Saturday, April 30, 2016

Patience

Dan Clowes is one of the most respected graphic novelists in the US, with such past successes as Ghost World, Wilson, and Mr. Wonderful. Clowes' many works tend to focus on disaffected, curmudgeonly, misanthropic, intelligent, and intensely introspective loners, as does his newest work Patience. The difference is that the protagonist Jack Barlow fell in love with a woman named Patience. The rub is that he loses her under tragic circumstances, but instead of merely being eaten up by his sorrow an opportunity opens up. He discovers a person who has discovered the secret to time travel, and so Barlow steals it and goes back to prevent the tragedy from happening.
Of course, nothing goes smoothly, and his interference causes all kinds of ripples in the time stream, and affects Barlow's memories and experiences. Also, he ends up going to different points in time, and he learns things about Patience and himself that perhaps would be better left unknown. Instead of turning into a fantastic sci-fi yarn, the book instead becomes a cerebral exploration of love, relationships, and the lengths that people will go to protect their loved ones. This book has all the potential to be something out of a Ditko Dr. Strange story or a James Cameron movie, but the narrative ends of being mundane and weirdly grounded. Still, this is a complex work that demonstrates a masterful grasp on artistry and storytelling, a well made book, but not one of my favorites by Clowes.

All of the reviews of this book I have read comment on its complexity, maturity, and evocative narrative. Etelka Lehoczky was very pleased with the fact that "Clowes does create another lonely, obsessed male character here, but instead of brooding endlessly over the woman he's lost, Jack does something to help her." Jacob Brogan called it "a surprisingly calm work, probably Clowes’ most confident and clear-headed book to date." Kathleen Rooney wrote, "The book's self-awareness and sympathy make it more than just an exercise in the mixing of genres, but it's in this unabashed mixing that Clowes creates a story that is as transcendent as it is upsetting — and affirming."

Clowes speaks about his inspirations and work on this book in this interview.

Patience was published by Fantagraphics Books, and they have a preview and much more here.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Oven

The Oven is a pretty short book, but it sure packs in a lot of interesting ideas. The plot focuses on Syd and Eric, a young couple who have left their totalitarian bubble city, where the government dictates who can and cannot have children, to live more deliberately in a utopian, desert community. There, they plan to settle down, farm, and have their own family, but the reality is way more complicated than planned.
In this future, the environment is treacherous, and the sun will literally fry you if you stay out unprotected. The couple has to learn to do things in pretty primitive fashion, from getting their food to making clothes. They meet their neighbors, a hippie Earth mama named Maggie, her husband Bear, and their slightly grating children. I think their relationship opens up a bunch of potentially interesting points about gender roles, parenting, and the socioeconomic politics of living an eco-friendly life versus being a sort of eco-tourist.
Of course there are complications, and Syd and Eric's resolve gets tested multiple ways. When I talked about this book with my graphic novel class, some of the feedback I heard was about how this book played out a bunch of expected gender situations, such as where the woman gets to deal with circumstances while the man gets to pick and choose when to be serious. I can see that point, but I still feel this book has a lot of interesting aspects that make it ripe for discussion, especially about what constitutes freedom and how it is exercised. Additionally, I was certainly impressed by the economy of the artwork and story. I felt the story just purred along, and much was established and happened in a short amount of space.

This is an impressive graphic novel from Sophie Goldstein, a recent graduate from the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont and Ignatz Award winner. She has published one graphic novel prior, Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell, a webcomic compilation collaboration with writer Jenn Jordan. She speaks a lot more about The Oven and her career in this interview.

The Oven won two categories at the 2015 Ignatz Awards: Outstanding Graphic Novel and Outstanding Comic, so it should come as no surprise that it has received quite a bit of praise from reviewers. Laura Sneddon called it "perfectly paced" and added that "the subtleties within demand re-reading." Tom Murphy wrote, "Using an economy of narrative and graphic style, Goldstein creates a powerful story that forces readers to question their responses without offering any easy answers." Zainab Akhtar concluded that it was "another strong and complex entry into Goldstein’s oeuvre."

The Oven was published by Adhouse Books, and they offer a preview and more here. There are profanity, some nudity, and adult situations in this book, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to handle those things.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Founding Fathers Funnies

Peter Bagge is one of my all time favorite comics artists. He is an award winning artist with decades of comics to his credit, including the seminal alternative comics series Neat Stuff and Hate and his editorship of the underground comics holdover anthology Weirdo. He has also created a number of graphic novels, including Woman Rebel, Apocalypse NerdOther Lives, and Reset. More recently, he has been a frequent contributor to publications like Reason magazine (see his collection Everybody is Stupid Except for Me) and Vice Magazine (the Musical Urban Legends column).

