December 5, 2015

Comic Book Review: Ms. Marvel - Ms. Marvel Vol.1 No Normal, Ms. Marvel Vol.2 Generation Why & Ms. Marvel Vol.3 Crushed

Ms Marvel No Normal.jpgA couple of years ago Marvel Comics began the process of rebooting some of its original characters in non traditional ways. It was a way of making their universe a more accurate representation of the real world. Gay characters rub shoulders with new imaginings of traditional characters - a female Thor and a African American Captain America. However, one of the most interesting new interpretations has been how they've taken the character of Ms. Marvel and brought her into the 21st Century.

For those who missed Kamala Khan in her individual comic appearances as the new Ms. Marvel, Marvel has done you the sweet of repackaging them in four volumes: Ms. Marvel Vol. 1:No Normal, Ms. Marval Vol.2: Generation Why, Ms. Marvel Vol.3: Crushed and the soon to be released Ms. Marvel Vol.4: Last Days.

Kamala is the child of immigrants from Pakistan who settled in Jersey City, New Jersey. A typical sixteen year old girl is most ways - loves online RPGs and writes Avenger's fan sites - she also has to deal with the culture clashes most children of immigrants will find familiar. The overprotective parents, the older sibling who knows better and a high school community who think she's "interesting". Sure some of the restrictions placed on her are specific to her being Muslim, but in reality, she could just as easily be Sikh, Chinese or Indian.
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Of course it helps the comic that the head writer is G.Willow Wilson who came to the series with an already impressive resume. Her first novel, Alif the Unseen was winner of the World Fantasy Award for best novel as well as having worked on various other comic titles before tackling Ms. Marvel. Having lived and worked in Egypt as a journalist in her twenties she also has a much clearer idea of what it means to be a Muslim in the modern world than most Western writers.

The first three volumes collect not only the titles from Ms. Marvel's own book, but also titles from other books - Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. - she has made guest appearances in. While this sometimes is confusing for purposes of continuity, it also gives us the chance to see the character both in and out of the context of her own world and how she fits into the Marvel universe as a whole.

However, what really makes these comics work is how much Kamala's struggles coming to terms with her new superpower mirrors the struggles she has in finding her place in her community at large. For she wasn't born with her superpowers. After sneaking out to go to a party she's exposed to a mysterious mist which not only induces strange visions - the original Ms. Marvel and some of the Avengers appear to her speaking Urdu - it transforms her into Ms. Marvel.
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While she's always thought this is who she wanted to be, she quickly discovers being someone different doesn't solve her problems. She's not only still Kamala with all of the same difficulties fitting into both school and her parent's world, she now has the added problem of finding her way as a super being. The whole comic is a beautiful conversation on a young woman's struggle for identity which people of all backgrounds will be able to empathize with.

However, the comic doesn't just deal with immigrant life and teenage identity problems, its also got all you typical comic book action. Bringing both to life through short bursts of dialogue and illustrations is no easy task, but the writers and artists on this title do a splendid job. Not only do they bring their message across without being preachy, they also keep the action hopping and have created some exciting story lines for their readers. There's also some special guests along the way if you needed anything else to pique your interest.

Kamala Khan has now outgrown her formative years as a superhero, in current issues of her book she's joined The Avengers. For those who missed her beginnings and her early struggles these three collections are must reads before setting out to find out how she's able to balance being part of a super team and the rest of her life. It was hard enough saving Jersey City, but what if she has to go save the world?

(Article originally published at as Comic Book Review - Ms. Marvel: Ms. Marvel Vol. 1 No Normal, Ms Marvel Vol. 2 Generation Why & Ms. Marvel Vol.3 Crushed)

May 2, 2013

Book Review: Wake Up: A Simon's Cat Book by SimonTofield

The majority of animals represented in cartoons, whether animated or not, are anthropomorphized. While occasionally this giving animals human characteristics and motivations is funny, most of the time it comes across as a shameless attempt at creating a character who will appeal to a human audience. It also strikes me as a sign of laziness on the part of the those involved with creating the character. While creations like Bugs Bunny were given witty and intelligent dialogue to make them appealing, most of those responsible for creating cartoon animals today rely solely on the their "humanness" in order to make them popular.

It is far harder to take an animal and turn it into a cartoon representation of itself much as you would a human. Cartoons about humans rely on their creator's ability to exaggerate our characteristics in order to generate humour. The really good cartoonists also know not to exaggerate too much in order to ensure their audience can identify with the character. If we can see traces of our selves in the characters we are watching on screen, or reading in our daily newspaper, we find them much more appealing.

