Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

A National Book Award Finalist and New York Times Bestseller, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a celebrated memoir by long-time New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, where she chronicles the final years of her parents' lives and how she came to care for them. Chast is very candid and frank about her relationships with both parents, and she was very eager to get out of their home as soon as she was able (going to college at age 16) and they seemed very much interested in maintaining their bubble. Her parents Elizabeth and George were married while in their 20s and lived in the same apartment for more than 40 years. Both were public school educators, and she was the more vocal and aggressive of the two, a vice-principal, while he was more introverted and docile, a French teacher. They were constant companions, taking care of each other and maintaining routines that masked their eventual aging and individual health declines.
Endearing, funny, and also eventually troubling.
Eventually, when they were in their 90s, life began catching up with them. When Elizabeth had a bad fall Chast realized that they needed assistance. At first, this entailed less invasive practices, like utilizing Meals on Wheels and regular check-ins. But eventually, matters grew more dire, and they had to enter into old age facilities that could offer medical and other services. Not only did Chast have to contend with her parents' aging but also their changing mental states, their growing medical needs, legal/financial concerns, and the costs of providing help without the benefit of insurance. This book is impressive in multiple ways: It is informative about the processes of taking care of older people, personal in how it portrays the Chast family and its dynamics, and darkly funny with Roz Chast's particularly witty and idiosyncratic voice. This book is a powerful read, simultaneously moving, heart-breaking, and eye-opening.

Roz Chast has a long career in cartooning and comics, with multiple collections of her New Yorker work available in book form as well as her latest graphic novel memoir Going Into Town. She speaks about her experiences and work on Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? in this interview.

This book is much lauded and has been heaped with praise and accolades. In its starred review Kirkus Reviews concluded, "A top-notch graphic memoir that adds a whole new dimension to readers’ appreciation of Chast and her work." In another starred review Publishers Weekly called it "a cartoon memoir to laugh and cry, and heal, with—Roz Chast’s masterpiece." Alex Witchel closed his review with these lines, "No one has perfect parents and no one can write a perfect book about her relationship to them. But Chast has come close."

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? was published by Bloomsbury, and they offer a reading guide and more info about it here.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Modern Fantasy

Modern Fantasy is a fun book that melds classic fantasy tropes with a contemporary, almost sitcom, sensibility. One one level it's the tale of a motley band (including a ranger, dwarf, elf, cleric, wizard, ogre, and troll) who quest to prevent a cult of religious zealots from summoning a fire demon that will destroy the world. On another level it's a character study of a bunch of 20-something friends as they go through their daily routines, which includes looks into their love lives, their drab work days, and the mundane frustrations of apartment living.

The main character of all this is Sage of the Riverlands, a level 12 ranger who works in a cubicle farm and is frequently bothered/bailed out by her large, oafish co-worker Back-Darr (who I think is supposed to be an ogre). At home she has to deal with her roommates and their significant others, particularly Lizard Wizard whose latest loser boyfriend is a kleptomaniac troll. Early on in the book, this troll steals an amulet from the wrong party and it brings all kinds of drama and misfortune into our heroes' lives.

Aside from the brisk plot, I enjoyed the characterizations in this book. I think that the diverse personalities bounce off each other well, and the dialogue is often clever. In addition, there is also a good amount of meta-humor about the whole set-up, and the book proceeds in jaunty fashion, with tongue firmly in cheek. I was taken by the heart and humor here, but the fact that chapter three is mostly dedicated to a training montage was the icing on the cake. Modern Fantasy was a great entertainment that I could easily see spun out into a regular comics series.

This book was originally published as a four-issue comic book series, and it was written by Rafer Roberts and drawn by Kristen Gudsnuk. Roberts has written a number of comics over the past two decades, but he is most known for his current series Grumble and a funny online collaboration with Justin Jordan called Thanos and Darkseid: Carpool Buddies of Doom. I first became aware of Gudsnuk's work with her webcomic/collection Henchgirl, and she has a relatively new book out for YA readers called Making Friends. I love her art style, which features lots of background gags, and her comic pacing, details, and character designs match up well with Roberts' story beats. Both creators weigh in about their work on Modern Fantasy in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book and series have been pretty positive. Jeremy Schmidt wrote that it "matches every laugh with a great piece of adventure that will leave you wanting more." Joe Grunenwald called it "super-fun and funny. It’s fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy."

