Thursday, July 30, 2020

Cryptoid

Cryptoid features some wonderfully weird comics presented in a stream-of-consciousness style. The stories begin with a looming figure that resembles a Celestial from Jack Kirby's The Eternals. As it surveys the Earth its gaze leads to the misadventures of the half-man, half-ankylosaurus Mankylosaurus (seen on the book cover) grazing at a salad bar, and later turn to a tangent on unknown species of bats that live among us.
Next comes a brief tale of a tortured man who is transformed into a gnome, followed by the adventures of The Resister, a woman/eagle creature who superheroicly fights for freedom, impaling Steve Bannon on a fence and vomiting fish guts at President Trump.
The enigmatic Nightsword's exploits then appear, with the heroic knightly figure slashing and dancing in reality-altering ways. Box, a robot, then comes on the scene to go shopping in a supermarket in his unique manner.
A giant monster then rises from the sea and begins crushing the Earth, when the Mankylosaurus and Celestial-looking being return and the story comes full-circle.

There is a surrealism I dig about these comics. None of the tales are very long, and some are played so seriously that they come off as silly, but they are all potent doses of comics goodness. I am not saying that this book is for everyone, but it boasts a great combination of artwork inspired by classic comics artists like Kirby and Wally Wood, a dash of contemporary social commentary, some good old fashioned ennui, monsters, strange juxtapositions, and frivolity. It's a memorable bit of inspired madness.

I am a big fan of this book's creator Eric Haven. His comics are memorable, leaving definite impressions with their powerful artwork and brevity. His stories do not wear out their welcomes. His narrative sensibilities and style remind me of Michael Kupperman's, though Haven is more action and genre oriented. He has a slew of comics under his belt, including Tales to Demolish and The Aviatrix (collected in Compulsive Comics) and his books Ur (nominated for an Eisner Award) and Vague Tales.

The reviews I have located about this book have been positive. Chris Gavaler called it "a hybrid graphic novella that belongs to no genre but his own." Ryan Carey wrote that "there’s no mistaking an Eric Haven comic for a comic made by anyone else, and even if his work largely amounts to variations on a theme, it’s a theme that stands up to constant and further exploration, definition, and expansion."

Cryptoid was published by Fantagraphics, and they provide a preview and more about it here.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

I Am Not Okay With This

I am Not Okay With This follows the story of Sydney, a 15-year-old who has a lot on her mind. Her mother is frequently on her case. She has an annoying little brother. She is secretly in love with her best friend Dina. Dina is dating an abusive jerk named Brad. Her father was a veteran who died mysteriously. Also, she has telekinetic abilities that both empower and scare her.
As you can tell by the excerpt above, she spends a lot of time in her head, ruminating on things. This book is a long look at teenage isolation and despair, with insight into how people deal with trauma in their lives. It is a very direct, impactful story, and I have to admit I found it tough to read in the sense that Sydney's pain is so visceral and tough to manage. She attempts to medicate herself in various ways, but some aspects of her powers manifest when she loses too much control, so in the end she is a bunch of raw nerves that defy remedy. Finally, she sees only only way to find relief, and it is dark and horrifying.

The stark, simplistic drawings help convey this sense of pain and emptiness in effective manner. The fact that they look cartoonish, almost like a Bizarro version of a newspaper comic strip (with Sydney seeming like Olive Oyl) oddly makes things seem more relatable and realistic to me. Perhaps it's the notion Scott McCloud has talked about, where more iconographic drawings are open and invite people to see themselves, that plays a part in this feeling. However I think the lion's share of credit goes to strong character work, pacing, and plotting. I cannot recall feeling like I have been punched in the face (in a figurative sense) by a comic as much as I have with this one. It's a memorable book for sure.

I am a big fan of the creator of this comic, Charles Forsman, who is a graduate of The Center for Cartoon Studies and a three-time Ignatz Award winner. His comics tend to be genre pieces, including Revenger (a violent, sort of post-apocalyptic adventure tale), Celebrated Summer (a teen "comedy"), Slasher (a horror story), and The End of the Fucking World, which has been adapted into a Netflix Original Series. His newest serial is a sci-fi tale called AUTOMA. Forsman speaks about working on these various comics in this interview. IANOWT has also been adapted into a Netflix series, and I have to say that I really liked it even though it has some definite deviations from the book.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Tessa Strain wrote that Forsman's gift is "to convey the inner lives of teenagers whose emotions and troubles exceed their ability to express them." Caitlin Rosberg called it a book "filled with delicately balanced tensions stretched cover to cover." Publishers Weekly wrote that it was a "troubling yet poetic exploration of young adults working through their mental pain via its physical projection."

