Sunday, July 15, 2018

Dark Knight: A True Batman Story

This book's author Paul Dini should be very well known to superhero fans. He was one of the writers and producers of the much beloved Batman: The Animated Series and he co-created the uber-popular Harley Quinn. He has also written a bunch of comic books and had a hand in many animated series/features starring DC Comics characters over the years. But in Dark Knight: A True Batman story he tells an account from his life that happened while he was at the early height of his success. One night, while walking home after a bad date he was mugged, attacked, and brutally beaten. The events left him scarred both emotionally and physically. Here, he uses some of the characters he is most associated with, including Batman and the Joker, as kind of angels and devils to tell his tale and also sort through his personal baggage.
I think overall that this book works well. I thought the actual account is compelling and seeing the aftermath of such a violent act told in frank manner was eye-opening. Dini does much soul-searching in this book, and I could certainly relate to many of his ruminations on being a fanboy with issues relating to specific types of people.

Still, I wonder how much of his storytelling is for effect, as a couple of moments really stand out in my mind as potentially problematic. One, the opportunistic, narcissistic woman he thinks he is dating, while she regards him as a friend who might be a connection for her own career, comes off as utterly the worst person. I have heard about lots of opportunistic Hollywood-wanna-bes and what they will do to further their careers, and maybe she was utterly horrible, but her portrayal seems two-dimensional and skirts misogyny. Second, there is a moment during his recovery where what seems to be the only African-American who works on the show asks if his assailants were black. I think this moment is supposed to show racial solidarity in some way, but it comes off as tin-eared and ham-handed. I know that superheroes at the time this story takes place were largely the province of white males, and maybe this book accurately portrays the problematic outcomes of that situation. Still, as a present day reader, I felt that both scenes play badly.

Collaborating with Dini on this book is Eduardo Risso, a very talented artist who employs multiple styles and color palettes in visually telling this tale. Risso is an accomplished artist who has won an Eisner Award for his work on 100 Bullets, and he has more recently been at work on the werewolf/gangster drama Moonshine. Dini is also a multiple Eisner Award winning author, most notably for the book Mad Love. He speaks about his work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Jesse Schedeen concluded, "It offers a very personal and heartfelt look at how the character helped guide Dini through a terrible time in his life, and it proves all the more that both Dini and Risso are among the most talented storytellers ever to work within Gotham City." Bryan Young gushed, calling it "a truly unique comic storytelling experience that has to be seen to be believed." Gregory Paul Silber wrote, "Dini may have been through a terrible ordeal, but he is a lucky man to have such wonderful people to collaborate with."

Dark Knight: A True Batman Story was published by Vertigo, and they have more info about it here.
In addition to the violence, this book features some profanity and adult themes, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to handle those things.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Be Your Own Backing Band

Be Your Own Backing Band is the latest collection of comics from Liz Prince, an Ignatz Award winning cartoonist. I have read, admired, and reviewed a couple of her other books, Alone Forever, which focuses on her love life, and Tomboy, which focuses on her formative years. Both books are full of excellent observational humor and they are also very relatable. I love the nerdy persona that Prince portrays in these books.

This latest collection focuses on Prince's musical tastes, and they were originally published in Razorcake Magazine. She tends to like punk bands, and I have to admit I was not very familiar with many of the ones she talks about, but I could totally relate to tales of geeking out over a particular band, elaborate trips to go to shows, and the autobiographical connections she makes throughout.
And as you can see from the excerpts here, each chapter/episode lasts about a page, and they do not necessarily follow in any particular order other than chronological. So this book is a relatively breezy read that you can take in parts or in larger chunks. It works well either way.
I am enamored with Prince's observational and self-deprecating sense of humor, and I really enjoyed reading this book. If you or someone you know is into music, or just has a punk rock sort of mentality, this would be a fun book to read.

I was not able to find a lot of reviews of this book, but the ones I read have been positive. Johanna Draper Carlson wrote that she found much to relate to and sympathize with, even if she was unfamiliar with most of the bands mentioned in the book. There are a bunch of reviews of it over at Goodreads, where it has a 3.72 overall rating.

Be Your Own Backing Band was published by Silver Sprocket, and they offer a preview and more about it here. It does contain a fair share of profanity, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to handle that.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

All the Answers

I am a big fan of Michael Kupperman's comics. Tales Designed to Thrizzle was one of my favorite series, and I adored the humor of Mark Twain's Autobiography 1910-2010. His combination of deadpan faces with absurd, surreal imagery and situations have consistently cracked me up. I even have a print of his "Are Comics Serious Literature" on my office wall. So when I learned he had a full length graphic novel forthcoming, I was jazzed. When I found out it was a serious, nonfiction work, I was intrigued even further. This book, All the Answers did not disappoint in any way. It's a fantastic, gripping, and thought-provoking work.

