enjoyable read. If it doesn't, the book will still be a great introduction to a great piece of literature. Plus, there are several pages of extra trivia and background information and a nice poster kids can put on their wall. I give The Jungle Book a hearty 8 out of 10 points.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Book Review- Friends With Boys

Comic book artist/ animator Faith Erin Hicks has penned and illustrated a new tale, following her success with Brain Camp (written by Susan Kim and Lawrence Klavan, who also wrote City of Spies- another very good read!). Set to release on Feb 28, the book was originally posted as an online comic. The title of the book raised an eyebrow when I saw it- "Friends With Boys" and I thought- "Ugh! Not some emotional coming-of-age real world we've-all-been-there-so-why-read-about-it kind of book!" But then I saw Hicks name in the catalog as the author and illustrator and I remembered her work on Brain Camp and liked it. I saw the story summary and the little bit of a supernatural element thrown in and remembered reading Anya's Ghost on a friend's recommendation (thanks, by the way!) so I thought- "sure, why not review this one?"
Hicks does not disappoint. Her story centers around Maggie, a young girl who has been home schooled up through the eighth grade but is now starting high school in a public school. Maggie's dad is the chief of police for the small town they live in, and her three older brothers are there to support her. Her mother left the family- no reason is given why but Maggie blames herself and her close relationship to her father and brothers. Outside of her family, the only person Maggie has any regular contact with is a ghost who simply follows Maggie but never says anything or offers any reason why she follows and watches her.
In school, Maggie has to not only learn about her classes, she has to learn about how high school works- social interactions, cliques, prejudices and pre-concieved notions about people, and how and where she fits in and deals with her family situation publicly. Looking at the story as a parent and adult, these things seem easier to navigate and adjust to with the benefit of experience and the wisdom gained from that experience. But the truth is, dealing with these problems is a life-long ordeal. They just come more cleverly disguised and more slickly wrapped.
The bonus to this book is that there isn't just one story going on here, but several. Some are short and some are interwoven through the entire work. There is Alistair and his sister, the only two people at school who seem to really befriend Maggie. There are Maggie's twin brothers, Lloyd and Zander, who can't go one minute without fighting like Cain and Abel. There is the underlying story of Maggie's mom, and a great but sad tale about who the ghost really is. And there are other stories going on within the book.
A nice surprise Hicks has thrown into this book is that not all of these endings get wrapped up nice and neat and everyone walks away happy or a better person for what happened. Some of these stories don't end happily or not at all. That's an element of real-life that comics, and books in general, too often ignore. Not everything ends the way we want it to, and some things we never find out how they end. But life goes on and people move to the next challenge.
I need to talk about the art, because any good piece of comic art should be able to tell a story on its own. But when put with words, the two should work together to give detail and life and context to a story. Hicks' setting of a small town with an old-style theater, an old graveyard, and everything done in black and white sets a mood that is dark and subdued, but her characters and expressions give a ray of hope and optimism in nearly every picture. Hicks also manages to infuse enough humor into the story to keep things from getting heavy, and her use of sound effects for things like AWKWARD SILENCE and MANLY HUG are just hilarious and brilliant.
I don't know if Hicks will do a follow up to Maggie's story, but I know I can't wait to see what she comes up with next.

Friends With Boys goes on sale Feb. 28. You can pre-order the book through most online book sellers and comics shops. You can learn more about the book and Faith Erin Hicks at :01 Books.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Dark Horse: A Company That Cares

