Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Henchgirl

Henchgirl began as a webcomic, and here the entire saga is collected in one volume. The story follows a young woman named Mary Posa, who is physically quite strong and works in the Butterfly Gang run by supervillain Monsieur Butterfly.
Even though she makes much money from crime and is employed by a criminal, she is not really evil, just sort of aimless. She lives with a couple of roommates who know what she does (and do not hold it against her). In the end, this book is less about its superhero trappings and more about personal relationships and observations about trying to get by in the world.
Sure, comic book style action happens: banks get robbed, heroes clash with villains, aliens invade the Earth, but the heart of this book is seeing how the various characters react to various events and bounce off of each other. Many of these scenes are actually played for laughs, and some are hilarious. In addition, this book is also pretty inventive in terms of its plotting and characterization. I cannot say I was overly thrilled with how the story ended, but I very much enjoyed reading this book and could not put it down. If you are looking for a fresh, funny, off-beat, and more feminine look at superheroics, this is the book for you.

This comic was created by Kristen Gudsnuk, who uses a very cartoonish style that is charming but energetic. She also crams her backgrounds with lots of gags and details that highlight the story and add a touch of glee. She speaks about her work on Henchgirl in this interview.

The reviews I have read of this volume have been positive. Dustin Cabeal wrote that "not only is this one of the best superhero comics I’ve read in many years, but it’s one of the best comic books I’ve ever read, period." Publishers Weekly was more measured, stating that the opening chapters "of Henchgirl, drawn in a charming style somewhere between Scott Pilgrim and Steven Universe, have a delightful and spontaneous energy, but as the series progresses, Gudsnuk begins stitching her ideas into a narrative and things slow down a bit from the sparkling opening." Travis Pelkie summed up, "So if you’re looking for a book set in a superhero world where the real story is how a young woman finds her place in life, try Henchgirl."

Henchgirl was published by Dark Horse, and they have a preview and more info about it here.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Giant Days, Volume 1

Here's another series I recently dove into from Comixology Unlimited. This book follows a trio of young women as they embark on their first year at university. Esther de Groot, Susan Ptolemy, and Daisy Wooton are freshmen in a typical situation, namely they are a motley bunch tossed together by the random decisions of university housing. Esther is an outgoing goth who attracts lots of trouble, Daisy a naive, home-schooled student with poofy hair, and Esther is the sarcastic, "sensible" one thinks she knows best. As neighbors, they hang out, go to parties, navigate relationships, fight against male chauvinism, publish a zine, celebrate Daisy's 18th birthday, and get into dramatic situations. Typical college stuff.
 
 
Giant Days is a slice of life kind of story, with no superheroes, fantasy, sci-fi or other fictional affectations. The series works because the characters are interesting and complex, the artwork is clear, energetic, and fun, and the plots are relatable, funny, and compelling. Also, it is worth noting that the events here all happen in England at the University of Sheffield, so it has a very British sensibility and sense of humor. Still, I think the themes and situations here are fairly universal, helped along by the wit of the writing as well the clever drawings. I very much enjoyed reading this book, and I plan to dive into future volumes as soon as I can.

The comics in this collection, which cover the first four issues of the series, were written by John Allison, drawn by Lissa Treiman, and colored by Whitney Cogar. Allison is known for his webcomics Bad Machinery and Scary Go Round (both available here). Treiman is an artist and animator who has worked on movies like Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6. Cogar is an artist and colorist who has worked on Steven Universe comic books and a few films. Allison and Treiman speak about their work on this series in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been largely positive. Johanna Draper Carlson wrote, "I quickly found myself caring about and rooting for the trio, even when they’re making silly (but age-appropriate) mistakes." Oliver Sava commented that the series creators have "used this slice-of-life concept to create one of the year’s most engaging, hilarious comics." Gregory Paul Silber was more lukewarm about this book, summing up that it "isn’t particularly ambitious or challenging (at least so far), but it’s an amusing read with appealing artwork."

Giant Days was published by Boom! Box, and they have more info about it here.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story

I was an English major in college, and my first exposures to Zora Neale Hurston were her novels Their Eyes Were Watching God and Jonah's Gourd Vine. All I really knew about her was that she led an interesting life, did some anthropological research, and died in an unmarked grave (as famously found by Alice Walker). So I was glad to read this book, which chronicles her life from her childhood to her death and rediscovery by Walker. What I most admired about it was how much it embodies the energy and verve Hurston displayed in her life. Always a vocal and outgoing person, she came from a tumultuous family life and humble beginnings in Alabama, moved to Florida, and then eventually made it to college in Baltimore, Atlanta, and New York City.
Eventually, she came to work with Franz Boas while at Barnard College, doing ethnographic work that took her back home to Florida but eventually also to more exotic places like Haiti and Jamaica. She also became involved with a burgeoning Harlem Renaissance and was a prominent African-American writer and thinker of the time. One of the aspects I admired most about this book was how it depicted her various relationships, with peers, colleagues, and benefactors, showing much of the politics involved with doing academic and intellectual work. It also lends a very human face to some prominent figures, as well as a shot of humor into several situations.
Overall, it was that sense of humor and warmth that Hurston used to her advantage to do her work, date and marry who she wanted, and live an exceptional life. The art in this book is very cartoonish, but in the end I think it was probably the most apt for realistically and faithfully capturing the vitality Hurston displayed throughout her life.

