Thursday, November 15, 2018

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies

If you have read this blog for any length of time, you know I will read any comics Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips create. I have been blown away by their past efforts, like Sleeper, Criminal, Incognito, Fatale, The Fade-Out, and Kill or Be Killed. Their brand of action and intrigue in noir fashion has captivated and excited me over various iterations. This book is their return to the world of Criminal, only it's in the form of one self-contained graphic novel. Even though it builds on the series, I think that this book is affecting and accessible to readers who might not be familiar with the creators' other works.

The main plot here follows Ellie, who is technically a teenager but has been out on her own for a while. She finds herself drawn to musicians and artists who have addiction problems. When the book opens she is on a beach, ruminating about her life. Then, she flashes back to the recent past to see how she has ended up in her current situation. She was entered against her will into a rehab program, and she is a discontent in various areas, including being a poor participant in group therapy sessions and also frequently sneaking out after hours to have a smoke. She finds a co-conspirator in Skip, a young man in his 20s who is trying to break out of some old patterns.

Aside from the fact that romantic relationships are frowned upon in such settings, the duo has other problems that arise from factors from their outside lives. I am not going to spoil things, but their relationship takes a few turns before the end of the narrative, with a bunch of negative consequences. What I loved about this book was how it played with my expectations about characters and plot by slowly dropping revelations and twists. By the end, I learned a lot more about the story's context that involved characters and stories from the Criminal series, which I found rewarding. Even so, I feel that this tale works for readers who are new to this world, because the plot twists still work with what you do see about these characters. I love a good crime/mystery yarn that keeps me guessing, and this book definitely delivers in that territory.

The reviews I have read of this book have been very positive. Shareca Coleman wrote that it was "incredibly written, drawn, and composed." Anelise Ferris called it "affecting and thought-provoking," and added,  "It’s a perfect read for a quiet autumn afternoon." Chris Terry opined that "Sean Phillips’ artwork is as beautiful as Brubaker’s story is haunting." Joe Gordon called it "
simply brilliant," adding, "And you’re really, really going to want to make a good playlist to go along with your second reading." Derek and I also recently spoke about the book on the Comics Alternative podcast.

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies was published by Image Comics, and they offer a preview and more information here.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

On a Sunbeam

On a Sunbeam was originally published as a webcomic (still available to read online in its entirety here), and it is a fantastic science fiction comic experience. It features two narratives, one set in the present that follows a group of outer space archaeologists/restoration experts as they travel from job to job, documenting and repairing abandoned sites across the galaxy. The second one is told through the eyes of Mia, one of the space archaeologists, about her days in boarding school and of her first love with a classmate named Grace. Fifteen years separate the narratives, but the past still has a massive influence on the present.

I do not really want to delve more into the plot, as I feel it will not be done much justice with a recap, but I will tell you about my three favorite characteristics about this book. First, it is a piece of science fiction but it is more in the vein of fantasy/science fiction, as the future here is not cold and stark but rather more warm and organic. The spaceships resemble giant flying goldfish, and the interiors more like giant cathedrals or castles. I love the kind of world-building used throughout the book, which  you can see from this excerpt:
Second, although this is ostensibly a sci-fi tale, it is more about people's relationships to each other than influence of scientific invention on people's lives. And my third point follows from those relationships, in that the characters in this book are fully rendered both in terms of the art and their roles in the story. They are bold, nuanced, and complicated. They really left their impression on me, and this is a book that has been in my mind long after reading it.

This book's creator Tillie Walden is one of my favorite comics creators. Even though she is a relative newcomer, she has already racked up a few huge accolades, including the 2018 Eisner Award for Best Reality-Based Work for her graphic memoir Spinning (also one of my favorite books of the year). On a Sunbeam was nominated for a 2017 Eisner in the category of Digital Comic (even though it is technically a webcomic). You can learn more about her work on this webcomic/book in this interview I helped conduct on the Comics Alternative podcast.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly concluded that "this masterful blend of science fiction–inflected school drama, road trip, and adventure is nothing less than marvelous." Kirkus Reviews called it "An affirming love story full of intriguing characters and a suspenseful plot." Caitlin Rosberg summed up, "It’s hard to imagine Walden continuing to put out books at the pace she’s had for the past three years, but comics are richer for it, and hopefully there’s many more years to come of her beautiful work."

