The first week of March is Will Eisner Week to celebrate comics and graphic novel pioneer Will Eisner in conjunction with his March 6th birthday. While Eisner died in 2005, his influence lives on in the art, content and characters he created. Here are some items to get you started in a deep-dive of Will Eisner.
Start with Eisner’s ground-breaking character The Spirit. Introduced in 1940, masked criminologist Denny Colt — believed by many to be dead — secretly fights crime as The Spirit. From his home in Central City to the far-flung corners of the world and beyond, The Spirit attracts dangerous femmes fatale and wages a never-ending war against streetwise crooks and criminal master-minds with only quick wits, sharp humor and his two gloved fists. The 80th anniversary of The Spirit was celebrated with this all-new collection published in 2020.
A collection of four graphic novels originally published between 1987 and 2000, Will Eisner’s New York: Life in the Big City shows urban vitality through slice-of-life stories. We see boys fishing for treasures in a street grate, lonely shut-ins and nosy housewives, and the building of the subway system. Eisner made observations as he lived and worked in the city — his genius was the transfer of those observations to printed page.
If you’re interested in learning about comics and graphic novels, Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel is a good bet. Part biography, part analysis of Eisner’s work and its impact, this book traces his evolution as an artist, showcasing both previously unpublished materials and famous work.
Celebrate Will Eisner Week, March 1-7, by indulging in your favorite comics or graphic novels. Bonus points if those materials tie back to Will Eisner himself. It’s the perfect excuse to try some of Eisner’s work and see how it has influenced modern storytelling, comics and graphic novels.
While I am no fan of ice and bitter cold temperatures, early February is my favorite time of year, reading-wise. Author Laura Ingalls Wilder was born on February 7, 1867, and died February 10, 1957. I call this “Laura Week” and use the time to read new publications about her or re-read the classic “Little House” series. The world of Laura Ingalls Wilder continues to endure re-examinations 60+ years after her death.
This year I will be reading A Prairie Girl’s Faith by Stephen W. Hines. This book is described as “An extended, in-depth discussion of the Christian faith of one of America’s most beloved pioneer women, Laura Ingalls Wilder.” I recall several scenes in the “Little House” books about Laura attending church services with her family. In On the Banks of Plum Creek, Pa sacrifices money saved for new work boots to contribute toward the church bell. I’m excited to learn how the “real” Laura’s faith shaped her life.
Other recent non-fiction books have taken closer looks at various aspects of Wilder’s life. Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. It puts Wilder and her family in the greater context of the American history they were living. Libertarians on the Prairie by Christine Woodside examines the political influences Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane weaved into the books.
In fiction, Caroline : Little House, revisited by Sarah Miller has been a recent hit for adult readers. This historical fiction novel tells the story of the family’s homesteading attempt in Kansas Indian Territory from Ma’s perspective. You may be familiar with the story from the third book in the children’s series “Little House on the Prairie.”
Many Midwesterners have fond memories of reading the “Little House” series or watching the 1970s Little House on the Prairie TV show, even in reruns. It brings back a comfy nostalgia of simpler times, self-reliance and family togetherness. Those themes seemed particularly significant during a year of quarantining and social distancing. I heard of people turning to Wilder’s The Long Winter to see how her family made it through the 1880-1881 South Dakota winter filled with the blizzards, boredom and monotony — and they didn’t even have wi-fi! It might be worth a revisit for you.
Looking at the “Little House” book series through a modern lens, we see it is not without problems in how it treats Indigenous people and people of color. The American Library Association responded to a re-examination of her work by changing the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award in 2018. Before and after the name change, the award aimed to honor an author or illustrator whose books have made a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature. If you are interested in an academic approach to Laura Ingalls Wilder, I suggest exploring the Davenport Public Library’s Online Reference & Research Resources. The Educator’s Reference database, for example, has several article’s discussing the ALA decision to change the name of the award. A search for “Laura Ingalls Wilder” generates an article with alternatives to the “Little House” series, such as Betsy-Tacy by Maud Lovelace and the Birchbark House series by Louise Erdrich. There are dozens of other full-text articles about Laura Ingalls Wilder, her work and her writing.
The recent passing of “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek inspired me to watch the 2019 documentary Game Changers, about the phenomenon of TV game shows, the hosts, the contestants, and the controversies. Viewers are immediately drawn in as Trebek recites a whimsical poem about all the things he could be when he grows up.
