Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Science Comics

First Second is celebrating their tenth anniversary with a bang, introducing a new series called Science Comics. Each volume has a different focus, and they have some top notch creators lined up for these titles. The first two just came out, and they contain lots of information, vocabulary, and features that make them ready for classroom use. Also, they take different approaches to their storytelling and I found them both great in different ways.
The first one I read was Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean by Maris Wicks. I had read and enjoyed her prior book Human Body Theater as well as her collaboration with Jim Ottaviani Primates, and they were both excellent. This one focuses on marine biology, obviously, and I was impressed by two things off the bat: the bright, expressive, info-rich artwork and the gentle narration provided by a bespectacled bony fish.
As you can see the artwork is gorgeous and engaging, and I really enjoyed the balance of information and vocabulary text and images with playful imagery and asides that add a dash of humor to the proceedings. Wicks is an excellent artist and storyteller, and her chops are on display throughout.

As you can see this book contains lots of facts about coral reefs, but it also gets into other territory like ecology, climate change, and environmental factors that affect marine life. I think it would have been impressive to simply detail as much as this book has about underwater plants and animals, but it goes the extra mile to place all of these organisms in a larger context. I am glad to see how it engaged in serious issues that involve the future of planet Earth in thoughtful and documented ways. Overall, it is quite exceptional how the narrative, exposition, and artwork range back and forth from simple to complex as the author entertains and explains throughout the book.

The reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. Johanna Draper Carlson concluded, "I had no idea there was so much to know about coral reefs. While obviously targeted at the educational market, this comic is a good read for all ages." Sarah Stevenson wrote that "I personally learned a lot, was reminded of knowledge I hadn't thought about in a while, and enjoyed myself in the process." Kevin wrote, "Unlike some content-area graphic novels out there in the world (and I have read more than my share) that seem thrown together to make a buck off the graphic novel movement, Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean seems more like an act of love by someone who is deeply immersed in the ocean." Let's hope Maris Wicks has lots of oxygen with her, if that is the case (Smile).
There is a part of me that thinks that books about dinosaurs are pretty easy to sell. Just pack them full of pictures of the wide array of these reptiles and the rest takes care of itself. I certainly read my share of such books when I was young, and I loved them. Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers is smart in that it engages in such displays of dino-diversity, but it goes far beyond simply showing beautiful pictures of these prehistoric creatures. What really impressed me is how much if focused on the science and archaeology of dinosaur discovery, going in historical fashion over how these and other creatures were discovered, theorized, and studied over the past centuries.
Like the coral reefs book, this one also went into a much broader context of science, and in different areas summing up the state of science during different time periods. I was especially taken with this feature as it shows readers how science and theories change and evolve over time. The book really confronts many potential controversies and confusions head on, but it also dramatizes the constantly revised view about dinosaurs as scientists debate how they lived, ate, and whether or not they were warm-blooded or had feathers.

I think that it is difficult for a book like this to make an impression about a well-covered topic like dinosaurs, but it manages to do just that with extensive research and an excellent synthesis of multiple fields and studies. It will change how you look at birds, or at least I know it has for me. Those cute feathered things might just be tiny decedents of velociraptors. And the book also puts a human face on those who have studied these "terrible lizards." That parade of strong personalities is as engaging as all the facts and beautiful pictures.
The collaboration here between MK Reed and Joe Flood is seamless and rich. I very much enjoyed their prior book, The Cute Girl Network, and I am happy to say that they are maybe more adept at nonfiction as they are at fiction. There is certainly a lot of ground covered in this book, and there was much I found new, exciting, and interesting.

The reviews about this book were more mixed, though I have to say that I felt I enjoyed it just a tad bit more than the corals reefs volume. Johanna Draper Carlson felt that it tried to tackle too much and wrote, "There’s a lot more history, a lot less animal study than one might think here. And this book needs its own annotation guide!" The folks at The Comics Alternative called it "a great non-fiction graphic novel that entertains and instructs. It can also be enjoyed by a wide range of ages, giving younger readers a great, fun look at dinosaurs, and providing older readers with the history of dinosaur research and discovery."

Both volumes of Science Comics were published by First Second and you can find previews and much more here (for Coral Reefs) and here (for Dinosaurs). I feel these are both excellent books and an auspicious start to this series. I am eager to see the future volumes, which include books on bats and volcanoes.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copies!

Friday, March 25, 2016


Beverly is a collection of short stories set in the recent past (the 1990s, I would guess) in a generic Midwestern suburb. Most of the stories come from the perspective of bored, somewhat surly, and capricious teens who want to drink, party, and have sex to allay their condition. The first story focuses on some workers stuck in a dull, thankless job that one guy takes way too seriously. I thought it was an interesting take on adolescent relationships, and I have to say it also felt like a time machine for me, taking me back to an uncomfortable and strangely familiar place.
The second tale, "The Saddest Story Ever Told," is about a family taking part in a focus group activity for a new television show. As you can see below, the whole enterprise is pretty mundane and the resulting disappointment is as muted as the color scheme of the entire book.
The rest of the stories in this book (about an uncomfortable family vacation, an alleged kidnapping, an encounter at a party between two estranged friends, and a creepy massage session) share in these themes of desperation, loss, awkward relationships, repressed sexuality, and submerged violence. They are also connected by some common characters, so there is a weird sense of continuity in play as well. Probably the best of these for me is the third tale, "The Lil' King," about that vacation. The disconnect between the parents and their children is to be expected, but the violence in the mute young son's daydreams is terrifying. Overall, I found the stories spare and compelling, and with details and events parceled out to maximize suspense and revelation. These are some finely crafted comics.

