Friday, November 20, 2020

Flamer

Flamer is a book about personal turmoil. The main character here is Aiden Navarro and he is wrestling with a lot in his life. He gets grief from people because he is part-Asian. He is anxious about his transition from parochial to public school, as he's decided to make that move as he is entering high school. 

He is also at summer camp, a place where he's sent partly to be active and lose some weight, which also weighs on his mind. He finds that he relates much easier to his female friends, so he feels isolated by the often toxic masculinity of his peers. He gets teased and taunted pretty consistently, and he finds solace with his bunk mate Elias, a football player who is actually a cool guy who is kind to him.

Aiden's relationship with Elias adds more confusion to his mental state and makes him question his sexuality. On one hand, he feels good to have a person who is actually friendly to him but on the other hand he has feelings that confound him. As a devout Catholic and altar boy, he reasons that he could not possibly have such feelings, because he has always been a "good" person. Aiden also has an affinity for X-Men comic books, and his favorite character is Jean Grey. He can relate to her shift from being a hero to the villainous Phoenix, and, in a sinister twist, he begins to wonder if he should do what she ultimately did in order to put matters to rest.

As you might tell from my synopsis, this book trucks in some major life themes. It is about a person's search for self, dealing with religion as well as social institutions that both define and restrict people. It is also a deeply thoughtful and personal book, and I found it very easy to relate to and feel for Aiden. The struggles of a middle/almost high schooler are palpable as well as his travails with bullying. Even so, I like how he's portrayed so that he's no saint, but trying very hard to make sense of some very disparate ideas and beliefs. His struggle is literally life and death, and I was gratified to see this all-too-common but hardly spoken-about conflict is given such thoughtful, relatable, and realistic treatment. 

The artwork, which is rendered in black and white for the most part, save for a number of instances where oranges, yellows, and red flash across the page to indicate or moments of heightened emotion, covey so much emotion and feeling through spare imagery. There is much to relate to or cringe from, from moments where Aiden recoils into himself because of casual cruelty or overt abuse to other scenes where he can find security through dark and self-deprecating humor.

In an afterword that follows the story, Mike Curato admits that some of this story is based on his own experiences. He has illustrated a number of picture books, most notably the highly popular and award-winning book Little Elliot, Big City (which both my oldest boy and I adore). He also won the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show Founder's Award in 2014. He speaks extensively about his work and inspirations behind Flamer in this interview as well as this one.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. In their starred review, Kirkus simply advised people, "Buy it. Read it. Share it." Publishers Weekly called it "emotional and raw." Juanita Giles wrote that this book "offers real hope - not just rainbows - to queer kids."

Flamer was published by Henry Holt and Co. BYR, and they offer a preview and more here.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Maids

Maids is a crime tale based on the Papin sisters, Christine and Léa, who worked together as maids until they murdered their employer's wife and daughter. This is a slow burn of a book, only six chapters long, with the first five establishing background and subtly ramping up tension. The events occur mostly in the Lancelin residence, where Christine began work as a maids. She advocated for her younger sister Léa to be hired on as  cook, and the two were reunited in service.

Over the course of the book, we get insights into the young women's lives, from their troubled upbringing to their years in a convent. They were unusually close and frequently got into trouble. As maids, they often were up to some form of chicanery, pilfering items, messing with food, and trying to enjoy some of their employers' finery for themselves. They worked everyday from 6 AM to 7 PM and were also treated shabbily by the Mrs. Lancelin and their spoiled daughter Genevieve. On February 2, 1933 after being blamed for a power outage in the house due to a faulty iron, the sisters brutally murdered Mrs. and Miss Lancelin.

The artwork in this book is spare but masterfully laid out in ways that build suspense to a crescendo. The color palette is warm, which contributes to a muted, dark ambience that lend a drabness to scenes of everyday life and also a sinister edge to the violence. It's a beautifully affecting book, and Skelly gets every ounce of nuance and feeling from her economical imagery. This book is gorgeous and horrible as well as a clinic in storytelling.

And what an opening page!
 This book is the creation of Katie Skelly whose prior comics include My Pretty Vampire, Operation Margarine, Nurse Nurse, and The Agency (NSFW). She speaks extensively about her work on Maids in this interview.

The reviews I have read of this book have been positive. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly summed up, "This subversive horror story will satisfy readers who like their crime stories served with gender and class analysis and a pretty whipped topping." Writing about Skelly's art, Etelka Lehoczky opined, "It's a style that invites you to take it at face value while mocking your inclination to do any such thing. The theme Skelly expresses in every layer of this book is our tendency — or need, really — to underestimate anyone and anything we can't immediately assimilate: maids, girls, comics, comics about girls." Tom Murphy had a different take on the visuals, writing, "Its strong structure and narrative get as close as possible to the bond of blood between the sisters, but the bubblegum realisation on the page creates an uneasy dissonance."

