Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015: By the Numbers

In case you were curious, here are the GNs I reviewed last year according to publisher and number:

  • First Second - 19
  • Top Shelf - 8
  • Fantagraphics - 7
  • Image Comics - 7
  • Dark Horse - 3
  • Drawn & Quarterly - 3
  • Amulet - 2
  • Oni Press - 2
  • Scholastic - 2
  • Self-published - 2
  • Abrams Books - 1
  • Adhouse - 1
  • Andrews McMeel - 1
  • Archie Comics - 1
  • Bridge City Comics - 1
  • Conundrum Press - 1
  • Hang Dai Editions - 1
  • Harvard University Press - 1
  • Hill & Wang - 1
  • NoBrow Press - 1
  • Random House - 1
  • Rodale Books - 1
  • Sasquatch Books - 1
  • Schwartz & Wade - 1
  • Secret Acres - 1
  • Seven Stories Press - 1
  • Sparkplug Books - 1
  • Ten Speed Press - 1
  • Titan Comics - 1
  • Vertical, Inc. - 1
  • W. W. Norton & Company - 1
  • Zest Books - 1

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Comic Book Story of Beer

First off, I love both comics and beer, so this book should be right up my alley. Second, even if I did not love both of those things I would have to admit that this book is impressive, both in its scope and execution. There are just so many things jam-packed in here about the history of human civilization:  the role beer probably played in the first agricultural settlements, literary allusions to the beverage from the epic Gilgamesh and beyond, and pointed historical analyses such as how Prohibition killed off all the small breweries and led to a few monolithic companies that controlled people's tastes. Just look at the excerpt below and notice how much they manage to fit in without overwhelming the reader:
As you can see, the artwork is clear, concise, and well paced while the writing is simultaneously dense and easily navigable. Also, interspersed in all of this history is some science in the form of the chemistry behind how beer is made:
as well as a few profiles on specific, historically significant styles of beer:
By far the prevalent type of beer made and sold internationally. Who knew? These guys!
I should have known from the onset that this would be an excellent book. It is by writer Aaron McConnell and artist Jonathan Hennessey, the two creators behind The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation, one of my favorite nonfiction, historical graphic novels, as well as an adaptation of The Gettysburg Address, which I have not read. They are joined on this look at the history of beer by co-writer Mike Smith, former head brewer at Back East Brewery. This interview with all three creators sheds more light on their work on this book, as does this interview at CBR.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. Publishers Weekly concluded, "The abundance of interesting little details in these illustrations pair well with the wealth of information that the authors provide." I was amused by this exchange in a forum at Beer Advocate (where, unsurprisingly, everyone seems to love this book) when one commenter called it the "'Beer Goggle History.' This consists of theories that credit beer with every major positive innovation" in western civilization. Emil Favila gushed that it was a book for anyone "whether you are a fan of beer, or just great storytelling." Matilo von Plume gave it an A+ and summed up, "This is a book that deserves a permanent place on one of your shelves; not only is it a fun and informative read, but the sheer wealth of beer style-specific portraits (easily located via TOC or index) makes this an invaluable resource for novice beer drinkers as well as those who want to broaden their tasting horizons."

You can see multiple previews and also learn a lot more about The Comic Book Story of Beer at its official website. It was published by Ten Speed Press.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Invisible Ink: My Mother's Secret Love Affair with a Famous Cartoonist

Bill Griffith has been making comics since 1969, and he was involved in producing a good number of underground comix. But he is best known for his long-running syndicated comic strip Zippy the Pinhead, with its serial title character and catchphrase, "Are we having fun yet?" I used to read Zippy all the time, and I loved its obscure references, attention to nostalgia, and biting social commentary. A million years ago when I was in high school, I even drew a number of comic strips about a local pharmacist (Hi Nunzio!) using Zippy as my template. So, when I saw that Griffith had finally created a graphic novel, and one with such a salacious title I was eager to check it out. I am glad to say that it is a very worthwhile read. The comics are well drawn and composed, and the story is very compelling and substantial.

Invisible Ink is one of the most intimate books I have read. It is an exploration by the author of his parents' lives mostly via the artifacts that they have left behind. Much of the book is composed like the following excerpt, with a lot of Griffith's inner dialogue interspersed with images that propel and illuminate the narrative:
I was worried as I read the book that I might get bogged down by so much of the verbal exposition, but there is a good mix of sections that are more word-dense and ones where the imagery dominates the pages, like the following:
In the end, I was struck by just how much of a mystery this book was, with Griffith struggling to learn just who his parents were. His mother seemed to be striving for a bohemian, scholarly life but was trapped by her social situations and took respite in a long affair with a cartoonist, Lawrence Lariar, whose fame was fleeting and today is all but forgotten. More troubling and less spoken of, Griffith also sought to know more about his terse, gruff, and turbulent father, though in the end he is still left with a lot of conjecture about both. Certainly, I can see some people not really caring about one person's family history, as idiosyncratic as it is, but still I feel this book gets at many important themes about life, love, and family, not to mention a close look at mid-20th century romantic relationships.

