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.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Brief Histories of Everyday Objects

I found this book at my local independent bookseller a few months ago and immediately had to buy it. I love books about the history of common objects, like the Uncle John's Bathroom Readers or the various gallimaufries (look it up) by Charles Panati. That this book presented such information in comic form just made me excited, and I am glad to report that this book did not disappoint. Brief Histories of Everyday Objects is chock full of interesting, surprising, and enchanting tales of invention and gorgeous, meticulous drawings. I loved reading it.

The tales within are presented in various sections about items you would find in the bathroom, bedroom closet, grocery store, kitchen, living room, coffee shop, office, bar, and great outdoors.
 
 
 

As you can see from the excerpt above, each section has 4-5 entries that run 4 pages each, making a very accessible and readable book. I learned much about things I was ignorant about, like the origins of the toothbrush or paper bags, and I was also surprised to find I was also misinformed about other items, like the board game Monopoly (which was supposed to be an anti-capitalist teaching tool!) and indoor toilets. And adding icing to any already delicious cake, the author injects a great sense of humor, social commentary (particularly about the disparities women inventors faced), and attention to ancillary matters (like patents and business dealings) that pertained to the topics at hand. The book lived up to my every expectation. I only wish it were longer (or had a sequel already!).

This book's creator Andy Warner has taught comics and cartooning in a number of prominent settings, and he has also published in a number of venues. Notably, he is a contributing editor for award-winning online webcomic collective The Nib. He speaks more about his art and career in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book praise it. Publishers Weekly called Warner "a deft cartoonist, able to convey a lot of information, humor, and emotion within a single panel." Johanna Draper Carlson called the book "a terrific read, the kind of popular history full of trivia we used to see more of before the internet."Megan Volpert wrote, "The entire book can be read cover to cover in about 90-minutes with fair attention to detail, but Brief Histories of Everyday Objects is also dense enough to be worth savoring."

Brief Histories of Everyday Objects was published by Picador, and they offer a preview and more here.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Amazing Age

Amazing Age is a fun book, a colorful superhero adventure based on comics and characters the writer created when he was a boy.The story follows a boy named Sam who makes comics about superheroes based on his friends. Flash forward a few years, and those same friends do not associate with each other any more and Sam has not made any comics in the years since his dad died. Amazingly, those three former stalwarts all get teleported to a world where those old comics were set, and they find that the characters from those old stories are real.
 

The supervillains there have banded together in a nefarious plot to kill all the superheroes, and the trio are brought in because they are the greatest heroes that planet has ever seen. Saving the world is a huge burden for these teens, who have not spoken in years, don't know how to use their powers, and really just want to go home. Not only do they need to resolve their own personal dynamics, they need to avoid the dire machinations of the evil villains who want to annihilate them.

What I liked about this book is that it hearkened back to the kinds of all-ages superhero comics I liked as a child. There are silly acronyms, a plethora of super-powered characters, and high stakes adventure. It also has a fun, gripping plot, good characterizations, and interpersonal situations that I feel are relatable for children and adolescents alike. Also, I enjoyed that these are superhero comics that are not so bombastic or sexualized, as sometimes they are wont to be.

This book was a collaboration between writer Matthew D. Smith, artist Jeremy Massie, and colorist Christine Brunson. Smith and Massie have worked on other comics together, including Blood-Drenched Creature Double Feature. Massie has a few solo titles to his credit, including All My Ghosts and a quirky superhero tale called The Deadbeat. Brunson has colored a number of comics over the years, as well as writing the webcomic Undead Norm.

I did not find many reviews of this comic online, but the ones I did locate were very positive. Warren Elliot wrote, "The art continues to nicely blend realism with cartoonish fun, giving Amazing Age a very appealing Silver Age look!" Rachel Bellwoar rated it 4.7 out of 5 stars and summed it up as "nostalgic catnip, right up there with Stand By Me and Stranger Things in the 80's friendship department."

Amazing Age was published by Alterna Comics, and they have more info about the book here. This collection collects the five issue limited series released serially. It also has copious back pages that show the characters as originally drawn by Smith when he was a boy, which reminded me of my own drawings at a similar age.

