Thursday, February 25, 2010

Life Sucks

Being a vampire would appear to be one of the most romantic or exciting things ever. Popular images that appear in works like Twilight, True Blood, The Vampire Lestat, and even traditional works like Dracula highlight the sexy, hypnotic, and savage side of those mythic creatures. Life Sucks tells a different kind of vampire story. It centers around Dave, a young man who was turned into a vampire in order to work the graveyard shift at a 24-hour convenient store. His master, Radu, is not about conquering the world but for getting someone to mind his store so he can play cards with other vamps.

Little things complicate Dave's life, such as having to adjust to living off blood in contrast to his human life where he was a vegetarian. On a day to day basis, he also has to deal with late night poseurs who play at being vampires, and the inconsiderate day shift guy coming to work late and causing him to have to hurry home to beat the sunrise. This last instance puts him into contact with Rosa, a girl who he has a crush on, and he convinces her to give him a quick ride home. As a cover, he mentions having to get home to watch his favorite telenovela, and the seeds for a friendship (and maybe more) are planted.

Life Sucks was written by Jessica Abel and Gabe Soria and illustrated by Warren Pleece. Abel has been active in publishing graphic works for almost two decades, and her most famous works are Artbabe and La Perdida. Soria is a fiction writer and music journalist who has done some work on Batman Adventures. Pleece has been a published artist for more than two decades now, with work appearing in 2000 AD, Hellblazer, and the graphic novel Incognegro.

This interview between Soria and Kurt Amacker sheds some light into the genesis of this tale. Abel adds her own details about the book in this interview with Brian Heater.

Reviews of this work are mostly positive. Johanna Draper Carlson wrote a lukewarm review about it here, pointing out how it borrows elements from the movie Clerks as well as noting Pleece's low-key art style. This review from Bookshelves of Doom called the book "lots and lots of fun." Elizabeth Bird called it a "fascinating, thoughtful read."

A sizable preview is available from the book's publisher, First Second. An additional 11 page preview is available from New York Magazine.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Y: The Last Man, Volume 1: Unmanned

The last man on earth is a great science fiction go-to for telling stories, and I am Legend is just one of many such tales. Typically though, the women are usually all dead or absent as well. Not so in this volume. Yorick Brown is the last man left in a world where all the other males (everyone and everything with a Y chromosome) have been felled by a horrible event. This event was violent and bloody, as men everywhere simply bled out and dropped dead. The result is catastrophic: planes fall from the sky, cars crash, and social systems are devastated.

In the absence of half the world's population, the women are tasked with establishing a new social order and also cleaning up the mess left by billions of dead bodies. In this volume we see the efforts of female politicians and the wives of politicians vie for control of (what's left of) the US, and the highest ranking member of the Cabinet becomes President. Additionally, we see that many of the other survivors have banded together into loose confederations to defend themselves and consolidate power. Chief among these groups is the Amazons, a band of violent warriors who see the current state of affairs as an act of God against a corrupt, patriarchal system.

Yorick is not the only male left however. Ampersand, his pet capuchin monkey that he was training for his magic act, has also survived somehow. Together, the two try to navigate a hostile world in order to find Yorick's mother, sister, and girlfriend Beth, who was in Australia when the event occurred. Among those trailing Yorick are US government agents, Israeli soldiers, and the Amazons, all for their own reasons.

This high concept story first appeared in a comic book published by Vertigo from 2002 until 2008. Yorick's adventures carried over 60 issues and are collected into 10 separate trade paperbacks. The series was written by Brian K. Vaughan, a popular comics writer who has also a producer and principal writer for the TV show Lost. The art by Pia Guerra and Jose Marzan, Jr. won the 2008 Eisner Award for Best Penciller/Inker Team.

Y: The Last Man has its share of fans and critical praise. Volume 10 of the series was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Series, and Y won the Eisner Award for Best Series in 2008. A range of positive reviews can be found at Goodreads. A very thoughtful review about more of the feminist aspects of the story is at Fannie's Room, and a more middling review can be seen here at Grovel.

The first issue of the series plus a preview can be downloaded for free here from Vertigo.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

Is creating a graphic novel worth getting blacklisted by an entire country? Guy Delisle might be a good person to ask. He is a French-Canadian animator who spent two months in 2001 (before 9/11) supervising animation work out-sourced to North Korea. While there, he took notes on what he saw and experienced; these became the basis for this graphic travelogue. Apparently the fruits of his labors are not much appreciated by the current regime.

This result may not be so surprising given that Delisle does not paint a positive picture of North Korea in general, and of its capital city Pyongyang specifically. His response may be best understood via his situation there. Sequestered in a lightly inhabited hotel with limited dining options, Delisle was not allowed to travel without an accompanying guide. When he did get to travel, he was constantly confronted by bleak, spare surroundings, omnipresent images of Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Sung-il, and propaganda praising North Korea and decrying its capitalist enemies.

