Monday, January 30, 2017

Artemis: Wild Goddess of the Hunt

Some might think a goddess in charge of childbirth, maiden women, the moon, and the forest, would be somewhat demure, but they would be very wrong. Artemis: Wild Goddess of the Hunt tells the story of a goddess who is youthful, energetic, pristine, and downright deadly. This combination is becoming a common theme with this series, as Ares and Apollo have also been shown to be extremely beautiful but downright nasty as well. Perhaps I should not have been so surprised in the case of Artemis though. After all, she showed herself to be quite the badass when she assisted her mother Leto with delivering her own twin brother when she was little more than a week old.

The rest of the book does an excellent job in fleshing out the personality and characteristics of this complex character. And I have to say that the body count is pretty high. She and her brother Apollo slaughter the family of queen Niobe when she blasphemes against their mother. She turns the hunter Actaeon into a deer so he can be eaten by his own dogs after he dares peek at her while skinny-dipping. She tricks the twin monstrous giants Otus and Ephialtes into murdering each other. She also does in the mighty hunter Orion, who had became her compatriot but was so hurt when she refused his advances that he started to slaughter all the animals on Earth. The only respite from all the bloodshed in is in the recounting of the tale of Atalanta.
 

This is the ninth book in the Olympians series, and it is a very strong entry. I loved the way that a narrative was woven to connect all of these tales. I also loved how well the gods' personalities shine through in ways that reflect not just this book but also the other entries in this series. That all the books are this consistently excellent is amazing and commendable.

In addition to the numerous entries in the Olympians series, artist/writer George O'Connor has created the American history journal account Journey into Mohawk Country and the dystopian future book Ball Peen Hammer, written by Adam Rapp. He also has published a number of children's picture books. His work is typically excellent, and I very much appreciate his voice in the notes and back matter of the book. He gives great insight and humor about his choices. He speaks about his career in this interview.

Reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. Kelly Fineman enjoyed the book and also noted, "O'Connor's notes are engaging and provide background material for much of the art and writing." Library Linsey wrote that he "continues to artfully share his knowledge of Greek myth in another dynamic graphic novel representation." Kirkus Reviews cautioned readers, "Admire her—from a distance—and don’t dis her or her mom."

Artemis: Wild Goddess of the Hunt was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more here.

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

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Troop 142

Troop 142 is a slice of life tale, an account of a Boy Scout camping trip set in 1995. We get to see the goings-on and drama between camp counselors and adolescent boys as the latter try to win badges for completing specific tasks and classes. Along the way, they all learn about what it means to be a man, sometimes lessons that are sad and disappointing. And of course, there are lots of pranks, hi-jinks, sneaking out at night, horrible jokes, bodily odors, macho posturing, and homophobia happening all of the time.
What really stood out to me about this book was how well it captures a bunch of social dynamics, from dads who are uncomfortable around each other, to boys trying to fit in, to both who work to ostracize and torture those they find different. Some of the boys (and dads) are peacocks, others loners, and more than a few feel vulnerable and unsure of themselves. The personalities here are strong ones, and I feel that there are many alternatives for a reader to relate to, wonder about, mock, and/or revile.
The story also touches on a number of social issues. There are undercurrents of religious and sexual intolerance discussed, and it is clear that although being a Scout entails learning skills and striving for virtue it also involves some level of discrimination toward others. Being set in the past allows the author some distance from the topicality of these issues, and it seems more recently things in the Scouts are changing (or have changed to some extent). Still, these issues still affect many of our lives on a daily basis.

Troop 142's creator Mike Dawson has written and drawn a few graphic novels, including Freddie & Me, Angie Bongiolatti, and Rules for Dating My Daughter. I like his expressive drawing style, especially in how he depcits his characters' emotional responses. And I am not alone in my admiration for his work, as he was nominated in the Promising New Talent category of the Ignatz Awards in 2002. He speaks about his career and work extensively in this interview.

Originally published online, this book won the 2010 Ignatz Award for Outstanding Online Comic, and I found much praise in its reviews. Joseph Thompson summed up that "this graphic novel will sharply divide its readers in terms of personal taste but not quality."in ways that the best books do: ways that surprise, and trouble, and delight." Rob Clough called it "a comic that’s not about the monstrous nature of adolescence or even the less pleasant truths about masculinity in particular, but rather one that focuses on the fragility of ego, the demands of social and cultural mores, and the ways in which we all fear humiliation and vulnerability."

