Sunday, June 25, 2017

Manga Math Mysteries: The Runaway Puppy

I reviewed another volume of Manga Math Mysteries in the past, and I liked it pretty well. As I am always looking for the rare unicorn that is a relevant, actually enjoyable mathematics graphic novel, I thought I would check in with another volume in the series. The Runaway Puppy is much like The Secret Ghost in that best thing about this book is the expressive, clear, and fun artwork. It also stars the same bunch of good friends united by school and martial arts classes, which is a plus if you are dealing with a young reader who digs series books. The story, about a puppy who gets out of the yard (it's sort of in the title) and how the gang use probability to figure out her is pretty solid, if a little didactic.
Still, the story has some good points. The examples might get a bit repetitive, but I appreciated how this book used them in contrast to show how probability works and how odds are not just cut-and-dried eventualities that always play out in uniform manner. This characteristic could be very helpful in spelling out math concepts to a learner. Also, it sneaks in a little bit of medieval literature, with the dog being named after Charlemagne's daughter Bradamante. This book might not really be manga and does not feature the most thrilling narrative, but I still think it would be a good, quick read for an elementary student who is into math, kung fu, dogs, fun-looking comics, or books where kids play detective.

This book is a collaboration between writer Lydia Barriman and artist Becky Grutzik. According to the bio at the back of the book, Barriman is a "teacher, doctoral candidate, and writer of math courses for all ages." I could not find any additional info about her. Grutzik works on all kinds of indie comics, including the series Peep Lite and Aegis, and she shares her art and adventures via her Twitter page. I really enjoyed her work here, and her other works seem entertaining and inspired.

I was not able to find much in terms of reviews for this title, but it does have a four-star rating on Goodreads. This review by Publishers Weekly of the first volume in the series seems to touch on the flavor of this volume as well.

The Runaway Puppy was published by the Graphic Universe imprint of Lerner Publishing, and they have a preview more info about the book here.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

One Trick Pony

One Trick Pony is a great scifi story about a planet Earth overrun by aliens called Pipers who have literally consumed all the technology they could and killed most of humanity. The people left have returned to a brutal, desperate way of life reminiscent of the Stone Age (not the happy kind like the Flintstones had). The survivors have to struggle to survive the elements, the Pipers, and each other. Many of them have turned into bands of folk called Ferals, so named for their ferocious treatment of any outsiders.

The main story here follows a young woman named Strata who has happened upon a robot horse named Kleidi in an abandoned cave. Somehow drawn to it, she refuses to leave it behind even though it is a magnet for alien attention. Still, it comes in handy when the Pipers do arrive, because not only is it fast enough to escape them, it also accepts commands that help it fight off the seemingly invincible aliens. Strata's harrowing journey drags in a couple of her compatriots as well as a fugitive from the Ferals as they try to stay ahead of the advancing Pipers. Together, they cross lots of terrain and also delve into the mysterious origins and actions of the Pipers themselves.
The aliens are called Pipers because of the sounds they make as they float about and blow toxic bubbles that swallow up technology and maim any living thing in their path. One of the survivors makes a link between their name and the legend of the Pied Piper, which gives the whole enterprise a mythic feel. Overall, I was very satisfied with this book. The artwork is exciting and gorgeous to behold. And the story features a mix of science fiction, action, character development, humor, and existentialism. The book ended in a pretty open-ended manner, too, and I would be very happy to see a sequel to find out what sorts out from the aftermath here.

This book's creator is the prolific Nathan Hale, one of my favorite comics creators, and I am not shocked that he was able to pull off combining as many elements in this book as he has. He is a masterful comics artist, best known (and celebrated) for his nonfiction series of Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales, which I practically consider required reading if you like graphic novels and/or US history. He also has drawn two other graphic novels, Rapunzel's Revenge and its sequel Calamity Jack. He has also worked on a variety of children's books, including Frankenstein: A Monstrous Parody and The Dinosaurs' Night Before Christmas.

