Saturday, January 20, 2018

Black Hammer, Volume 1: Secret Origins

Winner of the 2017 Eisner Award for Best New Series, Black Hammer is a unique and interesting take on superheroes. Writer Jeff Lemire, one of the hardest working guys in comics, with a tremendous amount of titles to his credit wrote in the introduction to this book that he came up with the concept a while ago soon after finishing his Essex County Trilogy (some of the best comics I've read and well worth checking out). The plot follows a superhero team after they have spent ten years stranded in a small, rural town in another dimension following a grand battle to save the universe.

The characters in the book stand well enough on their own, though experienced comic book readers will recognize them as analogues for some pretty well established figures. Abraham Slam is very similar to Captain America, an older hero who lacks powers and is nearing the end of his career. Barbalien is an alien who seems a lot like the Martian Manhunter. Golden Gail is superheroine a lot like Mary Marvel, only she is unable to transform back to her human form so she is a 50-year-old woman trapped in the body of a 9-year-old. Colonel Weird is a version of scifi adventurer Adam Strange who is unstuck in time, and seems to be aware of the past, present, and future, though he cannot make sense of any of it. He is accompanied by a helpful robot called Walky Talky (who spends a lot of time hiding out). Madame Dragonfly is a lot like Madame Xanadu, a mystic possessed of great magical power. The final member of the team is Black Hammer, a hybrid version of Thor/Steel/Orion who has godlike powers but a strong drive to cater to humanity, though he is seemingly dead. He did have a daughter though, and she is still striving to find out what happened to the team while others have moved on and simply concluded they are dead.
 
 

This motley bunch is stuck in this place, though they don't know how they got there or why they cannot seem to leave. The kicker is that they still retain their powers (mostly) maintain a particularly low profile. Some, like Abraham Slam, find they like the quiet, mundane life while others view it as a horrid circumstance. Golden Gail is especially galled to have to relive elementary school and often gets drunk and is abusive to others. What makes this series compelling is more the personal angles to the relationships and plight they are in. Each chapter focuses on a particular character, recounting their secret origin and adding insight into their current status. The plot is also propelled by attempts to escape this place, not to mention the drive to find the mysterious cause of their situation. Clearly, this book has a lot going on, but the plot never gets convoluted. Black Hammer was the best kid of superhero comic for me, very easy to get into and very difficult to set aside. I am very much looking forward to picking up the next volume soon.

Joining Lemire in this collaboration are artists Dean Ormston and Dave Stewart. Ormston hails from the UK and is known for his work on 2000 AD and various Vertigo titles. Stewart is a veteran colorist who has won multiple Eisner Awards for his work.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have sung its praises. Thea James wrote,"I can’t really remember the last new superhero book that I read and desperately wanted more: Black Hammer is the superhero comic you need." Cam Petti praised the comics creators because they "use those cultural touchstones as tools not to celebrate, but to examine humanity, and in this way, they strike out on their own and craft an excellent story." Spencer Church called it "an incredible display of character development and storytelling."

Black Hammer was published by Dark Horse, and they have a preview and more information about this volume here.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Raid of No Return

If you have read my blog for a while you may have noticed that I think Nathan Hale is brilliant. He makes fantastic, informative, and inventive comics, and his series Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales is the best historical series in the graphic novel business. I even liked his non-historical work like One Trick Pony. What amazes me about his work is how consistently excellent it is, and Raid of No Return is no exception.

The plot of the book is set during World War II. In the events following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there was an extremely covert, risky, and dangerous mission set in place to bomb the Japanese mainland. This book recounts that mission with lots of details about the individual pilots, their crews, and the various outcomes of each bombing run. But additionally, and most impressively to me, it also delved deeply into the Japanese planning of the bombing and gave insight into their side of the military conflict.
This book is full of action and suspense, with multiple plot threads running simultaneously. It is difficult to have so many different stories and to make the reader feel invested in each one, but Hale does exactly that, making the stories both historically detailed as well as personally affecting. Raid of No Return is chock full of compelling, true-life stories that will keep you on the end of your seat and is a worthy addition to an extraordinarily well-crafted series of books.

The reviews I read about this book were all aptly full of praise. Lori Henderson wrote that it "does a great job of illuminating historical events in an entertaining and sometimes sobering way. It’s a great addition to library shelves." Tanya Turek called it "a powerful story that is suspenseful, emotional and almost unbelievable."