Originally self-published as a series of mini-comics, this collected version of I Am Not Okay With This was published by Fantagraphics Books, and they offer a preview and more information about it here. Because of its strong subject matter, I'd recommend this book for mature readers.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Big Ideas That Changed the World: Rocket to the Moon!

The first book in a new series Big Ideas That Changed the World, Rocket to the Moon chronicles the early days of space travel and ends with a long look at the Apollo 11 mission that landed on the Moon. It is narrated by Rodman Law, an obscure figure to be sure. He was a daredevil, parachutist, and stuntman in the silent film era of cinema.
One of his stunts was to launch himself in a rocket, which gives him insight into the efforts to propel objects and people from Earth. His inclusion is also emblematic of the sort of interesting facts, figures, and events included in this very accessible and engaging book. There is even one notable scene of an astronaut having to track down a stray piece of feces in a space capsule, which is gross and riveting. Try finding that in a textbook.

I think that this book does an excellent job of balancing information with entertainment. It certainly tells its story with verve and a sense of humor, but also does not steer away from revolting realities like the sexism evident in early space programs or the role that Nazis played in researching rocket flight. I think that the artwork is detailed and well-researched, and the pacing and story-telling allows ample space in some wordless sections for the narrative to breathe and the grandeur of the larger events to be highlighted.

This book's creator Don Brown has a sizable number of publications under his belt, focusing especially on nonfiction and biographies for school-aged readers. He is known for the Actual Times series as well as the graphic novel The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees. He speaks extensively about his work on Rocket to the Moon! in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. In their starred review, Kirkus Reviews called it "a frank, often funny appreciation of our space program’s high-water mark." Publishers Weekly wrote, "Brown’s visual storytelling offers humor, vibrancy, and a wealth of historical insight." Esther Keller noted that "Brown creates his own sense of style that will appeal to middle grade readers."

Rocket to the Moon! was published by Amulet Books, and they offer a preview and more here. The second book in the series, about computers, was recently published.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics

Captain America. The X-Men. Hulk. Iron Man. The Avengers. The New Gods. Black Panther. These are only a few of the hundreds of characters that Jack Kirby either created or co-created. They are household names and properties that have generated billions (trillions?) of dollars for the corporations that control them. But he received close to none of such profits. In terms of industry folks, most artists and creators revere Kirby as one of the all-time greats, but non-comics people tend to not know who he was and attribute all of his creations to his frequent collaborator Stan Lee. Finally here, he is given a full biography, in graphic novel form.

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics tells his whole life story, from his early days as a hard-scrabble New Yorker to his becoming an artist and taking part in the formative years of the comic book industry. He was friends/associates with many of the people who shaped American comics, like Bob Kane, Will Eisner, and Joe Simon. He bounced around several companies, enlisted and served in the Army during World War II, co-invented the genre of Romance Comics, co-created the Marvel Universe as we know it, and went on later in life to work in animation. His was an eventful life, and this book captures it in a mostly realistic, painterly style that evokes the spirit of Golden Age comics as well as documentaries. Also, the paper itself is colored to resemble yellowed newsprint, the material used to display Kirby's works.
I have to say that this book moves at breakneck speed, and it is packed full of his accomplishments. There is a part of me that wanted there to be more breaks, perhaps in the form of chapters or parts, but I also feel that the sort of compressed storytelling at play here is more emblematic of Kirby's work. So the medium very well matches its subject, though I also made myself pause at times to catch my breath and take in the story.

I also appreciated the way the book used Kirby as the primary narrator (using various interviews and articles as reference points) with occasional shifts of POV to his wife Roz and collaborator Stan Lee. I'd say it does a good job at capturing the spirit and voice of the man, and I liked how it treated him in very practical terms, with his speaking to the need to be productive and work not only in terms of expressing himself but also to put food on the table and support his growing family. Certainly Kirby was an impressive creator, but this books demystifies some of the origins of his most famous works, showing how he cobbled together his experiences, learning, and media consumption in spinning his fantastic stories and amazing characters. Kirby is impressively human.

This book also touches on the more controversial aspects of Kirby's life, namely how he was cheated out of his due as a creator and spent much of his life battling in vain to retain control of his stories, characters, and artwork. Surely there is lots of blame to assign for his treatment, and I felt this book captured well the conditions that led to it. It also has lots of source material behind it to help flesh out the proceedings well.

