Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Henchgirl

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.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Stone Heart

The Stone Heart is the second book in the eventual The Nameless City trilogy, and I know that second books can often feel like filler to get through before the dramatic conclusion, but this one left me breathless. So much happens in it that kept me wondering what was to come next that I really don't want to give much detail and spoil things for others. Let me just say that the political scheming gets complicated, there is a murder, and a new war for the city seems to be looming.

Pretty much the detail I will reveal is that a couple of new characters get introduced, friends of Rat. Iniko and Hannya are a couple of street performers. Iniko plays guitar (badly) in a band, and Hannya and her family are acrobats. They are not around for much of the book, but because of them we learn that Kai is pretty good as a musician.
 
Part of what makes this book so compelling is its interesting characters and their relationship dynamics. There are a couple of father/son conflicts, between Kai and his dad as well as between the General of All Blades and his son Erzi, which make for good points of juxtaposition. Also, we learn more about Kai's and Rat's parents. Still with all of this great character work, there is no shortage of action in this book. I cannot wait to see how all of it comes to a conclusion in the next volume.

This book's author Faith Erin Hicks has been an excellent, prolific comics creator, and she is one of my favorite artists. Among her growing list of graphic novel publications are Friends with Boys, Brain Camp, and Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong. She also has published webcomics, including The Adventures of Superhero Girl, which won an Eisner Award. She was joined by Jordie Bellaire who colored this book in beautiful fashion, adding lots of rich, lush flourishes to the detailed illustrations. Hicks speaks about her work on this book in this interview, where it is also announced that this trilogy will be made into a cartoon series.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review and explained that it "introduces a few new characters but mostly provides a vital and enthralling closer look at those readers have already met as well as unfurling more of the Chinese-inspired city’s past, as colorist Bellaire brings all to stunning emotional life." Elizabeth Reid wrote that in addition to "its page-turning plot, every page of The Stone Heart has gorgeous, full-color artwork." Oliver Sava commented that it is full of "smart, evocative creative decisions."

The Stone Heart was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more available here.

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

Thursday, March 30, 2017

My Favorite Thing is Monsters

Holy cow, how do I start reviewing this book? It's a masterpiece. One of the best books I have read. Period. It is full of beautiful emotional moments, pain, grief, wonder, and mystery. And perhaps, most amazingly, it is a debut graphic novel.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters is a huge book, about 400 pages long, and still only the first half of the whole narrative. The plot is set in the late 1960s. The main character is 10-year-old Karen Reyes, a curious, budding artist who lives in an apartment building with her mother and older brother Deeze in Chicago. Everything in this book is meant to be entries from her spiral-bound journal, and the artwork is exquisite. There are so many threads to follow in this book, but one of the main ones is an inquiry into the mysterious death of their upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, who was a Holocaust survivor:
Karen and Anka's husband listen to audiotapes chronicling her life and experiences during World War II, including her imprisonment and escape from a concentration camp, an extremely heartbreaking, troubling, and riveting tale. Add to that narrative an extremely rich tapestry of characters in Karen's building, including her own superstitious mother, her creative and womanizing brother, a glass-eye wearing ventriloquist, and a mobster's wife, there is so much to take in. Another layer lies in Karen's own story and her depiction of herself as a young werewolf dressed like a private investigator. So much of this book is involved with her figuring out who she is, trying to deal with cruel classmates, making friends, and growing up.
Another strong aspect of this book is in its relationship with art and artwork. Some of the art is more popular, such as the recreations of lurid monster magazine covers of the time period that act as markers between chapters. But "fine art" pieces from museums also appear, redrawn in Karen's hand throughout the book. Certainly, the theme of trying to puzzle out what life means is powerful in this book, and how art plays into such inquiry is fascinating and interesting.
I have touched on a few aspects of this book, and I don't want to get into much more, lest I spoil what goes on in it. Let me simply say that I was enthralled with this book. The characters are complex and intriguing, and the plot is multi-faceted. It took me a long time to read, not just because it is weighty but because I wanted to spend a long time pouring over the images and words laid out on the page. The layouts and storytelling are incredibly rich and rewarding throughout, and I feel it is a transcendent work that will be studied and analyzed for decades to come.

