Monday, March 20, 2017

Alex + Ada

This month, to celebrate Image Comics' 25th Anniversary, Comixology Unlimited is offering a few complete series to read. I chose this one Alex + Ada, because I loved some of Jonathan Luna's past works, especially his collaborations with his brother Joshua The Sword and Ultra. Here, he collaborates with writer Sarah Vaughn on a series that ran for 15 issues, collected into three trade paperbacks that are all available to read on CU.

The story focuses on Alex, a lonely guy in his 20s who is still struggling with the fallout from his failed engagement. One year for his birthday, his grandmother, who is a free-wheeling, liberated, and funny woman, buys him a robot companion to get him out of his funk. He names her Ada, and she will obey any and all of his wishes.
This leads to some awkward scenes as Alex tries to acclimate to this new relationship and also not take advantage of the situation. He's lonely, but he's also not good with using something that looks human as a surrogate for a relationship. Eventually, he stumbles upon an underground community that would permit him to allow Ada to think and act for herself. When she is "unlocked," a whole bunch of revelations and complications ensue.
Much of what follows comments on what makes up romantic relationships, defines people as human, and explores the dynamics of people dealing with new technologies. There is also a lot of intrigue, as an anti-robot backlash develops, giving this series a political dimension that I could not help but notice echoed some of those we are dealing with right now. I know that the trope of using a robot to explore what constitutes humanity is pretty common, but I very much enjoyed how it played out in the scope of all these books. Much of that was because I liked that the characters were well thought-out and interesting. That said, there is also a fair amount of action and suspense, particularly in the second half of the series. I also very much enjoyed the simple, clean art style used to tell this tale.

Like I noted above, artist Jonathan Luna has drawn a number of other comic book series. Writer Sarah Vaughn has worked on the webcomic Sparkshooter and the series Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love for DC Comics. She speaks a lot more about her career in this interview. Both creators are set to collaborate on the forthcoming series Eternal Empire, and they speak about their work on Alex + Ada in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have praised the story, and some have been more critical of the artwork. Pharaoh Miles commented that the story "more than invades the senses, it lives with the reader." Brandon Perdue wrote, "For the classic sci-fi fan, those who seek thoughtful futurism over whiz-bang action, Alex + Ada is easy to recommend."

Alex + Ada was published by Image Comics, and they have previews and much more info about it here. There are some adult situations in the book, but I think it is appropriate for older adolescents.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Rules For Dating My Daughter: The Modern Father's Guide to Good Parenting

Rules For Dating My Daughter is not so much a graphic novel as it is a collection of graphic essays on the topics of parenting, the gender politics of toys, gun rights, and other contemporary issues. And despite its title and cover image, it contains pointed meditations on the current political landscape. Mainly it portrays how the author struggles with negotiating these issues while doing the right thing raising his two children. Many of these comics have been published online at The Nib, and initial funding for this book was raised in a Kickstarter campaign.
As a father myself, I found much to relate to in this book, but I also very much appreciate the format of these comics. They are well thought out essays that unfurl lines of thought in impactful and impressive ways. I love how they weave together multiple thoughts and contexts, seemingly meandering about on a single thesis while all the time conveying calculated and intentional lines of thought. There is a lot of dark humor and wisdom in this book, and I highly recommend you read it, whether you are a parent or not.

Mike Dawson has written and drawn a few graphic novels, including Freddie & Me, Angie Bongiolatti, and Troop 142. I am a big fan of his work, and I especially like how he captures his characters' emotional responses through story and art. I am not alone in my admiration for his comics, as he was nominated as a Promising New Talent for the 2002 Ignatz Awards. He speaks more about his career and work on Rules in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been mostly positive. Dan Kois called it "not just a thoughtful book but one that’s a pleasure to read." Rich Barrett stated that these comics offer "smart visuals and a self-deprecating humor that will make you commiserate and cringe equally." Annie Mok was more critical and wrote that "Mike Dawson delivers an uneven collection of personal essay-style memoir comics, occasionally thoughtful, but often thoughtless in its concern for others."

Rules For Dating My Daughter was published by Uncivilized Books, and they have more info about it here.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Time Museum

The Time Museum is a fun time-travel tale drawn in a wonderfully cartoonish, jaunty style. The plot follows an adolescent named Delia Bean who finds out that her Uncle Lyndon is actually a curator of a museum that exists outside of time and that chronicles all of time. It is a place where time travel is not only possible but regularly practiced.
 
She is bright and is offered the chance to compete for an internship at the museum. She has to go up against a few others who have been plucked from various time periods, including the far future, medieval Scotland, prehistory, and ancient Rome. These competitors have to complete three separate tasks, each more dangerous than the last, and I don't want to spoil much, but they sometimes have to rely on each other in the process. There is much peril in the past, including dinosaurs, natural disasters, and occasional arsonists. Also, they run into at least one person who is not when they are supposed to be.
 A few shifty things happen along the way that reveal some surprising info about the Time Museum and its origins. The story is full of twists, turns, action, and playful aspects of time travel. I have to say it was very tough to put down, and I enjoyed reading it very much.

