Category Archives: Education

Review: THE CARTOON GUIDE TO BIOLOGY, by Larry Gonick and Dave Wessner

THE CARTOON GUIDE TO BIOLOGY, by Larry Gonick and Dave Wessner

Many a high school and college student will be amazed at how easy and truly fun it can be to learn about biology in a comics format. And in a significant way. Seriously, all you students out there at whatever level, you can have an enjoyable immersive experience and LEARN, not just cram facts. Behold, THE CARTOON GUIDE TO BIOLOGY, by Larry Gonick and Dave Wessner, published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins.

A riot of life!

Let me jump right in and get to an important point. If you are somehow new to comics, well, this may blow your mind. If you are familiar with comics, then this will still blow your mind. Here’s the deal, comics are uniquely capable of explaining all sorts of things. And cartoonists are uniquely compelled to explain things! I should know. I am a cartoonist. What Larry Gonick excels at is really utilizing the impressive tools offered by the comics medium. One of the most magical things about comics is its ability to make the most impact by being as concise as possible. There is truly an art to taking something complex and boiling it down to its essentials. Gonick has figured out how to do that. Anyone who has lugged a biology textbook can appreciate this, if there was a way to make the subject more relatable and accessible, then that would be a most awesome thing. Gonick has done that! And he’s teamed up with Dave Wessner, a Professor of Biology and chair of the Department of Health and Human Values at Davidson College. Between the two of them, they deliver the goods.

The pulmonary arteries.

Gonick has tapped into the art of being economical with text as well as with artwork. And it’s all for the sake of clarity. We don’t want any clutter, especially when learning about as heavy a subject as biology. But, oddly enough, Gonick finds a way to keep things consistently light, or light-hearted. There are little jokes to keep the pace moving along. And, there are just so many wonderful moments of sheer energy and involvement that it can’t help but rub off on the reader. It’s as if Gonick has timed it just right to give you a little joke here, plus a light illustration there, then a fun detailed illustration, and so on.

The cell membrane.

We all learn in different ways and it’s usually not as straightforward as you might think. It’s not just a case of some people learning best by doing and other people learning best by reading and so on. It’s a mix of a lot things and it involves whatever will engage the student. It’s pretty hard to resist the comics medium, especially when you have such a master as Larry Gonick leading the way. He takes numerous bits of information and manages to give the reader the sort of hooks they will need to not only remember but to thoroughly process such things as how a plant creates glucose from carbon dioxide and water. This can be pretty dry material for any student to slough through so having such an engaging book as this becomes a most valuable resource.

Glucose!

THE CARTOON GUIDE TO BIOLOGY is a 313-page trade paperback, full illustrated, available as of July 30, 2019. Be sure to visit HarperCollins for more details on this book as well as others like THE CARTOON GUIDE TO ALGEBRA and THE CARTOON GUIDE TO CALCULUS.

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Interview: Karen Green, the Curator for Comics and Cartoons for the Columbia University Libraries

Karen Green at Butler Library, Columbia University

I was recently in New York and had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Green, the Curator for Comics and Cartoons for the Columbia University Libraries which collect both graphic novels for the circulating collection in the Butler Library stacks and also creator archives in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The interview was a great treat and I share it with you here. Afterwards, I got a chance to go on my own and explore the stacks at Butler Library. The vast collection that Karen Green has helped to put together really lends itself to this sort of intimate hands-on exploration in real time and students in all disciplines are welcome to come explore for themselves. For more information, on Comics in the Columbia Libraries, go right here. I include here some photos of some of my discoveries exploring the stacks.

Butler Library at Columbia University

The Columbia University Libraries collect both graphic novels for the circulating collection in the Butler Library stacks and also creator archives in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library.  The circulating collection launched in 2005, when the libraries held three titles, and by the end of 2015 the collection featured roughly 10,000 titles in over two dozen languages.  The archival collections, which already contained disparate comics holdings, launched in earnest in 2011, with the acquisition of writer Chris Claremont‘s papers.

Remaking the World, at Columbia University, Kempner Gallery

The circulating holdings contain a diverse collection, with mainstream and alternative titles, archival reprints, independent comics, Kickstarter projects, and other content.  These materials have been used in courses from East Asian Languages and Cultures, to English and Comparative Literature, to Narrative Medicine, and have been featured in the American Studies course “The American Graphic Novel.”  Students have used the collection for term papers, senior theses, and M.A. essays.

