Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019 By the Numbers

I know this is usually the most riveting post of the year, my list of the number of books I have reviewed arranged in descending order by publisher. Enjoy!

  • First Second 8
  • Birdcage Bottom Books 4
  • Harper Collins 4
  • Top Shelf 4
  • Fantagraphics 3
  • Graphic Universe 3
  • Graphix 3
  • Hard Case Crime/Titan Books 3
  • Image Comics 3
  • Abrams 2
  • Dark Horse 2
  • Drawn & Quarterly 2
  • IDW 2
  • Little, Brown Young Readers 2
  • Animal Media Group 1
  • Balzer + Bray 1
  • Bloomsbury 1
  • Candlewick Press 1
  • DC Comics 1
  • DC Ink 1
  • Dynamite 1
  • Evil Twin Comics 1
  • First Look Media 1
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 1
  • Lion Forge 1
  • Morrow Gift 1
  • NoBrow Press 1
  • Oni Press 1
  • Pantheon 1
  • Pegasus Books 1
  • Random House Graphic 1
  • Renegade Arts Entertainment 1
  • Roar 1
  • The Nib 1
  • Yen Press 1

  • Have a happy and safe New Year's Eve!

    Monday, December 30, 2019

    Are You Listening?

    Are You Listening? is a beautiful book about dealing with pain and trauma. At the center is a road trip. 27-year-old Lou is driving across Texas about a year after her mother's death, going to visit her grandmother. On the way she picks up 18-year-old Bea, who is running away from her family. Their trip is mostly silent, punctuated by an occasional question or comment, when they find and pick up a cat. They resolve to return it to its owner, even though the town on the tag is difficult to locate (i.e. so small it's not on any map). Soon enough, they find out this is no ordinary cat. Also, there are dark, mysterious men who want that cat.

    What my summary leaves out is what the book is really about, which is coming to terms with oneself and one's life. Lou has not dealt with the grief of her mother's death, which (/SPOILER) is compounded by her not coming out to her when she had the chance (end/SPOILER). Bea is running away because of some prolonged trauma, which she does not want to talk about, and it becomes pretty clear to Lu that she is also a lesbian. Eventually, the fact that these two women spend so much time in a car (and on various accompanying misadventures) they start to reveal what they've kept bottled up to each other. I have to say that much of what they discuss could be triggering, as it touches on deeply personal trauma, but it is conveyed in thoughtful, delicate, and artful manner.
    The artwork in this story is one the main reasons this whole endeavor works as well as it does. There is a lot of pain in these pages, and there is also a lot of driving. The faces and backgrounds blend together in visually interesting ways that both propel the story as well as the characters' emotional journeys. The sequential art blend into map features at time, and the book takes on the characterization of a true road story. It is definitely a book more about tone, even if it does feature a riveting and spare plot. I have not read many stories like this one, and it left me with all kinds of feels with the ending.

    This book's creator Tillie Walden is one of my favorite comics creators. Even though she is a relative newcomer, she has already racked up a few huge accolades, including the 2018 Eisner Award for Best Reality-Based Work for her graphic memoir Spinning (also one of my favorite books of the year). Her second major graphic novel On a Sunbeam was nominated for a 2017 Eisner in the category of Digital Comic (even though it is technically a webcomic). I had the distinct privilege of speaking to her about On a Sunbeam in this interview on the Comics Alternative Podcast.

    The reviews I have read of this book laud it for its complexity and artwork. Oliver Sava praised "Walden’s distinct perspective," particular in its way of "blending dreamy visuals with hard-hitting stories about the challenges of growing up." Hillary Brown called it "a good midpoint between Walden’s previous two books. It’s not as abstruse as On a Sunbeam, not as simple as Spinning." Kirkus Reviews summed it up, "A tsunami of emotions—sharp and heavy."

    Are You Listening? was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here. I think this book definitely would appeal to a YA audience, though it does feature some heavy traumatic content that may affect less mature readers.

    Wednesday, December 25, 2019

    Is This How You See Me?

    I've said it before and I'll say it again: Jaime Hernandez is one of my favorite comics makers ever, and I don't know how he keeps topping himself, but he's done it again. Is This How You See Me? is a book about a reunion. The Locas, characters Hernandez has been writing about since the early 1980s all convene 30 years later for a special concert of their old favorites and some of the new Turks who were inspired by them. It also features old friends and acquaintances coming back together, some happily and others not so much. What is phenomenal to me is just how vibrant and complex a quilt Hernandez weaves in a relatively short space in this book.

    All of the major players here have aged, most have mellowed, and it is interesting to see how their lives have shifted over time. Of course, this book focuses much of the time on Maggie and Hopey, the on-again, off-again friends and lovers who were the primary focus of the classic Locas tales. Their adventures have always featured lots of personal drama and upheaval, and it is fascinating to see how that still plays out 30 years later.
    This book features a lot of juxtaposition. It hops back in forth in time to show characters then and now. It shows what the folks at the reunion are up to while also showing what their significant others are doing while left at home. And although a few things remain relatively the same, it shows the ocean changes the exist between then and now. Perhaps most strikingly for me was the difference between the sorts of trouble Maggie and Hopey can get into to. Their past run-ins with punks and drug dealers seemed almost quaint and fun next to the two episodes of hate they run into in the present, which were full of menace and danger.

