Tuesday, September 30, 2014

X'ed Out and The Hive

Charles Burns is well known for his gorgeously composed and grotesque black and white artwork in books like Black Hole, but with X'ed Out he presents his first full color graphic novel.The story is a creepy mystery starring a guy named Doug in at least two roles. In one narrative he is an art student who is trying to balance his work with his relationships and in the other he is an amnesiac named Nitnit (or Johnny 23) in a surreal, horrific world of weird creatures and strange customs. Certain images and figures, including flesh wounds, Polaroid pictures, a black cat, and an old man recur in both worlds, causing the reader to question what is real and how much memory can be trusted.
Doug has some serious problems.
The artwork is fantastic as the story is intriguing and compelling. Burns references the classic style of Herge's Tintin in the forays into the otherworld, which adds to the identity play going on. He also references the drug-fueled and surreal work of William S. Burroughs, masterfully combining his strong storytelling skills with uncomfortable images of various fetuses, monstrous beings, strangely speckled eggs, gaping wounds, and flowing sewers. X'ed Out is a seriously weird, unsettling, and engrossing reading experience.
Seems like great advice to me...
Because of Burns' reputation, this book was reviewed in many well known venues, and many of them comment on being somewhat underwhelmed. New York's Dan Kois called it "a gorgeous head trip." The LA Times' Ben Schwartz offered that he felt the book fell a little short but that "Burns has still outdone himself in sheer ambition." The Guardian's Rachel Cook summed up her feelings, "I think there is something delightful about delayed gratification and this is a very beautiful book in its own right."

X'ed Out was published by Pantheon, who has information and links to reviews here. It ends on a cliffhanger, and the continuation of this book, The Hive, has also been published, for those who want more of this tale.

In this second book in a series, Nitnit (the Tintin version of Doug) finds himself as a menial worker in the titular hive. He pushes a cart, delivers packages, and cleans up messes in the fleshy hallways. The hive is where the breeders live and reproduce while green-skinned alien workers and pig-men do all kinds of jobs to maintain the place. All of this is just as gruesome and unsettling as it sounds.

Meanwhile in the real world (?), Doug is in a budding relationship with Sarah, taking lots of photographs, doing performance art, reading lots of romance comic books, dealing with Sarah's (unseen) violent ex-boyfriend, facing an unexpected pregnancy, and also caring for his dying father. There is much going on, and interspersed in the proceedings are apparent sessions with a therapist, though she is utterly rude and unprofessional, which makes me think it may be some sort of dream or hallucination. Confounding imagery crosses into both worlds, and at times we seem to be getting closer to some revelations or resolutions. It seems something pretty terrible went down, and Doug is repressing memories.
In terms of the artwork, the horror factor gets ramped up in this volume, as things begin to resemble rotting meat more and more. Plus, Burns juxtaposes even more disparate, unsettling images. He really knows how to access some primal symbols to make his readers squirm. He speaks about his work on this volume in this interview.
The reviews I have read of The Hive have been largely positive, commenting on how this volume continues and differs from X'ed Out. Rachel Cooke wrote, "The Hive is even more disorienting than the book preceding it – and that was dizzying enough. I truly have no idea, yet, what is going on. But the feeling of dread Burns evokes is quite something." The Comic Journal's Grace Krilanovich admired the amount of craft, writing, "Burns has incorporated any and all narrative strategies into this saga, in layers upon layers fanning out in all possible directions. We get photography as evidence, comic within a comic, punk cultural history, romance, drug trips, dreams, alternate universe and homage, all working together. For Burns, more is more." Kirkus Reviews commented on the obtuse nature of the book, "As if the introduction to this series (X’ed Out, 2010) wasn’t hallucinatory enough, this second installment will leave initiates feeling significantly disoriented. And perhaps that’s part of the point, as Burns blurs the distinctions within this anti-narrative among comic books, reality, drugs, masks, nightmare and identity."

The Hive was published by Pantheon, who has information and links to reviews here. The third book in this trilogy, Sugar Skull, was just published. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Happy 59th Birthday, Charles Burns!

Photo yoinked from Wikipedia
We are almost to October, and for that month I am going to review a whole bunch of creepy and spooky graphic novels. Before we get there though, I am taking the time to wish a happy trip around the sun to one of the most accomplished of horror comics creators, Charles Burns.

