Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Dragon Slayer: Folktales from Latin America

Long-time readers of this blog should know that Jaime Hernandez is one of my favorite comics creators. He has won multiple Harvey and Eisner Awards for the long-running Love and Rockets series he co-created with his brothers, and I loved seeing his work in various anthologies over the years. The Dragon Slayer, notably, is his first foray into comics for younger readers. It is a thin book, but it is packed with beauty, energy, and fun.

After an introduction by F. Isabel Campoy that gives context to Latinx folktales, there are three 10-page stories. The first, titular story is about a young daughter who gets kicked out her house but is gifted a magic wand that helps her find her way in the world and (yes) eventually kill a horrible dragon.
The second tale "Martina Martinez and Pérez the Mouse" is about a beautiful woman who marries a mouse but has to deal with the fact that he has drowned while fishing a delicious onion out of some soup. The third is "Tup and the Ants," about a youngest son who is shunned by his parents but finds his way to success via befriending a colony of ants.

Not surprisingly, I was not familiar with any of these stories, and I found them full of magic, wonder, and surprises. They are fun, impressive tales that have a good sense of whimsy. Also, the artwork is clean and simple in appearance, but it packs much emotion and action. I loved this book, and I cannot wait to share it with my own children.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. J. Caleb Mozzocco opined, "It’s a perfect work for adults who grew up on Love and Rockets to share with their children, and it’s an equally perfect introduction to the rich folklore immediately to the south of the U.S." Rob Clough wrote, "The fact that Hernandez chose stories that aren't strictly morally instructive, but instead convey other kinds of information, simply make people laugh, or act as shaggy dog stories makes this volume especially enjoyable." In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews summed up, "Rousing tales, spirited artwork, and rich back matter ensure that this slim graphic novel for kids becomes a rich resource for all caregivers, not just those of Latinx children."

The Dragon Slayer was published by Toon Books, and they offer a preview and much more here. This book's stated audience is grades 3 and up.

Friday, August 10, 2018


As I've written in a few reviews over the past year, immigration has been a hot button topic in the US, and an area of great shame and pain. Illegal is a book that shows the faces of those who seek asylum in other countries, the ways that they are taken advantage of by traffickers, the perils they face on their journeys, and the great lengths they go to in order to find better lives.

The narrative is told in very dramatic and revelatory fashion, with one thread in the present and one thread in a flashback. This structure is used to great dramatic effect, following a young boy from Ghana named Ebo as he follows his brother Kwame on a quest to get to Europe. Both boys are orphaned and live with their drunk uncle. Kwame is older and decides to leave and find their older sister Sisi who has left for Europe years before. They have not heard from her at all and have no idea what has happened to her, but still Kwame feels he will be successful and could then send for his little brother.
Ebo is headstrong however and sets off in hot pursuit of Kwame. The brothers meet up coincidentally, and together they strive to get to Italy. Along they way they have to survive the desert, opportunistic criminals, overcrowded boats, and the open sea.

I do not want to spoil what happens in this book, but much of it is grim. It seems to me that the creators here went to great lengths to make the stories and circumstances as realistic as possible. There are many political and economic dimensions to the tale, and most impressively also much heart and human drama. I really felt for the characters and their plights, and I feel any reader would be greatly moved by this story. It is an excellent book that informs about important current events and also sheds insight into life and humanity.

The trio that made this book have also worked on four previous volumes, graphic novel adaptations of the Artemis Fowl series. Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin are the writers and the art is provided by Giovanni Rigano. Colfer is a novelist who is best known for the Fowl series, Donkin a children's book author/ninja assassin, and Rigano is an artist who has worked on a good number of previous graphic novel adaptations. This interview with Colfer sheds more light on the book and its reception in Europe, where it has garnered much praise and some accolades.

