Comic

Abadzis, Nick. Laika. New York: First Second, 2007. ISBN 978-1-59643-101-0.
The first living creature to orbit the Earth (apart, perhaps, from bacterial stowaways aboard Sputnik 1) was a tough, even-tempered, former stray dog from the streets of Moscow, named Kudryavka (Little Curly), who was renamed Laika (Barker) shortly before being sent on a one-way mission largely motivated by propaganda concerns and with only the most rudimentary biomedical monitoring in a slapdash capsule thrown together in less than a month.

This comic book (or graphic novel, if you prefer) tells the story through parallel narratives of the lives of Sergei Korolev, a former inmate of Stalin's gulag in Siberia who rose to be Chief Designer of the Soviet space program, and Kudryavka, a female part-Samoyed stray who was captured and consigned to the animal research section of the Soviet Institute of Aviation Medicine (IMBP). While obviously part of the story is fictionalised, for example Kudryavka's origin and life on the street, those parts of the narrative which are recorded in history are presented with scrupulous attention to detail. The author goes so far as to show the Moon in the correct phase in events whose dates are known precisely (although he does admit frankly to playing fast and loose with the time of moonrise and moonset for dramatic effect). This is a story of survival, destiny, ambition, love, trust, betrayal, empathy, cruelty, and politics, for which the graphic format works superbly—often telling the story entirely without words. For decades Soviet propaganda spread deception and confusion about Laika's fate. It was only in 2002 that Russian sources became available which revealed what actually happened, and the account here presents the contemporary consensus based upon that information.

March 2008 Permalink

Barks, Carl. A Cold Bargain. Prescott, AZ: Gladstone, [1957, 1960] 1989. ISBN 0-944599-24-9.

September 2001 Permalink

Barks, Carl. The Sunken City and Luck of the North. Prescott, AZ: Gladstone, [1949, 1954] 1989. ISBN 0-944599-27-3.

April 2002 Permalink

Barks, Carl. Back to the Klondike. Prescott, AZ: Gladstone, [1953] 1987. ISBN 0-944599-02-8.
When this comic was originally published in 1953, the editors considered Barks's rendition of the barroom fight and Scrooge McDuck's argument with his old flame Glittering Goldie a bit too violent for the intended audience and cut those panels from the first edition. They are restored here, except for four lost panels which have been replaced by a half-page pencil drawing of the fight scene by Barks, inked and coloured in his style for this edition. Ironically, this is one of the first Scrooge comics which shows the heart of gold (hey, he can afford it!) inside the prickly skinflint.

August 2005 Permalink

Deary, Terry. The Cut-Throat Celts. London: Hippo, 1997. ISBN 0-590-13972-X.

July 2002 Permalink

Ellis, Warren, Chris Weston, Laura Martin, and Michael Heisler. Ministry of Space. Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 2004. ISBN 978-1-58240-423-3.
This comic book—errm—graphic novel—immerses the reader in an alternative history where British forces captured the German rocket team in the closing days of World War II and saw to it that the technology they developed would not fall either American or Soviet hands. Air Commodore John Dashwood, a figure with ambitions and plans which put him in the league with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, persuades Churchill to embark on an ambitious development program to extend the dominion of the British Empire outward into space.

In this timeline, all of the key “firsts” in space are British achievements, and Britain in the 1950s is not the austere and dingy grey of shrinking empire but rather where Wernher von Braun's roadmap for expansion of the human presence into space is being methodically implemented, with the economic benefits flowing into British coffers. By the start of the 21st century, Britain is the master of space, but the uppity Americans are threatening to mount a challenge to British hegemony by revealing dark secrets about the origin of the Ministry of Space unless Britain allows their “Apollo” program to go ahead.

This story works beautifully in the graphic format, and the artwork and colouring are simply luscious. If you don't stop and linger over the detail in the illustrations you'll miss a lot of the experience. The only factual error I noted is that in the scene at Peenemunde an American GI says the V-2's range was only 60 miles while, in fact, it was 200 miles. (But then, this may be deliberate, intended to show how ignorant the Americans were of the technology.) The reader experiences a possible reality not only for Britain, but for the human species had the development of space been a genuine priority like the assertion of sea power in the 19th century instead of an arena for political posturing and pork barrel spending. Exploring this history, you'll encounter a variety of jarring images and concepts which will make you think how small changes in history can have great consequences downstream.

March 2011 Permalink

Ferri, Jean-Yves and Didier Conrad. Astérix: Le Papyrus de César. Vanves, France: Editions Albert René, 2015. ISBN 978-2-86497-271-6.
The publication of Julius Cæsar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War) (August 2007) made a sensation in Rome and amplified the already exalted reputation of Cæsar. Unknown before now, the original manuscript included a chapter which candidly recounted the Roman army's failure to conquer the Gauls of Armorique, home of the fierce warrior Astérix, his inseparable companion Obélix, and the rest of the villagers whose adventures have been chronicled in the thirty-five volumes preceding this one. On the advice of his editor, Bonus Promoplus, Cæsar agrees to remove the chapter chronicling his one reverse from the document which has come down the centuries to us.

