Theseus and the Minotaur

theseus and the minotaurTheseus and the Minotaur

by Yvan Pommaux

Toon, 2014

I grew up with ancient mythology. My parents met in graduate school, themselves 1/2 of the first cohort of Classics PhD students at the University of Washington (three men and one woman–my mom used to joke that my dad “won” the contest) and our childhoods were steeped in the stories of ancient Greece and Rome. Indeed, the ancient world was everywhere, in the pictures on the walls, the statues on the tabletops, the books on the shelves, even the secretive Latin conversations at the dinner table. And the myths were our bedtime stories. Think about that for a minute. I remember being five years old and feeling plainly terrified that if I looked my mother square in the face I’d be turned to stone. I got past it, of course, but these stories will always feel very close to me.

I also remember struggling with the definition of mythology as organic, adaptive story that grows and mutates in different cultural iterations. I wanted to know the real, official account of Medea, and resented my father’s challenging assertion that all of the versions are equally valid, right up to the contemporary reimaginings (perhaps my students, themselves occasionally frustrated by my refusal to offer a straight answer to anything, now know whom to blame). But I have come to love the idea that these ancient stories represent deeply resonant foundations on which all manner of human interaction can be explored. And I am always on the lookout for new contemporary volumes to add to the canon.

This one does not disappoint.

Like all Toon books, the comic format relies on careful reading of the images to digest the story. Word balloons, and, in this case, some general narrative, further the account, but the large spreads and small detail images constitute the heart of the story. Pommaux’s simple pencil line drawings are easy to follow, yet display remarkable sophistication in their style and execution. Small details, like the family resemblance between King Aegeus and his son Theseus reinforce the bountiful mythology. The artist superimposes crisp, flat figures on smudged, sketchy grounds, establishing a sort of cinematic energy that propels the story along. Pommaux plays with the organization of the (often unframed) panels as well, stretching them across the top and/or bottom of both pages, effectively playing with the tropes of the comic canon in the same way bards and playwrights played with the stories themselves. There’s some terrific front and back matter here, too, including endpaper maps, character sketches for principle players, shorter definitions of people, places and things in a longer index, and suggestions for further investigation.

It’s easy to imagine kids reading these words and pictures, over and over. With any luck we can look forward to Perseus and the Gorgon coming up next!

Girls gone wild

I lived with my sister, now a science education specialist, while she was completing her master’s degree. Her thesis considered students’ perceptions and assumptions of scientists: their work, appearance, and setting. We had a ball examining the teenaged participants’ drawings, through which an overwhelmingly popular archetype emerged: Einsteinian hair, glasses, bow ties, lab coats, Erlenmeyer flasks, boiling liquids, explosive gases. When asked “What does a scientist look like?”, students’ answer is almost unanimously male and inside a laboratory.

The Tapir ScientistI am so pleased to see books for the young adult reader challenging the stereotype. Houghton Mifflin’s excellent Scientists in the Field series solidifies an altogether different image. Take The Tapir Scientist, by children’s nonfiction juggernauts Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop. While the cover photograph shows the captivating and rarely seen face of a tapir – trunk-like snout, curious eye and nearly smiling mouth – the first title page’s photograph reveals the book’s namesake and star: a woman wearing dirty cargo pants, t-shirt and baseball cap wades through ankle-deep wetlands, holding an instrument in the air and peering towards the horizon. Her name is Patricia Medici, a Brazilian scientist whose work may more closely resemble extreme camping than the conventional image of “doing science.” For days, she and her team (which includes Sy and Nic) make trips around the vast Pantanal Wetlands of Brazil attempting to collar and track the elusive tapirs, whose behavior is largely a mystery. She has to beware pumas, venomous snakes, and the relentless bite of ticks, but the more troublesome battles are that with faulty equipment or inconsistent results. Although the subject of The Tapir Scientist and other books within this series is an animal, the text’s content is all process from the scientist’s point of view. Montgomery and Bishop record Patricia’s frustrations and triumphs as they happen and present their work as a narrative full of suspense, empathy and joy. Yes, the reader learns the traditional creature facts – anatomy, behavior, ecosystem – but all that report fodder is discovered only through the journey the reader makes with the scientist.