All of the reviews I have read about it have been very positive. Kirkus Reviews summed up, "Action-filled and engaging but considerate of both topic and audience, Ebo’s story effectively paints a picture of a child refugee’s struggle in a world crisscrossed by hostile borders." Sarah Donaldson called it "a deeply affecting and thought-provoking." In their starred review, Publishers Weekly described it as "achingly poignant."

Illegal was published in the US by Sourcebooks. They offer a teaching discussion guide for it here, and there is a video preview available here. This book is pitched as a children's book, but it does not sugarcoat harsh and horrible conditions, so I'd recommend previewing it before deciding to share it with younger readers.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Dead Weight: Murder at Camp Bloom

Dead Weight is a murder mystery for YA readers. It is set a Camp Bloom, a "fat camp" where young people come to work off the pounds and learn healthy eating habits. The twist here is that one night two of the campers witness a popular counselor get brutally murdered. Of course, it was past curfew and they should not have been out, so they keep things to themselves. The next day, no one seems to have noticed what happened, and there was a note left to explain the counselor's absence. Also, from what they could see they feel that the culprit was one of the camp leaders, so they do not feel they can go to the adults. So the two campers recruit two of their friends, and the quartet becomes a team of amateur detectives.

They are a motley, diverse bunch: Jesse, a Latina girl who would rather be at fashion school than Camp Bloom; Noah, a white boy who is a veteran fat camper; Tony, an African-American boy who is freaked out to have no access to his cell phone or computer, and Kate, an aloof white girl who would rather observe nature than interact with people. They bumble their way through the investigation at first but eventually they get themselves together and solve the mystery.

For me the highlight of the book is the vibrant and energetic artwork. I love the character designs and visual storytelling, and Seely's background in animation well informs both. I think that the setting and cast are also big pluses. They might not be the most complex characters, but they are diverse in terms of identity categories, and I appreciate seeing that here. About the plot, I have to say that I did not see the ending come at all, and although there were some visual clues I think it would be impossible for a reader to solve the crime on their own. Still, I enjoyed the plot twists and this book overall. It was a fun, breezy read.

Dead Weight is the creation of writers Terry Blas and Molly Muldoon and artist Matthew Seely. Blas has lots of comics credits and is probably best known for his webcomic Briar Hollow. Muldoon is a teacher, librarian. editor, and author who has also written another story for the graphic novel The Cardboard Kingdom. Seely is an artist and animator who has created a segment for MTV's Greatest Party Story Ever as well as a bunch of self-published mini-comics. Those interested in learning more about the inspirations and process of making this book can read this interview (or this one, if you prefer).

The reviews I have read about this book have been mixed, with much of the negative criticism aimed at the cast of characters, which are seen more as types than actual personalities. Kirkus Reviews called it a "lighthearted mystery with diverse characters" as well as "an accessible, if not entirely satisfying, read." Johanna Draper Carlson wrote, "Young readers who aren’t used to seeing characters like themselves, if they fit one of the many categories portrayed here, will likely be more forgiving than I was."

Dead Weight was published by Oni Press, and they have more info about it here. They also offer a video trailer for it here.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Voces Sin Fronteras: Our Stories, Our Truth

Issues about immigration and its impact on families have been prominent in the current US political scene, with a gross amount of injustice and racism cast toward many people seeking asylum. This book is an excellent entry into this political conversation, with sixteen true accounts from the lives of young people who have come over from Latin American countries to live and find a better life in the United States. These adolescents are the Latino Youth Leadership Council of the Washington DC-based Latin American Youth Center, founded in 1968.

Although the authors here might not be the most adept cartoonists, they share their stories well. The sixteen tales in this book are powerful, showing great personal sacrifices, determination, and the drive to succeed. They show the lengths some families go through to find better lives, including many hardships, poverty, and absences that cause grief and pain. And given all of the obstacles they face, I was struck reading this book by just how positive these young leaders are. In times of great adversity, they strive to find light and hope.