Obviously we're not going to see anything of ourselves in a cartoon animal if its being represented as an exaggerated version of itself. However if the cartoonist chooses an animal whose behaviour we're intimately familiar with, like a dog or a cat, he or she can work with those characteristics to make a successful and appealing character. One of the best examples of this today, in both live action and print, are Simon Tofield's series of books and videos featuring the animal simply known as Simon's Cat. Wake Up: A Simon's Cat Book, published by Penguin Canada and Canongate Books, the fifth book in the series is just as funny as its four predecessors in the way it brings its hero to life.

Cat owners the world over are well aware of the variety of means cats will employ to get their human's attention. Under most circumstances these range from the cute to the slightly annoying. Unfortunately a cat's need for attention doesn't change whether a human is asleep or awake and they will go to whatever lengths necessary to make sure their needs are met no matter what the obstacle. I'm sure everybody who has ever owned a cat can give at least one example of the means their pet employed to rouse them from a deep slumber.

As the title of this book suggests it does have cartoons dealing with the ways cats have of ensuring their human's wake up on demand. However, what makes it even more interesting is it explores all the variations on the theme of sleeping and cats you can think of, and some you may never have even considered. While there are a variety of cartoons depicting Simon's Cat waking up his human, ranging from the real (sitting on the chest and yelling) to the unreal (peeling back the human's eyelids or stuffing a toy mouse into his mouth) the cartoons dealing with other sleep related situations might even be funnier.

There's the cartoon of the human negotiating a difficult stair case and almost tripping and falling over the cat tucked out of sight asleep on a riser. He was lucky, usually this happens when your arms are full and you're trying to negotiate a particularly dark and difficult descent into a basement. Or, in another instance the hapless man is laying on his stomach reading and the cat curls up asleep on his back. Have you ever tried to dislodge a cat from this position? If so you'll know it's next to impossible. If you stand up too straight they will panic at the sensation of falling and dig their claws into - you. So the final frame in the cartoon of the man walking bent over with the cat on his back asleep looking for a way to remove the limpet from his back will be all too familiar to most cat owners.

Then there are cats' sleeping habits, specifically the places they chose to sleep. Who hasn't found their cat sleeping, and shedding, on top of a pile of fresh laundry as is depicted in the book? Of course there's also their astounding habit of trying to fit themselves into a box, or the equivalent, far smaller than them and either succeeding in contorting themselves into what looks to be an extremely uncomfortable position or destroying the item in question and falling asleep on its remains. Of course, nothing beats the contortions they will put themselves through in order to sleep on top of a hot water radiator in the winter. Once you've seen a cat cram themselves under a window sill in order to secure their position of warmth, you'll believe them capable of anything.

As Tofield depicts cats don't only victimize sleeping humans, they have no qualms about attacking members of their own species when they are asleep either. As the kitten introduced in, Simon's Cat In Kitten Chaos shows, the dangling tail of a sleeping cat is an irresistible temptation for another cat. In fact, a sleeping adult cat in general is considered an ideal cat toy by kittens until the adult cat puts his paw down, literally.

While Tofield strays away from realism on occasion, the mice holding up a teddy bear to frighten the cat or a hedgehog popping the balloon he's carrying on his own spiny body, the animals rarely take on human characteristics. In his cartoons he relies strictly on the drawings to both tell the story and for humour. Even in the videos which first brought his creations to people's attention the only sounds are those cats would normally make (which are generated by Tofield) and incidental music.

What has always impressed me about Tofiled's creations are how he can accomplish so much with so little. Even in Wake Up, the second book of coloured cartoons, the majority of his illustrations are limited to just the cat and his immediate surroundings. Occasionally he will draw more elaborate panels, but his primary focus is always on depicting the cat's behaviour and its reactions. The result, as in all his other work, is one of the funniest cartoons of an animal you will ever see. At some point every cat owner who either reads or watches one of his creations will find themselves exclaiming, "Why that's just like (insert name of your cat here)".

(Article first published as Book Review: Wake Up: A Simon's Cat Book by Simon Tofield on Blogcritics)

August 3, 2012

Book Review: Simon's Cat In Kitten Chaos by Simon Tofield

If you've ever owned a kitten or a puppy you'll understand how these small bundles of fur can completely dominate a household. Kittens look so helpless, spindly legs and covered in fuzz, yet somehow they manage to be far more destructive than most animals ten times their size. In the latest instalment of his ongoing series of cartoons about the "joys" of living with a cat, Simon Tofield has added one of those little bundles of energetic mayhem into his mix of characters. The results, Simon's Cat In Kitten Chaos, published by Canongate Books and distributed by Penguin Canada, are hysterical - in all senses of the word.

