Sunday, August 30, 2009

Review: Jeff Smith Documentary -- "The Cartoonist"


"The Cartoonist" is a feature-length (76 minutes) documentary on the career of Jeff Smith, creator of the series of Bone comic books (which, as I've written before, I use in my seventh grade Language Arts classes). "The Cartoonist" is essential viewing to any teacher of Bone, or any fans of Jeff Smith's work. Light-hearted, informative, and entertaining, this documentary provides insight into Smith's creative process through interviews with friends, family members, and comic creator contemporaries. In this review, I'll focus on the documentary's usefulness as a supplement to the study of Bone and comics creation.

Smith's Influences

Smith talks extensively about the influence of Walt Kelly's Pogo, Charles Schulz's Peanuts, and Carl Barks' Scrooge McDuck. As many students may be unfamiliar with the work of these master cartoonists, "The Cartoonist" therefore offers some additional reading for students who love Bone-like cartooning. (Note: Smith also mentions Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, Art Spiegelman's Maus, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' The Watchmen as influences, books which may not be appropriate for junior high school students due to their mature subject matter.) Students will learn by viewing this documentary that as a youngster, Smith loved Barks' Scrooge McDuck so much that Bone was, in essence, an attempt to create an 1,100 page version of a McDuck story. Of course, Bone became much more than this, as Smith admits.


A Secret Fantasy

Though a lover of epic storytelling like Melville's Moby Dick (referenced quite often in Bone) and fantasy literature like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Smith understood that 1,000 page tales of elves and fairies often turn off a certain segment of readers. Therefore, by creating a cartoon-version of The Three Stooges in the Bone cousins, Smith explains how he was able to "sneak in" an Odyssey-like epic story while keeping his dialog light-hearted. Smith reveals that like many works of literature, water plays a key role in Bone, as it often signifies an important moment in his characters' lives. Hopefully, students can take this kind of insight into the creative process and apply it to their classroom reading, both retrospectively as well as in future reading.

A Real Risk-Taker

Much of "The Cartoonist" is devoted not specifically to Bone, but to Smith's career path. Drawing versions of the Bone cousins as early as age five, Smith always knew that he wanted to be an artist. Smith's career path from animator to full-time comic creator and publishing company owner is traced (no pun intended) through interviews with childhood friends and business partners (including his wife Vijaya). Though not particularly useful to students, these segments do portray Smith as a dedicated professional, with a single-minded vision of getting his art into the hands as many people as possible. Through footage of various comic conventions, it is evident just how many people Smith has reached.

The Rise of Comics

Of particular interest to comics enthusiasts are the final chapters of the documentary, in which comics contemporaries like Paul Pope (Batman: Year 100, Heavy Liquid), Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise, Echo), and Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) explain the rise in popularity of independent comics during the mid-90s. This popularity gave legitimacy to non-superhero comics, which, in turn,(in this teacher's opinion) gave legitmacy to the use of comics in the classroom. (Pekar perhaps sums it up the best by saying, "Science Fiction doesn't dominate book sales; why should Science Fiction dominate comic book sales?") Through interviews with the above creators as well as Ohio State University Cartoon Library & Museum curator and professor Lucy Caswell, teachers will find particular joy in the discussion of the potential of comics. Japanese comics (manga) are highlighted as an example of what can be done with the comics medium, as they are highly profitable and and are offered in wide variety of genres. Caswell also speaks about the complexity of reading comics (deciphering both words and images) and the importance of developing students' visual literacy. If nothing else, this provides comics educators with more ammunition to bring to discussions of comics' place in curriculum.

The Impact of Jeff Smith and Bone

Artist Scott McLeod (author of the indispensable Understanding Comics) perhaps sums up the impact of Bone most succinctly; he describes Bone as a classic, in that once you have read it, you can never remember it not existing. Footage of children as young as five lining up to have Smith autograph their copies of Bone proves that it is indeed a rare feat of comics; a series that though never originally intended for children has reached across all age groups and many cultures.

Recommendation

"The Cartoonist" simultaneously illustrates the power of comics and the genius of Jeff Smith. This is essential viewing for comics fans, as it provides a well-rounded picture of what it takes to create an enduring classic. For teachers of Bone, it may spark supplemental lesson plan ideas such as research into Smith's influences, as well as provide insight to the symbols present this masterful work. Highly recommended.

