Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Astronauts: Women on the FInal Frontier

Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks are two of the best graphic novel creators who work in the arena of science. They collaborated years ago on Primates, which is one of my favorite books about biology, and here they combine forces again to chronicle the history of women and space flight. They chose to do it through the eyes of Mary Cleave, a veteran of two Space Shuttle flights, which I think gives the whole enterprise a specific and detailed account that makes everything more personal and engaging, even funny at times.
Cleave was involved for a good while with NASA, and so she had all sorts of information about the prerequisites for being an astronaut, the laborious application process, and the intense training program. Along the way, we are privy to info about how astronauts go to the bathroom in space, how they eat, and how they learn to live together in the confinements of their vehicles. I really like how the science here is well balanced with mundane features of space travel. And I got a good look into the workings of the Space Shuttle program as well.

Those looking for general information about women astronauts will also not be disappointed. Even with all the specificity, this book is chock full of other information, including a look at the Soviet space program and Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to go to space (in 1963!). It took a long while for the US to involve women as astronauts in the space program, mainly due to sexism and relatively few women trained as pilots or engineers. And we get insight into this era also.

The artwork is very attractive and colorful. This book features strongly rendered characters as well as lots of technical details. Emotions shine through well, and we also get to see all the buttons, gadgets, and other doo-dads in clear fashion. It is a substantive and entertaining book that I could see being used for lots of purposes, in a classroom as well as for a free reading choice for the science-curious.

In addition to their collaboration on Primates, these creators have a sizable corpus of science-themed books. Ottaviani has written a number of great graphic novels about scientific inquiry including ones about the early days of paleontology, the space race, physicist Niels Bohr, women science pioneers, and the biographies Hawking and Feynman. Wicks tends to focus mainly on biological topics like Coral Reefs and Human Body Theater.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. It received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly. KR summed it up, "Exhilarating—as well as hilarious, enraging, or both at once depending on the reader." PW remarked positively on Cleave's "colloquial storytelling, humorous observations, and asides are highlights—Wicks and Ottaviani skillfully capture Cleave’s infectious enthusiasm up to the last page." Corey S. Powell wrote, "Its only real shortcoming is that the book leaves you wanting more; fortunately, it ends with a helpful bibliography and list of resources."

Astronauts was published by First Second, and they a preview and much more here.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Noisemakers: 25 Women Who Raised Their Voices & Changed the World

Noisemakers is an impressive collection of stories, 25 mini-biographies of notable women who have left profound marks on the world. This project was accomplished by 25 different creators, who were all women or non-binary, which adds a unique take on these accounts as well. The book is divided into six sections (Grow, Tinker, Play, Create, Rally, and Explore) that cast a light on scientists, inventors, athletes, artists, activists, and explorers. Some of the figures, like Hedy Lamarr, Frida Kahlo, and Rosa Parks are well known, but there are others, like Emily Warren Roebling, Madam C.J. Walker, and Junko Tabei that I knew little or nothing about beforehand (and shame on me!). I think they did a great job of covering a wide array of people and nationalities, and even though this book is aimed at younger readers I feel it is also an informative introduction to older ones.
The artwork in this volume covers as wide a range of pallettes as it does subjects. Some, like Shauna Grant's take on Maya Angelou, are more manga-inspired and cartoonish. Others, like Rebecca Mock's account of Ida Lewis, hew a little more to reality. I think all of the stories are extremely well illustrated, and the worst thing I can say about this book is that some seem more fleeting and slight than others. 8 pages is not a lot of space to work with, and some of the entries are more dense, in terms of panels and information, than others. Still, this is a great book full of excellent stories. It's a wonderful introduction to these women and a jumping off point for those seeking out further reading.
The mix of creators in this book is admirable, with more seasoned creators as well as new faces. For me, the most notable entries were Emil Ferris's bio of Mary Shelley, Lucy Knisley's look at Julia Child, Molly Brooks's tale of Kate Warne, and Jackie Roche's account of Nellie Bly. But there is not a clunker in the bunch. More context about the book and the process of making it can be found in this interview with editor Erin Bried.

The reviews I have read of this book have been positive. tasting menu of short biographical comics...[that] serves up enticing bits of history for an array of readers with varying interests."

Noisemakers was published by Alfred A. Knopf, and they offer more info about it here.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Clyde

People looking for lessons learned or personal growth would need to look elsewhere, but if you are looking for an inventive book that will make you laugh Clyde is for you. Clyde is a bear from Cubville, and he fancies himself a bad guy. He wants to move to Grizzly City, where life is way tougher and more suited to a "bad guy," but he soon finds out that might not be the place for him.
Probably not the best way to fit in with the locals...
Along the way he makes friends with a surprisingly tough butterfly named Melissa Sue. He also runs afoul of some fish and has to spring his dear old grandmother from fish jail. Clyde goes from place to place without much purpose, but he keeps finding himself in interesting (and funny) situations. Part of what makes this book work is its sense of surreality.  It's got its own logic, with Clyde being a bear, his grandmother a turtle, and his brother an invertebrate. Also, the dialogue and situations are quite inventive, full of character, and snappy. There is also a heavy dose of gross-out humor, mostly fart and booger related, but I have to say I found most of those parts pretty funny, too. And I'm an adult.

