Alice Guy: First Lady of Film

Trailblazing French filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché was present at the birth of modern film, a contemporary of the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès. In Alice Guy: First Lady of Film, writer–artist duo Catel & Bocquet draw on original research from late media critic Francis Lacassin to document Guy’s career as the first major woman filmmaker and a pioneer of her industry.

The graphic biography opens with Guy’s 1873 birth and childhood in Europe and Chile. Lively and outspoken, Alice has an early interest in acting that is deemed unsuitable by her middle-class French family. Instead of taking to the stage, she goes to work as a secretary for what will soon become the Gaumont Film Company. Catel and Bocquet depict the chaos of these early years of film, with competing firms squabbling to dominate the new market. In this cutthroat environment, Alice is able to demonstrate business acumen and gain professional standing despite her gender.

In addition to business savvy, Guy has a vision for what film could be—a vehicle for telling stories. She teams up with a cinematographer to film the 1896 film La Fée aux Choux, a fantasy of cabbage-patch babies that may have been the first narrative film. As Alice finds success directing films for Gaumont, she and her collaborators develop the conventions that will define their industry, from filming on location to creating special effects to hammering out the logistics of public film screenings.

Alice also grapples with the ethical issues that face any unregulated new industry. She must take decisive action when an underaged actress is sexually assaulted by an older male professional on her set, or when a script about bullfighting raises questions of filming animal cruelty. Alice’s status as a woman filmmaker informs the way she handles these challenges and inspires her to take risks, from an attempted collaboration with activist Rose Pastor Stokes on a film about family planning to the production of A Fool and His Money, likely the first film with an all-African American cast. 

Alice’s personal and professional life brings her to the United States, where she starts a family and New York-based studio with her husband, film producer Herbert Blaché. But their once-happy marriage ends in divorce, and business troubles bring Alice’s career to a premature close. Decades later, her role as a woman film pioneer has faded from memory: “The history of cinema has completely forgotten about me,” she tells Francis Lacassin.

Alice Guy’s story is an extraordinary one, and this biography is an exhaustive documentary source for information about her life. An appendix with a detailed timeline, bibliography and filmography, and 50 pages of biographical essays about historical figures depicted in the book makes this a valuable reference work for those interested in Alice Guy’s life and times.

As a casual reader, however, this book didn’t hook me. Catel’s elegant monochrome illustrations are versatile enough to capture both the domestic scenes of Alice’s personal life and the exciting variety of her film sets, but the story itself feels bogged down by the kitchen-sink detail of Bocquet’s script. A number of characters and episodes seem as if they’re present for the sake of completeness, giving the story a choppy, episodic quality. The result is a book that lacks a strong narrative arc, without a clear throughline of who Alice Guy was and what compelled her, creatively and personally, to succeed in this challenging new industry.

This book is recommended for larger graphic novel collections, particularly those that emphasize women’s history or media history. For those interested in learning about Guy’s remarkable life, it’s absolutely worth picking up, but general readers may not find it the most accessible entry point into her story.

Alice Guy: First Lady of Film
By José-Louis Bocquet
Art by Catel Muller
SelfMadeHero, 2022
ISBN: 9781914224034

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation:  French,  Character Representation: French,

Incubators: A graphic history

Even before graphic novels took off, several publishers, notably Lerner and Capstone, featured graphic nonfiction produced in a similar vein to the series nonfiction that most librarians are familiar with. The series nonfiction in graphic format continue to be a staple for nonfiction collections, although there are more literary options, like the Science Comics series.

Lerner’s Graphic Universe imprint produces new series twice a year, in January and August, and they usually pick timely topics. The January 2022 series Medical Breakthroughs is no exception, with titles on vaccines, germs, antibiotics, and more. The particular title we’re looking at today is the history of incubators.

The information is collected briefly in 32 pages with a short framing story showing two White children and a White, male-presenting doctor looking at a miniscule infant in a modern incubator while the doctor explains what incubators are used for. The story then jumps back to the 1870s and the work of two French doctors who. while trying to raise France’s falling birth rates, were inspired by the incubators they saw used with birds’ eggs at the zoo.

The incubators these and other doctors developed were funded by the exhibition of the premature babies, culminating in a semi-permanent exhibit on Coney Island. By the time the exhibit closed in 1943, thousands of babies had been saved and incubators became standard equipment in hospitals. Incubators continued to be improved, with interest and funding reviving after the death of President Kennedy’s premature son and culminating in the invention of a rechargeable and affordable incubator called the Embrace Nest that would be accessible to all people, especially in developing countries. The story ends with a return to the premature infant at the beginning, now a healthy toddler with their older siblings and parents.

The artwork is not memorable, but it is neatly done, with carefully drawn images of the various machines, and people shown in the appropriate period clothing as the story moves through time. All but a few people in the background and some nurses are depicted as White, which is a drawback, as one of the points of Couney’s work (the doctor who established the “Infantorium” at Coney Island) was the acceptance of infants of all backgrounds in sharp contrast to the eugenics movement. Most panels show the doctors and occasional nurses moving through bland scenery and exchanging a few remarks while the narrative is carried on in descriptive paragraphs. The appeal to readers who want the story told primarily through art is limited, since, as in most series nonfiction graphic novels, the narrative is told primarily in prose or through multiple “talking heads.” There is enough detail in the art to show the change in time periods, from the 1870s to 2008, and some additional information is provided through the pictures, like a nurse feeding a premature infant through their nose or the doctors explaining what they are doing to spectators and anxious parents.

