Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Hot Comb

Like Fights, Hot Comb is a book that explores childhood, race, and growing through an unique lens, in this case hair care. It is a collection of eight short stories set in different times and places where young African-American women navigate their families, relationships, and worlds.

The title story is a great example of what this book entails. It is a tale of Ebony, as a fifth grade girl who wants to have her hair permed because she thinks it will stop her classmates from teasing her. She finally convinces her mother to let her do it, and what follows is a complex web of emotions. Her mother is ambivalent, against her daughter messing with her natural hair but also capitulating, and also saddened by her growing up and becoming more independent. Ebony gets her world broadened with her experiences at the beauty shop, learning more about how to take care of her hair and also about how people talk to each other there. She is excited but also surprised by how painful and laborious the process is. Also, she just can't keep from touching her newly transformed hair.
It seems that both Ebony and her mom pay some price from the perm, and what becomes painful for Ebony is that all her efforts do not pan out as she expected at school. This story works in multiple ways, as a coming of age tale, as a family relationship story, and even as a contemporary fable. It is packed with emotion, humor, and humanity, and it introduces the reader to a great many themes that crop up in the following stories.

Other stories in this volume include "Big Ma," "My Lil Sister Lena," and the generational tensions of "Sisters and Daughters." They are all noteworthy for how many emotional and cultural issues they touch upon. The "Lena" story in particular, about how her sister was the only black girl on her swim team and was dramatically changed by her teammates' attention to how her hair changed when it got wet. They all invaded her privacy and space and were compelled to touch it, which created a sense of anxiety that manifested in self-harm.
As you can see from the excerpts, the art here is packed with all sorts of energy. This book has an emotional wallop, and I love how it plays with line work that is sometime simple and strong and other times tangled and complex (like hair!). Also there are framing images, parody ads for various hair care products that act as interstitials that inform the identity politics of the stories. They show how central and varied the seemingly mundane matter of hair care is for these characters. And how much pressure there is to alter themselves to conform to constructed ideals of beauty.

This book's creator Ebony Flowers is a cartoonist, ethnographer, and teacher. One of her mentors along the way was Lynda Barry, one of the greatest comics creators in my opinion, and I feel that her work packs as much a punch as Barry's, in spirit and not in any derivative way. She has won a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, and she speaks about her work on Hot Comb in this interview as well as this one.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been full of acclaim. In a starred review Publishers Weekly called is a book "rich with both sorrow and celebration." John Seven wrote, "What makes it so special is the way she wraps these elements around larger themes of race without ever making you feel like you are reading A Very Important Work With A Heavy Purpose." In a starred review from School Library Journal, Desiree Thomas summed it up, "Ideal for most public and school libraries." Paul Lai also has lots of great insights in this podcast episode.

Hot Comb was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they offer a preview and more info about it here.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Fights: One Boy's Triumph Over Violence

I have read most of the books published by Joel Christian Gill, such as his Strange Fruit anthologies and Tales of the Talented Tenth series. Those have been nonfiction histories, but in Fights he turns to a more personal topic, a memoir about his own childhood. With his mother being incarcerated when he was very young and her not always being able to provide a stable environment for him after the death of his father, Gill got bounced around to live with various family friends and relatives, with varying amounts of supervision and support.

Also, sometimes those places brought other sorts of violence or abuse that he had to contend with. As a consequence he learned early on that he had to rely on himself for many things and also that meant he had to learn to fight. There are many commonplace adversaries along the way: bullies on the school bus, racist jerks who try to shake him down for money, and rivals who want to maintain their reputations and protect their turf. Gill has to deal with a lot of adversity to try to fit in and also carve some space for himself. It seems that he always has to be on the offensive and can never really relax his guard.

It is easy to read this book and feel for his plight, but it is also difficult to suffer the depravities he experienced. The artwork portrays this sense of ambivalence about childhood, drawn in the same accessible, clear, and picture-book manner as his other works. It is jarring to see "cute" figures as they navigate serious issues such as blatant discrimination, sexual abuse, and physical violence, but it is also emblematic of the sorts of circumstances many young people experience. It impresses the point that many of these situations force children to have to grow up well before they should, but at the same time they are still children. It makes the proceedings that much more distressing. I applaud the braveness here in candidly portraying such personal trauma and how he learned to cope.

