Sunday, November 5, 2023

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: Above the Trenches

I have read and reviewed every graphic novel in this series (go see), and this one is a sequel of sorts to Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood in that it also is about World War I. However, this one does not look at the broad scope of the war but at a specific area, namely the origins of aerial combat. 

It is crazy to think that people took their lives into their own hands in early airplanes and even crazier than not even ten years after man-powered flight was invented that someone thought to use these vehicles for war. At first, they were used to scout troop movements and plan assaults, then they were used to drop bombs, and finally someone had the bright idea to strap guns onto them. 

At the time, just flying an airplane was somewhat a daredevil enterprise, with lots of risk involved and little in the way of safety equipment. This book follows a small group of brave (or foolhardy, depending on your viewpoint) young Americans who enlisted in the French Foreign Legion in order to take part in a war that the USA had not yet entered. Their intention was to become pilots and help fight in the skies, and this book chronicles the long, bumpy road many of them took in order to become soldiers. Spoiler: As people who engage in highly dangerous situations they also frequently smoke and drink. Also, most of them die or get killed over the course of the war.

What is excellent about this book is how it puts a human face on the war. There are many stark, pronounced personalities among the pilots, and it is very easy to get to know and root for them. Also, as with all the other volumes in this series, there are plenty of details that make the past come to life. Among the various topics also at hand are the intricacies of dog-fighting, string of technical innovations, military developments, and a code of honor among all pilots. 

It is amazing to me that this book not only encompasses so much information but also communicates it clearly while also making for a compelling, human story. And I have not even mentioned how many visual references must have gone into depicting the intricate uniforms, planes, and people involved in the war. From the lack of reviews I have found online, not many people review the twelfth entry in a series, but I feel it bears repeating just how marvelous and exceptional this book and the entire series are. The art is phenomenal, the stories moving, and the facts fascinating. NHHT continues to be the gold standard for nonfiction graphic novels.

Author Nathan Hale (not related to the Revolutionary War spy) is a highly accomplished graphic novelist, so much so that I named one of my annual favorites list categories after him. Aside from his great success with this series, he has also published the fictional graphic novels The Mighty BiteOne Trick Pony and Apocalypse Taco. He has also drawn a few others, including Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack.

Above the Trenches was published by Amulet Books, and they offer more information about it here.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Hell Phone: Book One

Sometimes, I just have to read a good, creepy story, and Hell Phone fits the bill perfectly. It's the story of a couple of hip (my word, not theirs) best friends and next-door-neighbors, Sissy and Lola, who happen upon a stray flip phone. Strangely the outdated phone continues to ring until they answer it, and when they do they get cryptic directives that lead them all over town.

Spoiler: Whoever the guy is, he's not a hermit, and he was not in that house. I won't spoil what was, but it was gross and horrifying. Of course, no one in authority believes Lola or Sissy, so they are left to their own devices in order to get to the bottom of things. 

As a fan of the teens-who-solves mysteries trope, I really like this well done and contemporary take, and a lot hangs on the two main characters. They are fashionable, savvy, sort of sensible, and darkly humorous. They are also graphically depicted in a wide-eyed, colorful manner that pops. They're cool. They know the kind of story that they are in, and they know how to game the rules. The problem is that the mystery starts taking more turns and involving more people they know, so things start to spiral out of control.

Hell Phone was created by Benji Nate, a comics artist and comedian. She has created a number of other graphic novels and comics, including Catboy, Lorna, and Girl Juice.

This book was named one of the 2023 YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens, and all of the reviews I have read have been positive. Alenka Figa commented on the "cute, appealing visuals and humorous dialogue." Arpad Okay gushed that this "book is establishing new territory in comics and crime pulp fiction." Publishers Weekly called it "a quirky and stylish supernatural mystery that still hits her sweet spot of slice-of-life friendship comics."

Hell Phone was published by Silver Sprocket, and they offer a preview and more info here. You can also read the entire story (so far) online and free at Webtoons. I have not seen Book Two solicited yet, and I hope to see it sometime soon.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Pinball: A Graphic History of the Silver Ball

I have read a bunch of comics by Jon Chad over the years, including his Science Comics entry about volcanoes, his Leo Geo books, and The Bad-ventures of Bobo Backslack. I have even checked out his multi-genre/multi-media collection Bad Mask, which is an inventive collection of texts. I have always been excited to experience his artwork and storytelling, both which usually press the boundaries of comics. Here, in Pinball, what he does is use comics to try to communicate the kinetic action and vibrancy of pinball machines while also telling their history.

I came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, so pinball machines are something I am well acquainted with. I spent many a quarter trying to keep silver balls in play while ringing up bonuses and being distracted by flashing lights. They seemed a relatively harmless entertainment, and I had no idea about their origins and links to organized crime and alleged juvenile delinquency. They were sort of the video games of their time, a new type of entertainment technology that got unjustly blamed for social ills. 