I bought the first issue off the rack at my local Toys R Us (RIP), when it was in black and white and on newsprint. That format sparked my sense of nostalgia, but this trade paperback is in full color and on glossy paper, which I feel suits it better. I met the creators this summer at HeroesCon, and they were nice enough to sign my copy of the book. I think it's a good read, so go out and buy it already :)

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Dragon Slayer: Folktales from Latin America

Long-time readers of this blog should know that Jaime Hernandez is one of my favorite comics creators. He has won multiple Harvey and Eisner Awards for the long-running Love and Rockets series he co-created with his brothers, and I loved seeing his work in various anthologies over the years. The Dragon Slayer, notably, is his first foray into comics for younger readers. It is a thin book, but it is packed with beauty, energy, and fun.

After an introduction by F. Isabel Campoy that gives context to Latinx folktales, there are three 10-page stories. The first, titular story is about a young daughter who gets kicked out her house but is gifted a magic wand that helps her find her way in the world and (yes) eventually kill a horrible dragon.
The second tale "Martina Martinez and Pérez the Mouse" is about a beautiful woman who marries a mouse but has to deal with the fact that he has drowned while fishing a delicious onion out of some soup. The third is "Tup and the Ants," about a youngest son who is shunned by his parents but finds his way to success via befriending a colony of ants.

Not surprisingly, I was not familiar with any of these stories, and I found them full of magic, wonder, and surprises. They are fun, impressive tales that have a good sense of whimsy. Also, the artwork is clean and simple in appearance, but it packs much emotion and action. I loved this book, and I cannot wait to share it with my own children.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. J. Caleb Mozzocco opined, "It’s a perfect work for adults who grew up on Love and Rockets to share with their children, and it’s an equally perfect introduction to the rich folklore immediately to the south of the U.S." Rob Clough wrote, "The fact that Hernandez chose stories that aren't strictly morally instructive, but instead convey other kinds of information, simply make people laugh, or act as shaggy dog stories makes this volume especially enjoyable." In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews summed up, "Rousing tales, spirited artwork, and rich back matter ensure that this slim graphic novel for kids becomes a rich resource for all caregivers, not just those of Latinx children."

The Dragon Slayer was published by Toon Books, and they offer a preview and much more here. This book's stated audience is grades 3 and up.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Illegal

As I've written in a few reviews over the past year, immigration has been a hot button topic in the US, and an area of great shame and pain. Illegal is a book that shows the faces of those who seek asylum in other countries, the ways that they are taken advantage of by traffickers, the perils they face on their journeys, and the great lengths they go to in order to find better lives.

The narrative is told in very dramatic and revelatory fashion, with one thread in the present and one thread in a flashback. This structure is used to great dramatic effect, following a young boy from Ghana named Ebo as he follows his brother Kwame on a quest to get to Europe. Both boys are orphaned and live with their drunk uncle. Kwame is older and decides to leave and find their older sister Sisi who has left for Europe years before. They have not heard from her at all and have no idea what has happened to her, but still Kwame feels he will be successful and could then send for his little brother.
Ebo is headstrong however and sets off in hot pursuit of Kwame. The brothers meet up coincidentally, and together they strive to get to Italy. Along they way they have to survive the desert, opportunistic criminals, overcrowded boats, and the open sea.

I do not want to spoil what happens in this book, but much of it is grim. It seems to me that the creators here went to great lengths to make the stories and circumstances as realistic as possible. There are many political and economic dimensions to the tale, and most impressively also much heart and human drama. I really felt for the characters and their plights, and I feel any reader would be greatly moved by this story. It is an excellent book that informs about important current events and also sheds insight into life and humanity.

The trio that made this book have also worked on four previous volumes, graphic novel adaptations of the Artemis Fowl series. Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin are the writers and the art is provided by Giovanni Rigano. Colfer is a novelist who is best known for the Fowl series, Donkin a children's book author/ninja assassin, and Rigano is an artist who has worked on a good number of previous graphic novel adaptations. This interview with Colfer sheds more light on the book and its reception in Europe, where it has garnered much praise and some accolades.

All of the reviews I have read about it have been very positive. Kirkus Reviews summed up, "Action-filled and engaging but considerate of both topic and audience, Ebo’s story effectively paints a picture of a child refugee’s struggle in a world crisscrossed by hostile borders." Sarah Donaldson called it "a deeply affecting and thought-provoking." In their starred review, Publishers Weekly described it as "achingly poignant."

