Monday, January 27, 2020

A big day for graphic novels at the ALA Youth Media Awards

This morning the 2020 winners of the American Library Aassociation Youth Media Awards were announced and there were a couple of historic firsts.

Jerry Craft's graphic novel New Kid, which I reviewed here, won both the Newbery Award and the Coretta Scott King Award. It is the first graphic novel to win the Newbery, and the third graphic novel to win the Coretta Scott King Award, with March Book 1 winning in 2014 and March, Book 3 in 2017.

Another big winner of the day was Jarrett Krosoczka's Hey Kiddo (my review here), which is the first graphic novel to win the Odyssey Award for best audiobook. I have not listened to it as of yet, but I loved the book version and am eager to hear how it got translated to an audio medium.
Both books are excellent, and I am very excited for both authors. Hooray for graphic novels!

Congratulations to all involved!!!

Monday, January 20, 2020

A spotlight on Silver Sprocket

One of my favorite things about Derek was how much he loved to read all sorts of comics. That included works from lots of publishers, and I was struck by just how much he seemed to know about a wide array of creators and countries. The breadth of his fandom was impressively comprehensive.

We would toss around ideas about shows we wanted to do and books we wanted to read, and I know we were thinking about a spotlight on Silver Sprocket. It is a publisher, creative crew, and gallery based in San Francisco, and they have a definite punk rock ethos. I had read and enjoyed a book published by them a few years ago, Liz Prince's Be Your Own Backing Band, and they have an interesting bunch of creators associated with their press. So when I had some holiday money this past year I got a few of their books, and I will share them with you here:

Big Punk is an 18-page story by Janelle Hessig where a lot happens. A punk woman who has been living in Fog City decides that the town is just to gentrified and hipster-ridden for her anymore, so she moves out to the country.
After a few weeks of peace and quiet, she grows bored and restless, and (without spoiling too much) she gets involved in a very unlikely relationship. With her life transformed, she settles in some, though still with a prickly relationship with the locals.

This book is funny and shocking, with some sexual humor as well as profanity, but it is also an interesting take on what happens to rebellious people as they grow older. Sure, they carry on the struggles in their own ways but their lives and popular culture transform as well. In a different way, it reminds me of the themes in Jaime Hernandez's Is This How You See Me? with its take on aging punk rockers. It is intriguing to see how defiant people eventually settle down, particularly when they do not necessarily mellow out.

I very much admired the artwork, too. It is very bold with clear storytelling, and best of all for me included lots of details, like the titles of books on the punk woman's book shelf, that really helped make this cartoony world feel real. It is a funny and provocative book, with a surprising amount of heart.
Striking a different note in its 32 pages, Magical Beatdown, Volume 1 by Jenn Woodall is a garish, revenge fantasy done as a mash-up of manga tropes. The protagonist is a mousy, goody-two-shoes who resembles Sailor Moon. She is playing arcade games when she gets accosted by some tough-looking juvenile delinquent types. The story then shifts from blue to hot pink (literally), and the main character transforms into a badass warrior who brutally murders everyone who crosses her. She also swears a lot. The story is satisfying in two ways: there is the joy in justice being served and the ultra-violence is done with verve and a sense of humor.
I won't say it is the deepest or most meaningful book I've ever read, but it's a delightfully gory confection. The artwork is very expressive and over-the-top, but at the same time quite gorgeous. There is a Volume 2, and it was a 2018 Doug Wright Spotlight Award Winner. I will definitely be checking it out soon.
Inspired by the philosophical work of Frantz Fanon, Your Black Friend by Ben Passmore checks in at a seemingly slight 12 pages, but they are dense with ideas and feelings. It chronicles a short series of exchanges at a coffee shop, but within those moments all sorts of history and culture get unpacked. The "black friend" observes an oblivious older white woman having an exchange with the barista, and it sets off his train of thought.
In a few short seconds, he ponders his past experiences with similar people, how black culture gets co-opted, how he feels he has to perform for both whites and blacks in ways that alienate him from both groups, and his own tenuous friendships. Towards the end of the story, he also has a brief revenge fantasy play through his head, but it is not nearly as explosive as that in Magical Beatdown, and it only highlights the futility and frustration he feels.