Out of the Depths (sinking of RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915) by Oscar Edward Cesare, pen and ink on board.

We had a brief and informal chat after Karen provided me with a tour of the comics collection in Butler Library. Back at her office, Karen shared with me a syllabus for an upcoming summer class she will be teaching. The proposed reading list and schedule includes Doctor Fate, with guest speaker Paul Levitz; All the Answers, with guest speaker Michael Kupperman; Bad Girls, with guest speaker Alex De Campi; and Prince of Cats, with guest speaker Ronald Wimberly.

The Suffrage Amendment, Another Dark Alley to go Through! by Kenneth Russell Chamberlain (1891-1984), pen and ink on board.

Lastly, just to demonstrate how easy it is to roll into a tangent when you’re surrounded by such treasures, I couldn’t help but spend some time observing the current show in Kempner Gallery at Butler Library. It is entitled, Remaking the World, and it relates to important issues after World War I. I happen to have rested my eyes on a political cartoon on women’s suffrage in the United States. The cartoonist is Kenneth Russell Chamberlain. Any relation to me? Well, I’m not sure. I don’t think so but I’ll have to see to make sure. Even more uncanny to my possible connection is just how relevant the cartoon is today! We’ve made so much progress but we certainly have great challenges still ahead of us to say the least.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Please share with us how the Comics and Cartoon collection came about at Columbia. 

KAREN GREEN: It was 2005. I had just rediscovered graphic novels after a 12-year hiatus and was frantically buying graphic novels to feed my fascination with what was going on. I hit up against the wall of a librarian’s salary and thought about how nice it would be to check out these graphic novels from my library. However, at that time, we only had three graphic novels: Maus, Persepolis, and Palestine. We had Maus because every library has Maus. We had Persepolis and Palestine because Edward Said, the great scholar of Orientalism, taught here and those titles were on his reading lists. So, I thought about ways to frame a proposal for graphic novels. I brought together the stakeholders who I thought would be most interested: our American Studies librarian, our Graphic Arts librarian, and our Fine Arts librarian. And I developed a three-fold argument. The first prong was: this is a field, a medium, that is getting increasing academic and critical acceptance. I was able to show them articles from peer-reviewed academic journals along with The New York Times and The New Yorker. The second prong: Columbia has a film school and a film studies program. Already in 2005, the connection between film and comics was pretty strong and obviously only stronger now. It made sense for those students to have access to this raw material. And the third prong was a little bit more sentimental. Columbia’s full name is Columbia University in the City of New York. New York City is where American comics were born. No academic institution in New York was systematically collecting comics in any form. So, I thought that these two New York City institutions, comics and Columbia, could profitably form a partnership and that we could be the place for these things to be collected in. I presented this argument to a group of my colleagues and they agreed and provided some funds. It was a small budget to start with and it’s a lot more now.

Why do you think it took so long for a comics collection to become part of Columbia?

I think, for the most part, in universities, libraries respond to the curriculum. In this case, I was creating a demand for the curriculum. My feeling was that this is an important area. I was getting to know more and more people who were scholars in this field of comics studies. I felt that if I built a collection and it started getting noticed by faculty and grad students, then coursework and research and learning would follow–and that has turned out to be the case.

Having this vast collection, do you see patterns in the graphic novels that you’re looking at?

What’s interesting in the medium is that the big genre in comics is really the same as the big genre in prose which is memoir. I teach a summer course…it used to be called “Comics as Literature,” which I inherited. I don’t teach it as literature since I see comics as a primarily visual medium. I teach it as “How to Read Comics” or “How to Read This Comics Language.” And, I was trying to teach it by genre as a nod to the English Department and, one year, one of my students pointed out that although I had varied subjects (journalism, war stories, social activism), they all turned out to be memoirs! I try now to very consciously make the reading list more diverse so that we have memoir, reportage, fiction, history, and biography.

I think the natural inclination for the creator is to do memoir. So they end up needing to make a concerted effort to break free from that.

Write what you know and what do you know better than yourself!

Even if you’re not writing about yourself, you end up writing about yourself.

Absolutely.

What do you think is the typical young person’s approach to comics?

