Thursday, March 30, 2017

My Favorite Thing is Monsters

Holy cow, how do I start reviewing this book? It's a masterpiece. One of the best books I have read. Period. It is full of beautiful emotional moments, pain, grief, wonder, and mystery. And perhaps, most amazingly, it is a debut graphic novel.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters is a huge book, about 400 pages long, and still only the first half of the whole narrative. The plot is set in the late 1960s. The main character is 10-year-old Karen Reyes, a curious, budding artist who lives in an apartment building with her mother and older brother Deeze in Chicago. Everything in this book is meant to be entries from her spiral-bound journal, and the artwork is exquisite. There are so many threads to follow in this book, but one of the main ones is an inquiry into the mysterious death of their upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, who was a Holocaust survivor:
Karen and Anka's husband listen to audiotapes chronicling her life and experiences during World War II, including her imprisonment and escape from a concentration camp, an extremely heartbreaking, troubling, and riveting tale. Add to that narrative an extremely rich tapestry of characters in Karen's building, including her own superstitious mother, her creative and womanizing brother, a glass-eye wearing ventriloquist, and a mobster's wife, there is so much to take in. Another layer lies in Karen's own story and her depiction of herself as a young werewolf dressed like a private investigator. So much of this book is involved with her figuring out who she is, trying to deal with cruel classmates, making friends, and growing up.
Another strong aspect of this book is in its relationship with art and artwork. Some of the art is more popular, such as the recreations of lurid monster magazine covers of the time period that act as markers between chapters. But "fine art" pieces from museums also appear, redrawn in Karen's hand throughout the book. Certainly, the theme of trying to puzzle out what life means is powerful in this book, and how art plays into such inquiry is fascinating and interesting.
I have touched on a few aspects of this book, and I don't want to get into much more, lest I spoil what goes on in it. Let me simply say that I was enthralled with this book. The characters are complex and intriguing, and the plot is multi-faceted. It took me a long time to read, not just because it is weighty but because I wanted to spend a long time pouring over the images and words laid out on the page. The layouts and storytelling are incredibly rich and rewarding throughout, and I feel it is a transcendent work that will be studied and analyzed for decades to come.

This book's creator is Emil Ferris, who has had a long and varied career in the arts. She has designed toys and worked in animation, and she has been working on this book for about 6 years because of a variety of circumstances. She speaks extensively about her career and work on MFTIM in this interview, and I highly recommend learning more about her.

There has been an avalanche of well-deserved praise following this graphic novel. Oliver Sava wrote, "It’s hard to think of a debut graphic novel in recent memory that has the visual splendor, narrative ingenuity, and emotional impact of this 413-page tome, and with this book, Ferris immediately establishes herself as one of the most exciting, provocative talents in the comics industry." Calvin Reid opined, "She’s found new ways to tell a powerfully literary visual story." John Powers raved that "this extraordinary book has instantly rocketed Ferris into the graphic novel elite." And I agree with Paul Tumey who summed up his review, "Currently, my favorite thing is My Favorite Thing is Monsters."

My Favorite Thing is Monsters was published by Fantagraphics Books, and they have lots more info about it here.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


Wendy is a whirlwind of a book, about a young, trendy woman who is trying to make her way in the art world. She wants to be a star, but she keeps getting distracted by things like drinking, partying with her friends, seeing punk shows, and needing to make money. She finds occasional opportunities though nothing seems to pan out, and mostly she seems to rely on others to figure out things for her.
What makes this book really work for me is not just that it is the portrait of a wanna-be artist, it is also a broad, biting depiction of the art-world she is trying to break into. There are sleazy art critics who have their own designs on her, successful "role models" who are treacherous and terrible, scenesters there for a good time, and more sincere people who dabble in performance art, fashion, and music. The audience for such satire might be limited, but I found this book utter compelling, at once repelling, hilarious, touching, and caustic.

One of the other aspects of this book that endeared it to me was its art style. It is crude, black and white, and very expressive: sometimes characters' faces devolve into simple, geometric shapes. In terms of visuals and story, the entire book packs an impressive wallop. It's like Mark Beyer made a sequel to Dan Clowe's "Art School Confidential", and I mean that as a high compliment, not in a derivative way. This book's author Walter Scott has his own unique vision, and I love how he delivers it. He speaks about Wendy and his other art endeavors in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have all been very positive. Olivia Whittick called it "the funniest, most touching, most relatable comic I have read in a really long time." Sean Rogers wrote, "Scott takes a snarky scene report, and subtly shades it into an affecting character study." And like Katie Skelly wrote in her review, I am also hoping for "her speedy return."

