Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020 By the Numbers

By popular demand, the most riveting post of the year where I list of the number of books I have reviewed in descending order by publisher. Enjoy!

  • First Second 13
  • Fantagraphics 5
  • Graphic Universe 5
  • Silver Sprocket 4
  • TOON Books 4
  • Abrams 3
  • Drawn & Quarterly 3
  • Archaia 2
  • Harper Collins 2
  • ONI Press 2
  • Random House Graphic 2
  • Adhouse Books 1
  • Ahoy Comics 1
  • Amulet Books 1
  • Archie Comics 1
  • Birdcage Bottom Books 1
  • Black Crown 1
  • BOOM! Studios 1
  • DC Comics 1
  • Flying Eye Books 1
  • Gallery 13 1
  • Henry Holt & Co. BYR 1
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 1
  • Knopf Books for Young Readers 1
  • Koyama Press 1
  • Little, Brown Young Readers 1
  • Massie Makes Comics 1
  • The Nib 1
  • NoBrow Press 1
  • Pantheon 1
  • Phase Seven Comics 1
  • Quill Tree Books 1
  • Quirk Books 1
  • Scholastic 1
  • SLG 1
  • Ten Speed Press 1
  • TKO 1
  • Top Shelf 1
  • Walker Books 1
  • Yoe Books 1



Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio

My Friend Dahmer is one of my all-time favorite graphic novels, a dark exploration of high school friendships and the many issues that underlie people's lives, which in the case of Jeffrey Dahmer resulted in horrific murder and mayhem. Derf Backderf's combination of autobiography and journalism made for a highly nuanced and haunting book that has stayed with me for years. Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio has a bit of autobiography at its beginning, when young Derf saw the National Guard rolling through his town on the way to Kent State, but its strength lies in its exhaustive research. This book focuses specifically on the four young people who died in the May 4 Massacre in 1970, putting a human face on history. Over the course of the book, I got to know these people, their friends, and their aspirations, and so when the gruesome events take place toward the end of the book, they feel even more tragic and pointless.

This book meticulously recounts the event that lead up to the massacre, and it is structured in four chapters to correspond to the first four days of that May. Piece by piece fall into place, from the "law and order" governor trying to show just how strong he is during an election year to the paranoid, draconian military leaders who headed the National Guard contingents to the exhausted and misinformed troops themselves. In hindsight, the massacre is made to look like a perfect storm, complete with misinformation, wild and untrue accusations made against the student protestors, and a culture war between liberal and conservation factions. The military action comes to be, ironically, as a result the fomenting protests against the increasingly unpopular and cruel military actions in Vietnam. 

What is most informative and distressing about this book is the role that manipulating media and casting political aspersions played in the National Guard's actions, which is mirrored by contemporary protests and police brutality in Portland and other places. Acerbating the situation, government agencies and police planted spies and moles to make the protestors appear much more violent and extremist, just like today. The violent factions within the protestors are a minority, and do not reflect the whole, but they are attributed all sorts of (non-existent) power and agency. Rampant rumors among the local population and military/community leadership paint the students as communists and radicals. They say that the students have snipers and stockpiles of weapons. They dehumanize the students and their demands. It is depressing to see how much things have not really changed and how short we have come in the 50 years since these events took place. 

Spoiler: The bad guys win and suffer no consequences.

I was impressed by just how much this book does. It portrays a set of individual portraits of the students, a history of the campus, and an account of the state of politics of the time on a city, state, and national level. There is a lot of information in this book, and most of it is presented in incredibly artful manner. There are a few pages that are text-heavy and more expository, but none of it is off-putting. And the pacing of the last chapter, where the shootings occur is paced to highlight its brutal, oppressive, and unjust aspects, is a clinic in storytelling an action sequence. The illustrations map not just the place but also the people and events in a visceral and incredibly moving fashion.

Reading this book, I could not help but also think of Big Black: Stand at Attica, which recounts events that happened at a prison uprising a year later, events referenced in this book's epilogue. Great books use history to illuminate the present, and that is exactly what Kent State does. Certainly it comes from a particular political viewpoint, but it is backed by a vast amount of research and personal accounts. And the facts (those that have not been obfuscated and lost) point to terrible and avoidable injustice and murder. Derf has crafted another masterpiece graphic novel.

In addition to the multiple award-winning My Friend Dahmer, Derf Backderf is also known for his long running alt-comic The City as well the graphic novel Trashed, about his time as a garbage collector. He speaks extensive about his work on Kent State in this interview.

All the reviews I have read of this book have praised it. It has received multiple starred reviews. The one from Publishers Weekly called it an "expertly crafted chronicle of this defining moment in U.S. history" that also "serves as a deeply moving elegy for the victims." The one from Kirkus Reviews concluded, "Backderf’s vivid, evocative book does a splendid job of keeping their memories alive." Leonard Pierce wrote, "By buying into the details so heavily, he makes a story that means something more today – and serves as a warning as we see the story repeated, again and again, every day, always as tragedy."