This book is mostly a biography of his father, Joel Kupperman, a famous child prodigy who starred on a radio/TV show called Quiz Kids. He began on the show from age 6 and became a break-out star who toured the country and met many famous people for more than a decade. He had a gift for mathematics and could do algebra problems in his head with relative ease. There was a backlash from being so familiar and appearing so perfect, not to mention pressures from being in the public spotlight for so long, and later in life he basically shut the whole episode away. Joel Kupperman went on to become a successful philosophy professor, mostly interested in exploring ethics, but he refused to engage with any part of his prior life. This situation also affected how he raised his own children, and we see the long-term effects in this book.
The detached art style responsible for the humor in Michael Kupperman's earlier works here plays in a much more dramatic way, communicating the detached way that the older Kupperman treated his own family. The title of the book has a double meaning, one linked to Joel's ability to always come up with the correct solution, but the second is more ironic. In the end Michael Kupperman has lots of questions about his father's life and motivations that lie unanswered. What is more, he constantly questions whether bringing all these issues into the light via this book is a good idea. In the end, this book is a meditation about families, how they relate to each other, and the roles of parents with their children. It also has a lot to say about the functions of popular culture and the early days of television. It is wonderfully provocative and affecting, an excellent biography, history, memoir, and autobiography all in one.

If you would like to learn more about Kupperman's inspirations and work on this book, check out this interview with the Comics Alternative.

All of the reviews I have read of this book sing its praises. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and wrote that the combination of art and text "help turn an already incredible story into an electrifyingly fast-paced, yet intimate memoir about family secrets and the price children can pay for their parents’ ambitions." Rob Clough concluded his review, "He told his father’s story as authentically as he could, but the fact that he had the guts to admit that this didn’t lead to a magical catharsis doesn’t puncture a hole in the narrative; it simply grounds it in reality." Greg Hunter called it "a brave piece of storytelling."

All the Answers was published by Gallery 13, and they offer more info about it here.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Mechaboys

I have stated before that James Kochalka's work is hit or miss for me. There are some books I have really enjoyed, like Monkey Vs. Robot, the first two Johnny Boo books, and Superf*ckers. I also respected and mostly appreciated his long running American Elf webcomic, too. Still, there are some of his works that I pretty much despise, like the later volumes of Johnny Boo or the first Glorkian Warrior book. Still, the man was named cartoonist laureate of Vermont, and I feel his best work might be the adolescent superhero angst-fest Superf*ckers, so I gave this book, which has a high school setting, a shot. In the end, I feel it may have crystalized my feelings toward his work: there were parts of it I liked and parts of it that left me perplexed and cold.

Mechaboys is another sideways tale of adolescent angst and intrigue. It stars two friends named Jamie and Zachery who build a mechasuit out of lawn mower parts. They are not very popular, and are often the butt of jokes and bullying by larger, more athletic boys named Truck and Duck. They plan to use the suit to gain some level of respect, by somehow pushing back against the bullies. I feel that this book is strongest when it explores these teen's relationships with each other and the various high school cliques. Also, these interactions are the source of much of the book's heart and humor. The school setting also has its share of positive bits, such as the boys' antagonistic (in more ways than one, it turns out) relationship with their PE teacher Mr. B.
 
 

Once the duo successfully test-run the suit, Zachery jerk-factor gets dialed to 11 and he gets a little drunk on the power, insisting on being called Zeus. Jamie seems a little more socially well-adjusted, perhaps because he has a potential girlfriend he keeps talking to. However, the entire enterprise takes a dark turn toward the end when Zachery hatches a plan to kill everyone at the prom using the mechasuit. That last sequence where the plan is enacted is a bit troubling for me. First off, the set-up makes the stakes very high, and the fictional context takes on some real-world import. After all, school shootings are horrific and all-too-frequent in the US, and I feel that Kochalka strongly portrays how such a plot might be developed by disaffected teens. The tale does not sugarcoat that reality on the front end, but the plan takes a farcical turn that defuses any of that horror and potential commentary or exploration. Instead, the proceedings devolve into slapstick, and the book becomes very light-hearted, tending toward the ridiculous.

I do not know how quite to feel about that conclusion, like the story is chugging along toward some dark place but suddenly ends like a sitcom episode with a lesson in learning about oneself and others. It just seems disingenuous to me, especially given the character work that set up the whole scene. Perhaps Kochalka just wants to make silly comics, but the topic of school violence and murder seems a weird one to mine for humor, especially in the present day.

The reviews I have read about this book have been mixed. For the most part I agree with J. Caleb Mozzocco who wrote, "The premise is a solid, grabby and compelling one…but the timing couldn’t possibly be worse." Roy Boyd liked it well enough but called it "an odd little book." James Kniseley was more damning of it and wrote that the ending is "a hot mess that is anti-climatic and unclear."

