Saturday, January 21, 2012

Top 5 graphic novels: animals with issues

List by Danielle

'A cat is a puzzle for which there is no solution.'
~ Hazel Nicholson

Graphic novels featuring animals can be fabulously entertaining, whether the creatures in question are occupied by realistically natural fights for survival, companionship or dominance, or on a more existential quest for the meaning of life. When art accompanies the story, you get to marvel at the artists' ability to nail those aha! moments of animal behaviour and body language - the way a dog obsessively chews a patch of his hair, the hunched shape of a pet rat, the way a cat looks when he's pleased with himself... I borrowed a very funny new graphic novel yesterday, sub-titled 'Sled dogs with issues', which inspired this list - here, then, are a handful of great graphic tales that feature animals facing major life challenges.

Honourable mentions:
Salvatore, which I haven't read but will look to borrow, looks great; likewise Pride of Baghdad
Lions, tigers and bears is a great junior series to get kids started on graphic novels, with plenty of adventure and great character dynamics (but not recommended if the kids in question are scared of toothy monsters in the wardrobe)
Fruits Basket, a wonderful manga (and anime) series about a family who transform into the animals of the zodiac; the story and characters are very cute, but there's an interesting darker side to the family, as well.

The Mouse Guard series
In the Winter of 1152, the Mouse Guard face a food and supply shortage threatening the lives of many mice through a cold and icy season. Some of the Guard's finest - Saxon, Kenzie, Lieam, and Sadie, led by Celanawe, the legendary Black Axe - traverse the snow-blanketed territories acting as diplomats to improve relations between the mouse cities and the Guard, and find themselves on a race against time to deliver crucial medicines. This is a winter not every Guard may survive...

Epic fantasy writ small. These are heroic tales of the warriors of the Mouse Guard, who seek to save their people by a mixture of battle smarts, bravery and sheer persistance against the odds. The art is wonderful, with tonings that shift with the seasons, from the rich browns, reds and golds of autumn to the bleak white-grey-blues of winter.

Joe the Barbarian / Grant Morrison, writer, creator ; Sean Murphy, artist ; Dave Stewart, colorist ; Todd Klein, letterer
Joe Manson is no hero. He's just a 13-year-old kid with a pet rat named Jack, a mom who's trying hard to keep their family afloat, and a case of diabetes that ensures an insulin coma is only a single missed meal away. He's got a notebook full of drawings, a room full of toys, a school full of bullies, and a house full of memories. He's no one special. Until tonight. On this particular evening Joe is transported to an incredible world of danger and daring - one that's both strangely familia and unlike he's ever seen. In this uncanny new world the stairways, hallways and doorways of his big, dark house are mist-shrouded mountains, vast kingdoms and forbidding gateways to parts unknown, while his toys and his pet are mighty warriors, and Joe is the Dying Boy - the long-awaited savior who can overthrow King Death and restore the light...

A wonderful one-off adventure that transforms Joe's night-time, storm-struck house (there's a power outage) into a magical and very dangerous kingdom. There are pirates, and steampunkish inventors, and then there's Jack... Joe's pet white rat and closest friend. In this other world, Jack might look like a mighty warrior with flashing blades, but he's carrying a hefty load of emotional baggage that's left him snarky and surly. He's the runt of the litter, he's woefully claustrophobic, his recently executed gang of brothers despise him; he has an awful lot to prove.

The Rabbi's cat series / Joann Sfar
The preeminent work by one of France's most celebrated young comics artists, The Rabbi's Cat tells the wholly unique story of a rabbi, his daughter, and their talking cat - a philosopher brimming with scathing humor and surprising tenderness. In Algeria in the 1930s, a cat belonging to a widowed rabbi and his beautiful daughter, Zlabya, eats the family parrot and gains the ability to speak. To his master's consternation, the cat immediately begins to tell lies (the first being that he didn't eat the parrot). Full of drama and adventure, their trip invites countless opportunities for the rabbi and his cat to grapple with all the important - and trivial - details of life.

Very funny, with a dry sense of humour and the catlike impulse to puncture pretensions wherever they're met. The unfamiliar setting gives the backdrop to the cat's adventures a lot of interesting detail, and the cat's beautifully-observed body language, in particular, adds to the humour. This is definitely a cat with issues (aren't they all?!) - not the least of which, he's never sure if gaining the ability to speak is a blessing or a curse.

The unwritten series
Tom Taylor's life was screwed from go. His father created the Tommy Taylor fantasy series, boy-wizard novels with popularity on par with Harry Potter. The problem is Dad modeled the fictional epic so closely to Tom's real life that fans are constantly comparing him to his counterpart, turning him into the lamest variety of Z-level celebrity. In the final novel, it's even implied that the fictional Tommy will crossover into the real world, giving delusional fans more excuses to harass Tom. When an enormous scandal reveals that Tom might really be a boy-wizard made flesh, Tom comes into contact with a very mysterious, very deadly group that's secretly kept tabs on him all his life.

Okay, so the animals with issues are only a fairly small side-bar in Mike Carey's story, but they really are animals with ISSUES - the way the puppets in Meet the Feebles are puppets with ISSUES. Pauly Bruckner is a bit part - a minor enemy of Tom Taylor's father - who for various reasons winds up in rabbit form in a nice, cosy little fictional hell of his own called Willowbank Wood. Pauly Bruckner is not cute, bunny material, though, and it's not long before he's going on a severely foul-mouthed rampage in order to get back where he belongs. Watch as nasty Mr Bun crosses paths with frustratingly helpful hedgehogs and dogs (vol 2, Inside man), or looks to overthrow wise old Badger (vol 4, Leviathan). Oh, he is a very, very bad bunny.

Mush! : sled dogs with issues / written by Glenn Eichler, art by Joe Infurnari
Venus wants Buddy to quit asking her to screw. Buddy wants Winston’s help wooing Venus. Winston wants Guy’s respect. Guy wants Dolly’s job. Dolly wants to know the meaning of it all. Nobody knows what Fiddler really wants, not even Fiddler. But mostly . . . these sled dogs just want to run. Sounds simple? It should be, but even dogs have their office politics. And let's not even start on their humans.

Like a bumper episode of Seinfeld, but with more dominance fights and conversations about being on heat. Funny and very very human problems make these dogs instantly recognisable, though their more animal behaviour is wonderfully depicted as well. The human relationship in the background has an interesting path, too. A great, quick read with art a little reminiscent of Footrot Flats. Highly recommended.

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