Saturday, February 20, 2021

Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel

Long Way Down was originally published as a verse novel, and it has received multiple awards and honors. It is about a young man named Will whose brother Shawn was murdered and his vow to avenge his death. In his life he has been indoctrinated to follow three rules: No crying. No snitching. Revenge. As he rides down the elevator in his building, armed with a gun, he is visited in ways that make him more aware of his life, his surroundings, and the cycle of violence that affects both. It is a powerful tale that examines the very real circumstances many young people, and all of us, face in our lives.

Adapting a novel into a graphic novel is a tricky enterprise, and I feel that in order for it to be successful the images really need to bring something to the table. I think that is exactly the case here, as the water-colored paintings enhanced the delivery of the lyrical text, bringing feelings and events into sharper relief. I feel that the overall pacing of this book, as well as the evocative drawings that add elements of mystery, pathos, and uncertainty to the narrative, contribute to make a very powerful impact. This book is riveting and provocative, and aptly ends in a way that settles none of the complicated issues that it confronts. I know that ambivalent endings can be maddening for some readers, but here it seems not only appropriate but necessary.

Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel was written by Jason Reynolds and drawn by Danica Novgorodoff. Reynolds is a bestselling author of many novels, including All American Boys, the Track series, For Everyone, and Miles Morales: Spider-man. Novgorodoff is a designer/artist who has drawn multiple picture books and graphic novels, including The Undertaking of Lily Chen and Refresh Refresh. Both creators speak about their work on this adaptation in this interview.

This book has received many rave reviews, including the three starred entries here: Kirkus Reviews called it "a moving rendition that stands on its own." In School Library Journal Alea Perez concluded, "Reynolds’s words paint pictures of their own in this tragic yet poignant illustrated tale that offers no answers to the seemingly impossible choices some communities face." Sarah Hunter wrote in Booklist that "Novgorodoff’s iteration powerfully cultivates the tone and mood of its source material, demonstrating just how effective and artful comics can be."

Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel was published by Atheneum, and they have a preview and more info about it here.

Monday, February 15, 2021

BTTM FDRS

BTTM FDRS is a complicated, thought-provoking, and entertaining book that melds social issues with a horror story. Its protagonist is a young black woman named Darla, who has graduated art school and is trying to break into the fashion industry. She moves into a building in "the Bottomyards," a fictional section of Chicago that was once a thriving community but is now a burnt out shell of dilapidated buildings and poverty. It's the perfect place for bohemian, artsy lofts, and when Darla moves in she is accompanied by her opportunistic, trendy, white friend Cynthia. While in this building, they meet a Latinx DJ named Julio, who ironically dresses up and performs as a pilgrim under the name Plymouth Rock. Darla also encounters a worker from the electrical company who is paranoid about an invasion of reptile people and also bent on solving the mystery of why the building manages to power and heat itself without drawing on any outside utilities. That's when they discover what lives in the plumbing/walls, and the whole enterprise turns into a sci-fi/horror show.

It only gets worse :)

My description of this book does it no justice, because it's got so many disparate aspects going into the plot. What does stand out to me are a few things: 1) The genre aspects of horror and sci-fi play out in suspenseful and delightfully gruesome ways. 2) There is plenty of overt and subtle exploration of how multiple identities are employed, exploited, and co-opted in terms of popular and everyday culture. 3) The characters are complex and interesting. 4) The artwork highlights the horror with detailed, grotesque creatures and unreal coloring. 5) After about 50 pages in and some basics were established, this book turned into a page-turner I could not put down.

BTTM FDRS is an excellent book that can be read as an action-thriller, but it's also a smart commentary on contemporary racial, gender, and class issues. It's the best kind of sci-fi: a fantastically entertaining work that makes you look at the world from different angles.

This book is the creation of writer Ezra Claytan Daniels and artist Ben Passmore. Daniels has worked in multiple media and is probably best known in comics for his Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics-winning Upgrade Soul. Passmore is known for the Ignatz Award-winning comic Your Black Friend, as well as Sports is Hell, DAYGLOAHOLE, and his regular contributions to The Nib. Both creators speak about their collaboration on BTTM FDRS in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Philippe Leblanc declared it "one of the best graphic novels I read in 2019... a thoughtful meditation on not just gentrification, but inequality." Alex Hoffman wrote, "With its biting social commentary and fascinating worldbuilding, plus Passmore’s vibrant illustration and otherworldly colors, BTTM FDRS is the book of the summer. An absolute must read." Austin Price called it "a delightfully and rightly angry polemic," though he was disappointed by its lack of scope.

