Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction

I am not going to lie, Hey, Kiddo made me cry. This book is a memoir about a young man who grows up to learn that his mother is a heroin addict and goes to live with his maternal grandparents, Joe and Shirl. They are brusque and caring, though they have their own issues with alcohol. Still, they take care of Jarrett in their way and instill in him a great many positive characteristics, chief among them a strong work ethic. They also support him in terms of him following his interests, and they are instrumental in making sure he had venues to create art, which was cathartic to him in many ways. Also, it led to opportunities down the road that resulted in a career in making comics (luckily for us all!).
His father is a mystery to him, and for much of his childhood he refuses to even acknowledge the man exists, not that he was present for Jarrett in any way. When he reaches later adolescence, Jarrett finally does make a gesture to meet him, and he learns about his half-siblings, with whom he builds relationships. There is so much about this book that speaks to what families are and how people try to find love and acceptance in this world, but none of it is sugar-coated. This book is powerful both in terms of its story and artwork. Both are subtle and nuanced. Hey, Kiddo is a slow burn with lots of emotional punch, and even though I was raised in very different circumstances, I found much to relate to and empathize with.
The book also benefits from a variety of media, such as letters, coasters, artwork, and various other artifacts used as chapter breaks. These really brought home the reality of these events and situations, making them have just that more of an emotional impact. I loved reading this book. It was sad, sweet, and incredibly moving. I am very glad that it exists in the world to be something that various aged readers, not just the YA set it is marketed toward, can engage with and learn from.

Krosoczka is best known for his series of Lunch Lady graphic novels for younger readers, and he has also contributed multiple volumes to the Star Wars Jedi Academy series. I met him a few years ago at Knoxville's Children's Festival of Reading, and he was a swell guy. Go check out his website for multiple versions of his biography as well as some random facts about him. It's worth the visit!

This book has garnered Krosoczka a lot of positive attention and praise. He has been profiled by both NPR and The New York Times. Most impressively, Hey, Kiddo was named a finalist for a National Book Award. The NYT's Patricia McCormick called it "brave" and "inspiring." In a starred review, Publishers Weekly summed up, "This nuanced graphic memoir portrays a whole family and tells a story of finding identity among a life’s complications."

Hey, Kiddo was published by Scholastic, and they offer more information about it here. This book features some profanity, but nothing beyond what a typical YA book might contain.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Kafkaesque

In case you had not noticed, last month I reviewed books with a horror bent, as we approached Halloween. Today's book is more in the vein of existential horror as it is a collection of adaptations of works by Franz Kafka, but it is also tinged with dark humor. The introduction to this book is a short essay about Kafka's multiple translations and how perhaps knowingly histrionic his prose was. I was unfamiliar with the vast majority of these stories, but I have to admit there is a dark sort of zaniness to a number of them, at least how they are presented here.

Two longer works, "The Burrow" and "In the Penal Colony," have been included in this collection, and they are substantive and moody explorations of political control and paranoia. "The Burrow" reads like a sick version of a Dr. Seuss tale, with a rodent constructing an elaborate series of tunnels to hoard its food, guard against intruders, and also hide from predators. "In the Penal Colony" is a sort of horror history with a nameless officer trying to convince a traveler about the utility of an elaborate and bloody public execution machine.

Otherwise, most of the tales in this book are relatively short, about 5-6 pages in length. They show people in various strained situations, often isolated or alienated by the powers-that-be. These powers are often capricious and draconian, resulting in injustice and unhappiness. For instance, in "The Helmsman" the man steering a ship is overcome and overthrown by a larger man who then assumes control of the boat. He attempts to assemble the rest of the passengers to address the situation and retake his place as pilot, but they don't care. They just accept the new helmsman without any resistance.
As you can see, the art for this story is an excellent complement  to the narrative. It was done with a scratchboard technique, so it resembles a woodcut done in an Expressionistic style. This type of art was a movement contemporary with Kafka, and the entire enterprise really captures the zeitgeist of the moment and I would also venture, of today, when it seems to many that the world is spiraling into discord and anxiety. I think of this book mostly as a series of tone poems expressing discomfort with the modern condition, and I think it would also be interesting to compare these adaptations to the source texts. They also stand by themselves very well.

