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.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

March: Book Three

I have been remiss in reading this book, especially since it won a National Book Award. I thought that the second book in the trilogy was better than the first one, and this third volume is just as excellent. Mostly it covers the events of the march from Selma to Montgomery, a pivotal event in US civil rights history and an impetus for the passing of a national Voting Rights Act.
 

As with the other books in this series, it is simply amazing just how much John Lewis was involved in during his life. This book covers much ground, giving light to a tumultuous and important era of US history, showing the brutality of racism, the courage of those involved in the movement, and the eventual positive effects of non-violent protest. This book is an emotional roller coaster, but it's not simply cheap drama. The events it chronicles are still vital to our present day circumstances, and I daresay it should be read by people young and old, in-school and out. It's an important tale, and it deserves as wide an audience as possible.

Congressman Lewis and his staffer Andrew Aydin penned the narrative, and it was illustrated by Nate Powell, a veteran and expert creator with a long list of praised works, including the graphic novels The Silence of Our Friends, Swallow Me Whole, and Any Empire. As you can see from the excepts, Powell's artwork is dynamic and energetic, and he makes excellent tonal use of black and white to tell riveting, moving, and powerful tales, even when people are simply speaking. All three creators speak about their work on the March trilogy in this interview.

Not surprisingly, all the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. Michael Cavna concluded, "This is, flat out, some of the most immersive graphic-novel art I’ve experienced in years." Oliver Sava called it "an essential read in a turbulent political climate." In a starred review from the School Library Journal Mahnaz Dar summed up, "This essential addition to graphic novel shelves, history curricula, and memoir collections will resonate with teens and adults alike."

March, Book 3 was published by Top Shelf, and they have lots more info about it here. Its list of honors is historically impressive:

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Peter and Ernesto: A Tale of Two Sloths

Peter & Ernesto is just like the title says, a tale of two sloths. Day after day they live in the same tree, eat the same food, and play the same game where they name the shapes they see in the clouds. One day, however, Ernesto announces that he wants to see not just that piece of sky but the whole sky, so he embarks on a grand journey. Peter is more of a worrier and homebody, and he warns Ernesto about the many potential dangers out there, including bears, but to no avail. Not to spoil anything, but the rest of the book follows Ernesto on his trek while Peter eventually decides he should follow up and check on his friend. Both of them, in turn, have their own set of discoveries and adventures.
This simple yet affecting tale was fun to read. It's the best kind of all ages book, and I feel that  contains a good amount of detailed world-building in terms of if its locales and characters. I very much liked Ernesto's spirit of adventure and optimism. I also admired Peter's sense of loyalty and reluctant bravery. Both run into a motley array of other creatures, and they all have strong personalities that are entertaining to boot. The various settings Ernesto sees are all simply yet strongly portrayed. Overall, I loved the amount of energy and information the author conveys in his line work.

Graham Annable was that author, and he has been creating comics and animated work for a good while now. He has been celebrated in both fields and is one of the few folks to have been nominated for both a Harvey and an Academy Award. I know him best from his work on Grickle and also the various comics he shares via his Instagram account. Others would probably be more familiar with his work on animated features like Coraline and The Boxtrolls.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. In a starred review for the School Library Journal Jennifer Costa likened it to the Elephant and Piggie books and summed it up, "Recommended for beginning reader shelves and elementary graphic novel collections." Dustin Cabeal called it "delightful. It’s full of positive energy and gives you so many ways to be inspired." Publishers Weekly stated that "Annable’s gift for caricature and zippy dialogue shines through, as he celebrates his characters’ contrasting temperaments without a hint of snark."

Peter & Ernesto was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here. There is a sequel already slated for next year, and it is called The Lost Sloths. I will definitely check it out!

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter

First off, let me say that I am a sucker for books like this. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of my favorite shows ever, and I love the turn-of-the-century England, steampunk-style, monster hunter vibe displayed in these pages. Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter is a fun, action-packed, and sometimes creepy graphic novel. The title character is an orphaned teenager who lives with two servants. The first is Napoleon White, a butler/chauffeur, and the second is his wife Mrs. White, a governess. Together they look after Scarlett and Ravenwood, her family's estate, which is in a state of disrepair since her parents' death. She came into monster hunting as the family business, but she does not just hunt monsters because it is her calling or there's some mystical need, she does it to earn the reward money needed to keep ahead of their creditors.
One obstacle that Scarlett faces is that she is legally too young to hunt monsters, and the local "Watch" is onto her. The second is Count Stankovic, a rival monster hunter who has a special desire to not only foil Scarlett but ruin her life. As there are frequent monster attacks in this version of London, the two adversaries come into frequent contact. And when Scarlett tracks some monsters to their source and sees the Count involved, she begins to feel that he is not only hunting monsters but summoning them as well.