BTTM FDRS was published by Fantagraphics, and they offer a preview and more here. It is also available on Comixology Unlimited, which is how I read it. It features mature themes, violence, and horror scenes, so it is recommended for mature readers.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History

 

Reading this book showed me how little I actually knew about the Black Panther Party. The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History is not a long book, but it is substantive and comprehensive. It touches on every major figure associated with the BPP, and heavily focuses on the pivotal years of 1967 - 1969. There are spotlights on people like Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton, and Angela Davis as well as gripping, suspenseful portrayals of major events in the formation and social actions taken by the Black Panthers.

As you can see from the excerpt above, this book is about detailing the history of this group and also placing it in the broader context of US and civil rights history. It is one of the more information-rich graphic novels I have read, but it balances exposition with dramatic action scenes. It utilizes dynamic, iconic artwork full of bold imagery. I appreciated how well it captures both realistic depictions of the participants as well as a sense of the propaganda/visual messages broadcast by the BPP. Even in the passages that are more text heavy and dense, the images are vibrant and realistic, adding much context to the proceedings. 

As a common theme with other books I've read recently, like Big Black: Stand at Attica and Kent State, this book shows how US society has not progressed as much as we would like. The Panthers arose in a response to the racial violence being perpetrated by police forces. Their militaristic response was to show that they could not simply be intimidated and pushed around any more. This arm of the movement was coupled with more charitable ones I did not really know about, such as establishing a school and a program for feeding the hungry, though those aspects are largely overlooked today.

A sizable amount of the book is also devoted to J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI's many incredibly shady and illegal methods of infiltrating the BPP, sowing discord, and outright murdering some of its leadership. I know that not everyone approved of the methods for seeking equality, even within the various civil rights movements of the day, but the level of subterfuge and sabotage accounted here is shocking. I think this book is the perfect introduction for someone who knows nothing about the Black Panther Party, and an excellent resource for any US history, government, or language arts class studying African-American history or civil rights.

This book was created by writer David F. Walker and artist Marcus Kwame Anderson. Walker is a prolific author and is best known in comics for his work on the Eisner Award winning series Bitter Root, runs on Marvel series such as Luke Cage and Power Man & Iron Fist, and the DC Comics series Naomi. He has also written another nonfiction graphic novel, a biography of Frederick Douglass. Anderson is best known for his creator owned series Snow Daze and has also illustrated a number of projects for Action Lab.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been very positive. In their starred review, Publishers Weekly concluded, "This concise yet in-depth guide offers a timely resource for activists, history buffs, and students alike." Ed Park called it "ambitious and informative." In a rollicking review, S.W. Sondheimer wrote, "I learned more from this 98-page graphic novel history than I did from Chernow’s 818 page biography of Hamilton or anything I had to read for my college course on the WWII Pacific theater."

The Black Panther Party was published by Ten Speed Press, and they provide a preview and more here.

Friday, February 5, 2021

When Stars are Scattered


A finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, When Stars are Scattered is the story of Omar Mohamed and his younger brother Hassan, two refugees from Somalia. Uprooted by war and separated from their parents, they walked a long, treacherous way to be eventually resettled in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya. They are placed in the care of a foster mother, Fatuma, an older Somalian woman whose four sons were killed. 

While in the camp, they are safe from imminent danger, but they have to deal with a number of other obstacles, like a scarcity of food, meager housing, opportunistic older kids, and a lot of waiting. They are also on a constant search for their mother, who told them to run for safety as she would follow them. In many ways they feel like they are in a prison, even though they are supposed to be free. They spend a lot of time wishing for their names to be placed on a list for interviews so they can be relocated to places like the US, Canada, or Australia, but their situation seems hopeless. Add to the mix that Hassan suffers from seizures and can only say one word ("Hooyo"), and Omar has much on his plate taking care of himself and his brother.

Omar finds refuge from many of his worries in education, and going to school is a welcome escape from his daily troubles and boredom. Encouraged by a couple of UN caseworkers, he begins to focus on his learning as a possible escape from his circumstances. Still, all of this takes a very long time, and over the years, Omar becomes frustrated and occasionally angry at his plight. 

