Thursday, April 30, 2015

Last Man, Book 1: The Stranger

Last Man is a combination of European and Japanese comics sensibilities. The art style is a combination of highly detailed and also sketchy, spare imagery. Just check out this gorgeous splash page that opens the book:
And then look at the scene below as a teacher talks to his student in the fighting school.
There is much detail in the backgrounds and settings, but the characters themselves are depicting in simple, elegant lines. I enjoyed the economy used with the figures, as it makes them more open and accessible. Also, even though they appear rather like simple types, they convey lots of different emotions and feelings. And as you can see below, depending on the scene, the artwork also uses manga conventions where the backgrounds suddenly become unnecessary in telling the story:
I think this is a beautifully rendered book, easily accessible for many readers. The story was exactly like that for me as well. The basic plot follows a young boy named Adrian who is finally old enough to compete in the Games, an annual gladiatorial tournament. He is not that skilled a fighter, but he has spirit. In order to compete, each fighter must have a partner, and when Adrian's has to bow out it leaves him unable to register. Coincidentally, a large, rough and tumble guy named Richard Aldana has rolled into town to also compete, and a very unlikely partnership is cast.

Adrian and Richard are very different. Adrian is young and rather innocent, and he wants nothing more than to make life better for him and his single mother, Marianne. Richard is a brute who drinks hard, smokes a lot, and carouses rather than trains. Still, his confrontational fighting style appears to work well in this tournament where all the other fighters use fighting magic to compete.

Aside from the tournament and fighting, both of which I found very engaging and entertaining, there are also a good number of intriguing elements at work here. There is a romantic triangle where Aldana is drawn to Adrian's mom, but Adrian's teacher Mr. Jensen seems to have her attention. There is also the local lord who has a keen interest in the tournament and spies on the players of interest. And not to mention all of the strong personalities of the fighters themselves, as they try to psyche their opponents out as much as physically defeat them.

There is just enough information about the characters, setting, and plot that the story hums along and works cohesively. But what I ended up liking more when I was finished with the book was being able to wonder about a good many interesting questions yet to be answered: What's the point behind the Games? Where is Adrian's father? Where is Richard Aldana from? Why is he so familiar yet unfamiliar with how the Games work? What is Lord Ignacio Cudna's angle on everything?

The three creators behind this book all come from different fields. Balak is a noted animator who also does some digital comics work. Michaël Sanlaville is a video game designer, and Bastien Vivès is an award winning comics artist. All three creators speak about making this book in this interview and also tease about where the series might be heading.

Last Man is already pretty celebrated overseas, awarded the Prix de la Serie at Angoulême this past year. All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly called this volume "swift and addictive." Jess Costello found some faults within the book but concluded that "for anyone looking for an entertaining book with a vibrant cast and unique outlook on fantasy, this book is an excellent start, and builds the promise that the entire series will follow." Seth T. Hahne added that it is "a vibrant beginning to what I hope will continue to be a vibrant series."

The Stranger is the first in a proposed series of 12 books, 6 of which have already been published in France. The next installment will be out in the US this June. There is also a video game in development to accompany this series that should be out in September.

Because of the situations and very rare strong language (nothing you could not find in a typical YA book) I would recommend this book for upper elementary or middle school readers at the youngest. But I can also say as an adult, I loved reading it, and I am eager for the next in the series.

A preview and much more is available here from Last Man's publisher, First Second.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Nursery Rhyme Comics

Nursery Rhyme Comics follows the formula used by editor Chris Duffy in Fairy Tale Comics and Above the Dreamless Dead, start with some classic source material and get an all-star team of talent to illustrate those classics. I am glad to say that like those two aforementioned books, this one is also quite excellent. It features a bevy of talented artists, 50 in all, many of them well celebrated like Jules Feiffer, Roz Chast, Raina Telgemeier, Kate Beaton, Gahan Wilson, and Gilbert Hernandez.

The artwork is gorgeous and varied in superb manner. I love the multiple styles in here, and also that these nursery rhymes are depicted in punchy, one or two page spreads for the most part. Some of these adaptations are pretty literal:
A rare non-Love and Rockets Jaime Hernandez piece.
Others are set in exotic locales:
This picture just makes me smile.
Others rely on playful re-interpretation:
Dave Roman rules!
And a handful are funny, clever meta-commentaries on nursery rhymes:
Not going to lie. I laughed out loud at this one.
Taken together, this book is a treasure trove of fun, expertly crafted comics. I think it is best savored in small chunks, so that the reader can experience each nursery rhyme on its own terms without creating a blur by binging on these short tales.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have gushed as much as I have here. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review and summed up, "As much as the visual styles may vary, the high levels of wit and invention never falter." Elizabeth Bird wrote that this book "gives kids everywhere a new way of encountering some essential cultural touchstones." Stumptown Trade Review called it "a fun and unexpected delight."

