Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Paper Girls, Volumes 2-3

Today, I look at the next two installments in the Paper Girls series (my review of Volume 1 is here). These two trade paperbacks cover issues 6-10 and 11-15, and the fact that I read both may spoil the fact that I found much here to keep me entertained and involved with this title.Still, won't you stick around and see what I thought about each in detail?
Volume 2 takes the girls 28 years into the future to 2016. There, at least one of them runs into her future ("old") self, and they all search for the lost member of their quartet. Along the way, a few more clues about who are chasing them get dropped, though much is still left unanswered. Mostly, the girls find out that they can't always trust everyone (even other versions of themselves) and learn about "foldings," times and places that line up just right to allow time travel to happen. Each chapter in this volume ends with a revelation, and the ending cliffhanger was a good one.

My favorite part of this volume, apart from the excellent artwork, continues to be the clever dialogue and relationships between the girls. They might not be the closest of friends, but they do get along in their own ways. And they are biting and swift in their judgments. Also, there are a bunch of jokes in their observations of future life that I thought were funny. Overall, it was a pretty brisk, fun book that left me wanting more.
Luckily, Volume 3 just came out so I did not have to wait to see what progressed. In this book, the girls end up in about 10,000 BC, a prehistoric period when people are pretty primitive and rough. The quartet meet a young woman, her baby, and three men who want to steal that baby away. Also, they also meet up with another time traveler who fills in some more information about what may be happening. This installment is more action-packed, with lots of disappearances, chases, large animals, and combat with stone weapons. And I quite enjoy seeing how each of the different volumes is set in a different historical epoch and has its unique flavor.

In the end, I enjoyed reading these books. They tell a story that is simultaneously slow to develop and efficiently plotted. I say slow because I am three volumes into this series, and I still do not definitively know what is going on. However, much transpires in these stories in a short time, and I feel that each chapter unfolds in seemingly effortless fashion. Also, although the plot may tread on some material common to other scifi tales, those elements remain fresh and exciting. I genuinely want to know what happens next, and I feel like I read each of these books as if I am devouring them. The worst thing I can say about them is that I felt they read too quickly. And I want more. Now.

These books are a collaboration between by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang. They both are comics industry veterans who have won multiple awards over the course of their careers.Vaughan's many writing credits include the series Saga, Y The Last Man, Ex Machina, and Runaways, which all feature strong character work, high concept stories, and suspenseful pacing. He has accomplished much over his career, both in comics and in other media, such as when he was writer and producer of Lost. His track record of creating smart, fun, and exciting series is intact with Paper Girls. Chiang is known for his exceptional work on a number of DC Comics titles, most notably Wonder Woman and The Human Target. Both creators speak about their work on Paper Girls (and there are spoilers - beware) in this interview.

Paper Girls won the 2016 Eisner Awards for Best New Series and Best Penciller/Inker, and all of the reviews I read of it have been positive. Thea James wrote that the second volume "continues to impress and delight." Heather Duff opined, "This series continues to be awesome, it looks good, the girls are brilliant sassy characters." Shelby Luebers called the plots "funny and curious" and also complimented that "the girls are real."

Paper Girls is published by Image Comics, and they have previews and more about the whole series here. It will resume publication in November. These books do contain a fair amount of profanity, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to handle that.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness

My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness is a provocative title for a book that is not as titillating as it is confessional. This rare, autobiographical manga was originally published online on Pixiv, where it gained a wider readership and popularity. Although there are a couple of sexual interludes in the latter pages of the story, what it mostly entails are the ruminations and observations of a 28-year-old woman on her life and circumstances. Kabi struggles with finding herself, both in terms of her family and friends. She seeks the acceptance of her parents, though feels she falls way short of their expectations. She bounces from job to job, seeking friendship and social capital, though not really finding either.
All of these situations have a crippling, debilitating effect on her, all of which she expounds on in great detail. I found this to be a very personal and revelatory book, and I feel that I learned much about her situation, more about what it feels like to come of age in Japan, and also about the business side of becoming a manga artist. Many of the events of the book are also unsettling and discomforting, but I found the whole enterprise to be fascinating and quite moving.
Eventually, Kabi makes arrangements to visit a "love hotel" for a session with a female prostitute. It is a sexual scene for sure, but it is also a very emotional time that exposes many other pains, hangups, and thoughts she has. Far from being fulfilled, she is left with more questions than when she began. In all, I was shocked to see how far-ranging and introspective this book was, and it was a powerful read.

