Saturday, May 20, 2023

Adventuregame Comics #1: Leviathan

 

Jason Shiga is one of my favorite comics creators, and he has consistently pushed the boundaries of comics, puzzles, and visual deign. He frequently incorporates math and science aspects into his work as well, giving it a very unique dimension. He has created books on a variety of topics, from the choose-your-own-path adventure Meanwhile, to the action-librarian yarn Bookhunter, to the modern romance Empire State, to the definitely adult supernatural escapade Demon. In his most recent publication, Leviathan, he returns to the territory of choose-your-own-path books.

Here, he follows the quest of a young, medieval villager in a quest to find and defeat a giant sea creature. This trail leads to various places, including home, a tavern, and a library, in order gather information and clues about the beast. Your choices dictate the story's path, as panels lead to various page numbers for you to trace the trajectory of the tale. Choose poorly, and you may end up kicked out on your ear, lost at sea, or worse. Pay attention, and you may be shocked by what is revealed. 

These two early pages from the book give a flavor of how it works.
This book is aimed at a younger audience than Shiga's past works, middle school-aged readers, but I think it is enjoyable for older ones as well. It is intriguing and fun and invites lots of re-reading and engagement. With some time and effort, I managed to successfully navigate this narrative, a feat I never have managed to do with Meanwhile, which only has one "happy ending" out of about 4,000 possible ones. So, it's mildly difficult, not diabolical like Meanwhile, a happy challenge for fantasy or adventure-minded readers.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly noted that its "clever dialogue and stout character design impart good humor." Sean Kleefeld wrote, "It's an excellent use of the comic medium and far improves upon the reading experience relative to any other CYOA-style books I've seen." Kirkus Reviews called it "a clever story requiring investigation, diligence, and the ability to think outside the box."

Leviathan was published by Amulet Books, and they have more information about it here. As you may have guessed from the #1 in the title, this book is the first in a series. Book #2, The Beyond, is due to be published in August. For more insight into Book #1, you can read this interview with the author.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Asadora! Volume 1

My experiences with manga are pretty limited, I feel, but there are certain authors whose works I seek out and Naoki Urasawa is chief among them. Asadora! shares many features with his other works, including an exploration of how the past affects the present, a compelling mystery, expressive art, and a series of breathtaking cliffhangers. The titular star of this book comes from a large family, and is often overlooked in the shuffle of daily life. (SPOILERS ahead!) One eventful day, she gets kidnapped, a giant hurricane hits, and she and her kidnapper have to band together to survive. While trapped, she learns about his background as a fighter pilot in World War 2, and when they finally survey the damage they see what appears to be a giant footprint among the wreckage. (end/SPOILERS)

What are they looking at? Buy the book and find out!
Three things recommend this book: 1. It is incredibly well crafted in terms of plot. Each chapter ends with a revelation/cliffhanger that compelled me to keep going. 2. The characters and their personalities are quickly introduced and communicated, both visually and narratively. They are drawn in an incredibly expressive style, and I found myself intrigued and enchanted by them in short order. 3. It sets up a captivating mystery, adding a touch of magical realism into an otherwise straight-forward action tale. There is so much going on that is unresolved and unanswered, and this book is a great introduction to a nuanced and detailed serial comics series. I have read the next four books already, and I cannot get enough of them.

Naoki Urasawa is regarded as one of the premier manga creators, and he has won the Shogakukan Manga Award three times, the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize twice, two Eisner Awards, and the Kodansha Manga Award once. His works have been some of the most celebrated of recent times and include Monster, 20th Century Boys, and Pluto. More recently, he has started a YouTube channel where he demonstrates his artwork (in Japanese).

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Tom Shapira contextualized it against others in his oeuvre, and although he has some issues with some tics, he concluded that "Urasawa can do it all." Will called it "another strong entry in Urasawa’s career." Publishers Weekly wrote, "Urusawa excels in focusing on human drama and multifaceted characters, and the storytelling is matched with dynamic, classic realist manga artwork."

