Friday, February 15, 2019

Action Presidents: Books 1 & 2

I am serving again as a judge for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards presented by Pop Culture Classroom and Denver Pop Culture Con, and I was pretty excited to read these two books that have been presented for consideration for this year's awards.
 Action Presidents is a nonfiction series aimed at upper elementary/middle school students. They are quite detailed and nuanced, pretty substantial texts that contain lots of information and insight into some prominent historical figures. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have been the subjects of a myriad of biographies, and these books contain much of the relevant details about their lives, from their childhoods to their deaths, but what is most impressive to me about this series is how it also introduces counter-narratives into the proceedings.
It would be easy to simply present these books as pieces of hero worship, and certainly they do not skimp on celebrating the various accomplishments of both presidents. George Washington is praised for all he did to establish the United States, but also running throughout Book 1 are his ambiguous views and actions regarding slavery, a theme that also colors Book 2. Washington kept and profited from slaves, and only freed some at his death, and Abraham Lincoln himself did not so much oppose slavery as he opposed anything that would splinter the country. He is lauded for the lengths he went to preserve the Union, but his own contested views are not sugar-coated or glossed over. I loved how these books presented both, warts and all.

Not only do these books present distinct portraits of both men, it also situates their lives and actions in historical and governmental contexts. They are great resources for learning about the US government, policies, and laws, and I was very impressed by how many of the social studies they entailed. Also, there is also a good dose of humor throughout the volumes, embodied by the narrator, a pardoned turkey named Noah, and not a few fart jokes. Sometimes those instances felt a little like "sugar to make the medicine go down," but overall I feel the tone and content of these books was spot-on. I heartily recommend either (better, both!) volume to any class library.

These books are the product of the dynamic duo of Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey. Both have numerous comics credits for multiple publishers, and they have collaborated on two prior historical comics projects, Action Philosophers! and The Comic Book History of Comics.This interview sheds more light on the Action Presidents books and series.

The reviews I have read of these books have been positive. Johanna Draper Carlson applauded both for their "blend of action, humor, and meaningful points." Publishers Weekly wrote of Book 1, "Van Lente aims to contextualize historical figures who are often blindly lionized..., a goal that comes through clearly amid a flurry of gags and jokes." Kirkus Reviews summed up, "A light, comical approach to biography and history that makes it more palatable for those who find more traditional approaches hard to swallow," and added that the book contains maps, timeline, glossary, and a bibliography.

The Action Presidents series was published by Harper, and they offer a preview and more here. More books in the series have been proposed, and the next (announced at the end of Book 2) will be about Theodore Roosevelt. The fourth should be about JFK.

The publisher provided review copies.

Happy Presidents Day!

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Crush

Crush is a book I reviewed for the Middle Grades category for the 2019 Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards presented by Pop Culture Classroom. It is the follow-up to Brave, one of last year's Honorable Mentions, and I loved it for a few reasons. First, it features relatable situations and vivid characters. The protagonist here is Jorge, a large young man who is good at basketball and acts as a sort of guardian for a bunch of kids at school. He frequently uses his size as a peacekeeper, stopping bullies from harassing others.
Exhibit A

For his efforts, he receives grudging respect from members of the football team. However, the star quarterback secretly goads classmates to harass and tease others, all the while giving respect to Jorge and calling him "sheriff." Jorge recognizes what's going on to some extent, and he wants nothing to do with those kids. Still, he finds that this rejection comes with consequences, as they find a way to bully him that has some pretty drastic results for his reputation.

Second, this book is quite sweet in how it captures the tenor of a young person's developing a crush on someone. Jorge realizes after a while that he has feelings for Jazmine, a young woman in the drama club. She's got a boyfriend though, and he has always taken solace in having two strong lifelong friends Liv and Garrett, but he struggles with the changing dynamics among all their relationships. Her has always been a solid citizen and depending on a certain level of consistency, but he finds that life is taking some interesting curves and he's not sure he is comfortable with the whole enterprise. Even though my years in junior high were long ago, I could definitely relate to many of the feelings Jorge has to deal with here.

