Category Archives: Graphic Novels

Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

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Winner of the 2008 Ignatz Award for Outstanding Graphic Novel

Winner of the 2009 Doug Wright Award for Best Book

Shortlisted for the 2008 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature

I’ve talked on this blog before about how young adult lit isn’t really my thing, unless it is a particularly important or well-known piece. Also on this blog, I’ve also talked about how the graphic novel isn’t a genre I’m especially familiar with. In 2011, when a graphic novel, Essex County by Jeff Lemire, was chosen for Canada Reads, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. As I said then, I see graphic novels as not a literary form per se, more of a blend of art and literature – a genre in its own right without parallel. The number of graphic novels in my CanLit collection has grown slightly – I’m up to a whole 5 titles now. That number may grow though, I’m going to be starting to collect the winners of the Governor-General’s Award for Children’s Illustration in the near future now that I’ve gathered all of the fiction, poetry, and drama winners.

Skim fits my aforementioned criteria. It is a young adult graphic novel that is held in high regard in the literary community and was an interesting magnet for some controversy in 2008. No other GG category seems to stir up as much trouble as the Children’s Lit award does (although there was also a snafu in the poetry category this year). This book was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature, but only one of the two “creators” were credited in the nomination – Mariko Tamaki; her cousin, Jillian Tamaki, the illustrator of the book, was omitted. There was an outcry in the comics community over the exclusion because of the collaborative approach taken with this genre (funny enough though, not a peep was made when Jillian herself won the illustration GG for This One Summer last year).

Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim, set in 1993, tells the story of Kimberly Cameron (aka Skim). She is a student at an all-girls high school and is a rather unremarkable average “goth” kid. She goes through the typical crucible of being a teenaged girl – sexuality, shifting friendships, social status, and growing up.

Nothing remarkable happens in this book. If you’ve been to high school, you’ve experienced a lot of what these girls and Skim go through. What is remarkable about this book though, is the way the authors are able to use their particular combination of art and text to build a connection with the title character to the point that you experience her world through her eyes.

The art, from beginning-to-end, is constantly shifting, mirroring the emotional somersaults that take place in the mind of a typical teenager. Jillian Tamaki doesn’t stick to one particular type of illustration – she seamlessly moves from comic strip panels, to full page artwork, to two-page spreads, and to every combination in between. She switches aspects, uses zooming to great effect (I have no other word for it), uses shadows and reflections in interesting ways, and Tamaki is excellent at capturing extremely complex emotion in a single framed facial expression.

In terms of the text, I was interested in the first-person perspective. The text is presented in three different ways – as Skim’s diary entries, her internal stream-of-consciousness, and dialogue. Despite being fairly text heavy compared to the few other literary graphic novels I’ve read, Mariko Tamaki is very efficient with her writing. More importantly though, Tamaki manages to really capture the idioms of teenaged girl without sacrificing the depth and thematic impact of Skim’s story.

So all-in-all, Skim was a very enjoyable read. The primary characters are well developed, the artwork is visually appealing and continually changing, the writing is of a very high quality, and the book deals with themes that will be present as long as teenagers continue to exist. Skim is clear evidence of why Mariko and Jillian Tamaki are powerful forces in the world of the Canadian graphic novel.

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Essex County by Jeff Lemire

Winner of the 2008 American Library Association’s Alex Award

Winner of the 2008 Doug Wright Award

Winner of the 2008 Joe Shuster Award

Selected for Canada Reads 2011

I have strong feelings about Essex County being included in Canada Reads 2011. On Twitter and Facebook my strong conviction that a graphic novel shouldn’t be in this competition has been misconstrued as being “against” the genre; I will admit that this type of book is something that I never reach for, but I am not against this as an artistic form. My objections to its inclusion simply stems from the fact that I do not see the graphic novel as a literary genre; graphic novels are primarily a medium for the visual arts. The cartoons are the star. Now with that out of the way I can get down to business.

As a youngster I was a huge comic book fan but the idea of a “novel” told through comics was a little strange to me. No matter what your feelings on this medium it is hard to deny that graphic novels have exploded in popularity. Many bookstores, including larger independents, have sections dedicated to them. I am not going to attempt to know anything about the big players in this world but with the little bit of research I did before I started Essex County I learned that Jeff Lemire is a very well respected man in the industry, working with DC/Vertigo Comics. Essex County is not one cohesive novel, it is a collection of three smaller books and two short comics that make up the Essex County mythology. I have to admit, I really enjoyed this book. Lemire is an incredibly talented artist.

I loved the artistic style in this book; it has a roughness to it that could be described as gritty. Even on stretches of 5 or 6 pages that do not have a single word of text, Lemire was able to display a wide range of emotions, internal torment, and family strife with a simple subtle change to an illustration. The way the author ties together the three “books” of the collection is masterful; it really does create what feels like folklore. I was amazed at how clearly complex themes came through in this type of book.

After the three main books are finished there are 2 small comics included in the collection. While these were well done I don’t feel like they added much to the overall work. I think that the essence of what Lemire was going for is best represented in the longer works. The “Bonus Materials” section really bugged me. I am one of these people that do not like DVD extras, simply because I do not want to see the wizard behind the curtain. I found seeing these bits and pieces was just that, the magician revealing his secrets. It could be argued that I didn’t have to read it, but, it was in the volume, so I felt I owed it to Mr. Lemire.

Will I be rushing out to buy more graphic novels? No. Is my opinion changed about this book being included in Canada Reads? No. Did I enjoy this book? Yes, absolutely. I was surprised by how much I liked it. This is an entirely new form of storytelling that I was completely ignorant of. With Canada Reads right around the corner I wanted to start (re)reading the titles far enough ahead of time that I would be able to get through them all before the show; Essex County being the behemoth of a book that it is was my first choice as I figured it would take me a long time to get through, I was wrong. I managed to rip through this 500+ page book in only one Sunday. I think this book will be eliminated early from the competition (I am predicting it will be the second to go); I have a feeling that the debates will be centered around the arguments I made above. With all of my prejudices aside I would like to thank Canada Reads for putting a book in my hands that I would otherwise have never even heard of.

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