Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Nobody's Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead

Bill Griffith has been making comics since 1969, and he was involved in producing a number of underground comix. A few years ago he published Invisible Ink, his debut graphic novel, a history about his mother and an affair she carried on with a famous cartoonist. But he is best known for his long-running syndicated comic strip Zippy the Pinhead, with its serial title character and catchphrase, "Are we having fun yet?" This book, Nobody's Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead, is about the unlikely inspiration behind Zippy.

Schlitzie was born in 1901 and originally named Simon. He had a uniquely shaped head (the technical term for it is microcephaly) and some sort of intellectual disability. When he was 8 years old, his parents sold him to a sideshow manager, beginning a long career as a "freak" to be observed at various venues across the country as a "pinhead." He was almost always presented as a female, dressed in a muumuu or hairshirt, and attributed to either a lost civilization, like the Incas or Aztecs, or proposed to be a man/monkey hybrid. Behind the scenes, Schlitzie almost always had a pleasant disposition. His new family of fellow performers looked out for him, and he got to do things he loved, like eat hot dogs or fried chicken and wash dishes. 

Schlitzie even appeared in a couple of motion pictures, most notably the MGM-produced Freaks, directed by Tod Browning, notorious as a cult/midnight movie since its 1932 debut. A good chunk of this book deals with recreating the film and its creation in comics form. Eventually, when attitudes towards displaying disabled peoples changed, he was institutionalized, which crushed his spirits. Only a chance encounter with an off-season sword swallower made an opportunity for him to be released, which led to better circumstances until his death at age 70.
 
This book is noteworthy on three fronts. First, it is a moving portrait of a unique individual. Second, it contains a good amount of hard-won research. Certainly, not much information existed about the life of Schlitzie in any one place, and the fact that Griffith was able to cobble together so much is impressive. Third, part of this book is his story, but it also acts as a history of side shows and carnivals in the 20th century. There is so much detail in terms of the various locales, the signage at the sideshows, and specific moments. I know I was alternately charmed, moved, and surprised at what I was learning from this book. It is a clear labor of love.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews called it "A tender biographical tribute to an artist’s inspiration." John Seven wrote, "Griffith renders the 70 years of Schlitzie’s life with a vivid affection for the areas and landscapes he inhabited, for the cultures he wandered through, and for Schlitzie himself." In a starred review, Publishers Weekly concluded, "Much like in Freaks, the revelation found in this illuminating work is that the true monsters are the 'normal' people who line up to laugh at or abuse Schlitzie."

Nobody's Fool was published by Abrams, and they offer a preview and more info about it here.
The time Schlitize met Jackie Cooper...

Friday, September 25, 2020

Dragon Hoops

If you have been reading graphic novels (or this blog) for any length of time, you are probably familiar with this book's author Gene Leun Yang. He is one of the premier comics creators working today and a former National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. Additionally, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and has also won the Printz Award for his graphic novel American Born Chinese. He also has won multiple Eisner Awards. He has explored themes of immigration, belief, identity, and growing up in his many works, including The Eternal Smile, Level Up, The Shadow Hero, the twin volumes Boxers & Saints, and New Superman. And (fun fact), I'll be talking with him this week about Superman Smashes the Klan.
 
The work on hand here, Dragon Hoops, is a rather personal one, about the 2014-2015 Bishop O'Dowd High School basketball team and their march toward a state championship. At the point of this story, Yang had worked at the school for 17 years but was not really much of a sports fan. Part of what drew him to the tale was the fact that the school had made the championship game before and was 0-8. Coach Lou Richie was an alum who played in one of those games and had coached teams in a few more, so his deep involvement and passion are palpable. Further, Yang was fascinated by the collection of players, a diverse set of high school boys with different viewpoints and goals, and how they came together as a team. So, there are lots of people to root for and engage with in this book. As a slight spoiler, Yang becomes a sports fan at the end of the book.

He does a superb job of tackling individual games and the drama they contain. His storytelling in these instances is as powerful as any sports narrative I've read or seen. But this book goes beyond the games. It lets us get to know the students (at least the ones who let Yang get to know them). It shows a side of what being a student athlete entails, with a nuanced exploration of race in multiple arenas. It also dives deep into history, giving background on the school, Catholic schools in general, and the history of basketball going back to Dr. Naismith. The coloring by Lark Pien further makes the games dynamic but also elucidates the many facets of the story. The work on this book is clearly extensive and beautifully presented.

Pushing beyond the boundaries of the sports narrative is a long thread of Yang making explicit that this book is a comic that he is composing. As such, it is full of omissions, biases, and intentional choices to force a certain type of narrative on the proceedings. It is fascinating to see him struggle with the decision to include Coach Phelps, a legendary figure at the school, because of unsettled allegations of sexual misconduct. It is also interesting to see him wrestle with two large decisions, one of whether to quit teaching and focus on creating comics full-time, the other whether or not to accept the position to write Superman for DC Comics, which is a lifelong dream. I also liked some of the metanarrative flourishes, such as when he discusses the specific ways that a student-athlete wants his hair to be depicted, with the conversation literally drawing out his options. This book is clever and self-aware, as much a meditation on the creative process as it is a product of said process.

I can say with authority that this book offers much to a wide array of readers, whether they are sports fans or not. It is a long book but so compelling that I devoured it. Giving more insight into potential audience, reviewer Esther Keller opined, "I think the storytelling style is a bit sophisticated and better suited to high school students, but some middle school kids, especially those into basketball, can and will enjoy the story."

The reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. Michelle Falter wrote, "I love how this book is a sports novel about a coach and his team trying to win State for the first time, but also it delves into so so so much more. It deals with everything from fitting in, microaggressions and racism, to self-doubt and taking chances." In a starred review, Publishers Weekly concluded, "Using a candid narrative and signature illustrations that effectively and dynamically bring the fast-paced games to life, Yang has crafted a triumphant, telescopic graphic memoir that explores the effects of legacy and the power of taking a single first step, no matter the outcome." Jerry Craft wrote, "Framed from the start as a book about the struggle to create a book, Dragon Hoops animates the inner conflict between Gene Yang, computer science teacher; Gene Yang, family man (his wife and four children appear throughout); and Gene Luen Yang, graphic novelist. Is it possible to do all these things simultaneously without literally being Superman?" Kirkus Reviews wrote, "This creative combination of memoir and reportage elicits questions of storytelling, memory, and creative liberty as well as addressing issues of equity and race."

Dragon Hoops was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more information about it here.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Investigators

As a professor at UTK and a grad of UGA, I have an antipathy for gators. But Investigators is utterly charming and hilarious, and 5-year-old is currently obsessed with it to boot. It stars two gators named Mango and Brash who are agents of Special Undercover Investigation Teams (SUIT). You can tell them apart by their jawlines and coloring. Mango's jaw is round and he is dark green, while Brash is lighter green and has a square jaw. Clad in their high-tech Very Exciting Spy Technology (VEST), they go into action to solve some extraordinary cases. In this book they are trying locate a famous cupcake baker named Gustavo Mustachio, who has gone missing for two weeks, and suspect foul play. 

Also, they want to foil a villain who has stolen a device that digitizes physical money and automatically deposits it electronically. It even works through walls, which makes it especially harmful. It might not be so much a spoiler that these two cases eventually intersect.

As you might tell from the names of devices and agencies, this book is full of puns, and Mango is very fond of them, too. The back and forth conversations and sound effects are frequently funny. This book is also full of pop culture references and snappy dialogue, and the sum of all these things makes it a fun book to read aloud. There is also some potty humor, as the agents' main mode of transportation is flushing themselves down into sewers.

Adding to the fun visually is a wild array of characters and character designs. There is a triceratops escape artist named Houdino. There is a villainous crocodile who is part baked good named Crackerdile. There is a giant chicken who is also a scientist/inventor named Dr. Doodledoo. There is also Doctor Copter, a brain surgeon who was bitten by a rabid helicopter and who is compelled to transform into a helicopter to cover anything especially newsworthy. There is lots of whimsy and invention at play in this book, and my 5-year-old is really taken by this motley assortment of characters. He especially wants to read and re-read the chapters that tell Dr. Copter and Crackerdile's origin stories.

The end-papers also have a few bonus features, including a guide on how to draw the main characters, which my son is very into. Altogether, this book has lots to offer in terms of readers young and old. It is fun to read together. It has vibrant, unique characters. The plot is off-the-wall and the dialogue laugh-out-loud funny. It truly is a great graphic novel for all ages, which is a pretty hard trick to pull off.

This book was created by John Patrick Green. I enjoyed his first graphic novel Hippopatomister, and he has also drawn a number of other books for children as well as the mini-comic Teen Boat! written by Dave Roman. He speaks about the origins of the Investigators series in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews concluded that it was "silly and inventive fast-paced fun." Publishers Weekly called it "fast-paced fun for the bad pun and dorky joke crowd: 'Now let’s flush ourselves down the nearest toilet and GATER DONE!'" Kate Quealy-Gainer wrote, "While the art is a bit more sophisticated than Pilkey’s Dogman, the tone is the same, and those waiting for the next installment of that series may want to spend time with this weird reptilian pair."

Investigators was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more here. A sequel is due to be published at the end of the month.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Action Presidents, Books 3 & 4

I reviewed the first two volumes in this series last year, but they have recently been re-issued in color, to coincide with these two new, full-color releases.

In that review, I wrote, "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 (the Historkey), 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."
 
I feel that the same words apply to these two new volumes in the series, but without fart jokes. But I am also more conflicted about these books, especially the fourth one, because I found some huge issues with representation, as you will read below.
As you can see, Book 3 is about Theodore Roosevelt, and it is framed by the Historkey meeting up with a couple of children who got lost on a camping expedition. The set-up helps get at some of the naturalistic aspects of the president's life. This book introduces TR as a privileged, if sickly, member of a rich and powerful family. It goes on to show how he was simultaneously an adventurer who got himself into some sticky situations (including being a rancher out west and soldier) and also accomplished a number of Progressive accomplishments, including breaking down monopolies, fighting government corruption, and establishing a number of pro-environmental policies. He also played a large part in shifting political powers to the presidency via executive orders, a legacy that lasts to present day.
There are also a number of other common stories in the mix, like the famous teddy bear episode as well as the Rough Riders and their role in battles in Cuba, which included quite a few more facts than I was familiar with. The teddy bear story ended up being a bit more gruesome than I remembered, and the Rough Riders' adventures were slightly less heroic also. So overall, I think that this portrait of TR is a fairly even-handed one, with him being cast as an unlikely hero who had some character flaws. My only quibble is a matter of representation of some peoples. I get that this books uses graphic shorthand to communicate, and I am not so sure of how well researched the garb of native peoples was, but it seemed stereotypical to me. More so with the representation of the Spanish government as a toreador.
Book 4 focuses on John F. Kennedy, and in contrast with TR, he came from a family of immigrants who fought hard to establish themselves in the USA in legal and illegal manner. The framing sequence here is of a couple of children (one apparently Pakistani and the other more a generically depicted Asian) who are isolated from the main group of children during a trip to the Kennedy Space Center because their lunches "smell weird." The theme of immigration and integration runs throughout the book, with the ethos of the USA being a place of opportunity for all being reinforced by JFK's story as a model for those two children. I don't know if I am being cynical or if I am being affected by the immense anti-immigrant agenda I see in the US government and society right now, but something about this message just seemed a bit too pat and color-blind. Like my colleague Dr. Laura Jimenez recently wrote, I expect a little more in this day and age. 
 
