Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Skim - a graphic novel by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

The book I borrowed from the library.
Because of a mix up about the start time of a screenwriting workshop I found myself in an empty library with 10 minutes to spare. With permission from a staff member I scurried around the graphic novel section grabbing books off the shelves and borrowing them without thinking about it very much.

I'm telling you this because Skim is one of the graphic novels I took home. I'd seen it in the library for a long time but never picked it up before - the reason for this is the cover design. It's gorgeous and I love it but it didn't make me want to take the book off the shelf.

It turns out that Skim is one of the best graphic novels I have ever read. The drawings are wonderful, it is well plotted, the characters are totally believable and the story managed to touch me and make me laugh at the same time.

Skim is the nickname of sixteen year old Canadian school girl Kimberly Keiko Cameron. There is a strong Japanese influence in the drawings at times and there is a hint that perhaps Skim may have some Japanese heritage but, quite rightly, this is never fully explained - it is part of Skim but not a driving force in this story. Skim's school is thrown into turmoil when the boyfriend of one of the students commits suicide. Though Skim didn't know him she is buffeted by the emotions and reactions that ripple out from this event*. At times she is seen as a suicide risk herself. Perhaps because of all this or maybe in spite of it Skim becomes infatuated with a female teacher who at first appears to encourage romantic feelings. Skim also begins to view her friendships and her life in a new way.

A couple of years ago my life was touched, and continues to be touched, by the violent suicide of a cousin I didn't know well. I can recognise the misinformation, the speculation, the rumours and the range of effects on people connected (quite often indirectly) with the person that died. Mariko and Jillian capture this, the dynamics of teenage friendships, the inner workings of power/popularity in high schools and the stirrings of first love extremely well.

Maybe this makes the story sound a bit too serious but it's not. Skim is also funny and charming, her thoughts about her life and those around her are witty and compelling. I hope that Mariko and Jillian will make a sequel one day. I only ever write about books that I love and this is top of my list at the moment.

It's always great to discover authors - happily Mariko and Jillian Tamaki have published other work that I hope to dip into soon. But I wish I had seen past the cover design before! For me it doesn't fully represent Skim or her story in any meaningful way. This experience has made me think about the importance of cover design and how often my choice of book is based on it. Out of interest I looked online to see what other cover designs had been used for Skim, they are all wonderful but I think that the most truly representative is the French cover. I came close to buying the French version of the book until I remembered I wouldn't be able to read it!

But perhaps I am blaming others for my own shortcomings. I have resolved, in future, to try to see beyond the covers of books, maybe just to grab stuff off the library shelf again without thinking about it too much. Perhaps I'll find another gem like Skim.

Another cover version. For me, it is not completely representative
of the character but it's intriguing. I might have picked this book up had I
seen it. There is a strong Japanese feel to it that is attractive but do
you get the sense that this is a sixteen year old school girl?
The cover of the French version of Skim. It's a bit odd because
out of the original page context I'm not sure that it is clear
that she has just released a balloon. However I think it
is the best of the three covers I've seen.
Update: I just discovered on my Facebook timeline, thanks to Paul Gravett, that Jillian Tamaki is this year's artist in residence at ELCAF on 20th-21st June in East London (UK).

*I've taken this concept from Darryl Cunningham's description of the effects of suicide in his graphic novel Psychiatric Tales.

Monday, 4 May 2015

The Phoenix Children's Comic Festival 2015 - Story Museum, Oxford (UK)

In an effort to gently instill a love of comics in my daughter I took her to The Phoenix Children's Comic Festival yesterday. (I think it's working, thanks for your help Phoenix Comic people!)

Author Gary Northfield reading his book (the yellow blur) onstage at
the Phoenix Children's Comic Festival
It was held in the Story Museum, a rambling set of buildings in Oxford that contain some wonderful permanent installations for kids such as the Talking Throne and Story Games.

The little boy is sitting on one of the permanent installations at the Story Museum:
a throne that speaks the words you choose to put on a board.
The festival itself featured events led by many contributors to the Phoenix Comic. We went to an hour long high energy Etherington Brothers session "the greatest comics making show on earth" which was amazingly detailed on the subject of story making. They tackled genre, characterization, plot and more through acting out little scenarios (mostly involving a zombie called Bob) to illustrate their points. 

A free booklet from the Etherington Brothers.
The emphasis of a lot of the events in the festival was on encouraging kids to make their own comics. My daughter had the opportunity to use a drawing tablet to create a character. 

We also saw one of my daughter's comics heroes, Gary Northfield, give an "extreme reading" of his illustrated novel Julius Zebra, Rumble with the Romans.

Julius Zebra by Gary Northfield.
(We already had this signed copy.)

There was an opportunity to buy books published by The DFC Library and we came home with a collection of Vern and Lettuce strips by Sarah McIntyre (who is also one of my daughter's favourites). I read the book on the coach back and enjoyed its wonderful characters and quirky south London flavour.

The fabulous Vern and Lettuce by Sarah McIntyre.
I think this was the third Comics Festival that the Phoenix have run. As it was sold out I assume that they'll be doing it again next year. If you have kids who like comics, or kids who are interested in the process of making comics or stories, I recommend that you get some tickets for the 2016 festival.