Thursday, September 20, 2018

Spill Zone, Book 1

I must admit part of why I read this book is because it is set in Poughkeepsie, New York, which is right across the river from where I grew up. There is a part of me that is fascinated to see a place I know be ravaged by a destructive force and made into a wasteland. Spill Zone is a compelling work of science fiction that features quite a bit of mystery and intrigue. The set-up of the plot is that three years ago, something strange happened that transformed this city into something hazardous to humans, where the living things are mutated and beyond dangerous. There are places that turn living things into two dimensional figures, places where people are animated as "meat puppets" that float around with glowing eyes, places populated with cats who constantly cry out in what sounds like the word "wrong." And the rats, don't even let me tell you about them.

Just outside of this town lives a young woman named Addison, whose parents were in the city when things went down. Now she lives in isolation with her little sister Lexa. She ventures out from time to time, illegally, in order to explore the city and take pictures.
Not that she is just some civilian documentarian, she is selling the photos on an art black market. Her trips into the city bring her into contact with many dangers, and in the course of the book we are also privy to a great many mysteries. Such as, what happened in North Korea at the exact same time as the incident? Why doesn't Lexa ever talk? What's up with Lexa's weird doll Vespertine? And biggest of all, what was the cause of the incident? All of these questions drive a well plotted introduction to this world, and happily (for those wanting a sequel) almost none of them are resolved.

This book is a fantastic introduction to this fictional world. The artwork, as you can see from the preview, is appropriately energetic and creepy. The characters are well defined, and what we do learn is just enough to want me to keep reading on. I loved the level of action and plot twists here, and I cannot wait to get my hands on Book 2.

This book is a collaboration between author Scott Westerfeld and artist Alex Puvilland. Westerfeld is an accomplished novelist with multiple credits for adults and younger adults, with The Uglies series being his most notable works. Puvilland is an animator and illustrator who has worked on feature films like Shrek 2 and Boss Baby as well as illustrating a graphic novel version of Prince of Persia. Both creators discuss their work on this series in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it "fascinating and hard to forget." Kirkus Reviews wrote that "readers will be demanding the next installment as they close this one," and summed it up, "A necessary start, with intriguing hints at action and weirdness to come." In another starred review in School Library Journal Matisse Mozer wrote, "This unnerving, gripping title—Westerfeld’s first original graphic novel—is bound to entice older comics fans, especially those interested in darker sci-fi and nuanced characterization."

Spill Zone was published by First Second, and they have a preview and more available here. The second volume is available now, and you can read a preview of it here.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Coyote Doggirl

Coyote Doggirl is a fantastic graphic novel, full of heart and humor while not skimping on the drama. It is deceptively simple in appearance, a sparse tale of a female coyote/dog hybrid who just wants to live a quiet life on her own terms. Mostly, she just wants to tend to her modest piece of land and incredibly fast horse named Red.

When the book begins, for reasons I will not spoil, she is being pursued by a band of cowboys who want revenge on her. As she tries to elude their grasp, she gets shot with multiple arrows and the stories begins to take one of multiple plot twists.

Coyote Doggirl's plight is relatable and she is very easy to root for. She meets and gets to know a band of indigenous folks, who take her in and teach her about their ways and herself. One of the most enjoyable parts of this book for me was how deftly its plot is woven, in ways that both pay homage to traditional western stories while also critiquing them and turning them on their ears. The ending of this book seems to me to be open-ended, and I would love to see the adventures continue.

I loved reading this book. It is relative short and brisk to read, but it is filled with much detail and nuance. The title character has an idiosyncratic personality and is a terrific fashion designer to boot. The dialogue is snappy and terse, and the artwork is delightfully composed and paced. The character designs in particular are very strong, and the coloring is both vibrant and pleasing.

This book's creator Lisa Hanawalt is an illustrator and animator who is best known for her production and design work on the Netflix series BoJack Horseman. Although this book is her first graphic novel, she also has published a couple of comics collections named Hot Dog Taste Test and My Dirty Dumb Eyes. She speaks about her work on Coyote Doggirl in this interview.