As you can see from the excerpt, the artwork is pretty straightforward and uncluttered, with great expression and energy. This book, like its title character, is brash and bombastic. It has its edginess, but it's more on the side of good than bad.

This book was authored by Jim Benton, who is best known as the creator of Happy Bunny. He has published a variety of humor comics, which you can check out here, and also has a made a few series books, starring characters named Catwad and Victor Shmud. He speaks more about his work on Clyde in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Stephen Thompson "was surprised at how genuinely funny Clyde and his friends could be, even for grown-ups." Jennie Frencham wrote in School Library Journal that it featured "mildly naughty humor, a sly wit, and bright, adorably crude artwork." Rachel wrote, "It was short and sweet, but such a page turner."

Clyde was published by Yoe Books, and they offer a preview and much more here.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Stinky

Stinky is one of the more popular books with my four-year-old right now. It's premise is pretty simple. Stinky is a small monster who lives on the outskirts of the city. He loves his spot because it is full of lots of smelly things, like his pet toad Wartbelly, an onion patch, and a swamp. He is very wary of people, especially children, as they enjoy things he hates, like baths, apples, and cake. One day, however, his world gets rocked when a boy named Nick builds a treehouse on his turf.
 

Stinky goes on the offensive, drawing up plans to drive Nick away. All of them backfire, hilariously, and Stinky and Nick find that they are kindred spirits and become friends. The end.

Like I wrote earlier, this book is pretty simple and the plot somewhat familiar, but it is also extremely well executed. The dialogue and sound effects make for a fun read-aloud. The artwork is simple and clean, with strong primary coloring. The characters are cute, in a big head style of cartooning, and the storytelling is clear and direct. And best of all for me, there are some elegant details that help populate this world with characters and heart, much in the same way Walt Kelly's classic Pogo strips did. You can see a tiny little toad and mouse fore-grounded in the opening page of chapter 2 above, and I loved seeing all the denizens of the forest in this story, including possums, mice, alligators, slugs, and bats.  Also, how can you not love a comic that features a hole with a wooden arrow labeled "Bottomless Pit?"

This book is an early work by Eleanor Davis, who has racked up quite a few accolades since, including the Russ Manning Most Promising Newcomer Award. She has created a number of books, including ones for adults (How to Be Happy and Why Art?) and adolescents (The Secret Science Alliance). You, a Bike, & A Road was one of my favorite books of 2017, and it won an Ignatz Award for Outstanding Anthology or Collection. Her latest book The Hard Tomorrow came out last year, and I expect it to do well come comics award season.

Stinky was named a 2009 Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Book, and it has been very well reviewed. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews wrote, "The winning story carries itself on spunk and a controlled vocabulary that combines judiciously chosen sight words (onion, gross) with easily sounded-out words (slimy slugs!) that will have emerging readers in stitches." Bill Sannwald added, "The fun storyline, lush visuals, and appropriate vocabulary work together to make the book an absolute pleasure worthy of a place in any collection of short-chapter books."

Stinky was published by TOON Books, and they offer a preview and more here.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Holler #1

I have followed Jeremy Massie across a number of different works and genres. I dug his fun superhero book Amazing Age, the horror riff Blood-Drenched Creature Double Feature, and the more mundane, solo-authored book All My Ghosts, but I feel that Holler is his best to date. As a guy who teaches in Appalachia, I was intrigued to see this period piece, about an adolescent who gets into grunge music and forms a band in the 1990s.

It has a lot of pluses going for it. The characters, settings, and scenes are all well designed and staged. The storytelling is very clear, and even though there are moments of rock-out bombastic mayhem, there are a good many more quiet moments of well orchestrated personal drama. Even though I grew up in a much different context, this sweet, poignant set of accounts gave me a lot to relate to. I feel that it offers many experiences that transcend time and are relatable even today. For instance, the day when his church group discussed a band he was into:
Awkward...
The true-to-life experiences are communicated in clear fashion in ways that pack an emotional punch. I admired the way facial expressions, layouts, and pacing create many dramatic effects. From the visuals, I found it very easy to relate to these characters and share in their joys and pains. Certainly, it helps that I am roughly the same age as Massie, so I was familiar with a lot of the music and pop culture references, but but I also feel that these stories would resonate with younger readers. There is a universality to this tale of people who feel like outsiders in their own community.

Holler is published by Massie Makes Comics, and there is more info about it here (you can buy it there, too, for $0.99 - what a deal!). A print version will be available soon from It's Alive!.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Hot Comb

Like Fights, Hot Comb is a book that explores childhood, race, and growing through an unique lens, in this case hair care. It is a collection of eight short stories set in different times and places where young African-American women navigate their families, relationships, and worlds.