Peter Kuper, the artist who has adapted these works is no stranger to Kafka, having done a graphic adaption of The Metamorphosis. He also published a few of these Kafka tales in his 1995 collection Give it Up! And Other Short Stories. Kuper has long had an interest in political causes and drawing socially charged cartoons. He co-founded the political comix magazine World War 3 Illustrated in 1980 and has also adapted the muckraking classic The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. A successful commercial artist, Kuper also has published work in a number of high profile magazines and currently draws the Spy Vs. Spy feature in Mad Magazine. He speaks about his work on Kafkaesque in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read have praised the book. Kirkus Reviews summed up, "A richly innovative interpretation that honors the source while expanding the material." Publishers Weekly concluded, "Kafka’s timeless work has never hit so hard, nor more artfully." Rich Barrett wrote, "Kuper creates an accessible gateway for Kafka amateurs and a varied sampling that may surprise you and possibly expand your own definition of what constitutes something as being 'Kafkaesque.'"

Kafkaesque was published by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., and they offer more info about it here.

The publisher provided a review copy.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Nib Issue 1: Death

I read a lot of comics, and some of my favorite webcomics are published by The Nib, which runs political cartoons or nonfiction works. When they ran a Kickstarter campaign recently to start a print magazine, I was all too happy to sign up. This issue is their first, and it's more like a book, 110 pages in length. It offers plenty of content, divided into four sections, and the variety of works contained here is exemplary. 

The first section is Departments, which consists of items like Letters to the Editor (illustrated, naturally), an interview with Barbara Ehrenreich, and the Response feature, which here is four artists responding to the question of what they want to happen to their bodies after they die.
Comic by Emi Gennis

The second section is Dispatches, which consists of sundry strips about how the Day of the Dead compares to Halloween, a history of representations of death, and a few different takes on how funeral services are being practiced.
Excerpt of comic by Josh Neufeld

The third section is Features, which consists of larger comics. Here, there is an exploration of how tech millionaires are funding research into longevity; a fascinating look at the history of lethal injection in the US, and a memoir about losing a baby during birth.
Excerpt of comic by Andy Warner

The final section is a hodgepodge of strips, some funny and others more sober, that comment on death and how people deal with it.

The contents of this magazine are first rate, well drawn, thoughtfully composed, and diverse in terms of scope and tone. This magazine offers much food for thought as well as entertainment, and I hope that it runs for a long, long time.

I had a hard time finding reviews of this magazine, but the one I did read was very positive. Matt Keeley called it "a triumph." 

The Nib publishes multiple comics pretty much everyday, and the web version is available here. Future print issues of the magazine can be purchased here by becoming a member of the Inkwell Society. They plan to publish on a quarterly schedule.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Bastard

Bastard is an interesting take on the typical caper/runaway tale. It features the fall-out of a criminal plot where 52 simultaneous robberies have been  planned and perpetrated, and now the mastermind is culling some of the associates to consolidate the earnings and get rid of some of the less trustworthy crime partners.
 
 

What May (or is her name April?) and Eugene have going for them in this situation is that they look out for each other. May is in her 20s and is Eugene's mom. He is 10 but wise to the world and how to keep safe and ahead of the law and shady characters. After a few attempted double-crosses and an accident, the duo find themselves allied with a trucker named Augustus McRae who has a checkered past of his own. I am not going to share much more about the book, only to say that there are multiple complications and revelations, which make life stressful for the characters but a thrilling plot for the reader.

What really worked for me in this book was the stark and economic storytelling. The page layouts were all very clear, and the line work very clean. This tale was told in a very efficient and exciting way, and it did not seem that there was a superfluous single line or word in the whole book. Also, the characters are strongly defined and surprisingly likable. Despite their criminal inclinations, May and Eugene are easy to root for and care about. Their relationship and love for each other is pure in a way that makes them sympathetic, and I also loved just how pragmatic they could be faced with outrageous circumstances.  