PrimatesSimilarly, Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks’ graphic novel Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas places its readers right in the boots (or bare feet) of the title’s three scientists. Through brilliantly distinct and sometimes overlapping narration, we grow to understand the individuals: Jane’s endless curiosity, Dian’s brusque fierceness, Biruté’s patient hunger. But all are united by their commitment to primate study, more so, to study primates in the wild. Each is recruited by famed anthropologist Louis Leakey, whose targeting of women feels ambiguously both progressive and sexist: he seems to respect these women for their observational intelligence, but Primates also references his womanizing with the young researchers he employs. Nevertheless, for these three women, chimps, gorillas and orangutans are the subject of all attention. The reader, too, is given a front seat to the observations; Wicks devotes pages of panels, with minimal text, just to the sequential movements and expressions of the primates: the chimps’ mysterious rain dance, gorillas’ unique noses “like big fingerprints,” an orangutan’s leisurely journey through the trees. Wicks’ style is not naturalistic; on the contrary, her brightly painted drawings are stylistically playful and simply rendered. Coupled with the type sets used for the texts, which mirror the style of each scientist’s documentation – handwritten script or typed Courier – the reader can imagine these illustrations appearing in these women’s scientific logs, a patient and enthusiastic recording of what they see in the field.

Into That ForestLastly, Louis Nowra’s fictional novel Into That Forest portrays not a willing scientist per se, but a child lost in the woods. Incredibly, young Hannah and her friend Becky survive a storm in the Tasmanian wild, only to be rescued and adopted by two Tasmanian tigers. Initially they are terrified, but as the creatures prove themselves trustworthy guardians – bringing them caught fish, leading them to their den – the girls adapt to their bizarre new family structure. Over four years in the wild, they slowly lose the things that define them as human – their manners, clothes, and eventually, language – but they gain just as much in their careful observations of their new companions. Theiri senses sharpen, words are replaced by growls and eye expressions, and affection for their new foster parents grows:

The tigers stopped being animals to me. They were Corinna and Dave… Corinna showed she liked us by licking us and curling up with us whenever we slept. Though I have to say, if she didn’t like something you did, she’d nip you to let you know.

Nowra’s story, as dense and rich as the Tasmanian forests, not only stands as an imaginative memorial to the thylacine, officially declared extinct in 1936, but as a testament to Piaget’s classic theory of development: that the child is a scientist, learning and constructing her world of knowledge through constant observation and application without any extrinsic motivation, like candy bribes or A+ grades. It is that childlike passion and curiosity that should identify grownup scientists more than the lab coats. Indeed, the women so masterfully presented in these varied stories all possess that drive for understanding the world that seems to exist outside of and above the status quo of our everyday work culture. And perhaps outside is the key: it is hard not to feel awed, inspired and motivated when you’re surrounded by the wonder of the wild.

Odd Duck

Odd DuckOdd Duck
by Cecil Castellucci & Sara Varon
First Second, 2013

The phrase feels like a relic from an older generation, like bee’s knees. Indeed, when I occasionally say it, I can feel the echo of my parents’ voices in my lungs. “She’s a bit of an odd duck, isn’t she?” It’s almost – almost – an endearing phrase – not quite as nice as “marches to the beat of a different drummer” but a similar notion. Just enough of a raised-eyebrow judgment to acknowledge a differentness in another.

