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.