All the reviews of this book I have read sing its praises. Publishers Weekly concluded, "Hale gives his post-apocalyptic scenario special sauce, and readers will hope for more." Elizabeth Bird explained, "Even if you’ve never cared for science fiction, and even if aliens normally bore you to tears, you’ll find something to love about this book." Kirkus Reviews summed up, "Hale blends adventure, aliens, an apocalyptic future, and folklore into an easy-to-read stand-alone"

One Trick Pony was published by Amulet Books, and they have a preview and more available here.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Volcano Trash

Night Air was one of my favorite books of 2016, and this book Volcano Trash is the follow-up volume from Ben Sears. In this book, we get more of the same: excellent all-ages adventure starring a couple of lovable rogues named Plus Man (a young goggle-wearing thief) and Hank (his robot companion). They are also joined by a getaway driver named Basil, who pitches in on various plots and schemes.

The characters have much to contend with in this book, including corrupt cops, a labyrinthine prison, lackeys, a henchman who can split into three, and hive-mind guards, when their past actions catch up to them and they end up in the hands of the law. There are lots of action, intrigue, and plot twists, too, as unlikely alliances happen and certain characters are not what they seem.

In addition to all of this great plotting, you can also see that the artwork is exceptionally attractive and inventive. The action sequences are rendered in excellent detail, combining elements of video games, European comics, and manga conventions. The technology and character designs are first-rate, and this book is a joy to read, behold, and revisit. It's just plain fun.

The reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. Dustin Cabeal simply stated. "I loved every corner and page of this comic." Oliver Sava wrote, "Sears’ work reads like a mashup of great all-ages entertainment like Tintin, Adventure Time, the Indiana Jones movies, and any number of action video games, and there’s a sense of joy and delight that makes his comics especially well-suited for kids." Paul and Gwen at the Comics Alternative praised the book for its broad appeal and unique art style.

Volcano Trash was published by Koyama Press, and they have a preview and more info about it here. If you are interested in learning more about Ben Sears, there is an extensive interview with him about comics and this book here.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Flintstones, Volume 1

I definitely would not expect to find much provocative social commentary or satire from a book based on licensed characters. Those types of comics are usually insipid knock-offs of more vital media versions, but this Flintstones comic is actually very insightful, fun, and way more well done than I would have expected. This volume collects the first six issues of the ongoing series, which is about to be at issue #12 at this writing. Instead of it being a watered-down version of The Honeymooners, this series casts the family in a more realistic, bittersweet light. Fred is a war veteran stuck in a low-end job, always trying to advance but always getting taken advantage of.
Wilma is a stay-at-home mom with artistic tendencies, and Pebbles is a young adolescent with a keen eye and sharp tongue. Over the course of this series, they deal with many social issues and situations that mirror and comment on our contemporary ones, turning them on their heads in humorous and satirical fashion. For instance, both the Flintstones and the Rubbles catch flack for having nontraditional marriages (they are monogamous, whereas the norm is to be polygamous). They deal with vacuous politicians who offer no solutions other than blunt, brute-force tactics to deal with enemies (i.e, anyone who seems weird or foreign to them). They go to church and find a wide array of objects and deities offered for worship. And they are invaded by alien teenagers looking for a thrill during spring break.

Perhaps the darkest and most troubling aspect of the book has to deal with capitalism and consumerism, where people are constantly being pushed to buy household products that they may not need, just to keep up appearances. Many of these items and appliances are actually living things that have personalities and can communicate, though they are ignored and treated like objects. When their people are not around they talk to each other and loosen up some, though they accept their lots in life and do not rebel.
A common theme in this book is that pretty much everyone's happiness in this book is built on somebody else's misery. And a dark edge tinges pretty much every funny thing in this book, from the origins of Bedrock itself, to the way Barney and Betty Rubble adopt their son Bamm-Bamm, to the presence of the prototypical homosexual couple Adam and Steve. The satire is more pointed than shocking, but what is actually shocking is how admirable and satisfying this series is. Many comics today take a "grim & gritty" take on previously light material in ham-handed and oblivious ways. This book has a lot of heart, depicting very human characters with a complex blend of humor and pathos. Much of what makes it work is the combination of clever plotting plus the character designs that mesh together a version of realism with cartoon elements to make for some impressive, expressive scenes. Never in a million years would I expect to be reviewing a Flintstones comic here, but this one is a surprising gem.