So he paints a depressing national portrait. Most of the North Korean people are shown being fed a constant stream of propaganda through images, song, and film. They are fearful not to say or do anything to appear critical of the state. Stores are full of huge quantities of the exact same items, with hardly any buyers. Electric lights are scarce; fresh fruits and vegetables are only made available when foreign dignitaries are present; there are no traffic lights, and entire sections of the city are kept off-limits. Also, half finished construction projects, including the colossal, 2-decade-old shell of the Ryugyong Hotel and a largely unused opera house, abound.

Delisle has worked as an animator for more than a decade, working in a number of Asian countries. His wife is an administrator for Médecins Sans Frontières (known as Doctors Without Borders in the US), a job that has led to their family living in a number of different countries. Delisle has turned these experiences into other illustrated travel stories, including volumes about China and Burma. This news story from the National Post and this interview with TimeOut Hong Kong shed more light on his reasons for creating these works.

Reviews about this book are a bit mixed. Some reviewers, like Gary Butler see it as a work of activism, giving voice to a people who live in fear and cannot speak for themselves. Andrew D. Arnold speaks about how he is glad to see light shined on a country shrouded in secrecy while being disappointed that Delisle did not delve into how this experience changed him or add any particular constructive insight into the exchange between cultures. This range of reviews from Goodreads goes further with criticisms, with some reviewers calling Delisle racist and condescending to the North Korean people.

Pyongyang was originally written in French but was published in English by Drawn & Quarterly. They publish periodic news updates about his work here. They also have an 8 page preview available in pdf format here.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


In 1957, a stray dog became the first living mammal to go into space. Laika was nicknamed "Muttnik" in the US, a reference to the first satellite put into orbit. Nikita Khrushchev, the premier of the USSR at the time was famous for his dramatic actions as well as his antagonism toward the west. Sputnik took the world by storm, and he meant the Laika episode to add even more momentum to the view that the Soviets were technologically superior.

This book details Laika's transformation from stray dog to cosmonaut. Some parts are imagined, as tales of her life before she came into the space program are entirely speculative. Writer/artist Nick Abadzis creates a realistic and touching account and combines it with well researched stories about the main caretaker, Yelena Dubrosky, and the chief designer, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. The result is an affecting story that combines love, duty, and determination to create one's own destiny. By the end of the book, the effects and sacrifices linked to this historic space mission are made clear. It is a dazzling combination of fact and fiction.

Nick Abadzis wrote and drew this work. He has worked on numerous comics projects since 1987, with work appearing in Marvel UK books and Deadline magazine. He also moonlighted as a writer for the Bob the Builder TV series. His work on Laika has won him many accolades, including the 2008 Eisner Award for Best Teen Graphic Novel. The book appeared on many different "best of" lists, including Publishers Weekly's Best Books of the Year, the Young Adult Library Services Association's Great Graphic Novels, and the New York Public Library's Books for the Teen Age Reader.

The book's publisher First Second is renowned for its quality graphic novels. Reviews of the book are overwhelmingly positive, as seen in this array here from the publisher and these from Goodreads. A short interview with Abadzis about his career and work on Laika is available here.

The book's official site has a wealth of resources. Additionally, some preview pages are available here.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Sandwalk Adventures

Charles Darwin only took one major trip in his life, but boy was it a doozy. His voyage to the Galapagos Islands on the HMS Beagle allowed him to see extraordinary wildlife that changed how he viewed nature and allowed him to come up with theories of evolution and natural selection. He published his theories in On the Origin of Species, one of the most influential and provocative works of science literature ever. This book is at the center of a great, ongoing debate about the roles of science and religion in the world.

The Sandwalk Adventures portrays a unique version of this debate while also relating Darwin's life history. It is an imagined conversation between Darwin and an eyebrow mite who thinks that Darwin is the God of all eyebrow mites. At first, Darwin thinks that he is going insane, but he comes to realize the remarkable situation for what it is. In the course of the story, Darwin explains his theories of evolution and how they work to counter the religious explanation. As a result, Darwin's theories get laid out in a humorous, concise, and understandable manner. Also, we also learn much about eyebrow mites and their biology.

Jay Hosler, the author of Clan Apis, is responsible for this work. Aside from his work as a graphic novelist, Hosler is an associate professor of biology at Juniata College in Pennsylvania. Part of his academic mission is to create accessible science content in the form of comics. His meticulous research is evident in this volume with the copious annotations at the end of the book. More about Hosler's reasons behind creating this particular volume can be found in this NPR article.

Online critics in general have much praise for this book. Johanna Draper Carlson thought it was insightful, funny, and educational. Sweetwind at SciScoop appreciated the attention to details and and discussion and wrote that the book was great for all readers but especially younger ones. Mike Everleth agrees that the book works on many different levels and that it is a fun, sneaky way to teach children science.

The Sandwalk Adventures originally appeared as a 5-issue comic book series but was collected into one volume in 2003 by Active Synapse. A couple of preview pages are available here.