A lot of US history is affected by whiteness, which conveys the dominant narrative, and in hindsight I think that is a major blind-spot the books in this series books have, as well-meant as they are. Perhaps it is the perception that younger readers should be protected from these more complex, oppressive views of history, and maybe I am asking a lot of a series of books narrated by a talking turkey, but I still felt they came up short in the area of representation. 
 
This disparity really hit me in the JFK volume. The two children who are held up at the end of the book as the resilient hope for our future simply do not enjoy the same built-in advantages as the four Christian white men (Washington, Lincoln, TR, and JFK) spurring them on. I get the drive to extend from JFK's famous exhortation to "Ask not what your country can do for you...," but I also get that systemic racism goes well beyond children being mean to each other at lunchtime (though that may be a relatable and apparent symptom to younger people). This ending puts all the onus to adapt and effect change on the young people, and I think that is a huge burden that is not acknowledged. Also, it ignores the fact that it is the very system being celebrated that is doing the oppressing. Thus, the ending seems pat and disingenuous to me.
Oy.
Regarding the rest of the book, it is chock full of historical information. It offers a look at the many aspects of JFK's life and how it was affected by his father's drive to involve his children in politics, serving in Wold War II, dealing with the Cold War, getting elected to the Senate and then President, and the many conflicts he had to deal with, including those with Cuba and the Soviet Union. There is also a good bit about the Civil Rights movement of the time, with its accomplishments and accompanying violence. Ironically, all this work took place in the past and is not really explicitly tied to the present-day plight of the two children. This to me is a lost opportunity to make the connection to the ongoing battle for civil rights, implying that those battles were fought (and won) in the past. This book also gets into the Camelot period of his presidency, though it is not exalted as much as I have seen in other works. 

As you might tell by now, I was not as taken by this book as I was the others from this series. In terms of history and government, this book covers a lot of ground. In some ways, I think this left me a bit breathless, and I wonder how much context unfamiliar readers would need to deal with the text. It is an ambitious book, and perhaps that drive to do so much detracts from other areas, like the framing sequence where I feel perhaps the two children should have been a bit more fleshed out so as not to seem generic types that feed into the same sorts of stereotypes the book tries to transcend.

These books are the product of Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey, frequent collaborators who both have numerous comics credits for multiple publishers. They have collaborated on two prior historical comics projects, Action Philosophers! and The Comic Book History of Comics. Currently the duo are working on The Comic Book History of Animation, which I helped fund via their Kickstarter.

I have not been able to locate any reviews of these two books yet, but the TR one has a 3.67 (out of star rating on Goodreads, and the JFK one has a 3 star rating (as of this post).

Action Presidents! were published by Harper Collins, and there is more information about all the books in the series here.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Science Comics: Crows: Genius Birds

I never would think that a graphic novel about crows would have me completely rapt, but this book Crows: Genius Birds is exceptionally good. I've read almost all the books in the Science Comics series and this one is easily one of the best. It has a fun framing sequence and is chock full of interesting facts about corvids. The framing sequence involves the smartest crow in the world recruiting a dog named Buddy to help him dump over receptacles on garbage day so they can both feast. Along the way, the crow regales Buddy on all sorts of crow facts, including how they can learn to identify people's faces, imitate bird calls and human voices, and even use tools.

What is most fascinating about this book to me is how well it uses the framing narrative to present science facts. It works in almost seamless fashion to both entertain and inform. I was fascinated to read about the various experiments people have done to learn about crow's behaviors, including seeing how they use specific tools, solve problems, and even learn to complete complex tasks. The fact that they have uniquely shaped brains gives them the ability to perform in ways that match the intelligence of small children. Their abilities to adapt and learn are part of why they come into conflict with people, because they are constantly figuring out ways to circumvent whatever obstacles they encounter. This book really calls into question the simple way of thinking of crows as mere pests, and I think that books that can change people's thinking in this way are rare and noteworthy.

The artwork in this volume is very clear and colorful. I admire how it switches back and forth from propelling the plot and elucidating information or explaining an experiment. It is one of the most accessible and engaging science books I have read, and I think it would be attractive and useful for a wide array of readers.

I am very impressed by what I think is the graphic novel debut of Kyla Vanderklugt. She is not a novice comics creator, and in the past she has contributed to a number of comics anthologies, including Flight and Spera.

I have not seen many reviews of this book, but the ones I've read have been very positive. Johanna Draper Carlson wrote that it "is one of the best of this series. It’s everything a non-fiction graphic novel should be: informative, attractive, well-drawn, and fun to read!" Jonathan H. Liu concluded, "If you like crows and want to learn more about them, this book is a great resource." It currently has a 4.53 (out of 5) star rating on Goodreads.

Crows: Genius Birds was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

History Comics

Apparently, the fine folks at First Second have found a lot of success in their Science Comics series and have branched out into other areas. That series has been of overall high quality, and I have high expectations for whatever they publish. Their first other series is Maker Comics, which is sort of a practical extension of the SC series, with titles about fixing cars, baking, and building robots. I reviewed one title here, and I was pretty impressed with it. More recently, they also branched out with a series aimed at social studies topics, History Comics. They have two titles out so far, and I review them below.