One feature that many of these stories contain is a struggle learning English or getting by in new contexts. The tales honor both languages via a bilingual presentation, so a reader can read in either English or Spanish. Also accompanying each comic narrative is a two page text piece explaining more about the author and why they chose to focus on the story they told. This book is an excellent resource for exploring immigrant narratives and also personal journaling.

I was not able to locate many reviews of this book, but the ones I found were very positive. Children's Book Council called it a "timely, ambitious, and a much-needed addition to current national discussions about who we are as a country." Emilio Solórzano was impressed with the reality of the stories and gave it "a perfect 5 out of 5." Frederick Luis Aldama wrote that the stories "stand as powerful testaments to the resilient power of today’s Latinx youth to grow, create, and transform in spite of it all."

Voces Sin Fronteras was published by Shout Mouse Press, and they offer more information about the book here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Monkey Chef: A Love Story

I first became aware of this book from a Kickstarter campaign for Kilgore Books and Comics, where I did pitch in to buy a bunch of issues of Noah Van Sciver's Blammo. The title and concept were intriguing, but I was short on funds for getting other books. I was happily surprised when I saw the book and author at HeroesCon this summer tabling right next to my pal Patrick Dean. I bought the book, read it that weekend, and told Mike Freiheit in really awkward ways that (spoiler) I enjoyed it.

Monkey Chef is an autobiographical tale about a man who is looking for ways to escape a dead-end job and also figure out life and love. When the book opens he is in a job he does not really care for, and he's also struggling to date women. Ironically, he meets a really wonderful woman right before he commits to go to South Africa for a year to work at a primate sanctuary. Still, he goes and during that year he learns a lot about himself.

His primary job at the sanctuary is to prepare food for the various monkeys as well as for his fellow co-workers. Over time he really gets to know the monkeys' behaviors and develops some favorites. He also makes lots of observations about how primate behavior relates to what humans do, too. All of these observations come into play when Mike struggles with maintaining a long-distance relationship, dealing with the various travelers who cycle in and out, and just figuring out what it means to be masculine in today's society. I very much appreciated his candor and introspection throughout this book. I also liked how he also inserted humor into all of his ruminations, like you can see in the excerpt below.
In the end, I felt that this was a compelling and thoughtful graphic novel, well rendered in terms of art and story. I loved the overall atmosphere of the narrative, which is conveyed with the muted, cool colors throughout. I also found much to relate to in terms of my own growing up and figuring out the various relationships in my life. I am sorry that I did not get this book sooner, but I am very glad that I got to get it directly from the author, who was also gracious enough to sign my copy.

Mike Freiheit originally published Monkey Chef as a series of mini-comics. In addition to making comics, he helps organize The Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE) and teaches at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He speaks more about his work on Monkey Chef in this interview.

I was not able to find many reviews of this book online, but Rob Clough wrote about two of the original mini-comics for The Comics Journal. He wrote that he very much appreciated how the story was told, not so much in straight-forward, chronological fashion, but "Freiheit's approach is a more artful one, juxtaposing different events against each other in interesting ways."

Monkey Chef was published by Kilgore Books & Comics, and you can see more about it here. There is also a sizable excerpt of it available here from The Comics Journal.

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Greatest of Marlys!

In the annals of comic strips, Peanuts is often lauded as perhaps the best overall but also the best at depicting the complex relationships and emotions of children. I have much respect for that comic and its creator Charles Schulz, but I feel that the comic strip that populates this collection, Ernie Pook's Comeek, packs just as powerful an emotional wallop. That strip was more of an underground/independent newspaper publication, and it is certainly less well known to the general public, but I am glad for this recent re-issued collection as it brings back into currency one of the best comics I have ever read.

