Wednesday, May 25, 2022

The Fifth Quarter: Hard Court

The Fifth Quarter: Hard Court is one of those sequels that I feel is better than its predecessor, which is saying something because I very much enjoyed book 1. In this book, Lori finds herself facing some new situations. Now in sixth grade, she and her friends are getting older and some are developing new interests and spending more time apart. Her dad is going to go back to work for the first time since she was born, and her mom is going to coach her rec league basketball team. Plus, she and her friend Elyse are growing their skills at basketball camp. There, their coach calls them the "Dream Team," with Lori being more offense-minded and Elyse more a defensive specialist. They still predominantly play during the fifth quarter for their middle school team, but Elyse gets more chances to get into actual games. This situation causes Lori to have some hurt feelings and jealousy. 

What I think pushes this book beyond the first one is the way it shows the dynamics between various relationships in very detailed and realistic fashion, warts and all. Lori's parents have their arguments over money, work, and their parenting roles. Lori has issues with her friends, parents, and little siblings. Also, a good portion of the book involves flashbacks to Lori's mom's childhood, so we learn about her own highly competitive nature as well as her strained relationship with her father and step-sister. 

Looking back, I gained insight into how she pushes Lori and herself to succeed. Getting to see a family reunion at the Passover Seder brings things full circle, as we get to see the aftermath of her childhood and how relationships turned out over the decades.

And I have not even mentioned the game-play, which is also a major aspect of the book. The various scenes of basketball are well paced, exciting, and dramatic. I really appreciate that there is no magical transformation, that Lori still has her struggles , even with extra coaching and attention from her mother. Some of her struggles even come from that very same coaching and her mother, which is both ironic and apt. Her mother pushes her to succeed and have a killer instinct, but she also might be pushing a bit too hard and also rehashing trauma from her childhood. This seemingly simple tale is actually pretty complex and imbued with nuances.

I love a good scrappy underdog tale, and this graphic novel is that as well. It shows that with effort and practice that there can be some success and growth, even if it's still not all sunshine and roses. Plus, as a parent, I really appreciate the vivid portraits of the adults as well as the children. There was so much I could relate to, and I desperately hope that this series will continue. It is simply superb.

I have this same exchange at least three times a day with my own kids.

Mike Dawson created this book. He has written and drawn more than a few graphic novels over the years, including Freddie & Me, Angie Bongiolatti, and Troop 142. He also has done a lot of  graphic nonfiction and essay work, including the collection Rules for Dating My Daughter and plenty of comics for The Nib. He speaks about his work on this book as well as other topics in this interview.

The reviews I have seen about this book have been largely positive.  Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "Buoyant and breathless, scoring on several levels."It currently has a 4.4 (out of 5) star rating on Goodreads.

The Fifth Quarter: Hard Court was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more information here

I read an advanced digital copy of the book, and it will published in July.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Dionysos: The New God

Dionysos: The New God is the last book in the 12-volume Olympians series that chronicles the major gods and goddesses of Greek mythology. The whole enterprise is narrated by Hestia, the first-born child of Rhea and Cronus who eventually gives up her spot in the pantheon to Dionysos, and she gets her due as well. 

In many ways this book is the most straight-forward of them all, with the tales mostly following the main character with few tangents into related myths. Still, it is both highly engaging and informative, telling a tale about a god that shares many aspects with modern religions.

This book is rewarding as a stand-alone volume but it is also a clever send-off to the entire series, full of subtle references to past tales and characters. Dionysos differs from the other gods because his mother is a mortal woman and he grows up on Earth rather than Olympus. His early life is full of chicanery, as he was initially female and lived as a daughter raised by his mother's family before he transformed into a male and moved in with a band of satyrs. Along the way, he invented wine and became a god of celebration, fertilty, and madness. 

Dionysos is imbued with unique characterization, reflecting a complicated trajectory of life. He straddles multiple categories, such as immortal/mortal. female/male, and joy/madness, and his depictions, with two colored eyes, is appropriately beguiling. The flow and storytelling of this book are also superb, and I feel this book is a more than worthy coda to an excellent series. I am really looking forward to what O'Connor does next, which will be a four-book series entitled Asgardians, which will retell Norse mythology.

In addition to the Olympians series, artist/writer George O'Connor has created the American history journal account Journey into Mohawk Country and the dystopian future book Ball Peen Hammer, written by Adam Rapp. He also drew the political graphic novel Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy with author Daniel G. Newman. He speaks about his work on this last Olympians book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. In a starred entry, Kirkus Reviews summed up, "A by turns epic, amusing, and tragic caper that’s even more toastworthy (for obvious reasons) than its 11 predecessors." wrote about it and the whole series, "They’re a treasure for all,  young or old, steeped in the stories or barely recalling them from high school."

Dionysos: The New God was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more here.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Radiant Black Volume 001: (Not So) Secret Origin

I have read a lot of superhero comics in my days, and Radiant Black is a very good one. I like how it plays with common tropes and makes them fresh and exciting. To start, it stars a man named Nathan Burnett, who is not the typical alter ego. To begin, he's relatively older, a 30-year-old white man who is a struggling author, has racked up substantial credit card debt, and is forced to move back in with his parents. While he feels humiliated to be back in his hometown just outside of Chicago, his childhood friend Marshall is thrilled to see him and also give him a healthy dose of grief. One day, while they are out catching up and drinking, Nathan encounters some strange mini-black hole/ball of energy and is transformed into a helmeted, super-powered being. 

