Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Black Dahlia

This book is based on the titular Black Dahlia murder that has captivated people's attentions for decades. Young actress Eizabeth Short's body was found in a neighborhood yard California in 1947, cut neatly in half, mutilated, and drained of its blood. Who committed this horrific crime and for what reason are both unsolved mysteries shrouded in time, and this well-researched book details what is known and many of the proposed explanations.
As you can see in the excerpt, this book is superbly crafted, with historical details, police reports, maps, and numerous other sources used to replicate the context of the murder and its investigation in intricate ways. And I have to say, even though the subject matter could easily become prurient or sensationalist, the narrative here is more documentary and the artwork not sterile but not overly graphic either. In sum, this book is a strong piece of nonfiction I could see being read by upper middle or high school students and adults. I have a good number of the murder books in this series, and this one stands among the best entries.

I am a huge fan of Rick Geary's work. He has been making comics for decades now, winning major awards for his efforts, and telling all kinds of historical tales in graphic novel formats (just check out these reviews and see what I have written about them over the years).

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Andrew A. Smith called it "another page-turning whodunnit from one of America’s finest and most unique writer/artists." Derek and Andy from the Comics Alternative agreed it was "one of the most enjoyable reads of the bunch." Judith Reveal seems pretty new to graphic novels and what they can do, and she praised the book in her review.

Black Dahlia was published by NBM, and they have a preview and more available here.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Rosalie Lightning

In my life exactly three graphic novels have made me cry, this being the third. Rosalie Lightning is about a couple dealing with the death of their almost-2-year-old-daughter, and as a father of a just-past-1-year-old there is certainly a lot of empathy I could have to this tale. But just saying that this book tells an emotionally charged story sells it far short. The subject matter is raw and very human, but how it is presented is what makes this book exceptional.
Its author, Tom Hart, is a long-time comics artist and also a teacher. He has drawn comics about Hutch Owen for decades now, and he also runs the Sequential Arts Workshop in Gainesville, Florida. He puts all of his experience and expertise in display in fine fashion throughout the book. He varies his style from a cartoony, big-fingered style to portray the past and a much more scratchy, dark style to convey his present. He borrows styles, excerpts, and quotations from classic works by EC Comics, Tezuka, and Miyazaki (among others) to create a common visual language and a set of symbols that appear throughout the book, striking very specific notes at opportune times. Not only is this a masterful comic, it is also a master class on how to use comics to their full effect.
All of the reviews of this book I have read have been glowing. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and called it "a masterpiece—and a luminous tribute to a brief, beautiful life." Kirkus Reviews summed up, "A bracing, deeply saddening journey into death and loss whose wryly affirmative resolution, “joy breaking through the storm clouds,” is nothing but hard won." Rob Clough wrote, "The book can be described as any number of things: a prayer, a diary, an extended ritual, the act of creation used as as a way to face tragedy, a howl of anger and despair, and an emphatic display of gratitude both to those who helped him and Leela and the art that helped comfort him."

Rosalie Lightning was published by St. Martin's Press, and they have a preview and more info about it here.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Nod Away

Nod Away is a complicated book, a cerebral science fiction story with strong characters, a well-defined universe, and lots of intriguing plot threads. There are two parallel narratives. The first focuses on Dr. Melody McCabe, a scientist newly arrived to the International Space Station Integrity to work on a project where a wormhole will be opened up.

In this future time, many people are connected to a new type of social network, nicknamed Streaming, via a surgically implanted patch. It is interesting to see how the world here is an extrapolation of ours, where media and technology have a huge impact on how people interact and are socialized. Dr. McCabe is an outlier of sorts, as she is biologically incompatible with the Streaming technology and so is not connected. Much of this book sheds insight into how she becomes acclimated to life in space, and it is an awkward and bumpy experience, to say the least.
The second storyline seems related to the first, though I am not clear on how yet. It follows a solitary figure traversing a barren, rocky landscape on some seemingly uninhabited planet.
The book ends on a huge turn of events that left me bewildered but also eager for more. At first, I did not know that this was the first book in a series, and I went back and poured over it to try to make sense of everything. I found it exciting to explore the intricacies of this book, and I have formulated a bunch of theories about how things might relate. But I will just have to hang tight to see where things go, because this book is the first of a proposed seven, and Cotter is at work at a Nod Away Volume 2. I am excited to where everything is going and how it will connect in the future.

