Nov 25, 2013

Comics Round Up: Monster on the Hill, Boxers and Saints, The Search, Marbles, Economix

Monster on the Hill by Rob Harrell

Monster on the Hill by Rob Harrell: Guys, this book was a complete delight. It’s set in an fantastical 1860s Britain where every town has its very own monster, and a lot of civic pride surrounds the size and ferocity of each local beast. You want your monster to be proper scary. However, what at first seems like mere good natured local competitiveness turns out to be something more: the monsters protect the towns from something much scarier than themselves, an unmentionable horror known only as The Murk.

Stoker-on-Avon didn’t exactly luck out when it comes to their monster. Rayburn, the Paranoid Android of the monster world, is small, not particularly fierce, and plagued by a chronic lack of confidence. It’s up to Dr Wilkie, a misunderstood gentleman scientist, young Timothy, street urchin and town crier, and Tentacular (aka Noodles), Rayburn’s childhood monster friend, to convince the monster of Stoker-on-Avon that he has it in him to be the best monster he can possibly be.

Most of Monsters on the Hill is concerned with Rayburn’s friends’ quest to instil some confidence in him, and the result could hardly be funnier or more charming. This is one of those rare books that made me smile from start to finish. The tone and the balance between humour and emotional resonance are just right — indeed, it reminded me of early volumes of Bone in that regard (I’m not surprised that there’s a Jeff Smith blurb on the back cover).

One thing I have to mention, because I can’t not see it: there’s nobody of any consequence in the world of Monster on the Hill who isn’t a white dude or a male non-human character. Much like Jenny said in relation to World War Z, you could very easily tell this same story and make, say, one of the monsters with a key role female, but this is not what we got. Instead we got yet another narrative that treats male as the default.

So, no ladies, but there are a lot of group hugs. I’m still immensely glad I randomly picked it up at the library, because Monster on the Hill is adorable. Have I mentioned it’s adorable? I have no words for how adorable it is. Have some adorable art:

Noodles, Rayburn, Dr Wilkie and Timothy hang out in a pool and Noodles asks, So tell me about the problem

Rayburn half-heartedly chases Timothy for practice

Noodles: Rayburn? No way! Man, I'm glad you said something. I was about to eat ya!

Rayburn: And these wings? Flightless!


Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang: Yang’s two-volume historical graphic novel, set during the Boxer Rebellion in early 20th century China, has received a lot of praise — and deservedly so. Yang uses a blend of fantasy and historical detail to tell the story of the conflict from two perspectives. Boxers follows Little Bao, a Chinese young man from a farming village who suffers at the hands of the Western missionaries who roam his country. Little Bao grows up to become the leader of the The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, and the group he leads fights both foreigner “devils” and “secondary devils” (Chinese men and women who have converted to Christianity). Saints approaches the conflict from the other side: it tells the story of Four-Girl, who changes her name to Vibiana and converts to Christianity, becoming a member of one of the communities Little Bao’s group attacks. The inevitable point where the two stories mesh is covered in both Boxers and Saints, and the effect of this dual perspective is simultaneously humane and heartbreaking.

Gene Luen Yang tells Little Bao and Vibiana’s stories with compassion and political sophistication. When I read The Promise last year, I praised his ability to write about the effects of colonialism insightfully and with nuance, and he’s surpassed himself in this duology. There are no monsters in Boxers and Saints, although there is a lot of violence and bloodshed. What we see are human beings who honestly believe that what they’re doing is right, and who make one decision with horrible implications after another. Yang’s compassionate storytelling doesn’t justify massacres and other war atrocities, but it does show that these happen in a wider political context. Awareness of this complexity rather than reliance on facile scapegoats is important not only to understand the past, but to avoid going down the same path in the future.

Here’s some of the art:

Little Bao spots Vibiana as a child

Vibiana: I'm going to patrol the forest outside the village gates and hunt down the society. I'm going to stop them before they ever set foot in our home

Little Bao watches a Western missionary break a statue of a Chinese God

Army of Opera Gods going Kill Kill Kill


Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Search by Gene Luen Yang

Speaking of Gene Luen Yang, I also read the last volume in the Avatar: The Last Airbender — The Search trilogy recently, which means I now know the answer to the question that’s been plaguing Avatar fans for years: what happened to Ursa, Zuko and Azula’s mother?

