Saturday, June 30, 2018

Mechaboys

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 25, 2018

Animus

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

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

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

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

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Ringside, Volume 1: Kayfabe

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 15, 2018

Brave

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Dawn and the Impossible Three

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Soupy Leaves Home

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

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

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

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

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