    One of the strong points is just how iconic and potent the illustrations are. Hernandez has honed his craft over the decades to be able to capture an emotion or deliver a visual zinger in economical fashion. There were multiple times I found myself poring back over pages to admire his characters and how he brings them to life via his artwork.

    Another of the strongest parts of this book for me was its dialogue. There are a number of big crowd scenes where people are watching shows, catching up, or hanging out late night in diners, and their conversations are mundane, silly, pointed, and sometimes poignant. I know that comics work best when there is a playful, intentional interplay between the images and the words, and Hernandez shows he is a maestro of drawing, writing, and also marrying the two.

    I feel that I have a difficult time doing this book justice, because it does so much. It delivers quality slice-of-life type tales while also showing what happens across a lifespan. It is funny, sometimes sad, and very rewarding. There are lots of pay-offs for longtime Love & Rockets readers but also quite enough context to entertain and engage those new to this universe. I cannot recommend this book enough.

    The reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. Edwin Turner wrote, "It's fascinating too to see how naturally Hernandez has realized the aging of his characters, as if they were not drawings on a page, but rather real people." In a starred review, Publishers Weekly concluded, "While longtime fans will discover extra levels of joy and regret in this installment, even those who pick this up as their introduction to the series will be moved by its tale of growing older without necessarily growing up." Hernandez speaks about his work on this book in this interview.

    Is This How You See Me? was published by Fantagraphics, and they provide a preview and much more here. It features profanity, some violence, and sexual content, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to handle those things.

    Friday, December 20, 2019

    Major Impossible

    I love, love, love, LOVE the Nathan Hale Hazardous Tales books, and Major Impossible, the ninth(!) entry in the series focuses on John Wesley Powell. He was an abolitionist and aspiring scientist who served in the Civil War. He rose in the ranks to brevet lieutenant colonel, and also lost most of his right arm. In 1869, he gathered nine men, four boats, and provisions for ten months to explore the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. Not everyone made it back, but those who did chronicled their arduous journey well with journals. Those primary sources offered lots of great material that appears in this book.

    One of the best features of this book is its attention to those historical details and facts. I learned much about exploration of the American west over the course of this book, but the characters are made to be engaging and interesting, too. Also rewarding about this book is its meta-narrative that builds in elements from other books. Of course, we see more interactions between the narrator Nathan Hale, the hangman, and the proctor:

    These pages introduce the book, and they reward longtime readers of the series but also offer a quick introduction to new readers. I just gave this book to my 11-year-old nephew, and he got into it quickly and did not want to put it down. The combination of facts, vivid characterization, and a good dose of humor make this another excellent entry in a consistently strong series.

    If you have been reading my blog for any length of time, you likely know that I love Nathan Hale's comics and graphic novels. This nonfiction series Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales is the gold standard for historical graphic novels, as far as I am concerned. I loved his takes on fairy tales and the southwest, Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack. And I really liked his original sci-fi graphic novel One Trick Pony as well as his scifi/horror tale Apocalypse Taco, also released this year.

    I have not been able to find many reviews of this book online, but the ones I have read praise the book. Vic Sage wrote, "The greatest gift that Hale’s books give is not just knowledge but an entertaining education – there has not been a book yet where I didn’t find myself going down a rabbit hole trying to find out more about what I’ve read in a Hazardous Tales offering." You can see a selection of other reviews at Goodreads, where the book currently has a 4.19 (out of 5) star rating.

    Major Impossible was published by Amulet Books, and they offer a preview and more info about it here.

    Sunday, December 15, 2019

    The Hard Tomorrow

    Imagine it's 2022, and Mark Zuckerberg is president. That's the premise of The Hard Tomorrow, the latest book from Eleanor Davis, one of the best comics artists going right now. The book's main character is Hannah, a young woman who works as an in-home caretaker for an elderly woman and who lives in a truck with Johnny. Johnny is working on building them a house, but he spends a lot of his alone time smoking pot and hanging out with their dog Tinker. Also, the two of them are trying to get pregnant.
    When she's not at work, Hannah is involved in Humans Against All Violence, a group working for positive social action. She also hangs spends much of her time with her friend Gabby. Johnny spends his free time with Tyler, a reclusive survivalist who has many guns. Hannah is not a big fan of Tyler's, obviously, but the near future makes for some interesting bedfellows.

    As much as this book is a commentary on the present day, and how it might become even worse, it is also a book about humanity and hope. Although things are tough, and in the course of the book several heartbreaking things happen, it casts a wide light on the complex and nuanced characters contained in its pages. Some of them are disappointments, while others come through in the clutch. Some are utterly wrong, and some who are easy to doubt end up being right. No one in this book is completely a saint or a sinner (except for faceless, fascist police and the POTUS), and the exploration of humanity under duress is both fascinating and moving. Most impressively, this feat is achieved via the plot and the pictures, as Davis's artwork breathes life into the pages. The Hard Tomorrow is both provocative and poignant, containing moments both jarring and subtle. Not many books move me as much as this one did, and the ending had me covered in goosebumps.
    This book's creator is Eleanor Davis. She has racked up quite a few accolades, including the Russ Manning Most Promising Newcomer Award, and she has created a number of books that can appeal to adults (How to Be Happy and Why Art?), younger readers (Stinky), and adolescents (The Secret Science Alliance). You, a Bike, & A Road was one of my favorite books of 2017, and it won an Ignatz Award for Outstanding Anthology or Collection. She speaks about her work on The Hard Tomorrow in this interview. I'd be shocked if this book does not win at least a few major awards in the coming year, as it highlights just how spectacular a writer and artist she is.