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio was published by Abrams Books, and they offer a preview and more here.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Eddie's Week

One of the highlights of every year for me has been the chance to go to HeroesCon in Charlotte to be a geek for a weekend, reconnect with friends, and check out a lot of excellent comics. Because of the birth of a child, I did not attend in 2019, and the 2020 con was cancelled because of COVID-19, so I have not been in a couple of years. But when I've been there I usually spend a good chunk of time hanging out with the author of Eddie's Week, Patrick Dean. Patrick lives near Athens, GA, and his strip Big Deal Comics was a fixture of the weekly Flagpole magazine. It was a weird, random, and hilarious comic where anything could and did happen, usually involving a ghost or a werewolf. During my time in Athens I got to know Patrick, too, through some mutual friends, and he is one of the kindest, sweetest, and funniest guys I know. His love for zany, old comics is palpable, as is his enthusiasm for making fun, inventive, and funny comics. Patrick was diagnosed with ALS in 2017, and he has not stopped drawing and fighting the good fight any way he can. His candor and dignity facing an impending decline has been inspirational and difficult to observe, though I admire his courage and marvel at the outpouring of love he has inspired from his friends and family.

Eddie's Week is the manifestation of all Patrick's attributes and abilities. Even ignoring the fact that the main character bears a strong resemblance to the author, reading this book feels like time well spent hanging out with my friend. This book's main character, Eddie Lubomir has a week off of work, which he intends to spend at home, watching cheesy movies and reading paperback novels. His plan gets complicated when he gets selected to take part in the Stay At Home Warden Project (S.A.H.W.P.) and has an inmate (complete with cell and nutritive food pellets) installed in his living room.

"The Backstabber" makes for interesting company, but Eddie's life becomes further complicated when he escapes. From there, Eddie runs into all sorts of strange characters, including a men's group who dress in bear suits, party magicians, a witch, vampire cops, and one very determined private investigator. The city of Tragoston is a weird and dark place. Every character in the book is vibrant and memorable, from the single-minded, oblivious head of S.A.H.W.P. to Eddie's ex-girlfriend Claire, who just can't seem to stay out of his business for too long.

What makes this book really work is its idiosyncratic sense of humor. This world is one parallel to ours, replete with a menagerie of supernatural characters that act in mundane, grounded ways. The surreal nature of the plot and characters has the net effect of a grim sort of humor, a world where magic is possible and always at war with the random caprice of bureaucracy. This book is unique, personal, and hilarious in parts, commenting on the stultifying aspects of the "real world" but finding solace in unexpected relationships. The situations that Eddie finds himself in are madcap but also realistic in their impact, which makes this comic a singular reading experience. I really felt for Eddie as he went through his travails, although I also found myself fascinated by and laughing at all the nutjobs in his life. This book is original, gripping, and invigorating.

The reviews I've read of this book have been celebratory. Publishers Weekly concluded, "Though the leap from oddball nightmare into straight magic takes proceedings in an unexpected direction, for the most part Dean delivers a winningly comedic scenario. The result runs like Kafka as interpreted by the Three Stooges." Eleanor Davis wrote, "I’ve laughed loud and hard every time I’ve read it, and I’ve read it four times – and I love how the big weird mess of a plot somehow, against all odds, brings all its threads together like some sort of magic trick." Patrick speaks more about his work on this book in this interview.

Eddie's Week was published by Birdcage Bottom Books, and they offer a preview and more here

Sunday, December 20, 2020


Moms is a unique book, a look at the lives that are not often highlighted in popular culture or media. The main characters in this book are Korean women in their 50s, and they are a motley bunch. The protagonist of this book is Lee Soyeon, who divorced her husband years ago because of his gambling addiction. Now, working on a custodial staff in an office building she questions her life choices. Her 30-something-year-old youngest son still lives with her and struggles to make a living as a musician. She dates a skeevy nightclub waiter who only seems to come over for late-night, drunken hook-ups. And she has to contend with poor working conditions and sexism at work, which leads her on a misguided attempt to unionize. Over the course of the book, she also hangs out and commiserates some with her friends, but they have their own issues, ranging from having impotent husbands to seeking out affairs with younger men to simply losing the desire to even socialize at all.

The candor of this book is one of its greatest selling points. There is an aspect of voyeurism at play with gaining such insight into these women's lives, especially when their desires for  love, sex, and money are laid pretty much bare. I found the book very engaging and impossible to put down while also being somewhat horrified by what they had to endure over the course of their days. Plus, much of what transpires has a darkly humorous edge. It is very much like a soap opera, only with real stakes and real pain. I don't think this book will be quite to everyone's liking, but it's a memorable and moving work about resilient women. It portrays mundane lives that become extraordinary in the telling.

