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.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Caravaggio: A Light Before The Darkness

To say that the pandemic has affected my life, work, and productivity is an understatement. This graphic novel I have been meaning to read and review for about a year, and I am happily and thankfully (and finally!) glad to post it today.

Caravaggio: A Light Before The Darkness is set in the late 16th/early 17th century, and this book took me back (not to the 17th century, I am not THAT old) to my undergraduate days when I took an art history class and attended a lecture about the art of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. He was an important figure of the Baroque style, and he lived a tumultuous and eventful life, all of which are conveyed effectively in this book. He is known for his sense of drama and lighting in his work, with a masterful use of chiaroscuro that influenced many painters afterward. In apt fashion, the artwork in this book employs his painterly style in its depictions.

Just as dramatic as his artwork was his personal life, which was characterized by sex scandals (with men and women), duels, and multiple brawls. Ultimately the fallout from this violence caused him to live in exile, and he died under controversial circumstances. This book delineates all these events in spirited and cinematic fashion, which is fitting as the script for this book came from an unproduced screenplay. I think it works well as a graphic novel, capturing the flare and intrigue of Caravaggio's life as well as the spirit of his artistic achievements.

This book is a collaboration between author and screenwriter Ken Mora and artist Cyrus Mesarcia. Mora is best known for a number of animation projects from his company Bella Fe Media. Mesarcia has drawn the comic book series Carson of Venus and a number of horror comics. Mora speaks about his work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I was able to locate of this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly called it "a spirited introduction to Caravaggio’s life and times that should appeal to readers of classic graphic illustrated style comics." Jean M. Roberts wrote, "I enjoyed this graphic novel and highly recommend it to readers of historical fiction who enjoy adult graphic novels and a unique reading experience." As of this review, it has a 4.43 (out of 5) star rating on Goodreads.

Caravaggio: A Light Before The Darkness was published by Markosia Enterprises Ltd. It was originally published as a six individual issues, partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign.  It is also available as webcomic on WEBTOON.

Sunday, June 5, 2022


Tunnels is a splendid graphic novel, intricately plotted, expressively drawn, and colorfully executed. Its plot is complicated, and its characters bold, with each of them so focused on their desires that they do not see a bigger picture. The main character is Nili, an unemployed, single mother who strives to complete her archaeologist father's ultimate quest: to locate the Ark of the Covenant. Because of the onset of dementia, he had been removed from his academic position and is convalescing at home.

 "Aiding her" on her journey is her brother Broshi, but he is secretly in kahoots with Prof. Rafi Sarid, their father's ex-collaborator who is conniving to take the glory that comes with discovery for himself. He has dangled Broshi the prospect of tenure for information leading to locating the Ark, but he has no intentions to honor his deal. Also on the journey is Doctor, Nili's young son who wants nothing but to be left alone with games on a cell phone. The entire enterprise is bankrolled by Emil Abuloff, an antiquities dealer with a penchant for buying artifacts pilfered by ISIS. He is looking for a legitimate score to offset the ill-gotten gains he has made off of terrorists.  Doing the actual digging are two parties, first a team of sycophantic Jews led by Shmuel Gedanken and two Palestinian brothers, Mahdi and Zuzu  who dig the tunnel but want it for smuggling purposes. Gedanken also has in tow Aviva, a red cow that is to be slaughtered upon discovering the Ark.

If you have stuck with me thus far, you can see that there is much going on in this book character-wise. However, just as important as the characters is the setting, the contested lands in Israel and Palestine where huge walls and armed soldiers loom. At stake here are not just the fame that comes with discovery but also the power afforded to political and religious supremacy. Not to mention the fact the some of these people believe that possessing the Ark means that their forces will be unstoppable.

Despite all of these seriousness and intrigue of this quest, the book also features a sense of humor, full of Tintin-esque, colorful characters whose eyes and mouths frequently explode in cartoonish manner. Aviva the cow is also a wild-card, getting into all sorts of mischief and mucking things up. So, this books is a strangely balanced concoction of political jostling, family and academic drama, archaeological adventure, and farce. It is a fascinating, compelling, and substantial book, masterfully crafted and brilliantly illustrated. It also features an essay to close the book, where the author explains her intentions and narrative choices in great detail.

Tunnels was created by Rutu Modan, who has published two other graphic novels. Exit Wounds and The Property, in the US, with both winning Eisner Awards. She has also illustrated a number of picture books, created a variety of short comics, and edited the Hebrew edition of MAD magazine. She speaks about her work on Tunnels in this interview. This book was translated into English by Ishai Mishory.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Hillary Brown wrote that "all these characters are so flawed and fascinating and prickly. They’re predictable and unpredictable in equal parts, which makes them interesting to watch." Etelka Lehoczky opined, "Contemplating the shallowness and entitlement of Modan's characters, readers may wind up reflecting on their own." Rachel Cooke wrote, "Every page is gripping, every frame profoundly political."

Tunnels was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they offer a preview and more here.

Monday, May 30, 2022

Piece By Piece: The Story of Nisrin's Hijab

Piece By Piece: The Story of Nisrin's Hijab is a complex, harrowing, and compelling graphic novel that tackles some difficult subject matter, namely prejudice and violence directed toward Muslims in the United States. This book is set in 2002 in Portland, Oregon, and it stars Nisrin, a young woman who embraces Islam and traditional garb, despite her parents' views. They still recall the violence in Bangladesh becoming independent from Pakistan in 1971, and their scars color their views differently.

Her wearing a head scarf marks Nisrin as an outsider in school and her community, and one day she and an African-American friend find themselves targeted by a crazed individual spewing anti-Muslim hate. Both girls are beaten badly, and face long recoveries. Nisrin in particular suffers from instances of PTSD, and she finds it difficult to deal with her new surroundings in high school, where she finds herself bullied by some students and shunned by some teachers. She finds it hard to make friends, though eventually she does hit it off with a girl named Veronica.

Reading this book is bracing, because it depicts serious subject matter in a frank manner. However, I appreciated the experience of reading it, because it is engrossing, and I feel that I learned much more about Bangladeshi culture and history. Also, the vivid painted imagery is powerful and atmospheric, drawing the reader into this work in direct and impactful fashion. Its imagery and narrative are both haunting and enlightening, showing the horrors that victims of hate crimes suffer as well as how some immigrants experience life in the US.

This book's creator Priya Huq is a Bangladeshi artist, and this is her debut graphic novel. She publishes work with Radiator Comics, and she speaks more about her life and how it affected the making of this book in this interview.

All the reviews I have read about this book have sung its praises. Kirkus Reviews concluded, "Remarkable storytelling presents a multilayered struggle around identity and power in an anti-Muslim climate." Amanda MacGregor wrote, "This is a very emotional and powerful read, with the assault and resulting trauma coloring much of the story." Mahasin A. Aleem called it "A solid addition to collections of all types and a welcome exploration of what it means to navigate the complexities of Muslim identity in the United States."

Piece By Piece: The Story of Nisrin's Hijab was published by Amulet Books, and they offer more information about it here.

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 advance digital copy of the book, and it will published in July.