Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Spotlight on Shortbox

With the COVID-19 pandemic and the cancellation of most comics conventions, many independent publishers have lost out on one of their prime markets. In lieu of getting to browse for these books in person, I have been ordering a few from various folks online. Today, I am going to spotlight one of these publishers, Shortbox, a UK-based company with an array of strong creators. I bought these four books and am excited to review them here.

Cry Wolf Girl was the first book I read from this batch, and it was very affecting. It's a story about a woman who has experienced great trauma, losing her entire family to a great sickness. Feeling empty and lost, she begins to act out, literally crying wolf many times. She may or may not be imagining these creatures, and they might be manifestations of her grief. Still, the tribal elders start to grow weary of her behavior, and with the Wolf-Hunter absent, they leave her to fend for herself. I won't spoil the ending, but I will say that it is a testament to the unique storytelling aspects of comics, a powerfully moving conclusion told through exquisite imagery and pacing. This story impressively communicates  complicated emotional states and has lingered with me for what I think will be a long time.

This book's creator Ariel Ries is based in Australia, and they also have published the Ignatz Award-winning webcomic Witchy, which has been partly collected by Lion Forge.

All of the reviews I have read about it have been glowing. Pipedream Comics concluded, "Marvellously drawn and coloured, Cry Wolf Girl is a compact, masterful exploration of the ignorance of patriarchy and the compassionate strengths that empathy can offer to someone." Fred McNamara called it "a comic where everything clicks into place and rattles along at breakneck speed."

Dead End Jobs for Ghosts is actually the book that brought this publisher to my attention. I follow its creator Aminder Dhaliwal, the animator who published Woman World, on Instagram and saw that not only that she had this new book but also that the publisher was having a sale. I am really glad I happened upon both.

The premise of this book is a wild one, namely that the 1990 movie Ghost (the cheese-fest starring Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, and Patrick Swayze) was in fact non-fiction. In this world, the ghosts strike a deal with humans, and they make a company that revolutionizes labor. The ghosts animate machines in a way that makes them seem like highly capable robots. The entirety of human history is profoundly altered by this industry, but there is also some interesting interactions between the ghosts and their living relatives that make things very complicated. This book is whimsical, for sure, but it also is a commentary on work and how it affects people's lives (and afterlives).

I was not able to find many reviews of this book, but it currently has a 4.2 (out of 5) star rating on Goodreads.

The artwork in Don't Go Without Me is breathtakingly excellent, but the stories are also provocative and complex. The first, the eponymous "Don't Go Without Me," is a science fiction tale about a romantic couple who decided to travel to a parallel dimension. Without spoiling things, I'll say that once there they experience that the place operates on a logic that has disastrous results for their lives.

The second story, the Eisner Award-nominated "What is Left," is another science fiction tale. It explores the aftermath of a deep-space disaster involving a spaceship that is powered by memories. The third, "Con Temor, Con Ternura," is more an existential fantasy tale, where a race of people develop multiple theories about a sleeping giant who is prophesied to awake. 

All three stories deal with profound topics: love, loss, memory, science, and faith. And they do so in earnest and engaging ways. I think that they are the best sort of sci-fi/fantasy stories, ones that have fantastic premises that allow for a frank, deep exploration of authentic human issues. I found them entrancing and exquisitely constructed. This book was the stand-out from the very deep field here.

This book's creator Rosemary Valero-O'Connell is a relative new-comer to comics but has already won major awards, including  the 2020 Eisner Award for Best Penciller/Inker for that year's Best Publication for Teens Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me. She was also the 2020 Ignatz Award winner for Outstanding Artist. She speaks about her work on Don't Go Without Me in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book has been glowing. Rob Clough called Valero-O'Connell "the comics equivalent of a five-tool baseball prospect." Rebecca Burke wrote, "Valero-O’Connell’s beautiful spreads balance immense detail and powerful compositions with soft words and captivating storytelling." Keith Silva opined, "Perhaps Valero-O’Connell is the cartoonist of these socially-distanced days."

The fourth book I got from Shortbox was the first one I had seen from the publisher. Minötaar was nominated for multiple Eisner Awards, and I just loved its premise. The story focuses on two friends who go on a shopping expedition in an IKEA-inspired store named IKOS. Dena wants to get the bookshelf of her dreams (and eat some meatballs) and she brings along Mel to help keep her on track (and also eats some meatballs).

