Review 1525: Manga Classics Les Misérables

I never wanted to read Les Misérables after seeing an old movie that started out with Jean Valjean bashing in the head of a kindly priest who had taken him in, all during an attempt to steal the church silver. That made me turn it off. However, just for grins, I decided to give the Manga Classics version a try.

This, of course, is the story of the redemption of the escaped prisoner Jean Valjean and his pursuit by the policeman Javert, set against the background of the Paris Uprising.

Obviously, I can’t tell how faithful it is to the original even though I have also seen the musical, but there are a lot of characters, so I’m guessing they made a good attempt. The art is not as beautiful as I’ve found in a few graphic novels (although it’s classic Manga style), but the characters are well drawn and easy to tell apart, and the story is easy to follow. I haven’t read any other Manga, so I can only compare it to other types of graphic novels, and it is definitely more dependent upon text than some that I have read (but not all).

As to the quality of the edition, there were some pages in which the tops of the letters were chopped off, although you could still read them.

Did I enjoy it? It was okay. The story seems full of schmaltz, but it was interesting enough for me to consider putting the original on my next Classics Club list.

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Review 1348: The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks

Cover for The Ukrainian and Russian NotebooksFor anyone who has not followed recent Russian history very closely, The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks are eye openers. Drawn and written by acclaimed Italian graphic artist Igort, they are the result of two years he spent traveling in the Ukraine and Russia listening to people’s stories.

The Ukrainian Notebook focuses on the Stalin-era Holodomor. This was a government-caused famine imposed on the Kulaks—the Ukrainian farmers who owned their own land—to force them into collectivization. At the time, Ukraine was a rich agricultural region, but by the time the Soviets had finished, millions had starved or been deported to Siberia and the land was a desert. The notebooks tell some stories of the survivors as well as stories about the modern effects on the country.

The Russian Notebook focuses on state-sponsored assassinations, rapes, and kidnappings that are going on under Putin. In particular, it starts with the murder of human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya and her attempts to help the Chechens. Then it goes on to explore the cause of the Chechens.

Finally, the book ends with an epilogue about the more current situation in Ukraine and the Russian “mandate” to take it back.

Since my husband and I are interested in Russia, these notebooks didn’t surprise us, but they may surprise people who are less aware of the recent history of Russia. Igort has written about a lot of other subjects, but his drawing style particularly suits this one.

One small comment about the cartoons. The text is translated, I assume from Italian, and very well done. The text in the illustrations, however, has an occasional typo, and the transliterations of some words from the Russian alphabet are nonstandard with Russian typos, too. For example, on one page, the Russian word “gazetta,” or magazine, is written with the character for “n” instead of “g.” This is a quibble, however, for what is a pair of effective and shocking graphic novels.

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Day 1154: Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie

Cover for AgathaI occasionally read a graphic novel, but I am not at all attracted to the superhero kind. Although they generally have very polished illustrations, I don’t find them imaginative and am more attracted to unusual subjects.

Agatha is a biography in graphic novel form of Agatha Christie. It begins with her mysterious disappearance of 1926, something that has never been fully explained. (I confess, I prefer the Dr. Who explanation, in which she was off with the doctor fighting a giant alien wasp.) Then it covers the major events of her life from a girl. To add a touch of whimsy, her major detective characters appear occasionally to talk with her.

I’ve noticed that some graphic novels use the illustrations to tell parts of the story, while others depend heavily on the text. This novel is one of the latter. I would also comment that the illustrations are more workmanlike than beautiful. But they are interesting, colorful, and convey the story.

It’s difficult for me to rate a graphic novel as a book. This one, for example, makes no effort to build up to a climax as fiction would. It is more like a biography without the depth and without the effort to be accurate about details of the times. For example, when Christie is a nurse during World War I, they have her introducing herself to the patients, something that would not have been allowed.

All in all, I appreciate the subject matter, but I have been more impressed by some other graphic novels in terms of beauty of artwork and effectiveness of story line. So far, Hannah Berry is my favorite.

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Day 1022: The Girl Who Played with Fire

Cover for The Girl Who Played with FireHaving started this series with the last book, I am finally finishing it with the second. As with the original Larsson trilogy, this graphic novel begins to get into the conspiracy by SAPO to criminalize Lisbeth Salander.