Modern Fantasy was published by Dark Horse, and they offer a preview and more here.

Sunday, January 20, 2019


I get a bunch of books from various creators and publishers for the Comics Alternative podcast, and we don't get the chance to speak about them all on the show. The book I am writing about today, Frank, falls into that category, and I think it's a unique and compelling book well worth checking out. It walks the fine line between being entertaining and informative, and it both moved me and taught me about Canadian history. This tale is set in 1903 in the town of Frank, which was a coal mining town next to Turtle Mountain in Alberta. The protagonist is a troubled woman named Eve Lee, who finds herself frequently in the local drunk tank. One day, her old flame Oscar mysteriously disappears and she suspects something shady has happened to him, so she starts an investigation. What she discovers (without spoiling so much) is that something is not quite right with the records of the local mining company.
As you might guess, at least two murders are uncovered, and much of this book is involved with Eve trying to get to the bottom of matters while facing various roadblocks. All the while there are slight tremors and disturbances in the mine, and the latter parts of the book occur simultaneously with the Frank Slide, the most deadly rock-slide in Canadian history, when 90 million tons of limestone came loose from Turtle Mountain and decimated the town of Frank.

In the end, I felt that this book was a great blend of fact and fiction, with interesting characters and a complex plot that kept me intrigued throughout. It was the debut graphic novel of Ben Rankel, an illustrator who has had work in a number of indie comics anthologies. He speaks about his work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read remark positively on the book. Kevin Skinner wrote, "FRANK is both faithful to a profound moment in Canadian history while still creating something new and exciting to engage comic fans who may not even care about Canadian history. " The reviewer at 49th Shelf called Rankel "a gifted graphic novelist, soon to be amongst the most highly regarded." Insha Fitzpatrick summed up, "Frank presents a historical event with a creator that knows how to honor it but also expand it, creating a story that’s heartbreaking yet filled with world building and characters that are intense and riveting."

Frank was published by Renegade Arts Entertainment, and they offer more info about it here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Perdy, Volume 1: Flowers, Sex, Robbery

To my knowledge, this is the first European comics volume published in the US by Image Comics (it was translated into French and published simultaneously in Europe), and I feel it is a strong debut in that area. Perdy is rootin', tootin', rollicking western tale featuring one heck of a protagonist. Perdy is almost all id. She is rough and tough, always ready to drink, fight, and have her way in bed with any man of her choosing. She is like a hurricane blowing into town, and I love how she is depicted as a larger than life, older, more grizzled figure who is still somehow sexy and uses that to her advantage. She is a complicated figure, driven by her desires, a canny criminal, and often lewd and hilarious with her double entendres.
This page might be the most PG one I could find to share. Perdy is typically way more salty in her language.
When the book begins, Perdy is getting out of prison after 15 years and much has changed since she's been in the stir. Not only is she older, she has to do a lot of investigating to find her estranged daughter, Petunia, who is living in a small frontier town, running a flower shop, and going by the name Rose. She has a ton of suitors, and Perdy suspects she may be running a grift of her own to snag the richest man as her husband.

I adored the storytelling throughout this book!
When Rose gets sweet with the town's new doctor, Perdy reappears in her life, trying to recruit her for a new scheme and threatening to mess up everything. Over the course of the book the complicated backstory of their relationship is revealed, and it's pretty gruesome. Although this book is not really similar in terms of art or tone to another feminist western I recently read (and loved) Coyote Doggirl, Perdy also injects a different sort of spark and energy into the typical proceedings. The stout, buxom, and bombastic Perdy is certainly not the usual cowgirl, that's for sure. And I was left yearning for the second volume of this series, as this book ends with a cliffhanger. 