Simon's Cat began life as a hand drawn animated cartoon posted to YouTube by Tofield. Something about the first one struck a chord with cat owners because it and the videos that followed attracted millions of hits from all over the world. I think part of their appeal is how low tech they are. Black and white pencil drawings brought to life and sound effects made by Tofield are not what anyone would call sophisticated. However what they lack in special effects is more than compensated for by their ability to capture and bring to life those aspects of a cat's behaviour which most endear/enrage anyone who has ever lived with one. From the vocal mannerisms to the physical reactions you can't help but recognize something of your own cat in Simon's Cat. The popularity of the videos led Tofield to publish two collections of still cartoons, Simon's Cat: In His Very Own Book and Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence which were as funny as the videos.
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In this latest instalment, as the title implies, he introduces a new member of the family in the form of a kitten rescued from the rain. While there are some funny scenes of the established adult cat working to teach the interloper her/his place (not only do neither of the cats have a name they are both gender neutral - although there is a scene in this book where the kitten is going off to the vet and makes the universal sign for scissors to the older cat who looks suitably repulsed) the best images are of the kitten on its own discovering its new world. Tofield gives us both a series of small sketches ranging from kitten with toilet paper to kitten sleeping on stairs laid out across the page and full page drawings of the little one in its new surroundings. What's really quite wonderful is how we see everything from the kitten's perspective. Everything is drawn proportionate to the small cat's size and as if being seen from a place far closer to the floor than you or I normally view the world.

Anyone knowing the original cat won't be surprised that a lot of the early tensions between the two cats revolve around food. One of the only anthropomorphic traits it possesses is to open its mouth and point out how empty it happens to be whenever it manages to catch its owner's attention. Naturally there are endless battles over food and food bowls. These are handled with ease and good humour by Tofield, but he doesn't ignore the very real problem faced when introducing a kitten into an established cat's territory. How do you ensure the new kitten is receiving its fair share of the food? Do you stand guard, or do you trust the little one to figure out ways of eating enough.

When a couple is expecting the birth of a new child they are told to "baby proof" their home to reduce the risk of it injuring itself. The reality is that there's really no need for that until the infant is able to move around on its own so you can count on having a year after the child's born in which to make your preparations. Not so with a kitten. From the moment it enters into your house you have to start kitten proofing. Otherwise you'll find CDs on the floor, items safely stored on counter tops scattered and shattered, and various valuable items shredded, disced, dissected, digested and then regurgitated around the house. It's amazing the damage a kitten can inflict once it puts its mind to it. Of course if they have an adult cat blundering along in their wake the damage becomes even more extensive as places kittens can squeeze through without disturbing anything don't seem to handle the wider girth of the adult.
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What made the earlier books so appealing to cat owners was Tofield's ability to recreate cat behaviour with just the right amount of exaggeration to make it funny without making it unbelievable. Unlike other cartoon cats who are given human attributes in an attempt to make them appealing, Tofield understands that the animal's behaviour is enough to create a bond between the reader and the characters. Not only does he continue to adhere to that principle in this book, he adds an additional layer by capturing a kitten's behaviour patterns, and an adult's reactions to them, beautifully.

One thing readers will notice is how the art work in this book is much more elaborate then in the earlier volumes. Everything is still rendered in black and white, but the drawings are much more detailed. From the interior shots showing the variety of things that a kitten can become entangled in to the later drawings when we see it discovering the world of the backyard, there is a lot more going on in this world then in previous books. Of course no matter how detailed the drawings are, the cats are still the centre of the universe and we still see everything either in relation to them or from their point of view.

While the emphasis is of course on the humorous escapades the cats get up to at the expense of their human, Tofield finishes the book by reminding us the relationship between cat and person is not a one way street. For when their human is taken to bed with a miserable cold both cats are seen first looking up at the bed from the floor, then curled up on the bed with him. As anybody who has ever been taken ill and felt especially unhappy knows, having one's four legged companion keeping you company makes a world of difference. They might be holy terrors much of the time, but the pay back makes it more than worth while.

Simon's Cat In Kitten Chaos is a welcome addition to the Simon's Cat family of books. What makes these books so special is Tofield's ability to capture moments that are instantly recognizable to anybody who has ever owned a cat. He doesn't stoop to making the animals overly cute or giving them human characteristics, making them both more realistic, and funnier, than almost any other cartoon cat. If you own a cat you'll want to own these books. If you're thinking of purchasing a kitten, reading the latest will remind you, or if you've never owned one before, warn you, of what you're letting yourself in for.

(Article first published as Book Review: Simon's Cat In Kitten Chaos by Simon Tolfield on Blogcritics.)