Saturday, May 30, 2020

Science Comics: Trees: Kings of the Forest

It's been a while since I've read a volume of Science Comics, and this one, Trees: Kings of the Forest, does not disappoint. As you might tell from the title, it is a long survey into trees, and it is chock full of information. For example, I learned how they adapt to protect themselves from some animals (like insects who eat their leaves) while also becoming inviting for others (like raccoons) to dwell in and on them. I learned how fig trees reproduce (the flowers are IN the fruit). I learned how a variety of seeds and pods are spread. I learned that trees actually have systems for communicating with other trees as well as for adapting to  environmental changes. And I also learned why some trees flourish in specific climate zones but not others.

The guide on this educational journey is a delightfully designed acorn who meets a variety of forest animals along the way. Some, like the squirrel, have ulterior motives for the acorn, and others, like a friendly beetle, just want to gnaw on and eat wood. The artwork in this book does so much. In some places it operates like the diagrams in a biology textbook, in others it offers helpful looks into the various layers and parts of trees. It also tells a fun story about an acorn as it travels across the forest and decides whether or not to begin the long process to become a tree. Just check out this excerpt to see how multi-purpose this book is.
It is clear that much research went into this book, both in terms of references and information. Like many other books in this series, it is intended for an upper elementary/middle school audience but offers much for older readers. It certainly features a lot of technical vocabulary, which is reinforced by the handy glossary in the end-papers. This book is the best kind of educational graphic novel, casting new light on its subject while maintaining a sense of humor and joy. I highly recommend this book and the entire Science Comics series.

This volume of Science Comics was created by Andy Hirsch, who has published other books in the series about dogs and cats. He also has a number of comic book series, including The Baker Street Peculiars, as well as a couple of other graphic novels under his belt, including his own Varmints. And on a personal note, Hirsch drew a caricature of me for The Comics Alternative podcast. I really dig his work.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. In a starred review Sarah Hunter opined, "It’s hard not to see the wonder in this dense, pithy comic, and kids who are under the misapprehension that trees are boring will quickly learn otherwise." J. Caleb Mozzocco wrote, "There aren’t really any bad comics in this line of books, but Trees? It’s a particularly good one." Jody Kopple concurred in her starred review, calling it "another winner in the series."

Trees: Kings of the Forest was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more here.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Woman World

Imagining a world where all the men have ceased to exist and women are left to run everything has been done in comics form before, but this book Woman World does it with a singular voice and a great sense of humor. The comics in this book were originally published online, originally on Instagram. They follow the adventures of a small band of women living in a future where all the men have died due to some genetic disease. They choose their town name and create a flag to feature the most empowering symbol they could think of: Beyoncé's Thighs. That choice should indicate just how this book mingles a feminist viewpoint with humor and a pop culture sensibility.

As the book progresses through a series of 2-3 page episodes we meet a number of this world's denizens. Among them there's Mayor Gaia who walks around naked because she likes the feel of the cool breeze on her underboob.
Told ya!

There is Emiko, who has grown up in a world without men, and upon seeing a dated movie, comes to think of Paul Blart: Mall Cop as the embodiment of masculinity. There is also Grandma, who remembers things as they used to be and finds people incredulous at what she describes.
Each woman has a distinct personality and role, and through their stories and brief episodes a larger tapestry of this world appears. It is a somewhat tragic place, where people are striving to keep civilization going on their own terms, but always tinged a sense of (dark) humor.

The artwork, as you can see in the excerpts, is spare but very expressive. I love how people's personalities and emotions are conveyed in straight-forward fashion. I also think that it juxtaposes well with all the verbal interactions and cultural references. The beats work just as well in human moments as they do in delivering laugh-out-loud gags.

This book is the creation of Aminder Dhaliwal, an animator who has worked for a number of major studios. Woman World is her graphic novel debut, and it was nominated for a 2019 Ignatz Award. She speaks about her work on WW in this interview. She still regularly publishes new comics on Instagram.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Etelka Lehoczky called it "a remarkably sly and devastating critique of patriarchy. " Phillipe Leblanc wrote, "While the premise sounds depressing and bleak, the book is far from being a dark somber affair. Dhaliwal balances her dark premise with the precise amount of levity and wit to create wonderfully comedic situations." Publishers Weekly added, "Women’s creativity, sexuality, and fearlessness are unleashed by Dhaliwal’s end of days."