Burns has won multiple Harvey, Eisner and Ignatz Awards for this work. He is also sort of the Jason Voorhees of comics, slow yet steady and always delivering a killer product. He has been making comics for the better part of 30 years now, and he is known for his combination of horror aspects with an analysis of a potentially nostalgic past. He is also known for his strong, clean black lines and his expertly crisp artwork.

His work appeared in issues of Raw magazine as well as other anthologies, and those stories were later collected into a number of volumes. Big Baby followed the exploits of a young boy who lives in the suburbs and suspects his neighbors of burying people in their backyards. El Borbah is about a hulking private detective who happens to wear a lucha libre outfit. Skin Deep is an anthology of various tales, including some about Dog Boy, a creation that starred in MTV's Liquid Television in the 1980s.

His most known and celebrated work to date is Black Hole, a comic book series that stretched 12 issues from 1995 to 2005. The entire story has since been collected into one volume, and it follows the exploits of some teens in the Seattle area in the 1970s as they are inflicted with some sort of plague that is spread by sexual activity. This disease manifests with physical changes that leave many disfigured in monstrous ways, and the affected teens are banished to a squatters' settlement outside of town. Although it is set much later, Black Hole is reminiscent of 1950s horror movies, although updated with a more modern sensibility.

More recently he has been working on a trilogy of books from Pantheon. These books, X'ed Out, The Hive, and Sugar Skull, are a kind of mash-up of Tintin comics and William S. Burroughs' writing, and the first of his works to be published in color and not black and white. I will review the first two entries in depth in my next post.

In addition to his comics work, Burns is also a sought-after commercial artist who has illustrated for prominent companies such as Coca-Cola and Altoids and also produced album art for Sub Pop Records and Iggy Pop. He speaks about his career in this interview, which is accompanied by ten facts about the man.

Happy Birthday, Charles Burns!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Rise of Aurora West

Battling Boy was one of my favorite graphic novels from last year,with its wonderful blend of superheroics, horror, and YA novels. This volume, The Rise of Aurora West, is the first prequel to that story, telling the tale of how Aurora West came into her role as a monster fighter and providing more insight into the villains who terrorize this world and steal its children.

A lot of the book revolves around Aurora's relationship with her father Haggard. He is seasoned hero and monster fighter, and, as you can see below, his mode of child rearing might best be summed up by the term "tough love."
He does not coddle Aurora in the least, because the enemies they face are devious and give no quarter. Eventually, the father and daughter come to a different kind of understanding. Also, along the way, we see how Aurora inadvertently assisted the monster enemies when she was a child and also may have had a hand in her mother's horrible fate. She is a wonderfully conflicted character, and the complicated plot has lots of twists and turns that build suspense and also surprise.
The story here is by Paul Pope and JT Petty. Pope is an award winning comics creator with decades of credits, and he talks about his work on this book here. Petty is a director, video game writer, and author who also wrote the underrated graphic novel Bloody Chester. The artwork is by David Rubín, a Spanish artist whose style is similar to Pope's. He speaks about his work on this book in this interview. He certainly excels at depicting fantastic science fiction landscapes, characters, and creatures, and I feel the black and white format only highlights his line work and narrative flow. These pages are dynamic and atmospheric, and my only complaint is the same one I had with Battling Boy, that I wish the pages were larger. I appreciate the manga paperback size being convenient and portable, but I would still love to luxuriate in a larger sized format.

Even though this is a darker story than Battling Boy, all of the reviews I have read have been celebratory. Kirkus Reviews wrote, "This feels like a very different direction for the characters, and it’s a thrilling one; expect readers to clamor for the next installments of this clever spinoff." Thea called it "a surprising powerful, emotional tale about the bond between a leader and a sidekick, a father and a daughter, rooted in one young heroine’s journey of self-discovery and realization." Win Wiacek concluded that it was "a superb and moving sidebar yarn, packed with clever intoxicating mystery, astounding action, tense suspense and beguiling characters that will delight older kids, and reads even better if you’re their adult keeper or guardian."

The Rise of Aurora West was published by First Second, and they provide reviews and more here.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copy!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Turning Points: Little Rock Nine & Sons of Liberty & A House Divided

Turning Points is a series of graphic novels from Aladdin Paperbacks, that tell about important moments and events in US history. These books are portable and affordable, and I have had them on my "to read" pile for a while now, so there is no time like to present to see how good they are. All three of these books I review below were written by Marshall Poe, a writer and historian known for his work at The Atlantic and also as editor in chief of the New Books Network.