This graphic novel is the creation of Max De Radiguès, a Belgian comics artist who tweets updates about his works here. His other graphic novel work includes the adolescent drama Moose (one of my favorite books of 2015) and the biography Weegee. This book was originally published as a series of mini-comics from Oily Comics, and Bastard treads similar ground to Oily's publisher Charles Forsman's TEOTFW, only with a much different tone. He speaks about his work in general in this interview with The Comics Alternative.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly concluded, "Rich in storytelling despite its deceptive simplicity of style, the surprising plot twists and character development make this a must-read." Oliver Sava wrote, "de Radiguès’ stark, understated storytelling keeps the focus on this central relationship while surrounding it with suspense and action." John Seven highlighted the love between May and Eugene and called the events in this book "the world's sweetest crime spree."

Bastard was published by Fantagraphics, and they offer a preview and more here. Because of violence and some profanity, this book is suggested for mature readers.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies

If you have read this blog for any length of time, you know I will read any comics Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips create. I have been blown away by their past efforts, like Sleeper, Criminal, Incognito, Fatale, The Fade-Out, and Kill or Be Killed. Their brand of action and intrigue in noir fashion has captivated and excited me over various iterations. This book is their return to the world of Criminal, only it's in the form of one self-contained graphic novel. Even though it builds on the series, I think that this book is affecting and accessible to readers who might not be familiar with the creators' other works.

The main plot here follows Ellie, who is technically a teenager but has been out on her own for a while. She finds herself drawn to musicians and artists who have addiction problems. When the book opens she is on a beach, ruminating about her life. Then, she flashes back to the recent past to see how she has ended up in her current situation. She was entered against her will into a rehab program, and she is a discontent in various areas, including being a poor participant in group therapy sessions and also frequently sneaking out after hours to have a smoke. She finds a co-conspirator in Skip, a young man in his 20s who is trying to break out of some old patterns.

Aside from the fact that romantic relationships are frowned upon in such settings, the duo has other problems that arise from factors from their outside lives. I am not going to spoil things, but their relationship takes a few turns before the end of the narrative, with a bunch of negative consequences. What I loved about this book was how it played with my expectations about characters and plot by slowly dropping revelations and twists. By the end, I learned a lot more about the story's context that involved characters and stories from the Criminal series, which I found rewarding. Even so, I feel that this tale works for readers who are new to this world, because the plot twists still work with what you do see about these characters. I love a good crime/mystery yarn that keeps me guessing, and this book definitely delivers in that territory.

The reviews I have read of this book have been very positive. Shareca Coleman wrote that it was "incredibly written, drawn, and composed." Anelise Ferris called it "affecting and thought-provoking," and added,  "It’s a perfect read for a quiet autumn afternoon." Chris Terry opined that "Sean Phillips’ artwork is as beautiful as Brubaker’s story is haunting." Joe Gordon called it "
simply brilliant," adding, "And you’re really, really going to want to make a good playlist to go along with your second reading." Derek and I also recently spoke about the book on the Comics Alternative podcast.

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies was published by Image Comics, and they offer a preview and more information here.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

On a Sunbeam

On a Sunbeam was originally published as a webcomic (still available to read online in its entirety here), and it is a fantastic science fiction comic experience. It features two narratives, one set in the present that follows a group of outer space archaeologists/restoration experts as they travel from job to job, documenting and repairing abandoned sites across the galaxy. The second one is told through the eyes of Mia, one of the space archaeologists, about her days in boarding school and of her first love with a classmate named Grace. Fifteen years separate the narratives, but the past still has a massive influence on the present.

I do not really want to delve more into the plot, as I feel it will not be done much justice with a recap, but I will tell you about my three favorite characteristics about this book. First, it is a piece of science fiction but it is more in the vein of fantasy/science fiction, as the future here is not cold and stark but rather more warm and organic. The spaceships resemble giant flying goldfish, and the interiors more like giant cathedrals or castles. I love the kind of world-building used throughout the book, which  you can see from this excerpt:
 
 
 
 
Second, although this is ostensibly a sci-fi tale, it is more about people's relationships to each other than influence of scientific invention on people's lives. And my third point follows from those relationships, in that the characters in this book are fully rendered both in terms of the art and their roles in the story. They are bold, nuanced, and complicated. They really left their impression on me, and this is a book that has been in my mind long after reading it.