The first book I read was The Great Chicago Fire: Rising from the Ashes, which is about the huge 1871 blaze that destroyed a huge section of The Windy City. This book makes the events here very personal, following a couple of siblings Franny and J.P. who live nearby where the fire started and have to traverse the city in order to avoid the flames. They are great point-of-view characters who both narrate historical/geographic information and also put a human face on the goings-on.


This book gets into all sorts of issues, including the prejudice against immigrants and how the legend was created that blamed Mrs. O'Leary (and her cow) as the cause of the fire. Attention is also paid to the urban planning (or lack thereof) at the time and how the city was rebuilt in the aftermath of the fire, with the advent of skyscrapers and other technological innovations. All of these were showcased 22 years later at the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition.

The end of the book is rounded out with some nifty features, like a timeline of events, a list of facts about the Chicago Fire, and a map of relevant historical sites to visit today. I really enjoyed reading this book, and I feel it's a good, highly accessible introduction to the series.

It was written by Kate Hannigan, a former journalist who has written a number of middle grades and picture books, including the multiple award-winning The Detective's Assistant. It was illustrated by Alexandra Gaudins, who also drew The Brain entry of Science Comics as well as a number of digital and webcomics.

All the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Esther Keller wrote, "The fast-paced read is highlighted with superb artwork that evokes the time period and gives readers the feeling of chaos that ensued in Chicago." Kirkus Reviews concluded, "A fictive plotline adds a strong “you are there” feel to this informative account."

The second book I read was The Roanoke Colony: America's First Mystery, which is about the first attempts of the British to establish a permanent colony in North America. It is narrated by Wanchese and Manteo, two indigenous leaders that the English encountered. They offer a good contrast with their viewpoints, as in reality Wanchese was more weary of the British and their intentions. Both also traveled to England, and Manteo was the first Native American to be baptized into the Church of England


This book is more packed with information, and it gives a broad context to the times and geography. It tells of the various indigenous nations that were active in the area, along with their political structures, homes, and tools. It sheds extensive light on the British politics of the day, with particular attention to Queen Elizabeth I (who brushed her teeth with honey-!!!), "debonair hot boy" Sir Walter Raleigh, and pilot/pirate Simon Fernandes. It chronicles conflicts with rival European nations and also pirates. The failure of this colony lie in a great number of factors, including colonial cluelessness, skirmishes with local peoples, lack of supplies, improper training of colonists, needlessly cruel leadership, and privileging capitalist interests over people's general safety. I was impressed by how much nuance and detail is packed into this book with it still being so accessible and engaging.

This book does not have the same features that concluded The Great Chicago Fire, but I also feel that it covers lot more content in terms of historical context and complexity. Instead it ends with possible solutions to the mystery of what happened to this "lost colony" that was left to its own devices for months. These final pages offer a number of possibilities, starting with the evidence that they literally left a note on a tree that they had gone to the island of Croatoan (where Manteo was from) but storms complicated any search efforts. Among these possible endings are that the colonists may have been slaughtered by any number of factions, including natives or the Spanish, abducted by aliens(!), or assimilated into local nations. Reading this book, it is easy to see why this mystery is still so compelling, especially when presented in such a well-researched manner.

The creator behind this book is Chris Schweizer, who also made the volume of Maker Comics I just reviewed. Like I wrote then, he is a comics Renaissance man who has created a few series like the Crogan's Adventures and The Creeps. He has a bent toward historical works and is one of the best artists working right now, IMHO.

I have not found as many reviews of this book online, but the ones I have read have been full of praise. Carin Siegfried wrote that it "was a lot of fun, really informative, and I especially liked how the story was told from the perspectives of the Native Americans." As of this writing, it has a 4.14 (out of 5) star rating at Goodreads.

Both of these volumes of History Comics were published by First Second, and they offer more info about them and future volumes in the series here.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Maker Comics: Fix a Car!

The Science Comics series of graphic novels has been one of my favorites, and certainly one of the easiest ones for me to recommend to STEM teachers. Their publisher, First Second, has recently branched off into another series with a similar bent, Maker Comics, that encourage readers to bake, create comics, make robots, and do other practical tasks. I can see lots of connections with these books and the "special" subject areas, like family and consumer science, art, and in the case of the book I am looking at here, either auto shop or driver's education.

Fix a Car! follows a group of teenagers and their weekly car club, as they learn about how to care for their vehicles. The teens in this book are all very onto cars and constitute a motley but relatable crew. Some of them have driver's licenses; some are into tricking out their rides with fancy details, and others are into restoring older cars. Over the course of this book, under the guidance of their teacher/advisor Ms. Gritt, they learn how to assemble a tool kit, do routine maintenance, and perform roadside actions like fixing a flat tire or jump-starting an engine. 
Like the Science Comics books, this one has lots of details about how the various systems and parts in a car. It tells about how an engine, transmission, and climate system works. It shows how to change windshield wipers, adjust a drive belt, and switch out a burnt-out tail-light. It also shows how to take care of a battery, maintain proper fluid levels, and properly wash the exterior without ruining the paint job. And what is more, it emphasizes auto safety and delivers all of this information in a very engaging way that does not overwhelm while also maintaining a sense of humor.

This balance between informing and engaging was struck by Chris Schweizer, a comics Renaissance man who has created a few series like the Crogan's Adventures and The Creeps. He has a bent toward historical works, including The Roanoke Colony, one of the inaugural books from the new History Comics series, which (spoiler) I'll be reviewing in the near future. He sheds some insight into his work on Fix a Car! in this interview.