Mechaboys was published by Top Shelf, and they have a preview and more information about it here. It features some profanity and violence, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to handle those matters.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Animus

Animus is an enjoyably creepy book. The story revolves around a playground that is somehow involved with the disappearance of multiple children in Kyoto, Japan. We gain entrance into this world via the actions of two youngsters, Hisao and Sayuri, who meet a fox-masked ghost named Toothless. This weird being tells them all about some of the features of the playground, which include mystical slides, monkey bars, statues, and sandbox. I won't spoil things by revealing their specific properties, but playing on and in those places leads the children on some pretty eerie, fantastic episodes. Along the way they get more clues about why the various children are disappearing. Things take a sinister, personal turn when one of their friends vanishes, and they gain a real sense of urgency to solve the origins of Toothless and the playground in order to save him. 
I must say, I really did not see the ending coming. This book is both a homage to manga and inventive and entertaining in its own right. Additionally, it is complex and holds up well to rereading, and I highly recommend it.

This book's creator Antoine Revoy is an instructor at the Rhode Island School of Design, and this book is his graphic novel debut. He has worked as an illustrator and animator, and has led an interesting life. He was born in France, raised in Japan, and now is located in the US, and all of these various influences crop up in his gorgeously composed, darkly atmospheric artwork and intricately crafted narrative. He speaks about his work on Animus in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews summed it up, "An eerie graphic novel mystery that is bewildering and unnerving in the best way possible." Todd Young wrote, "I appreciate the author’s ability to keep me thinking about the story long after I finished it." Publishers Weekly added, "Revoy’s otherworldly adventure moves quickly, but his succinct storytelling keeps readers on track with essential details."

Animus was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more here. There is also an official website for the book here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Ringside, Volume 1: Kayfabe

Kayfabe collects the first five issues of the Image Comics series Ringside. It's an interesting set-up, a noir story about an ex-professional wrestler named Danny Knossos. Danny used to parade around the ring in an elaborate costume as the Minotaur, but time has caught up with him. Now he is an older, beaten up man with some savings and not much else to his name.
 
 

He's burned a lot of bridges in the business, and he's come back into town looking for the ex-boyfriend he abandoned to pursue his wrestling career. Finding a huge mess and a lot of shady dealings, Danny decides that he is going to go after the bad guys and get his revenge. The problem is that he is old and not very focused. He gets saved a couple of times by a bail bonds agent named Terrence who is smart and calculating, not to mention savvy about dealing with violence and violent people. The two form an unlikely and shaky alliance, and a lot of the fun in this book comes from their interactions. I am not going to spoil all the plot twists, suffice to say that Danny's actions bring a lot of fallout and exciting drama. This is the first of three books in the series, and it definitely has me hooked for the duration.

Ringside was written by Joe Keatinge. with art by Nick Barber, Simon Gough, and Ariana Maher. Keatinge has written a bunch of series across lots of different genres including Glory, Shutter, and Flavor. Barber is fairly new to comics, and as far as I can tell this is his only published work as yet. Gough is the colorist and Maher the letterer, and both of them have multiple comics credits to their names. Keatinge and Barber offer more insight into their work on the series in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Kay Honda wrote, "In short, on top of a very interesting first chapter to a larger story, the artistic team works wonders with the layout design team to create an airtight comic all around." Zedric Dimalanta called it "one of the more interesting comics in a year that has thus far been full of interesting comics." Benjamin Raven summed it up as "one heck of a read."

Ringside: Kayfabe was published by Image Comics, and they have a preview and more info about the entire series available here.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Brave

I have been reviewing books that have been nominated for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Award in the Middle Grades category, and the winners will be announced this weekend. Today's book received an Honorable Mention, and it is a sequel to Awkward, which I reviewed last month. This book is also set at Berrybrook Middle School, but it shifts to focus on a new protagonist Jensen, who is also a member of the Art Club. He's a bit oblivious about a lot of things, and gets stuck in his own head a lot.
The irony!

He's failing math class and needs tutoring. He goes through his school day like it's a series of video game levels he has to pass, so he's not so cognizant of the frequent bullying and harassment he faces. Also, he sort of fades into the background so much that he might not be so much anyone's actual friend. He learns a lot about himself over the course of the book, from reflecting, from his friends, and from his teachers, but none of it seems forced or artificial like an afterschool special might.

What I love about this book are two things: Its characters and situations are vibrant and relatable to me. It has been a long while since I was in junior high (what they called it back then), and there were scenes in this book that really brought me back. There are many life and social issues that readers can take in and think about because they are presented so realistically and dynamically. Also, this book is full of a diverse cast of characters who feel genuine. Second, although this is the second book in a series, it's instantly accessible to new readers. There are passing references to familiar characters and events that past readers would get, but none of them are essential to the plot so new readers don't feel like they are missing something. I think that is a tough trick to pull off, and I am impressed by the overall quality of this book. It's fantastic, and I feel it should be a super-popular choice for middle school students.

