Sunday, December 5, 2021

Friday Book One: The First Day of Christmas

The holidays can be a tough time of year for many people. This is especially true for Friday Fitzhugh, a young woman who comes home to her small New England town after her first semester at college and finds herself embroiled in a mystery. This situation is not novel to her, because she spent most of her childhood traipsing over town with her best friend Lancelot Jones, solving mysteries, foiling villains, and discovering all sorts of magical items. Something menacing and mysterious is lurking in the woods outside of town, driving some townfolk mad. However, something happened just before she left for college that estranged her from Lance, and she does not know quite how (or if) to deal with it. 

Friday is a sort of version of Sally Kimball,  tough and athletic and able to be a body guard for her friend. Also, she is a multi-faceted young woman who is trying to figure out her place in the world, and what a strange world it is. The seaside New England town where this book is set is like a character unto itself, full of interesting characters, adjoining a creepy forest, and a focal point for dark magic. 

I really enjoyed reading this book, and I may just be the perfect demographic for it. It smacks of things I read when I was a kid, like the Encyclopedia Brown series and John Bellairs novels, only with a twist that carries them beyond a children's book perspective. The characters and setting coalesce organically in the tightly plotted narrative, plus the artwork is exceptional. It is full of atmosphere, and I loved poring over pages to admire the archaic architecture, creepy critters, and spot-on character designs. My admiration of the art, along with the need for checking for clues to the mystery, led me to re-read this book a few times for fun. The worst thing I can say about it is that it is a long prologue for the real  narrative, because the last few pages of the book add a twist that I did not see coming. But it's so incredibly intriguing and well crafted  that I really did not care. It's a great piece of genre fiction, and I cannot wait for the next two books to see how things resolve.

Friday is a collaboration between writer Ed Brubaker, artist Marcos Martin, and colorist Muntsa Vicente. Brubaker is a multi-award winning comics creator whose works include Sleeper, Criminal, Incognito, Fatale, The Fade-Out, and Kill or Be Killed. Martin has also won Eisner Awards for his art in the superhero series Daredevil and the webcomic The Private Eye. Vicente has done design and illustration work for a number of high profile clients and more recently has also gotten into coloring comics.

Friday won the 2021 Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic, and all of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly wrote that "this atmospheric first installment sets up compelling sequels, with a sucker punch ending that demands follow-up." Luke Chant opined, "Ed Brubaker’s script is excellent, while Marcos Martín and Muntsa Vincente combine to do a great job capturing the 70s feel." Steve Baxi called it "an incredible start to what is sure to be an incredible series."

This trade paperback of Friday Book One: The First Day of Christmas was published by Image Comics. All individual and future issues are and will be available from Panel Syndicate.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Cold War Correspondent

A new entry in the Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales series is always a welcome addition to my library, and this one, Cold War Correspondent, is exceptionally well done. It focuses on the conflict known as the Korean War, and it is told through the accounts of Marguerite Higgins, an enterprising and intrepid reporter who had to contend with firefights, evacuations, and rampant sexism. Her personality really shines through in this book, and it is rewarding to learn about her and how she does her job. Anyone interested in what a war correspondent does has a front seat view into that occupation, warts and all.

Reading this book, I also learned that I was ignorant about much of the origins and goings-on of this conflict. It is chock full of facts and excellent storytelling, so I felt that I could experience history as a compelling and informative narrative. I know that Hale did a superb job encapsulating an entire war before, but the job here he does of detailing the beginnings of the Korean War is just as comprehensive and gripping. This series is still the gold standard of nonfiction historical graphic novels.

This book's author, Nathan Hale (not related to the Revolutionary War spy) is a highly accomplished graphic novelist. I love his work so much that I named one of my annual favorites list categories after him. Aside from his great success with this series, he has also published a couple of fictional graphic novels One Trick Pony and Apocalypse Taco. He has also drawn a few others, including Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "exciting reportorial derring-do." Youth Services Book Review gave it 5 out of 5 stars and wrote, "I’ve never known much about the Korean War but now I do after reading the 11th in the Hazardous Tale series."

Cold War Correspondent was published by Amulet Books, and they offer a preview and more here.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

This Is How I Disappear

This Is How I Disappear is a powerful, moving, and important book about dealing with depression. Its protagonist is Clara, an over-worked 30-year-old woman who is still dealing with the fallout of a sexual assault that happened in her 20s. Her work as a marketing assistant for a publisher is not very rewarding, especially with her boss David's thoughtless and passive-aggressive behavior. Clara also is trying to write a draft of a verse novel, but she is dealing with writer's block and crises of confidence in her abilities. I could really relate to that last part, and her dread of missing deadlines was as palpable as the rest of the trauma and stressors she faces.

Things appear to look up when she meets a friend named Alexa, who is dealing with her own issues with a man she dated, and it seems like she might be someone to confide in and trust. But, Clara really is not up to helping anyone, as she is not dealing with her own pain and suffering, and it is harrowing to watch her sink further into isolation and despair.