Lisbeth is on vacation on a tropical island after the events of the first novel. Mikael Blomkvist and his magazine are working on an issue about human trafficking with Dag Svensson. Meanwhile, Mr. Bjurman, Lisbeth’s guardian, is trying to figure out a way to control her.

Lisbeth has returned home when Dag Svensson and his girlfriend are found murdered. Also dead is Bjurman, and evidence links Lisbeth to the murders. Lisbeth realizes that all this is pointing back to her past, and she must follow clues while a huge manhunt is going on for her.

Despite being the transitional second novel, this one is engaging, with a lot going on. The art is just excellent. Even though the graphic novels are taken from a hefty series, these writers and artists have managed to condense the Millenium trilogy into an effective series.

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Day 998: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Cover for The Girl with the Dragon TattooA while back I read the third book in the graphic novel series based on Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Series. I found myself a little confused because it had been so long since I read the original books. So, I decided to get the other two.

Of the three original novels, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo works best as a stand-alone. We meet the two protagonists. Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist who has just been found guilty of slandering a powerful businessman, Wennerström, and must face a jail sentence. Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous heroine, has found some evidence that Wennerström is actually guilty and has led Blomkvist on to make allegations he suddenly finds he can’t support so as to ruin him and his magazine.

Blomkvist quits his job on the magazine to save it, but he is offered investigative work by Henrik Vanger, another powerful industrialist. Forty years ago, Vanger’s niece Harriet disappeared during a get-together on the family island and was never found. Henrik assumes that someone in the family killed her, since no one could get on or off the island at the time. In exchange for Mikael’s help, Vanger promises to turn over the goods on Wennerström.

This graphic novel was easy to follow and beautifully illustrated. I find that the genre doesn’t allow for the extreme build-up of suspense that Larsson was able to create in the novels. It could be my imagination, but I also thought some scenes were moved around and the ending was slightly different than the book. I also felt that Lisbeth’s role in the graphic novel was minimized as compared to the novel. Her scenes are more likely to be visual rather than to have dialogues and so go more quickly. Still, this is a rendition of the story that has much to offer.

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Day 964: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

Cover for The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's NestI did an odd thing here. I saw that the third book of the Millennium Series was out in a graphic novel by Denise Mina, the terrific Scottish mystery writer, so I ordered it without looking for the other two (which I have since bought). So, I am reading and reviewing them out of order.

Thrust like this into the last volume and having not read the original books for several years, I had difficulty at first getting oriented. I especially had some problems with the multitude of characters, not realizing a cast of minor characters appears at the end. I remembered the general plot but not all the subplots. Still, this is not a problem for those who have read the series from the beginning.

Of course, the plot is the finale of the story of Lisbeth Salander, unjustly accused of murder of three people and of attempted murder of her own father, Zala. It is up to Mikael Blomkvist and the staff of Millennium Magazine as well as her other friends to try to help gather the evidence for her trial. In the meantime, the police are searching for her half-brother Niedermann, the scary murderer who can feel no pain.

The art and story line of this graphic novel are really fine, getting a bulky novel right down to its essence. This is the first time I’ve read the graphic novel for a book I’m already familiar with, and it made me contrast the two. I think the one thing a graphic novel loses is all sense of the original’s climactic moments. In particular, I’m thinking of two scenes: the one during the trial when Lisbeth finally speaks and the fight in the factory. The fight boils down several pages of suspenseful writing into a couple of frames. There’s no way to build up suspense similar to that of the novel. Still, my dabbling in this genre has made me feel it is an interesting one as long as I stay away from super heroes, which really bore me.

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Day 848: RASL: The Lost Journals of Nikola Tesla

Cover for RASLEvery once in a while, I dabble in graphic novels, without really knowing much about them. I’m not at all interested in the violent or superhero ones that seem to dominate the genre but in the more unusual ones. This volume of RASL pulled me in with its reference to Nikola Tesla. Tesla is one of my husband’s interests, so I picked it up at the library to read together.

Alas, there was no indication on the book that it was part of a series, and it was a little difficult to pick up what was going on. Also, I should have paid more attention to the guy with two blazing guns on the cover.

RASL is an ex-military engineer and art thief whose discovery with his partner of Nikola Tesla’s lost journals has allowed them to create a machine that takes them across parallel universes. RASL has figured out that the work of his previous lab to draw energy from the parallel universes to use in ours will destroy people in all the universes involved. He returns from another universe to find the entire town surrounding one of the labs destroyed and the authorities lying about it being a small accident.

