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This diamond indicates those titles included in the Top Ten Core List

 

King
ISBN: 1560971126
by Ho Che Anderson
Fantagraphic Books 1993

In his introduction to this first volume, Ho Che Anderson emphasizes biography as an interpretation of the facts he had gathered, and as a kind of meditation of the man behind the legacy. He wonders about how to uncover the man beneath all of the legend and idolization. He asks, quite rightly, how far we as a nation and as a people have come in the pursuit of Civil Rights since the turbulent 60s. At the center of his questioning turns the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., in all its glory and flawed moments, and he deftly creates a portrait of a complex man. This volume follows the beginning of his life, from childhood in the South through his courting of Coretta Scott to the infamous stabbing in Atlanta, 1960. The artwork is a mix of harsh black and white images, almost like snapshots taken with an intense flash, carefully placed instances of color, and images and photographs taken during the events portrayed. The mix of visual medium complements the stark nature of the writing -- in cracking open MLK's life, Mr. Anderson is attempting to uncover the power and the reality of the man through a string of events, from public speeches to personal moments, as they happened and as they are remembered. I was personally reminded anew what a powerful speaker Martin Luther King, Jr. was, and how vital that talent is in persuasion and personality for leaders. Happily, the second volume was just recently published, in 2002, and the third is due out this coming May. An ambitious work, certainly, and told with a storyteller's flair to make history live.

review by robin

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louis rielLouis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography
by Chester Brown
ISBN: 1896597769
Drawn and Quarterly, 2003

In 1869, much of central Canada was owned by the Hudsons' Bay Company. The company wanted to sell the land, and Canada wanted to buy it, but the people who had been living on this land for hundreds of years weren't so thrilled about this arrangement, especially seeing that many of them were French or Native American, and as such, they wouldn't have the ear of the government that their English neighbors did. So when a representative of the Canadian government showed up to tell the people in The Red River settlement that their land now belongs to the government of Canada, they rebelled, choosing a man named Louis Riel to be their president. This book chronicles the rebellion that follows and the next sixteen years in the life of Louis Riel, following the failure of the rebellion, Louis' exile from Canada and his eventual return, the second stage of the rebellion, and his execution. Louis Riel is composed of simple, black and white line drawings printed on cream paper, giving the whole book a feeling of historical authenticity that continually reminds the reader that the book is a work of non-fiction. Nonfiction comics are a great way to get reluctant readers interested in history, and Louis Riel is one of the best, telling an exciting story that's bound to be new to non-Canadian readers--and it even has pages of footnotes in the back so Chester Brown can cite all his sources.

review by gina

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pyongyangPyongyang: A Journey In North Korea
by Guy Delisle
ISBN: 1896597890
Drawn & Quarterly, 2005

Guy Delisle is an animator whose job takes him to North Korea for two months. He wrote Pyongyang about his experiences in the country.  North Korea was in many ways a strange experience for the Canadian animator. Life in the country is centered around the deceased president, Kim Il-Sung and his successor. People 'volunteer' one day a week to do community service tasks like sweeping the highway. As a foreigner, he's not allowed to travel anywhere without his translator. The huge hotel he lives in only has one inhabited floor. Throughout the book, Guy Delisle makes conversational overtures towards the North Koreans, trying to ask them about their opinion of life in North Korea, but he continually finds that the values these people have are so different from his own values that he's hard put to understand their lifestyle and their personal views. This book is an introspective look at life in North Korea from the point of view of a visitor, told in simple black, white, and greytone drawings. On top of being interesting, this book is educational, and a great way to get teens interested in current affairs and North Korea.  Guy Delisle often pokes fun at the North Koreans, but he also applies the same humor to himself, making the book engaging and thought-provoking. Pyongyang was one of YALSA's Best Books for Young Adults in 2005.

review by gina

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we are on our ownWe Are On Our Own
by Miriam Katin
ISBN: 1896597203
Drawn and Quarterly, 2006

