Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Nib Magazine Issue 4: Scams

I just read the fourth issue of The Nib print magazine, and it is a top notch collection of political cartoons, tales, and reports by excellent writers and cartoonists. I am a huge fan of The Nib, as a magazine and as a website that updates fairly regularly (practically daily). As of July, the entire enterprise is independent and reliant on the support of its readers, and I am glad to take this time to highlight what I feel is an excellent source of comics goodness.

This particular issue focuses on Scams, and it covers multiple topics, including the classic Nigerian Prince email swindle, ways that refugees are robbed by supposed help agencies, various Ponzi schemes, seemingly criminal real estate practices, good-old-fashioned counterfeiting, and electronic fraud. The stories are current, topical, and fascinating. Also, many also feature a good dose of humor. I love nonfiction comics, and this book is full of them.

Stand-out stories in this book include:

Emi Gennis's account of John Romulus Brinkley, "The Goat Gland Doctor" who was an infamous huckster with a huge radio signal.
"My Heart Burns" by Yazan al-Saadi and Tracy Chahwan, about smugglers and how they fleece Syrian refugees who are most vulnerable and desperate.
Josh Carter and Liz Enright's "Secret Agent Man," about one father's search for a big online score and its aftermath on his family's lives.
These stories are profoundly moving as well as eye-opening. These are the best kinds of comics: educational, informative, funny, and emotional. There is something here for everyone.

The Nib's website, where original work is regularly published, is here. Memberships to The Nib are available here. Rates start at $2/month, and the print copy costs $4/month. It's well worth it!

They are also currently running a summer fundraiser, if you are just inclined to make a donation, I say it's for a great bunch of folks.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Tonta

Long-time readers of this blog should know that Jaime Hernandez is a living legend and 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. Last year he also ventured into the arena of children's comics with The Dragon Slayer.

This book, Tonta, gathers together material published a few years ago in Love and Rockets: New Stories. For the most part, these stories focus on the titular Tonta (her nickname, Spanish for stupid or dummy), a teenager who tries to fit in the best she can. Her family is sort of a mess, with a network of older half-sisters and a half-brother who occasionally nose into her business. Also, her mother seems to be a black widow sort, leaving a trail of exes who have been suspiciously murdered. That last bit entails a prolonged legal drama that is woven throughout the book.
As you can see, Tonta also does typical sorts of teenager things, like sneaking booze, hanging out with people she shouldn't, hiding out in the woods with her clique, and cozying up to members of her favorite band. She is not always successful with her intentions, or come off the coolest, but she is a dynamic and expressive character. That is what I perhaps appreciated most about this book. You do not necessarily need to know a lot of background to catch on to the multitude of things that go on. Each character is defined and memorable. Each episode is powerful and economically communicated, and it is very easy to get swept up in the narrative flow. This book is yet another testament to Jaime Hernandez's incredible artistic and storytelling chops.

The reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. Publishers Weekly concluded, "This rambunctious ride may be more minor in the Hernandez catalog, but it’s still a master class in cartooning." Hillary Brown commented in a similar vein, "It seems like the abiding conception of Jaime Hernandez’s Tonta is that it’s a minor work of his, a sort of tossed-off compilation of stories focusing on a character who’s more an Io than a Jupiter, a character actor rather than a leading lady. But the fact is that reading it, for me, produced the same rush of blood to the brain and almost dizzying happiness as his “major” Maggie and Hopey stories."

Tonta was published by Fantagraphics, and they offer a preview and more here. This book features some profanity and nudity, so it is suggested for readers mature enough to handle those things.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Tyler Cross Volume 2: Angola

I reviewed the first collection about Tyler Cross here, but do not worry if you missed it because Angola stands on its own. Here the veteran criminal/smuggler gets set up during a supposedly simple job and sent to the worst prison in America. Surrounded by swamps, kept by sadistic, corrupt guards, and pursued by the several members of a crime family, Cross is beset by hardships. His daily struggle to survive is further complicated by the price on his head and the lascivious warden's wife. So, of course, he starts to plot an escape plan.

Tyler Cross is a character in the vein of Richard Starks' Parker, a tough, violent, and crafty criminal who is not going to undergo any transformation over the course of the story. He's in a spot; he's going to get out of it, and it's not going to be pretty. Still, I feel the plotting and artwork are both well executed, and I very much enjoyed the book. If you are seeking a suspenseful, action-noir story, this one has a lot recommending it.

This book is another collaboration between writer Fabien Nury and artist Brüno. Nury has written a number of historical comic books and graphic novels, including The Death of Stalin. Brüno has drawn several comics series, including Commando Colonial, many which seem to be historical pieces as well. The duo have also collaborated on a prior comic, Atar Gull, a tale about slavery.

The reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly concluded, "As intricately woven as the first installment, this brutal, cool series remains recommended reading for crime thriller enthusiasts." Benjamin Welton called it "a classic crime caper told in the hardboiled style." Andy Shaw wrote, "The story isn’t as dynamic as the first, trapped as it is in a prison, but it’s just as intense and dark."

Tyler Cross: Angola was published by Titan Books/Hard Case Crime, and they offer more about it here. There is a sizable preview available here.

A third Tyler Cross series just wrapped up here.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Girl Town

An Eisner Award-nominated book, Girl Town is a collection of five stories that highlight different aspects of women's lives through fantasy and science fiction tropes. Two of these tales, "Radishes" and "Diana's Electric Tongue," won Ignatz Awards in the past.

The stories in this collection are:
  • The titular tale is about a couple of cliques of women I'd describe as frenemies. 
  • "Radishes" is about two friends playing hooky at a unique outdoor market.
  • "Diana's Electric Tongue" is the longest narrative in the book by far, and it is about a woman with a robot boyfriend and a troubled past relationship.
  • "The Big Burning House" is a visually ambitious, interesting mix of fandom, podcasting, and social media.
  • "Please Sleep Over" is about a divorcée and her girlfriend house-sitting where she grew up.

The visual styles of each story differ, and what unites them is the way that the people in them grapple with and try to mask their emotions. I loved how this book portrayed characters trying to stay strong and put forth a happy/positive face in times of adversity or trauma. Each story hinges on a moment or moments when that mask slips and the pain and emotion shine through. I loved these little moments and was moved by them, which speaks to the craft and skill in both plotting an impactful tale while also perfectly complementing the plot with drawings that carried lots of emotional weight. This is a book full of pain and beauty, each story one to savor.

Carolyn Nowak is the celebrated author of this book, and she has also published another adult comic titled No Better Words. If you check out her Patreon page you can see more about her work and future projects. She speaks more about her work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews* I have read about this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly opined that "the full collection represents the emergence of a promising new comics talent." Kirkus Reviews concluded, "Nowak creates raw female characters and, by spotlighting them, demands that they be seen." Rob Clough wrote, "Nowak makes her work seem lighthearted and even breezy on the surface, but the reality is that her work is emotionally and intellectually dense." Alex Hoffman wrote that "these comics are weird, a little off kilter, different than expected."

Girl Town was published by Top Shelf, and they offer a preview and more here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

*There is also the infamous The Comics Journal review, though I consider it the same way that Charles Hatfield does in his comment (scroll down). It's a lame, sexist, dismissive review that holds Nowak to an unreasonable standard.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Red Panda & Moon Bear

Red Panda & Moon Bear is a delightful book. It features a unique Latinx sister/brother superhero team. Both wear hoodies, Red Panda's giving her the strength of ten red pandas. Moon Bear possesses a magic crystal that he wields in a special gauntlet. Together, they defend their neighborhood from various menaces and solve mysteries. They face evil dogs, a ghost in a library, ice cream monsters, a nightmare, shape-shifting monsters from another galaxy, disappearing buildings, and scary trees.

Their adventures are fun and inventive, and I appreciate how they get through various situations not only by using their wits and sometimes their fists, but also by being empathetic and talking things through. They show that kindness and understanding can be effective for dealing with others and finding solutions to various dilemmas.
This book is fantastical in the best kind of way, with cool sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero elements woven throughout 11 chapters. And I love RP and MB's sense of adventure and cleverness. I think that perhaps the highest praise I have for the book is that I read it with my three-year-old, and he did not want to put it down. He not only insisted I keep reading each chapter, he even took it with him in his wagon when we went for a walk around our neighborhood. This book is enchanting!

When I asked him what he liked about it, he told me, "There's a mystery." "It's a little bit scary." And "I like Red Panda and Moon Bear (the characters)." So, there's something for everyone!

This book's creator Jarod Roselló is an artist, researcher, and educator who teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida. Although this book is his first for younger readers, he has published the graphic novel The Well-Dressed Bear Will (Never) Be Found as well as a bunch of shorter pieces. He has another graphic novel called Those Bears in the works for publication. He speaks about his work in this interview.

I was not able to locate many reviews of this book, but the ones I found were very positive. Cassie at Teachers Who Read called it "a perfect addition to the graphic novels in my classroom." It currently has a 4.71 (out of 5) star rating at Goodreads.