This series is a collaboration between writer Mark Russell and artist Steve Pugh. Russell has collaborated on a few notable comics and comics-related books, including the profane and funny God Is Disappointed in You and a contemporary reboot of Prez. Pugh has been active in comics for decades, and his most notable works in the US have been multiple runs on Animal Man and drawing the Saint of Killers mini-series. Both creators speak about their work on this series in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and summed up, "Broad satire like this can risk a level of smarminess, but this is avoided through some sweet characterizations that present Fred and Barney as lovable lunkheads whose sincerity often sets them apart from the rest of Stone Age society." Ken Petti wrote that it was full of "solid stories with real emotional punch." Jacob Brogan commented about the various satires and that "what emerges is a story about the profound fragility of civilization—but also about the unlikely durability of the human connections that make it up."

The Flintstones, Volume 1 was published by DC Comics, and they have more info about the series here.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Creeps

The Creeps is a series of books about a group of four misfits/monster hunters/detectives who just can't seem to catch a break in their school or town. They live in a community beset by horrible creatures, where people are routinely hounded or eaten by strange beasts, and they are only further ostracized when they try to help. Still, I feel that their bad luck and treatment make for some very compelling stories and relatable characters (who does not love an underdog?).

The quartet is made up of some strong, distinct personalities. Carol is good with computers and technology; Rosario is mightily strong and also into fashion; Mitchell is a monster expert with a vast library, and Jarvis is an inventor who specializes in blowing up his pants. You can see them all do their thing here:
In their first book, Night of the Frankenfrogs, they have to contend with creatures cobbled together from critters stolen from their biology class. Their inquiries lead them into all kinds of interesting, icky places, like sewers and the lair of dethroned and bitter science fair champion. The case goes in many directions, and I have to say that the solution makes sense, but I did not see it coming. I also liked that the characters here are firmly established in their town, making all kinds of references to past cases and beasts they have dealt with. This world is a rich one to tell stories in.
The reviews I have read about this book have been mostly positive. Esther Keller wrote, "This will be a definite hit with middle grade readers." Kirkus Reviews commented that "Schweizer's cleanly paneled art is bright and busy, ever ready with a gag that helps blend the ghastly with the goofy, making his gang’s antics reminiscent of Scooby Doo." Robert Greenberger was cooler on the book, noting, "The dialogue is interesting but his characters feel not fully realized and it could be Schweizer’s working with too large a cast and too big a story for a first offering."

The Trolls Will Feast! is the second The Creeps book, and I hate to say it, but this is the book that actually brought this series to my attention. It is nominated for a 2017 Eisner Award for Best Publication for Early Readers (up to age 8), a fact I find a bit puzzling. Not the nomination, as I feel that Chris Schweizer is a very talented and deserving comics creator whose past works (like the Crogan's Adventures) I have loved. But this book feels like it is aimed at an older audience than 8-year-olds. I feel it's more a middle school or young adult-type book. Still, I did not even know these books existed until I saw this nomination, so I am glad for Schweizer and also to have found them.

The second book ramps up the excitement, humor, and intrigue, focusing on the mysterious disappearance of some of the Creeps' classmates (who get eaten by trolls at the very beginning of the book, one of the factors that leads me to think this book series may be more for older elementary or middle school readers). The trolls, it turns out are an ancient race who periodically feast on humans, and their methods for preparing their meals are pretty diabolical.
This book's plot I found more intricate and tightly woven together than in the first book, and I marvel at how many gags, jokes, and details get crammed into every page. I found both highly enjoyable and entertaining, and I am very much looking forward to reading volume three. I also hope to see more books in the series, as I can find no mention of a book 4 as of yet.

The reviews of this second volume were stronger than for the first, with much praise heaped on it. Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "a satisfying and rollicking sophomore offering that improves on the first." Robert Greenberger concluded, "This is a stronger offering and shows greater command of the characters and their setting so the series is taking on a nice shape." Kat Kan wrote that it "will appeal to a wide range of young readers hungry for horror-lite monster stories."

For those interested in his works, Schweizer tweets here and also blogs here and here. He speaks about his work on The Creeps books in this interview and also in this interview.

Both of these The Creeps books were published by Amulet Press, and they have previews and more information about them here and here.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook

I try to read as much as possible, but there are books that have sat on my shelf for years. I am sad to say that this one, The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook, is one of those books. I say sad because this book is utterly wonderful and enjoyable, and I was depriving myself of a great pleasure by not reading it all those years. The art is exceptionally fun and detailed, the story brisk yet substantive, and the whole enterprise crackles with energy, humor, and inventiveness.