I was not able to find many reviews of this book, but the ones I have seen have been very positive. Sharona Ginsberg wrote that it provided "a more accessible way to approach learning a new skill than advanced technical documentation, textbooks, or manuals" and suggested it "for older readers—beginning around high school—especially as teenagers who may have their licenses and even own cars will find the information more helpful and relevant." Tony Dillard called it "A must for anyone who wants to share the experience of working on cars with a special youngster in their life!"

Fix a Car! was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more information about it here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Frogcatchers

 

Frogcatchers is a brief but memorable book about memory, aging, and second chances. It begins with an older man waking up in a strange room, attached to medical equipment. As he gets untangled and disconnected he begins to wander; then he finds he is in a strange hotel building. When he goes outside, he finds himself in a tunnel where a young boy is hunting for frogs. As he gets his bearings, he finds more mysterious items and learns about the ominous being known as the Frog King, who runs the place. 

I don't want to describe much more about the plot of this book, because of spoilers but also because it is more based on tone and sensation than narrative. There are extended passages without words, where the scratchy images establish context or feelings. Sometimes the imagery also complicates to the overall enigma that is this place and setting. I know that it does not always look polished, but I feel that is what makes it exceptional. The lines are expressive and capture so much feeling with their kinetic energy. 

When I called this book brief I meant that it goes by quickly, but it also invites multiple re-readings and opportunities to suss out just what happened. It is a quiet, introspective book that offers interesting insights into what makes a life worth living.

This book's author Jeff Lemire is one of the most prolific comics creators in the field today. He has a huge list of comics credits and has won a few major awards along the way to boot. He is best known for The Essex County Trilogy, Black Hammer, and Sweet Tooth. He speaks about his work on Frogcatchers in this interview.

All the reviews I have read about this book have been raves. Irene Velentzas called it "a visually and narratively rich tale that suggests the key to navigating life and the self is to remain amphibious, to see under the surface of things, to grasp at opportunities, and to remain open to the constant change found within life’s current." John Seven commended the emotional work in this book, opining that it is "more like a visual poem than a character drama." Kevin Apgar gushed, "Unlike so many other graphic novels that sometimes overstay their welcome, I didn’t want Frogcatchers to end. Ever."

Frogcatchers was published by Gallery 13, and they offer more information about it here.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Eve Stranger

Eve Stranger is a book totally up my alley. It tells the tale of a young woman named Eve Stranger who wakes up once every week alone in a hotel room. She has no memory of the recent past and is surrounded by a used syringe, a gun, a stuffed animal, a notebook where she explains to herself some basic facts, a package containing some assignment, and unlimited credit. If and when anything untoward happens, when she tries to report it to the police she finds the scene completely cleaned up with no evidence of her presence. When she goes to the doctor to give blood, it eats a hole through the beaker. Put simply, this book contains all sort of mysteries to unravel.

Getting to the bottom of her existence and mysterious employers is only part of the fun of this book. It is well plotted, with lots of clues along the way that add up to a satisfying solution. But her missions, which include fast motorcycles, a jet-pack, running with the bulls in Pamplona, contending with a twenty-foot-tall gorilla, and assassinating a potential future tyrant are all fast-paced, madcap adventures full of hand-to-hand combat, chases, and interesting twists. 
 
Finally, I love the artwork done by two of my favorite artists. The main narrative was rendered by Philip Bond, whose work I have been following since I was a teenager on vacation in Greece, reading translated British comics. His style is cool, full of stylish, stylistically unique people and tiny details that pop and also crack me up. He does great spreads that feature action and battle scenes in excellent fashion. 
https://2.bp.blogspot.com/-BeAkf5rmSAw/XNuYATDTfgI/AAAAAAAAbFQ/Z-QQW6eJrIsb4fLIuOGIIp5wPRIDIxWhQCLcBGAs/s1600/Mundane.jpeg

The second feature in each chapter (or issue, as this book originally appeared as a five-issue limited series) is a sort of comic strip by Liz Prince, where Eve is an intrepid girl reporter. These stories are more frivolous and surreal but also contain more clues about her identity that comment on the main narrative. Combined, the two strands make for intriguing, fascinating storytelling.

My biggest criticism of this book is that I feel it was a fun, wild ride that ended too quickly. Certainly, it ends in a way that seems to beg for a sequel, but unfortunately this is the last book published under the Black Crown imprint. I hope it does well enough to get picked up elsewhere, because I'd love to read more Eve Stranger adventures from this creative team.

Joining Bond and Prince in this collaboration is writer David Barnett. He is a novelist who has also written a number of comics for DC and IDW, notably the series Punk's Not Dead. Bond is known for his work with Deadline and the Vertigo Imprint, especially for the one-shot Kill Your Boyfriend. I have read and reviewed lots of Prince's books, including Tomboy and Be Your Own Backing Band.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Clyde Hall wrote in his spoiler-filled review that there is a "bright Britpop..spirit" that "buoys Eve Stranger above mere Noir." Bruno Savill De Jong called it "a satisfying and exhilarating read that is worth remembering." Max Beaulieu called it a "fun series," adding that Eve is "a mix of vulnerable and badass, childlike and mature, driven and yet romantic."

Eve Stranger was published by Black Crown, and they offer previews and more about the series here.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Mr. Butterchips: A Collection of Cantankerous Commentary

Mr. Butterchips is an interesting character, a monkey who aspires to be a stand-up comedian but who is largely relegated to make ends meet by partnering with an organ grinder. His job brings him into contact with a wide cross-section of people, making a sturdy platform for him to express his cantankerous views of social conditions, politics, popular culture, and all sorts of other matters. The first half of the book is episodic, in the vein of a weekly comic strip. And I was pretty amused to see how he tackles contemporary hypocrisy and injustice through comedic commentary, targeting things like "the war on Christmas," pro-lifers, big pharma, Comicsgate, and anti-vaxxers. 

