Tuesday, June 15, 2021

History Comics: The Wild Mustang: Horses of the American West

The History Comics series began last year, and I was impressed with the initial offerings. This volume, The Wild Mustang, lives up to the great start, featuring a wide range of history that touches on matters of biology, plate tectonics, politics, and culture wars. The story begins hundreds of millions of years ago when horses first evolved in what is now North America. About 150 million years ago, there were none of these creatures left there, as they had all migrated to other continents and were isolated by continental drift. It was only with the re-introduction of the Spaniards and other colonial powers that these creatures returned to where they originated.

What I liked about this book was that it takes a long view of history but also makes sure to show how these animals were used for various social and political means. Aside from agrarian labor, they were used for war purposes, for the Spanish to conquer native people or the Comanche to dominate land and property. It counters a lot of the romantic thinking of some idealistic native species that embodies the spirit of the American West, showing how they have since propagated, been hunted and slaughtered, and later protected by various laws, many championed by Velma B. Johnston (AKA, Wild Horse Annie).

This book is dense with facts, but it is still very readable and engaging. Plus, there are plenty of resources for further information in the end papers of the book, making a great starting point for eager readers. I think it would be attractive to people who love horses but it's also good for a general survey of US history and a great model for what historical research focused on a specific subject can look like. The artwork captures the energy of the animals and also communicates many shifts in scenery and tone, from pastoral plains to meat packing plants to villages to courtrooms. It's a excellent text to teach about the complexities of history in an entertaining and relatable medium.

This book's creators, writer Chris Duffy and artist Falynn Koch, have created a number of other graphic novels. Duffy has written or edited a number of anthologies, including Fairy Tale Comics, Fable Comics, Nursery Rhyme Comics, and an anthology of World War I poetry titled Above the Dreamless Dead. Koch has drawn a couple of entries in the Science Comics series, Bats and Plagues, as well as a Makers Comics book about baking. Koch speaks about her work on this book in this interview.

The reviews I have read about it have been mainly positive. Kirkus Reviews called it "A surprisingly comprehensive history of wild horses." Brett at Graphic Policy called it "a little weighty at times" but "well worth it." As of this review, it has a 4.05 (out of 5) star rating at Goodreads.

The Wild Mustang was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more information about it here.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Snapdragon

Snapdragon is one of the best books I've read in a while. It is about a brash, young woman named Snapdragon (named after her mom's favorite flower). When the book opens, she is looking for her lost dog Good Boy, and she braves going into the house of a woman purported to be a witch, because it is rumored that she eats pets. She does find Good Boy there, but he had been hurt and the "witch," whose name is Jacks, took him in and patched him up. 

That may have been the end of matters, but soon afterward, Snap ends up with a bunch of orphaned baby possums so she turns to Jacks to help her raise them. Jacks agrees, but only on the condition that Snap helps her with "her work," which involves roadkill and taxidermy. The two form an unlikely friendship, and as Snap gets to know Jacks she learns that the old woman has connections to her family and also that she may well be a real witch. 

There is plenty of mystery, action, and intrigue in this book, but what makes it exceptional is its complex world full of realistic, well-realized characters. Snap and Jacks both feature strong personalities, but so do all the supporting ones, from Snap's put-upon Mom to her friend Louis, who shares her fandom for horror movies and likes to wear dresses and paint his nails. What is more, this book does an excellent job exploring the various relationships between them. Snap gets Jacks to open up about her past, and she stands by Louis in dealing with bullies and his rough-and-tumble older brothers. And not only is there a lot of strong emotional work, but as you can see in the excerpt above, this book is also frequently funny in its dialogue and pacing. There are parts, such as the sequence where Snap's mom goes to buy her an animal anatomy textbook, that made me want to cheer. This book is moving in many ways and also a joy to read.