Even from the above description, I have left out so much from this book. For instance, it also touches on many political realities like the need to educate female students and the stretched resources of the UN. It is a very well detailed account of this refugee experience, replete with lots of heartache, longing, and frustration. The characters here are fully realized, complicated people who display a range of emotions and beliefs. I can see why this book has been as honored as it has, because it is profoundly moving. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Omar Mohamed shared his story with multi-award winning graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson, who adapted it here. He is the founder of the humanitarian organization Refugee Strong. Jamieson is a picture book creator and YA graphic novel rock star known for her books Roller Girl and All's Faire in Middle School. Both creators speak about When Stars are Scattered in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book has been glowing. Kirkus Reviews concluded their starred review, "This engaging, heartwarming story does everything one can ask of a book, and then some." Esther Keller called it "a window to a world far away" that "will allow readers to view their own lives in a very different light and hopefully allow them to understand the sorrow and heartache that are experienced all over the world." In another starred review, Publishers Weekly wrote that it is "a personal and poignant entry point for young readers trying to understand an unfair world."

When Stars are Scattered was published by Dial Books for Young Readers, and they offer a preview and more here.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Meeting Comics

There are plenty of comics set in workplaces, but none, for my money, is as funny or consistently excellent as Meeting Comics. These comics are published three times a week online, originally on Instagram, but now exclusively via Patreon. They are collected bi-monthly into mini-comics/PDFs, and they are currently up to #17. This book collects the first six issues, a whole bunch of comics that show the progress of the series. At first it is more sketchy with each comic literally drawn over a lunch break, but later entries are more more polished and feature recurring characters.

Over time, we come to know Kevin, the radical guy in that cartoon above, and he is sort of the moral center of the book. Other characters include the human resources robot (literally) Rob, the office queen/diva Val, aged boss Don (who once starred in a sci-fi/action TV series Namdroid as a younger man), and Thomas, who seems milquetoast but leads a double life as the vigilante known as Ribbon Cutter. They are a diverse cast, in multiple sense of the word, and watching them play off of each other is a delight.

The humor in this series is random, sometimes topical, sometimes political, and often laugh-out-loud funny. I love how over time the characters grow and we learn about their quite complex and surprising back-stories. Along with the workplace humor, there is also a healthy dose of mature themes, including sex, drugs, and profanity, but I feel all of it contributes to making these bombastic, silly characters all the more human and relatable. Like all good comic strips, this one features real life dialed up to the extreme, but it has a lot of heart, and it's easy to fall in love with these folx.

Meeting Comics are written and drawn by Andrew Neal, former comic shop employee/owner and current comics creator. He speaks extensively about his work on Meeting Comics in this interview (with my friend, Craig Fischer. Hi Craig!).

I have not be able to find many reviews of this book, which is a criminal shame. The ones I have seen have been extremely positive though. Chris from Zine Cuisine called it a "personal fave." Goodreads currently has it rated 4.5 (out of 5) stars.

Meeting Comics was published by Adhouse Books, and they offer a preview and more here. You can check out the further adventures of these characters via the official page or by subscribing to Neal's Patreon (like I do!). Some of the later strips are also serialized in SOLRAD.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Woods

Woods is a book I picked up from the same Kickstarter campaign I got Eddie's Week. I had really enjoyed the author's prior book Monkey Chef, and I was eager to see what his new work was like. Whereas that book, and most of Mike Freiheit's other comics work has been autobiographical, this book is a work of fiction. Woods is one of the creepier books I have read of late, and I mean that as a compliment. It's a subtle horror story that combines current events with mental health concerns, mixed with some basic archetypes of scary fiction.

The main characters in this book are Jason and Beth. Beth experiences a mental break after the presidential election of 2016, paranoid about the state of the world and the hate/misogyny she sees everywhere. After convalescing, she and her husband Jason decide to sublet their apartment and move to a cabin in the woods. Jason has a dark complexion (and is meant to be African-American, I think, though it's not explicitly stated), which brings him unwanted attention from the rural locals. They make "jokes," but they also seem menacing. 

All of these aspects coalesce into a terrible scenario. Jason begins to suspect slight instances of sabotage to their land. Beth may or may not be taking her meds faithfully, or perhaps they are not effective. Add to this mix a cold winter, a faulty generator, and an unreliable truck, and what you have is a horrific scene. 