The second half of the book is a single, sustained narrative about Mr. Butterchip's misadventure with controlled substances in the streets (and sewers) of San Francisco. This story is more surreal, reminiscent of underground comix, with the city and its denizens being the butt of the jokes. I have only been to SF once, so I might not get all of the "in" humor, but I was still entertained by the tale, which also has a few mild suspense elements. 

One of the best features of this book to me was seeing how the character, setting, and situations evolved over time. At first, the episodes are given to finding a tone and also establishing the character, which has it fits and starts with mundane things like girlfriend trouble and struggling to make rent. Over time, Mr. Butterchips develops more of a voice and the targets of its satire become more pronounced. By the time I got to the large story that ends the book, I felt a familiarity with things that made the plot hum. It was a lot like reading old volumes of comic strips and seeing how they grow into themselves. I'd be interested to see if there will be more adventures with this acerbic primate in the future.

These comics were created by Alex Schumacher, and most of them appeared monthly in Drunk Monkeys. He has completed a number of projects, including the webcomic Decades of (in)Experience and the self-published print collection Defiling The Literati. He speaks more about his work and career in this interview.

I was only able to find one review of this book, but it was very positive. Aaron Iara wrote, "Our news feeds and social media are chock-full of people arguing and discussing the issues of the day. However, hearing these arguments from a heated drunken monkey is so much more fun." He summed up by recommending "Mr. Butterchips to fans of political cartoons, boisterous stand-up comedians, and off-beat comic books."

Mr. Butterchips was published by SLG, and they offer more info about it here. This book features profanity, adult themes, drug use, and some sexual situations, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to handle those things.

Monday, August 10, 2020

A Fire Story

On Monday, October 9, 2017, Brian Fies and his wife Karen grabbed some things and got in their car for what they thought were precautionary measures because of wildfires. Hours later, they were homeless. 

The fires they escaped were some of the most destructive this country has ever seen, and they ravage Northern California. This book is an intimate look at lives forever changed, how people deal with large-scale destruction in terms of emotional reactions and the practical matters of dealing with relief agencies and other institutional entities. One of the parts that sticks most in my head is Fies dealing with the utilities company, whose representative keeps asking inane questions about whether workers would have clear access to the meter. "Unlimited access," he deadpanned, "but there's no gas meter there anymore." 

The wide array of emotions and somewhat surreal situations that accompany such loss make this book memorable. The personal tale packs a wallop, especially when it is accompanied by several other text pieces told from the perspective of others that the fires affected. As a whole, this book is a wonderfully detailed mosaic of the resilience of the survivors and how some begin to rebuild their lives. This book is moving and informative, giving great insight into how people cope with and survive a natural disaster.

This book's author, Brian Fies began this story as a 18-page comic he published on his blog, adapted it into a Emmy Award-winning animated short, and then expanded it into this graphic novel version. He speaks of the entire process in this video. He also speaks about sharing his story as a graphic novel in this interview. Fies is an Eisner Award winning creator who has created a couple of other graphic novels, the autobiographical Mom's Cancer and the nonfiction long-form essay Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? I also had the honor of being on a panel with him at the 2019 Denver Pop Culture Con.

I was very moved and impressed by this book, but some of the reviews I have read have been more critical. Caitlin Rosberg opined, "It’s a heartfelt, emotional read that has just as much historical and social worth as it does personal value, and a reminder of the best and worst parts of what people can be." Alex Hoffman wrote, "The full book feels scattered, unable to hold the weight of Fies’ trauma." Josh Kramer thought that perhaps the book was rushed and called it "good memoir and inadequate journalism."

A Fire Story was published by Abrams, and they offer a preview and more about it here.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Cankor

As you might can tell from the wordless cover, Cankor is an atypical book. It starts out in an auto-biographical mode, with the tale of a man (or mannish creature) going to a rock show, but then it goes into a very psychedelic direction. He has made some fan art to show the band but left it home, only to see it actually appear in the band's posters and merch.
Things only get stranger as the muscular fella on the cover, an android/cyborg named Cankor makes a ghostly appearance on the scene. Most of the rest of the book follows Cankor as he traverses worlds and dimensions, encountering beings large, small, and superheroic on his way. However, there are interspersed spaces where the autobiographical stories crop up. In all, this is a ethereal reading experience. Sort of like a contemporary version of 1970s Jim Starlin Marvel Comics like Adam Warlock. I won't say that they get so philosophical, but they do meld fantasy, fiction, and reality in interesting and compelling ways.
The artwork is a huge draw or this book. The minute details of circuitry and rock features are just part of what drew me into it. Too often I think I review books here and talk about their plots and characters, and I have been trying to focus more on the artwork and what it brings to the table. As you might can tell from my meandering description of the book's content in the first paragraph, this book is not so much plot driven as it is about sensory-perception and visuals. It is full of long sequences with no words, but the visual storytelling is utterly compelling and beguiling. The imagery is convoluted, complex, and as full of emotional energy as it is of enigmas.