“My parents always said:
Alex, get a good education and you can be anything you want to be.
A miner, a designer, or a Vegas headliner.
A teacher, a preacher, or a deep sea researcher.
An actor, a factor, or a farmer in a tractor.
A banker, a flanker, or captain of an ocean tanker.
No one prepared me for game show host. It wasn’t one of the options in the high school career guide.”
From there, Trebek opens the door to the behind-the-scenes world of game shows. The documentary takes viewers through:
• the history of game shows making the transition from radio to television
• the 1950s game show scandals and how that changed the rules and regulations of the contests
• trends in daytime and prime time game shows
• and the more recent phenomenon of shows like “Deal or No Deal” and “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”
Trebek is featured not only as a subject of the documentary, he also lends himself as the interviewer to other game show hosts such as Drew Carey, Howie Mandel and Regis Philbin. In turn, the hosts talk about how they got their gigs and their thoughts on their unusual jobs. Like his game show host persona, Trebek strikes the perfect balance of not taking himself too seriously in interviews while also protecting the integrity of the hosts.
At times a bit slow, there are enough anecdotes mixed in to make up for it. Pat Sajak’s first impression of Vanna White was that she was “too nervous” for the “Wheel of Fortune” job. The “Jeopardy” think-music will definitely get stuck in your head as Merv Griffin’s son explains how quickly it was written.
Plenty of nostalgia is woven throughout the documentary. Contestants reminisce about watching game shows with grandparents or while home sick from school. This documentary will motivate you to pick up the remote and play along with a TV game show again, perhaps “Jeopardy” as the final Trebek episodes run their course in the coming weeks.
I heard about the 2016 documentary Kedi on the podcast “Movie Therapy with Rafer & Kristen.” The hosts were advising a listener looking for comfort after her beloved cat passed away.
Kedi is a documentary about street cats in Istanbul. The film explores the many ways the cats are viewed by the city’s human inhabitants. For example, one restaurant owner prefers a cat for pest control over chemicals. Another bakery owner considers the neighborhood street cat a nuisance, begging customers for food and refusing to be shooed away. Most often, the cats are loved. A market vendor is the to-go person when a cat is found injured. He has a running tab at the veterinarian’s office. A woman lets one cat come and go as she pleases through the apartment but can’t imagine even attempting to make the street cat a house cat.
Underlying clever cat camerawork is a commentary on a changing city. With buildings rising up and green spaces shrinking at ground level, the documentary’s human participants wonder how the cats will continue navigate their space. But after surviving for thousands of years in the city already, the cats are sure to adjust and change along with the city.
The film is subtitled but like many great documentaries the story is told through visual narratives from which it is impossible to look away. The cats are the stars of the film. Unlike internet cat videos, this isn’t a short clip of a cute trick. Rather, it’s a long observation of the joy and comfort cats can bring to the human experience.
Vacation goes from boring to thrilling with the not-so-simple ring of the phone in Dial H for Hero by Sam Humphries.
Our story begins with young Miguel Montez being rescued by Superman after a swimming pool accident. He spends the rest of his childhood chasing the adrenaline rush, which makes his teen years working in his uncle’s mayonnaise-themed food truck a real drag. In the mist of a dirt bike stunt, Miguel stumbles across a new way to save himself — dial H on the rotary phone falling next to him.
Fellow adrenaline junkie Summer soon joins Miguel — in a stolen food truck, no less — in chasing the rush of being a superhero for one hour every time the H-Dial is activated. Hot on their heels are villains and fellow civilians alike, all wanting to play the superhero fantasy. The catch is, no one has any control over what type of superhero they’ll turn into. Sometimes they are save-the-day archetypes such as Monster Truck or Lo Lo Kick You. Other times, they spend the hour as comically bad superheros, such as Summer becoming Chimp Change, a pistol-toting, fishnet stocking and high heel clad chimpanzee. Miguel is transformed into “Lil’ Miguelito,” a character reminiscent of a Family Circus cartoon.
Miguel and Summer quickly find themselves in over their heads and they take on a new mission: Get the H-Dial back to the one hero they trust — Superman!
Dial H for Hero volumes 1 and 2 are available now through the Davenport Public Library.
On a rainy, mid-quarantine day, I dusted off my old Nintendo Wii. My goal was the play the the last game made for the Wii: Just Dance 2020.
