Monday, September 27, 2004

Graphic Novel Review

The Cincinnati Library has two graphic novels that you should read (better yet, buy them and give the artists some dough).

The one that has got the most press lately is Birth of a Nation. Written by Aaron McGruder (Boondocks) and Reginald Hudlin (House Party, Boomerang, Bebe's Kids, and other movies) and illustrated by Kyle Baker (Why I Hate Saturn, a well-regarded graphic novel), Birth of a Nation was conceived as a movie chronicling the history of Blackland, the former municipality of East St. Louis.

After election fraud robs thousands of black citizens of their right to vote, a bumbling, conservative governor from Texas takes the White House. Outraged, the mayor of East St. Louis declares his independence from the U.S., establishing the nation of Blackland. James Brown is on the $100 bill, the national anthem is sung to the tune of the theme from "Good Times," and the flag is red, black, and green with Jesus in the center ("Hey, it was mostly old people at the Nation Time meetings. . .You know how old black folk feel about Jesus.")

Overall, it's a great book. The only problem I had with it is that it still feels like a movie, not a comic. It's about the length of a typical movie but could have been longer. The situations and visuals seem to be written for a movie. The degree of "outrageousness" seems perfect for a movie but aren't as extreme as a comic could take them. This doesn't make the story bad but I think it would have been much better on film.

The opposite of Birth of a Nation is American Splendor Presents Bob and Harv's Comics. The stories mainly cover the not-so-superheroic life of Harvey Pekar, a file clerk in Cleveland. Years before Seinfeld hit it big with a show about nothing, Pekar essentially did the same thing with his real life. The eternally strange R. Crumb provides the artwork—it's not as shocking as some of his underground stuff but it fits with Pekar's situations and story-telling. Some stories run four panels, others are several pages, but each one is its ideal length. The pacing, the presentation, the mesh of words and art all precisely fit the medium.

I've been a fan of Aaron McGruder for a while but avoided American Splendor up to this point (although I can't tell you why). I can't think of a better contemporary comic strip than Boondocks but American Splendor is a better comic. Birth of a Nation has a great story and I urge everyone to buy a copy if for no other reason than to piss off the tight-asses but it still feels like an adaptation of the greatest movie never made. Maybe if the book sells well enough, a Hollywood producer will take a chance on it. . . although as perfect as it is for film media, a studio would feel compelled to "improve" things. They did make a movie based on American Splendor but I doubt if anyone's got the inclination to give Birth of a Nation the treatment it deserves.

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