    All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. Publishers Weekly opined that "Davis seems to argue that any life is rich and complicated enough to merit its own book—and she convinces the reader she is right." Leonard Pierce wrote, "All told, this is a book that finds that razor’s edge between irrelevance (sic?) and datedness and balances there with the expertise of a gymnast." Oliver Sava called it a graphic novel that "looks at a bleak and very familiar near-future to tell a story about activism, empathy, and believing in a better world."

    The Hard Tomorrow was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they offer a preview and more here.

    Tuesday, December 10, 2019

    No Ivy League

    I got No Ivy League from my colleague Jason DeHart (THANK YOU!), while rooming together at the recent annual meeting of the Literacy Research Association. On the couple of flights home I had a chance to pore over it and very much enjoyed it. It focuses on Hazel, a home schooled 17-year-old living in Portland, Oregon who wants a summer job so she can travel to go see the band Guster. She gets hired for the No Ivy League, which employs a team of young people to cut back the invasive ivy from trees and in forests to preserve the local flora.
    The crew. All the names but Hazel's were changed.
    The League typically targets "at-risk" youth, who are much more diverse and worldly than Hazel. Pretty quickly, she learns just how sheltered and privileged she is, especially after doing some research into the origins of Oregon and past attempts to integrate the schools there.
    I know what I have described so far makes this book sound like an afterschool special, but it is much more compelling and nuanced than one of those. Most of the reason is the care that the author took in detailing and recasting their own experiences as a home-schooled youth in this gig. That process is well-detailed in bonus material presented at the end of the book. As a result, the characters are palpable and real. Their conversations ring true. The situations are not sugar-coated or idealized, and the entire enterprise does not devolve into didactics or preaching. In the end, there are no pat answers or firm conclusions, only a dedication to learning more of the truth and trying better to ensure a sense of equity prevails.

    No Ivy League was created by Hazel Newlevant, an artist and editor whose work has appeared in anthologies such as Comics for Choice and Chainmail Bikini. They have also published the graphic novellas Sugar Town and If This Be Sin. This book is their first graphic novel, and they speak about as a comic book series here and as a completed graphic novel here.

    All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Etelka Lehoczky wrote that it "may seem like a modest achievement at first glance, but it's got the audacity to direct you (ever so politely) to change your whole habit of thought. That's colossal." John Seven wrote, "For asking such big questions, Newlevant never gets preachy, never retreats into a frantic tone, and never tries to distance themself from their own place within the questions. It’s a sober account of something a lot of people go through and, unfortunately, continue to go through." Christopher summed it up as "a refreshingly honest, self-aware 'coming of age' story, that explores complex issues of race, gender, and privilege with care and nuance."

    No Ivy League was published by Roar, and they offer a preview, teaching guide, and much more here. There is a large preview also available here. There are some profanity and a couple of sexual references in the book, so I would suggest it for adolescents mature enough to handle those.

    Thursday, December 5, 2019

    Blood and Drugs

    The fourth book I got from my Kickstarter pledge, Blood and Drugs is a beautiful and horrible book, an intimate look at addiction and recovery. The main character is Buster, and he introduces himself thus:
    Having heroin drive his decision making has led to him alienating his wife, children, and pretty much everyone else in his life. He lives in a group home, has to attend regular recovery meetings, and is trying to put his life together. Making this transition is not an easy thing, and he struggles with many  things. First off, he has messed up his drawing hand, which makes it difficult for him to make a living. He has to deal with cantankerous addicts and ex-addicts, stern caretakers at the group home, and simple things like acquiring transportation and finding adequate living arrangements. He also has to contend with a predatory art buyer who has snapped up his past works for pennies and flipped them for huge profits.

    The book is divided into 12 chapters to echo the 12 steps of AA, and each paints a picture of the fits and starts that go along with recovery. Some days he makes progress, others he falters some. Some days he has to contend with difficult relationships and poor decision making, while others he finds hope and possibility. This book does not feature a cookie-cutter, happy-ending story but more of a visceral portrait of a person trying to find his way in a troubled world. He does find solace in some good friends, including his group home roommate, Nance, also a person in transition.
    In the end, I was struck by how nuanced and complex these characters were. I have heard many recovery stories, and this one rings true to the range of experiences I have learned about. Also, I loved the bold, crude art style that tells this tale. In many ways, this book is a tough read, but it is also a very worthwhile one.

    Lance Ward created this book, where Buster acts as a fictional stand-in for the author. He is known for his autobiographical comics Kmart Shoes and its sequel "Adults Only." He speaks about his life in work in this podcast interview.