This book's creator Peter Bagge is one of my all-time favorite comics makers. A multiple award winner with decades of credits, he created the seminal alternative comics series Neat Stuff and Hate and served as editor of the holdover underground comics anthology Weirdo. He has also created a number of graphic novels, including Woman Rebel, Apocalypse Nerd, Other Lives, and Reset. More recently, he has been a contributor to publications like Reason magazine (see his collections Founding Fathers Funnies and Everybody is Stupid Except for Me) and Vice Magazine (the Musical Urban Legends column). He speaks about his work on Fire!! in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Chris Oliveros commented that Bagge "has proven himself to be a thoughtful, careful researcher with a gift for portraying the deeply fascinating and hilarious moments in people’s lives." Etelka Lehoczky called it "an exhilarating addition to Hurston lore." Paul Constant regretted a lack of detail about Hurston's literary work but still concluded that "artists like Bagge continue to do the necessary work of asking the questions" about race and representation.

Fire!! was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they offered a preview and more here.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Kill or Be Killed: Volume 1

There are some certainties I can rely on: the sun rises in the morning, the mail gets delivered daily, my son will take an extra long nap if we have an appointment in the afternoon, and Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips make great comic series. Kill or Be Killed is their latest collaboration, and I have reviewed some of their prior ones here, here, here, here, and here. This latest series has many elements that have appeared in those past ones, but they have been remixed and represented in a fresh and exciting way. And unlike those earlier series, this one is meant to be ongoing.

The premise here is that Dylan, a morose 28-year-old graduate student who is sort of a loser, becomes a vengeful vigilante. He needs to murder a person every month or he himself will die, or at least he thinks that is the case. The reason why I will not reveal, because it is a large part of the suspenseful plot spun out in this first book, which covers the first four issues of the series.
 

The dark themes of this book explore a sense of helplessness against a failed system and one person's extraordinary way to exact justice. As you can see, Dylan gets pretty adept at going after people who he feels need killing. Still, he does not start out so well, as we see in the course of this book. I loved the way that the plot is told in a  nonlinear way that contains lots of twists and cliffhangers. I also very much liked the character work, particularly the love triangle between Dylan, his roommate Mason, and Kira, who is Dylan's best friend and Mason's girlfriend. The best kinds of noir feature characters with questionable personalities and motivations, and the ones in this book surely fit that bill. And as always with this pair of creators, the story and artwork coalesce into masterful comics.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Phil Brown wrote that "in increasingly dire and cynical times, it just might be the comic on the stands we need more than any other, a sick punch to the gut by major comics talents who know how to get there through your head." Nick Lafpliotis called it "a mandatory addition to any self-respecting comic reader’s pull list." Desmond Fox pointed out that this book is also very topical and that Brubaker and Phillips "take us to the heart of American depression and vigilantism."

Kill or Be Killed was published by Image Comics, and they have previews and more info about the book and series here. There are violence, profanity, sex, and nudity in this book, so it is suggested for mature readers.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Stone Heart

The Stone Heart is the second book in the eventual The Nameless City trilogy, and I know that second books can often feel like filler to get through before the dramatic conclusion, but this one left me breathless. So much happens in it that kept me wondering what was to come next that I really don't want to give much detail and spoil things for others. Let me just say that the political scheming gets complicated, there is a murder, and a new war for the city seems to be looming.

Pretty much the detail I will reveal is that a couple of new characters get introduced, friends of Rat. Iniko and Hannya are a couple of street performers. Iniko plays guitar (badly) in a band, and Hannya and her family are acrobats. They are not around for much of the book, but because of them we learn that Kai is pretty good as a musician.
 
Part of what makes this book so compelling is its interesting characters and their relationship dynamics. There are a couple of father/son conflicts, between Kai and his dad as well as between the General of All Blades and his son Erzi, which make for good points of juxtaposition. Also, we learn more about Kai's and Rat's parents. Still with all of this great character work, there is no shortage of action in this book. I cannot wait to see how all of it comes to a conclusion in the next volume.

This book's author Faith Erin Hicks has been an excellent, prolific comics creator, and she is one of my favorite artists. Among her growing list of graphic novel publications are Friends with Boys, Brain Camp, and Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong. She also has published webcomics, including The Adventures of Superhero Girl, which won an Eisner Award. She was joined by Jordie Bellaire who colored this book in beautiful fashion, adding lots of rich, lush flourishes to the detailed illustrations. Hicks speaks about her work on this book in this interview, where it is also announced that this trilogy will be made into a cartoon series.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review and explained that it "introduces a few new characters but mostly provides a vital and enthralling closer look at those readers have already met as well as unfurling more of the Chinese-inspired city’s past, as colorist Bellaire brings all to stunning emotional life." Elizabeth Reid wrote that in addition to "its page-turning plot, every page of The Stone Heart has gorgeous, full-color artwork." Oliver Sava commented that it is full of "smart, evocative creative decisions."