It was the perfect pick-me-up for a day stuck indoors after days of not going anywhere. While I’m not a super-fan of any of the songs, the game is filled with upbeat tracks. I giggled at the throwback “Everybody” from Backstreet Boys. Not having kids of my own means that even “Baby Shark” was a refreshing change of pace. Other songs from around the world kept me challenged to follow along with the unfamiliar beats and rhythms. I threw enough energy at the game so that it counted as my workout for the day. I would recommend this game to fans of the Zumba workout. It was fun to unlock new avatars, compete for stars and rack up points.
Don’t worry if you’ve let your Nintendo Wii fall into disrepair after switching to a Switch or another platform. Just Dance 2020 is available from the Davenport Public Library in the Switch format as well as PlayStation 4 and XBox One.
Despite living in the Quad Cities nearly 20 years I have only a rudimentary knowledge of local jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke. I feel like I am missing out on an important part of local lore.
In the graphic biography Bix by Scott Chantler, the musician’s story is illustrated rather than told. With the use of wordless, static, straight panels we get a sense of Bix’s confining young life when in school and interacting with his parents, particularly his father. As a reader, I can feel the panels trying to fit him into a box, making me feel claustrophobic for the protagonist. Finally the panels begin to float and dance on the page whenever music is in the scene — whether hearing it pass on a riverboat, trying the trumpet for the first time or upon entering a Chicago jazz club.
Once Bix makes the decision to leave Iowa and dedicate his career to music he leads a life typical of young adults: work, good times, and romance. Just when I started to think of Bix as a nice guy who got swept up in talent and fame come scenes that show an in-demand, cocky musician willing to lie and manipulate. In this graphic biography, we don’t hear Bix speak until this part of the book — about a third of the way through. His first conversation? A lie he tells his girlfriend. Bix becomes difficult to work with and unreliable. Static panels return to show drinking as a default reaction to everything — both good and bad. As his drinking spiraled out of control, my heart broke for the lost talent.
I was pleased to catch the familiar scenes of Davenport in the early pages. It took me the better part of an afternoon to read, but the time was spent getting a better sense of of who Bix was beyond his connection to the Quad-Cities. The life of Bix Beiderbecke doesn’t fit neatly into a box. He wasn’t just a ground-breaking, successful jazz soloist. He wasn’t just a wide-eyed innocent guy in over his head. This graphic novel treats its subject with compassion and care while not forgiving him for his self-destructive behavior. Through artful storytelling I have a better understanding of Bix’s multilayered life.
Bix is available on Overdrive as well as physical format.
When I start something new, I have to start at the very beginning. Lately, I’ve been wanting to take a deep dive into the world of graphic novels, but I know I’d quickly get overwhelmed. However, Harleen might be the perfect fit to both start at the beginning and jump into an established universe. The new graphic novel from Stjepan Sejic tells the fall-from-grace origin story of Batman and Gotham City’s favorite antihero — Harley Quinn.
We meet a restless Dr. Harleen Quinzel looking for funding to develop a method for detecting stages of deteriorating empathy. What are the trigger points throughout a lifetime for creating a sociopath? After presenting her theory at a conference she encounters a classic Joker / Batman duel on the streets of Gotham City.
The outcome of this fight is:
- a demoralized Gotham City Police Department and the rise of the Executioners, a group of masked officers taking justice into their own hands.
- newly disfigured District Attorney Harvey Dent taking leadership of the Executioners and veering into his own villainous ways.
- Joker in the Arkham Asylum as a subject of Dr. Quinzel’s study, newly funded by the Wayne Foundation.
When Dr. Quinzel meets her new patient, the Joker (Mr. Jay, she respectfully calls him), she becomes infatuated with him. As she reflects often, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Dr. Quinzel alternates between falling for his manipulation that he is the perfect candidate for her study, therefore an asset to her career, and believing she can cure the Joker from his mental illness.
Dent and the Executioners stage a breakout of the Arkham Asylum. In an effort to protect the Joker, Quinzel kills a security guard, falls into the arms of the Joker and is baptized Harley Quinn.
The characters are complex and intriguing. More than once, I found myself questioning if Harleen and the Joker were manipulating other characters, themselves or me, the reader. Harleen and Harvey Dent struggle to keep a grasp on reality, while the Joker seems eager to get back to a world chaos and madness.
Clear flashbacks and subtle flash-forwards compel the story through a coherent timeline. There is so much set up for future stories, I’m looking forward to reading anything else that comes out of Sejic’s Harleen story and going further into this universe.