One title is listed as a source, and there is also a glossary, index, and brief list of information to explore further.

The length of these titles naturally limits the amount of information that can be included and these titles tend to be brief introductions, which will hopefully engage interest in exploring topics further. Like most series nonfiction, they are available only in paperback or expensive library binding, which can be prohibitive for smaller budgets. If you have to watch your pennies it can be difficult to justify an extensive outlay on nonfiction that may quickly become dated. However, this series primarily covers historical events and so should have a longer shelf-life. With an ever-increasing number of struggling readers as well as graphic novel fans, Medical Breakthroughs should be a solid purchase for most school and public libraries and a good choice to interest young readers in history and science.

Incubators: A Graphic History
By Paige Polinsky
Art by Josep Rural
Lerner Graphic Universe, 2022
ISBN: 9781541581517

Publisher Age Rating: grades 3-6
Series ISBNs and Order

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Character Representation: French, German

To Drink and To Eat, vols. 1-2 

Guillaume Long, writer-illustrator of the comic blog À Boire et à Manger for French newspaper Le Monde, collects some of his comics into two volumes. Each comic has a symbol to indicate its category, with a legend at the beginning of the book. Some are recipes with difficulty levels 1, 2, or 3. Others may be restaurant guides, ingredient and cooking tool inventories, and “egotrip”—stories about Long himself, including travelogues. In addition, Long includes cooking tips from “the late Joël Reblochon”; this is presumably a misspelling of Joël Robuchon, a famous French chef who died in 2018. Interestingly enough, Reblochon is a French cheese, so the misspelling may be an intentional nickname.

One highlight is the comics about Pépé Roni, an armchair chef who explains the difference between similarly-named objects. A fun example is, “Don’t confuse work/life balance and work/knife balance.” “Work/life balance” is depicted as a man getting chewed out by his boss, and “work/knife balance” is the same man asleep and dreaming of his boss with a knife in his back. Another one I enjoyed is, “Don’t confuse a mandolin with a mandoline,” which shows someone attempting to play a mandoline slicer like a stringed instrument and, obviously, cutting up their hands. These comics are credited to Mathis Martin in the books’ cataloging-in-publication pages.

Long has a distinctive and funny voice. In one comic, he suggests you use a flyswatter to hit anyone who asks for sugar in their coffee. In another, he portrays the cloud of flour coming out of a mixing bowl as little ghosts. A guide to cooking spaghetti squash first suggests you make Jabba the Hutt out of the squash, then tells you to use your lightsaber to cut it. At times, jokes are weakened in translation. For example, in one comic he says to melt butter “with a little pot,” then shows someone with a joint and clarifies, “No, with a little saucepot.” In English, the joke doesn’t work perfectly, since the original command would likely have been to melt butter “in a little pot,” rather than “with a little pot.” Additionally, a comic falls flat with multiple references to anagrams that were unsolvable in English. One would think these comics that suffer from translation wouldn’t be included in the English editions.

There are other issues that make these books a little hard to digest—no pun intended. At one point, a Black friend asks Long why he doesn’t draw Black people, and he gets visibly uncomfortable and says “I don’t draw Chinese people either. Or Indian people.” Not true; in an earlier comic he goes to a Chinese restaurant where he draws one Chinese man with slits for eyes, and he draws a Chinese language (it’s unclear which Chinese language they’re speaking) as a bunch of messy scribbles. There is also a comic where a man seems to have murdered a woman with a plastic bag along with a joke about composting. Some of these jokes seem to be in poor enough taste that they shouldn’t have been included in the books.

The art style is cartoonish and would have fit well in Mad Magazine. Most of the comics are in full color, though the travelogues are in black pen on a beige background. Long employs hatched shading to add depth to his illustrations, which elevates the otherwise simplistic drawing style. Still, in a travelogue sequence in which Long goes to Venice with friends, one of his friends grabs his sketchbook and draws a few rowhouses in a more realistic style. He comments that his friend “draws so much better than me it hurts.”

Some of the recipes are useful, particularly the few pages in Volume 1 devoted to impressive appetizers that can be prepared quickly. Some of the inventories are useful as well, notably the list in Volume 2 of gift suggestions for foodies. The books are easy to navigate, with the aforementioned legend to indicate what purpose each comic serves. As in a regular cookbook, the index includes a table of recipes as well as an ingredient index. Still, due to some of the comics’ poor taste, I don’t recommend these books. Consider instead other comic cookbooks like Cook Korean!, Relish, or Let’s Make Ramen! and Let’s Make Dumplings!


To Drink and To Eat, vols. 1-2 
By Guillaume Long
Oni Press Lion Forge, 2020
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781620107201
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781620108550

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)