Unfortunately for Promoplus, one of his scribes, Bigdata, flees with a copy of the suppressed chapter and delivers it to Doublepolémix, notorious Gallic activist and colporteur sans frontières, who makes the journey to the village of the irréductibles in Armorique.

The Roman Empire, always eager to exploit new technology, has moved beyond the slow diffusion of news by scrolls to newsmongers like Rézowifix, embracing wireless communication. A network of Urgent Delivery Pigeons, operated by pigeon masters like Antivirus, is able to quickly transmit short messages anywhere in the Empire. Unfortunately, like the Internet protocol, messages do not always arrive at the destination nor in the sequence sent….

When news of the missing manuscript reaches Rome, Prompolus mounts an expedition to Gaul to recover it before it can damage the reputation of Cæsar and his own career. With battle imminent, the Gauls resort to Druid technology to back up the manuscript. The story unfolds with the actions, twists, and turns one expects from Astérix, and a satisfying conclusion.

This album is, at this writing, the number one best-selling book at Amazon.fr.

December 2015 Permalink

Goscinny, René and Albert Uderzo. Astérix chez les Helvètes. Paris: Hachette, [1970] 2004. ISBN 2-01-210016-3.

April 2005 Permalink

Goscinny, René and Albert Uderzo. Le ciel lui tombe sur la tête. Paris: Albert René, 2005. ISBN 2-86497-170-4.
Credit me with some restraint—I waited ten whole days after volume 33 of the Astérix saga appeared before devouring it in one sitting. If it isn't sufficiently obvious from the author's remark at the end of the album, note that planet “Tadsylwien” is an anagram of “Walt Disney”. The diffuse reflection of the countryside in the spherical spaceship on p. 8 is magnificently done.

October 2005 Permalink

Hergé [Georges Remi]. Les aventures de Tintin au pays des Soviets. Bruxelles: Casterman, [1930] 1999. ISBN 2-203-00100-3.

October 2001 Permalink

Millar, Mark, Dave Johnson, and Kilian Plunkett. Superman: Red Son. New York: DC Comics, [2003] 2014. ISBN 978-1-4012-4711-9.
On June 30th, 1908, a small asteroid or comet struck the Earth's atmosphere and exploded above the Tunguska river in Siberia. The impact is estimated to have released energy equivalent to 10 to 15 megatons of TNT; it is the largest impact event in recorded history. Had the impactor been so aligned as to hit the Earth three hours later, it would have exploded above the city of Saint Petersburg, completely destroying it.

In a fictional universe, an alien spaceship crashes in rural Kansas in the United States, carrying an orphan from the stars who, as he matures, discovers he has powers beyond those of inhabitants of Earth, and vows to use these gifts to promote and defend truth, justice, and the American way. Now, like Tunguska, imagine the spaceship arrived a few hours earlier. Then, the baby Kal-El would have landed in Stalin's Soviet Union and, presumably, imbibed its values and culture just as Superman did in the standard canon. That is the premise of this delightful alternative universe take on the Superman legend, produced by DC Comics and written and illustrated up the standards one expects from the publisher. The Soviet Superman becomes an extraterrestrial embodiment of the Stakhanovite ideal, and it is only natural that when the beloved Stalin dies, he is succeeded by another Man of Steel.

The Soviet system may have given lip service to the masses, but beneath it was the Russian tradition of authority, and what better authority than a genuine superman? A golden age ensues, with Soviet/Superman communism triumphant around the globe, apart from recalcitrant holdouts Chile and the United States. But all are not happy with this situation, which some see as subjugation to an alien ruler. In the Soviet Union Batman becomes the symbol and leader of an underground resistance. United States president and supergenius Lex Luthor hatches scheme after scheme to bring down his arch-enemy, enlisting other DC superheroes as well as his own creations in the effort. Finally, Superman is forced to make a profound choice about human destiny and his own role in it. The conclusion to the story is breathtaking.

This is a well-crafted and self-consistent alternative to the fictional universe with which we're well acquainted. It is not a parody like Tales of the Bizarro World (November 2007), and in no way played for laughs. The Kindle edition is superbly produced, but you may have to zoom into some of the pages containing the introductory material to be able to read the small type. Sketches of characters under development by the artists are included in an appendix.

July 2015 Permalink

Sacco, Joe. Palestine. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2001. ISBN 1-56097-432-X.

November 2003 Permalink

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. New York: Pantheon Books, [2000, 2001] 2003. ISBN 0-375-71457-X.
This story is told in comic strip form, but there's nothing funny about it. Satrapi was a 10 year old girl in Tehran when the revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran. Her well-off family detested the Shah, had several relatives active in leftist opposition movements, and supported the revolution, but were horrified when the mullahs began to turn the clock back to the middle ages. The terror and mass slaughter of the Iran/Iraq war are seen through the eyes of a young girl, along with the paranoia and repression of the Islamic regime. At age 14, her parents sent her to Vienna to escape Iran; she now lives and works in Paris. Persepolis was originally published in French in two volumes (1, 2). This edition combines the two volumes, with Satrapi's original artwork re-lettered with the English translation.