The plot begins with a nerdy young science enthusiast Julian gets transferred to a new school.

Shunned in the past for being too smart and into science, he tries to hide who he is, only to become friends with two disparate kindred spirits and form the titular Secret Science Alliance. Teamed with school jock Ben Garza and notorious troublemaker Greta Hughes, the trio come up with all kinds of wonderful gadgets, including bouncy shoes, retrieval drones, and a flying machine.
Hidden away in their secret headquarters, life is pretty great for these friends until an unlikely rival catches wind of their work and steals their notebook of inventions.There is so much to love about this book. It features brilliantly designed, interesting characters. The inventions are fun, fascinating, and wonderful to behold. The artwork is full of eye-popping detail, vibrant colors, excellent storytelling, and so much expression. I cannot recommend this book enough. Go and get it now!

This book is the creation of Eleanor Davis, who worked on it with her husband Drew Weing and friend Joey Weiser. Davis has won a few accolades, including the Russ Manning Most Promising Newcomer Award, and has a number of books for adult (How to Be Happy and You & A Bike & A Road) and younger readers (Stinky) to her credit. She speaks about much of her work and career in this interview.

All of the reviews I read have heaped great praise on this book. Elizabeth Bird wrote, "This is the kind of title that rewards the reader over and over again." Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review that concluded, "With its bounty of factlets slipped in for learning on the sly, it’s a sure kid and teacher pleaser—a perfect package for tweens." Jason Azzopardi admired that it was full of "exuberance, stimulation and the love of possibility."

The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook was published by Bloomsbury, and they have more info about it here.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Science Comics: Flying Machines: How the Wright Brothers Soared

This latest volume in the Science Comics series focuses on the invention of flying machines. Now, I know the Wright Brothers are extremely well known; they are featured on the backs of two states' quarters even. Reading this book, I learned that there was LOTS I did not know about the duo, including the fact that they had a sister named Katharine. She played a huge role in spreading the news about her brothers' work and also advertising and marketing their work to potential investors, and in this book she is the narrator who puts a very personal and human touch on the proceedings.
Not only is she a good choice because she has a magnetic personality, she was also a schoolteacher so she is a handy figure for explaining the science aspects of the story. There are a good number of passages where the science of flight is spelled out via exposition. And to be honest, I felt that some of these passages were a bit dense to read, but I appreciated the creators trying to break down some pretty difficult science.
Still, there is much to recommend this book. I felt that the artwork was vibrant and expressive, and it revels in depicting the various flying machines of the day. The story humanizes the achievements of some grand historical figures and also puts their work into historical context. Additionally, the book and endnotes cover a number of the notable pioneers/inventors/scientists of the day. Flying Machines might have hit a couple of spots of turbulence, but it is still a very good book.

This book is a collaboration between writer Alison Wilgus and artist Molly Brooks. Wilgus is a cartoonist and animator who worked on the Codename: Kids Next Door cartoon and Avatar: The Last Airbender comic books. Brooks is also known for her series Sanity & Tallulah. Both creators write about their work on Flying Machines in this blog post.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Johanna Draper Carlson wrote that it, like the others in the series, "combines the best of everything: fascinating stories, entertaining education, and talented creators who know how to make good comics." Kirkus Reviews called it "An accessible and engaging introduction to the Wright brothers and how they ushered in the age of flight."

Science Comics: Flying Machines: How the Wright Brothers Soared was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more information about it here.

A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Cat Person

Cat Person is a fun and funny book, full of keen observational humor and not as many cat-centric comics as you'd think. I laughed at quite a few of the gags, but more often I sort of blushed/cringed with recognition at having had gone through similar situations.
The book is divided into a few thematic sections. The first is about Seo and her cat Jimmy, the second and third are about Seo's life, mundane routines, struggles with food, and creative struggles/triumphs. The fourth section focuses on aspects of her relationship with Eddie, which is partly long distance, and the fifth is a grab-bag of assorted gags.
If you have read many comics, you can see that the topics tackled here are not really novel, but this book does handle them in an enjoyable and fresh manner. What makes the whole thing work are two things: the expressive and vibrant depictions of the characters and the economy of storytelling that distills particular experiences and sets up the punchlines. Reading this book made me feel as an adult reader like I did when I was a little kid reading a Garfield book, being engrossed by moments of pure joy and hilarity. And I mean that in the most sincere way.