The Stone Heart was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more available here.

A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

My Favorite Thing is Monsters

Holy cow, how do I start reviewing this book? It's a masterpiece. One of the best books I have read. Period. It is full of beautiful emotional moments, pain, grief, wonder, and mystery. And perhaps, most amazingly, it is a debut graphic novel.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters is a huge book, about 400 pages long, and still only the first half of the whole narrative. The plot is set in the late 1960s. The main character is 10-year-old Karen Reyes, a curious, budding artist who lives in an apartment building with her mother and older brother Deeze in Chicago. Everything in this book is meant to be entries from her spiral-bound journal, and the artwork is exquisite. There are so many threads to follow in this book, but one of the main ones is an inquiry into the mysterious death of their upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, who was a Holocaust survivor:
Karen and Anka's husband listen to audiotapes chronicling her life and experiences during World War II, including her imprisonment and escape from a concentration camp, an extremely heartbreaking, troubling, and riveting tale. Add to that narrative an extremely rich tapestry of characters in Karen's building, including her own superstitious mother, her creative and womanizing brother, a glass-eye wearing ventriloquist, and a mobster's wife, there is so much to take in. Another layer lies in Karen's own story and her depiction of herself as a young werewolf dressed like a private investigator. So much of this book is involved with her figuring out who she is, trying to deal with cruel classmates, making friends, and growing up.
Another strong aspect of this book is in its relationship with art and artwork. Some of the art is more popular, such as the recreations of lurid monster magazine covers of the time period that act as markers between chapters. But "fine art" pieces from museums also appear, redrawn in Karen's hand throughout the book. Certainly, the theme of trying to puzzle out what life means is powerful in this book, and how art plays into such inquiry is fascinating and interesting.
I have touched on a few aspects of this book, and I don't want to get into much more, lest I spoil what goes on in it. Let me simply say that I was enthralled with this book. The characters are complex and intriguing, and the plot is multi-faceted. It took me a long time to read, not just because it is weighty but because I wanted to spend a long time pouring over the images and words laid out on the page. The layouts and storytelling are incredibly rich and rewarding throughout, and I feel it is a transcendent work that will be studied and analyzed for decades to come.

This book's creator is Emil Ferris, who has had a long and varied career in the arts. She has designed toys and worked in animation, and she has been working on this book for about 6 years because of a variety of circumstances. She speaks extensively about her career and work on MFTIM in this interview, and I highly recommend learning more about her.

There has been an avalanche of well-deserved praise following this graphic novel. Oliver Sava wrote, "It’s hard to think of a debut graphic novel in recent memory that has the visual splendor, narrative ingenuity, and emotional impact of this 413-page tome, and with this book, Ferris immediately establishes herself as one of the most exciting, provocative talents in the comics industry." Calvin Reid opined, "She’s found new ways to tell a powerfully literary visual story." John Powers raved that "this extraordinary book has instantly rocketed Ferris into the graphic novel elite." And I agree with Paul Tumey who summed up his review, "Currently, my favorite thing is My Favorite Thing is Monsters."

My Favorite Thing is Monsters was published by Fantagraphics Books, and they have lots more info about it here.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Wendy

Wendy is a whirlwind of a book, about a young, trendy woman who is trying to make her way in the art world. She wants to be a star, but she keeps getting distracted by things like drinking, partying with her friends, seeing punk shows, and needing to make money. She finds occasional opportunities though nothing seems to pan out, and mostly she seems to rely on others to figure out things for her.
What makes this book really work for me is not just that it is the portrait of a wanna-be artist, it is also a broad, biting depiction of the art-world she is trying to break into. There are sleazy art critics who have their own designs on her, successful "role models" who are treacherous and terrible, scenesters there for a good time, and more sincere people who dabble in performance art, fashion, and music. The audience for such satire might be limited, but I found this book utter compelling, at once repelling, hilarious, touching, and caustic.

 
One of the other aspects of this book that endeared it to me was its art style. It is crude, black and white, and very expressive: sometimes characters' faces devolve into simple, geometric shapes. In terms of visuals and story, the entire book packs an impressive wallop. It's like Mark Beyer made a sequel to Dan Clowe's "Art School Confidential", and I mean that as a high compliment, not in a derivative way. This book's author Walter Scott has his own unique vision, and I love how he delivers it. He speaks about Wendy and his other art endeavors in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have all been very positive. Olivia Whittick called it "the funniest, most touching, most relatable comic I have read in a really long time." Sean Rogers wrote, "Scott takes a snarky scene report, and subtly shades it into an affecting character study." And like Katie Skelly wrote in her review, I am also hoping for "her speedy return."

Wendy was published by Koyama Press, and they have more a preview and info about it here. For interested readers, there is also a sequel Wendy's Revenge. Because of drug use, sexual situations, and profanity, I recommend this book for mature readers.