This is a cerebral and deeply personal book, perhaps most typified by a sequence of pages toward the end with small, wordless tableaus accompany large text tracts of Griffith's mother's letters. I know that I was worried about the words taking over the imagery, but perhaps the best part of the book was seeing those spare images along with the deeply felt, well composed letters where she spills most of her guts. Here, virtuoso images juxtapose with artful, accomplished prose with heart-rending results.

For those wanting to know more about the book's origins, Griffith speaks more about his inspirations and intentions in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book show positive responses to a complex narrative. Etelka Lehoczky wrote, "Griffith's wonderful art and charmingly bemused perspicacity would make Invisible Ink a treat even if it stuck to the narrow topic of the affair and its effect on his childhood. But he goes far beyond that." Hillary Brown commented that the book "is at its best when Griffith meanders into tangents, not when he sticks to the main narrative, which isn’t a particularly long or complex story." Publishers Weekly called it "an evocative portrait of postwar America." Henry Chamberlain wrote that what is best about the book is that Griffith "is just like any of us trying to deal with the past and that is an excellent hook for readers."

Invisible Ink was published by Fantagraphics, who has an excerpt and more information available here.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Not Funny Ha Ha: A Handbook for Something Hard

To say abortion is a hot-button topic in the US is an understatement. Political groups use it as a wedge issue; religious groups typically rail against it, and there is a frightening contingent who use terrorism and violence to press their "pro-life" agenda. Not Funny Ha Ha does not get into those areas, but it does perform an important function. It documents what happens to the people who for whatever reason decide they need to undergo that medical procedure.

This graphic novel follows two different women, called Mary and Lisa, who both undergo abortions, one medical and one surgical. As you can see from the excerpt below, they are portrayed realistically and with intelligence, candor, trepidation, and humor.
This book takes its subject matter very seriously, but it also manages to employ a sense of humor, often through wit. The plot is peppered with very human touches and asides that lend a lot of personality to what could have been a pretty dry read. Also, along with the narrative come some pieces of advice, though they are not presented in a didactic or preachy manner, more like suggestions to help those wrestling with larger issues:
Finally, this book also sheds light on the logistical and mundane aspects of the procedure. It is sort of like a "What to Expect" type book that looks into what is typically a taboo and hidden process. This book demystifies it while also acknowledging that it is a difficult and personal choice, but it also puts a couple of very human faces on those who choose to undergo the procedure. After reading this book, I would imagine it would be difficult for someone to shun or shame those who choose this lonely path.
Leah Hayes is an illustrator, musician, songwriter, and producer who has published a collection of short stories told via scratchboard images called Funeral of the Heart. I think what makes Not Funny Ha Ha work so well is her wit, subtle yet affecting art style, and simple lettering. She takes a very disarming and approachable angle on a very difficult subject that I found very engaging. She talks about her work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Hillary Brown commented on its "subtlety and sensitivity." Etelka Lehoczky called Hayes' linework "aggressively unassuming" and the entire enterprise "formidable." Publishers Weekly summed up their write-up, "Clear headed and with a sympathetic voice, this book provides valuable information for women who have to make a difficult decision."

Not Funny Ha Ha was published by Fantagraphics, and they have a preview and more information available here. You can also follow news and goings-on about the book at its Twitter page.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Michael Jordan: Bull on Parade

Michael Jordan: Bull on Parade is an energetic and bombastic look at one of the greatest basketball players of all time who also happens to be one of the largest international marketing figures. This biography hits the high points in his life, from his early frustrations at not making his high school basketball team, to his time in Chapel Hill where he won a national championship, to his two stints with the Chicago Bulls where he eventually won six world titles, to his attempt to break into major league baseball, to his many business successes. It is clear that this book is the work of a fan, and MJ comes off as a larger than life figure, but there are also references to his darker aspects of his life, including his gambling habit, at least one mistress, and the strange circumstances his father's murder.