Nod Away is the creation of Joshua W. Cotter, author of the prior series/graphic novel Skyscrapers of the Midwest. He also created Driven By Lemons, a book containing an interesting mix of comics, sketches, and prose. He spoke about his work on Nod Away in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about the book comment on its strong character work and attention to detail in both story and art. The fine folks at Comics Alternative wrote, "Part of the beauty of Nod Away us that it paints a narrative picture best observed from a broader context, while at the same time the fine detail of Cotter’s art compels us to investigate its many intricacies." Zach Hollwedel summed it up as "A lingering, at times dense, page-turner of a science-fiction achievement." John Seven commented that "with each unexpected moment, the actions of the characters, because he has given such care to them, remain true and consistent, becoming the anchor in the wild ride."

Nod Away was published by Fantagraphics, and they have a preview and more available here.

Nod Away features some sexual scenes, violence, and occasional profanity, and it is suggested for readers mature enough to handle those things.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

BIG NEWS! March Book 3 wins the National Book Award

In a huge first for graphic novels, March, Book 3 (published by Top Shelf) has won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. This book concludes the trilogy of the autobiographical account of Congressman John Lewis's life and involvement in the civil rights movement. I reviewed the first book in the series here.

This is a historic moment for comics and graphic novels. Congratulations to all involved!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Who Killed Professor X?

This book has nothing to do with the X-Men, but it is one of a rare breed: a graphic novel about mathematics that actually engages in substantive mathematical thinking. Who Killed Professor X? is a mystery where the titular professor is murdered and the investigation into his death involves a good number of suspects. All of the suspects are based on historical figures like Isaac Newton, René Descartes, Pierre de Fermat, Marie-Sophie Germain, Pheidias, and Blaise Pascal. And as the investigators meet each figure, they learn about their lives and theories, lending some insight into mathematical concepts and breakthroughs.
Adding to the intrigue, each suspect gave their statement to the police in the form of a mathematics puzzle or equation, so the trick becomes to solve that puzzle to determine whether or not they could have been close enough to murder the good professor and escape unnoticed.
The author states that this book can work for those with some math knowledge and others who have none, and I have to agree. The solutions are in the back of the book, much like in a typical math textbook, as are pictures of the actual historical figures. As the book progressed, the puzzles got more difficult and I could not solve all of them on my own, so I appreciated reading the solutions.  Although reading them was helpful and informative, I also got a lot out of the historical narratives where I learned a bunch about each person. Those narrative made the characters and their motives intriguing, so instead of this set-up seeming gimmicky, I found myself interested in solving the puzzle in each chapter. I also thought it was very clever how each person's biography played into their potential motives for murdering Professor X.

This book was written by author/educator Thodoris Andriopoulos and drawn by Thanasis Gkiokas. It was originally published in Greek, and it was based on an educational video game. Andriopoulos speaks more about his work on this book in this interview.

Almost all of the reviews I have read about this book have come from mathematics publications, and they have been pretty positive. Peter Ruane declared it "a delightfully presented heart-warming tale." Paul Dabraski opined that it was not the most polished book he's ever read but called it "a fun way to test your brain." Adhemar Bultheel gushed that "it is safe to say that anybody will love the book."

Who Killed Professor X? was published by Springer, and they have more info about it here. There is a video preview of the book available here.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Secret Coders: Paths and Portals

In this second book of Secret Coders, the mysterious happenings at Stately Academy are partly explained but only to the extent that the explanations open up new mysteries. Classmates Hopper, Eni, and Josh discover that the janitor on campus is not what he seemed to be. Also, the principal and rugby team suddenly become fascinated by what the trio is up to.