The course that I teach in the summer is mostly taken by our students in our School of General Studies, which is a school for returning students. They are not required to take as many of the courses as Columbia’s core curriculum. My course serves as a substitute for the foundational great literature course, Literature Humanities. Many of my students have never read comics or don’t know anything more than newspaper comic strips, if that. There’s another course that is taught here every other year, The American Graphic Novel. It is co-taught by one of our tenured faculty, Jeremy Dauber with Paul Levitz, the former president of D.C. Comics. That course gets huge enrollment from all the undergraduate schools and from some grad students. Jeremy and Paul go around on the first day of class and ask their students about their experience with comics. Maybe ten percent are dedicated comics fans. And, from that group, when asked what got them interested, they usually cite Batman: The Animated Series. I get a lot of students who tell me their gateway drug was Calvin and Hobbes. But I don’t get a lot of students who know the medium well and are reading longer more complex stories.

Let me see if I can get this question right. I’m wondering what you think makes for the ideal comics creator. I believe it is often a lone artist-writer.  However, even when you have a writer and artist collaborating, ideally you would have both of them equally immersed in the literary and visual arts. That leads me to the definition of an alternative comics creator. How would you define that role?

Well, that would be anyone who is not working in mainstream superhero stories. What a broad category that is: from Lynda Barry, to Derf, to Ronald Wimberly. The certain notion of mainstream being the Big Two (Marvel and D.C.) with maybe Dark Horse and Image, although those two have creator owned work, to call that the mainstream (doesn’t take into account) the dozens of  other publishers bringing out material, in addition to the Big Two.  Every year, I buy a lot more non-superhero material than superhero material and not because I’m discriminating against it but because there’s a lot of stuff out there from all sorts of publishers, not just dedicated comics publishers. You have traditional publishers like Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Viking. You have academic presses that are publishing graphic novels, not just scholarship on graphic novels. So, I think “alternative” is becoming less of a useful term. I just call everyone “comics creators.” I try not to put them in pigeon holes. You have people like Dean Haspiel who do superhero material and who do their own stuff. You’ve got Kelly Sue DeConnick, who does superhero stuff and her own stuff. Those categories aren’t as useful since the field has become so broad and diverse. They’re just creators.

I don’t mean to digress but I do think it’s a certain mindset. You get someone like a Dean Haspiel and the Big Two want that certain flavor, a very specific way of seeing that comes from an indie cartoonist, that certain way of creating comics that comes from an alternative comics world. Then you consider that MoCCA, and other comics art festivals, are focusing only on alt-comics. 

I agree.

While something like Comic Con in San Diego is primarily about big money, the Big Two, and Hollywood.

But Comic Con in San Diego has a huge small press presence.

That’s true, they’re able to embrace everything.

You take a look at their Eisner Awards and they’re dominated by so-called “alternative” creators. But, take a look at Paul Levitz, “Mr. D.C. Comics,” who has written two graphic novels for Dark Horse and he’s working with two other smaller publishers…and it’s creator-owned stuff. Sonny Liew, Paul’s collaborator on Doctor Fate, he does work for D.C. and he does his own stuff: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which won three Eisners. I just think that the alt-comics distinction has gotten so blurry. I think it’s a good thing to have creators dip their toes in different areas.

Well, I love that there’s a lot of gray area.

Yes! I love gray!

What graphic novels are popping up on your radar right now?

That brings me to my summer course and its reading list. For starters, I have Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics right along with How To Read Nancy. We begin with wordless comics: Peter Kuper’s Sticks and Stones; and Eric Drooker’s Flood! I really enjoyed reading Black as Fuck. They’ll be reading that along with Ms. Marvel. Junji Ito’s horror comics are just mind-blowing. Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu brings  takes his horror sensibility over to a story about his cats. Because I love European comics, I’m going to have them read (Dillies & Hautière’s) Abelard. There’s also Michael Kupperman’s All the Answers matched with David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. I also have Fun Home and possibly My Favorite Thing is Monsters if we have time. We have Bad Girls by Alex De Campi and Victor Santos. There’s also My Friend Dammer and The Fifth Beatle. And I always end with Ronald Wimberly’s Prince of Cats. I try to get as many titles as I can in as many styles, genres and traditions. It can be disconcerting, if you’ve only read American comics to suddenly be reading manga so we go over how to read it and all the visual cues. Let’s see, what else am I reading. I just read David Small’s Home After Dark which I really loved. Black as Fuck, I think the art is beautiful. It’s a story about what the world would be like if only black people had super powers. In the past, we’ve read Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki. Watchmen. Dark Knight. Those two because they’re been so influential. We’ve also read early Action Comics, Detective Comics, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man. I kept coming back to Dark Knight because we’re so much living in Frank Miller’s world now where superheroes are concerned. But this year I’m going lighter as I focus on Doctor Fate and Ms. Marvel because I’m ready to get out of the dark.