This book's creator Svetlana Chmakova is a celebrated comics artist who has won a slew of awards and accolades for her works. Along with this Berry brook Middle School series, she also has published Dramacon, set at a comics convention and the supernatural themed series Nightschool. For those interested in her work and career, this article is a good one to check out.

The reviews I have read of this book have been universally glowing. Kirin at the Islamic School Librarian wrote that it offered a "good message, that is more self empowering than preachy." Matthew Burbridge opined, "I consider BRAVE one of this year’s must-reads for anybody who has a difficult time understanding the problems and pain that bullying can cause." Esther Keller called the artwork "magnificent" and added that the book "really captures so many realities of middle school life, as if Chmakova just left there herself."

Brave was published by Yen Press, and they offer a preview here. The next installment in the series, called Crush, comes out soon.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Dawn and the Impossible Three

Fun fact: This is the first Babysitters Club graphic novel I have ever read, which is weird considering how popular they are and how instrumental they were in also launching Raina Telgemeier's career. Going further, I don't think I've ever read a Babysitters Club novel either, even though they were ubiquitous when I was growing up. I always felt that they must be formulaic crap, but boy was I shocked by how much I liked Dawn and the Impossible Three.

This book, which is also a finalist in the Middle Grades category for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards, follows the exploits of Dawn, the newest member of the eponymous club. She is new in town, having just moved from California. She has difficulty adjusting to the New England locale, dealing with her mom's dating, and also juggling the interpersonal relationships of the club. To top things off, she ends up babysitting frequently for the Barrett family, an undertaking that gets complicated by the mom who is struggling to be a single parent in terms of managing her children and a household. There are many serious, real-life issues at play here, and they offer real stakes that propel the narrative in strong directions.
Over the course of the book, Dawn learns much about personal boundaries, how to communicate with others, and in general about being a mature person. What is more, I felt that the characters and situations were complex and all treated with dignity and care. I definitely went into this graphic novel expecting some generic claptrap but instead I found myself reading a very evocative and affecting book. I will definitely be checking out some of the other books in this series.

This book is Gale Galligan's debut graphic novel, but she has experience as a production assistant on a number of other books like Teen Boat!Astronaut Academy: Re-Entryand Drama! She speaks about her work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews called it "A worthy addition to the series, albeit a bit more somber than its forerunners." Johanna Draper Carlson wrote that Galligan has "got a good sense of storytelling." Kathryn White summed it up, "Great fun for BSC fans new and old. Highly recommended."

Dawn and the Impossible Three was published by Scholastic, and they offer more info about it here. Galligan is working on the next entry in this series, Kristy's Big Day, which is expected to be published later this year.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Soupy Leaves Home

For the next couple of weeks, I will be reviewing books that have been nominated for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Award in the Middle Grades category. First up, Soupy Leaves Home is the tale of a girl named Pearl set in Great Depression-era United States. Her father is abusive, and finding no recourse she runs away from home. Not really knowing what she is doing, she disguises herself as a boy and falls in with a hobo named Ramshackle.
Together the duo look out for each other and tramp all over the country. Along the way, Pearl takes on the name Soupy, and she learns to take care of herself, deal with with railroad bulls, navigate the complex system of hobo life, and also read the signs left by others. Still, as much as they get to know each other, both Soupy and Ramshackle keep important secrets from each other.

I felt that overall, this book was a well crafted piece of historical fiction, with likeable characters and a few parallel plots that tied together well. Probably the strongest part of the book is the characterizations, with Soupy and Ramshackle really standing out. I especially liked spending time with Soupy as she grew and became more confident and capable over time. I do not really want to spoil much, by the end of the book, there are multiple revelations about the main characters, some happy and some sad, with lots of provocative thinking about social class, gender, and gender roles. And none of it is as stuffy as I just made it sound.

This book was a collaboration between writer Cecil Castellucci and artist Jose Pimienta. Castellucci is a prolific writer with many books to her credit, including YA novels and comics like The Plain Janes and Shade the Changing Girl. Pimienta has drawn a number of other comics, and his best known work is probably The Leg, a kooky piece of historical fiction starring Santa Anna's amputated leg(!). Castelluci speaks more about her work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews summed up, "A compelling graphic offering that explores relevant gender roles and self-identity through a historical lens." Stephanie Cooke wrote that it's "a book that will resonate in everyone’s heart and you’ll be happy that you checked it out." And I agree strongly with Eric Kallenborn's observation that "the last act of the book is powerful and emotive."

Soupy Leaves Home was published by Dark Horse, and they offer a preview and more information about it here.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

All Summer Long

All Summer Long is a story about adolescence and relationships. Bina is thirteen years old, and during the summer after seventh grade, her life starts changing in all sorts of ways. To start with, her best friend and next door neighbor Austin is going away for a month to summer camp. Not only does his absence leave a void in her typical social life, he also has been  acting weirdly of late.