I am not going to spoil what happens, but I will say that you will probably not get so much out of this book unless you read part one. Also, I feel that the same things that dragged down the first book a bit, parts of exposition where the intricacies of code and how it plays out, are also present here.

Still, as you can see, there is more of an effort to ameliorate those passages with some accompanying illustrations. On a more positive note, I liked how the chapter cliffhangers ended with readers being asked if they can visualize or figure out what the instructions in the code would cause to happen. The storytelling may not be perfect, but the narrative is intriguing, fun, and interesting. This second book of the trilogy ends on a cliffhanger, and I will definitely be snapping up the third when it is published.

This book is a continuation of the collaboration between Gene Yang and Mike Holmes. Yang is one of the premier comics creators working today. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and is currently the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. He also won the Printz Award for his graphic novel American Born Chinese. He explores themes of immigration, belief, identity, and growing up in his many works, including The Eternal Smile, Level Up, The Shadow Hero, the twin volumes Boxers & Saints, and his current run on New Superman. Holmes is best known for his work on the weekly comic True Story and drawing Adventure Time comics. Yang speaks more about Paths and Portals in this interview.

The reviews I have read for this book have all been positive. Kirkus Reviews summed up, "Between the creativity-encouraging coding lessons and the character-driven plotlines, this sequel charms from PenDown to PenUp." Common Sense Media opined, "Learning to code can be a daunting task, but this clever graphic novel makes it look, if not simple, at least understandable." Brett Schenker at Graphic Policy raved, "Even as an adult I found myself learning as Yang masterfully teaches without you feeling like you’re being taught to."

Paths and Portals was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more available here.

There is also a unique website for the whole series, complete with videos and activities. You can check that out here.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Tetris: The Games People Play

Tetris is one of the most addictive video games ever, but who kho knew that the backstory behind  it was so interesting, complex, and convoluted? And who knew it would also involve a pretty dark, grisly murder/suicide? Tetris: The Games People Play covers A LOT of ground. It gets into the origin of games, which harkens back to prehistoric times; a couple of Russian engineers designing a game; the history of the Nintendo company, and a lot of international businesses and legal dealing.

One of the things I enjoyed was how much the book captured the technological context of each time. Seeing the landscape of the 1980s in Russia, no less, lends insight into what computers were like and how programming was practiced. Certainly, I appreciate seeing how things used to be captured, especially in a time where a lot of the technology we use is so polished and removed from its source codes, etc. The simple, boxy, and somewhat clunky artwork in the book, along with the monochromatic coloring also contribute to this retro feel.
I also enjoyed reading about all of the business and legal drama that went on regarding Tetris. There were multiple large corporate interests involved, and lots of arcane legal challenges, as the game was state-owned by a communist country who employed a special operative to negotiate rights and pay rates for an increasing amount of platforms. I feel it would have been easy to get lost in the procedures, but the storytelling here is very clear and straight forward.
Not only was this book fascinating in its content, it was also compelling in its delivery. Its creator Box Brown, the man behind one of my favorite graphic novels of 2014, Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, makes a tale that is both a journalistic documentary and a suspenseful series of twists and turns. Brown has a bevy of comics credits and he also publishes a variety of others' works under the RetroFit imprint. He speaks in a very in-depth way about the Tetris book and his work on it in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book comment positively on the interesting plot and situations, though one of them was more critical of the art than others. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review, concluding, "A clean and engaging visual style supports a story that sustains narrative drive, humanizing the characters and making readers care about every development." The School Library Journal also gave it a starred review, and Chantalle Uzan offered the verdict, "This quick, thoughtful read will find an audience among teens interested in pursuing a career in video game design or those who wonder just how video games like Tetris have spread like wildfire." Publishers Weekly commented positively that "Brown’s drawings are simple but highly effective, using a black, white, and yellow color scheme to evoke the limited or nonexistent graphics available to Alexey." James Smart offered a contrary opinion, writing that "the artwork is forgettable and the characters are flat, leaving the book feeling – in contrast to the game – all too putdownable."

Tetris: The Games People Play was published by First Second, and they have a preview and lots of information available here.