Maus I: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman


Goodreads: Maus
Series:  Maus I
Source: Purchased
Published: 1986


The son of a Holocaust survivor attempts to come to terms with his father’s history by writing a graphic novel.


Though you may know Maus as that famous comic about the Holocaust, the story told focuses both on Art Spiegelman’s father’s experiences in Europe during WWII and on Art’s own experience of inheriting that legacy.  The work slides through time as it depicts Art interviewing his father Vladek about his past as well as Art navigating his difficult relationship with his father in the present.  His graphic novel is not really meant to memorialize the victims–and indeed Spiegelman seems to have a horror of sentimentalizing the Holocaust–so much as it is meant to allow Spiegelman to work through what it means to be living in the shadows of his father’s memories.

Art’s preoccupations reveal themselves quite clearly in the scene where Vladek’s second wife Mala makes Art a cup of coffee and begins to describe her own Holocaust experience.  Just as she finishes telling Art how her parents died, he jumps up, remembering that his mother’s old diaries might be in his father’s office.  Disconcerted, Mala asks where he is going.  She is trying to work through her trauma by telling her story, but Art is interested only in working through his own trauma, inherited from his parents.

The result is a complex interweaving of past and present as Spiegelman tells his father’s story from his courtship to the war to his parents’ eventually capture and deportation.  It does not sentimentalize the Holocaust nor does it try to speak for all the survivors or make meaning out of tragedy.  It’s the retelling of man’s experiences, what he knew at the time, and of his son’s attempt to make meaning out of those experiences decades later.  And it ever so subtly it reveals how the effects of the Holocaust reach out to cast shadows even now.

4 starsKrysta 64

American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar by Harvey Pekar, et al.


Goodreads: American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar
Series:  American Splendor
Source: Purchased
Published: 1986


It’s the 1970s in Seattle and Harvey Pekar is working a menial job while selling jazz records on the side and trying to sell the comic books he’s writing.


Presenting everyday moments to illustrate that anyone can be the star of a comic, that you don’t need to Superman to have a story, is an intriguing intellectual project.  Even if we accept that Harvey Pekar can never really represent everyone, that he represents a certain segment of the population, perhaps the working man or the stifled intellectual, it’s still new to write a comic about your experiences waiting in line at the grocery store.  But “new” and “intellectually interesting” do not always translate into an engaging read.

Some of the stories in this collection captured me more than others, but largely I did not care for the depiction of Pekar–angry, abrupt, cheap, and dishonest–and I hardly cared to hear about the random, mundane moments of his life.  They are so mundane that they could, in fact, happen to anyone and that’s what makes them boring.  Maybe I’d be interested in a friend recounting this tale, but I hardly care about the details of character-Pekar’s life.  He waited a long time in line at the store.  Fascinating.

Additionally, the comics often feel text-heavy, as if we don’t really need the illustrations. Sometimes Pekar is pictured just standing at the frame, talking.  For the whole comic.  Yes, we can decode his body language, but the images seem so secondary that I find it tempting to gloss over them and just read the story.  I generally prefer comics where the images and words really work together and comment on and subvert each other.  Of course the images and text have to be working together here, but nothing about the presentation really inspires me to read closely and discover how.

In the end, I understand what Pekar is doing.  I understand this was a new concept when it was first published, that the team of artists he employs each create character-Pekar in different ways, that Pekar really wants to highlight the heroism of the “ordinary” person.  But, as a reader, I just was not hooked.

3 starsKrysta 64

Classic Remarks: Graphic Novels

Classic Remarks

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.  Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!  This week’s prompt is:

Tell us about your favorite classic graphic novel.

Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir  Persepolis recounts her life growing up before and after the Islamic Revolution in Iran.  In the introduction she notes that she “believes an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists” and so she tells the stories of the individuals who fought against oppression.  Her account is particularly powerful because told the through the eyes of a child, who does not yet understand.

The story opens memorably with the introduction of the veil.  At ten years old, Marjane has never had to wear the veil before, but the Islamic Revolution now makes it mandatory.  It also segregates her previously co-ed school and rewrites the textbooks.  Marjane struggles to understand why the veil is necessary since before it was a choice.  And she does not  hesitate to question the changing teachings of the textbooks, to the horror of her classmates and teacher.  As a child, she is dangerously outspoken and irrepressible.  She is saying what many adults are thinking, but cannot speak aloud.