I felt that this book had a great amount of action and intrigue. I can't say that it is the most original or complex plot I have ever read, but it is a fun, well crafted piece of genre fiction. I got sucked into reading the whole thing in one sitting, even though I told myself I was only going to read the opening vignette. It's ghoulishly delightful, and if you like books with gruesome monsters and steampunk weaponry, this one will be right up your alley. Also, I should add that this book has a clear ending, though it leaves the door open for a sequel. I hope that it sells well so we get one.

This book was a collaboration between writer Marcus Sedgwick and artist Thomas Taylor. Sedgwick has written several novels and won the Printz Award for his book Midwinterblood. Taylor is an accomplished children's book author and is most famous for being the first illustrator of the Harry Potter series. I very much like the tone and style of the art here, which I find to resemble an amalgamation of those of Joann Sfar and Richard Sala. It's appropriately creepy, muted, and ominous, perfect for a tale such as this. Both creators speak about their work on Scarlett Hart in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been fairly positive. Kirkus Reviews summed up that it would be "fun for a spooky night, anchored by likable characters and a zippy story." Publisher Weekly wrote, "Taylor’s energetic artwork captures the time and place through the use of metallic grays and browns, while integrating an array of gothic and steampunk motifs." Elizabeth Bush was less taken with the plot and wrote that "this debut graphic novel series chugs along with little more than a workmanlike, repetitious plot of monster appearance/confrontation action scene/Hart-vs.-Stankovic rivalry."

Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Science Comics: Robots & Drones: Past, Present, and Future

I have read all the entries in the Science Comics series published so far, and I am sad to say that this one, Robots & Drones is not one of my favorites. I can also be glad to report that it is still an enjoyable book, as it features excellent artwork and lots of interesting information. By no means is it a bad book; it just did not light my fire the ways some of the other volumes have.

In particular I felt this one lacked a hook that would draw me in and also unify the entire book. Perhaps what stuck in my craw was how hung up the book was on definitions and drawing distinctions on what defines a robot and how other devices and machines (like automatons or remote controlled vehicles) are not actually robots. It seemed to take for granted that the reader would be interested in robots and drones (and I have to admit I was and am), but it did not offer much to put a specific trajectory on that interest. The result is a lot of information, about what robots are (and are not), what computers are (and why they are not robots), and how drones fit into these configurations as well. The lack of narrative thread that left me wondering at times why things were being discussed in the order they were. I just felt like the book was hopping from topic to topic without much context (kind of like this review, eh?).

Still, I learned lots from it, like when the first robots were created (in the 1600s in Japan, in case you were curious), how the Mars rover maintains itself and its power supply, and the fact that an automatic coffee maker is in fact technically a robot. The opening vignette is a tale of the book's narrator, a fun little proto-robot named Pouli (the invention of Archytas in the the fourth century BCE), which added a playful touch to the proceedings and a much needed sense of continuity. There were also a few other impressive features, like a refresher about simple machines and a great timeline of notable robot/drone inventions over history that closes out the book. If you want to learn more about robots and drones, or if you know a young person who is into them, you could do a lot worse than select this book. It was fun to read; I just felt it was not overall as well composed as other volumes in this series.

Robots & Drones is a collaboration between writer Mairghread Scott and artist Jacob Chabot. Scott writes animated series and comics, and she has another original graphic novel The City on the Other Side in the works. Although he's got lots of credits on licensed characters' comics, Chabot I know best from his work on The Mighty Skullboy Army, which I feel is an excellent and funny series. It stars a cantankerous and sneaky robot, so I was hopeful that his artwork in this book would be equally as charming. I am glad to report it is as good, if not better, than I expected. For those interested in learning more about this book and its creators, you can read an interview with Scott here and an interview with Chabot here.

The reviews I have read about this book have been mixed. Johanna Draper Carlson was lukewarm about it and wrote, "There’s good information here, but I felt as though a lot of space was wasted on irrelevant information, leaving me confused as to just what the purpose and message of the book was." Kirkus Reviews summed it up, "A lighthearted, enjoyable introduction to a fascinating subject."