Of course, he decides to use his powers for good, but things become complicated by the mystery of what gave him his powers and also the growing realization that he is not the only one in the world who has been so gifted. 

What made this book work well for me was its character work, suspense, and plotting. Nathan makes for an intriguing hero and Marshall is much more than a comedic, smart-ass sidekick. Their relationship is makes for fun reading, as does how well the details of Radiant Black's origin are teased across the length of this book. Add some genuinely surprising plot twists, and the result is an engrossing, addictive, and fun series. I will definitely be checking out more of it.

Radiant Black was created by writer Kyle Higgins and artist Marcelo Costa. Higgins is best known for his comics work on Batman and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Costa also worked on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers as a colorist. In the later chapters of this trade paperback, they are joined by guest artists Eduardo Ferigato and David Lafuente. Higgins and Costa speak about their work and inspirations for this book in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this collection of the series' first six issues were mostly positive. Henry Varona called it "already one of the most immersive and exciting superhero comics of the decade." Kris wrote, " If you grew up reading comics or watching the TV shows the creative team is riffing on here, then you’ll likely enjoy the series." Colin Moon was not thrilled with the first four chapters of the book, but opined, "For all my griping — and all the spinning of the book’s wheels — the final two issues of this collection reignited my excitement, making me much more willing to join the adventure in progress."

Radiant Black was published by Image Comics, and they offer a free preview and more about the entire series here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

The Mundane Adventures of Dishman

I recently received this book after contributing to its fundrazr campaign. The Mundane Adventures of Dishman is a beautiful hardcover collection of  mini-comics mostly published in the 1980s. It is a fun take on superheroes, one that tries to imagine what "real life" superheroes would be like, but it also has a lot of heart and a good sense of humor. The story is: After being exposed to radioactive Fiestaware (a real thing!) over time, schoolteacher Paul Mahler developed the ability to instantaneously clean and put away dirty dishes, which is a very specific though handy trick. Of course, he decides to use his powers for good and to help his community.

After raiding his and his fiancee's wedding savings, Paul procured a pair of costumes (so he could have one ready when he did laundry) and starts roaming the neighborhood looking to assist others. Eventually, he figures out a novel way to fight crime but he also alienates his fiancee, who is A) angry he spent their savings without her consent and B) freaked out that he is being ludicrous about the whole superhero thing. So, (small spoiler) she leaves him.

After this turn of events, Paul starts hanging around his co-worker Helen, and they sort of kindle a relationship. So, in addition to the superhero tropes, there is also a good amount of drama in the mix.

What makes this book exceptional is how it captures a sense of humanity in its characters. Paul feels like someone we get to know over time, and his supporting cast quickly becomes fleshed out. It also features plenty of funny scenes but none that are really mockery. Each chapter is brief but compelling, even though most of what happens is (like the title states) relatively mundane. I think this book may have been meant as a parody at first, but it grows into something much more sincere and relatable. It is a gem well worth seeking out.

This book is the creation of John MacLeod, a painter and cartoonist who has also made the webcomic Space Kid as well as a comic called Not That Magic. He shares his current work and drawings on  Instagram.

I was not able to locate many reviews of this book, but what I have read about it has been positive. Tom Brevoort called it "perhaps the most full-on realization of the trend towards more realistic depictions of super heroes in comics in the 1980s." As of this post, it has a 4.14 (out of 5) star rating on Goodreads.

This collection of The Mundane Adventures of Dishman was published by Black Eye Books, and they offer more info about it here.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Yummy: A History of Desserts

Yummy is the first graphic novel I have ever read where food sprites are the narrators. Our main host is Peri, and she has great enthusiasm for all things sweet. She embarks on a highly engaging, deep dive into the history of desserts that also spans the globe. There are chapters about cake, pie, donuts, ice cream, gummies, brownies, cookies, and macaroons, and I learned a lot about each delicious sweet as well as world history and even some science. What is more, she is accompanied by two other food sprites who give insights into major innovators in the worlds of desserts and baking, like Fannie Farmer, as well as dispelling myths or exploring legends about the origins of specific foods like chocolate chip cookies, waffle cones, and nun farts (for real). There are even recipes for delights such as ice cream, snickerdoodles, and blueberry pie.

Along the way, I also saw lots of insight into how sociocultural matters have influenced dessert. At first, they were only really for special occasions or available to those either lucky enough to live in places where specific ingredients like vanilla or sugar could be cultivated. Also, the time and energy put into making some of these foods also meant that they were likely only for those rich enough to afford bakers to make them. Over time, innovations due to increased trade and travel meant that some foods evolved, such as egg tarts in China coming from goods originally traded from Portugal or the Persian beverage sharbat evolving into Italian sorbetto and eventually American sherbet.