What I really enjoyed about the book is how it situates the man in his times and context, making some connections to social issues such as race, censorship, shady business practices, poverty, and violence. I think this is especially a good contrast, as Jordan himself has distanced himself and never really publicly voiced his views on such matters. Also, where I think the book really shines are in its depictions of game action. It shows pivotal scenes from all the Bulls' championship runs, and those scenes are simultaneously bright, powerful, and dynamic. Just check out the sequence below:
However, as good as the art is in places in the book, there are other instances where it looks a little muddy. Also, I think that the author tries to pack a little too much into the book to the point where some context gets lost. I paid a lot of attention to MJ's basketball career, and I get many of the references to the times and circumstances around his life, but I felt some major topics were given short shrift. For example, there is very little about his relationship with Nike in here, which I find strange given how globally omnipresent his Air Jordan sneakers were and still are. Also, there are many scenes that I feel fly by because they are given little context and some panels that may be throwaways because the characters depicted within are not really introduced or explained. Take for instance, this one from MJ's appearance on Saturday Night Live. Would anyone who did not already know what this was get it?
Still, I think that overall this is a fun book that fans of basketball and Michael Jordan in particular would enjoy. It is the creation of Wilfred Santiago, a graphic artist currently living in Chicago. He is known in graphic novel circles for his excellent biography 21 - The Story of Roberto Clemente. It seems to me that he excels at telling stories about the athletes who have figured large in his life. He speaks more about his work on the MJ biography in this interview.

Most of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive, though some offer reservations. Michael Bettendorf summed up his review, "Santiago’s drawings and colors bring a unique style into the comics medium and offers great snapshots into the life of Michael Jordan, but if you’re expecting a full-fledged biography, you’ll be disappointed." Publishers Weekly commented positively about "a strong, tightly-written narrative that often deftly illustrates social issues of the time." Shea Hennum had much praise about the book, especially because "Wilfred Santiago does a fantastic job of getting me to buy into a subject I have no real interest in."

Michael Jordan: Bull on Parade was published by Fantagraphics, and they have a preview and more information about the book available here. There are a few "bleeped" swear words and some mature situations with infidelity,  but I do not think there is anything that a reader in middle school or above could not handle.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Descender Volume One: Tin Stars

Tin Stars is the first volume of the ongoing Descender series. It compiles the first six issues, telling the tale of a universe where robots have destroyed a sizable portion of the population on nine worlds. The resulting backlash resulted in robots being hunted and destroyed. Ten years after the initial massacre, Tim-21, a small robot designed to be a child's companion reactivates. He finds himself in a strange and lonely place, and he tries to get his bearings.

I don't want to spoil much, because I think that this series is well paced with revelations and surprises, but Tim-21 is wanted by a number of interested parties, because his is a unique robot model. Also, his codex is somehow related to that of the "Harvesters" that wrought the massive destruction. I know that this series is similar to other works, and it seems to wear influences, to the manga series Astro Boy and Pluto, the TV series Battlestar Galactica, and the film Prometheus, on its sleeve, but I still think the story feels fun and fresh. Much of that freshness has to do with the artwork, which you can see is wonderfully atmospheric in its painterly qualities. I also feel that the character work is interesting, and the motley crew that assembles is amusing for its dynamics.

Descender is a collaboration between writer Jeff Lemire and artist Dustin Nguyen. The multiple-award winning Lemire is known for his spare and beautiful Essex County Trilogy. He is a prolific comics maker who has worked for the big 2 comics companies, doing superhero work on titles like Animal Man and Extraordinary X-Men, as well as also creating original works like The Underwater Welder, Plutona, and Trillium. Nguyen has been drawing mostly for DC Comics for the past decade, being one of the main artists on various Batman books. Both creators speak about their work on the Descender series in this interview.

The reviews of I have read about this series are positive, though some are somewhat measured. In a starred review, Published Weekly praised Nguyen's "marvelous" artwork while also praising Lemire as he "smoothly doles out information while amping up the tension, and the innocent, friendly character of TIM-21 creates real heart in the midst of extreme violence." Emily King praised the artwork as well, but added that "If you don’t know much about Mass Effect, than Descender will seem pretty fresh in terms of the core pillars of its story and setting" (Disclaimer: Until I just googled it, I knew nothing about Mass Effect). Henry Dykstal called it "an excellent start to an epic."

Descender Volume One was published by Image Comics. They have more information and links to previews here.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The New Deal

I have heard some talk about how 2015 has been a down year for graphic novels in terms of quality, but for the life of me I can't see it. Perhaps I have not read one transcendent book so far, but there have been many well crafted ones. The Sculptor was technically great and had an incredible ending sequence; Tim Ginger was very mature and intriguing; Omaha Beach on D-Day was an excellent use of multimedia, and Russian Olive to Red King was a very mature and affecting book. And I have not even mentioned some of the most fun books I have ever read, like Nimona or Fantasy Sports No. 1. All of this is prologue to me talking about The New Deal, which I think is a gorgeously rendered graphic novel, a period piece that might not be the most substantive thing I have ever read. But it features fantastic artwork while being a fun, breezy read, a throw-back to old school comedy films.