In the world of comics, it seems each company is taking on a clearer and more defined image that would equate to characters right out of their own books. In essence, some publishers have become the good guys, some have become the Swiss (they're just neutral), and unfortunately, at least one of them has become something of a villain with a nasty streak to match Dr. Doom. That last publisher would of course, be Marvel.
Marvel has been in the comics news a lot in the last few months involved in battles over creator rights and compensations, what they are legally obligated to do vs. what they should ethically do, and wrestling with studios over movie rights they sold or leased out on characters. But this isn't a "bash-Marvel" post (which is hard to believe if you've read this far, I know, just bear with me, okay?). Instead I want to talk about one of the good guys of the business- Dark Horse Comics.
Started in 1986 by Mike Richardson, Dark Horse has a track record of looking at things the comics industry has usually seen as competition and instead decided to find a way to make it belong. The company took that approach with movie franchises like Alien and Predator. They took characters that had bounced around to different publishers and had become "old" and found a way to keep them going. Characters like Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian. Dark Horse saw the coming tide of manga and decided to help distribute it and create new manga material instead of belittling or ignoring it. Dark Horse has an appreciation of the industry's roots, and they every so often re-release a set of comics done by another publisher to a whole new audience. I don't know how they pull it off, but they do- and the product isn't just reprinted, but it is restored- looking brighter, cleaner and clearer than the original work. Dark Horse also takes chances on what to publish. Who would've thought a story about a congressional speech writer who turns into a creature of living concrete would be a hit? But Concrete was a hit with comics fans and with critics. The Goon? Sin City? Emily Strange? They were all successes even though they may not have been the sort of material a Marvel or DC would have gone with.
But Dark Horse is much more than that. Dark Horse works so hard to support the growth of comics, both in finding new readers and in trying to keep current readers.
When our library started building a graphic novel collection Dark Horse jumped in and sent two big boxes of graphic novels- about 40 books- to help get us started. For free. There wasn't even a note or a name on the box to give credit to. No conditions or strings attached. Just an offer of goodwill kept very low-key.
When we began our Cartooning Club, Dark Horse responded again by sending a case full of comics, posters, decals, etc. All kinds of neat things to get kids and teens excited about comics. When we held our first mini-con and our second mini-con Dark Horse sent us more swag for the event- books, comics, pins, posters, decals and other things to give out to the kids. In our mini-con's third year, economic times were bad for many and even Dark Horse was not able to send anything to us. Didn't matter- they had sent so much stuff the second year we still had a lot left to hand out in year three!
Recently, Bleedingcool.com put up the transcript of Richardson's address to comics retailers at the ComicsPRO event in Dallas, TX. Read it for yourself and see if Richardson is concerned about comics retail shops, keeping customers happy, growing and finding new customers, and keeping the comics industry healthy and moving in a proactive direction for the future. I really believe he is genuine. Richardson himself was a comics shop owner. He is now a publisher dependent on shops to sell his product. He has his family involved in his business just as many shop owners do with theirs. Dark Horse is not the mega giant that DC (with the backing of Warner Brothers) or Marvel (with the backing of Disney) is. Dark Horse is tied to their success coming from people buying comics, and so Richardson has been dedicated to reaching out in ways the big two won't. Again, read Richardson's transcript. Then go out and buy some Dark Horse f'gosh sakes, because such efforts should be rewarded.

Valentines Day- Bwha ha ha haaaa

Happy Valentine's Day to all of you, also known as Singles Awareness Day, I Really Blew It Day, I'm Sorry But I Didn't Think It Was Such A Big Deal Day.
Really, the day has its beginnings with the early church in Rome where a church leader named Valentine (or Valentinus) was working to protect the persecuted church. He was arrested and jailed where he restored the jailer's daughter's sight, and may have left her a note before his execution that read "From your Valentine." Despite his best efforts to be Christ-like it didn't go with what the Romans wanted (you've heard when in Rome, do as the Romans do?). They couldn't persuade him to change his mind despite using some very "Tony Soprano" styled methods, so they killed him.
True story.
I thought a picture of Mola-Ram in The Temple of Doom would be a hilarious image for a Valentine's Day gone wrong, and I found this! Enjoy!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Do comics, sci-fi & fantasy always equal GEEK?