This book's creator is Emil Ferris, who has had a long and varied career in the arts. She has designed toys and worked in animation, and she has been working on this book for about 6 years because of a variety of circumstances. She speaks extensively about her career and work on MFTIM in this interview, and I highly recommend learning more about her.

There has been an avalanche of well-deserved praise following this graphic novel. Oliver Sava wrote, "It’s hard to think of a debut graphic novel in recent memory that has the visual splendor, narrative ingenuity, and emotional impact of this 413-page tome, and with this book, Ferris immediately establishes herself as one of the most exciting, provocative talents in the comics industry." Calvin Reid opined, "She’s found new ways to tell a powerfully literary visual story." John Powers raved that "this extraordinary book has instantly rocketed Ferris into the graphic novel elite." And I agree with Paul Tumey who summed up his review, "Currently, my favorite thing is My Favorite Thing is Monsters."

My Favorite Thing is Monsters was published by Fantagraphics Books, and they have lots more info about it here.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Wendy

Wendy is a whirlwind of a book, about a young, trendy woman who is trying to make her way in the art world. She wants to be a star, but she keeps getting distracted by things like drinking, partying with her friends, seeing punk shows, and needing to make money. She finds occasional opportunities though nothing seems to pan out, and mostly she seems to rely on others to figure out things for her.
What makes this book really work for me is not just that it is the portrait of a wanna-be artist, it is also a broad, biting depiction of the art-world she is trying to break into. There are sleazy art critics who have their own designs on her, successful "role models" who are treacherous and terrible, scenesters there for a good time, and more sincere people who dabble in performance art, fashion, and music. The audience for such satire might be limited, but I found this book utter compelling, at once repelling, hilarious, touching, and caustic.

 
One of the other aspects of this book that endeared it to me was its art style. It is crude, black and white, and very expressive: sometimes characters' faces devolve into simple, geometric shapes. In terms of visuals and story, the entire book packs an impressive wallop. It's like Mark Beyer made a sequel to Dan Clowe's "Art School Confidential", and I mean that as a high compliment, not in a derivative way. This book's author Walter Scott has his own unique vision, and I love how he delivers it. He speaks about Wendy and his other art endeavors in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have all been very positive. Olivia Whittick called it "the funniest, most touching, most relatable comic I have read in a really long time." Sean Rogers wrote, "Scott takes a snarky scene report, and subtly shades it into an affecting character study." And like Katie Skelly wrote in her review, I am also hoping for "her speedy return."

Wendy was published by Koyama Press, and they have more a preview and info about it here. For interested readers, there is also a sequel Wendy's Revenge. Because of drug use, sexual situations, and profanity, I recommend this book for mature readers.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Alex + Ada

This month, to celebrate Image Comics' 25th Anniversary, Comixology Unlimited is offering a few complete series to read. I chose this one Alex + Ada, because I loved some of Jonathan Luna's past works, especially his collaborations with his brother Joshua The Sword and Ultra. Here, he collaborates with writer Sarah Vaughn on a series that ran for 15 issues, collected into three trade paperbacks that are all available to read on CU.

