High Literature and Fun Home

First published in the Feminine Pulse.

James Joyce’s seminal post-modernist masterpiece, Ulysses, has been collecting dust on my bedside table for five years. Occasionally it changes location from under the lamp to the top of the pile, but there it remains, spine un-cracked, pages pristine, metaphors and ambiguities unearthed- unread.

I can hear the guffaws of my peers in the literary community as I type this. That strange comic book reader calls herself an English graduate?! Blasphemy!

I am a fraud.

My entire degree in English literature is a lie because, not only have I not read Ulysses, I don’t really want to.

imageAt least I didn’t, until a comic book changed my mind.

I was late getting around to Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical, Fun Home. In fact, I was late getting around to autobiographical comics, in general. When I did, Fun Home didn’t pull at my inner historian’s curiosity like Maus, nor did it make me want to self-evaluate my own anxieties like Marbles. Like UlyssesFun Home was a book I knew I should read, a contemporary classic (a game-changer in the world of comics), but I was in no hurry to pick it up, and it took me years, collecting dust on the shelf below Joyce.

Now, I guffaw at myself.

 Fun Home just may be the most important comic I have ever read, but not for the connections I made with the characters. I have very little in common with Alison, the young protagonist who comes of age in a home devoid of outwardly affection, who watches her parent’s marriage deteriorate behind a velvet facade, brought up in a house that is both staged for beauty and death. Sure, I cheered for her as she reached her milestones and personal enlightenment, I joined her on her quest for identity, but the connection to the character was not what kept me up reading all night. I was connected, instead, to what sustained her.

Bechdel’s intimate relationship with English literature is enviable and, I would argue,  the crux of her book. This is where she got me. Hook, line and sinker; the way to a literature junkie’s heart (even one that hasn’t read Ulysses) is through reference and allusion. I could not relate to Alison’s plights and conflicts, but I could relate to the way she engaged with books to get her through each major event in her life. Like her, I lost myself to works such as The Importance of Being EarnestThe Taming of the ShrewAn Ideal HusbandThe Wind in the Willows, The Great Gatsby, and poetry by Wallace Stevens. Here was a protagonist, an author, pulled between her love of great literature and her desire to live in a world of comics- such is my plight!!!

I could’t put Fun Home down. In the panels of a graphic memoir I saw my own reflection- someone filled to the brim with literary passion, but someone who did not quite belong. A poet and a comic. An essayist and artist. I may not have seen myself in her story, but there I was front and centre in the medium.

Fun Home has broken barriers across genres, has incited discussion for gender identification and sexual orientation. It has shed light on the secrets between family and the darkness of both life and death. But for me, much more simply, it has validated my love of reading, most especially my love of reading comics.

As my foray with Fun Home came to an end I realized Bechdel likened herself and her father to the two main characters in James Joyce’s Ulysses. For the first time, ever, I had the urge to read Ulysses, not because it belongs in the pantheon of books I am supposed to read, but because the characters suddenly became real to me. Joyce didn’t do this. Alison Bechdel did. Not a seminal novel, a graphic one. But hey, no matter the medium that is what a good book does; it encourages a reader to read on, read more, and read unabashedly. It is time to dust off Ulysses. Fun Home, on the other hand, will never collect dust again.

Loneliness, Poignancy and Brilliance in This One Summer

First published in the Feminine Pulse.

This is a brilliant novel and a worthy example of how powerfully sequential art can convey a narrative.

The story begins with the cover. In tones of blue, accented by a purple hue, it is evident that this is a tale about change. Two young girls, jumping feet first into rolling waves, are leaping into thedownloadunknown. One has her arms outstretched, body open in welcome; the other is rigid, her body closed, face omitted conveying reluctance. This One Summer, the title, occupying the vast space between the girls and their rolling future; this is the summer when everything changes.

Rose, the protagonist, is struggling through the transition from child to teenager. Her summer friend, Windy, is still clinging to that innocence. Together they contemplate boys, puberty, horror films, and adult life; conventions of a bildungsroman that we have all seen before. What sets this book apart, however, is the delicate illustrations that accentuate the movement of the tale. The story as it is written, colloquially, and the elaborative illustrations that accentuate it, are a perfect marriage.

Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations are exceptional. The reader watches a freighting movie scene from under the comfort of a thin blanket with the young girls.  As Rose begins a one-sided love affair images (5)with Dunc, the older store clerk, Tamaki encapsulates his romantic dalliance with Jenny in the frame of a chewy foot candy; sweet, youthful, and hazily understood by Rose. Later, an aerial view of the beach is gently sexualized as it is drawn like the contour if a man’s body. Tamaki envisions nature as a character as much as Rose or Windy.

Character development is rich and poignant. Rose struggles to understand the adults around her: her mother dealing with a secret, personal loss; her over-compensating father; Dunc and Jenny’s badly dealt with pregnancy; even Windy’s subtle, yet profound, contemplation of adoption.  The illustrations further convey the dichotomy of youth and maturity when Rose and Windy frolic through the waves of the lake  on a splash page, as Dunc sits in an state of nervous agony in the following panel. But perhaps the most lovely figurative element of the book is the duality between the mother’s story of having miscarried in the lake, only to be redeemed by having saved Jenny from drowning in the same spot, and in so doing, saved her baby’s life.

This is a book that appeals to the senses.The feel of the rough paper asks for a degree of respect that a glossy page would not garner. Sounds, more than figurative onomatopoeia, drive the story. The ground crumbles beneath the feet of a man carrying a sleeping child; embarrassment is accentuated when Rose’s uncalled for name calling follows her walk home, “slut”, “slut”, “slut” crunching beneath her feet; and the soft ticking of the clock and the woods fills the empty home as Rose leaves her cabin and youth behind her at the end. IMG_1758

This One Summer is a story about growing up, and how adulthood and age, regardless of the physical company one keeps, is a lonesome road.  This novel is a prodigious example of the beauty, intricacy and the splendour of sequential art. It is a beautiful union of words and pictures, worthy of every award for which it was nominated and has won.

This book is a quintessential example of how reading can shape our perceptions of the world, and how comics can shape and enlighten our perceptions of reading.

I have a Crush on Archie Andrews

First published in the Feminine Pulse.

That’s not a sentence I thought I would ever say. But there it is, for the world to see.

I have a crush on Archie Andrews. Archieandrwcmc

And yes, I mean that Archie Andrews.

Archie. The redheaded, commitment-phobe, serial dater and jalopy driver. The kid who was always blundering about Riverdale like he owned the world, despite his penchant for being perpetually in debt.

Growing up I was a huge fan of Archie comics. I liked the stock characters, the predictability, the wholesome town, the fashion pin-ups. I could never decide if I identified more with the loveable and reliable friend Betty, or the selfish and conniving (yet good hearted) Veronica. I always wondered what the appeal was for these striking girls who were so in love with the humdrummery that is Archie Andrews. And more than that, I was perpetually flabbergasted by his ineptitude for healthy relationships. I mean, Dude, pick a girl already!

As I matured, the comics did too. The last decade saw a tremendous shift from the cartoonish short stories about Riverdale shenanigans, to sophisticated and contemplative narratives. My generation of Archie fans was consumed by the Archiesoap opera that was Archie: The Married Life, where a walk down Memory Lane gave readers a glimpse into the life he woALWAmag#1uld lead should he choose either Betty or Veronica. This culminated with the tender and retrospective Death of Archie. Later,  Afterlife With Archiewould rock my post apocalyptic sensibilities with a zombie takeover. But the real deal, the really great reading and visual experience of my life with Archie Andrews is only just beginning.

The first Archie #1 issue in 75 years has hit the shelves this past week. Written by the incomparable Mark Waid (Daredevil) and illustrated by the game changing Fiona Staples (Saga),  Archie is no longer just a fun, cartoonish blip in a larger reading experience. Archie is finally a guy I can relate to. A guy I can admire. A guy I want to get to know. I guy I could totally crush on if I was a comic character, too.

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Waid brings us to Riverdale in the middle of high school. Archie greets his readers and invites us into his world with an intimacy never before experienced in an Archie comic. Archie looks cool, too. The bowties are gone and he looks just like an ordinary North American teenager, thanks to Staples’ realism.

