(Druid City, Volume 2. Read the comic online.)
The publishing company, First Second, is always a good source for a variety of graphic novels. Sometimes I get a downer, sometimes I get a good read. Other times I get something that seems generic but then takes a bizarre turn in the third act and becomes a great deal more compelling. Brain Camp is a 2010 release from First Second, and a decent sized crew worked on it. Brain Camp was written by Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan. The illustrations were done by Faith Erin Hicks, one of the best workers in the sequential art craft. The color was completed by Hilary Sycamore.
Jenna Chun and Lucas Meyer are both outcasts among their own families. Jenna is a pop-culture geek in a family full of over-achieving nerds. Lucas is an at-risk-of-dropping-out kid who lives with his shitty mom. After arguments with their families, a tall man with high cheek bones visits the two kids’ parents in the middle of the night. The tall man is there to sell the parents on Camp Fielding, an educational summer camp, that the parents agree to send Jenna and Lucas to. After being sent to Camp Fielding, both of the kids struggle to like most of their fellow campers, who are quick to bully and push around our dual protagonists. Various circumstances cause the two to go without eating meals at the camp for a few days, and they notice that campers who have been eating the ice cream have started to perform well at the educational activities at Camp Fielding. In exchange, these kids’ personalities have been replaced by cold, jaundiced stares. Some of these same campers have disappeared too. On a covert backwoods trip to the nearest convenience store, our leads discover part of the truth once they come across a decrepit building. The missing students have been infected by a disease that causes them to sprout beaks on their foreheads and vomit feathers.
Faith Erin Hicks worked on the visual elements of the novel, save for the coloring job, and she designed and inked her characters the way she has done in her commercial work for a number of years. The human characters have simple designs with distinct facial features to set them apart. Specifically, the noodle-y bodies and clothes are simple, but the faces have some extra ink markings on them to suggest expressions. They aren’t meant to be literal interpretations of facial features (such as a skin wrinkle, most of the characters are too young to have that many), but rather a suggestion about how loose or taut that area of the face is.
What’s new, at least in my experience, is the addition of creature designs as well. Without giving too much away, there are two different kinds of creature in the book, and one of the kinds looks a lot creepier than the other due to how it directly affects the kids at Camp Fielding. The coloring job by Hilary Sycamore is superb and I honestly can’t wait until I get a hang of how to color my own projects with the same style that is often utilized in the young adult graphic novels I read. The fact that coloring is too often only credited on the inside of the book and never on the cover is a damn shame. The only visual element that feels out of place in a commercially available graphic novel is the occasional appearance of out-of-the-box computer fonts on things that could have been done in digital ink. It’s odd to otherwise see a lot of what closely resembles hand-drawn text in speech bubbles next to plain ol’ Myriad on a book’s spine or Times New Roman on the camp director’s office door plaque. That’s the only nit-pick I have because everything else works; most people aren’t even going to think about it.
Themes (Mild Spoilers)
The main social critique of Brain Camp points its finger at high-strung parents who want to push their children to be high-achievers, even if it costs their children any and all sense of individuality. I grew up with relatively lax parents who pushed me to be active in both athletic and intellectual pursuits, but they also respected my wishes to withdraw from anything that I tried and didn’t like. The kids in Brain Camp have far more strict parents who have no such respect, and the parents’ commitment to try to make their children apply themselves becomes outright psychopathic. Since this is a young adult novel, the sympathy is given to the children, although I would image that older readers would see larger menaces at work. The diminishing work force around the world, combined with a complete lack of respect for artists’ monetary compensation, has caused a hyper-competitive job market to emerge, and real-life parents are more than likely just looking out for their kids’ best interest. I’m of the opinion that re-thinking labor and payment would solve these problems, but there’s no need for that to be the subject of a young adult novel. Instead, the kids find themselves taking an interest in intellectual pursuits once a genuine interest has been stoked by the conflicts of the novel. The two leads work together to resolve the conflict, even after they have started “drinking the Kool-Aid”, so to speak, and have started doubting their ability to accomplish anything on their own.
Brain Camp’s initial horror premise isn’t nearly as creepy as the theme that emerges as the book reaches it’s conclusion. The villains of the book exploit the feelings of anxiety in Lucas and Jenn’s parents. In turn, Jenn and Lucas are subjected to a horrific process and have to become better than the previous generations to overcome it. One would be mistaken for thinking that this is just a simple zombie adventure book, but it ends up being a far more engaging and unique affair. I give it a “Highly Suggested” rating, and if you’re going to recommend it for your kid, make sure you’re not a domineering dick first.
I returned to an old faithful for a review this week, the publishing company First Second. Today’s review is for one of their older releases, and like others from the company’s Oughts period, it is an English translation of a European graphic novel. Garage Band is a 2005 Italian release, and the First Second English translation came about in 2007. The artist and writer is an individual known as Gipi. First Second regular Danica Novgorodoff (of Slow Storm) illustrated the book’s jacket.
Garage Band’s plot is very thin. It covers a group of four Italian lay-abouts trying to put a band together. Giuliano, the everyman, is given access to his father’s storage garage, and his buddy, Stefano uses his sardonic charisma to recruit a faux-Nazi drummer and a wallflower named Alberto. Stefano’s dad pulls some strings to get the boys heard by a producer, but on the eve of their audition, an amp blows and the band has to lower themselves to underhanded tactics in order to replenish their supply.
