"So today, I hit one of those stoned camels with my truck." So beings Ashraf's story to his mother, sitting by her grave with a cigarette in one hand...more"So today, I hit one of those stoned camels with my truck." So beings Ashraf's story to his mother, sitting by her grave with a cigarette in one hand and a hookah by his side. Ashraf is a drug dealer, running hashish into Israel, and hitting that camel nearly gets him killed by border guards. That's just the beginning of his wild and wonderful tale. Leaving the cemetery, he heads for a cafe where his good friend Ali is having tea with Ashraf's sister, Salma. While a young female Israeli soldier gets a ride with the Bedouin and their "stoned camels" into Cairo, a Lebanese-American called Shaheed (meaning "martyr") with possible suicide-bombing plans arrives on a plane along with another American, an idealistic student called Kate who came to Cairo mostly to escape Orange County. She wanders into the cafe asking for directions to her hotel, and there she meets Ali and Salma. Ali offers to take her to her hotel, but as they head down the street they are taken hostage, all because of Ashraf and the hookah. Ashraf, meanwhile, is looking for a dumb tourist to sell the hookah to, and encounters Shaheed, who willingly buys it.
Inside the hookah, unbeknownst to Ashraf, is a jinn called Shams, a tall elegant-looking man who manipulates probabilities in order to "grant wishes". He was trapped inside the hookah by Nar, an evil sorcerer who is looking for a box that contains a word of power, which Shams is determined to get to first and give to Shaheed. Nar's goons have taken Ashraf's friend - and Kate - hostage until he brings back the hookah, which means Ashraf must find Shaheed. Things for Ashraf are further complicated by Tova, the Special Forces soldier from Israel who asks Ashraf, at gunpoint, to get her back into Israel using his drug running route. And so the race, the confluence of choices, begins.
Cairo is an energetic, adventurous, fun, quick story that you can devour in a couple of hours - in fact, it shuttles along at a quick pace like a movie, flowing from one scene to another in much the same way. It perfectly balances a modern, colourful city with cultural and political tensions and ancient Egyptian myths to create a magical adventure story complete with gun fights, djinni, flying carpets, the devil, crises of conscience and coming-of-age stories for the two youngest, Shaheed and Kate.
The five main (human) characters, Ashraf, Tavo, Ali, Kate and Shaheed, are each introduced in such a way that you get a good idea of their characters from the start, Perker's clever illustrations capturing body language and nuances that complement the dialogue. Their intro scenes bleed one into another, so that it's very easy to flow with the story. The pacing is swift, but not always busy, giving you time to catch up.
That said, there were a few times the plot went a bit too fast for me, especially in regards to Nar and the mysterious box. Or rather, the box containing the mysterious word. I'm not entirely sure I followed all that, and while I did get the full impression of Nar as a bad man with strong magical powers and a cunning mind, I knew nothing of him beyond those details. He wasn't fleshed out at all, which left him as a bit of a caricature of a character.
On the other hand, Shams was also left mysterious, but in his case this added depth to his character, not left him flat. He's a jinn, after all. There are times when you see his vulnerability, his hopes, his sadness. He and Ashraf were my favourite characters; Ashraf may have been a bit of a cliche, but he was still hugely fun and could often steal a scene. He was also the comic relief, and like any good action movie, there's always a need for a few laughs.
There are some moments of moralising, not preaching but the characters coming to realise things about themselves and the world. It was handled well, not belaboured, sometimes not even stated but shown. During an unexpected trip to the Undernile, where the devil whispers to them, Kate and Ali have a great argument where their prejudices and arrogance come out. Shaheed has a mystical transformation which I didn't fully grasp, since it all hinges on the word in the box. And Ali has a renewed enthusiasm in getting the news out to Cairo, no matter how much the censors remove first.
If you're looking for a well-written, wonderfully-illustrated graphic novel that reads like an action movie but with more depth, and tells a story you haven't really heard before, definitely pick up a copy of Cairo. (less)
This is one of the most beautiful, amazing, clever, brilliant, gorgeous, splendid, awesome books ever - truly it is impossible to stick to just one ad...moreThis is one of the most beautiful, amazing, clever, brilliant, gorgeous, splendid, awesome books ever - truly it is impossible to stick to just one adjective when describing this book.