Your Black Friend is pretty text-heavy, but it is also propelled by an iconographic art style that features bold, primary colors for places and backgrounds but is aptly static when applied to the protagonist. It seems like there is great potential for explosive reactions, but he is constrained by culture and potential racist backlash and maintains a flat, seemingly nonplussed affect. He maintains his face like a mask, not betraying his thoughts about his plight.

This book is thought-provoking and powerful, and it won the 2017 Ignatz Award for "Outstanding Comic." You can read it all for free right here, but I think it is also well worth buying, perhaps in this collection.

After reading these comics from Silver Sprocket, I was very impressed with their offerings. I marveled at how subversively socially conscious they are, and I admire the contemporary punk ethos they communicate. At the same time, I did not really feel they were preachy, as they were very enjoyable reads as well.  These comics are the best sort, ones that are deep and entertaining at the same time.

All of these books are available here from Silver Sprocket, which also offers a good variety of other titles. Go check them out!

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Come Again

In my last post I noted the death of Tom Spurgeon, a huge figure in contemporary comics. Today I start a series of remembrances about my friend and collaborator Derek Royal. Derek's death was too soon, as he was only 55. I met him several years back through our mutual friend Andy Kunka, and it was a couple of years ago now that he asked me to be the regular co-host of the Comics Alternative Podcast. Derek was a great ambassador of all comics. Our podcast focused on alternative comics, those not published by the big 2 comics companies. In that purview were works by independent presses, self-publishers, manga, European comics, webcomics, and comics for younger readers. I did a bunch of shows with him, got to interview some great creators, and also read a lot of comics that I might not have otherwise.
Derek, as rendered by Andy Hirsch
Derek was a voracious reader who read all sorts of work from all sorts of creators and publishers, big and small, local and international. He really pushed the boundaries of how I look at comics, and what is more he pushed me to examine my own thinking about comics. Most of all, he was a good friend and conversationalist. I really miss talking to him, not just about comics but also mundane stuff. We had lots of ideas for different directions to take the podcast, and I am sad not to get to realize those with him. In the spirit of revisiting my time with Derek and also revisiting some of the books we might have reviewed together, I plan to spend the rest of this month reviewing works pertaining to him. It is one small way I have to share his legacy of spreading the joy of reading a great variety of comics.

There are a good number of other tributes and memorials to Derek out there. The Philip Roth Society, which he founded, has a lovely write-up here. Comics for Fun and Profit has a good podcast about him here. I just listened to that one, and it was weird hearing him again. He sounds so vital and enthusiastic, as per usual, and I could not help but be struck by how I used to listen to him make our own episodes, how he would read the copy for our sponsor every time, and how I would also jump in at opportune moments to bolster what he was pitching. Derek did pretty much all the work on The Comics Alternative, and I felt most of what I had to do was read, be prepared with some talking points, and just be a good conversationalist. He did all the editing, posting, and everything else technical, which I find amazing.

My favorite tribute about Derek was from Paul Lai, who was co-hosted the podcast before I did. He and I had similar experiences with Derek, and I think he is much more eloquent in crystallizing just how special a guy Derek was. Go give it listen.

In one of the last podcasts we did together, Derek chose this book as one of his honorable mentions for favorite books of 2018. At the time, I thought I have it but have not gotten to it yet; I should put it on the top of my to-read pile. Then, after our hiatus and Derek's death, I did not really want to read it, almost as if I did another part of him would be gone. So, it has been on my shelf a long time, and I feel like now is the time for me to start addressing my feelings.

Come Again is by Nate Powell, a veteran and expert creator with a long list of praised works, including the Eisner and National Book Award winning March trilogy. He has also drawn a number of other graphic novels, such as The Silence of Our Friends, Swallow Me Whole, and Any Empire. He is one of the most accomplished graphic novelists of his generation. Powell spoke with Derek and Paul about his work on this book in this podcast interview.