Illegal was published in the US by Sourcebooks. They offer a teaching discussion guide for it here, and there is a video preview available here. This book is pitched as a children's book, but it does not sugarcoat harsh and horrible conditions, so I'd recommend previewing it before deciding to share it with younger readers.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Dead Weight: Murder at Camp Bloom

Dead Weight is a murder mystery for YA readers. It is set a Camp Bloom, a "fat camp" where young people come to work off the pounds and learn healthy eating habits. The twist here is that one night two of the campers witness a popular counselor get brutally murdered. Of course, it was past curfew and they should not have been out, so they keep things to themselves. The next day, no one seems to have noticed what happened, and there was a note left to explain the counselor's absence. Also, from what they could see they feel that the culprit was one of the camp leaders, so they do not feel they can go to the adults. So the two campers recruit two of their friends, and the quartet becomes a team of amateur detectives.

They are a motley, diverse bunch: Jesse, a Latina girl who would rather be at fashion school than Camp Bloom; Noah, a white boy who is a veteran fat camper; Tony, an African-American boy who is freaked out to have no access to his cell phone or computer, and Kate, an aloof white girl who would rather observe nature than interact with people. They bumble their way through the investigation at first but eventually they get themselves together and solve the mystery.
 
 
 
 

For me the highlight of the book is the vibrant and energetic artwork. I love the character designs and visual storytelling, and Seely's background in animation well informs both. I think that the setting and cast are also big pluses. They might not be the most complex characters, but they are diverse in terms of identity categories, and I appreciate seeing that here. About the plot, I have to say that I did not see the ending come at all, and although there were some visual clues I think it would be impossible for a reader to solve the crime on their own. Still, I enjoyed the plot twists and this book overall. It was a fun, breezy read.

Dead Weight is the creation of writers Terry Blas and Molly Muldoon and artist Matthew Seely. Blas has lots of comics credits and is probably best known for his webcomic Briar Hollow. Muldoon is a teacher, librarian. editor, and author who has also written another story for the graphic novel The Cardboard Kingdom. Seely is an artist and animator who has created a segment for MTV's Greatest Party Story Ever as well as a bunch of self-published mini-comics. Those interested in learning more about the inspirations and process of making this book can read this interview (or this one, if you prefer).

The reviews I have read about this book have been mixed, with much of the negative criticism aimed at the cast of characters, which are seen more as types than actual personalities. Kirkus Reviews called it a "lighthearted mystery with diverse characters" as well as "an accessible, if not entirely satisfying, read." Johanna Draper Carlson wrote, "Young readers who aren’t used to seeing characters like themselves, if they fit one of the many categories portrayed here, will likely be more forgiving than I was."

Dead Weight was published by Oni Press, and they have more info about it here. They also offer a video trailer for it here.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Voces Sin Fronteras: Our Stories, Our Truth

Issues about immigration and its impact on families have been prominent in the current US political scene, with a gross amount of injustice and racism cast toward many people seeking asylum. This book is an excellent entry into this political conversation, with sixteen true accounts from the lives of young people who have come over from Latin American countries to live and find a better life in the United States. These adolescents are the Latino Youth Leadership Council of the Washington DC-based Latin American Youth Center, founded in 1968.

Although the authors here might not be the most adept cartoonists, they share their stories well. The sixteen tales in this book are powerful, showing great personal sacrifices, determination, and the drive to succeed. They show the lengths some families go through to find better lives, including many hardships, poverty, and absences that cause grief and pain. And given all of the obstacles they face, I was struck reading this book by just how positive these young leaders are. In times of great adversity, they strive to find light and hope.

One feature that many of these stories contain is a struggle learning English or getting by in new contexts. The tales honor both languages via a bilingual presentation, so a reader can read in either English or Spanish. Also accompanying each comic narrative is a two page text piece explaining more about the author and why they chose to focus on the story they told. This book is an excellent resource for exploring immigrant narratives and also personal journaling.

I was not able to locate many reviews of this book, but the ones I found were very positive. Children's Book Council called it a "timely, ambitious, and a much-needed addition to current national discussions about who we are as a country." Emilio Solórzano was impressed with the reality of the stories and gave it "a perfect 5 out of 5." Frederick Luis Aldama wrote that the stories "stand as powerful testaments to the resilient power of today’s Latinx youth to grow, create, and transform in spite of it all."