Troop 142 was published by Secret Acres, and they have a preview and more info about the book here. This books features crass, juvenile humor; sexual situations, and profanity, but I feel it is no worse than what I heard while I was a teenager myself. Still, those  offended by such things might want to steer clear.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Murder By Remote Control

Today I like to say that we are living in the "golden age of comics" because of the sheer volume of excellent material being published in so many genres and for so many different audiences. The key year in this transition (in the US at least)  is usually cited as 1986, when Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and the first volume of Maus were published. The book I am reviewing today is an original graphic novel that predates those publications, and it had a difficult time finding a publisher in the US at the time. So I am glad to get to read and experience it today.

Murder By Remote Control may have been written more than 30 years ago, but it is still a fresh, interesting, and provocative book. The plot is about the murder of an oil tycoon in coastal Maine, an act perpetrated with a remote control airplane.
There are only four houses in the remote location, and the detective on the case, a trench coat-wearing Zen Buddhist named Jim Brady, employs some unorthodox tactics in his investigations. The suspects themselves are a motley bunch: a reclusive farmer, a former high-price call girl, a film star, and a gun-toting, paraplegic ex-criminal (pictured).
Far from progressing in a straight line, this investigation takes some weird turns into drug-trafficking, local corruption, as well as philosophical ponderings of America, sex, and popular culture. These narrative turns are also accompanied by beautiful and surreal splash pages full of portentous images that are just ripe for interpretation. I feel that all of it could easily go off the tracks, but the plot is well-paced and, more importantly, the artwork helps anchor the whole enterprise. Not only is it beautiful to behold, the style is realistic and done in the style of Wally Wood and Jim Steranko, two of the most revered and copped US comics artists.

Murder By Remote Control was created by Dutch writer Janwillem van de Wetering and US artist Paul Kirchner. Van de Wetering was a crime novelist whose work has often been called "off-beat." Kirchner has had a long career, drawing comics for Heavy Metal, multiple toy companies, and The Big Book of series. He also has been a toy designer and today works mainly in advertising. He speaks at length about this book in this interview. He speaks more about his career and specifically about this collaboration with van de Wetering in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Win Wiacek called it "a delicious treat for the eyes and a therapeutic exercise for the mind." Gahan Wilson, in the original 1986 review, called it "an enjoyable entertainment that succeeds in demonstrating very effectively that this form of storytelling has a unique potential and can work a special kind of magic unavailable to any other medium."

This re-issue of Murder By Remote Control was published by Dover Publications, and they have more information about the book here. This book contains some nudity and sexual situations, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to handle both. This edition also has a couple of extra essays, one an introduction by Kirchner, the other an afterward by Steve Bissette, and I found both fun and informative to read.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Other Lives

Other Lives is an exploration of identity as filtered through the technology we use, in this case online avatars. It focuses on the relationships between four people. Vader Ryderbeck is a neurotic journalist who uses an obvious pseudonym and whose insecurities threaten his relationship with his girlfriend Ivy. She is the family rebel, an Asian girl who moved out of her conservative parents' home and lives with a white boy. In writing a story, Vader encounters two friends from the past. One, Otis, claims to be an ex-federal agent, although this seems unlikely as he lives with his mother and gets caught in some untruths. The second is Woodrow, a gamer with a gambling problem whose marriage does not seem as solid as he claims.
Of course, the real-life foibles, insecurities, and personality issues each character has spills over into the virtual world, here a Second Life parody named Second World. And the result of all this interplay is conflict and some strained relationships when Ivy and Woodrow become embroiled in an online dalliance. I felt that the story was an interesting one that hits on ideas of truth, identity, and our many "real-life" relationships as they function both face-to-face and in electronic spaces. Certainly, the characters may be stock stereotypes but in the end they help tell a thoughtful and entertaining tale.

This book's creator Peter Bagge is one of my all time favorite comics makers. A multiple award winner with decades of comics to his credit, he created the seminal alternative comics series Neat Stuff and Hate and served as editor of the underground comics holdover anthology Weirdo. He has also created a number of graphic novels, including Woman Rebel, Apocalypse Nerd,  and Reset. More recently, he has been a frequent contributor to publications like Reason magazine (see his collection Everybody is Stupid Except for Me) and Vice Magazine (the Musical Urban Legends column).