Yeah, we’ve been in the dark for too long. It runs in cycles.

Nothing against it. The dark books are great to teach but it’s good to mix it up.

We’re in a golden age of acknowledgment of comics and graphic novels. Do you think we’ve reached the ideal level or is there still room to grow with more and more people aware of and talking about graphic novels? 

I think there’s still a lot of room to grow.  There was a tweet the other day about an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles who won’t allow graphic novels in his classroom which led one of his students to bring in her own graphic novels to lend out to her classmates. It’s so strange to me that there are still educators who are resistant to graphic novels. Comics have won national book awards. What it is that still needs to happen for comics to be accepted as part of our cultural landscape I honestly don’t know. Four cartoonists have won MacArthur Genius Awards. What needs to still happen, I just don’t know. But there’s definitely room to grow to achieve as broad an acceptance for comics as there is for film, fiction, and any other other art form.

We will leave it there. Thank you so much, Karen.

You’re very welcome, Henry.

That concludes my interview. I want to thank Karen Green for taking the time and sharing her thoughts on graphic novels in general and in an academic setting. Thanks to Karen, she set things in motion and, with the help from like-minded souls, she continues the good work on behalf of comics, cartoons and graphic novels at Columbia University in the City of New York.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Columbia University, Comics, Education, graphic novels, Karen Green, Libraries

Review: ‘Pantheon: The True Story of The Egyptian Deities’ by Hamish Steele

“Pantheon: The True Story of The Egyptian Deities” by Hamish Steele

Who knew that ancient Egyptian (3000 BCE – 30 BC) mythology could be so much fun? Well, a very creative and funny guy named Hamish Steele sure does. Read his take on these creation tales in his new graphic novel, “Pantheon: The True Story of The Egyptian Deities,” published by Nobrow Press. It is always a pleasure to review a book by Nobrow as they consistently bring out books that will appeal to a wide readership. This book I peg at ages 13 and up. A tongue-in-cheek blurb on the back provides a friendly warning. It states that this book contains depictions of “incest, decapitation, suspicious salad, fighting hippos, lots of scorpions, and a golden willy.” So, keep that in mind.

Osiris weighs in.

Steele has created a “disruptive” comic interpretation of Egyptian mtyhology. It is as if he picked the brains of countless students who have had to slog through arcane history and literature and given them exactly what they wanted. How about The Canterbury Tales as told by Borat? The original is “bawdy” but still a bit distant. There is no harm in making it more accessible. In fact, the great Seymour Chwast gave us his take on The Canterbury Tales a few years ago and brings things to life in way that only the comics medium can do. What Steele does is follow the pantheon of gods and pharaohs as they attempt to rule over ancient Egypt, warts and all.

Isis on the hunt.

Take, for example, just how badly things go when a god is insecure. Ra, the sun god, senses that he has outworn his welcome among humans. So, what does he do? He turns his one and only duaghter, Hathor, into fury itself, hell-bent on killing humans. Not the best solution to a problem. Steele plays that up with sly wit. Of course, things get far more complicated once Ra drops off a few gods to fight over who will rule over humans as pharaoh. Gods being gods, nothing is beneath them. And here, Steele runs with it.

With an appealing style, Steele infuses these tales of gods and mortals with a zesty contemporary vibe. Steele’s approach is uninhibited, playful, and spot on. This would be a welcome addition in a high school or college classroom.

“Pantheon: The True Story of The Egyptian Deities” is a 216 page full-color trade paperback, available as of September 15, 2017. For more details, and how to purchase, visit Nobrow Press right here. You can also find this book by visiting Amazon right here.

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Filed under Comics, Education, Egypt, Hamish Steele, Humor, Myth, Nobrow Press

Review: ‘Lucy & Andy Neanderthal: The Stone Cold Age’

“Lucy & Andy Neanderthal: The Stone Cold Age” by Jeffrey Brown

Jeffrey Brown has the uncanny ability to get in touch with his inner tween. He has all the snarky put-downs and sulky sighs down pat. It all adds up to a lot of fun for young readers with his latest graphic novel, “Lucy & Andy Neanderthal: The Stone Cold Age,” published by Crown Books. If you have patience and a sense of humor, you too can appreciate the angst of the pre-teen. For starters, nothing goes to plan in this world. Then set your pre-teen story 40,000 years ago during the Ice Age, and you’re set.