The Arrival is a graphic novel told only in illustrations, incredibly detailed pencil sketch illustrations that are as vivid as photographs - indeed, some are modelled on actual historical photos. The story, told in "snapshots" or in large, full-spread drawings, is about a man who leaves his wife and young daughter as something ominous spreads through the land - the stirrings of war, perhaps, or something worse. He travels across the ocean to a new land, where everything is strange and foreign and new. No one understands him and he struggles to understand them, but they are friendly people, the ones he meets - immigrants too, with their own stories of fleeing horror - and he makes friends. Time passes, and after the winter he has saved enough money to send for his family, and once together they have a real home (home is where the heart, or family, is, right?).
Summarised like that, it sounds rather ordinary, but this book is anything but. Between the subtle body language and details in the individual pictures that speak louder than paragraphs of narration would, and the fantastical new wonders of the safe land, there is so much going on here that you could read it a hundred times and never get bored with it.
The Arrival records a universal immigrant experience, though, as an Australian, it did make me think of all the Europeans who came by boat after WWII, who arrived in Sydney Harbour to find a place completely different to the one they left, right down to the birds and animals and trees (and in fact it was partly inspired by Tan's father who emigrated from Malaysia to Western Australia). The way everything is so strange to the man, from the new alphabet to new ways of doing things, is familiar and recognisable, and if you've never been an immigrant to a very different country, this will give you the perspective to truly understand what it's like for them.
Tan achieves a perfect balance between scary and depressing (the visions, stories and memories of what people have escaped - genocide, war, exploitation), and hopeful and scary-wondrous. Everything from the food and animals to the writing and architecture is incredibly different from what the immigrants knew before - and different to us, as well, creating that same sensation in us as the immigrant characters have. Nothing is as it seems to be at first glance: understanding is confined to whatever connection you can make to something in your own head, based on your own understanding of the world.
In this way, Tan has created something quite brilliant, using art to not only vividly and empathetically portray the experience of arriving in a new land, but has used art in such a way that every reader will be able to empathise with the characters, even though you may not have anything at all in common with them. We all know art can transcend barriers and create bridges, and speaks in all languages: Tan's The Arrival exemplifies this. He communicates so much without using words, it's breath-taking.
This is a book not to be missed. It made me cry, with that ache in my chest that I always get these days when I hear stories of sweet, remarkable, simple, ordinary but life-changing things (some things can be all of those things!). It's the kind of story that reaffirms your positive feelings towards your fellow humans, and reminds you to have more patience with people who don't speak your language so well, and can't understand what to you are the simplest things - not because they are stupid, but just because it's new and/or different.
One final note: this is published by an imprint of Scholastic, which publishes children's and YA, and Tan typically produces picture books (of equally breath-taking quality). Children would definitely enjoy this, and you may find it only in the Children's section of a bookshop or library. But it is a book that defies age, and different age groups would get different experiences from it - each just as valid, none of them "wrong", and all enriching. My advice: splurge on the gorgeous hardcover, because this is a book you're going to treasure for ever and ever.(less)
Set in 1985 in New York, the Cold War is still very much alive, Nixon is settling in for yet another term as President, and masked vigilantes are cons...moreSet in 1985 in New York, the Cold War is still very much alive, Nixon is settling in for yet another term as President, and masked vigilantes are considerably passé. Since the costumed adventurers of the 30s and 40s called The Minutemen disbanded in the 50s, masked vigilantes became increasingly unpopular right up to the Keene Act of '77 which made it illegal. The only one who persists is Rorschach, and everyone knows he's not exactly mentally stable.
This second generation of retired crime fighters consists of Nite Owl (Daniel); the Silk Spectre (Laurie); who's boyfriend is Dr Manhattan (Jon), the only "real" Super-hero since a science lab accident turned him into a big, muscular blue genius who likes to stay naked and isn't at all ashamed of his unimpressive genitalia (yes, there is full-frontal male nudity of the blue variety); Rorschach, of course; Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt, the "smartest man in the world" who, since retirement, has turned himself into a marketable commodity); Captain Metropolis; and the Comedian, one of the original Minutemen who took a government job and is far from a barrel of laughs.
Now the Comedian is dead, and Rorschach thinks someone's out killing masked heroes. His warnings to his fellow, now ex, vigilantes falls on deaf ears: they all have their own problems to contend with. Laurie is fed up with being Jon's plaything - he lacks a "human" perspective now that he's a super-being - and hooks up with Daniel, who essentially needs to be in costume to get his rocks off.