This book is a unique one that defies easy categorization. It is a period piece, set in the 1970s at a commune in the Ozark mountains. The protagonists are a young boy named Jake and his mother Halushka (Hal, for short). They are pretty close to another family who has a young boy named Shane, but there are some secrets that are buried in that relationship. In a touch of magic realism, that secret is embodied by a cave where some illicit activities take place and where a mysterious creature lurks. I will try not to spoil so much, but one day Jake and Shane find and play in that cave, and one of the boys does not come out, touching off a frantic series of events.
 

The interplay between narrative and illustrations here is deftly woven. The characters are well portrayed with clear expressions and relatable emotions. This book is pretty dark, especially communicated via the artwork, which is very atmospheric. There are drastic contrasts between what transpires at night versus in the light of day, and I think the visuals definitely convey the idea of a tainted past impeding on the present.  Hal has a lot of baggage with her ex and others, and those feelings of dread creep into her relationship with Jake. In the end, she has to decide what to let go of in order to resolve matters. I won't way that I found the ending completely satisfying, but I this book sat with me a while and I have found myself flipping though its pages and revisiting what transpired. In terms of story and art, it sets a definite tone, and I feel that its exploration of personal relationships is thoughtful and haunting.

The reviews I have read about this book have been mixed. Etelka Lehoczky wrote, "Few creators could envision a story as unique as Come Again, and even fewer could have as much fun with it." Oliver Sava called it "striking but flawed." Tegan O'Neil was also ambivalent about the book, noting "I don’t know if the happy ending is necessarily earned because there’s something less than satisfactory" about how things resolve (If you want the spoilers, go read that review).

Come Again was published by Top Shelf, and they have more information about the book available here. This book features some profanity and adult situations, so it is suggested for more mature readers.

Friday, January 10, 2020

My Five for Friday: Goodbye, Tom & Goodbye, 2010s

The comics world experienced some big losses in the past year, and one of the biggest for me was that of Tom Spurgeon. His site The Comics Reporter was one of my go-to blogs for comics news, interviews, reviews, and convention information. I featured it in one of my columns for the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Education, and it was the inspiration for this blog you are reading (check out my first entry).

I met Tom a couple of times and had the wherewithal to actually document it the second one. Here we are:
Sterg and Spurge (we rhyme!)
Tom was a past editor of The Comics Journal and seemed to know everyone in the field. He was a champion not only of good comics but also of respecting and rewarding creators. He could be harsh in his criticisms, but he was also very constructive. I first encountered him online, via one of his Five For Friday calls. It became a regular thing for me to take part in, and when I finally met him in person he recognized who I was and commented, "You're the one who is so polite." That struck me as weird, because I thought I was just being cordial. I always thanked him for gathering and collating our responses, as I saw it was a sort of service to the comics community, done for free and on his own time.

In a way I think it was a symbol of what he always was, a comics industry social worker. He highlighted work he respected, advertised for all sorts of comics-related events in multiple cities, posted notices for assistance for comics creators who were sick or in financial need, and also conglomerated memorials and links to major news events. He was a huge supporter of comics, maintaining his blog, moderating panels, and planning Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC). I have not had the opportunity to attend CXC as of yet, and I have already expressed my admiration of his blog, and I also have to add that he was one of the most adept panel moderators I have ever seen at a con. In each case, he was not only familiar with each participants' work, he had thoughtful questions prepared, was respectful of everyone's time, and also spoke in engaging and entertaining ways. He was a masterful speaker.

Although I was only an acquaintance, you can read more intimate tributes to the man here and here. In the spirit of how I related to Tom most, I'll share one last Five For Friday here:

Five For Friday: 5 Things I appreciated About Tom Spurgeon
  1. His exhaustive list of how to survive San Diego ComicCon. I have never attended SDCC, but he always produced a huge collection of helpful hints, dining suggestions, and survival tips. He was like a den mother and master of ceremonies all rolled into one.
  2. "If I failed to list your comic, that's because I hate you." That's how he ended his weekly list of noteworthy comics publications, and it always cracked me up.
  3. The way he could weave his personal life into his comics fandom and appreciation. Exhibit A is his essay on his almost dying in 2011.
  4. The way he posted birthday wishes for comics creators, critics, and other industry people on his blog. He made the industry feel like a homier place, almost like a family or a real-life version of the Marvel Bullpen, only without hokey nicknames.
  5. Every year on Jack Kirby's birthday, he posted a huge series of his fantastic images from various series across the decades. They were always impressive and knocked my socks off. 
RIP, Tom. You made the world a better and friendlier place.
Chris at Adhouse Books made this special edition pin. All proceeds will go to the Hero Initiative. Check it out here!
So Long, 2010s!
The end of the decade also coincidentally marks a decade of this blog, and to commemorate this event, I have compiled my own favorites from these past 10 years. I only offer brief commentary along with a link to my original review. These are the books published in the last 10 years (in alphabetical order) that I feel the most about.
All the Answers - A look at a boy genius who became famous in the early days of television. Part biography/part cultural history/part exploration of the effects of memoir - it impressively works on so many levels.

