Fantasy and fantasy graphic novel test-drives

I'm playing around with what I'll teach in fall, which now has changed to include the fantasy class (590VV) on-campus and the youth services class (506LE) via LEEP. Just thought some of you might want to know that I'll have a section of 506. I'm thinking about writing a paper that will draw on the 590VV class, looking at the major awards and what recent trends (Harry Potter etc.) and tensions (religious objections) as well as new awards (Printz) have done to the "population" of fantasy books that inhabit that select and magical land of Newbery winners.

It would also be great to explore how fantasy as a genre is specializing even further into sub-genres in light of the "long tail" phenomenon, or technological changes in the ability to profit from making small numbers of many distinct things available to small number of customers. The idea comes from:
and author Anderson's main argument centers on books. Refreshing!

So what follows are my thoughts on 3 graphic novels and one novel...

Snow, Fire, and Sword by Sophie Masson
First, a novel. This is set in a fictional land, but clearly modeled after Indonesia. Competing religious groups and political purposes have led to a neglect of the magical spirits that once commanded worship, so when a malignant force gathers, the humans have little hope but two children who are unusually poised to save the world. This may sound familiar, but the descriptions, settings, and even some of the fantasy conceptualization in this book are fresh to me and I suspect will be fresh to many of my students as well. One of the unusual elements is that the three elements the children Adi and Dewi must gather--snow, fire, and sword--are not singular people or objects. Instead, different people and things can fulfill these roles, but they are still scarce and the uncertainty of whether the children have found the right elements to bring together keeps the suspense palpable.

A clearly post-9-11 quote that nonetheless blends seamlessly in the book:
"The unknown enemy, striking unpredictably from the shadows, will always strike more terror into human hearts than the declared one, facing you on the battlefield. Those ruthless and clever enough, who care nothing for the honor of the world or for the normal concerns of humanity, will always know how to use not only real weapons but also the paralyzing one of sheer terror." (p. 299)

Castle Waiting by Linda Medley
When a graphic novel has a narrative structure like a novel, with a satisfying resolution at the end, I'm all there. Maus, Maus II, and even the Owly books (more below) I am fully down with. I'm also a big fan of nonfiction graphic novels liek Pedro and Me, Stuck Rubber Baby, Persepolis, etc. Castle Waiting is not structured like a novel, however, despite clear efforts by its publishers and Jane Yolen to market it as such. There's a storyline in the beginning that's a fractured sleeping beauty, but that narrative trails off, and we end up following the stories of a woman who is a nun in the unusual Solicitine order, an order made up of bearded women. The escape from the circus is fun, but that storyline drags when the nuns decide to buy the local mill. The bearded ladies and the utopian feminist undertones are enjoyable but ham-fisted, leaving little to the imagination. I'm glad I read it, but I think it has structural problems as a story that make me wonder about Yolen's prefatory endorsement.

Meridian: Flying Solo by Barbara Kesel et al.

This comic-turned-graphic-novels is feminist in overt story content, but has lots of little oddities that make me wonder about how deeply the creators have thought through the limits of gender stereotyping. The drawings are still of a stereotyped kind of female beauty, and the heroine is given mysterious (and traditionally feminine) powers to restore and heal. While celebrating traditional feminine strengths is a good idea in my book, coupling this with wispy outfits on a supermodel feels jarring to me.

Even now, as I write about it, I feel how torn I am about this one. It's a great example of comics rewritten as graphic novels, and one strength is the authorial commentary throughout that mentions the initial serial publication as well as the new form. But, for me personally, some serial narrative forms just drives me nuts... I never feel like I'm getting enough of the story or the "real" story. I had the same reaction to the Sandman series, and I also feel the same way about other serial fiction like A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Spiderwick Chrnoicles. When I know they story is always going to continue, and then I feel like I'm being sold books, not told a story. All this despite the strong endorsement from no flying no tights. It occurs to me that McCloud's Understanding Comics does a great job of decoding the semiotics of the genre for new readers, but doesn't much address the overall serial narrative structure of comics. He's more interested in what comics can do than what specific iterations actually accomplish, which may explain this somewhat.

The bearded nuns of Castle Waiting seem like my new best friends in comparison to the scantily clad and busty heroine of this story. Fantasy is a tough genre whatever narrative form it takes, because there's so much borrowing and reborrowing from each other and from folklore. Making something enthralling and fresh takes a lot, and there's something about this title that makes me think there were too many cooks in the kitchen and the result is a slightly confused menu.

Owly: Just a Little Blue by Andy Runton
This is a story entirely without words, a tale about Owly's life in the forest with his friend the worm and their friend the butterfly, as they try and try to build a good birdhouse for a family of bluebirds. The poignancy is astonishing given the simplicity of the black-and-white drawings that use a few easily interpreted symbols instead of words. While too complex for little kids, it seems that it might be able to be understood or at least deciphered by people who don't speak English--thanks YLIG folks for leading me to this one and for the idea in this last sentence.

Popular posts from this blog

Finding Stories to Tell

ALA and the Data Storytelling Toolkit for Librarians

What Storytelling Is (Not)