Week 19 (Sam): The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

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Reader: Sam

Topic #14: Read a book about war

Book: The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (1990)

“They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”

The Vietnam War is quietly simmering and Alpha Company, composed of around eighteen men, wanders the Vietnamese jungle, looking for people that they ought to kill or villages they ought to burn. There is nothing remarkable about Alpha Company; they’re just one of many companies in the war, and their job is roughly the same as the others. Yet, they’re not interchangable drones of course; they’re people with little quirks of their own. Henry Dobbins wears his girlfriend’s pantyhose as a comforter, for instance, and Ted Lavender smokes dope and takes tranquilizers. But whoever they may be, their long days and long nights are spent just like the other soldiers, looking for an enemy as elusive as wind in the foliage. During the Vietnam War, all the terror and exhaustion Alpha Company carry with them every day are simply a matter of routine.

Written by a Vietnam veteran two decades after the war, The Things They Carried is an unconventional cocktail of autobiography and fiction. The stories Tim O’Brien tells are somewhat true to his experience, but he openly admits to changing the details. The book can be read as a series of short stories, but the interrelations between them suggest a unified narrative that is best appreciated when read in its entirety. Although written with a consistent voice, each story embraces a different relationship to fact and fiction with a result that is striking in its originality.

Echoing Alpha Company’s deliberate detachment from the emotional burden of the war, most of The Things They Carried is written with a numbed distance from the action, whatever it might be. In the opening story, for instance, O’Brien narrates a moment when a soldier is shot and killed with no more urgency than scenes where soldiers are making jokes or marching in silence. That man’s death is the axle upon which everything else in the story turns, but its emotional weight is left to speak for itself, a faint murmur of grief. This quiet tone is well-suited to O’Brien’s masterful prose, where every word resonates with echoes of grief so terrible it cannot be confronted directly. The power grief has to transform O’Brien’s writing is subtler than with most authors, the moments of rawest emotion manifesting not through changes in the vocabulary or rhythm of individual clauses, but through the use of massive run-ons, assembling a chain of dozens of these unremarkable clauses into sentences that become slightly more passionate with every comma that passes by, however much the language may belie these feelings.

There isn’t enough space to discuss all twenty-one stories individually, but I do have some favorites: Tim O’Brien describes his brief stint as a draft dodger; years after the war, one of Alpha Company drives around aimlessly, dreaming of telling someone about the time he let someone die, but never quite having the courage; a bitter O’Brien pioneers a scheme to terrify an army medic who nearly let him die. These are some of the longer, more substantial stories, but they are joined together with shorter asides, more abstract meditations on what it was to actually live the war. In these shorter segments O’Brien explores more directly the ideas he develops in the longer ones: that one never forgets the war, and the senselessness of it seems to cry for explanation, and that sometimes it takes some leniency as far as the literal truth goes to convey the emotionally honest truth of one’s experience with the war.

The dreamlike manner in which The Things They Carried drifts between different degrees of truthfulness is not just a thematic gesture, but also the book’s deepest joy. In spite of the seriousness of the subject matter, following along becomes a game of spotting the lies. O’Brien will tell stories about terrible tragedies he experienced, only for him to later tell the reader that they happened to someone else, or in a different place or at a different time, or maybe they didn’t even happen at all, but seemed like the sort of thing that might have happened. Although his prose never falters in its beauty, reading through multiple accounts of the same event, sifting through different levels of fictionality, one senses O’Brien’s befuddled impatience as he tweaks details of the same stories, trying to find the versions that capture his feelings completely. At times, he explicitly challenges the value of literal truth, saying that between “happening truth,” which is events as they actually occurred, and “story truth,” which is events as they seemed to happen, the latter may be more truthful. The Things They Carried serves as proof of his vision of “story truth” because although the details are always shifting, the pain that O’Brien is trying to convey comes through clearly, unchanging.

A sense of truthfulness hangs over everything, lie or not, largely because of how convincingly the soldiers of Alpha Company are written. There is plenty of cartoonish machismo and morbid humor, but unlike some movie portrayals, it is not the only way these soldiers communicate with one another. Sometimes they’re scared or angry, lovesick or embarrassed, and although they may try to hide it, they are all human underneath. Their humanity is the pillar of the book, lending urgency to the pain they experience, and making irrelevant the question of whether a given event really happened to Tim O’Brien himself. Even if it didn’t happen to him, in a whole war full of soldiers just like him, someone must have gone through something similar.