This book excels at capturing the feelings and behaviors associated with depression, and the artwork really conveys emotion and tone in a variety of ways. I was impressed by its wordless passages, the way that showing faces and gestures can say so much and communicate intensity.
Much also gets communicated via depictions of social networking, and I thought that the contemporary look at life and mental health is incredibly well detailed. Clara's friends really don't know how to relate to her, and she starts avoiding them and really causing some concerns. I do not want to spoil the resolution of this book, but I will say that it ends on a hopeful note, though it does not pretend that what Clara is dealing with is easily solved. Although it contains a number of painful and difficult behaviors as well as discomforting events, I really appreciated this book. It is beautiful and moving, and the artistry used to show personal interactions and sorrow is masterful.

This book was created by Mirion Malle. She has published a number of graphic novels, and the only other one available in English right now is League of Super Feminists. This book was translated into English by Aleshia Jensen and Bronwyn Haslam. Malle talks about her work on This Is How I Disappear in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about it have been positive. Publishers Weekly wrote that "this low-key look at life in recovery has a disarming simplicity and bracing sincerity." Madeleine Chan called it "a frank look at modern millennial survival and may pull you into an existential dread — in a good way." Jeff Provine opined that it "discusses burnout and coping in a way that is rarely seen in literature."

This Is How I Disappear was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they offer a preview and more information about it here.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Teaching Artfully

Earlier this year I reviewed Alex Nall's Are Comic Books Real?, and one of the things that struck me about that book was just how viscerally it made me feel about teaching. Teaching Artfully is another wonderfully, painfully honest looks at education from the perspective of an art teacher. There was a lot about this book that I could relate to, the feelings of being overwhelmed, the amounts of grading, the effort that goes into planning, and the wondering about what you are doing with your life. But this book also delves into a bunch of academic and theoretical work, citing major scholars like Maxine Greene and Elliot Eisner, which feeds into my scholarly interests. This is a complex, multi-faceted work, one that I took a long time to read, because I wanted to take time to reflect and pore over each chapter.

Teaching Artfully is a terrific long-form visual essay about the enterprise of education that expertly meanders and offers insights along the way. It mixes in scenes of teaching, intellectual commentary, one panel gags, lists, metaphors, static images, and abstract visuals in exploring multiple dimensions of the profession/calling, and I loved the mix of narrative/expository/aesthetic forms that it employs. It is a great treasure chest for educators, showing her teaching, some of her activities, and how she approaches planning. It also shows scenes from her life that give context to the whole enterprise. 

This is not a linear work, but that is also part of its point. Teaching is not as simple as one would imagine, and it requires all sorts of lenses to bring it into some sort of focus. I think this graphic novel is a clever for its commentary and its loose structure where it is divided into seven chapters that mirror the major components of art, including line, color, shape, space, and form. I loved its vibrant colors, and the way that it frequently took off into flights of whimsy. It is also a very contemporary book, commenting on our present moment when technology and social media loom large in people's lives, and the role of art is perhaps more nebulous but necessary than ever. I feel that Teaching Artfully is an important work linking education and visual literacy using comics to its best capabilities.

This debut graphic novel was written as a Master's thesis, and author Meghan Parker is an art teacher who works in Vancouver. She speaks about her work and this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Kay Sohini called it "a timely reminder of the expansive future of comics scholarship, of what comics practitioners can do with comics as medium and as method, and of the importance of storytelling as humanistic inquiry." Publishers Weekly wrote, "Educators will appreciate heady musings about art-as-process and prompts to “design a new home for a snail,” though creative young readers may prefer passages on self-expression, identity, and inclusion." In a starred review from School Library Journal Thomas Maluck called it " a manual and call to arms for creative perspectives." And I agree with Melissa N. Thompson who wrote that it "does not have to apply solely to art teachers but can foster ideas on how to create meaningful discussions and connections with students by thinking outside of the (report card comments) box."

Teaching Artfully was published by Yoe Books, and they offer more about it here.



Wednesday, November 10, 2021

I Am Not Starfire

I Am Not Starfire is another graphic novel in DC Comics's YA line, and I'd say that this book is 2/3 YA book, 1/3 superhero adventure. It involves the relationship between Teen Titan Starfire and her daughter Mandy. Mandy looks nothing like her mom. She is stocky, pale, freckles, and prefers to wear goth style makeup and clothing. She resents the attention that she gets from others just because she is the child of a superhero, and she really only tolerates Lincoln, who is "the most annoying person in the world" and also her best friend.

Mandy has lots of things on her mind. There are plenty of rumors about who her father is (Starfire won't tell). She is stressed about taking her SATs and does not want to take them or go to college. And she feels overall inadequacies because she has no powers of her own. Things take an upturn when she gets paired with the super-popular, athletic Claire on a school project and the two begin a friendship that turns into a fledgling romance. Sparks also start to fly when Starfire realizes what Mandy plans (or does not plan for her future), and matters kick into a third gear when Starfire's estranged sister Blackfire comes to Earth to kill off any threats to her reign.