Robots &  Drones was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Roller Girl

I have had this book on my shelf for a little while now. I bought it at my local independent book store after I had read Comics Squad: Detention and thought that Victoria Jamieson's entry in that anthology was the best part of the book. Roller Girl was a 2016 Newbery Honor book and has a slew of other honors as well. The story here follows a girl named Astrid who is at a crossroads, growing up and becoming more at odds with her mother as well as tenuous with her best friend Nicole. One day the trio attend a roller derby match, and Astrid is completely blown away.
 
Soon after, they learn that there will be a roller derby camp that summer, and Astrid cannot wait to sign up. Nicole is not so keen on joining and opts instead to attend dance camp, where she has a different set of friends, one of which is very much at odds with Astrid. Complicating matters, she lies to her mother that Nicole is at camp with her, so she does not worry about her getting a ride home everyday. And adding even more to this drama is Astrid's realization that roller derby is very challenging, taxing, and tiring.
What I loved about this book was how it approached all of the physical and emotional adversity Astrid has to face in very real and relatable manner. Over the course of the book, she learns much about friendship, stamina, and herself. I felt that the characters and relationships were complex and nuanced, and that this book was done in a smart way that would appeal both to young people and adults, without insulting either audience. The ending, which focuses around Astrid's first competitive match, does not go exactly as she intended but it's a great learning experience. The conclusion was mostly sweet and just a little bitter, and I'm not going to lie but it made me tear up. I am a total sucker for a story told this well, where all the disparate narrative threads come together in such an artful manner. This book deserves all the accolades it has received (and then some!).

This book's creator Victoria Jamieson is a children's book illustrator and graphic novelist who has since published a few others since this debut. One is the stand-alone volume All's Faire in Middle School,  the other two entries in her Pets on the Loose! series The Great Pet Escape, and The Great Art Caper. She speaks more about her work on Roller Girl in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been celebratory. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and stated that "readers will want to stand up and cheer." Kirkus Reviews also gave it a starred review and wrote that it was "Full of charm and moxie." Esther Keller summed up, "This is a great summer or all-year read that will thoroughly be enjoyed by middle-grade readers."

Roller Girl was published by Penguin Random House, and they have more info about it here.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Nightlights

Although it is not a finalist in the middle grades category, Nightlights is another stand-out book I read while judging for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards. It tells the story of a young girl named Sandy who every night when she goes to sleep  travels to incredible worlds full of strange and wonderful creatures and each day while she is awake depicts those worlds and creatures in her artwork. These activities make her an outlier in her school. She does not have many friends and gets picked on frequently. The nuns who teach her do not appreciate her spacing out and staring out windows. Nor do they like that she is constantly doodling in her notebooks instead of taking notes or doing schoolwork.
All of this changes one day when she meets the new girl in school, Morfie, who loves her drawings and wants nothing more than to see them all. Soon afterward, however, Sandy begins to wonder if Morfie is even real, and things take a pretty dark turn.

This book tackles multiple themes, chiefly how creativity and imagination work as well as how people socialize and are socialized. I feel the story is surprisingly complex for what is a relatively brief text, and the artwork is exquisite. I had never seen the work of this book's creator Lorena Alvarez before, and I have to say I am very impressed by it. Her characters are vibrant, expressive, and relatable, and she is adept at creating fantasy scenes that are simultaneously gorgeous, breath-taking, and terrifying. I loved going to this site here where I could look at her previous and current projects. Go check out her fabulous artwork! Also, for more about her work and inspirations for Nightlights, check out this interview (but be aware that it does contain spoilers).

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. In a starred review Publishers Weekly called it "a deliciously hair-raising story that thoughtfully explores themes of isolation, creativity, and how social pressures can encroach on individuality." April Spisak wrote that "Alvarez has achieved something special and unforgettable with her first authorial outing." In a starred review from School Library Journal Abby Bussen opined that "Alvarez’s artwork is gorgeous, alternating between traditional panels and, in the dream sequences, vibrant spreads that spill from page to page with grace and fluidity."

Nightlights was published by NoBrow Press, and they offer a preview and more information about it here.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

As the Crow Flies

I read As the Crow Flies as an entry in the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards, and I have to admit I went into the text with a chip on my shoulder. From the onset, I thought "young girl goes on a wilderness hike with a church group, not going to be my cup of tea." Boy, was I wrong. Much like the theme of this book, which deals with people's preconceived notions of specific experiences and social groups, I felt transformed by the insights and events depicted in its pages. As the Crow Flies is the best kind of book about identity, where it forces you to look outside of yourself and question your thoughts, values, and prejudices in a real manner. It turns out that this book was totally my cup of tea and one of the best graphic novels I have read this year.