One of the most powerful aspects of this book is Gill's instilling a sense of empathy for pretty much every character, reinforced with frequent reminders that children are sponges that absorb what is around them. He might portray bullies and abusers as monstrous, but he also constantly reminds that they are human beings who are the products of their contexts. This view is what eventually drives Joel's own realizations as he grows older and informs an important choice he made when he was just out of high school. It also makes this tale that much more poignant and difficult to ignore. Certainly there are many ills portrayed here, some systemic and others more personal. Gill smartly depicts the terms of the debate of how to best address these factors but does not come down with a didactic solution to what is a complex set of circumstances. He only writes about what has worked for him and his family. This book is excellent, at once moving, provocative, and thought-provoking.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly wrote, "Gill’s empathy for his younger self and the children he grew up alongside elevates his singular story into a passionate plea for neglected children everywhere." In a starred review from School Library Journal, Carla Riemer concluded, "Despite the heartbreak, Gill leaves readers with a message of hope—that anyone living with trauma can find a way out." John Seven opined, "Fights doesn’t feel like a story being told by a grown-up looking back, but a kid living it. That’s the power within it, it hasn’t lost track of the kid that the story is about."

Fights was published by Oni Press, and they offer more info about it here. This book portrays sexual abuse, violence, and profanity and is suggested for readers mature enough to handle those things.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Nico Bravo and the Hound of Hades

There are about a million books based on concepts from mythology, and I think that 99% are not as enjoyable as this one. Nico Bravo and the Hound of Hades mashes together a good many concepts and universes in a story that is inventive and funny with just the right touch of mystery and suspense. Nico is a young orphan who works at Vulcan's Celestial Supply Shop. Vulcan makes all sorts of items that appeal to the mythological crowd, and he caters to pretty much every monster, god, demigod, and adventurer from all pantheons and folklore.
Joining Nico in stocking shelves, counting inventory, and running the cash register are Lula, a sphinx, and Buck, a unicorn. The first few pages of this book give us insight into the workings of this establishment, but after Vulcan whips up a new batch of items, including one giant magical sword, things take a turn toward adventure. Eowulf, a young descendant of Beowulf, buys the sword and sets out in the world to make her name. Her first task is do vanquish a mythical beast and she sets her sights on Cerberus. Nico 1.) does not think she's worthy of the weapon and 2.) wants to defend the three-headed dog as it is not so vicious and also maintains a vital role in keeping the dead in the underworld. He leaves the store to stop her and ends up on his own epic adventure. Along the way he learns some curious things about his past, meets one of his heroes, and runs afoul of some real monsters.

This book is chock full of cool variations on mythological themes. There are funny scenes in the shop, such as when potential customers Thor, Zeus, and Iskur squabble over the last jar of lightning. There are inventive artifacts like a bottomless backpack (that comes complete with wings that help its wearer travel). It also plays with the tropes of the hero's journey, and features lots of cameos from notable figures. It is a real smorgasbord for any fan of myths and legends.
This book is also a feast for the eyes, with the artwork being a huge reason why everything works so well. Many panels are crammed full of interesting and arresting details, in the vein of classic Mad Magazines, so there are multiple gags, references, or other cool things to observe. The characters are very expressive and colorful, and the storytelling is bold and extremely easy to follow. I also love how this book handles so much exposition in an economical way through of clever devices like trading cards.
Collect them all!
I was very impressed with this book as it features great characters, a plot full of twists and turns, and lots of mythological hi-jinx. It juggles all sorts of stories and players (I did not even mention the plot to avoid a dystopian future following the Unicorn Wars), and it does so with panache. I loved reading this book, and I am psyched that there will be two sequels, making up a trilogy.

Mike Cavallaro created this book, and he is no stranger to drawing graphic novels. He illustrated the YA sci-fi book Decelerate Blue written by Adam Rapp as well as the Foiled series written by Jane Yolen. He also drew the comic book series Impossible Incorporated written by J.M. DeMatteis. He spoke about his work on the Nico Bravo books in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Lori Henderson wrote, "Middle grade readers will love the adventure and humor this graphic novel offers." Publishers Weekly praised the "bright, psychedelic illustrations." Megan Rupe called it "a delightful fantasy comic...[that] has a lot going for it."

Nico Bravo and the Hound of Hades was published by First Second and they offer a preview and more information here.

Monday, February 10, 2020


When I survey the range of graphic novels out there today, I am amazed at the sorts of titles and topics they cover. Except when it comes to mathematics. Math is the one area that is apparently very difficult to translate into comics, and that is one reason why this book, 3x4, is noteworthy.