Altogether, it’s difficult to imagine a more heartfelt or more quietly striking exploration of the grief of war. The fact that the details are so muddled and O’Brien’s narration is openly so uncertain at times what he is trying to say only increases the emotional power he wields with every elegant sentence. To a certain extent, uncertainty is itself the point, since as the decades have passed, alienating him from his experience, the war has taken on a strange distance, even though at times, it seems to O’Brien to be recurring in front of his eyes from the sheer intensity of the memory.

There is one story in the book, “In the Field,” which feels redundant with other, better stories, and for this minor flaw alone, I cannot quite give The Things They Carried a perfect score. Otherwise, it is a beautiful book, passionate, confused; even haunted, in a way. Haunted by the men O’Brien killed, the men he watched die, and the man he used to be, a long time ago.

Final Grade: A

Week 18 (Blaga): The Adventures of Superhero Girl, by Faith Erin Hicks

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Reader: Blaga

Task #18: Read a superhero comic with a female lead

Book: The Adventures of Superhero Girl, by Faith Erin Hicks

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (2013)

 

Superhero stories can be fantastic (both literally and figuratively), but they can sometimes take themselves a bit too seriously, perhaps? What better way to enjoy a superhero story and simultaneously address real issues than through a parody, then? Faith Erin Hicks’ The Adventures of Superhero Girl accomplishes exactly that, and teases quite a few laughs along the way. Originally a children’s comic serialized in The Coast paper (and later published online in its entirety), Hicks’ work consists of a series of vignettes exploring the day-to-day adventures and mishaps of Superhero Girl—a 20-something Canadian girl who is trying to establish herself as a superhero and also navigate normal life.

What initially drew me to The Adventures of Superhero Girl was Hicks’ aesthetic style, since as a comic reader, I tend to be very picky about visuals. Relatively simple, Hicks’ style is fun and easy on the eye; it also lends support to the comedic tone of the story. Although the original was in black-and-white, this edition proves that the art is a great match for colorist Cris Peter. His palette is bright and fun, and his use of Ben-Day dots is a nice homage to the tradition of comic design. Another interesting feature of this graphic novel is its horizontal layout, retained from when it was a newspaper comic. At first, this made it seem larger than standard graphic novels, but upon comparison, it has exactly the same dimensions (even in hard cover). There is an average of five to ten panels per page, which are clearly divided and spaced. It should be noted, however, that Hicks makes a sharp shift in layout: in the first twenty pages or so, the panels are divided only by lines, and take their aforementioned form only after that. This would not have been too noticeable, had it not been done right in the middle of a story. As a result, difference is clear and slightly uncomfortable on the eye.

Another issue that came up from time to time was the lack of division between the vignettes. The Adventures of Superhero Girl is a collection of vignettes, telling episodes from the life of Superhero Girl. The stories are loosely connected chronologically, and have certain motifs present throughout (e.g. Superhero Girl’s search for an arch nemesis, her jealousy of her big brother’s success, etc.), but sometimes reading at the comic’s brisk pace, one can miss the ending of one story until well after the start of the next one. This is partially due to the difference in the stories’ length. While most are multiple-pages-long, others might last for only a page. Here, Hicks’ lack of clear transitions works against her. Although this would have made sense in the original format, in a compilation, this is often confusing and, in the case of the story’s abrupt ending, annoying. In that sense, The Adventures of Superhero Girl cannot be called a proper graphic novel; a collection of short stories would be more appropriate, as short stories can follow the same characters and themes, but do not have to follow any particular order, or be limited to a single plot.

While The Adventures of Superhero Girl has a number of stylistic troubles,, its real strength lies in the content of the narrative itself. While successfully parodying established superhero tropes, Hicks also tells a story about a girl coming of age. Superhero Girl is in her early twenties, living away from home and struggling to establish herself as a superhero—not very successfully—while balancing that with her “real” life. Even while battling ninjas and monsters, she needs to think about finding a job and making new friends, although at one point she admits to having forgotten how to deal with anyone that she doesn’t need to punch. It doesn’t help that her older brother has a far more successful—if conventional—superhero career, and she constantly feels obligated to prove herself and crawl out of his shadow. Her awkwardness and unceasing determination makes for a relatable heroine, one that both the intended audience (8-14) and older readers (especially those of us in our early to mid-twenties who are just beginning on the path of adulthood) will enjoy.

While unbalanced and not well-transitioned from a serial into a graphic novel, The Adventures of Superhero Girl provides for a fun and interesting read. Its strong visuals and thoughtful—often hilarious—content redeem it. While I am not sure that I will ever come back to it, I still find myself satisfied with having read it.

