Thursday, October 20, 2022

Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts

Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts is a graphic novel that works on a number of levels, and I was gobsmacked by how much it affected it. One, it is a memoir by academic Rebecca Hall doing research for her dissertation projection. Two, it is an account of the facts of women's roles in slave revolts. Three, it contains a number of fictionalized accounts of the events concerning slave revolts, as very often there are no concrete records extent concerning women's involvement in them. Four, it is an exploration of how the institution of slavery still haunts and informs contemporary society. Five, it is enterprise that demonstrates how history gets defined and then redefined, and how this process has palpable effects on us all, whether acknowledged or not. It's a tour de force graphic novel that packs a wallop intellectually, aesthetically, and emotionally.

One especially affecting and effective trope in this book is a constant mirroring of the past and present in its imagery. A good part of the book takes place in New York City, and there are several panels and pages that show scenes from the 17th and 18th centuries and how they inform our present. Scenes of slave auctions push right up on images on contemporary Wall Street, juxtaposing the predominant business practices of both eras. The artwork by Hugo Martinez aptly emanates a rawness that highlights the horrific and dehumanizing social conditions depicted throughout the book. It is a difficult read in many ways, as it does not let anyone off the hook for their various roles in either perpetuating or trying to ignore grave injustices carried out over centuries. And the images touch many a nerve along the way.

In the end, I was amazed by the scope of this book. As an academic, I can appreciate the great effort and distress involved in doing this research and creating this account. As a reader, I was moved by the historical accounts and sheer horror of the depraved acts of slavery and racism. I was also moved by the bravery and perseverance of people who were enslaved and how they contended against their captors. As a citizen, I was distressed by how public institutions, including records clerks and companies like Lloyd's of London work to obscure and even protect past misdeeds. Additionally, I was struck by how Hall's background as a lawyer also informed insights into how the institution of slavery stripped people of basic humanity through legal codes. As a researcher, I can also appreciate just how frustrating it could be to delve into a topic where little to no historical record exists. This absence should be galling to us all in the present day.

Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts is an important, modern classic that belongs on library and classroom shelves as well as on syllabi. I am so glad that one of the students in the graphic novels class I am currently teaching selected it. I feel everyone should read it.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. In a starred entry, Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "an urgent, brilliant work of historical excavation." Etelka Lehoczky called it a "remarkable blend of passion and fact, action and reflection," and added that "Wake sets a new standard for illustrating history." In a detailed and riveting review Jordan Alexander Stein wrote, "It pushes past the limits of what’s possible, to tell us a story that wasn’t but now can be."

Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts was published by Simon & Schuster, and they offer more information about it here.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Good On Both Sides: A (Th)Ink Anthology

Good on Both Sides is a collection of political and historical comics strips by Keith Knight, who has been publishing regular comic strips such as the K Chronicles since the early 1990s. Knight's work here is contemporary, commenting not only on current events but also the current state of our country. I love his point of view, acerbic sense of humor, and his insights. 

Note: I got images from Knight's website. The book is in black and white.

The general issue with collections like this is that the humor often gets lost as time goes by and people forget the contemporary references that make the jokes work. I think Knight smartly protects against this by including many historical portraits that add their own context. By including several celebrations of and quotations from historic figures like Thurgood Marshall and Edna Lewis he provides a long view on how long certain struggles have been going on. Many of the issues we deal with today in terms of civil rights and race have been fomenting for a long time. 

Reading over what I have written above, I am making this book of comic strips sound like a textbook, which is entirely not the case. Knight's artwork is a delight, offering lots of energy and character with seemingly simple and streamlined line-work. Good On Both Sides made me laugh several times. It is funny, insightful, and provocative, and I very much enjoyed catching up on strips that I had not seen.

As I mentioned above, gentleman cartoonist Keith Knight has been a fixture in the alt-comics scene for decades now, and he has also received added exposure by having his life/works used to make the Hulu series Woke. He has won a number of accolades, including a Harvey Award for his strip K Chronicles, multiple Glyph Awards, an Inkpot Award for his career achievements, and an NAACP History Maker Honor. He spoke about the current state of his life and work in this interview.

I was not able to find many reviews of this book online, but the one I found was positive. Joel Oliphint wrote that although "the subject matter in Knight’s cartoons...can be heavy, he uses humor to help the medicine go down."

Good On Both Sides was published by Keith Knight Publications, and you can find more info about it here. You can also support Knight on Patreon here.

Thank you to the author/publisher for providing me with a review copy!

Monday, October 10, 2022


I am very late to the party in reading this book, and I am so glad that one of the students in my graphic novel course selected it to read with the class. Shortcomings is a modern class graphic novel, originally published as three issues in the late 1990s/early 2000s comics series Optic Nerve. It follows the trials and tribulations of a trio of Asian-American 30-something young adults as they navigate romance, friendships, and the demands of adult life to varying degrees of success. 

