It’s hard to imagine Calvin Coolidge and the practice of Zen joining forces, but Than gives it the old-school try.
Not just Coolidge (in an unusually prolix turn), but the Stoics Seneca and Epictetus; Margaret E. Knight, Amelia Earhart, and Marie Curie; Jack London, Theodore Roosevelt, and Jacob A. Riis—all are grist for Than’s mill, which turns their inspirational words into short, graphic meditations. “Happiness is like a butterfly,” starts one of Than’s paneled episodes, a lovely bit from Henry David Thoreau that the cartoonist follows through eight pictures until the old, white man who has been trying mightily to catch a butterfly gives up and then dozes off while fishing—at which point the elusive butterfly appears on his shoulder. The aphorisms can be straight-out sharp, like that of the Dalai Lama’s “But basically, we are the same human beings.” Others feel ambiguous—Seneca: “All cruelty springs from weakness”—or dry as tinder—Sir Ken Robinson: “We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children.” Than’s characters are easy on the eye, but perhaps there are a few too many transformations into superheroes, and many strips are radically decontextualized from their speakers’ work, as in Riis’ stonecutter. Thumbnail biographies of at most four sentences follow.
It’s well-intended, and these are mostly words of wisdom, but the artwork inspires more than the words, which, if timeless, can still feel musty. (Graphic nonfiction. 10-18)