This book was created from his mother's notes by Yeong-shin Ma, who has published 11 books in South Korea. Moms is his only book available in English, and it was translated by Janet Hong. He speaks about his work on Moms in this interview.

The reviews I have read of this book have been predominantly positive. Rachel Cooke called it "a remarkable, joyous book," adding, "Our culture, like his, is hell-bent on rendering middle-aged women invisible, and yet here are four of them, their lives not only filling every single page of this comic, but brought to us with such intimacy." Susan Blumberg-Kason opined that "Yeong-shin Ma writes with great sympathy of the struggles of these middle-aged women, portrayed as humans and not caricatures." In a less celebratory review Publishers Weekly commented that "things tend to drag on, and the narrative feels as repetitive Soyeon’s declaration that her 'standards are high.'"

Moms was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they offer a preview and more information here. By now, you may have guessed that this book contains lots of mature themes and is meant for mature readers.

Reminder: Don't do social media late at night.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Big Black: Stand at Attica

Sometimes I read a book and think about how much life has changed in a span of time. Other times, like when I read this book Big Black: Stand at Attica, I am disheartened and frustrated to see just how much some injustices still persist. This book is an account of a prison uprising in 1971, a moment that exposed just how racist and exploitative the prison system was. Also, it was an event that showed just how ruthless and uncaring the prevailing governmental structure was, when a wealthy governor with grand political aspirations authorized the slaughter of black men to show just how tough and "law and order" he was.

What makes this book work so well is to things. One, it is based on a real account and is clearly well researched. There are many details about the workings of the political and prison systems as well as background on all the major players in this drama. Two, the artwork is mainly journalistic or documentary in its presentation. It makes you feel like you are witnessing actual events, and the storytelling hits in a visceral way. In contrast, each chapter heading has a superhero comic book quality to it that heightens the events further, drawing attention to some of the major themes of the book.

The net effect is that the reader gets to know a good number of these people in quick fashion, and it is difficult not to be affected when all attempts to work toward justice and compromise are met with brute, military force and wholesale destruction. Also worth noting, this book highlights just how much the government manipulated public opinion through misinforming and misleading media accounts of what was going on. Today, there is so much talk about media literacy and "fake news," and seeing just how far back these concepts go was eye-opening.

In actuality, the inmates did not torture/kill any of their hostages.

The uprising (the less sympathetic called it a riot) was a flashpoint event that revealed much about the racism and classism of the US, and I am sad to realize it took me this long in my life to learn about the facts. Up until recently, I really only knew about it via that one scene where Al Pacino leads a chant of "Attica, Attica" in Dog Day Afternoon, but I was largely ignorant of the actual events. Given how contemporary the issues at play in this book are, it is shocking that they are not really part of US history curriculum. 

I realize that this book is biased, certainly meant as a form of activism, but it's tough to take the side of those who brushed aside any sort of negotiation and went in guns blazing, to the effect of 43 people (including 10 guards who were being held hostage) dead. This graphic novel tackles issues that still plague the US today, namely the looming presences of racism and the (now even larger and more industrialized) prison system, and it does so in gut-punching and moving fashion.

This book was created by author/actor/educator/activist Jared Reinmuth and artist Améziane, based on personal interviews with Frank "Big Black" Smith. "Big Black" was a central figure in these events, and he was later tortured by guards for his role as head of security during the revolt. Améziane has also drawn biographies of Muhammed Ali and Angela Davis, an account of the 1989 Tianamen Square protests/massacre, and fiction in the series Cash Cowboys. Reinmuth speaks more in this interview/panel

All of the reviews I have read have praised this book. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly concluded, "This penetrating portrait of a broken correctional system and a flawed man focuses on his legacy of courage, which towers over the forces stacked against him." Mikkel Snyder wrote, "If you have an interest in history, memoir, social justice, or just the life of a good man in an extraordinary circumstance, you should track down a copy and experience the story directly." Rhea Rollmann wrote that it "does a marvelous and respectful job of telling this harrowing story." Ally Russell Shields also noted that the "decision to include more mature content makes the graphic novel feel more authentic and relevant, yet may prevent it from reaching a younger, school-aged audience which might otherwise benefit from its timely message."

Big Black: Stand at Attica was published by Archaia, and they offer more about it here. This book portrays racist abuse, torture scenes, profanity, and graphic violence, so it is recommended for mature readers.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

The Magic Fish

The Magic Fish is a gorgeous and touching book that melds together contemporary life with fairy tales. Its main character is Tiến, a teenage boy who struggles with a number of identity issues. His parents are Vietnamese, immigrants who fled a tyrannical situation and who have been separated from their family.

