Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Pumpkinheads

Pumpkinheads is a lighthearted but insightful look at a couple of older teens growing up and figuring out who they are. Josiah and Deja are two high school seniors working their last fall at their local pumpkin patch, and they are a pair of opposites. Josiah is a straight-arrow, shy, and has been named MVPPP (Most Valuable Pumpkin Patch Person) almost every month he has worked there. Deja is more outgoing and brash, and she decides that on their last night that Josiah is going to finally talk to Marcy, that girl he's been mooning over for years. She cajoles him to leave their regular post, and they gallivant across the pumpkin in a quest for delightful treats and for him to maybe actually go on a date. It's a night for throwing caution to the wind, she says, and Josiah reluctantly agrees.
 

What follows is a cheerful and funny trip across a pretty fantastic pumpkin patch, with lots of interesting attractions and delicious sounding food. Also, they run into a number of Deja's exes in their sojourn, which makes for some discomfort and humor. Marcy proves elusive to find, as she is pretty mobile and apparently acting as a sweeper. These misadventures give Deja and Josiah lots of time to talk, revisit their past relationships, and reflect on their four years together at the pumpkin patch.

I loved spending time with these characters. Josiah is responsible but clueless in many ways, while Deja is passionate and perceptive, and I appreciate getting to see their dynamic in action. Over the course of the book, they figure out some things about their lives and themselves, and it's a sweet tale. Moreover, there's lots of great banter, and their personalities come across in powerful, relatable fashion. This book might not feature heavy subject matter, but it is a wonderful amusement with excellent character work.

Both of this book's creators, writer Rainbow Rowell and artist Faith Erin Hicks, are highly accomplished in their fields. Rowell is a novelist known for her best-selling books Eleanor & Park, Fangirl, and Wayward Son, as well as for writing the latest version of Runaways for Marvel Comics. The Eisner Award winning Hicks is a graphic novelist who has created some of my favorite books over the past decade, including The Nameless City trilogy, The Adventures of Superhero Girl, and Friends with Boys. Both creators speak about their collaboration on Pumpkinheads in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews summed it up, "A heartwarming, funny story filled with richness and complexity." J. Caleb Mozzocco wrote of the collaboration, "Pumpkinheads simultaneously feels a lot like a Rowell work and a lot like a Hicks work, and it synthesizes the virtues of each half of the creative team in the process of telling a light-hearted but touching teen romance."

Pumpkinheads was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Mr. Puffball: Escape from Castaway Island

Another of the wonderful authors I got the chance to meet last weekend at Read Up! Greenville, Constance Lombardo created the book I am reviewing today. Mr. Puffball: Escape from Castaway Island is the third book of a trilogy (I have to admit that I had not read the other two, but that did not stop me from enjoying this book at all). It features a fun tale full of laughs and a skewering of popular culture. The title character Mr. Puffball is a stunt man trying to become a celebrity. And his avenue for finding stardom is competing on reality TV shows. First, he wins the grand prize in Feline Ninja Warrior, a send-up of this show. The fame goes to his head though, and he blows through his new-found fortune in record time.

While languishing on the trash heap of ex-celebrities he hatches a plan to embroil him and his friends in another reality show, Castaway Island (think Survivor). This motley cast of characters features many strong personalities, from the famed star El Gato to body builder/celebrity personal trainer Bruiser to a feisty kitten named Pickles to the martial arts expert Rosie. Part of the fun in reading this book is seeing this cast of characters bounce off each other, part of it is in seeing celebrity culture being ridiculed, and part of it is in delightful cat-themed puns that abound.
First rule of Castaway Island: Help no one!
Also, as you can see from the excerpt above, this book is an illustrated novel, that is a hybrid of pictures and prose in the style of books like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Big Nate series. I thought that the illustrations were hilarious and expressive, and that the interplay of text and images was very well crafted. I had a lot of fun reading the adventures of Mr. Puffball and his crew, and I think many other readers, both young and old would, too.

In addition to the Mr. Puffball trilogy, Constance Lombardo is publishing her fourth work, a children's book titled Everybody Says Meow. She talks more about this latest book in the Mr. Puffball series in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Douglas Gibson felt that this might be the best of the trilogy, adding that "a group of friends choosing connection and empowerment over money and stardom makes for a beautiful and compelling story in a world where even kids can fall prey to our celebrity-obsessed culture." Kira Moody gave it 4 out of 5 stars and called it "lively, funny, and engaging." You can see more reviews of it at Goodreads where it has a 4.38 (out of 5) star rating as of this post.

Mr. Puffball: Escape from Castaway Island was published by Harper, and they offer a preview and more here.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Last Pick, Book Two: Born to Run

I had the distinct pleasure of serving as moderator for a panel about graphic novels and illustrated books this weekend for Read Up! Greenville, and I got to meet Chuck Brown, one of the co-authors of Bitter Root. I also got to meet Jason Walz, a comics creator and special educator who wrote today's book, Last Pick: Born to Run. It is actually the second book a trilogy, and I must admit I had not read book one beforehand (I will remedy that soon). Still, I was immediately immersed in the narrative and hit the ground running. The plot here is a dystopian future tale where aliens have taken almost every human over the age of 16 and “able-bodied” off Earth to work as slave labor, leaving what they feel are the young and infirm behind. This arrangement has separated a pair of twins, Wyatt and Sam.

Sam is taken off-planet where she learns more about exactly who the alien invaders are, and also gets involved in a galactic civil war. Wyatt, who is neurodiverse and prone to moments where his mental focus shifts, is one of those left behind, but he and others band together to mount a resistance and disrupt the alien occupation force.
 
 

Apart from all of the exciting action elements, and some delightfully gruesome alien designs, there is also a strong message about how even those who get discounted can find the resources, strength, and resolve to succeed. Even with this topical message, it does not come off as preachy, as the plot is well crafted and quite compelling. I am eager to see how the whole thing concludes when the final book comes out next year.

Beside the Last Pick series, Jason Walz is also known for his Eisner Award-nominated Homesick as well as A Story for Desmond. He speaks more about his work on the Last Pick series in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read for this second entry have been positive. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review that concluded, "An extraordinary sequel that is thrilling, inclusive, and unforgettable." Erin Partridge wrote, "The change in the trope of the hero who overcomes adversity to a team of people who triumph while living with their differences could be very empowering to people navigating the tricky world of human life."

Last Pick: Born to Run was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Bitter Root, Volume 1: Family Business

Bitter Root is a breath-taking piece of historical fiction/horror. It takes place during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's and stars the Sangeryes family, the world's greatest monster hunters. They are a motley bunch, including the hulking Berg, his diminutive cousin Cullen, elder stateswoman Ma Etta, and the disgruntled Blink, who feels she is being held back because she is a woman. There are other members of the family, too, and they are memorable both for their personalities and the unique roles they play in the family and the family business.
 

When humans become corrupted by fear and hate they devolve into creatures called Jinoo, and the Sangeryes specialize in battling and curing these monsters. However, in the course of this book they learn that there are things worse than Jinoos out there, things even more crafty and evil, and that is where much of the action and intrigue derive. This book contains the first five issues of the series, and I could not read it fast enough. Each chapter is a page turner, and each one ends with a compelling cliffhanger.

However, this book is multi-faceted. Not only does it feature superb action and plotting, it also provides a strong dose of scholarship. It contains bevy of historical analyses and essays from scholars in diverse discipline that give much context to the goings-on in the book. It offers much material to visit and revisit upon further readings, both in terms of an excellent story and its supplementary essays.

Bitter Root was written by David F. Walker and Chuck Brown with art by Sanford Greene and Rico Renzi. Walker is known for his work on multiple comic books series from different publishers, though I am partial to his runs on Power Man & Iron Fist and Luke Cage. Brown has been self-publishing comics for years now, and he also has worked for major publishers like Marvel and IDW. Greene has done lots of covers for Marvel Comics and has collaborated with Walker on the Power Man and Iron Fist series and with Brown on a webcomic called 1000. Renzi has worked as a colorist on a ton of comics series, most notably Spider-Gwen. Brown and Walker both share their thoughts on the Bitter Root series in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read have been glowing. Publishers Weekly concluded, "Comics fans will look forward to future volumes of this energetic dark fantasy that effectively mixes thrills and scares." Thomas Maluck wrote that the story "explodes off each page with thoughtful plotting, unique character designs, thematic color palettes, and shape-shifting lettering that always fits the bombastic and gentle moments alike." Tonya Pennington commented that "the characters won me over with their personalities, personal strengths, and weaknesses."

Bitter Root was published by Image Comics, and they offer more information about this trade paperback here. The series is ongoing, with a summer special already published and a sequel series promised to drop soon. Also, the series has been optioned for motion picture rights by Legendary Pictures.

The series does feature monsters, blood, and some gore, so I suggest it for readers mature enough to handle them.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

They Called Us Enemy

Looking over my past few entries, I have been grossly over-using the word "fun." Well, I am breaking the streak, because, not to downplay how good this book is, there's no chance of it appearing today. At a time when the US government is actively engaged in arresting and detaining refugees and immigrants, They Called Us Enemy is a strong reminder that such an atrocity is not unique to our times. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, FDR signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed the military to define certain regions as military zones and take actions to relocate questionable parties. This order meant that the military could round up all people of Japanese ancestry, whether they be US citizens are not, and regard them as potential spies or enemy sympathizers. That was the context for George Takei's family, who were Japanese-Americans living in California.
They were speedily allowed to pack a limited amount of belongings one night and then were put on a series of trains that brought them to some difficult, Spartan camps across the US. Some of them were put in places originally meant to house livestock. There, they had to learn to make do, cognizant that they were being treated as enemies by a country that they had accepted and worked hard to belong to. Although George and his brother were children who somewhat treated the whole thing as a weird adventure, his parents had to shoulder tough burdens of being disrespected and deemed inhuman.
What makes this book exceptional is how it pairs a strong narrative with artwork that is incredibly expressive and energetic. Between the postures and facial expressions, it is impossible not to feel something for the people depicted here. Their lives turned upside-down, their government betraying them, and them being treated like animals are all palpable experiences for the reader. Although this subject matter is difficult, I am glad that it is still being memorialized and brought back to light here. Especially now.

This book was a collaboration between writers George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott, and artist Harmony Becker. Takei is best known for his role as Sulu on Star Trek and is also a highly visible activist for civil rights. Eisinger is an Editorial Director for IDW, and I think this is his first comics writing gig. Scott also goes by the name Scott Duvall and is a blogger and comics writer with a number of credits for Archie and Arcana. This book also seems to be Becker's graphic novel debut but she also has created mini-comics and webcomics like Himawari Share. Takei speaks more in this interview about the creation of this graphic novel.

This book has been very well received and has gotten a number of starred reviews. Etelka Lehoczky wrote that "despite the grimness of its subject matter, They Called Us Enemy is a lively, vibrant book." Kirkus Reviews summed up,"A powerful reminder of a history that is all too timely today." Esther Keller wrote, "The black and white artwork is vibrant despite the lack of color," and added that the book "will add to a growing collection of nonfiction graphic stories that will help today’s younger generation understand our history and why we must say #neveragain."

They Called Us Enemy was published by Top Shelf, and they offer a preview and much more here.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Blackwood

Blackwood is a fun book, if you are into tales of horrific, otherwordly creatures trying to break into our world to devour and subjugate all of humanity. It is about four misfit teenagers who have been recruited to attend Blackwood College. Nothing seems to unite them except series of strange life experiences and some ability to either perceive or interact with supernatural entities. Campus life is eerie and weird, and soon everything escalates into an apocalypse-level event. The four motley teens need to find ways to unite their abilities in order to figure out what is happening and also save the world.
 

This book had a pretty interesting mystery that unfolded in intriguing and gruesome ways. The characters are more types who do not have much space for development, but they are sympathetic in the same way teens trying to survive 1970s/1980s horror movies were. The book had some cool features along the way, including professors trying to decipher arcane texts, a two-headed chimp mummy, giant mutated insects, and people infested with inter-dimensional tentacle beings. It was a fun read, and I think it ended in a satisfying way that also leaves things open for a sequel that will be published next year. I know I'm looking forward to seeing more stories set in this world, which is well detailed and has a lot of possibility for more grotesque supernatural hi-jinks.

Originally published as a 4-issue limited series, Blackwood was a collaboration between writer Evan Dorkin and artists Veronica and Andy Fish. Dorkin is a multiple Eisner Award winner most known for writing Beasts of Burden, but I am also partial to his work as writer/artist of the series Dork and Milk and Cheese. Veronica Fish is a painter who has done a lot of different work for Marvel Comics (Silk and Spider-Woman) and Archie Comics (Sabrina the Teen-Aged Witch and Archie). Andy is Veronica's husband who did the coloring artwork here and has worked on a variety of other comics, including ones about Batman and urban legends. All three creators speak about their work on this series here.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Forrest Hollingsworth called it "one of my favorite horror comics of the year." Dustin Cabeal wrote, "To have a book that’s entertaining, horrific and enticing makes Blackwood a comic no one should miss." Joe Grunenwald opined, "Dorkin, Fish, and Fish are at the top of their game here."

Blackwood was published by Dark Horse, and they offer a preview and more about it here.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Topside

Topside is a fun piece of sci-fi action. It stars Jo, a young woman who is a technician in the Core, an area in the interior of her planet. She keeps various things running, until one day she makes a mistake and tries to rectify it by taking an unauthorized trip to the planet's surface. There she plans to get some resources that will help her fix her error. What she does not plan on is running into a couple of shifty people who con her into their own schemes. She also did not plan on being tracked by a couple of bounty hunters, Karina and Lumi. Somehow, these five end up banded together on a journey across the planet's surface that may just be a wild goose chase.
I liked this book's set-up, and I feel that there are some good moments of suspense. My issue with it is that I don't feel that the ending paid enough due to the stakes raised from the onset. Things ended a bit too tidy, and without as much drama as I expected. However, there are a few things that do recommend this book. The artwork is energetic, clean, and very communicative. Also, one of the great joys of this book is the character designs, especially the bounty hunters. Karina is a giant woman with a shark head and Lumi is basically a walking light bulb. I might not have been utterly enraptured by the ending, but it is rather open-ended and invites sequels that might do justice to these entertaining and engaging characters.

This book's creative team writer J. N. Monk and artist Harry Bogosian also collaborate on a sci-fi webcomic StarHammer. Bogosian has drawn a couple of other webcomics, Demon's Mirror and A Better Place.

I was not able to find many reviews of this book, but the one I do cite here is positive. Kirkus Reviews summed it up, "Immersive, mysterious, and just the right amount of trippy." You can find more reviews of it at Goodreads where it currently has a 3.47 (out of 5) rating.

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