    All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Matt Vadnais called it "one of the most honest comics I’ve read in years." John Seven wrote, "With a stark and messy cartooning style dominated by thick black lines that have a life of their own, Ward does an amazing job of not only depicting the world that Buster lives in, but representing his emotional state of disarray." Ryan Carey called it "a strong work of comics realism and one of the most instantly-memorable reads in some time." Publishers Weekly added that it "delivers an unmistakably raw integrity."

    Blood and Drugs was published by Birdcage Bottom Books, and they offer a preview and more here.

    Saturday, November 30, 2019

    A spotlight on Birdcage Bottom Books

    Several months back, I backed a Kickstarter campaign for Birdcage Bottom Books, and I am finally getting around to reading and reviewing these books. Today, I will write about three of the ones I received, and I'll save one to write about in my next entry.
    Future Corpse is a short collection of comics by Eva Müller,  whose In the Future, We Are Dead was one of my favorite graphic novels published last year. There are a few short tales in this slim book, including an autobiographical look at growing up as a feminist, a look at how Karl Marx would be in contemporary times, and a frightening nightmare about a giant snake and failure.
    I think that Müller is one of the best comics artists out there right now, and it's good to see some new work from her.
    This book was actually a throw-in, as they like to offer freebies from other publishers they sell through their catalog. I had not actually read any Snakepit comics before, and it's a year's worth of diary comics from (as you might guess from the title) 2009. Each day, Ben Snakepit draws a 3-panel comic about the goings-on in his life. I am not going to say that each day is eventful or overly exciting, but it is strangely compelling to see a consistent record of what people do, even if it is eat, play in a band, watch movies, and hang out.
    It is an enjoyable book and, interestingly, now a time capsule from 10 years ago (which is crazy, if you think about it). I cannot help but love a book that explicitly states on the front page that it "ever shall be intended to be read on the toilet."
    Rooftop Stew is an acquired taste, I would say. It is a book full of short stories by Max Clotfelter that range from uncomfortably relatable autobiographical tales to gruesome yet funny fictional accounts of way-out characters like a family of drug addicts that sells their baby, FEMA victims who are forced to farm mutant foods, and neanderthal bar patrons. It's a very visceral book, both in terms of the art style and story content, and I found the whole thing utterly compelling. Sure, I winced a few times, but it's a rare book that simultaneously makes you want to put it down while also being so gripping it makes it impossible to actually put down. Also, in a way it's also an educational comic, for instance I learned what happens to a raccoon tail if you leave it under a dresser for six years. It's definitely not a book for young readers or the easily offended, but it is certainly full of eye-popping art, weird situations, and dark humor. If you think this excerpt is funny, it might just be a book for you.
    The reviews I have read of this book have been very positive. Warren Elliott called it "lowbrow comix at its finest!" Publishers Weekly concluded, "This is a yawp of a book that highlights Clotfelter’s willingness to confront his demons head-on and turn them into visceral and emotionally affecting art." Robert Kirby opined, "Clotfelter is a natural storyteller, with a worldview and persona peculiarly his own, wrapped up in a visual style that fits it all like a ratty glove."

    Rooftop Stew and Future Corpse are available here to purchase. Snakepit 2009 is available here.

    Monday, November 25, 2019

    Maria M.

    If Maria M. were a movie, it'd be more than three hours long and with an ending that would put Scarface's to shame.

    You know what's crazy? How fast time goes by. The first half of this book was published in 2013, and I wrote a review of it here. I have to say that looking back at my past reviews often makes me cringe a bit, but I think that one is pretty well composed and captures what I still think about this book. So go check it out. The only thing I could not say then but can now: Gilbert sticks the landing, and there is a lot of blood along the way. Whereas the first half of the book is a story of an immigrant trying to find her way in a sleazy world, the second half is more a concentrated crime drama with lots of intrigue and double-crossing.
    Also, abdominal walnut cracking!
    This book is an excellent one, showcasing an accomplished creator's range of skills in fine fashion. There is so much plot packed in the visuals, it's a testament to economical storytelling. It's a good read for those unfamiliar with his work or his Palomar tales, but it's also highly rewarding for readers who have been enjoying those comics over the years as well. The only people I cannot recommend this book for are younger ones, as it features sex, violence, and profanity. But if you are mature enough to handle those things and enjoy a gruesome crime tale that pays tribute to classic exploitation/B-films, this book is right up your alley.

    This book's author is Gilbert Hernandez. He has been creating comics for about four decades now, most notably the Love and Rockets series with his brothers. He is prolific and considered one of the great American comics creators of all time. He talks extensively about his life and works in this interview.

    All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly wrote that "the pulp plot is executed with style, strong and sensitive character development, practiced casual linework, and the kind of gonzo weirdness—such as Maria’s talent for cracking walnuts with her abs—that defines the Hernandez ethos." Andy Shaw opined that "anyone else with an interest in sharp, sexy, violent but sophisticated stories can still enjoy it for what it is: a B-movie homage that takes the genre above and beyond our expectations." Robert Rea summed up, "Every writer should be so lucky to have the imaginative chops that Hernandez shows in Maria M."

    Maria M. was published by Fantagraphics, and they offer a preview and much more here. Also, the publisher is having their big annual Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales soon, so check those out. They publish lots of excellent books!