The premise sets up what seems to be a humorous situation, but this book gets much deeper than that, delving into matters of desire and identity as well as what constitutes a strong friendship. This venture tests both women's mettle, and it is a pretty harrowing adventure. I loved the clever mix of mythological archetypes, introspection, and comedy at play here.

This book's creator Lissa Treiman is story head at Disney, and has worked on multiple films as an animator, including Zootopia, Big Hero 6, Wreck-It Ralph, and Tangled. In terms of comics, she is also accomplished as the artist on the Harvey Award-nominated and Eisner Award-winning series Giant Days.

I had a hard time finding reviews of this book, and David Harper called it "a singularly unexpected and tremendously well-done read."

Summing up, I loved all four of these books, and I think they are all exceptionally well-done. I will definitely check out more titles from Shortbox, keeping an eye out for any future Kickstarter campaigns. You can order and preview all these titles on their website, or if US-based readers want to skip out on international shipping fees, you can also find most titles from indie-comics shops via web-searching.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Pulp

I have read pretty much every comic Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have created. Their past series, like Sleeper, Criminal, Incognito, Fatale, The Fade-Out, and Kill or Be Killed, have blown me away with their blend of action and intrigue in noir fashion. In the past, these books have been published serially as comic books and then collected as trade paperbacks, but with My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies, they tried their hand at a stand-alone graphic novel. I really dug that book, and it must have been successful in a number of ways, because the duo has embarked on publishing a series of individual graphic novels. The first is this one, Pulp.

Although it is not set in the same universe as Criminal, it shares that series' feel and tone. The narrative here focuses on Max Winter, an aged writer of western pulp stories. Getting up in years, he is worried about money issues, heart problems, making sure his partner Rosa is squared away in the eventuality of his death, and the rise of fascists who support Hitler in pre-WWII New York City. Facing a lower page rate and also a thinning revenue stream as his publisher hires younger and cheaper writers, Max starts plotting a robbery. It turns out that the westerns he writes are not totally fictional, and what is more, a Pinkerton detective has noticed that these stories smack of crimes he once investigated. 

As you can see from the excerpt, one of the strong parts of this book is its intertwined accounts of different time periods. These shifts are clearly marked with changes in coloring, which is here done by Jacob Phillips. The artwork and storytelling are lean and mean, building a highly detailed and recognizable situation and characters almost immediately. This graphic novel is more of a novella in terms of length, but it's a dense, enjoyable read. Although the story itself may be treading somewhat familiar ground for a pulp-type tale, it is exceptionally well-crafted. Sometimes you just crave a great piece of genre fiction, and this book is just that.

The reviews I have read of this book have been largely positive. Publishers Weekly wrote, "The only disappointment in this tight, fast-paced homage to multiple pulp traditions is that it’s so short." Bruno Savill de Jong concluded, "Brubaker and the Phillips remain a fantastic team for satisfying and compelling crime stories. They might have remained in their comfort zone, but for the moment, they show little reason to move out." Tom Shapira wanted a little bit more out of this book, opining, "It gives you exactly what you expect, without challenging you in any meaningful way, while providing the illusion of challenge."

Pulp was published by Image Comics, and they provide more info about it here.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Doodleville

In part, Doodleville is a book about creativity and how it relates to people's emotions. Its protagonist is Drew, a young girl who loves to draw. What is more, her doodles literally pop off of the page and alter their surroundings. 

When she brings her notebook to the Art Institute of Chicago, her doodles run wild through the museum's various masterpieces, which especially upsets one curator. Also, one of her doodles steals a hat from a classical painting. 

 

Another problem arises when Drew feels a sense of competition with the cool creations of her friends in the art club, and she tries to remedy the situation by drawing Levi, a leviathan creature she hopes will amaze them. When they don't quite get what she's trying to do with her creation, Levi manifests off the page in a disastrous way. 

The various members of the art club all have their own characters, including superheroes, fantastical creatures, and animals, which unfortunately fall in Levi's path. A large part of the book is them planning ways to deal with the leviathan, which includes attacking it, trying to befriend it, and trapping it. But Levi proves almost impossible to deal with or contain. So in a manner, this book is also about how people learn how to relate to each other, which can be a messy and volatile endeavor.

