Monday, September 20, 2021

American Cult

Comics anthologies can be very uneven, but I feel that American Cult is an excellent introduction into the strange, uniquely American blend of religion/fanaticism and capitalism/exploitation that is the cult. This phenomenon is defined in an introduction to the book, and many chapters straddle the line between reporting and commenting on these movements characterized by charismatic leaders and their sometimes insane, yet still convincing (to some) preaching. There are some of the "greatest hits" one who expect of such a book, including a look at the Jonestown Massacre (Ryan Carey and Mike Freiheit) and the Manson Family murders (by Janet Harvey and Jim Rugg).

Some, like Lonnie Mann's "Orthodox Judaism is a Cult" are more potentially controversial in their takes on organized religion, while others Like Ben Passmore's examination of MOVE look at cults as political entities.

Some, like Josh Kramer and Mike Dawson's "Cults Reoriented" revealed strange connections like the one between Sufism Reoriented and the Cheescake Factory. Others are more wrenching and personal, like the particularly memorable entry by J.T. Yost, a look at a refugee from the Westboro Baptist Church.  

That the entries in this book are presented in chronological order invites comparing and contrasting them, and I learned a great deal about these various groups, even ones I thought I was pretty familiar with. This book is ideal for those interested in nonfiction, history, religion, or unique social phenomena. I got a lot from reading it.

American Cult was edited by Robyn Chapman, and she  also contributed an entry about Heaven's Gate. She has been involved in the comics industry in a number of ways, most notably as proprietor of Paper Rocket Minicomics. The book features story and art by creators I am familiar with, such as Box Brown, Mike Dawson, Mike Freiheit, Emi Gennis, and Ben Passmore, while also showcasing a bunch I am just learning about. I will definitely be on the lookout for more from them.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Rob Clough wrote, "Chapman’s decision to sequence the stories in chronological order further cements this impression of history repeating itself. What makes this an interesting book to read is that the contributing artists use widely varying approaches." Publishers Weekly concluded, "Though these comics raise more questions than they answer, they sweep admirably through a little-understood phenomenon." Leonard Pierce called it "a pretty good reflection of its subject matter: never coherent, often shocking, full of little revelations, and liable to pull you in to its strangely riveting view of the world."

American Cult was published by Silver Sprocket, and they offer a preview and more about it here. Although it is about US history, this book features a lot of sex, drugs, and profanity, so it is suggested for more mature readers.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The Cardboard Kingdom: Roar of the Beast

I was super-impressed and loved The Cardboard Kingdom, which I feel is a watershed book in the world of graphic novels for younger readers. This sequel, Roar of the Beast maybe lacks the varied emotional impact of that book, but it offers a more unified and complex narrative. Both books are superlative, and arguing which is better is sort of like arguing whether The Godfather or The Godfather II is better, which is to say that you cannot go wrong with either.


The main plot in this book is that there is great unrest in the neighborhood. Some of the kids are doubting/rethinking their characters, some bullied by older teens, and there seems to be a great beast roaming around at night wreaking havoc and spreading fear.


Overall, I think it is a great exploration of emotional issues that young people may experience, and how messy friendships and navigating the many changes of growing up and dealing with relationships can be. It does not downplay the complexity of what people do or feel, and not everyone makes the best choices for themselves, which I think reflects reality. It was a very moving book, and one I think that will resonate with a great many readers, both young and old. This is a graphic novel that I feel belongs in every upper elementary/middle school library.

This book was drawn by Chad Sell, and co-written with nine other authors, Vid Alliger, Manuel Betancourt, Michael Cole, David DeMeo, Jay Fuller-Ng, Cloud Jacobs, Barbara Perez Marquez, Molly Muldoon, and Katie Schenkel.

All of the reviews I have read of this book comment on its excellence. Charles Hatfield called it "that rare sequel that outshines its original." Kirkus Reviews wrote, "Continuing his collaboration with a group of different writers, Sell weaves together an engaging, endearing ensemble cast with a diverse range of gender identities and gender presentations, races, ethnicities, and body shapes." Juanita Giles wrote about how well this books captures the sensations and uncertainties of growing up and opined that it "not only reminds us of what it was like to go through that transition, but just how real even imagined problems can be at that age."

The Cardboard Kingdom: Roar of the Beast was published by Random House Graphic, and they offer a preview and more info about it here.

Friday, August 20, 2021

The Fifth Quarter

4th grader Lori Block LOVES basketball, and she is on her school's team, but she is not so good and only gets to play in the "fifth quarter" when things don't count. After getting a small taste of actual gameplay, she wants more and gets the opportunity to take part in some camps where she can learn more skills and practice. She is driven to succeed and relishes her opportunities, even though her desires come at odds with her friendships.

