Saturday, May 25, 2019

New Kid

New Kid was recommended to me by fellow graphic novel aficionado Zach Barnes, and I am glad he turned me onto it. It is a rare book, in its view of a scholarship student going to a private school. Riverdale Academy Day School is a launching pad for success, and Jordan Banks's parents decide it is the best way for him to go. He's African-American, which puts in him in the minority at that new school, and he's really unsure if he belongs for many reasons. First, he wants to be an artist, and he feels that art school might be a better path for him. Second, he's from a family with modest means, and most of the students at RADS are super-rich patricians, some of whom have legacies there.

What really stood out to me about this book was how it depicted Jordan's various plights with humor, heart, and nuance. His parents want what is best for him, although they also have their disagreements about this situation. Jordan has to navigate a new space while dealing with racial and class issues. People often do not speak to him, and when they do they call him by the wrong name. Furthermore, he has to make new friends while also maintaining his relationships at home and making sense of both worlds. In part this struggle is embodied by the subtle transformations he makes each day as his dress and demeanor change over the course of the long bus ride to school. He has to assume several identities and navigate multiple realities, which this book shows in a way that drives home what many young people have to do in order to get by on a daily basis.
The book is laid out in multiple chapters, episodes that follow him across the school year. There are multiple plot threads, and overall I'd say the narrative is more observational than dramatic. But those observations are sharp, astute, and often heartfelt. I also very much enjoyed the sequences where we get to see Jordan's artwork and its humorous commentary on his life in and out of school. All of the characters are interesting and well portrayed as individuals who I enjoyed getting to know the over the course of the book, and I'd love to have another opportunity to revisit them in a sequel. I feel that this book has much to offer as food for though and also as a keen and emotional look at teen life. It is excellent for reading and re-reading, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Jerry Craft wrote and drew this book. He has drawn multiple children's books and graphic novels in the past, and he is known for his work on Mama's Boyz, both as a comic strip and in four books. This article sheds light on his work on New Kid, as does this interview.

Every review I have read about this book has been glowing. Elizabeth Bird summed up, "More than just the sum of its parts, Craft has created a book with guts, that kids will want to read multiple times. Funny, whip smart stuff." Victoria Jamieson called it "tender and tough, funny and heartbreaking." Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review that concluded, "An engrossing, humorous, and vitally important graphic novel that should be required reading in every middle school in America." Publishers Weekly also gave it a starred review that ended, "This engaging story offers an authentic secondary cast and captures the high jinks of middle schoolers and the tensions that come with being a person of color in a traditionally white space."

New Kid was published by HarperCollins, and they offer an audio excerpt, teacher guide, and more info here.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Mera: Tidebreaker

Aquaman is one of my favorite superheroes and always has been. When I was a kid, I watched reruns of his original cartoon series, had some cheesy toys, and have followed his adventures in comic books. These were my first introductions to him and his wife Mera, and right now with their hit movie they are pretty visible. They are so visible in fact that DC Comics decided to use Mera’s story to launch their new imprint DC Ink, which is geared toward a young adult book-reading audience. As you can see from the trade dress, they recruited successful young adult authors to write these books, and their names are displayed prominently across the top of the cover. The artists, even though these are comics that rely heavily on visual storytelling, are listed in smaller font toward the bottom of each cover. It seems pretty apparent to me that they are looking to make an impression in the young adult book market.