The premise in this book is a homework assignment where the students have to draw sets of 12. The amounts of sets and items is up to them. They can draw one set of 12, two of six, three of four, or four of three. I know that the author uses this exact assignment with adult art students, but it also works for teaching younger children about counting, multiplication, and elementary factoring. And the children take the assignment to heart, expressing their interests through their drawings.
Roses! And mmm, donuts.
A lot of the fun of this book shines through the drawings. It is full of simple figures and backgrounds rendered in geometric shapes and in vibrant colors. My 2-year-old love reading this book, pointing out all of the items that appear in the sets. He also likes to tell me whether we can eat them or not, but I think that means that the items themselves appeal to young readers and also that the illustrations are just that visually appetizing. Fans of the book Wordplay, which I reviewed earlier this year, will also be glad to see Annemarie return and play a prominent role here. This book has the illusion of simplicity, but it is elegantly complex and works on many different levels.

This book's author, Ivan Brunetti, an artist and educator who has been working in comics for a few decades. Currently an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago, he has done multiple covers for The New Yorker and created all kinds of solo work, including lots of independent comics and lately a growing number of titles for younger readers like Comics: Easy As ABC. He speaks about his work on 3x4 in this interview.

All the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews summed up, "So exemplary an execution of a simple concept that it can be read multiple ways—as multiplication, counting, sorting—without sacrificing fun." In another starred review, Publishers Weekly concluded, "As the characters work through the multiplication concept on their own terms, readers are sure to arrive at a clearer understanding." Kelley Gile gave it another starred review, calling it "a lovely graphic story that teaches a simple concept in a most engaging way."

3x4 was published by TOON Books, and they offer a preview and more here.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020


Stargazing is a beautiful book about an unlikely friendship and all the ups and downs that go into maintaining it. The main character is Christine, a young Chinese-American girl who comes from a conservative family that values family, education, and religion. She frequently studies and practices her violin and is a dutiful daughter. One day she encounters a girl named Moon, who comes trailing rumors of beating up other kids and maybe not really being Chinese. Her mom operates a plant nursery and they live a more bohemian lifestyle. To save money, Moon and her mom end up living in a spare unit on Christine's parents' property.
Moon is a big contrast to Christine; she is a confident vivacious person who is into art, dancing, and music, especially K-pop. She also has a special sort of vision, seeing all sorts of lights and celestial images, imagining that she is really from outer space. Her mom is much more permissive, and as they start to hang out more Christine gets exposed to more popular culture (and vegetarianism) and gets encouraged to get out of her shell. She does not always enjoy that process, and the pair have their conflicts. However, things take a serious turn when the true nature of Moon's visions is discovered, and the duo start to realize just how much they mean to each other.

At the center of this book is an exploration of relationships, whether they be friendships or family ones, and what really makes it work is the artwork. This book's creator Jen Wang has that rare ability to breathe life into her characters with her delicate linework and strong storytelling, and the coloring by Lark Pien further animates them while also creating a lush atmosphere and tonal shifts. Even though they are depicted in somewhat cartoonish manner, the people in this book seem real and relatable. I could spend hours just looking at the variety of their facial expressions and emotional reactions.

This whole enterprise is incredibly moving, and although a work of fiction it felt very real. I especially appreciated the endpapers of the book, where I learned just how personal this book was to the author and how she wove elements of her childhood into it. Her story and art combined to make a fully realized tale that is rich, sweet, and resonant.

Wang won multiple awards for her prior graphic novel The Prince and the Dressmaker, including an Eisner and the Mosaic Award from the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards. She has a few other graphic novels to her credit, including In Real Life and Koko Be Good. She speaks about her work on Stargazing in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book has been glowing. Publishers Weekly wrote in a starred review, "Plumbing the depths of Wang’s childhood for inspiration, this rich, heart-filled narrative will resonate with any reader who has ever felt different within their community." Caitlin Rosberg called it "a book that is full of sweetness and seriousness in turns, and offers a lot of kindness to characters and readers both." Nancy Powell summed it up as "a sweet and intimate story of friendship, of learning to be comfortable in one’s own skin, and learning to embrace the differences that make each person special in their own way." In another starred review, Kirkus Reviews concluded, "A shining gem of a book."

Stargazing was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more information here.