Monday, October 15, 2018

Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil

This follow-up to the Black Hammer series delves a lot deeper into the complex history and intriguing characters of this alternative superheroic world. With the absence of the super team who have saved the world, there is great sadness and a vacuum as well. Lucy Weber, whose father was Black Hammer, has grown up and become an investigative reporter, and she begins exploring what may have happened to him and his cohorts. Her tactic is to trace the exploits of the extremely cool-named Sherlock Frankenstein, who was their greatest adversary, to find out what his role may have been.
I do not want to spoil much about the plot, but she has a lot of difficulty tracking the villain as he had gone underground soon after the heroes saved the world and mysteriously vanished. What is more, she finds that his actions are somewhat suspect but also puzzling. As she delves deeper and deeper into that mystery, she also finds herself being followed, and all kinds of other complications arise.
I know I am being purposefully vague, but I hope that it comes through just how well plotted this book is, with lots of twists and turns of the screw. My expectations were confounded a few times in the course of this relatively short volume. Also, I was thrilled to see all kinds of inventive new characters, most notably Cthu-Louise, who will get her own one-shot soon. If you are into superheroes but are sick of the same-old, same-old, this book and series are for you. I love how it plays with the conventions of superhero comics and weaves them into something fun, poignant, and unique.

This impressive bit of adventure and world-building is a collaboration between two of my favorite creators, writer Jeff Lemire and artist David Rubín. Lemire has a huge list of comics credits and has won a few major awards along the way to boot. Rubín may have fewer credits, but he has drawn an impressive bunch of comics, including the series Rumble and the graphic novel Fall of the House of West. Lemire speaks about his work on this book in this interview, while Rubín discusses his role in it in this interview.

The Black Hammer series has already won an Eisner Award, and this volume was nominated for another this year. The reviews I could find of this trade paperback have been very positive. Phillip Kelly called it "a truly satisfying emotional arc" and "also a necessary piece to the greater world of Black Hammer." A.J. Jones wrote, "The writing is quintessential Lemire, carefully plotted and filled with dialogue that amuses and intrigues by turns," and added further, "Rubín’s distinctive style is a joy to the eye, demonstrating the power of the graphic medium to transcend mere representation."

Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil was published by Dark Horse, and they provide previews and more info here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Calla Cthulhu

Calla Cthulhu originally appeared as a webcomic on the Stela platform, but it has recently been published as a trade paperback. I know that H.P. Lovecraft has a lot of fans, but I have never read any of his work (I tried "The Color Out of Space" once, I just could not get into it...). Still, I know that this book/character title is a pun, and I am a sucker for those. Also, I am a big fan of the writers, so I checked it out. Spoiler: my lack of specific Lovecraft knowledge did not keep me from enjoying this book.

The plot here follows an orphaned, young woman named Calla Trifali who learns that she is descended from the Great Old Ones, elder gods/inter-dimensional beings who hope to invade Earth and spread destruction and mayhem. Of course, her being raised to respect human life brings her into direct conflict with her uncle, AKA The King in Yellow.

What results is a lot of action and intrigue where Calla finds herself battling tentacled beings in sewers, old houses, and other gruesome locales. I do not want to spoil much, but this book acts as a great introduction to the character and her world. Also, it concludes in very open-ended fashion, which is not so satisfying to those seeking definite narrative closure. Still, the door is wide open for her further adventures, and I hope we get more of them. This book is a fun read in the vein of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with a badass young woman battling all kinds of vicious creatures.
This book is a collaboration between writers Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer (who are married) and artist Erin Humiston. Dorkin is most known as the writer of Beasts of Burden, but I am also partial to his work as writer/artist of the series Dork and Milk and Cheese. He is a multiple Eisner Award winner. Dyer is known in comics mostly for her edited series Action Girl. They have also done a bunch of television work, including scripts for Superman Adventures and Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Humiston works primarily as an animator who has contributed to a wide array of works. Dorkin and Dyer speak more about their work on this series in this interview (or if listening is more your thing, this interview).