Also, he’s been dating Betty Cooper since the fifth grade.

That’s right ladies, Archie learned to commit and Betty Cooper was his first true love. It’s on the record, it’s part of canon now, and it’s ABOUT TIME!

But don’t worry, Veronica fans, the series begins with Archie and Betty’s mysterious breakup; which is handled with such maturity that it is my hope that young people reading this new series will glean some insight into healthy break-ups. (Please deliver, Mark!)

Jughead, Dilton, Kevin Keller, and Reggie make appearances, satiating the reader’s hunger for the old Riverdale crew we grew up with, but the cast is much more ethnically diverse, a long overdue necessity underserved in the Archie canon. But perhaps the most interesting plot twist is that Veronica Lodge hasn’t been introduced yet. Instead of picking up a comic long in the midst of a love triangle, this first issue gives Betty a chance to be missed, to be longed for, before the buxom brunette enters the scene.

Archie, at long last, is the character we have been waiting for. The guy next door we can relate to- andwant to relate to. Mark Waid and Fiona Staples are giving Archie lovers an icon to admire and a story to sink our collective teeth into.

Archie1That’s why I have a crush on Archie Andrews. He is finally the guy he was supposed to be all along. Considerate, humble, devoted and mature. He not only commits, but he loves fully in the process. He handles losing love with reflection and introspection. His friends see it too. And maybe Ronnie will throw us all for a loop, but the damage has been done. Archie is a good guy, better than I have ever known him to be. I won’t unsee that now. And if readers can have literary crushes, than Archie Andrews is mine. And I am crushing hard.

Comic Jem is Truly Outrageous

First published in The Feminine Pulse

Jem_logoI thought I’d left Jem and the Holograms back in the 80’s with my earliest memories: Synergy drawn on a child sized blackboard, un-erased for months as I commanded my own “showtime”; an image of Jem drawn on the bottom of my first skateboard, instilling me with a chic confidence; my favourite barbies, Holograms and Misfits alike (I had each and every one); ingesting spoonfuls of Kraft Dinner, unblinking, as the battle of the bands commences at noon. Jem was a staple of my youth. Now it has become a staple of my adulthood, too.

IDW Publishing has brought back Jem and the Holograms and transformed a much beloved childhood pastime into something truly, truly, truly outrageous: an ongoing comic series.

Truthfully, I was sceptical about the re-emergence of Jem. I really was (have you seen the film trailer? Gah!). I mean, for everything that was awesome about the cartoon, there was so much inherently wrong with it. Watching now as an adult (Yes, I still watch Jem as a thirty something woman!), I can assess the ways in which it negatively influenced and impacted the way I would grow to interpret the world around me. Throngs of young women were growing up learning that professional women were a force to be reckoned with, thanks to the way Jerrica took on Starlight music, but we were confused about honesty and integrity.

Although women were central to the show and “girl power” was apparent, love was often the central theme; but in love, women were still expected to be subversive. Romantic love became convoluted as Rio and his expectations of honesty from Jerrica were in direct conflict with his own actions as simultaneous lover to both Jerrica and Jem. Likewise, Kimber was always juggling boyfriends with disregard for their feelings. This did not escape the considerations of a young child familiar with divorce and the fall-out of love affairs.

Perhaps most jarring, was the notion of hiding who you are. Successful, stunning, award winning,jemjerextroverted Jem is not a real person, rather an incarnation of quiet, contemplative, and conservative Jerrica who shone brighter and more confidently  when she was the antithesis of herself. A rub of a pair of ruby red earrings and the mantra, “Showtime, Synergy” downplays the tumult of a hardworking and earnest woman in a male dominated society. That said there are days when I would love to have my own life altering jewellery and catch phrase, too.

Most disappointing, I think, when I look back on my favourite childhood show, was the inadequacy of ethnic representation and cultural diversity. For a show about the fortitude and power of women, there was little variety. All the girls were tall, lean, buxom, and stunning. When I swapped outfit and a wig on my dolls, any one of them could have been any other one. Sure, the show dabbled in ethnicity, but an honest consideration of the characters concludes a Eurocentric homogenized cast. There wasn’t enough for those of us watching at home, living outside of the mould, to hold on to.

