Friday, August 30, 2019

Marie Curie: A Life of Discovery

As you might guess from the title Marie Curie: A Life of Discovery is a biography of the famed scientist, and this book certainly captures the high points of her career from her pioneering work in radiation to her discovering multiple new elements to her multiple Nobel Prizes. She is still the only person to win those prizes in two separate fields, chemistry and physics. She was a pivotal scientist whose work is paved the way for many others, and I feel it is pretty easy to either lionize as an otherworldly figure or highlight her as a token great scientist. But she was also a person, and that aspect of her life is what this book portrays very well.

Its primary way of making Marie Curie's life feel palpable is through its artwork, which is painted in impressionistic fashion. It inserts color into what could be a drab, factual account, and it also features some broader scenes and landscapes, setting tone as much as conveying plot.

What I liked is how much the art contributes to the pacing, especially with some of the larger moments where double page spreads allow the story to breathe. In particular, I felt the sequence where Pierre met his unfortunate end was powerfully rendered. The artwork also packs an emotional wallop when used to show intimate moments of her life, including the aftermath of a miscarriage, her struggles being a woman in a male-dominated field, and the fallout from her husband's untimely death. In addition, the framing sequence, where Marie and Pierre's daughter Irène recounts these tales as part of a family history also makes everything feel more personal and direct.
Marie and Pierre talking about her work. In the original Italian version of the book.
What I also appreciated about this book was how it featured multiple facets of her life, from her cultural identity as a Polish woman living in Paris to her celebrity, where she was portrayed in the press in negative ways. It is strange seeing just how much she was used to bash on women in the news of the day, first described as a mere assistant to her husband (when she was actually his peer) and later as gossip fodder for her relationship with Paul Langevin. Overall, I enjoyed this book and how it depicted Marie Curie's life and work in nuanced ways. In the end she comes across as a human being and not just some figure from a textbook.

This book's creator Alice Milani is based in Italy. She has also published a graphic biography of Wisława Szymborska, a Polish author who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1996. She shares her art in this blog.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. BookDragon wrote, "When Milani isn’t explaining in the text – fluidly translated from the original Italian by Kerstin Schwandt – she relies on atmospheric, pencil-and-watercolor art to augment the narrative of Curie’s brilliant life." Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "An appealing volume for graphic novel and science enthusiasts." Jody Kopple concluded, "With a complex story structure and sophisticated science content, this addition to the canon about Curie is ideal for upper middle and high schoolers."

Originally published in Italy, Marie Curie: A Life of Discovery was published in the US by Graphic Universe, and they offer more info and an excerpt here.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Zita the Spacegirl

Today is my oldest child's fourth birthday, and we just read this book, so it's appropriate that I post its review now. Zita the Spacegirl is a fun, exciting, suspenseful, and inventive adventure story. It starts when she and her friend Joseph find a crater while playing outside. In it is an old, strange remote device with a big red button.
Of course, Zita presses the button and a portal to another dimension pops open. Tentacles grab Joseph and he disappears as the portal closes. Zita is intrepid, presses the button again and leaps in to follow and rescue her friend.

What follows involves a lot of twists and turns. There are aliens of all sorts, a real menagerie of sizes, shapes, forms, and roles. Also, there are shifty characters who seek to exploit others, and some who seem to be more friendly. Zita falls in with a battle robot named 1, a giant mouse named Mouse, a large alien named Strong Strong, a shady, apparently human guy named Piper, and an old bucket of bolts named Randy.
Together, this ragtag band seeks to locate and rescue Joseph, who by the way has been taken by a doomsday cult who sees him as their savior. Because, oh yeah, an asteroid is on a collision course with this planet.

There is a lot going on here, clearly, but the storytelling is clear and bold. The characters are strongly defined and easy to know. And the action is fast and furious. This book is a lot of fun to read, even the scary bits, which come in the form of creepy aliens and dire situations. My son and I have read it and re-read it a few times already.

Ben Hatke is the author/creator of this book. He has quite a few other graphic novels and picture books under his belt, including more entries in the Zita series, the Mighty Jack series, Little Robot, and Julia's House for Lost Creatures. His artwork is deceivingly simple looking yet dynamic. He draws great facial expression, and he clearly loves designing some way-out looking aliens. He speaks about his work on this book in this interview (it's a few years old, but hey, no spoilers about the later books).

