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 Guts 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.