I was not able to locate many reviews of this book, but the ones I found were very positive. J. Caleb Mozzocco called it "a pretty killer riff on Lovecraft’s labyrinthine mythology." Kittie Pop gushed that "this story brings me such a gravitational amount of joy that I want to share it with everyone I care about."

Calla Cthulhu was published by Dark Horse, and they have a preview and more available here.

I saw Dorkin and Dyer this year at HeroesCon, where they sold me a copy of this book and were kind enough to also sign it. They are great!

Friday, October 5, 2018

Cecil & Jordan in New York

Cecil & Jordan in New York is a re-issue of a graphic short story collection, with a few hard-to-find additions. I had never read it before, and I was very glad to experience it with fresh eyes. This book's creator is Gabrielle Bell, a comics artist's comics artist who is revered by many (or at least many of the people I pay attention to). Her semi-autobiographical series Lucky is regarded by many of those folks as a stellar work of comics, a touchstone publication, and I am a big fan of her latest book Everything is Flammable.

What sets this book apart from her other works is that it largely contains works of fiction. It contains 13 stories, which were mostly published in anthologies in the more formative years of her career. For me the most powerful one was "Felix," about a struggling artist who finds herself teaching drawing to the young son of a famous, successful artist. It features commentary on the world (and business) of art and undefined, palpable relationships between various characters. I found it deeply moving and somewhat troubling, with touches of irony and dark humor throughout.

I found this book to have a unique, idiosyncratic voice, with a keen sense of observation that colors many of the stories from this collection. The title story features a fantastic element, that a person can transform themselves into a chair, and the resolution is simultaneously sad and darkly humorous. Overall, throughout the book, it is the strongly defined characters situated in a random, often hostile world that really stands out to me. They are often positioned as outsiders, trying to somehow to fit in. Some try to forge connections with others, but they are often tentative, and the connections themselves strain, surprise, and often break. Nothing really comes easy for the characters in this book, but for the reader, I felt myself readily impressed by Bell's characters, storytelling, and world-creating abilities. She is a world-class comics maker.

I was not able to locate any reviews of this edition of the book, but the ones of a prior edition were mostly positive. Rob Clough wrote that "she's a master of subtlety, restraint, and repressed emotion--yet this volume sees her veering in some unusual, even fantastical, directions." Karin L. Cross was more critical of the stories collected here, stating that they, "though perceptively written and executed with technical skill, are weighed down by their relentlessly heavy mood and self-consciousness." Paul Doyle called the book "funny" and added that it "shows some inventive story telling ideas."

This expanded version of Cecil & Jordan in New York was published by uncivilized books, and they offer a preview and more info about it here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Story of My Tits

I have had this book on my shelf for a long time now, and I finally got to it after listening to a brief interview with its author on The Comics Alternative podcast. The Story of My Tits may have a provocative title, but it is a book full of heart, humor, and humanity. As you may guess from the title, the book is focused on particular body parts and how they inform a person's life across a lifespan. At first the narrator spends much of her childhood/adolescence pining for large breasts, as she is skinny and feels somewhat inadequate. As she gets older and in college, she finally starts developing larger ones, which changes how she is perceived by herself and others.
But this book is so much more than the story of her biological and sexual development. It is centered on her various relationships, with her parents (whose marriage is strained, although she does not notice that for a while), her siblings, and with her eventual husband and his family members. There is much to relate to in these depictions, and I loved how she does not sugar-coat the rough parts of their interactions and also how she captures funny, idiosyncratic scenes from their lives. She really captures the not-neatness of relationships as well as how they organically develop, often in surprising ways.

Things also take a few dark turns, such as when her mother develops breast cancer and has to have a mastectomy. Also, she and her husband also reel from his parents' separate bouts with cancer and other health issues. I have read a number of books about people dealing with grave illnesses, and what makes this book exceptional is how much space it spends showing the mundane, human sides of the various characters. When the main character eventually develops breast cancer and has to cope with a double mastectomy, we have had so much insight into her life and family dynamics that really pay off because so much of this book is involved with giving everything context.
In the end, I have to say I loved this book. It was moving, beautiful, raunchy in parts, and gorgeously expressive.