The main story in this graphic novel follows 13-year-old Charlie Lamonte, a black, queer child, who attends an all-girl, all-white Christian summer camp. The centerpiece experience of the camp is an extended hike where the counselors teach them about the history of the place in terms of an exceptional band of independent women. Of course, their messages are replete with assumptions about religion, gender, and some race, which Charlie bristles at.
 

She feels isolated, alone, and often offended, but she comes to look at things somewhat differently over the course of the hike. Some of this change comes from getting to know Sydney, a fellow camper who has issues of her own, but some of it comes from Charlie's reflections while out in the wilderness.

I have to admit that this book, which collects the narrative of an on-going webcomic, started out pretty slowly, but about halfway through it had me hooked and totally engaged. What I like about it is that it tackles many identity issues with candor and sincerity, offering a complex look at them without offering easy or pat solutions. This book maintains a difficult balance between offering experiences that are relatable while also presenting a nuanced take on identity politics. It turns out to be both compelling as a story as well as engaging as inquiry, which I feel is no easy feat. I am very much looking forward to the follow-up book that continues this story/conversation.
As the Crow Flies is the creation of Melanie Gillman, who has been running this webcomic since 2012. It is a celebrated work, nominated for Eisner and Ignatz Awards, and the recipient of a gold medal from the Society of Illustrators. I very much admire the unique artwork in this book, done with color pencils. The characters are very well rendered and expressive, and the scenery and tone are very well suited to this tale. Gillman talks extensively about their work on this webcomic and book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been overwhelmingly positive. In a starred review from the School Library Journal, Mahnaz Dar called it "heartfelt, stimulating, and sure to spark discussion about feminism’s often less than inclusive attitudes toward marginalized groups." Caitlin Rosberg concluded, "It’s a story that embraces the truth of how bad things can be without abandoning kindness, and that’s something comics could use a lot more of." Publishers Weekly also gave it a starred review and called it a "brutally honest and wrenchingly beautiful story of friendship."

As the Crow Flies was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign and published by Iron Circus Comics. They offer a preview and some more info about it here. It was originally published as a webcomic, which you can read here.

REMINDER: Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards Nominations Livestreamed TODAY

Just a reminder that Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards nominations from Pop Culture Classroom will be streamed live TODAY on KidLit TV at 1PM ET. I hope you can join in the fun!


Saturday, March 10, 2018

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World

I am a HUGE fan of Pénélope Bagieu's comics. California Dreamin' and Exquisite Corpse were two of my favorite graphic novels in recent years, and I feel that her artwork is ethereal and gorgeous to behold. So when I got the review copy of this book I was very excited to read it. I am pleased not only to report that it did not disappoint, but that I loved this book, and it gets my highest recommendation.

Brazen is a one-person anthology of stories about strong, impactful women from across history and cultures. It is a hefty volume containing 29 mini-biographies that range in length from 2 to 10 pages, via 9 panel grids. One thing I loved about it was that I could read it a few stories at a clip or simply laze over one and then come back to the book later. The stories themselves are condensed, colorfully illustrated, and very substantive. They are also told in a simultaneously respectful and cheeky manner that I found extremely engaging and informative. This book is the best combination of art and education, and I found I learned much from it while also being quite enchanted while reading.
The women profiled range from the well known, like investigative reporter Nellie Bly and Wicked Witch of the West actress Margaret Hamilton, to the more obscure (at least to me) like Giorgina Reid and Angolan Queen Nzinga. What I appreciated, even with the ones I knew something about, was that she included lots of detail about their accomplishments and contributions to society across history. Some folks know that Hedy Lamarr was a famous actress, but they do not know perhaps that she was also an important scientific inventor.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing, including starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. Rachel Cooke wrote, "This book already feels like a classic, one to be loved by every girl who reads it from now until the end of time." Michael Cavna wrote "that it belongs in most every girl’s — and boy’s — hands by middle school." Rosemary at Mom Read It called it a "a must-add to your collections." Oliver Sava highlighted the lovely representative spread that follows each entry, stating,  "After the waves of information in the preceding strips, these clever, bold illustrations give the reader moments to meditate on what they’ve just read, enriching each individual history."

Brazen was published by First Second, and they have more information and a reading guide for it here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards

I am proud to announce that I am a judge for the inaugural Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards to be presented by Pop Culture Classroom. You can check out the official site here for more information about the organization and its awards.

Please be sure to check back one week from today on March 15 at 1 pm ET when the award nominations will be streamed live on KidLit TV.