Wendy was published by Koyama Press, and they have more a preview and info about it here. For interested readers, there is also a sequel Wendy's Revenge. Because of drug use, sexual situations, and profanity, I recommend this book for mature readers.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Alex + Ada

This month, to celebrate Image Comics' 25th Anniversary, Comixology Unlimited is offering a few complete series to read. I chose this one Alex + Ada, because I loved some of Jonathan Luna's past works, especially his collaborations with his brother Joshua The Sword and Ultra. Here, he collaborates with writer Sarah Vaughn on a series that ran for 15 issues, collected into three trade paperbacks that are all available to read on CU.

The story focuses on Alex, a lonely guy in his 20s who is still struggling with the fallout from his failed engagement. One year for his birthday, his grandmother, who is a free-wheeling, liberated, and funny woman, buys him a robot companion to get him out of his funk. He names her Ada, and she will obey any and all of his wishes.
This leads to some awkward scenes as Alex tries to acclimate to this new relationship and also not take advantage of the situation. He's lonely, but he's also not good with using something that looks human as a surrogate for a relationship. Eventually, he stumbles upon an underground community that would permit him to allow Ada to think and act for herself. When she is "unlocked," a whole bunch of revelations and complications ensue.
Much of what follows comments on what makes up romantic relationships, defines people as human, and explores the dynamics of people dealing with new technologies. There is also a lot of intrigue, as an anti-robot backlash develops, giving this series a political dimension that I could not help but notice echoed some of those we are dealing with right now. I know that the trope of using a robot to explore what constitutes humanity is pretty common, but I very much enjoyed how it played out in the scope of all these books. Much of that was because I liked that the characters were well thought-out and interesting. That said, there is also a fair amount of action and suspense, particularly in the second half of the series. I also very much enjoyed the simple, clean art style used to tell this tale.

Like I noted above, artist Jonathan Luna has drawn a number of other comic book series. Writer Sarah Vaughn has worked on the webcomic Sparkshooter and the series Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love for DC Comics. She speaks a lot more about her career in this interview. Both creators are set to collaborate on the forthcoming series Eternal Empire, and they speak about their work on Alex + Ada in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have praised the story, and some have been more critical of the artwork. Pharaoh Miles commented that the story "more than invades the senses, it lives with the reader." Brandon Perdue wrote, "For the classic sci-fi fan, those who seek thoughtful futurism over whiz-bang action, Alex + Ada is easy to recommend."

Alex + Ada was published by Image Comics, and they have previews and much more info about it here. There are some adult situations in the book, but I think it is appropriate for older adolescents.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Rules For Dating My Daughter: The Modern Father's Guide to Good Parenting

Rules For Dating My Daughter is not so much a graphic novel as it is a collection of graphic essays on the topics of parenting, the gender politics of toys, gun rights, and other contemporary issues. And despite its title and cover image, it contains pointed meditations on the current political landscape. Mainly it portrays how the author struggles with negotiating these issues while doing the right thing raising his two children. Many of these comics have been published online at The Nib, and initial funding for this book was raised in a Kickstarter campaign.
As a father myself, I found much to relate to in this book, but I also very much appreciate the format of these comics. They are well thought out essays that unfurl lines of thought in impactful and impressive ways. I love how they weave together multiple thoughts and contexts, seemingly meandering about on a single thesis while all the time conveying calculated and intentional lines of thought. There is a lot of dark humor and wisdom in this book, and I highly recommend you read it, whether you are a parent or not.

Mike Dawson has written and drawn a few graphic novels, including Freddie & Me, Angie Bongiolatti, and Troop 142. I am a big fan of his work, and I especially like how he captures his characters' emotional responses through story and art. I am not alone in my admiration for his comics, as he was nominated as a Promising New Talent for the 2002 Ignatz Awards. He speaks more about his career and work on Rules in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been mostly positive. Dan Kois called it "not just a thoughtful book but one that’s a pleasure to read." Rich Barrett stated that these comics offer "smart visuals and a self-deprecating humor that will make you commiserate and cringe equally." Annie Mok was more critical and wrote that "Mike Dawson delivers an uneven collection of personal essay-style memoir comics, occasionally thoughtful, but often thoughtless in its concern for others."

