Friday, March 18, 2022

Once again, 5 good, but not "really good," comics

The name of this blog is "Really Good Reads" so why review graphic novels that are good but not great

It's because, while these comics themselves might not be outstanding, they are an outstanding way to get reluctant readers into the habit of regularly reading. Some of these will use pictures to draw them in, and then the story will keep them hooked. And then, as they grow, they can progress to more complex graphic novels which often have as much text as full-size books. And then it is only a hop, skip, and a jump to reading those non-graphic sorts of novels. Many of the more complex graphic novels have as much text as many a full-size book.

In other cases, graphic novels can serve as a great introductory level textbook to a topic. Think of it as a Dummies sort of broad overview, wonderfully accessible and still highly informative.

Unfortunately, many comic books are silly, racy, gory, or disgusting in other ways, so if you have a son or daughter who you've managed to turn on to reading, then they might start chewing through graphic novels, and be looking for more. So, to keep those fires burning, here are some solid suggestions.

Around the World in 80 Days: A Graphic Novel
by Jules Verne, Chris Everheart and Tod Smith
Stone Arch Books
2015 / 72 pages

This is a comic adaptation of Jules Verne's 1873 classic Around the World in 80 Days. The story begins in London, in 1872, when a man makes a bet with some wealthy friends that, in this "modern" age of wonder, he can travel around the world in just 80 days. They don't believe it, and are happy to make the wager. But, as if that wasn't challenge enough, our hero, Phileas Fogg, is mistaken for a criminal, and even as he travels around the world, he is pursued by a dogged detective.

This makes for a fun exploration of different sorts of transportation, and the different ways people dress and act around the world.

I read this with my six and four-year-old, and while graphic novels are not, generally, a group read, this worked well. Both of them loved the pictures, and reading it together gave me a chance to explain what a suttee was. This is the practice of burning a dead man's still-living widow, along with his body, on the funeral pyre. It was practiced in India, and in the story Fogg, and his loyal servant Jean Passepartout, rescue a young widow from this fate.

While the comic is 72 pages, the story itself is just 58, so there isn't the space to do Jules Verne's original novel true justice. Even the fantastic surprise ending is cut out. SPOILER ALERT: In the original, on the very last day of his journey Fogg is arrested by the detective, and isn't released until day 81. It seems he has lost his bet. But no, Fogg has traveled ever eastward, through one time zone after another, and that has meant that, on average, instead of 24 hours, his days have only lasted roughly 23 hours and 45 minutes - he was losing roughly 15 minutes a day. Or to put it another way, his shorter days meant that at the end of the journey, he actually had one whole day to spare - he had traveled 80 days, but in London that only amounted to 79! Thus, after his release, he discovered it was still just day 80 in London, and he had won his wager!

Now, if that explanation didn't quite explain things for you, then you'll understand why they skipped it entirely in the comic. In this version, he simply arrives in the nick of time. It is a sad loss for a grand ending, but an understandable edit for this medium and audience. Still, it is that type of abridgment that makes this a merely good, and not great, adaptation.

Machines that think!
by Don Brown
2020 / 120 pages

Where did computers and robots come from? Author Don Brown has given a comprehensive overview, starting with the discovery of binary, to the invention of mechanical computers, then transistors, and bringing us all the way to today's self-driving cars. 

Our narrator is Muhammad ibn Mūsa all-Khwârizmi, the popularizer of Arabic numbers (ie. 1,2,3, instead of the Roman numerals I, II, III), which might be a politically-correct effort to counterbalance all the other, Western-based, advancements in math and engineering the rest of the book details. If so, then thankfully, that's as far as PC culture intrudes. This is largely "just the facts ma'am." Old and new are introduced, from Blaise Pascal and Ada Lovelace to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Some of these folks had checkered pasts, so I appreciated that the author sticks with their computer contributions and doesn't get into anything else. 

Artwork is very cartoonish, with the exception of some schematics which are drawn more realistically. There are a lot of complex ideas and technological leaps details here, and this friendly artistic style helps make this a far less intimidating work than it might otherwise have been.

This is just the sort of broad overview that could get a certain sort of kid interested in engineering. I'd recommend it for ages 12 and up.