Lori's friends are not into basketball as much a she is, and at recess they rather play unicorns or four-square than shoot baskets, which causes her distress. She is also awkward at times and makes comments that are meant as jokes but get taken as insults, especially to her fellow "double-dribble twin" Sophia. So she has a lot to navigate in terms of her social world.

Adding to this mix is her family, which includes her mom and dad as well as her younger twin siblings, Jason and Becky. They are all depicted in realistic manner, with a plot following her mother's run for local political office (trying to do something to help the kids) against a smug incumbent, and her put-upon father trying to hold down the fort and keep the two little one's faces out of screens as much as possible. One of the aspects of this books I liked the most was how much space and respect was given to her family, who are important players in this story, which I find is not often the case in YA/tween graphic novels.

This book excels at capturing the excitement of the games as well as the variety of social and emotional dynamics. The relationship aspects of this book are complex and compelling, and I love how it captures the messiness/uncertainties of human interactions and growing up. Just check out this sequence from early on in the book:

In terms of artwork, I think that the coloring pops and the facial expressions and gestures are economical and highly expressive. I found the Fifth Quarter to be utterly riveting and read it in one sitting. It's a very human and relatable book that I feel I will revisit multiple times. If there is any justice in the world, it will sell millions of copies.

I am a big fan of this book's author Mike Dawson. He has written and drawn 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 The Fifth Quarter in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book indicate its high quality. Publishers Weekly wrote that it was full of "sincerity, humor, and strong character development." Kirkus Reviews gave it a thumbs up, concluding, "Nothing but net." Hillary Brown commented about Dawson's art style and storytelling, especially on how refreshing it was to see the adults portrayed as "real humans, dealing with their own shit."

The Fifth Quarter was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more information here. It is also the first of a series, and I am eager to see more of these characters and their lives.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Delicates

Sheets, the book that precedes this sequel, was an unexpected delight for me, a tale about a loner who not learns that ghosts exist but teams up with them in order to deal with some pretty bleak life circumstances, was full of heartfelt characterizations and intense storytelling. It's a beautifully personal book, and I wondered how a sequel to it would work. Turns out, that sequel Delicates is as fantastic as the first book. Marjorie Glatt is still the main character, and her life has taken an upswing, as she is surprisingly now in the "cool kid" clique at school and not the outsider she once was. Still, this position brings with it complications. She does not have so much time to spend with her ghost friend Wendell, who is beginning to feel abandoned. And she has to navigate new social situations and mitigate the bullying done by her frenemy Sasha. 

Most of Sasha's venom is aimed at Eliza Duncan, a young African-American woman who has been held back a year at school. I think the classic way to describe her would be as a young woman who is "not applying herself" to the best of her abilities. Her dad is one of Marjorie's teachers at their school, and even he cannot get his daughter to stop obsessing over photography. Specifically, she wants to capture an image that proves the ghosts exist, and because of her highly visible ambition she is an easy target for ridicule. This bullying weighs heavily and begins to affect her demeanor and will to live.

Ironically, Marjorie of course knows that ghosts exist and could set up a photography session quite easily, but she is reluctant to let anyone know what she knows for a couple reasons. One, she is afraid to be exposed as some sort of "freak" because of her association with the undead. Two, she is unsure of Eliza's intentions and the societal impact of publicly proving an afterlife exists. Still, she can see what Eliza is suffering and she experiences lots of turmoil over deciding what to do.

Worlds are colliding!

By now you have gathered that there is a lot going on in this book in terms of its plot and narrative, but where I think it excels especially is in its characterizations. All of the characters, not just Marjorie and Eliza, but also even ones like Sasha and Wendell are shown to be nuanced, complex beings. They are not always nice or lovable, but they are shown to be quite human (even the ghosts!). The ways that these characters interact with each other is depicted in incredibly artful and lifelike manner, both in terms of the story and the artwork. The muted color scheme in particular helps highlight the emotional and tonal aspects of the narrative. The characters may be fictional creations but they seem very real, and this is as moving a book as I have ever read about friendship.

As a final plus, I think this book stands well on its own. Although I feel it would be more rewarding to read it after Sheets, a new reader would not be lost reading it as it has been written in a way that (re)introduces this world and its characters in very accessible fashion.

In addition to the aforementioned Sheets, this book's creator Brenna Thummler also collaborated on an adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. She speaks about her work on Delicates in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "an original exploration of what it means to be seen and accepted." Lauren from Northern Plunder called it "a very emotional read that I highly recommend." There is also an in-depth discussion of the book (spoilers abound) in this discussion with the Comix Experience Graphic Novel Club.