B+F -A woman and a dog have adventures in a primordial world. A large format, gorgeous book.
Battling Boy - A fun, contemporary take on superheroes. Its sequels, which focus on Aurora West, are also very good.

Brazen - 30-something short biographies of notable women across cultures and history done by one of the best creators currently working.
Cardboard Kingdom -Representation matters, and this book shows a wide array of children who engage in creative play in their neighborhood. It is hilarious, charming, heart-breaking, and hopeful.
The Comic Book Story of Beer - I love beer, and this book taught me so much about its history as well as the various styles that have evolved according to different communities and cultures. This team of collaborators have a few nonfiction graphic novels out there, and they are all great.
Coyote Doggirl - A solid western tale told with lots of contemporary sensibilities. It's riveting and laugh out loud funny in parts.
Copra - A colorful, gorgeous unique take on superheroes. Hands down the most taut plotting and coolest character designs in superhero comics.
Crater XV - A gripping adventure story complete with missiles, long-lost loves, spies, and nautical escapades. I wrote, "This cartoon world is so realized and lively that it propels the narrative like a rocket."
Fantasy Sports - I love this entire series, but this first book made me laugh out loud multiple times. It's about two mages/treasure hunters playing a high-stakes game of hoops against an ancient pharaoh, and it is so much fun.
The Greatest of Marlys - A new compilation of comic strips from the 1980s/1990s. They are all tone poems that can make you laugh, cry, or cringe. Some of them build you up; others crush you.
The Hard Tomorrow - A dystopian future story set in the not-so-far-future that also delves deeply into people's personal relationships. The ending gave me goosebumps.
Hark! A Vagrant - Kate Beaton is one of the greatest comics artists going. She breathes so much life and humor into this collection of mostly historical and literary comic strips.

Infinite Kung-Fu -An amazing, inventive tale of martial arts and magic. There's a guy who can punch people so hard they spit up centipedes.
Last Man - I love, love, LOVE this series about a down-on-his-luck stranger who comes to a sleepy town to take part in a round-robin magic/fighting tournament. It combines the best features of Euro-comics and manga.
Lighter Than My Shadow - An incredibly moving, informative, inventive, and harrowing look at personal trauma and eating disorders.
My Favorite Thing is Monsters - A coming of age tale set in 1969 Chicago, with a murder mystery, a horrific Holocaust survival story, and homages to classic monster magazines. It's gorgeous, and one of the top 5 books I've read this decade.
My Friend Dahmer - An extremely troubling look at a childhood in the 1970s that produced the infamous serial killer. It's journalistic, full of incredible details, and provocative. Also one of the top 5 books I've read this decade.
The Nib - This is the print version of what I feel is the best webcomic site there is. A wonderful collection of political cartoons and nonfiction. I read the website pretty much daily.
Nimona - A moving tale about a sidekick that is more evil than the villain she works for. It is a funny, suspenseful book with a lot of heart, and I love how it plays with multiple genre conventions.
One Hundred Nights of Hero - This riff on the classic Arabian Nights story is one of the most subversive and delightful books I have ever read. It's a hilarious and brilliant satire/social commentary.