This book's creator Nagata Kabi is fairly new to the comics world, and she apparently has another manga she is working on called Solo Exchange Diary. She talks about her works and career in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been full of praise. Shea and Derek from The Comics Alternative called it the apparent "manga of the year" and added, "This is a manga all about self-discovery, a diary-like account of the author’s attempts to understand herself within the context of her culture and her yearning for what she calls 'next level communication.'" Kat Overland called it "a wild ride from start to finish." Aria wrote, "I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by this – but I was."

My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness was published by Seven Seas Entertainment, LLC, and they have more information about it here. As should be clear by now, this book is intended for mature readers.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Comics Squad: Detention!

I recently read this third installment of the Comics Squad series (see my reviews for Lunch! and Recess!), and I loved the range of stories focused on that time of day reserved for atoning for misdeeds, detention. Some of these stories seem autobiographical, some are more fictional, one recasts classic Greek mythology, and another follows some microscopic organisms. And the creators involved are some of the tops in comics, including a number of prominent award winners and best-sellers.

I don't think there is one bad story in the bunch here, but I did have my favorites. Victoria Jamieson told an fun and unexpectedly touching story about a new girl in school whose unconventional detention is to help out in a kindergarten classroom. There she has a few encounters with a rambunctious and unruly student who gives her a couple of runs for her money but also teaches her something interesting. I also very much enjoyed George O'Connor's Greek mythology-infused tale of Sisyphus. It was chock full of mythological references and pad puns (two of my favorite things).
The rest of the stories are mostly in the humorous vein, and some also had some inventive touches. I really liked Ben Hatke's short exploration of imagination in his tale about a boy getting in trouble for having a cell phone in school and then having to invent ways to pass the time without it. I have also liked his art style, but here it is looser, which was a nice change of pace. I also thought Jarrett Krosoczka's Lunch Lady comic featuring the Breakfast Bunch was thrilling and fun, though I was bummed to find out it ended on a cliffhanger. Hopefully, that story gets picked up in the next volume of this series.
With all of the great things going on in this book I should also write about two things that may put people off: 1. There is an agenda to sell more graphic novels to younger readers. They are clearly cross-promoting other series they publish (Lunch Lady, Babymouse, and Squish). Personally, I feel this volume would make an excellent "gateway book" to further reading, and I like much of what I have read from those particular series. So the commercial push does not bother me much, and I feel introducing readers to other tales they might like is actually one of the book's strengths. 2. A lot of the stories share the theme of going to detention for drawing in class. I know I had my own run-ins with teachers about when and when not to draw and can relate, but I feel like the joke gets a little stale by the end of the book.

Still, I very much liked the range of tales here as well as the variety of topics and art styles. This collection is a fantastic anthology for young readers, and I think it would be an excellent classroom library book.

I had a difficult time finding reviews for this book, but the one I did find, written by Heidi Grange, who stated that "all the stories are quite absurd, but thoroughly engaging and entertaining and bound to be enjoyed by many young readers."

Comics Squad: Detention was published by Random House, and they have a preview and more available here.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Usagi Yojimbo Saga, Books 1 & 2

Today I am writing about two books that contain more than 600 pages of comics each following a creator-owned character that originated in 1984.
I have read the adventures of Usagi Yojimbo before, mostly because his creator Stan Sakai worked on a ton of Groo comic books I read when I was a kid. But it has been years since I have checked in on him. Luckily, Comixology Unlimited has the first two books of The Usagi Yojimbo Saga available to borrow, and I got to read a great many of these wonderful stories over the past few weeks.