The story focuses on Alex, a lonely guy in his 20s who is still struggling with the fallout from his failed engagement. One year for his birthday, his grandmother, who is a free-wheeling, liberated, and funny woman, buys him a robot companion to get him out of his funk. He names her Ada, and she will obey any and all of his wishes.
This leads to some awkward scenes as Alex tries to acclimate to this new relationship and also not take advantage of the situation. He's lonely, but he's also not good with using something that looks human as a surrogate for a relationship. Eventually, he stumbles upon an underground community that would permit him to allow Ada to think and act for herself. When she is "unlocked," a whole bunch of revelations and complications ensue.
Much of what follows comments on what makes up romantic relationships, defines people as human, and explores the dynamics of people dealing with new technologies. There is also a lot of intrigue, as an anti-robot backlash develops, giving this series a political dimension that I could not help but notice echoed some of those we are dealing with right now. I know that the trope of using a robot to explore what constitutes humanity is pretty common, but I very much enjoyed how it played out in the scope of all these books. Much of that was because I liked that the characters were well thought-out and interesting. That said, there is also a fair amount of action and suspense, particularly in the second half of the series. I also very much enjoyed the simple, clean art style used to tell this tale.

Like I noted above, artist Jonathan Luna has drawn a number of other comic book series. Writer Sarah Vaughn has worked on the webcomic Sparkshooter and the series Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love for DC Comics. She speaks a lot more about her career in this interview. Both creators are set to collaborate on the forthcoming series Eternal Empire, and they speak about their work on Alex + Ada in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have praised the story, and some have been more critical of the artwork. Pharaoh Miles commented that the story "more than invades the senses, it lives with the reader." Brandon Perdue wrote, "For the classic sci-fi fan, those who seek thoughtful futurism over whiz-bang action, Alex + Ada is easy to recommend."

Alex + Ada was published by Image Comics, and they have previews and much more info about it here. There are some adult situations in the book, but I think it is appropriate for older adolescents.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Rules For Dating My Daughter: The Modern Father's Guide to Good Parenting

Rules For Dating My Daughter is not so much a graphic novel as it is a collection of graphic essays on the topics of parenting, the gender politics of toys, gun rights, and other contemporary issues. And despite its title and cover image, it contains pointed meditations on the current political landscape. Mainly it portrays how the author struggles with negotiating these issues while doing the right thing raising his two children. Many of these comics have been published online at The Nib, and initial funding for this book was raised in a Kickstarter campaign.
As a father myself, I found much to relate to in this book, but I also very much appreciate the format of these comics. They are well thought out essays that unfurl lines of thought in impactful and impressive ways. I love how they weave together multiple thoughts and contexts, seemingly meandering about on a single thesis while all the time conveying calculated and intentional lines of thought. There is a lot of dark humor and wisdom in this book, and I highly recommend you read it, whether you are a parent or not.

Mike Dawson has written and drawn a few graphic novels, including Freddie & Me, Angie Bongiolatti, and Troop 142. I am a big fan of his work, and I especially like how he captures his characters' emotional responses through story and art. I am not alone in my admiration for his comics, as he was nominated as a Promising New Talent for the 2002 Ignatz Awards. He speaks more about his career and work on Rules in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been mostly positive. Dan Kois called it "not just a thoughtful book but one that’s a pleasure to read." Rich Barrett stated that these comics offer "smart visuals and a self-deprecating humor that will make you commiserate and cringe equally." Annie Mok was more critical and wrote that "Mike Dawson delivers an uneven collection of personal essay-style memoir comics, occasionally thoughtful, but often thoughtless in its concern for others."

Rules For Dating My Daughter was published by Uncivilized Books, and they have more info about it here.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Time Museum

The Time Museum is a fun time-travel tale drawn in a wonderfully cartoonish, jaunty style. The plot follows an adolescent named Delia Bean who finds out that her Uncle Lyndon is actually a curator of a museum that exists outside of time and that chronicles all of time. It is a place where time travel is not only possible but regularly practiced.
 
She is bright and is offered the chance to compete for an internship at the museum. She has to go up against a few others who have been plucked from various time periods, including the far future, medieval Scotland, prehistory, and ancient Rome. These competitors have to complete three separate tasks, each more dangerous than the last, and I don't want to spoil much, but they sometimes have to rely on each other in the process. There is much peril in the past, including dinosaurs, natural disasters, and occasional arsonists. Also, they run into at least one person who is not when they are supposed to be.
 A few shifty things happen along the way that reveal some surprising info about the Time Museum and its origins. The story is full of twists, turns, action, and playful aspects of time travel. I have to say it was very tough to put down, and I enjoyed reading it very much.