This book garnered acclaim for its creator Jennifer Hayden. It was nominated for an Eisner Award and was named on many end of year best-of lists. It was her second graphic novel, following the collection Underwire. She speaks about her work on The Story of My Tits in this interview with The Comics Alternative.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been very positive. Rob Clough called it "a funny, bawdy and poignant memoir about body image, relationships, family and loss." In a starred review, Publishers Weekly concluded, "Hayden has created a heartfelt and often hilarious tribute to her life—and to the resilience of women everywhere." BookDragon wrote, "Hayden’s lively memoir-thus-far is such an affirmation of love and life – albeit without any rose-colored glasses, thank you very much! – that you’re going to need to set aside some solid time to just bask in her accomplishment."

The Story of My Tits was published by Top Shelf, and they have more info about it here.

This book features adult content, some nudity, and profanity, so it is suggested for readers mature enough to handle those things.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

One Dirty Tree

One Dirty Tree is a graphic memoir written by Noah Van Sciver, the Ignatz Award winning author of the graphic novels The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln, Saint Cole, and Fante Bukowski. It explores a good number of uncomfortable situations. For the most part it looks backward to his childhood in New Jersey where the Mormon family of ten lived in a dilapidated house. The house is a sort of a metaphor for familial difficulty with its crumbling walls, splintery floors, and bathtub full of dirty dishes. Dealing with poverty and his father's unstable mental state are two major obstacles for the family, and NVS also delves pretty deeply into sibling dynamics as well as how he tried to build social connections with friends. These sections of the book also often left me emotionally raw and troubled, even though they feature elements of humor. I think my point is illustrated by this excerpt showing an unconventional bath time routine.
It's horrible and funny!
In addition to the (often dark) humor, there is also a wonderful sort of nostalgia about the early 1990s throughout, which I enjoyed reading (velociraptors and Ralph Snart!). A good portion of the book also shows contemporary Noah, who is trying to deal with his past and also his present realities. He is striving to make and publish comics, which involves him taking service jobs in order to pay the bills. Also, he is dating a woman who does not seem to fully understand or support what he is trying to accomplish with his career. Thus, he is frequently frustrated by his current plight and comes off as a latter-day, grown-up version of Charlie Brown. He just cannot catch a break, it seems.

If you have not caught on from reading this blog yet, I am a big fan of Noah Van Sciver, and I have read lots of his work. I feel that One Dirty Tree is one of his best books, as it is very personal, revelatory, funny, and relatable in the most embarrassing ways. Each page could almost be a self-contained tale, as they are individually packed with poignant, pointed observations. Thematically, I find it similar to a memoir like The Glass Castle, although I should note that the voice and circumstances here are uniquely his. Overall, I tend to think of NVS's works as beautiful, slow-motion train wrecks, and this one is especially compelling.

In addition to his numerous graphic novels, Van Sciver is also known for his many mini-comics (some collected here) and the series Blammo. He has a Tumblr page where posts many of his works in progress. He speaks about his career and work on One Dirty Tree in this interview with Caitlin McGurk at The Comics Journal.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Robin Enrico wrote that with it Van Sciver "further cements his status as one of the foremost cartoonists working today." Publishers Weekly called it "moving" and elaborated, "While affectionate in many memories, Van Sciver also powerfully illustrates the scars raked across an adult life by a chaotic upbringing."

One Dirty Tree was published by uncivilized books, and they offer a preview and more information about it here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Spill Zone, Book 1

I must admit part of why I read this book is because it is set in Poughkeepsie, New York, which is right across the river from where I grew up. There is a part of me that is fascinated to see a place I know be ravaged by a destructive force and made into a wasteland. Spill Zone is a compelling work of science fiction that features quite a bit of mystery and intrigue. The set-up of the plot is that three years ago, something strange happened that transformed this city into something hazardous to humans, where the living things are mutated and beyond dangerous. There are places that turn living things into two dimensional figures, places where people are animated as "meat puppets" that float around with glowing eyes, places populated with cats who constantly cry out in what sounds like the word "wrong." And the rats, don't even let me tell you about them.

