Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Abominable Mr. Seabrook

I was a big fan of Joe Ollmann's Mid-Life, and when I saw he was publishing a new book, I was excited to read it. Whereas Mid-Life was a piece of fiction with some autobiographical aspects thrown in, his new work The Abominable Mr. Seabrook is a well researched, nonfiction biography. Its subject William Seabrook was a journalist, author, occultist, and traveler who explored lots of exotic locales and wrote about them for popular audiences. His biggest contribution to US culture may be his account of voodoo in Haiti The Magic Island and how that book popularized the concept of the zombie for Americans. Even though he was famous in his day and hobnobbed with lots of folks still held in high regard, Seabrook has all but fallen off the radar.
Part of the reason he faded into obscurity is the prolonged downward spiral chronicled in this book. He had penchants for alcohol, womanizing, BDSM, drugs, and pushing boundaries altogether, a horrible combination of attributes that resulted in his suicide by drug overdose in 1945. Those same attributes led him to many interesting situations, including being an ambulance driver during World War I, roaming with Bedouins in the Arabian Desert and mountains of northern Iraq, dining with cannibals in Africa, and spending months in an asylum for addicts. He was able to spin many of these experiences into prose, but as we see in this graphic novel, he was not an easy person to be around.

As you can tell from what I just reeled off, I learned much about Mr. Seabrook from this book. It is jam-packed with information from the various chapters that focus on specific moments in his life. Also, Ollmann does not pull any punches with Seabrook's life, and I have to say that authenticity was double-edged for me. First it is an impressive feat to accomplish, a mark of great craft and attention to detail. Second, it is also pretty exhausting and terrifying to see this depraved and troubled man's life in such detail. I love the obvious love, effort, and dark humor that went into this book, but I also had a tough time getting through parts of it because they were so raw. From start to finish it's beautiful, engrossing, and devastating. I'd definitely recommend it to mature readers interested in this fascinating author, and I'd also add that I would read it in installments. TAMS is not a book to plow through.

All of the reviews I have read have commented on the amount of care, research, and craft went into this book. Genevieve Valentine wrote that "the depth of research is impressive, and there are evocative beats of loneliness or connection that remind us why the graphic novel can be such a powerful medium for conveying such small, human moments." John Paul praised it as "a masterful bit of visual storytelling." Chris Mautner called it an "ambitious biography."

For those interested, Ollmann speaks extensively about his work on this book in this interview.

The Abominable Mr. Seabrook was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they offer a preview and more info about it here. The author also has a sizable preview excerpt here.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Witch Boy

I bought this book because I am a big fan of Molly Knox Ostertag. I love the webcomic she draws, Strong Female Protagonist, and I also very much enjoyed the sci-fi tale The Shattered Warrior that was released earlier this year. The difference with this book, The Witch Boy, is that she both wrote and drew it, so I was eager to see how it turned out. It is an impressive solo debut, and I appreciated very much how she told a nuanced tale of young people finding their way and also having to navigate their family relationships.

The narrative here follows Aster, whose family is touched by magic. All the women in the family become witches and are trained in mystical arts. All of the men are shapeshifters who learn how to fight and defend their homes and families. Aster is an outlier because he cannot seem to shapeshift, but he is highly interested in magic and sneakily learns how to cast spells and use magical objects. On top of this break with tradition, he is also quite friendly with a non-magical girl (can I call her a muggle if it's not Harry Potter related?) named Charlie.
His actions disrupt tradition, causing his parents concern and also opening him up to criticism from others. However, when strange creatures start lurking about and his boy cousins start disappearing, his in-between status might just be what is needed to get to the bottom of things. If it seems these details are vague, it's because I don't want to spoil much. I found this book very compelling and human, and I loved how the family and relationship drama was portrayed in real and complex ways. The Witch Boy is a double threat, a fun tale of magic and intrigue that has a few genuinely scary bits but also an exploration of how families can be loving, frustrating, and supportive, even when traditional roles are broken.
All of the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. In a starred review for School Library Journal, Andrea Lipinski summed it up as "An excellent choice for reluctant readers, fans of fantasy, and those looking for books that explore gender roles." In another starred review, Kirkus Reviews concluded "With charming artwork, interesting supporting characters, natural-feeling diversity, and peeks of a richly developed world, this book leaves readers wishing for more." Mugglenet called it "smart and fun."

Ostertag speaks more about her work and inspirations for this book in this interview.

The Witch Boy was published by Scholastic, and they have more info about it here.

Monday, November 20, 2017


How I happen upon graphic novels is a varied thing. I read this one, Showtime, because someone I follow on Twitter recommended it as an antidote to "restricted nerd bullshit." So I decided to check it out and see what she meant by that. I have to say that this book is a pretty unique reading experience in terms of its scope, focus, and narrative. For starters, it's narrated by a rat who is pushing a can of Coca-Cola up a staircase. Secondly, it's about a weird car trip, a reclusive magician, and a trio of hitch-hikers who purport to be stranded wait-staff on the way to a gig.

The magician in question is in the mold of a David Copperfield or David Blaine, who trucks in grand public illusions, including a floating cruise ship. His works have made people question reality, which is also what this narrative does, and he is coming back for a comeback tour after years of being out of the public eye.

As you might guess from the high concept set-up, this tale is full of potential avenues for interpretation and existential exploration. It is thought-provoking and philosophical but also relatively fantastical. I will not say it is a book for everyone, but I do feel that it is expertly constructed and very satisfying to read in terms of intellectual and aesthetic experiences. It features a fascinating story and also creative and provocative lay-outs. Just check out this page:
Showtime was created by writer/artist Antoine Cossé. He has a few other works under his belt, including such titles as Harold, Mutiny Bay, and La Villa S., as well as several anthology entries. He also posts many excerpts from his various works at his blog. He speaks about his comics work in general in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Madeleine Morley called it a "richly cinematic tale." Laura S. Hammond concluded, "Dark yet ironically funny at times the sinister elements and plot twists will enchant those who have a penchant for the uncanny and weird."

Showtime was published by Breakdown Press, and they have extracts and more info about it here. For those interested, you can learn more about Breakdown Press in this interview.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Cici's Journal: The Adventures of a Writer-in-Training

Cici's Journal was an intriguing reading experience for me. It combines elements of a personal journal, picture books, and comics in following the exploits of a little girl who is curious and figuring out her way in the world. In many ways, the two stories here are quotidian, though the daily life they chronicle is full of wonder. In many ways, I felt like I was reading a graphic novel with a few sections that read more like a good elementary-aged novel excerpt. And I mean that in a good way.

The plot in this book follows Cici, an inquisitve and energetic ten and a half year-old. She is enamored with her friend Mrs. Flores, who is an author, and channels all of her energy into observing adults and trying to learn their secrets. She conducts investigations and writes them up, often with the help of her friends Erica and Lena. They act as springboards for her ideas and also they provide convenient cover stories to distract Cici's mom from what she is really up to.
In the first story (excerpted above), "The Petrified Zoo," she follows a peculiar, old man into the woods to find that he is decorating an abandoned zoo. The second story "Hector's Book" she notices an old woman who keeps checking the same book out of the library each week. And in addition to unfurling that mystery, her personal life comes more into focus. In many children's books that feature sleuthing, like Encyclopedia Brown or Nancy Drew, the main character can become pretty single-minded and insufferable. I liked that in this book, that type of behavior gets called out. Cici's friends, mother, and even her hero Mrs. Flores all show her how her actions alienate them, and she learns more about how to balance being a decent person as well as an effective writer.

In terms of story I liked the gentle, human way that both mysteries resolved as well as the attention to the personal interactions of the main characters. But my favorite part of this book was its artwork, which is gorgeous and vibrant. The characters all are full of color and personality. The settings are all well grounded in reality but also beautifully rendered, and I loved the visual storytelling and facial expressions.Just check out that excerpt above and you'll see what I am talking about.

The two books contained in this volume were a collaboration between artist Aurélie Neyret and writer Joris Chamblain. Neyret has published work in many anthologies and magazines in France, and she shares much of her artwork via her blog. Chamblain has written various other comics, most notably the series Sorcières Sorcières (website in French). Cici's Journal was translated into English by Carol Klio Burrell, and I felt she did excellent work making this entire enterprise funny and contemporary in a different cultural milieu.

The reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly wrote that Neyret's "delicate, finely worked portraits bring elegance" to Chamblain's "smart" stories. Sharon Tyler summed up that it "is a book that made me smile. It reminded me of Harriet the Spy in the best of ways, and still felt new and fresh. I think this will appeal to a number of readers."

Cici's Journal was published in the US by First Second, and they have a preview and more info about it here.

A preview copy was provided by the publisher.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Science Comics: Dogs: From Predator to Protector

I went into reading this book thinking it would be a light, breezy read about the history of dogs. I was right about the first part, because boy was I surprised by how much more comprehensive and detailed it turned out to be, all while still being light and funny in tone. Pulling off this tough balancing act, the latest volume in the Science Comics series, Dogs: From Predator to Protector, touches on a great many scientific subjects, including genetics, evolution, and DNA. And better yet, it covers all this ground narrated by a cute and energetic pooch named Rudy.
As you can see from the excerpt, this is a colorful, interesting, and informative book. It touches on all kinds of issues and information about dogs, including an account of how they evolved from wolves, became friendly with people, and have been bred in particular ways to suit specific jobs and human whims. Along the way, there are many interesting episodes and asides, including information about how they see, smell, and hear. This book gets at how they socialize, why they sniff butts, why they chase balls, and what their barks can mean. Amazingly informative and gorgeously playful, this book should be a big hit with anyone who loves dogs, science, good comics, or learning about the world.

This impressive blend of educational and entertaining comics was created by Andy Hirsch. He has a number of comic book series, including The Baker Street Peculiars, as well as a couple of other graphic novels under his belt, including his own Varmints. He has volumes in the Science Comics series coming soon, one about trees and the other cats. He speaks extensively about his work on Dogs in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. Johanna Draper Carlson gave it high praise, writing, "All the Science Comics are great, but this is one of the best of the bunch, an outstanding read." Kirkus Reviews stated, "The scope and depth of information is truly impressive and could be formidable, but the comic-book format keeps things on the accessible side as well as helping to illustrate more complex points." Suzanne Costner wrote that it was "an excellent introduction to the history of domesticated dogs, and offers enough basic facts to give readers a good place to start researching the topic more deeply on their own."

Dogs: From Predator to Protector was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more about this book here.

A preview copy was provided by the publisher.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Demon, Volume 2-4

As I've written before, I seek out Jason Shiga's work. It is usually fun, funny, and cerebral, full of puzzles, strange gadgets, and/or unique situations. His series Demon is no exception, although here I have to say he has dialed his sensibilities to 11.

This series stars characters from Shiga's past works (Meanwhile, Bookhunter, and Empire State), though it treats them like actors playing new roles. As I recounted in my review of Volume 1, Demon follows the exploits of Jimmy Yee, an accountant who attempted suicide only to find that he kept coming back to life because he is a demon. Shockingly, he went on a murder/crime spree that put him on the authorities' radar. In the three books that follow, much gets revealed about his situation and its causes, and the cat and mouse chase between Jimmy and Hunter escalates to a bloodbath of global proportions. This series revels in depravity, but it is also amazingly clever, well thought-out, and masterfully executed. I cannot do justice to them in this space (and I don't want to spoil much either, so I'll simply give you a free-verse poem for each book:
2. surprise surpise
daughters can be demons, too
3. 100 years in the future
a demon meets his maker
plus uncovers a plot for world domination
4. the fight for freedom involves
a high body count
conjoined twins
and peg-legged amputees wielding baseball bats

Overall, I found these books to be compelling and almost impossible to put down. These adventures follow their own logic, are incredibly graphic, and delve into areas of bad taste in the most entertaining of ways. I think that the whole narrative is a smart, grotesque masterpiece, and I am kind of anxious to see where Shiga goes from here.

Shiga speaks about his future work as well as his take on Demon here. Publishers Weekly gave the books a starred review and wrote, "As with Shiga’s other books, there are puzzles aplenty to solve, with an added layer of urgent narrative drive." They also added that "the story will prove just as addictive for readers finding it in print." Dustin Cabeal called it "one of the funniest and yet intelligent books I’ve ever read."

Demon was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more available here (Volume 2), here (Volume 3), and here (Volume 4). This series was first published as a webcomic, but now only the first chapter is available online.

These books contain lots of violence, some profanity, and some sexual content, so I advise them for mature readers.

A review copy (of Volume 4) was provided by the publisher.