Founding Fathers Funnies is a collection of previously published shorter pieces that together weave a rich and profane tapestry about the lives of famous colonial Americans. What I like best about these episodes, aside from the fact that they are hilarious, is that they are both factual and full of personality. Too often we get homogenized or puffed-up portraits of these figures, but Bagge takes all the air out of their sails while adding his voice to historical events and participants' mannerisms.
The result is a bunch of memorable and thoughtful pieces that made me ponder the circumstances of the American Revolutionary War. Certainly, these folks all had their various accomplishments, but I found it refreshing to read about an insular, contemptuous "Virginia mafia" (Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe), a caustic and carousing Ben Franklin, and an economical, pragmatic Paul Revere. Consequently, many of these guys (John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Paine) come off as really smart but also just plain unlikable. The lack of reverence really allows the reader to think about the actual people and events that took place, and I thought it cast a new light on some  well-tread material.

Finding reviews for this book proved to be quite a task, but the ones I did find were positive. Pat at Project-Nerd wrote, "The book’s cartooning and storytelling is excellent, but what I love most is that Bagge also writes an afterword featuring all of his footnotes throughout the collection." Chad called it "a brisk" and "rib tickling" collection.


Founding Fathers Funnies was published by Dark Horse, and they have a preview and much more available here. This book features profanity and some sexual situations, so it is suggested for readers mature enough to handle both.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Paper Girls, Volume 1

I have read a bunch of comic books written by Brian K. Vaughan, including Saga, Y The Last Man, Ex Machina, and Runaways. What they have in common is a lot of strong character work, high concept stories, and suspenseful pacing. He has accomplished much over his career, both in comics and in other media, such as when he was writer and producer of Lost, winning multiple awards including a few Eisners. I am glad to say that his track record of creating smart, fun, and exciting series is intact with his collaboration with artist Cliff Chiang (known for his exceptional work on a number of DC Comics titles, most notably Wonder Woman), Paper Girls.

This volume collects the first five issues of the ongoing series, which focuses on four 12-year-old girls who have paper routes in 1988. Our story starts when a newbie, Erin, gets accosted by some thuggish teenagers.
She then meets three other paper girls, Mac, KJ, and Tiffany, and they all form a sort of gang/clique.
The characters' interactions are lively and interesting, and the book would be fine if it just focused on their interpersonal relationships, but there is a twist. These girls happen upon a weird, possibly alien object that turns their lives upside-down. Life radically shifts from normalcy to something strange, which might be an alien invasion, a visit from future people, or the Rapture. It's not really clear, but I have to say it is an intriguing and fun ride. Chiang's artwork is vibrant and clear, and Vaughan's story is typically great. I think that he writes the best cliffhangers in comics, and he really knows how to hook readers and then keep them in suspense with lots of twists and turns.

All of the reviews I have read about this series have been glowing. Shane Boyar concluded, "It’s a lot to take in over just 5 issues, but with a creative dream team like the one Image has gifted to us with this series, and a elevator pitch that is “Stand By Me meets War of the Worlds” there’s no other verdict for Paper Girls than BUY IT." Jennifer Cheng wrote, "The cliffhanger is both surprising and funny, but mostly I look forward to seeing more of these characters. Vaughan and Chiang are a dream team combination, and "Paper Girls" looks like it's going to be another winner for both of them." Vaughan talks at length about his inspiration and work on this series in this interview.

Paper Girls, Volume 1 was published by Image Comics, and they have more info, previews, and links available here.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sacred Heart

I read this book because it came highly recommended by my friend and colleague Jarod Roselló. I am very glad I did, but first I should also tell you to check out Jarod's work, too, because it is totally fun and interesting. And tell him I sent you!


Sacred Heart began as a webcomic, but all 19 of those chapters have been reworked or redrawn for publication in this book version. Those 19 chapters open the story, and the book offers many more pages that lead to a bizarre, jarring, and surprising conclusion that leaves many questions unanswered. Luckily, this is the first of a proposed four book series that will hopefully shed more light on what went on here. I do not mean this in a bad way, but I have now read this book at least three times, because it is so beguiling and compelling.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The main narrative here seems to be your typical punk-rock-teens-on-their-own story. Teenagers hang out, listen music, go to shows, drink, party, have sex, and experience lots of personal drama. But then there are murders. And what is weird, these murders happen but there is no seeming backlash. No one is afraid, and no one seems to be investigating them. They just kind of happen. So there is a series of unsolved murders but there are also a series of other enigmatic happenings.