Raid of No Return was published by Amulet Books, and they offer more info about it here.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Science Comics: Plagues: The Microscopic Battlefield

I have to say that I've only ever read one graphic novel narrated by a scientist, a white blood cell, a Bubonic Plague bacterium, and a yellow fever virus. Plagues: The Microscopic Battlefield does not skimp on innovations just with its narrators; it also presents innovative ways of combating disease in a very subtle way. This book ostensibly tackles many issues, proving insight into how human beings developed germ theory over time, highlighting some key figures such as Edward Jenner and Louis Pasteur along the way. It also defines the various types of micro-organisms and how they operate in the natural world. It explains various instances of outbreaks, plagues, and notable breakthroughs in medical treatment, culminating in the ways that the scientist in this book proposes to repurpose once deadly germs, like the aforementioned Plague bacterium and yellow fever virus, into fighting for protecting human hosts from disease. I really enjoyed reading about this progression in the state of the art over a period of centuries. This graphic novel is excellent both as a science text and as a human history.
This book covers many a gross topic (pus, lesions, Gangrene) as well as few potentially difficult ones (STDs, immunization), and does so in honest, straight-forward fashion. I also very much liked its playful tone, characterized by the back-and-forth dialogue between the narrators. They all have very defined personalities, some more ornery than others, and very distinct viewpoints about their roles in the world. I felt that this personable approach to this material made a whole lot of technical jargon and technical explanation much more palatable and digestible. And at the same time, once I caught on to the setting in a technological simulation (I was a mite confused by it early on, as it's not explicitly defined), I got very swept up in the goings on of this book. It is a brisk, fun, and highly informative read, indicative of the high quality of the entire Science Comics series.

This book's creator Falynn Koch is a graduate of SCAD and her graphic novel debut was on the Bats book in this same series. I feel her work on Plagues might even be stronger than on her first book, and I admired how well she balanced a sense of play with a sense of wonder as well as including so much pertinent information in efficient manner. She speaks about her work on both Science Comics books in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews wrote that Koch  "injects heady doses of both history and histology into the tour, lightens the load with humor (of a sort: “Ha! Jenner put a lot of pus in that kid!”), and hints at promising new directions in medical research." Johanna Draper Carlson stated, "I suspect younger readers will enjoy the battles between the monster-influenced, anthropomorphized cells and germs." Martha Dodge called it "A solid choice for fans of biology (but good for non-scientists too!)."

Science Comics: Plagues was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here.

Friday, January 5, 2018

The One Hundred Nights of Hero

The One Hundred Nights of Hero might be the most subversive graphic novel I've ever read, and I LOVED IT. It is a feminist retelling of the tale of Scheherazade from The Arabian Nights, and it simultaneously a commentary on religion, male-female relations, love, and social institutions, and it skewers them all but in the most subtle, yet comprehensive ways. The front matter of the book sets up a cosmic mythography, a religion based on the petty and omnipotent god Bird-Man and his progeny Kid and Kiddo. This introductory tale sets up and informs the rest of the book, and it is reminiscent of many other creation stories (Joseph Campbell would approve), but it also is a canny parody/rebuke of the sexism inherent in such belief systems.
The majority of the book is a narrative that hinges on a wager. Two men Manfred and Jerome have little regard for women, and they bet their kingdoms on whether Manfred can bed Jerome's wife Cherry given 100 days. Jerome does this because thinks that Cherry is the paragon of virtue and the perfect wife, but his perceptions do Cherry an injustice. She is intelligent, crafty, and strategic, and she, along with her maid/lover Hero have a plan. Each night when Manfred comes to have his way, Hero will tell him some story to belay the inevitable. And what a storyteller Hero is. She beguiles Manfred, along with the guards who overhear, and anyone else who is privy to her tales. The two misogynists' plan goes off the rails, and I won't spoil how everything resolves, but it is some pretty caustic commentary on traditional state of affairs.

At this point I should comment on a critique I have seen from some quarters calls this book out for male-bashing. Although Jerome and Manfred are terrible people, I feel this book is more a commentary of the general shabby treatment of women across history and cultures. It is also about the power of stories and the abilities and stamina of women to withstand and even triumph in the face of hegemony.

All  of this is not to say this book is dry. I found it pretty funny and cheeky throughout, actually. Part of what I love about this book lies in its subtle naming and snark. The main characters' names clearly set them up as archetypes, and the side narratives that Hero tells all end up woven into a grand tapestry that encompasses the entire book. I looked up a bunch of the more obscure (to me, anyhow) names of people and places, and was rewarded to see that they were actually historical or mythical references that added layers of meaning to the events of the book.