Week 17 (Sam): Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson; Art by Adrian Alphona, Jacob Wyatt, Elmo Bondoc, and Takeshi Miyazawa

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Reader: Sam

Topic #18: Read a superhero comic with a female lead

Book: Ms. Marvel  Vol. 1 No Normal (Issues #1-5), Vol. 2 Generation Why (Issues #6-10) and Vol. 3 Crushed (Issues #11-15)

Written by G. Willow Wilson, with art by Adrian Alphona, Jacob Wyatt, Elmo Bondoc, and Takeshi Miyazawa

 


“No matter how bad things get, there are always people who rush in to help. And according to my dad…they are blessed.”


 

In a world full of superheroes, sixteen-year-old Kamala Khan of Jersey City constantly falls short of her own daydreams. She wishes she could somehow join the ranks of the heroes she idolizes, especially Carol Danvers, the dazzlingly blonde Captain Marvel, but the possibility hardly seems worth considering. As a Pakistani-American Muslim, she already finds it impossible enough just to be something approaching normal in her largely white high school. But like it or not, normal just isn’t an option after a mysterious blue mist awakens shapeshifting abilities that propel Kamala into a life of crime-fighting that she used to experience only through fan fiction. Of course, being a superhero isn’t as glamorous as she assumed, and balancing two parallel lives might be more than dangerous; it might make it even harder for Kamala to figure out who she really is.

I’m not typically a reader of superhero comics, or really western comics in general, and in reviewing Ms. Marvel, I had to make some critical choices. Like many superhero comics, this one doesn’t seem to be written with a specific end in mind, so I had to choose a cut-off point. Given how short they are, one trade paperback seemed like far too little, so I arbitrarily chose to read three of them. The resulting experience failed to reach the standards of brevity and efficiency that I expect from stories, but I’ve chosen to at least show some leniency when it comes to loose-ends just in case they are going to be resolved in time. I will focus instead on how effective the story has been so far.

In a superhero story, nothing is more crucial than the superhero herself. Thankfully Kamala Khan (aka Ms. Marvel) is an excellent pillar for the series as a whole. She is not a particularly subtle or original character, but writer G. Willow Wilson has embraced the broad characteristics that make Kamala overpoweringly likeable. Whether she’s awkwardly bumbling her way through an interrogation by her overprotective parents or going gaga at the prospect of getting to fight alongside Wolverine, everything she does is pure nerdy, awkward “Kamala Khan.” The strength of her personality opens up the door to stories that are just as much about her emotional life as they are about the villains she’s fighting, and this not-fully-tapped potential is the greatest strength of the series. Visually, Kamala Khan is a triumph as well, at least as she is portrayed by lead-off artist, Adrian Alphona, who worked on the  Apart from her excellent costume design (as revealed in issue #5), Kamala’s face is a perfect medium of expression. Her youth and awkwardness are made visible in every jutted-out chin, in every bit lip or strikingly wide-open grin.

Unfortunately, Adrian Alphona is not the only lead artist in the first fifteen issues, and none of the others are able to match the lofty standard he sets. Artists Elmo Bondoc (Issue #12) and Takeshi Miyazawa (Issues #13-15) put in strong efforts and produce results worth reading, but Jacob Wyatt (Issues #6-7) seems to have no idea how to draw the lead character. Kamala’s off-kilter expressions are conspicuously absent for both issues drawn in this style, along with her memorably curly hair, the result being that she doesn’t even look like the same person. So, although those issues maintain the same high level of character writing, and feature too many alligator-fights to be considered a waste of time, it’s impossible to be emotionally invested in a story about Kamala Khan when the protagonist simply looks so little like her.

Sadly, the story in the first three trades is more a lesson on wasted potential than it is effective in its own right. For instance, a striking idea introduced in the very first issue is that when Khan transforms into her superhero identity, her uncontrolled shapeshifting abilities turn her into a mirror image of Captain Marvel, the white, blonde superheroine she idolizes. This was a perfect opportunity for meditation on the nature of internalized racism when it comes to personal identity, but just as the comic seems positioned to tell a story about this, it drops the whole thing entirely and Kamala gains the ability to fight crime with her own skin tone and face (behind a mask, of course). While Kamala’s discomfort at reconciling her superhero identity with her Pakistani-American Muslim identity is still very much a part of her character afterwards, the most striking symbol of her anxiety is never properly addressed or explored. G. Willow Wilson already threw away the most striking symbol of that struggle for seemingly no reason. There’s a similarly slapdash effort in regard to Kamala’s conflict with her first major antagonist, a bird-headed man with the mind of Thomas Edison. In addition to the goofy fun of fighting the famous inventor’s army of robots and sewer-dwelling alligators, there is the outline of a truly great story here about the pressures the modern world places on millennials. Sadly, other than a couple of moments that allude to this theme in an intentionally obscure way, and one clumsy scene near the end of the arc where Kamala just outright states what the story’s theme is, there isn’t much work put into making the theme feel central to the action. If the angst of teenagers who feel nothing but despair for their futures was more deeply explored and felt, this would have been an incredible story, but what we got falls short of that.