Maids was published by Fantagraphics, and they offer a preview and more information about it here. Due to violence and adult subject matter, I suggest this book for mature readers.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Class Act

New Kid was a landmark book, the first graphic novel to win the Newbery Award. This follow-up is called a "companion" to that book, because it is not so much a sequel as it is a continuation of the story. It still follows the life of Jordan Banks, now in his second year at Riverdale Academy Day School, a very sheltered private school in the Bronx. Jordan still wants to be an artist and is struggling with his parents about applying to an arts-focused school. But this book also takes a larger focus on his classmate Drew Ellis, one of the the other African-American students at RAD, who has a different set of concerns.

Just like with New Kid, Drew deals with the subtle and overt sorts of racism that pervade life at RAD. He is more athletic and popular than Jordan, though he won't go out for the basketball team because he does not want to be seen as a stereotype. He also has relationship issues, as he gets a girlfriend named Ashley, who tries to impress him with a constant stream of baked goods. She keeps baking him sweet potato pies, which makes him uneasy because it's well intended but also racist. She, and other kids, insist on touching his hair, which really makes him uneasy when they totally ignore his telling them not to. 

Drew also gets singled out to lead a tour of students from their new "sister school" Cardinal De Bard Junior High School in the south Bronx, because he "looks more" like the students there. This makes him pause because it's a place close by Jordan's house, so he would seem to be a better choice, but the teacher organizing this relationship (a white man) thinks that the visitors will be more comfortable with the darker-skinned Drew. 

This theme of exchange runs throughout the book, first in the school visit, but later when Jordan and Drew visit the home of their ultra-rich classmate Liam over the Thanksgiving break. Liam's house is huge, he owns all the video games, and his family insists on eating weird, overly-crunchy flatbread pizza, so the two boys feel like they are in a different world. They also wonder if they could ever truly be friends with someone whose life is so different from their own. Later still, Liam visits Jordan's house, eats a variety of different sorts of food, and gets to hang out with other kids at the local rec center. Although all the boys live in the same borough, it seems like they live in different worlds, though they start to learn to appreciate where the other is from. 

What is impressive about this book is how well it brings out issues of race in relatable and moving ways that are not utterly overt or didactic. Part of this characteristic lays in the artwork, which is colorful and inviting. It also rewards fans of comics and graphic novels, with chapter breaks that reference popular books like This Was Our Pact, Hey Kiddo, and Real Friends as well as other popular media. This book is fun, full of visual puns (especially with local businesses and signage) and witty repartee that make the book feel human and realistic. I particularly like Jordan and Drew's game of calling each other by different, inventive names, a playful way of addressing the fact that many of the teachers at the school constantly confuse them or forget their names. And the supporting cast is very strong, from the frequently misguided teachers at RAD to the pesky Andy, who tries too hard to fit in, to the fantastic Alexandra, a strange and wise girl who definitely walks to the beat of her own drummer. Dispensing wisdom from a hand puppet, she is the Yoda/Silent Bob of this book, and one of my favorites because she appears so comfortable with who she is.

In many ways, this is a book about experiences in middle school, full of big questions and the unease of finding one's way in the world. Certainly, today that also includes navigating systems of institutionalized inequality and racism. And it is not utterly dismissive about what it satirizes, even the consistently tone-deaf attempts by the RAD administration to address racism. It offers no pat answers, but it does put human faces to this very important conversation.

Jerry Craft wrote and drew this book. In addition to New Kid, he has drawn multiple children's books and graphic novels, mostly based on his comic strip Mama's Boyz. He speaks extensively about his work on Class Act in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Esther Keller advised, "Librarians should stock up on as many copies as they can." Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review that concluded (with a pun even!), "A well-Crafted, visually rich, truth-telling tale for our troubled times that affirms the eternal importance of friends." In another starred review, Publishers Weekly wrote, "Deftly weaving discussions of race, socioeconomics, colorism, and solidarity into an accessible narrative, Craft offers a charming cast journeying through the complicated landscapes of puberty, self-definition, and changing friendships, all while grappling with the tensions of attending an institution that structurally and culturally neglects students of color."

Class Act was published by Quill Tree Books, and they offer a teachers guide and more info about it here.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Slaughterhouse-Five: A Graphic Novel Adaptation

I should preface this review by stating that Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors ever. I have read every one of his novels, checked out many of his nonfiction essays, and laughed at his cameo in Back to School countless times. One of the high points of my college career was getting to hear him speak my freshman year. So, to say that I have high expectations for this book is a bit of an understatement. Beyond my own background, some of the weight of my expectations also lay in this book partly being adapted by writer Ryan North, a brilliant comics creator/humorist responsible for some of my favorite works, namely Dinosaur Comics, Jughead, and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

For those who have not read the original novel, Slaughterhouse-Five is about a man named Billy Pilgrim who becomes "unstuck in time."  Throughout the novel he bounces back and forth across his own timeline, witnessing his death, marriage, experiences in World War II, abduction by aliens who placed him in an interstellar zoo, and meetings with literary hero Kilgore Trout, among other things. As a result, he takes a unique view of humanity, forming opinions about the capriciousness of war and societal values.

