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.