Ben Tanaka is the main protagonist, a Japanese-American movie theater manager who is acerbic, hyper-critical, and somewhat obsessed with white women. At the start of the book he is living with his girlfriend Miko Hayashi, who organized an Asian-American film festival, which Ben finds "shitty." Alice Kim is from Korea, and she and Ben went to college together, and they share a love for hating on things. She is also single and ready to mingle with a good number of people. When Miko decides to take a four-month-long internship in New York City, she and Ben go "on a break," which leads to a series of misadventures. Ever stirring the pot, Alice learns something about what Miko is up to in NYC and sends for Ben to come see. 

All this roiling drama is a huge draw for this graphic novel, and it also features strong characterizations that make you feel repelled by and also empathetic towards the protagonists. It is an engrossing and vexing reading experience, a book that lingers long after it is read. The artwork is crisp, expressive, yet also very open to interpretation. I love how it is paced, with lots of personal interactions punctuated by memorable and provocative images. I loved this book, and I will seek out more from its author, whose works I have been remiss about picking up.

This book's creator Adrian Tomine, the 2021 Eisner Award winner for his memoir The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist. He has been publishing comics for more than 20 years now, most notably his series Optic Nerve as well as the graphic novels Summer Blonde, Killing and Dying, and Scenes From an Impending Marriage. He speaks about his early career and work on Shortcomings in this interview from 2007.

This book is very well reviewed. In a starred review for Publishers Weekly Junot Díaz called it both a "lacerating falling-out-of-love story" and "an irresistible gem of a graphic novel." PopMatters wrote, "In place of a conclusive affirmation, Shortcomings weaves an intricate portrait of the various responses to age and identity that set in during the early years of post-twenties life." Jim Woldof called it "a meticulously observed comic-book novella."

Shortcomings was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they offer an excerpt and more info here.

This book has been optioned to be adapted into a motion picture. I am very interested in seeing how it turns out.

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

History Comics: The National Parks: Preserving America's Wild Places

As a person who has been to a good many of them, I feel that the National Parks are one of the best parts of the USA. They are full of stupendous views, fantastic landscapes, unique flora, and surprising fauna. All of these features are sumptuously captured in the artwork of this volume of History Comics, and what's more it also provides excellent historical context for their creation and the people behind the scenes.

Have I mentioned that it is narrated by a Sasquatch and an eagle? It is!

This book details the major figures behind the origins and continuation of the National Park Service, warts and all. It tells about how Native Americans were removed from many of these spaces and how their concerns were largely ignored. It chronicles the racism experienced by the buffalo soldiers who were among the first rangers protecting Yosemite National Park. It portrays the many accomplishments of naturalist and The Sierra Club co-founder John Muir while also noting his racist and paternalistic tendencies. In all, I feel it is an excellent piece of scholarship that balances facts with entertainment, not shying away from the more negative aspects of history. The National Parks is one of the best of this fantastic series of graphic novels.

That this book is so well crafted is no surprise, given that it was written and drawn by Falynn Koch. She is a veteran of the History Comics series, having drawn The Wild Mustang. She has also drawn a couple of entries in the Science Comics series, Bats and Plagues, as well as a Makers Comics book about baking.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews called it "a witty yet complicated history of the national parks." Johanna Draper Carlson wrote that it "can be read multiple times, with new facts standing out to the reader each time through."

The National Parks:  Preserving America's Wild Places was published by First Second, and they offer a review and more information about it here.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Four-Fisted Tales: Animals in Combat

Four-Fisted Tales is a highly entertaining and informative book that taught me all sorts of things about animals in combat. Apparently, the US military has been using dolphins for all sorts of missions (allegedly, because lots of info about it is classified) for decades. Among the many things I also learned from this book are that World War I soldiers marshaled fireflies to help create natural light at night that did not give up their positions, rats can be trained to be highly effective at detecting land mines, and slugs were used to protect soldiers from mustard gas. Also, there are fascinating stories about animals like dogs and bears that not only served as mascots for specific units but also got involved as actual combatants. Truth is truly more fascinating than fiction. 

From a heroic tale about a messenger dog named Satan.

What really makes these tales work is the masterful artwork that portrays various species not only with accuracy but also feeling, as well as detailed depictions of vehicles, buildings, landscapes, and other realistic features that make the environs of each panel live and breathe. Consequently, Four-Fisted Tales invites multiple re-readings, as it is easy to breeze through the whole book due to its fascinating subject matter and clear storytelling, but it also features intricate artwork that can be pored over again and again. Additionally, the war stories are compelling in and of themselves, without sugar-coating so even the more whimsical tales remind readers of the grim realities of battle.

This book's creator Ben Towle is a professor of illustration at The Columbus College of Art and Design. He has been nominated for 4 Eisner Awards, and is known for comics that tell fantasy tales, like Oyster War, and others that are nonfiction graphic novels like Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean. He speaks about his work on Four-Fisted Tales in this interview.