All of this business talk does not describe the book though, and still the question remains of how good it is. I am happy to say that I enjoyed reading it, and it is pretty dense but not in a bad way. Mera’s character has a long, complicated history that this book tells in a way that a new reader could easily get into. She has superpowers, and can control water via telekinesis. She is a princess of Xebel, an underwater region that is currently ruled by Atlantis. Her people do not particularly like this situation, and Mera takes part in covert acts of rebellion, which can put her father the king in serious hot water. Also, she is supposed to marry Larken, a prince from the Trench, as a way to unite their regions in an alliance. 
Although she has known Larken pretty much her whole life, she bristles at having these decisions made for her. In order to break out of these multiple constraints on her life, she decides to go behind her father’s back and assassinate the crown prince of Atlantis, Arthur (who comics readers know will grow up to be Aquaman). She feels that would free Xebel from Atlantis's rule and also prove her worthy of choosing her own spouse. There are a couple of complications in this plan. Arthur, it turns out, lives on the surface world and does not know anything about Atlantis. Mera has to find a way to infiltrate his life on dry land, which she does, but the more she learns about Arthur the more she finds him kind, noble, and innocent of the actions being perpetrated by Atlanteans. She starts to admire him, and feelings develop that make it hard for her to complete her mission. 
That is about as much of the plot I will reveal without spoiling things, and I felt that this book covered a lot of ground. I know young adult books often get dismissed as being light and breezy, but this book was substantive and weighty. There was much going on, a lot of work put into developing the character and the intricate plot. I enjoyed seeing how all the moving parts fit into each other, and I think this book would be great for both superhero fans, young adult book readers, and also those looking for a good action/fantasy tale. It also ties in well with the film’s version of these characters, if that might be the entry point. Although it does not feature the characters as I am familiar with them, it recasts them in a contemporary way that is attractive and interesting. This is a Mera who is her own person, a strong, complicated protagonist who I think would be popular with a new generation of readers.

This book was a collaboration between writer Danielle Paige and illustrator Stephen Byrne. Paige is known for her YA novel series DorothyMust Die, and Stealing Snow. Byrne is relatively new to comics, and he is currently working on the Wonder Twins mini-series published by DC Comics. His art is well detailed, reminiscent of animation, and the underwater scenes are especially well rendered and highlighted by the book's coloring. Paige speaks more about her work on Mera: Tidebreaker in this interview.

The reviews I have read of this book have been pretty positive. Johanna Draper Carlson wrote, "Although classically formulaic, evoking star-crossed lovers and those buffeted by fate and constrained by royalty, the journey here is deep and satisfying." Kirkus Reviews called the plot "a bit convoluted" and described Mera as "a sassy, take-no-prisoners heroine who may look like Disney’s Ariel but who is imbued with grit and substance." Ray Goldfield called it "a surprisingly mature comic, essentially a tale about child soldiers in a war they didn’t start."

Mera: Tidebreaker was published by DC Ink, and they offer a preview and more info about it here.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Kiss Number 8

Kiss Number 8 is set in 2004, but I feel that the story is also very relevant and contemporary. It stars a 17-year-old named Amanda who goes to a Catholic school. She gets along well with her father, and they are big minor league baseball fans who also like to watch cheesy fantasy TV shows and play video games. She feels a little more tension with her mother, though this starts to shift over time after she learns about a secret her parents are keeping that seems to implicate her father in some serious infidelity.

That is the background of the subplot, and more immediate in Amanda's life is her relationship with her school friends. Her best friend Cat is a tornado, sneaking out to clubs, drinking, carousing, and hooking up with boys. Her next door neighbors, Laura and Adam are more staid, though Adam has had a crush on her that is getting increasingly difficult to ignore or play off. As the book goes on, Amanda realizes that she does not really have any feelings for Adam but for Cat, and then things really go off the rails.
This book was a fantastic read. It features very realized, nuanced characters, both in terms of the plotting and how they are visually depicted. There are many sorts of emotions in play in here, and I feel that it handles all of the drama, humor, love, and pain in excellent fashion. I also admired that the book takes the issues at hand very seriously and does not resolve with simple, pat responses to complex relationships. It handles issues of gender and sexuality in a frank manner that shows all people's humanity, including their strengths and foibles. Finally, it highlights the awkward, painful, and weird ways that adolescent relationships form, evolve, and crumple that made me both cringe and ring a little nostalgic. That last feeling was heightened by the characters frequently interacting via instant messaging, which was the style at the time. I was genuinely moved several times in reading Kiss Number 8, which is a testament to its characters and craft.