Rules For Dating My Daughter was published by Uncivilized Books, and they have more info about it here.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Time Museum

The Time Museum is a fun time-travel tale drawn in a wonderfully cartoonish, jaunty style. The plot follows an adolescent named Delia Bean who finds out that her Uncle Lyndon is actually a curator of a museum that exists outside of time and that chronicles all of time. It is a place where time travel is not only possible but regularly practiced.
She is bright and is offered the chance to compete for an internship at the museum. She has to go up against a few others who have been plucked from various time periods, including the far future, medieval Scotland, prehistory, and ancient Rome. These competitors have to complete three separate tasks, each more dangerous than the last, and I don't want to spoil much, but they sometimes have to rely on each other in the process. There is much peril in the past, including dinosaurs, natural disasters, and occasional arsonists. Also, they run into at least one person who is not when they are supposed to be.
 A few shifty things happen along the way that reveal some surprising info about the Time Museum and its origins. The story is full of twists, turns, action, and playful aspects of time travel. I have to say it was very tough to put down, and I enjoyed reading it very much.

This book's creator Matthew Loux has a few other graphic novels to his credit, including SideScrollers and the series Salt Water Taffy. He has been lauded by the American Library Association's YALSA, having works listed as Great Graphic Novels for Teens as well as placed on the Texas Library Association's Maverick list. He speaks more about The Time Museum and his work in general in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review that summed up, "A first rate kickoff: fresh, fast, and funny." Johanna Draper Carlson called it "an enjoyable, rollicking adventure story that I couldn’t put down." Zack Barnes wrote, "The plot and illustrations are just that superior, and the action and thrilling sequences leave you hoping to pick up the second book right away." Dustin Cabeal added that Loux "creates more than one character for you to care about and drops them into a setting and story that you’re sure to enjoy."

The Time Museum was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more available here. This book is the first of series, it seems, and I am looking forward to seeing how future volumes flesh out this very promising premise.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Check out the Comics Alternative Podcast!

I only listen to a handful of podcasts, and the only one I follow about comics and graphic novels is the Comics Alternative podcast hosted by The Two Guys with PhDs Andy Kunka and Derek Royal. Together, and with input from others, they post reviews, do roundtable discussions focused on various comics topics, visit comic stores, report from comic conventions, and interview comics creators. It is an exceptional podcast, and I highly recommend you check them out.

Because they have so much posted, I share with you a list of some of my favorite episodes:

If listening to podcasts is not quite your bag, they also have a blog where you can read things like reviews or a great set of interviews, including ones with Nick Sousanis, Seth, Keith Knight, Richard Corben, and Peter Bagge.

If you like what they do, you can also support them through Patreon. I do!
Derek on the left, Andy on the right

Sunday, March 5, 2017

California Dreamin': Cass Elliot Before The Mamas & the Papas

“Pénélope Bagieu…can turn paper into flesh. And ink becomes lifeblood. Because within several pages of a work like Exquisite Corpse, her characters not only breathe and pulsate with vivid life. They also seem entirely, organically authentic in their own skin.” -Michael Cavna in The Washington Post

Regular readers of my blog know I never start one of my reviews with a pull quote from a book’s dustjacket, but that one seemed so gushing, so over-the-top exultant, that it prejudiced me against this book. Even though I had read and loved Exquisite Corpse, even though I had it on my best of 2015 list, I did not recall it being transcendent. But, holy cow, after reading this book, I feel that every word of that review was deserved and on-target for this graphic novel.