On a Sunbeam was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more information about it here.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Tyler Cross: Black Rock

I first saw this graphic novel a few years ago while I was in the Netherlands for an academic conference. I loved the format and the artwork, but it was in Dutch, so I did not buy it. I did snap a pic of the cover with my cell phone, so I could look for it in English, and lo and behold all these years later, it's finally here. And published by one of my favorite book imprints, no less! I have read a bunch of prose novels from Hard Case Crime, and in recent years they have moved into publishing graphic novels, too, which is exciting to me. Is that more than you wanted to know from me? I hope not, and now onto the book...
Tyler Cross: Black Rock seems almost tailored made for me. It is a lot like Richard Stark's classic Parker series, about a hardened criminal who largely keeps to himself and works many a job with similarly minded crooks. The set-up here is that Cross agrees to do a robbery/hit job, and it goes south. He ends up stranded on foot in the Texas desert with 20 dollars in his pocket, a gun in his belt, and a bag full of 17 kilos of uncut brown heroin. Eventually, he finds himself in Black Rock, a town owned and ruled by the corrupt Pragg family. Seeing a suspicious stranger and the chance to make a potential buck, they make life very difficult for him.
I am not going to spoil things much with giving out more specifics, but suffice it to say that there are a lot of plot twists, gun violence, and explosions that result from these actions. Also, there is a very bite-y snake. The artwork is cartoonish, which is slightly reminiscent of Dick Tracy to me, but I think it suits the story well. Also, I am glad to see a few wordless passages that clearly contribute to the storytelling. There are distinctive, compelling characters and situations that are well defined with the bold imagery and atmospheric coloring.

This book featured the best kind of crime story for me, with a morally dubious protagonist going up against some terrible people, with sparks flying at every turn. I read it in one sitting, then re-read it that very night. If you are a fan of comics and also mid-20th century American crime fiction, this graphic novel is for you. It's got strongly defined characters, snappy dialogue (which is a huge plus from an excellent translation), and lots of action.

This book is a collaboration between writer Fabien Nury and artist Brüno. Nury has written a number of comics and graphic novels, including the historical drama The Death of Stalin. Brüno has drawn several comics series, including Commando Colonial, many which seem to be historical pieces as well. The duo have also collaborated on a prior comic, Atar Gull, a tale about slavery. You can learn more about their work on Black Rock in this interview with Nury.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been very positive. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly summed up, "This ongoing series is sophisticated stuff, featuring some notably nasty moments in a hard-hitting genre winner." Scott VanderPloeg wrote, "I was thrown off the first few pages by the exaggerated physical appearances of the characters, but it’s a consistent look that plays with Nury’s exaggerated characters." Andy Hall added, "It took a while for me to warm up to Brüno’s art style, but once it grew on me, I couldn’t envision the book looking any other way."

Tyler Cross: Black Rock was published by Hard Case Crime/Titan Books, and they offer a preview and more about it here. This book features violence, profanity, and sexual situations, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to deal with those things.

This volume collects the first three issues of the series, and (happily for me) there will be a sequel available early next year. There is also another third series that just wrapped up here.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Wytches, Volume 1

First, before I review Wytches, Volume 1, I have to admit three things:

1. I have been meaning to review this book here for a couple of years now, but I have always put it off. I wanted the review to land on Halloween, but some other title always cropped up and I laid it aside. It got to the point that I even deleted the draft (that was at least two years old) and the jpeg image of the cover I had. I just gave up on reading and reviewing this book. Then, a new one-shot (Wytches: Bad Egg) came out that Derek and I planned to review on today's episode of the Comics Alternative podcast, so I decided to do a little homework and read up on this series.

2. I am not the biggest fan of horror comics (or horror books/stories in print form in general), mostly because I don't really get the thrill of being scared when I read all that often. I'd rather watch horror movies or shows. I do love monster stories though, and the visuals that go along with them are some of my favorites (in comics and otherwise).

3. This book scared me like no other.

The tale here follows the Rook family, which consists of Charlie, the dad who writes children's books, Lucy the mom who was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident, and Sailor, their daughter who survived a harrowing experience with a sadistic, psychopathic bully. Trying to start things fresh, they move to a town in New Hampshire, unbeknownst of strange things that are going on not only in the woods but in the town itself.
And this is only the first four pages. It gets much worse!

I hate to ruin anything that follows, so suffice it to say this story hits on pretty much any fear a parent, child, or paranoid person could have. This book is the definition of a page-turner, and I sped through it with an equal amount of anxiety and intrigue. The story is briskly told, the artwork gleefully grotesque, and the coloring adds dimensions of dread and despair. These are some great comics.

This book was a collaboration between writer Scott Snyder, artist Jock, and colorist Matt Hollingsworth. Snyder is best known for his work on DC Comics titles like Batman and Swamp Thing, but he also co-wrote (with Stephen King) the Vertigo series American Vampire. Jock is renowned for his cover work and also had a long run on Batman as well as a revival of The Losers. Hollingsworth is a veteran colorist with a myriad of credits. All of their work here contributed to a dark, atmospheric, truly frightening reading experience. Snyder speaks in this interview about his experience writing Wytches.

