The God of Death explores the meaning of life in The Many Deaths of Laila Starr, a beautiful and rich comic written by Ram V and illustrated by Filipe Andrade.
The story opens in the chaos of life and death. In a hospital in Mumbai the young baby Darius is born, and Laila Starr, an orphan girl, dies from injuries after a fall.
Amidst this chaos, the God of Death is called to the corporate office of the Purveyor of All Goodness. It seems the newborn, Darius, will one day invent immortality. Death is fired. Her services are no longer necessary. Feeling scorned, Death returns to earth in the mortal body of recently deceased Laila Starr.
The Many Deaths of Laila Starr was recently published as a trade volume of 5 single issues originally published in 2021. In each of the 5 issues, Death is reincarnated in the body of Laila Starr. During each reincarnation, she finds herself by Darius’s side as he navigates life after the death of a loved one. Unfortunate accidents haunt Death, and her stays on earth are never long. However, the God of Life takes pity on his friend, reincarnating her after each death. Death gives Life meaning, and he does what he can to aide her on her journey..
The concept of the comic is fascinating—filled with deep subtext and meaning. Death, threatened by immortality, desperately tries to remain relevant, and in the process, experiences the human cost of death. The art by Filepe Andrade brings magical realism to Mumbai with a pallet saturated with warm tones. The illustrations capture the chaotic and beautiful realities of life and mirrors the lyrical text it accompanies.
The text blew me away. It is filled with poignant observations about the cycle of life. Over the course of the comic, both Death and Darius grasp for deeper understanding of life lost to death and the lives death leaves behind. The magnitude and our understanding of death evolves as we age. Over the course of the series, Darius grows from a child to an old man, and his experiences with the death of those around him affect both him and Laila Starr in meaningful and different ways. The lyrical text beautifully captures the rich complexity. For instance, the third issue is narrated by a cigarette in text boxes partially outlined in a cloud of smoke. While musing on the burning embers of a fragile life, it observes three teens “engrossed in the great rituals of youth. Writing their own dreams onto peeling walls. And negotiating vulnerabilities with the unspoken language of laughter, confessions, and stolen cigarettes.” These words by V paired with illustrations from Andrade beautifully explore the intricate balance between life and death.
Over the course of the last month, I picked up this book a number of times, and each new reading brought greater appreciation as I explored the depth of the illustrations and text.
I am excited to put this into the hands of my students, especially those who love philosophical explorations and beautiful stories. And it is sure to sway those who are hesitant to appreciate the literary value of the comic format. While the book is intended for an adult audience, I know that many high school students and teens, who are on the precipice of exploring life on their own, will also appreciate The Many Deaths of Laila Starr.
The Many Deaths of Laila Starr By Ram V Art by Filipe Andrade BOOM! Studios, 2022 ISBN: 9781684158058
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: Indian, Character Representation: Indian,
Adaptations of classic literature seem to be a logical step in the normalization of graphic literature in education. Manga Classics has cornered the market on manga adaptations, and deservedly so. Though I am not typically a fan of many graphic novel adaptations, I was thoroughly impressed with the work of Manga Classics. Manga Classics are not just for the young adult reluctant reader. They are fun, engaging ways for all to experience favorite classic novels. With the intention of making classic literature more accessible, a small team of story adaptors and artists have worked tirelessly to bring this project to life and, quite frankly, it shows.
Let’s take a look at just four of the over sixteen titles currently adapted: The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, adapted by Crystal S. Chan and illustrated by Julien Choy; Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, adapted by Crystal S. Chan and illustrated by SunNeko Lee; Hamlet by William Shakespeare, adapted by Crystal S. Chan and illustrated by Julien Choy; and A Midsummer Night’s Dreamby William Shakespeare, adapted by Crystal S. Chan and illustrated by Po Tse. The first noticeable similarity among all four volumes is the consistency and quality. The ability to adapt texts accurately and adequately across almost 300 years is a testament to Chan’s talent as a writer and story adapter.
Of these adaptations, Les Misérables and The Jungle Book are particularly impressive. That Chan manages to condense Les Misérables, a novel clocking in at over 1000 pages, into less than 350 pages, without losing any of the context or emotion of the original text is a great indication of the works yet to come from the Manga Classics team. The primary difference? A manga adaptation is much less daunting than the original, behemoth book. Similarly, Chan makes The Jungle Book, a relatively dense text for modern readers, charming, fun, and accessible to a new generation of readers.
Fans of manga, both of new generations and old, will certainly enjoy the artwork throughout Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The fantastical premises of these works, rife with ghosts, fairies, and mythological figures, lend themselves to visual interpretation. Julien Choy and Po Tse bring these works to life through vivid imagery and beautiful character drawings. Tse’s interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s act two, scene one is nothing short of stunning. It takes a particular artistic skill to bring illumination and movement to black and white drawings, yet Tse is thoroughly successful. Choy is equally triumphant in bringing life to the ghost of Hamlet’s father. The artwork throughout all of these volumes is sure to appeal to manga fans everywhere.
I cannot recommend volumes from the Manga Classics series enough. These volumes are fun, easily digestible, and clearly made with care and intent. Though I only reviewed four volumes of this series, I am confident that any volumes your library system selects from this series are a good investment. These volumes will fit on the shelf perfectly next to the rest of your library’s manga collection.
Manga Classics: The Jungle Book, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Les Miserables, Hamlet By Crystal S. Chan Art by Julien Choy, Po Tse, SunNeko Lee
Many tales from the classic compilation of Middle Eastern folktales A Thousand and One Nights have been retold and entered mainstream Western popular culture, such as Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and the Voyages of Sinbad. But there are so many others in this collection of tales that have yet to be told in modern literature. French cartoonist David B. has created a colorful graphic novel interpretation of one little-known tale. Entitled Hasib and the Queen of Serpents, readers are taken on an adventure throughout the mythological world of the Middle East and witness the age-old tradition of storytelling.
The tale opens with Hasib, a woodcutter, exploring the nearby forest with three lumberjacks. When the men stumble upon a cave with a secret stash of gold, the three greedy men take the fortune and leave Hasib trapped inside. However, instead of meeting a grisly fate, Hasib finds himself in the court of the Queen of Serpents, who keeps him company and tells him a tale about King Bulukiya’s search for the prophet Mohammed. During his search, the King discovers the Queen and a host of other characters, each with their own story to tell.
This specific tale may be unfamiliar to most readers but with colorful characters and an intriguing storyline, the graphic novel is able to bring the story to life. The story within a story technique, commonly used in the original A Thousand and One Nights tales, is used often in this interpretation, bringing readers deeper into the world of Middle Eastern folklore. David B.’s uses a variety of colors and detailed images to invoke this ancient tale. He uses his own artistic style with detailed scenery, disproportionate or snakelike bodies, and anthropomorphized animals. This retelling blends text and art so well, with narrators providing background information for each tale and modern dialogue that keeps the story active from page to page.
Some pages contain one panel that covers an entire page, filled with characters and fantastical scenery. The artist includes the characters Scheherazade and Shahryar, the Persian queen and king from the original tales, reminding the reader which night it is within the A Thousand and One Nights. Readers who enjoy folktales and mythology will be intrigued with this interpretation, especially with the scenes of noteworthy figures of Islamic tradition, such as King Solomon and Mohammed, and characters from Middle Eastern mythology, such as Djinns and the bird Simorgh.
David B.’s Hasib and the Queen of Serpents is an artistic interpretation of an ancient tale of adventure, war, and faith. It will make a great addition to any public library’s graphic novel collection. Adult patrons who enjoy mythology and folklore, along with colorful and expressive comics will want to take a look at this tale.
Hasib and the Queen of Serpents by David B. ISBN: 9781681121628 NBM Publishing, 2018 Publisher Age Rating:
Complexity and simplicity seem at odds with each other, but David Jesus Vignolli seamlessly weaves together complex themes with simple, expressive art to create a charming and thoughtful story in his debut graphic novel, A Girl in the Himalayas.
The story opens with young Vijaya’s house in flames, and she flees her home alone, wandering into the snow of the Himalayas. When she collapses, Prasad, a supernatural being, sees her and decides to give up his immortality to preserve her life. Prasad takes her to the Sanctuary, a place he and another immortal, Vasu, have created as a shelter from humanity. Prasad and Vasu introduce Vijaya to the Elementals who travel to the Sanctuary to recover from the choking “Illusion” of humanity that threatens to kill them. While Vijaya is quick to befriend a group of Elementals, not all of them are pleased by her presence in the Sanctuary. After all, she is a human, and humans are the source of the Illusion. She must prove to herself and to the Sanctuary that not all humans are ruled by Illusion and that she can honor the values of the Earth and the Elementals.
The novel is in part reminiscent of the mythology of ancient religions. Vignolli incorporates the Indian concepts of maya (Illusion) and yoga to describe energies at war with each other, addressing the heights of humanity found in the innocence and curiosity of a child, versus the depths displayed by the greed and cruelty that some men reach. The story questions what it takes to change the minds of people (or creatures) who are entrenched in one viewpoint. The answer? Love. Hope. Sacrifice. Forgiveness. Curiosity.
Vignolli relies on black, white, and soft orange to color his novel. I found myself examining and appreciating the details of each panel more closely than I often do in a full-color spread. Vignolli depicts the greed, insecurity, and self-centeredness of humanity in a black roiling cloud, in contrast to the softer whites and creams of the Sanctuary. The Elementals are whimsical shapes born of Vignolli’s imagination, representing energies of the Earth that wish to heal the world and live harmoniously. The style of art aligns perfectly with the spirit of the story and its characters.
