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Graphic novel reviews: the Evolution of a Monster!

Perusing the current list of nominations for next year’s Great Graphic Novels awards, I came across a couple books that I’d just read recently and really enjoyed: Jay Hosler and Zander and Kevin Cannon’s Evolution: the Story of Life on Earth and Masami Tsuda’s Eensy Weensy Monster, v. 1. (Actually, I came across a lot more than just two graphic novels I’d read recently, but I liked the title I came up with so much I had to use these two.) So here’s a quick review of two very different books, with very different approaches and goals, that are really only similar in the fact that they’re both very fun.

The cover to Evolution.Evolution is a sequel to a previous book, The Stuff of Life, by Mark Schultz and Zander and Kevin Cannon (who, incidentally, are not actually related). Although it’s a nonfiction book, it’s also got an actual narrative, being a story about a trio of aliens who are examining Earth’s species. It’s an excellent book for learning the basic concepts of evolution and a history of life on Earth: Schultz’s writing is simultaneously witty, engaging, and informative, and the Cannons’ illustrations vary between cartoony and highly detailed as needed. The one knock I have against the book is the lack of color; as great as the art is, it’d be even better in full color instead of black-and-white.

A sample page from Evolution.I’d recommend the book for anyone who’s interested in learning about evolutionary biology, but not for, say, students looking for test prep before the AP Biology exam. Because the book is a narrative, it’s not structured like a textbook would be; a lot of the same information is there, but it comes up as part of the story. It’s great for learning cause-and-effect (because evolution works like this, these organisms ended up like that), but there’s no index or any way to easily find the specific information you’re looking for. This isn’t a criticism, really, just a bit of advice on what kind of reader might get the most out of the book.

The cover to the first volume of Eensy Weensy Monster.I’ll admit it: I came into Eensy Weensy Monster expecting the worst. Masami Tsuda has only done one other manga, His and Her Circumstances, which I thoroughly hated. I thought it was melodramatic, far too long, and pretentious. But I’m happy to report that Monsters is none of these things; in fact, it’s one of my favorite recent manga. Nanoha Satsuki is about as average as you can get—average grades, no special skills, not terribly pretty—and she’s also friends with both the prettiest girl and the smartest girl in school, so she looks even less interesting by comparison. But when “prince of the school” Hazuki Tokiwa gets under her skin, Nanoha lets out her dark, cruel, sarcastic side—the “monster” of the title. This only makes Hazuki more interested in her, and the two of them slowly begin learning more about each other.

Yes, it’s a shojo romance title. But it’s full of clever little touches and interesting choices that set it apart from the pack. Hazuki is as much a main character as Nanoha, and several chapters are written from his perspective—in fact, some scenes we see both through his eyes and Nanoha’s. One particularly great chapter shows Hazuki’s internal monologue on the left pages and Nanoha’s on the right, giving us both their views simultaneously. It reminds me a bit of Wendelin Van Draanen’s Flipped, where chapters alternated between the two main characters, but making full use of the comic medium to show us both perspectives at the same time. It’s really a phenomenal use of the medium.

A two-page spread from Eensy Weensy Monster.

More importantly, it’s short—only two volumes—so there’s no chance of it running on too long and overstaying its welcome. Much as I like a good story, I respect a story that knows when to end.

–Ted Anderson, currently (still!) reading After School Nightmare