Delicates was published by ONI Press, and they offer more information about it here. It is also available to read right now on Comixology Unlimited.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The Mystery of the Meanest Teacher: A Johnny Constantine Graphic Novel

In my last post, I looked at Marvel Comics' first graphic novel published specifically for YA readers. Today, I look at one of the more recent DC Comics publications in their established line of YA graphic novels. Instead of going for a sense of continuity in their books, instead they focus on letting established authors loose in their universes to tell stories that stand alone and are pretty idiosyncratic. 

Case in point, The Mystery of the Meanest Teacher stars a younger version of John Constantine, a relatively prominent character (he's had a TV run on NBC as well as a movie starring Keanu Reeves, nothing to sneeze at) but perhaps not the household name say Batman or Spider-Man is. As an adult, he leaves a trail of emotional and physical carnage in his wake. But this is him as a youngster, before he becomes a complete jerk.

What drew me to this book was its creative team, writer Ryan North and artist Derek Charm, top notch creators who have collaborated before on the Eisner Award-winning series Jughead and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. This talented duo has made a teen-aged version of Constantine that I think does justice to the version long-time fans would know, with a few shout-outs to mainstream DC Comics books, while also setting it up to be an effective introduction for new readers.

Unlike anyone else he knows, young Johnny can use magic. He is self-centered, out for himself, and thinks he's above everyone. After he runs afoul of some demon trouble at home in the UK, he gets sent across the pond to a boarding school in the US. There, he meets a kindred magic user named Anna, and the two begin to investigate an abrupt personality change in one of their teachers. There is a sniff of brimstone behind her behaviors it seems, and she definitely has it out for Johnny. 

The two end up getting some insight from a familiar face (to DC Comics readers), the Demon Etrigan, and lots of adventure and complications ensue. 

What I liked about this book is how it portrays the protagonist in a way that he is ambiguous and perhaps not entirely on the level. Even as a teen, John Constantine is shifty and undependable, looking to cut out whenever he can in order to save his own hide. How moods and emotion are communicated through the artwork is an especially strong aspect of this book, and the entire enterprise is imbued with personality. Constantine is a wonderfully complex character, and I hope to see more adventures by these creators about him. This book was a fantastically sinister and fun read.

All of the reviews I have read of this book point to its positive aspects, if curious protagonist. Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "A terrific middle-grade debut for a classic DC antihero." Caitlin Rosburg called it "a funny and quick-witted book for middle grade readers with bright, kinetic art." Ray Goldfield wrote that "with North and Charm, you know you’re going to get a good read," but also admitted that "it doesn’t quite reach the creative highs of [other] all-ages adventures" in this line. And I really agree with Emily Lauer, who wrote, "Personally, I found his morally grey antihero affect to be much more endearing from a tween than it is from an adult."

The Mystery of the Meanest Teacher was published by DC Comics, and they offer a preview and more information about it here


Thursday, August 5, 2021

Miles Morales: Shock Waves

My boys both loved Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and it's a movie I have seen a bunch of times. I think it works on a number of levels, and I bring it up because I think it is the direct spiritual influence of this book and probably the text that most younger readers who are its intended audience would have seen. I think the only real difference in his characterization is that this book keys more on his Puerto Rican side, which especially comes to the fore when an earthquake strikes the island and his family spearheads a fundraising event to send aid. Although it is not a sequel or related to the movie in any direct way, this book treads similar ground in terms of characterization and tone. It works as an introduction to the character but also as a continuation of his exploits for his fans. Miles is a young African-American/Latinx New Yorker endowed with great power, which he uses to protect others and thwart villains. 

Like most good Spider-Man stories, this book focuses on a mixture of Miles' identities. There is plenty of crossover between his work/school/home personas, and his problems are grounded in reality and very relatable. Of course, his superheroics often conflict with his personal/family life.

Miles also meets a new classmate at school, Kyle, and she's got a dilemma of her own when her tech genius father goes missing. In the course of this investigation, it seems that one of the largest contributors to the Puerto Rico fundraiser may be involved, and Miles has to tread lightly in his guise as Spider-Man. Rounding out all this personal drama, this book also has its share of action.

I think it works well as a compelling superhero narrative, full of action sequences, and intriguing mystery, and deeds of derring-do. In many ways, the six chapters read like individual comic books, with cliffhangers and a good amount of self-contained story, potentially making this an entry point into serial comics.