The plot mainly follows Miyamoto Usagi, a samurai living in 17th century Japan (during the Edo Period) who has lost his master and now wanders the road alone. He has a code of ethics, and he seeks to help those in need and often finds himself embroiled in interesting situations. What I find most impressive about this series, it features "funny animals" but they are some of the most human and evocative comics I have ever read. Sakai is masterful at creating tense situations and full characterizations in very short order. His artwork is impressively detailed and smooth, and the economy of his storytelling is superlative. He can portray small scenes of poignancy equally as well as large scale battles. Just check out this preview:

The tales in these books range from one-page gags to multi-page episodes to one multi-chapter epic (called "The Grasscutter"). I was shocked and amazed to see how much material was incorporated from all these disparate episodes into one long narrative in Book Two. The scope and scale of the world-building here is nothing short of remarkable. I feel that these books are masterpieces of comics, and what is more they are accessible for readers of almost any age. And apparently I am not in the minority here, as "The Grasscutter" stories won one of Sakai's five Eisner Awards. If you read comics and have never read Usagi Yojimbo, you should make time to do so immediately.

You'll be glad you did.
The Usagi Yojimbo Saga was published by Dark Horse, and they have a preview and more info about the series here.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Vague Tales

The joke is that there is nothing vague about Vague Tales. It's chock full of comics that will melt your face off. Actually, that is not true - it is more of a bunch of comics that comment about how such extreme experiences have become cliched and vacuous.

Much of Eric Haven's past work trucks with archetypal comic characters and settings, and this book is no different. The main narratives star a brooding, crystalline alien named Psylicon, an evil witch named Ruin, an apocalyptic barbarian named Pulsar, and a sorceress named Sorceress. And eventually, the stories all bleed into each other. Ruin attacks the Sorceress; Pulsar defends her; Pyslicon is mysteriously aloof but intercedes in an unexpected manner. The whole enterprise is reminiscent of old cartoons like Thundarr the Barbarian or Masters of the Universe, only skewed with a touch of absurd realism. Haven is obviously poking fun at these story and character conventions, but it is also apparent that he also enjoys them and takes great joy in casting his own stories using them.
Thinking, in the Mighty Marvel Manner!
And if this book were simply comprised of those adventures, I'd simply say it was some sort of parody or homage to that genre of comics. But there is also the hulking, angry blonde man featured on the cover, whose presence is almost entirely unrelated to the way-out adventures. This guy mostly stands or sits around his house, gazes out the window, or knocks back some drinks, until a weird thing happens toward the end of the book that places him directly in the action. I am not going to spoil it, but they change the tone of the story and make it more of a commentary on contemporary fandom and/or media.

In the end, I feel that this story is more an exploration of the constant drive for bigger, better, and more extreme experiences that abound in popular culture (in the USA anyhow). The culture is driven by more intricate and complex special effects, blockbuster movies, and innovative video games. The net result, I am extrapolating from Haven's tales here, is that each amped up moment in the end leaves people empty. Or maybe it is the nature of such escapism to leave people unfulfilled. Mostly, stuff gets blown up just for the hell of having a big explosion, narrative be damned. What is clear is that those grand moments lose any kind of nuance or impact, forgotten in short order. All is spectacle, and the chase for such experiences is ultimately fruitless. Or maybe that is the more intellectual way of looking at the book, and I should just appreciate it for being a bunch of fun, crazy stories and not look for anything deeper.

That I got this much out of a relatively short 75 pages is noteworthy in itself, speaking to the great craft that went into these various narratives. This book is beguiling, silly, confusing, thrilling, and fantastic. Like much of Haven's prior work, it is also impactful and unforgettable.

I have been a fan of Haven's for a while. I have read all of his works, including the series Tales to Demolish and his books The Aviatrix and Ur, which was nominated for an Eisner Award. His comics are short, distilled, potent pieces of storytelling. They are weird, provocative, and delightful. His art style here reminds me of a combination of Fletcher Hanks, Herr Seele, and Jim Starlin, full of wonder and weirdness. Also of note, aside from making comics he was a producer for the popular show Mythbusters, which may account for his relatively sparse publication record. Haven sheds much insight into his work in this interview.