This book's creator Matthew Loux has a few other graphic novels to his credit, including SideScrollers and the series Salt Water Taffy. He has been lauded by the American Library Association's YALSA, having works listed as Great Graphic Novels for Teens as well as placed on the Texas Library Association's Maverick list. He speaks more about The Time Museum and his work in general in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review that summed up, "A first rate kickoff: fresh, fast, and funny." Johanna Draper Carlson called it "an enjoyable, rollicking adventure story that I couldn’t put down." Zack Barnes wrote, "The plot and illustrations are just that superior, and the action and thrilling sequences leave you hoping to pick up the second book right away." Dustin Cabeal added that Loux "creates more than one character for you to care about and drops them into a setting and story that you’re sure to enjoy."

The Time Museum was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more available here. This book is the first of series, it seems, and I am looking forward to seeing how future volumes flesh out this very promising premise.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Check out the Comics Alternative Podcast!

I only listen to a handful of podcasts, and the only one I follow about comics and graphic novels is the Comics Alternative podcast hosted by The Two Guys with PhDs Andy Kunka and Derek Royal. Together, and with input from others, they post reviews, do roundtable discussions focused on various comics topics, visit comic stores, report from comic conventions, and interview comics creators. It is an exceptional podcast, and I highly recommend you check them out.

Because they have so much posted, I share with you a list of some of my favorite episodes:

If listening to podcasts is not quite your bag, they also have a blog where you can read things like reviews or a great set of interviews, including ones with Nick Sousanis, Seth, Keith Knight, Richard Corben, and Peter Bagge.

If you like what they do, you can also support them through Patreon. I do!
Derek on the left, Andy on the right

Sunday, March 5, 2017

California Dreamin': Cass Elliot Before The Mamas & the Papas

“Pénélope Bagieu…can turn paper into flesh. And ink becomes lifeblood. Because within several pages of a work like Exquisite Corpse, her characters not only breathe and pulsate with vivid life. They also seem entirely, organically authentic in their own skin.” -Michael Cavna in The Washington Post

Regular readers of my blog know I never start one of my reviews with a pull quote from a book’s dustjacket, but that one seemed so gushing, so over-the-top exultant, that it prejudiced me against this book. Even though I had read and loved Exquisite Corpse, even though I had it on my best of 2015 list, I did not recall it being transcendent. But, holy cow, after reading this book, I feel that every word of that review was deserved and on-target for this graphic novel.

California Dreamin’ is a biography of Mama Cass Elliot, and it is simply fantastic. Excellent. And exquisite. It tells the story of young Ellen Cohen, a girl born in 1941 in Baltimore, MD, to a Jewish family who ran a deli. She was always into music and performing, and she grew up to sing some of the most memorable folk/rock songs ever with group The Mamas and the Papas. There is much drama in this book, from family dynamics to trying to fit in in high school, to trying to navigate various music scenes in the 1960s. Also, she has to deal with her weight as well as several different complicated relationships (both romantically and musically). And this is not to mention her various brushes with contemporary figures of the day, like Bob Dylan and David Crosby.
But what makes this books exceptional is not all the story beats it hits, it is the artistry of the illustrations and storytelling. Even with so much going on, what impressed and stayed with me was Bagieu’s vibrant and lifelike characters. I felt the joys of teenage dreams, the pain of failed relationships, the jealousy between lovers, and the thrills of performance. Bagieu’s lines are extraordinary, and I put her in a pantheon of a few others (like Kate Beaton and Jules Feiffer) whose artwork is almost magical in how it conveys life, emotion, and feeling. And here, unlike Exquisite Corpse, the artwork is in black and white, showing pencil lines without the embellishment of color, and it clearly highlights her masterful craft. I highly recommend reading this book.