One thing I wondered as I read this book was how it would play with readers who were new to superheroes. I feel it relies on the reader knowing who the main players are already, as well as a passing knowledge of who the Avengers, Peter Parker (Spider-Man), and Tony Stark (Iron Man) are. It follows the lead of the Marvel cinematic universe, introducing a number of different concepts, like Terrigen mist and Inhumans, and new characters like Ms. Marvel (star of the next Marvel book from Scholastic Graphix) and Squirrel Girl, in hopes of constructing an interlocking series of books.

This strategy of building continuity contrasts pretty sharply with DC Comics' line of YA graphic novels, which seem more creator-driven, stand-alone volumes. A bunch of those books center on the same sets of characters, but there is no apparent attempt at continuity between the books, except when there are sequels. Personally, I thought this book was a fun and breezy read, and I am curious to see how well it and the entire line sells going forward.

The two main creators on this book are writer Justin A. Reynolds and artist Pablo Leon. Reynolds is a novelist known for his best-selling debut Opposite of Always, a School Library Journal Best Book of 2019., and his more recent Early Departures. Leon has drawn a number of works but is perhaps best known for the Eisner Award-nominated digital comic The Journey. Both creators speak about their collaboration on Shock Waves in this interview.

The reviews I have read of this book have been mostly positive. In a starred entry, Kirkus Reviews concluded, "Big heart and enduring life lessons make this a cherished addition to a viral character’s legacy." Eric Kallenborn wrote, "It’s a great entry into the character with a great story to boot." In a more reserved review, Tiffany Babb called it "an enjoyable but weightless read for younger Spider-Man fans."

Miles Morales: Shock Waves was published by Scholastic Graphix, and they offer more info about it here.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Fictional Father

I have been a big fan of Joe Ollmann's graphic novels. Both of them have appeared on my end-of-year favorites lists, characterized by strong characters and extensive research. Fictional Father is no exception to this pattern. It is a compelling look at Caleb Wyatt, a 40-something-year-old artist and recovering alcoholic who lives in the huge shadow of his dad Jimmi. Since 1966, Jimmi Wyatt draws the wildly successful comic strip called Sonny Side Up, about a single dad trying to run a restaurant while raising his son. It's a sort of combination of the everyday life of Peanuts and and the more cloying sentiment of Family Circus, and it makes Jimmi into a rich celebrity known as "Everybody's Dad." There are TV adaptations of his cartoons and tons of merchandising featuring the strip's characters and catch phrase "Wanna Share My Cookie?" Jimmi is the sort of guy who golfs with Tony Bennett, counts Barack Obama among his fans, and has countless affairs. He's not a good husband or dad, but he is good at living a life of excess.

Caleb does benefit from this fortune, being largely pampered and financially supported, though there were a tough couple of years when he was in art school and published a small-press, limited run of underground comix lampooning his father's famous strip. Still, his long-suffering, acerbic mother, who remained married to Jimmi through it all, does bail him out. Now, in middle age, he finds himself  aimless, painting abstract art for view in galleries propped up by his dad, working part-time as a sponsor for a local recovery clinic, and being a bad partner to his long-term boyfriend James. He is still dealing with the fallout of his childhood, but he is also old enough to know better. He still attends weekly dinner with his parents and depends on their largess while wanting more but doing nothing about it. He makes lots of capricious and poor choices, and part of what makes this book so compelling is watching how he keeps making a pig's ear out of a silk purse.

What also makes this book compelling is the extent Ollmann went to in constructing this narrative. The main plot is accompanied with "original art" from Sonny Side Up, which accentuates the drama and tone of the book. It fabricates a believable set of connections between the characters and the real world, and personally I loved all the references to comics creators from the classic newspaper strip days as well as from the alt-comix heydays of the 1990s. I know that many readers might not get these industry in-jokes, but I really appreciated them. So much has gone into constructing this fiction, and I admire its craft and attention to details.

The artwork mirrors the horrible aspects of the characters, and it is beautifully ugly. Everyone seems old and haggard, reflecting all the turmoil and troubles they have both endured and inflicted on others. There is not a lot of happiness in this book, at least in terms of the story and characters, but I saw a sort of delight in the realization of this tale. It's a marvelously crafted book and story: Once I started reading Fictional Father, I could not put it down. 

As I wrote above, I am a big fan of Ollman's graphic novels, Mid-Life and The Abominable Mr. Seabrook. He speaks more about his work on Fictional Father in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have leaned positive. In a starred review Publishers Weekly called it "a complex look at an artist’s evolving relationship to the past." Brad MacKay wrote that "thanks to Ollmann’s confident, assured storytelling it’s a journey well-worth taking." Colin Moon opined, "Fictional Father is perhaps an imperfect work, but nonetheless a compelling one, so long as you can get over the preposterously whining tone it sometimes steeps itself in."

Fictional Father was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they offer a preview and more information here.

Oh, Caleb...