The story here is set in 1930's New York City at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The main players are Frank, the bellhop who is a bad liar with a poker problem that has put him in debt; Theresa, the African-American maid who moonlights as an actress in Orson Welles' production of Othello, and Nina, an eccentric socialite who has just checked in.
Frank is tempted to pilfer some of the guests more expensive items to dig himself out of his hole, and Nina is a busy-body who inserts herself into Theresa's and Frank's business. Further complicating matters, there is a racist guest who casts suspicion on Theresa when some of her items goes missing. Also, it turns out that there is a thief in the hotel who may be pinning their work on Frank. So, to sum up with out spoiling things, there are a lot of instances of mistaken identity, snappy wordplay, interesting social situations, and sophisticated folks in snazzy clothes acting cool. All of this adds up to an enjoyable romp, replete with crisp, expressive, and clean artwork.
Even though I enjoyed the story, I feel the art is the best part of this book, as was also my experience with the other works by Eisner Award winning artist Jonathan Case I have read, The Green River Killer and Dear Creature. He is an illustrator and member of the Periscope Studio based in Portland, Oregon, and he has also been working on the Batman '66 comic book series for DC. He speaks more extensively about his work on The New Deal in this interview. He also expounds about his artistic process in this profile.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. Henry Chamberlain called it Case's "best work yet" and "a thoroughly entertaining and remarkable work." Itho called it "an instant classic" and added that it is "masterfully done, and deceptively simple." Jason Wilkins called the artwork "stunning" and stated that this graphic novel is "one of the most visually pleasing books of the year."

The New Deal was published by Dark Horse, and they provide a preview and more information here.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Russian Olive to Red King

The last book I read by these creators, Moving Pictures, was a very mature and serious look at art, life, and the lengths that people will go to preserve both. Russian Olive to Red King takes on a different set of themes, those of love and loss, but it does so in a similarly complex and nuanced manner. This is not really a book for younger readers, not because it is full of sex or violence but because it tackles legitimately mature themes about major life events.

The story follows a couple, Olive and Red. Olive leaves for a business trip to a remote spot in the Russian wilderness when there is an accident. From there, we see how she tries to deal with it as a survival tale. But we simultaneously see how Red is dealing with it at home. As he struggles to get out of bed, do any work, or even walk their dog Pasha, dribs and drabs about him and their life start to emerge and give a larger picture of their relationship.
In an interesting twist, there are also some major indications that at least one of the main storylines is not as it seems. It is that conundrum that really sells the book for me, making for excellent drama and also commentary about the power of will and hope. I do not want to spoil things, so I won't get much more into the plot but will say that the final chapter is an emotional roller coaster ride that is revelatory in multiple senses of the word. Not only is it an essay about life and eventually hope, but it sheds a new light on the entire enterprise.

I was especially taken with the artwork in this book, and how it shifts between minimalist panels and more detailed splash pages. It contains a great range of emotion as well some beautiful wilderness vistas as the story shifts back and forth between locales. This deft combination of images helps to drive the story and create a strong atmosphere, a feature that comes to the foreground even when the time comes in the final chapter when words dominate its pages.

ROtRK is a beautiful and heart-breaking book that is one of the best I have read all year. It is the latest creation of Kathryn and Stuart Immonen, a wife and husband who have worked on many comics over the years. Kathryn has also written multiple series for Marvel Comics, most notably Patsy Walker: Hellcat and Journey into Mystery. The Joe Shuster Award winning Stuart has drawn multiple series for both major comics companies and is the artist for the latest batch of Star Wars comic books. The Immonens speak more about their collaboration on ROtRK in this interview. and also this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been full of praise. Jason Wilkins extolled its virtues, "Evocative and enthralling, this is easily one of the best, most accomplished books I’ve read this or any year." Seth T. Hahne had some great points about its  experimental storytelling, and he expected the book to be "divisive" but still admitted that it "makes for a peach book club discussion." Johanna Draper Carlson wrote, "It’s beautifully illustrated, which makes the harsh story all the more powerful, particularly with the contrast with the warm, often orange coloring." Caitlin Rosberg called it "an excellent read."

Russian Olive to Red King was published by Adhouse Books, and they provided a preview and much more here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Black Jack, Volume 1

Black Jack is one of the most popular manga ever published, a series that even had social repercussions in Japan where it first appeared. It was written and drawn by Osamu Tezuka, the "God of Manga," a huge figure in Japan who was sort of Stan Lee and Walt Disney combined, leaving an indelible legacy of comics and cartoons. Much of his work was for children, characterized by his most known creations Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. Black Jack is decidedly different, a work more for adults.