This book's creator is Kickliy, an American artist who has published much of his work in French. I first became aware of his work on the Musnet series published in the US by the ODOD imprint of uncivilized books. That series was an all ages book about a mouse who stumbles into Monet's garden and inspires the artist. He speaks more about his work on the Perdy books in this video and this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Jason Michelitch called it "a rock solid piece of serial entertainment -- it's funny, it's violent, and it comes through with a reason for you to come back for the next installment." Chris Coplan wrote about the art style, "All these crooked, ugly lines help create a world that’s alluring in its ugliness." Publishers Weekly summed up, "While not for the easily offended, this raunchy caper is an unexpected escape from typical genre fare."

Perdy was published by Image Comics, and they offer a preview and more here. Because it features nudity, sex, profanity, and violence, I suggest this books for mature readers.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Super Weird Heroes, Volume 2: Preposterous But True!

If you are into superheroes, Golden Age comic book, or surrealism (or all three!), this book is right up your alley. Super Weird Heroes, Volume 2: Preposterous But True! is a hefty collection of comics tales featuring some outlandish and amazing characters. Some, like aquatic ace Barry Kuda, have excellent puns that provide a humorous counterpoint to the action. Others, like The Jaguar, feature some pretty insane costumes and gimmicks. One, The Eye, is literally a large, floating eyeball that gives superpowers to others who do its bidding. And although this book has a classic Golden Ager or two, like Stardust the Super Wizard or Doll Man, most of them were new to me.

The comics here are fun, often zany, and frequently uniquely inventive. The various art styles used in Golden Age comics also make for interesting reading, as you can see in this sampling of some of my favorite characters/stories in this book:
Airmale is a university professor who has a strange postal theme to his powers as well as a sidekick named Stampy.
The teenage heroine Tomboy is a surprisingly capable and acrobatic adversary for a violent crime boss.
The strangely costumed Hip Knox has amazing abilities, but he seems to use them mostly in vindictive and petty manner.

I loved the Greek mythological origin of The Bouncer, especially because he was descended from the relatively obscure character Antaeus.

Also a key feature of this book is its one-page introductions of each character and its creators, which give context to these tales. In these mini-essays, the book's editor Craig Yoe demonstrates a love and appreciation for the creative energy contained in these stories. It seem to be it would be easy to simply mock many of them for their ridiculous qualities, but overall I feel this book comes from a place of admiration and respect. Yoe has a huge amount of books and comics collections to his credit, and he is a major player in contemporary work on preserving comics history. He speaks more about many of his recent publications including his work on this book in this interview with my cohost Derek at The Comics Alternative.

I was not able to find many reviews of this book but the ones I located were positive. Allen Spinney wrote, "It really is great fun to see how these heroes fight for individual freedoms, punch out armed goons and celebrate their eccentricity in such a colorful way." Dan Greenfield added that "part of the fun is seeing names like Jerry Siegel and Otto Binder — creators known for, shall we say, more successful characters — show up."

Super Weird Heroes, Volume 2 was published by IDW, and they offer a preview and more here. I have not read the first book of Super Weird Heroes, and it's not really necessary for appreciating this volume, but I aim to check it out soon.

The publisher provided a review copy.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

The Prague Coup

The Prague Coup has a lot going on. It's a crime noir set in a specific historical context, following the movements of author/ex?-spy Graham Greene as he deals with various shady characters in Prague in 1948, when the formerly democratic Czechoslovakia became a communist state. Ostensibly there to research the area for his screenplay for now considered classic film The Third Man, Greene also dabbles in politics, clandestine entertainments, and at least one extramarital affair. I think knowing a lot about the historical context as well as Greene's life and/or the plot of The Third Man would help a reader out, but they are not essential for enjoying this book.
What helped make matters more plain and understandable is that the plot is told from the viewpoint of Elizabeth Montagu, a former actress and ex-spy who guided Greene to various underground spots in Prague. She has her own intentions and a complex set of personal connections, which all combine for some gripping drama and tense cloak and dagger action. All of this story is complemented by the photo-realistic artwork that grounds the book in a grainy, shadowy reality that echoes the look and feel of The Third Man.
This book is a collaboration between writer Jean-Luc Fromental and artist Miles Hyman. Fromental is a translator, script-writer, and author with many books for both adults and children to his credit. Hyman has drawn various comics over the years and also exhibits his art throughout Europe. Both creators speak about their work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly concluded, "This example of art imitating life should captivate lovers of spy fiction or Cold War history." Benjamin Welton wrote, "The Prague Coup has everything fans of The Third Man could want—an exploration of Vienna’s extensive sewer system, gunplay, a mysterious plot with international implications, and plenty of witty banter about art, faith, love, sex, and loyalty."