The title’s slightly nostalgic phrase makes me not at all surprised its artist is the quirky, kooky Sara Varon, whose Bake Sale was a deliciously different cookie of a book as well. In Odd Duck, she brings her signature omnisciently-bemused labeling to the endearing details of Cecil Castellucci’s story and character, including duck-protagonist Theodora’s morning rituals (“Quaking exercises, for perfect pitch and tone”), her occasional unorthodox shopping choices (“Duck food, just like all the other ducks…but also…mango salsa! Huh!”), and her eventual disapproval of the new neighbor Chad (“Feathers ASKEW!” and “Violent dancing!”). Details including rotary phones and Theodora’s lavender cloche-like bonnet (complete with a decorative, metaphorically-foreshadowing bee) insist the story is set in some bygone era. The ducks’ wide-eyed expressions and wiggly, spaghetti-like limbs (again, “Violent dancing!”) call to mind the Steamboat Willie days of early cartooning, or perhaps today’s decidedly-retro hit “Adventure Time” on Cartoon Network.

Early in the story, Theodora wishes on a star “that nothing in her happy life would ever change.” She is clearly as sentimental and vintage as her artist’s style suggests. And of course the new neighbor throws a bit of a wrench (nearly literally, as he is a builder of strange modern sculpture) into her life. She is initially offended by his unrefined mannerisms and disheveled appearance until they find some common ground on the ground: both decide not to fly south for winter. Bonded by this quiet rebellion against the birds-of-a-feather rule – a glimmer of the uncompromising nature of each of their odd-duck-ness to be fully revealed and reveled in by the book’s end – Theodora and Chad become fast not-so-fair-weather friends.

The odd-duck odd-couple’s charm lies in their utter contentment with themselves. Up until a critical plot point in which they overhear a stranger’s comments, it never occurs to either party that he or she holds the title of oddest duck. Their mostly unencumbered sense of self and gentle stubbornness to be anything else is such a delightful match to Castellucci’s story and Varon’s artwork. It’s a reading experience so well done and delightful it’s sure to inspire its readers to embrace the odd in themselves.

Tommysaurus Rex

Tommysaurus RexTommysaurus Rex
by Doug TenNapel
Graphix, 2013

Opening the pages of one of Doug TenNapel’s book is a bit like pressing play for a David Lynch film: you feel the certainty in your gut that it’s going to be a surprising and unique experience, an hour or two of bizarre, sometimes even disturbing images you’ll never forget seeing. The difference is, with Lynch’s work, I’d usually prefer to look away; with TenNapel, I can’t tear my eyes from the page.

Before the warped worlds of Bad Island and Ghostopolis, before the philosophical minefield of Cardboard, Doug TenNapel wrote Tommysaurus Rex, now beautifully republished in full color (contributed by Katherine Garner). In this middle grade graphic novel, a boy named Ely loses a pet dog and gains a pet dinosaur. Ely knows in his heart that the tyrannosaurus – playful, good-natured, and in need of training – is some manifestation of his old dog Tommy, despite its also having memories of Cretaceous life (and death). The mechanisms for the dinosaur’s rebirth and reincarnation are largely unstated, and blissfully so; TenNapel’s masterful storytelling presents a confident, fantastical logic that shrugs off the dull necessities of reality. The reader is happy to shrug them off, too.

In Tommysaurus Rex, TenNapel nods to fellow monster creators: Ray Harryhausen, visual effects artist who innovated new stop-motion animation techniques in the 1950s and ‘60s, makes a cameo appearance in Ely’s story. Bill Watterson was a clear influence on the artist; like Calvin and Hobbes, Ely and his fellow humans are drawn with occasionally zany stylistic expressions, while Tommysaurus is almost frighteningly realistic. Yet despite its allusions and tributes, the style and story stand alone. Calvin and Hobbes cuts with wit and cynicism, but through its perfectly messy imagery and fantastical conceit, Tommysaurus Rex rings loudly and truly with heart. One moment you might recoil from the image of a tyrannosaurus digging into a bloody feast of a cow carcass; the next, you’re holding back tears as a bully expresses regret or a friend says good-bye forever. TenNapel always surprises me somehow, except I always know I need to hold on for dear life (and keep the tissues within reach).