Third, the storytelling in this book is excellent. The characters are well designed in terms of their roles and their visuals. The action is compelling, and the gags pay off well. The situations they deal with seem very authentic and contemporary, with real stakes. And perhaps best of all, the book does not require the reader to have read any of the others. Each entry in the series stands alone and is rewarding on its own merits. At the same, knowledgeable readers will enjoy seeing certain characters pop up again, making this a book that plays well to a large audience. This is a fun, moving book, much like the other books in this series. I would certainly expect them to be a staple in school or class libraries.

This book's creator Svetlana Chmakova is a celebrated comics artist who has won a slew of awards and accolades for her works. In addition to the Berrybrook Middle School series, she also has published Dramacon, set at a comics convention, and the supernatural themed series Nightschool. She speaks about her work on Crush in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book were glowing. Esther Keller at School Library Journal called it "a must have—and one of our picks for the top ten graphic novels of 2018!" Carrie McClain summed it up as "an adventure for the tween/preteen age group that carries all the feels and makes the ordinary seem extraordinary by how relatable it is." Sarah concluded her review, "I love the manga stylings of Chmakova. I love her diverse cast of characters and her socially conscious narratives, which support the growth of young girls. I know this one isn’t technically out yet, I know that the author just had a baby, but GAAHHH I want more!!"

Crush was published by Yen Press, and they provide more info about it here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Be-Bop Barbarians: A Graphic Novel

The Be-Bop Barbarians is a fascinating, gripping look at life in the 1950s for three African-American artists living in New York City. They are fictional figures, though they are based on real people, according to the book's introduction. The protagonists are Cliff, a light-skinned handsome man who passes for white in certain circles and who draws comic books (based on Matt Baker), Stef, who moonlights as a maid and domestic servant while drawing a romance comic strip for a black newspaper (based on Jackie Ormes), and Ollie, a veteran of the Korean War who publishes political cartoons under a pseudonym (based on Oliver Harrington).
The three friends and colleagues are involved in civil rights issues that affect their daily lives. Cliff struggles to maintain various identities (and romances) as he works and travels about town. Also, he is on the losing end of a legal struggle with a publisher who is trying to steal the rights to a character he created. Stef struggles to make ends meet and also is conflicted by some of the racist attitudes she faces from those she works for. Ollie is married to a Korean woman, and while they await the birth of a child, they face harassment on numerous fronts. All three chronicle the disturbances, slights, and inequities they experience through their art, transforming them into something politic and motivational. Their bravery and creativity wins the day even though they face numerous obstacles and prejudices.

A book like this, woven from masked historical figures, runs a danger of reading like straight propaganda or being related in ham-fisted manner, but The Be-Bop Barbarians is a vivid and vital account of the hardships and unjust social realities of the day. The various plots are compelling, the characters strong and nuanced, and overall the book is an excellent piece of historical fiction. It made me care about the characters and also learn about the times the story was set. I was also impressed by how they wove together the three different tales into a cohesive, moving whole. Also on the positive side, I appreciated how this book introduces a new generation of readers to some important, often forgotten, comics artists from the past.

This book was a collaboration between writer Gary Phillips and artist Dale Berry. Phillips has penned several novels and has multiple and diverse credits in comics, including editing the conspiracy/noir collection The Obama Inheritance and co-writing the neo-noir/punk series Peepland, which was set in the 1980s. There is a six-page sequence in this book that features his prose without the illustrations, and I felt it was an effective narrative device. Berry has been drawing and creating comics since the 1980s, and he created the first graphic short story published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine's 60 year history. I very much liked his storytelling and how he altered his art style to (re)create the look and feel of the disparate art styles of the three fictional creators.

I was not able to locate many reviews of this book, but Molly Odintz called it "beautiful and moody, channelling the quiet desperation, simmering anger, and creative intensity of 1950s noir."