This book is terrific, and there are two things that really recommend it. One, the artwork is eye-popping and incredible. Each page conveys a great deal of emotion and dynamism. It is truly splendid to behold. Two, this book has a lot of heart. In one way it is about a strained mother-daughter relationship, but it is also an immigrant tale about a parent who wants a better way of life for her child. The characters are fully developed and interesting, and this version of Starfire is an adult one that combines aspects of superheroism, celebrity, and the personality made popular in the Teen Titans cartoons. Although the plot went pretty much as I expected, this was a fun book to read. It is an excellently rendered, beautifully drawn piece of genre fiction.

This book was a collaboration between writer Mariko Tamaki and artist Yoshi Yoshitani.  Tamaki has won a ton of awards in comics, including multiple Eisners, being a finalist for the Printz Award (twice!), and a Caldecott Honor. She is known for the graphic novels This One Summer, Skim, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, and a few prior entries in DC Comics' YA graphic novel line, including Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass. Yoshitani is an illustrator with a long list of prestigious clients and has also drawn the graphic novel Zatanna and the House of Secrets.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Emily Lauer called Mandy "pretty damn relatable" and also noted that she appreciated how "unlike many parents in YA, Starfire feels like a fully realized character." Ray Goldfield called it "a fun story that I imagine a lot of girls will see themselves in." Kirkus Reviews summed up, "Equal parts entertaining and thought-provoking."

I Am Not Starfire was published by DC Comics, and they have more information about it here.

Friday, November 5, 2021

History Comics: The American Bison: The Buffalo's Survival Tale

I have been very impressed by the History Comics series of graphic novels, and this entry The American Bison pairs will thematically with one I reviewed earlier this year, The Wild Mustang. It traces the history of bison, which are also known as the American buffalo. These animals once numbered in the tens of millions across North America, until they were hunted near to extinction. This book is a treasure trove of information about them, with the graphics really enhancing the facts and history, as you can see in this excerpt:

One thing this book does well is detail the various relationships that the bison have had with different peoples and civilizations. A number of Native American people hunted and co-existed with them, and sometimes they even held them up for spiritual reasons. They were intimately linked with their way of life, for reasons of utility, nourishment, and spirituality. With the onset of white settlers, bison were cast in a different perspective, and with the proliferation of railroads, they became easy targets for recreational hunters who would pick them off with rifles as they crossed the nation.

Accounts of the efforts to both remember and preserve bison bookend this volume, providing insight into the nascent field of conservation as well as insights into the beginnings of national parks and nature preserves. The last third of the book especially chronicles the many people who worked to protect them, sometimes for altruistic reasons and sometimes for profit. This book impressively touches on matters of biology, history, government, and ecology, striking a great balance between informing and entertaining along the way. It's a fantastic nonfiction graphic novel.

The American Bison was written and drawn by Andy Hirsch, who has also created a bunch of entries in the Science Comics series of graphic novels, including  Dogs, Cats, Rocks and Minerals, and Trees.

The reviews I have read about this book have been positive. J. Caleb Mozzocco opined that this "story of the bison’s survival and gradual recovery isn’t just a good read, it is, perhaps, a necessary one." Brett called it "fascinating" and noted how it is a worthy entry in a great series of books.

The American Bison was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Old Head

Halloween is just around the corner, and I thought this graphic novel suited the season beautifully. Old Head was written and drawn by Kyle Starks and colored by Chris Schweizer, two of my favorite comics creators. The story here follows the exploits of Nash "The Knive" Gliven, Jr., a retired professional basketball player known more for his intimidating physical presence than his ability to shoot. 

"The Knife's" origin story

When the book opens, he is taking his teenage daughter Willie to his childhood home, to wrap up loose ends after the death of his mother. Part of closing the book on things is signing over the property to a neighbor who really wants it. The really bad news in this situation is that his mom was a monster hunter and that neighbor is none other than her long-time nemesis Dracula. Once Nash signs over the house, Drac and his motley band of vampire goons can come and go as they please, placing everyone in danger. How matters resolve involves a whole lot of action/suspense, humorous quips, and tons of fighting. This book is a joy to read, but it also packs a decent emotional wallop with lots of observations and remembrances of family and how families work in their unique ways. It's a fun, exciting, and heartfelt book, a tough combo to pull off.

Part of why everything works so well is that Starks and Schwiezer have collaborated multiple times before, on series like Rock Candy Mountain, Mars Attacks!, and the current Six Sidekicks of Trigger Keaton, and they really know how to play to each others' strengths. They are masters of clear storytelling, impactful pacing, and setting emotional tones with lines and color. I have also enjoyed Starks' other works, including Kill Them All, Sexcastle, The Legend of Ricky Thunder, and Assassin Nation. Among my favorite works of Schweizer are his series The Crogan Adventures and The Creeps as well as his contributions to the History Comics and Makers Comics graphic novels.

All of the reviews I have read about it have been positive. Lisa Gullickson called it "an honest examination of regret, grief, fatherhood, and legacy." Micki Waldrop advised, "Get ready to laugh out loud as some of the over the top action." Samantha Puc summed up, "If you enjoy jokey fight books, weird monsters (like, really weird monsters), and women kicking ass, consider grabbing a digital or physical copy of Old Head."

Old Head was published by Image Comics, and they offer a preview and more about it here. The original printing of the book was funded as a Kickstarter project. Because of violence and some profanity, I suggest it for more mature readers.