Pinball machines had a long ride as a popular amusement, and this book does a great job chronicling their rise and decline, with a good deal of information about their designers and technological advancements. It is a marvel just how much goes into making these machines, a complicated combination of engineering and computer programming. I learned so much about the technical and cultural aspects of pinball while reading this book, and it is a dense, rewarding account. I am not sure if the topic would appeal to everyone, especially the more technical aspects of pinball machinery, but I think that it has something important to say to any audience in terms of how popular technologies emerge and evolve.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly summed up their starred review, "Cracking this one open evokes the delight of snapping back the launcher in the arcade." Leonard Pierce wrote, "Pinball: A Graphic History of the Silver Ball isn’t going to set the comics world on fire. It’s a niche guide to a niche game," but he also called it a "a surprisingly deft combination of social history and how-to manual" and "downright charming." Brian Salvatore opined that it is "a lovingly crafted, expertly presented exploration into something that has rarely been thought of this deeply before."

Pinball: A Graphic History of the Silver Ball was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more here. And if you want to learn more, Chad talks about his work on the book in this interview.

Friday, October 20, 2023

The Civil War Diary of Freeman Colby, Volume 1: 1862

What seems like a million years ago now, I supported a Kickstarter campaign for volume 3 of The Civil War Diary of Freeman Colby, and I am so glad I did. I read the first book a long while ago, and so much of it stayed with me. It is a faithful, compelling, informative, moving, and often funny adaptation of a Civil War soldier's diary (just like the title says!). When the war broke out, this 21-year-old New Hampshirite was a teacher, but when his gung-ho little brother Newton enlisted in the Union Army, his parents entreated him also to join so he could look after the impetuous lad. 

What follows is a treasure trove of experiences, a primary account of what these soldiers did, where they stayed, what they endured, and what they ate. That last point especially looms large, as much of this book involves matters we mostly take for granted today, such as a regular diet, routine medical care, and a host of gastrointestinal plights that plagued these soldiers for various reasons. Things are not always so great for poor Freeman. Also, we get to see the not always brilliant machinations of military leadership as well as the events of the day as interpreted by a civilian.

This last point is one of the main features of this book that really makes it sing. I love how this book is all from the viewpoint of a person I had never heard of before, and mostly the soldiers in these pages are basically homesick kids. It really impresses a view of the war in a unique and memorable way, a truly invaluable view of history. 

The other main feature that really makes an impression is the highly expressive artwork. Sure, it looks simple, with its spare lines and almost stick-figure rendering, but this simplicity belies the use of reference materials, much craft, and thoughtfulness. The accounts here are imbued with so much movement and feeling that they are almost palpable. It may be a cliche to say that this book makes history come to life, but I'll dare say it anyway. This series of books is an excellent resource for anyone interested in or learning about the US Civil War. And to boot, Volume 1 of the series was named one of YALSA's Great Graphic Novels for Teens in 2017.

Artist/educator Marek Bennett created this book and also runs his Comic Workshop across New England. In addition to the Freeman Colby series, he has also collaborated with a host of creators on The Most Costly Journey/El Viaje Más Caro, a graphic medicine/ethnographic look at migrant workers in Vermont. He speaks about his work on the Civil War Diary series in this interview.

The Civil War Diary of Freeman Colby was published by Comics Workshop, and they offer a preview and more info about it here. Thus far, there are three volumes in the series

Sunday, October 15, 2023


Sometimes seemingly simple things are super complicated. Take hair, for instance. I don't think much about hair. I have long, straight hair now, and all I know about it was that long ago when I tried to get it feathered and wavy, it never responded. So, I just went with a short, pretty standard haircut for most of my life. That is certainly a position of privilege and convenience I have learned. Claribel, the star of Frizzy, does not enjoy such privilege. This young, Dominican girl has long, curly hair. It has flair and presence, and she learns from her mom that what she needs to do with it is tame that hair through regular visits to the salon. It constantly needs to be straightened and treated so that it is more manageable and she can fit in.

Bound up in all this thinking are all sorts of cultural assumptions of what people should look like, especially if they want to gain cultural capital and respect. Also, racial and ethnic identities come into play here, as some peoples' hair are seen as acceptable while others need work. Claribel and her mother clash over hair, and how it contributes to her being a "good girl," "presentable," and a maturing person. Claribel's Tia Ruby adds a different voice to this conversation, and over the course of the book all of the characters get the chance to interact, learn, emote, and engage in a debate over what people should look like and how it contributes to how they feel and what they can do in life. 

What I love about this book is how it engages in all sorts of complex issues without being didactic or prescriptive. The characters all feel real and relatable to me, and none of them present "straw man" arguments. They have their stances and feel justified in them, and they each have their strong points. Also, none of them is perfect, so the debate about what it takes to grow up as a realized person is palpable. Unless you are made of stone, this book will provoke your thoughts and move you.