The Be-Bop Barbarians was published by Pegasus Books, and they offer more info about it here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

A National Book Award Finalist and New York Times Bestseller, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a celebrated memoir by long-time New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, where she chronicles the final years of her parents' lives and how she came to care for them. Chast is very candid and frank about her relationships with both parents, and she was very eager to get out of their home as soon as she was able (going to college at age 16) and they seemed very much interested in maintaining their bubble. Her parents Elizabeth and George were married while in their 20s and lived in the same apartment for more than 40 years. Both were public school educators, and she was the more vocal and aggressive of the two, a vice-principal, while he was more introverted and docile, a French teacher. They were constant companions, taking care of each other and maintaining routines that masked their eventual aging and individual health declines.
Endearing, funny, and also eventually troubling.
Eventually, when they were in their 90s, life began catching up with them. When Elizabeth had a bad fall Chast realized that they needed assistance. At first, this entailed less invasive practices, like utilizing Meals on Wheels and regular check-ins. But eventually, matters grew more dire, and they had to enter into old age facilities that could offer medical and other services. Not only did Chast have to contend with her parents' aging but also their changing mental states, their growing medical needs, legal/financial concerns, and the costs of providing help without the benefit of insurance. This book is impressive in multiple ways: It is informative about the processes of taking care of older people, personal in how it portrays the Chast family and its dynamics, and darkly funny with Roz Chast's particularly witty and idiosyncratic voice. This book is a powerful read, simultaneously moving, heart-breaking, and eye-opening.

Roz Chast has a long career in cartooning and comics, with multiple collections of her New Yorker work available in book form as well as her latest graphic novel memoir Going Into Town. She speaks about her experiences and work on Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? in this interview.

This book is much lauded and has been heaped with praise and accolades. In its starred review Kirkus Reviews concluded, "A top-notch graphic memoir that adds a whole new dimension to readers’ appreciation of Chast and her work." In another starred review Publishers Weekly called it "a cartoon memoir to laugh and cry, and heal, with—Roz Chast’s masterpiece." Alex Witchel closed his review with these lines, "No one has perfect parents and no one can write a perfect book about her relationship to them. But Chast has come close."

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? was published by Bloomsbury, and they offer a reading guide and more info about it here.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Modern Fantasy

Modern Fantasy is a fun book that melds classic fantasy tropes with a contemporary, almost sitcom, sensibility. One one level it's the tale of a motley band (including a ranger, dwarf, elf, cleric, wizard, ogre, and troll) who quest to prevent a cult of religious zealots from summoning a fire demon that will destroy the world. On another level it's a character study of a bunch of 20-something friends as they go through their daily routines, which includes looks into their love lives, their drab work days, and the mundane frustrations of apartment living.

The main character of all this is Sage of the Riverlands, a level 12 ranger who works in a cubicle farm and is frequently bothered/bailed out by her large, oafish co-worker Back-Darr (who I think is supposed to be an ogre). At home she has to deal with her roommates and their significant others, particularly Lizard Wizard whose latest loser boyfriend is a kleptomaniac troll. Early on in the book, this troll steals an amulet from the wrong party and it brings all kinds of drama and misfortune into our heroes' lives.

Aside from the brisk plot, I enjoyed the characterizations in this book. I think that the diverse personalities bounce off each other well, and the dialogue is often clever. In addition, there is also a good amount of meta-humor about the whole set-up, and the book proceeds in jaunty fashion, with tongue firmly in cheek. I was taken by the heart and humor here, but the fact that chapter three is mostly dedicated to a training montage was the icing on the cake. Modern Fantasy was a great entertainment that I could easily see spun out into a regular comics series.

This book was originally published as a four-issue comic book series, and it was written by Rafer Roberts and drawn by Kristen Gudsnuk. Roberts has written a number of comics over the past two decades, but he is most known for his current series Grumble and a funny online collaboration with Justin Jordan called Thanos and Darkseid: Carpool Buddies of Doom. I first became aware of Gudsnuk's work with her webcomic/collection Henchgirl, and she has a relatively new book out for YA readers called Making Friends. I love her art style, which features lots of background gags, and her comic pacing, details, and character designs match up well with Roberts' story beats. Both creators weigh in about their work on Modern Fantasy in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book and series have been pretty positive. Jeremy Schmidt wrote that it "matches every laugh with a great piece of adventure that will leave you wanting more." Joe Grunenwald called it "super-fun and funny. It’s fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy."

