Saturday, March 22, 2008

Blankets by Craig Thompson

I picked up this graphic novel in Charleston, South Carolina, at a great record shop/bookstore/social space up on King Street called 525 Records. They specialize in indie labels in a wide variety of musical genres, with a smattering of books, mags and zines.

Flipping through the book section, I came across Thompson's rather epic (coming in at nearly 600 pages, huge for a graphic novel) Blankets, his rather hopeful coming-of-age story. I devoured the book in 4-5 hours while on a road trip, couldn't quite put it down in fact, perhaps alienating my two driving mates. The risk was well-worth it though, as Thompson's tale reminded me of how sweet love can be. The middle section, Thompson's late teen years, may prove a bit tedious for those anti-romance folks out there, but there is enough backtracking to his childhood to keep the story rolling.

The most compelling aspect of this novel though are Thompson's phenomenal drawings. His use of whites and blacks is a marvel, as he sets the mood for any given scene with skill relatively unmatched in my recent forays into the genre. And I need to say this- his depictions of Raina are stunning. She stands out as the epitome of beauty, as captured by a lovestruck teen overcome with emotions. His honest portrayal of his own emotions stands in marked contrast to his inability to account for hers, another charming chapter that manifests itself in Thompson's skilled drawings.

The other noteworthy feature of this book are Thompson's abstract, dreamlike sequences. On several occasions he gets away from his more literal drawings and wanders into the world of strange happenings, especially when reflecting on his relationship with his younger brother. This reminded me a great deal of David B's Epilectic, which does so quite masterfully.

Blankets has been a welcomed addition to my book collection. Thompson won several awards for Blankets, including the 2004 Eisner Award for Best Graphic Novel and Best Artist/Writer.

Edisto Beach State Park

I was among a group of three intrepid residents of Ottawa who decided enough was enough- this year's record snowfall was no laughing matter. We took the reins and planned a road trip to the sun. In this case, our final destination was Savannah, the legendary city in Georgia that has inspired many writers and travelers alike.

However, on the way we made several show-stopping discoveries, not in the Columbus sense, I'd never be bold enough to make such extravagant claims, but nice new places to return to in the future.

Besides the Outer Banks of North Carolina (Kitty Hawk, Cape Hatteras, Ocracoke Island), the most glorious spot on the map that we played at was Edisto Island, South Carolina. In fact, we camped for two nights in Edisto Beach State Park, a wonderful place to spend a few nights. If I had had the time, I think my entire week would've been spent in Edisto camping among the Palmettos and warm spring Atlantic wind.

The park itself has two separate campsites. One is down by the beach, but be prepared to book spots way ahead of time here. The other is only a couple of kilometres away, adjacent to a salt marsh. We stayed at the latter, and explored the 5 kilometres of trails in and around the large marsh. The one downside about our site were the over-excitable mockingbirds, which in my opinion, should pipe up only when spoken to.

While the camping and beach were great, my stay in Edisto, and perhaps in the South more generally, seemed haunted by the silences. It seems everywhere I went in Edisto- the general store, local pub/restaurant, state park, etc- I was served by African-Americans, even though to my admittedly un-trained eyes it seemed like none lived near the beach, a place reserved mostly for wealthy landowners and vacationers. This area of South Carolina was once world-renowned for its Sea Island cotton, and the large plantation-style houses speckle the drive along Highway 174 onto the island.

My next trip to Edisto will include an extended discussion or two with local residents about this particular history, and the contemporary segregation that exists in the area. The unsettling feeling nibbling at my mind demands such future inquiry.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow by James Sturm

When I saw this book at the new Drawn & Quarterly store on Bernard Street in Montréal last week, I knew that I had to have it. I'm not a very big baseball fan, but the idea of a well-drawn graphic novel telling a political story through sports struck me as something I'd like to check out. And I wasn't disappointed.

I knew very little about Paige before this, and if for no other reason, knowing a bit more about this charismatic figure's life was worth the ticket price. I was aware of the Negro League's popularity during the Jim Crow years, but I had no idea how big Paige had become by the time he played in the majors for the first time at the age of 42. He went on to play several more years in th majors, even becoming an all-star. This novel primarily tells the story of his Negro League and barnstorming days, all through the eyes of one of his former opponents.

Most of the story occurs in the sweeping panels that Rich Tomasso draws since there is very little dialogue at all throughout, which is both a strength and a weakness. More of the former perhaps, but I couldn't help but feel like I wanted more, I could've read this for hours, but instead had to contend myself with 30 minutes of pleasure.

It's a fun story that highlights the injustice of the Jim Crow south without sparing much detail. For those of us who see sport as a crass commercial exercise today, it points to a past where sport, and in the case of Paige, extremely popular stars, actually have an eye on social justice. If you are anything like me, you might find yourself googling Paige or the Negro League and checking out some biographies soon after reading this book.

Another exciting aspect of this graphic novel are the extras after the story. They were useful in describing some of the key terms and giving an historical overview that helped to place me in the story.

Check out the Center for Cartoon Studies' page with draft illustrations and commentary by Sturm and Tommaso.

Aya by Marguerite Abouet & Clément Oubrerie

This is the story of teenaged Aya and her cast of friends growing up in Yopougon, a working-class neighbourhood of Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast. Abouet's deft storytelling sensitively introduces readers to life in Abidjan in the late 70s, what art historian Alisia Grace Chase, writing in the preface, calls the Ivory Coast's "golden age".

Abouet crafts a clever story of skirt-chasing boys, late-night make-out spots, happening night clubs and deceiving spouses that is at-odds with almost all representations of Africa in the West. Oubrerie's stylish colour drawings complement the exciting storyline, adding flashes of life at the very moments the story risks becoming sombre. But instead, the narrative takes a refreshing twist, keeping readers guessing as to what will come next. Both the first panel, a delightful introduction to the Coast's television industry, and the final panel, a hilarious plot twist I didn't see coming, are wonderfully executed.

And for all you people who prefer watching TV series on DVD these days, there are half-a-dozen pages of terminology and tips, such as recipes, how to swing your hips and get noticed, and other fun stuff that serve as the 'extras' at the end of the book. Not to be missed.

Check out the Book Slut's interview with Abouet.