Book Review – Are You My Mother? (By: Alison Bechdel)

I was very surprised upon finding a copy that I hadn’t heard of Alison Bechdel’s follow-up to the outstanding graphic novel Fun Home back when I was getting more in to comics. Certainly Are You My Mother? had been published by the time I was reading its predecessor and looking up its author. But this “sequel” just slipped through the cracks, it seems. While the original got awards and a musical adaptation, this book didn’t quite seem to find its audience (at least as far as one can tell from the footprint it left). But is that deserved or is Are You My Mother? an overlooked treasure?

Are You My Mother? is (perhaps in a limiting capacity) linked very closely to Fun Home. Indeed the events and creation of Fun Home are mentioned throughout Are You My Mother?, and I suspect that if one reads the second without the context of the first they will get less out of it. Whereas Fun Home was a memoir half about Alison and half about her father, this memoir is half about her mother (surprisingly). The focus is a lot more on the present than the past, and a surprisingly large chunk is taken up by the few years between the release of Fun Home and this book’s creation. There are also large chunks dedicated to Alison’s dreams, both relating and interpreting them, and her therapy sessions. At many moments is seems to be less than half about (or indeed “about” as it supposedly is) her mother and more about her.

That isn’t necessarily a problem, even if it would mean the title is misleading. But a few chapters in, with the pages filled by enough text to write a novel (if she hand-lettered everything that is an amazing feat in and of itself), lots of allusions to famous works/people, and more than one would expect about the (psycho)analysis of dreams (something I personally find… well, “suspect” would be the nicest way to put it) and I start to understand why maybe this one wasn’t as well read as its ancestor. Similar “faults” were present in Fun Home: it was a wordy graphic novel and perhaps a bit “pompous” in its allusion to grander works. But it was much more “readable”. There is quite a lot more packed onto a page this go around and I can’t help but think Alison wanted to just keep going and going. That packing of information didn’t really stop me from reading, though, and the work is presented in a way that makes the reader want to keep going. I’m a sucker for graphic novels anyway, and this one took about an average time to read: less than 3 days, and I even gave up my nightly novel-reading-time as I got engrossed.

And the writing and illustration are engrossing. The level of artistry (upgraded this time in detailed renderings of scenes that force you to extract information from them as if it was real life) is still incredible in how expressive, understandable, and atmospheric it is. The fact that the only color is red(/pink in its various tints and shades), as opposed to green in the first book really puts you in a different mindset than Fun Home and is expertly rendered to influence the feeling of a page. The writing, likewise, is compelling and human. Alison is understandable (if not-at-all understandable) and while I could never “understand” myself making several decisions (like cheating on a partner {ha! partner…} or attempting to analyze my dreams) I can “understand” her well enough to comprehend why she made those decisions and what they meant in the small amount of her life contained in this book. I’m trying to say that the encapsulation of thoughts and feeling into words is as well rendered as the illustration.

But it just never quite gets up to the level it wants to be at. It’s trying very hard to get to the same resonant place that made Fun Home so successful (and I assume cathartic) but there isn’t as much to draw on, and it’s weighed down by length accounts of Virginia Wolff and Dr. Winnicott. It plateaus just below the breakthrough of its older sister(?) and wanders around distantly. Though I suppose that does capture Bechdel’s relationship with her mother fairly well, and maybe the first was more popular (with me and the masses) because her father’s story was more excitingly tragic.

I feel very strange having mentioned another book so many times in this review. But it seems appropriate that if one knows of both works the two can’t really be separated, especially with the success of the first. I’m sure there’s someone out there that has only read Are You My Mother? (potentially the children’s book and neither of the books I’ve been talking about) but it is a very unlikely scenario, and the stories intertwine so much that catering to such a person seems silly (though I don’t know why they would be reading this review). Together the two books form a whole. But it is a whole you can read the first half of and be relatively okay.

At one point I found a fairly pristine copy of Fun Home in a second-hand store and then put it in my “cart” before I even knew who I was going to give it to, but I knew there “was” someone I knew who I could give it to. Are you My Mother? unfortunately doesn’t make it up quite that high, and I can’t imagine myself recommending it to anyone who hasn’t read Fun Home. It’s a bit pretentious and it attempts to find correlation and causation where there is none, but it is tremendously well crafted, artistically inspiring with a story that is well told and meaningful to people in a myriad of difficult situations.

Book Review – Haw! (By: Ivan Brunetti)

Haw! is a collection of “horrible, horrible (“indeed terrible”) cartoons” by Ivan Brunetti, a relatively influential person in the comic scene. I’ve read several anthologies (edited) by him in the past (though I couldn’t have told you that without looking it up first). This collection is a set of cartoons done in a similar style (they could almost be considered a “strip” if anyone had been crazy enough to publish it) done in Brunetti’s youth when he was “more angry”. So are they worth reading now?

No, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like the book. There’s no reason to read this book, there’s nothing insightful, artistically relevant, or particularly moving. Indeed, it is just a collection of terrible, tasteless cartoons that should never really be shared with anyone (even worse than puns {that might be more funny if you read the book}). But they were funny, in the strict “a joke is leading the mind down a path and unexpectedly changing that path” sort of way. It’s the kind of book where I have to keep justifying the fact that I read it and wasn’t disgusted with it. I get the anger and the cynicism, and perhaps Brunetti goes over the line with the delivery with how explicit and graphic it is (certainly equally funny jokes have been told in more friendly ways) but it just becomes a parody of itself after a few panels.