I am very excited to share my work on this project as well as some of the excellent books I got to read as part of the judging in the recent future. Please check back to see my reviews in the upcoming days. See you soon!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Lighter Than My Shadow

Have you ever started reading a long book late at night, knowing you should probably go to bed but are so compelled that you read the whole thing? That's what happened to me when I picked up Lighter Than My Shadow. This reissue of a 2013 book just kept me entranced with beautiful, haunting, and often horrific images. I could not stop reading as I saw the multiple cycles of struggle the author went through over the years in relation to eating.
The story unfolds over a long period of time, starting with Katie's early years as a picky eater. She starts hiding food in her room, pretending to have eaten it. By the time she gets to high school, she is anorexic, obsessively counting calories, starving herself at times, exercising compulsively, and pushing herself into academics. Ignoring her own health, she spirals into an unhealthy state that requires withdrawing from school and getting medical and psychological help. Over time, she gets older, starts rebelling against her parents, falls in with a shady alternative healer, and eventually goes to art school. All the while though she is haunted by the specter of her own thoughts and anorexia, which inhibit and trouble her life.
The ways that she depicts her various mental states, the gnawing of hunger in her belly, her disassociation from her body and herself, and the way that she saw herself in the mirror are all marvels of innovative comics storytelling. Her art chops are impressive, and they go very far in expressing the depths of her feelings and misery. And although the book ends on a positive, sweet note, Green does not pretend that the struggle is ever really over and provides no pat ending. She treats her condition with the seriousness and gravity it requires, and this work seems uniquely geared to shed light on a hidden, often shameful situation that affects many people's lives. The world is better for having this book in it.
This book's creator, Katie Green, is a British artist and illustrator. This book began as an art school project but grew into something much larger and took five years to complete.She speaks extensively about her work on this book in this interview.

All the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. In a starred review from the School Library Journal, Mahnaz Dar wrote that the "straightforward text and vivid imagery combine for a powerful, achingly honest memoir." Dustin Cabeal stated that it was "incredibly impressive both with the writing and visual storytelling." James Smart described it as "gripping, thanks to its honesty and its disjunction between traumatic subject matter and sometimes childlike artwork."

Lighter Than My Shadow was published by Roar in the US. There is much more information and a preview available at the book's official website. Some of the imagery is disturbing, and there is some nudity and sexual abuse, so it is suggested for readers mature enough to deal with such features.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Hermes: Tales of the Trickster

This tenth entry in George O'Connor's Olympians series continues an impressive streak of excellent graphic novels. Like the other volumes in this series, it is uniquely crafted to the god's personality, this time with a framing device that runs throughout the book, telling the tale of Argus the many-eyed guardian. Of course, there is a twist at the end, demonstrating just how tricky Hermes is.

There are several other tales told within this book, including the birth of Hermes, his antics against his brother Apollo, the origins of his helmet and staff, the birth of his son Pan, and the final battle against Typhon, the last child of Gaea. That last story is gloriously and horribly depicted, and I get the feeling from this book especially that O'Connor had a blast writing and drawing the whole thing.

Also, There's a great bit about dogs, too. I learned a bunch from this book!
It is meticulously researched, energetically illustrated, and smartly plotted. And like the other volumes in this series, it features lots of notes, drawings, and other interesting back matter after the main narrative. I love these books, and I have mixed feelings about the next two, excited to see them but also sad to know that they will complete the series. Luckily, I have a couple of years to deal with these emotions.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. In a starred review from the School Library Journal Mahnaz Dar summed up, "Another stellar addition to graphic novel shelves." Kirkus Reviews also gave it a star and called it "Another crowd-pleasing, compulsively readable entry in this divine series."

Hermes: Tales of the Trickster was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Prince and the Dressmaker

The Prince and the Dressmaker is an intriguing twist on the typical fairy tale story. Here, the prince and heir to the throne Sebastian is being pushed by his parents to find a bride and begin settling down for his own time to reign, but he's harboring a secret. He likes to wear dresses, a fact that only a trusted servant knows. At the onset of this book, he discovers the work of a brilliant, edgy dressmaker named Frances, and he hires her to be his secret seamstress.

