Graphic Novel Roundup – December

I thought that seeing as I had a few graphic novels to review this month that I would do more of a wrap up post, rather than individual reviews. The three graphic novels have all been very different to each other. Coltrane tells the story of the famous Jazz musician John Coltrane, Bye Bye Babylon contains the narration of the war in Beirut between 1975 – 79 from a child’s perspective and Hark! A Vagrant is a collection of history based web comics.

Coltrane by Paolo Parisi

This Italian artist and storyteller has set out to educate the world on the life of legendary jazz musician, John Coltrane. The book focuses on Coltrane’s personal life and is interspersed with snapshots of his time in the studios recording some of the most notable jazz of the 20th century. I was only partly familiar with Coltrane’s music and took an immediate interest in the book.

The story is gritty and features a kaleidoscope of emotions from the joy of family to the breakdown of lives from drug use. As with many famous blues and jazz artists the subjects of depression, alcoholism and drugs are prominent. Each of these moments is highlighted greatly by Paolo’s illustrations.

The entire book is black and white and features simple line drawing which highlights the bare emotions on display. His use of light and shadow draws the eye to featured characters and moments that would perhaps otherwise escape your attention, had it been coloured. Each stroke of ink is brusque and stylised; it’s wonderfully easy on the eye, yet utterly punchy, too. Paolo uses his limited visuals to depict sorrow and self destruction incredibly well.

What is communicated via both the story and art is passion for the arts. Paolo commits to his passion for art and story and his central character, Coltrane, concisely delivers his passion for music on a plate. Above anything this is a story about love and music and how they journey hand in hand. However, at times the story itself can get a little dull. Perhaps it is because we are reading about music, which ultimately takes away that raw aural feedback that would be delivered by way of film. I felt as if when I was reading I wanted to hear Coltrane’s sweeping jazz to accompany the art and while I did load up Spotify to do so, this shouldn’t be needed.

Bye Bye Babylon by Lamia Ziade

To call Bye Bye Babylon a graphic novel is possibly a little misleading. It is, in fact, an amalgamation of memoirs, artist’s sketch book and a history lesson. The book tells of the years 1975 -79, in Beirut and the war that ravaged the country. What Bye Bye Babylon does differently, however, is tell the story from the perspective of a young girl. At seven years old Lamia Ziade dreams of a simple life of ice cream and bubblegum but suddenly her world is tipped on its head.

What Ziade does so effortlessly is deliver the horror of war and its brutality through the use of bold colours and simple art that heightens the fact that we are listening to child’s life. This of course reinforces the stupidity of war in general. When you read about a young girl’s warmest memory literally bombed to oblivion you are simply left aghast. Imagine that the place where you ate your first hamburger with family was destroyed by militia with rocket propelled grenades; it’s not a pretty picture.

Though bizarrely, Ziade’s book is filled with pretty pictures. It is like looking through a child’s eyes. Ziade illustrates the novel flitting back and forth from colourful advertising that would be seen in Beirut to greyscale images of men being dragged behind cars. Her use of art is in fact so precise that her accompanying story could be left out and the pictures would tell the tale just as well.

While the book can teach a great many things about Beirut and its conflicts at times the book can become a little too heavy leaving the reader wanting to take a breath and look away for a while. There’s only so many smiling militia brandishing AK-47’s one can look at and while that adds authenticity it can leave the reader a little exhausted. Having said that, Bye Bye Babylon lives up to exactly what it is… a story about a young girl surrounded by war and it is a great book for it.

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

Hark! A Vagrant is a collection of web comics from Kate Beaton’s website of the same name. Her comics deal generally with historical characters and the quirkiness of what has come before us. There are also smatterings of pop culture and literature references and everything is caught by Beaton’s humorous mind.

I only have one gripe with this book, that it isn’t really needed. Other than Beaton’s ongoing commentary explaining her ideas behind each comic strip, you can find most, if not all, of these strips on her website. However, if you don’t like to read on a bright screen or want a comprehensive book of Beaton’s best work, then you’re in for a treat.

Her art style is awkwardly wonderful in that each panel of the comic is rather crude but still retains enough artistic integrity to become a thing of beauty. Her humour is sometimes a little off the mark and of course her full use of history may put some off, but overall there’s plenty here to keep you laughing. I particularly loved her comics about Sexy Batman and Jules Verne… not in the same strip; although I’m sure Beaton could have even pulled that off.

Strangely enough the book does actually teach you as you read, although at times you may wonder if you are reading fact or a bizarre slice of fiction. This would actually be a great book for younger people who want a slight grasp on history or something to alleviate the monotony of lectures.

If you like history and jokes, or if you don’t like history but like jokes (though the jokes may skim over your head a little), then this is a book for you. If you don’t like jokes, then I can’t help you. Nobody can.


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