This book's creator Nick Drnaso has been nominated for multiple Ignatz Awards. He has published stories in various anthologies and works as a cartoonist and illustrator in Chicago. His artwork is very stylized and geometric, resembling a cross between Dan Clowes and Chris Ware, which is good company. He speaks more extensively about his work on this debut book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book indicate that the art and stories are artful but maybe appreciated by specific tastes. Publishers Weekly wrote, "The streets, houses, and people that populate the linked pieces of Drnaso’s blandly terrifying debut collection all share a soul-deadening, right-angled sameness that turns into its own kind of nightmare." Hillary Brown wrote that the comics work is deft but the stories are depressing perhaps to the point of being off-putting: "Even if all of this is true (it might be), the daily experience of living is rarely so unleavened by joy, and reading page after page of it makes one want to go turn on a Busby Berkeley musical to compensate." Dan Kois called it" uncomfortable, fascinating."

Beverly was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they have preview images and more here. This should be apparent by now, but this is a book for mature readers and not meant for children.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Comics Squad: Lunch!

This second volume of Comics Squad features some pretty heavy hitters in its line-up. Most of the stories within are humorous, but a few are actually pretty serious. In all, I liked the range of stories and art styles, and I felt this book would be a great introduction to comics for many young readers. Or, because it features so many established creators and characters, it would be a great read for more ardent comics fans as well.

I felt that the standout story was by Cece Bell, about a young girl who is very picky about her meals and particular about her lunch routine. I would like to say that she learns to branch out from her ways, but instead I was treated to one of the weirdest manifestations of nut allergies I have seen.
Other standout stories come from the Holm siblings who gave us another fun and funny Babymouse tale.
I also really enjoyed Jason Shiga's take on a choose-your-own-adventure story that reads like a kid's version of Meanwhile. Though I have to admit in the end I kind of had to cheat on the premise, because I could not get the darn tubes to match up with the stories (I blame operator error). And it is worth noting that this story had some funny bits but not a happy ending.
Humor is also mostly absent from the short Hazardous Tales entry from Nathan Hale, but I still appreciated his version of a peculiar World War II naval battle. He makes great nonfiction, and it is good to see such work rounding out this collection.
Among the other tales here include Jeffrey Brown's "Cave Soup" featuring Lucy & Andy Neanderthal, which acts as an introduction to a forthcoming book (series?) and a look at Lunch Lady when she was just a kid. The only real clunker in the bunch was the Peanuts piece, which made me a bit sad. There are so many good Schulz stories, but this one was a studio-created one that I found insipid. More an 8-page commercial for Snoopy than a story really.

Almost every review I have read about it had great things to say about this book. Andy and Gwen commented that "The eight stories collected in the anthology are relatively short, making them ideal for reluctant readers or for readers who are new to comics." Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "One rotten apple aside, a second helping of tasty treats." The Mayor of Bookopolis called it "the ultimate 'sampler platter' of graphic novels."

Comics Squad: Lunch! was published by Random House, and they have some more information about it here.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Glorkian Warrior and the Mustache of Destiny

I read the first book in this trilogy, and I did not really get or like it. I think in general, James Kochalka's work is hit or miss for me. There are a few, like Monkey Vs. Robot, the first two Johnny Boo books, and Superf*ckers that I really enjoyed. I respected and mostly appreciated his American Elf work, too. And there are some that I pretty much despise, like the later volumes of Johnny Boo I have read. Still, the man was named cartoonist laureate of Vermont, and he is amazingly prolific. So I gave this volume a shot to see what I thought.

What I can see holds from the first volume is that the Glorkian Warrior is still utterly clueless and has the attention span of a gnat. And like the previous volume, he is balanced by an intelligent and resourceful backpack who is the (pretty much unheeded) voice of reason.
Exhibit A

In this book, the silliness gets ratcheted up a notch or two. There is a cup of coffee named Wendy, a Glorkian SuperGrandma, a space god named Quackaboodle, and a bunch of alien children who want to join in on GW's adventures. Despite myself, I found some of these antics to be pretty zany and funny. The satirical way the book skewers adults' frequent sense of self-importance is admirable. And the ending with its sudden appearance of mustaches (I'd say it's a spoiler, but c'mon read the title of the book!) tickled my fancy especially. This book is not my favorite ever, but it has its positive qualities. I might not have appreciated all of the jokes, situations, or characters, but I have to say it is an enjoyable piece of juvenile dada. I am sure there will be a large array of young readers who dig the playful, stream-of-consciousness logic of this universe.