Cat Person was written and drawn by Seo Kim. She is a storyboard artist for the cartoon Adventure Time, and as far as I can tell this book is her only published work in comics to date.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly called it "a winner. Even the cat jokes are not tired—a difficult feat in a world saturated with feline cartoon books and webcomics." Amy Ratcliffe wrote that it "has its own charming flavor. And, since it is in the style of a journal, you can drop in and out of the book as you please." Whit Taylor called it "a delightful, entertaining read about the little moments in life. Kim’s adeptness at picking up situational nuances, tied with her simple yet whimsical line, hints at an artist who is able to use the inherent ridiculousness of everyday life to her advantage."

Cat Person was published by Koyama Press, and they have a preview and more info about it here. The book has some occasional profanity, so it is recommended for folks who are OK with that.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Shattered Warrior

Shattered Warrior is a compelling piece of science fiction. Its plot may seem familiar: it's about the aftermath of an alien invasion of Earth, where humans have been enslaved to work for their conquerors. Here, the bad guys are the Derichets, who desire to exploit and plunder the Earth's mineral resources. The main character is Colleen Cavanaugh, who still lives in the estate of her formerly very wealthy and well-to-do family, all of whom have been seemingly murdered.
No longer a patrician but reduced to being a lowly factory worker, Colleen has little to live for and trusts no one. However, she learns that her niece Lucy is still alive and needs her help, which sets a series of events in motion.
Eventually, Colleen gets involved with a rag-tag group of resisters, and she falls begrudgingly in love with a rebel named Jann. Together, they come up with a plot to take out the Derichets and reclaim Earth for humanity. Much of what I have described may seem cliched, but I feel that the characterization and plotting in this book make the whole enterprise very engaging and interesting. There was a lot of exposition in the beginning but it paid off in the later chapters, which I felt made for some very compelling reading.

This book is a collaboration between writer Sharon Shinn and artist Molly Knox Ostertag. Shinn is a journalist who also also writes novels, typically in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, or romance. She has several series in her credits. Ostertag is known for her excellent webcomic Strong Female Protagonist and has another graphic novel forthcoming, named The Witch Boy. Both creators chime in about their work on this book in this interview.

The reviews I have read of this book have been mostly positive. Kirkus Reviews commented that "The plot may be familiar, but the social customs of each group are defined so precisely that every detail feels strange and surprising." In a similar vein, Brigid Alverson wrote, "There’s a familiar feel to this tale of revolution against an oppressive society, but it’s well done despite some implausible turns." April Spisak called it a "powerful graphic novel" with "crossover appeal."

Shattered Warrior was published by First Second, and they have a preview and a lot more information about it here. There is a lot of sexual violence, mostly implied, and one steamy romantic scene that had brief nudity, as well as a couple of same-sex relationships featured, so this book is recommended for readers mature enough to handle those things.

A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Blank Slate

A few months ago, Comixology had a sale on some French digital comics, and I bought this book, simply because the art was by Pénélope Bagieu. And I have grown to love her work. I finally got around to reading it, and it was a treat. The narrative is about a young woman named Eloise. One day she wakes up on a park bench. She has obviously been crying and has a weird spot on her neck, but she can remember nothing about herself from before that moment. Not her name, address, family, or anything. She does know where she is and how to travel via the subway system, which she does once she puzzles out where she lives from what she could find in her purse.

Once she arrives home, she feels like a stranger looking into another person's life. She knows nothing about this apartment, does not feel associations from any of the books or movies there, and she does not even remember the name of her cat (let alone any computer passwords). And every time she encounters a situation where a revelation is about to happen, she takes these flights of fancy into alternate versions of what could happen. These are pretty jarring, but in a funny way.
Over time, she figures out some details, and enlists the aid of a co-worker to help her try to fit in despite her dilemma. I found the whole things pretty entrancing. The mystery unfolded in a deliberate, intriguing pace that kept me hooked for the whole book. There were no pat conclusions or easy answers. And in the end, the resolution seemed perhaps a little bit too pop-psychological, but it also felt apt for this book. If you are looking for a jaunty book that touches on everyday issues of identity, then I feel like this one might work for you.