Andy can’t get a break!

Our title characters prove to be two highly mercurial tweens. Lucy seems nice but she is prone to not participate and let the team down. Andy seems capable but he is prone to self-serving behavior and hurtful naysaying–not admirable qualities when trying to live with others. Neither Lucy nor Andy appear to possess even one valuable character trait needed to survive the severe conditions in this story. These two characters are not particularly likable nor admirable and that’s part of the humor that Brown likes to play with.

Learning through humor.

Brown really doesn’t sweat over having things tidy and proper. His artwork, and his script, have a very casual vibe. In fact, it is a clever mix of irreverence and thoughtful planning. While it feels like one of the young characters created this book, clearly there is a well-crafted structure. Alternating between the Ice Age story is a contemporary story that follows Pam and Eric, a couple of intrepid young paleontologists. From Pam and Eric we learn such things as the climate has been consistently warming up for the last 12,000 years. And, intertwined within the narrative, Brown provides all sorts of educational goodies like Timeline of Key Discoveries, Ice Age Fact vs. Fiction, Silly Cavemen Myths, and more.

This book is intended for an age range of 8 to 12 years-old. This will definitely appeal to fans of Big Nate, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and The Terrible Two. “Lucy & Andy Neanderthal: The Stone Cold Age” is a 224-page hardcover, the second in a series, published by Crown Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It will be available as of August 29, 2017, and is available for pre-order.

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Review: JURASSIC by Ted Rechlin

JURASSIC by Ted Rechlin

Dinosaurs fascinate us on a level all its own. Over a hundred years ago, when Winsor McKay was looking for a way to wow the public with his animation, he turned to a brontosaurus, Gertie the Dinosaur. Beyond that wow factor, there is a need to know what these creatures were really like. And that is where the work of writer/artist Ted Rechlin is so important for young readers…and even older readers. In a series of books that use a comic book format, Rechlin brings to life a fascinating assortment of facts about dinosaurs. Rechlin’s approach evokes the best in wildlife documentaries with the unique storytelling qualities of comics. Rechlin’s latest book is simply entitled, “Jurassic,” published by Rextooth Studios, and distributed by Farcountry Press.

The mighty Supersaurus!

“Jurassic” is the new graphic novel from Ted Rechlin (Tyrannosaurs Rex, Bears). Printed in a hardbound, comic-book style, “Jurassic” is a thrilling prehistoric adventure for all ages. Featuring epic action, stunning artwork, and the return of the Brontosaurus. Ted Rechlin is a phenomenal Montana artist who has worked for DC Comics and Dover Publication and currently runs Rextooth Studios. He also just released Dinosaurs Live! (coloring book, Farcountry Press). “Jurassic” is part nature documentary, part action epic, and follows a brontosaurs calf navigating through the perilous age of the dinosaurs.

Allosaurus vs. Torvosaurus

Author and Illustrator Ted Rechlin is becoming a king of the dinosaurs. “I just keep drawing them” says Rechlin. “I love getting the chance to show them as living, breathing creatures. I love knowing that people will read this and imagine how they might have behaved.” Having already published Tyrannosaurus Rex and just recently completed Dinosaurs Live! The Ultimate Coloring Book, Rechlin’s love and knowledge of the Mesozoic world shines in all his work.

Allosaurus wins!

His newest release, “Jurassic,” is a primeval adventure in animal behavior. Part nature documentary, part action epic, Rechlin welcomes readers of all ages to experience the golden age of dinosaurs. “One of my favorite parts of this time period is the sheer scale of these creatures,” Rechlin says, “We have mega-carnivores like the Torvosaurus hunting prey alongside the massive and whale-sized Camarasaurus.”

Allosaurus rests.

One of these giant-sized herbivores, and the central protagonist in “Jurassic,” Brontosaurus, has just recently come back into prominence thanks to new scientific discoveries. Years ago, the species had been downgraded and grouped as a subspecies of Apatosaurus, but recent findings confirmed that it was a distinct and valid species of sauropod. “Brontosaurus was one of my favorite dinosaurs as a kid,” says Rechlin. “After paleontologists reconfirmed its existence as a species, I knew I wanted the book to feature a young brontosaurs’ journey to become the ‘thunder lizard’ he was born to be.”