The title story is a great example of what this book entails. It is a tale of Ebony, as a fifth grade girl who wants to have her hair permed because she thinks it will stop her classmates from teasing her. She finally convinces her mother to let her do it, and what follows is a complex web of emotions. Her mother is ambivalent, against her daughter messing with her natural hair but also capitulating, and also saddened by her growing up and becoming more independent. Ebony gets her world broadened with her experiences at the beauty shop, learning more about how to take care of her hair and also about how people talk to each other there. She is excited but also surprised by how painful and laborious the process is. Also, she just can't keep from touching her newly transformed hair.
It seems that both Ebony and her mom pay some price from the perm, and what becomes painful for Ebony is that all her efforts do not pan out as she expected at school. This story works in multiple ways, as a coming of age tale, as a family relationship story, and even as a contemporary fable. It is packed with emotion, humor, and humanity, and it introduces the reader to a great many themes that crop up in the following stories.

Other stories in this volume include "Big Ma," "My Lil Sister Lena," and the generational tensions of "Sisters and Daughters." They are all noteworthy for how many emotional and cultural issues they touch upon. The "Lena" story in particular, about how her sister was the only black girl on her swim team and was dramatically changed by her teammates' attention to how her hair changed when it got wet. They all invaded her privacy and space and were compelled to touch it, which created a sense of anxiety that manifested in self-harm.
As you can see from the excerpts, the art here is packed with all sorts of energy. This book has an emotional wallop, and I love how it plays with line work that is sometime simple and strong and other times tangled and complex (like hair!). Also there are framing images, parody ads for various hair care products that act as interstitials that inform the identity politics of the stories. They show how central and varied the seemingly mundane matter of hair care is for these characters. And how much pressure there is to alter themselves to conform to constructed ideals of beauty.

This book's creator Ebony Flowers is a cartoonist, ethnographer, and teacher. One of her mentors along the way was Lynda Barry, one of the greatest comics creators in my opinion, and I feel that her work packs as much a punch as Barry's, in spirit and not in any derivative way. She has won a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, and she speaks about her work on Hot Comb in this interview as well as this one.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been full of acclaim. In a starred review Publishers Weekly called is a book "rich with both sorrow and celebration." John Seven wrote, "What makes it so special is the way she wraps these elements around larger themes of race without ever making you feel like you are reading A Very Important Work With A Heavy Purpose." In a starred review from School Library Journal, Desiree Thomas summed it up, "Ideal for most public and school libraries." Paul Lai also has lots of great insights in this podcast episode.

Hot Comb was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they offer a preview and more info about it here.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Fights: One Boy's Triumph Over Violence

I have read most of the books published by Joel Christian Gill, such as his Strange Fruit anthologies and Tales of the Talented Tenth series. Those have been nonfiction histories, but in Fights he turns to a more personal topic, a memoir about his own childhood. With his mother being incarcerated when he was very young and her not always being able to provide a stable environment for him after the death of his father, Gill got bounced around to live with various family friends and relatives, with varying amounts of supervision and support.

Also, sometimes those places brought other sorts of violence or abuse that he had to contend with. As a consequence he learned early on that he had to rely on himself for many things and also that meant he had to learn to fight. There are many commonplace adversaries along the way: bullies on the school bus, racist jerks who try to shake him down for money, and rivals who want to maintain their reputations and protect their turf. Gill has to deal with a lot of adversity to try to fit in and also carve some space for himself. It seems that he always has to be on the offensive and can never really relax his guard.

It is easy to read this book and feel for his plight, but it is also difficult to suffer the depravities he experienced. The artwork portrays this sense of ambivalence about childhood, drawn in the same accessible, clear, and picture-book manner as his other works. It is jarring to see "cute" figures as they navigate serious issues such as blatant discrimination, sexual abuse, and physical violence, but it is also emblematic of the sorts of circumstances many young people experience. It impresses the point that many of these situations force children to have to grow up well before they should, but at the same time they are still children. It makes the proceedings that much more distressing. I applaud the braveness here in candidly portraying such personal trauma and how he learned to cope.

One of the most powerful aspects of this book is Gill's instilling a sense of empathy for pretty much every character, reinforced with frequent reminders that children are sponges that absorb what is around them. He might portray bullies and abusers as monstrous, but he also constantly reminds that they are human beings who are the products of their contexts. This view is what eventually drives Joel's own realizations as he grows older and informs an important choice he made when he was just out of high school. It also makes this tale that much more poignant and difficult to ignore. Certainly there are many ills portrayed here, some systemic and others more personal. Gill smartly depicts the terms of the debate of how to best address these factors but does not come down with a didactic solution to what is a complex set of circumstances. He only writes about what has worked for him and his family. This book is excellent, at once moving, provocative, and thought-provoking.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly wrote, "Gill’s empathy for his younger self and the children he grew up alongside elevates his singular story into a passionate plea for neglected children everywhere." In a starred review from School Library Journal, Carla Riemer concluded, "Despite the heartbreak, Gill leaves readers with a message of hope—that anyone living with trauma can find a way out." John Seven opined, "Fights doesn’t feel like a story being told by a grown-up looking back, but a kid living it. That’s the power within it, it hasn’t lost track of the kid that the story is about."

Fights was published by Oni Press, and they offer more info about it here. This book portrays sexual abuse, violence, and profanity and is suggested for readers mature enough to handle those things.