Frances makes him all kinds of fantastic and glamorous gowns, and he begins to wear them out disguised as the very showy and dramatic Lady Crystallia. He gathers much attention in this venture and becomes a notorious and trend-setting figure. Of course, all of these secrets have a shelf-life, and much of this book deals with the effects and fallout that comes with being secretive and what happens when that facade begins to crumble.
The high points of this book for me are the artwork and the characters. The art is characterized by flowing lines, vibrant colors, emotive expressions, and fun energy. Wang seems to take many cues from animation in her work, and it certainly pops off the page. Sebastian and Frances are vivid and complex, and getting to spend time with them in the pages of this book is wonderful. Their relationship is not simply a working relationship, nor is it a romance really but more like a friendship that develops interesting features. The ending of the book is also not a pat one, which I feel is appropriate.

I have read a few other books by this book's creator Jen Wang, including her debut Koko Be Good and In Real Life. I think her work is excellent, and I am eager to see whatever project she undertakes next. She talks about her work on The Prince and the Dressmaker in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been largely glowing. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review that concluded, "It’s all but certain to deliver grins, gasps, and some happy tears." Elizabeth Bush wrote, "Readers new, or resistant, to graphic novels will also discover magic here in Wang’s visual storytelling." Princess Weekes gushed that it "is without a doubt one of my favorite things I’ve read so far this year and I’m so excited for everyone to enjoy it." The reviewer at Kirkus Reviews was more reserved, finding much to admire but also feeling that "Sebastian meets acceptance far too easily, particularly for such a public figure in such a conservative age."

The Prince and the Dressmaker was published by First Second, and they offer a review and more here.

A preview copy of the book was provided by the publisher.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Spy Seal, Volume 1: The Corten-Steel Phoenix

Collecting the first four issues of the series, Spy Seal: The Corten-Steel Phoenix is a an intriguing, fun spy series drawn and presented in a style reminiscent of Tintin. At first I was a bit leery of a spy story starring anthropomorphic animals, but it's by one of my favorite creators, Rich Tommaso, and the preview art was simply gorgeous, so I gave it a shot. And I was so glad I did!

The main narrative here follows a seal named Malcolm as he is transformed from unemployed dreamer to secret agent. It all starts when he attends an art gallery opening, meets a sexy female stranger, and ends up fighting off an assassin. Seeing that he can handle himself rather well, one of Britain's MI-6 divisions recruits him. After some training, he finds himself up to all kinds of dangerous spy business, including international jet-setting, elaborate disguises, hand-to-hand combat, and getting thrown out of multiple moving vehicles.
I loved the level of action and intrigue, and what is particularly impressive is that Tommaso has crafted a book that can appeal to young adult and older readers. Sure, there are some innuendo and definitely some violence, but none of it is gratuitous and I feel this book would be a hit across age demographics. It is smartly crafted, beautifully drawn, and flat-out fun to read. Plus, I loved the slightly larger page size that suits the artwork well. I am very much looking forward to any future adventures of Spy Seal.

This series creator Rich Tommaso has created all kinds of comics over the past two decades. He has drawn horror comics like She-Wolf and The Horror of Collier County. He's drawn noir books like Dark Corridor and the forthcoming Dry County. He's even drawn some comics for film buff like Pete and Miriam and also won an Eisner Award for his work on the historical graphic novel Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow. He speaks more about his work on Spy Seal in this interview as well as this one (if you'd rather listen to a podcast).

The reviews I have read about this book have been largely positive. Tegan O'Neil called it "fun in the best way." Insha Fitzpatrick wrote, "It’s gripping and utterly stunning in its art and brilliant in its narrative." Publishers Weekly was less taken with the plot and characters but still stated that the "visuals are as strong and crisp as ever."

Spy Seal: The Corten-Steel Phoenix was published by Image Comics, and they offer a preview and more info about the series here.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman

I was anxious and excited to read this new biography by Box Brown. Anxious because I have read, watched, and learned a lot about Andy Kaufman over the years, and I wondered if there was going to be anything novel or revelatory about this book. Excited because I have very much enjoyed pretty much every comic, mini-comic, and graphic novel I have read by Brown, including his biography of Andre the Giant and his history of Tetris. I am glad to report that this book is fantastic.
It details Kaufman's childhood and career, hitting all the high points like his work as a stand-up, on Saturday Night Live, Taxi, and his tenure as the Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World that led to his feud with "The King" Jerry Lawler. He was a unique figure, obviously very talented but also interested in seeing how far he could go to get crowds to both love and hate him. He died of cancer in 1984, but there are still those who wonder whether that was also some elaborate stunt he pulled. Probably what is most impressive about The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman is how well it ties a unifying thread through all of these proceedings. Also, it has lots of great stories that will interest people unfamiliar with Kaufman, but it still had some insights and tales I was unfamiliar with, so it should appeal to some more informed fans, too. Brown interviewed many folks to get some unique angles, and the ending especially was pitch-perfect to me.