Just outside of this town lives a young woman named Addison, whose parents were in the city when things went down. Now she lives in isolation with her little sister Lexa. She ventures out from time to time, illegally, in order to explore the city and take pictures.
Not that she is just some civilian documentarian, she is selling the photos on an art black market. Her trips into the city bring her into contact with many dangers, and in the course of the book we are also privy to a great many mysteries. Such as, what happened in North Korea at the exact same time as the incident? Why doesn't Lexa ever talk? What's up with Lexa's weird doll Vespertine? And biggest of all, what was the cause of the incident? All of these questions drive a well plotted introduction to this world, and happily (for those wanting a sequel) almost none of them are resolved.

This book is a fantastic introduction to this fictional world. The artwork, as you can see from the preview, is appropriately energetic and creepy. The characters are well defined, and what we do learn is just enough to want me to keep reading on. I loved the level of action and plot twists here, and I cannot wait to get my hands on Book 2.

This book is a collaboration between author Scott Westerfeld and artist Alex Puvilland. Westerfeld is an accomplished novelist with multiple credits for adults and younger adults, with The Uglies series being his most notable works. Puvilland is an animator and illustrator who has worked on feature films like Shrek 2 and Boss Baby as well as illustrating a graphic novel version of Prince of Persia. Both creators discuss their work on this series in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it "fascinating and hard to forget." Kirkus Reviews wrote that "readers will be demanding the next installment as they close this one," and summed it up, "A necessary start, with intriguing hints at action and weirdness to come." In another starred review in School Library Journal Matisse Mozer wrote, "This unnerving, gripping title—Westerfeld’s first original graphic novel—is bound to entice older comics fans, especially those interested in darker sci-fi and nuanced characterization."

Spill Zone was published by First Second, and they have a preview and more available here. The second volume is available now, and you can read a preview of it here.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Coyote Doggirl

Coyote Doggirl is a fantastic graphic novel, full of heart and humor while not skimping on the drama. It is deceptively simple in appearance, a sparse tale of a female coyote/dog hybrid who just wants to live a quiet life on her own terms. Mostly, she just wants to tend to her modest piece of land and incredibly fast horse named Red.

When the book begins, for reasons I will not spoil, she is being pursued by a band of cowboys who want revenge on her. As she tries to elude their grasp, she gets shot with multiple arrows and the stories begins to take one of multiple plot twists.

Coyote Doggirl's plight is relatable and she is very easy to root for. She meets and gets to know a band of indigenous folks, who take her in and teach her about their ways and herself. One of the most enjoyable parts of this book for me was how deftly its plot is woven, in ways that both pay homage to traditional western stories while also critiquing them and turning them on their ears. The ending of this book seems to me to be open-ended, and I would love to see the adventures continue.

I loved reading this book. It is relative short and brisk to read, but it is filled with much detail and nuance. The title character has an idiosyncratic personality and is a terrific fashion designer to boot. The dialogue is snappy and terse, and the artwork is delightfully composed and paced. The character designs in particular are very strong, and the coloring is both vibrant and pleasing.

This book's creator Lisa Hanawalt is an illustrator and animator who is best known for her production and design work on the Netflix series BoJack Horseman. Although this book is her first graphic novel, she also has published a couple of comics collections named Hot Dog Taste Test and My Dirty Dumb Eyes. She speaks about her work on Coyote Doggirl in this interview.

All the reviews I have read of this book have been very positive. Mel Schuit wrote, "Coyote Doggirl might share a lot of the same tropes as a traditional Western, but it’s peppered with quick wit, cute clothing, and lots of ass-kicking, making it a modern day Western classic." AJ Frost described it as "an unabashed western with a contemporary twist as well an imaginative take on the genre that feels more mature and grounded." Lenika Cruz elaborated, "Hanawalt’s book sheds the self-seriousness of the genre, but it also retains another sort of poignancy—one anchored by the heroine’s free spirit and stubborn sense of wonder in spite of the constant dangers she has to navigate."

Coyote Doggirl was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they offer a preview and more here. Because it features profanity, some sexual violence, and mature themes I recommend this book for mature readers.