I survived the Nazi invasion, 1944: a graphic novel
by Lauren Tarshis
2021 / 160 pages

After the Nazis invaded and conquer Poland, they quickly start rounding up Jews, and placing them together, in ghettos. These are rundown neighborhoods, which the Germans then surround with barbwire to keep the Jews in. This is the story of Max and Zena, two Jewish children who get in a tussle with a German soldier and have to flee the ghetto to get away. They end up finding a sympathetic farmer, and a group of Resistance fighters who help them hide in the vast forests of Poland. 

This is an exciting story, with the Nazis almost finding them a number of times, and Max even gets shot. By story's end, Max is telling us that he has trouble sleeping, and we've seen enough of what he experienced to understand why. 

This is intended for teens, and largely age-appropriate, noting the many who died, without actually having any of the Jews we're introduced to get killed. That's not realistic - we're told in the appendix that more than 90% of the Polish Jews didn't make it to the end of the war - but that is understandable for this age group. There is a happy ending for all, a marriage in one case, a move to Israel for some, and a move to America for Max, Zena, and the father they've been reuinted with.

The big caution for this book concerns the violence. In addition to Max getting shot, we also see three German soldiers get shot, and a fourth hit in the face by a large rock, all of them presumably killed. While it is not especially gory, there is some blood shown. For 12 and up, this is likely no big deal, but because this is a comic book, kids a lot younger might be tempted to open it up to take a look. And they should be steered clear.

Fred & Marjorie: A doctor, a dog, and the discovery of Insulin
by Deborah Kerbel
illustrated by Angela Poon
2021 / 56 pages

This is the story of how, in 1920, Dr. Fred Banting's experiments on dogs led him to the discovery of Insulin. Both man and animals produce insulin, and it is used to regulate the amount of sugar in our bloodstream. Without it, a person can develop heart and kidney disease, vision loss, and more. The only treatment before Banting's discovery was to limit a person's food intake, to thus reduce their blood sugar. But this was starving someone to keep them from getting heart disease, so it wasn't much of a treatment.

The comic is simple and solid, a bit jumpy in parts likely because Dr. Banting's recall of events was also spotting in parts. It's a bit of a detective story, with Banting and his colleague first needing to figure out what it was that these patients weren't getting enough of. A middle-of-the-night moment of inspiration led him to propose a series of dog experiments, half of them having their pancreas removed to induce diabetes, and others studied to see what it was their pancreas was secreting. These secretions would then be injected in the diabetes dogs to see if they helped. This process is what eventually led to the discovery of insulin. But it did involve a lot of dogs dying. This wore on Banting, and the comic shows some of the emotional toil it caused him. But he knew that if they figured this out, he could save millions of children. So he kept on. 

The cautions concern age appropriateness. Early in the book there is mention made of children dying of diabetes, and some are shown in a near skeletal state (though in line drawings that aren't overly detailed). Sensitive children may also find it hard to read about, and seeing some of the dogs dying, though again, there is nothing overly graphic shown. A more notable caution is about the discussion in the appendix, about whether animals experimentation is bad or good. The book, in showing it, and touting the benefits of it, is clearly making the case for, but the discussion the back takes a neutral stance, noting some believe all life to be "equally sacred" and that sacrificing a dog to help humans is immoral. I suspect some Christian children in the young grades that this is intended for (Grades 4-7) might need a little help in seeing through the lie in that position.

Who was the First Man on the Moon? Neil Armstrong
by Nathan Page
2022 / 64 pages

Despite the title, this is more about the Apollo 11 moon landing, and the whole crew, than it is about just Neil Armstrong. And that’s what makes this an interesting, if all-too-brief, read. Like all the books in the "Who is" series, the pages are small, which makes for only an average of 4 panels a page - this could be read in ten minutes. Of course, that's also a feature for some young readers.

The story also ends with their landing on the moon, which is a bit of an abrupt ending but does also leave readers wanting more. So they can turn to another moon landing graphic novel, The Far Side of the Moon, for more.

One caution would be an incidental mention of the moon being 4 billion years old. Another: that this recommendation shouldn't be taken as an endorsement of the "Who is" books, since this secular series frequently celebrates people who shouldn't be celebrated, like evolutionist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, crossdresser RuPaul, homosexual activist Harvey Milk, abortion defender Ruth Badar Ginsburg, and communist revolutionary Che Guevara. 

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