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,

Days of Sand

Days of Sand, written and illustrated by  Aimée de Jongh,  is a beautifully illustrated graphic novel about a devastating time from US history. During the Great Depression, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) hired photographers to chronicle the devastation of the Dust Bowl. This book follows John Clark, a fictional photographer, who moves from New York City to Oklahoma for a month. The story explores the complexity of capturing something so large in such a small medium. What kinds of truths can be captured in images that are cropped and often staged? What truths are left out when viewed through the perspective of still images?

De Jongh front loads with exposition including the causes of the Dust Bowl, the historical context of the Great Depression, and the economic and social consequences of the dust storms. The exposition is at times a bit forced, but not tedious, and helped to give context to the story.

While Clark is a fictional photographer, the job was real. The FSA hired photographers, such as Dorthea Lange and Arthur Rothstein, to travel throughout the United States to document the devastation and extreme poverty of those living through the Great Depression. In Days of Sand, the FSA office strongly suggests that Clark may find success in exposing truths through his images through some staging and manipulation. “It goes beyond the subject to reveal a deeper truth.” Clark arrives in the panhandle of Oklahoma and immediately begins to manufacture scenes to match a list of requested images. The people of the town are rightly hesitant to trust him. It isn’t until he is able to see the people of the town as humans rather than an assignment that he is able to truly understand their predicament and take photos with more truth and honesty. There were heartwarming moments and moments that made my heart drop.

This was a devastating time in US history, and much of what we know is in large part because of the work of these photographers. However, the act of taking photos is not free from bias. Photography (as with any art form) is unable to capture whole truths. Some photos meant to be documentary in nature are staged, but more so, the choices made by the photographer (where to crop, the angle, and the lighting) affect the message and meaning derived from the image.

De Jongh writes a detailed afterward with a well-articulated discussion of the work of the FSA photographers and the effect they had on public perceptions. In the end, the book makes the argument that these photographers may have done more harm than good. Staged photography casts doubt on authenticity, and many photographers acted more as spectators than members of the community. Can you have empathy or truly understand a community from the outside? Is art an effective way to share truths? De Jongh argues, “no,” despite using the comic art form to make said argument.

I think it is also important to note that there is a missed opportunity for a diverse perspective. Days of Sand is about a white male fictional photographer. In real life, the FSA hired many white men, but it also hired women, such as Dorthea Lange, and people of color, such as Gordon Parks. Marginalized perspectives are an important part of history, and a perspective from a woman or person of color would have added important layers to and depth to the realities of the day.

Days of Sand is far from perfect, however, the illustration style is beautiful and many of the images are exquisite. There are also a number of tender moments with human connection that do, in many ways, redeem the book. The book is illustrated in a mixture of highly detailed comic illustrations and realistic illustrated reproductions of real and fictional photography from the FSA photographers. The realism reflects the haunting nature of documenting such tragedies.

In the end, I found the book interesting and will include it in my high school graphic novel collection. There are other (arguably better written) comic descriptions of the Great Depression, but the story of the FSA photographers is an important and interesting story to tell. I found the book to be thought-provoking and will recommend it to teen and adult readers who like historical fiction and philosophical discussions about the nature of capturing truths.

Days of Sand 
By Aimée de Jongh
SelfMadeHero, 2022
ISBN: 9781914224041

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Scarlett and Sophie Rickard’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists adapts a classic work of socialist fiction for a new audience. This retelling of Robert Tressell’s 1914 semi-autobiographical novel follows Frank Owen, a house painter with tuberculosis, and his fellow laborers, dramatizing their experiences with crooked bosses and chronic poverty in a pre-welfare state Britain. The graphic novel draws an unflinching portrait of working-class life, but its tragedies are interwoven with a wryly comic, yet profoundly moving message about power, politics, and the necessity of class struggle.

The book opens with a crew of painters on break, engaged in a contentious discussion of the economic issues that define their working lives. Low wages and lack of job security have left a mark on each man: Owen resorts to doing skilled decorative work for little pay, while facing the prospect of leaving his family destitute should he succumb to tuberculosis; another worker, Easton, is so far in debt that he must take in an unsavory boarder to ensure his young child has enough to eat; and the elderly Linden must continue working to provide for his family, knowing that the alternative is a punishing old age in the workhouse.