The disconnect between youth and history continues throughout the story.  We see Marjane delight in the knowledge that her relatives have been imprisoned and tortured for political causes.  She romanticizes the struggles and imagines such information will make her cool among her peers.  Her understanding of what is happening is simultaneously clever and knowledgeable, and all too innocent.  This is truly history through the eyes of a child.

But throughout Satrapi celebrates the resilience of the people of Iran, highlighting their bravery and and their dedication to freedom.  She truly has given us a different perspective, a side of the story that often goes untold.  It’s a story worth listening to.

Bonus: I’m not sure it’s yet considered a classic, but Sean Tam’s wordless graphic novel The Arrival illustrates the strangeness and loneliness of arriving in a new land.

Krysta 64

March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell


Goodreads: March: Book One
Series:  March #1
Source: Library
Published: 2013


Congressman John Lewis shares his life story, beginning in book one with his youth in Alabama and his activity with the Nashville Student Movement as they protested segregation through lunch counter sit-ins.


March is a powerful book that tells the story of Congressman John Lewis’s life, beginning with his childhood in Alabama and continuing through his participation in the Nashville Student Movement.  No doubt many educators will find this a useful tool to discuss civil rights in the classroom, but general readers will also find themselves by turns saddened, shocked, and inspired.  The book truly makes history come alive, and reminds readers of just how tenuous civil rights can be.

Perhaps one of the more striking aspects of the book is Lewis’s willingness to engage with the nuances of the Civil Rights movement.  The story makes quite clear that, just because a law has been passed, that does not mean all citizens are treated equally.  Brown v. the Board of Education passed, and yet Lewis could not go downtown and be served lunch.  Nor could his white friends if they were with him.  And the local political leaders tried to walk the line by giving verbal support to the law while also maintaining stores had the right to serve whom they liked.

Lewis furthermore digs into the nuances of the responses given by the Black community.  While he and his friends attended training workshops on peaceful protests, were arrested for trying to integrate lunch counters, and refused to pay into the system by posting bail, some Black leaders suggested that simply being arrested was to make enough of a point–they should post bail and go.  Furthermore, some called for the dismissal of James Lawson from his grad school because he led lunch counter sit-ins.  Lewis saw it as a division between the older and the younger generations, and their approach towards reaching equality.  History is more complicated and less linear than the textbooks sometimes suggest.

So whether you’re hoping to learn more about the Civil Rights movement or simply looking for a powerful and moving read, you’re sure to find something in March.  It’s just as eye-opening as I expect Lewis hoped it would be.

5 starsKrysta 64

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi


Goodreads: Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
Series:  Persepolis #1
Source: Library
Published: 2000


Marjane Satrapi chronicles her life in Iran during the Iranian Revolution, from the age of six to the age of fourteen.  The daughter of Marxists, she speaks out loudly against oppression and finds small ways to show her rebellion.  Translated by Mattias Ripa.


Persepolis is a powerful book that tells the story of the Iranian Revolution through the eyes of a child.  Marjane Satrapi notes in the introduction that she “believes an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists” and so she tells the stories of those who fought for freedom and those who lost their lives for it.  The result is a book that will no doubt be eye-opening to many.

As the daughter of Marxists and the great-granddaughter of a previous emperor, Satrapi has a unique viewpoint and her book is full of demonstrations, meetings with political prisoners and activists, and small acts of rebellion.  She notes how overnight all the rules changed in a “cultural revolution” and how they had difficulty accepting things like the need to wear a head covering at all times, since they had never done so before.  Even as a child she feels the necessity of freedom and finds small ways to rebel through her clothing choices or her questioning of her school’s teachings.  Her rebellion is particularly admirable because she knows exactly what happens to enemies of the state.  She has heard stories of torture and rape.

However, Satrapi still manages to find joy in life and she often brings a sense of humor to the most dire of situations.  Even when being stopped on the street for her attire, she can crack a joke.  Her resilience and her bravery are inspiring, and her story is sure to move you.