Artist Al Bigley just sent me an article from our local Fox TV station titled Geek Chic: the Growing Charlotte Trend. Basically, the article says anything related to comics, sci-fi or fantasy genres is part of the Geek culture and anyone involved in it is, well, a geek. Just as with any general labeling of group, I think this use of the term is more inaccurate then accurate. Looking at a literal definition of geek, I don't bite heads off of chickens and I know no one else who does (there are some folks I have my suspicions about though). Looking at the definition I grew up with in the 80's, the image of a poorly or tackily dressed, ridiculously scrawny, socially inept, nerdy super-genius (think Revenge of the Nerds or Anthony Michael Hall and John Cusack in 16 Candles and you get the idea) doesn't honestly fit myself or the vast majority of people I know. We are at best mere geniuses, and most of us have athletic backgrounds- basketball, football, soccer, baseball, etc. A lot of military folks I know are into comics, Star Wars, and other things. Yet there is nothing geeky about the force, skill, and precision with which they can deliver an old-fashioned shock-and-awe!
I have met Andy Smith a few times before- he was always cool- not a nerdy brainiac. A very funny guy, Andy is also very aware of the world around him. If you ever get a chance to hear it when he subs for nighttime host John Hancock on WBT 1110AM, you will enjoy it. Along with one of his friends they call it the Andy & Jason Show.
Al's response to the article was, "Ugh!" and I agree. Al is certainly no geek. He does such a broad variety of work with his art that comics probably doesn't even make up a fourth of his workload- and he is also a personal trainer! If he "hulked out" he'd probably kick your butt!
so, yeah, being called a geek because I enjoy comics does get under my skin. But as a former journalist, I also understand a writer's need to group everything together in one simple neat package because without grouping them all together and labeling them there is no story- or at least no story with much focus. So what do you think? Is Charlotte a "geek city?" Are you a geek because you have some connection to comics or sci-fi?

Friday, February 10, 2012

In Case You Missed it- Marcus Hamilton

If you are like me, there is more stuff out there you would like to see, read, or do but you just don't have the time or the money. Such was the case when Marcus Hamilton, the Monday through Saturday artist on Dennis the Menace, went on WCNC's midday show, and because I didn't have the time (because I had to be at work- and I had to be at work because I didn't have the money!) I missed it when it ran. The TV station finally put it up on the web and I finally got around to seeing it. Then it hit me a few days ago- if you wanted to see it, someone else probably does, too.
This was around the time the Dennis stamp was released along with a series that included Archie, Garfield, Calvin & Hobbes and Beetle Baily. Marcus talks about how he came to work on Dennis, and how the daily process is done. It's almost six minutes in length, so enjoy!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Free! Online Comics by :01 Books!

If you're like me, you don't have the time and money to keep running to your local comics shop to keep buying up all the books you find the least bit interesting. You can go to your library (which I strongly recommend) and if you can't find what you can request it or reserve it. Another option is totally free and doesn't require you to leave your computer/laptop/tablet/Ipad/smart something.
:01 Books (or First Second Books for those of you trying to figure it out) has four comics titles you can read online for free! Called TBC (To Be Continued...), each title is unique, and not your standard super hero sci-fi fare.
Zallara's Paradise is pulled right from the pages of today's news as a man searches for his brother in Iran. Set amid the chaos of fixed elections, zealous and radical leaders, attempted uprisings, and a nation full of people faced with daily uncertainties and moving to the proverbial boiling point, this story offers great cultural insights into a part of the world many Americans hear about, but know little of outside of the standard headlines.
Sailor Twain or The Mermaid on the Hudson is a historical fiction/fantasy piece set in the late 1800s with a younger Mark Twain as the captain of a riverboat running along the Hudson and New York state. At the heart of the story is the disappearance of another man, and Twain recounts the story to a mysterious woman who must know the man's fate and if the stories she has heard are true.
Tune I haven't had the chance to look at yet, but according to the blurb below the link, the story begins in 2010, but in which dimension is the big question? Kinda sounds like the TV show Sliders, which would be really cool!
And last (no, really, it's the last link- at the bottom of the list) is Save Apathea, which doesn't seem to be a comic as much as it is a comics-related blog. Still, some good and imaginative stuff to search through on here.
All of these titles I would rate for the 12 years and up crowd, given the use of some language in a couple of the titles (not a lot of it, but it is there and I'm just warning you!). Read and enjoy!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Al Bigley featured in Inspired Viewpoints magazine!