Woman World was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they offer a preview and more here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020


Originally a series of comics published online at Vice, Catboy tells the tale of what happens when a random wish comes true. One day 20-something artist Olive sees a falling star and wishes that her best friend (and cat) Henry could hang out with her as a human. Voila, the next day he is in her apartment in human form, and her life will never be the same.
What makes this book work so well is how idiosyncratic and humorous Olive and Henry's relationship is. She has to teach him to try to be as human as possible, though he still lusts after other cats and wants to eat delicacies like dead birds. Some of the jokes come from those situations, but more of them come at Olive's expense, when it becomes clear just how much she is struggling in ways that Henry immediately excels. She tends to have few friends and keeps to herself. Henry immediately makes everyone his friend, including Dixie, whom Olive has been trying to befriend for years. He gets a successful job as a dogwalker and begins to make more money than her, even buying proper furniture for their apartment. She is struggling to be a professional artist, and he walks into his first sketching session and displays virtuoso skills. Still, even with these disparities, there is no mean-spiritedness. Both are true friends, and they always try to uplift each other.

The artwork here is another big sell for this book. As you can see from the excerpt, it incorporates some manga conventions in ways that make each character vibrant. The colors and backgrounds make this a very familiar and inviting world, making it easy to relate to the plights of these young people trying to make their way through life.  Even though the premise is pretty silly, the combination of stylish outfits, expressive artwork, strong relationships, and quirky situations makes for a very satisfying read.

This book was created by Benji Nate, who has another  attractive and unorthodox-looking comic called Lorna available from Silver Sprocket. She talks about her work on Catboy in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Robin Enrico wrote, "While the stories in this collection are short and simple they are constantly funny and frequently resonant." Rob Clough called it a book that embodies "a new kind of punk attitude, one emphasizing sincerity, kindness and openness." It currently has a 4.11 star (out of 5) rating on Goodreads.

Catboy was published by Silver Sprocket Press, and they offer a preview and more here.

Friday, May 15, 2020

The Nib, Issue 5: Animals

The latest issue of The Nib magazine came out a few weeks ago, and its theme was animals. Not only was I treated to a variety of art styles and tones, I learned a lot from reading this book, including the fact that in the 1930s there was a supposed talking mongoose(!), most fur for clothing comes from a raccoon dog(!!), and Mickey Mouse wearing gloves comes from a minstrel tradition(!!!). I also got to see lots of other interesting information, including distances and migration patterns of various creatures and drawings of a series of endlings, the last known individuals of a species.
Among the more lengthy feature articles, two particularly stood out to me. Arwen Donahue wrote and drew an thought-provoking piece about raising, milking, and butchering goats and how that squares up with her views of vegetarianism, environmentalism, and community. It is not a very cut-and-dried issue, and I appreciated just how much she elucidated a debate about the ethics of farming and raising various sorts of livestock.
Writer Dorian Alexander, journalist Sarah Mirk, and artist Levi Hastings collaborated on an article about the economic and ethical dilemmas regarding smuggling and selling parrots from tropical locales. It is a big business for some, with an impact on local ecologies as well as the people looking to profit from these birds. Not to mention that the birds themselves also suffer because of these practices. What I loved about both of these works was how they mingled personal experiences with research and journalism to make some very impactful writing.

And just to remind people that not everything in this magazine is so heady and complex, there are also a series of gag strips as well as illustrated letters to the editor that round out this collection. I truly feel that the contributors at The Nib are making some of the best comics right now. Herblock Prize-winning, Pulitzer Prize-nominated editor Matt Bors has assembled another murderers' row of creators here.

The reviews I have read of this volume have been positive. Zack Quaintance noted "that that reading experience was quite good, adding that journalism done via this medium is so rare that whenever I come across some of this quality, it tends to linger with me for days (and days...and days)." You can see a bunch of other reviews at Goodreads, where it has a 4.40 stars (out of 5) rating as of this blog.