All the reviews I have read of this book have been very positive. Mel Schuit wrote, "Coyote Doggirl might share a lot of the same tropes as a traditional Western, but it’s peppered with quick wit, cute clothing, and lots of ass-kicking, making it a modern day Western classic." AJ Frost described it as "an unabashed western with a contemporary twist as well an imaginative take on the genre that feels more mature and grounded." Lenika Cruz elaborated, "Hanawalt’s book sheds the self-seriousness of the genre, but it also retains another sort of poignancy—one anchored by the heroine’s free spirit and stubborn sense of wonder in spite of the constant dangers she has to navigate."

Coyote Doggirl was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they offer a preview and more here. Because it features profanity, some sexual violence, and mature themes I recommend this book for mature readers.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini

Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini collects the four-issue comic book series in a gorgeously illustrated and lustrous hardcover. It is a delightful piece of historical fiction, a detective tale set in the early 20th century, where Harry Houdini is engaged in both amazing escapes while also lecturing to debunk fraud being perpetrated by so called mediums at staged seances. The latter enterprise brings him into conflict with famed author Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes), which is based in historical fact. Here, the enterprise also drives at least one party to attempt to murder the famed magician/escapist.

Enter into this situation the crafty and resourceful Minky Woodcock, the daughter of an investigator who seeks her own life of intrigue. She ends up traveling with the Houdinis and investigates the suspicious happenings. Minky poses as Houdini's assistant, and she proves quite an asset to his act and also his debunking charlatans. She also gets deeply involved with the couple in personal ways, which creates its own set of complications. The rest of the plot unfolds in a combination of historical fact and fantasy, spinning an engaging and titillating mystery tale.

The highlight of this book for me was the luxurious artwork by Cynthia von Buhler, a Renaissance woman who acts, paints, sculpts, and creates in many ways. Here, the artwork properly evokes a sense of history with its stylized layouts and character designs. Not only are the main characters strong and sensual, the whole book also pops in terms of linework and coloring. She speaks more about her work on Minky Woodcock in this interview. Also, this book will be adapted into an off-Broadway production, which seems very cool.

I was not able to locate many reviews about this collection, but the ones I found were positive. Ryan C. Bradley called it "a love letter to noir" and "a Houdini pastiche that offers a new theory about his death." Kristel Yeager summed up, "Amazing art and unique storyline."

Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini was published by Hard Case Crime/Titan Comics, and they provide more info and a preview here. This book features some profanity, nudity, and sexual situations, so I recommend it for mature readers.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Ideal Copy

The Ideal Copy is the third book in the Double+ universe I have read, and it is truly amazing to me how Ben Sears manages to create phenomenal all ages comics. In this book, our heroes Plus Man and his robot pal Hank lose their jobs as treasure hunters because they refuse to raid the house of a dead man. Left with little other prospects, the duo eventually take jobs as caterers. Because they are hardworking, they do well serving food and washing dishes. However, at a ritzy hotel gala for a fraternity of weird, obnoxious guys who all have the same haircut and wear the same clothes, they suspect some foul play.

After some snooping around, Plus Man uncovers a nefarious counterfeiting scheme that gets further complicated when a blizzard traps everyone at the hotel. There is a growing cast of characters who get embroiled in this situation, including a little child actor named Mickey who is surprisingly resourceful, and Gene, a grizzled, ex-treasure hunter who sports an eye-patch. Together, this motley bunch takes on the plot with surprising results. There are captures, thrills, and more than enough hi-jinx to keep them and the reader occupied.