After a set of circumstances, Bina ends up hanging out with Austin's older sister Charlie. Charlie is typically loud and obnoxious, but she and Bina like the same kind of music, so they bond over that. Over time though, Bina learns that Charlie might be using her to get out and also see her sort-of-boyfriend Jae.
Ah, sibling love!
What I admired most about this book was how it handled its characters and their interactions. As you can see, the situations they are dealing with are pretty ordinary and relatable. I was impressed by how well developed and interesting all the characters were, not falling into stock stereotypes but surprising me with how they respond to particular situations. Also, there is lots of clever dialogue and interesting conversation. Oftentimes, when a comic depends on text heavily, it can be a slog, but this one is a joy to read, moving along at a crisp and effervescent pace. I very much liked getting to know these characters, and better yet, this volume is the first of three, so I'll get more chances to see how they mature and evolve.

This book's creator Hope Larson is an Eisner Award winner for her adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. She also has written and drawn the young adult story Chiggers. She has written a number of comics, notably the graphic novels Knife's Edge and Compass South, as well as comic book series, one about a teen detective Goldie Vance and the other a run on DC Comics' Batgirl. She speaks about her work on All Summer Long in this interview.

All the reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "a coming-of-age story as tender and sweet as a summer evening breeze." Elizabeth Bush called it a "compact but deftly developed graphic novel." Publishers Weekly praised the character work as well as "dialogue that’s fresh and funny."

All Summer Long was published by Farrar Straus Giroux, and they offer a preview and more here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Secret Coders: Potions and Parameters

In this fifth volume of the Secret Coders series, things really kick into high gear. First off, the evil Dr. One-Zero's plot is hatching, with dire outcomes for our heroes and their families, which include ducks with teeth(!).
Second, there is a lot more happening with the protagonists' inter-personal relationships as they face life and death situations: Eni confesses having more-than-friend-feelings for Hopper, which causes her pause and also confusion. Josh admits he feels a bit like a third wheel and confesses feelings of inadequacy when someone whom he thought was his friend betrays them. So those revelations all add a more human wrinkle to the proceedings, which I much appreciated. Third, we finally learn about the origins of Dr. Bee, which have a surprising link to the classic book Flatland. Finally, the stage is set for the grand showdown and climax of the series, which is coming in the next volume. It was exciting to see so much happening and paying off here, and longtime readers of the series will be jazzed.

In addition to all those plot developments, this book also contains a few excellent explanations and activities that teach coding and geometry. And like the other entries in this series (you can read all my reviews here), it is wonderfully written and drawn. There is a severe dearth of quality graphic novels for young readers about mathematics and computer programming, and these books fill both of those needs admirably.

This book/series is a prolonged continuation of the collaboration between Gene Yang and Mike Holmes. Yang is one of the premier comics creators working today. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and was also the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. He has won the Printz Award for his graphic novel American Born Chinese and explored themes of immigration, belief, identity, and growing up in his many works, including The Eternal Smile, Level Up, The Shadow Hero, the twin volumes Boxers & Saints, and his current run on New Superman. Holmes is best known for his work on the weekly comic True Story and drawing Adventure Time comics.

The reviews I have read about this book have been positive, with one caveat. Brett Schenker "loved" it, though he does note that the whole series reads like a school lesson and should not be read out of order. Shannon Buchanan wrote that it was "a very effective way to teach rudimentary programming skills," though she was disappointed that it was not a stand-alone volume. Kirkus Reviews noted, "While the coding instruction’s as top-notch as ever, in this installment it’s interpersonal dynamics and characters that, satisfyingly, take center stage."

Potions & Parameters was published by First Second, and they provide a preview and more about it here. You can also visit the series' official website for a lot more info.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Awkward

I came to read this book, Awkward, in a backward way. While judging books for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards, I got a copy of its sequel Brave. I read and very much enjoyed it, so when I came upon this book at the local library sale I totally snapped it up. I had read work by these books' author Svetlana Chmakova years before (the series Dramacon, which was more of a soap opera/romance set at comic conventions), and I very much was impressed at how she crafted characters and relationships. This book is similarly excellent, only in a middle school setting.

Awkward follows the exploits of Penelope (Peppi) Torres, a transfer to a new school who on the first day tries to stay below the radar but accidentally knocks over a geeky boy named Jaime. When people start to tease her that she is his girlfriend, she shoves him and runs away. This event opens a rift between the two, and it weighs heavily on Peppi because 1. she knows she should do the right thing and apologize, and 2. she thinks Jaime is a good guy and she (small spoiler) develops a crush on him.
 