I had a hard time locating any reviews of this book, but the one I did find was laudatory and thoughtful. Rob Clough wrote that these stories amount to "images of a man-child, and it seems that Haven is satirizing that tendency toward indulging this sort of infantile fantasy as much as he is celebrating it."

Vague Tales was published by Fantagraphics, and they have a preview and more information about it here.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Motor Crush, Volume 1

This book is another I got at HeroesCon this year, and it's by the same creative team behind the recent, very fun Batgirl revival. Here they have more leeway to write and draw as they please, as this is a creator-owned property. Motor Crush follows the exploits of Domino Swift, a phenom competing in an international motorcycle racing league. She reluctantly takes part in the business side of racing, which includes participating on social media and making sponsors happy.

Also, she has a secret night life where she competes in illegal and dangerous street races where the winners obtain Crush, a rare and valuable substance that supercharges ordinary motors. The rub here is that for some reason Domino is able to take Crush herself, and instead of dying she gains superhuman attributes. Over the course of this book, we get to see the effects of her lifestyle on herself, her family, and her girlfriend. Also, Domino begins to learn more about herself and how she came to have her special abilities.

I loved the energy and artwork of this book. The story is quirky but it hums along at a good clip, and the images really pop, conveying action and characterization in excellent fashion. There is a lot going on in this book, but I have to say that it was all very compelling and thrilling to read. And it ends on a breath-taking cliffhanger that left me hungering for more of this series.

The creators behind this book are Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr. All of them are involved in plotting the series, and Tarr and Stewart create the artwork. Stewart is an Eisner and Shuster Award winning artist/writer who has worked on a number of different comic book series as well as his webcomic Sin Titulo. Fletcher is a veteran comic book writer, and Tarr is an illustrator who is relatively new to comics. The trio speak of their work on this book and series in this interview.

Most of the reviews I read about this book were positive. Mara Danoff wrote, "The characters endear themselves quickly and never appear one dimensional." Nico Sprezzatura summed up, "If you want fast-paced, candy-colored cyber-motorpunk, then Motor Crush is the comic for you." Rory Wilding felt the story took a while to get up to speed but still concluded, "Although the narrative occasionally falters, Motor Crush expands on some of the ideas the creators explored in their Batgirl run and has fun with this colorful futuristic bike-centric action book."

Motor Crush, Volume 1 was published by Image Comics, and they have a preview and more info about the series available here. This book collects the first five issues of the series, which will resume in September with a six-issue arc. I would recommend this book for more mature high school readers and anyone older.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Southern Cross, Volume 1

I have been wowed by images from this series across the social media platforms I frequent, so much so that I took a flyer on buying this volume on Comixology. I have had it on my device for a while but just got to it, and I have to say I am kicking myself for not reading it sooner. Southern Cross is some of the most compelling, suspenseful comics I have read in years. I would put it in a category with works like the original Alien movie or Alan Moore's early Saga of the Swamp Thing stories. It's that great.

The story follows Alex Braith, a troubled woman with a checkered past, as she rides the space freighter Southern Cross to Titan to retrieve the body of her estranged, now dead sister.

Along the way, she encounters many interesting, if upsetting, events and people. There's the creepy mercenary who keeps propositioning her, a doctor who keeps offering her illicit substances, and her surprise roommate who starts out just avoiding her before possibly disappearing. Also, the warp drive on the ship is malfunctioning, creating all sorts of strange, horrific visions that may be dreams, or something worse.

The more Alex stays aboard, the more she learns, not just about what happened to her sister but what illegal activities some of her shipmates are up to, not to mention a horrible evil presence that threatens not just the ship but also the universe. I struggle with calling the events of this volume a ghost, zombie, or Lovecraftian story, though it does share some elements of those things cast in a science fiction setting. I will say that it is a finely crafted mystery that is seriously spooky and horrifying. The cast of characters is wonderfully shady and suspicious, and the artwork appropriately paints a dingy, menacing atmosphere.