5 starsKrysta 64

Watchmen by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins


Goodreads: Watchmen
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1987


Years after the Keene Act  outlawed vigilantism, the old crime fighters who used to dress up in costume are, if not dead or gone crazy, approaching middle age and wondering what it was all for.  Only a few stay active, now working for the government.  Only Rorshach continues to wear his mask and elude the law.  But now it seems that someone might be eliminating the old superheroes and all of them are in danger.


Watchmen is celebrated as a classic comic, a product of the 1980s that questioned the superhero genre and the impetus behind it.  It is easy to latch on to its grittiness and darkness, to think that Moore wants readers to understand that superheroes are not shiny and flawless, but humans who age, drink, sleep around, and even commit atrocities.  However, the story is not all darkness and it would be a mistake to think that everything from here on out must be The Dark Knight in order to be real, “serious” art.  In the end the story still suggests that the individual might find a way to make a difference.

The story focuses on a diverse cast of characters and their reasons for donning funny costumes and fighting crime.  In this world, only one person has super-human abilities.  The rest are ordinary individuals who trained hard to reach peak physical condition or who have the brains to design cool crime-fighting gadgets.  But they aren’t Superman, and that makes the people of their world wonder what drives them.  Why dress up as an owl and go out into the night to punch people?  Is there something wrong with these people?

It’s a funny question to ask when in many cases we take the superhero genre for granted and may not question not only what drives a hero, but also whether what they do can be justified.  Rorshach in particular engages in excessive violence to pursue his personal vision of justice, breaking fingers to gain information from the underworld, and killing people in brutal and uncomfortably creative ways.  Readers may want to sympathize with him and his quest since they receive generous access to his mind through his journals.  He seems like the pov character readers are supposed to like.  But his actions are just as bad, if not worse, than the actions of many of the individuals he wants to punish.  So, the story asks, what on earth is a superhero anyway?  How can we tell the difference between a hero and a villain?

Watchmen is undoubtedly an uncomfortable book, one full of graphic violence, sex, and other material that many readers do not associate with comics, which, for some reason, still seem to carry a bit of social stigma for being “juvenile.”  I won’t engage with arguments about that here, since I think it should be obvious by now that comics are a sophisticated art form and that text isn’t obviously an inherently higher or more intellectual art form or means of communication.  Just suffice it to say that this work is not for children.  But it is a work that will challenge you.

4 starsKrysta 64

Sisters by Raina Telgemeier


Goodreads: Sisters
Series:  Smile #2
Source: Library
Published: 2014


Raina always wanted a little sister, but when Amara came, she wasn’t what Raina expected.  She typically wants to play alone and she and Raina are always having fights.  But then they take a road trip with their mother.  Can they find a way to get along and survive the trip?  A companion novel to Smile.


I admit I found this book even less engaging than Smile, even though I recognize that Telgemeier has an excellent sense of humor and that she depicts the relationship between the sisters excellently.  For reasons I find difficult to articulate to myself, I just did not find myself invested in the story.  It doesn’t help that the official summary promises more drama than the book actually contains.  I kept waiting for something major to happen, but it never did.

Sisters is a companion novel to Smile, taking place the summer before Raina enters high school.  The story of  the Telgemeiers’ road trip is interspersed with flashbacks of Raina and Amara’s relationship.  We get to see how Raina longed for a sister, only to have the grumpy and isolated Amara come along.  Worse, Amara ends up being an artist just like Raina.  And Raina feels like her sister is stealing what makes her special.

Sisterhood can be complicated and Telgemeier expertly captures the nuances of such a relationship as the girls argue, tease, storm, and support each other.  But the ending feels all too easy and takes something away from the previous story.  Perhaps it’s because Amara has seemed to be reaching out in various ways all along and it’s not clear why Raina suddenly notices.  Perhaps because it suggests that sisterhood from here on out is smooth sailing, even though readers know it is not.  Perhaps it’s because the cover blurb suggests for reasons unknown that they are banding together to save their parents’ marriage, imparting the final pages with far more significance than the pages themselves seem to suggest.  For some reason, it does not work for me.

Still, I recognize that many readers find this book special and that the depiction of sisterhood is sure to appeal to many.  Fans of Smile will certainly enjoy it.

3 starsKrysta 64