Content for The Nib is published regularly online, though the print version features exclusive content and comes out about three times a year. You should consider becoming a member and supporting their high quality, independent artistic and journalistic endeavor.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Hilda and the Mountain King

This book I reviewed while judging for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards seems pretty appropriate for Mother's Day. One of the things that made it stand out for me is how it extended a fantasy narrative into a canny commentary on parenthood and the lengths that some will go to make sure that their children get advantages and opportunities. Hilda and the Mountain King is the sixth in the Hilda series of graphic novels (you can read my review of volume 1 here). This volume features all sorts of action and adventure, but the crux of matters is that Hilda and a baby troll have been bodily switched. So, while Hilda has to deal with adapting to life as a troll, her mother is desperately seeking ways to find her lost child. Also, she has to deal with a real wild child who has not manners or idea of how to act human. It is a comedy of sorts, but one tinged with a sense of horror. However, over the course of events Hilda learns that being a troll is not all that bad...
She also learns more about trolls and their history, which makes her wonder why the two species can't get along better than they do. The book also touches on themes of immigration and ethnicity, with the conflict between human and trolls and the ambiguity about who owns the land and who is trespassing. It features way more nuance and thoughtfulness than I expect in a series book for young readers, let alone one that is licensed as a cartoon series by a major media entity.

The artwork, presented in a large page format a la European comics albums, is impressive in a number of ways. It tells its story in very clear ways and also amps up the action sequences in ways that carry real stakes. The book is also full of cartoonish and cute figures, but with a muted color palette. The effect of this style really sells the humorous bits and makes what could be monstrous characters more relatable. It also makes the rather serious commentary work in a disarming way, with its absence of garish colors. I was impressed by how this book touched on serious issues without seeming preachy or didactic. This book works on so many different levels, and I was very impressed by its total effect. I really need to check out more titles from this series.

The Hilda series was created by Luke Pearson. He has a selection of other comics work you can peruse here. He speaks more about this book, the cartoon adaptation, and his inspirations in this interview.

All the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Hillary Brown wrote, "The panel structure of Mountain King is as visually complex as the range of emotions in the story, and yet neither is hard to read. It feels cinematic without leaving comics behind." Oliver Sava added, "These oversized graphic novels feature beautiful illustrations of natural, urban, and magical environments populated by eye-catching characters, all rendered with a precise yet lively line and expressive color palette." Andy Oliver called it "thrilling, touching and even thought-provoking."

Hilda and the Mountain King was published by Flying Eye Books, and they offer a preview and more information about it here. Also, season two of the cartoon adaptation of Hilda will be up at Netflix soon.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Island Book

Although it did not end up being a nominee, I was impressed by this book while reading through the entries for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards. Island Book is a gripping adventure story that also offers a great message about courage and perseverance.The main character here is Sola, and she is a humanish creature who lives in a seemingly idyllic island. Only her life is not so rosy, as the inhabitants all shun and isolate her because when she was younger a giant monster wreaked havoc as it sought her out. Now she is associated with this gigantic, mysterious creature and they think she is bad luck.
So, she leaves the confines of home and sets out to find this monster and learn its secrets. On her journey, she ends up in strange, new lands and meets a number of very different peoples and creatures. She ends up recruiting a couple of other adventurers to accompany her, though they have their own motives for the search. I am not going to spoil what happens to them all, but I will say that their journey is rewarding, perilous, frustrating, and informative, though it also lacks resolution.

Above is the opening page of the book, and as you can see the artwork is clean and bright. The characters are well designed, unique, and bold. They have strong personalities, and they work well together as an ensemble cast. The scenery and backgrounds can be vast and epic or small and personal, as suits the narrative. The storytelling was economic and intriguing, which kept me rapt and wanting more.

What I loved about this book was how each chapter ratcheted up plot and suspense, casting new light on this world and the beings that live in it. This book features the most excellent sort of adventure tale, full of bravery and daring deeds while tempered by real stakes and consequences. It held me spellbound, and I cannot wait to revisit this world. This is the first book in a series, and book 2 has not been solicited yet, but I'm eagerly looking forward to it.

This book was created by Evan Dahm.  He has a few different series under his belt, including Riceboy and Vattu, which were originally published as webcomics.  He speaks about his works and career in this interview. For fans of Island Book, he's even created a soundtrack to accompany the book, which you can buy here.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Caitlin Rosberg called it "the perfect all-ages read for kids with a lot of empathy and curiosity." Francis Bass wrote, "Dahm’s imaginative, iterative world-building is on full display here, and it is a delight to explore." Publishers Weekly praised the "polished, sure storytelling skills," and added, "Dahm offers shipwrecks, battles, and unflagging action. Underlying the story’s events is an allegory about how real knowledge comes only from seeing for oneself." Carrie McLain called it "an unconventional looking book about facing the unknown and coming back with the understanding that not everything in the world is to be understood or solved or conquered and accepting that."

Island Book was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more here.