What I admired most about this book was how it establishes a tone of unease and terror through it's raw-feeling artwork and small cracks in the veneer. Beth's descent into paranoia is at once slow and then sudden, and the clues have been dotted along all the while. The artwork indicates these shifts with its use of black and white and a spectrum of lines that run from relatively smooth to more frenetic and jarring. The ways that the local animals are depicted in the background, environment, and also interacting with the main characters add nuance and menace. Overall, I think this book is very effective in creating an ominous tone that touches on horror both in contemporary and classic ways.

The reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly wrote that he "achieves a claustrophobic sense of threats from both inside and out. Freiheit disconcertingly draws readers into paranoia in this cooped-up cabin fever–dream." John Seven stated, "Freiheit’s artwork in Woods mirrors the frantic nature of the situation the couple is in — stark black and white, sometimes scratchy as if the sanity of the panels are fraying along with Beth and Jason’s perception of the world around them." Ryan C. wrote that "this book excels at making you think. About where we are as a society, how we got here, how or even if we can possibly get out."

 Woods was published by Birdcage Bottom Books, and they offer a preview and more here.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Spotlight on Shortbox

With the COVID-19 pandemic and the cancellation of most comics conventions, many independent publishers have lost out on one of their prime markets. In lieu of getting to browse for these books in person, I have been ordering a few from various folks online. Today, I am going to spotlight one of these publishers, Shortbox, a UK-based company with an array of strong creators. I bought these four books and am excited to review them here.

Cry Wolf Girl was the first book I read from this batch, and it was very affecting. It's a story about a woman who has experienced great trauma, losing her entire family to a great sickness. Feeling empty and lost, she begins to act out, literally crying wolf many times. She may or may not be imagining these creatures, and they might be manifestations of her grief. Still, the tribal elders start to grow weary of her behavior, and with the Wolf-Hunter absent, they leave her to fend for herself. I won't spoil the ending, but I will say that it is a testament to the unique storytelling aspects of comics, a powerfully moving conclusion told through exquisite imagery and pacing. This story impressively communicates  complicated emotional states and has lingered with me for what I think will be a long time.

This book's creator Ariel Ries is based in Australia, and they also have published the Ignatz Award-winning webcomic Witchy, which has been partly collected by Lion Forge.

All of the reviews I have read about it have been glowing. Pipedream Comics concluded, "Marvellously drawn and coloured, Cry Wolf Girl is a compact, masterful exploration of the ignorance of patriarchy and the compassionate strengths that empathy can offer to someone." Fred McNamara called it "a comic where everything clicks into place and rattles along at breakneck speed."

Dead End Jobs for Ghosts is actually the book that brought this publisher to my attention. I follow its creator Aminder Dhaliwal, the animator who published Woman World, on Instagram and saw that not only that she had this new book but also that the publisher was having a sale. I am really glad I happened upon both.

The premise of this book is a wild one, namely that the 1990 movie Ghost (the cheese-fest starring Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, and Patrick Swayze) was in fact non-fiction. In this world, the ghosts strike a deal with humans, and they make a company that revolutionizes labor. The ghosts animate machines in a way that makes them seem like highly capable robots. The entirety of human history is profoundly altered by this industry, but there is also some interesting interactions between the ghosts and their living relatives that make things very complicated. This book is whimsical, for sure, but it also is a commentary on work and how it affects people's lives (and afterlives).

I was not able to find many reviews of this book, but it currently has a 4.2 (out of 5) star rating on Goodreads.

The artwork in Don't Go Without Me is breathtakingly excellent, but the stories are also provocative and complex. The first, the eponymous "Don't Go Without Me," is a science fiction tale about a romantic couple who decided to travel to a parallel dimension. Without spoiling things, I'll say that once there they experience that the place operates on a logic that has disastrous results for their lives.

The second story, the Eisner Award-nominated "What is Left," is another science fiction tale. It explores the aftermath of a deep-space disaster involving a spaceship that is powered by memories. The third, "Con Temor, Con Ternura," is more an existential fantasy tale, where a race of people develop multiple theories about a sleeping giant who is prophesied to awake. 

All three stories deal with profound topics: love, loss, memory, science, and faith. And they do so in earnest and engaging ways. I think that they are the best sort of sci-fi/fantasy stories, ones that have fantastic premises that allow for a frank, deep exploration of authentic human issues. I found them entrancing and exquisitely constructed. This book was the stand-out from the very deep field here.