Zita the Spacegirl is a much celebrated book with lots of great reviews. Elizabeth Bird wrote that "what author/artist Ben Hatke does well is dip into a wellspring of familiar ideas to bring us a new world that truly is its own beast." Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review that concluded, "this debut is truly out of this world." April Spisak opined, "The amount of background detail fills out the story, inviting examination of the endless number of monster, alien, and robot inhabitants, even while the pace of the text itself is as fast as Zita has to be to save her friend before the world explodes."

Zita the Spacegirl was published by First Second, and they offer more info about it (including the whole slew of awards and accolades it has earned) here. This book is the first in a series, so fans have more to look forward to!

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Nib Magazine Issue 4: Scams

I just read the fourth issue of The Nib print magazine, and it is a top notch collection of political cartoons, tales, and reports by excellent writers and cartoonists. I am a huge fan of The Nib, as a magazine and as a website that updates fairly regularly (practically daily). As of July, the entire enterprise is independent and reliant on the support of its readers, and I am glad to take this time to highlight what I feel is an excellent source of comics goodness.

This particular issue focuses on Scams, and it covers multiple topics, including the classic Nigerian Prince email swindle, ways that refugees are robbed by supposed help agencies, various Ponzi schemes, seemingly criminal real estate practices, good-old-fashioned counterfeiting, and electronic fraud. The stories are current, topical, and fascinating. Also, many also feature a good dose of humor. I love nonfiction comics, and this book is full of them.

Stand-out stories in this book include:

Emi Gennis's account of John Romulus Brinkley, "The Goat Gland Doctor" who was an infamous huckster with a huge radio signal.
"My Heart Burns" by Yazan al-Saadi and Tracy Chahwan, about smugglers and how they fleece Syrian refugees who are most vulnerable and desperate.
Josh Carter and Liz Enright's "Secret Agent Man," about one father's search for a big online score and its aftermath on his family's lives.
These stories are profoundly moving as well as eye-opening. These are the best kinds of comics: educational, informative, funny, and emotional. There is something here for everyone.

The Nib's website, where original work is regularly published, is here. Memberships to The Nib are available here. Rates start at $2/month, and the print copy costs $4/month. It's well worth it!

They are also currently running a summer fundraiser, if you are just inclined to make a donation, I say it's for a great bunch of folks.

Thursday, August 15, 2019


Long-time readers of this blog should know that Jaime Hernandez is a living legend and one of my favorite comics creators. He has won multiple Harvey and Eisner Awards for the long-running Love and Rockets series he co-created with his brothers, and I loved seeing his work in various anthologies over the years. Last year he also ventured into the arena of children's comics with The Dragon Slayer.

This book, Tonta, gathers together material published a few years ago in Love and Rockets: New Stories. For the most part, these stories focus on the titular Tonta (her nickname, Spanish for stupid or dummy), a teenager who tries to fit in the best she can. Her family is sort of a mess, with a network of older half-sisters and a half-brother who occasionally nose into her business. Also, her mother seems to be a black widow sort, leaving a trail of exes who have been suspiciously murdered. That last bit entails a prolonged legal drama that is woven throughout the book.
As you can see, Tonta also does typical sorts of teenager things, like sneaking booze, hanging out with people she shouldn't, hiding out in the woods with her clique, and cozying up to members of her favorite band. She is not always successful with her intentions, or come off the coolest, but she is a dynamic and expressive character. That is what I perhaps appreciated most about this book. You do not necessarily need to know a lot of background to catch on to the multitude of things that go on. Each character is defined and memorable. Each episode is powerful and economically communicated, and it is very easy to get swept up in the narrative flow. This book is yet another testament to Jaime Hernandez's incredible artistic and storytelling chops.

The reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. Publishers Weekly concluded, "This rambunctious ride may be more minor in the Hernandez catalog, but it’s still a master class in cartooning." Hillary Brown commented in a similar vein, "It seems like the abiding conception of Jaime Hernandez’s Tonta is that it’s a minor work of his, a sort of tossed-off compilation of stories focusing on a character who’s more an Io than a Jupiter, a character actor rather than a leading lady. But the fact is that reading it, for me, produced the same rush of blood to the brain and almost dizzying happiness as his “major” Maggie and Hopey stories."