The artwork is clean, with strong, simple lines that are surprisingly evocative. The storytelling is excellent, and overall I feel that this book is Brown's most heartfelt, mature, and best work yet. I am very much eager to see what his next project will be. For those who are interested, Brown speaks more on his work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been good. Publishers Weekly wrote, "It is a well-researched, enjoyable yarn written by the one author working in the comics medium who fans would want to tell Kaufman’s story." Pharoah Miles called it "an excellent book, which reminds me so much of how much of a virtuoso Kaufman truly was." And I agree with the reviewer at This Weblog is Unique who wrote,"The details that create funny, touching, discomfiting, and heartwarming moments make the book feel intimate and honest."

Is This Guy For Real? was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more available here.

A preview copy of the book was provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Baking with Kafka

Baking with Kafka is a wonderful collection of witty, literary comics by Tom Gauld. He is one of my favorite contemporary comics creators, and I love his point of view and proclivities toward literature. Goliath and Mooncop are brilliant graphic novels you should definitely check out, and his prior collection You're Just Jealous of My Jetpack was comedy gold. The comics in this particular collection are similarly hilarious and range all over the place. They were originally published in The Guardian and are mostly about books and/or history. There are a couple of patterns to them that I noticed. Many of them mess with classics and modernization:
Others comment on authors, their works, and their lives:
Still others offer meta-commentary about the literary field/business. What I like about this book mostly is that I can pick it up and read a few comics whenever I want. They are random, sure, but all amusing at least and often hilarious. This book is the modern equivalent to me of The Far Side albums I would read when I was a kid, although they are way more literary than science-themed. It's full of weird, funny stuff, and I like that it connects with some of my favorite topics, which include reading and books.

The reviews I read of this book were mostly positive. The reviewer at Publishers Weekly liked it, summing up, "The art is dominated by shadowy stick figures that inhabit often complex spaces, which somehow makes it all the more droll." Rob Clough gave an in-depth analysis of the comics in this book and wrote, "I prefer his long-form work as it's drier and more restrained in its humor, but that's not to say that his pure gag work isn't entertaining as well." Annie Mok was less taken with the book, concluding her review, "Read this if you want to be mildly amused and you find it at your local library, but $20 is just too much for a stray chuckle or two out of 160 pages."

Gauld's art style is pretty minimal, kind of like Ed Emberley by way of Edward Gorey, but to me it is well suited to his sensibility and voice. For those who are interested in learning more, Gauld speaks about his work on this book in this interview.

Baking with Kafka was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they have a preview and more available here.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Everything is Flammable

I have heard a lot of praise about Gabrielle Bell over the years. She is a comics artist's comics artist who is revered by many (or at least many of the people I pay attention to). Her semi-autobiographical series Lucky is regarded by many of those folks as a stellar work of comics, a touchstone publication. So I am sad and glad to say this is the first work of hers I've read.

Everything is Flammable is her first full-length graphic memoir, and I thought it was fascinating and compelling. The main happening in the book is that Gabrielle's mother's house burned down and so she needs to regroup and rebuild. Their relationship is complex, loving, but sometimes standoffish. Her mom is a pretty isolated, independent woman and when Gabrielle comes cross-country to help her buy a new house and stove and also generally find her feet, there is some static. Some of the interactions are uncomfortable or bring up uncomfortable things, but they come across as very human and moving. The rest of the book are various accounts of her life and trying to get by. All of these situations are mundane, but they are also strangely suspenseful and relatable.
Autobiographical comics can be pretty boring or humdrum, but the various chapters in this book celebrate the ordinary in an extraordinary way. They come across as testaments to human fortitude, stamina, and behavior. Every page in this book has something phenomenal on it, clearly indicating a master talent at work. Bell portrays herself as anxious and tentative, but she is an exceptional observer, has a unique point of view, and is able to deliver comics that pack a punch, even when they portray a simple conversation. I will definitely be reading more of her work as soon as I can.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. Kirkus Reviews concluded their starred review, "A provocative, moving, and darkly funny book that seems almost worth the crises that it chronicles." Publishers Weekly also gave it starred review and wrote, "Bell’s vignettes peel back the layers of the mother-daughter relationship with self-deprecating comedy, displaying irritation but also patient forbearance." Pharoah Miles called it "a book that should be on everyone’s lap."