    Wednesday, November 20, 2019

    Strange Planet

    I am not sure where I first encountered the comic strips contained in this volume, but they sure did strike my fancy. Strange Planet is a webcomic that is published online and propagated across multiple social media platforms. Its author has more than 4 million Instagram followers. This book collects a bunch of strips, arranging them into broad themes, such as parenthood, pets, and recreational behavior. Here's a sample:
    As you can see, the humor derives from making the ordinary strange. The aliens talk about commonplace earth practices using interesting/weird word substitutions. So, there's clever wordplay at hand pretty much in every strip, but what really sells them to me is how curiously evocative and even moving they can be.
    Perhaps it's from the rather open and simple drawings of the aliens making it easier for the reader to relate to these characters (paging Scott McCloud!), but I also think it's from some brilliant craftsmanship as well. Observational humor is difficult to pull off often, and these strips hit their mark more often than not for me. These comics appear to be deceptively simple but they feature economically and smartly paced dialog and very human, relatable situations.

    Nathan W. Pyle created these strips. He is an artist and animator who has written a previous book about etiquette in New York City. He gave a related TEDTalk about the topic here. Portions from an interview in this article help shed some insight into his work.

    The reviews I could find of this book have been positive. Dami Lee wrote, "It’s clear why Strange Planet resonates with people. It stars beings without gender or race, meaning everybody can project themselves onto them. They navigate universal situations, shedding light on human behavior that no one understands the reason behind." Molly Barnewitz opined that "by defamiliarizing the human experience of the mundane, STRANGE PLANET helps readers relocate joy to the simple things."

    Strange Planet was published by Morrow Gift, and they offer more information about it here.

    Friday, November 15, 2019

    Superman Smashes the Klan #1

    I usually don't review monthly periodicals here, but in this case I'll make an exception. For one reason, it's a larger than usual issue, and second it's written by Gene Luen Yang, former National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. Superman Smashes the Klan is a comics series based on a series from The Adventures of Superman radio serial based on a real story. The story is set in 1946 and follows the Lee family, who are Chinese and Chinese-American and moving to Metropolis from Chinatown. As they are settling into their new environs, they encounter prejudice both subtly (from neighbors) and extremely visibly from the local chapter of the Clan of the Fiery Cross (a thinly veiled Ku Klux Klan). As the Lees live across the street from cub reporter Jimmy Olsen, their situation comes to the attention of star reporters Clark Kent and Lois Lane. And of course, Superman also intervenes.

    Notably, in this story Superman recounts the tale of how he began to learn about his Kryptonian roots and encounters the substance Kryptonite for the first time. So in a clever way, Superman's immigrant status comes to bear in fantastical terms on the more terrestrial concerns of the main narrative.

    Although this tale is fictional, and it contains its share of superhero tropes, it is the very human and insightful supporting characters who steal the show. The Lees are a collection of distinct individuals: the mother clinging to her old ways and wanting to speak Mandarin, the father trying his best to do right by his family but also assimilate into US culture, the headstrong older son Tommy tries to use his athletic ability to win friends, while younger sister Roberta is more tentative and suspicious. I enjoyed getting to know them in short order, and it is easy to be moved by the events that envelop them. And I also find it fascinating to see a tale originally told in 1946 is still sadly relevant and applicable to events of today.
    This book's author Gene Leun Yang is one of the premier comics creators working today. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and has also won the Printz Award for his graphic novel American Born Chinese. He has explored 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 New Superman. It was drawn by Gurihiru, a duo of Japanese artists named Chifuyu Sasaki and Naoko Kawano who have been drawing lots of American comic books over the past decade. Most of their notable works have been for Marvel Comics, but they also have drawn a number of books in the Avatar series. Their style is clean and crisp, telling the story and introducing the characters in vibrant fashion. Yang speaks more about the inspirations behind this series in this interview.

    All of the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. Ray Goldfield called it "one of the most engaging first issues that I can remember out of DC, and I expect that the final product is going to be a modern classic." Alexander Cole wrote, "It does a fantastic job adapting the historic radio drama that helped destroy the reputation of the Ku Klux Klan in America and it’s as heartfelt and entertaining as a comic can really be." Lizzy Garcia opined that it is "an excellent Superman story and a reminder of why I adore the character so much." My pal Paul Lai also has some insightful things to say about it in his podcast.

    Superman Smashes the Klan #1 was published by DC Comics, and they offer more info about it here. There will be three issues in the series.

    Sunday, November 10, 2019

    Invisible Emmie

    Invisible Emmie is a book I missed when it came out a few years ago, and I've noticed a few folks reading it so I decided to check it out. It is a look at a couple of disparate 13-year-olds whose lives intersect due to a misplaced note. Emmie is quiet and stressed, going through her school day trying not to be noticed or draw attention to herself. She tends to express herself by drawing. Personally, I found her a very relatable protagonist.
    This is the beginning of Emmie's story.
    Katie is confident and popular, and she seems to get along with everyone in very positive ways. She is athletic, gets good grades, and finds success with whatever she sets out to do. She is very kind, too, and I found it refreshing that she was not portrayed as a mean girl.
    Meet Katie!

    As you can see, the ways their stories were told puts them even more in contrast, with Emmie's more introspective, text-heavy in the style of illustrated books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Katie's side of things depicted colorfully in comics format.