This excellent book was a collaboration between Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw. Venable is a book designer and author who is known for her Eisner nominated Pet Shop Private Eye series. Crenshaw is an illustrator who has also contributed to The Nib. I enjoyed both their work and also getting to know more about them in the substantive Q&A that followed the story. Both creators speak about their work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. Kirkus Review gave it a starred review that summed the book up as "A rare blend of tender and revolutionary."  Publishers Weekly gave it another starred review that concluded, "A queer coming-of-age story that earns its powerful emotional impact." Dahlia Adler called it "a layered, funny, sharp-edged story of teen sexuality and family secrets." Alea Perez wrote, "Overall, Venable and Crenshaw do a wonderful job of using the characters to present teaching moments to readers without it feeling unnatural or patronizingly didactic." Andrew wrote that he was "happy to read an LGBTQ+ story that definitely had stakes and drama but did not have to end tragically or lack humor."

Kiss Number 8 was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here.

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Iliad

One of my favorite graphic novel adaptations is Gareth Hinds's The Odyssey, which is colorful, vibrant, and captures so much of the spirit of the epic poem. Here, he did things a little in reverse and adapted that work's predecessor, The Iliad, which chronicles the tenth year of the Trojan War. Personally, I prefer the poem The Odyssey to the poem The Iliad, mostly because the latter has a lot more battle scenes that read more as info dumps. I was curious how this poem would read as a graphic novel, because of those sections, but I feel that Hinds has made the whole enterprise work. Certainly, the moments where the days' casualties are noted and listed stand somewhat in contrast to the rest of the soldier/leader/gods drama, but Hinds does the work to make them feel integrated into the whole narrative. Also, their deaths are intimately tied into the machinations of others.
Of course, the banner plot of the book involves the conflict between King Agamemnon and Achilles, his best fighter, over Briseis, a concubine who is treated as a spoil of war. And there is much interaction between the gods and goddesses, with Athena and Hera (and by extension Zeus) on one side and Aphrodite, Ares, Apollo, and Artemis on the other. Clearly, there are many characters, plots, and moving parts, but I feel that Hinds weaves them all into a cohesive, artful whole. I love how he uses symbols and color to differentiate characters that might otherwise be confused, and also how he grounds the tale in reality through maps and front-pieces identifying the characters.
Although I must admit it was not as enjoyable as The Odyssey to me, it was not for lack of effort or craft. I just like the one story better. Both graphic novels are masterpieces that stand well together.

Hinds is no stranger as an adapter of classic works into graphic novels. Already he has created a number of them like The Merchant of Venice, Beowulf, and King Lear. He speaks more about the process of creating his adaptation of The Iliad here and in this interview. He speaks about his work in general in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review that concluded, "Hinds’s relatively plain language retains just enough meter to hint at the cadences of the work, and, together with the dynamic art, creates an accessible entrée to an enduring classic." Dominic Umile called it "magnificently realized." Kirkus Reviews summed up, "An expertly crafted rendition and a welcome invitation to younger readers to immerse themselves in the ancient past."

The Iliad was published by Candlewick Press, and they offer a preview and more here.

The publisher provided a preview copy.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Hey Kids! Comics!

Today, the properties that originated in comic books are big business. Superhero stories spawn huge franchises that cross over various media platforms and used to sell a myriad of products. But the people responsible for creating these often beloved and highly commercial characters and stories are often buried in obscurity, relegated to a single line of a movie credit (if they are lucky), or often cut out of receiving any credit at all. Famously, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold Superman to what would be called DC Comics for $130 and spent decades trying to be compensated for their creation. Jack Kirby created or co-created pretty much every character in the original Marvel Universe, but he received no royalties, and worse yet mostly people attribute his work to Stan Lee. Even more recently, Thanos creator Jim Starlin feuded with Marvel over compensation over the main villain for a movie that had a $1.2 billion opening weekend. Such situations of inequity are the focus of this book, Hey Kids! Comics! that chronicles the lives of several fictional comics creators.