Pantheon -A very profane, funny, and accurate(!) retelling of ancient Egyptian mythology. It's not for kids.
Hades - A notable entry in the (soon-to-be) 12-book Olympians series. This one is more about Persephone than it is Hades, and I love the characterizations of each character as well as the energetic retelling of Greek myths. This one kids can read, though adults would like it too.
Relish - Part autobiographical memoir/part cook book, this is the first book I read by Lucy Knisley, who has made some of the most very funny, insightful, and personal comics of the decade.
Rosalie Lightning - This autobiographical tale of dealing with the loss of a young child is beautiful, moving, and also a clinic on how to make great comics. Another one of the top 5 books I've read this decade.
Dogs -My favorite entry from the awesome Science Comics series. It's a great history that also touches on topics like heredity and genetics. It's one of the most fun and informative books I've every read.
Sexcastle - Usually my favorite book by Kyle Starks, who has the magic ability to make the funniest and most kick-ass comics possible. This one is a fantastic riff on 1980s action movies, and it will make you laugh while keeping you on the edge of your seat.
The Shadow Hero - A modern update of what was the first Chinese superhero. It is a fantastic take on the superhero genre, with a strong dose of cultural insight and humor.
Spinning - This autobiographical tale of figure skating and coming out is a beautiful and painful book. Tillie Walden has produced a number of notable works since, though I have a soft spot for this one.
TEOTFW - Before it was a show on Netflix, it was this suspenseful and spare action story about two teenagers on the run. It features satanists, deadbeat parents, and all kinds of other creepy things. It's genre comics at its finest.
Tetris - I love pretty much everything Box Brown publishes, though this book is the one I recommend most. This true-life account of the famous video game blew my mind with how it touched on Russian history, game theory, and international finance. It is fascinating and super-informative.
 
Tomboy - A very relatable memoir about childhood, this book is funny, awkward, and honest. I wish it was read by every adolescent who thinks they are weird or different. Liz Prince rules!
Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood - This book retells the entire history of World War I in about 80 pages(!), and does it well. It's a clinic in presenting graphic information as well as a masterpiece of graphic nonfiction. It's the best entry in what I consider the best series of nonfiction graphic novels.

Vague Tales - Eric Haven loves playing with comics archetypes and taking them to very strange places. in the past I called his comics "beguiling, silly, confusing, thrilling, and fantastic." Probably I should have just summed them up in one word, "unforgettable."

Wizzywig -Ed Piskor has made some pretty great comics over the past decade, but this account of  a fictional hacker/culture jammer is the one that impressed me the most. It's a crazy ride that incorporates a number of unbelievably true events. Blurring that line between fact and fiction is what I found so compelling about it.

Well, that's my list. I hope your 2020s are roaring!

Wordplay

Making books that appeal to young children can be tough, especially striking a balance between being engaging and educational. This graphic novel, Wordplay, accomplishes that feat in fine manner. When I got it, I read it to my two boys (ages 2 and 4), and not only did they sit through the entire thing they asked me to read it again, which is a huge compliment. That night, my 2-year-old pulled it out for his bedtime book and after I finished he said, "Again!"

A big part of what makes this book so appealing is its playful illustrations. The plot involves a teacher presenting a lesson about compound words, and the protagonist Annemarie starts imaging them all in literal terms, which are depicted in detail. It is silly to see houses doing work (for homework) and even other ones vacuuming (for housework), but those are just the beginning.
There were a couple of words that I felt had some limited use today (like milkmaid), but some of the choices are inspired and hilarious. Just check out the cool drawing of a handyman:
In all, I think this book is a great way to both engage and entertain young readers while also teaching them some specifics about the English language. It certainly demonstrates what compound words are and provides multiple examples of them as well. This would be an excellent book for preschool, kindergarten, or first grade.

This book's creator Ivan Brunetti is an artist and educator who has been working in comics for a few decades. He is currently an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago, and he has done multiple covers for The New Yorker. He has created all kinds of solo work, including lots of independent comics and lately a growing number of titles for younger readers, like 3X4 and Comics: Easy As ABC. He speaks about his work on Wordplay in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review that called it "Praiseworthy!" J. Caleb Mozzocco wrote that "it’s hard to imagine a better candidate for explaining compound words." Publishers Weekly concluded, "Brunetti buoyantly conveys the joy of diving into newly acquired knowledge and the idea that learning and play aren’t mutually exclusive."

Wordplay was published by TOON Books, and they offer a preview and more here.