I had been aware of Diana Tamblyn’s comics for some time but for some reason hadn’t really made an attempt to engage her work until she sent me a batch of her books a month or so ago. Part of that may have to do with the nature of Tamblyn’s work itself. Although she has a very distinctive style — bold, thick lines, and an intriguing, almost off-beat blend of caricature and photorealism — she’s by no means a flashy artist, certainly not in her delineations or in her pacing and structure. That holds true for her choice in subject matter as well. She tells, simple, slice-of-life stories about everyday characters that focus more on small moments and quiet scenes than big narratives and weighty metaphors. That lack of, for want of a better word, pizazz, may initially make Tamblyn fade into the background, but judging by the progressive quality of her work, it’s not a place she deserves to be.
Tamblyn’s best known mini-comic is probably best known at this point for Duty Must Be Done: The Story of Frederick Banting. I say that because the story originally appeared in the 2002 SPX anthology. Banting was the man who discovered the insulin treatment for diabetics, who lived a rather colorful and driven life in addition to this notable achievement, and Tamblyn tells his story in a straightforward, “and then this happened” manner that you might expect to see in your average PBS or AMC special.
To an extent, the book succeeds because Banting himself led such an interesting life. Merely recounting his many accomplishments and trials is enough to keep readers engaged from panel to panel. Though her panels are cluttered and overly busy at times, Tamblyn does a solid job of focusing on the significant moments and explaining why Banting is a unique and important individual. Though filled with text, the comic never once feels overly verbose.
Tamblyn followed that up with Writer’s Block, the story of a suddenly successful author trying to decide what his next book should be about. There’s a sweet touch in the way the protagonist relies upon his young niece and nephew to help him come to a decision, but in many ways this is Tamblyn’s weakest book so far. Her characters come off as stiff and awkwardly posed, and the dialogue is often painfully stilted. People — especially family members of different generations — simply don’t talk to each other in the way Tamblyn suggests here.
Her next book, There You Were, is a decided improvement. Though it still shows some of the stiffness and awkward perspective that plagued Writers’ Block, the subject matter — a shy, young office worker who learns to come out of her shell thanks to some kind words from a fellow employee — is more down to Earth and more charming as a result. I particularly like the way Tamblyn shows Josie’s uneasiness around her co-workers and contrasts that with her kind act involving a wrong number.
But Tamblyn’s best comic as of yet is easily The Rosie Stories, a series of short one or two-pagers devoted to the adventures of her young daughter. Tamblyn details her pregnancy and Rosie’s birth, her fears about becoming a parent and later fears about being able to protect her child while showing us Rosie’s nighttime rituals, habits and generally cute behavior. Her line seems a lot more relaxed and fluid here and she mixes up her style nicely, drawing Rosie in a big-headed, Family Circus fashion for a sequence involving cheese and crackers.
Though she lapses occasionally into Hallmark Card sentimentality — and to be fair, from my experience, it’s very hard as a new parent not to do so often — she’s never trite or dishonest and the final page of the book is one of the most tender scenes in comics I’ve seen in a long while. Those who have a strong dislike for anything cute will probably disavow The Rosie Stories before they even crack open the cover, but I found it to be charming. It earned its sweetness in spades.
The only other work of Tamblyn’s of note is The Toca Loca Project, an experimental mini inspired by a classically trained music ensemble. Essentially a series of non-sequitur panels arranged to suggest “the marriage of images and text,” it’s a fun, interesting little book that bevity may be it’s best asset (in other words it doesn’t overstay it’s welcome). It’s more of a novelty than the other books, though it does suggest Tamblyn may be a more experimental and adventurous an artist than first glances would have you suspect.
Tamblyn is currently working on her first full-length graphic novel, entitled “From Earth to Babylon: The story of Gerald Bull and the Supergun.” Based on what she’s produced so far and the considerable progress she’s made as an artist, I look forward to seeing it in print.
– Chris Mautner
Palbot and Mr. Kim Come to America
Written by Jinsoo Terry; Illustrated by Caleb Hong
Jinsoo Terry; $14.95
Review by Michael May
I don’t think I’m qualified to review this book. Not to review it for what it’s intended to be anyway. When Jinsoo Terry’s publicist contacted me about it, I was excited to learn that it’s designed to teach multi-cultural education. I also thought that Terry’s background in leadership training might lend it an interesting perspective. What I expected though was a graphic novel with cultural diversity as a major theme. And that’s not what this is.
Palbot and Mr. Kim is entertaining, but its main purpose is to educate. It even has workbook-style review questions after each chapter. It tells the story of a Korean businessman named Mr. Kim who’s extremely nervous about his first trip to the US. In an airport gift shop he buys a Palbot (Protocol and Language Robot) designed to teach its owner how to behave in other cultures. What follows – once Kim arrives in the US – are a series of typical business and social scenarios in which Kim learns to navigate the differences between Korean and US culture.
For what it is, it’s interesting. Although written to acclimate Korean citizens to US culture, it’s easy to figure out a lot about Korean culture from what Kim needs to know about the States. When Palbot tells him that young people are often the most highly valued employees in US businesses, it suggests that that’s not always the case in Korea. When Palbot says that gift-giving isn’t a huge part of US society, we learn that it is in Kim’s world.
But as curiosity-filling as it is, I wish that Terry’s book paid more attention to storytelling elements. It’s really a textbook, so I feel bad for dissecting it like I would an ordinary narrative, but I guess I shouldn’t. Feel bad, that is. After all, it’s written in narrative form and dissecting narratives is what I do.
One way in which the book could’ve been tighter is the design of Palbot himself. Not in how he looks, but in his capabilities. The sales clerk in the airport gift shop describes Palbot as “a very technologically advanced robot.” That goes so far beyond understatement that it’s really a lie. If Palbot just had artificial intelligence and the ability to translate and give cultural advice for any country in the world, he’d be “a very technologically advanced robot.” And it would’ve been a lot easier for me to buy into him as a legitimate character.
But he also has the abilities to time travel and to only be seen by his owner. And though it’s never stated outright, he must also have the ability to manipulate the perceptions of others so that they don’t notice when Kim’s talking to his invisible helper. The time travel deal is only used once so that Kim can back up and try again when he flubs an introduction. I get how that’s important from an educational standpoint, but I’m certain there are other ways of showing how not to introduce yourself that don’t raise questions about why Kim isn’t just chucking the whole business trip thing in favor of going to see some dinosaurs.
The thing about only being seen by his owner though, I don’t get at all. Why is that even needed? I mean, yeah, it’s cool that you can avoid the awkwardness of having to consult an etiquette guide, but it’s not like you have to flip through a book or pull out a map. You’ve got a kickass robot hovering around you. Why would you be embarrassed to show that off? Of course I’m thinking too hard about this, but making Palbot magic on top of all the advanced technology just seems really unnecessary.
Especially when there are presumably boxes and boxes of other Palbots back at the gift shop. This isn’t some unique, special item that Kim found in a hidden, little curio boutique owned by a wizened old man. The young, hip clerk presented it to Kim still in its box and even had a display poster for it. So someone’s obviously mass producing these time traveling, visible-only-to-their-owner robots.
If I keep following this path, I’m going to go nuts and I’ll feel even worse than I already do. Terry’s obviously just trying to educate Korean travelers about US culture in a fun way (although, according to the press release, she’s also launching a Palbot animated series and a toy line, so her motives probably aren’t purely educational in nature). Palbot and Mr. Kim succeeds in that. I just wish it worked on another level or two as well.
– Michael May