What is best, this book does not reveal all and it seems that much is yet to come. So, in the end I am sort of glad that I waited this long to read the series because the second volume is coming out in a few days. And I guarantee you I will be reading it much sooner than I did this one.

The main players in creating this book are writer Becky Cloonan and artists Andy Belanger and Lee Loughridge. Cloonan is a comics writer and artist who has been nominated for multiple Eisner Awards and is best known for creating Gotham Academy as well as for her work on the series Demo and By Chance or Providence. Belanger has drawn many comics and is known for his work on the series Kill Shakespeare. Loughridge is a colorist who has worked on many Batman titles as well as some indy works like Deadly Class. Cloonan and Belanger speak about their inspirations and work on this volume in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been full of praise. Aubrey Douglas wrote, "The story is compelling, the characters are interesting, and the artwork is some of the best that I have ran into. If you haven’t read this book, you’re doing yourself a disservice." Eric Houstoun stated that "Becky Cloonan and Andy Belanger manage to create something very special in the first volume of their book and have created something distinctive and unique." Paul Aloisio called it "a celebration of the comic book format. It’s fun, yet scary. It’s spooky, but it never gets overbearing."

Southern Cross was published by Image Comics, and they have a preview of this book and more information about the series here. This book book collects the first six issues of the series and is intended for mature readers.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Knife's Edge

I have been looking very forward to this sequel to Compass South, and boy did it not disappoint. That first book in the Four Points series was one of the best reviewed books of the past year, receiving lots of accolades for its fine story and art, and I daresay that this book is even better. After reuniting with their father, twins Cleo and Alex are faced with many quandaries. They learn more about their mother, why they were abandoned, and how they ended up in their current predicament, but at the same time they face more mysteries and unanswered questions. The plotting of these stories is so complex and well thought out, and I love how approachable and natural the whole narrative still seems.
In addition to the many revelations, there are also a few new characters and locales introduced, but none of it seems forced or rushed. There is a sizable amount of exposition, but it is adeptly worked into the story, not seeming like a slog to read or rote information to note. Part of why all these features are the case is the exceptional artwork that brings out strong characterizations as well as expertly imparting verve into every scene. Cleo especially seems to spring from the pages as a fully realized character, full of nuance and affect. I loved this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who loves a good swashbuckling tale that is full of heart and human moments. I sure hope that this book is not the final installment in this series, because it left me yearning for more.

This book is a fantastic collaboration between writer Hope Larson and artist Rebecca Mock. The Eisner Award winning Larson has created a number of graphic novels, including an adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time and the young adult story Chiggers. She is also writing two comic book series, one about a teen detective Goldie Vance and the other a run on DC Comics' Batgirl. In addition to the Four Points books, Mock was a co-organizer of  the Hana Doki Kira anthology. You can read more about their collective work on this book, in this interview with Larson and this one with Mock.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been full of praise. Kirkus Reviews wrote, "As in its predecessor, every question answered leads the twins to more questions to be asked, and it ends with a breath-catching cliffhanger." Oliver Sava was impressed by Mock's "talent for expressive, engaging characters and crisp movement." Tamara Saarinen called it "a fast-paced, absorbing tale."

Knife's Edge was published by Farrar Straus and Giroux, and they have a preview and more info available here.

I saw the artist Rebecca Mock at HeroesCon this year, and she was so kind to sign my copy of this book. Thank you!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

All My Ghosts

Last month I went to HeroesCon in Charlotte, NC and had a blast seeing my friends, some artists, getting some original art, going to panels, and buying some new books. I did not buy as many books as I have in the past, because I find I don't get to read as much as I'd like right now, but I did manage to pick up a few things I might not otherwise. One of these such purchases was this book, All My Ghosts, by Jeremy Massie (a very nice guy who I had a lot of fun talking to about his work). It is a "slice of life" story about a middle-aged man named Joe Hale who runs a local newspaper. The business has been in his family for generations but times are getting tough and it is increasingly difficult to keep it afloat. On top of this major problem, Joe also has a bad case of writer's block and is in a general funk.