As you can see from the excerpt above, which opens the book, this adaptation takes advantage of its medium in ways that enrich this reading experience. The tweaks firmly entrench the book in its own historical context as well as the medium of comics, and they are done in very smart ways. This book uses some of the unique features of comics to recast and retell portions of the novel to convey its spirit without being a strictly literal adaptation. For instance, using panels to play with time and imagination:

Or changing into a newspaper comics format to give short bursts of back story:

As you can see, it is almost as if this story was originally conceived to work as a graphic novel. Like its source material, this book is full of pathos, laughs, and dark observations about humanity. It's a witty, fantastically moving, and trenchant book. This adaptation is one of the best I've seen, in any medium, as much a classic as its source material. Perhaps this is faint praise, because most graphic novel adaptations do not take advantage of the affordances the medium allows. I wish I was not so surprised that reading an adaptation of a novel that hinges on continual shifts in time and space in a medium (comics) that constantly manipulates time and space is an excellent experience as this one. I feel that many creators, certainly not most literary adapters, do not take as much advantage as the medium as these ones do.

That the creators of this book have many years of comics experience under their belts should come as no surprise. North has won multiple Eisner and Harvey Awards for his work on Adventure Time comics, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and Jughead. Artist Albert Monteys was art director of the Spanish satirical magazine El Jueves from 2006-2011 and also created the Eisner Award nominated science fiction series Universe! Both creators speak about their work on this adaptation in this interview, and Monteys shares his take in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been raves. In a starred review from Library Journal Tom Batten praised it as "the best, and most effective, graphic novel adaptation of a literary novel in recent memory." In another starred review, Publishers Weekly called it "a rare graphic adaptation that enriches a literary classic." David Weber called it "a perfect graphic novel adaptation" as well as "an absolute joy to read."

Slaughterhouse-Five was published by Archaia, and they offer more info about it here.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Ghostwriter

Ghostwriter is a gorgeously illustrated, stylized murder mystery set in 1943 Barcelona. It features a fascinating cast of characters and a taut plot. The protagonist Laia is a pregnant wife whose husband has seemingly abandoned her, and she looks after the two young children of her downstairs neighbor when her husband is physically abusive. Rounding things out are a detective who uses hypnosis to gather evidence, a paraplegic beggar who can scale fire escapes like an ape, and a group of clergy and matronly women who write the scripts for a wildly popular weekly radio program that doles out advice on romance and other domestic matters. Add to the mix a series of grisly murders, and what you have is a serious pot-boiler of a mystery that plays with basic gender assumptions. I won't get much more into the plot, as I don't want to spoil all the twists and reveals, but I would like to draw attention to the artwork.

What you see here are the first pages of the story, and they are unusual in that they contain a lot of exposition, which is not characteristic of the rest of the book. What is typical is the wonderfully geometric architecture of the buildings and panels. Also, the interplay between black and white makes for some excellent atmosphere and contrast throughout the book. It is a clinic in setting and conveying tone. There are a few (bloody) instances later in the book where red is used to highlight the gory murders, adding an element of shock to the proceedings. 

The artwork also acts in some ways to create leitmotifs that foreshadow later events in the story, an aspect that invites and rewards multiple readings. Overall, I was impressed by how well crafted a mystery this was, both in terms of story and art. I don't know if this book has broad appeal, but it is a spectacular period piece for murder mystery and European comics fans.

This book is the creation of Rayco Pulido, a Spanish illustrator and educator. It is his English language debut, having won Spain’s National Comics Award in 2017.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly concluded, "The enigmatic tale is recommended for genre readers seeking a classier flavor of pulp fiction than the standard femme fatale and shoot-’em-up fare." Kirin Xin called it "thoughtful and stunning." Andy Oliver opined that "two readings of Ghostwriter are a must – the first to lose oneself in the unpredictable turns of Laia’s story and the second to enjoy in hindsight just how tautly plotted Pulido’s tale is."

Ghostwriter was published by Fantagraphics, and they offer a preview and much more here.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

In a Glass Grotesquely

2020 has been a turbulent year, full of turmoil and tragedy. One of this year's biggest losses for me in the world of comics was the sudden death of Richard Sala. I love his distinctive art style, which was reminiscent of many influences, an amalgamation of Mad magazine details and Expressionism as well as elements of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey. He was excellent at creating tone and crafting punchy, creepy, compelling stories.
 