Then someone tries to shoot Adrian, Rorschach is caught by the police, and Jon has teleported himself to Mars where he builds a crystal palace and contemplates the meaning of life and time. With Jon, America's not-so-secret weapon, out of the picture, the Soviets' attack on the U.S. becomes imminent and World War III is widely predicted. Frankly, it's a bit of a complicated mess - and no one notices the artist and writer and others missing, no one comes close to predicting the awful, gory destruction headed their way. Tick-tock, Time's. Running. Out.
Originally published in twelve individual comics, each ends with about four or more pages of "primary documents" in non-comic form: a section from Hollis' book; an interview with Adrian Veidt; psychiatrist reports on Rorschach; and so on. Some are interesting and fun to read, while others are incredibly dull and easily skipped. Those would be mostly for the die-hard fans to enjoy, as they do divulge - or support - even more about the characters than the story itself.
The cover doesn't make sense until you start reading it, and then you get one of those "Aaahhhh" moments, so I'll just tell you: it's a drop of blood on a smiley-face badge that one of the characters always wore. It pops up again at the very end, as a spot of tomato sauce (ketchup) on a guy's smiley-face t-shirt. There are quite a few parallels and neat little visuals like that throughout the novel.
It's not an easy book to read, despite being a graphic novel (less text to read). It jumps back and forth in time, even panel-to-panel, and you need to try to keep track of all the conversations and all the small details in the illustrations because everything's important! It made me quite dizzy at times. It's quite ingenious really, but that doesn't necessarily make it amazing. Clever, but not likeable. As is often the way.
My favourite character was Rorschach - complicated, twisted, scarred, violent, screwed-up, strangely honourable and determined. Chapter 6, "The Abyss Gazes Also", is his story, and as with all the chapters, the graphics and text interweave brilliantly to reveal more than is directly told. It's also the chapter where you get to see what he really looks like, what his real name is, his history, his motivations. Later, a minor character - a newspaper vendor - mentions that Rorschach was one of his customers, and I have to admit I'd lost that thread entirely and had to flip back. I'm like that with real people too though: change your clothes, your hairstyle, and I have trouble recognising you. I also had too many long gaps between readings of this book, which made it hard to remember all the details.
The graphics are very clever, full of symbolism and little revealing clues. There's an ongoing parallel story of a kid reading an old comic book about a pirate who's stranded on an island, makes a raft of all the dead bodies around him, is attacked by a shark and kills it, makes it back to his home and - well, I'll let you read it to see. The captions of this overlay the "real" story going on around the kid, who's sitting next to the newspaper vendor's stall, and when it shows the panels they're in that old pixelated style, with the washed-out colours made of tiny little dots.
There is a mystery here, one that you have to wade through all the background stories, side-plots, musings and messy violence to get to. The last two chapters are probably the most coherent and lineal. "Who Watches the Watchmen?" is the unofficial sub-title, and it's very fitting. There is a lot of gore, violence, an attempted rape (on Laurie's mother when she was the original Silk Spectre in The Minutemen), Jon's less-than-modest willy popping up here and there, murder and mayhem in the book. And some very daggy costumed vigilantes. They are a bit of a sad bunch, full of aspirations or dreams of glory but who look so ridiculous it's amazing they were ever taken seriously by the criminal underworld.
In a way, Watchmen is a tribute, a homage, to the old Superman et. al. comics of the early 20th century, but I can't be sure it isn't mocking them too. Or perhaps mocking us, for our superhero dreams and aspirations and wish-fulfilment fantasies.(less)
Fone Bone's wealthy and arrogant cousin, Phoney Bone, has been run out of Boneville by the angry residents and Fone Bone agrees to help him, along wit...moreFone Bone's wealthy and arrogant cousin, Phoney Bone, has been run out of Boneville by the angry residents and Fone Bone agrees to help him, along with their other cousin, Smiley Bone. But they get lost in the desert and have used up all their water and tempers are running high. When a swarm of locusts sweeps through the valley they run for their lives - and suddenly Fone Bone is falling. Separated from the others and lost, he has only an old map that Smiley found that leads him through the mountains and into a paradise land wherein lurk some monstrous creatures.
