Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Houdini: The Handcuff King

Harry Houdini was the most famous magician of his and perhaps of all time. His name is synonymous with the term escape artist, and he was a master of death-defying stunts and public relations. He would escape from straight jackets while suspended in air, chains while underwater, or contained in a water torture cell. He also popularized tricks where he escaped from milk cans and from underground chambers. In part, his notoriety and fame have endured because his wife Bess kept a full-time publicist for 16 years after Houdini's death to keep his memory alive, but also because he was a consummate showman.

A small part of Houdini's amazing exploits is contained in Houdini: The Handcuff King. In this book, we see how Houdini drummed up interest for a public escape in Cambridge where he was chained and thrown off the Harvard Bridge into the Charles River. We also get to see how he prepares for the trick, as well as some of the public reaction to the spectacle, not all of it positive. Additionally and perhaps most importantly, we are privy to his escape methods.

This book was written by Jason Lutes, a writer/artist known for his ambitious works Berlin and Jar of Fools. Lutes is also an instructor at The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. One of the goals of The Center is to publish quality graphic novels, and this one is their first offering. The art is handled by Nick Bertozzi, who also writes, draws, and teaches comics, and is best known for his graphic novel about modernist painting and Paris, The Salon. Both creators are invested in historical accuracy, and their depictions evoke the time period well.

Reviews of the book have ranged widely. David Elzey found many great features in the book, including the introduction by Glen David Gold and the detailed back matter, and hoped that this initial offering was a sign of things to come. Bill Peschel found the book engaging but admits that he is keen on magic and Houdini in particular. Blogger Kevin Church found the book beautifully designed but more academic than gripping. More reviews can be found at Goodreads.

A short preview of the book is available here. A discussion guide is available from the book's publisher, Hyperion.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Plain Janes

The Plain Janes was the first offering in DC Comics' short-lived Minx imprint, which produced graphic novels aimed at teenage girls who read YA literature. It was written by Cecil Castellucci, a Renaissance woman who writes YA novels, records music in bands and as a solo artist, and directs indie films. Her first novel, Boy Proof won a number of accolades from the Young Adult Library Services Association. This graphic novel was drawn by Jim Rugg, an accomplished artist and writer best known for his retro, hip, and dynamic works Afrodisiac and Street Angel.

The Plain Janes tells the story of Jane, a young girl who survives a bomb attack in fictional Metro City. She and her parents are scarred by the experience and decide to move out to the safer environs of the suburbs. Jane is forced to fit in and make friends after the first month of high school, a situation that frustrates her. She brushes off advances to hang out with the "cool" kids and opts to try to befriend the most interesting girls in her class: Jayne (a brainiac), Jane (who is into theater), and Polly Jane (an athlete).

Eventually, she manages to build some bridges by organizing a series of pranks to liven up a boring town. Together the girls anonymously perpetrate acts of art around town under the guise of P.L.A.I.N. (People Loving Art In Neighborhoods), and the quartet attracts quite a bit of attention. These high jinks also attract the disapproving eye of the local authorities, and the students at school experience the consequences of curfews and other sanctions that result from attempts to identify and curtail P.L.A.I.N.

Reviews of The Plain Janes have been largely positive. Leroy Douresseaux wrote that it was "a treat that left me wanting more." Michael Lorah admits the book is not perfect but still finds it has "engaging storytelling" and "charming characters." A.E. Sparrow gushed that it "is an absolutely wonderful read no matter your gender or preference in reading material."

For more about the creation of this book, Matt Brady has two separate interviews with Castellucci and Rugg at Newsarama.

An extended pdf preview is available from DC Comics.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Zeus: King of the Gods

The gods, heroes, and monsters of mythology may have been the first superheroes, as some have written, and George O'Connor certainly casts them as such in Zeus. This book is one long narrative that tells the classical Greek version of creation. The world begins with Gaea, the proverbial Mother Earth who creates the Sky (Ouranos) in her loneliness and takes him as her mate. Gaea and Ouranos had many children, among them cyclops, giants, and the Titans. Kronos, the leader of the Titans, was unhappy with his tyrannical father and rose up and overthrew him. This cycle of violence would continue.

Kronos ruled the earth with his wife Rhea, but he feared his own children overthrowing him and so he ate them. Rhea was not thrilled with this situation but went along with her powerful husband five times. The sixth time, however, she could no longer go through with it, and she fed her apparently oblivious mate a rock made to look like a baby. The actual baby was hidden and grew to be Zeus, who would battle his father for control of the earth, learn to wield lightning bolts, and become the leader of his own pantheon of gods.

Reviewers have been very positive about this retelling of the classical myths. Michael May wrote that "the whole thing is a blast and a pleasure to read." John DeNardo opined that the book is informative and entertaining though light on characterization. J. Caleb Mozzocco called it "an all-ages book in the very best sense of the word" and said that "there are a great many pleasures to be had here."