Asadora! is published by Viz Books, and they offer  more information about it here.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Tales of a Seventh-Grade Lizard Boy

 

I caught a lot of teasing about my name throughout my schooling, and I cannot imagine what it would have been if I had been called Booger Lizk’t. On top of that name, Booger is a lizard person from Elberon, an underground civilization that faced a natural disaster that drove his family to the surface. So he would stand out pretty starkly in a typical US middle school. Luckily for him, his people can shape their skin pretty much as they please, which makes it possible for them to pass as human. However, Booger also has to fit in socially, which is why he goes by the name of Tommy Tomkins while in Eagle Valley. But he is still having a very difficult time, especially when so many of his classmates watch a popular TV show about villainous alien lizard invaders who want to invade Earth (sort of like V).

From the informative back matter of the book, I learned that many of these feelings and situations are based on the author's Vietnamese heritage, and much of the book reflects commonplace immigrant experiences. This aspect gets highlighted by Tommy's friendship with Dung Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant and kindred spirit. The two gravitate toward each other and take solace in each other's company. Like Dung, Tommy has to figure out how to find friends, speak the language, eat strange food, deal with bullies, and navigate academics on top of passing as a human being, so they are both under a lot of pressure and stress. 

What I liked about this book was how human and organic it was. The plot takes all sorts of twists and turns, and this is not a simple tale of a kid learning to fit in or find his people. Tommy is not perfect, and he makes mistakes, pulls some ill-advised pranks, and hurts some of the feelings of his few friends. I found a lot to relate to as well as laugh and marvel at.

This book was created by Jonathan Hill, who also wrote and drew a fantastic apocalyptic graphic novel Odessa. He also drew Americus, a book I reviewed some years ago. He speaks about his work on Tales of the Seventh-Grade Lizard Boy in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "engaging and thought-provoking." Publishers Weekly wrote, "Employing a bright and energetic palette, uncomplicated paneling, and a cast comprising varying skin tones and body types, Hill keenly portrays the effects this othering has on Tommy and Dung, and how connection, mutual support, and earnest understanding can bridge even significant differences." April Spisak opined, "Vivid colors, wry humor, and playful ignoring of traditional panel structure lighten the heaviest moments, firmly focusing this story on working toward better things."

Tales of a Seventh-Grade Lizard Boy was published by Walker Books US, and they offer a preview and more info about it here.

Friday, May 5, 2023

Swim Team

Swim Team focuses on Bree, an African-American middle school student who recently moved to Florida from New York with her father. 

She is anxious about starting life in a new place and in a new school, and she really does not want to do anything that involves swimming. However, she ends up having to face her fears and learn to swim because it is literally the only elective that fits her schedule. It turns out, she's got of lot of potential and even makes her swim team, the Mighty Manatees.

The middle school she attends is under-funded and in danger of losing its swimming facilities, but the community values competitive swimming highly, which opens a year-long competition with the dominant private school in order to save their pool and program. Not just a typical underdog story, though it does have many of the positive components of the genre, this book also touches on friendship, family relationships, as well as the history of race and class relations in the community. It is a multi-faceted, complex story that I found both moving and touching. It also features a lot of heart and a good sense of humor. This is a superlative graphic novel for middle school students.

This book is the creation of Johnnie Christmas, who has created a number of other graphic novels for both adults as well as younger readers, including Firebug and the Angel Catbird series. He spoke about his work on Swim Team in this interview.

A Coretta Scott King Honor Title and a National Book Award Finalist, Swim Team has received many glowing reviews. In their starred review Kirkus Reviews called it "deeply smart and inspiring story." In another starred review Publishers Weekly wrote, "Challenging the idea that 'Black people aren’t good at swimming,' this middle grade debut from Christmas (the Angel Catbird series, for adults) details segregation’s generational impact through a warmhearted story of community, Black diasporic identity, and learning, all portrayed in kinetic contemporary art." Esther Keller opined, "The bright artwork with vivid sunny colors and fine details in each panel, brings the story to life."

Swim Team was published by Harper Alley, and they offer a preview and more here.

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

Shortcomings

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.