This book was written by Boulet and features art and colors by Renaissance woman Pénélope Bagieu. Boulet is a very accomplished comics creator in France with a history of success using social media. Bagieu is fast becoming one of my favorite artists. She was awarded the high honor Chevalier des Arts et Lettres for her contribution to the world of art and literature, and she has drawn many different comics works, the most famous being Joséphine and the graphic novels Exquisite Corpse and California Dreamin'. Her artwork and coloring in this book are outstanding.

I had a difficult time finding reviews of this book, but it averages 5 stars (out of 5) on Comixology. Augie De Blieck Jr. found much to praise about the book, and added that "Boulet and Bagieu nail the ending in an unexpected, yet totally satisfying way."

Blank Slate was published by Delcourt (this page is in French), and they have more info about it here.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Real Friends

Real Friends is a memoir about the trials and tribulations of friendship in elementary school. The story here follows Shannon from her days in kindergarten to fifth grade. She has a tough time making friends at first but then meets Adrienne and something just clicks. They are inseparable for a while, but as they get older their relationship gets complicated by other friends, boys, and summer vacations. By the time second grade comes along, they start hanging around a girl named Jen. Jen is very popular and talented, and she ends up the leader of a collection of girls called The Group.
Much of this book involves Shannon's various adventures and misadventures with The Group. She strives to belong to it, but she also has to endure a lot of hardship and emotional pain from trying to fit in while being tormented by various Group members. On top of the friendship dynamics, we are also privy to Shannon's family life.  A middle child with four siblings, she often feels isolated and starved for attention. Adding to her load, her older sister Wendy has her own troubles and often unleashes her misery in Shannon's direction. In the end, I felt this book was a very relatable and accurate look at childhood friendships. The author also has a bunch of commentary before and after the story, and the whole enterprise resists easy answers and pigeonholing about people, which I found refreshing. Also, I very much enjoyed the emotion and various personalities conveyed through the art. This book is both vibrant and evocative.

This book is a collaboration between author Shannon Hale and artist LeUyen Pham. Hale is a prolific children's book and YA author, and she has a few graphic novels under her belt, too, including Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack. Pham has drawn a good number of children's books, including The Bear Who Wasn't There, and has worked with Hale before on a series of The Princess in Black books. Both creators speak about their work on this graphic novel in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. In a starred review for the School Library Journal, Mahnaz Dar summed up, "This tender, perceptive graphic memoir is bound to resonate with most readers, especially fans of Raina Telgemeier and kids struggling with the often turbulent waters of friendships and cliques." Kirkus Reviews called it "A painful and painfully recognizable tale of one girl’s struggle to make and keep 'one good friend.'” In another starred review, Publishers Weekly called it "a wonderfully observed portrait of finding one’s place in your world."

Real Friends was published by First Second and they have a preview and much more about it available here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Saint Cole

Saint Cole is an unsettling book, the story of Joe, a 28-year-old guy who lives with his girlfriend Nicole and their infant Oscar. He is getting by, working at a pizzeria, just paying their bills, but he's got problems. He feels the pressure of being the sole source of income, and he turns to alcohol to feel better. When Nicole's mother moves in with them, things get more complicated, setting off a chain of events that lead Joe down a dark, dark path.
I am not going to say much more about the plot, because I do not want to ruin things. But the character work and pacing in this books are phenomenal. I could not wait to see what happened next, which was pretty exhilarating and horrible, like I was watching a slow motion train-wreck. And I must say, as dark and unrelenting as this book got, I appreciated the use of verbal humor and wordplay to sell a joke that gets set up at the opening of the book. Watching Joe figuratively and literally get punched in the face by life was a powerful story on its own, and it being punctuated with an unexpected punchline just highlighted how much craft and care went into executing this book. It also made me feel pretty disturbed and thoughtful about this book as a whole, which is the hallmark of a moving piece of art.

This book was created by Noah Van Sciver, author of the graphic novels The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln and Fante Bukowski. He is also known for his many mini-comics (some collected here) and the series Blammo. He has a Patreon page, where I am a sponsor for his work. He also has a Tumblr page where posts many of his works in progress. He speaks about his career and work on Saint Cole in this interview with the fine folks at the Comics Alternative.

All of the reviews I have read indicate that this book is a work to be reckoned with. Hillary Brown praised the artwork, stating, "There’s a smart mind at work here, drawing its visual references from a wide variety of sources." Paul Buhle called Van Sciver "a cartographer of his generation." Tom Murphy opined, "He captures perfectly the down-at-heel environment in which these less-than-aspirational characters play out their drama."