 

Complicating that awkward situation, the two also end up belonging to two clubs (Peppi the Art Club and Jaime the Science Club), that are actively hostile toward each other, playing pranks and getting into a competition where only one will get a table at the annual Club Fair.
What makes all of these happenings work is that the characters in this book are vibrant and well defined. They are complicated and interesting, not playing into stock stereotypes and often offering up surprising insights. Also, there are a bunch of gags, funny expressions, and an overall light-hearted, fun tone about the everyday goings-on at school as well as the idiosyncrasies of people's relationships with the friends and family. I know that it's been a while since I was that age, but this book made me remember some of the tentative, confusing, and intense feelings that go with being a middle schooler. I loved getting to know the characters in this book, and the plot, with its competitions and over-the-top hi-jinx, is suitably fun and heartfelt.

This book's author Svetlana Chmakova has won a slew of awards and accolades for her works. Along with this series and Dramacon, she also has published a supernatural themed series called Nightschool. She speaks more about her work and career in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. The School Library Journal's Mike Pawuk called it "another shining example of kids comics done right," and added, "It’s got plenty of heart and soul." I agree with Amanda M. Vail who wrote, "Once you pick up Awkward, you’ll have a hard time putting it down." Johanna Draper Carlson wrote, "I enjoyed spending so much time with Peppi and her classmates, seeing them grow and learn. Events resolve in surprising but rewarding ways, as the kids get to know each other as people instead of stereotypes."

Awkward was published by Yen Press, and they offer more info about it here. Like I wrote, this book has one sequel already, Brave that I will be reviewing in the near future, and a new one coming soon entitled Crush.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The True Death of Billy the Kid

While reading this book I realized that pretty much all I know about Billy the Kid I know from popular versions of his story, like Young Guns or Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, which means I have really only been acquainted with lots of legends and lies about the guy. This book, The True Death of Billy the Kid, is not a full biography of the infamous outlaw, but it is a well researched and fully realized account of his last days: After being captured, tried, and found guilty, Billy enacts a daring escape and goes on the lam for a time before he is finally tracked and gunned down.
As you can see from the excerpt above, this book features lots of action and intrigue. It is a relatively short work and a page-turner as well. The art is crisp and beautiful to behold. And unlike most books by this author, this one features larger pages, which help feature the maps, floor plans, and lots of other details that help bring the story to life. I feel that this book is pretty economical in terms of storytelling, but it is still affecting and fascinating. It was a fun read, plus it taught me a bunch to boot.

Long time readers of this blog may have realized that I am a huge fan of Rick Geary's work. He has been making comics for decades now, winning major awards for his efforts, and telling all kinds of historical tales in graphic novel format. He is meticulous in detail and research, and I love his specific art style. He is especially known for his Victorian Era and 20th Century series of murder tales. Go check out these reviews and see what I have written about them over the years. He talks about his work on this newest book in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly concluded, "While the Kid has been treated to ample renderings in film, television, and prose, Geary makes his story feel fresh." Johanna Draper Carlson stated that "Geary’s art is well-suited for this kind of reporting, as it’s straightforward in showing expression and setting. With its pen-and-ink, old-fashioned flavor, the reader feels transported back to an earlier time." R.C. Harvey wrote, "As always, he is scrupulous in covering the known as well as the unknown ground."

The True Death of Billy the Kid was published by NBM, and they have a preview and more info about it here. This book was funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign a few years ago.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Tsu and the Outliers

I added a new way to learn about new graphic novels. I found this book by following uncivilized books' Instagram account. I thought the cover was very cool and asked for a galley copy, and I am very glad I did. This book features a Sasquatch and a Chupacabra, so it's got a lot going for it right off the bat.

Seriously though, this book stars Tsu, an autistic, adolescent boy who lives in a rural setting and does not talk. He is an outcast at school, and receives his share of grief from the local bullies. But he has some sort power that gives him the ability to communicate with wildlife, and in particular he is close with one incredibly large and powerful creature that saves his life after a bus accident.
All of these weird happenings bring the attention of a strange and mysterious doctor who resembles a chimpanzee and is looking to exploit Tsu's abilities and gain control over that creature. I am not going to reveal more about the plot, only to say that its ending is unresolved and invites reading the next book in the series. I found myself very intrigued by the mystery and adventures here, and I am looking forward to that continuation.

Not only did I enjoy the plot of this book, I was also very taken with the artwork. It is frenetic and exciting, particularly in its action and woodland sequences. I love the character designs and feel that they contribute to a fine balance between darkness and adventure. This book takes on the look and feel of the superhero genre but of a more visceral, almost horrific tale. I really liked its vibe.

This is the debut graphic novel by E. Eero Johnson, who has also collaborated on the illustrated novel Original Fake. He is a veteran illustrator whose work has appeared in many high profile publications.

I was not able to find many reviews of this book online, but Kirkus Reviews wrote that it "may appeal to middle school readers looking for a different kind of superpowered adventure." You can read some earlier reviews based on the original 32-page version of this story published in 2013. There are also a few reviews of the current edition available on Goodreads.

Tsu and the Outliers was published by uncivilized books, and they offer more information about it here.