Red Panda & Moon Bear was published by Top Shelf Productions, and they offer a preview and much more here.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Credo: The Rose Wilder Lane Story

Peter Bagge is one of my all-time favorite comics makers. A multiple award winner with decades of credits, he created the seminal alternative comics series Neat Stuff and Hate and served as editor of the holdover underground comics anthology Weirdo. He has also created a number of graphic novels, including Fire!!, Woman Rebel, Apocalypse Nerd, Other Lives, and Reset. More recently, he has been a contributor to publications like Reason magazine (see his collections Founding Fathers Funnies and Everybody is Stupid Except for Me) and Vice Magazine (the Musical Urban Legends column).

Like Fire!! and Woman Rebel, Credo is a biography of a woman associated with a libertarian point of view. Rose Wilder Lane was the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, of Little House on the Prairie fame, and a respected author in her own right. In fact, this book suggests that she had at least a small hand in her mother's literary success, at least as an editor and polisher, and perhaps even more so as the author of several books (the exact nature of her role is suggested but unclear in this book). She was also a very vocal woman, partly fired up by her bipolar mental state, who associated with a good number of the political and literary figures of the day, including Ayn Rand.
Like the other books in this series, Bagge portrays various highlights from her life, and it is clear for the substantive footnotes that follow the main text that he has done extensive research into his subject. He also inserts his own political leanings as well as a good dose of humor. I did not know much about Rose Wilder Lane before I read this book, and I felt that it was an effective and informative introduction to her life and works.  He speaks about his work on this book in this interview with Etelka Lehoczky.

The reviews I have read about this book have tended to be positive. Publishers Weekly called it a "loopy, frantic, and personality-packed tribute." Ryan C. pondered if Bagge is "creatively stalled out" and wrote, "my hope is that he’ll give the biography format a rest for awhile and tell us where he’s coming from and why rather than using historical figures as mouthpieces and/or human shields for his worldview." Rob Clough praised the book for intermingling comedy and historical research.

Credo was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they offer a preview and much more info here. There is also a sizable preview available from Reason.

On a final note, I was glad to serve on a couple of panels with Bagge at the Denver Pop Culture Con this year, where he signed my copy of this book. He's an informed and funny speaker and a good guy, too!

Monday, July 22, 2019

Congratulations, 2019 Eisner Award Winners!

The 2019 Eisner Award winners were announced at San Diego Comic-Con this past week, and I thought I'd highlight the winners who have been featured on this blog. You can find the complete list of winners here, and there are lots of excellent comics to check out. Congratulations to all!

Best Continuing Series
Giant Days, by John Allison, Max Sarin and Julia Madrigal (BOOM! Box)

Best Publication for Early Readers (up to age 8)
Johnny Boo and the Ice Cream Computer, by James Kochalka (Top Shelf/IDW) - from the Johnny Boo series

Best Publication for Kids (ages 9–12)
The Divided Earth, by Faith Erin Hicks (First Second) - Book 3 of the Nameless City trilogy

Best Publication for Teens (ages 13–17)
The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang (First Second)

Best Humor Publication
Giant Days, by John Allison, Max Sarin and Julia Madrigal (BOOM! Box)

Best Reality-Based Work
Is This Guy for Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman, by Box Brown (First Second)

Best Graphic Album—New
My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Image)

Best Graphic Album—Reprint
The Vision hardcover, by Tom King, Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Michael Walsh (Marvel)

Best U.S. Edition of International Material
Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World, by Pénélope Bagieu (First Second)

Best Writer/Artist

Jen Wang, The Prince and the Dressmaker (First Second)

Best Painter/Multimedia Artist (interior art)

Dustin Nguyen, Descender (Image)

Best Coloring

Matt Wilson, Black Cloud, Paper Girls, The Wicked + The Divine (Image); The Mighty Thor, Runaways (Marvel)

The Russ Manning Promising Newcomer Award
Lorena Alvarez (Nightlights, Hictoea: A Nightlights Story)


Saturday, July 20, 2019

Dog Man and Cat Kid

The Dog Man book series has topped best-seller lists, been translated into 23 languages, and had an initial printing of 5 million copies(!) for the sixth volume, so I figured I might check this little series out. Actually, I have been meaning to read one of these books, a spin-off of the wildly popular Captain Underpants series, for a while now. So when my wife came home after picking up one on a whim for me, I finally had the chance to see what all the hubbub was about. Dog Man and Cat Kid is actually the fourth book in the series, and it did a great job of recapping prior books and getting me right into the narrative.
 

