Monday, November 9, 2015

ON GRAPHIC NOVELS, and 5 that are "good" but not "really good"

Graphic novels as a genre, have a lot more bad than good so parents need to be wary.

Some of the bad is obvious. Spend a few minutes in the graphic novel section of any bookstore or library and you'll see that when women are on the covers they are of the impossibly buxom sort, and either clad in spandex, or not really clad at all. While many a male character is spandex clad as well, there are far fewer "bust and bum poses" for the men. The men are heroes; the women are to be ogled and lusted after.

And while gore isn't too common, violence is. The medium doesn't allow for anything near as graphic as can occur on film, but full-color battle illustrations can get disturbing when they're showcasing teeth-shattering and even limb-rending blows.

Some of the bad is less obvious, but just as much an attack on God and what He loves. To discern the worldview of a story the best questions to ask are, "Who, or what, is the god here? Who or what is the object in which people are supposed to put their trust for salvation?" In superhero comics the most obvious "god" is the hero himself, but sometimes it's science (futuristic technology is a huge part of many comics in this genre), and other times we're being told to trust in Man's intrinsic goodness.

Among non-superhero comics the "god" can run the gamut, but sex and fame are popular choices (particularly in the many biographical comics) while God Himself is almost always absent. Or present only to blaspheme Him.

So comics can be pretty bad, and because of the tendency to the bad, even in comics aimed at teens and children, parents have to be particularly discerning.

But at their best comics are a higher art form, combining the visual and the written mediums seamlessly. On this blog we've reviewed some of the very best, and you can peruse that collection by clicking on this link here. But if your son or daughter is devouring graphic novels very soon you'll run out of great ones. It's with that in mind that we're making an exception to the policy of only reviewing the really good. This time around we're passing along here some comics that are quite, but not really good. In other words, this time we're going with quantity over quality: here's five that may not be brilliant but aren't half bad either.


The City of Ember: The Graphic Novel
by Jeanne DuPrau
adapted by Dallas Middaugh
art by Niklas Asker
144 pages / 2012

If you, like me, had never heard of the novel this graphic novel is based on, it still wouldn't take you long to figure that this is an adaptation - the events are a bit truncated, evidencing that they were from longer source material that had to be cut down a good deal.

This is the story of a town, surrounded by darkness on all sides, with the streets lit only by lamps, and never sunlight. But those lamps are starting to flicker out, and sometimes the entire town blacks out. There's also less food than there once was, and certain types of food, like peaches, exist only as memories for most residents. So how has this town come to be, and why does it seem the only place for people to live in the whole world? And why is there no sun? These are the questions that our two young heroes, Doon and Lina, a teen boy and girl, set out to address. This is a dystopian novel, but a kinder gentler sort than some others, intended for the teen and preteen readership – no one gets shot in this book, and no teen is forced to kill their friends.

The only cautions I would note is that God is completely absent from this story.

You can buy a copy on by clicking here.

Two page spread from The City of Ember


Rapunzel's Revenge
by Shannon and Dean Hale
art by Nathan Hale
144 pages / 2008

What if the story of Rapunzel had been set in the American mid-West? And what if Rapunzel, instead of being a mere damsel in distress had, during the long years of isolation and through countless hours of practice, developed an ability to use her long braided hair as a lariat-like weapon that would even put the web-spinning Spiderman to shame?

Clearly there are a lot of departures from the original here. Did I mention that Rapunzel only meets her prince after she frees herself from her tower imprisonment? And her "prince" is a rascal rather than royal – he is Jack of "Jack and the Beanstalk" fame, and while he has managed to free the goose from the giant's grasp there are no golden eggs to be had, so Jack is a little short on money. And he's also a little short on morals, eager to steal not just from giants, but from whoever has the gold.

Rapunzel will have none of that, and has quite the positive influence on Jack, forbidding anymore stealing.

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So this is, overall a lightweight lark, with the only possibly offensive bits being a fart joke or two and a panel or two of cleavage. It is a fairytale, so there is magic, which many a Christian parent will be wary of, but it is mostly limited to that done by the evil witch, who gets her comeuppance in the end.

I'm not saying Rapunzel's Revenge is fantastic, but it sure ain't half-bad. The main criticism would be that while it is fun, it is also just frothy, fluffy, nothingness.

A sequel, called Calamity Jack, doesn't warrant even that much of a recommendation. In that one Jack goes up against a giant corporation of giants. It has some of the same charm, but is grittier and at times is downright grim (or should that be downright Grimm?). To give just a few details:
  • we learn Jack's backstory, which is all about his thieving ways (though he does eventually reform)
  • several panels show giants get devoured by even more gigantic pigeons 
  • there are a couple of truly horrible looking beasts, one of which has hideous maws in the spots his eyes should be
Nothing all that horrible, but seeing as there is no pressing reason to read the book, these little things, in my mind, weigh against picking this one up for my kids. Calamity Jack is certainly not a book for pre-teens.

However, you can pick up a copy of Rapunzel's Revenge at by clicking here.


The Great American Documents
Volume 1: 1620-1830
by Ruth Ashby 
illustrated by Ernie Colón
150 pages / 2014

This is a great historic account of the role some key American documents played in that country's history. I'm still learning US history, and since some day I will take a citizenship test I have some motivation to learn what I can. This was a painless way to cover two hundred years, from before the country's founding to a time when there were still some alive who remembered the country's founding

While painless, I won't say this was entirely enjoyable all the way through. This is a textbook, though in a much more accessible form. So, for a fellow like me, who likes to know his history, but doesn't necessarily actually like to read history, this was a really good find. But it isn't the sort of comic book/graphic novel that one would read simply for enjoyment.