If you are interested in reading Bone or any of Jeff Smith's work, please visit My Amazon Store. Thanks!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

New Kid-Friendly Comics, 8/26/09


Since new comics are released every Wednesday here in the States, I thought I'd organize a list of the kid-friendly comics available this week. School starts for me this week, so I didn't have time to link to the previews. Hopefully I'll have it done by tomorrow evening.

Again, notice the titles in red, which signify a title for older high school students.


Single Issues:

  • Astro Boy Movie Adaptation #2 ($3.99)
  • Bart Simpson Comics #49 ($2.99)
  • Batman: The Brave and The Bold #8 ($2.50)
  • Betty and Veronica #243 ($2.50)
  • Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam #8 ($2.50)
  • Incredibles #0 ($2.99)
  • Jughead's Double Digest #153 ($3.99)
  • Marvel Adventures Spider-Man #54 ($2.99)
  • The Muppet Show: The Treasure of Peg Leg Wilson #2 ($2.99)
  • Runaways #13 ($2.99)
  • Simpsons Comics #157 ($2.99)
  • Superfriends #18 ($2.50)
  • Sherlock Holmes #4 ($3.50)
  • Sonic Universe #7 ($2.50)
  • Usagi Yojimbo #122 ($3.50)
  • Wednesday Comics #8 ($3.99)
  • Wolverine First Class #18 ($2.99)
  • Wolverine Magazine #3 ($6.99)

Collected Editions:

  • Amelia Rules Vol 2: What Makes You Happy Trade Paperback ($9.99)
  • The Color of Heaven Graphic Novel ($16.99)
  • The Muppet Show Trade Paperback ($9.99)
  • Toy Story: The Mysterious Stranger Trade Paperback ($9.99)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

New Kid-Friendly Comics, 8/19/09

Since new comics are released every Wednesday here in the States, I thought I'd organize a list of the kid-friendly comics available this week. Check out the hyperlinks to find previews of the comics if they are available.

This week, notice the titles in red, which signify a title for older high school students.

Also, please check out my Amazon Store to pick up this week's collected editions for your classroom. The prices are often discounted more than 30 percent!

Single Issues:

Collected Editions:

  • Avengers Forever Hardcover ($34.99)
    • Collects Avengers Forever #1-12
  • Essential Marvel Team-Up Vol. 3 Trade Paperback ($19.99)
    • Collects issues #52-73, #75 of Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Team-Up Annual #1
  • Spider-Man/Mary Jane...You Just Hit The Jackpot Trade Paperback ($24.99)
    • Collects issues #43, #259, #291-292, #309 of Amazing Spider-Man (1963) and Amazing Spider-Man
      Annual #19; Untold Tales Of Spider-Man #16; The Amazing Spider-Man: Parallel Lives Graphic Novel; and Amazing Spider-Man (1999) #50
  • Teen Titans: Changing Of The Guard Trade Paperback ($14.99)
    • Collects issues #62-69 of Teen Titans
  • Veronica's Passport Volume One ($9.95)
  • The World Of Cars: The Rookie Trade Paperback ($9.99)
  • The Muppet Show Trade Paperback ($9.99)
  • Muppet Robin Hood Trade Paperback ($9.99)
  • Toy Story: The Mysterious Stranger Trade Paperback ($9.99)
  • The Complete Peanuts 1973-1974 ($28.99)
  • The Complete Peanuts 1971-1974 Box Set ($49.95)
    • Introductions by Kristin Chenoweth & Billie Jean Kin; 2 books, 344 pages,
  • Speed Racer: The Next Generation: Birthright Trade Paperback ($12.99)
  • Around The World In 80 Days Hardcover ($14.99)
  • Transformers Animated: The Allspark Almanac ($19.99)
  • The Complete Transformers Ark ($29.99)
  • Don Quixote ($14.99)
  • Salt Water Taffy Volume 3: The Truth About Dr. True Graphic Novel ($5.95)
  • A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge Hardcover ($24.95)
  • Classics Illustrated Deluxe #4: The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer ($13.95)
  • The Complete Essex County Softcover ($29.95) and Hardcover ($49.95)
  • Johnny Boo (Book 3): Happy Apples ($9.95)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

New Kid-Friendly Comics, 8/12/09


Since new comics are released every Wednesday here in the States, I thought I'd organize a list of the kid-friendly comics available this week. Check out the hyperlinks to find previews of the comics if they are available.