Not to say all the humor is highfalutin. Probably my favorite part of the book is probably how Manfred gets drawn, like he thinks he is God's gift to women and saunters about wearing a cape and no shirt. This buffoonery is hilarious, in my opinion, though also pretty horrific. Toward the end of the book, when his ridiculous is revealed and he begins to unravel, the power he gets to exercise as a male still has dire consequences. Such nuance and execution are hallmarks of exemplary publications, and as a piece of satire and social commentary, I rank this book up there with the greats like Jonathan Swift and MAD Magazine.

This book is the second graphic novel by Isabel Greenberg. Her first, The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, was nominated for two Eisner Awards and won the Best Book category at the British Comic Awards. She spoke about her work on TOHNOH in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been very positive. Maya Gittelman gushed, "It’s just such a cool premise: queered revision fairytale. I love it!" Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, writing, "Greenberg combines elements from fairy tales, children’s books, and folklore from around the world to create an original but teasingly familiar mythos." Nivea Serrao wrote that "within no time readers will be captivated as Greenberg transitions effortlessly from tale to tale, while still telling the story framing each one."

The One Hundred Nights of Hero was published in the US by Little, Brown and Company, and they have info about it here.

I read this book because it was a student selection for a recent seminar in Graphic Novels and Multiliteracies. Thank you, Brooke, for choosing it. I wish I had known about it much sooner, and I am so glad to have read it.

Monday, January 1, 2018

My Favorite GNs of 2017

It's that time of year again, when I single out what I feel are the best graphic novels I've read that were published in the last year. I read a lot of them, and these are the ones that have stayed with me most. Enjoy!

Favorite Book
My Favorite Thing is Monsters
Set in 1968 Chicago, this book is a coming of age tale/murder mystery/holocaust survivor story/appreciation of classical art that prominently features monsters from the movies and popular culture. It's gorgeous, has more layers than an onion, and will pop your eyes out with its artwork. It's a masterpiece of a book, and an instant classic. People will be talking about it for decades, and I cannot recommend you read it enough.

Favorite Memoir
The Best We Could Do
This multi-generational account of an immigrant family from Vietnam is a heartfelt and enlightening look at the effects of war on a people, the hardships that many refugees endure, and the complicated ways families operate. It's a beautiful and very human book that I feel contains an important story for contemporary times.

Favorite Biography
The Abominable Mr. Seabrook
Watching the title character destroy himself with alcohol is painful to observe, but his life is fascinating and exceptional. This meticulously researched account of a proto-Gonzo journalist who dined with cannibals, observed voodoo rituals, and roamed the Arabian Desert with Bedouins is well-detailed, beautiful, utterly engrossing, and devastating.

Favorite Coming-of-Age Story
Spinning
Tillie Walden's account of her childhood/adolescence hiding the fact that she is gay while being a competitive ice skater is beautiful, understated, gut-wrenching, and memorable. I feel this book would be very popular with YA readers, but it will resonate with older readers as well.

Favorite Music Book
California Dreamin': Cass Elliot Before The Mamas & the Papas
Artist Pénélope Bagieu is a genius. This biography of Mama Cass is exquisitely drawn, not to mention that it contains beautiful and seemingly effortless storytelling. Not just for fans of classic rock or folk music, this book speaks to anyone with a dream of changing their life circumstances.

Favorite True Crime GN
The Hunting Accident

This book about turbulent relationships between fathers and sons hinges on an incredible true story that involves a robbery, mob connections, poetry, prison, an infamous murderer, a shotgun blast to the face, and a trip through hell. The artwork is appropriately dark and phantasmagorical, and the story will leave you breathless.

Favorite New Series
Rock Candy Mountain
As I have stated repeatedly in the past, I am totally in the can for anything Kyle Starks publishes. This comic is his first ongoing series, and it features hobos, trains, fist-fights, and the devil himself. Go read it if you like fast-paced action and intrigue as well as witty and funny dialogue.

Favorite Series
Fantasy Sports
All the entries in this series have been pure gold. Full of jokes, magic, sports, and intrigue, these comics are fun, fascinating, and exceptionally beautiful to boot. The latest entry features the most compelling rounds of mini-golf ever put to paper, and I cannot wait for the final volume in the series coming next year.

Favorite Book for Younger Readers
Real Friends
This memoir of childhood is an intimate and moving depiction of elementary school friendships. It is full of relatable moments and surprisingly complex characters and has much to offer any reader, girls and boys included.