I think most Avatar fans will want to read this trilogy for the simple fact that it’s devoted to answering the above question. If I look at it objectively, I can see how these books are perhaps not quite as accomplished as The Promise; however, ZUKO’S ALL OVER THE SEARCH, OKAY. It’s a veritable Zukofest, which means there wasn’t much of a chance I wasn’t going to enjoy it. This isn’t to say that this trilogy doesn’t tell a good story in its own right, but I was slightly distracted by, you know, getting to spend so much time with one of my absolute favourite characters.

As for what we eventually discover (spoilers ahoy), well, let me just say I’m really glad we didn’t end up with another dead mother on our hands, especially considering that that the world of Avatar never did much to departure from traditional narrative tropes when it comes to that. But Ursa lives! And at least we get the implication that she can still play a role in her children’s lives from that point onwards.

Regarding Azula, it was great to see her play an active role in this story, and to get to witness so many complicated and feelings-laden moments between her and Zuko. As you might remember, her fate at the end of Avatar was one of my least favourite things about the series, and The Search was the first indication we’ve had that she’s not in fact tied up in a courtyard somewhere to this very day. I still think she deserves better as a character — she was excellently set up but then underwritten, I find — but at least this was some progress, and as I said it was wonderful to see her again.

Also, it looks like Gene Luen Yang is writing another trilogy set in the world of Avatar — this one will be called The Rift and it will apparently deal with the founding of Republic City and feature Toph extensively, which is most excellent news.

Have some Zuko and Azula. You’re welcome.

Zuko talking to Aang and Katara

Zuko covers a sleeping Azula with a blanket

Ursa touching Azula's face as she sleeps


Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney is a graphic memoir about Forney’s struggles with bipolar disorder, from her diagnosis to her adjustment to what it means to have a problem that requires lifelong management. I have to confess I was a tiny little bit wary — part of me was afraid Marbles was going to be yet another exercise in romanticising mental health issues in the name of ~art~. As I’ve explained in the past, I have an uncomfortable relationship with the idea that depression or bipolar disorder are the inevitable prices to pay for great art, and even more so with this idea’s unquestioning perpetuation in our culture. When I started Marbles, I was kind of bracing myself for another dose of that.

But as it turns out, Marbles is very much an exploration of all the reasons why this idea is uncomfortable, and that was what made it such an interesting read for me. When she’s first diagnosed, Forney feels honoured to have joined what she calls “club Van Gogh” — a group of artists who throughout the centuries sublimated their great suffering into equally great art. So yes, she initially romanticises her own condition and buys into all sorts of unhelpful assumptions, but this is completely understandable when you live in a culture saturated with these ideas.

Marbles is about all the things we as a culture believe about creativity, suffering, mental illness, where art comes from, and the role it plays in our lives; as well as about the consequences all these beliefs have on Forney’s management of her condition. At first her greatest fear is that medication will sap her creativity and that reaching emotional balance will make her dull. The truth, however, turns out to be far more complicated than that.

Forney’s ultimate conclusion is that it’s not simple: some people with mental health problems are creative, as are some people without them. Among the former, some manage to be creative when they’re having episodes, while others need the peace and balance they achieve through treatment (be it medication or not) to do their best work. There’s no one size fits all solution — just as there are countless ways to live a good life, there are many circumstances in which creative work flourishes. Following Forney’s journey and watching her come to terms with this was incredibly interesting.

Forney floating in a sea of emotions

Club Van Gogh: Sylvya Plath, Virginia Woolf, Van Gogh, Jimi Hendrix


Finally, Economix: How and Why Our Economy Works (and Doesn't Work), in Words and Pictures by Michael Goodwin has joined the likes of Understanding Comics and The Influencing Machine on my mental list of all-time best graphic non-fiction. Goodwin’s narrative strategy is similar to Scott McLoud’s or Brooke Gladstone’s, and it works just as effectively — he inserts himself into the comic as a narrator-slash-travel guide who takes the reader on a tour of the history and key concepts of economics.

Goodwin’s narration is incredibly smart, accessible, and politically engaged; additionally, he does a great job of explaining why economics is relevant to how we live our lives. His approach is mostly chronological, though sometimes we follow the development of ideas more than specific events. He also takes into account factors not always considered in strictly economic analyses — namely power and the environment — and this is exactly what makes Economix so interesting.

‘The big one is power. As far as I’m concerned, trying to explain the economy without mentioning power is like trying to explain politics without mentioning money.’