This is the second graphic novel published in the US by Pénélope Bagieu, an accomplished artist and graphic novelist from France. 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. She is something of a Renaissance woman, active as a musician drumming in a band and also blogging about her many works and travels here (in French). She speaks extensively about her work on this book in this interview.

The reviews I have read of this book have been universally positive. Shea Hennum wrote that "The story moves with an ease and grace." Henry Chamberlain summed up that "it is highly recommended and will prove an engaging read on many levels: coming-of-age, rock history, and just a plain fun read." Erika W. Smith called it "an entertaining, often funny read."

California Dreamin' was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more available here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen

March 1-7 is Will Eisner Week, and to celebrate this year I read a book I have been meaning to read for a while now.
Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen stars the protagonist of Hicksville, though I think the character is being used in the way as Jason Shiga uses Jimmy Yee, namely as a durable character type. In this book, Sam is also a stand-in for the author, who has toiled for large superhero comics publishers and been wrung dry creatively. At the beginning of this book Sam has lost his inspiration and is falling in a depression (or he has fallen into depression and lost his inspiration) and fallen into a state where he feels no pleasure, called anhedonia.
After giving an academic talk, he ends up in a book store, finds an old comic book, and finds himself transported into its pages. After getting his bearings in a fictional world where virile Martian men chase after and kidnap green-skinned Venusian women, he also meets up with a couple of other characters. One is a real woman, Alice, who makes webcomics and is a fan of his, and the other is Miki, a rocket-booted manga-inspired character who has lots of gadgets and comic books. Together, they traverse a number of fictional worlds, trying to make sense of things and also procure the magic pen, which makes it possible to create comics people can enter.

Certainly, this book is ambitious, and attempts to be several things: It is an exploration of self, desire, and fantasy. It is also an essay about fantasy and what it means and if it should reflect a set of morals. It is also a look at some of the more sexist and misogynistic aspects of the comics industry and also a look forward to what it might be. It is also one cartoonist reflecting on his career. With so much going on, I still felt that the narrative thread held well and that the more academic/critical aspects were well argued. I am not sure it everything the author intended it to be, but it is one heck of a read, an adventure and essay all in one. Additionally, I felt the ending was very powerful and moving (even if it was a bit predictable).

This book's creator Dylan Horrocks is a native New Zealand comics artist best known for his very well received and celebrated graphic novel Hicksville. He has also written for DC on books like Batgirl and Hunter: The Age of Magic. Horrocks publishes most of his new work on his own site, Hicksville Comics. He speaks extensively about his work on this Sam Zabel book in this interview.

Most of the reviews I have read about this book have been very critical of it, though they also recognize much potential and artistry. Publishers Weekly summed up, "There’s plenty of inside-comic analysis here... But it’s also a bracing reflection on the dangers of wish fulfillment and the question of whether artists are 'morally responsible for our fantasies.'” Tom Murphy concluded that "it’s slightly unfortunate that its creator’s undoubted sincerity doesn’t translate more smoothly into a more satisfying blend of story and theme." You can also see the wide range of pro and con reviews in this group blog at Comics Bulletin (for the record, personally, I felt I most agreed with Keith Silva).

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen was published by Fantagraphics, and they have an excerpt and more information available here. This book features nudity, sexual situations, and profanity, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to handle those things.

Happy Will Eisner Week, everyone! Go read a graphic novel or two!!!

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Science Comics: Bats: Learning to Fly

Bats: Learning to Fly is the latest volume in First Second's Science Comics series, and I learned so much from it. For instance, I learned about how echolocation works, about the many types of bats all over the world, how bats fly, and how bats are more like primates than they are rodents (even though they get likened to flying mice all of the time). I also learned why some of them have such striking faces. I'd tell you about all of this info, but you should really read the book and find out.

Not only is this book full of great information, it is conveyed in an interesting way through a brisk and enjoyable tale of a little brown bat who gets smacked down by a scared human and ends up being cared for by Rebecca, a veterinarian who specializes in helping bats. In her office, the bat gets to know many of the fellow bats who are also being cared for, and they are a motley bunch.
 