The reviews I have read about this book have been a mixed bag full of lots of critiques. Alice Parker remarked that it "is clearly the work of a professional, but one that seems to have lacked editorial oversight." Shawn O'Rourke concluded, "Other Lives is an interesting story that confirms why Peter Bagge has become a acclaimed name in the art comic world." R.S. Martin wrote, "Bagge’s explicit theme is that the Internet has led to people assuming multiple identities within their lives, but he doesn’t develop it into any greater insight or irony. As such, it always takes a back seat to the character comedy."

Other Lives was published by Vertigo, and they have info about it here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening

Monstress is a book that has appeared on many Best of 2016 lists, and I liked it but did not love it. The main story follows Maika Halfwolf, an Arcanic (a magical creature that can look human), as she tries to avenge her mother's death. In the opening pages, she infiltrates a household of the Cumea, an order of sorceresses that treat the Arcanics like animals, experiment on them, and sometimes even consume them.


On Maika's side, she knows that there is something powerful and ravenous inside her, although she has to learn what it is and how (if?) she can control it. Her plan might not be the most solid one, but she soon finds herself embroiled in a world of revelations, double-crossings, cruelty, and surprising alliances. Also, she learns about the five races of beings in the world, one of which is cats. Smart cats that can talk and have multiple tails, how cool is that? They were among my favorite characters in the book.

If all of the above sounds like a lot to digest, that's because it is. My big issue with the book is that much information and exposition bogs down some of the proceedings. Still, this book is gorgeously illustrated, as you can see in the preview above, in a style that combines elements of manga with more western comic books. Its lush images are imaginative, interesting, and aptly frightening. I feel that this fantasy world is an interesting take on typical monster/magic books. It's a good allegory for several civil rights issues as well as compelling locale populated with complex characters.

Monstress is the creation of writer Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda. Liu has published best-selling novels such as the Dirk & Steele and Hunter's Kiss series as well as several comic book series about Wolverine, X-23, and the X-Men. Takeda's credits include work on Marvel's X-23 and Ms. Marvel. Liu speaks about her work on Monstress in this interview, and Takeda speaks about her evolving art style in this series in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have praised the artwork, but some have been more critical about the narrative. Jeff Lake called it "confident and complex, bolstered by a compelling narrative and wondrous visuals." Publishers Weekly summed up, "The labyrinthine drawings enchant, but the convoluted storytelling and extreme violence may drive away more casual readers." The reviewer at Comic Bastards liked the book overall but voiced "that in trying so hard to establish this vast, fantasy world for the reader, there is a tendency for heavy exposition and extensive historical dialogue that can be a bit of a drain at times."

Monstress, Volume 1 was published by Image Comics and they have much more information about this book and the series here. The series also has an official page here, if you are interested in checking out previews, art, and news about it.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Kill Them All

If you have read my reviews of Ricky Thunder or Sexcastle, you will know that Kyle Starks is one of my favorite comics creators. And I am not alone in my adoration, as he was nominated for a 2016 Eisner Award. Today when he is not making his own work he writes and occasionally draws stories for the Rick and Morty comic book adaptation. I got this latest book of his via crowd-sourcing on Kickstarter.

Kill Them All follows two plots that converge into a climactic, bloody rampage through a high-rise building. The one follows the exploits of the Tiger's Daughter, the world's deadliest assassin, who one day decides to break up with her boyfriend, which precipitates a bunch of bad stuff on her. The second follows former Detective Iruka, a disgraced police officer who has been stripped of the only job that made his life meaningful. Both of these characters end up on the trail of a ruthless crime boss, which leads to the aforementioned high-rise. It is full of thugs, killers, miscreants, luchadores, criminal masterminds, accountants, henchmen, and brain-washed child assassins. And like the title says, the mismatched duo seeks to kill them all.
This book is full of action and violence, but there are also lots of jokes and details that pay off in the conclusion. Seriously, I am amazed by how well Starks takes simple concepts and make them work so well in terms of story and character. Even with pretty straight-forward genre stuff, his sense of humor and drama shine through and make the whole enterprise exceptional. His comics work in primal, alchemical ways.
I was not able to locate many reviews of the book at this time, but the one I did find was very positive: Gary at Comics Anonymous called it "Bold, brash, funny & frantic." If you want to know more about this book, you can read this interview with Kyle Starks here, or if you would rather hear him speak about it you can listen to a different interview here.