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Thank goodness for the creative team at IDW.

For the first time, I feel like everything in the Jem universe makes sense. (Caveat: I also think it works really, really well as a comic.)

From month to month, the printed single issues present a plot that is sound, vibrant art, quick dialogue, and a story arc that is exciting and engaging. And yes, I know,  the original Jem had these features, too; but what the comic accomplishes that the show did not is an ability to appeal to the masses- thirty year old die-hards like myself, and new and transitory young audiences. 

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I love that in this new Jem, each character is distinctive. There is no physical mould to fit into. Some, like Kimber and Jerrica are slender, others, like Aja and Shana are curvaceous. Some are tall, others are short. Not one girl looks like another. None could be swapped out or confused for anyone else. And I can see myself in these characters. From lovelorn Kimber, to anxious Jerrica, to shapely Shana, to inquisitive Rio (who, I might add, is so far committed to Jerrica and somewhat distrustful of Jem. How great for a guy to choose a girl for her personality, not her looks! Already, this Rio has putpast Rio to shame!).

I am also a fan of the way IDW are shinning a light on Jerrica’s debilitating anxiety. Anxiety is far jemKimber-and-Jerricamore than public speaking (or in this case, singing), but is often over looked, ignored. By giving the central character a crippling mental struggle (whether or not this is something they attest to), I think many more fans will embrace the story and see themselves reflected in it.

Perhaps the best part of the whole relaunch, however, is the inclusion and representation of diversity. Ethnicity, so far, is given credence by visual honesty as characters are drawn as their reader counterparts might see themselves in their mirrors at home. We are not, any of us, exactly alike. Why should each pop cultural icon (cartoon or not)be expected to be interpreted the same way?

Like ethnic diversity, the new Jem and the Holograms comic also promotes sexual diversity, sexual orientation and healthy sexuality. Kimber and Stormer, oft freinds and foes of the past, are now more than music partners. They are partners in love! It is so wonderful to see positive and excited depictions of members of the LGBT community in mainstream media. Bravo, IDW team! We need more of this positive messaging in our contemporary media!

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Already, only five issues in, the new Jem series from IDW has brought anxiety, body consciousness, honesty, healthy relationships, and LGBT themes to the table. In five issues they have introduced more contentious ideals (as subtle and natural facets of life) than the television show was able to do in three seasons. Finally, this is a Jemwe can reflect on confidently. One this older generation fan can proudly share with her daughter. It is a wonderful notion that a powerful influence on my childhood is newly informing my adulthood, and is there for my daughter’s youthful judgement as soon as she is ready.

Jem and the Holograms is 80’s pop culture cannon. I will always love it, but I do not love everything about it. For all its appeal, it has its faults, and IDW is showing us all that Jem is much more than “glamour and glitter, fashion and fame”.

I don’t worry that this new Jem and the Holograms won’t be as good as the old. I already know it’s better.

jem

BEAUTY IN BEAST, A CANADIAN GRAPHIC NOVEL

Originally published on The Feminine Pulse.

The graphic novel, Beast, by Marian Churchland, was laying precariously on the adult comic shelf at my local library. Someone had obviously picked it up, flipped through it, then discarded it lazily atop a collection of Superman books. I stumbled upon it while I searched for a handful of titles I hadn’t yet read.

Lucky for me someone decided it wasn’t the book for them.

beast1Beast is one of the most beautifully drawn books I have ever read. From the initial image of Colette, the protagonist, sitting contemplatively on a wooden chair I was irrevocably invested in the story. I almost felt like I was looking at myself on the cover of a novel: tattered jeans, dull tank top, messy up-do, bare feet, and deep penetrating and pensive eyes. Before the story began I was engaged.

Beast is a Canadian interpretation of the fairy tale Beauty and the Best. But it is not a fairy tale at all, not in the contemporary understanding of the genre anyway. Colette is an artist commissioned to carve the likeness of a shadowy figure (both metaphorical and literal) out of a block of marble. The density of the alabaster and the unease of willing captivity are in direct contrast to the genteel and ethereal, Beast, who captivates an inquisitive Colette with an ancient and mysterious tale.