This book's creator Rosemary Valero-O'Connell is a relative new-comer to comics but has already won major awards, including  the 2020 Eisner Award for Best Penciller/Inker for that year's Best Publication for Teens Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me. She was also the 2020 Ignatz Award winner for Outstanding Artist. She speaks about her work on Don't Go Without Me in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book has been glowing. Rob Clough called Valero-O'Connell "the comics equivalent of a five-tool baseball prospect." Rebecca Burke wrote, "Valero-O’Connell’s beautiful spreads balance immense detail and powerful compositions with soft words and captivating storytelling." Keith Silva opined, "Perhaps Valero-O’Connell is the cartoonist of these socially-distanced days."

The fourth book I got from Shortbox was the first one I had seen from the publisher. Minötaar was nominated for multiple Eisner Awards, and I just loved its premise. The story focuses on two friends who go on a shopping expedition in an IKEA-inspired store named IKOS. Dena wants to get the bookshelf of her dreams (and eat some meatballs) and she brings along Mel to help keep her on track (and also eats some meatballs).

The premise sets up what seems to be a humorous situation, but this book gets much deeper than that, delving into matters of desire and identity as well as what constitutes a strong friendship. This venture tests both women's mettle, and it is a pretty harrowing adventure. I loved the clever mix of mythological archetypes, introspection, and comedy at play here.

This book's creator Lissa Treiman is story head at Disney, and has worked on multiple films as an animator, including Zootopia, Big Hero 6, Wreck-It Ralph, and Tangled. In terms of comics, she is also accomplished as the artist on the Harvey Award-nominated and Eisner Award-winning series Giant Days.

I had a hard time finding reviews of this book, and David Harper called it "a singularly unexpected and tremendously well-done read."

Summing up, I loved all four of these books, and I think they are all exceptionally well-done. I will definitely check out more titles from Shortbox, keeping an eye out for any future Kickstarter campaigns. You can order and preview all these titles on their website, or if US-based readers want to skip out on international shipping fees, you can also find most titles from indie-comics shops via web-searching.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Pulp

I have read pretty much every comic Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have created. Their past series, like Sleeper, Criminal, Incognito, Fatale, The Fade-Out, and Kill or Be Killed, have blown me away with their blend of action and intrigue in noir fashion. In the past, these books have been published serially as comic books and then collected as trade paperbacks, but with My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies, they tried their hand at a stand-alone graphic novel. I really dug that book, and it must have been successful in a number of ways, because the duo has embarked on publishing a series of individual graphic novels. The first is this one, Pulp.

Although it is not set in the same universe as Criminal, it shares that series' feel and tone. The narrative here focuses on Max Winter, an aged writer of western pulp stories. Getting up in years, he is worried about money issues, heart problems, making sure his partner Rosa is squared away in the eventuality of his death, and the rise of fascists who support Hitler in pre-WWII New York City. Facing a lower page rate and also a thinning revenue stream as his publisher hires younger and cheaper writers, Max starts plotting a robbery. It turns out that the westerns he writes are not totally fictional, and what is more, a Pinkerton detective has noticed that these stories smack of crimes he once investigated. 

As you can see from the excerpt, one of the strong parts of this book is its intertwined accounts of different time periods. These shifts are clearly marked with changes in coloring, which is here done by Jacob Phillips. The artwork and storytelling are lean and mean, building a highly detailed and recognizable situation and characters almost immediately. This graphic novel is more of a novella in terms of length, but it's a dense, enjoyable read. Although the story itself may be treading somewhat familiar ground for a pulp-type tale, it is exceptionally well-crafted. Sometimes you just crave a great piece of genre fiction, and this book is just that.

The reviews I have read of this book have been largely positive. Publishers Weekly wrote, "The only disappointment in this tight, fast-paced homage to multiple pulp traditions is that it’s so short." Bruno Savill de Jong concluded, "Brubaker and the Phillips remain a fantastic team for satisfying and compelling crime stories. They might have remained in their comfort zone, but for the moment, they show little reason to move out." Tom Shapira wanted a little bit more out of this book, opining, "It gives you exactly what you expect, without challenging you in any meaningful way, while providing the illusion of challenge."

Pulp was published by Image Comics, and they provide more info about it here.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Doodleville

In part, Doodleville is a book about creativity and how it relates to people's emotions. Its protagonist is Drew, a young girl who loves to draw. What is more, her doodles literally pop off of the page and alter their surroundings. 

When she brings her notebook to the Art Institute of Chicago, her doodles run wild through the museum's various masterpieces, which especially upsets one curator. Also, one of her doodles steals a hat from a classical painting. 