As I hope you can see from this short excerpt, The Ideal Copy is a book of beautiful rhythms. The dialogue is snappy and clever. The artwork is gorgeously detailed and geometrical. The colors are vibrant and pop. The characters are complicated and wonderfully unpredictable. Ben Sears is a virtuoso who weaves all these elements together into a sumptuous visual symphony. I loved the derring-do, caper aspects of the plot, and I am very happy to read the note at the end that this duo's adventures will continue. This third book is the best of the bunch, in my opinion, and I am thrilled for more.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Rob Clough had much praise for the book and declared it "the best of the three volumes." Tom Baker called it "rip-roaring rib-tickling romp." Ryan Carey opined, "Ben Sears is a cartoonist who intrinsically understands what younger readers want in a story, but the tent he’s hosting his party in a big one, and there’s plenty of room in it for us old-timers, too." Mel Schuit was more lukewarm and wrote, "All in all, fans looking for more of the trademarked Plus-Man-and-Hank antics we saw in the first two books in the series might find The Ideal Copy slightly lacking, but it’s a nice effort on Sears’ part to flesh out his human characters further and begin to hint at events further down the line in the series."

And in case you are interested, my reviews of the past Double+ books are here and here.

The Ideal Copy was published by Koyama Press, and they offer more information and a preview here.

I saw Sears this year at HeroesCon, where I bought this book from him, and he was nice enough to sign it and also draw a sketch. He's a great guy!

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Strange Fruit Volume II: More Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History

I very much enjoyed the first Strange Fruit book, so much that I included it in a chapter in a book on children's literature in the classroom. I was pleased to see its follow-up on the shelf at one of my local bookstores, and I snapped it up quickly. I admire the author Joel Christian Gill's politics, art, and intentions with this project, and I am glad to help share some of those here.
Not only is this book well researched, it also incorporates actual text from its subjects when possible.

What I liked most about this book is that it covers a wide range of people I had never heard of, bringing to light truly "uncelebrated" people like: Jourdon Anderson, a freed slave who wrote a wry, pointed letter to his former owner; Stagecoach Mary Fields, a pioneering postal worker who was quick with a gun and her wits; Willie Kennard, who was made sheriff with the expectation that he would immediately be slaughtered; Cathay Williams, a woman who disguised herself as a man to serve as a soldier in the Civil War; Blind Tom Wiggins, a blind, autistic slave who became a highly accomplished musician; Millie and Christine McCoy, conjoined twins who toured the world as The Two-Headed Nightingale; Victor Green, the author of a guidebook for black people traveling across the US, and Eugene Bullard, a WWI fighter pilot who was celebrated in France but ignored in his homeland. These tales not only inform the reader about notable figures, but also the social conditions under which they lived and their contributions to our culture. Strange Fruit Volume II is exceptional work on an important, overlooked aspect of US history. Impressively, I feel it could be read and taught in multiple grade levels, from elementary to high school.

Additionally, more so than the first volume, this one is more uniform in terms of its story presentations. Each one has its own title and has space to breathe. The first book felt more like a collection of tales that may have appeared elsewhere, and had mixed formatting. This one seems much more intentional and measured, providing more coherence and polish and showing much more confidence and craft in its artwork and storytelling. This book is one of the few sequels that is better than its predecessor.

This book's creator Joel Christian Gill is the the Chair of Foundations at the New Hampshire Institute of Art. In addition to the Strange Fruit books, he has also published a couple of extended biographies of African-Americans in his Tales of the Talented Tenth series, on lawman Bass Reeves and motorcyclist Bessie Stringfield. He speaks more about his comics work in this interview.

I was not able to find many reviews online for this book, but what I did locate was positive. Terri Schlichenmeyer called it "a quick-to-read curiosity-satisfier is exactly what’s needed for home or school." For those interested in hearing Gill speak more about the need for sharing these uncelebrated narratives, you can listen to this interview .

Strange Fruit Volume II was published by Fulcrum Publishing, and they offer more info about it here.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Brief Histories of Everyday Objects

I found this book at my local independent bookseller a few months ago and immediately had to buy it. I love books about the history of common objects, like the Uncle John's Bathroom Readers or the various gallimaufries (look it up) by Charles Panati. That this book presented such information in comic form just made me excited, and I am glad to report that this book did not disappoint. Brief Histories of Everyday Objects is chock full of interesting, surprising, and enchanting tales of invention and gorgeous, meticulous drawings. I loved reading it.