Each four-panel comic is packed with text and drawings, casting a light on mundane yet monumental moments in the life of Marlys, a smart but unpopular pre-teen. She has to deal with capricious parenting, casual ugliness from peers, and friction with her siblings, pretty typical stuff really. But the ways that Lynda Barry portrays and communicates them make them instantly relatable and also wrenching. Also, although much of this book trucks in reality and some tough situations, it also does so with a lot of heart and a great sense of wit and humor.
This book is full of hundreds of tiny masterpieces, all of which add to one grand tapestry of a young girl's life. And what's more, the large format of the book and pages feature the strips beautifully. It is a masterful collection, and I urge you to pick it up and read it. This book is simply fantastic.
The aforementioned author of this book, Lynda Barry, has had a long and varied career in the arts. Besides being an accomplished cartoonist and comics artist, she has written novels, created books on art and imagination that defy genre definitions, and taught on the collegiate level. For those interested in her work, there are a couple of interviews that shed light on her career and work, this one from 1989 in The Comics Journal and this one from 2016 in The Guardian.

All the reviews I have read have lauded this book. Annie Mok called it "A great introduction for new fans, an excellent choice for young readers, and a gift to Barry’s devotees, The Greatest of Marlys comes as a reminder of Lynda Barry’s stunning, evocative, hysterically funny, haunting cartooning." In a starred review Publishers Weekly promises, "This book will bring groovy love into your life." Jeff Provine called it "a fun and inspiring romp through the complex days of the first turn of young lives." Mey Valdivia Rude rightly called Barry "one of the greatest American cartoonists of all time."

The Greatest of Marlys! was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they have a preview and more about it here.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Dark Knight: A True Batman Story

This book's author Paul Dini should be very well known to superhero fans. He was one of the writers and producers of the much beloved Batman: The Animated Series and he co-created the uber-popular Harley Quinn. He has also written a bunch of comic books and had a hand in many animated series/features starring DC Comics characters over the years. But in Dark Knight: A True Batman story he tells an account from his life that happened while he was at the early height of his success. One night, while walking home after a bad date he was mugged, attacked, and brutally beaten. The events left him scarred both emotionally and physically. Here, he uses some of the characters he is most associated with, including Batman and the Joker, as kind of angels and devils to tell his tale and also sort through his personal baggage.
I think overall that this book works well. I thought the actual account is compelling and seeing the aftermath of such a violent act told in frank manner was eye-opening. Dini does much soul-searching in this book, and I could certainly relate to many of his ruminations on being a fanboy with issues relating to specific types of people.

Still, I wonder how much of his storytelling is for effect, as a couple of moments really stand out in my mind as potentially problematic. One, the opportunistic, narcissistic woman he thinks he is dating, while she regards him as a friend who might be a connection for her own career, comes off as utterly the worst person. I have heard about lots of opportunistic Hollywood-wanna-bes and what they will do to further their careers, and maybe she was utterly horrible, but her portrayal seems two-dimensional and skirts misogyny. Second, there is a moment during his recovery where what seems to be the only African-American who works on the show asks if his assailants were black. I think this moment is supposed to show racial solidarity in some way, but it comes off as tin-eared and ham-handed. I know that superheroes at the time this story takes place were largely the province of white males, and maybe this book accurately portrays the problematic outcomes of that situation. Still, as a present day reader, I felt that both scenes play badly.

Collaborating with Dini on this book is Eduardo Risso, a very talented artist who employs multiple styles and color palettes in visually telling this tale. Risso is an accomplished artist who has won an Eisner Award for his work on 100 Bullets, and he has more recently been at work on the werewolf/gangster drama Moonshine. Dini is also a multiple Eisner Award winning author, most notably for the book Mad Love. He speaks about his work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Jesse Schedeen concluded, "It offers a very personal and heartfelt look at how the character helped guide Dini through a terrible time in his life, and it proves all the more that both Dini and Risso are among the most talented storytellers ever to work within Gotham City." Bryan Young gushed, calling it "a truly unique comic storytelling experience that has to be seen to be believed." Gregory Paul Silber wrote, "Dini may have been through a terrible ordeal, but he is a lucky man to have such wonderful people to collaborate with."

Dark Knight: A True Batman Story was published by Vertigo, and they have more info about it here.
In addition to the violence, this book features some profanity and adult themes, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to handle those things.