Everything is Flammable was published by uncivilized books. They have more info about it available here. There is some profanity in the book, so it's recommended for readers mature enough to handle that.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Black Hammer, Volume 1: Secret Origins

Winner of the 2017 Eisner Award for Best New Series, Black Hammer is a unique and interesting take on superheroes. Writer Jeff Lemire, one of the hardest working guys in comics, with a tremendous amount of titles to his credit wrote in the introduction to this book that he came up with the concept a while ago soon after finishing his Essex County Trilogy (some of the best comics I've read and well worth checking out). The plot follows a superhero team after they have spent ten years stranded in a small, rural town in another dimension following a grand battle to save the universe.

The characters in the book stand well enough on their own, though experienced comic book readers will recognize them as analogues for some pretty well established figures. Abraham Slam is very similar to Captain America, an older hero who lacks powers and is nearing the end of his career. Barbalien is an alien who seems a lot like the Martian Manhunter. Golden Gail is superheroine a lot like Mary Marvel, only she is unable to transform back to her human form so she is a 50-year-old woman trapped in the body of a 9-year-old. Colonel Weird is a version of scifi adventurer Adam Strange who is unstuck in time, and seems to be aware of the past, present, and future, though he cannot make sense of any of it. He is accompanied by a helpful robot called Walky Talky (who spends a lot of time hiding out). Madame Dragonfly is a lot like Madame Xanadu, a mystic possessed of great magical power. The final member of the team is Black Hammer, a hybrid version of Thor/Steel/Orion who has godlike powers but a strong drive to cater to humanity, though he is seemingly dead. He did have a daughter though, and she is still striving to find out what happened to the team while others have moved on and simply concluded they are dead.
 
 

This motley bunch is stuck in this place, though they don't know how they got there or why they cannot seem to leave. The kicker is that they still retain their powers (mostly) maintain a particularly low profile. Some, like Abraham Slam, find they like the quiet, mundane life while others view it as a horrid circumstance. Golden Gail is especially galled to have to relive elementary school and often gets drunk and is abusive to others. What makes this series compelling is more the personal angles to the relationships and plight they are in. Each chapter focuses on a particular character, recounting their secret origin and adding insight into their current status. The plot is also propelled by attempts to escape this place, not to mention the drive to find the mysterious cause of their situation. Clearly, this book has a lot going on, but the plot never gets convoluted. Black Hammer was the best kid of superhero comic for me, very easy to get into and very difficult to set aside. I am very much looking forward to picking up the next volume soon.

Joining Lemire in this collaboration are artists Dean Ormston and Dave Stewart. Ormston hails from the UK and is known for his work on 2000 AD and various Vertigo titles. Stewart is a veteran colorist who has won multiple Eisner Awards for his work.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have sung its praises. Thea James wrote,"I can’t really remember the last new superhero book that I read and desperately wanted more: Black Hammer is the superhero comic you need." Cam Petti praised the comics creators because they "use those cultural touchstones as tools not to celebrate, but to examine humanity, and in this way, they strike out on their own and craft an excellent story." Spencer Church called it "an incredible display of character development and storytelling."

Black Hammer was published by Dark Horse, and they have a preview and more information about this volume here.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Raid of No Return

If you have read my blog for a while you may have noticed that I think Nathan Hale is brilliant. He makes fantastic, informative, and inventive comics, and his series Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales is the best historical series in the graphic novel business. I even liked his non-historical work like One Trick Pony. What amazes me about his work is how consistently excellent it is, and Raid of No Return is no exception.

The plot of the book is set during World War II. In the events following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there was an extremely covert, risky, and dangerous mission set in place to bomb the Japanese mainland. This book recounts that mission with lots of details about the individual pilots, their crews, and the various outcomes of each bombing run. But additionally, and most impressively to me, it also delved deeply into the Japanese planning of the bombing and gave insight into their side of the military conflict.
This book is full of action and suspense, with multiple plot threads running simultaneously. It is difficult to have so many different stories and to make the reader feel invested in each one, but Hale does exactly that, making the stories both historically detailed as well as personally affecting. Raid of No Return is chock full of compelling, true-life stories that will keep you on the end of your seat and is a worthy addition to an extraordinarily well-crafted series of books.

The reviews I read about this book were all aptly full of praise. Lori Henderson wrote that it "does a great job of illuminating historical events in an entertaining and sometimes sobering way. It’s a great addition to library shelves." Tanya Turek called it "a powerful story that is suspenseful, emotional and almost unbelievable."

Raid of No Return was published by Amulet Books, and they offer more info about it here.