The tales within are presented in various sections about items you would find in the bathroom, bedroom closet, grocery store, kitchen, living room, coffee shop, office, bar, and great outdoors.

As you can see from the excerpt above, each section has 4-5 entries that run 4 pages each, making a very accessible and readable book. I learned much about things I was ignorant about, like the origins of the toothbrush or paper bags, and I was also surprised to find I was also misinformed about other items, like the board game Monopoly (which was supposed to be an anti-capitalist teaching tool!) and indoor toilets. And adding icing to any already delicious cake, the author injects a great sense of humor, social commentary (particularly about the disparities women inventors faced), and attention to ancillary matters (like patents and business dealings) that pertained to the topics at hand. The book lived up to my every expectation. I only wish it were longer (or had a sequel already!).

This book's creator Andy Warner has taught comics and cartooning in a number of prominent settings, and he has also published in a number of venues. Notably, he is a contributing editor for award-winning online webcomic collective The Nib. He speaks more about his art and career in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book praise it. Publishers Weekly called Warner "a deft cartoonist, able to convey a lot of information, humor, and emotion within a single panel." Johanna Draper Carlson called the book "a terrific read, the kind of popular history full of trivia we used to see more of before the internet."Megan Volpert wrote, "The entire book can be read cover to cover in about 90-minutes with fair attention to detail, but Brief Histories of Everyday Objects is also dense enough to be worth savoring."

Brief Histories of Everyday Objects was published by Picador, and they offer a preview and more here.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Amazing Age

Amazing Age is a fun book, a colorful superhero adventure based on comics and characters the writer created when he was a boy.The story follows a boy named Sam who makes comics about superheroes based on his friends. Flash forward a few years, and those same friends do not associate with each other any more and Sam has not made any comics in the years since his dad died. Amazingly, those three former stalwarts all get teleported to a world where those old comics were set, and they find that the characters from those old stories are real.

The supervillains there have banded together in a nefarious plot to kill all the superheroes, and the trio are brought in because they are the greatest heroes that planet has ever seen. Saving the world is a huge burden for these teens, who have not spoken in years, don't know how to use their powers, and really just want to go home. Not only do they need to resolve their own personal dynamics, they need to avoid the dire machinations of the evil villains who want to annihilate them.

What I liked about this book is that it hearkened back to the kinds of all-ages superhero comics I liked as a child. There are silly acronyms, a plethora of super-powered characters, and high stakes adventure. It also has a fun, gripping plot, good characterizations, and interpersonal situations that I feel are relatable for children and adolescents alike. Also, I enjoyed that these are superhero comics that are not so bombastic or sexualized, as sometimes they are wont to be.

This book was a collaboration between writer Matthew D. Smith, artist Jeremy Massie, and colorist Christine Brunson. Smith and Massie have worked on other comics together, including Blood-Drenched Creature Double Feature. Massie has a few solo titles to his credit, including All My Ghosts and a quirky superhero tale called The Deadbeat. Brunson has colored a number of comics over the years, as well as writing the webcomic Undead Norm.

I did not find many reviews of this comic online, but the ones I did locate were very positive. Warren Elliot wrote, "The art continues to nicely blend realism with cartoonish fun, giving Amazing Age a very appealing Silver Age look!" Rachel Bellwoar rated it 4.7 out of 5 stars and summed it up as "nostalgic catnip, right up there with Stand By Me and Stranger Things in the 80's friendship department."

Amazing Age was published by Alterna Comics, and they have more info about the book here. This collection collects the five issue limited series released serially. It also has copious back pages that show the characters as originally drawn by Smith when he was a boy, which reminded me of my own drawings at a similar age.

I bought the first issue off the rack at my local Toys R Us (RIP), when it was in black and white and on newsprint. That format sparked my sense of nostalgia, but this trade paperback is in full color and on glossy paper, which I feel suits it better. I met the creators this summer at HeroesCon, and they were nice enough to sign my copy of the book. I think it's a good read, so go out and buy it already :)