The reviews I have read about it have all been glowing. Trevor Van As wrote, "If you’re a fan of horror done right, without the cheap thrills, then Wytches is a must read." Emily Solomon gushed that "Snyder and Jock have revolutionized the witch mythology for a new generation of horror junkies." Victoria called it "fantastic and a must-read for graphic novel and horror fans." I also really enjoyed this review/article by Susana Polo, but be warned it contains spoilers.

Wytches was published by Image Comics, and they offer a preview and more info about the series here. This book features violence, profanity, and many disturbing images so it is recommended for mature readers.

A follow-up series is in the works, for publication in 2019.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai

I wrote about my love of Usagi Yojimbo comics in the past, and I felt that this stand-alone graphic novel would be a great one to promote for reading around Halloween time. It was published to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Usagi's creation, and it tells a different kind of ghost story, one where the rabbit ronin finds himself in the middle of a forest and comes upon a weeping mother. Her child has been kidnapped by a fox spirit and she begs Usagi for help. Against his better judgment, he agrees to help, even though he knows his swords may be no help against a supernatural enemy.

It turns out that Usagi's instincts were spot on. This kidnapping is only one act in a series of appearances by yokai, Japanese spirits/monsters who are congregating in an evil plot to bring the witch queen into the human world. Usagi is certainly over his head here, but assistance arrives in his ally Sasuke the Demon Queller. However, both learn that dealing with these treacherous creatures is extremely hazardous, as they are incredibly underhanded and tricky.

This book's creator Stan Sakai is a multi-Eisner Award winning artist and letterer who is best known for creating Usagi Yojimbo as well as his work on the independent comic book series Groo. He speaks extensively about his career as well as his work on this graphic novel, which consists entirely of painted images, in this interview.

All the reviews I have read about this book sing its praises. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, calling it "a genuine pleasure for readers of all ages." The review in Rolling Stone India stated that the watercolors gave "the story a Miyazaki-esque feel that wows you right from the first page." The reviewer at Reading for Sanity wrote that it featured "a lovely blend of humor mixed with drama."

Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai was published by Dark Horse Comics, and they have a preview and more here.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo: The Monster Mall

The first book in this series was one of my favorite books of 2016, and this follow-up is every bit as good. I love books about monsters, and this one is wonderful in how it places fantastical creatures into a real world context. The main plot follows our protagonist, Charles, as he tries to learn more about all the things that lurk in the dark of Echo City so he can blog about them. He purports to be a partner to the famed (to kids) monster expert Margo Maloo, but he's more like her sidekick who struggles to keep up.

In this book, he has to brave several frightful situations, such as riding the subway by himself, exploring a seemingly haunted house in the suburbs, listening to a teenage goth band, and going to an abandoned shopping mall inhabited by vampires. It features a good amount of humor and fascinating takes on monster life and how it is affected by humans. In a way, there is an ecological message that echos how wildlife species are displaced  by human construction. Only here, the hapless (and often misunderstood) parties are imps, ogres, and trolls. In a great twist, Margo is more an advocate/peace broker than monster hunter.

Still, there is much mystery to explore, such as how and Margo got into her vocation. Also, there are a few clues dropped about who her family might be, and there is much possibility for exploration there. In the end, I loved this book just as much as the first, and I am very hopeful there will be more adventures to come. You can see those at the webcomic's homepage.

Drew Weing continues to be the artist/writer who created this excellent series. He won a 2016 National Cartoonists Society award for long-form on-line comic for his work on Margo Maloo and has also published a prior graphic novel Set to Sea.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been full of praise. Gwen and Krystal speak about it extensively in this episode of the Comics Alternative Young Readers podcast. Kirkus Reviews concluded, "The graphic narrative points out that different is not necessarily bad and that humans and monsters are afraid of one another primarily because of misinformation and miscommunication—a valuable lesson for human-human relations as well." Rob Clough wrote that "Weing has a way of keeping things fairly low-key while still dropping bread crumbs of more menacing events down the line." Katrina called it "a fun book that neither of us [she and her 9-year-old daughter] wanted to put down!"

The Monster Mall was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

My Pretty Vampire

My Pretty Vampire is a bloody, sexy book.It focuses on the tale of Clover, a gorgeous vampire who is easy to take for an ingenue. On the onset of the book she is struggling for freedom from the machinations of her brother, who seems controlling and obsessed with her in an incestuous manner.

Soon afterward, however, her powers of manipulation and murder come to bear as she orchestrates her escape and leaves a trail of bodies in her wake.What follows is a series of plot twists and turns as well as seductions, and if I had one criticism of the book it's that it is too short. I loved reading it and wallowing in the horrors its pages contain. I feel it is a wonderful choice for a horror fan who is into comics.