As you just saw, Dog Man is the result of an experimental surgery that grafted a dying dog's head onto the body of a dying police officer, resulting one strange living crime fighter. He fights for good, beset by his nemesis Petey the Cat. In his latest plot, Petey cloned himself but was bummed to find out that the result was a kitten. So he gets Dog Man to adopt the kitten, that way he'll have a double agent acting on his behalf. However, the kitten has other ideas and actually wants to be more like the virtuous Dog Man. Still, he has doubts and thinks he might be inherently evil, so he lets Petey sway him at times. When Dog Man's adventures get optioned for a major Hollywood movie, Dog Man ends up being hired as a bodyguard for the film's star, Yolay Caprese, and Petey decides to do everything in his power to ruin the entire enterprise.

This book has a little bit of something for everyone: bad puns, parodies of Hollywood action movies and actors, some bathroom humor, giant robotic hot dogs, slapstick scenes, riffs on Steinbeck's East of Eden and other literary works, and superheroic action scenes. And in the end, I feel like after all the silliness, there actually was a decent lesson about being able to make choices and determine how you want to act in the world. I know that this series and Captain Underpants gets a bad rap, appearing at the top of banned book lists, but I thought this book was a lot of fun and had a good moral. Sort of a contemporary version of MAD Magazine, with a critical skewering of the adult world.

This book was created by Dav Pilkey, a wildly successful children's book and comics author who has the Captain Underpants and The Dumb Bunnies series to his credit. My son and I are also quite partial to his parody/homages Kat Kong and Dogzilla. He speaks about his life, books, and a number of other topics in this interview.

I was not able to locate many reviews of this book, and they tended to be either "love" or "hate" ones. Kirkus Reviews concluded that this is a book "that will tickle fancies high and low." It currently has a 4.54 overall rating at Goodreads.

Dog Man and Cat Kid was published by Scholastic Graphix, and they offer more info about it here.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Little Women

Good things sometimes come on small packages, and I am not making a joke about this book's title. It is a relatively slim volume, but it brought me great joy. It is not a strict adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic book Little Women, as I had expected, but half comic strips that show the highlights in a humorous light, half biography of her dad Bronson Alcott, AKA "the worst father in history." As you might can tell from the cover, this book takes a few liberties in heightening characters' responses to the plot. It also offers a smart meta-commentary on the book. It is funny and clever, and I feel that those who have read the original would really enjoy it. Heck, I've never read the original, and I enjoyed it immensely.
The second half of the book is a biography of the transcendentalist Bronson Alcott, Louisa May's father. He was an interesting fellow who dragged his family into all sorts of situations based on his beliefs. His specific views about how to live the perfect life led to several attempts at communal living, poverty, and veganism.

I just met this book's illustrator Ryan Dunlavey at the Denver Pop Culture Con in June, and he told me that there will be future entries in this series, only they will be mostly comic strip adaptations without the historical commentary. I am very much looking forward to checking out those volumes.

This book was drawn by Ryan Dunlavey and written by Grady Hendrix. Dunlavey's work typically combined humor with nonfiction and he is known for drawing the series Action Presidents!, Action Philosophers! and The Comic Book History of Comics. Hendrix is an author with an interesting and varied list of credits that touch on popular culture, horror, novels, and cookbooks.

I was not able to locate many reviews of this book, though it currently has a 4.33 (out of 5) star rating on Goodreads.

Little Women was published by Evil Twin Comics, and they offer more info about it here.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Apocalypse Taco

If you have been reading my blog for any length of time, you'll probably know that I love Nathan Hale's comics and graphic novels. His nonfiction series Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales is the gold standard for historical graphic novels, as far as I am concerned. I loved his takes on fairy tales and the southwest, Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack. And I really liked his original sci-fi graphic novel One Trick Pony. With his new book Apocalypse Taco, not only does he win the prize for best original book title, he also provides a gripping, tense, icky, and fun sci-fi/horror tale.

The set-up of this book starts before a school theater production of Brigadoon, when the students are creating the set. A trio, including 11-year-old twins Axl and Ivan and 16-year-old Sid make a late night fast food run to energize the minds and bodies of the crew. Not only do they not get the food, the food tries to get them.
At first they think they have been transported to some alternate, hellish dimension. Then they find that their school and town have been transformed into imperfect replicas. Everyone and everything, including their families, friends, and homes have turned to goopy creatures that are chasing them. Not only that, they encounter other strange lifeforms, including one made up entirely of arms and another made up of teeth. All of this is clearly unsettling and horrific, but luckily they meet up with a graduate student (!) who starts to make sense of things.

I will not reveal more, as I don't want to spoil things, but clearly this is a book with a lot going on. I enjoyed how horrific and original it was, and I admire just how much it is genuinely a thriller that does not insult anyone's intelligence. The situations are strange and compelling, and Hale definitely establishes a mood throughout the book that builds suspense and has multiple payoffs in terms of the plotting. As much as I love his nonfiction work, I also really dig the fiction he has written. His takes build on common genre tropes, but he extends them to interesting, unique places. Hale is one of the best comics creators out there, for all audiences, in my opinion. Apocalypse Taco is a satisfying, gruesome tale that should appeal to readers looking for fun, sci-fi/horror.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have praised it. Publishers Weekly summed it up as "Weird, freaky fun." J. Caleb Mozzocco concluded, "Young readers, particularly those who are easily freaked out, may want to proceed with caution. More adventurous readers can plunge right in, with one caveat: There’s a pretty good chance their minds might get blown in the process." Sam Wildman wrote, "Apocalypse Taco has great crossover appeal for both adult readers and young readers – at least those who can appreciate a trippy surreal trip into the world of grotesque body horror." Kirkus Reviews called it "A well-balanced mix of sci-fi, horror, and humor."

Apocalypse Taco was published by Abrams, and they offer a preview and more info about it here.
I finally had the honor and pleasure of meeting Nathan Hale at the Denver Pop Culture Con last month, and he was gracious enough to sign my copy. HE ROCKS!

Friday, July 5, 2019

Mars Attacks!

What better way to celebrate Independence Day than with some fireworks? I am not the biggest fan of licensed comics series, but I have gone on the record saying I'd buy anything Kyle Starks makes sight unseen. And I am also a big fan of Chris Schweizer's work. Plus I have a fascination for the gruesome trading card series this comic is based on. So I decided to check this series out, and boy I am I glad I did.

The story begins when lifelong loser Spencer Carbutt decides to hit up his father, who is a retired marine living in a retirement village, for some cash. Just then a giant alien invasion happens, and instead of staying to die, the duo hit the road. Along the way, Spencer and the Major meet up with a militia, befriend a dog, hook up with the military, and work out a lot of personal issues. Seeing them resolve their relationship in the midst of the brutal slaughter of humanity makes for an interesting juxtaposition. It also makes for some curious and funny situations.

Like many of Starks's other works, this book is full of action, snappy dialogue, and interesting events. Schweizer's artwork here smacks of Harvey Kurtzman's classic war comics, and it is full of character, energy, and pathos. Both creators really seem to revel in all the action, gore, and aliens zapping things, but they do not sell the book short because they also offer decent characters that are easy to relate to and root for. Mars Attacks! is a fine piece of entertainment, a fun summer blockbuster in comics form.
Two-time Eisner Award nominee Starks and three-time Eisner Award nominee Schweizer are two of my favorite comics creators. They previously collaborated on the series Rock Candy Mountain. I have also enjoyed Stark's other works, including Kill Them All, Sexcastle, and The Legend of Ricky Thunder. He is currently writing the series Assassination Nation. Schweizer is also an accomplished graphic novelist whose series The Crogan Adventures and The Creeps are personal favorites. Starks speaks more about working on the Mars Attacks! series in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Steven Martinez wrote that it was "a really fun comic" that "captures the campy feel of the 1996 movie, and it tells a touching story about a father and son facing the end together." Kate wrote, "I have fallen in love with this series and the unexpected emotion in it."

Mars Attacks! was published by Dynamite Entertainment, and they offer more info about it here.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Cardboard Kingdom

This is the final book I am writing about this month that I reviewed for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards presented at the Denver Pop Culture Con earlier in June. It really took me by surprise just how moving and heartfelt this book was. It is about a neighborhood that is full of imaginative children who like to engage in pretend-play. They build lots of structures and costumes from cardboard, with each chapter being focused on an individual child. At first, I thought this was just going to be a light look at a bunch of kids playing together, and I have to admit that, art aside, I thought it was going to be pretty forgettable. But after a couple of tales, I was struck by a few things.

First, all of the characters are memorable and nuanced. They come from different family configurations and backgrounds. They are racially diverse. Some may seem like types initially, but getting to see them and their lives quickly disabused me of the notion that they were simple caricatures. They have different interests and distinct personalities. Some want to play out fantasies, while others want to be business people. Some want to be superheroes to help others; some want to be monsters or villains to exercise their power. By the end of the book, I felt like I had known some of these children during my own life.

Second, the issues that they have to deal with are realistic and contemporary. Some come from multi-parent homes, others from same-sex families, or single-parent households. Some deal with abusive or harsh relationships. Some are trying on different gender identities. I feel that the cast of characters is aptly diverse and reflective of modern life in the US. Although it comes from the viewpoints of children, this book grapples with issues of identity, family, and finding one's place in the world.

Third, this book is deceptively complex and engrossing. Later in the story when there are some older kids who come in as bullies and wreck a lot of their work, I was genuinely concerned for the young kids and horrified by what I was reading. This book is gripping, and it sheds an intimate light into the inner lives that children have to life, warts and all. Not all of the stories here resolve well, but they all show what can happen when you have genuinely good friends. I found myself in love with these characters, and it's a book I will read again and again.
The book cover says that the author is Chad Sell, who illustrated the whole thing, but there are different writers (including Jay Fuller, David Derek, Katie Schenkel, Kris Moore, Manuel Betancourt, Molly Muldoon, Vid Alliger, Cloud Jacobs, Michael Cole, Barbara Perez Marquez, Vid Alliger, David Demeo, and Chad Sell) penning individual chapters. In a helpful move, all contributors have a short bio in the end papers. Sell has a very strong, colorful art style that I found very attractive and inviting. I very much liked his technique where he switched back and forth visually from the reality of what the kids made and the fantasy play they were engaged in.
Sell speaks about his life and work in comics in this interview. Or if you prefer to listen to a podcast interview, here is a good one at Comics Syllabus (Hi, Paul!). This interview with many of the book's creators offers multiple insights about the stories. This interview touches on the logistics of tackling this project with so many contributors.

This book has been met with much praise and award nominations. It has received multiple starred reviews, such as the one from Publishers Weekly that concluded, "Imagination, these kids prove, can erase what seem like unbridgeable differences." In their starred review, Kirkus Reviews called it "a breath of fresh air," and added that " this tender and dynamic collection is a must-have for any graphic-novel collection." Esther Keller called it "a lovely book with bold artwork." Elizabeth Bird raved, "Chad Sell and his cadre of clever writers are here and they might just be the wave of the future we’ve been waiting for."

The Cardboard Kingdom was published by Random House Graphic, and they offer a preview and more here.

The publisher provided a review copy.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Sheets

Another of the finalists in the Middle Grades category for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards presented at the Denver Pop Culture Con, Sheets is a ghost story with a few twists. 11-year-old Marjorie Glatt is the protagonist of the book. She faces trouble on three fronts: first she's a sort of pariah at school; second she is dealing with her mother's death and father's depression; and third she is running the family business, a laundromat. As if these obstacles were not enough, she gets more heaped on her plate. A scheming entrepreneur Mr. Saubertuck is trying to sabotage her business so he can turn the space into a yoga studio, and a ghost named Wendell starts showing up and treating the place like his very own spa.
After dealing with a few episodes of sabotage and ornery customers, Marjorie figures out what Wendell is and tries to enlist his aid. Unfortunately, he's not the most reliable sort and is also prone to telling lies. Without spoiling too much, she finds a way to prevail, and this book resolves pretty happily. Still, overall, the book is rather bittersweet.
For me, the best aspect here was the character work, which is strong. Marjorie is very put upon, but she is also strong and persistent and you really feel for her and her plight. Wendell is a complex sort of enigma, and Marjorie's dad is a mess who just cannot seem to get it together. But especially I must say that Mr. Saubertuck is the most reprehensible and vile villain I have encountered in a comic in a long time. I found him utterly contemptible in a visceral way, even though he turns out to be rather pathetic. In the end, the characters made Sheets a very moving and memorable read.

This book is the first original graphic novel by Brenna Thummler. She has previously collaborated on an adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. She speaks more about making Sheets in this interview. She also elaborates more on it in this article related to its Free Comic Book Day offering.

The reviews I have read of this book have been mostly positive. Publishers Weekly called it "a smart story about friendship and grit." Johanna Draper Carlson found the book uneven and wrote, "Thummler has some areas to work on, but the combination of laundry, sheets, and ghosts is clever." Noah Berlatsky called it "a fairly standard YA coming of age story, which combines realism and fantasy deftly, if somewhat predictably." Zarik Khan described it as "incredibly endearing and heartbreaking." Gwen and Krystal also had a lengthy discussion about it at the Comics Alternative podcast.

Sheets was published by Lion Forge Comics, and they offer a preview and much more here. And, good news, there is a sequel coming out in 2020, called Delicates.

The publisher provided a review copy.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Hidden Witch

One of the finalists in the Middle Grades category for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards presented at the Denver Pop Culture Con, The Hidden Witch is the sequel to The Witch Boy. After the events of the first book, Aster is now allowed to learn the ways of magic. He begins his studies under the guidance of his grandmother, but there is a catch. She asks him to help her with his great-uncle Mikasa, who almost killed him and his family. Aster struggles with his fears and trepidation on this front when another issue arises.
His non-magic friend Charlie has been tethered to a "fetch," a dark magic being that is typically forbidden. So, there is clearly some other player in the field here, though it is a newcomer who is hidden from the family and their familiars. Both plots fold into each other in an interesting manner, and like the first book in the series, I think that its real strength lies in its nuanced characters and their relationships. This book offers an exploration of what constitutes family and also friendships. It also explores the concept of evil and how redemption might be found from unlikely sources. It was very suspenseful and also moving, a great way to tie up the plot threads left after The Witch Boy.

I am a big fan of this book's creator Molly Knox Ostertag. I love the first work of hers I encountered, the webcomic Strong Female Protagonist, which has been collected in two trade paperbacks from Top Shelf, and I also very much enjoyed the sci-fi tale The Shattered Warrior she drew. She speaks more about her work on The Hidden Witch in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. Esther Keller wrote that "it’s even better" than its predecessor. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review that contained this insight, "Ostertag’s sophomore effort is every bit as wonderful as its predecessor, with continued strong worldbuilding, lovely large and bright illustrations, and its approachable and diverse cast that runs a true-to-life spectrum encompassing white-, tan-, and dark-skinned characters as well as same-sex relationships." Rebecca Williams opined, "This story’s multiple sub-plots bring a richness to a story that illustrates the author’s storytelling talent."

The Hidden Witch was published by Scholastic Graphix, and they offer a preview and more here.

A preview copy was provided by the publisher.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Making Friends

I am taking this month to highlight some of the titles I read for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards presented earlier this month at the Denver Pop Culture Con. Making Friends was a book I was excited to read because I had read a couple of titles by its author Kristen Gudsnuk in recent years. It takes its title literally, because it is about a teenage girl named Danielle who inherits a sketchbook from her great-aunt. Normally, this is not out of the ordinary, but it turns out the sketchbook is magical and can bring to life anything drawn in its pages. Danielle (Dany for short) is into anime, which takes an unfortunate turn as one of the first things she draws is the head of Prince Neptune, an evil alien overlord. Luckily, it only being a head makes it concealable, but (spoiler) it eventually figures out a way to wreak havoc.
Where this book really takes an intriguing turn is when the isolated Dany uses it to create a popular newcomer to her school, Madison Fontaine, to be her best friend and change her social status. Dany's plan has lots of unexpected wrinkles, biggest of which is that Madison becomes cognizant of being a fictional creation with no real family or home. Also, her being under Dany's control brings on some dark overtones. On top of this bunch of strange social dynamics, Dany also has to contend with and foil the evil plans of Prince Neptune, which brings a huge, unexplained catastrophe to town.

I found Making Friends to be a fun book that turned my plot expectations on their heads. It features interesting characters and a good amount of suspense. I was also impressed by how it made this magical premise work with "real world" repercussions. My only gripe would be that I felt that ending seemed a bit rushed in terms of the whole narrative, but overall I felt the book was exceptionally good.

Like I noted before, it is the creation of Kristen Gudsnuk, who has also created a couple of titles Henchgirl and Modern Fantasy I have enjoyed. Her artwork is expressive and features lots of little gags peppered throughout, which I found to be a funny and rewarding bonus. She speaks about her various works in this interview.

Making Friends was published by Scholastic Graphix, and they offer more info about it here. And good news for those who like me who like this book: it's getting a sequel.

The publisher provided a review copy.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Clem Hetherington and the Ironwood Race

Clem Hetherington and the Ironwood Race is another book I reviewed for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards. This one was fun for me for a few reasons. First off, it had a lot going on in a good way. Clem is the orphaned daughter of two archaeologists, only here the setting is a sort of extreme archaeology where drivers are given clues for treasure sites and then have to speed off in souped-up battle vehicles in order to be first to claim the prize. There are lots of competitors in interesting and deadly vehicles, and the event is cut-throat. For instance, there is one giant, armored battle wagon driven by large, sentient crocodiles. They are not to be taken lightly.
You would think that this race would not be the place for a young girl, but she has few prospects and is living hand-to-mouth. She also has specialized knowledge and skills. Clem is recruited (even though she is underage) to drive for the team led by her parents' former assistant, a shifty guy she had lost contact with. In the course of events, Clem learns some shocking secrets about him and his relationship with her parents, has to contend with the deadly Ironwood Race, and finds out that she is a pretty good extreme archaeologist. Also, she travels with her android brother named Digory who helps her along the way, and I very much liked their repartee and relationship.

There was much I liked about this book. It has a simple, sturdy plot. The characters are types of a sort, but they are engaging and easy to root for or boo. Best of all, the world and character designs really shine in the artwork, which features top-notch storytelling. This book left me breathless with its action sequences. It's a vibrant and exciting read.

Clem Hetherington and the Ironwood Race was a collaboration between writer Jen Breach and artist Douglas Holgate. Breach has written a few comics and books, including the self-published Maralinga and Something's Amiss at the Zoo. Holgate is a frequent collaborator with Breach, and he has drawn a host of other comics and graphic novels, most notably the The Last Kids of Earth series.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "Indiana Jones meets Mad Max in a whirlwind as exciting for teens as it is for middle-grade readers." Elizabeth Bush called this book's premise "an action-lover's dream." Patrick Hayes wrote, "As soon as I was done, I wanted to read more."

Clem Hetherington and the Ironwood Race was published by Scholastic Graphix, and they offer a preview and more here. It is listed as a #1, so I hope we get to see more books in the series, though so far I have seen nothing solicited.

The publisher provided a review copy.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Kate's Really Good At Hockey

This past year, I served as a judge for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards presented at the Denver Pop Culture Con. As part of my duties, I am charged with reading and rating a bunch of books, and I thought I'd take this month to highlight some of my favorites from this year's submissions.
Someone's excited!

As a big fan of the sport, I was excited to read Kate's Really Good at Hockey. It is about a teenager from Nashville who, like the title says, is really good at hockey. She's so good that she gets invited to a prestigious hockey camp in Denver, Colorado. There, she is not so much the big fish in the small pond but comes to see what it's like to play with others who are just as good, if not better, players.

There are obstacles Kate has to face on ice, including a couple of French-Canadian skaters who get under her skin and the coach whom she has long admired from afar but is pretty hard on her performance and demeanor. Off the ice, she also has to deal with a few issues. While at the camp she comes to stay with her grandmother, with whom she has had a pretty distant relationship. They start off icy, with Kate being tasked with specific chores she does not appreciate.
Kate does not really get why her mom made her stay there, but over time learns a couple of family secrets that put a different spin on things. Over the course of the book, Kate learns much about herself, her family, and the game of hockey. I very much enjoyed the characters, the plot, and the artwork, and I'd love to see more books like this, or even a series about these same characters.

Kate's Really Good At Hockey was written by Christina M. Frey and Howard Shapiro with art drawn by Jade Gonzalez. Frey is an editor and writer, and this site may or may not be hers, as I am not sure if there are two people with the same name who live in Maryland who work on books. Shapiro is an accountant by day and publisher by night, and he has written and published several comics, including a few other graphic novels about hockey. Gonzalez is based in Chile, and she has worked on a series The Oswald Chronicles. There is more info about this book's creation in this article.

I had a tough time finding many reviews of this book, but they were all were positive. Laura Astorian wrote, "The illustrations and inks pop and are engaging, the characters are emotive, and the hockey is full of action." Tonja Drecker added, "It's wonderful to see a middle grade book with girls and hockey, and one that hits the game with all that hardness the game holds." Kristen opined, "I like the dedication that Kate displays – even in the face of adversity – and would think she could be inspirational for young hockey players."

Kate's Really Good At Hockey was published by Animal Media Group, and they have more info about it here.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

2019 Excellence in Graphic Literature Winners!

This past weekend I was proud and glad to attend the 2019 Denver Pop Culture Con. I served on the jury for the Middle Grades category of the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards, presented by Pop Culture Classroom, and I am very grateful for the opportunity.

Here is the entire list of winners:

·       2019 Book of the Year: Berlin by Jason Lutes (Drawn & Quarterly)
·       2019 Mosaic Award: The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang (First Second)
·       2019 Best in Educational Comics: Adult, Nonfiction: Monk by Youssef Daoudi (First Second)
·       2019 Best in Educational Comics: Adult, Fiction: Berlin by Jason Lutes (Drawn & Quarterly)
·       2019 Best in Educational Comics: Young Adult, Nonfiction: Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka (Scholastic)
·       2019 Best in Educational Comics: Young Adult, Fiction: Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Dorkin (Sourcebooks)
·       2019 Best in Educational Comics: Middle-Grade, Nonfiction: The Faithful Spy by John Hendrix (Abrams Comic Arts)
·       2019 Best in Educational Comics: Middle-Grade, Fiction: Crush by Svetlana Chmakova (Yen Press)
·       2019 Best in Educational Comics: Children, Nonfiction: The Eye That Never Sleeps by Marissa Moss and Jeremy Holmes (Abrams Comic Arts)
·       2019 Best in Educational Comics: Children, Fiction: Tiger vs. Nightmare by Emily Titri (First Second)

Congratulations to all the winners!

There were so many great books that I will spend the rest of the month highlighting some of the ones I found exceptional. Stay tuned for more tomorrow!