I know that there are lots of cliches about the mental instability of artists, as it they need some sort of madness to fire their art, but this book does not really perpetuate that myth. Instead, the role of art here is to reflect people's emotional lives, and those of young people trying to find their way in the world can be tumultuous. Experimenting with identities and trying to fit in with friends can be frustrating, and that is part of what manifests in the children's drawings. I think this book is a highly respectful one, that takes children's mental states seriously and communicates just how complex they can be.

I appreciated how the artwork reflects these various struggles in interesting ways, and I also appreciated how these events are not tidily resolved at the end of the book. Also, on a positive note, the lack of resolution means that there will be a sequel set in this same beautifully rendered world.

Doodleville is the creation of Chad Sell, the artist who collaborated with a number of authors on one of my favorite graphic novels of recent years, The Cardboard Kingdom. This book continues in its vein of respectfully representing the diverse, complicated lives of children. Sell provides lots of insight into his work on Doodleville in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews summed up that this book "will draw readers in and inspire doodles galore." Publishers Weekly wrote, "Sell’s caricatured illustrations provide strong action, and single-hue overlays (purples, greens) highlight emotionally charged moments for the friend group, which includes kids of various ethnicities and gender identities." Charles Hartford wrote that it has "the perfect balance of seriousness and fun."

Doodleville was published by Random House Graphic, and they offer a preview and more here.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Maker Comics: Grow a Garden!

Happy 2021! It's a brand new year, and some people like to take this time to do something new with their lives. For instance, you might want to do something productive like take up gardening. Well, luckily for graphic novel fans, the Makers Comics series has got you covered. Grow a Garden! has all sorts of helpful insights on how to begin a garden, both inside and outside, with directions on how to plant specific crops, set-up an indoor lighting system to foster seedlings along during weather, and tips on how to compost and create your own rich soil. Overall, I think it's a handy introduction to the rudimentary aspects of gardening. I certainly learned a bunch from it, most notably the need to pay close attention to the specific needs of specific plants.

As you can see from the excerpt from the opening of the book, the artwork is clean and attractive, a style that is cartoonish and inviting to read. It also feels like a book aimed toward younger readers, as a sizable aspect of the book also focuses on setting up the book's premise, namely that there is a bunch of students learning about agriculture at Garden Gnome Academy. I think this premise is clever, but I also feel that it is overly developed for a book such as this. A lot of space goes toward crafting a narrative where the apparent nebbish, instructor Mr. Butternut, is in actuality a superhero named Captain Compost who eventually saves the school from the schemes of fellow teacher Mr. Thorn and his mad experiments with carnivorous plants. In (too?) clever fashion, the students spent a lot of the downtime waiting for plants to grow by reading Captain Compost comic books, so the reveal is a big surprise. 

I  enjoyed reading and learning from this book , and I don't want to poo-poo its whimsical narrative, but I also think it could have used some streamlining. There are a number of places where I think text dominates the narrative flow, and I can't help but wonder if some of the superhero/fantasy story could have been pruned in the interest of delineating more visual directions for gardening.  I have read many books in the various nonfiction series that First Second publishes, and this volume just seems to not maximize its potential for being informative. It is charming, but I also feel that its premise sometimes detracts from its content. The combination of fiction and nonfiction is not harmonious.

This book's creator Alexis Frederick-Frost is best known for his work on the Adventures in Cartooning series, and he's no stranger to fantasy comics aimed at younger readers.

The reviews I could locate about this book often express disappointment. Johanna Draper Carlson concluded, "All this background material means we don’t get to see the gnomes actually grow or harvest much of what they start. Just as the part I’m interested in is beginning, the book ends. Instead of seeing the outcome of a successful garden, we get a superhero battle out of nowhere. I also hoped that there would be more information on fixing or avoiding problems with plants, but there are only a couple of pages on how to recognize when something’s wrong." Melissa McCleary wrote, "Overall, this installment of the series fails to meet its basic goals of both educating readers and presenting an enticing story; the structure ultimately cancels both out."

Grow a Garden! was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more info about it here.

Friday, January 1, 2021

My Favorite Books of 2020

2020 has been a long, distressing, and memorable year. It was also a year full of some great comics and graphic novels, particularly nonfiction works. Check out this list of my favorites (and follow the links to the full reviews):

Favorite Book Overall

I am a sucker for an inspirational sports story, and Dragon Hoops is that, plus a personal history, plus a look at the identity politics of high school students, plus a commentary on making comics, plus a meditation on balancing your life. It's a massive, incredible work.