Debates about economics are almost always politically charged, and Economix is not a book that attempts to stay neutral. To be honest, I’d have been suspicious of a book that claimed to discuss economics without taking a political stance of any sort, so Goodwin’s transparency was more than welcome. Here’s what he has to say about the more charged sections of the book:

‘I’m confident that today’s justifications for extreme inequalities of wealth and power are horsepuckey, just like yesterday’s, and will fade away as completely. But for now, many people disagree, which means this book is about to get more controversial. So be it.’

To me, the key idea Economix gets across — that inequality is neither desirable nor inevitable and that we can come up with better socio-political arrangements than this — is merely a sensible statement of fact, though I’m aware that one person’s obvious truth is another’s radical declaration. But I think that regardless of where you stand on these issues, this book makes a powerful case for why a more even distribution of wealth is beneficial for the world as a whole.

You often hear appeals to economic justice based on empathy and ethics, and on the fact that it’s simply not fair to sacrifice the many for the few, and these are all good and valid arguments. But in addition to this, we have the fact that a close look at history shows us again and again that in the long run greed doesn’t pay. Let Atlas shrug all he wants — there’s simply no argument for the accumulation of unimaginable power and wealth in the hands of a small group of people that stands to close scrutiny.

Economix is an excellent companion to The Spirit Level and the Why Poverty? documentaries. It’s a book that simultaneously taught me a lot and made me realise that I knew a bit more than I gave myself credit for. It’s also the kind of book I’m inclined to be slightly evangelical about, as I think a lot of people would benefit immensely from reading it. And did I mention that it’s not one bit dry? On the contrary, it’s hugely fun to read. So go on, pick it up. You know you want to.

Some more interesting bits:

Some rich folks still get misty-eyed about the 1920s, and even insist that the Depression hadn't been so bad before FDR ruined everything.

Rich people consume and waste more than poor people do, which puts overpopulation in a different light

For instance, since the 1970s we've endlessly heard that the rich are too poor, and even that the poor are too rich. In 2002, the Wall Street Journal called the poor lucky duckies

Fixing those flaws means asking what we want from the economy. What kind of jobs do we want to work? What kinds of lives to we want to lead? And those are questions that only we can answer

Have you posted about any of these books? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. Thank you again for telling me of Monsters on the Hill. As you say, it is quite adorable! Just needs some girl power.

    Wasn't Boxers/Saints wonderful? I still feel like I can't properly review them. Yang is just brilliant at what he does.

    My daughter LOVES Avatar. I'm wondering now if I should see if she would like the books.... I'll have to look into that.

    Been meaning to get Manic. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Monsters on the Hill sounds great. Pity no female characters though :(

    Boxers/Saints is a (are) great read, certainly has the whole shades of grey thing down.

  3. So many books here that I want to try (Economix being one). And I'd never even heard of Monster on the Hill but it sounds lovely. You always get me so excited about reading new things.

  4. Okay, if you insist, I will read Marbles straight away. As I've also explained in the past, I'm also uncomfortable with the primacy of that cultural narrative. It's excellent that Marbles can come at it from the perspective of a "crazy artist" and unpack it a little bit from that angle.

  5. Heather: No problem! I thought you'd enjoy it. And yes - there's no one quite like Yang. You should watch Avatar yourself, you know! Your daughter, Debi and me can't all be wrong :P

    Fence: It is a pity, though it's still worth reading. And yeah, Yang definitely nails it.

    Bookgazing: You're more than welcome to borrow Economix at some point in the future if you'd like. It's definitely right up your alley.

    Jenny: yay! I'd love to hear your thoughts. It makes sense to me that that narrative would affect how someone responds to their own diagnosis, and it was really interesting to read a story that explored that.

  6. Holy crap, woman. I'm left not wanting every single one of these, but WANTING CRAVING DESPERATELY COVETING every single one of these! Seriously. So badly. Dear library, please come through for me...

    And Heather, Ana is so right, as always, you really should watch Avatar yourself! So. Freakin. Good. For real.

  7. You have been reading some great graphic novels! I read Boxers but never got to Saints. I just don't think I like graphic novels as e-books... I will have to get the real thing soon!

  8. Debi: Thanks for helping me peer pressure Heather - hopefully she'll eventually cave :P

    Kelly: Yeah, I know - I can read webcomics just fine but when it's longer things I need print. Anyway, you need to read Saints! It's the juxtaposition of the two perspectives that makes it so great.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.