Miriam Katin was a Jewish child in Hungary during World War II.  We Are On Our Own is the story of what she and her mother went through during this time, as they were forced to abandon their home and run to the countryside in the hope that someone would give them shelter. The story is told in part through Miriam's eyes and in part through the eyes of her mother, Esther. The two deal with hunger, cold, and prejudice as they try to survive and find Miriam's father, who is serving in the war with the Hungarian army. But along with the privations they endure, there are also happy moments, and good people who help the mother and daughter to evade the eyes of the Nazis. The art in this book is a swirl of pencil-drawings reminiscent of sketches from a fashion magazine. Miriam Katin's former work as an animator really shows in this graphic novel (her first): it gives her work a different cast than everything else currently on the shelves.  Her black and white penciled pages from her past are interspersed with colored penciled pages from her new life in New York, which further emphasizes the bleakness of her childhood in Europe. There is an implied rape (occurs off panel) that make this book more appropriate for older readers.

review by gina

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Testament
ISBN: 1585167657
by Jim Krueger
Metron Press, 2003

Testament is a work I was not expecting to adore for the very simple reason that I'm entirely unaware of most of the stories of the Old Testament. I have virtually no religious background and so even well-known stories are new to me, so I was worried the stories would not resonate with me as they might with another, more familiar reader. First off, I was wrong -- the stories are presented in simple language and with outstanding illustrations across the board. The fact that I didn't know them may have in fact been a bonus -- the drama was all new to me -- but I've compared my reactions with friends who knew more ahead of time and they were equally impressed. The frame for these tales is conversation in a bar with a familiar bartender, but each tale has its own art and style. My only quibble is that many of the stories felt rushed -- I wanted more detail, more time to digest each. This title is published by a subsidiary of the American Bible Society, and Testament is refreshingly free of any preachiness -- they are presented as stories, not a religious text, nor are they intended to be taken as such. The violence represented, for certainly the old Testament is not full of peaceful stories, is at around a PG-13 level. For anyone looking for a unique and excellently illustrated addition to their collection, check Testament out.

review by robin

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Fax from Sarajevo
ISBN: 1569713464
By Joe Kubert
Dark Horse Comics 1998

For a lot of us, as horrific as the conflict in Bosnia is, it is also very far away. It has been fairly easy, in the recent past, to sit in our kitchens and living rooms and distance ourselves from such atrocities -- 9/11 has changed all of that. Author Joe Kubert, known for his war comics and work on legendary comic heroes such as Superman and Batman, was drawn into the current conflict by relating the story of Ervin Rustemagic, a businessman and friend of the author's caught in 1992 in Sarajevo as war broke out. As the conflict mounted, and genocide once again became a reality, Ervin's only contact with the outside world through a fax machine. A powerful document of recent events that should not be overlooked.

review by robin

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Fallout: Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and the Political Science of the Atomic Bomb
ISBN: 0966010639
by Jim Ottaviani
Art by Janine Johnston, Chris Kemple, Steve Lieber, Vince Locke, Bernie Mireault, Eddy Newell, Jeff Parker, Tom Orzechowski, Nate Pride
GT Labs 2001

The atomic bomb remains perhaps one of the most brilliant and most heinous inventions of the human race, and the issues surrounding its creation, in science, politics, and war are the focus of this cautionary tale. Jim Ottaviani, a science Academic librarian, has ably traced the beginnings of the race to capture the secret of the atom through to the triumph and tragedy of the atom bomb's first test. Ottaviani excels at portraying the men involved, including Enrico Fermi, Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, and Richard Feynman. However, this story focuses on the leader of them all, Los Alamos director Robert Oppenheimer, a fine scientist and a persuasive and diplomatic middle-man between the group of scientists and the military. The success of these scientists' creation is certainly double-edged, and Oppenheimer himself was scrutinized and persecuted over questions of his loyalty to the U.S. The artwork is by a number of fine creators, all in elegant black and white, though Oppenheimer's interrogation at the finish is formatted in an unfortunately confusing manner. This title remains powerful look at a defining moment of the 20th century, provoking the reader to question invention at all costs and voicing a very simply warning: just because we can do something doesn't always mean that we should.

review by robin

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Persepolis: the Story of a Childhood
ISBN: 0375422307
By Marjane Satrapi
Pantheon Books, 2003

