Monday, May 25, 2020

Woman World

Imagining a world where all the men have ceased to exist and women are left to run everything has been done in comics form before, but this book Woman World does it with a singular voice and a great sense of humor. The comics in this book were originally published online, originally on Instagram. They follow the adventures of a small band of women living in a future where all the men have died due to some genetic disease. They choose their town name and create a flag to feature the most empowering symbol they could think of: Beyoncé's Thighs. That choice should indicate just how this book mingles a feminist viewpoint with humor and a pop culture sensibility.

As the book progresses through a series of 2-3 page episodes we meet a number of this world's denizens. Among them there's Mayor Gaia who walks around naked because she likes the feel of the cool breeze on her underboob.
Told ya!

There is Emiko, who has grown up in a world without men, and upon seeing a dated movie, comes to think of Paul Blart: Mall Cop as the embodiment of masculinity. There is also Grandma, who remembers things as they used to be and finds people incredulous at what she describes.
Each woman has a distinct personality and role, and through their stories and brief episodes a larger tapestry of this world appears. It is a somewhat tragic place, where people are striving to keep civilization going on their own terms, but always tinged a sense of (dark) humor.

The artwork, as you can see in the excerpts, is spare but very expressive. I love how people's personalities and emotions are conveyed in straight-forward fashion. I also think that it juxtaposes well with all the verbal interactions and cultural references. The beats work just as well in human moments as they do in delivering laugh-out-loud gags.

This book is the creation of Aminder Dhaliwal, an animator who has worked for a number of major studios. Woman World is her graphic novel debut, and it was nominated for a 2019 Ignatz Award. She speaks about her work on WW in this interview. She still regularly publishes new comics on Instagram.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Etelka Lehoczky called it "a remarkably sly and devastating critique of patriarchy. " Phillipe Leblanc wrote, "While the premise sounds depressing and bleak, the book is far from being a dark somber affair. Dhaliwal balances her dark premise with the precise amount of levity and wit to create wonderfully comedic situations." Publishers Weekly added, "Women’s creativity, sexuality, and fearlessness are unleashed by Dhaliwal’s end of days."

Woman World was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they offer a preview and more here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020


Originally a series of comics published online at Vice, Catboy tells the tale of what happens when a random wish comes true. One day 20-something artist Olive sees a falling star and wishes that her best friend (and cat) Henry could hang out with her as a human. Voila, the next day he is in her apartment in human form, and her life will never be the same.
What makes this book work so well is how idiosyncratic and humorous Olive and Henry's relationship is. She has to teach him to try to be as human as possible, though he still lusts after other cats and wants to eat delicacies like dead birds. Some of the jokes come from those situations, but more of them come at Olive's expense, when it becomes clear just how much she is struggling in ways that Henry immediately excels. She tends to have few friends and keeps to herself. Henry immediately makes everyone his friend, including Dixie, whom Olive has been trying to befriend for years. He gets a successful job as a dogwalker and begins to make more money than her, even buying proper furniture for their apartment. She is struggling to be a professional artist, and he walks into his first sketching session and displays virtuoso skills. Still, even with these disparities, there is no mean-spiritedness. Both are true friends, and they always try to uplift each other.

The artwork here is another big sell for this book. As you can see from the excerpt, it incorporates some manga conventions in ways that make each character vibrant. The colors and backgrounds make this a very familiar and inviting world, making it easy to relate to the plights of these young people trying to make their way through life.  Even though the premise is pretty silly, the combination of stylish outfits, expressive artwork, strong relationships, and quirky situations makes for a very satisfying read.

This book was created by Benji Nate, who has another  attractive and unorthodox-looking comic called Lorna available from Silver Sprocket. She talks about her work on Catboy in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Robin Enrico wrote, "While the stories in this collection are short and simple they are constantly funny and frequently resonant." Rob Clough called it a book that embodies "a new kind of punk attitude, one emphasizing sincerity, kindness and openness." It currently has a 4.11 star (out of 5) rating on Goodreads.

Catboy was published by Silver Sprocket Press, and they offer a preview and more here.

Friday, May 15, 2020

The Nib, Issue 5: Animals

The latest issue of The Nib magazine came out a few weeks ago, and its theme was animals. Not only was I treated to a variety of art styles and tones, I learned a lot from reading this book, including the fact that in the 1930s there was a supposed talking mongoose(!), most fur for clothing comes from a raccoon dog(!!), and Mickey Mouse wearing gloves comes from a minstrel tradition(!!!). I also got to see lots of other interesting information, including distances and migration patterns of various creatures and drawings of a series of endlings, the last known individuals of a species.
Among the more lengthy feature articles, two particularly stood out to me. Arwen Donahue wrote and drew an thought-provoking piece about raising, milking, and butchering goats and how that squares up with her views of vegetarianism, environmentalism, and community. It is not a very cut-and-dried issue, and I appreciated just how much she elucidated a debate about the ethics of farming and raising various sorts of livestock.
Writer Dorian Alexander, journalist Sarah Mirk, and artist Levi Hastings collaborated on an article about the economic and ethical dilemmas regarding smuggling and selling parrots from tropical locales. It is a big business for some, with an impact on local ecologies as well as the people looking to profit from these birds. Not to mention that the birds themselves also suffer because of these practices. What I loved about both of these works was how they mingled personal experiences with research and journalism to make some very impactful writing.