 

 

 

 

 

 Favorite Adaptation

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors, and this adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five uses comics in interesting and innovative ways. Most adaptations don't enhance the source material, but this one does.

 

 

 


 

Favorite Nonfiction History (Younger Readers - Not by Nathan Hale)

I have liked all the entries in the History Comics series I have read thus far, but the scope and sense of humor of this book make it exceptional. The Roanoke Colony tells the tale of Native Americans, colonial America, a doomed colony, British royal politics, and pirates. I learned so much from reading it and had fun doing so, too. (Queen Elizabeth I brushed her teeth with honey, can you believe it? Disgusting!)

 

 

 

 

Favorite Nonfiction History (Younger Readers - by Nathan Hale)  

Nathan Hale makes the best history comics, so he gets his own category. Blades of Freedom, the tenth(!) entry in his Hazardous Tales series, shows just how fresh and interesting his work still is while covering a topic (the slave revolt in Haiti) that unravels a complicated web of 18th century US and European history. Another book that opened my eyes to a topic I was sadly ignorant about.


 

 

 

 Favorite Nonfiction (Older Readers)

Kent State is well-researched, based on lots of original documents, interviews, and oral accounts of the massacre of student protestors in 1970. It is a book that highlights the victims who died, showing their humanity while also exposing a system of paranoia and prejudice that sadly persists today.


 

 

 

 Favorite Fictional Biography

Not much is known about the private live of this pivotal actor, but Lon Chaney Speaks pieces together a compelling narrative that melds vaudeville, silent movies, the early days of Hollywood, and plenty of monster movie special effects. The artwork perfectly captures the time period while recreating the movies and movie posters of the day.


 

 

 

 Favorite Superhero Biography

I know that Jack Kirby is not technically a superhero, but he created enough of them in his lifetime that I am counting him as one. I loved this biography that covers his lifespan and accomplishments in a style very similar to his own. The artwork is bombastic, quite fitting for the "King of Comics."

 

 

 

 

 Favorite Superhero Book

One of the highlights of my year was getting to talk with Gene Luen Yang about Superman Smashes the Klan. Even if I had not talked to him, I would rate this work very highly. Based on a serialized radio show from 1946, this book modernizes the tale and hits on the best aspects of the classic superhero while also commenting on racism and the resilience of immigrants.
 

 

 

 

 Favorite Series for Younger Readers 

There are two books in the Investigators series so far, and my oldest child has read them with me multiple times. It's full of puns, cheesy jokes, and inventive mash-ups of characters (including a radioactive bakery-based villain named Cracker-dile, a plumber who literally has a snake for an arm, and a doctor who turns into a news copter when anything news-worthy occurs around him). Fun and addictive!


 


 

Funniest Book, AKA Best Book Featuring Guys in Bear Outfits

Eddie's Week begins with the main character having an inmate (complete with cell) installed in his living room and just gets weirder and more surreal from there. It's a unique and darkly funny book that speaks about modern life wile containing some madcap adventures.
 

 

 

 

 

 Favorite YA Book

A beautifully told and illustrated book, The Magic Fish speaks to the power of stories to convey meaning and build brides that cross time and culture. The main character Tiến is one of the sweetest and most sympathetic protagonists, and his struggles with coming out to his parents gnaw at him. The ending left me tingling.


 

 

 

 Favorite YA Biography

Even though I come from a very different background than Joel Christian Gill, I found much to relate to in this autobiography. Fights chronicles a rough childhood where he had to learn to take up for himself, often in physical ways. It's a heart-rending and inspirational work that captures the confusion and ambiguities of childhood.

 

 

 

 

OK, that's my list. Happy 2021!

Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020 By the Numbers

By popular demand, the most riveting post of the year where I list of the number of books I have reviewed in descending order by publisher. Enjoy!