Favorite Nonfiction Book
Dogs: From Predator to Protector
The latest in the Science Comics series is simply fantastic. A book that covers all kind of ground, from genetics to heredity to breeding to the history of domesticating animals. It's a rare fun and funny book that is chock full of information. Plus, Rudy the narrator is adorable.

Favorite Adapted Webcomic
Demon
These books (4 in all) are also easily the most depraved books of the year, but they are ingenious, funny, and compelling. This account of the machinations of a maniacal killer over a period of centuries as he tries to avoid capture while also foiling a plot to take over the world is beautifully plotted and paced. And gross. It will offend you and make you squirm, I guarantee. Not for kids. 

Favorite Book About Mythology 
Pantheon
Giving Demon a run for its money in terms of gross-out factor, Pantheon is exceptional in that it is colorful, hilarious, raunchy, irreverent, and apparently extremely faithful in retelling myths from Ancient Egypt. You will never look at salad the same after reading this book. I know I don't. Also not for kids.

Well, that's my list. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017: By The Numbers

Just in case you were curious (I was), I counted up all the books I reviewed over the past year here and arranged them by number by publisher. Here they are, for your reading edification:

  • First Second - 21
  • Image Comics - 11
  • Fantagraphics -5
  • Amulet Press- 4
  • Koyama Press - 4
  • Dark Horse -3
  • Abrams ComicArts - 2
  • Alterna Comics - 2
  • Drawn & Quarterly - 2
  • NoBrow - 2
  • Black Mask Studios - 1
  • Bloomsbury - 1
  • Boom!Box - 1
  • Breakdown Press - 1
  • DC Comics - 1
  • Delcourt - 1
  • Dover Publications - 1
  • Farrar Straus and Giroux - 1
  • Fulcrum - 1
  • Graphic Universe - 1
  • Hill & Wang - 1
  • Oni Press -1
  • Random House - 1
  • Scholastic - 1
  • Secret Acres - 1
  • Seven Seas Entertainment - 1
  • Simon & Schuster - 1
  • Top Shelf - 1
  • Uncivilized Books - 1
  • Vertigo - 1

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Rock Candy Mountain, Volume One: No Exit

First off, if you have been reading my blog for long, you'll know that I am totally in the bag for whatever Kyle Starks creates. I have pledged to multiple Kickstarter campaigns and send him money every month via Patreon (you can, too!). I love his brand of action/intrigue/punching/jokes/pop culture sensibility, and I try to sing his hosannas when given chance. Needless to say, I was excited to see he had an ongoing series in the works. And better yet, I am tickled to tell you that it's great. If you love action/mystery stories set in post-WWII America that feature lots of punching and witty dialogue, not to mention starring people who go by names of their geographic points of origin and/or prominent physical features, Rock Candy Mountain is the book for you.

Mostly, it tells the tale of a couple of hobos in post-WWII America. The first, a failed actor named Pomona Slim, is new to riding the rails and he needs lots of hand-holding. The second is Jackson, a mysterious figure who is great in a fight and has many secrets. Jackson takes up with Slim, and the two meet lots of interesting people along the way, like other hobos, tramps, bums, the King of the Hobos, and The Devil himself. They also end up in some shady spots, including railway lots, underground fight clubs, and prison. In addition, I should note, Jackson is wanted by the US government for having a specific (though unnamed) artifact. All of these ingredients add up to one spicy and delicious stew.

Abetting Starks in this series is Chris Schweizer, himself also an accomplished graphic novelist whose series The Crogan Adventures and The Creeps are some of my favorite comics from the past decade. He does the colors, contributing a muted though effectively nuanced atmosphere to the proceedings, which complements the energetic and emotive artwork to a T. He also has a Patreon page where I contribute every month. Starks talks about his collaborating with Schweizer as well as his work on this series and in general in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have sung its praises. Samantha Puc stated, "This book completely shocked me with its palpable humor and emotional depth." River Godbee called it "very unique," adding that it featured "a great story with some amazing art." Jeremy Nisen wrote, "Our only complaint is that this first volume only holds four issues' worth of the series, and we want more. Now. Perhaps even more than that mythical lake of stew, and of whiskey too."

Rock Candy Mountain was published by Image Comics, and they offer previews and more here. This book contains the first four issues of the series, and it features a fair amount of swearing and violence, not to mention a couple of adult situations, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to deal with such material (as you'll see in the excerpt below).