And just to remind people that not everything in this magazine is so heady and complex, there are also a series of gag strips as well as illustrated letters to the editor that round out this collection. I truly feel that the contributors at The Nib are making some of the best comics right now. Herblock Prize-winning, Pulitzer Prize-nominated editor Matt Bors has assembled another murderers' row of creators here.

The reviews I have read of this volume have been positive. Zack Quaintance noted "that that reading experience was quite good, adding that journalism done via this medium is so rare that whenever I come across some of this quality, it tends to linger with me for days (and days...and days)." You can see a bunch of other reviews at Goodreads, where it has a 4.40 stars (out of 5) rating as of this blog.

Content for The Nib is published regularly online, though the print version features exclusive content and comes out about three times a year. You should consider becoming a member and supporting their high quality, independent artistic and journalistic endeavor.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Hilda and the Mountain King

This book I reviewed while judging for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards seems pretty appropriate for Mother's Day. One of the things that made it stand out for me is how it extended a fantasy narrative into a canny commentary on parenthood and the lengths that some will go to make sure that their children get advantages and opportunities. Hilda and the Mountain King is the sixth in the Hilda series of graphic novels (you can read my review of volume 1 here). This volume features all sorts of action and adventure, but the crux of matters is that Hilda and a baby troll have been bodily switched. So, while Hilda has to deal with adapting to life as a troll, her mother is desperately seeking ways to find her lost child. Also, she has to deal with a real wild child who has not manners or idea of how to act human. It is a comedy of sorts, but one tinged with a sense of horror. However, over the course of events Hilda learns that being a troll is not all that bad...
She also learns more about trolls and their history, which makes her wonder why the two species can't get along better than they do. The book also touches on themes of immigration and ethnicity, with the conflict between human and trolls and the ambiguity about who owns the land and who is trespassing. It features way more nuance and thoughtfulness than I expect in a series book for young readers, let alone one that is licensed as a cartoon series by a major media entity.

The artwork, presented in a large page format a la European comics albums, is impressive in a number of ways. It tells its story in very clear ways and also amps up the action sequences in ways that carry real stakes. The book is also full of cartoonish and cute figures, but with a muted color palette. The effect of this style really sells the humorous bits and makes what could be monstrous characters more relatable. It also makes the rather serious commentary work in a disarming way, with its absence of garish colors. I was impressed by how this book touched on serious issues without seeming preachy or didactic. This book works on so many different levels, and I was very impressed by its total effect. I really need to check out more titles from this series.

The Hilda series was created by Luke Pearson. He has a selection of other comics work you can peruse here. He speaks more about this book, the cartoon adaptation, and his inspirations in this interview.

All the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Hillary Brown wrote, "The panel structure of Mountain King is as visually complex as the range of emotions in the story, and yet neither is hard to read. It feels cinematic without leaving comics behind." Oliver Sava added, "These oversized graphic novels feature beautiful illustrations of natural, urban, and magical environments populated by eye-catching characters, all rendered with a precise yet lively line and expressive color palette." Andy Oliver called it "thrilling, touching and even thought-provoking."

Hilda and the Mountain King was published by Flying Eye Books, and they offer a preview and more information about it here. Also, season two of the cartoon adaptation of Hilda will be up at Netflix soon.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Island Book

Although it did not end up being a nominee, I was impressed by this book while reading through the entries for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards. Island Book is a gripping adventure story that also offers a great message about courage and perseverance.The main character here is Sola, and she is a humanish creature who lives in a seemingly idyllic island. Only her life is not so rosy, as the inhabitants all shun and isolate her because when she was younger a giant monster wreaked havoc as it sought her out. Now she is associated with this gigantic, mysterious creature and they think she is bad luck.
So, she leaves the confines of home and sets out to find this monster and learn its secrets. On her journey, she ends up in strange, new lands and meets a number of very different peoples and creatures. She ends up recruiting a couple of other adventurers to accompany her, though they have their own motives for the search. I am not going to spoil what happens to them all, but I will say that their journey is rewarding, perilous, frustrating, and informative, though it also lacks resolution.

Above is the opening page of the book, and as you can see the artwork is clean and bright. The characters are well designed, unique, and bold. They have strong personalities, and they work well together as an ensemble cast. The scenery and backgrounds can be vast and epic or small and personal, as suits the narrative. The storytelling was economic and intriguing, which kept me rapt and wanting more.

What I loved about this book was how each chapter ratcheted up plot and suspense, casting new light on this world and the beings that live in it. This book features the most excellent sort of adventure tale, full of bravery and daring deeds while tempered by real stakes and consequences. It held me spellbound, and I cannot wait to revisit this world. This is the first book in a series, and book 2 has not been solicited yet, but I'm eagerly looking forward to it.

