Archive for January, 2010

I was very interested to read this graphic novel; it seemed like a great idea because it could bring visual drama/excitement to the US Constitution. Sadly, I was disappointed with the end result.

Every page was busy. It seemed that something was out of balance on every page. There was either too much text, too many colors, the drawings were too busy, or D) a combination of all of the above. Pages 84 & 85 are a good example of too much text. I turned the page and immediately felt overwhelmed. Instead of following each caption and image I focused on the two pages from a distance. My first reaction was to simply close the book or skip these pages, but I soldiered through the text. It wasn’t until page 138 that I felt at ease with the layout. This page (and half of page 139) used a fair amount of white space as a backdrop rather than small gutters or white space within frames.

On many pages there were no borders, the frames extended all the way to the edge and into the center binding. This effect added to the overwhelming effect of the visual and textual imagery. On page 90 the text box is not only cut off at the page edge, but so is the text. This may have been a printer error, or it may have been designed purposefully, but it was distracting. Maybe the purpose of creating such busy pages, so full of text, color and imagery was simply to show the immensity of the US constitution and amendments?

Text was often difficult to read. On some pages the text was very small, it would be a pastel on a dark background, the text would even be directly laid over imagery, or the text would be in cursive. At first I squinted to read some text, but after a while I simply skipped over text that was difficult to read–it was too much work and it irritated me. After a while I began to just wish the book was finished, not because I didn’t like the material, but because I didn’t like the way the book was put together.

That being said, there were a few things I also liked about the graphic novel. I enjoyed the historical introduction to the inception of the constitution. I especially enjoyed pages 4-5 (We People) and the fact that the author took the time to create a diverse body of ethnicities (which I didn’t see much of during the rest of the book). There were a few images that I thought were nice adaptions of modern society into the ideas of the constitution: one was on page 22 with the “do it yourself kit” to build America. Additionally I thought that the depiction of the evolution of law using the fish–>ape–>human comical. Later, on page 55 I enjoyed the design of the election process pictured as the cogs of a wheel. Each of these exemplify a good command of symbols to portray ideas.

My takeaway thought: be gently on the eye. Too much complexity, IMO, takes away from the power of the image and textual juxtaposition.

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Before opening this graphic novel I had only read Kafka’s short story, The Hunger Artist, and learned a bit about Kafka’s life. This novel, by Robert Crumb and David Zane Mairowitz delves into Kafka’s major life experiences (or issues if you will) and some of his major works. The graphic novel covers the arch of his life, from childhood to his death, primarily using quotes from Kafka as captions for the imagery. Unlike many graphic novels I’ve read previously, Crumb and Mairowitz also include textual comments throughout the novel interspersed with the images and their captions. The drawings are in black and white, which I think is excellent and powerful. Had the imagery been colorful, or even three toned colors it would have detracted from the spooky form of the novel. Even with a smattering of experience with Kafka’s work and background, I felt a more complete understanding of the fear and inability to engage emotionally through the visual interpretations of his written work. If visual art can be Kafkaesque, Crumb and Mairowitz have accomplished it.

I found the depictions of eyes, throughout the graphic novel, to be particularly spooky. On page 30 Kafka’s father is portrayed with blank eyes and the caption reads “He’s still a giant, my father”. The next panel then shows Kafka himself with the same blank eyes. It’s a powerful way of showing that he and his father don’t see eye to eye. A friend of mine once said that the eyes are the window to the soul. I feel, in this case, Kafka and his father have both closed their souls off from each other. It’s a striking image that visually explores the depth (or lack of) of their father son relationship issues. Giving both characters also shows that they’ve cut themselves off emotionally from the rest of the world; they are devoid of normal human emotional interaction. This certainly seems to be Kafka’s feelings towards his father, and is exhibited by his lifelong inability to commit to a serious interpersonal relationship with anyone other than his pen, ink, and paper. Later, on page 72, Kafka’s eyes are drawn with circular lines and no pupil. Crumb uses text to explain that writing was a form of self-hypnosis for Kafka–hence the concentric circles representing his eyes. This symbol of hypnosis is exceptionally haunting. Kafka almost appears as though he were inhuman, just as he often imagines himself to be in his written work.

Crumb has used the eye as a symbol to convey many personal emotions of the characters, but also of the relationships that exist between them and the world that surrounds them. I’ve read some of Kafka’s work, and some criticism of his work, but these images have conveyed more deeply the fear and absurd ideas that Kafka exhibited in his personal life and writings. The combination of textual narrative, direct quotes, literary work, and graphic images come together to portray a complete and eerie depiction of Kafka’s life. In one word–intense.

Audrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveler’s Wife was a national bestseller and was made into a major motion picture. A friend’s comment on facebook inspired me to purchase Niffenegger’s debut novel before seeing the flick on my 37″ flatscreen at home. The friend had posted a comment about how the movie was disappointing after reading the book, and now I’m not sure I want to see the movie. There were few moments in reading The Time Traveler’s Wife that I didn’t feel like closing the book and picking up the Cormack McCarthy novel Suttree instead.

So lets start with the good. The plot was a novel idea. Heh. Pun intended. Henry, the c0-main-character, has chrono-placement disorder CPD, aka he time travels and he has no control over it. The book is written generally chronologically in time, Clare’s time, from the first time she (at six) meets her future husband, to her at 82 years old. Nifennegger jumps about a bit, to give the reader a sense of Henry’s disorienting experience of life. It’s a new way of telling a story, so that was good.

Unfortunately, Niffenegger, lacks a few essential skills as a writer. Hopefully this novel isn’t the best idea she’s thought of, because her prose is lackluster. Don’t get me wrong, there were a few beautiful moments, but they were overshadowed by her poor understanding of metaphor. There was one metaphor that stood out as deeply egregious in my mind. Henry takes his daughter(s) out for ice cream and states that they eat their banana splits like vacuums. Metaphors are very visual usage of words, so lets zoom in and have a look of what a vacuum eating a banana split would look like. Oh, vacuums don’t eat. Good point. And most vacuums don’t suck liquid either. So really it would just mash the banana and ice cream into the carpet making a giant sticky mess. So children often make messes when they eat, but the point is–it was a bad metaphor, and the book is loaded with them.

Additionally Niffenegger doesn’t seem to mind relying on the cliché. Clare has heard things a gazillion times. I wonder, mathematically, how much of your life would be spent listening to the same thing in order to hear it a gazillion times. These phrases generalize rather than painting a clear picture of what’s happened. Maybe she actually heard it ten times and was feeling frustrated with the repetition. Niffenegger could be more suave with her word choice and metaphors.

Finally, and most importantly to me, Clare and Henry both speak with the same voice. Sometimes I would have to search around to figure out who was speaking to me. At least the sections are labeled as to who is speaking, but they still both speak with the same voice. Working in first person is not easy, but every person thinks differently, and since much of The Time Traveler’s Wife is in thought it seems natural that Henry and Clare should have different thought processes and different tones, different voices.

All in all, if I’d picked this book up when I wasn’t on vacation I probably wouldn’t have expended the energy to finish it. The story itself is excellent, but Niffenegger’s execution isn’t.