A few cautions to note.

First, there is one instance in which God's name is taken in vain. It is a quotation, of something a British General said in the early light of morning when he sees what General Washington and his troops had accomplished during the previous night. Over the course of a single night, the Americans managed to place artillery in
makeshift fortifications on the hills above the city of Boston and its harbor. When the British [who were occupying Boston] woke up the next morning, they saw rows of big guns pointing straight down at them.
This British general's exclamation must be quite famous, as it is also the single instance of God's name being taken in vain in Nathan Hale's graphic novel about the War of Independence One Dead Spy

I'll also add that since I don't know my US history all that well, I don't know how the authors' biases might have impacted their account. This seems a generally patriotic account of the county's origins, and I know that the illustrator also did a decent account crafting a graphic novel version of the 9/11 Report. But this same fellow also tackled revolutionary Che Guevara so I suspect he might have some leftward leanings I don't share.

That said, a book that treats the Constitution as an important document, important to understand and learn about, can't help but have an inherently conservative outlook to some degree. So this is likely a reliable account. It is called "Volume I" so clearly they plan on tackling more recent documents in future books and I would guess that the closer we come to modern times the more any biases the author and illustrator harbor would come to the foreground. In other words, while this does seem solid, that doesn't meant that the follow ups will be just as reliable.

Go to to pick up your copy.


Showa 1939-1944
A history of Japan
by Shigeru Mizuki
548 pages / 2014

This is World War II told from the perspective of a Japanese cartoonist who thinks the war was a bad idea and is glad Japan lost. In other words, while he isn't exactly on the Allied side (he was drafted and fought for the Japanese) he is sympathetic to it. So this is a very different look at the war from a very different source, but who seems quite reliable.

This was fascinating because it was so foreign. I've never read about the war from the Japanese perspective before. However, at 500+ pages it is huge, and because it is part of a series of auto-biographical graphic novels by the author, it doesn't have a proper ending – Mizuki expects us to continue on to the next one I expect. However, this is the very best of the bunch, and with the least problematic content, so I think even with the less than satisfactory ending, this is a good one to start with and stop with.

There are several cautions to consider.
  • Two scenes take place in a Japanese bath, and a naked man is shown, from the back, sitting on the ground. Very non-lascivious.
  • While the author is not an apologist for Japan's actions during the war, he does defend at least one of the War Criminals, arguing that it was the heat, and not Lieutenant General Honma Masaharu that was responsible for the death of 5,000 out of the more than 20,000 Allied troops that surrendered to him in the Philippines. (The Allies called these deaths, that happened on what came to be known as the Bataan Death March, as a "planned atrocity).
  • There is also some talk of philosophy, a page or two here and there, that is not in accord with the Bible. But it doesn't get into any detail.
  • Mention is made on page 495 of Japanese soldiers being sent to a brothel, likely one that involved enslaved "comfort women." Nothing is shown, but mention is made of each soldier getting "30 seconds" (see picture).
  • There are occasional crudities like "Shit" "Asshole" and "crap" but not all that often, and very muted considering the content - this is a war, and this is a description of the soldiers' day to day. There are no abuses of God's name.
  • There is some Japanese mysticism at the end where the narrator prays to his own father, and his mother hears his prayer and wakes his father.
So why recommend a book that needs so many cautions? Well, it's because most of these are minor, and because the book is so very unique. How else can you get a reliable overview of the Japanese side of World War II in a version you can read in a couple hours or less?

But because of the many concerns this is most certainly for mature readers, and by that I don't mean adults, but rather those teens and older who won't titter because of a picture of a naked guy's back. You can buy it at by clicking here.


Child Soldier: When Boys And Girls Are Used in War
by Jessica Dee Humphreys and Michel Chikwanine
illustrated by Claudia Davila
48 pages / 2015

This is an autobiographical account of how Michel Chikwanine was kidnapped and then trained/tortured into becoming a child soldier. The author's intent is to teach teens and preteens (the suggested age range they give is 10-14) about a horror going on half a world away in a manner that mutes but doesn't minimize that horror.

To that end the comic is almost gore free. Soon after Michel and his friends are kidnapped by members of a rebel militia from the soccer field (where the boys were kicking the ball around after school) Michel is forced to kill his best friend. This is the most disturbing part of the whole book but because we see it from Michel's blindfolded viewpoint it is only the words, and not the pictures, that tell us what has happened. And all we see of the dead boy are his feet, and the only blood shown is a few specks of red that we can see evident on Michel's shirt in some frames. Very carefully and tactfully done.

The reason Michel was made to kill was as a recruitment technique – they want him to share in their sin, so he will think himself too horrible to ever go back to his own family again.

After the story concludes with Michel, his mom, and two sisters, now living in Canada (but his dad and other sister did not make it) six pages of text follow. There we learn a bit more about Michel and about child soldiers. The only concern I would raise (other than making sure this doesn't end up in young children's hands) is what comes in the last couple of pages of the book, where some suggestions are made as to what readers can do. Most of the suggestions are general – raise money, inform people – and thus quite innocuous, but readers are also encouraged to look to the United Nations, with no mention made of how the UN often and repeatedly fails to live up to the expectations set upon it. But so long as a child isn't making too much of these last two pages, that is a very minor flaw.

You can buy a copy at by clicking here.

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