In seeing people's responses to this book online, the most glaring aspect people have latched onto is the depiction of Kirby himself, which you can see from the cover image. While everyone else is realistically drawn, Kirby is rendered in a cartoonish way, with a huge head and big eyes. I think this choice does two things: it draws attention to him in every way as an otherworldly presence, and it makes it clear who he is in every instance, making for smoother storytelling. Others have noted how this choice is related to how another comics titan Osamu Tezuka (the "God of Manga") drew himself in his own works, and I feel that there is a similar semiotic move made here, a marker of a similarly legendary figure. In reading the book, I have to say that I did not find the choice jarring in the least, and I was quickly drawn into the narrative flow of the story. Even though I was very familiar with many aspects of his life, I still found this book fresh and vibrant. And I feel it is extremely important now, especially as an introduction to those who are unaware of just how impactful Kirby's life was.

This book was created by long-time Jack Kirby fan Tom Scioli. His own works clearly owe debts to Kirby in terms of style, particularly his series Gødland and American Barbarian, not to mention his recent Fantastic Four: Grand Design limited series. He has also drawn a number of licensed properties, including Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe. Scioli speaks about his work on this book in this interview. For more about his entire career, check out this interview with TCJ.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have sung its praises. In a starred review Publishers Weekly called it "a must-read for Kirby fans, and beyond—it captures the mythos of the of the 20th century comic industry’s golden age."  Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "a fast-paced celebration of an underheralded legend within the comic-book industry." Steven Thompson wrote, "The public deserves to know Kirby’s story and Tom Scioli, the obsessive Kirby fan/writer/artist, tells it here in a way I can’t help but think the King himself would’ve liked, and in the medium Jack Kirby loved."

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics was published by Ten Speed Press, and they offer a preview and more here.
Kirby's influence extends way beyond comics.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Child Star

Brian "Box" Brown is one of my favorite comics creators, and his prior graphic novels have been nonfiction looks at Andre the Giant, Andy Kaufman, Tetris, and Cannabis. All of these books were very well researched and obvious labors of love. His latest book is fictional, but it is based in reality and is also obviously well-sourced and personal. Child Star focuses on Owen Eugene, who displays both humor and charisma from a very young age and becomes a huge celebrity.
His life and career is clearly modeled on a melange of people such as Gary Coleman, Emmanuel Lewis, and Macaulay Culkin, but I don't think one would have to know that to enjoy this book. I am knowledgeable enough to get the references to real-life events, but I feel that readers who are not up on 1980s sitcoms and movies would just read this book as a prolonged examination of a person's life. Owen stars in commercials at first but quickly graduates into a hit TV series as well as several movies, cartoons, and other commercial venues in the form of lunchboxes and toys. And, of course, he came up with a catch-phrase that propelled him into the public consciousness but became an anchor as he grew older. Along his path through stardom, he touches a lot of people's lives.
As you can see from the excerpts above, the narrative plays out in multiple forms. There is one level of commentary that runs as a documentary, showcasing the actors, parents, and other people in Owen's life in a series of interviews. Then, there are also lengthy excerpts from fictional TV programs and movies that Owen starred in (which are colored in red, so you can tell the difference from reality).

What is impressive to me about this book is how well it plays like a documentary, with elaborate scenes from his various star vehicles included in extended excerpts. The book plays out in multiple parts, detailing Owen's rise to fame, his stream of successes, his struggles with finding work as he grew older, his disillusionment with the business side of showbiz, his fragile health situation, his dis-junction from his parents, and his eventual late-life slide into obscurity and tabloid fodder. The lengths that Brown went to in fleshing out and realizing this character and his world are extremely impressive. Also I should note the level of affection Brown has for his subject matter. Even though the TV shows and movies depicted have a tongue-in-cheek quality, this book does not parody or mock Owen, holding him in esteem while showing the pitfalls many child stars experienced. As a fan of 1980s and 1990s popular culture, I really enjoyed this book.

All the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly summed up, "This in-the-know skewering of celebrity and pop culture will entertain children of the ’80s as well as their own children." In a starred review in Library Journal, Douglas Rednour remarked that it was "thought provoking and poignant yet honest in its humanity." Paul's Picks called it "an impressively dense and thorough look at the child star phenomenon." Brown speaks more about his work on Child Star in this interview.

Child Star was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

The Wrong Earth, Volume 1

This month, I am going to focus more on books I read "for fun." It's July, and I am not currently teaching so why not? Today, I am looking at a book from a relatively new imprint that has featured a bunch of titles I was interested in. This book, The Wrong Earth, treads on some familiar ground but in a surprising, fresh, and fun way. It stars a character named Dragonfly, a Batman analogue who fights crime and in this instance a villain named Number One (a Joker analogue).
Actually, it stars two different characters who use those names, only one pair lives on Earth-Alpha (think the bright cheery 1966 TV version of Batman) and the other on Earth-Omega, which is more grim-and-gritty and violent, akin to more contemporary takes on the characters. When a portal allows each pair to switch worlds, they find themselves in very unfamiliar territory.
On Earth-Alpha, the grim hero finds support from the police, more colorful adversaries, and a living sidekick. On Earth-Omega, the cheerful Dragonfly finds he is hunted by the police, faces brutality at every turn, and multiple deaths of loved ones. What makes this book work in many ways is how it treats these fish-out-of-water scenarios, and I really enjoyed seeing how each pair adapts to their new surroundings. There are multiple twists and turns that make for engaging reading, and I found it very easy to get swept up in the superheroic action. This is one entertaining comic book adventure.