This book was created by Kat Leyh, who is an artist and writer who is known for her work on the Eisner and GLAAD Award-winning Lumberjanes series and the graphic novel Thirsty Mermaids. She speaks about her inspirations for Snapdragon in this audio clip and her career in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. Kirkus Reviews summed up their starred entry, "Sweet and fierce, this is a must-have." Ashley Dunne wrote, "It could be a good book for opening up conversations about respecting the earth’s creatures, normalizing the concept of trans kids and queer seniors, or just plain finding a fun story with witchy elements." Hillary Brown opined, "The star of the book is the way Leyh draws her flippin’ heart out to make a story that really doesn’t need words at all." Anna Schaeffer wrote that it "glitters with imagination, sweetness, and grit."

Snapdragon was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more info here.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

The Thud

The Thud is a graphic novel told from the perspective of Noel, a young man who lives with his "mumsie" and is excited about his upcoming birthday and present of going to see his favorite band AC/DC. Everything literally comes crashing down one day when he hears a thud from the next room. 

It turns out that his mother had a stroke and is now in a coma. Because he is developmentally disabled and cannot live on his own, he is taken to Neuerkerod, a German village where most of the inhabitants have developmental disabilities. There, he has to learn to make sense of and live his own life.

Everything has left Noel disoriented, and it is through his eyes that we get to know the lay of the land and the locals. His friend Valentin is obsessed with dates and times, and his strictly scheduled proclivities sometimes clash with Noel's more freewheeling tendencies. Noel also develops an unrequited crush on Penelope, while another young woman named Alice, who is epileptic, tries in vain to gain his attentions. These relationships show both a relatable sense of humanity as well as humor, especially when people's intentions get mistaken. These scenes are often sweet and heartfelt, not pandering, and the humor does not come at the characters' expense.

The artwork is colorful and highly expressive. I love how the characters are distinct, with unique sizes and shapes and imbued with personality. These aspects come out strongly in the episodic fashion of the story, which is structured as a series of sequential short stories. I love how this book develops a longer narrative over the space of these stories, with the reader and Noel both getting more of a sense of this village and the people who live there. It even introduces some historical context, about this village that has existed for 150 years and the dark days of Nazism, when many of the village's citizens were deemed unfit to live. 

Finally, I loved the open-ended, powerful way that the book concluded. It is a beautiful, thoughtful, and respectful look at people who are often overlooked, ignored, and/or underestimated. You will fall in love with these characters.

This book was created by artist/scholar Mikaël Ross and translated into English by Nika Knight. Ross has created a number of comics works and received Berlin’s Senate Department for Culture and Europe’s first graphic novel scholarship. He speaks about The Thud in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly called it a tale "told with an endearing combination of empathy and humor." Andy Oliver wrote, "Ross mixes poignancy with humour in a book that runs the emotional gamut, culminating in a heartrending finale where events come full circle." Kevin Wolf opined, "Everything about this graphic work is touching … emotionally … visually … conversationally between characters"

The Thud was publish in the US by Fantagraphics, and they provide a preview and more information about it here.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Losing the Girl

Losing the Girl is one of those books that has been on my to-read list for way to long, and I am very glad to have finally read it. It is the first of a trilogy, and it sets up a great many plot threads in both a compelling and moving manner. I knew vaguely that this was a book about adolescents and (maybe) some extraterrestrial hi-jinx, but it turned out to be so much more than some clever scifi romp.

The book is divided into five chapters, each one focusing on one of four teens who attend the same school. In the background of their stories is the disappearance of Claudia Jones, an honors student who attends their school. This disappearance is teased perhaps to be an alien abduction, but there is also a possibility it is linked to the presence of a homeless woman named CJ who appears around town. This mystery is secondary to the main plots, but it also provides a nice narrative through-line that builds suspense that should pay off in later books. 

The first chapter is narrated by Nigel, an African-American boy who uses humor to compensate for his struggles with his parents' divorce. He cracks wise and flirts with a lot of girls.