A galley copy was provided by the publisher.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

My Boyfriend is a Bear

My Boyfriend is a Bear is graphic novel take on a magic realism romance tale. It stars a 28-year-old woman named Nora who's got cool friends, a lame job, and a history of dating jerks. One day while she's out camping she happens upon a bear and runs away, as she should. However, that bear eventually finds his way to her house (and heart), and they start an unlikely relationship. 
 
 

In a sense this book follows in the tradition of novels like Kafka's The Metamorphosis or David Garnett's Lady into Fox in that it uses a radical transformation into an animal form to observe the human condition. The bear is a metaphor for a romance with a person who comes into your life and fulfills you in a way you did not expect or need. Additionally, this person may not exactly fit in with the expectations of your friends and family, so there is some static in those areas. Also, there are logistical complications, like having to be without that person for an extended period of time, in this case while he hibernates, which can lead to uneasiness, loneliness, and worrying about the direction of your life and relationship. So, what I am saying in a long way is that this book, for all its fantastical set-up, is actually an excellent exploration of the joys and pains of a real, adult relationship.

What I left out of that paragraph above, and what this book does exceptionally well, is not be all dry, analytical, and academic about the topic. It is also not nearly as dark or fatalistic as those two novels I mentioned above. As you can hopefully see from the excerpt above, this book is a joy to read, with lots of humor and heart. The situations with the bear are sometimes made literal, which is often hilarious, like when he is left alone with a huge ice cream sandwich and just devours and destroys it. The energetic, expressive, and playful artwork goes a long way in providing the sense of whimsy and relatability to the story. The bear might only have a few verbal expressions (Grah!), but boy is he visually communicative. And the human characters are nuanced in terms of their characterization as well as how they are depicted. This graphic novel is expertly crafted all-around.

This book is a collaboration between writer Pamela Ribon and artist Cat Farris. Ribon is very well known for writing animated features like Moana, Smurfs: The Lost Village, and Wreck It Ralph 2, and she also has a number of novels as well as the women's roller derby comic book series Slam! in her credits. Farris is a member of the Helioscope studio who has worked on her own webcomic The Last Diplomat as well as having done work for several publishers. Both creators speak about this book in this interview, and Farris also speaks extensively about it in this interview, too.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review that concluded, "This resonant, absurdist modern fable is a joyful discovery." Oliver Sava called it "a light-hearted, very cute romantic comedy about the ups and downs of dating someone that may not by typical boyfriend material, but has a big heart." Eric Kallenborn called it "a refreshing surprise."

My Boyfriend is a Bear was published by Oni Press and there is more info about it here. This book features some profanity, adult themes, frank talk about sexuality, and one tiny picture of a butt, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to handle those things.
That Arcade Fire shirt cracks me up.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Science Comics: Sharks: Nature's Perfect Hunter

I have read every volume of Science Comics to date, and I am glad to report that this volume Sharks: Nature's Perfect Hunter is an excellent addition to a very strong and informative series. In fact, the biggest quibble I have is with the title. I want the subtitle to be Nature's Perfect Hunters (for agreement's sake!), but hey, I am not in book marketing, so what do I know?

That petty grammar business aside, I can say that I learned a lot about sharks from this book. Many, if not all of us, are fascinated and captivated by sharks. There is so much about them that is interesting, which has fired up works as diverse as Shark Week, Jaws, and Sharknado. Visually, they are simultaneously frightening and fascinating, but there is much about them that we are either ignorant or misinformed about. This book's premise is to inform the general public about these creatures, and boy does it. Sharks are some of the oldest living animals on earth; they are some of the most unchanged from prehistoric times, and they are incredibly diverse in terms of specific species and families. And there are many factors that have contributed to them being over-hunted and killed in recent years. I am not going to say that they are all gentle or nice creatures, but they are the victims of some mis-characterization.
Perhaps most impressive about this book was how it was basically structured as one long essay without a narrator (although there is a farming sequence and a recurring character that resembles Maris Wicks). It packs in myriad amounts of information in a way that reads logically and flows very well. This text coupled with artwork that is clear, vibrant, and appropriately well-detailed makes this book a must-have for any upper elementary or middle school classroom library.

The reviews I have read about this book have been largely positive. Kirkus Reviews found faults with digressions, conflicting information, and racial representations, and summed up by calling the book "informative, exciting, and, unlike sharks, just a bit disappointing." Jody Kopple called it "an accessible and inviting work" in a starred review from the School Library Journal. Johanna Draper Carlson wrote that "the entire book is something to sink into, enjoying the images of these sleek beasts."

Sharks: Nature's Perfect Hunter was published by First Second, and they provide a preview and much more here.

A preview copy was provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Be Prepared

I have never been to summer camp, and I am not of Russian descent, but I sure found a lot to relate to in reading Be Prepared. This tale of Vera, a 10-year-old girl who strives to fit into American culture is full of empathetic moments, moments of levity, and the pathos of being a tween. The artwork is impressively expressive, and it suits the well-paced and -plotted narrative beats to a T.