This book's creator Tillie Walden is one of my favorite comics creators. Even though she is a relative newcomer, she has already racked up a few huge accolades, including the 2018 Eisner Award for Best Reality-Based Work for her graphic memoir Spinning (also one of my favorite books of the year). On a Sunbeam was nominated for a 2017 Eisner in the category of Digital Comic (even though it is technically a webcomic). You can learn more about her work on this webcomic/book in this interview I helped conduct on the Comics Alternative podcast.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly concluded that "this masterful blend of science fiction–inflected school drama, road trip, and adventure is nothing less than marvelous." Kirkus Reviews called it "An affirming love story full of intriguing characters and a suspenseful plot." Caitlin Rosberg summed up, "It’s hard to imagine Walden continuing to put out books at the pace she’s had for the past three years, but comics are richer for it, and hopefully there’s many more years to come of her beautiful work."

On a Sunbeam was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more information about it here.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Tyler Cross: Black Rock

I first saw this graphic novel a few years ago while I was in the Netherlands for an academic conference. I loved the format and the artwork, but it was in Dutch, so I did not buy it. I did snap a pic of the cover with my cell phone, so I could look for it in English, and lo and behold all these years later, it's finally here. And published by one of my favorite book imprints, no less! I have read a bunch of prose novels from Hard Case Crime, and in recent years they have moved into publishing graphic novels, too, which is exciting to me. Is that more than you wanted to know from me? I hope not, and now onto the book...
Tyler Cross: Black Rock seems almost tailored made for me. It is a lot like Richard Stark's classic Parker series, about a hardened criminal who largely keeps to himself and works many a job with similarly minded crooks. The set-up here is that Cross agrees to do a robbery/hit job, and it goes south. He ends up stranded on foot in the Texas desert with 20 dollars in his pocket, a gun in his belt, and a bag full of 17 kilos of uncut brown heroin. Eventually, he finds himself in Black Rock, a town owned and ruled by the corrupt Pragg family. Seeing a suspicious stranger and the chance to make a potential buck, they make life very difficult for him.
I am not going to spoil things much with giving out more specifics, but suffice it to say that there are a lot of plot twists, gun violence, and explosions that result from these actions. Also, there is a very bite-y snake. The artwork is cartoonish, which is slightly reminiscent of Dick Tracy to me, but I think it suits the story well. Also, I am glad to see a few wordless passages that clearly contribute to the storytelling. There are distinctive, compelling characters and situations that are well defined with the bold imagery and atmospheric coloring.

This book featured the best kind of crime story for me, with a morally dubious protagonist going up against some terrible people, with sparks flying at every turn. I read it in one sitting, then re-read it that very night. If you are a fan of comics and also mid-20th century American crime fiction, this graphic novel is for you. It's got strongly defined characters, snappy dialogue (which is a huge plus from an excellent translation), and lots of action.

This book is a collaboration between writer Fabien Nury and artist Brüno. Nury has written a number of comics and graphic novels, including the historical drama The Death of Stalin. Brüno has drawn several comics series, including Commando Colonial, many which seem to be historical pieces as well. The duo have also collaborated on a prior comic, Atar Gull, a tale about slavery. You can learn more about their work on Black Rock in this interview with Nury.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been very positive. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly summed up, "This ongoing series is sophisticated stuff, featuring some notably nasty moments in a hard-hitting genre winner." Scott VanderPloeg wrote, "I was thrown off the first few pages by the exaggerated physical appearances of the characters, but it’s a consistent look that plays with Nury’s exaggerated characters." Andy Hall added, "It took a while for me to warm up to Brüno’s art style, but once it grew on me, I couldn’t envision the book looking any other way."

Tyler Cross: Black Rock was published by Hard Case Crime/Titan Books, and they offer a preview and more about it here. This book features violence, profanity, and sexual situations, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to deal with those things.

This volume collects the first three issues of the series, and (happily for me) there will be a sequel available early next year. There is also another third series that just wrapped up here.