Lovers of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, KiKi’s Delivery Service) will enjoy this graphic novel and its mix of reality and whimsy. This graphic novel appeals to a spectrum of ages and backgrounds. Young readers are able to identify with Vijaya’s eagerness to explore and befriend the world around her, and older readers able to appreciate the more complex themes of sacrifice, hope, and the heights and depths of humanity. As a wonderful story with simple, expressive art and an underlying homage to mythology and ancient belief systems, this graphic novel is a strong addition to any collection.
A Girl in the Himalayas by David Jesus Vignolli ISBN: 9781684151295 Archaia / BOOM! Studios, 2018 Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
Indian-American Priyanka, also known as Pri, is a comics-loving teenager who has important questions. She wants to know why her mother left India and who her father is, but her mother remains tight-lipped. After Pri discovers a pashmina (a kind of shawl) in an old suitcase, she finds herself transported to a bright and magical India. Convinced that she needs to visit the real place, Pri travels to India to discover the origins of the pashmina and herself.
Nidhi Chanani weaves together a story full of magic and realistic situations to form a charming narrative of identity and growth. Pri is a compelling protagonist, whose struggles to fit in are relatable. Pri’s determination, demonstrated through her persistent questions and decision to use her own prize money for airplane tickets, helps her to reach her goals. Chanani also includes a greater conversation about injustice and the importance of choice for women. As Pri comes to understand her identity and her mother’s story, she finds her strength.
Chanani conveys a setting filled with Pri’s close family and friends, school drama, the goddess Shakti, and magic. Because the main character and her family are Indian-American, the story naturally includes elements of Indian culture. The characters also use some Hindi words, and although the words are not explicitly translated, there is usually enough context for non-native speakers to get the gist.
Chanani’s artwork captures movement and body language well, and her ability to draw strong scenes add to the emotional power of the work. She also includes little details, such as posters of Sailor Moon in Pri’s room, to give a sense of the characters’ identity. Many of the illustrations are in black and white, and so Chanani’s judicious use of color effectively symbolizes idealism and packs a big punch at key moments.
Pashmina is a rich, sweet graphic novel about understanding your identity and finding your purpose. There is no gore or sexual content, but, given some of the more emotionally mature topics, this comic is ideal for readers ten and older. Readers looking for a work with a great feminist message will gravitate toward this one. I, for one, hope to see more work from Nidhi Chanai.
Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani ISBN: 9781626720879 First Second, 2017 Publisher Age Rating: 10-14
We all know the story of Romeo and Juliet. Young lovers from warring families cannot be together in life, united only by untimely death. Many famous lines from the play have entered our general lexicon: “a rose by any other name,” “parting is such sweet sorrow,” and “a plague o’ both your houses.” Most retellings of this tragedy preserve its plot, but they don’t always include the original language, often updating or simplifying the text in the name of accessibility. In this regard, Gareth Hinds’ version is a great compromise.
As he explains in the author’s note, Hinds’ Romeo and Juliet does not contain the full text of the original play, but retains its best-known phrases and a great deal more of the Bard’s beautiful prose. Confession: I didn’t even realize the text had been abridged until I read Hinds’ note. Though I’m no Shakespeare scholar, I think this says something about the smoothness of Hinds’ editing and the sense of authenticity in this tremendously accessible graphic novel.
Hinds’ detailed full-color drawings lay out the events of the play, making them easy to follow. While the art is an effective storytelling device, it’s also fun to look at; its colors are bright and lively with a watercolor feel. The background of each scene adds richness to the story, whether it is couples dancing at the Capulets’ ball or the herb gardens of Friar Laurence. The setting remains period Verona, its architecture elaborate and beautiful. Hinds admits to tweaking the city’s geography—notably, bringing architectural points of interest closer together in order to produce more dramatic landscapes.
Hinds depicts the Capulets as Indian and the Montagues as African, noting that he drew the characters this way to reflect the racial diversity of our world, not to explore any specific real-world conflict. The families also dress in different colors: the Capulets wear red, the Montagues blue. The characters are distinctive, their appearances reflecting their personalities: tough-guy Tybalt is heavily tattooed, while playful Mercutio wears his hair twisted into peaks reminiscent of a jester’s cap.
The characters’ actions, expressions, and postures support the text, most of which is spoken by the characters as befits an adaptation of a play. An occasional footnote clarifies a potentially confusing word, but otherwise, the images provide all the context necessary to follow the story. Even metaphors and flights of fancy are illustrated, such as Mercutio’s description of Queen Mab visiting dreamers in her chariot. Not only do the drawings clarify the meaning of the text, they add to its emotional power and the excitement of the action scenes.
Hinds has clearly put a lot of thought into this adaptation. The author’s note provides full context for his decision-making, discussing everything from anachronisms like Tybalt’s tattoos to small details like the species of plants in herbalist Friar Laurence’s garden. I would happily hand this book to any middle or high school student who is studying Romeo and Juliet or anyone who is a fan of Shakespeare.
Romeo and Juliet by Gareth Hinds, William Shakespeare ISBN: 9780763668075 Candlewick Press, 2013