Vera's mother is Russian, in school, and trying to make a better life for her and her children. Vera is trying to keep up with her middle class American friends, which in her mind involves buying stuffed crust pizza, the right brand of soda, and the right kind of doll, as well as hosting slumber parties. None of those things are on her mom's radar. And what's worse her versions of all of them are uniquely Russian-themed, and to Vera's (and her friends') sensibilities completely off-brand and embarrassing.Vera's solution is to go to summer camp, just like her friends do, and she convinces her mom to send her brother and herself off.

The camp she goes to is not what she expects. It's a special camp for children of Russian lineage, and they celebrate that heritage in specific ways. Also, because of her age, Vera gets assigned to the older girls' camp, so not only does she not know anyone there, she's also the youngest girl and living with two of the oldest girls who have been going to the camp for forever. Consequently, she has a tough time making friends and simply wants to go home. Also, she has to shower and go to the bathroom in an outdoor toilet, which is a disgusting and unsavory experience.
 

Over the course of a few weeks however she does learn a few things about herself and how to (and also not to) make friends. She also earns a bunch of merit badges. Looking back at what I've written, it now seems that everything I've described looks pretty formulaic and familiar, but I feel that this book has a specific charm and delivery that makes the proceedings vibrant and new. The characters are not one-dimensional but nuanced and interesting. And by the end of the book, I felt very attached to them, which left me yearning for more because the ending is open-ended.

This book's creator Vera Brosgol is an accomplished illustrator and animator. She worked for Laika on a number of animated films like Coraline, The Boxtrolls, and Paranorman. She also has published a children's book Leave Me Alone, which won a Caldecott Honor, and the graphic novel Anya's Ghost, which won an Eisner Award. 

All of the reviews I have read of this book have sung its praises. Kirkus Reviews wrote, "While the culturally specific references will particularly resonate with kids of Russian heritage, the larger story will strike chords with any kid who has ever struggled to find a place to belong." Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and concluded, "By turns sardonic, adorable, and noble, Vera is a beguiling hero who learns how to recognize who's really on her side." Elizabeth Bush wrote that "Brosgol's illustration skills fully match her convincing narration in this autobiographical graphic novel."

Be Prepared was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Friday, April 20, 2018

One Day a Dot

One Day a Dot is a simple and ambitious book. It tells the story of the universe from the Big Bang until the present day, in 33 pages, and its audience is elementary school age readers. The snarky part of me wants to call this book a compact Cartoon History of the Universe for first graders, but it's more unique than that.

Of course, some of the scientific concepts are abridged or presented in simple manner, but what is communicated is told in forthright, clear, and apt fashion. Dots stand in for all kinds of concepts, from atoms to planets to cells. Sometimes this simple characterization works well, such as when the unique qualities of the Earth are described, which in turn led to the development of life. I also think it worked well as a platform for how single cell creatures evolved over time into different forms and eventually multi-cellular ones.
I also think that the latter pages, where the descriptions of the various animals from prehistory fall and give rise to mammals is well described. And I very much appreciated how the specific niches human beings have been able to carve out were attributed to how they used their brains to make up for particular physical attributes or abilities that gave other animals advantages. For instance, they did not have claws, but they could make weapons; they cannot fly, but they have developed the ability to flight via science. Those explanations were made in very elegant fashion, though they also smack of humans being perhaps pre-destined to control the Earth.

Overall, I think that this book is spot on, information-wise. My biggest issue with this book lies in how it anthropomorphizes some of the dots, because I do not think that plant cells have the concept of loneliness that led them to want to reproduce. Apart from that quibble, amateur scientist that I am is pretty satisfied with what I have read here. I think that this book would even appeal to those who are more religious in their understandings of science, as the authors leave a lot of room open for speculation of origins and perhaps even a plan/progress to the developments described in these pages. I don't think Richard Dawkins would necessarily love this book, but I do think that it could be used to introduce young people to some pretty heavy duty concepts.

This book was a collaboration of writer Ian Lendler with illustrators Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb. Lendler has written a number of children books as well as the Stratford Zoo graphic novel series. Paroline and Lamb have won an Eisner Award for their work on Adventure Time comics, and Lamb has also colored a good amount of notable graphic novels. Lendler speaks a little about his process for writing One Day a Dot in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been largely positive. However, Kirkus Reviews took issue with the implications of this book, stating  that "the oversimplification of ideas creates an underlying implication that animals are the only living things and that humans are superior beings; there is no hint of ecological interdependence." Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and concluded that it should inspire "spirited debates." Amanda MacGregor called it "a beautiful and vibrant picture book."

One Day a Dot was published by First Second, and they provide a preview and more here.

A preview copy was provided by the publisher.