Fone needs to find his cousins, but there are rat creatures after him and a little bug called Ted thinks someone called Thorn can help him - only Ted has disappeared and Bone doesn't know where this Thorn is. Then he encounters her unexpectedly - a beautiful human girl - and falls in love! Together they make plans for finding Phoney and Smiley - before the rat creatures get them first.
Beautifully drawn and presented, Out From Boneville is a delightful, imaginative, funny trip through a vivid landscape of chain-smoking dragons, talking possums, cow-racing grannies and scary monsters. Bone is an endearing hero, good-hearted and resourceful, vulnerable and sympathetic.
It has something of a "to be continued" ending, with an unsolved mystery behind the scenes that really gets you curious. Aside from that, Out From Boneville is self-contained and a wonderful introduction to the series - and witty too. The panels are cleverly drawn to show what cannot be included in dialogue, and it makes full use of the medium (graphic novel) in which it's presented. As an adult, this was fun to read - better than watching a cartoon on telly, that's for sure.(less)
Because this is a graphic novel, it is heavily abridged - and because I've never read Tom Sawyer, the book, I can't compare it. It reads as a very eff...moreBecause this is a graphic novel, it is heavily abridged - and because I've never read Tom Sawyer, the book, I can't compare it. It reads as a very effective story in and of itself, though - funny, entertaining, exciting. Keeping the colloquial dialogue, the characters and the main situations, this graphic novel has lovely stylised drawings, very colourful, and with some subtle details. I'm sure it's left out a lot of details of the novel but it would be a fun read for kids to whom the book would be a chore.(less)
This is a book I would probably have never known about if it hadn't been for a little workshop I attended during my teaching degree. Which would have...moreThis is a book I would probably have never known about if it hadn't been for a little workshop I attended during my teaching degree. Which would have been a sad loss for me, because this is an excellent book, vivid and educational, emotional and honest, a book that brings a complex and confusing war into your lap, at the same time beautiful in its artistic skill, and heart-wrenching in the agony of its story.
Goražde (pronounced "go-RAJH-duh") is a town in Bosnia, which used to be part of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia has a confusing history, but it essentially came into being after the Second World War. It was made up of Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro. Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia achieved independence in 1991 after their own battles, leaving Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro as a "rump" Yugoslavia. The population was made up of three distinct ethnic and religious groups: Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, all living together harmoniously until political leaders began stirring up discontent:
Little more than a decade after Tito's death in 1980, Yugoslavia began to come apart, and the driving figure in the break-up and the tragedies that followed was the man who would become Serbia's president, Slobodan Milosevic. He had exploited and encouraged Serb nationalism and sense of victimhood to consolidate his power in Serbia and extend his influence over Serbs living in the other republics. (p. 36)
A brutal era of ethnic cleansing ensued, and several different and equally vicious armies formed. The scary thing about this war is that there was no clear "good guy, bad guy" dichotomy. The Allies won WWII, and so Hitler is the "bad guy". Serbia comes across as the clear "bad guy" in this war, and yet all sides of the conflict were committing atrocities. This is the story of the town of Goražde, though, and it seems clear the people and refugees living there were victims. The Serbs and Muslims had lived together peacefully for a long time, until, with war brewing, it became dangerous to do so. The Serb population left as the Serbian army began annexing great chunks of Bosnia, and the Muslims who remained in this and other small towns in the area barely survived three years of bloody war.
The UN declared a few places "safe areas", but this story is also the story of UN failure to enforce peace and protect people - just as they failed in Rwanda. Every time genocide occurs, we say "never again". And then it happens again, and we shake our heads and Tsk while people in important positions make bad decisions or no decisions. And people begin to die, horrifically and needlessly.
This book is also Joe Sacco's personal account, as a journalist, of his trips to Goražde, the friends he made there, and the stories he recorded which make up the bulk of this book. He's a character in his own novel, so we get the contrasting Western perspective, but having the visuals brings home to the reader (so much more so than words ever could) not just what it was like, but how non-alien the Bosnian people are - these aren't people we can look at and not find familiar, like the Afghans (you know we do this, even if not consciously). They live like "we" do, they wear the same clothes, go to university, all that is familiar to us. If anything, it becomes all the more tragic for it. We can so easily distance ourselves from images of war in the Middle East or Africa, but seeing images of war in a place like Bosnia is like seeing war in Canada, or England, or France or America or Australia. These might not be rich countries, but it gives you a healthy jolt and reminder of what racial discrimination - and religious discrimination - can lead to if you let a few prominent people loudly draw lines between groups, separating people based on religious and racial lines, creating an "us vs. them" dichotomy.