This book was created by Evan Dahm.  He has a few different series under his belt, including Riceboy and Vattu, which were originally published as webcomics.  He speaks about his works and career in this interview. For fans of Island Book, he's even created a soundtrack to accompany the book, which you can buy here.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Caitlin Rosberg called it "the perfect all-ages read for kids with a lot of empathy and curiosity." Francis Bass wrote, "Dahm’s imaginative, iterative world-building is on full display here, and it is a delight to explore." Publishers Weekly praised the "polished, sure storytelling skills," and added, "Dahm offers shipwrecks, battles, and unflagging action. Underlying the story’s events is an allegory about how real knowledge comes only from seeing for oneself." Carrie McLain called it "an unconventional looking book about facing the unknown and coming back with the understanding that not everything in the world is to be understood or solved or conquered and accepting that."

Island Book was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more here.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Sincerely, Harriet

Today, I feature another nominee for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards. Sometimes you read a book that defies categorization in a wonderful way. Sincerely, Harriet was that sort of book for me, a very pleasant surprise that did unexpected things with its characters and plot. The main protagonist here is Harriet, a teenage girl living in a new apartment in Chicago during the 1990s. Because of her medical history, she has to stay isolated there, with only her mother and downstairs neighbor, an older African-American woman named Pearl, as company. Cursed with an overactive imagination and lots of free time, Harriet begins to create all sorts of sinister backstories.

Harriet is also a writer, and she sends off lots of postcards to her friends from summer camp but does not get replies. She finds writing as an outlet though, and even begins to learn more about and from Pearl that both fires her imagination and gets her to explore the more mysterious parts of the building and her own psyche. I am being rather vague with my description of this book, because I found that it defied my expectations so much that I took great joy in seeing how things unfolded and how the various characters revealed things about themselves and their pasts.

This book contains lots of strong emotions, from the loneliness of dealing with seclusion, to the dread of having to treat a serious illness, to the demands of maintaining family relationships under difficult conditions. Harriet herself is very fleshed out in terms of characterization, as complex a character I've encountered in a graphic novel. I also think that the artwork is delicate and nuanced so much that it conveys subtle emotional moments in brilliant fashion.

This book's creator is Sarah W. Searle, and she has made a number of other comics, including the Victorian-era graphic novel romance Sparks. She also did the Hedy Lamarr entry in the recent Noisemakers anthology I reviewed last month. She speaks more about her work on Sincerely, Harriet in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews summed up, "Heartfelt and heartwarming, highlighting the power of story to both conceal and reveal." Johanna Draper Carlson wrote that it "isn’t a book to instantly fall in love with. It’s one that quietly paints a picture of an uncertain young woman whom many readers will sympathize with." Erin Partridge opined, "The story of Harriet & Pearl encourages us to think beyond our immediate family when seeking support for chronic or invisible illnesses. It also suggests several creative coping outlets that readers may find useful."

Sincerely, Harriet was published by Graphic Universe, and they offer a preview and more here.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Pilu of the Woods

Pilu of the Woods was another nominee in the Middle Grades category of the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards. It is a sweet and moving book, featuring a girl named Willow. She has experienced a big loss in her life, and she contains a tempest of emotions, which she tends to unleash on her older sister. One day she is out in the woods with her dog Chicory when she meets up with a tree spirit named Pilu.
It turns out that Pilu has run away from home and is lost in the world. Willow takes it upon herself to help Pilu find her way back, seeing many of her own experiences embodied by the tree spirit. Pilu is literally a force of nature though, and many of the emotions she and Willow both feel start to take physical manifestations, leading to great peril.

I do not want to reveal much more, to prevent spoiling the story, but I do want to impress just how human and heartfelt this book is. It deals with complex emotional relationships and does so in nuanced and realistic ways. I found it very easy to relate and care about these characters, and they are portrayed in vibrant ways. The artwork, with its manga-inspired characters and muted coloring, excellently conveys feeling and emotion, and the storytelling is very kinetic.

In retrospect, I can see many similarities to the classic movie My Neighbor Totoro, which I have watched with my kids about 100 times, as both works feature a pair of sisters, a professor father, and an encounter with a forest spirit. Also, both have a powerful emotional impact and strong characters. This book is not derivative in any way to the movie, and I think it is a great companion piece to it for anyone who is a Studio Ghibli fan. I loved this book, and I feel it has much to say about loss, family relationships, and dealing with turbulent events. It's a real gem.

Pilu of the Woods is the impressive graphic novel debut of Mai K. Nguyen, who also has a couple of self-published comics to her credit. She speaks more about her work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews called it "A lovely graphic novel focusing on confronting our inner feelings and how we express them." Samantha Puc wrote, "This middle-grade graphic novel will appeal to readers of all ages, but its aesthetics are firmly rooted in the perspectives of its characters, which is utterly delightful." Publishers Weekly added, "Effectively navigating grief, anger, and their place in the world, the characters in this debut show without didacticism how to engage with tough emotions."

Pilu of the Woods was published by Oni Press, and they offer more info about it here.