Monday, October 28, 2013

Vietnamerica: A Family's Journey

by GB Tran

I don't understand how Vietnamerica: A Family's Journey, which was released in 2010, did not get a lot more press, good reviews, and recognition in the comics community.  This is easily one of the best graphic memoirs I've ever read, and is among the best graphic novels I've read in the last year.

Gia-Bao (GB) Tran's parents fled Saigon with the last of the Americans in the city, making their way to South Carolina, where Tran was born in 1976.  This book begins with his first visit to his family's homeland, a few years ago, after the death of his maternal grandmother.  That trip awakened an interest in his family's history, which is quite complicated.

Tran's paternal grandfather had abandoned his family when Tran's father was quite young, so he could fight the French alongside the Vietminh.  Tran's paternal grandmother ended up marrying a French colonel for a while, and after he left, becomes an imperious figure in the family narrative.  Tran's father marries a French woman, who also later leaves.

The story is told in a kaleidoscopic fashion, moving from one time period to another without immediate rhyme or reason, but slowly, the narrative of three generations gets told.  At times the book was a little confusing, and I found I had to flip back a little to remember who some people were and how they related to each other.  This is largely due to Tran's skill at drawing the different people at different ages, and maintaining family resemblances throughout.

Tran as an American teenager showed no interest in learning about his family's past, and it is the birth of his interest that is one of the more interesting threads in this book.  Many families live in diaspora from a number of different cultural backgrounds, and I think parents and children would be able to recognize something of themselves or their situation in this book.

I have had an avid interest in fiction and comics that deal with the Vietnam War for about twenty years now, but I think this is the first book that tells that tale from the perspective of a mostly apolitical Vietnamese family.  Sure, Tran's grandfather was Vietminh, but after the Americans were run off, even he lost faith in his country.  Tran's maternal uncle was pressed into service with the ARVN, the South Vietnamese army, and the scenes that show him at war also support the theory that many Vietnamese did not want to be involved in the conflict.

This is a highly sensitive and complex piece of cartooning, on a level with Craig Thompson's Habibi, and it truly deserves to get more attention.  I cannot recommend this book enough for anyone who is interested in the Vietnam War, family drama, or really, just amazingly good comics.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Letter 44 #1

Written by Charles Soule
Art by Alberto J. Alburquerque

I think this is one of the most gripping and promising first issues I've read in a very long time.  Charles Soule has been steadily building a name for himself, starting with 27, and then moving to DC where he's doing a bang-up job of writing Swamp Thing, and is also doing one or more of the Green Lantern titles (I don't pay attention).  Letter 44, though, is his most practiced and impressive comic yet.

The book opens in the near future, where a (presumably Democratic) president, the 44th in America's history, is sworn into office after the country spent eight years embroiled in foreign wars and mounting defence spending at the cost of the economy at home.  Before being sworn in, President Blades reads a letter from his predecessor, and learns that everything that has happened was in service of a simple and terrifying fact - NASA has found evidence of alien life in the solar system, a mining facility in an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The former president used his military campaigns as a way to ready his army for the conflict he believes is coming, and to be able to hide the expense of building a space vessel to send nine people to check out what is happening.  Clearly, this is big news, and Blades has to figure out what he should do.

From here, Soule begins to introduce the crew of the Clarke, the vessel which is only now, after three years in space, approaching the alien facility.  There are the usual mix of brave scientists, cynical, sarcastic soldiers, and what have you on the Clarke, and in the short span of this issue, Soule does a great job of introducing them and beginning to develop them.

There is a real sense of urgency and secrecy to this comic, and it feels all the more topical in light of recent events at the NSA.  There are some great elements tossed into the story, like the fact that the woman in charge of the space vessel is pregnant.

Alberto J. Alburquerque is a talented artist, who has a good handle on many of the scenes which are basically composed of talking heads.  I like the way that Guy Major has coloured the book to make the astronauts so pale and sun-deprived.

When I started reading this comic, I couldn't help but compare it to Saucer Country, the recently-departed Vertigo book that also mixed Presidential politics with the threat of alien invasion, but where that series took a more conspiracy-based approach, this one feels like a very intelligent blockbuster.  This comic is only one dollar, and if you can find a copy, I highly suggest you grab it.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Battling Boy

by Paul Pope

There are some cartoonists who release new work so rarely that it is a real cause for celebration when they drop a new book on the world.  Chief among these creators is Paul Pope, whose new graphic novel Battling Boy has been anticipated for years.

I was a little surprised to see the approach that Pope took for this book.  It's been designed to appeal to just about all ages, as Pope gives us a coming-of-age story for a young god who arrives on Earth to fight monsters.

The book opens with the story shown in the Death of Haggard West one-shot a couple of months ago.  The end of that comic, which has West, the science-hero of Arcopolis, die in battle, is interwoven with new material, as we are introduced to the young Boy, who lives in a mystical city kind of like Asgard.  As part of his adolescence, the Boy is sent to Earth to prove himself.  His father is one of the greatest heroes of his people, but he can't help the kid much.

To aid him in his quest, the Boy has been given a collection of special t-shirts which allow him to tap into the abilities of the creatures depicted on them.  This is marketing genius, if this book were to ever be adapted for TV or film.  The kid shows up just as a gigantic monster is wrecking havoc on the Boy's new home, and even though he gets some assistance from his father in putting the creature down, he comes out of the skirmish as a hero.

I love Pope's art, which is always exciting and a little rough, but I also think he's come a long way as a writer.  His Battling Boy is unsure of himself, and a little intimidated by what is expected of him.  Haggard West's daughter is another major character, and she is an interesting study in determination and drive.

My only real complaint about this book is that it doesn't exactly resolve the story, and feels more like the first volume of a series that is going to be incredibly sporadic in coming out.  If this book was delayed for years, I shudder to think of how long it might take to see a new story.  Still, I'll be first in line to buy it, because this was a great read.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Three #1

Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Ryan Kelly

I love a good historical comic, and have long had an interest in the Ancient World, so I was very excited to learn that one of my favourite comics writers, Kieron Gillen, and one of my favourite comics artists, Ryan Kelly, were collaborating on a new series set in Ancient Sparta, some one hundred years after the famous Battle of Thermopylae.

This comic is very much a response to Frank Miller's classic 300 book.  Gillen states as much in the text section of the book, that he was irritated by the way in which Miller removed the slave aspect of Spartan society from his story, and set out to correct the historical record somewhat, and also tell a good story.

Spartan society survived only through the efforts of the Helots, the lower rung of a caste system that viewed them as less than slaves.  When the book opens, a group of young Spartan warriors attack some Helots who are gathering fruit.  Later, we meet a different group, who are having to listen to one particular Helot, from the city, who has put on some airs over his country cousins.

When a group of travelling Spartans insist that this group quarter them for an evening, this City Helot raises their ire by contradicting one man's accounting of the famous Thermopylae encounter.

This is a very interesting comic, with terrific art by Kelly, who has always been a master of human expression.  Gillen doesn't bog the story down with history, and instead provides just the right amount of exposition to make the social arrangements clear.

I'm not sure how long this series is set to run for, but I'm very excited to keep reading it until it ends.  Great stuff.