Like its companions in the Science Comics series, this book also goes beyond its main narrative to teach an important aspect of science. The dinosaurs book looked at how scientific knowledge evolved over time, the coral reefs book at how scientists are also stewards of the Earth, and the volcanoes one at how scientists need to consider alternative viewpoints to make breakthroughs. In Bats, the alternative lesson is a dual one: namely not to allow preconceived notions cloud one's judgment (like the Little Brown Bat does about fellow bat-patients) and also that doing science also means taking part and getting involved (in this case when Sarah volunteers her time at a veterinarian's office).

This book's creator Falynn Koch is a graduate of SCAD and this is her graphic novel debut (as far as I can tell). I was very impressed with her storytelling and how much she was able to capture with her characters' features and expressions. This book is packed with so much information, and her ability to combine it with a fun, vivid story is noteworthy.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been ringing. Johanna Draper Carlson found many positives in the book and stated that she "was impressed by how well Koch gave the various bats expression and personality while keeping them looking realistic." Gwen and Paul at the Comics Alternative wrote that it "will delight readers, while encouraging them to appreciate how they can play a role in scientific study." Jody Kopple called it "an excellent addition to school and classroom libraries" in her starred review for the School Library Journal.

Bats: Learning to Fly was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more available here.

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

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Hammer and the Anvil: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the End of Slavery in America

The Hammer and the Anvil: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the End of Slavery in America is an expertly researched and told nonfiction story of two massive historical figures and their effects on US history. In order to tell both stories, the book employs alternating narratives, indicating which is which via a simple color scheme. Douglass's story is told in blue:
And Lincoln's in red:
Both biographies begin with respective childhoods and formative experiences that would come into play later in their lives. Along the way, I learned much about each person and major players of the time period. Also, there are deftly told accounts about slavery, the Civil War, and other historical contexts. That the creators were able to chronicle so much information while spinning compelling narratives and characters is extremely impressive. One of the features I admired most about this book is that it does not overly lionize either Douglass or Lincoln. Certainly they are shown to be impressive and important people, but they are also shown to have their own problems and human moments. I especially appreciated how Lincoln was not simply canonized as the Great Emancipator but was shown to wrestle greatly with many social concerns and pragmatic thoughts that conflicted with his idealism.

The artwork was also a huge positive about this book. There are many detailed panels that represent the time period very well. Additionally, there are multiple scenes where characters' emotions and feelings come through very powerfully. This book is both masterfully plotted and illustrated. It definitely brings history to life.

This book's creators Dwight Jon Zimmerman and Wayne Vansant also collaborated on another graphic history, The Vietnam War. Zimmerman is the author of a number of other books on military history as well as a producer of TV shows on that topic. Vansant began drawing comics decades ago with Marvel Comics' Savage Tales and The 'Nam, and he has drawn a number of historically-themed graphic novels including one about the D-Day battle at Normandy.

Reviews and news I have read about the book have been positive. It was nominated for YALSA's 2013 Great Graphic Novels for Teens list. Hillary Brown concluded, "Anyone who doesn’t specialize in this material will learn something." Publishers Weekly summed it up as "a compelling look at two of the most important figures in American history." Viviane Crystal called it "a superb historical fiction story."

The Hammer and the Anvil was published by Hill & Wang, and there is a preview and more information available here.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Decelerate Blue