Nursery Rhyme Comics was published by First Second, and they provide a preview and much more here.
I can't stop posting preview pages!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Unflattening

I have to admit that I am good friends with the author of this book, Nick Sousanis, and also that I am lucky enough to be mentioned in the acknowledgements. We have presented at conferences together, hung out, and talked a lot about comics and life. Even so, I feel that if I did not know Nick I would still be saying that Unflattening is a remarkable achievement. It is a book about thought, expression, philosophy, art, understanding, and being in the world. And I am going to have a difficult time talking about, to the point where I will certainly be doing it a disservice. Probably the best way to wrap your head around what it is is to go get a copy (or two, that'd be better for Nick) and read it.

This book does so many things and collects diverse influences such as Maxine Greene, Flatland, Monty Python, John Dewey, The Wizard of Oz, Deleuze and Guattari, Alice in Wonderland, René DeCartes, and Scott McCloud. It combines myth, autobiography, philosophy, art, art criticism, popular culture, and narrative in weaving together a complex tapestry of thought, a reflection on how we enter into the world, relate to it, process it, and try to represent it. He depicts this conversation in 10 chapters, each a visual essay drawn in an attractive, mostly realistic style that reminds me of a combination of Scott McCloud and MC Escher.

Just look at this page where Sousanis gets into explaining how our senses and thinking are both linked and limiting:
Or this one where he gets into how symbols shape how we think, create, and sense the world:


My initial response to this work was simply, WOW. Although I feel that today my words are not up to the task of describing the book, this discussion and response to one of Nick's talks at MIT does a great job of touching on the its aims, background, and ideas.

Sousanis is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Calgary. He blogs about his work here, and he also has a new website here. This book was Nick's doctoral dissertation project, and he speaks about it in much depth in this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

All of the reviews I have read about Unflattening have been full of praise. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and called it "Essential reading for anyone seeking to create, critique, or consider the visual narrative form." Brian McGackin concluded his review, "Some people aren't interested in learning, so this book wouldn't be for them, but anyone who is curious, who faces their admitted ignorance with excitement at the possibility of the constant education it implies, they will find joy in Unflattening. We should encourage this type of teaching, because learning should always be this fun." As for my own views, I think that Unflattening is a complex and beautiful book that demands to be read and re-read.

Unflattening was published by Harvard University Press.  They have all kinds of information about the book here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Tomboy

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed Liz Prince's Alone Forever collection and learned she had created an honest to goodness graphic novel. Being a big fan of her earlier works I just had to check it out. Tomboy is a memoir about growing up, feeling weird, and trying to fit in, with a huge focus on gender issues and how they get defined from an early age. The book opens with a pivotal scene that sets the stage for the rest of the book. Liz, age 4, communicates how she hates how she's been dressed and has a meltdown:
 

Her family is very positive about her wants, and they cater to her wishes without making a fuss or being critical or hurtful. They just want her to be happy with who and how she is. As she grows older and interacts with friends in school though, things get tense. The young children and adolescents she encounters in all her schools (elementary, middle, and high) and in her neighborhood are not always the most accepting of her toy, wardrobe, playtime, or pastime choices. And from these points of conflict come a discussion about what's right, who gets to decide what is right, and how people judge one another based on preconceived gender roles.
Looking at what I wrote above, it may seem like this book is somewhat academic, and it is in a few places. But I hope you can see from the excerpts that it more consistently is a book with heart, humor, and very human feelings. There are many laughs, moments of sadness and hurt, glimpses of hope, and lots of opportunities where I felt personally connected with the characters and situations. The storytelling, facial expressions, and pacing are all expertly delineated and make this book a joy to read.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been full of praise. The notoriously tough Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review and called it "Spectacular; a book to make anyone think seriously about society’s preordained gender role." The School Library Journal's Amanda MacGregor called it "utterly fantastic." For those interested in learning more what's behind this book, Prince talks about her work on Tomboy in this interview with Comic Book Resources.

Going by the tried and true Joe Bob Briggs 3 B's scale, this book has 7 beasts (three bullies, three mean girls, and one crazy "friend"), a few mentions of blood (menstrual), and 3 boobs (in an educational film the girls have to watch in school). It also features some profanity, harsh taunting, and more than a few romantic or sort of sexual situations, so I recommend it for readers mature enough to handle those things.

Tomboy was published by Zest Books, and they offer a preview, reviews, and more here.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Last of the Sandwalkers

Last of the Sandwalkers is graphic novel that tackles much. It is an adventure, a guide to insect life, and full of humor. The story involves a band of scientific explorers who venture out from their home to explore the desert. They initially think that beetles are the Earth's sole life form, but they get disabused of that notion when they find various skeletons and encounter weird feathered creatures that try to eat them. I could go through the cast of characters, but it would be simpler if you just looked at their introduction pages below:
Even though those pages above are not really telling much of how the story goes, they do capture much of what makes this book funny and informative. Also, I will warn readers not to put too much trust in Professor Owen, because he is up to no good at all.