In a Glass Grotesquely contains one large story and three shorter, black and white pieces. The three final stories are more emblematic of Sala's general style: dark, claustrophobic spaces full of terrible and weird characters. The lead tale, "Super-Enigmatix," originally serially published as a webcomic, contains many elements of what made Sala's work so memorable and exciting. Tonally, it's like a old-time movie serial, packed with plot and powerful visuals. It features a mysterious genius figure bent on murder, conspiracy, and sowing chaos. There is an army of armed female assassins, giant killer plants, and many red herrings/plot twists. It also strikes me as being a story that at once recalls the past in terms of genre but in terms of theme speaks to contemporary matters such as reality television, fake news, and government manipulation. It plays as both loving homage as well as biting satire. I find it fascinating just how timeless and timely this book is. 
But, this being a work by Richard Sala, for me it's biggest selling point is the artwork. The main story is rendered in color, and it contains a number of fantastic elements, including a wonderfully disguised antagonist, a bevy of evening gown-clad women, monster plants, monster-masked villains, and some psychedelic, dreamlike layouts. He was masterful at designing worlds for bold characters and bombastic action.

All of the reviews I have read about it online have been positive, though I feel they don't quite account for how much bitterness is mixed in with its sweetness. Jason Sacks called it "a classic Sala style delight that brings new treats on every page." Graham Johnstone called it "an enjoyable romp" that will sweep readers along with its "joyful energy." Sala speaks more about all of his works, but "Super-Enigmatix" specifically in this interview.

In a Glass Grotesquely was published by Fantagraphics, and they offer a preview and more here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Something is Killing the Children, Volume One

A million years ago when I was a wee ankle-biter in a comic shop, I remember Vic Bertini, the owner of Iron Vic Comics ("He rules Poughkeepsie with an iron fist!"), saying about Neil Gaiman's Sandman series that it was the only book that brought "Vassar girls" into his shop. From what I've read, the series whose first five issues are collected here, Something is Killing the Children, has similar drawing power for non-typical comics shop goers. After reading this trade paperback, I can see why. It's got an intriguing premise, compelling characters, and scenes that are genuinely horrific.

The setting for the story is the small town of Archer's Peak, where, as of the start of the book, at least 15 children have either been killed or gone missing. And by killed, I mean butchered, chopped up, and left in pieces. The entire town has been traumatized and is desperately searching for answers. One boy, James, who somehow survived a monster attack contacted a woman named Erica Slaughter. She has monster-killing expertise and a mysterious backstory. Not to mention that she carries around a stuffed octopus toy that she has regular conversations with. Her methods are unorthodox, to say the least, and I found her absolutely compelling.

Erica knows how to make an entrance...
As for the rest of the town, it is filled with a complex set of characters. James is sort of an outcast, and many students at his school suspect he is a murderer. Tommy is a manager of a local restaurant whose sister is missing, and he begins to tail Erica and complicates her work. The local police department, populated via nepotism, is flummoxed to the point of accepting unorthodox help. All of these various motivations and characterizations are what make this book work so well.

The artwork is appropriately spooky, with horrific monsters and lots of great storytelling that helps build suspense. This book does not show all the gory details, but it shows enough to get the reader to fill in the gaps in ways that elevate the horror. Plus, there are some very cool visual designs, particularly Erica's "work gear," complete with its creepy mask and power tools.

I have to admit I am not typically fan of horror comics, but this series is utterly compelling. I put it in the pantheon of superb, frightening, and unsettling horror comics with Southern Cross and Wytches. This volume collects the first five issues of the series, which was originally meant to be a limited series but has since been made ongoing.

This series is a collaboration between writer James Tynion IV, artist Werther Dell'Edera, and colorist Miquel Muerto. Tynion IV is known for his GLAAD Media Award winning series The Woods as well as writing a large number of Batman-related titles for DC Comics. Dell'Edera has drawn a number of titles for DC's Vertigo imprint. Muerto is a colorist with many credits for companies such as Boom! Studios, Vault, DC, and IDW. Tynion IV and editor Eric Harburn speak about the series in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Jenny Robins wrote, "While there’s nothing earth-shatteringly original in the story, there are more than enough strands of intrigue to keep you turning the pages, from the mysterious Slaughter family Erica belongs to, the efforts of the local police, and of the relatives of the missing kids and their already layered stories." Justin Monday wrote, "The unique plot, excellent character writing, and nailbiting presentation are sure to excite, intrigue, and scare the hell out of you." Gregory Paul Silber opined that the series's "slow start may discourage some readers, but its first volume has loads of promise for patient ones."

Something is Killing the Children was published by BOOM! Studios, and they offer a preview and more info about the series here.