RASL sets out to destroy the labs and Tesla’s notebooks, pursued by the dastardly Agent Crow, who has apparently already killed RASL’s parter, Dr. Miles Riley. RASL is also betrayed by his ex-lover Maya.

The science is unlikely, although the story does give a good background about Tesla (ignoring the fact that he was insane when he died). However, the story devolves into the usual violence.

The art is pretty good, although I didn’t like Smith’s rendition of people’s faces. At least the book isn’t full of rippling muscles and pulchritudinous females.

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Day 330: Adamtine

Cover for AdamtineAdamtine is the second of Hannah Berry’s moody noirish graphic novels after Britten and Brülightly. Whereas the first novel was a noir crime effort with a wry sense of humor (the detective’s partner is a tea bag), it is not clear to me whether Adamtine is a crime or a horror novel.

Four people who know something about an earlier series of disappearances are traveling home on a train when it stops in the middle of nowhere. At the time of the earlier crimes, a man named Rodney Moon was put on trial, but he claimed to have only passed notes to the victims. There are hints of the involvement of a large corporation.

The story is told with flashbacks to the previous crimes, although it was difficult for me to tell sometimes which scenes are those from the past and which are from the present. It was also unclear to me what exactly happens to the people, but perhaps the atmosphere created is of most importance.

The art is beautiful, with its muted, moody tones. I think this graphic novel is visually interesting and intriguing, but I find it difficult at times to completely understand the parts of the narrative that are told only in pictures.

Day 110: Maus I

Cover for MausMaus I is a graphic novel that is both about Art Spiegelman’s relationship with his father, Vladek, and about Vladek’s survival of the Holocaust. The characters are depicted as different types of animals–Jews are mice, Poles are pigs, Germans are cats, Americans are dogs, and Swedes are reindeer. Spiegelman explained in The Comics Journal (according to a reader review on that his idea for using these animals is not entirely original but is extrapolated and expanded from the names the Germans called Poles and Jews.

In the novel, as Vladek tells Art the story of his experience during World War II, they also argue. The story is compelling, although the relationship between the two is less so. Vladek is difficult and eccentric, but Art seems childish and spoiled, with no patience or understanding for his father. However, the novel makes the point that he, too, was scarred by his father’s experiences.

I am not by any means an expert on graphic novels, having only read one other, which was the beautifully illustrated Britten and Brülightly. However, the art in Maus I is so primitive that I could not tell any of the characters of a single species apart except for their clothes. I suppose, though, that that in itself is a statement. Still, the art shows a strength of line and a simplicity that make it interesting.

Maus I is apparently intended for young adults, and as such, is probably a powerful educational piece. I think it is less successful for adults.

Day Fifteen: Britten and Brülightly

Cover for Britten and BrulightlyAnd now for something completely different!

Britten and Brülightly by Hannah Berry is a noir graphic novel. I haven’t read many graphic novels, but this one seems to be outstanding. Most of them look like superhero comic books to me.

Britten is a depressed detective whose partner is a tea bag (I can’t believe I just got the pun of his name! I am so dense sometimes!) who makes humorous comments from inside the pocket of Britten’s (of course) trench coat. Britten takes a case from Charlotte Maughton, who doesn’t believe her fiancé, Berni Kudos, committed suicide. She is convinced he was actually murdered. Britten begins investigating Kudos’s job at Maughton Publishing, because Charlotte thinks Kudos’s death might be connected to a blackmailing scheme aimed at her father. During the investigation, he begins to uncover family secrets.

Although I became confused by the plethora of characters, I was impressed by the drawings, which are detailed and gorgeous. I am no expert on art, but I think they are stunning. To match with the noir theme, they look like watercolors in shades of gray with muted, subtle touches of color.

Reading this book made me more interested in exploring graphic novels, but so far I haven’t seen anything that looked as interesting. Two other highly lauded graphic novels, Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, and Maus, by Art Spiegelman, have compelling themes but much more primitive drawings (in the case of Maus, I couldn’t tell one character of a certain type from another), and I was attracted to Berry’s book mostly by the beautiful art and witty dialogue. Unfortunately, Berry doesn’t seem to have published anything else yet.