    Both girls are in many classes together, both like the same boy named Tyler, but they do not have many interactions. Tyler asks Katie to be his girlfriend, which puts more of a damper on Emmie. One day, Emmie and the one friend she can be herself with, Brianna, write silly, over-the-top love notes to their crushes to entertain themselves. Somehow, Emmie's note to Tyler falls out of her binder and gets picked up by the class prankster, Joe, who makes sure that lots of people see it. Katie actually jumps in to check in on Emmie, and from there the two young women's lives go through some rapid twists and changes. I won't spoil things, but I found what happened to be quite compelling and interesting, a fun twist on teenage drama.

    This book was created by Terri Libenson, a Reuben Award winning cartoonist honored in 2016 for her ongoing strip The Pajama Diaries. In addition to collections of that strip, she has also published two books spinning off from Invisible Emmie, Positively Izzy and Just Jaime, which are also best-sellers. She speaks more about her inspirations for the Emmie books in this interview.

    The reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly wrote, "A well-executed twist will have readers flipping back to see what they missed while cheering the strides made by Libenson’s no-longer-invisible heroine." School Library Journal's verdict was "A highly relatable middle grade drama. Recommended for most collections." Kirkus Reviews was more lukewarm on the book, summing up, "Classic middle school themes come alive, but they fail to really go anywhere."

    Invisible Emmie was published by Balzer + Bray, and they offer a sample and more about it here.

    Tuesday, November 5, 2019

    Ms. Tree: One Mean Mother

    To celebrate Noirvember this year, I dug into the latest compilation of Ms. Tree stories, One Mean Mother. And when I say latest, it has been some time in coming. Ms. Tree is a series that begin in the heyday of independent comics, the early 1980s, when it bounced around a couple of different publishers during its 50-some-odd-issue run. In the 1990s, the series ended up at DC Comics, where it was published as a series of larger-size, self-contained quarterly stories. This volume collects the first six of those tales.

    Michael Tree is a classic, hard boiled detective. She runs her agency with a few trusted allies, and she is at constant war with the Muerta crime family, who were responsible for the death of her husband. Here, the family appears to be moving into more legitimate ventures as it is trying to extricate itself from crime altogether under the leadership of the latest young hotshot Don Donnie. Ms. Tree is not so sure that this clean streak is for real, and of course there are lots of conflicts, double crossings, and subterfuge.
    Adding a different wrinkle to the works is that Ms. Tree gets pregnant and has a baby in the middle of this volume. Never one to shrink from conflict, she finds herself in new territory in having to think differently before throwing herself into violent situations. It is interesting to see how she adjusts her life after becoming a parent while still being a kick-ass heroine.

    These stories are well crafted crime tales, with snappy dialogue and a good share of action and violence. Tree is a tough as nails woman who has her own code of justice, and I very much enjoy following her adventures. Occassionally, this book has a few dated references to things like Thirtysomething, but they do not really detract from the general timelessness of the tales. If you like classic crime stories told and drawn in excellent manner, this is a book for you.

    Ms. Tree was created by Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty. Collins is a mystery writer with years of experience writing short stories, comic books, novels such as his Quarry series, the Dick Tracy newspaper strip, and the graphic novel Road to Perdition, which was made into a major motion picture. Beatty has drawn lots of comics over the past four decades, including the co-creating the Wild Dog series with Collins and inking many issues of Batman Adventures. Both creators speak about the return of Ms. Tree to publication in this article.

    I have not been able to locate many reviews of this book, but the ones I have seen are positive. C.J. Bunce wrote, "As you’d expect from Max Allan Collins, this is another great read.  It has good characters, nicely plotted mysteries, and Terry Beatty brings in a classic noir style." You can find more reviews at Goodreads, where it has a 4.12 (out of 5) star rating as of this writing.

    Ms. Tree: One Mean Mother was published by Titan Books/Hard Case Crime, and they offer more about it here.

    Wednesday, October 30, 2019


    Pumpkinheads is a lighthearted but insightful look at a couple of older teens growing up and figuring out who they are. Josiah and Deja are two high school seniors working their last fall at their local pumpkin patch, and they are a pair of opposites. Josiah is a straight-arrow, shy, and has been named MVPPP (Most Valuable Pumpkin Patch Person) almost every month he has worked there. Deja is more outgoing and brash, and she decides that on their last night that Josiah is going to finally talk to Marcy, that girl he's been mooning over for years. She cajoles him to leave their regular post, and they gallivant across the pumpkin in a quest for delightful treats and for him to maybe actually go on a date. It's a night for throwing caution to the wind, she says, and Josiah reluctantly agrees.

    What follows is a cheerful and funny trip across a pretty fantastic pumpkin patch, with lots of interesting attractions and delicious sounding food. Also, they run into a number of Deja's exes in their sojourn, which makes for some discomfort and humor. Marcy proves elusive to find, as she is pretty mobile and apparently acting as a sweeper. These misadventures give Deja and Josiah lots of time to talk, revisit their past relationships, and reflect on their four years together at the pumpkin patch.