Tiến tries to bridge a language gap with them (particularly his mother) by sharing stories, fairy tales that transcend culture.  Over the course of this book, there are three tales told, versions of Cinderella, the Little Mermaid, and the Magic Fish, and they are told by three different people, which speaks to how people use story to both communicate and cope with difficult circumstances.

At school, Tiến tries to fit in with his friends and wants nice clothes to go to a school dance, but he also knows that his family's financial circumstances mean that he has to make do with his mom's sewing. Also, he's gay and is looking for ways to come out to his friends and family. He is horrified when he does research and learns that there is no word in Vietnamese for gay, imaging the cultural implications of that idea. And matters are further complicated when a teacher tries to help him by referring him to a priest.

This book works in so many ways because it beautifully plugs readers into immediate experiences. Tiến is drawn to seem small and vulnerable, with his large, round eyeglasses, but he proves to be strong and resilient over the course of the book. When fairy tales are recounted, the drawings and colors become colorful and grandiose. There are exquisite gowns, stars, and sparkles that make things appropriately otherworldly. 

But in between this space of vulnerability/pain and magic/wonder, the characters communicate profound ideas and share feelings in a spectacular and unexpected fashion. This book is beautiful to behold in terms of artwork, but its plot is also splendidly moving, a tribute to the redemptive power of narrative. Its ending left me tingling.

This book's creator Trung Le Nguyen is also known as Trungles. The Magic Fish is his debut graphic novel, but he has drawn a number of fairy tale and romance comics for anthologies published by Oni Press, Boom! Studios, and Image Comics. He speaks about his work in this interview.

All the reviews I've read of this book have been glowing. Avery Kaplan wrote, "The Magic Fish is a book that exists between two points: fairy tales and personal experiences, Vietnam and the United States, mother and child, words and pictures, signifier and signified. It incorporates all of these elements into its whole, and rather than diminish any of them, the ultimate effect is to amplify them all." Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review that concluded, "Beautifully illustrates how sharing old stories can be the best way to learn how to share new ones." Amanda MacGregor called it "beautiful and moving," adding, "this book will stick with me."

The Magic Fish was published by Random House Graphic, and they offer more info about it here.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

The Banks

Way back when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the country, the comic book industry shut down for a couple of months. In that time, the publisher TKO ran an initiative to both sell their books and also pay a portion from each sale to local comic book stores. That's when I got this book. 
I am sucker for a well-done heist story, and The Banks is exactly that, with an intriguing twist. The thieves in this story are a grandmother/mother/daughter team who operate in Chicago, three generations brought together by the family business. This is not to say that all goes smoothly. The youngest and oldest members of the team especially rub each other the wrong way, with constant posturing and calling into question each others' integrity/commitment to the task at hand. 
The Banks themselves are some interesting characters, and much of this book works because they are so compelling. The oldest member of the team, Clara, got her start in the early 1970s, and the flashbacks into her past are great period pieces that look cool and also inform the plot/characters in definite ways. In the present, these women are very selective of their jobs, and they only work with lots of planning and an intention to act as modern-day Robin Hoods. 
The granddaughter, Celia, lives the high-stress and privileged life of an investment banker (a legitimate sort of thief), but when she gets a lead on a high-roller who seems a great target she presents the case to her mom and grandmother. While they are doing their homework, they find they might have the opportunity to avenge Clara's husband, Melvin Banks, which makes this job inevitable for them. In addition to all these goings-on, there is also a hotshot detective who is onto the team of thieves, and she would just love to make her career by taking them down.

As I said, the characters make this book unique, but what makes it work so well is taut plotting replete with great twists and a huge cliffhanger at the end of each chapter. The action is excellently paced and plotted. I just had to finish reading this book once I got started. The artwork is very lively, especially in the flashbacks, conveying emotion and affect even in its more dialogue-heavy sections. I highly recommend this book for any fans of heist/noir stories.

This book was a collaboration between high-profile, accomplished creators, including best-selling author Roxane Gay, illustrator Ming Doyle, and colorist Jordie Bellaire. Gay is best known for her novel Hunger, and has a slew of other publications. Doyle is best known for her work on the series Mara and The Kitchen. Bellaire is a multiple Eisner Award winner with too many credits for me to list here.

All of the reviews I've read about this book have been positive. Caitlin Rosberg called it "an engrossing, interesting read and would pair perfectly with last year’s film Widows for a celebration of unexpectedly emotional female-focused heists." Matt O'Keefe wrote, "Unlike most heist stories, the plot isn’t the central element, the characters are. The comic will ultimately be remembered for its three leading ladies, the lessons they learned, and what readers themselves can take away from the series." LaNeysha Campbell called it "a great graphic novel that also makes a refreshing addition to the heist genre."

The Banks was published by TKO, and they have a preview and much more available here. There is some profanity, violence, and sexuality in this book, so it is recommended for more mature readers. A film adaptation is in the works.