I found the narrative itself very compelling, with strong characters, good plot twists, and lots of action and suspense. It has some fantastical elements, and the beetles act a lot like human beings, but overall it balances the facts with fiction well. Also, the artwork is at once attractive and energetic. Just look at the eye-popping detail in this action sequence:
Birds are jerks.
This book's creator Jay Hosler works as a biologist and cartoonist at Juniata College. He has created multiple graphic novels about various scientific topics, including Clan Apis (about the lives of bees), The Sandwalk Adventures (about Charles Darwin), and Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth. He talks more about his work on this book in this interview. He also blogs about his various works here.

The reviews I have read about this book have been largely positive. Publishers Weekly wrote that the book "mingles themes of family, forgiveness, and freedom of ideas, and even manages to make big-eyed, mandibled crawlers emotive without getting too cartoony." Kirkus Reviews summed up, "Hosler’s sincere excitement in both the pursuit of knowledge and the power of comics makes these bugs eminently memorable." Kara at Good Imaginations had some reservations about it, but also admitted "I think there is a lot of good here."

Last of the Sandwalkers was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more available here.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copy!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Loverboys

Loverboys is a return to a certain sort of story for Gilbert Hernandez. The story here takes place in the small town of Lágrimas, which feels a lot like Palomar but seems to me to be in the US. There are also many interesting characters there, with strong, distinct personalities. Rocky is one of the main players, and he is having affairs with both his boss and a former teacher.
That teacher, Mrs. Paz, is the object of many men's affections as well, though she does not give many the time of day. Then there is the trio of teenage girls who want to poison the whole town so they won't have to go to school anymore. Rocky's little sister, Daniela, is in this group but then she creates a separate plot to just blow the town up. Eventually, Rocky has to leave town for a while and Mrs. Paz decides to watch Daniela in the meantime, and this set-up is the catalyst for a bunch of revelations.
There is lots of drama in this book, between strained family relations, a few complicated love triangles, lots of gossip, two terrorist plots, and a knothole where some magical folk may live (this is a Gilbert Hernandez book after all, which means there has to be some magical realism somewhere). So, to sum up, a lot happens in a short amount of space. I am not sure all the plots resolve in a satisfying way, but I feel that this is still an interesting read. And for people who are loath to tackle the entirety of Love and Rockets, Loverboys would work as a good enough introduction to Gilbert's work.

Most of the reviews I have read praise this book, even if they acknowledge it is not a substantial work. Tom Murphy called it "accessible, inventive and entertaining, while also having the slightly rambling, off-balance quality that Beto’s readers know and love." Publishers Weekly summed up, "Some abrupt transitions make this a minor work from Hernandez, but the compact story is a pleasing diversion." Matt Little wrote that "a middling Gilbert Hernandez book is still better than many creators' best work." John Yohe had many issues with the book, and he summed up that "a little magic isn’t an excuse to have unbelievable characters. Or ginormous boobs and booty shorts."

Loverboys was published by Dark Horse, and they have a preview and more here. If it is not clear by now, this book is really for mature readers, so I do not recommend it for younger folk at all.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Alone Forever

Alone Forever is the most fun piece of schadenfreude I have experienced in a while. It is an autobiographic look at Liz Prince's love life, and although there is not so much a unified narrative as there is a series of episodes, the whole work hangs together quite well. I know that some folks think there may be a glut of autobiographical comics, but there is much to like about this book. I will give you three big reasons:

1. Prince's self deprecating sense of humor. She reveals a lot about herself in this book. She is into bearded guys who wear hip band shirts. She is not a girly girl. She is particular about her likes and dislikes. And she is sometimes awkward. Still, I find her antics hilarious.
2. How she throws herself under the bus. Even though she is the protagonist of her own stories, she does not always cast herself in the best light. She is frequently blunt and offensive, and I love her sense of confidence while she takes potshots at herself.
3. Her sense of comics. Although these various entries are somewhat sketchy sometimes, they also show a great awareness of how comics work. Her storytelling is clear, and she's got excellent comedic timing. Prince is deceptively crafty, and I think she makes very accessible, fun, and funny comics.
Prince has a few other collections available, including the Ignatz Award winning Will You Still Love Me if I Wet the Bed? and Delayed Replays. She also published a graphic memoir Tomboy, which was named a Best Teen Book of the Year by Kirkus Reviews. She speaks more about her work on Alone Forever in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Colleen Frakes wrote, "Her art has improved with each book, but in this one she's really nailed it with a cute, spare style." Greg McElhatton suggested, "Leave Alone Forever on your coffee table and I promise you, before long you'll hear chuckles and groans of recognition as your guests start leafing through it." Matt D. Wilson added, "The gags make readers laugh in the moment, but there are insights that stick around long after the book goes back on the shelf."

Alone Forever was published by Top Shelf, and they have a preview and much more here. There are frequent profanity and adult situations in this book, so it is suggested for readers mature enough to handle both.