    I loved spending time with these characters. Josiah is responsible but clueless in many ways, while Deja is passionate and perceptive, and I appreciate getting to see their dynamic in action. Over the course of the book, they figure out some things about their lives and themselves, and it's a sweet tale. Moreover, there's lots of great banter, and their personalities come across in powerful, relatable fashion. This book might not feature heavy subject matter, but it is a wonderful amusement with excellent character work.

    Both of this book's creators, writer Rainbow Rowell and artist Faith Erin Hicks, are highly accomplished in their fields. Rowell is a novelist known for her best-selling books Eleanor & Park, Fangirl, and Wayward Son, as well as for writing the latest version of Runaways for Marvel Comics. The Eisner Award winning Hicks is a graphic novelist who has created some of my favorite books over the past decade, including The Nameless City trilogy, The Adventures of Superhero Girl, and Friends with Boys. Both creators speak about their collaboration on Pumpkinheads in this interview.

    All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews summed it up, "A heartwarming, funny story filled with richness and complexity." J. Caleb Mozzocco wrote of the collaboration, "Pumpkinheads simultaneously feels a lot like a Rowell work and a lot like a Hicks work, and it synthesizes the virtues of each half of the creative team in the process of telling a light-hearted but touching teen romance."

    Pumpkinheads was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here.

    Friday, October 25, 2019

    Mr. Puffball: Escape from Castaway Island

    Another of the wonderful authors I got the chance to meet last weekend at Read Up! Greenville, Constance Lombardo created the book I am reviewing today. Mr. Puffball: Escape from Castaway Island is the third book of a trilogy (I have to admit that I had not read the other two, but that did not stop me from enjoying this book at all). It features a fun tale full of laughs and a skewering of popular culture. The title character Mr. Puffball is a stunt man trying to become a celebrity. And his avenue for finding stardom is competing on reality TV shows. First, he wins the grand prize in Feline Ninja Warrior, a send-up of this show. The fame goes to his head though, and he blows through his new-found fortune in record time.

    While languishing on the trash heap of ex-celebrities he hatches a plan to embroil him and his friends in another reality show, Castaway Island (think Survivor). This motley cast of characters features many strong personalities, from the famed star El Gato to body builder/celebrity personal trainer Bruiser to a feisty kitten named Pickles to the martial arts expert Rosie. Part of the fun in reading this book is seeing this cast of characters bounce off each other, part of it is in seeing celebrity culture being ridiculed, and part of it is in delightful cat-themed puns that abound.
    First rule of Castaway Island: Help no one!
    Also, as you can see from the excerpt above, this book is an illustrated novel, that is a hybrid of pictures and prose in the style of books like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Big Nate series. I thought that the illustrations were hilarious and expressive, and that the interplay of text and images was very well crafted. I had a lot of fun reading the adventures of Mr. Puffball and his crew, and I think many other readers, both young and old would, too.

    In addition to the Mr. Puffball trilogy, Constance Lombardo is publishing her fourth work, a children's book titled Everybody Says Meow. She talks more about this latest book in the Mr. Puffball series in this interview.

    All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Douglas Gibson felt that this might be the best of the trilogy, adding that "a group of friends choosing connection and empowerment over money and stardom makes for a beautiful and compelling story in a world where even kids can fall prey to our celebrity-obsessed culture." Kira Moody gave it 4 out of 5 stars and called it "lively, funny, and engaging." You can see more reviews of it at Goodreads where it has a 4.38 (out of 5) star rating as of this post.

    Mr. Puffball: Escape from Castaway Island was published by Harper, and they offer a preview and more here.

    Sunday, October 20, 2019

    Last Pick, Book Two: Born to Run

    I had the distinct pleasure of serving as moderator for a panel about graphic novels and illustrated books this weekend for Read Up! Greenville, and I got to meet Chuck Brown, one of the co-authors of Bitter Root. I also got to meet Jason Walz, a comics creator and special educator who wrote today's book, Last Pick: Born to Run. It is actually the second book a trilogy, and I must admit I had not read book one beforehand (I will remedy that soon). Still, I was immediately immersed in the narrative and hit the ground running. The plot here is a dystopian future tale where aliens have taken almost every human over the age of 16 and “able-bodied” off Earth to work as slave labor, leaving what they feel are the young and infirm behind. This arrangement has separated a pair of twins, Wyatt and Sam.

    Sam is taken off-planet where she learns more about exactly who the alien invaders are, and also gets involved in a galactic civil war. Wyatt, who is neurodiverse and prone to moments where his mental focus shifts, is one of those left behind, but he and others band together to mount a resistance and disrupt the alien occupation force.

    Apart from all of the exciting action elements, and some delightfully gruesome alien designs, there is also a strong message about how even those who get discounted can find the resources, strength, and resolve to succeed. Even with this topical message, it does not come off as preachy, as the plot is well crafted and quite compelling. I am eager to see how the whole thing concludes when the final book comes out next year.

    Beside the Last Pick series, Jason Walz is also known for his Eisner Award-nominated Homesick as well as A Story for Desmond. He speaks more about his work on the Last Pick series in this interview.

    All of the reviews I have read for this second entry have been positive. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review that concluded, "An extraordinary sequel that is thrilling, inclusive, and unforgettable." Erin Partridge wrote, "The change in the trope of the hero who overcomes adversity to a team of people who triumph while living with their differences could be very empowering to people navigating the tricky world of human life."