Yet The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is not simply a chronicle of suffering. The painters argue, agitate, and make us laugh as they express political opinions that feel as current in our modern era as in early twentieth-century Britain. This is a didactic novel, which means we’re treated to slightly stagey conversations in which characters wrangle over the root causes of economic inequality and explore its possible remedies. Thanks to Sophie Rickard’s eloquent and economical script, these exchanges are nearly as affecting as the labor struggles that inform them. It’s a joy to watch political dialogue take place not in classrooms or on social media feeds, but in the workplaces and homes of working-class families. Readers may or may not cosign the book’s of-its-time vision of a classical socialist utopia, but many will respond to its central thesis, that progress is possible if ordinary people engage with politics not as a spectator sport, but as citizens acting in solidarity with their fellow workers.

If Sophie Rickard’s script deftly adapts Tressell’s original 600-page epic, Scarlett Rickard’s art brings it to vivid life. Full-color panels recall the sharply observed domestic settings of Raymond Briggs’ adult graphic novels, delivering what feels like a sly satire of bucolic depictions of Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Against dollhouse-like backdrops of houses and storefronts, Rickard portrays the physicality of labor, craft, and housekeeping, reminding us that ordinary people worked hard to construct and maintain the built environments that appear in our favorite BBC costume dramas. Yet there’s also a lot of warmth in these pages; emotionally rendered scenes of holiday celebrations, family gatherings, and acts of friendship bring to life not only the struggles of the working class, but the personal relationships that make change worth fighting for.

In the decades following its original publication, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists had an outsized impact on labor politics, both in Britain and globally. The Rickards’ adaptation makes this indispensable novel accessible to contemporary readers in an effective new format. This book is an excellent choice for nearly all adult graphic novel collections, and young adult and high school purchasers should also give it strong consideration. Readers should note that, in addition to scenes of violence and worker abuse, this book contains depictions of sexual assault, postpartum depression, and suicide.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
By Sophie Rickard
Art by Scarlett Rickard
SelfMadeHero, 2021
ISBN: 9781910593929

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: British
Character Representation: British, Chronic Illness

Chico and Rita

Chico and Rita

Chico and Rita aims to be an epic love story across the ages, but it falls a little flat for me.  Chico is a gifted musician in Havana, 1948. He is a bit of a player – he likes that music brings him free drinks and easy women. In order to enter a big music competition Chico needs a singer, and when he hears Rita sing, he is captivated. He convinces her to sing with him and then takes her to bed. All seems well until Chico’s girlfriend shows up. Although Rita is convinced to sing in the competition with Chico, she is still angry — until they win, that is. They have a blissful month together until Chico gets jealous, jumps to conclusions, and cheats on her. With a broken heart, Rita signs a contract to go to sing in New York City.

The whole novel is like this. Chico tries to win over Rita, succeeds for a bit, then gets jealous or makes assumptions and loses her again. Their relationship is set against the backdrop of post-World War II Cuba, America, and Europe. They both experience some musical success, although they have to struggle against the racism of the time.

I had a couple problems with this novel. First, I found Chico to be a very unsympathetic character. His sexism and attitude that women are possessions really irked me. Although, I suppose he is accurate to his time. And I found the happy ending a little too pat.

The graphic novel is a transcription of the animated movie of the same name. The animated movie uses the “trace live action” technique of animating, which is my second problem with the graphic novel (the movie web site explains more about it). This is not a style that I like very much, either animated or drawn. I appreciate that it is a style, and that it can present different challenges for animators, but mostly it just comes across as a bit flat to me. The outlines of the characters are too thick and dark with no room for nuance, and the coloring is monochromatic, with little shadowing. I thought the strength of the technique was in the backgrounds. The cityscapes are beautifully rendered with exquisite detail. I peeked at the DVD to see if I would like the animation better that the drawing. Not so much. Although it was nice to hear the music the book talks about.

Despite all this, I can see why other reviews have been so positive. The animation technique is difficult, and the novel is telling a story about the Cuban music scene that is rarely heard in America. The 1950s were both racist and sexist according to today’s standards and it is not a flaw in the story to show that, even if it makes the characters less sympathetic to a twenty-first century audience.