A feature that helps sell this series so well is the obvious love and reverence the creators have for the source material. Writer Tom Peyer hops between the light/dark narratives with elan, he has obvious affection for the dual versions that brings out the best in both. Dragonflyman might be campy but he's not ridiculous, and Dragonfly might be hardened but he's still got a heart. And the supporting characters are all full of surprises. The artwork similarly oscillates between styles in a loving and expressive way. Earth-Alpha is more colorful and cheery, with simpler line work while Earth-Omega is more dark and cross-hatched. Still, artist Jamal Igle is paying more homage to the source material rather than parodying it.

Joining Peyer and Igle on art duties are Juan Castro and Gary Erskine as well as colorist Andy Troy. They are all industry veterans with tons of credits in comic books. Peyer is also the editor-in-chief of Ahoy Comics, and he and Igle speak about their work on The Wrong Earth in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this series have been positive. Jeffrey Bracey opined, "This idea is just delightful and is handled in spectacular fashion by the creators." Lenny Schwartz wrote, "Peyer does a great job of writing the two worlds without cynicism. Instead , he writes with love and respect for the eras he is writing about." Publishers Weekly concluded, "This series contains more entertainment than most contemporary comics and serves to remind readers of what they were always intended to be: fun."

The Wrong Earth was originally published as 6 issues by Ahoy Comics, and they offer previews and more info about the trade paperback collection here. A prequel to the series Dragonfly and Dragonflyman has also been published. I am looking forward to sequels!

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Queen of the Sea

I loved this book so much that it made me want to kick myself for not reading it sooner.

Queen of the Sea is magnificent, an epic historical drama told in an incredibly artful way. I spent a few days reading it because I wanted to savor the plot and revelations, and the ending left me with goosebumps.

This tale of historical fiction revolves around 11-year-old Margaret, who has spent her entire life growing up in an island convent off the coast of Albion (an analogue for England). As we learn more about her and her world, we come to learn that she is living in a fictionalized version of Tudor England, complete with royal intrigue, coups, and retribution aimed at political enemies.

However, none of that seems particularly important in the day-to-day routines of these isolated women who spend their days praying, sewing, and preparing food. You would think it would be boring to observe all of this minutiae, learning about how these nuns pass their days, use specific hand motions when they are to be silent, and sew intricate designs into their fabrics, but it's all presented in utterly compelling ways that contribute to a fully-realized world.

Part of what I admired most about this book was how much care and attention was spent depicting the island and its inhabitants. But what really kicks the book into a different level is how it also layers in an intricate plot about how the power struggles in the royal court reverberate across the realm and end up making an impact on life on the island. Margaret begins to notice more and more, and she starts asking questions. The answers are not always very reassuring. The nuns are not quite who she thought they were, and when she starts learning who she might be, her world really starts going topsy-turvy.

The artwork, plotting, colors, and informational text all coalesced into an organic whole that I did not want to stop reading. The characters are so vibrant, and the artwork just brings everything to life. Historical fiction is not usually high on my list of reading preferences, but this book is exceptionally well-done. It's a masterpiece, and I feel it would be popular with a wide array of readers, both young and old.

This book's author Dylan Meconis impressively did all the artwork, coloring, and lettering here. She has been a comics creator for a good while now, producing an eclectic set of webcomics/graphic novels, including Bite Me! (The French Revolution with vampires involved), Family Man (18th century university life and werewolves), Outfoxed (about a laundress and a magical fox), and The Long Con (a post-apocalyptic tale set at a comic con). She also drew a graphic biography of psychologist Harry Harlow called Wire Mothers. She speaks at length about her work on Queen of the Sea in this interview.

All the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. Elizabeth Bird called it "Impossible to forget, undeniable in its delights." Kirkus Reviews ended their starred write-up, "With its compelling, complex characters and intrigue-laden plot, this will have readers hoping it’s only the first of many adventures for Meconis’ savvy heroine." In another starred review, Publishers Weekly wrote, "The island world is richly developed, both in its physical particulars and its close-knit community (fascinating digressions into topics such as convent time, hand gestures used at table, and chess and embroidery flesh out daily life), and Margaret proves herself an endearing heroine with a strong voice full of humor and wonder."

Queen of the Sea was published by Walker Books, and they offer a preview and more here.