If you are interested in learning more about Kyle Starks and his works (and why wouldn't you be?), check out his Tumblr, Twitter, Patreon, or website.

Like I said earlier, Kill Them All was published initially via a Kickstarter campaign. I am pretty sure it will be available for sale sometime soon on Starks' StoreEnvy page.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

My Favorite Graphic Novels from the Past Year!

I read a lot of comics and books over the course of a year, and here is a list of my favorites from 2016. More detailed reviews of each can be found by clicking individual title links.

 Best Overall


Rosalie Lightning

This story about how a couple deals with the death of their toddler is not just beautifully told, the way it is communicated in this book is a master class in what comics can do. A masterpiece.






Best Biography

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

This faux biography/real history of Singapore is technically excellent and also full of emotion and excellent story telling. The range of comics pastiches, from strips to sketches to comic books to academic commentary is fantastically impressive. Another masterpiece.







Best Younger Ages Book

Bera The One-Headed Troll

This tale of a troll defending a human baby against a witch, evil mermaids, and other evil critters introduced me to my favorite fictional character of 2016. I LOVE BERA, and I wish she was real. No lie.







Best Science Fiction Book


Nod Away

Brilliant in terms of story, art and how it presents personal relationships, this book does what the best science fiction does: makes us examine our present, explore our technology, and ponder what our future might be. It's the start of what should be an epic series of seven books.





Best Humor Book

Mooncop

Also a strong contender for best sci-fi book, this graphic novel portrays the surprisingly boring and mundane life of the last cop on the moon. It's full of subtle jokes and personality. And of course, donuts figure strongly in the plot.







Best All Ages Book

Night Air

Plus Man is kind of a jerk, but I still found myself rooting for him and his robot companion as he grifted, played fast and loose with gamblers, and tried to find rare minerals in a haunted castle full of shady characters. A fun and funny action tale to suit all ages, without insulting anyone's intelligence.






Best Illustrated


How To Talk To Girls at Parties

Neil Gaiman is no slouch, and I do enjoy the plot of this book, but the artwork by brothers Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba is clearly the high point here. I typically love their work in black and white, but in color it is otherworldly.






Best All Ages Nonfiction Book (AKA, The Nathan Hale Award)


 Alamo All-Stars

I have very high expectations for every book Nathan Hale makes in this series, and he constantly has blown my mind by moving in unexpected directions, keeping things fresh, and innovating how nonfiction storytelling is done via comics. If you love comics, his stuff is required reading.





Best Nonfiction Book for Older Folks


Tetris: The Games People Play

This tale about the addictive video game is a powerful commentary on the intersections of  imagination, politics, commerce, and humanity. So complex and well told.







Favorite Series

Fantasy Sports

The first volume of this series was hilarious and fun, and the second might be less so but it more than makes up for it with its depth of characterization and narrative flourishes that make this fictional world much more realized. I cannot wait for the next entry!







Best Autobiographical Work

Something New

After reading this warm and personal account of dating, families, and marriage, I felt like I was at the wedding and that I know these people. It is quirky, fun, and excellent commentary on contemporary life and relationships. Lucy Knisley is one of the best comics creators in the business.






Best Superhero Book


Vision

Recasting the complicated backstory and continuity of a familiar superhero as a telenovela makes for a very interesting, probing, and compelling story. I have read a lot of superhero stories in my day, but I love how this one reinterprets and comments on the genre.






Best Monster Book for Adults


 KaijuMax: Season 1

If you ever wondered how life was like in the prison that is Monster Island, this is the book for you. It features an impressive amount of world-building in terms of its characters, situations, slang, and mythography. Zander Cannon is also a genius comics maker, and this is another in a long line of excellent comics by him.






Best Monster Book for Children


The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo

This collection of webcomics about a boy who calls upon a seasoned pro to investigate the monster in his closet contains some of the most fun and suspenseful yarns I read this year. I love the fictional world created here, and elementary-school-aged-me would have adored this book.



Best Graphic Novel That Should Immediately Be Adapted as an Action Movie


Kill Them All

I will admit it. I am a Kyle Starks super-fan. I will buy any comic he makes, sight unseen. This well-plotted, fun action adventure features a bunch of assassins, cops, super-criminals, and martial arts. It. Is. Awesome.






Well, that's all for now. Thanks for reading my list/blog! Happy New Year!