Saint Cole was published by Fantagraphics, and they have a preview and more info about it here. There are profanity, sexual situations, drinking, and some drug use throughout this book so it is suggested for readers mature enough to handle those topics.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017


Henchgirl began as a webcomic, and here the entire saga is collected in one volume. The story follows a young woman named Mary Posa, who is physically quite strong and works in the Butterfly Gang run by supervillain Monsieur Butterfly.
Even though she makes much money from crime and is employed by a criminal, she is not really evil, just sort of aimless. She lives with a couple of roommates who know what she does (and do not hold it against her). In the end, this book is less about its superhero trappings and more about personal relationships and observations about trying to get by in the world.
Sure, comic book style action happens: banks get robbed, heroes clash with villains, aliens invade the Earth, but the heart of this book is seeing how the various characters react to various events and bounce off of each other. Many of these scenes are actually played for laughs, and some are hilarious. In addition, this book is also pretty inventive in terms of its plotting and characterization. I cannot say I was overly thrilled with how the story ended, but I very much enjoyed reading this book and could not put it down. If you are looking for a fresh, funny, off-beat, and more feminine look at superheroics, this is the book for you.

This comic was created by Kristen Gudsnuk, who uses a very cartoonish style that is charming but energetic. She also crams her backgrounds with lots of gags and details that highlight the story and add a touch of glee. She speaks about her work on Henchgirl in this interview.

The reviews I have read of this volume have been positive. Dustin Cabeal wrote that "not only is this one of the best superhero comics I’ve read in many years, but it’s one of the best comic books I’ve ever read, period." Publishers Weekly was more measured, stating that the opening chapters "of Henchgirl, drawn in a charming style somewhere between Scott Pilgrim and Steven Universe, have a delightful and spontaneous energy, but as the series progresses, Gudsnuk begins stitching her ideas into a narrative and things slow down a bit from the sparkling opening." Travis Pelkie summed up, "So if you’re looking for a book set in a superhero world where the real story is how a young woman finds her place in life, try Henchgirl."

Henchgirl was published by Dark Horse, and they have a preview and more info about it here.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Giant Days, Volume 1

Here's another series I recently dove into from Comixology Unlimited. This book follows a trio of young women as they embark on their first year at university. Esther de Groot, Susan Ptolemy, and Daisy Wooton are freshmen in a typical situation, namely they are a motley bunch tossed together by the random decisions of university housing. Esther is an outgoing goth who attracts lots of trouble, Daisy a naive, home-schooled student with poofy hair, and Esther is the sarcastic, "sensible" one thinks she knows best. As neighbors, they hang out, go to parties, navigate relationships, fight against male chauvinism, publish a zine, celebrate Daisy's 18th birthday, and get into dramatic situations. Typical college stuff.
Giant Days is a slice of life kind of story, with no superheroes, fantasy, sci-fi or other fictional affectations. The series works because the characters are interesting and complex, the artwork is clear, energetic, and fun, and the plots are relatable, funny, and compelling. Also, it is worth noting that the events here all happen in England at the University of Sheffield, so it has a very British sensibility and sense of humor. Still, I think the themes and situations here are fairly universal, helped along by the wit of the writing as well the clever drawings. I very much enjoyed reading this book, and I plan to dive into future volumes as soon as I can.

The comics in this collection, which cover the first four issues of the series, were written by John Allison, drawn by Lissa Treiman, and colored by Whitney Cogar. Allison is known for his webcomics Bad Machinery and Scary Go Round (both available here). Treiman is an artist and animator who has worked on movies like Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6. Cogar is an artist and colorist who has worked on Steven Universe comic books and a few films. Allison and Treiman speak about their work on this series in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been largely positive. Johanna Draper Carlson wrote, "I quickly found myself caring about and rooting for the trio, even when they’re making silly (but age-appropriate) mistakes." Oliver Sava commented that the series creators have "used this slice-of-life concept to create one of the year’s most engaging, hilarious comics." Gregory Paul Silber was more lukewarm about this book, summing up that it "isn’t particularly ambitious or challenging (at least so far), but it’s an amusing read with appealing artwork."