This book's creator Matthew Loux has a few other graphic novels to his credit, including SideScrollers and the series Salt Water Taffy. He has been lauded by the American Library Association's YALSA, having works listed as Great Graphic Novels for Teens as well as placed on the Texas Library Association's Maverick list. He speaks more about The Time Museum and his work in general in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review that summed up, "A first rate kickoff: fresh, fast, and funny." Johanna Draper Carlson called it "an enjoyable, rollicking adventure story that I couldn’t put down." Zack Barnes wrote, "The plot and illustrations are just that superior, and the action and thrilling sequences leave you hoping to pick up the second book right away." Dustin Cabeal added that Loux "creates more than one character for you to care about and drops them into a setting and story that you’re sure to enjoy."

The Time Museum was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more available here. This book is the first of series, it seems, and I am looking forward to seeing how future volumes flesh out this very promising premise.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Check out the Comics Alternative Podcast!

I only listen to a handful of podcasts, and the only one I follow about comics and graphic novels is the Comics Alternative podcast hosted by The Two Guys with PhDs Andy Kunka and Derek Royal. Together, and with input from others, they post reviews, do roundtable discussions focused on various comics topics, visit comic stores, report from comic conventions, and interview comics creators. It is an exceptional podcast, and I highly recommend you check them out.

Because they have so much posted, I share with you a list of some of my favorite episodes:

If listening to podcasts is not quite your bag, they also have a blog where you can read things like reviews or a great set of interviews, including ones with Nick Sousanis, Seth, Keith Knight, Richard Corben, and Peter Bagge.

If you like what they do, you can also support them through Patreon. I do!
Derek on the left, Andy on the right

Sunday, March 5, 2017

California Dreamin': Cass Elliot Before The Mamas & the Papas

“Pénélope Bagieu…can turn paper into flesh. And ink becomes lifeblood. Because within several pages of a work like Exquisite Corpse, her characters not only breathe and pulsate with vivid life. They also seem entirely, organically authentic in their own skin.” -Michael Cavna in The Washington Post

Regular readers of my blog know I never start one of my reviews with a pull quote from a book’s dustjacket, but that one seemed so gushing, so over-the-top exultant, that it prejudiced me against this book. Even though I had read and loved Exquisite Corpse, even though I had it on my best of 2015 list, I did not recall it being transcendent. But, holy cow, after reading this book, I feel that every word of that review was deserved and on-target for this graphic novel.

California Dreamin’ is a biography of Mama Cass Elliot, and it is simply fantastic. Excellent. And exquisite. It tells the story of young Ellen Cohen, a girl born in 1941 in Baltimore, MD, to a Jewish family who ran a deli. She was always into music and performing, and she grew up to sing some of the most memorable folk/rock songs ever with group The Mamas and the Papas. There is much drama in this book, from family dynamics to trying to fit in in high school, to trying to navigate various music scenes in the 1960s. Also, she has to deal with her weight as well as several different complicated relationships (both romantically and musically). And this is not to mention her various brushes with contemporary figures of the day, like Bob Dylan and David Crosby.
But what makes this books exceptional is not all the story beats it hits, it is the artistry of the illustrations and storytelling. Even with so much going on, what impressed and stayed with me was Bagieu’s vibrant and lifelike characters. I felt the joys of teenage dreams, the pain of failed relationships, the jealousy between lovers, and the thrills of performance. Bagieu’s lines are extraordinary, and I put her in a pantheon of a few others (like Kate Beaton and Jules Feiffer) whose artwork is almost magical in how it conveys life, emotion, and feeling. And here, unlike Exquisite Corpse, the artwork is in black and white, showing pencil lines without the embellishment of color, and it clearly highlights her masterful craft. I highly recommend reading this book.

This is the second graphic novel published in the US by Pénélope Bagieu, an accomplished artist and graphic novelist from France. She was awarded the high honor Chevalier des Arts et Lettres for her contribution to the world of art and literature, and she has drawn many different comics works, the most famous being Joséphine. She is something of a Renaissance woman, active as a musician drumming in a band and also blogging about her many works and travels here (in French). She speaks extensively about her work on this book in this interview.

The reviews I have read of this book have been universally positive. Shea Hennum wrote that "The story moves with an ease and grace." Henry Chamberlain summed up that "it is highly recommended and will prove an engaging read on many levels: coming-of-age, rock history, and just a plain fun read." Erika W. Smith called it "an entertaining, often funny read."