Goražde was a town cut off and isolated from the rest of Bosnia, often attacked by Serb nationalists, but it survived. Many others did not, and the entire Muslim populations of towns were massacred. In Goražde, Sacco made friends with a university student, Edin, who had been very close to finishing his PhD before the war started and now taught maths, intermittently, to the students in Goražde. His proficiency in English made him an excellent guide and translator, but Sacco made friends with other men and women in the town, as well as with some of the refugees. The story has an unusual structure, one that seems chaotic and jumbled, moving back and forth in time, from place to place, with no apparent sense of order. It does make it hard to grasp the time frame or remember whereabouts you are, but it also helps break up the stories of atrocities with seeing how people are surviving in the "present".
The complexity of the book itself is further compounded by how terribly complex the situation of the Bosnian War itself was. It's hard to keep all the different groups straight in my head, though I think re-reading it would help.
One of the things that really impressed me were the drawings themselves, the graphics. It must have taken Sacco years: the level of detail in them is extraordinary. So, even though I found the structure of the book sometimes hard to follow, and the political situation can get confusing, Sacco still did a really good job at explaining things, giving stories context and perspective as well as a personal human element through the voices of the survivors.
Safe Area Goražde took me a month to read mostly because it's so much to take in, so tragic, so horrible to think of us all going about our lives while this was going on. I vaguely remember it from when I was a teen, but - and this is a failing of the education system, in my opinion - we never looked into it in any class. No teacher tried to explain what was going on, or incorporated it into their curriculum as a kind of case study. Which is a shame. But I've found that teachers are much better at that these days, and have seen English teachers, for example, use story boards (graphic novel interpretations) as ways for students to interpret books they've read, like A Thousand Splendid Suns. You could use this book in many ways in the school system, either just a page or two or the entire thing. It's graphic format makes it a highly accessible historical text.
The war in Bosnia has become a kind of "forgotten war", a genocide that has slipped from the public consciousness. How can we even think that it will not happen again, if we pretend it didn't happen in Bosnia in the 1990s? Shame on us.(less)
Originally published in France in four separate volumes, and later in the US in two, The Complete Persepolis brings them all together for the first ti...moreOriginally published in France in four separate volumes, and later in the US in two, The Complete Persepolis brings them all together for the first time. It is the story of the author's youth, growing up in revolutionary Iran before moving to Austria at 14, and then later returning to Iran before escaping again, this time to France, where she still lives.
Her story is both familiar and alien - a story of being a child enjoying her childhood during the revolution of '79, and how it impacted on her life; learning about the history of her country, the religious hypocrisy, the regime; being a teenager in the 80s in Europe, delving into pot and nihilism, trying to find a place in the world but never really fitting in.
The story is often funny, and the method of telling it in comic-strip style suits it perfectly. There's not a wasted panel, and the illustrations add layers to the dialogue and exposition captions. While it's also a very controlling method - in that, because graphics are supplied, you're not really able to imagine it freely on your own - there's so much in the details, and so much feeling in the illustrations, that I'm reminded of that saying, "a picture speaks a thousand words".
It was fascinating to learn about what Iran's been through from someone who's lived through it - I used to read a lot of those books written by women in Iran and Saudi Arabia, but they lacked a broader scope of understanding, and exposure to foreign political ideology and perspective. Satrapi read a lot of philosophers etc., and while some of her youthful ideologies are captured with a degree of irony, she still had a clear understanding of the situation - aided by her free-thinking parents and her wonderful grandmother.
While I had trouble in the beginning keeping up with the history of Iran's political leaders, which I found confusing, the story is easy to follow and is a great way to introduce people to the reality of Iran - up to the mid-1990s anyway. The hypocrisies, contrasts, day-to-day living, life-style, dreams and ambitions are all rendered in clear, distinctive black-and-white illustrations and laced with irony. There were many moments were I laughed myself silly, and other moments that were poignant and sad, but always, always, Satrapi is brutally honest with herself and her readers. Highly recommended. (less)