Beautifully illustrated, packed with thrilling action sequences, the most up-to-date science, and a passion for the prehistoric world, “Jurassic” (ISBN: 978-1-59152-203-4, $19.95, Sweetgrass Books, 2017) is available at local bookstores and gift shops, through online retailers, or from Farcountry Press right here. And be sure to visit Ted Rechlin right here.

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Filed under Comics, Dinosaurs, Education, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Ted Rechlin

Review: THE GUMAZING GUM GIRL: GUM LUCK

THE GUMAZING GUM GIRL: GUM LUCK

GUM LUCK is the second in the Gumazing Gum Girl series, published by Disney-Hyperion Books, and it is as irreverent and quirky as you may expect. Illustrated by Rhode Montijo, written by Montijo, with Luke Reynolds, this is a perfect book for young readers. This book is hilarious and there is method to all the madness too. Gabby Gomez has quite a conflict to deal with: bubblegum gives Gabby superpowers but her dentist dad is totally against bubblegum. Gabby feels compelled to confess her big gum secret but she can’t risk losing her powers.

Reading GUM GIRL

The script by Montijo and Reynolds provides a fun mix of kid reality and kid fantasy. For example, in one chapter, Gabby is alarmed to see a car skidding its way towards a collision. Instantly, Gabby sets loose her gum powers and brings the car to a sticky, but safe, stop. However, once Gabby arrives at school, she discovers her permission slip to go to the zoo is covered in bubblegum. Without a readable permission slip, Gabby is forced to stay behind in a classroom with other kids who can’t go to the zoo.

Pages from THE GUMAZING GUM GIRL: GUM LUCK

Montijo’s bold artwork is a real treat and keeps the action moving along. Montijo has managed to channel is own take on the Power Puff Girls. Gabby Gomez and her family are easy to relate to while Gum Girl is whimsical and fun to follow along. Montijo offers up a very pleasant and animated style. It is spare and clear and will be especially appealing to a younger age group of ages 6-8. This book also happens to have a pleasing hint of bubblegum scent!

THE GUMAZING GUM GIRL: GUM LUCK is a 160-page color hardcover, available as of June 13th. You can find it at Amazon right here.

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Filed under Children's Books, Disney, Education, Illustration, Literacy, Reading

Seattle Focus: MOHAI Presents TOYS of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s

MOHAI Presents TOYS of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Once a toy has become an artifact of childhood, it has reached a very special place. For the purposes of this exhibit, a look at American toys spanning three decades, the focus is upon the joy and comfort these toys provided. The context is both simple and complex as viewers are invited to study the various exhibits from their own personal point of view. Did you have a happy childhood? If not, maybe a toy helped you along the way? Sectioned off into three decades worth of childhoods, there is plenty to recollect and reassess.

Contemplating Toys and Childhood

Contemplating Toys and Childhood

“Toys from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s” is enjoying its West Coast premiere on display at MOHAI here in Seattle. Originating from the Minnesota History Center, this exhibit asks you to revisit many toys that, by today’s standards, would not be deemed suitable for children on many grounds, including common sense safety! Lawn darts, anyone?? Yep, we don’t see lawn darts sold in today’s toy market. They’re basically sharp steel projectiles. They’re not going to cut it, or rather, they ARE going to cut it! But, you see, lawn darts have a home here–on display only. Lawn darts are not subject to recall within the bounds of this exhibit. They are here to conjure up good lawn dart memories, for those who have them. And they’re also here as a subject for discussion. As much as this exhibit is a trip down memory lane, it also invites viewers to draw their own conclusions.

The Game of Cootie, originally launched in 1949

The Game of Cootie, originally launched in 1949

What are your thoughts on Barbie dolls or toy guns? You’ll find them here ready for your marvel or scrutiny. The point is that you’ll find all sorts of toys, whether or not they pass today’s safety or societal tests. The overwhelming nature of childhood memory takes over. Countless kids loved their toys and now we have the nostalgia for yesteryear and contemporary perspective to guide us. You’ll find a lot of kids attracted to the exhibits. You’ll see lots of families with their toddlers, too young to appreciate any nuances but ready to grab at anything not secured. And then there are the adults who grew up in these respective decades. For them, especially, the exhibit features living room re-creations for each decade on view. For these viewers, the couch is right there to sit and go back in time with, alone or perhaps to share with younger family members.