This series follows the exploits of a scarred, mysterious doctor-for-hire. He is not licensed, but he is highly skilled and considered the best surgeon in the world, the person who you would turn to as a last and best resort. He will take any job, but his asking price is high, and he does attract a great number of shady characters. Still, he is not as mercenary as he would seem, and after reading a few stories it becomes apparent that he is quite charitable and just. All the same, he comes across as a dark, ominous, and dramatic figure, cloaked in a cape and face partly obscured by his wild hair. Take for instance the first story in the volume, where a crime lord hires him to treat his good-for-nothing son who has been mangled beyond comprehension:
Paging Dr. Badass...
Although Tezuka widely influenced manga and propagated the "big eyes" style that is pretty cutesy and cartoonish, in Black Jack he drew in a more realistic manner. This style is especially apparent in the surgery scenes, which I guess makes a lot of sense as Tezuka actually trained to be a doctor before he began working on comics. Still, there are a great number of science fiction or fantasy elements, such as his surgery on a woman whose conjoined twin has both awareness and great mental abilities to deter those who would separate her from her sister:
Black Jack not only saves the little sister, he builds for her a body. This woman, Pinoko, becomes his assistant and lives with him. She looks like a small, baby doll girl, and he treats her as such, but she calls herself his wife and is very jealous of his interactions with women. This strange characterization is somewhat jarring but emblematic of the powerful, memorable personalities that abound in this book. There is no real over-arching storyline, and each chapter is self-contained. A reader can just jump in and read any of these suspenseful and moralistic tales of life and death.

All of the reviews I have read have praised this classic manga. Heather Bretschneider wrote, "While the medical scenarios it presents may not always be accurate, they always succeed in creating a thoroughly enjoyable read from start to finish." Elliot Page commented that "despite its (admittedly few) flaws, I would not hesitate to recommend Black Jack to almost anyone."
Despite its (admittedly few) flaws, I would not hesitate to recommend Black Jack to almost anyone. - See more at:

Black Jack, Volume 1 was published in the US by Vertical, Inc., and they have 17 books that cover the entire series.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Harvey Pekar's Cleveland

Harvey Pekar was a pioneering colossus of autobiographical comics, and this was among his last books, a graphic history about the place that shaped him and his place in it. As a graphic novel, Harvey Pekar's Cleveland is not so much a novel as it is an epic tone poem that puts forth the personality of a city and a man. This is a pretty tough task to pull off, though I think that it does so with elan and economy.

I found this book very satisfying in terms of its methodical, informative text and illustrations. I sure learned a lot about Cleveland  in terms of its history, politicians, professional sports teams, notable figures, and architecture. Just check out the passage below. What can be seen as mundane or boring is elevated through the art to being more a celebration and elegy.
Elegies are about the dead, and although Cleveland is a hard luck sort of town with an inferiority complex, there seems to be a ray of hope for it here. Or maybe that is the personality projected on it by one of its more famous denizens, Pekar. He inserts his own story into that of the city, mingling his views of the its social and economic history with his own. What could have been a cold, academic look at an urban place then becomes an exploration of a personal relationship, in terms of economics, ethnicity, and race relations. And a place marked by failures occasionally has the opportunity to surprise and shine, like the 1948 Indians. Or as in the excerpt that follows, in enjoyng a little bit of heaven in the form of a chocolate malt:
The specific references and beats that this graphic novel hits give it a lot of heart and fodder for thought. Part of the reason for its success is the tone and tenor of the author, but much of it also lies at the feet of the artist Joseph Remnant. His artwork reminds me of Little Orphan Annie's Harold Gray crossed with the etchings of Albrecht Dürer. The artwork is realistic to a point, with a few cartoonish exaggerations, but the cross hatching and shadows cast the illustrations as little pieces of history or pageantry. I love how it makes some really ordinary scenes seem monumental or lends a sense of drama with a strategically rendered glance or furrowed brow.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been full of praise. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and called it "a must-have volume." Kim Deitch referred to it as "a fabulous kaleidoscope of people, places and things, but never loses sight of its primary objective: to tell about and make a case for that much maligned city, Cleveland, Ohio."

Harvey Pekar's Cleveland was published by Top Shelf, and they have a preview and more information available here.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb

Trinity is just what the title says, a graphic history of the first atomic bomb. This account details the Manhattan Project, the top secret project where the US developed the nuclear weapons that would end World War II. It does so in two ways. One, by introducing the major players behind the project, including the military leaders who organized it and the scientists whose work were instrumental in developing the weapon.
Two, it also does well in explaining just the scientific concepts that underpinned the eventual development of the bomb, by looking at elementary chemistry and physics. Thus, it is much a book about science as it is about history.
As you can see from the excerpts, the narrative is relatively straight forward and the art is very documentary, but they also have some personality and a sense of intrigue that keeps things from becoming dry. This book is an impressive debut graphic novel by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm. He has since gone on to create a second called Battle Lines, which is another graphic history about the US Civil War. He talks about his work on Trinity in this interview and also speaks about his process in this video.