    Last Pick: Born to Run was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here.

    Tuesday, October 15, 2019

    Bitter Root, Volume 1: Family Business

    Bitter Root is a breath-taking piece of historical fiction/horror. It takes place during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's and stars the Sangeryes family, the world's greatest monster hunters. They are a motley bunch, including the hulking Berg, his diminutive cousin Cullen, elder stateswoman Ma Etta, and the disgruntled Blink, who feels she is being held back because she is a woman. There are other members of the family, too, and they are memorable both for their personalities and the unique roles they play in the family and the family business.

    When humans become corrupted by fear and hate they devolve into creatures called Jinoo, and the Sangeryes specialize in battling and curing these monsters. However, in the course of this book they learn that there are things worse than Jinoos out there, things even more crafty and evil, and that is where much of the action and intrigue derive. This book contains the first five issues of the series, and I could not read it fast enough. Each chapter is a page turner, and each one ends with a compelling cliffhanger.

    However, this book is multi-faceted. Not only does it feature superb action and plotting, it also provides a strong dose of scholarship. It contains bevy of historical analyses and essays from scholars in diverse discipline that give much context to the goings-on in the book. It offers much material to visit and revisit upon further readings, both in terms of an excellent story and its supplementary essays.

    Bitter Root was written by David F. Walker and Chuck Brown with art by Sanford Greene and Rico Renzi. Walker is known for his work on multiple comic books series from different publishers, though I am partial to his runs on Power Man & Iron Fist and Luke Cage. Brown has been self-publishing comics for years now, and he also has worked for major publishers like Marvel and IDW. Greene has done lots of covers for Marvel Comics and has collaborated with Walker on the Power Man and Iron Fist series and with Brown on a webcomic called 1000. Renzi has worked as a colorist on a ton of comics series, most notably Spider-Gwen. Brown and Walker both share their thoughts on the Bitter Root series in this interview.

    All of the reviews I have read have been glowing. Publishers Weekly concluded, "Comics fans will look forward to future volumes of this energetic dark fantasy that effectively mixes thrills and scares." Thomas Maluck wrote that the story "explodes off each page with thoughtful plotting, unique character designs, thematic color palettes, and shape-shifting lettering that always fits the bombastic and gentle moments alike." Tonya Pennington commented that "the characters won me over with their personalities, personal strengths, and weaknesses."

    Bitter Root was published by Image Comics, and they offer more information about this trade paperback here. The series is ongoing, with a summer special already published and a sequel series promised to drop soon. Also, the series has been optioned for motion picture rights by Legendary Pictures.

    The series does feature monsters, blood, and some gore, so I suggest it for readers mature enough to handle them.

    Thursday, October 10, 2019

    They Called Us Enemy

    Looking over my past few entries, I have been grossly over-using the word "fun." Well, I am breaking the streak, because, not to downplay how good this book is, there's no chance of it appearing today. At a time when the US government is actively engaged in arresting and detaining refugees and immigrants, They Called Us Enemy is a strong reminder that such an atrocity is not unique to our times. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, FDR signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed the military to define certain regions as military zones and take actions to relocate questionable parties. This order meant that the military could round up all people of Japanese ancestry, whether they be US citizens are not, and regard them as potential spies or enemy sympathizers. That was the context for George Takei's family, who were Japanese-Americans living in California.
    They were speedily allowed to pack a limited amount of belongings one night and then were put on a series of trains that brought them to some difficult, Spartan camps across the US. Some of them were put in places originally meant to house livestock. There, they had to learn to make do, cognizant that they were being treated as enemies by a country that they had accepted and worked hard to belong to. Although George and his brother were children who somewhat treated the whole thing as a weird adventure, his parents had to shoulder tough burdens of being disrespected and deemed inhuman.
    What makes this book exceptional is how it pairs a strong narrative with artwork that is incredibly expressive and energetic. Between the postures and facial expressions, it is impossible not to feel something for the people depicted here. Their lives turned upside-down, their government betraying them, and them being treated like animals are all palpable experiences for the reader. Although this subject matter is difficult, I am glad that it is still being memorialized and brought back to light here. Especially now.

    This book was a collaboration between writers George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott, and artist Harmony Becker. Takei is best known for his role as Sulu on Star Trek and is also a highly visible activist for civil rights. Eisinger is an Editorial Director for IDW, and I think this is his first comics writing gig. Scott also goes by the name Scott Duvall and is a blogger and comics writer with a number of credits for Archie and Arcana. This book also seems to be Becker's graphic novel debut but she also has created mini-comics and webcomics like Himawari Share. Takei speaks more in this interview about the creation of this graphic novel.

    This book has been very well received and has gotten a number of starred reviews. Etelka Lehoczky wrote that "despite the grimness of its subject matter, They Called Us Enemy is a lively, vibrant book." Kirkus Reviews summed up,"A powerful reminder of a history that is all too timely today." Esther Keller wrote, "The black and white artwork is vibrant despite the lack of color," and added that the book "will add to a growing collection of nonfiction graphic stories that will help today’s younger generation understand our history and why we must say #neveragain."

    They Called Us Enemy was published by Top Shelf, and they offer a preview and much more here.