This book is the creation of Katie Skelly whose prior comics works include Operation Margarine, Nurse Nurse, and various Agent webcomics (NSFW) that were recently collected into hard copy. My Pretty Vampire is striking in her works because it is so much larger than her digest-sized books I have read in the past. The album-sized pages here feature the artwork quite nicely, and it is striking just how much they pop off the page. I hope to see more of Clover's (mis)adventures sometime in the future.

Most of the reviews I have read for this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly offered a mixed review, writing, "When the tension between Clover’s beauty and the violence that fuels her actions is the focus, the book is at its best. That said, it often feels like a first draft: certain page and panel transitions are clumsy, angles are often awkward, and the simplicity of Skelly’s visuals sometimes makes it difficult to discern what’s going on." Rob Clough called it "a book that matches up her exquisite color sense, delightfully lurid sense of humor, eye for style and aesthetics and acidly satirical, feminist take on gothic/horror tropes." Andy Oliver noted that it was "her most accomplished work to date."

My Pretty Vampire was published by Fantagraphics, and they offer a preview and more here. It features horror, violence, profanity, and sexual situations and is suggested for readers mature enough to handle those things.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil

This follow-up to the Black Hammer series delves a lot deeper into the complex history and intriguing characters of this alternative superheroic world. With the absence of the super team who have saved the world, there is great sadness and a vacuum as well. Lucy Weber, whose father was Black Hammer, has grown up and become an investigative reporter, and she begins exploring what may have happened to him and his cohorts. Her tactic is to trace the exploits of the extremely cool-named Sherlock Frankenstein, who was their greatest adversary, to find out what his role may have been.
I do not want to spoil much about the plot, but she has a lot of difficulty tracking the villain as he had gone underground soon after the heroes saved the world and mysteriously vanished. What is more, she finds that his actions are somewhat suspect but also puzzling. As she delves deeper and deeper into that mystery, she also finds herself being followed, and all kinds of other complications arise.
I know I am being purposefully vague, but I hope that it comes through just how well plotted this book is, with lots of twists and turns of the screw. My expectations were confounded a few times in the course of this relatively short volume. Also, I was thrilled to see all kinds of inventive new characters, most notably Cthu-Louise, who will get her own one-shot soon. If you are into superheroes but are sick of the same-old, same-old, this book and series are for you. I love how it plays with the conventions of superhero comics and weaves them into something fun, poignant, and unique.

This impressive bit of adventure and world-building is a collaboration between two of my favorite creators, writer Jeff Lemire and artist David Rubín. Lemire has a huge list of comics credits and has won a few major awards along the way to boot. Rubín may have fewer credits, but he has drawn an impressive bunch of comics, including the series Rumble and the graphic novel Fall of the House of West. Lemire speaks about his work on this book in this interview, while Rubín discusses his role in it in this interview.

The Black Hammer series has already won an Eisner Award, and this volume was nominated for another this year. The reviews I could find of this trade paperback have been very positive. Phillip Kelly called it "a truly satisfying emotional arc" and "also a necessary piece to the greater world of Black Hammer." A.J. Jones wrote, "The writing is quintessential Lemire, carefully plotted and filled with dialogue that amuses and intrigues by turns," and added further, "Rubín’s distinctive style is a joy to the eye, demonstrating the power of the graphic medium to transcend mere representation."

Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil was published by Dark Horse, and they provide previews and more info here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Calla Cthulhu

Calla Cthulhu originally appeared as a webcomic on the Stela platform, but it has recently been published as a trade paperback. I know that H.P. Lovecraft has a lot of fans, but I have never read any of his work (I tried "The Color Out of Space" once, I just could not get into it...). Still, I know that this book/character title is a pun, and I am a sucker for those. Also, I am a big fan of the writers, so I checked it out. Spoiler: my lack of specific Lovecraft knowledge did not keep me from enjoying this book.

The plot here follows an orphaned, young woman named Calla Trifali who learns that she is descended from the Great Old Ones, elder gods/inter-dimensional beings who hope to invade Earth and spread destruction and mayhem. Of course, her being raised to respect human life brings her into direct conflict with her uncle, AKA The King in Yellow.

What results is a lot of action and intrigue where Calla finds herself battling tentacled beings in sewers, old houses, and other gruesome locales. I do not want to spoil much, but this book acts as a great introduction to the character and her world. Also, it concludes in very open-ended fashion, which is not so satisfying to those seeking definite narrative closure. Still, the door is wide open for her further adventures, and I hope we get more of them. This book is a fun read in the vein of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with a badass young woman battling all kinds of vicious creatures.
This book is a collaboration between writers Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer (who are married) and artist Erin Humiston. Dorkin is most known as the writer of Beasts of Burden, but I am also partial to his work as writer/artist of the series Dork and Milk and Cheese. He is a multiple Eisner Award winner. Dyer is known in comics mostly for her edited series Action Girl. They have also done a bunch of television work, including scripts for Superman Adventures and Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Humiston works primarily as an animator who has contributed to a wide array of works. Dorkin and Dyer speak more about their work on this series in this interview (or if listening is more your thing, this interview).