Little Rock Nine details the ongoing struggle in 1957 about integrating the public schools in Arkansas. Because of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, school integration was national law, but the state laws in Arkansas forbid it. This conflict is embodied by looking at two families, a common conceit in these books I found, which makes the issues both more pressing and personal. The two families, of course are black and white, and the main focus is on their children. Walter McNally, a 16 year old white boy, listens to his family squabbles over the integration. His father is a lawyer fighting for the rights of black people while his grandfather is the conservative foil who argues for keeping things as they are. Poe makes these characters somewhat sympathetic and human, but he also makes sure that they wear their views on their sleeves.
There is more nuance when looking at Thomas Johnson's family. He is a 15 year old black boy, and he took part in an attempt to integrate the schools the year prior. Of course, he wants to be treated equally, but he and his family have experienced the intense backlash from those who want to keep things as it was, and they are hesitant to deal with all the potential degradation and violence that came with social action. I appreciated that civil rights issues were here considered with more attention to the context, because I think for some students these matters are such cut and dried, facile decisions and I feel they should see how much of an actual struggle such change was.

All the reviews I have read about Little Rock Nine have been positive. Snow Wildsmith wrote, "Poe’s insistance [sic] on showing as many sides of a story as possible succeeds admirably here, resulting in two main character [sic] who are believable boys caught up in a storm they don’t quite understand and aren’t sure that they’re strong enough to face." The folks at the Historical Novel Society called it "exciting and historically accurate." Marya Jansen-Gruber offered this opinion, "This format will encourage young readers to ask questions about the civil rights movement, and the book will provide an excellent platform for a class segment about the Little Rock Nine."

The art in this volume is by Ellen Lindner. She is a cartoonist and illustrator known for her Ignatz Award nominated webcomic The Black Feather Falls and various other comics projects. Her artwork is somewhat cartoonish, but her storytelling is very clear. I also admire her ability to depict the emotions through her figures' faces and postures.

The artwork in the next two books is by Leland Purvis, whose other graphic novel works include the Resistance trilogy and a biography of Neils Bohr. His work in this volume is a combination of strong ink lines and sketch-like illustrations. I think he captures the historical flavor through costumes and backgrounds, though sometimes it is difficult to keep track of which character is which.

Sons of Liberty follows a period of US history from 1768-1776, a time of great change and a number of historical events leading up to the American Revolutionary War. The entryway into this story is Nathaniel Smithfield, a fictional apprentice to Paul Revere. He is ten years old when the book begins, and over time he meets a number of prominent patriots, including Sam Adams and John Hancock, and is witness to many events, such as the Boston Tea Party and combat in the battles of Lexington and Concord. Although this book is a piece of historical fiction and uses much original dialogue, there are a number of sections based in real accounts that feature first-hand descriptions of events.
Nathaniel throws a pretty mean rock.
The drama in this story is heightened by family tensions, with Nathaniel butting heads with his Loyalist father. In a clever way, this familial conflict mirrors the thought process of the colonists to rebel against England, and over time, the family dynamics shift and events cause people's minds to change. Even though I was pretty familiar with the actual events, I felt myself becoming concerned for the characters' lives. There is a lot to digest in the book, in terms of the sheer amount of facts, events, and characters, but I feel that the story is quite compelling and interesting.

The reviews I have read about Sons of Liberty are pretty mixed. Snow Wildsmith felt that this book was relatively weak, "mainly due to Poe attempting to cover too much time in too short of a book." The Historical Novel Society commented positively that it "gets to the heart of what it felt like to be a young boy in the middle of a thrilling period of history, with its conflicts, agreements and world-changing events." The Breed's Hill Institute summed it up as "an imperfect but interesting taste of history."
The third book in this series is A House Divided, set in the years leading up to the American Civil War.It follows a couple of brothers from the year 1856, Owen and Amos Bennington. They are close and very sympathetic to their parents' abolitionist rhetoric. After their parents deaths, they decide to take action and spread their message in the contentious soon-to-be state of Kansas. While there, they see just how violent and sneaky the pro-slavery contingents are, which leads them both to question how they can best help help the abolitionist cause. Younger brother Amos decides to join up with John Brown, because at least he is being proactive and taking the battle to those who would defend an unjust social system. Older brother Owen decides to go work for a politician he admires for his bold speeches, Abraham Lincoln.

The dual narratives shows two very different paths on the road to abolishing slavery, and there are a great many events enumerated in the storytelling. In addition, Purvis's artwork is less sketchy than in Sons of Liberty and includes more grey tones, which give it a more painterly sheen. The sum total of these features is an engaging set of tales that balance historical import with human emotion.