California Dreamin’ is a biography of Mama Cass Elliot, and it is simply fantastic. Excellent. And exquisite. It tells the story of young Ellen Cohen, a girl born in 1941 in Baltimore, MD, to a Jewish family who ran a deli. She was always into music and performing, and she grew up to sing some of the most memorable folk/rock songs ever with group The Mamas and the Papas. There is much drama in this book, from family dynamics to trying to fit in in high school, to trying to navigate various music scenes in the 1960s. Also, she has to deal with her weight as well as several different complicated relationships (both romantically and musically). And this is not to mention her various brushes with contemporary figures of the day, like Bob Dylan and David Crosby.
But what makes this books exceptional is not all the story beats it hits, it is the artistry of the illustrations and storytelling. Even with so much going on, what impressed and stayed with me was Bagieu’s vibrant and lifelike characters. I felt the joys of teenage dreams, the pain of failed relationships, the jealousy between lovers, and the thrills of performance. Bagieu’s lines are extraordinary, and I put her in a pantheon of a few others (like Kate Beaton and Jules Feiffer) whose artwork is almost magical in how it conveys life, emotion, and feeling. And here, unlike Exquisite Corpse, the artwork is in black and white, showing pencil lines without the embellishment of color, and it clearly highlights her masterful craft. I highly recommend reading this book.

This is the second graphic novel published in the US by Pénélope Bagieu, an accomplished artist and graphic novelist from France. She was awarded the high honor Chevalier des Arts et Lettres for her contribution to the world of art and literature, and she has drawn many different comics works, the most famous being Joséphine. She is something of a Renaissance woman, active as a musician drumming in a band and also blogging about her many works and travels here (in French). She speaks extensively about her work on this book in this interview.

The reviews I have read of this book have been universally positive. Shea Hennum wrote that "The story moves with an ease and grace." Henry Chamberlain summed up that "it is highly recommended and will prove an engaging read on many levels: coming-of-age, rock history, and just a plain fun read." Erika W. Smith called it "an entertaining, often funny read."

California Dreamin' was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more available here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen

March 1-7 is Will Eisner Week, and to celebrate this year I read a book I have been meaning to read for a while now.
Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen stars the protagonist of Hicksville, though I think the character is being used in the way as Jason Shiga uses Jimmy Yee, namely as a durable character type. In this book, Sam is also a stand-in for the author, who has toiled for large superhero comics publishers and been wrung dry creatively. At the beginning of this book Sam has lost his inspiration and is falling in a depression (or he has fallen into depression and lost his inspiration) and fallen into a state where he feels no pleasure, called anhedonia.
After giving an academic talk, he ends up in a book store, finds an old comic book, and finds himself transported into its pages. After getting his bearings in a fictional world where virile Martian men chase after and kidnap green-skinned Venusian women, he also meets up with a couple of other characters. One is a real woman, Alice, who makes webcomics and is a fan of his, and the other is Miki, a rocket-booted manga-inspired character who has lots of gadgets and comic books. Together, they traverse a number of fictional worlds, trying to make sense of things and also procure the magic pen, which makes it possible to create comics people can enter.

Certainly, this book is ambitious, and attempts to be several things: It is an exploration of self, desire, and fantasy. It is also an essay about fantasy and what it means and if it should reflect a set of morals. It is also a look at some of the more sexist and misogynistic aspects of the comics industry and also a look forward to what it might be. It is also one cartoonist reflecting on his career. With so much going on, I still felt that the narrative thread held well and that the more academic/critical aspects were well argued. I am not sure it everything the author intended it to be, but it is one heck of a read, an adventure and essay all in one. Additionally, I felt the ending was very powerful and moving (even if it was a bit predictable).

This book's creator Dylan Horrocks is a native New Zealand comics artist best known for his very well received and celebrated graphic novel Hicksville. He has also written for DC on books like Batgirl and Hunter: The Age of Magic. Horrocks publishes most of his new work on his own site, Hicksville Comics. He speaks extensively about his work on this Sam Zabel book in this interview.

Most of the reviews I have read about this book have been very critical of it, though they also recognize much potential and artistry. Publishers Weekly summed up, "There’s plenty of inside-comic analysis here... But it’s also a bracing reflection on the dangers of wish fulfillment and the question of whether artists are 'morally responsible for our fantasies.'” Tom Murphy concluded that "it’s slightly unfortunate that its creator’s undoubted sincerity doesn’t translate more smoothly into a more satisfying blend of story and theme." You can also see the wide range of pro and con reviews in this group blog at Comics Bulletin (for the record, personally, I felt I most agreed with Keith Silva).

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen was published by Fantagraphics, and they have an excerpt and more information available here. This book features nudity, sexual situations, and profanity, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to handle those things.

Happy Will Eisner Week, everyone! Go read a graphic novel or two!!!