Modern Fantasy was published by Dark Horse, and they offer a preview and more here.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Frank

I get a bunch of books from various creators and publishers for the Comics Alternative podcast, and we don't get the chance to speak about them all on the show. The book I am writing about today, Frank, falls into that category, and I think it's a unique and compelling book well worth checking out. It walks the fine line between being entertaining and informative, and it both moved me and taught me about Canadian history. This tale is set in 1903 in the town of Frank, which was a coal mining town next to Turtle Mountain in Alberta. The protagonist is a troubled woman named Eve Lee, who finds herself frequently in the local drunk tank. One day, her old flame Oscar mysteriously disappears and she suspects something shady has happened to him, so she starts an investigation. What she discovers (without spoiling so much) is that something is not quite right with the records of the local mining company.
As you might guess, at least two murders are uncovered, and much of this book is involved with Eve trying to get to the bottom of matters while facing various roadblocks. All the while there are slight tremors and disturbances in the mine, and the latter parts of the book occur simultaneously with the Frank Slide, the most deadly rock-slide in Canadian history, when 90 million tons of limestone came loose from Turtle Mountain and decimated the town of Frank.

In the end, I felt that this book was a great blend of fact and fiction, with interesting characters and a complex plot that kept me intrigued throughout. It was the debut graphic novel of Ben Rankel, an illustrator who has had work in a number of indie comics anthologies. He speaks about his work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read remark positively on the book. Kevin Skinner wrote, "FRANK is both faithful to a profound moment in Canadian history while still creating something new and exciting to engage comic fans who may not even care about Canadian history. " The reviewer at 49th Shelf called Rankel "a gifted graphic novelist, soon to be amongst the most highly regarded." Insha Fitzpatrick summed up, "Frank presents a historical event with a creator that knows how to honor it but also expand it, creating a story that’s heartbreaking yet filled with world building and characters that are intense and riveting."

Frank was published by Renegade Arts Entertainment, and they offer more info about it here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Perdy, Volume 1: Flowers, Sex, Robbery

To my knowledge, this is the first European comics volume published in the US by Image Comics (it was translated into French and published simultaneously in Europe), and I feel it is a strong debut in that area. Perdy is rootin', tootin', rollicking western tale featuring one heck of a protagonist. Perdy is almost all id. She is rough and tough, always ready to drink, fight, and have her way in bed with any man of her choosing. She is like a hurricane blowing into town, and I love how she is depicted as a larger than life, older, more grizzled figure who is still somehow sexy and uses that to her advantage. She is a complicated figure, driven by her desires, a canny criminal, and often lewd and hilarious with her double entendres.
This page might be the most PG one I could find to share. Perdy is typically way more salty in her language.
When the book begins, Perdy is getting out of prison after 15 years and much has changed since she's been in the stir. Not only is she older, she has to do a lot of investigating to find her estranged daughter, Petunia, who is living in a small frontier town, running a flower shop, and going by the name Rose. She has a ton of suitors, and Perdy suspects she may be running a grift of her own to snag the richest man as her husband.

I adored the storytelling throughout this book!
When Rose gets sweet with the town's new doctor, Perdy reappears in her life, trying to recruit her for a new scheme and threatening to mess up everything. Over the course of the book the complicated backstory of their relationship is revealed, and it's pretty gruesome. Although this book is not really similar in terms of art or tone to another feminist western I recently read (and loved) Coyote Doggirl, Perdy also injects a different sort of spark and energy into the typical proceedings. The stout, buxom, and bombastic Perdy is certainly not the usual cowgirl, that's for sure. And I was left yearning for the second volume of this series, as this book ends with a cliffhanger. 

This book's creator is Kickliy, an American artist who has published much of his work in French. I first became aware of his work on the Musnet series published in the US by the ODOD imprint of uncivilized books. That series was an all ages book about a mouse who stumbles into Monet's garden and inspires the artist. He speaks more about his work on the Perdy books in this video and this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Jason Michelitch called it "a rock solid piece of serial entertainment -- it's funny, it's violent, and it comes through with a reason for you to come back for the next installment." Chris Coplan wrote about the art style, "All these crooked, ugly lines help create a world that’s alluring in its ugliness." Publishers Weekly summed up, "While not for the easily offended, this raunchy caper is an unexpected escape from typical genre fare."

Perdy was published by Image Comics, and they offer a preview and more here. Because it features nudity, sex, profanity, and violence, I suggest this books for mature readers.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.