He has a short relationship with Emily, who is the narrator of the second chapter. She is Asian-American, and after dating Nigel, she starts pursuing her dream-boy Brett. She has a lot of choices to make when she becomes pregnant, both in terms of her relationships and her future. The third chapter is about white boy Brett, who is not a stereotypical jock but harbors a secret artistic side and an unrequited crush. The fourth chapter focuses on Paula, who I believe is Latinx, Emily's friend who gets treated poorly by her overbearing boyfriend. She has to deal with a number of complicated emotions, and she makes some questionable choices of her own. The fifth chapter returns to Nigel for a quick coda that sets up the next book.

The power in this book lays in its character-work and its artful ways of communicating feelings and emotionally volatile scenes. The artwork subtly shifts in each chapter, to capture each character's sensibility and also create unique spaces for them. So much of this book relies on verbal communication and captions, not so much action, but it still flows incredibly smoothly. The artwork is simple looking and economical, but it packs a powerful dramatic wallop. Just check out this sequence:

Losing the Girl is a page-turner that features real-feeling characters who go through realistic, complicated events. I will definitely be reading the next two books in the Life on Earth trilogy. 

This book was created by Marinaomi, an artist, scholar, podcaster, and activist who maintains multiple databases for cartoonists of color, disabled cartoonists, and queer cartoonists. She has created an array of comics in print and digital formats, including the Eisner Award-nominated Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories. She speaks about her career and works in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive.  J. Caleb Mozzocco wrote, "Deceptively simple-looking, this is a genuinely complex comics work." Rob Clough opined, "There are many familiar elements of teen romance here, to be sure, but MariNaomi approaches with a level of sophistication and humanity that's rare for any story of this kind." Kirkus Reviews summed up, "A moody, compassionate reflection of adolescence in turmoil."

Losing the Girl was published by Graphic Universe, and they offer a preview and more information about it here.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Man Without Talent

The Man Without Talent is a landmark manga book, a collection of semi-autobiographical stories by a classic creator who has not published a comic since 1987. The six chapters in this book follow the travails of Sukezō Sukegawa, a middle-aged man who is married and has a son but little direction to his life. He used to draw manga but now he is casting about for a vocation. Mainly, he tries to sell river rocks, but his improvised stand does not attract any customers and the rocks he collects impress no one. He is more successful in restoring and selling vintage cameras, but when he runs out of cameras to refurbish his prospects trickle out. I'd say that he was suffering from a mid-life crisis but it seems more like he struggles to find his place in a capitalist system. He was only good at one thing, creating manga, but he does not want to do that anymore.

His life is a disappointment to his wife, whose face is barely seen as she can't bear to look at him. And even though he shown to be a good father to his little boy, the family struggles financially and emotionally. Sukezō's melancholic state of mind manifests in many musings, concluding in a prolonged meditation on the life and works of Seigetsu, a wandering, derelict haiku poet, which closes this book. I won't call this ending hopeful, but it does comment on the potential of creating art that lives beyond its creators. Although there is no broad action in this book, what it does extremely well is present a portrait of a desperate, frustrated man and his inner thoughts. This work is more philosophical and literary, but it is nonetheless still beautiful, captivating, and impressive.

The stories here are considered classics in manga that established the tradition of I-stories, which focus more on literary matters than genre conventions. This book's creator Yoshiharu Tsuge is an important figure in Japanese comics because of the conventions he established with his various works. He has not been active in publishing for decades now, but his works and life have been adapted into a number of movies. He speaks about the recent revival of his works in English here. After a long-standing opposition he had to have his works translated into other languages, The Man Without Talent is his first book to be published in the US. It was translated and includes a great informative essay by scholar Ryan Holmberg.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. Brian Nicholson wrote that "it resonate[s] on a deeper level than simply being relatable." Morgana Santilli called it "an excellent read for anyone who wants to know more about early underground/art manga history." In a starred entry, Kirkus Reviews concluded, "Humanity stunningly observed—a treasure."

The Man Without Talent was published by New York Review Books, and they provide a preview and more information about it here.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott

The title The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott gives away a lot of information about this book. It is about a young woman named Billie Scott, and she is indeed going blind. What it does not say is just how terrific this book is. Billie is an artist who has won a coveted spot to have a solo exhibition of her art as a prestigious gallery. Up until this book begins, she has totally isolated herself from her family and any would-be-friends, devoting herself entirely to her craft. However, through a random act of violence, she is struck and her retinas begin to detach. 