George O'Connor has drawn multiple graphic novels, including Journey into Mohawk Country and Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess, the first sequel to this book. He has a sketchbook blog where he shows and talks about his work. For more information about his series of Olympians graphic novels, check out this blog about them.

The book's publisher First Second provides a preview here.

A great big thank you to Gina Gagliano for the review copy!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Pedro and Me

There are people who come into our lives and make a difference, and from all accounts Pedro Zamora was that type of person. Pedro, who was HIV positive, appeared on MTV's third season of the Real World where he had a platform to inform many people about being homosexual and living with AIDS. His roommate on the show was Judd Winick, a young cartoonist from Long Island.

Pedro and Me
is Winick's tale of his friendship with Pedro, but it also is an account of both their lives before and after the show. Winick takes up Pedro's life-work with this book, debunking myths about AIDS, providing medical facts, and putting a very human face on the many issues surrounding the disease and homosexuality. This book is alternately poignant, funny, devastating, and hopeful.

Judd Winick was starting his career during the Real World and eventually found some success and acclaim for this book and his series Barry Ween, Boy Genius. He has parlayed that success into writing primarily for superhero comics such as Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and Batman. His artwork here is best described as cartoonish realism, relatively realistic drawings with exaggerations added for effect.

Pedro and Me won multiple awards and nominations from various library, comics, and medical organizations, which can be found here. Reviews by and large echo Zach Shemtob's remark that Winick "seems to have poured his heart and soul into this piece, and boy, does it show." Calen Cross called it a "sad yet life-affirming work." D. Aviva Rothschild dubbed it an "instant classic." Chris Mautner offers a contrasting opinion, calling it only passably good.

For those interested in what has happened since Pedro and Me's publication, Winnick speaks in this article about a recent film made about Pedro's life.

The book was published by Henry Holt, and a preview is available on

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Resistance, Book 1

This volume of Resistance is the first of a trilogy of graphic novels about children who get involved in the French Resistance in World War II. Paul and his sister Marie are helping their mother to run a hotel in Vichy France while his father is a prisoner of war of the Germans. Paul's best friend Henri is Jewish, and after his parents mysteriously disappear, the boys hatch a plan to hide Henri to protect him from the Germans. They soon figure out that their long-term prospects of success aren't good.

Paul likes to draw and Marie is very inquisitive and great at memorizing names, numbers, and other information. When they start prying into the actions of the adults around them, they stumble into Resistance activities. The children offer to assist in a plot to relay some information that will help those at the front while also shuttling Henri to safety. Because they are so young, they bank on the hope that the Germans will not suspect anything. However, once the children embark on their mission the reality and danger of the situation begin to set in.

The book has informative text pieces at the beginning and end that help to set the scene and also comment on the historical accuracy of the story. Author Carla Jablonski writes primarily young adult novels and her works have been recognized by the New York Public Library. Artist Leland Purvis is a former Xeric Award winner for his black and white anthology of stories Vóx. He also won the 2004 Ignatz Award for Promising New Talent.

The reviews for the book have been positive. Krisitian Williams said that seeing these events from children's perspectives was both "naive and refreshing." In a long, thoughtful review, Greg Burgas called it a "good book for kids but doesn't shy away from tough topics that makes it more adult-oriented." Kris Bather called it a "satisfying read," and the mother-daughter book club "highly recommend" it.

A number of resources, including a summary, preview, and reading group guide are available here from the publisher First Second.

Thank you to Gina Gagliano for the review copy!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Dynamo 5, Volume 1: Post-Nuclear Family

Superhero families have been around for some time, from the days of the Marvel Family to the Fantastic Four. Dynamo 5 tells a different sort of family story, one that involves the several illegitimate children of Captain Dynamo, a Superman analog with a seriously wandering eye. The five adult children in this book are his progeny, and they have inherited his super-abilities, only they each have one instead of the complete set.

Having different backgrounds and different agendas makes for some drama amidst the teamwork. The team is led by Maddie Wagner, the Captain's widow who, like Lois Lane was a reporter, but she was also secretly a double agent as well. Wagner has her own reasons for joining these heroes together, and she is responsible for giving them all powers by exposing them to the same radioactive substance that empowered her late husband. The other team members are: Hector Chang who has vision powers, Olivia Lewis who can fly, Spencer Bridges who is a shape-shifter, Bridget Flynn who is super-strong, and Gage Reinhart who has telepathy. Together they tackle crime and fight super-powered threats.

In many ways, the narrative is a typical superhero story. Still, reviewers who read comic books like John Kilgallon and Eric Rupe report the story is well done and better than other offerings from the bigger publishers. The dialogue and relationships are well written, as are the plots which contain a few unexpected twists.

This volume originally appeared as seven individual issues published by Image Comics. The series continued until issue 25, which appeared in October 2009, and has been on hiatus since. For those interested in more information, news, and work from the writer and artist, Jay Faerber writes a blog, as does Mahmud A. Asrar. Additionally, there is the official site for the series.

A preview of the first issue is available here.