I had not encountered artist Matthew Allison's work before now, but I will definitely be checking out some more of it after reading this book. As far as I can tell, he has largely been doing comics covers and self-publishing Cankor and a horror book called Sweet Sepulchre! I have really enjoyed checking out his Instagram feed for some of his commissions and other art. He speaks about his work on Cankor in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive and mention its idiosyncrasies. Alisha Weinberger wrote, "The art of Cankor is deeply disturbing and nauseating. And I say this with love and admiration." David Charles Bitterbaum called it a "fantastically bizarre work." There are more reviews at Goodreads, where the book currently has a 4 (out of 5) star rating.

Cankor was published by Adhouse Books, and they offer a preview and more here. This book features some profanity and violence, so I suggest it for mature readers.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Cryptoid

Cryptoid features some wonderfully weird comics presented in a stream-of-consciousness style. The stories begin with a looming figure that resembles a Celestial from Jack Kirby's The Eternals. As it surveys the Earth its gaze leads to the misadventures of the half-man, half-ankylosaurus Mankylosaurus (seen on the book cover) grazing at a salad bar, and later turn to a tangent on unknown species of bats that live among us.
Next comes a brief tale of a tortured man who is transformed into a gnome, followed by the adventures of The Resister, a woman/eagle creature who superheroicly fights for freedom, impaling Steve Bannon on a fence and vomiting fish guts at President Trump.
The enigmatic Nightsword's exploits then appear, with the heroic knightly figure slashing and dancing in reality-altering ways. Box, a robot, then comes on the scene to go shopping in a supermarket in his unique manner.
A giant monster then rises from the sea and begins crushing the Earth, when the Mankylosaurus and Celestial-looking being return and the story comes full-circle.

There is a surrealism I dig about these comics. None of the tales are very long, and some are played so seriously that they come off as silly, but they are all potent doses of comics goodness. I am not saying that this book is for everyone, but it boasts a great combination of artwork inspired by classic comics artists like Kirby and Wally Wood, a dash of contemporary social commentary, some good old fashioned ennui, monsters, strange juxtapositions, and frivolity. It's a memorable bit of inspired madness.

I am a big fan of this book's creator Eric Haven. His comics are memorable, leaving definite impressions with their powerful artwork and brevity. His stories do not wear out their welcomes. His narrative sensibilities and style remind me of Michael Kupperman's, though Haven is more action and genre oriented. He has a slew of comics under his belt, including Tales to Demolish and The Aviatrix (collected in Compulsive Comics) and his books Ur (nominated for an Eisner Award) and Vague Tales.

The reviews I have located about this book have been positive. Chris Gavaler called it "a hybrid graphic novella that belongs to no genre but his own." Ryan Carey wrote that "there’s no mistaking an Eric Haven comic for a comic made by anyone else, and even if his work largely amounts to variations on a theme, it’s a theme that stands up to constant and further exploration, definition, and expansion."

Cryptoid was published by Fantagraphics, and they provide a preview and more about it here.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

I Am Not Okay With This

I am Not Okay With This follows the story of Sydney, a 15-year-old who has a lot on her mind. Her mother is frequently on her case. She has an annoying little brother. She is secretly in love with her best friend Dina. Dina is dating an abusive jerk named Brad. Her father was a veteran who died mysteriously. Also, she has telekinetic abilities that both empower and scare her.
As you can tell by the excerpt above, she spends a lot of time in her head, ruminating on things. This book is a long look at teenage isolation and despair, with insight into how people deal with trauma in their lives. It is a very direct, impactful story, and I have to admit I found it tough to read in the sense that Sydney's pain is so visceral and tough to manage. She attempts to medicate herself in various ways, but some aspects of her powers manifest when she loses too much control, so in the end she is a bunch of raw nerves that defy remedy. Finally, she sees only only way to find relief, and it is dark and horrifying.

The stark, simplistic drawings help convey this sense of pain and emptiness in effective manner. The fact that they look cartoonish, almost like a Bizarro version of a newspaper comic strip (with Sydney seeming like Olive Oyl) oddly makes things seem more relatable and realistic to me. Perhaps it's the notion Scott McCloud has talked about, where more iconographic drawings are open and invite people to see themselves, that plays a part in this feeling. However I think the lion's share of credit goes to strong character work, pacing, and plotting. I cannot recall feeling like I have been punched in the face (in a figurative sense) by a comic as much as I have with this one. It's a memorable book for sure.

I am a big fan of the creator of this comic, Charles Forsman, who is a graduate of The Center for Cartoon Studies and a three-time Ignatz Award winner. His comics tend to be genre pieces, including Revenger (a violent, sort of post-apocalyptic adventure tale), Celebrated Summer (a teen "comedy"), Slasher (a horror story), and The End of the Fucking World, which has been adapted into a Netflix Original Series. His newest serial is a sci-fi tale called AUTOMA. Forsman speaks about working on these various comics in this interview. IANOKWT has also been adapted into a Netflix series, and I have to say that I really liked it even though it has some definite deviations from the book.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Tessa Strain wrote that Forsman's gift is "to convey the inner lives of teenagers whose emotions and troubles exceed their ability to express them." Caitlin Rosberg called it a book "filled with delicately balanced tensions stretched cover to cover." Publishers Weekly wrote that it was a "troubling yet poetic exploration of young adults working through their mental pain via its physical projection."

Originally self-published as a series of mini-comics, this collected version of I Am Not Okay With This was published by Fantagraphics Books, and they offer a preview and more information about it here. Because of its strong subject matter, I'd recommend this book for mature readers.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Big Ideas That Changed the World: Rocket to the Moon!