Given that she has about two weeks until she goes completely blind, she sets off to find 10 subjects to paint. She stops playing it safe and begins to actually socialize, beginning with her flatmates. Then she goes off to make acquaintances in all sorts of random places, including bachelorette parties, homeless shelters, youth hostels, and alleyways. She amasses a loose band of acquaintances but she also begins getting to know them all better. Given her circumstances, she develops more self-awareness. Also, the urgency of her project makes her much more direct and focused about her wants and needs. 

What I really ending up loving about this book was how people can unexpectedly find friendship and form relationships. Billie looks for people with interesting features so she can paint them, but she also hears their stories and gets to know them. Many of them are damaged in some way, but they exhibit strength and beauty in their own ways. Not everyone she meets is entirely friendly or trustworthy, but she does forge a number of friendships and cobbles together a sort of family. She even finds a special kinship with Rachel, a homeless musician and busker who keeps trying to score a gig at a specific local tavern. 

A story about a lonely, young woman who learns about herself and finds friends in unlikely places could come off as treacly or disingenuous, but the art, character work, and storytelling are strong enough to earn heartfelt, genuine reactions. I found this book utterly charming and uplifting. It is the real deal.

I'll be eager to see what else this book's creator Zoe Thorogood publishes. This book is her graphic novel debut, and she talks about comics, her background, and her work on Billie Scott in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book sing its praises. Caitlin Rosberg called it "a touching exploration of what it means to make art and how to find your people, and why both things are important." Nicholas Burman wrote "that art represents how people are thinking, and it’s an impressive and positive sign as to the resilience of both an emerging generation and the artistic impulse that The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott presents a UK where all the stuff that matters still matters." John Seven commented positively about the tone of this book, highlighting the "fully-realized street-level world for Billie Scott to inhabit" as well as Thorogood's "scrappy art style."

The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott was published by Avery Hill Publishing, and they offer a preview an more about it here.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Magician A

 

Magician A is not a book for children. It is a collection of short stories that highlight feminine sexuality and competition in different milieus, providing a range of insights into how contemporary women strive to take control of their own destinies. In some stories the women act in entrepreneurial ways, for instance a sex worker who provides her one client with a loyalty punch card, a magician who gets paid to pray for people's wishes to come true, and a young woman who provides manual relaxation for customers in a park. 

Almost all involve women who are struggling to find their confidence or way in the world, including one who has a random encounter with a really cool woman she aspires to be like in a bookstore, a fledgling magician trying to make sense of magic school, and an artist trying to find her voice and style in art school.

I found all of these stories of revelation and personal growth compelling. The author has a way of immediately portraying her characters' personalities in striking, empathetic fashion, and I found it easy to get involved with their personal dramas. Additionally, each story is unique and intricately plotted to deliver both an emotional wallop plus a good deal of suspense. These stories are not for the faint of heart or the squeamish. They are erotically charged, emotionally wrenching, and eminently memorable.

This impressive debut was created by Natsuko Ishitsuyo. I learned a lot about her from the journal entries and Q &A that appear at the back of the book.

The reviews I have read of this book were very positive. Morgana Santilli opined about the prevalence of masculine sexuality in manga and wrote, "Magician A is a striking counterpoint where instead of wallowing in self-pity and fantasizing about harming others, Ishitsuyo’s protagonists use their sexual awakenings as personal reflection and a catalyst for empowerment that men, born into power, take for granted." Katie Skelly concluded, "These are very accomplished visions from a determinedly independent creator, and we’re so lucky to have them." This book's translator Jocelyne Allen commented about the original Japanese version, "It’s so assured and unlike anything I’ve come across in the world of manga before."

Magician A was published by BDP, and they offer more info about it here. There are previews available here at the Kickstarter page where this project was originally funded. If you have gotten this far into my review, you probably know that this book is suggested for mature readers.