There is so much jam-packed into this book that makes it rewarding to read and re-read. I suggest that it be approached in chunks, as there is a lot to take in, even for enthusiastic readers. Also, some sections are a little text heavy, but the colorful illustrations and characters bring a great sense of joy and energy to the proceedings. This book is a delight to read as well as a treasure trove of information.

This is the debut graphic novel by Victoria Grace Elliott, though she is not a newcomer to comics. She is best known for her webcomic Balderdash, or a tale of two witches. She speaks more about her work on this graphic novel in this interview and is currently working on the sequel, Yummy: A History of Tasty Experiments.

All of the reviews I have read of the book have been positive. Jason Flatt called it "smartly crafted, adorably illustrated, wonderfully rich." Steven Thompson observed, "Although ostensibly about foods we know, we also learn a considerable amount of geography, ancient history, and even more than a smattering of science." Lisa Gullickson wrote that the book is "charming beyond measure, and that is what makes the message so effective."

Yummy: A History of Desserts was published by Random House Graphic, and they offer more information about it here.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Mel the Chosen

Mel the Chosen is a book about Mel, a girl who is tired of decisions being made for her. She wants to grow up so that she can make her own choices and be taken seriously. When she finds herself in the presence of three magical creatures who inform her that she is the one who is ordained to defeat the dreaded Malcape, she is excited to have a purpose. But she also quickly blanches at the constraints of being "the Chosen One," as her ability to make her own choices is restricted by the terms of her quest. Also, she finds that Malcape has a way of sensing and twisting a person's wishes, making him a very dangerous adversary.

What makes this book exceptional is two things: First, Mel's character is well defined and interesting. She is not the typical, vanilla "do-gooder" type, but a skeptical, savvy, and out-spoken soul who makes for an interesting protagonist. Second, the artwork, a combination of line drawings with watercolors makes for some excellent atmosphere as well as character designs. The magical creatures seem appropriately otherworldly. The magical realms are strange, beautiful, and menacing. The characters are expressive and feature a wide range of emotions and feelings. 

There are plenty of books that use the trope of "outsider who is an exceptional being in a world parallel to our own," but this one plays with the conventions and makes them fresh and interesting. Also, the drawings are gorgeous to behold and revisit. I very much enjoyed reading this book and think that it would be very popular with a middle grades audience.

Rachele Aragno created this graphic novel, which was originally published in Italy as Melvina, and translated into English by Carla Roncalli Di Montorio. It is her debut graphic novel, and she wrote in an afterward that she would love to revisit this world and check in with Melvina when she gets older. She speaks about her work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of it have been positive. Ryan Sonneville called it "stunning" and  "a worthy addition to any library." Publishers Weekly wrote, "A sometimes bewilderingly fast pace paired with loosely explained plot elements muddle the story at times, but also contribute to the adventure’s engrossing atmosphere and humor." Kirkus Reviews summed up, "Dynamic, evocative color and movement easily carry this allegorical fantasy wherever the text is weak."

Mel the Chosen was published by Random House Graphic, and they offer more information about it here.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Sk8 Dad Summer: ramps, rebellion, and raising a kid

Sk8 Dad Summer is one publication in the 2022 Birdcage Bottom Books distribution list, for which there is a Kickstarter currently happening (and I hope that you help fund - go check it out!). As a parent of young children, I found a lot to relate to in this book. It is a refreshingly real look at parenting that I feel captures the spirit of contemporary culture. And although I have not been a dedicated skater, I could empathize with wanting to share my interests and joys with my children, though they often have their own ideas about what is cool and what they would prefer to do.

The main narrative of this book involves the author making a half pipe in his backyard, but he uses this device as a platform for pondering multiple aspects of his life. He thinks about when he was as a young skater and how his life has changed now that he is in his 40s. Once, he literally had to scavenge materials and deal with prohibitive authorities, but now he is part of the authority structure and can readily buy high quality construction materials. Now, he tries to encourage his child to skate, with mixed results. It also makes him think of his own relationship with his father, who was a preacher. The skate ramp also becomes a center of activity for the neighborhood, attracting both nearby children and parents, so it embodies a certain sense of community. 

All of these threads of the story weave into a humorous exploration of  parenthood, community, marriage, and life in general. In many ways, it reminded me of the recent aging punk anthology I read, in that it shows how being a skater informed his life in a way that has colored his experiences and formed his ethics. And although it is relatively short, this book is memorable, packing a heartfelt and emotional punch. It is highly entertaining, insightful, and frequently funny. I loved reading it, and I cannot wait to have a hard copy in my hands.

This book's creator Brett Hamil is an artist, comedian, and writer who regularly publishes comics in Seattle's Child. He also draws a weekly political comic for the South Seattle Emerald. I just been getting into his various works, and I have dug what I have seen so far.

I could only locate one review of this book so far, and it was a positive one. Cheryl Murfin (scroll to page 57) called it a "sweet, funny, poignant little book." It deserves much more attention, and I hope it receives it.

Sk8 Dad Summer was/will be published by Birdcage Bottom Books, and they offer a preview and more here on their Kickstarter page. Please consider funding this and other great books from this indie publisher. The campaign ends in a week on March 17, and they could use your support.