1960s Living Room Re-creation at MOHAI Toys exhibit

1960s Living Room Re-creation at MOHAI Toys exhibit

Toys are certainly not easy to pin down. Toys resist being dismissed even if the originals are stored away or thrown away. Toys come at you from every direction. At a certain age, they define your leisure, your means of escape. They can become your world, your identity. They’re based upon all you think you know about the world whether from books, movies, television, just about anything. What does a choice in a toy say about a child? What does a toy say about the adult who chose it for the child? The adult who created it? The manufacturer that produced it? The country that embraced it?

Atomic Disintegrator repeating cap pistol, introduced by Hubley in 1954

Atomic Disintegrator repeating cap pistol, introduced by Hubley in 1954

Alpha-1 Ballistic Missile, introduced by Amsco Industries in 1958

Alpha-1 Ballistic Missile, introduced by Amsco Industries in 1958

One of the best examples of how toys can make a difference is the American reaction to the Soviet’s being the first in space in 1957 with the Sputnik satellite. That little object in space caused shockwaves in the United States. Toy makers would definitively enter the Space Age and Space Race. Hubley’s 1954 Atomic Disintegrator, right out of science fiction, was all well and good. But now was the time to step up a focus on science and technology. Amsco Industries responded in 1958 with the Alpha-1 Ballistic Missile, “designed by missile engineers, tested in Cape Canaveral.” And, as the display makes clear, kids ate it up! There’s this priceless quote from the exhibit:

“How did I get interested in science and make it my life’s work? Kids in the late ’50s and ’60s could get toys that complemented that interest. My friends and I loved my Alpha-1 Ballistic Missile: Mix up some baking soda and vinegar, put it into the missile, put it on the launch pad, and pull the string. That baby could really fly.”

–Mike Smith, b. 1952, meteorologist

It was fun, as a discerning adult, to wander back and forth between the three living room areas: the wonder and innocence in the 1950s; the keen interest in science and exploration in the 1960s; and a full circle escape to wonder and innocence in the 1970s. It seemed like, after having landed on the moon, and the rise of the Vietnam War, Americans were ready to refocus. Instead of looking to actual stars, Americans were ready to go see the new blockbuster hit, “Star Wars,” entertainment with its roots in 1930s pulp fiction. They were also ready to buy all the Star Wars toys.

Hey, that's Han Solo's Millennium Falcon!

Hey, that’s Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon!

I have fond memories of the ’70s as a kid. And I recall seeing “Star Wars” in 1977, at age 14, at our local movie theater at the mall. It would not have occurred to me to buy all the Star Wars figures, let alone a toy replica of the Millennium Falcon. But it was really nice to see the whole Star Wars set on display here at MOHAI. Any kid would have been thrilled to have owned them back then. But I’m sure that I owned a couple of figures. And I know that I went to see “Star Wars” more than once, despite the very long lines. I didn’t question any of it back then, although I was certainly old enough to do so. I was more than happy to accept it just as fun. I didn’t think about profit motives or the future of franchises or the American spirit. This brand new thing called “Star Wars” left you with a good feeling inside. And that’s the best thing any toy can offer.

TOYS at MOHAI!

TOYS at MOHAI!

“Toys from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s” is on display at MOHAI through September 25th. For more details, visit MOHAI right here.

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Filed under Childhood, Children, Comics, Education, Family, History, MOHAI, pop culture, Sci-Fi, Science, Seattle, Toys

Review: THE OUTSIDE CIRCLE

"The Outside Circle" by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings

“The Outside Circle” by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings

To tell a big story that resonates, you need to fit it within the framework of a smaller story. This is what Patti LaBoucane-Benson does in “The Outside Circle” as she addresses the Canadian government’s treatment of its own native people though the journey of one brave man. When you embark upon the process of building up a graphic novel, you make various choices along the way. One critical decision is setting the right tone and that is tied in with what kind of work it is set to be. It can be a little of A, B, or C, and ultimately it will be mostly one kind of graphic novel. “The Outer Circle” is chiefly an educational work with lots of room for artistic expression. It is a tale with many facts to bring forth. In this regard, Kelly Mellings does a great job of balancing what must be said with finding a way to say it in the most compelling way.

A tattoo that speaks volumes.

A tattoo that speaks volumes.

“The Outside Circle,” by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings, is a story of flawed and vulnerable characters who seem resistant to change and yet hunger for redemption. We explore what led Pete, an Aboriginal Canadian, to succumb to a life of crime and violence. One of the most compelling pages shows Pete after he’s being rewarded by the gang with a tattoo. Pete has just committed a crime worthy of acceptance by the gang members. However, the tattoo reveals the pain and sorrow of Natives under the Canadian government.