A 2022 Eisner Award nominee for Best Publication for Kids, this book has been well-reviewed. Rob Clough wrote, "Towle tells stories that are cruel and absurd as well as frequently funny and even inspiring, and it’s important to acknowledge that it’s all part of the war experience." Greg Burgas opines that it illuminates "a neat aspect of a depressing part of history – war ." Publishers Weekly called it an "undeniably captivating book."

Four-Fisted Tales was published by Dead Reckoning, and they offer more information about it here.

I had the pleasure of getting a copy of the book from Towle at HeroesCon this past weekend. He drew a lightning bug in my copy, and he is a swell fellow!

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Mr. Boop

Mr. Boop collects the four books of a webcomic about a man who is married to Betty Boop, works at Subway with Bugs Bunny, and is roommates with Peter Griffin. Despite its inclusion of beloved cartoon characters, this book is definitely not for children. One of its prime targets is copyright laws and corporate ownership of characters, and the series loves to push boundaries by putting these characters in inappropriate and adult situations. However the series also has a heart, as it is a look at romantic relationships and how they play out. The set-up is a faux diary comic where Alec, the narrator, speaks about his love for his wife, Betty.

Things spiral out of control pretty quickly, as Alec's insecurities cause him all sort of grief and anxiety about his wife leaving him or him stupidly deciding to divorce her. Also, his co-worker Bugs Bunny starts explicitly telling him how jealous he is of Alec's relationship with Betty and how he is plotting to murder him. Once Alec realizes that Bugs is not joking, he and Betty decide to have a threesome with him to defuse the situation. And it works. And then they do the same thing with a variety of other cartoon characters. This all happens in the first quarter of the book, which ends tragically, and the rest takes many dramatic, silly, and surreal turns.

Reading this book, things get raunchy and weird pretty quickly, but I found something utterly compelling and charming about it all. The episodic quality of the individual strips is addictive. I also think there is some sort of alchemy about the sorts of satire and parody that are going on here, coupled with the intentionally amateurish drawing style and some clever commentary on corporate machinations, that combine to make this a memorable, unique, and baffling reading experience. As I wrote earlier, this book is definitely not for kids, and I don't think it is necessarily for everyone's tastes, but it really appeals to a unique demographic (which includes me).

The mastermind behind this grenade of a book is Alec Robbins. Robbins has worked in all sorts of media, and he also currently produces another webcomic CRIMEHOT. He speaks about his work on Mr. Boop in this interview.

Almost all of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly called it "a Rube Goldbergian maze of multilevel, tongue-in-cheek internet ironizing, catnip for those who love such stuff." Kalyleigh Hearn called it "a Tijuana Bible for the Twitter age, racy and absurd and a jab in the eye of every intellectual property law in existence. It’s also the most romantic comic strip of the year." In a contrary take, Lane Yates offers a long meditation on why he did not really enjoy this book.

Mr. Boop was published by Silver Sprocket, and they offer a preview and more info about it here. There is also much more material, including the strips, videos, and a video game, about Mr. Boop at its official webpage.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

History Comics: The Stonewall Riots: Making a Stand for LGBTQ Rights


History is a tough thing to conceive of for some learners, as it's difficult to remove oneself from one place in time and try to imagine themselves in another. This volume of History Comics, The Stonewall Riots: Making a Stand for LGBTQ Rights, tackles this issue by literally having its protagonists, a trio of adolescents named Natalia, Jax, and Rashad, who are diverse in terms of gender and sexuality, go back in time (without their cell phones, the horror!). Then and there, they are witness to the actual events leading up to the Stonewall Uprising, and they get to know some of its major players. 

This graphic novel is more about getting to know a tone and people than it is about presenting specific facts and dates to memorize, and I think where it excels is in contextualizing what led to this series of protests that gave momentum to a significant push for LGBTQ rights. The artwork is full of personality and depicts characters in stark, energetic fashion, pairing well with the plot to make this book have a very human focus. The characters and readers both get well acquainted with the people who made history.

Significantly, this book also does not sugar-coat the people or events, nor does it conclude that the struggle is over in the present day. In fact, it points out how much work still needs to be done and also provides a slew of resources for how young people can also get involved in various organizations today. It is a fantastic resource for learning about history as well as for encouraging contemporary activism, and I think it is a much-needed book for classroom and school libraries.

The Stonewall Riots was co-created by writer Archie Bongiovanni and artist A. Andrews. Bongiovanni has co-created comics in all sorts of formats, from graphic novels like A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns to webcomics like Grease Bats and other shorter ones published at The Nib. Andrews also has created a number of different sorts of comics including A Quick & Easy Guide to Sex and Disability.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Brett at Graphic Policy stated that it is a great primer that "captures the moment," "the feel," and "the build-up of it all." Krystal Moore and Felix Whetsel called it "a timely introduction to the history of the LGBTQ community, and the people who fought to get us where we are now." Kirkus Reviews summed up, "Engaging account that invites young people to continue to advocate for equality now."

The Stonewall Riots: Making a Stand for LGBTQ Rights was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here.