Most of the reviews I have seen about this book have been very positive. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review and summed up that it "succeeds as both a graphic primer and a philosophical meditation." Michelle Legro called it "a fascinating visual reimagining of a story that is at once tremendously culturally significant and thrillingly human." John Dupuis called it "a real gem" and "a wonderful example of the graphic novel as social history of science." Publishers Weekly was much less taken with the book and criticized a few of its features.

Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb was published by Hill and Wang, and they provided a preview and more information here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Motorcycle Samurai Volume One: A Fiery Demise

The Motorcycle Samurai is a really fun and very cool comic. It originally was published as a guided view native comic, which is a digital format where the reader clicks through panels in a way that makes word balloons and images move. So the story progresses more like a cartoon, in a way, though it still has the unique qualities of being a comic. This tale is one of the best I have seen, and it uses the format to great advantage.
The story is a familiar one to fans of spaghetti westerns, only set in a post-apocalyptic land. It's about a bounty hunter, a mysterious prisoner, a crooked town boss, a washed-up former soldier who's sheriff, hired guns, showdowns in the street, and double crosses galore. But it is very artfully told, with great action flourishes and character designs. The main character is the titular motorcycle samurai, The White Bolt, who never once takes off her helmet, even when she is whupping up on her foes.
Of course, she has a plan to deal with the crazy cast of adversaries she encounters. And she has a hidden agenda of her own, which drives the plot and makes for good suspense for what will come next. And like I said, I was enchanted with the digital version and I think interested readers should seek it out, but the printed version was also very compelling and suited the story just fine.

All of these post-apocalyptic antics are the product of Chris Sheridan. His art style is a bit cartoonish and reminiscent of Jeff Lemire's by way of Chuck Jones and John Kricfalusi. With his background in design and animation, he brings much to the table in terms of telling an interesting and intriguing story that is visually striking. He is currently working on the series Spacebat for Thrillbent Comics, and he speaks more about his work on The Motorcycle Samurai and its transition to print in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Regan Lorie preferred the digital version but concluded, "Motorcycle Samurai in print form is still successful in conveying the gritty, more-fun- than-Mad-Max spirit of its previous incarnation." James Anders II called it "top notch work that deserves praise." Andy Shaw wrote that the book "has a chaotic beauty to it" and "thoroughly recommended" it.

The Motorcycle Samurai, Volume One: A Fiery Demise was published by Top Shelf, and they provide a preview and much more here

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Steve Jobs: Insanely Great

Steve Jobs: Insanely Great is a pretty celebratory title for a book, and from you see in the first image of the book, the whole enterprise is a love letter to the man:

It hits all the highlights from his life, a true biography that takes him from his being born and adopted to his enterprising childhood and adolescence when his tinkering and playing around with gadgets and machines was encouraged.
Of course, he goes on to many great things, including making personal computers attractive and available for the average person, co-founding one of the world's largest companies, Apple, as well as being instrumental in the success of Pixar, one of today's most lucrative and lauded animation studios. Those alone would make for an excellent resume for anyone, but he also had a huge hand in creating devices that have changed the way we interact with the world, namely the iPod, iPad, iPhone, and iTunes.

The book also describes some of his not so positive attributes, namely his extreme perfectionism and blunt talk that often alienated those around him, but it mainly focuses on the good he did. Those looking for a more critical or nuanced biography should probably look elsewhere. Still, I think it is a great elementary introduction to the man and his works, and it has a few other features that recommend it. The artwork is appealing, breezy, and whimsical. There are sequences that demarcate decades and show what devices were invented and commonly used the, which I think is a very helpful thing for younger readers to see. And the entire narrative is cleanly told.

This book is the creation of Jessie Hartland, an accomplished commercial artist and children's book illustrator. Her prior books include nonfiction about dinosaurs, meteorites, and a biography of Julia Child. She speaks much more about her work on the Jobs' biography here.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Andrew Hayward wrote, "The book is nuanced without being sprawling; comprehensive but not exhaustive—or exhausting, for that matter." J. Caleb Mozzocco summed up, "I don’t know I’d go so far as to call it insanely great, but it’s pretty great, and a perfect place for anyone interested in Jobs, regardless of their age or sophistication, to start learning about the pivotal figure." Kirkus Reviews was in agreement, concluding, "Nothing new or revelatory here, but the book can serve as a good introduction to Jobs and will impress with its concision those who already know a lot about him."

Steve Jobs: Insanely Great was published by Schwartz & Wade, and they have a preview and more information about the book here.