Rehabilitation and redemption through the Warrior Program.

Rehabilitation and redemption through the Warrior Program.

Pete must lose everything before he can regain his own dignity and sense of purpose. After a fight that turns deadly, Pete is sent to prison and his little brother, Joey, is placed into foster care. The act of Joey entering foster care mirrors the plight of Canada’s Aboriginals. The government’s solution had always been to separate the native-born children from their families and have them placed into foster care and go to special residential schools. These residential schools turned out to be run-down and poorly kept. The children were often neglected and sexually abused. The last school of this kind closed in 1996.

But a strong spirit may rise above the worst trauma. Pete is deemed worthy of a second chance and a good candidate for the prison’s “In Search of Your Warrior” program. It is the journey that Pete embarks upon that informs the rest of our story. Pete must find ways to break the patterns of violence and self-hatred. This is a moving story told with compassion through words and pictures. And it proves to be a excellent source of information and hope, another great example of the power of comics and graphic novels.

“The Outside Circle: A Graphic Novel” is a 128-page trade paperback, in full color, published by House of Anansi Press.

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Filed under Canada, Comics, Education, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels

Tacoma Focus: Washington State History Museum

On the Wagon Train! Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

On the Wagon Train! Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

Wandering through Tacoma can be like time travelling with so many finely restored historic landmarks. Add to that all the classic cars driving down the avenues. And add to all that the Washington State History Museum. It is a massive fortress filled to the brim with all sorts of pathways and portals into the past.

Yes, I gravitated to the pop culture!

Yes, I gravitated to the pop culture!

I know that I love novel uses of words and pictures. It’s not just because I create comics and graphic novels. As both a writer and artist, and as a lifelong learner, I have always cherished the unique place that museums of all kinds have in our lives.

Washington State History Museum

Washington State History Museum

I am especially grateful for the Washington State History Museum as an essential resource for state history. It serves as the state’s attic, a very special venue for all manner of items, large and small, a place for careful study.

Watercolor painting of Chief Leschi

Watercolor painting of Chief Leschi

Museums are for all ages. It could not be any other way. Mentors and cubs alike make great use of museums. But it is no secret that museums hold a special place for the kids. The great push forward from one generation to the next must always include quiet contemplation amongst the artifacts of bygone eras.

A small drama plays out at the train set.

A small drama plays out at the train set.

And when you come right down to it, I love good visuals, which this museum has plenty. And, among them all, I love that massive train set! Like any elaborate train set worth its weight, this one has some unexpected dramatic scenes peppered about, even an accident site complete with ambulance and accident victim. We can only hope it was a minor accident!

Train Set at the Washington State History Museum

Train Set at the Washington State History Museum

The train set exhibit brings to mind a fellow who has dedicated a big portion of his life to creating what is probably the world’s longest and most complex train set display encompassing football fields of space. That’s Northlandz in New Jersey. But this is not a competition. He has his train set and this wonderful museum has its train set, which is pretty massive!

Brass Lantern Clock, circa 1630

Brass Lantern Clock, circa 1630

Vintage Women's Suffrage Placard

Vintage Women’s Suffrage Placard

Washington State History Museum is located at 1911 Pacific Avenue in the heart of Tacoma’s Museum District, adjacent to Union Station. For more details, visit the website right here.

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Filed under Education, History, Tacoma, Travel, Washington state

Interview: David Schmader on Literacy, Neighborhoods, LGBTQ, and Cannabis

David Schmader

David Schmader

David Schmader is an American writer known for his solo plays, his writing for the Seattle newsweekly The Stranger, and his annotated screenings of Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls.” He is the author of the 2016 book “Weed: The User’s Guide.” And he is the Creative Director of the Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas, a literary arts center offering free programs for youth ages 6 to 18. I had the opportunity to interview David and discuss better approaches to community and seeking common ground. Locally, for those of us who are a part of the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle, we have been undergoing a recharge, a rallying around, after a gas leak explosion that tore into the fabric of everyday life. With BFI preparing to return to its original Greenwood site this month, it seemed to me a good time to check in with a thoughtful leader in our community. I begin our interview going back to that March 9th gas leak explosion in the middle of the night. Fueled with cups of coffee, we settled in at Couth Buzzard Books for this interview.

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Filed under Cannabis, Education, Gay, LGBTQ, Literacy, Marijuana, Seattle, The Stranger, Youth