Giant Days was published by Boom! Box, and they have more info about it here.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story

I was an English major in college, and my first exposures to Zora Neale Hurston were her novels Their Eyes Were Watching God and Jonah's Gourd Vine. All I really knew about her was that she led an interesting life, did some anthropological research, and died in an unmarked grave (as famously found by Alice Walker). So I was glad to read this book, which chronicles her life from her childhood to her death and rediscovery by Walker. What I most admired about it was how much it embodies the energy and verve Hurston displayed in her life. Always a vocal and outgoing person, she came from a tumultuous family life and humble beginnings in Alabama, moved to Florida, and then eventually made it to college in Baltimore, Atlanta, and New York City.
Eventually, she came to work with Franz Boas while at Barnard College, doing ethnographic work that took her back home to Florida but eventually also to more exotic places like Haiti and Jamaica. She also became involved with a burgeoning Harlem Renaissance and was a prominent African-American writer and thinker of the time. One of the aspects I admired most about this book was how it depicted her various relationships, with peers, colleagues, and benefactors, showing much of the politics involved with doing academic and intellectual work. It also lends a very human face to some prominent figures, as well as a shot of humor into several situations.
Overall, it was that sense of humor and warmth that Hurston used to her advantage to do her work, date and marry who she wanted, and live an exceptional life. The art in this book is very cartoonish, but in the end I think it was probably the most apt for realistically and faithfully capturing the vitality Hurston displayed throughout her life.

This book's creator Peter Bagge is one of my all-time favorite comics makers. A multiple award winner with decades of credits, he created the seminal alternative comics series Neat Stuff and Hate and served as editor of the holdover underground comics anthology Weirdo. He has also created a number of graphic novels, including Woman Rebel, Apocalypse Nerd, Other Lives, and Reset. More recently, he has been a contributor to publications like Reason magazine (see his collections Founding Fathers Funnies and Everybody is Stupid Except for Me) and Vice Magazine (the Musical Urban Legends column). He speaks about his work on Fire!! in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Chris Oliveros commented that Bagge "has proven himself to be a thoughtful, careful researcher with a gift for portraying the deeply fascinating and hilarious moments in people’s lives." Etelka Lehoczky called it "an exhilarating addition to Hurston lore." Paul Constant regretted a lack of detail about Hurston's literary work but still concluded that "artists like Bagge continue to do the necessary work of asking the questions" about race and representation.

Fire!! was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they offered a preview and more here.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Kill or Be Killed: Volume 1

There are some certainties I can rely on: the sun rises in the morning, the mail gets delivered daily, my son will take an extra long nap if we have an appointment in the afternoon, and Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips make great comic series. Kill or Be Killed is their latest collaboration, and I have reviewed some of their prior ones here, here, here, here, and here. This latest series has many elements that have appeared in those past ones, but they have been remixed and represented in a fresh and exciting way. And unlike those earlier series, this one is meant to be ongoing.

The premise here is that Dylan, a morose 28-year-old graduate student who is sort of a loser, becomes a vengeful vigilante. He needs to murder a person every month or he himself will die, or at least he thinks that is the case. The reason why I will not reveal, because it is a large part of the suspenseful plot spun out in this first book, which covers the first four issues of the series.

The dark themes of this book explore a sense of helplessness against a failed system and one person's extraordinary way to exact justice. As you can see, Dylan gets pretty adept at going after people who he feels need killing. Still, he does not start out so well, as we see in the course of this book. I loved the way that the plot is told in a  nonlinear way that contains lots of twists and cliffhangers. I also very much liked the character work, particularly the love triangle between Dylan, his roommate Mason, and Kira, who is Dylan's best friend and Mason's girlfriend. The best kinds of noir feature characters with questionable personalities and motivations, and the ones in this book surely fit that bill. And as always with this pair of creators, the story and artwork coalesce into masterful comics.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Phil Brown wrote that "in increasingly dire and cynical times, it just might be the comic on the stands we need more than any other, a sick punch to the gut by major comics talents who know how to get there through your head." Nick Lafpliotis called it "a mandatory addition to any self-respecting comic reader’s pull list." Desmond Fox pointed out that this book is also very topical and that Brubaker and Phillips "take us to the heart of American depression and vigilantism."

Kill or Be Killed was published by Image Comics, and they have previews and more info about the book and series here. There are violence, profanity, sex, and nudity in this book, so it is suggested for mature readers.