Union County's top professional comics artist, Al Bigley, was recently featured in an online magazine- Inspired Viewpoints! The magazine is an online format and can be read for free. About four different artists are featured in the mag, but of course, it is Al who steals the show. In the article you can read how Al got into being a comics fan and worked his way up to a comics creator. There is also a great early look at Al's latest comics project, Tao Boy! Look for the January issue when you check it out HERE!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

100 Graphic Novels for Kids? Read More to Find Out!

Working as a children's librarian, and being someone with an interest in comics and graphic novels, patrons and co-workers are always coming to me asking for titles that are age-appropriate, or are "safe". Sometimes a parent wants to know what a graphic novel is rated- like a movie. I do my best not to roll my eyes while I think to myself, "Didn't we put all the sailor-swearing, half-nekkid vampire chick books on the OTHER side of the library?"

Honestly, while libraries group books as easy children's, juvenile fiction, teen fiction and adult fiction, it is no indication of what kind of content is within the covers. But no one asks for ratings on books- just the comics.

There is help coming for those librarians who also have to deal with this, and for those parents who ask these questions. Snow Wildsmith and Scot Robins have teamed up to make a review of 100 recommended graphic novels for kids. A Parents Guide to the Best Kids Comics: Choosing Titles Your Children Will Love is the result. A 256 page book filled with all kinds of graphic novel reviews!

Snow has experience working as a librarian, and she currently reviews graphic novels for Booklist, ICv2.com, No Flying No Tights, and Good Comics for Kids. Her passion for graphic novels has lead to her to not only writing reviews, but also to her speaking on the subject at conferences and writing other graphic related resources for parents and educators. The book of comics/ graphic novels reviews was written with Scot Robins who has been involved in award selection committees for comics and graphic novels, and the Toronto Comic Arts Festival along with writing reviews for School Library Journal's Good Comics for Kids. The book doesn't just choose the 100 best graphic novels but looks to create a user-friendly starting point for those having to select reading material for kids.

"It has 100 reviews of great graphic novels for kids, broken down into four categories: Pre-K, 2-3, 4-5, and 6-8," Snow said in an email exchange. "Each entry includes a summary, educational tie-ins and one or two read alikes."

The Parents Guide has a release date of May but can be pre-ordered through various sites including Amazon.

I haven't had the opportunity to look at this book, but I am familiar with the reviews Snow writes, so I know her input on a title will include things non-comic literate parents will be able to understand, and that her choices are sufficient to answer most concerns about graphic novels. I am recommending this book for elementary teachers, school and public libraries, and parents who want to know what their kids could be reading beyond Hulk and Batman.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Mythic reads from Campfire

Last week I got a pack of several Campfire graphic novels. Included were retellings of classics like Three Men in a Boat, Dan Johnson's adaptation of the Jungle Book, a modernized version of Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves, an original story called The Treasured Thief, biographies of Mohammed Ali, Nelson Mandela, Leonardo Da Vinci, and the Wright Brothers. I will get around to reviewing each of these books, but the first stories I dove into were three mythology books that were Perseus: Destiny's Call, Jason & the Argonauts and Ravana: Roar of the Demon King. These will be the three books I am reviewing today.