I was not able to locate many reviews of this book, but the ones I found were very positive. J. Caleb Mozzocco called it "a pretty killer riff on Lovecraft’s labyrinthine mythology." Kittie Pop gushed that "this story brings me such a gravitational amount of joy that I want to share it with everyone I care about."

Calla Cthulhu was published by Dark Horse, and they have a preview and more available here.

I saw Dorkin and Dyer this year at HeroesCon, where they sold me a copy of this book and were kind enough to also sign it. They are great!

Friday, October 5, 2018

Cecil & Jordan in New York

Cecil & Jordan in New York is a re-issue of a graphic short story collection, with a few hard-to-find additions. I had never read it before, and I was very glad to experience it with fresh eyes. This book's creator is Gabrielle Bell, a comics artist's comics artist who is revered by many (or at least many of the people I pay attention to). Her semi-autobiographical series Lucky is regarded by many of those folks as a stellar work of comics, a touchstone publication, and I am a big fan of her latest book Everything is Flammable.

What sets this book apart from her other works is that it largely contains works of fiction. It contains 13 stories, which were mostly published in anthologies in the more formative years of her career. For me the most powerful one was "Felix," about a struggling artist who finds herself teaching drawing to the young son of a famous, successful artist. It features commentary on the world (and business) of art and undefined, palpable relationships between various characters. I found it deeply moving and somewhat troubling, with touches of irony and dark humor throughout.

I found this book to have a unique, idiosyncratic voice, with a keen sense of observation that colors many of the stories from this collection. The title story features a fantastic element, that a person can transform themselves into a chair, and the resolution is simultaneously sad and darkly humorous. Overall, throughout the book, it is the strongly defined characters situated in a random, often hostile world that really stands out to me. They are often positioned as outsiders, trying to somehow to fit in. Some try to forge connections with others, but they are often tentative, and the connections themselves strain, surprise, and often break. Nothing really comes easy for the characters in this book, but for the reader, I felt myself readily impressed by Bell's characters, storytelling, and world-creating abilities. She is a world-class comics maker.

I was not able to locate any reviews of this edition of the book, but the ones of a prior edition were mostly positive. Rob Clough wrote that "she's a master of subtlety, restraint, and repressed emotion--yet this volume sees her veering in some unusual, even fantastical, directions." Karin L. Cross was more critical of the stories collected here, stating that they, "though perceptively written and executed with technical skill, are weighed down by their relentlessly heavy mood and self-consciousness." Paul Doyle called the book "funny" and added that it "shows some inventive story telling ideas."

This expanded version of Cecil & Jordan in New York was published by uncivilized books, and they offer a preview and more info about it here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Story of My Tits

I have had this book on my shelf for a long time now, and I finally got to it after listening to a brief interview with its author on The Comics Alternative podcast. The Story of My Tits may have a provocative title, but it is a book full of heart, humor, and humanity. As you may guess from the title, the book is focused on particular body parts and how they inform a person's life across a lifespan. At first the narrator spends much of her childhood/adolescence pining for large breasts, as she is skinny and feels somewhat inadequate. As she gets older and in college, she finally starts developing larger ones, which changes how she is perceived by herself and others.
But this book is so much more than the story of her biological and sexual development. It is centered on her various relationships, with her parents (whose marriage is strained, although she does not notice that for a while), her siblings, and with her eventual husband and his family members. There is much to relate to in these depictions, and I loved how she does not sugar-coat the rough parts of their interactions and also how she captures funny, idiosyncratic scenes from their lives. She really captures the not-neatness of relationships as well as how they organically develop, often in surprising ways.

Things also take a few dark turns, such as when her mother develops breast cancer and has to have a mastectomy. Also, she and her husband also reel from his parents' separate bouts with cancer and other health issues. I have read a number of books about people dealing with grave illnesses, and what makes this book exceptional is how much space it spends showing the mundane, human sides of the various characters. When the main character eventually develops breast cancer and has to cope with a double mastectomy, we have had so much insight into her life and family dynamics that really pay off because so much of this book is involved with giving everything context.
In the end, I have to say I loved this book. It was moving, beautiful, raunchy in parts, and gorgeously expressive.

This book garnered acclaim for its creator Jennifer Hayden. It was nominated for an Eisner Award and was named on many end of year best-of lists. It was her second graphic novel, following the collection Underwire. She speaks about her work on The Story of My Tits in this interview with The Comics Alternative.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been very positive. Rob Clough called it "a funny, bawdy and poignant memoir about body image, relationships, family and loss." In a starred review, Publishers Weekly concluded, "Hayden has created a heartfelt and often hilarious tribute to her life—and to the resilience of women everywhere." BookDragon wrote, "Hayden’s lively memoir-thus-far is such an affirmation of love and life – albeit without any rose-colored glasses, thank you very much! – that you’re going to need to set aside some solid time to just bask in her accomplishment."