His life takes a major turn when an opportunistic company swoops in to buy his newspaper, and he goes through a series of changes, mostly for the better, although many of the people around him would probably say differently. In shaking off the ghosts of his past, he gets a bit selfish and the consequences of his actions have a large impact on his friends, employees, and various townspeople.

What I liked about this book were its spare yet powerful art style and that it told a realistic, personal story in a thoughtful and interesting way. Not much about this book turned out as I expected, and I liked how it resisted an overall "feel good" vibe. Perhaps not everything played out well or in a satisfying way, but this book has a lot of raw energy and artistry, and I enjoyed reading it. Not all of the characters were well defined, but the ones that were seemed very real and familiar. Heck, I'd read the continuing adventures of Joe Hale if there were more to come.

Like I wrote earlier, this book is the creation of Jeremy Massie, who has a number of other works under his belt, including the horror story Bee Sting, a quirky superhero tale called The Deadbeat, and the current ongoing, all-ages series Amazing Age. He speaks about his work on All My Ghosts and his other works in this interview.

Most of the reviews I have read about this book found it uneven, though they all praised the visual storytelling. Johanna Draper Carlson was a bit let down by the book overall but also stated that "the story is told strongly when it comes to the art, and I would check out Massie’s next project." Jason Wilkins wrote, "Massie’s cartoony style is expressive and accessible. All My Ghosts is so easy to read in large part because his art is so pleasing to the eye." Nick Ford found some good parts in the book but also commented, "The story’s not bad but it’s handling a timeless conflict that’s been done a million times before."

All My Ghosts was published by Alterna Comics, and they have a preview and more info here. It was originally released as a four-issue series, and the physical graphic novel was funded initially by way of Kickstarter.

This book features some adult situations and themes as well as occasional profanity, and I'd recommend it for more mature readers.

Friday, June 30, 2017

You & A Bike & A Road

You & A Bike & A Road is a deceptively simple looking book that actually delves into multiple, complex areas of life. It is a travelogue of a bike trip planned from Arizona to Georgia. It is a portrait of a person dealing with the demands of life and dealing with depression. It is a commentary on the current state of immigration along the southern border of the US. It is an existential exploration of what it means to be a person on a journey. And it is also a portrayal of the interesting, generous, and memorable people she meets on her trip.

It is chock full of beautifully rendered, human moments. It is occasionally raw, profane, candid, and funny. It features many keen observations and commentary on ordinary matters that affect all of our lives. And it is about the truths that we tell others and the ones that we protect and keep to ourselves. Just check out this exchange:
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book is its economy of linework and storytelling. The art is that best kind of scribbling, what seems like rough pencil lines that are actually very evocative and full of energy and import. And the story is full of small moments and observations that can easily be applied to larger life topics and situations. I rate this book  alongside some of the best ones I have read in recent times, like those by Jules Feiffer and Pénélope Bagieu. Even with a similarity in terms of the amount of craft and artistry put into it, this book is still in a category of its own.

Of late, I have been on a tear of books by this book's creator, Eleanor Davis. She has racked up quite a few accolades, including the Russ Manning Most Promising Newcomer Award, and has created a number of books that can appeal to adults (How to Be Happy), younger readers (Stinky), and adolescents (The Secret Science Alliance). I have read a couple of very good interviews about her work on this book, and you can read them here and here.

All of the reviews I have read have been full of accolades. Sarah Miller wrote, "Even though You & A Bike & A Road is made up of moments that seem self-contained as we read them, Davis’s work—intentionally or unintentionally—comes together to form an overarching narrative that raises questions about identity as much as it comforts through its depiction of overcoming challenges." Oliver Sava praised her "phenomenal work capturing the sprawl of the Southern states, starting with the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico before moving into more fertile territory." Ally Russell called it "a remarkable achievement for both the cartoonist and the amateur cyclist behind it." And like Nicole Rudick wrote,  I am also "in awe of Eleanor Davis’s drawings."

You & A Bike & A Road was published by Koyama Press, and they have a preview and more about it here.

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.