First is Ravana, a Hindu myth with scripting by Abhimantu Singh Sisodia and art by Sachin Nagar. The name of the lead character was familiar to me because it was prominent on one part of the Campfire book Sita: Daughter of the Earth. Ravana kidnaps Sita to force her to be his bride, but Sita's rescue by her husband Rama and his army is the climax of the Sita story, but in Ravana's tale, it gets just more than a passing mention. Ravana is a son of two worlds- noble and learned men of peace, and noble and fierce demons driven by power and glory. But even with these two very different philosophies, Ravana excels in either world, but it is the battle-worn path for glory of his demon-kin that Ravana chooses to follow. As he builds a legend, makes cities and kingdoms prosperous, and creates music and scriptures Ravana also must contend with pride and the downfall it will bring.
This book is beautifully illustrated, and Nagar's art is consistent with the style and characters as seen in Sita making this a worthy companion to Sita. Actually, I felt the story telling was better in this book, probably because Ravana stands alone in his story and everything is about him and driven by him. He is the hero and the villain all at the same time. In the story Ravana takes credit for creating hymns, scriptures, holy places and other things that tie into the Hindu religion, and seeing these things at their "inceptions" actually makes it easier to follow.
On a scale of 1 to 10, I give Ravana a solid 9.

Maybe life is about the journey and not about the destination. That is the moral put forth in Jason and the Argonauts, written by Dan Whitehead and illustrated by Sankha Banerjee. The thing that sets Jason apart from so many other Greek heroes is that he is not a demi-god, or a child born of a god and a human. Jason is fully man, yet he manages to rally some of Greece's greatest heroes to his side (including the mighty Hercules/Heracles) for a quest that is set up to be a suicide mission at best. Jason is at times foolish and at others he is extremely clever (like when he has to outsmart some indestructible zombies- yeah, it's really in the book!). The story moves at a good pace, and loose ends tie up nicely making feel complete. Jason's wife, Madea, also teaches us that women who are ruthless and insane should never (NEVER) be made angry and left to wander on their own!
Banerjee's art is rough and takes a few pages to get used to or adjusted to, and the coloring is often times very dark. Overall, it fits the mood of the story. Banerjee's weakest part of storytelling is in the action shots where things are either lost in a dark shaded, roughly scribbled panel, or they seem just static. Still the book is an enjoyable read and goes along well with the Labors of Hercules graphic novel. I give Jason & the Argonauts a 7.5.

The last review is Perseus: Destiny's Call. A popular story theme in Greek myths is someone trying to forge their own destiny (and failing horribly! Can you say Oedipus?) or trying to discover what their destiny is. Perseus is both sides of this theme- Perseus is out to find his destiny while others try to stop the young hero to thwart their own horrible destinies. Again, the hero is sent on an impossible quest that seems more like a suicide mission, and again it is brains, not brawn, that wins the day. Writer Dan Foley fills in a back story on Perseus I had not read before, and it made the story new and entertaining for me. Naresh Kumar supplies the art and he does a commendable job. Characters that should be beautiful are, characters that are ugly or monstrous are certainly that, too. The settings, costumes and characters are all presented as larger-than-life giving the story even more of an epic legend feel. Of these three myths, Perseus and Ravana were the strongest reads, but since Foley and Kumar took something I was already familiar enough with and managed to re-envision it in a way that was very entertaining to me, I have to give Perseus the edge. I rate Perseus a 9.5.

Campfire is distributed in the US by Steerforth Press. You can find out more about where to buy or order these titles at campfire.co.in or at steerforth.com.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Chrissie Zullo has art in John Carter book!

Disney's take on John Carter is set to release in theaters in March. Among fans of fantasy and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan, Pelucidor) John Carter is a known property, and certain expectations will come with that. We will see if Disney is up to the task. In the meantime, a collection of all-new stories by various writers will be released. The stories will focus on other parts of the quasi-technological world of Mars, and with the short stories will come illustrations! DC cover artist Chrissie Zullo (who is and always be one us although she is in New York these days) was asked to provide an illustration, but what she produced is a spectacular piece showing one of the four-armed Warhoon inhabitants against a spectacular backdrop- all in that very unique black & white look that she does so well!

Chrissie said she is actually looking forward to the Taylor Kitsch version of John Carter. "I'm actually really excited about the movie, there was a new trailer that made it look better than the first (in my opinion). But I'm a sucker for any sci-fi movie."

You can peruse more of Chrissie's incredible work and find out about her commissions at her blog- look for the link on this page on the right.