Friday, October 30, 2015


Ted Rall has been writing and drawing political comics and journalism for decades now. He has written critically about all stripes of politicians and leaders, including George W. Bush (Generallisimo El Busho) and Barak Obama (The Book of Obama). He has been an imbedded journalist in Afghanistan and a political cartoonist for a number of high profile publications, including the Los Angeles Times (who seem to have unjustly fired him). Rall's work can be something of an acquired taste, and he is infamous for his art style, which may generously be called primitive or raw but some find ugly or even incompetent. He also has a reputation for being a contrarian and gets into feuds (most famously a legal one with Danny Hellman). Whatever one feels about him politically or personally, I feel his work is an important counterpoint to much of the political rhetoric of our day.

With Snowden, I feel he has crafted a compelling book well worthy of attention. This biography of Edward Snowden begins with his childhood and moves through his childhood as a boy scout to his adulthood when he worked as a computer professional before working for the CIA and the NSA. Seeing what he felt was a corrupt system of surveillance and erosion of personal freedoms, he copied confidential files and leaked them to media sources.
He became persona non grata in the United States and has since sought asylum in multiple places, most recently Russia. Very recently, the European Union voted not to extradite him to the US, so his status might finally change. Not only does this book chronicle his deeds in heroic fashion, it also tries to situate them in the current context. Rall likens what is happening in terms of government to a devolution of society into the dystopian police state of 1984.
Clearly, this is a provocative book that wears its politics on its sleeve, and it pulls no punches. Rall provides plenty of references and footnotes to back up his thoughts and observations throughout the book. I feel it is a book that could be used with high school government or social studies classes for sure, and it will also be of interest to anyone who lives in the US, if even to get a view about some very serious matters that may be obscured by biased news coverage. It seems to me that a big part of this book is to flesh out Snowden's personality in contrast to the portrait currently painted in the US media. Rall explains more about why he chose to write Snowden in this article.

Most of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Jordan Minor called it "an entertaining, exhaustive, and approachable look at an incredibly important and relevant topic." Henry Chamberlain wrote that Rall lends a sense of warmth to Snowden, which makes this book "a most compelling read." James Helmsworth was more critical of the book's claims that we are living in a 1984 world but still concluded that it was "a fitting and functional portrait."

Snowden was published by Seven Stories Press, who have more information about it here.

Thank you for the review copy!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sequel Sunday!

Today, I am going to check in with the latest entries in a couple of promising series to see how they are progressing and if they are living up to the great expectations I had reading the first volumes. I think both series feature examples of exceptional world-building and strong character work.
The Chase is the third book in the Last Man series (my first two reviews are here), what has so far been a tale set in a small fictional town, focusing on a fighting tournament. All of those provincial matters from the Valley of the Kings get left way behind here. Mom Marianne has taken her son Adrian out of town to track down his former fighting partner, the scalawag Richard Aldana, who has skipped town with the trophy. Amazingly, she has a badass motorcycle, a map to strange lands, and hitherto unknown ability to summon powerful spells.

The emergence of Marianne's secrets is just one of the surprises this book holds. There are also a massive trek through a wasteland, a battle with corrupt policemen, a surprise rescue from some quite remarkable firemen, a visit to a crazed city, some duck and covering in a brothel, and a trial that is part professional wrestling, part kangaroo court. A lot of the reviews I have read compare it to Mad Max, and there definitely are similar insane energy and situations at play here. There is so much that goes on that it is sort of hard to believe this is the same series as before, but the action is frenetic and breathtaking. And I continue to be won over by the winning characters. They are so much fun to read about and see in action.
Don't mess with Mama, dude...
The artwork is as excellent and expressive as ever, a great mix of European and manga comics conventions. I have not been able to find many reviews of it as of yet, but the ones I have read have been positive. Matthew Garcia called it "engrossing, gripping, and a lot of fun." Comic Bastards called it "another really impressive addition to the Last Man series and a bright spot in the dull year that 2015 has been for comics."

A lot of the action in this book is set in a whorehouse and there are a few threats of sexual violence, so I wonder how kid-friendly this book is. But at the same time I can't help but think that the fast-paced action and broad humor cannot help but win readers over. I'd recommend it for older young adult readers.

Verdict: I am still hooked on reading what will happen for two reasons: 1) to see what awesome and insane venues this adventure will lead, and 2) to see what other surprising twists and turns lay out there for these endearing characters.

Battling Boy was one of my favorite books of 2013, and I was very impressed by the dark turn and  truly scary tone of its follow-up The Rise of Aurora West. Fall of the House of West very much continues in the same vein, and in this book we learn more about the plans and intentions of the monsters. And more importantly we learn the full story about the death of Rosetta West, Aurora's mother. There are a great many revelations in this book, and I have to say that the narrative is very well thought out and quite heartbreaking. It is also quite impressive how all three book's narratives fit together and compliment each other in suspenseful and satisfying manner.