 

Another problem arises when Drew feels a sense of competition with the cool creations of her friends in the art club, and she tries to remedy the situation by drawing Levi, a leviathan creature she hopes will amaze them. When they don't quite get what she's trying to do with her creation, Levi manifests off the page in a disastrous way. 

The various members of the art club all have their own characters, including superheroes, fantastical creatures, and animals, which unfortunately fall in Levi's path. A large part of the book is them planning ways to deal with the leviathan, which includes attacking it, trying to befriend it, and trapping it. But Levi proves almost impossible to deal with or contain. So in a manner, this book is also about how people learn how to relate to each other, which can be a messy and volatile endeavor.

I know that there are lots of cliches about the mental instability of artists, as it they need some sort of madness to fire their art, but this book does not really perpetuate that myth. Instead, the role of art here is to reflect people's emotional lives, and those of young people trying to find their way in the world can be tumultuous. Experimenting with identities and trying to fit in with friends can be frustrating, and that is part of what manifests in the children's drawings. I think this book is a highly respectful one, that takes children's mental states seriously and communicates just how complex they can be.

I appreciated how the artwork reflects these various struggles in interesting ways, and I also appreciated how these events are not tidily resolved at the end of the book. Also, on a positive note, the lack of resolution means that there will be a sequel set in this same beautifully rendered world.

Doodleville is the creation of Chad Sell, the artist who collaborated with a number of authors on one of my favorite graphic novels of recent years, The Cardboard Kingdom. This book continues in its vein of respectfully representing the diverse, complicated lives of children. Sell provides lots of insight into his work on Doodleville in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews summed up that this book "will draw readers in and inspire doodles galore." Publishers Weekly wrote, "Sell’s caricatured illustrations provide strong action, and single-hue overlays (purples, greens) highlight emotionally charged moments for the friend group, which includes kids of various ethnicities and gender identities." Charles Hartford wrote that it has "the perfect balance of seriousness and fun."

Doodleville was published by Random House Graphic, and they offer a preview and more here.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Maker Comics: Grow a Garden!

Happy 2021! It's a brand new year, and some people like to take this time to do something new with their lives. For instance, you might want to do something productive like take up gardening. Well, luckily for graphic novel fans, the Makers Comics series has got you covered. Grow a Garden! has all sorts of helpful insights on how to begin a garden, both inside and outside, with directions on how to plant specific crops, set-up an indoor lighting system to foster seedlings along during weather, and tips on how to compost and create your own rich soil. Overall, I think it's a handy introduction to the rudimentary aspects of gardening. I certainly learned a bunch from it, most notably the need to pay close attention to the specific needs of specific plants.

As you can see from the excerpt from the opening of the book, the artwork is clean and attractive, a style that is cartoonish and inviting to read. It also feels like a book aimed toward younger readers, as a sizable aspect of the book also focuses on setting up the book's premise, namely that there is a bunch of students learning about agriculture at Garden Gnome Academy. I think this premise is clever, but I also feel that it is overly developed for a book such as this. A lot of space goes toward crafting a narrative where the apparent nebbish, instructor Mr. Butternut, is in actuality a superhero named Captain Compost who eventually saves the school from the schemes of fellow teacher Mr. Thorn and his mad experiments with carnivorous plants. In (too?) clever fashion, the students spent a lot of the downtime waiting for plants to grow by reading Captain Compost comic books, so the reveal is a big surprise. 

I  enjoyed reading and learning from this book , and I don't want to poo-poo its whimsical narrative, but I also think it could have used some streamlining. There are a number of places where I think text dominates the narrative flow, and I can't help but wonder if some of the superhero/fantasy story could have been pruned in the interest of delineating more visual directions for gardening.  I have read many books in the various nonfiction series that First Second publishes, and this volume just seems to not maximize its potential for being informative. It is charming, but I also feel that its premise sometimes detracts from its content. The combination of fiction and nonfiction is not harmonious.

This book's creator Alexis Frederick-Frost is best known for his work on the Adventures in Cartooning series, and he's no stranger to fantasy comics aimed at younger readers.

The reviews I could locate about this book often express disappointment. Johanna Draper Carlson concluded, "All this background material means we don’t get to see the gnomes actually grow or harvest much of what they start. Just as the part I’m interested in is beginning, the book ends. Instead of seeing the outcome of a successful garden, we get a superhero battle out of nowhere. I also hoped that there would be more information on fixing or avoiding problems with plants, but there are only a couple of pages on how to recognize when something’s wrong." Melissa McCleary wrote, "Overall, this installment of the series fails to meet its basic goals of both educating readers and presenting an enticing story; the structure ultimately cancels both out."