There is a pair of teen soothsayers who are reading people's futures. There is our main character, an adolescent girl named Ben, and her strained relationship with her more popular sister Empathy. Then there is Ben's friend/boyfriend Mahoney, who seems to exercise every sexual fetish possible, one of which includes licking the soles of a stranger's boots (GROSS). What does become clear in this series of confusions is that these characters are as well defined as they are memorable. And their relationships are very organic and interesting.

This book does a great job of capturing the feeling of being a teenager. Even the quiet, solitary moments when one is trying to entertain oneself and escape the monotony of everyday were very relatable for me.
Heh. Butts.
The first time I read this book I felt it was just going to be a teen relationship book, and it is that in excellent fashion. But it turns into something else by the end, and I am not saying anything else about it. Go read the book for yourself and see what I am talking about. In addition to the story, there is so much I love about the art style. The book features its own logic and iconography, two things that subtly contributed to its overall effect (no spoilers - I told you I am not saying anymore!).

Something that is apparent when reading this book: debut graphic novelist Liz Suburbia is accomplished and no neophyte creator. I love her stylistic choices, from how she dramatizes the force and power of musical performances (check out that excerpt above) to her way of capturing emotional moments and exchanges. Like I said earlier, I got way more wrapped up in this book than I imagined. She talks about her work on it here and more about it and her career here.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been full of praise. Hillary Brown called it "a genuinely wonderful book both in its clever approach as well as the more guttural and immediate experience of enjoying it sans analysis." Marie Anello lauded it because "Suburbia’s style, her humor, her grim and extremely selective approach to world building leaves the reader feeling tense, enthralled, and haunted even after the second, third, or fourth re-read." Zach Hollwedel wrote, "Suburbia's attention to detail (including references to obscure movies and pop culture cult hits) creates an impressively fully realized world that catapults and [sic] adult reader back to those four years in which everything changes"

Sacred Heart was published by Fantagraphics Books, and they have a preview and more here. Original versions of the first nineteen chapters that begin the book are available here. There are some profanity, nudity, sexual situations, and violence in this book, so I recommend it to readers old enough to handle those things.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Nameless City

The Nameless City is the first book of a trilogy, and I must say it is an impressive introduction that left me eager for the forthcoming volumes. The narrative is set in a fictional Asian city that has no name, or rather it has so many names because it is constantly being conquered and overrun by warring factions that all they are meaningless. The main players are a couple of adolescents named Kaidu and Rat. Kaidu was born a Dao, one of the current occupiers of the city, and he is being trained to be a soldier. Rat is a native to the city, and she lives a hardscrabble existence.

These unlikely friends begin with a very utilitarian relationship: she will teach him to run across rooftops in exchange for him bringing her food and other necessities. Still, their friendship is forbidden, and he should not even be outside by himself in the city. Their secret gets complicated when the pair overhears an assassination plot and are moved to action, but so much of what I appreciated and enjoyed about the story was seeing how a weary partnership led to growing respect and an organic friendship. I foresee many readers growing to feel strongly for Kaidu and Rat in quick fashion.

Additionally, there is a lot of world-building going on here, with entire peoples, legends, classes, tribes, and places being established. But much of it feels very familiar and intriguing, and I was impressed by how quickly I got into the narrative and grew to like these characters. The artwork is impressive; the storytelling expert, and the entire enterprise is exceptionally well packaged. If there is any justice in the world, this book will be very popular.

This book's author Faith Erin Hicks has been an excellent, prolific comics creator, and she is one of my favorite artists. Among her growing list of graphic novel publications are Friends with Boys, Brain Camp, and Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong. She also has published webcomics, including The Adventures of Superhero Girl, which won an Eisner Award. She speaks about her work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book find it well crafted, and it already has garnered a number of starred reviews. One, from Kirkus Reviews, called it "A superb beginning" and stated that fans "will appreciate its mix of fun and adventure and its exploration of questions of identity, belonging, and history." Another, from Publishers Weekly, praised the "polished " artwork and "significant depth" of the story. Claire Thorne offered a contrary opinion, finding the book too neat, writing that "the simple and predictable nature of the plot left me searching for more intrigue, more tension, and more entanglements between the characters."

