Since I did a fairly mainstream superhero series for my last “sequential-art-narrative” review, I’m gonna do something way more fun this time.
Jason Shiga is an offbeat comics genius. He frequently attempts to push the structural boundaries of the format and generally succeeds at writing silly, exciting stories. Bookhunter is a true “graphic novel” rather than an ongoing series. It’s a combination police procedural/70s action movie/extended series of librarian in-jokes that works remarkably well.
Brief plot summary
It’s Oakland in the early 1970s. Technology is causing a rapid shift in the way libraries operate. Patron records are now stored on magnetic tape. Electronic library catalogs (initially created around 1967) are starting to pop up in public libraries. Enter the Library Police, a group of specialists dedicated to eradicating library-related crime. Summoned to the Oakland Public Library to solve the mystery of a forged Caxton Bible, the Library Police have only three days to solve “three concentric locked-room mysteries”, catch the thief, and recover the original book.
So how is it?
I love it, but I’m pretty much right smack in the middle of the target demographic. I like libraries, rare books, locked-room mysteries, and silliness. The world of Bookhunter is one where the Library Police take more drastic measures to protect the books than they do to protect humans. It’s full of hyperbole and librarian/rare book in-jokes.
Bookhunter is well-crafted in general. It opens with an incredibly serious hostage situation with a twist … the hostages that must be retrieved unharmed at all costs? They’re books. It sets up the tone for the main story really well and everything that follows flows from this main premise. So many of the jokes are presented without drawing any attention to them that it would be easy to read Bookhunter as a serious-albeit-campy police procedural. Pay closer attention, and you’ll notice that the profiler they bring in is not from the FBI … he’s from the ALA. It’s things like this that when combined with Shiga’s scrupulous attention to detail make Bookhunter such a joy to read.
The biggest weakness to me is a repeated linguistic error: the Caxton is referred to as “an incunabula” and many references are made to “incunabulas”. I realize this is pedantic, and I have heard this usage in real life, it’s incorrect. Incunabula is plural, its single form is incunabulum. The other common usage is incunables/incunable which lacks some of the Latin flair but would still be more acceptable. There are a couple of either really minor errors that nobody but dedicated rare book nerd is going to notice, so bleargh.
I’ve kind of gushed about Bookhunter above, but it’s not really for everyone. If you aren’t a bibliophile or a fan of police procedurals then there’s not a lot here for you. Bookhunter is something I recommend frequently and with varying degrees of success – casual readers don’t get most of the jokes and some people have found it too campy, but it’s a surefire hit book collectors and librarians.
It’s good for fans of Franco-Belgian comics. It has more in common with that style, both artistically and tonally, than it does with manga or American-style superhero comics.
Bookhunter really is a must-read for librarians, and it’s wel worth checking out for anyone interested in graphic fiction that isn’t about superheroes or monsters or whatever.
It’s worth buying, but Shiga has also made it available for free on his website, which is the version I’ve linked to above. If you’d rather buy it (or if you’re purchasing it for a library) the Amazon link is below.
Bookhunter / Jason Shiga
it’s also available in French, with a pretty good translation.
So here are my cross recommendations, although most of these are more serious than Bookhunter
Meanwhile / Jason Shiga – Shiga’s mindbending graphic novel “for kids” (also available in French)
120, rue de la gare / Tardi [après Malet] – in French. Translated into English as: Bloody streets of Paris
Asterios Polyp / David Mazzuchelli
The Crow : Curare / James O’Barr ; Antoine Dodé