The Story of My Tits was published by Top Shelf, and they have more info about it here.

This book features adult content, some nudity, and profanity, so it is suggested for readers mature enough to handle those things.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

One Dirty Tree

One Dirty Tree is a graphic memoir written by Noah Van Sciver, the Ignatz Award winning author of the graphic novels The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln, Saint Cole, and Fante Bukowski. It explores a good number of uncomfortable situations. For the most part it looks backward to his childhood in New Jersey where the Mormon family of ten lived in a dilapidated house. The house is a sort of a metaphor for familial difficulty with its crumbling walls, splintery floors, and bathtub full of dirty dishes. Dealing with poverty and his father's unstable mental state are two major obstacles for the family, and NVS also delves pretty deeply into sibling dynamics as well as how he tried to build social connections with friends. These sections of the book also often left me emotionally raw and troubled, even though they feature elements of humor. I think my point is illustrated by this excerpt showing an unconventional bath time routine.
It's horrible and funny!
In addition to the (often dark) humor, there is also a wonderful sort of nostalgia about the early 1990s throughout, which I enjoyed reading (velociraptors and Ralph Snart!). A good portion of the book also shows contemporary Noah, who is trying to deal with his past and also his present realities. He is striving to make and publish comics, which involves him taking service jobs in order to pay the bills. Also, he is dating a woman who does not seem to fully understand or support what he is trying to accomplish with his career. Thus, he is frequently frustrated by his current plight and comes off as a latter-day, grown-up version of Charlie Brown. He just cannot catch a break, it seems.

If you have not caught on from reading this blog yet, I am a big fan of Noah Van Sciver, and I have read lots of his work. I feel that One Dirty Tree is one of his best books, as it is very personal, revelatory, funny, and relatable in the most embarrassing ways. Each page could almost be a self-contained tale, as they are individually packed with poignant, pointed observations. Thematically, I find it similar to a memoir like The Glass Castle, although I should note that the voice and circumstances here are uniquely his. Overall, I tend to think of NVS's works as beautiful, slow-motion train wrecks, and this one is especially compelling.

In addition to his numerous graphic novels, Van Sciver is also known for his many mini-comics (some collected here) and the series Blammo. He has a Tumblr page where posts many of his works in progress. He speaks about his career and work on One Dirty Tree in this interview with Caitlin McGurk at The Comics Journal.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Robin Enrico wrote that with it Van Sciver "further cements his status as one of the foremost cartoonists working today." Publishers Weekly called it "moving" and elaborated, "While affectionate in many memories, Van Sciver also powerfully illustrates the scars raked across an adult life by a chaotic upbringing."

One Dirty Tree was published by uncivilized books, and they offer a preview and more information about it here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Spill Zone, Book 1

I must admit part of why I read this book is because it is set in Poughkeepsie, New York, which is right across the river from where I grew up. There is a part of me that is fascinated to see a place I know be ravaged by a destructive force and made into a wasteland. Spill Zone is a compelling work of science fiction that features quite a bit of mystery and intrigue. The set-up of the plot is that three years ago, something strange happened that transformed this city into something hazardous to humans, where the living things are mutated and beyond dangerous. There are places that turn living things into two dimensional figures, places where people are animated as "meat puppets" that float around with glowing eyes, places populated with cats who constantly cry out in what sounds like the word "wrong." And the rats, don't even let me tell you about them.

Just outside of this town lives a young woman named Addison, whose parents were in the city when things went down. Now she lives in isolation with her little sister Lexa. She ventures out from time to time, illegally, in order to explore the city and take pictures.
Not that she is just some civilian documentarian, she is selling the photos on an art black market. Her trips into the city bring her into contact with many dangers, and in the course of the book we are also privy to a great many mysteries. Such as, what happened in North Korea at the exact same time as the incident? Why doesn't Lexa ever talk? What's up with Lexa's weird doll Vespertine? And biggest of all, what was the cause of the incident? All of these questions drive a well plotted introduction to this world, and happily (for those wanting a sequel) almost none of them are resolved.

This book is a fantastic introduction to this fictional world. The artwork, as you can see from the preview, is appropriately energetic and creepy. The characters are well defined, and what we do learn is just enough to want me to keep reading on. I loved the level of action and plot twists here, and I cannot wait to get my hands on Book 2.