California Dreamin' was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more available here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen

March 1-7 is Will Eisner Week, and to celebrate this year I read a book I have been meaning to read for a while now.
Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen stars the protagonist of Hicksville, though I think the character is being used in the way as Jason Shiga uses Jimmy Yee, namely as a durable character type. In this book, Sam is also a stand-in for the author, who has toiled for large superhero comics publishers and been wrung dry creatively. At the beginning of this book Sam has lost his inspiration and is falling in a depression (or he has fallen into depression and lost his inspiration) and fallen into a state where he feels no pleasure, called anhedonia.
After giving an academic talk, he ends up in a book store, finds an old comic book, and finds himself transported into its pages. After getting his bearings in a fictional world where virile Martian men chase after and kidnap green-skinned Venusian women, he also meets up with a couple of other characters. One is a real woman, Alice, who makes webcomics and is a fan of his, and the other is Miki, a rocket-booted manga-inspired character who has lots of gadgets and comic books. Together, they traverse a number of fictional worlds, trying to make sense of things and also procure the magic pen, which makes it possible to create comics people can enter.

Certainly, this book is ambitious, and attempts to be several things: It is an exploration of self, desire, and fantasy. It is also an essay about fantasy and what it means and if it should reflect a set of morals. It is also a look at some of the more sexist and misogynistic aspects of the comics industry and also a look forward to what it might be. It is also one cartoonist reflecting on his career. With so much going on, I still felt that the narrative thread held well and that the more academic/critical aspects were well argued. I am not sure it everything the author intended it to be, but it is one heck of a read, an adventure and essay all in one. Additionally, I felt the ending was very powerful and moving (even if it was a bit predictable).

This book's creator Dylan Horrocks is a native New Zealand comics artist best known for his very well received and celebrated graphic novel Hicksville. He has also written for DC on books like Batgirl and Hunter: The Age of Magic. Horrocks publishes most of his new work on his own site, Hicksville Comics. He speaks extensively about his work on this Sam Zabel book in this interview.

Most of the reviews I have read about this book have been very critical of it, though they also recognize much potential and artistry. Publishers Weekly summed up, "There’s plenty of inside-comic analysis here... But it’s also a bracing reflection on the dangers of wish fulfillment and the question of whether artists are 'morally responsible for our fantasies.'” Tom Murphy concluded that "it’s slightly unfortunate that its creator’s undoubted sincerity doesn’t translate more smoothly into a more satisfying blend of story and theme." You can also see the wide range of pro and con reviews in this group blog at Comics Bulletin (for the record, personally, I felt I most agreed with Keith Silva).

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen was published by Fantagraphics, and they have an excerpt and more information available here. This book features nudity, sexual situations, and profanity, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to handle those things.

Happy Will Eisner Week, everyone! Go read a graphic novel or two!!!

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Science Comics: Bats: Learning to Fly

Bats: Learning to Fly is the latest volume in First Second's Science Comics series, and I learned so much from it. For instance, I learned about how echolocation works, about the many types of bats all over the world, how bats fly, and how bats are more like primates than they are rodents (even though they get likened to flying mice all of the time). I also learned why some of them have such striking faces. I'd tell you about all of this info, but you should really read the book and find out.

Not only is this book full of great information, it is conveyed in an interesting way through a brisk and enjoyable tale of a little brown bat who gets smacked down by a scared human and ends up being cared for by Rebecca, a veterinarian who specializes in helping bats. In her office, the bat gets to know many of the fellow bats who are also being cared for, and they are a motley bunch.
 

Like its companions in the Science Comics series, this book also goes beyond its main narrative to teach an important aspect of science. The dinosaurs book looked at how scientific knowledge evolved over time, the coral reefs book at how scientists are also stewards of the Earth, and the volcanoes one at how scientists need to consider alternative viewpoints to make breakthroughs. In Bats, the alternative lesson is a dual one: namely not to allow preconceived notions cloud one's judgment (like the Little Brown Bat does about fellow bat-patients) and also that doing science also means taking part and getting involved (in this case when Sarah volunteers her time at a veterinarian's office).

This book's creator Falynn Koch is a graduate of SCAD and this is her graphic novel debut (as far as I can tell). I was very impressed with her storytelling and how much she was able to capture with her characters' features and expressions. This book is packed with so much information, and her ability to combine it with a fun, vivid story is noteworthy.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been ringing. Johanna Draper Carlson found many positives in the book and stated that she "was impressed by how well Koch gave the various bats expression and personality while keeping them looking realistic." Gwen and Paul at the Comics Alternative wrote that it "will delight readers, while encouraging them to appreciate how they can play a role in scientific study." Jody Kopple called it "an excellent addition to school and classroom libraries" in her starred review for the School Library Journal.

Bats: Learning to Fly 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.