November 2004 Permalink

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. New York: Pantheon Books, [2002, 2003] 2004. ISBN 0-375-42288-9.
Having escaped from Iran in the middle of Iran/Iraq war to secular, decadent Austria, Marjane Satrapi picks up her comic book autobiography with the culture shock of encountering the amoral West. It ends badly. She returns to Tehran in search of her culture, and finds she doesn't fit there either, eventually abandoning a failed marriage to escape to the West, where she has since prospered as an author and illustrator. This intensely personal narrative brings home both why the West is hated in much of the world, and why, at the same time, so many people dream of escaping the tyranny of dull conformity for the light of liberty and reason in the West. Like Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (November 2004), this is a re-lettered English translation of the original French edition published in two volumes: (3, 4).

February 2005 Permalink

Seuss, Dr. [Theodor Seuss Geisel]. Horton Hears a Who! New York: Random House, 1954. ISBN 0-679-80003-4.

December 2003 Permalink

Siegel, Jerry and John Forte. Tales of the Bizarro World. New York: DC Comics, [1961, 1962] 2000. ISBN 1-56389-624-9.
In 1961, the almost Euclidean logic of the Superman comics went around a weird bend in reality, foretelling other events to transpire in that decade. Superman fans found their familar axioms of super powers and kryptonite dissolving into pulsating phosphorescent Jello on the Bizarro World, populated by imperfect and uniformly stupid replicas of Superman, Lois Lane, and other denizens of Metropolis created by a defective duplicator ray. Everything is backwards, or upside-down, or inside-out on the Bizarro World, which itself is cubical, not spherical.

These stories ran in Adventure Comics in 1961 and 1962 and then disappeared into legend, remaining out of print for more than 35 years until this compilation was published. Not only are all of the Bizarro stories here, there are profiles of the people who created Bizarro, and even an interview with Bizarro himself.

I fondly remember the Bizarro stories from the odd comic books I came across in my youth, and looked forward to revisiting them, but I have to say that what seemed exquisitely clever in small doses to a twelve year old may seem a bit strained and tedious in a 190 page collection read by somebody, er…a tad more mature. Still, ya gotta chuckle at Bizarro starting a campfire (p. 170) by rubbing two boy scouts together—imagine the innuendos which would be read into that today!

November 2007 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil and Scott Bieser. The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel. Round Rock, TX: Big Head Press, 2004. ISBN 0-9743814-1-1.
What a tremendous idea! Here is L. Neil Smith's classic libertarian science fiction novel, Prometheus Award winning The Probability Broach, transformed into a comic book—er—graphic novel—with story by Smith and artwork by Scott Bieser. The artwork and use of colour are delightful—particularly how Win Bear's home world is rendered in drab collectivist grey and the North American Confederacy in vibrant hues. Lucy Kropotkin looks precisely as I'd imagined her. Be sure to look at all the detail and fine print in the large multi-panel spreads. After enjoying a couple of hours back in the Confederacy, why not order copies to give to all the kids in the family who've never thought about what it would be like to live in a world where free individuals entirely owned their own lives?

January 2005 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil, Rex F. May, Scott Bieser, and Jen Zach. Roswell, Texas. Round Rock, TX: Big Head Press, [2007] 2008. ISBN 978-0-9743814-5-9.
I have previously mentioned this story and even posted a puzzle based upon it. This was based upon the online edition, which remains available for free. For me, reading anything, including a comic book (sorry—“graphic novel”), online a few pages a week doesn't count as reading worthy of inclusion in this list, so I deferred listing it until I had time to enjoy the trade paperback edition, which has been sitting on my shelf for several months after its June 2008 release.

This rollicking, occasionally zany, alternative universe story is set in the libertarian Federated States of Texas, where, as in our own timeline, something distinctly odd happens on July 4th, 1947 on a ranch outside the town of Roswell. As rumours spread around the world, teams from the Federated States, the United States, the California Republic, the Franco-Mexican Empire, Nazi Britain, and others set out to discover the truth and exploit the information for their own benefit. Involved in the scheming and race to the goal are this universe's incarnations of Malcolm Little, Meir Kahane, Marion Morrison, Eliot Ness, T. E. Lawrence, Walt Disney, Irène Joliot-Curie, Karol Wojtyla, Gene Roddenberry, and Audie Murphy, among many others. We also encounter a most curious character from an out of the way place L. Neil Smith fans will recall fondly.

The graphic format works very well with the artfully-constructed story. Be sure to scan each panel for little details—there are many, and easily missed if you focus only on the text. The only disappointment in this otherwise near-perfect entertainment is that readers of the online edition will be dismayed to discover that all of the beautiful colour applied by Jen Zach has been flattened out (albeit very well) into grey scale in the print edition. Due to the higher resolution of print, you can still make out things in the book edition which aren't discernible online, but it's a pity to lose the colour. The publisher has explained the economic reasons which compelled this decision, which make perfect sense. Should a “premium edition” come along, I'll be glad to part with US$40 for a full colour copy.

January 2009 Permalink