I was not able to find many reviews of A House Divided, but Snow Wildsmith praised it particularly because "one of the strongest points of this book (and of the series) is that Poe doesn’t neglect to tell both sides of a story as much as he can" and because "Purvis’ art is also stronger in this volume." I agree with her on both counts.

Previews and more information about all these Turning Points books can be found here from their publisher.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Economix: How Our Economy Works (And Doesn't Work) in Words and Pictures

Economics is a vast and scary topic for many, full of mathematical formulas and arcane concepts that try to explain how finances, governments, laws, and money work. Economix: How Our Economy Works (And Doesn't Work) tackles all of that and more in a very readable, visual, and entertaining way. It is a large, dense book, and it has many facets. It looks at the works of key theorists and contains many quotations and paraphrases from their works, such as this look at Adam Smith:
But the book is also a historical look at the major players who shaped economics theories and social policies. It examines the shifts from an agrarian economy to the effects of mechanization and consolidation of the Industrial Revolution to the competing models of capitalism and communism of the Cold War and beyond.
The historical narrative plays out until the very recent past, and the ideas become very personalized. The book takes its shots at people and practices who look at economic matters in facile or deceptive manner. It also speaks plainly about some stark realities.
In the end, this book is more than a simple delineation of economics theories. It explains those, but it situates them in historical contexts, and also describes how they have led up to contemporary conditions. It is as much a textbook as it is a commentary on modern life and even a critique of some commonly held myths that get often repeated by talking heads on television or other media. This book is very much based in facts, but it also is social commentary and a call for the reader to be informed and take action. It should also be stated that although there are some sections about other countries, the vast majority of this book is about how the US economy operates.

This graphic novel was written by Michael Goodwin, a freelancer who has traveled extensively internationally and written about a number of various topics. I felt that he editorialized throughout the book, but to me that was a welcomed practice. Too often textbooks are written as if they are wisdom passed down from above, and at least Goodwin admits where he is coming from. The artwork by Dan E. Burr is clear, strong, and emphatic, balancing a sense of humor with its informative graphics and clean storytelling. Burr has been making comics for decades and is best known for his graphic novel collaborations with James Vance, the Eisner Award winning Kings in Disguise and its sequel On the Ropes. Goodwin discusses his work on Economix in this interview with John Hogan of The Graphic Novel Reporter.

The reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and called it "a dense yet quite accessible read," going on, "Goodwin brilliantly contextualize [sic] economic theories with historical narrative, while Burr's simple but elegant illustration employs classical techniques like caricaturing politicians and symbolizing big businesses (as a gleeful factory) to help the reader visualize difficult concepts. Brett Schenker called it "one of the most important [graphic novels] of the decade," and added, "It shows that the comic medium can transcend people with funny powers and silly costumes and instead be used to educate, activate and motivate individuals to learn more about their world but also their role in it." Zenestex called it "an approachable book for anybody who wants to broaden their understanding of economics beyond what the evening news delivers."

Economix: How Our Economy Works (And Doesn't Work) was published by Abrams ComicArts, who has reviews, a teachers guide, and more here. The book's official blog is also a treasure trove of resources and information. If you are interested in economics, go check it out!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Leo Geo

I know that I have talked a little about books I got at this year's HeroesCon, and today I am going to look at two that are not only gorgeous to look at but also great for content learning. They are by Jon Chadurjian (aka Jon Chad), who is an instructor at at The Center for Cartoon Studies. He also wrote and drew a bunch of mini-comics and zines as well as the horrible and hilarious The Bad-ventures of Bobo Backslack. Unlike that graphic novel, these two books, with their sense of adventure, science content, and playful formats, are great for many age groups.

In this first book, Leo Geo and His Miraculous Journey Through the Center of the Earth, scientist Leo Geo travels down, down, down into the Earth, along the way elucidating us about Earth facts and geology knowledge. Along with the facts, there is also some fiction in the form of fantastic creatures and an underground city from which he must escape. It's a pretty fun story in terms of plot, and the factoids along the way are interesting. Additionally, Chad packs the illustrations full of details, jokes, and characters. It's like a picture book version of Pop-Up Video in some ways, and I love this book like I loved that show.

Perhaps the most fun part of the book is its format. It is a long and skinny volume, and immediately you have to turn it 90 degrees as Leo starts his journey downward. About halfway through the book, perspective changes and you have to flip the book 180 degrees as Leo starts his journey upward. I loved the novelty of this type of reading format, and I think that adventurous readers would also appreciate this playfulness and willingness to play with space.

The reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. Trever Van As called it "strange, wonderful and totally different." Rob Clough wrote, "The book rewards multiple readings, if only to soak in the sideline details and little jokes that Chad throws in on every single page. The book is tightly paced, dense, and is short enough to end without wearing out its welcome." Publishers Weekly offered their opinion that "budding scientists should find the geology fascinating, and the magic dagger fighting with monsters gives it a good story to go along with the facts."

Leo Geo and His Miraculous Journey Through the Center of the Earth was published by Roaring Brook Press, and they provide much more information here.

This sequel actually has two titles, Leo Geo and the Cosmic Crisis is the one they sell it under, but if you flip the book and start from the "back," you will read Matt Data and the Cosmic Crisis. In the first narrative, Leo learns that a comet is hurtling toward his brother Matt's space station, and being a good sibling, he runs out in a rocket to rescue him. In the meantime, Matt  learns that Leo's computer is about to malfunction and he sets off with his ultra-smart and resourceful space dog, Maff, to help his brother. Along the way, each brother encounters robots, strange creatures, even space pirates who complicate their journeys. And they also drop a bunch of science knowledge about space along the way.

This book is full of detailed illustrations and wonderful asides. It also plays with gravity some, requiring the reader to turn the book in order to orient themselves. Up is not always up in space, and that fact is used to good effect in this book. This sequel is just as playful as the first volume, and what is more, it's in color:

Like its predecessor, this book has also been received well. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review, writing, "Readers who carefully trace the science-minded sibs’ circuitous pathways will be rewarded with a nonstop barrage of chases, battles, goofy sight gags and silly details. They’ll also enjoy numerous meaty minilectures on topics astronomical, from how multistage rockets work and types of asteroids and stars to algebraic formulas for computing gravitational attraction and escape velocity." The School Library Journal's Marian McLeod also gave it a starred review and summed it up as "a great offering for graphic-novel enthusiasts or kids looking for a fun read." FirstThursdaysReviews added, "The colorful cartoon style illustrations will engage any reader as they follow the two different stories to the end."

Leo Geo and the Cosmic Crisis was also published by Roaring Brook Press, who has lots of information about the book here.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Congratulations, 2014 Harvey Award Winners!

The Awards were delivered this past weekend, and big winners who have been featured on this blog are the creators of Saga who won:
  • Best Artist: Fiona Staples

  • Best Writer: Brian K. Vaughan 
  • Best Continuing or Limited Series: Saga

  • Best Cover Artist:  Fiona Staples, Saga
Sex Criminals' artist  Chip Zdarsky won Most Promising New Talent.

Paul Pope won Best Cartoonist for his work on Battling Boy.

Congratulations to all! 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Julia's House for Lost Creatures

Julia's House for Lost Creatures is one of those books that I think could be a graphic novel or also could be considered a children's picture book. It certainly used sequential art conventions. Artist/writer Ben Hatke is known for his prior work on the Zita the Spacegirl series of graphic novels, and this book is published by First Second, one of the premier US publishers of graphic novels. So I am going to call it a graphic novel.

I also could call it a bunch of other things, like delightful, fun, gorgeous, and sweet. Julia has a walking house (like a cute Baba Yaga, only with a giant turtle), and she parks it in a delightful area. She loves her surroundings, but things are just too quiet. So she hangs a shingle inviting lost creatures, and soon the house is overrun with all kinds of critters: goblins, fairies, trolls, mermaids, and a dragon even!
Suddenly quiet is non-existent and chaos reigns. Julia has to hatch a plan to calm things down, and she has a clever solution that resolves matters in classic storybook fashion.
There is so much to recommend this book, from its beautiful artwork and fantastic creatures to Hatke's many humorous details that add yet another layer of joy. Finally, the plot is one I think many parents will appreciate because of the resolution where all of Julia's creatures learn a lesson.

All the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. Kirkus Reviews wrote, "Hatke steps from graphic novels (Zita the Spacegirl) to the picture-book format with aplomb, blending tropes from both worlds for a sweetly weird domestic adventure." Tasha Saecker called it "An exceptional picture book debut." Bill Boerman-Cornell wrote, "The story is good, but there are at least five other reasons why I love this book." Go click on his name and see what they are.

Julia's House for Lost Creatures was published by First Second, and they provide reviews and other resources here.

Thank you for the review copy, Gina!