It features several characters over the course of eight decades, and they appear to be based on specific familiar figures as well as some composite characters. The main three, Ted Whitman, Benita Heindel, and Ray Clarke, all shed a unique light on the comics industry. Whitman is an African American artist, working in a field dominated by white men. Heindel is a white woman also trying to navigate this world. Clarke is a white man, but he is a freelancer who bounces between companies and gets a wide look at goings on in comics as a whole. Over the years, they deal with the low regard and low pay of the job, ego-maniacal publishers and editors, turbulent years when comics companies were in financial distress, and the need to be adaptable in order to survive in multiple times of change.

As a person pretty well versed in comic book history, I recognize that a bunch of the stories told here cleave closely to actual events, albeit in fictionalized fashion. They are fascinating, gripping tales that offer a counterpoint to the glam and glitter associated (especially with) superheroes today. The storytelling is tight, the characters are strong and memorable. The biggest issue I had with the book was keeping up with it large cast of characters and time shifts, but after the first chapter I got into the swing and rhythm of the book and everything clicked along well. I feel this book is complex enough that rereading it is rewarding, so it has that in its favor as well.

This volume collects what was a five-issue series, and it was created by Howard Chaykin, a veteran comics maker with decades of experience. He cut his teeth in the industry as an assistant to legends Gil Kane (who I feel is the inspiration for the Clarke character) and Wally Wood. He notably drew some of the initial Star Wars comic books for Marvel in the 1970s, but it was in the 1980s that he really began making his mark transforming comic books with his independent series American Flagg! and the X-rated Black Kiss. He has numerous comics credits since then, and he speaks more about his work on Hey Kids! Comics! in this interview and also writes more about it in this article.

The reviews I have seen about this book have been mixed. Dan Traeger concluded, "I highly recommend this if you’re a fan of comic book history, or if you’re a fan of Chaykin’s historical fiction." Alan Boon wrote, "If you’re even a casual student of comic book history, and aren’t averse to seeing Stan Lee pulled down off his pedestal and given a beating with a rock in a sock, then this could hold some interest for you." Cole offered some interesting insights in his review at The Perfect Bound Podcast. Derek and I also discussed the first two issues in this episode of The Comics Alternative podcast.

Hey Kids! Comics! was  published by Image Comics, and they offer a preview and much more info about it here.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Long Con, Volume 1

The Long Con is what I'd call a high concept series, based on the premise that a bomb went off in the southwestern United States, killing everyone in a 50 mile radius and giving rise to some horrific mutations. Five years later, a desperate newspaper reporter is sent into the forbidden zone to explore and report on the site of the Long Con, the hugest popular culture event of the year (a thinly disguised San Diego Comic-Con). What he finds is astounding, the convention center was somehow shielded from the destruction and fallout, and in the interim a small society of survivors has evolved that lives on processed foods and occasional cannibalism.

Of course, the survivors being comics fans, sci-fi geeks, and random featured celebrities, their society ends up consisting of factions based on fandom and the level of their access badges. This set-up makes for a satirical look at those folks, as they conduct purity tests to assess who is and is not an outsider and just behave in the most extreme sorts of manners. They still engage in cosplay, though the stakes have become much higher over time. I enjoyed this book well enough, and I had been looking forward to reading it for a while, but in the end I was left a little cold by the whole thing. It has lots of geek culture references to satisfy those in the know, and I appreciated them (or at least the ones I got), and it comes from a place of love for fandom, but I feel that almost all the characters are too one-dimensional for me to care about. What could have been an interesting premise just went to typical sorts of humor and jokes about rabid fanboys and fangirls.