Voces Sin Fronteras was published by Shout Mouse Press, and they offer more information about the book here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Monkey Chef: A Love Story

I first became aware of this book from a Kickstarter campaign for Kilgore Books and Comics, where I did pitch in to buy a bunch of issues of Noah Van Sciver's Blammo. The title and concept were intriguing, but I was short on funds for getting other books. I was happily surprised when I saw the book and author at HeroesCon this summer tabling right next to my pal Patrick Dean. I bought the book, read it that weekend, and told Mike Freiheit in really awkward ways that (spoiler) I enjoyed it.

Monkey Chef is an autobiographical tale about a man who is looking for ways to escape a dead-end job and also figure out life and love. When the book opens he is in a job he does not really care for, and he's also struggling to date women. Ironically, he meets a really wonderful woman right before he commits to go to South Africa for a year to work at a primate sanctuary. Still, he goes and during that year he learns a lot about himself.

His primary job at the sanctuary is to prepare food for the various monkeys as well as for his fellow co-workers. Over time he really gets to know the monkeys' behaviors and develops some favorites. He also makes lots of observations about how primate behavior relates to what humans do, too. All of these observations come into play when Mike struggles with maintaining a long-distance relationship, dealing with the various travelers who cycle in and out, and just figuring out what it means to be masculine in today's society. I very much appreciated his candor and introspection throughout this book. I also liked how he also inserted humor into all of his ruminations, like you can see in the excerpt below.
In the end, I felt that this was a compelling and thoughtful graphic novel, well rendered in terms of art and story. I loved the overall atmosphere of the narrative, which is conveyed with the muted, cool colors throughout. I also found much to relate to in terms of my own growing up and figuring out the various relationships in my life. I am sorry that I did not get this book sooner, but I am very glad that I got to get it directly from the author, who was also gracious enough to sign my copy.

Mike Freiheit originally published Monkey Chef as a series of mini-comics. In addition to making comics, he helps organize The Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE) and teaches at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He speaks more about his work on Monkey Chef in this interview.

I was not able to find many reviews of this book online, but Rob Clough wrote about two of the original mini-comics for The Comics Journal. He wrote that he very much appreciated how the story was told, not so much in straight-forward, chronological fashion, but "Freiheit's approach is a more artful one, juxtaposing different events against each other in interesting ways."

Monkey Chef was published by Kilgore Books & Comics, and you can see more about it here. There is also a sizable excerpt of it available here from The Comics Journal.

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Greatest of Marlys!

In the annals of comic strips, Peanuts is often lauded as perhaps the best overall but also the best at depicting the complex relationships and emotions of children. I have much respect for that comic and its creator Charles Schulz, but I feel that the comic strip that populates this collection, Ernie Pook's Comeek, packs just as powerful an emotional wallop. That strip was more of an underground/independent newspaper publication, and it is certainly less well known to the general public, but I am glad for this recent re-issued collection as it brings back into currency one of the best comics I have ever read.

Each four-panel comic is packed with text and drawings, casting a light on mundane yet monumental moments in the life of Marlys, a smart but unpopular pre-teen. She has to deal with capricious parenting, casual ugliness from peers, and friction with her siblings, pretty typical stuff really. But the ways that Lynda Barry portrays and communicates them make them instantly relatable and also wrenching. Also, although much of this book trucks in reality and some tough situations, it also does so with a lot of heart and a great sense of wit and humor.
This book is full of hundreds of tiny masterpieces, all of which add to one grand tapestry of a young girl's life. And what's more, the large format of the book and pages feature the strips beautifully. It is a masterful collection, and I urge you to pick it up and read it. This book is simply fantastic.
The aforementioned author of this book, Lynda Barry, has had a long and varied career in the arts. Besides being an accomplished cartoonist and comics artist, she has written novels, created books on art and imagination that defy genre definitions, and taught on the collegiate level. For those interested in her work, there are a couple of interviews that shed light on her career and work, this one from 1989 in The Comics Journal and this one from 2016 in The Guardian.

All the reviews I have read have lauded this book. Annie Mok called it "A great introduction for new fans, an excellent choice for young readers, and a gift to Barry’s devotees, The Greatest of Marlys comes as a reminder of Lynda Barry’s stunning, evocative, hysterically funny, haunting cartooning." In a starred review Publishers Weekly promises, "This book will bring groovy love into your life." Jeff Provine called it "a fun and inspiring romp through the complex days of the first turn of young lives." Mey Valdivia Rude rightly called Barry "one of the greatest American cartoonists of all time."

The Greatest of Marlys! was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they have a preview and more about it here.

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.