This book is a collaboration between author Scott Westerfeld and artist Alex Puvilland. Westerfeld is an accomplished novelist with multiple credits for adults and younger adults, with The Uglies series being his most notable works. Puvilland is an animator and illustrator who has worked on feature films like Shrek 2 and Boss Baby as well as illustrating a graphic novel version of Prince of Persia. Both creators discuss their work on this series in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it "fascinating and hard to forget." Kirkus Reviews wrote that "readers will be demanding the next installment as they close this one," and summed it up, "A necessary start, with intriguing hints at action and weirdness to come." In another starred review in School Library Journal Matisse Mozer wrote, "This unnerving, gripping title—Westerfeld’s first original graphic novel—is bound to entice older comics fans, especially those interested in darker sci-fi and nuanced characterization."

Spill Zone was published by First Second, and they have a preview and more available here. The second volume is available now, and you can read a preview of it here.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Coyote Doggirl

Coyote Doggirl is a fantastic graphic novel, full of heart and humor while not skimping on the drama. It is deceptively simple in appearance, a sparse tale of a female coyote/dog hybrid who just wants to live a quiet life on her own terms. Mostly, she just wants to tend to her modest piece of land and incredibly fast horse named Red.

When the book begins, for reasons I will not spoil, she is being pursued by a band of cowboys who want revenge on her. As she tries to elude their grasp, she gets shot with multiple arrows and the stories begins to take one of multiple plot twists.

Coyote Doggirl's plight is relatable and she is very easy to root for. She meets and gets to know a band of indigenous folks, who take her in and teach her about their ways and herself. One of the most enjoyable parts of this book for me was how deftly its plot is woven, in ways that both pay homage to traditional western stories while also critiquing them and turning them on their ears. The ending of this book seems to me to be open-ended, and I would love to see the adventures continue.

I loved reading this book. It is relative short and brisk to read, but it is filled with much detail and nuance. The title character has an idiosyncratic personality and is a terrific fashion designer to boot. The dialogue is snappy and terse, and the artwork is delightfully composed and paced. The character designs in particular are very strong, and the coloring is both vibrant and pleasing.

This book's creator Lisa Hanawalt is an illustrator and animator who is best known for her production and design work on the Netflix series BoJack Horseman. Although this book is her first graphic novel, she also has published a couple of comics collections named Hot Dog Taste Test and My Dirty Dumb Eyes. She speaks about her work on Coyote Doggirl in this interview.

All the reviews I have read of this book have been very positive. Mel Schuit wrote, "Coyote Doggirl might share a lot of the same tropes as a traditional Western, but it’s peppered with quick wit, cute clothing, and lots of ass-kicking, making it a modern day Western classic." AJ Frost described it as "an unabashed western with a contemporary twist as well an imaginative take on the genre that feels more mature and grounded." Lenika Cruz elaborated, "Hanawalt’s book sheds the self-seriousness of the genre, but it also retains another sort of poignancy—one anchored by the heroine’s free spirit and stubborn sense of wonder in spite of the constant dangers she has to navigate."

Coyote Doggirl was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they offer a preview and more here. Because it features profanity, some sexual violence, and mature themes I recommend this book for mature readers.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini

Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini collects the four-issue comic book series in a gorgeously illustrated and lustrous hardcover. It is a delightful piece of historical fiction, a detective tale set in the early 20th century, where Harry Houdini is engaged in both amazing escapes while also lecturing to debunk fraud being perpetrated by so called mediums at staged seances. The latter enterprise brings him into conflict with famed author Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes), which is based in historical fact. Here, the enterprise also drives at least one party to attempt to murder the famed magician/escapist.

Enter into this situation the crafty and resourceful Minky Woodcock, the daughter of an investigator who seeks her own life of intrigue. She ends up traveling with the Houdinis and investigates the suspicious happenings. Minky poses as Houdini's assistant, and she proves quite an asset to his act and also his debunking charlatans. She also gets deeply involved with the couple in personal ways, which creates its own set of complications. The rest of the plot unfolds in a combination of historical fact and fantasy, spinning an engaging and titillating mystery tale.

The highlight of this book for me was the luxurious artwork by Cynthia von Buhler, a Renaissance woman who acts, paints, sculpts, and creates in many ways. Here, the artwork properly evokes a sense of history with its stylized layouts and character designs. Not only are the main characters strong and sensual, the whole book also pops in terms of linework and coloring. She speaks more about her work on Minky Woodcock in this interview. Also, this book will be adapted into an off-Broadway production, which seems very cool.

I was not able to locate many reviews about this collection, but the ones I found were positive. Ryan C. Bradley called it "a love letter to noir" and "a Houdini pastiche that offers a new theory about his death." Kristel Yeager summed up, "Amazing art and unique storyline."

Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini was published by Hard Case Crime/Titan Comics, and they provide more info and a preview here. This book features some profanity, nudity, and sexual situations, so I recommend it for mature readers.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Ideal Copy

The Ideal Copy is the third book in the Double+ universe I have read, and it is truly amazing to me how Ben Sears manages to create phenomenal all ages comics. In this book, our heroes Plus Man and his robot pal Hank lose their jobs as treasure hunters because they refuse to raid the house of a dead man. Left with little other prospects, the duo eventually take jobs as caterers. Because they are hardworking, they do well serving food and washing dishes. However, at a ritzy hotel gala for a fraternity of weird, obnoxious guys who all have the same haircut and wear the same clothes, they suspect some foul play.

After some snooping around, Plus Man uncovers a nefarious counterfeiting scheme that gets further complicated when a blizzard traps everyone at the hotel. There is a growing cast of characters who get embroiled in this situation, including a little child actor named Mickey who is surprisingly resourceful, and Gene, a grizzled, ex-treasure hunter who sports an eye-patch. Together, this motley bunch takes on the plot with surprising results. There are captures, thrills, and more than enough hi-jinx to keep them and the reader occupied.

As I hope you can see from this short excerpt, The Ideal Copy is a book of beautiful rhythms. The dialogue is snappy and clever. The artwork is gorgeously detailed and geometrical. The colors are vibrant and pop. The characters are complicated and wonderfully unpredictable. Ben Sears is a virtuoso who weaves all these elements together into a sumptuous visual symphony. I loved the derring-do, caper aspects of the plot, and I am very happy to read the note at the end that this duo's adventures will continue. This third book is the best of the bunch, in my opinion, and I am thrilled for more.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Rob Clough had much praise for the book and declared it "the best of the three volumes." Tom Baker called it "rip-roaring rib-tickling romp." Ryan Carey opined, "Ben Sears is a cartoonist who intrinsically understands what younger readers want in a story, but the tent he’s hosting his party in a big one, and there’s plenty of room in it for us old-timers, too." Mel Schuit was more lukewarm and wrote, "All in all, fans looking for more of the trademarked Plus-Man-and-Hank antics we saw in the first two books in the series might find The Ideal Copy slightly lacking, but it’s a nice effort on Sears’ part to flesh out his human characters further and begin to hint at events further down the line in the series."

And in case you are interested, my reviews of the past Double+ books are here and here.

The Ideal Copy was published by Koyama Press, and they offer more information and a preview here.

I saw Sears this year at HeroesCon, where I bought this book from him, and he was nice enough to sign it and also draw a sketch. He's a great guy!

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Strange Fruit Volume II: More Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History

I very much enjoyed the first Strange Fruit book, so much that I included it in a chapter in a book on children's literature in the classroom. I was pleased to see its follow-up on the shelf at one of my local bookstores, and I snapped it up quickly. I admire the author Joel Christian Gill's politics, art, and intentions with this project, and I am glad to help share some of those here.
Not only is this book well researched, it also incorporates actual text from its subjects when possible.

What I liked most about this book is that it covers a wide range of people I had never heard of, bringing to light truly "uncelebrated" people like: Jourdon Anderson, a freed slave who wrote a wry, pointed letter to his former owner; Stagecoach Mary Fields, a pioneering postal worker who was quick with a gun and her wits; Willie Kennard, who was made sheriff with the expectation that he would immediately be slaughtered; Cathay Williams, a woman who disguised herself as a man to serve as a soldier in the Civil War; Blind Tom Wiggins, a blind, autistic slave who became a highly accomplished musician; Millie and Christine McCoy, conjoined twins who toured the world as The Two-Headed Nightingale; Victor Green, the author of a guidebook for black people traveling across the US, and Eugene Bullard, a WWI fighter pilot who was celebrated in France but ignored in his homeland. These tales not only inform the reader about notable figures, but also the social conditions under which they lived and their contributions to our culture. Strange Fruit Volume II is exceptional work on an important, overlooked aspect of US history. Impressively, I feel it could be read and taught in multiple grade levels, from elementary to high school.

Additionally, more so than the first volume, this one is more uniform in terms of its story presentations. Each one has its own title and has space to breathe. The first book felt more like a collection of tales that may have appeared elsewhere, and had mixed formatting. This one seems much more intentional and measured, providing more coherence and polish and showing much more confidence and craft in its artwork and storytelling. This book is one of the few sequels that is better than its predecessor.

This book's creator Joel Christian Gill is the the Chair of Foundations at the New Hampshire Institute of Art. In addition to the Strange Fruit books, he has also published a couple of extended biographies of African-Americans in his Tales of the Talented Tenth series, on lawman Bass Reeves and motorcyclist Bessie Stringfield. He speaks more about his comics work in this interview.

I was not able to find many reviews online for this book, but what I did locate was positive. Terri Schlichenmeyer called it "a quick-to-read curiosity-satisfier is exactly what’s needed for home or school." For those interested in hearing Gill speak more about the need for sharing these uncelebrated narratives, you can listen to this interview .

Strange Fruit Volume II was published by Fulcrum Publishing, and they offer more info about it here.