My favorite part of the book was the artwork, which is fun, energetic, and full of vibrant details. And it really pulls off the trick of depicting parallel narratives from the past, present, and fictional TV versions of Skylarks (a Star Trek pastiche). Overall however, the book left me feeling that maybe I am not its target audience, so others' mileages may vary. Perhaps book 2 will have a better payoff, when the whole story culminates.

This volume collects the first 5 issues of the 10 issue limited series. It was written by Dylan Meconis and Ben Coleman, drawn by EA Denich, and colored by M. Victoria Robado. Meconis is a member of the creative collective called Helioscope, and an Eisner, Reuben, and Kim Yale-nominated cartoonist. She has worked on lots of comics in the past including the series Family Man, the graphic novel Wire Mothers, and the forthcoming Queen of the Sea. Coleman writes for the Portland Mercury and does not seem to have any other comics credits. Denich has also drawn the graphic novel Yes Roya. Robado has lots of illustration credits and also works on the webcomic #Blessed. The creators speak about their work on this series in this interview.

The reviews I have read of this book have largely been positive. Charles Hartford described it as "fast paced, lots of fun." Christopher Scott concluded his review, "This first volume is a send-up of the chaos that is a convention and uses it for an interesting twist, loving fandom for what it is and never crossing the line from respect into meanness." Lonnie Webb wrote, "Dench’s art is full of cameos and beautifully drawn with great characterization. More-so than a parody might have deserved. Tops on that. Colors by Victoria Robado are nice and completely fit the bill."

The Long Con, Volume 1 was published by Oni Press, and they have more info about it here. Currently the series is up to issue 8.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America

First off, I meant to have this post up for April 20, but life has been hectic lately, and as you might tell, I have not been posting as regularly as accustomed. Hopefully, this is the book to get me back on track. I am a big fan of Box Brown's work, and in the past his stuff has appeared on my "Best of" year-end lists. This book is unique though in that I am not really that familiar with the topic and it's not something, like professional wrestling, video games, or comedy, that I have been a fan of. So this book was more of a learning platform for me. Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America covers a lot of ground and includes lots of different insights. It shows, among other things,
the science behind getting high on marijuana
an origin myth from the Hindu tradition
a history of false assumptions and spurious science.
And I gleaned much here. For instance, I had no idea who Harry J. Anslinger was before I read this book, let alone that the man almost single-handed created the "war on drugs" as we know it. It is horrifying to see how much he relied on false claims, racism, and prejudice against immigrants to push public policies that have led to decades of abuse, misinformation, and incarceration. A large portion of the book focuses on his work, and he definitely comes off as a villain, which seems appropriate and sadly familiar to some contemporary voices I hear.

There is a lot going on in this work, and it is well researched, with a huge bibliography at the end. I think it may have benefited from some chapter headings to help steer the reader, but overall I feel it does its job well. It contains all sorts of disparate information and weaves it together into a portrayal of the modern take on marijuana use. It also makes a strong thesis for why current policies and views are misguided and wrong. I feel it is a strong piece of comics rhetoric and history, and I highly recommend it.

This book's creator Box Brown has left a big footprint in comics already, founding the indie imprint Retrofit Comics. He has also created a cavalcade of comics, mini-comics, and graphic novels, including his biographys of Andre the Giant and Andy Kaufman as well as his history of Tetris. He speaks about his work on Cannabis in this interview as well as this NPR interview.

The reviews I have read of this book have ranged from good to lukewarm. Jonathan O'Neal wrote, "Brown’s book presents an impassioned case for continuing the discussion over this very complicated issue, and with “Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America,” Brown becomes an important voice in that conversation." Henry Chamberlain called it "a most remarkable book in how it packs together a disparate clump of facts and myths and makes sense of it all." Kirkus Reviews summed up, "Not as engaging as the author’s bio of Andre the Giant, but his uncluttered drawings suit his straightforward argument."

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