The Nameless City was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more available here.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copy!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Science Comics

First Second is celebrating their tenth anniversary with a bang, introducing a new series called Science Comics. Each volume has a different focus, and they have some top notch creators lined up for these titles. The first two just came out, and they contain lots of information, vocabulary, and features that make them ready for classroom use. Also, they take different approaches to their storytelling and I found them both great in different ways.
The first one I read was Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean by Maris Wicks. I had read and enjoyed her prior book Human Body Theater as well as her collaboration with Jim Ottaviani Primates, and they were both excellent. This one focuses on marine biology, obviously, and I was impressed by two things off the bat: the bright, expressive, info-rich artwork and the gentle narration provided by a bespectacled bony fish.
As you can see the artwork is gorgeous and engaging, and I really enjoyed the balance of information and vocabulary text and images with playful imagery and asides that add a dash of humor to the proceedings. Wicks is an excellent artist and storyteller, and her chops are on display throughout.

As you can see this book contains lots of facts about coral reefs, but it also gets into other territory like ecology, climate change, and environmental factors that affect marine life. I think it would have been impressive to simply detail as much as this book has about underwater plants and animals, but it goes the extra mile to place all of these organisms in a larger context. I am glad to see how it engaged in serious issues that involve the future of planet Earth in thoughtful and documented ways. Overall, it is quite exceptional how the narrative, exposition, and artwork range back and forth from simple to complex as the author entertains and explains throughout the book.

The reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. Johanna Draper Carlson concluded, "I had no idea there was so much to know about coral reefs. While obviously targeted at the educational market, this comic is a good read for all ages." Sarah Stevenson wrote that "I personally learned a lot, was reminded of knowledge I hadn't thought about in a while, and enjoyed myself in the process." Kevin wrote, "Unlike some content-area graphic novels out there in the world (and I have read more than my share) that seem thrown together to make a buck off the graphic novel movement, Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean seems more like an act of love by someone who is deeply immersed in the ocean." Let's hope Maris Wicks has lots of oxygen with her, if that is the case (Smile).
There is a part of me that thinks that books about dinosaurs are pretty easy to sell. Just pack them full of pictures of the wide array of these reptiles and the rest takes care of itself. I certainly read my share of such books when I was young, and I loved them. Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers is smart in that it engages in such displays of dino-diversity, but it goes far beyond simply showing beautiful pictures of these prehistoric creatures. What really impressed me is how much if focused on the science and archaeology of dinosaur discovery, going in historical fashion over how these and other creatures were discovered, theorized, and studied over the past centuries.
Like the coral reefs book, this one also went into a much broader context of science, and in different areas summing up the state of science during different time periods. I was especially taken with this feature as it shows readers how science and theories change and evolve over time. The book really confronts many potential controversies and confusions head on, but it also dramatizes the constantly revised view about dinosaurs as scientists debate how they lived, ate, and whether or not they were warm-blooded or had feathers.

I think that it is difficult for a book like this to make an impression about a well-covered topic like dinosaurs, but it manages to do just that with extensive research and an excellent synthesis of multiple fields and studies. It will change how you look at birds, or at least I know it has for me. Those cute feathered things might just be tiny decedents of velociraptors. And the book also puts a human face on those who have studied these "terrible lizards." That parade of strong personalities is as engaging as all the facts and beautiful pictures.
The collaboration here between MK Reed and Joe Flood is seamless and rich. I very much enjoyed their prior book, The Cute Girl Network, and I am happy to say that they are maybe more adept at nonfiction as they are at fiction. There is certainly a lot of ground covered in this book, and there was much I found new, exciting, and interesting.

The reviews about this book were more mixed, though I have to say that I felt I enjoyed it just a tad bit more than the corals reefs volume. Johanna Draper Carlson felt that it tried to tackle too much and wrote, "There’s a lot more history, a lot less animal study than one might think here. And this book needs its own annotation guide!" The folks at The Comics Alternative called it "a great non-fiction graphic novel that entertains and instructs. It can also be enjoyed by a wide range of ages, giving younger readers a great, fun look at dinosaurs, and providing older readers with the history of dinosaur research and discovery."

Both volumes of Science Comics were published by First Second and you can find previews and much more here (for Coral Reefs) and here (for Dinosaurs). I feel these are both excellent books and an auspicious start to this series. I am eager to see the future volumes, which include books on bats and volcanoes.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copies!