Wednesday, September 26, 2012


The call number listed above is one of my favorite sections in this library right now. For those not initiated in the mystical art of Dewey book location, 741.5 refers to all things comic and graphic novel related. We've always had a decent selection of graphic novels, but over the past year or so it's really taken off. And the quality of the books is astounding.

Earlier today while scrolling through Susie Cagle's twitter posts (she's a graphic journalist out of Oakland), I saw a quote she posted by Josh Neufeld (who illustrated the wonderful Influencing Machine by Barbara Gladstone) stating "I think people are finally realizing that comics is a medium, not a genre." That's something that often gets lost in the inevitable justifications that usually follow the discussion of comic books with an audience that might not value comic books as a legitimate book due to its graphic nature. The term is no more descriptive of subject matter than "fiction" is. It gives you only a concept of how the story is to be told. In the case of comics, with words and pictures. Everything else is variable and wildly divergent in quality and content. Like any other book.

However, for those who want the "inevitable justifications" about the legitimacy of comics, may I refer you to Dylan Meconis' How Not to Write Comics Criticism. Not only does it help you avoid the pitfalls of being mealy mouthed when speaking about comics, it also makes you realize there is no point in being so. I wish I would have read this before I wrote about graphic novels a couple years ago. I think I even used the CAFKA cliche. How embarrassing.

So with not having to go over all that (again), I'd rather tell you about a few of the titles I've stumbled across lately. The first of which is Unterzakhn by Leela Corman. Beautifully illustrated in bold black and white drawings somewhat similar to Marjane Satrapi's art in Persepolis, Unterzakhn is the story of twin sisters Esther and Fanya Feinberg. Growing up in Lower East Side New York at the beginning of the 20th Century, the girls have few choices for the future other than marriage and children. Through chance encounters with other independent (and ethically flawed) women, both will circumvent that path.

Fanya finds eduction by an apprenticeship with the neighborhood "lady doctor." While this includes traditional book learning (something Fanya desires but her mother dismisses as needless), it also sends Fanya down the road of fighting for women's reproductive rights. At that point in time, it was not a highly regarded or even legal profession depending on how those rights manifested themselves.

Esther, on the other hand, is put to work assisting a local burlesque owner. At first this is just a matter of helping with costumes and the like, but later stems a career as a dancer and actress. Over time she becomes famous, yet the glamor she achieves does not come cheap.

The tale of the Feinbergs is not a heart warming coming of age. It's tragic and at times brutal. It's also an amazingly well crafted story showing the alienation women experienced (and experience) when they chose to step outside of roles expected of them.

Moving on to lighter fare, remember when the world financially tanked in 2008 and it seemed like everything was coming to an end? For a large portion of the population, that event pulled back the veil on something rarely considered by most of us: how the economy actually works. Often times the economy can feel like a force of nature, something that just exists which we can only weather through rather than control. Sometimes it's sunny and sometimes it's stormy. What can you do? But in truth it's a malleable and fallible construction crafted by human hands.  

Michael Goodwin's Economix (see what he did there?) is a good primer on how we got to this point. Starting from around the Enlightenment all the way up to present day, Goodwin describes the philosophical and practical concepts related to our modern capitalist economy. For better or worse.

Philosophy sounds like it would make a boring comic, right? Not so! The graphic format is the perfect way to parse down complex concepts (read Logicomix or Action Philosophers for great examples of this). Goodwin does an excellent job in keeping the text simple and conversational no matter how twisty the subject matter is. But it's Dan Burr's illustrations that make this comic so effective. The playful graphic vocabulary he creates is possibly the best distillation of economic concepts I've come across. I got a D in high school economics though, so take that with a grain of salt. 

Warning: if the name Milton Friedman brings warm fuzzies to your heart, this may not be your jam. If the name Milton Friedman makes you see red, you'll probably enjoy the Keynesian angle the author pursues. If none of the above makes a lick of sense to you, then this book was written for folks just like yourself. While Goodman does take a political stance at the end, he very clearly points out that is what he's doing so that you can make your own decision as to it's validity.

Not into economics or sad tales of poverty and despair (though I can't imagine why you wouldn't be)? Well, there are plenty of other options out there as well. If you haven't seen it yet, there's a large display of all our graphic novels up on the second floor. Feel free to browse through it and find something that suits your fancy... if that suits your fancy.
posted by jw