I can’t really make a case for the existence of this book (though obviously I’m against getting rid of things because they’re uncomfortable, so I don’t have a justification to destroy it, either) and I’m not going to make the case for anyone to go out and buy it. The artistic style is interesting, but nothing terribly special, and the humor is like the good times in Cards Against Humanity (being like the jokes they cut up to put in the game so that most of the time you get garbled junk but sometimes you put the pieces back together and it’s funny). And there are even profuse apologies within the introduction and copyright pages to warn you the book might not be something you’d want. But if you were looking into reading you probably knew about those and ignored them anyway.

Basically you probably don’t want to buy it, unless you already knew what it was about and were looking into it, in which case make your own decisions.

Review – Caran d’Ache Sketcher (Non-Photo Blue Pencil)

Pencils are a nigh-indispensable tool for the artist. But usually, especially with ink work, they need to be erased, and that can be a hassle. It’s a lot of work, it risks ruining the drawing (or paper), it takes time, and it becomes harder to correct later. But oftentimes the final work is either a duplicate of the original, or more work is done over inked lines, meaning that using a pencil that simply doesn’t show up in the reproductions saves time and work by not needing to be erased. Non-photo blue pencils were used for this purpose as many image replication processes (mainly cameras and photocopiers that were used to duplicate artwork for printers) have a hard time transferring it, and they still retain a place with modern scanners that will be able to pick the color up, but do so in a way that the image can be easily edited to omit it. But is it really worth it to get a new different pencil like the Sketcher from Caran d’Ache?


The pencil is as basic as one can get: made of wood and hexagonally faceted to limit rolling, one end is sharpened the other has a metal ferrule connecting the body to an eraser. The body is a pleasant blue color mirroring the color of the lead and on one facet neatly stamped and inked in white is all of the relevant information. It looks and feels very much like a standard #2 pencil.


The eraser is well done; it erases cleanly and is dense enough to not float away far faster than the rest of the pencil. The lead is hard to place in hardness; it feels softer than a standard HB but it has a more waxy quality (characteristic of colored pencils) that makes it give a much harder line. So it writes somewhere harder than HB and wears somewhere below. The line it produces can go from very light to surprisingly dark, but even at its most dark, it is barely visible in scans and can be easily isolated and removed. But it is only a tool for pure ink drawings, and its use is limited in other senses. If one were to, for instance, lay a wash over it, it would be harder to isolate and almost impossible to be rid of on scans, and it resists being covered by lighter washes. And if one were to erase before laying down a wash they would find that the ink laid on top of the pencil is cut down severely, with the entire line becoming grey and having several holes that are almost white, basically where the ink adhered to the pencil and not the paper (this effect is present, but much less severe, with standard graphite pencils). A similar set of problems would be encountered by someone wishing to put color down. So using a pencil like this would necessitate an additional step between inking and coloring/washing where the inked drawing is reproduced and tweaked to eliminate the blue (and potentially other errors).


I’ve also had a bit of an issue with the lead being soft enough to break inside the pencil. It hasn’t been severe, but it’s worth noting.


So am I converted to the blue pencil? Not quite. I really like it, and for a specific type of work-flow it is perfect, but that work-flow isn’t mine. I color/wash my original drawings, and I don’t see that stopping unless I get big enough that I can hand it off to someone else. So the pencil has very little use inside my work environment. I do use it now and again, but it also wears down quite quickly, and having to use a sharpener just drives me back to my mechanical pencils. That being said, it is a well-made pencil that does its intended job superbly. If you need to reproduce or scan in original inked artwork and don’t want the hassle of erasing, I would say this is right up your alley.

Book Review – the Wall Street Journal Portfolio of Business Cartoons.

I’ve never read the Wall Street Journal, nor really any news publication. Those I have glanced at have always been for the cartoons. And when I get the chance to pick up a book collecting some cartoons from a respected publication I’ve possibly never seen before, I do it.


The cartoons collected in this book are limited when compared to the scope the publication. There are only a handful per decade, but they do convey the time they were from and are very funny. They are provided with no extra information or context, and nothing about he cartoonist themselves is recorded. The images still hold up on their own, most being easy to understand by almost anyone. They are well drawn and well reproduced on high-quality paper in the book.

There isn’t much more to say about them. It’s a to-the-point cartoon collection; a fast and enjoyable read that I would recommend to a fan of business humor.

Book Review – The Rejection Collection Vol 2

The second Rejection Collection is very similar to the first in that it is a wonderfully funny collection of cartoons that didn’t make it into the New Yorker magazine for various (and obvious) reasons. There are a few returning artists, and a few new artists featured, and one is bound to like quite a few of them. This makes it, cartoon-wise, a wonderful look at what cartoonists and editors think shouldn’t be published, and it’s hilarious.


My problem with this second volume is in the more “book” part. There is a questionnaire filled out by each cartoonist, and unlike the first book, where such a paper was very open-ended and allowed for a lot of creativity, this one seems more locked down and contrived. This is ironically (I used the word correctly here, just watch) because it is trying to do the opposite. In trying to intentionally create an open-ended and interesting form, the result is a form that makes the authors’ humor seem forced. Only those who really break all of the form’s rules are very entertaining to read. Only a few are complete duds, and in general they are a bit of fun. They also tend to provide a less-insightful look at the cartoonist, in my opinion. I guess the form had to be different, because some of the artists return, but I do wish that it was more like the original.

That being said, there are certainly some funny and informative moments in the book, and the paper and humor are of a high-enough quality that I don’t feel ripped off. I’d say if you came for the cartoons, the book is great, but if you came to get a closer look at the minds of some of the New Yorker cartoonists, some heavier considerations might be weighed, and the first collection might be better. It’ll take longer to read than the first, and it’s certainly funny, but I just don’t think it’s quite as good.