As a child, Marjane Satrapi wanted to be a prophet when she grew up. She even began writing her own holy book; among her dictates were such rules as "no old person should have to suffer" and "all maids should eat at the table with the others." Raised by modern, Marxist-leaning parents, Marji was an outspoken child who eagerly embraced new ideas. She would have the chance to wrestle with a lot of them: she was 10 years old when the events of Iran's Islamic Revolution began. Persepolis has received tons of hype from both comics fans and the mainstream press; like Art Spiegelman's Maus, Persepolis won over people who had never thought a comic book could convey serious subject matter. Marjane Satrapi' s funny, wise, heart-wrenching book deserves every bit of praise it has received. Her stark, witty black and white forms have the power to make you laugh in one panel and gasp with horror in the next. Her writing is full of subtle insight as she shows us a child and a country caught up in revolution, fundamentalism, and war. Most importantly, she shows us how ordinary lives go on amid uncertainty and violence. She's also unbelievably funny. U.S. fans eagerly await the second volume of Satrapi's memoir, which was originally written and published in France (where the author now lives). Curse those lucky French! While adults are more likely to pick up Persepolis, politically- or historically-minded teens will love it too. It's a natural choice for teachers and librarians. If you need to convince someone that comics can educate as well as entertain, go buy this book right now.

review by jen

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Maus: A Survivor's Tale
ISBN: 0394747232
By Art Spiegelman
Marvel Books 2001

Yes, Maus won the Pulizter Prize. Yes, it's been translated into countless languages and is hailed by critics and readers alike as the graphic novel. These are all well-deserved recognitions of a monumental work -- but the real reason you should read Maus is the simple, unforgettable punch of one survivor's story. Art Speigelman captures in spare black and white his father's story of surviving the Holocaust in Poland, as well as his own strained relationship with his parents and the weight of history. You may think you've heard it all before -- the smoke stacks, the tatooed numbers, the ghettos. Think again -- Speigelman mangages to take all the grim humor and the horror and make it fresh -- a kick we all need every once in a while to appreciate both the strength and evil present in humanity.

review by robin

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Blankets
ISBN: 1891830430
by Craig Thompson
Top Shelf 2003

The test for any good book is simple: can you put it down easily after you've started reading? Is there a sense of loss every time you stop reading? Well, with Craig Thompson's Blankets, it passed this test with flying colors -- I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning to finish it, every once in a while glancing at the clock as it approached 1, then 2, then 3 AM, knowing I should go to sleep, but then just turning the page and ignoring all practicality. I was lost in the beauty of the artwork, the story. My eyes just wouldn't close.

The subtitle of this volume is "an illustrated novel" and, clocking in at 582 pages and never published in serial form, it lives up to that title. Thompson's previous graphic novel, Good-bye, Chunky Rice was a bit of an oddity to me -- a melancholy meditation on love, loss, and companionship that left me a bit adrift once I finished it, wondering who it was aimed at while still being haunted by a lingering sense of sadness. Blankets, on the other hand, was more accessible, but also left me with an emotional aftereffect seldom equaled by other graphic novels. This tome follows, as a memoir with fictionalized bits, the author's senior year of high school, a collision of first love, faith, and the drive to create art. The work is peppered with flashbacks that inform the main story, showing glimpses of the upbringing that edges all of Craig's current concerns, from his parents' fundamentalist beliefs to the acid of schoolyard taunts.

Thompson's artwork is jagged and fluid all at once, breaking the customary panel boundaries to jab you in the heart with moment after moment of regret, passion, contented silence and crushing doubt. Thompson has a wonderful ear for family dynamics, as well as the rhythm of conversation -- simple exchanges with the power to lift you up or break your heart. I'm hard pressed to come up with another more perfect marriage of art and word. The issues, from brotherly affection, disintegrating love, a search for true faith, and memories that always return, are appealing to almost any audience, though with occasional nudity and more mature content the book probably best belongs in an older teen or adult collection. I went to sleep besotted with the story and lines of this ambitious work, content to dream of such lyrical memories, not to mention itching to pick up my own pencil and record it all.

review by robin

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Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned
ISBN: 0805064036
by Judd Winick
Henry Holt and Company 2000

You all know the tag line of The Real World: Seven people are chosen to live in a house to find out what's "real." In 1993, in San Francisco, the world was given an unexpected, and perhaps unasked for, gift -- through watching this hyped reality soap opera, we all got to live with someone who had AIDS. That young man, Pedro Zamora, touched the entire country -- but for author Judd Winick, fellow cast member, he was simply one of his best friends. Here he relates the story around and after the television show and the life-changing effect Pedro had on him. This is the book that got me really into graphic novels. Like Maus, it has won awards, and like Maus, it made me both laugh and cry. If you must read only one graphic novel, this is the one.

review by robin

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copyright Robin Brenner 2002-2004