Grow a Garden! was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more info about it here.

Friday, January 1, 2021

My Favorite Books of 2020

2020 has been a long, distressing, and memorable year. It was also a year full of some great comics and graphic novels, particularly nonfiction works. Check out this list of my favorites (and follow the links to the full reviews):

Favorite Book Overall

I am a sucker for an inspirational sports story, and Dragon Hoops is that, plus a personal history, plus a look at the identity politics of high school students, plus a commentary on making comics, plus a meditation on balancing your life. It's a massive, incredible work.

 

 

 

 

 

 Favorite Adaptation

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors, and this adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five uses comics in interesting and innovative ways. Most adaptations don't enhance the source material, but this one does.

 

 

 


 

Favorite Nonfiction History (Younger Readers - Not by Nathan Hale)

I have liked all the entries in the History Comics series I have read thus far, but the scope and sense of humor of this book make it exceptional. The Roanoke Colony tells the tale of Native Americans, colonial America, a doomed colony, British royal politics, and pirates. I learned so much from reading it and had fun doing so, too. (Queen Elizabeth I brushed her teeth with honey, can you believe it? Disgusting!)

 

 

 

 

Favorite Nonfiction History (Younger Readers - by Nathan Hale)  

Nathan Hale makes the best history comics, so he gets his own category. Blades of Freedom, the tenth(!) entry in his Hazardous Tales series, shows just how fresh and interesting his work still is while covering a topic (the slave revolt in Haiti) that unravels a complicated web of 18th century US and European history. Another book that opened my eyes to a topic I was sadly ignorant about.


 

 

 

 Favorite Nonfiction (Older Readers)

Kent State is well-researched, based on lots of original documents, interviews, and oral accounts of the massacre of student protestors in 1970. It is a book that highlights the victims who died, showing their humanity while also exposing a system of paranoia and prejudice that sadly persists today.


 

 

 

 Favorite Fictional Biography

Not much is known about the private live of this pivotal actor, but Lon Chaney Speaks pieces together a compelling narrative that melds vaudeville, silent movies, the early days of Hollywood, and plenty of monster movie special effects. The artwork perfectly captures the time period while recreating the movies and movie posters of the day.


 

 

 

 Favorite Superhero Biography

I know that Jack Kirby is not technically a superhero, but he created enough of them in his lifetime that I am counting him as one. I loved this biography that covers his lifespan and accomplishments in a style very similar to his own. The artwork is bombastic, quite fitting for the "King of Comics."

 

 

 

 

 Favorite Superhero Book

One of the highlights of my year was getting to talk with Gene Luen Yang about Superman Smashes the Klan. Even if I had not talked to him, I would rate this work very highly. Based on a serialized radio show from 1946, this book modernizes the tale and hits on the best aspects of the classic superhero while also commenting on racism and the resilience of immigrants.
 

 

 

 

 Favorite Series for Younger Readers 

There are two books in the Investigators series so far, and my oldest child has read them with me multiple times. It's full of puns, cheesy jokes, and inventive mash-ups of characters (including a radioactive bakery-based villain named Cracker-dile, a plumber who literally has a snake for an arm, and a doctor who turns into a news copter when anything news-worthy occurs around him). Fun and addictive!


 


 

Funniest Book, AKA Best Book Featuring Guys in Bear Outfits

Eddie's Week begins with the main character having an inmate (complete with cell) installed in his living room and just gets weirder and more surreal from there. It's a unique and darkly funny book that speaks about modern life wile containing some madcap adventures.
 

 

 

 

 

 Favorite YA Book

A beautifully told and illustrated book, The Magic Fish speaks to the power of stories to convey meaning and build brides that cross time and culture. The main character Tiến is one of the sweetest and most sympathetic protagonists, and his struggles with coming out to his parents gnaw at him. The ending left me tingling.


 

 

 

 Favorite YA Biography

Even though I come from a very different background than Joel Christian Gill, I found much to relate to in this autobiography. Fights chronicles a rough childhood where he had to learn to take up for himself, often in physical ways. It's a heart-rending and inspirational work that captures the confusion and ambiguities of childhood.

 

 

 

 

OK, that's my list. Happy 2021!