The first book in a new series Big Ideas That Changed the World, Rocket to the Moon chronicles the early days of space travel and ends with a long look at the Apollo 11 mission that landed on the Moon. It is narrated by Rodman Law, an obscure figure to be sure. He was a daredevil, parachutist, and stuntman in the silent film era of cinema.
One of his stunts was to launch himself in a rocket, which gives him insight into the efforts to propel objects and people from Earth. His inclusion is also emblematic of the sort of interesting facts, figures, and events included in this very accessible and engaging book. There is even one notable scene of an astronaut having to track down a stray piece of feces in a space capsule, which is gross and riveting. Try finding that in a textbook.

I think that this book does an excellent job of balancing information with entertainment. It certainly tells its story with verve and a sense of humor, but also does not steer away from revolting realities like the sexism evident in early space programs or the role that Nazis played in researching rocket flight. I think that the artwork is detailed and well-researched, and the pacing and story-telling allows ample space in some wordless sections for the narrative to breathe and the grandeur of the larger events to be highlighted.

This book's creator Don Brown has a sizable number of publications under his belt, focusing especially on nonfiction and biographies for school-aged readers. He is known for the Actual Times series as well as the graphic novel The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees. He speaks extensively about his work on Rocket to the Moon! in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. In their starred review, Kirkus Reviews called it "a frank, often funny appreciation of our space program’s high-water mark." Publishers Weekly wrote, "Brown’s visual storytelling offers humor, vibrancy, and a wealth of historical insight." Esther Keller noted that "Brown creates his own sense of style that will appeal to middle grade readers."

Rocket to the Moon! was published by Amulet Books, and they offer a preview and more here. The second book in the series, about computers, was recently published.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics

Captain America. The X-Men. Hulk. Iron Man. The Avengers. The New Gods. Black Panther. These are only a few of the hundreds of characters that Jack Kirby either created or co-created. They are household names and properties that have generated billions (trillions?) of dollars for the corporations that control them. But he received close to none of such profits. In terms of industry folks, most artists and creators revere Kirby as one of the all-time greats, but non-comics people tend to not know who he was and attribute all of his creations to his frequent collaborator Stan Lee. Finally here, he is given a full biography, in graphic novel form.

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics tells his whole life story, from his early days as a hard-scrabble New Yorker to his becoming an artist and taking part in the formative years of the comic book industry. He was friends/associates with many of the people who shaped American comics, like Bob Kane, Will Eisner, and Joe Simon. He bounced around several companies, enlisted and served in the Army during World War II, co-invented the genre of Romance Comics, co-created the Marvel Universe as we know it, and went on later in life to work in animation. His was an eventful life, and this book captures it in a mostly realistic, painterly style that evokes the spirit of Golden Age comics as well as documentaries. Also, the paper itself is colored to resemble yellowed newsprint, the material used to display Kirby's works.
I have to say that this book moves at breakneck speed, and it is packed full of his accomplishments. There is a part of me that wanted there to be more breaks, perhaps in the form of chapters or parts, but I also feel that the sort of compressed storytelling at play here is more emblematic of Kirby's work. So the medium very well matches its subject, though I also made myself pause at times to catch my breath and take in the story.

I also appreciated the way the book used Kirby as the primary narrator (using various interviews and articles as reference points) with occasional shifts of POV to his wife Roz and collaborator Stan Lee. I'd say it does a good job at capturing the spirit and voice of the man, and I liked how it treated him in very practical terms, with his speaking to the need to be productive and work not only in terms of expressing himself but also to put food on the table and support his growing family. Certainly Kirby was an impressive creator, but this books demystifies some of the origins of his most famous works, showing how he cobbled together his experiences, learning, and media consumption in spinning his fantastic stories and amazing characters. Kirby is impressively human.

This book also touches on the more controversial aspects of Kirby's life, namely how he was cheated out of his due as a creator and spent much of his life battling in vain to retain control of his stories, characters, and artwork. Surely there is lots of blame to assign for his treatment, and I felt this book captured well the conditions that led to it. It also has lots of source material behind it to help flesh out the proceedings well.

In seeing people's responses to this book online, the most glaring aspect people have latched onto is the depiction of Kirby himself, which you can see from the cover image. While everyone else is realistically drawn, Kirby is rendered in a cartoonish way, with a huge head and big eyes. I think this choice does two things: it draws attention to him in every way as an otherworldly presence, and it makes it clear who he is in every instance, making for smoother storytelling. Others have noted how this choice is related to how another comics titan Osamu Tezuka (the "God of Manga") drew himself in his own works, and I feel that there is a similar semiotic move made here, a marker of a similarly legendary figure. In reading the book, I have to say that I did not find the choice jarring in the least, and I was quickly drawn into the narrative flow of the story. Even though I was very familiar with many aspects of his life, I still found this book fresh and vibrant. And I feel it is extremely important now, especially as an introduction to those who are unaware of just how impactful Kirby's life was.

This book was created by long-time Jack Kirby fan Tom Scioli. His own works clearly owe debts to Kirby in terms of style, particularly his series Gødland and American Barbarian, not to mention his recent Fantastic Four: Grand Design limited series. He has also drawn a number of licensed properties, including Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe. Scioli speaks about his work on this book in this interview. For more about his entire career, check out this interview with TCJ.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have sung its praises. In a starred review Publishers Weekly called it "a must-read for Kirby fans, and beyond—it captures the mythos of the of the 20th century comic industry’s golden age."  Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "a fast-paced celebration of an underheralded legend within the comic-book industry." Steven Thompson wrote, "The public deserves to know Kirby’s story and Tom Scioli, the obsessive Kirby fan/writer/artist, tells it here in a way I can’t help but think the King himself would’ve liked, and in the medium Jack Kirby loved."

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics was published by Ten Speed Press, and they offer a preview and more here.
Kirby's influence extends way beyond comics.