  • First Second 13
  • Fantagraphics 5
  • Graphic Universe 5
  • Silver Sprocket 4
  • TOON Books 4
  • Abrams 3
  • Drawn & Quarterly 3
  • Archaia 2
  • Harper Collins 2
  • ONI Press 2
  • Random House Graphic 2
  • Adhouse Books 1
  • Ahoy Comics 1
  • Amulet Books 1
  • Archie Comics 1
  • Birdcage Bottom Books 1
  • Black Crown 1
  • BOOM! Studios 1
  • DC Comics 1
  • Flying Eye Books 1
  • Gallery 13 1
  • Henry Holt & Co. BYR 1
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 1
  • Knopf Books for Young Readers 1
  • Koyama Press 1
  • Little, Brown Young Readers 1
  • Massie Makes Comics 1
  • The Nib 1
  • NoBrow Press 1
  • Pantheon 1
  • Phase Seven Comics 1
  • Quill Tree Books 1
  • Quirk Books 1
  • Scholastic 1
  • SLG 1
  • Ten Speed Press 1
  • TKO 1
  • Top Shelf 1
  • Walker Books 1
  • Yoe Books 1

 

 

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio

My Friend Dahmer is one of my all-time favorite graphic novels, a dark exploration of high school friendships and the many issues that underlie people's lives, which in the case of Jeffrey Dahmer resulted in horrific murder and mayhem. Derf Backderf's combination of autobiography and journalism made for a highly nuanced and haunting book that has stayed with me for years. Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio has a bit of autobiography at its beginning, when young Derf saw the National Guard rolling through his town on the way to Kent State, but its strength lies in its exhaustive research. This book focuses specifically on the four young people who died in the May 4 Massacre in 1970, putting a human face on history. Over the course of the book, I got to know these people, their friends, and their aspirations, and so when the gruesome events take place toward the end of the book, they feel even more tragic and pointless.

This book meticulously recounts the event that lead up to the massacre, and it is structured in four chapters to correspond to the first four days of that May. Piece by piece fall into place, from the "law and order" governor trying to show just how strong he is during an election year to the paranoid, draconian military leaders who headed the National Guard contingents to the exhausted and misinformed troops themselves. In hindsight, the massacre is made to look like a perfect storm, complete with misinformation, wild and untrue accusations made against the student protestors, and a culture war between liberal and conservation factions. The military action comes to be, ironically, as a result the fomenting protests against the increasingly unpopular and cruel military actions in Vietnam. 

What is most informative and distressing about this book is the role that manipulating media and casting political aspersions played in the National Guard's actions, which is mirrored by contemporary protests and police brutality in Portland and other places. Acerbating the situation, government agencies and police planted spies and moles to make the protestors appear much more violent and extremist, just like today. The violent factions within the protestors are a minority, and do not reflect the whole, but they are attributed all sorts of (non-existent) power and agency. Rampant rumors among the local population and military/community leadership paint the students as communists and radicals. They say that the students have snipers and stockpiles of weapons. They dehumanize the students and their demands. It is depressing to see how much things have not really changed and how short we have come in the 50 years since these events took place. 

Spoiler: The bad guys win and suffer no consequences.

I was impressed by just how much this book does. It portrays a set of individual portraits of the students, a history of the campus, and an account of the state of politics of the time on a city, state, and national level. There is a lot of information in this book, and most of it is presented in incredibly artful manner. There are a few pages that are text-heavy and more expository, but none of it is off-putting. And the pacing of the last chapter, where the shootings occur is paced to highlight its brutal, oppressive, and unjust aspects, is a clinic in storytelling an action sequence. The illustrations map not just the place but also the people and events in a visceral and incredibly moving fashion.

Reading this book, I could not help but also think of Big Black: Stand at Attica, which recounts events that happened at a prison uprising a year later, events referenced in this book's epilogue. Great books use history to illuminate the present, and that is exactly what Kent State does. Certainly it comes from a particular political viewpoint, but it is backed by a vast amount of research and personal accounts. And the facts (those that have not been obfuscated and lost) point to terrible and avoidable injustice and murder. Derf has crafted another masterpiece graphic novel.

In addition to the multiple award-winning My Friend Dahmer, Derf Backderf is also known for his long running alt-comic The City as well the graphic novel Trashed, about his time as a garbage collector. He speaks extensive about his work on Kent State in this interview.

All the reviews I have read of this book have praised it. It has received multiple starred reviews. The one from Publishers Weekly called it an "expertly crafted chronicle of this defining moment in U.S. history" that also "serves as a deeply moving elegy for the victims." The one from Kirkus Reviews concluded, "Backderf’s vivid, evocative book does a splendid job of keeping their memories alive." Leonard Pierce wrote, "By buying into the details so heavily, he makes a story that means something more today – and serves as a warning as we see the story repeated, again and again, every day, always as tragedy."

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio was published by Abrams Books, and they offer a preview and more here.