Tonta was published by Fantagraphics, and they offer a preview and more here. This book features some profanity and nudity, so it is suggested for readers mature enough to handle those things.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Tyler Cross Volume 2: Angola

I reviewed the first collection about Tyler Cross here, but do not worry if you missed it because Angola stands on its own. Here the veteran criminal/smuggler gets set up during a supposedly simple job and sent to the worst prison in America. Surrounded by swamps, kept by sadistic, corrupt guards, and pursued by the several members of a crime family, Cross is beset by hardships. His daily struggle to survive is further complicated by the price on his head and the lascivious warden's wife. So, of course, he starts to plot an escape plan.

Tyler Cross is a character in the vein of Richard Starks' Parker, a tough, violent, and crafty criminal who is not going to undergo any transformation over the course of the story. He's in a spot; he's going to get out of it, and it's not going to be pretty. Still, I feel the plotting and artwork are both well executed, and I very much enjoyed the book. If you are seeking a suspenseful, action-noir story, this one has a lot recommending it.

This book is another collaboration between writer Fabien Nury and artist Brüno. Nury has written a number of historical comic books and graphic novels, including The Death of Stalin. Brüno has drawn several comics series, including Commando Colonial, many which seem to be historical pieces as well. The duo have also collaborated on a prior comic, Atar Gull, a tale about slavery.

The reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly concluded, "As intricately woven as the first installment, this brutal, cool series remains recommended reading for crime thriller enthusiasts." Benjamin Welton called it "a classic crime caper told in the hardboiled style." Andy Shaw wrote, "The story isn’t as dynamic as the first, trapped as it is in a prison, but it’s just as intense and dark."

Tyler Cross: Angola was published by Titan Books/Hard Case Crime, and they offer more about it here. There is a sizable preview available here.

A third Tyler Cross series just wrapped up here.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Girl Town

An Eisner Award-nominated book, Girl Town is a collection of five stories that highlight different aspects of women's lives through fantasy and science fiction tropes. Two of these tales, "Radishes" and "Diana's Electric Tongue," won Ignatz Awards in the past.

The stories in this collection are:
  • The titular tale is about a couple of cliques of women I'd describe as frenemies. 
  • "Radishes" is about two friends playing hooky at a unique outdoor market.
  • "Diana's Electric Tongue" is the longest narrative in the book by far, and it is about a woman with a robot boyfriend and a troubled past relationship.
  • "The Big Burning House" is a visually ambitious, interesting mix of fandom, podcasting, and social media.
  • "Please Sleep Over" is about a divorcée and her girlfriend house-sitting where she grew up.

The visual styles of each story differ, and what unites them is the way that the people in them grapple with and try to mask their emotions. I loved how this book portrayed characters trying to stay strong and put forth a happy/positive face in times of adversity or trauma. Each story hinges on a moment or moments when that mask slips and the pain and emotion shine through. I loved these little moments and was moved by them, which speaks to the craft and skill in both plotting an impactful tale while also perfectly complementing the plot with drawings that carried lots of emotional weight. This is a book full of pain and beauty, each story one to savor.

Carolyn Nowak is the celebrated author of this book, and she has also published another adult comic titled No Better Words. If you check out her Patreon page you can see more about her work and future projects. She speaks more about her work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews* I have read about this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly opined that "the full collection represents the emergence of a promising new comics talent." Kirkus Reviews concluded, "Nowak creates raw female characters and, by spotlighting them, demands that they be seen." Rob Clough wrote, "Nowak makes her work seem lighthearted and even breezy on the surface, but the reality is that her work is emotionally and intellectually dense." Alex Hoffman wrote that "these comics are weird, a little off kilter, different than expected."

Girl Town was published by Top Shelf, and they offer a preview and more here.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

*There is also the infamous The Comics Journal review, though I consider it the same way that Charles Hatfield does in his comment (scroll down). It's a lame, sexist, dismissive review that holds Nowak to an unreasonable standard.