Beast does not end with a prince saving the day, nor is Colette a princess in any way. Instead,Beast is a tale that inspires commitment and perseverance of finding one’s place in the world, while inciting the notion of unconventional love.

marian-churchland-beast1Churchland’s art is delicate and real. from tiny details such as the tag sticking out of the back of Colette’s shirt, to capturing the chaos and intrinsic essence of Beast with undetermined form and a sensible disorder of wisps and blackness. Unlike many graphic novels, where characters are indistinguishable, each of Churchland’s cast are unique and deeply considered. So too is the setting: a once grand neighbourhood and house collapsing and decaying with time and neglect; much like the shadowy figure who dwells within.

In the auspicious decision of a stranger to cast-off this novel for another, I found a retelling of a favourite tale, and was introduced to an artist for whom I have great esteem. Much like Beast himself, cast aside and forgotten, this novel was waiting for a true believer to pick it up. How will I ever return it?

JANE, THE FOX, AND ME

Originally published on The Feminine Pulse.

 

janeThis is a wonderful graphic novel that I have often seen on the shelves of my local library, but until recently I had no inclination to pick up. In the end, I am so pleased that I did.

Jane, The Fox and Me, by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault, is a beautiful book that should be read by a broad audience of youth and adults alike, lovers of literature and metaphor, lovers of art, and lovers of introspective fiction. It is a tale of a young girl, Helen, who struggles to accept herself as she is and to fit in to an often cruel and isolating world; is as ordinary as the tools with which she was drawn, pen and ink, colourless and fine. Finding comfort in the pages of Jane Eyre, young Helen begins to see herself as promising a person as the often overlooked Jane herself.

The illustrations are stunning, I was particularly enamoured with those of the tired mother seeing to all the chores and responsibilities for her children, when late at night, as they sleep, she is mending hems. A subtle and poignant reminder of the burden and love of parenthood.

There were two lovely contrasts that I cannot go unnoticed. The first, the mirroring of Helene’s life with that of Jane Eyre’s. Jane is a character who overcomes many odds, not least that of being perceived as exceptionally plain and an outcast, but is one who ultimately  lives a life of happiness, and I think that is what Helene is looking for. The subtleties of color and shading let the reader understand Helen’s moods and circumstances. Helen, for example, is drawn with lots of shading and I think this represents how alone she feels and the way she lives in shadows, much like Jane Eyre did. She too was dark and plain, and the ability to showcase this through the artwork without having to use words to describe it and her feelings highlights Helen’s loneliness and longing to fit in.I was pleased to see that the author did not focus too heavily on the love story, but rather Jane’s personal strength and growth, so that the Helene’s growth could be for herself and not to please others, particularly romantic interests (which I think is a tad overdone in kids books). I especially like the portraits Helene drew of herself in contrast to Jane as a coping mechanism to remind her not to spend too much time on wishful thinking. She drew herself much more plain than she is, and I think many young girls would be inclined to see themselves in a similar way.jane1

The second contrast was the nature. Helene spent many of the panels and pages outside and there was a focus on the potted plants throughout the very urbanized city. Like Helene, they are not natural to the environment, but they persist and grow beautifully, much like Helene herself. The contrast of pencil and watercolour was quite beautiful and a stark contrast to the pen and ink that Helen was rendered in. The use of splash pages showcase Jane’s own feelings, and the subtext of the plants, both potted and natural, growing beautifully amidst the concrete of the world around them, mirror Helene’s own struggle to grow and accept beauty.

Social discourse is apparent through the book. Bullying is the main theme. There was a nice dichotomy between the way peers perceived Helene and the way she classified and labelled others. She, though the victim, was still prone to dole out verbal accusations and bullying, even if she kept it to herself. The addition of her friend at the end was nice and a happy resolution to the story, but I was a little concerned that the end message could be interpreted as “self worth can be found in having even just one friend” when, and this is just my opinion, a stronger message would be in the notion that self worth comes from making peace with yourself and in so doing friends will follow…. But that is the beauty of literature, interpretations are many!!

Overall, I would love to use this book with my students. I will read it again. It was quite lovely.