The Prague Coup was published by Hard Case Crime/Titan Books, and they offer more info and a preview here. This book features some nudity and violence, so I recommend it for readers mature enough to deal with those things.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

My Favorite Graphic Novels of 2018

I read a lot of graphic novels in the course of a year. Some I review here on this blog, and some I talk about on the Comics Alternative podcast with my co-host Derek Royal. What follows is my list of what I felt were the best ones I read published in the last calendar year.

Best Overall
All the Answers by Michael Kupperman

 This account of Kupperman's father's life is a fascinating look at celebrity, the early days of television, and how families keep and share secrets. It also is rather philosophical in how it treats the topic of writing autobiography as well. It's an excellent nonfiction debut by an artist mostly known for excellent humor comics.

Best Biography
Is This Guy For Real? by Box Brown

 I love Box Brown's comics, and they frequently end up on this list. Here, he told the story of a person I knew a lot about, and I love how he wrote a book that captured his spirit, dug into some areas I was unfamiliar with, and surprised me with how moving it was. It's great for Kaufman fans both new and old.

Best Nonfiction
Brazen by Pénélope Bagieu

Pénélope Bagieu is one of the premier comics creators going right now. This collection of biographies of ground-breaking, strong, and impactful women is informative, entertaining, and inspiring. I will read anything she publishes, and this book is another masterpiece.

Best Noir Story
Tyler Cross: Black Rock by Fabien Nury and artist Brüno

I love noir comics, and I waited to read this one for a few years now. This tale of a drifter who happens into a dangerous, small Texas town is gritty, violent, and thrilling. The artwork is colorful and really pops off the page. Also, it made me laugh out loud, a belly laugh even, with its dialogue.

Best Comedy/Western
Coyote Doggirl by Lisa Hanawalt

This book did two things exceptionally well. First, it told an excellent and suspenseful western adventure. Second, it did so with a lot of humor, attitude, and modern sensibilities that wink at and comment on common conventions associated with western tales. I love this book's artwork, and the main character's style and panache made me love and root for her even more.

Best Memoir
Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka

This YA memoir delves into some deeply personal and painful topics, and I love how it speaks to the redemptive power of art as well as how family is what you make of it. I was moved by much of it, and I hope this book becomes popular in middle school classrooms and libraries.

Best Short Story GN
I Am Young by M. Dean

This collection of short stories uses music as a background to look at people, how they define themselves, and how they try to build relationships with others. A few of these stories are excellent, and all of them are evocative and poignant. I loved reading them and also seeking out the artists and listening to the associated tunes.

Best Anthology
The Nib #1, edited by Matt Bors

Gathered from the content of one of my favorite webcomic collectives, this magazine is the first in a series of quarterly publications. They feature great political comics, funny observational comics, and excellent, absorbing nonfiction comics. It has something for everyone who loves comics.

Best Science Fiction
On A Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

Originally published as a webcomic, this tome tells the tales of a group of space archaeologists who travel the galaxy fixing up collapsing sites and also of one if its members and her first love. It also features exquisite artwork, goldfish-shaped space-ships, and Gothic cathedral space-buildings. This book is more about how people live, love, and relate to one another than it is about "hard"sci-fi, but it's gorgeously rendered and you will fall in love with the characters.

Best Autobiographical Comic
In the Future, We Are Dead by Eva Müller

I found much to relate to in this book that ponders death and what happens afterward. Told in a series of nine autobiographical short stories, it is incredibly thoughtful, beautifully drawn, and also darkly funny. The exploration and evolution of how she thought of death from childhood to adulthood was both enthralling and moving. A much more hopeful book than it appears.

Any how, that is my list. Thank you for reading, and Happy New Year!