This week, I've begun separating the list into single issues and collected editions. For comics newcomers, single issues are usually only available at your local comic book stores, whereas collected editions can be found at most major book retailers. More on which editions are best for your classroom in a future post.

Speaking of retailers, please check out my Amazon store to pick up this week's collected editions for your classroom. The prices are often discounted up to 30 percent!

Single Issues:
Collected Editions:
  • Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Death and Dementia Hardcover ($18.99)
  • The Flash Showcase Vol. 3 Trade Paperback ($19.99)
  • Marvel Adventures Spider-Man Vol. 13: Animal Attack! Digest ($9.99)
  • Runaways: Pride and Joy Trade Paperback ($14.99)
  • Usagi Yojimbo Vol. 23 (Limited Edition) Hardcover ($59.95)
  • Wolverine First Class: Ninjas, Gods, and Divas Trade Paperback ($14.99)
  • X-Men First Class: Finals Trade Paperback ($14.99)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Review -- "Chiggers" by Hope Larson


Alright, I'll admit upfront that I know very little about the female psyche. Shocking, I know. Granted, I have a mom and a sister, and I have been married for a whole year now(!), but that doesn't mean that I have any insight into the thoughts and emotions of the fairer gender. But even after the first few pages of Chiggers (happily borrowed from the Chicago Public Library), it's obvious that writer/artist Hope Larson does have such insight, and after reading Chiggers, I honestly felt enlightened. Larson captures the thrill, heartache, and awkwardness that (I'm guessing) are such a part of the adolescent female experience. Chiggers is a fun read (I read it the first time in one sitting), and I'd recommend it for middle or high school students.

The Basics
The reader follows the ups and downs experienced by Abby, a somewhat reserved (and at least introspective) teenager who is initially happy to be back at summer camp in North Carolina. She has made at least one close friend there in a previous summer, but as this friend has now increased responsibilities, Abby is forced to make new friends. Awkwardness and angst ensue.

Becoming fast friends with a new camper named Shasta (who, like her name, does not quite fit in with the rest of the campers), Abby attempts to negotiate the complicated social norms of the camp. Her relationship with Shasta is tested not only by her cruel campmates, but also by some competing affection for a Dungeon Master named Teal. Abby eventually learns about true friendship, and when camp comes to an end, the reader has seen true growth of a young girl.

The Art

Larson takes many stylistic chances in Chiggers, all with remarkable results. Swirling word balloons, unique lettering choices that move along the storytelling, and moments of the fantastic that never take the reader out of the story, Chiggers is quite a creative achievement, especially considering that Larson both wrote and drew (with lettering by Jason Azzorpardi) this 171 page original graphic novel. The characters are easily distinguishable, and Larson is deft at using the positive and negative space with her black-and-white art.

Classroom Concerns
This book is perfectly appropriate for the junior high or middle school classroom. Bear in mind that there are at least two uses of the "b" word by characters in Chiggers, though speaking from experience, this is authentic dialogue from teenagers without adults present. Though there is romance, it is strictly the puppy-dog kind.

Any vocabulary that would be unfamiliar to the reader is comically (pun intended) explained by fun little moments of narration either by characters in the story or by a well-placed narration block.

Curricular Connections
Chiggers is very much a coming-of-age tale, even though it takes place over the course of just one summer. Therefore, students could examine the character traits of Abby, Shasta, and the other campees, focusing on Abby's maturation as a young woman. Female readers (again, I'm reaching here) will especially identify with the teenage politics present in Chiggers, and will undoubtedly be able to reflect on the social tightwire act that is adolescence.

Bonus
Larson's Chiggers website provides some useful additional information, including links to an article about chiggers themselves, as well a breakdown of the creation (from script to an inked and lettered page) of the book.

In this humble man's opinion, Chiggers would make a great addition to any school or classroom library.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

New Kid-Friendly Comics, 8/4/09


Since new comics are released every Wednesday here in the States, I thought I'd organize a list of the kid-friendly comics available this week. Check out the hyperlinks to find previews of the comics if they are available.

Also, please check out my Amazon store to pick up this week's trade paperbacks and hardcovers for your classroom. The prices are often discounted up to 30 percent!