The Eternal Smile, by Gene Luen Yang (of American Born Chinese and Level Up fame) and Derek Kirk Kim, comprises three separate short stories that cover one of my favorite themes, the interplay between reality and fantasy. Each protagonist has a strong dream, a wish for something, but how will it be fulfilled, and at what cost? "Duncan's Kingdom," about would-be-king Duncan and his quest to defeat the Frog King, is the weakest story, largely because it is an idea that has been done many times before, but without frogs. It is executed well, but it lacks originality. "Gran'Pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile," on the other hand, is more creative, following the exploits of a greedy frog and his attempt to cash in on a mysterious Eternal Smile in the sky. It's cute for most of the story, but the conclusion really gives it an interesting bite. "Urgent Request" is the strongest story, surprisingly, and it features no frogs at all. Janet Oh at CommTech feels ignored at work and finds meaning and significance in helping a Nigerian prince. Yes, the strongest, Eisner-winning story in this collection is about a woman falling for the Nigerian scam. But it becomes something lovely! Seriously.
What's most impressive about the collection is how different the stories are, both in style and especially in art. Derek Kirk Kim uses a number of different art styles, color schemes, and panel layouts, each appropriate for the story. Yang and Kim make a good team, and I hope to see them collaborate again in the future.
For years, I've wanted to read Ghost World, by Daniel Clowes. I remember really liking the movie, but apparently that was mostly because of Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson and the fact that the movie actually had a plot. In the graphic novel, Enid and Becky are two teenage girls who spend every waking minute viciously snarking on every single fucking human being they encounter, as if they are SO ABOVE IT ALL. Halfway through the book, I felt almost physically ill, they were such awful, vile people with no justification at all for their behavior. What was the point of this? Why was I supposed to care about these characters at all? Clowes tries to cram in an actual story and character development in the last two chapters, but by then, he had lost me. Man, fuck this book.
I Kill Giants, by Joe Kelly and J.M. Ken Niimura, had been on my radar for a while, though I'm not sure why. However I first became interested in it, I'm really glad! Barbara Thorson is a fifth-grade girl and a hero for our time, for, as the title states, she kills giants. This is not an action-fantasy romp, however, but a lovely, haunting tale of a child who has to escape into a fantasy world, who must cling to it in order to face reality. We see that at home, her older sister, Karen is raising her and her brother on her own, and at school, she acts out constantly, eventually forced to see the school psychologist, Mrs. Molle. She is tormented by a bully, Taylor, but she also makes a new friend, Sophia. Their blossoming friendship is one of the highlights of the book, as Barbara is a tough nut to crack but does appreciate that someone likes her for who she is.
The fantasy aspects add a hefty dose of surreality to the story, and some of it doesn't entirely work, confusing the metaphor rather than holding it together. What does work, though, works astonishingly well, largely thanks to the black-and-white manga-inspired art. We feel so strongly for Barbara that we want her to vanquish giants, whether or not they're real. In only seven issues, Kelly so well depicts the relationships between Barbara and Sophia, Karen, and Mrs. Molle—all relationships between women, helping the book pass the Bechdel test with flying colors—that the climax is almost emotionally draining. Even if the final message is a bit too explicit, it is entirely earned and almost brought a tear to my eye.
Like Daytripper, this is one of those books I want to force on people who don't think graphic novels can be just as rich, rewarding, and emotionally compelling as regular novels.
In 300, by Frank Miller with coloring by Lynn Varley, 300 Spartan warriors go up against thousands of Persian warriors. They fight a lot. People die. The end. That is basically it. Something about honor and glory or something. There is very little in the way of character except for Leonidas and possibly Xerxes, the Persian god-king attempting to conquer Greece. The real strength of the book is Frank Miller's pulpy narration and the large, sprawling art that depicts the bloodbath, well, artfully. All the best, iconic moments and lines from the movie trailer are all here, and it manages to be less boring than the movie, possibly because it tries even less to have a plot. It is a decent, short read. Basically: that happened.
Can we also talk about Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples's new comic, which has been described as "Star Wars meets A Game of Thrones"? Can we? Hello? Anyone? Because it's great.