If my standards for this comic were simply concerned with the broad strokes of the set-up and the potential of the series in a general sense, I would label Ms. Marvel a tremendous success. It stars a wonderful protagonist with a simple but interesting set of powers and some great art. It has a strong sense of identity, percolating with questions about how a child of immigrants can comfortably live as an American. Also, there’s an adorable giant dog—did I mention that? Of course, a story isn’t judged on the broad strokes alone, and it’s in the details that Ms. Marvel goes astray. It gestures toward a great story, but somehow never quite finds time to tell it.

Final Grade: C

Week 16 1/2 (Blaga): Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson

Reader: Blaga

Task #6: Read an all-ages comic

Book: Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson

Publish19351043.jpger: Harper Collins (2015)

When former-knight-turned-supervillain Ballister Blackheart comes home one day, he finds a girl waiting at his lab. Her name is Nimona, she is a shape-shifter, and she wants to become his sidekick despite his initial reluctance. With the help of both magic and advanced science, the two of them wreak havoc across the kingdom. Their goal: to prove that the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics and its champion, Sir Ambrosious Goldenloin (who has a complicated history with Blackheart), are not as righteous or law-abiding as they appear.

I first heard about Nimona from a friend in college. At the time, it was still only a web comic- the print version did not come out until later. I find that it made the transition smoothly between the two formats. On average, there are six to seven panels per page, filling the space but also leaving enough room in the margins so as not to seem cluttered. The panels are large and easy to see, although the font for the dialogue is a bit small. Stevenson’s backgrounds are relatively low in detail, employing a lot of solid greens and reds. The simple backgrounds balanced well with the novel’s complex plot, which was full of little subtleties that required the reader’s full attention.

What I love most about the comic are Stevenson’s multi-layered characters. Ballister Blackheart’s name is perfect for a supervillain, and “Ambrosious Goldenloin” for a champion. Despite his dark hair,  red cape and a mechanical arm, Ballister lives by a high moral code (which Nimona finds un-super-villain-like). In contrast, Ambrosious has flowing golden hair, and wears golden armor and a green cape as part of his long effort to appear heroic, but his place as champion came at a high cost. The two are arch enemies, but their relationship is not so simple – at the bottom of it all, there lies a deep friendship and probably, as Stevenson subtly implies, something more than that.

Nimona herself is quite complicated. At first glance, she is a fun, punky shape-shifting youngster looking to wreak havoc. It all looks like a game on the surface, but it eventually becomes clear that there is something more sinister to her than she is willing to show. She is a loyal and determined sidekick to the end, however; her relationship with Sir Ballister develops into trust and true friendship. Stevenson builds their relationship with a series of “mundane” moments that are a lot of fun nevertheless, such as a zombie-movie night (Ballister, ever the scientist, is not at all impressed with the scientific inaccuracy, much to Nimona’s annoyance).

Two supporting characters also merit mention: the director of the Institution, who is the de facto main antagonist, and Dr. Meredith Blitzmeyer, a prototypical mad scientist who has invented a machine that will prove very important to the story. I appreciated the fact that both are women in positions that are still not female-friendly in our world: a position of political power, and a position in scientific research. Like with everything in this story, Stevenson defies the set standard here as well, although I would have liked her to give Dr. Blitzmeyer more room to develop as a character.

One great piece of world-building is the way Nimona mashes medieval and modern together. It is set in a kingdom ruled from a palace; it has an Institution which trains knights and upholds law and order; people generally dress in medieval fashion. And yet, the world also brims with highly developed technology; a newscast which features a very modern-looking anchor; a science fair where we first meet Dr. Blitzmeyer. Nimona and Sir Ballister even discuss using genetically modified dragons at one point. Ballister is a very modern sort of nerd, getting overly excited about all things “science,” while Nimona – who would prefer to be blowing something up – quickly grows bored.

I truly adored this graphic novel. Both visually and narratively, I was always having a great time. There is, I think, something for everyone in it. The ending, true to the concept, is deeply satisfying and emotionally nuanced, if a little sad. When I finished, I was left wishing there could be more. Highly recommended.