Recommended for adults (some drug use, sex, violence, and nudity), though it may be of interest to mature teens.

Chico and Rita
by Javier Mariscal
Art by Fernando Trueba
ISBN: 978-190683829
SelfMadeHero, 2012
Publisher Age Rating: (Adult)

The Sign of the Four: a Sherlock Holmes graphic novel

sign-of-the-fourThe Sign of the Four, the second of Sherlock Holmes’ many stories, came about because of a dinner party. Talent scout J.M. Stoddart, host of the party, signed both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde to contracts for novels that night, the resulting publications being The Sign of the Four and The Picture of Dorian Gray. I.N.J. Culbard and Ian Edginton have teamed up to retell four of Doyle’s stories, as well as The Picture of Dorian Gray, under publisher SelfMadeHero. [Editor’s Note: Culbard and Edginton’s The Sign of the Four and A Study in Scarlet are published in the United States by Sterling.]

The classic opens with a restless Sherlock Holmes and a concerned Dr. Watson, discussing Holmes’ significant talents as they go to waste after their first case. The pair are called upon by Miss Mary Morstan, who comes bearing a mystery. Her father, an officer in an Indian regiment, disappeared under strange circumstances almost ten years ago. Over the past six years, Morstan has been receiving valuable pearls annually from an enigmatic benefactor, who now wishes to meet with her. With the promise of a case, the detective and his partner are soon off at a breakneck pace, attempting to solve a puzzle with roots in India, a forbidden treasure, a one-legged man, and his strange companion – who manages to baffle Holmes and Watson.

Edginton and Culbard do a fine job of boiling down the original book into a graphic novel, leaving readers with a fast-paced mystery. It’s been several years since I’ve read any Sherlock Holmes short stories or novels, but after reading The Sign of the Four, I’m eager to return to them. Holmes and Watson translate well to the comic format. The detective shows an almost manic glee as the mystery grows murkier and Watson observes it all with a sense of bemusement. Many of the other characters, however, fall flat in comparison. Watson’s romance and eventual proposal to Miss Morstan seem to come out of nowhere – they interact briefly during her first visit and the subsequent journey to meet her benefactor. Beyond that we don’t see the two together until the end , when Watson has suddenly fallen desperately in love and Miss Morstan returns his affections. For a story that emphasizes the importance of following facts, this plot point needed to be expanded.

Culbard’s art is an excellent fit for the story. Drawn in a noir style that recalls pulp magazines, the art creates a sense of the dark, dingy haze of London, Holmes’ mess of an office, and the creepy alleys and docks they visit. The color scheme is primarily blues, grays, and browns, with bold outlines and features for the characters. The art reminds me of a cross between Faith Erin Hicks’ expressive characters and Darwyn Cooke’s square-jawed, Golden Age-inspired style. You’ll see a lot of talking heads in this book – after all, it is Sherlock Holmes telling you how this mystery went down. But many of the backgrounds suffer for it, becoming washed out and difficult to see. The focus is on the characters: the eerie lighting of the London streets on their faces, the flush of policeman Athelney Jones’ cheeks after climbing stairs, or the gradual fading of the circles under Holmes’ eyes as the mystery proceeds.

Speaking of which, some libraries may have difficulty placing this because of the depiction of Holmes’ cocaine use. The book opens with him injecting himself and Watson objecting to the damage he’s doing. It closes with Holmes surmising that he can always, when bored, return to his “seven percent solution”. Another issue, a sign of the time in which the story was written, is that a “hideous savage” is at the heart of the mystery. Readers may find this objectionable – Culbard draws Tonga with a green hue and he resembles a gremlin more than a human being. Still, both these issues are true to Doyle’s version and would be impossible to remove without doing a disservice to the original material.

Fans of Sherlock Holmes will be pleased with the way that Culbard and Edginton captured the spirit of the stories. Readers who have not yet been exposed to the detective may find themselves seeking out the short stories after reading this. They may also enjoy the brief introduction, written by a Holmes scholar, and explaining some of the history behind the book’s creation.

The Sign of the Four: a Sherlock Holmes graphic novel
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Edginton
Art by I.N.J. Culbard
ISBN: 9781402780035
Sterling, 2011