Gipi uses really loose & frantic ink lines and a watercolor wash. Everything is drawn so haphazardly that I had a hard time distinguishing the characters from one another. Guiliano and Stefano are easy to spot, due to Guiliano’s red hair and Stefano’s wild eyes. But the pseudo-Nazi and the boring guy look nearly identical and all of the adults seem to run together. The art style, while perfectly suitable in a number of cases (see Stitches), doesn’t work as well when the characters and plot are as thin as they are in this book. Since both the writing and the artwork appeared to be under-thought or abridged for time/space, I ended up filling unfulfilled.
Dumb youth is the through-line of the novel. Most of the band putting up with a drummer who hangs up Hitler posters on his bedroom wall is one of the first clues that the teens don’t think about the impact of their actions too deeply. Unity is also how the book pieces together a happy ending, but since I wasn’t invested in the characters, I didn’t find myself caring at the climax.
I read most of this book in a quick sitting at a bar, waiting on nachos. The nachos were better. The book picks up a bit once a dilemma is introduced, but the reading experience is over before you know it due to the short length. I wouldn’t recommend it. Also, Guiliano’s guitar on the cover looks like a cock.
Often touted as the first graphic novel, A Contract with God is one of Will Eisner’s highest achievements. For those unfamiliar with Will Eisner, he is considered the “Orson Wells of comics” and is among the most prolific artists in the business, alongside Jack Kirby and Osamu Tezuka. A Contract with God is a book that was completed after Eisner had ended a long career in commercial comics in the 1950s. A Contract with God features four different stories set in the Bronx, mostly centered on a tenement building called 55 Dropsie Avenue. Since including a full first act plot summary for each story in my Plot Summary section will take too long, I will instead sum up each of the four stories in one sentence below. A Contract with God was originally published through Baronet Books in 1978.
The first story is the titular, A Contract with God. This follows the fall from grace an older Jewish man experiences after he feels wronged by his God after his adopted daughter dies. The second story is The Street Singer. An amateur singer who serenades random tenants from the ground floor is given an opportunity to train with an aging opera star, which he squanders. The third story is The Super. An antisemitic and incompetent superintendent is tricked into suicide by a clever girl who wants her building and people to have better living conditions. The fourth story is Cookalien. This is a rambunctious and memorable story recounting some of Will Eisner’s fictionalized experiences vacationing with other tenants from 55 Dropsie Avenue.
What impressed me the most about the artwork in this book is how economic and practical it is. Not a single stroke of ink is wasted, and there’s always the right amount needed on wide shots, establishing shots and close ups. For example, faces can be detailed with less than twenty strokes of a pen in panels where there are multiple characters in frame, but in close ups the amount of details becomes very deliberate and engrossing, with over a hundred strokes of a pen being used in some cases. Buildings are drawn loosely, with a lot of detail, but not with an eye for detail that fits the exact architecture of the building down to the last brick (probably the best way to draw buildings). I was also amused that the first graphic novel set the trend of including nudity within its pages, not advertising this fact at all, but just throwing it in there. I find it liberating that movies and music have to label their explicit content, but comics have been able to get away with doing whatever they’ve felt like from the very beginning.
I think that human ugliness is at the core of all of the stories. No otherworldly force is at work causing hardship or conflict in any of these stories, even though the title of the book may betray that core theme at a first glance. The lead character of the ‘A Contract with God’ story believes that his good deeds and heroism earlier in life warranted him the ability to never have to suffer the way he does when his adopted daughter dies. He turns his back on his deity and his morals when it becomes clear that the ephemeral appreciation for his acts will never translate into a permanent state of happiness. Instead of accepting the fact that nothing he can do can prevent horrid things from happening, he instead bitterly chooses to become horrid himself, to save himself the pain of receiving nothing for his good work. It’s an accurate depiction of an ugly reality: how good intentions mixed with high expectations can ruin a person’s moral backbone.
The fault in the lead character from The Street Singer is obvious. He beats his wife and young child (going so far as to throw the infant against a wall) and believes in magic feathers that will save him from poverty while doing nothing to improve. His one chance at actually hitting the big time is trampled not because of some well deserved comeuppance, but because he can’t remember his benefactor’s address. Both of the characters in The Super are ugly at their core; the superintendent himself is also physically repulsive. The super is a massive racist, and the girl is willing to poison a dog and have a man driven to suicide in order to accomplish her goals. Crafty, but ugly.
The Cookalien demonstrates the core ugliness of people and our skewed expectations the best, because it is set in an environment where some of the poorest people in the Bronx go to let their hair down and try to impress each other with false riches. Every character is hiding a core feature about themselves while trying to find love or satisfy lust. The simple dishonesty ends in very quiet disasters, where every character moves on with their life having fulfilled one of their goals, but also having compromised on something they should have never given up.
The Cookalien is the story that makes the book worth reading. The other three stories are very well detailed parables that have simple messages, despite their characters being more fleshed out than your average parable. The Cookalien is more unique in how it establishes about eight different characters and gives them all depressing characters arcs with different take-aways. If all of the stories could have been intertwined like the ones in The Cookalien, with the common setting of 55 Dropsie Avenue, I probably would have liked it more, but certain parameters such as when the stories take place prevent that kind of concurrent timeline from happening. It isn’t my favorite graphic novel ever, but it is the first, and I must say that graphic novels got off to a good start with Will Eisner.