The mark of a great book may be just how long it sits with you after you have finished reading it. I read this book and was pretty dissatisfied with the ending, but it keeps cropping up in my thoughts. Decelerate Blue is a science fiction tale set in a not-too-distant future where speeding up to keep up with societal and technological change is not just necessary, it's the law. Angela, a teenage girl, does not quite fit in here, and she resists many of the required "hyper" requirements, such as reading special novels, watching special movies, and going to a special mall. People even speak in rapid style, ending each speaking turn with a marker "Go." (This last feature was pretty maddening for me to read at the start of this book, but I eventually got used to it.) In this future, trying to slow life down is an act of resistance.
Angela's actions lead to some attention, unwelcome from some (like her parents) and welcome from others (like the mysterious person who drops her a copy of Kick the Boot, a novel that becomes the manifesto for an underground movement). Soon, she literally drops out of society, joins the resistance, and finds a potential romance in an unlikely place. Still, the establishment is very well organized and relentless, and things do not go well for the resistors in the end. I am not going to spoil it, but the ending was pretty bleak and left me with small feelings of hope and large feelings of despair. Still, it is a very affecting book, and that it stirred such emotions up in me is the hallmark of excellence. I have to say that the combination of artwork and narrative is pitch perfect for this sort of tale.

This book is a collaboration between writer Adam Rapp and artist Mike Cavallaro. Rapp is a Renaissance man who has worked on movies, music, novels, and play writing, and he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2006. Cavallaro has worked in comics for a couple of decades now, with a number of graphic novels to his credit, including Foiled, Curses! Foiled Again, The Life and Times of Savior 28, and Parade (with fireworks).

All of the reviews I have read for this book have been glowing. Kirkus Reviews summed up, "This is a strikingly illustrated book set in a potentially massive world, and readers will hope this isn't the only story to come from it." In a starred review from the School Library Journal Jordeana Kruse gave this verdict, "Fans of George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 will find much to ponder in this notable graphic novel." April Spisak wrote that even though it is not happy "the conclusion remains complex and poignant."

Decelerate Blue was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more available here. There are some language and sexual situations that might not play well with younger readers, but I think that this book would be appropriate for older adolescents.

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

Friday, February 10, 2017

March: Book Two

The second book in a trilogy can feel padded out, like the author is laying the groundwork for the grand conclusion but still holding back on the "good stuff." I am happy to say that the second book of March does not fall into that trap, and I daresay it is even better than Book One. The framing sequence of Obama's 2009 Inauguration remains a constant, but the past events depicted left me breathless and astounded.
This book is a highly informative piece of nonfiction in terms of facts as well as emotions. So much is chronicled in this book, from the Freedom Riders to multiple sit-ins and protests in Nashville and Birmingham, to the March on Washington where co-author Congressman John Lewis was a prominent speaker and MLK delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. And most impressively, the many people and events packed into this book are all briefly and deftly identified, which was no small feat to accomplish.
What sits with me the most after reading this book is just how much brutality and hatred Lewis and his stalwarts had to deal with. This book does not hold back in its depictions of those who opposed the civil rights movement, and their actions rightly are cast in terrible light. And although it does not cast its heroes solely in the glowing light of the entirely innocent, it does show just how much patience and perseverance they needed. It also shows just how much pain and misery they had to go through in terms of beatings and imprisonment. Certainly, the stories and travails portrayed here are essential reading for any informed US citizen. I know I am behind, and I will likely have to wait some right now, but I am eager to read Book Three.

Lewis and his staffer Andrew Aydin penned the narrative for this book, and it was illustrated by Nate Powell, a veteran and expert creator with a long list of praised works, including the graphic novels The Silence of Our Friends, Swallow Me Whole, and Any Empire. As you can see from the excepts, Powell's artwork is dynamic and energetic, and he makes excellent tonal use of black and white to tell riveting, moving, and powerful tales, even when people are simply speaking. You can watch all three creators talk about this book in this interview.

This book won an Eisner Award and has been lauded by many. Etelka Lehoczky wrote, "Speeches and meetings might seem like dull stuff for a comic book — or, at least, like the dull parts of a comic book — but award-winning artist Nate Powell doesn't let that happen." Michael Cavna called it "a must-read monument." Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and remarked, "Lewis, Aydin, and Powell’s combined experiences combine to recreate scenes of incredible feeling."

March: Book Two was published by Top Shelf, and they have a preview and much more available here. Book Three recently won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature.