Saturday, May 25, 2019

New Kid

New Kid was recommended to me by fellow graphic novel aficionado Zach Barnes, and I am glad he turned me onto it. It is a rare book, in its view of a scholarship student going to a private school. Riverdale Academy Day School is a launching pad for success, and Jordan Banks's parents decide it is the best way for him to go. He's African-American, which puts in him in the minority at that new school, and he's really unsure if he belongs for many reasons. First, he wants to be an artist, and he feels that art school might be a better path for him. Second, he's from a family with modest means, and most of the students at RADS are super-rich patricians, some of whom have legacies there.

What really stood out to me about this book was how it depicted Jordan's various plights with humor, heart, and nuance. His parents want what is best for him, although they also have their disagreements about this situation. Jordan has to navigate a new space while dealing with racial and class issues. People often do not speak to him, and when they do they call him by the wrong name. Furthermore, he has to make new friends while also maintaining his relationships at home and making sense of both worlds. In part this struggle is embodied by the subtle transformations he makes each day as his dress and demeanor change over the course of the long bus ride to school. He has to assume several identities and navigate multiple realities, which this book shows in a way that drives home what many young people have to do in order to get by on a daily basis.
The book is laid out in multiple chapters, episodes that follow him across the school year. There are multiple plot threads, and overall I'd say the narrative is more observational than dramatic. But those observations are sharp, astute, and often heartfelt. I also very much enjoyed the sequences where we get to see Jordan's artwork and its humorous commentary on his life in and out of school. All of the characters are interesting and well portrayed as individuals who I enjoyed getting to know the over the course of the book, and I'd love to have another opportunity to revisit them in a sequel. I feel that this book has much to offer as food for though and also as a keen and emotional look at teen life. It is excellent for reading and re-reading, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Jerry Craft wrote and drew this book. He has drawn multiple children's books and graphic novels in the past, and he is known for his work on Mama's Boyz, both as a comic strip and in four books. This article sheds light on his work on New Kid, as does this interview.

Every review I have read about this book has been glowing. Elizabeth Bird summed up, "More than just the sum of its parts, Craft has created a book with guts, that kids will want to read multiple times. Funny, whip smart stuff." Victoria Jamieson called it "tender and tough, funny and heartbreaking." Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review that concluded, "An engrossing, humorous, and vitally important graphic novel that should be required reading in every middle school in America." Publishers Weekly also gave it a starred review that ended, "This engaging story offers an authentic secondary cast and captures the high jinks of middle schoolers and the tensions that come with being a person of color in a traditionally white space."

New Kid was published by HarperCollins, and they offer an audio excerpt, teacher guide, and more info here.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Mera: Tidebreaker

Aquaman is one of my favorite superheroes and always has been. When I was a kid, I watched reruns of his original cartoon series, had some cheesy toys, and have followed his adventures in comic books. These were my first introductions to him and his wife Mera, and right now with their hit movie they are pretty visible. They are so visible in fact that DC Comics decided to use Mera’s story to launch their new imprint DC Ink, which is geared toward a young adult book-reading audience. As you can see from the trade dress, they recruited successful young adult authors to write these books, and their names are displayed prominently across the top of the cover. The artists, even though these are comics that rely heavily on visual storytelling, are listed in smaller font toward the bottom of each cover. It seems pretty apparent to me that they are looking to make an impression in the young adult book market.

All of this business talk does not describe the book though, and still the question remains of how good it is. I am happy to say that I enjoyed reading it, and it is pretty dense but not in a bad way. Mera’s character has a long, complicated history that this book tells in a way that a new reader could easily get into. She has superpowers, and can control water via telekinesis. She is a princess of Xebel, an underwater region that is currently ruled by Atlantis. Her people do not particularly like this situation, and Mera takes part in covert acts of rebellion, which can put her father the king in serious hot water. Also, she is supposed to marry Larken, a prince from the Trench, as a way to unite their regions in an alliance. 
Although she has known Larken pretty much her whole life, she bristles at having these decisions made for her. In order to break out of these multiple constraints on her life, she decides to go behind her father’s back and assassinate the crown prince of Atlantis, Arthur (who comics readers know will grow up to be Aquaman). She feels that would free Xebel from Atlantis's rule and also prove her worthy of choosing her own spouse. There are a couple of complications in this plan. Arthur, it turns out, lives on the surface world and does not know anything about Atlantis. Mera has to find a way to infiltrate his life on dry land, which she does, but the more she learns about Arthur the more she finds him kind, noble, and innocent of the actions being perpetrated by Atlanteans. She starts to admire him, and feelings develop that make it hard for her to complete her mission. 
That is about as much of the plot I will reveal without spoiling things, and I felt that this book covered a lot of ground. I know young adult books often get dismissed as being light and breezy, but this book was substantive and weighty. There was much going on, a lot of work put into developing the character and the intricate plot. I enjoyed seeing how all the moving parts fit into each other, and I think this book would be great for both superhero fans, young adult book readers, and also those looking for a good action/fantasy tale. It also ties in well with the film’s version of these characters, if that might be the entry point. Although it does not feature the characters as I am familiar with them, it recasts them in a contemporary way that is attractive and interesting. This is a Mera who is her own person, a strong, complicated protagonist who I think would be popular with a new generation of readers.

This book was a collaboration between writer Danielle Paige and illustrator Stephen Byrne. Paige is known for her YA novel series DorothyMust Die, and Stealing Snow. Byrne is relatively new to comics, and he is currently working on the Wonder Twins mini-series published by DC Comics. His art is well detailed, reminiscent of animation, and the underwater scenes are especially well rendered and highlighted by the book's coloring. Paige speaks more about her work on Mera: Tidebreaker in this interview.

The reviews I have read of this book have been pretty positive. Johanna Draper Carlson wrote, "Although classically formulaic, evoking star-crossed lovers and those buffeted by fate and constrained by royalty, the journey here is deep and satisfying." Kirkus Reviews called the plot "a bit convoluted" and described Mera as "a sassy, take-no-prisoners heroine who may look like Disney’s Ariel but who is imbued with grit and substance." Ray Goldfield called it "a surprisingly mature comic, essentially a tale about child soldiers in a war they didn’t start."

Mera: Tidebreaker was published by DC Ink, and they offer a preview and more info about it here.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Kiss Number 8

Kiss Number 8 is set in 2004, but I feel that the story is also very relevant and contemporary. It stars a 17-year-old named Amanda who goes to a Catholic school. She gets along well with her father, and they are big minor league baseball fans who also like to watch cheesy fantasy TV shows and play video games. She feels a little more tension with her mother, though this starts to shift over time after she learns about a secret her parents are keeping that seems to implicate her father in some serious infidelity.

That is the background of the subplot, and more immediate in Amanda's life is her relationship with her school friends. Her best friend Cat is a tornado, sneaking out to clubs, drinking, carousing, and hooking up with boys. Her next door neighbors, Laura and Adam are more staid, though Adam has had a crush on her that is getting increasingly difficult to ignore or play off. As the book goes on, Amanda realizes that she does not really have any feelings for Adam but for Cat, and then things really go off the rails.
This book was a fantastic read. It features very realized, nuanced characters, both in terms of the plotting and how they are visually depicted. There are many sorts of emotions in play in here, and I feel that it handles all of the drama, humor, love, and pain in excellent fashion. I also admired that the book takes the issues at hand very seriously and does not resolve with simple, pat responses to complex relationships. It handles issues of gender and sexuality in a frank manner that shows all people's humanity, including their strengths and foibles. Finally, it highlights the awkward, painful, and weird ways that adolescent relationships form, evolve, and crumple that made me both cringe and ring a little nostalgic. That last feeling was heightened by the characters frequently interacting via instant messaging, which was the style at the time. I was genuinely moved several times in reading Kiss Number 8, which is a testament to its characters and craft.

This excellent book was a collaboration between Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw. Venable is a book designer and author who is known for her Eisner nominated Pet Shop Private Eye series. Crenshaw is an illustrator who has also contributed to The Nib. I enjoyed both their work and also getting to know more about them in the substantive Q&A that followed the story. Both creators speak about their work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. Kirkus Review gave it a starred review that summed the book up as "A rare blend of tender and revolutionary."  Publishers Weekly gave it another starred review that concluded, "A queer coming-of-age story that earns its powerful emotional impact." Dahlia Adler called it "a layered, funny, sharp-edged story of teen sexuality and family secrets." Alea Perez wrote, "Overall, Venable and Crenshaw do a wonderful job of using the characters to present teaching moments to readers without it feeling unnatural or patronizingly didactic." Andrew wrote that he was "happy to read an LGBTQ+ story that definitely had stakes and drama but did not have to end tragically or lack humor."

Kiss Number 8 was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here.

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Iliad

One of my favorite graphic novel adaptations is Gareth Hinds's The Odyssey, which is colorful, vibrant, and captures so much of the spirit of the epic poem. Here, he did things a little in reverse and adapted that work's predecessor, The Iliad, which chronicles the tenth year of the Trojan War. Personally, I prefer the poem The Odyssey to the poem The Iliad, mostly because the latter has a lot more battle scenes that read more as info dumps. I was curious how this poem would read as a graphic novel, because of those sections, but I feel that Hinds has made the whole enterprise work. Certainly, the moments where the days' casualties are noted and listed stand somewhat in contrast to the rest of the soldier/leader/gods drama, but Hinds does the work to make them feel integrated into the whole narrative. Also, their deaths are intimately tied into the machinations of others.
Of course, the banner plot of the book involves the conflict between King Agamemnon and Achilles, his best fighter, over Briseis, a concubine who is treated as a spoil of war. And there is much interaction between the gods and goddesses, with Athena and Hera (and by extension Zeus) on one side and Aphrodite, Ares, Apollo, and Artemis on the other. Clearly, there are many characters, plots, and moving parts, but I feel that Hinds weaves them all into a cohesive, artful whole. I love how he uses symbols and color to differentiate characters that might otherwise be confused, and also how he grounds the tale in reality through maps and front-pieces identifying the characters.
Although I must admit it was not as enjoyable as The Odyssey to me, it was not for lack of effort or craft. I just like the one story better. Both graphic novels are masterpieces that stand well together.

Hinds is no stranger as an adapter of classic works into graphic novels. Already he has created a number of them like The Merchant of Venice, Beowulf, and King Lear. He speaks more about the process of creating his adaptation of The Iliad here and in this interview. He speaks about his work in general in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review that concluded, "Hinds’s relatively plain language retains just enough meter to hint at the cadences of the work, and, together with the dynamic art, creates an accessible entrée to an enduring classic." Dominic Umile called it "magnificently realized." Kirkus Reviews summed up, "An expertly crafted rendition and a welcome invitation to younger readers to immerse themselves in the ancient past."

The Iliad was published by Candlewick Press, and they offer a preview and more here.

The publisher provided a preview copy.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Hey Kids! Comics!

Today, the properties that originated in comic books are big business. Superhero stories spawn huge franchises that cross over various media platforms and used to sell a myriad of products. But the people responsible for creating these often beloved and highly commercial characters and stories are often buried in obscurity, relegated to a single line of a movie credit (if they are lucky), or often cut out of receiving any credit at all. Famously, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold Superman to what would be called DC Comics for $130 and spent decades trying to be compensated for their creation. Jack Kirby created or co-created pretty much every character in the original Marvel Universe, but he received no royalties, and worse yet mostly people attribute his work to Stan Lee. Even more recently, Thanos creator Jim Starlin feuded with Marvel over compensation over the main villain for a movie that had a $1.2 billion opening weekend. Such situations of inequity are the focus of this book, Hey Kids! Comics! that chronicles the lives of several fictional comics creators.

It features several characters over the course of eight decades, and they appear to be based on specific familiar figures as well as some composite characters. The main three, Ted Whitman, Benita Heindel, and Ray Clarke, all shed a unique light on the comics industry. Whitman is an African American artist, working in a field dominated by white men. Heindel is a white woman also trying to navigate this world. Clarke is a white man, but he is a freelancer who bounces between companies and gets a wide look at goings on in comics as a whole. Over the years, they deal with the low regard and low pay of the job, ego-maniacal publishers and editors, turbulent years when comics companies were in financial distress, and the need to be adaptable in order to survive in multiple times of change.

As a person pretty well versed in comic book history, I recognize that a bunch of the stories told here cleave closely to actual events, albeit in fictionalized fashion. They are fascinating, gripping tales that offer a counterpoint to the glam and glitter associated (especially with) superheroes today. The storytelling is tight, the characters are strong and memorable. The biggest issue I had with the book was keeping up with it large cast of characters and time shifts, but after the first chapter I got into the swing and rhythm of the book and everything clicked along well. I feel this book is complex enough that rereading it is rewarding, so it has that in its favor as well.

This volume collects what was a five-issue series, and it was created by Howard Chaykin, a veteran comics maker with decades of experience. He cut his teeth in the industry as an assistant to legends Gil Kane (who I feel is the inspiration for the Clarke character) and Wally Wood. He notably drew some of the initial Star Wars comic books for Marvel in the 1970s, but it was in the 1980s that he really began making his mark transforming comic books with his independent series American Flagg! and the X-rated Black Kiss. He has numerous comics credits since then, and he speaks more about his work on Hey Kids! Comics! in this interview and also writes more about it in this article.

The reviews I have seen about this book have been mixed. Dan Traeger concluded, "I highly recommend this if you’re a fan of comic book history, or if you’re a fan of Chaykin’s historical fiction." Alan Boon wrote, "If you’re even a casual student of comic book history, and aren’t averse to seeing Stan Lee pulled down off his pedestal and given a beating with a rock in a sock, then this could hold some interest for you." Cole offered some interesting insights in his review at The Perfect Bound Podcast. Derek and I also discussed the first two issues in this episode of The Comics Alternative podcast.

Hey Kids! Comics! was  published by Image Comics, and they offer a preview and much more info about it here.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Long Con, Volume 1

The Long Con is what I'd call a high concept series, based on the premise that a bomb went off in the southwestern United States, killing everyone in a 50 mile radius and giving rise to some horrific mutations. Five years later, a desperate newspaper reporter is sent into the forbidden zone to explore and report on the site of the Long Con, the hugest popular culture event of the year (a thinly disguised San Diego Comic-Con). What he finds is astounding, the convention center was somehow shielded from the destruction and fallout, and in the interim a small society of survivors has evolved that lives on processed foods and occasional cannibalism.

Of course, the survivors being comics fans, sci-fi geeks, and random featured celebrities, their society ends up consisting of factions based on fandom and the level of their access badges. This set-up makes for a satirical look at those folks, as they conduct purity tests to assess who is and is not an outsider and just behave in the most extreme sorts of manners. They still engage in cosplay, though the stakes have become much higher over time. I enjoyed this book well enough, and I had been looking forward to reading it for a while, but in the end I was left a little cold by the whole thing. It has lots of geek culture references to satisfy those in the know, and I appreciated them (or at least the ones I got), and it comes from a place of love for fandom, but I feel that almost all the characters are too one-dimensional for me to care about. What could have been an interesting premise just went to typical sorts of humor and jokes about rabid fanboys and fangirls.

My favorite part of the book was the artwork, which is fun, energetic, and full of vibrant details. And it really pulls off the trick of depicting parallel narratives from the past, present, and fictional TV versions of Skylarks (a Star Trek pastiche). Overall however, the book left me feeling that maybe I am not its target audience, so others' mileages may vary. Perhaps book 2 will have a better payoff, when the whole story culminates.

This volume collects the first 5 issues of the 10 issue limited series. It was written by Dylan Meconis and Ben Coleman, drawn by EA Denich, and colored by M. Victoria Robado. Meconis is a member of the creative collective called Helioscope, and an Eisner, Reuben, and Kim Yale-nominated cartoonist. She has worked on lots of comics in the past including the series Family Man, the graphic novel Wire Mothers, and the forthcoming Queen of the Sea. Coleman writes for the Portland Mercury and does not seem to have any other comics credits. Denich has also drawn the graphic novel Yes Roya. Robado has lots of illustration credits and also works on the webcomic #Blessed. The creators speak about their work on this series in this interview.

The reviews I have read of this book have largely been positive. Charles Hartford described it as "fast paced, lots of fun." Christopher Scott concluded his review, "This first volume is a send-up of the chaos that is a convention and uses it for an interesting twist, loving fandom for what it is and never crossing the line from respect into meanness." Lonnie Webb wrote, "Dench’s art is full of cameos and beautifully drawn with great characterization. More-so than a parody might have deserved. Tops on that. Colors by Victoria Robado are nice and completely fit the bill."

The Long Con, Volume 1 was published by Oni Press, and they have more info about it here. Currently the series is up to issue 8.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America

First off, I meant to have this post up for April 20, but life has been hectic lately, and as you might tell, I have not been posting as regularly as accustomed. Hopefully, this is the book to get me back on track. I am a big fan of Box Brown's work, and in the past his stuff has appeared on my "Best of" year-end lists. This book is unique though in that I am not really that familiar with the topic and it's not something, like professional wrestling, video games, or comedy, that I have been a fan of. So this book was more of a learning platform for me. Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America covers a lot of ground and includes lots of different insights. It shows, among other things,
the science behind getting high on marijuana
an origin myth from the Hindu tradition
a history of false assumptions and spurious science.
And I gleaned much here. For instance, I had no idea who Harry J. Anslinger was before I read this book, let alone that the man almost single-handed created the "war on drugs" as we know it. It is horrifying to see how much he relied on false claims, racism, and prejudice against immigrants to push public policies that have led to decades of abuse, misinformation, and incarceration. A large portion of the book focuses on his work, and he definitely comes off as a villain, which seems appropriate and sadly familiar to some contemporary voices I hear.

There is a lot going on in this work, and it is well researched, with a huge bibliography at the end. I think it may have benefited from some chapter headings to help steer the reader, but overall I feel it does its job well. It contains all sorts of disparate information and weaves it together into a portrayal of the modern take on marijuana use. It also makes a strong thesis for why current policies and views are misguided and wrong. I feel it is a strong piece of comics rhetoric and history, and I highly recommend it.

This book's creator Box Brown has left a big footprint in comics already, founding the indie imprint Retrofit Comics. He has also created a cavalcade of comics, mini-comics, and graphic novels, including his biographys of Andre the Giant and Andy Kaufman as well as his history of Tetris. He speaks about his work on Cannabis in this interview as well as this NPR interview.

The reviews I have read of this book have ranged from good to lukewarm. Jonathan O'Neal wrote, "Brown’s book presents an impassioned case for continuing the discussion over this very complicated issue, and with “Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America,” Brown becomes an important voice in that conversation." Henry Chamberlain called it "a most remarkable book in how it packs together a disparate clump of facts and myths and makes sense of it all." Kirkus Reviews summed up, "Not as engaging as the author’s bio of Andre the Giant, but his uncluttered drawings suit his straightforward argument."

Cannabis was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here.

Friday, March 15, 2019

To Kill A Mockingbird

It is dissertation defense season, and my plate has been full lately, so I apologize for slacking off here. I have been trying to read this book for weeks now, and I am glad I finally did. To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the most read and also most challenged books in the USA. It is a novel I have read a few times, and there was at least one point in my life when I would have said it was my favorite book ever. I have to admit, there were moments of nostalgia that tweaked me here and there in reading this very faithful and well rendered adaptation. It hews to the original, in its well researched illustrations as well as use of original language from the book (Yes, the n-word is in there, and they provide a justification for its inclusion in the endnotes).

All of this to say that the potential problems people have with the novel also exist for those who would read this graphic novel. The "white savior" narrative is still pervasive, but in this go-through I also noticed how much it highlights feminism and the role of women in this community, something I do not see given as much attention when discussing this book. The family dynamics also touched on my heartstrings, and I admit I did get misty eyed at the last pages of the book. It is very well paced as an adaptation, top notch work all around.
Still, there is a part of me that wonders why this adaptation exists. TKAM is one of the most-read and taught books in the country. There are millions upon millions of copies of it in libraries, classrooms, and in people's hands already. I guess having a graphic version of this book makes it available to some readers who might not want to tackle the novel, but I I have to say that I still found this version to be a time-consuming read. It is text-heavy for a graphic novel, with the text mainly displayed in caption boxes. It is not "easy reading, " which is often the rationale for making a graphic novel version. I get why some of the other adaptations I have recently reviewed exist: The Giver is pitched at YA audiences and graphic novels have proven a popular format for that age group; Anne Frank's Diary carries of the weight of not only being a literary text but also one tasked with preserving people's memories of the Holocaust. I guess it is a good commercial decision to adapt TKAM, as I imagine libraries and schools will snap up this version. But as much as I liked it, I still ended up asking myself if it was necessary. Perhaps as an answer to my question I can say that reading this book has dredged up all kinds of contrary and ambiguous thoughts, which I feel in many ways is the hallmark of a powerful book. In that way, I say this graphic version is successful. 

Harper Lee, of course, wrote the original novel on which this adaptation is based. For it she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is remarkable given this was the only novel she published in her lifetime. Fred Fordham adapted the book here, and he has another graphic adaption, of Phillip Pullman's The Adventures of John Blake, to his credit. He has also created an original graphic novel Nightfall, which is currently available in French. He speaks about his work in adapting TKAM in this video.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Esther Keller wrote, "The color on the artwork is what struck me most. I expected black and white pencil drawings, which would evoke the Gregory Peck movie. Instead, bright, soft colors are used. It works. It’s beautiful." Publishers Weekly called it a "thoughtfully crafted interpretation" and summed it up, "More loving remake than revelation, Fordham’s adaptation may be scrutinized by Lee’s fans, but does sufficient justice to her portrait of injustice." CJ Lyons declared it "a worthy partner to the original, providing a clarion call for civility, equality, and justice for all."

To Kill A Mockingbird was published by Harper Collins, and they offer more info here.

The publisher provided a review copy.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Anne Frank's Diary: The Graphic Adaptation

The Diary of Anne Frank is one of the most read books in the world, which may beg the question of whether or not a graphic adaptation of it is necessary, but I have to say that I was blown away by this work. It is expressive, incorporates disparate pieces of artwork into the story, and creates a context for both exploring humanity and horror at the same time. Anne and her family spent years hiding from Nazis in an annex in Amsterdam during World War II. Along with some others they shared the cramped quarters, living in as quiet and unobtrusive fashion as possible. And all the while they listened for scraps of news and hope while hearing bombing and shooting all around them.
As if this atmosphere was not bad enough, Anne also had to deal with lots of other personal dynamics, including a rivalry with her older sister, a crush on a boy, and having to share her room with an adult man dentist. What I feel this book captures best about the work is 13-year-old Anne's sense of figuring out the world and her place in it, ironically at a time when she was sequestered and eventually taken out of it. This book is full of humanity, wisdom, and sadness, and the artwork only exemplifies the beauty and thoughtfulness of its prose.

As an educator, I often think of how to use a book like this, and I feel that it could be used in several ways. It could be read alone, in tandem with the original book that it excerpts, or it could also be excerpted itself to draw attention to particular passages. I was very impressed with this book, especially in how it uses various visual styles and formats to adapt the diary entries. Sometimes, it plays with a single image, often cribbed from a classical art source.
Sometimes, it uses straight forward comics, and others it features an illustration with an entire diary entry. I think that its creators were savvy in selecting which sections to summarize and adapt and which to present in more whole fashion. This adaptation is superlative, and it is prelude to an animated feature that is nearing the end of production. If it is anything like this book, it should be excellent.

This adapted book was a collaboration between Ari Folman and David Polonsky. Folman is an Orphir Award and Golden Globe Award winning director and screenwriter. Polonsky has worked as an art director, children's book illustrator, and animator. Both collaborated on the lauded animated film Waltz with Bashir. This interview sheds light on both creators' work on this book.

The reviews I have read about it have been largely positive. Ruth Franklin wrote, "Their book is brilliantly conceived and gorgeously realized." Publishers Weekly's starred review concluded, "The beauty of Anne’s life and the untarnished power of her legacy—here further elevated by Folman and Polonsky—are heartening reminders of the horror of her fate." Gene Ambaum called it "spacious, interpretive, and altogether wonderful."

Anne Frank's Diary was published by Pantheon, and they offer a preview and more here.

The publisher provided a review copy.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Giver

This month I'll be reviewing a bevy of graphic novel adaptations of literary works, and I decided to kick it off with this book I've both read and taught. The Giver is a classic sci-fi tale of a dystopian future by Lois Lowry, and here it is given the grand treatment in a graphic novel adaptation. I know that the knock on such works is that the adaptation will always pale in comparison, but I felt that this one is first rate in that it cleaves closely to the original in terms of its dialogue and language. Plus the artwork not only captures the spirit of the original work, it also extends its ambience with the clean, blue, black, and white lines that convey a cold, sterile purported utopia. Also, I know that there is a general assumption that  graphic novel would be a simpler, breezier read than the original, but I felt that this one was still substantive and weighty.

In case you are not familiar with the original book, the narrative takes place in a future where humans have engineered a perfect place. Everything is planned and organized in ways to optimize people's lives, from deciding who they marry to selecting their vocations at age 12. No one wants for anything, and they are content, safe, and docile. This book follows a boy named Jonas who turns 12 and is selected to be The Receiver, which means he will be the sole person to learn the history and experiences of his people. This role exposes him to many dark features from history but also contemporary practices that make this world possible. This knowledge radically changes his life as he begins to question much of he has learned as normal.

I very much enjoyed reading this book, and it was as compelling and moving as the original. I think what works best about it is that I feel it works well on its own merits and could be read and studied thus. Of course, it could also be read alongside or in conjunction with the original novel if one wanted to compare the two as well. As far as graphic novel adaptations of prose novels go, this one is one of the best.

This book's adapter P. Craig Russell has been making comics since the early 1970s. He has won multiple Eisner and Harvey Awards for his work over the years, particularly in the fantasy genres. He is known for his collaborations with Neil Gaiman and also for adapting operatic works into comics. He speaks about his work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review that concluded, "A first-rate visual reframing: sensitive, artistically brilliant, and as charged as its enigmatic predecessor with profound challenges to mind and heart." Anushka Girl wrote, "It’s a wonderful pick for young folk who are still not too keen on reading things comprised only of words, and it’s a great way for those who have already read the novel to revisit this particular dystopia." Publishers Weekly summed up, "An accessible version of the story for readers who have not yet encountered it."

The Giver was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and they offer more info about it here. There is a sizable preview of the book available here.

The publisher provided a preview copy.

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Nib Magazine Issue 2: Family

I reviewed the first issue of The Nib here, and there I wrote, "The contents of this magazine are first rate, well drawn, thoughtfully composed, and diverse in terms of scope and tone. This magazine offers much food for thought as well as entertainment, and I hope that it runs for a long, long time." Reading this second issue, I echo thoughts thoughts and wishes. This anthology continues to be excellent, full of entertaining and thought provoking works.

The focus of the second issue was on the topic of Family, and it features a wide variety of nonfiction and political stories that include:

Sarah Glidden speaking about her struggles with fertility.
Twin comics creators Matthew and Jake New reporting about a twins festival they attended in Twinsburg, Ohio.
The Intercept's Ryan Devereaux reporting on a Brazilian father and son who were separated at the US border, illustrated by Katie Wheeler.
And an interview with Fun Home's Alison Bechdel about the aftermath of writing an autobiography. There are many more interesting pieces in this magazine, which runs about 120 pages and is more like anthology book. Some are shorter one-pagers, gag strips, or even one panel comics, but they are all quality reading.

The Nib #2 was published by First Look Media, and they offer more info about it here. The Nib publishes multiple comics pretty much everyday, and the web version is available here. Future print issues of the magazine can be purchased here by becoming a member of the Inkwell Society. They plan to continue publishing on a quarterly schedule.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Hephaistos: God of Fire

This is the 11th entry in the Olympians series, and I have reviewed every single one of them. Next year will bring the series to a conclusion (with the book focused on Dionysus), but I will stave off my future sadness with this volume. It was a wonderful read, keeping up with the high quality of the entire series.
Hephaistos: God of Fire mostly focuses on the eponymous god, but his tale is mingled with that of the Titan Prometheus. The Titan was present as midwife for the god's birth and was witness to Hera's casting him out of Olympus. As he grew up, raised on the island of Lemnos, he became quite adept at craftwork, building increasingly intricate and gorgeous objects. He used these objects to gain entrance back into Olympus. There, he eventually married Aphrodite and became embroiled in the tricky politics and family dynamics of the Olympians.

Fire figures in highly in this book, in that it is what powers Hephaistos's forge, and it is also a gift that Zeus takes away from humanity. When Prometheus steals fire and gives it back to humans, he is punished in two ways. First his family is visited with a misfortune that results in Pandora releasing a multitude of evils on Earth. Second, Prometheus is chained to a rock where an eagle comes and eats his liver each day. Hephaistos forging those bounds and speaking to the Titan become the narrative frame for the entire book.

Like other books in this series, Hephaistos reflects and displays the title character's personality well within its pages. He is crafty, complex, and not simply shown to be some hideous creature. The artwork and narrative work together seamlessly (like Hephaistos's adamantine net), and I feel this book is a highly compelling tale that would appeal to fans of mythology or just those who are into good action stories.

In addition to the numerous entries in the Olympians series, artist/writer George O'Connor has created the American history journal account Journey into Mohawk Country and the dystopian future book Ball Peen Hammer, written by Adam Rapp.

Hephaistos: God of Fire was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more here.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Action Presidents: Books 1 & 2

 Action Presidents is a nonfiction series aimed at upper elementary/middle school students. They are quite detailed and nuanced, pretty substantial texts that contain lots of information and insight into some prominent historical figures. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have been the subjects of a myriad of biographies, and these books contain much of the relevant details about their lives, from their childhoods to their deaths, but what is most impressive to me about this series is how it also introduces counter-narratives into the proceedings.
It would be easy to simply present these books as pieces of hero worship, and certainly they do not skimp on celebrating the various accomplishments of both presidents. George Washington is praised for all he did to establish the United States, but also running throughout Book 1 are his ambiguous views and actions regarding slavery, a theme that also colors Book 2. Washington kept and profited from slaves, and only freed some at his death, and Abraham Lincoln himself did not so much oppose slavery as he opposed anything that would splinter the country. He is lauded for the lengths he went to preserve the Union, but his own contested views are not sugar-coated or glossed over. I loved how these books presented both, warts and all.

Not only do these books present distinct portraits of both men, it also situates their lives and actions in historical and governmental contexts. They are great resources for learning about the US government, policies, and laws, and I was very impressed by how many of the social studies they entailed. Also, there is also a good dose of humor throughout the volumes, embodied by the narrator, a pardoned turkey named Noah, and not a few fart jokes. Sometimes those instances felt a little like "sugar to make the medicine go down," but overall I feel the tone and content of these books was spot-on. I heartily recommend either (better, both!) volume to any class library.

These books are the product of the dynamic duo of Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey. Both have numerous comics credits for multiple publishers, and they have collaborated on two prior historical comics projects, Action Philosophers! and The Comic Book History of Comics.This interview sheds more light on the Action Presidents books and series.

The reviews I have read of these books have been positive. Johanna Draper Carlson applauded both for their "blend of action, humor, and meaningful points." Publishers Weekly wrote of Book 1, "Van Lente aims to contextualize historical figures who are often blindly lionized..., a goal that comes through clearly amid a flurry of gags and jokes." Kirkus Reviews summed up, "A light, comical approach to biography and history that makes it more palatable for those who find more traditional approaches hard to swallow," and added that the book contains maps, timeline, glossary, and a bibliography.

The Action Presidents series was published by Harper, and they offer a preview and more here. More books in the series have been proposed, and the next (announced at the end of Book 2) will be about Theodore Roosevelt. The fourth should be about JFK.

The publisher provided review copies.

Happy Presidents Day!

Sunday, February 10, 2019


Crush is the follow-up to Brave, and I loved it for a few reasons. First, it features relatable situations and vivid characters. The protagonist here is Jorge, a large young man who is good at basketball and acts as a sort of guardian for a bunch of kids at school. He frequently uses his size as a peacekeeper, stopping bullies from harassing others.
Exhibit A

For his efforts, he receives grudging respect from members of the football team. However, the star quarterback secretly goads classmates to harass and tease others, all the while giving respect to Jorge and calling him "sheriff." Jorge recognizes what's going on to some extent, and he wants nothing to do with those kids. Still, he finds that this rejection comes with consequences, as they find a way to bully him that has some pretty drastic results for his reputation.

Second, this book is quite sweet in how it captures the tenor of a young person's developing a crush on someone. Jorge realizes after a while that he has feelings for Jazmine, a young woman in the drama club. She's got a boyfriend though, and he has always taken solace in having two strong lifelong friends Liv and Garrett, but he struggles with the changing dynamics among all their relationships. Her has always been a solid citizen and depending on a certain level of consistency, but he finds that life is taking some interesting curves and he's not sure he is comfortable with the whole enterprise. Even though my years in junior high were long ago, I could definitely relate to many of the feelings Jorge has to deal with here.

Third, the storytelling in this book is excellent. The characters are well designed in terms of their roles and their visuals. The action is compelling, and the gags pay off well. The situations they deal with seem very authentic and contemporary, with real stakes. And perhaps best of all, the book does not require the reader to have read any of the others. Each entry in the series stands alone and is rewarding on its own merits. At the same, knowledgeable readers will enjoy seeing certain characters pop up again, making this a book that plays well to a large audience. This is a fun, moving book, much like the other books in this series. I would certainly expect them to be a staple in school or class libraries.

This book's creator Svetlana Chmakova is a celebrated comics artist who has won a slew of awards and accolades for her works. In addition to the Berrybrook Middle School series, she also has published Dramacon, set at a comics convention, and the supernatural themed series Nightschool. She speaks about her work on Crush in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book were glowing. Esther Keller at School Library Journal called it "a must have—and one of our picks for the top ten graphic novels of 2018!" Carrie McClain summed it up as "an adventure for the tween/preteen age group that carries all the feels and makes the ordinary seem extraordinary by how relatable it is." Sarah concluded her review, "I love the manga stylings of Chmakova. I love her diverse cast of characters and her socially conscious narratives, which support the growth of young girls. I know this one isn’t technically out yet, I know that the author just had a baby, but GAAHHH I want more!!"

Crush was published by Yen Press, and they provide more info about it here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Be-Bop Barbarians: A Graphic Novel

The Be-Bop Barbarians is a fascinating, gripping look at life in the 1950s for three African-American artists living in New York City. They are fictional figures, though they are based on real people, according to the book's introduction. The protagonists are Cliff, a light-skinned handsome man who passes for white in certain circles and who draws comic books (based on Matt Baker), Stef, who moonlights as a maid and domestic servant while drawing a romance comic strip for a black newspaper (based on Jackie Ormes), and Ollie, a veteran of the Korean War who publishes political cartoons under a pseudonym (based on Oliver Harrington).
The three friends and colleagues are involved in civil rights issues that affect their daily lives. Cliff struggles to maintain various identities (and romances) as he works and travels about town. Also, he is on the losing end of a legal struggle with a publisher who is trying to steal the rights to a character he created. Stef struggles to make ends meet and also is conflicted by some of the racist attitudes she faces from those she works for. Ollie is married to a Korean woman, and while they await the birth of a child, they face harassment on numerous fronts. All three chronicle the disturbances, slights, and inequities they experience through their art, transforming them into something politic and motivational. Their bravery and creativity wins the day even though they face numerous obstacles and prejudices.

A book like this, woven from masked historical figures, runs a danger of reading like straight propaganda or being related in ham-fisted manner, but The Be-Bop Barbarians is a vivid and vital account of the hardships and unjust social realities of the day. The various plots are compelling, the characters strong and nuanced, and overall the book is an excellent piece of historical fiction. It made me care about the characters and also learn about the times the story was set. I was also impressed by how they wove together the three different tales into a cohesive, moving whole. Also on the positive side, I appreciated how this book introduces a new generation of readers to some important, often forgotten, comics artists from the past.

This book was a collaboration between writer Gary Phillips and artist Dale Berry. Phillips has penned several novels and has multiple and diverse credits in comics, including editing the conspiracy/noir collection The Obama Inheritance and co-writing the neo-noir/punk series Peepland, which was set in the 1980s. There is a six-page sequence in this book that features his prose without the illustrations, and I felt it was an effective narrative device. Berry has been drawing and creating comics since the 1980s, and he created the first graphic short story published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine's 60 year history. I very much liked his storytelling and how he altered his art style to (re)create the look and feel of the disparate art styles of the three fictional creators.

I was not able to locate many reviews of this book, but Molly Odintz called it "beautiful and moody, channelling the quiet desperation, simmering anger, and creative intensity of 1950s noir."

The Be-Bop Barbarians was published by Pegasus Books, and they offer more info about it here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

A National Book Award Finalist and New York Times Bestseller, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a celebrated memoir by long-time New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, where she chronicles the final years of her parents' lives and how she came to care for them. Chast is very candid and frank about her relationships with both parents, and she was very eager to get out of their home as soon as she was able (going to college at age 16) and they seemed very much interested in maintaining their bubble. Her parents Elizabeth and George were married while in their 20s and lived in the same apartment for more than 40 years. Both were public school educators, and she was the more vocal and aggressive of the two, a vice-principal, while he was more introverted and docile, a French teacher. They were constant companions, taking care of each other and maintaining routines that masked their eventual aging and individual health declines.
Endearing, funny, and also eventually troubling.
Eventually, when they were in their 90s, life began catching up with them. When Elizabeth had a bad fall Chast realized that they needed assistance. At first, this entailed less invasive practices, like utilizing Meals on Wheels and regular check-ins. But eventually, matters grew more dire, and they had to enter into old age facilities that could offer medical and other services. Not only did Chast have to contend with her parents' aging but also their changing mental states, their growing medical needs, legal/financial concerns, and the costs of providing help without the benefit of insurance. This book is impressive in multiple ways: It is informative about the processes of taking care of older people, personal in how it portrays the Chast family and its dynamics, and darkly funny with Roz Chast's particularly witty and idiosyncratic voice. This book is a powerful read, simultaneously moving, heart-breaking, and eye-opening.

Roz Chast has a long career in cartooning and comics, with multiple collections of her New Yorker work available in book form as well as her latest graphic novel memoir Going Into Town. She speaks about her experiences and work on Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? in this interview.

This book is much lauded and has been heaped with praise and accolades. In its starred review Kirkus Reviews concluded, "A top-notch graphic memoir that adds a whole new dimension to readers’ appreciation of Chast and her work." In another starred review Publishers Weekly called it "a cartoon memoir to laugh and cry, and heal, with—Roz Chast’s masterpiece." Alex Witchel closed his review with these lines, "No one has perfect parents and no one can write a perfect book about her relationship to them. But Chast has come close."

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? was published by Bloomsbury, and they offer a reading guide and more info about it here.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Modern Fantasy

Modern Fantasy is a fun book that melds classic fantasy tropes with a contemporary, almost sitcom, sensibility. One one level it's the tale of a motley band (including a ranger, dwarf, elf, cleric, wizard, ogre, and troll) who quest to prevent a cult of religious zealots from summoning a fire demon that will destroy the world. On another level it's a character study of a bunch of 20-something friends as they go through their daily routines, which includes looks into their love lives, their drab work days, and the mundane frustrations of apartment living.

The main character of all this is Sage of the Riverlands, a level 12 ranger who works in a cubicle farm and is frequently bothered/bailed out by her large, oafish co-worker Back-Darr (who I think is supposed to be an ogre). At home she has to deal with her roommates and their significant others, particularly Lizard Wizard whose latest loser boyfriend is a kleptomaniac troll. Early on in the book, this troll steals an amulet from the wrong party and it brings all kinds of drama and misfortune into our heroes' lives.

Aside from the brisk plot, I enjoyed the characterizations in this book. I think that the diverse personalities bounce off each other well, and the dialogue is often clever. In addition, there is also a good amount of meta-humor about the whole set-up, and the book proceeds in jaunty fashion, with tongue firmly in cheek. I was taken by the heart and humor here, but the fact that chapter three is mostly dedicated to a training montage was the icing on the cake. Modern Fantasy was a great entertainment that I could easily see spun out into a regular comics series.

This book was originally published as a four-issue comic book series, and it was written by Rafer Roberts and drawn by Kristen Gudsnuk. Roberts has written a number of comics over the past two decades, but he is most known for his current series Grumble and a funny online collaboration with Justin Jordan called Thanos and Darkseid: Carpool Buddies of Doom. I first became aware of Gudsnuk's work with her webcomic/collection Henchgirl, and she has a relatively new book out for YA readers called Making Friends. I love her art style, which features lots of background gags, and her comic pacing, details, and character designs match up well with Roberts' story beats. Both creators weigh in about their work on Modern Fantasy in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book and series have been pretty positive. Jeremy Schmidt wrote that it "matches every laugh with a great piece of adventure that will leave you wanting more." Joe Grunenwald called it "super-fun and funny. It’s fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy."

Modern Fantasy was published by Dark Horse, and they offer a preview and more here.