I know that many people are down on the fact that Paul Pope is not drawing this book, but I have to say that I don't miss his artwork because David Rubin's artwork is simply stunning. It is simultaneously realistic, cartoonishly animated, and monstrously frightening. The layouts and storytelling are masterful. He really takes all of the nuances and affordances of sequential and uses them to his advantage here. Even in the smaller paperback format, his art pops and really sells the book.
In his hands, even a moth can be menacing...
All of the reviews I have read about this book have been strongly praising. Dustin Cabeal impressively called this series "the best superhero stories being told in comics to date. Nothing is even remotely close to being as good." Tobias Carroll concluded simply that it was "a terrific ride." Lindsey Morris summed it up as  "Recommended reading for any comics fan."

The monsters and family issues in this book are quite horrible and harrowing, so I don't think this book is quite for younger elementary school students, but I think it would be a great for grades 4 and up, especially if they can handle scary stories.

Verdict: I am very eager to see what the next follow-up in the Battling Boy series will be. It has been a fantastic series full of action and a surprising amount of heart.

Both books were published by First Second. They provide previews and much more information for The Chase here and for Fall of the House of West here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Omaha Beach on D-Day

This book is a unique one, an auspicious beginning of a series of books that are part graphic novel, part photo-essays, and part historical commentary about great moments of World War II. Omaha Beach on D-Day focuses on the life and work of Robert Capa, whose internationally famous photos of the June 6, 1944 battle captured the horror and brutality of war in an intimate way. Amazingly, he lost many of those photos due to wear and tear in the ocean as well as a chemical accident during development, but the ones that survived made quite an impact. Here, we see how he prepared for that day when he bravely rode in with the troops on a seafaring transport.
Capa's photos were the inspiration for the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, and the war sequences in this book are equally harrowing. The rest of the tale depicted here is fascinating, though, and I was very taken with its attention to detail and historicity. Following the comics story is a gallery of his WWII pictures, and following those were a series of articles about Capa's life, career, artistry, and technical take on photography. I found myself fascinated by the entire package, and I love how the whole work coalesced into a pretty complete reading experience.

Writers Jean-David Morvan and Séverine Tréfouel collaborated with artist Dominique Bertail to create the comics in this book. Morvan is an award winning writer for his work on youth comics, and he and Tréfouel  also write a comic series called Ocelot. Bertail is a prolific illustrator who has been making comics for two decades.

I was not able to find many reviews for this book, but the ones I read were glowing. The reviewer at Coverless Review simply stated that "Writer, Jean-David Morvan and artist Séverine Tréfouel do an amazing job with this book." Kelly Fineman summed up, "This book, through its combined story-telling methodologies, makes these images accessible today in a powerful and gripping way." And I agree with Nick Smith who wrote, "This book will appeal to fans of serious graphic non-fiction, but also to World War II buffs and students of photography."

Omaha Beach on D-Day was published by First Second in collaboration with Magnum Photos, and they have a preview and much more available here.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copy!

Thursday, October 15, 2015


Smoke is a small but powerful book. It tells the tale of two small boys who are migrant workers in the tobacco industry.It is troubling to see them relegated to their circumstances, forced to work long, hard hours and not treated as children.
They also get exposed to the raw, wet tobacco plants, which has some adverse effects on their health. I don't want to spoil too much, but this situation is radically changed when they are visited by Xolotl, an Aztec god of fire, lightning, and the underworld. This mystical, mythical god looks after the boys and guards them through some tough situations.
For a small, seemingly simple-looking book, it packs a pretty big narrative punch. At first blush, I was perplexed by the subject matter. It seems like an expose of child labor horrors, but the story resolves in such a way that all is still well. I guess, what I take away from the beautifully rendered drawings and strong character work is that life is full of suffering and injustice but there is some hope that there are guardians looking out for us still. I am not sure if that is trite or reassuring, but I am glad to have to wrestle with those ideas after reading this book. It shows just how strong this tale is, packed with import and resonating like a modern parable or fable.

Author/artist Gregory Benton has been making comics since the early 1990s for a diverse bunch of publishers including Nickelodeon, Vertigo, Entertainment Weekly, Disney, Tower Records, DC Comics, and World War 3 Illustrated. I love his gorgeously colored and detailed paintings, and his prior graphic novel B+F was one of my best of 2014 books. He elaborates on his inspirations and work on Smoke in this interview.

I very much enjoyed reading this book, and I found it ever better to re-visit and re-read. I have not been able to locate many reviews of it, but the ones I have found have been very positive. The Pop Mythologist wrote that it "works as both modern myth and social critique." Adam McGovern gushed that it was "among the best things I’ve read this decade."

Smoke was published by HANG DAI Editions.