This book is a collaboration between writer Claribel A. Ortega and artist Rose Bousamra, and Frizzy was the debut graphic novel from both. Ortega is a best-selling YA novelist whose books Ghost Squad and Witchlings have been very popular. Bousamra is currently working on her follow-up graphic novel, the self-authored Gutless. You can see both creators discuss this book in length in this video interview.

This book has won the 2023 Pura Belpré Award for Children's Text as well as the 2023 Eisner Award for Best Publication for Kids, and it has received many extremely positive reviews. In their starred entry, Kirkus Reviews summed it up, "An exquisite excavation of hair politics, family dynamics, and self-love." In another starred review, Publishers Weekly wrote, "Ortega expertly examines themes of colorism, generational trauma, and toxic beauty standards via authentic, heartstring-tugging dialogue and Marlene’s pitch-perfect narration." Esther Keller concluded, "This is a wonderful addition to the middle-grade repertoire of coming-of-age graphic novels. It will give young girls a great sense of self and help them be happy with the features they were born with."

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

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Super Magic Boy 1: I Am a Dinosaur

All of my kids and I LOVE graphic novels by Jarod Roselló. We have all read both his Red Panda and Moon Bear books, and I have read a bunch of his mini- and web-comics, including the compiled The Well-Dressed Bear Will (Never) Be Found. His work is playful and energetic, and we all have found great joy in it. So, we were all sure to get this book, the first in a proposed series, Super Magic Boy.

In I Am a Dinosaur we met Hugo, a boy who has magic powers and can do seemingly anything. In the first few pages, he animates one of his dinosaur toys and makes it a real dinosaur and then transforms himself into a dinosaur. Of course, they do what dinosaurs do best, go on a rampage.

After crashing and roaring about the house and punching a hole in the exterior wall, they end up outside. The duo then decides to dig a giant hole, where they unearth (among other things) the Cursed Skeleton King and his cursed treasure. After wreaking a path of destruction, Hugo eventually settles down enough to fix everything in his own unique way.

My whole family liked many aspects of this book, and all of my kids loved reading this book both with me and by themselves. I liked that it is fun to read aloud, and the educator in me also liked how Hugo taught the dinosaur new words. I also admired the colorful artwork that looks like a blend of comics and collage. My kids liked its action, characters, and humor. And to be more exact: My four-year-old was thrilled by their rampaging. My six-year-old thinks the dinosaur is hilarious, because he loves how it does not know anything. My eight-year-old really enjoyed the shorter second story where Hugo and the Cursed Skeleton King search for treasure and encounter an imposing guardian. This book is full of wonderful and exciting things, and we are all looking forward to Book 2. If you have younger children who are into graphic novels or simply laughing, go get this book!

I Am a Dinosaur was just published, and thus far I have not been able to locate many other reviews. In the one I did find Kirkus Reviews summed up, "A high-energy celebration of a delightfully rambunctious childhood."

Super Magic Boy: I Am a Dinosaur was published by RH Graphic, and they have a preview and more available here.

Thursday, October 5, 2023

The He-Man Effect: How American Toymakers Sold You Your Childhood

I am a big fan of Brian "Box" Brown, a comics artist who uses a clean, minimalist art style to tell many a nonfiction tale. Here, I expected to get a story about toys and toy companies, but I got so much more. This book touches on many aspects of the social studies, including history, government, and psychology in explaining the arcane and calculated strategies that have shaped modern generations. This book begins with a look at propaganda from World War I and then traces how the strategies used to sell war to a population were turned to selling goods to people, notably toys, comics, and cartoons to children. 

Box Brown goes way-back to the roots of the propaganda.

Along the path of this explanation, Brown touches on many issues, including the work of psychologist (and Sigmund Freud's Nephew) Edward Bernays, a pioneer in the field of public relations; the evolution of public domain; the importance of children engaging in imaginative play; the great toy boom set off by the popularity of Star Wars, and Ronald Reagan-era policies that deregulated the connections between advertising and children's programming. As you can see, if you are interested in tracing a great many social issues about nostalgia, marketing, and public consciousness, this is the book for you. It critiques our modern culture, delving deeply into what shaped it and what we might do differently in terms of being a literate person in the 21st century. What could have been a trifling book about playthings turned out to have much more gravity.

This book's author Box Brown has drawn a number of nonfiction graphic novels. including ones about Andre the Giant, Andy Kaufman, Tetris, and Cannabis. He also published the fictional biography Child Star. Of late he is publishing a web-comic about the state of Cannabis in the USA, Legalization Nation, and is the midst of Kickstarter campaign to fund a print compilation of those strips. He speaks about his work on The He-Man Effect as well as a number of his other works in this article.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "a boffo cartoon history of the deliberate manipulation of children's minds." April Spisak called it "another clever, sharp, and well-researched graphic novel that explores a pop culture non-fiction topic in close detail." Timothy ONeil wrote, "It can sound hyperbolic to call this book important, but it really is... The way nostalgia and brands have been entrenched in our culture is only growing bigger, and it’s important to understand how we got here."

The He-Man Effect was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more information here.