The reviews I have read about this book have been largely positive. Rosemary Kiladitis wrote that this volume is like the entire series: "It’s fun, it’s perfect for young kids, and a great introduction to comics and sequential storytelling." Kirkus Reviews wrote, "Kochalka’s oddly wonderful—and very offbeat—bubble-gum–psychedelic, madcap adventures may not be for everyone, but they certainly are creatively unparalleled." Erik Cheski praised the book for its sense of play and bold, silly, colorful characters.

The Glorkian Warrior and the Mustache of Destiny was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more here.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copy!
Gonk clearly went to the Bizarro School for Grammar

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Delilah Dirk and the King's Shilling

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant did an excellent job setting a stage and an action-packed set of events in motion, and its sequel Delilah Dirk and the King's Shilling goes an extra mile and starts filling us in on the main character's backstory. The story starts out well enough, with Delilah and her traveling companion Selim involved with a typical caper-gone-awry. You can see that the attention to artistic detail and storytelling is still very strong:
Following this romp, our two main characters end up running afoul of British troops. I am not going to spoil things, but I will say that this encounter sets things in motion so that Delilah and Selim have to travel to England, where we get to meet Delilah's family, including her mother.
To say that Delilah has not been forthcoming with her is an understatement, but to complicate matters more she has also been reluctant to share certain truths with Selim. So, we end up with much character drama to go along with a spy plot. Plus, while in England we get to look at how Delilah operates within society, which puts a huge crimp in her swashbuckling ways. Still, there is a sense of excitement in all the mannerly dialogue, gossipy intrigue, and reconnoitering in various manors. If nothing else, it's fun to see her and Selim as they squirm in uncomfortable situations. I was easily caught up in the proceedings and found this a fun book. I think that the characters get more fleshed out by the conclusion, and I was pleased to see that they were much more complex and well defined than the stock types they could have been.

The book's creator Tony Cliff is an artist, animator, and illustrator who shares much of his works in progress on his blog. His artwork features well defined characters full of emotional and kinetic energy. He can show a slow burn just as well as he does adventurers swinging across ship masts or plunging from burning bridges. Cliff has done much commercial work and has been nominated for Eisner, Shuster, and Harvey Awards for his comics work. He speaks pretty extensively about this book and his characters' development in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been full of acclaim. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and offered this praise: "Cliff ups his game visually with a more nuanced and naturalistic style, and he doesn't miss a beat story-wise, keeping the swashbuckling front and center while adding new layers to his characters." Kirkus Reviews also gave it a starred review and echoed, "The character development adds welcome depth to an already absorbing adventure." Rachel Forbes called it "Another whirlwind adventure that builds upon Cliff’s unifying factor—true friendship" in yet another starred review.

Delilah Dirk and the King's Shilling was published by First Second and they have lots of information about it here. A portion of this book was serialized online and now acts as a sizable prologue/preview at the book's official page. The entire series also has a dedicated website with lots of great links here.

For DD fans, a third book in the series has just been announced.

Thank you for the preview copy, Gina!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Kaijumax: Season 1

I am a pretty big fan of Zander Cannon's comics. His work on the anthology Double Barrel that later got compiled independently as Heck is top notch, and his drawings for various science themed graphic novels, like T-Minus and The Stuff of Life, have only endeared me more to his works. So when I saw that the 2-time Eisner Award winner was working on a series about one of my favorite things, Kaiju (giant Japanese monsters like Godzilla and Gamera), I was extremely interested.

Kaijumax is a look at what happens in between those classic monster movies, when the creatures are imprisoned on a special island prison. This place is not pleasant, and many of the common tropes of prison stories are in play: corrupt guards, internal gangs, trade in illegal goods, inmate-on-inmate violence, lots of double crossings, and escape schemes. The main plot focuses on Electrogor, a monster who feels wrongfully accused and is desperate to attend to his two children who have been left parentless and adrift in the world. But there are multiple subplots that propel an energetic and suspenseful narrative.
Nothing good happens to that poor goat critter in this book.
What I really enjoyed most about the book was its attention to detail in creating a fully realized world. There are many subtle (and not so subtle) touches that make the settings and characters come alive. The monsters in the yard lift weights that are in the shape of buildings. They engage in recreational drug use, but with radioactive materials. The characters speak in a specialized slang,  make references to common movie tropes, and the guards are a bunch of Ultraman-type guardians. The end result is an interesting mix of hard-boiled action, clever science fiction, a touch of humor, and real drama.
The reviews I have read about it online have been positive. Matt Peterson wrote that "you will find yourself laughing, cringing, and quickly turning the pages for the next panel. You might even find yourself briskly wiping away a single tear." Publishers Weekly summed up, "Though the story suffers slightly from its reliance on established genre tropes, and it would benefit from further exploration of life beyond the prison, it still establishes a fresh take on monsters and prison drama."

Kaijumax: Season 1 was published by Oni Press. Here is a preview from Comic Book Resources. And I should note that I know that many children are into kaiju, but this book contains some disturbing situations that make it for mature readers only.

Also, for those who get into this series, there will be a Season 2 sometime in the future.