Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass


I have read a few of the YA graphic novels that DC Comics has published the past couple of years (you can check out my two reviews here and here), but this one really took me by surprise by how much I liked it. I don't mean that I underestimated the talent who collaborated on this book, as writer Mariko Tamaki is one of the best writers working in comics today, and I have enjoyed artist Steve Pugh's work for decades now. 

Dear readers, I suffer from what I call "Batman fatigue." I used to love the character, and there was a time when I felt it was the greatest superhero creation ever. But after decades of reading some great stories, I have gotten to the point where there is just too much Batman out there for me. Sure, I admire writer Tom King's meta-commentary comics when I have read them, and works like The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight, Batman: Year One, Batman: The Animated Series, and the 1966 Batman TV show are some of my favorite things ever. But I am over the umpteenth "final battle" between Batman and the Joker, and I am sick to death of the latest "most ultimate, extreme version ever" that has driven the comic books over the past two decades. Plus, I have some issues with Harley Quinn, who has come a long way, but whose origins truck in some pretty toxic masculinity and decades of abuse in her relationship with the Joker.

What impressed me most about this book was how well it imagined this whole universe that I found not only fresh and riveting, but that also left me gasping for more when the book ended. That is no mean feat.

Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass re-imagines Harley Quinn (or Harleen Quinzel, as she starts out) as a troubled youth who was sent to live with her grandmother in Gotham City, only to end up living with a large Asian drag queen named Mama and her coterie of drag performers. 16-year-old Harley goes to school, gets into trouble, but also befriends a girl named Ivy, here conceived as a mixed race, activist teenager with a Black father and Asian mother. Ivy is an environmentalist who finds solace in the community garden, but the entire neighborhood is threatened by aggressive gentrification perpetrated by the Kane Corporation (who are a sort of evil version of Starbucks). She and Harley also also have a major beef with Gotham High's Film Club, which is run by their classmate, elitist jerk John Kane.

Ivy presents one option of using social activism to combat this injustice, but Harley also meets a masked stranger who calls himself the Joker who offers an alternative course of action, to use terror and bomb and burn the city. None of these changes comes off as ham-handed, but they are rather nuanced, logical, and thematically apt. Also, this books turns the convention version of these characters on their heads, confronting issues of toxic masculinity, classism, racism, incarceration, and misogyny head-on. 

The story and themes are augmented by the artwork, which is incredibly detailed, so that the entire city and its motley cast of characters comes alive. There are a few key players who are important throughout the book, but the backgrounds, crowd scenes, layouts, and setting also loom large and add so much personality and ambience. This book is fantastic, an incredibly smart, moving, and suspenseful reworking of overdone characters. If this is the future of mainstream comics, sign me up please.

Like I wrote above, both of the main creators involved with this book are accomplished comics veterans. Tamaki has won a ton of awards, including multiple Eisners, being a finalist for the Printz Award (twice!), and a Caldecott Honor. She is known for the graphic novels This One Summer, Skim, and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me. Pugh's most notable works in the US have been multiple runs on Animal Man, drawing the Saint of Killers mini-series, and a recent run on the utterly great The Flintstones mini-series (For real. Go read my review.). Both creators speak about their collaboration on Breaking Glass in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. Ray Goldfield wrote that he felt "it’s the most essential read for anyone who hasn’t seen themselves represented in DC Comics yet." Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "a riotous read." Publisher Weekly observed, "Harley is a relatively breezy character whose questionable ethics often mirror those closest to her, and pairing her with a found family of drag queens and community organizers directs her chaotic whimsy toward a social justice bent."

Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass was published by DC Comics, and they offer more info about it here.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Desperate Pleasures

I read Desperate Pleasures because I have heard great things about the author's debut book, Tinderella. This book is the direct follow-up, and it has a more serious tone and features excellent cartooning that depict powerful scenes of loss and desperation. I feel it is a brave work of autobiography, where the author reveals much of herself as she ponders her life choices and trajectory. She spends her time attending college, dealing pot, and "sugar dating," which entails her dating older, rich men for sex and money. 

She also dabbles in online dating and has a few casual relationships with guys she deals to/meets at her local gym. 

When one of these relationships gets more complicated, M.S. begins taking a look at her life and past, which brings her to revisit her childhood in Oklahoma, where her mother was an isolated wife with two small children and her father would only be seen during his shore leave. This flashback period is told in a slightly more realistic, softer art style and almost without dialogue, which heightens the drama. Some details are established, such as that her father sexually abused her, but others are left vague. In the present, M.S. has a healthy relationship with her little brother, regularly seeing him and coaching his workout routine at the gym. She has not spoken to her mother in years, and nothing is revealed about her father other than he was found guilty of sexual assault and imprisoned. 

The resulting portrait is of a person reeling and in pain, trying to somehow medicate herself and learn how to feel. I admire her trying to find something healthy in her relationships, even when she makes some questionable choices. Still, over the course of the book she does make some changes and begins to find more of positive direction. Having such access to her private life makes for a compelling, uncomfortable, and visceral reading experience, perfectly complemented by expert storytelling. I really want to go read Tinderella now.

M.S. Harkness is best known for the aforementioned Tinderella, and she has also created a number of mini-comics. She speaks about her career and work on Desperate Pleasures in this interview.

Desperate Pleasures  was recently short-listed for the 2021 Cartoonist Studio Prize, and the reviews I have read about this book have been largely positive. Ryan Carey wrote that it is "a 'heavy' read on the whole, sure, particularly when contrasted with earlier works in Harkness’ oeuvre, but it’s never less than an absolute joy to look at." Publishers Weekly called it a "fresh anti-romance."

Desperate Pleasures was published by Uncivilized Books, and they offer a preview and more info about it here. Because of scenes of drug use, sex, and adult themes, I recommend this book for more mature readers.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me


Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me has been on my shelf for way too long, one of those books that has been universally praised that I have extremely high expectations for. It lived up to them and more, I must say. I was especially caught up in the last third of the book, and it had me utterly transfixed. 

The protagonist here is Freddie (short for Frederica). She is a bi-racial, 17-year-old lesbian who is in a toxic relationship with Laura Dean. Laura is White, beautiful, popular, and narcissistic, constantly stringing Freddie along with false promises, lies, and capricious attention. Freddie's friends know the score, and they are supportive of her without being judgmental. They wish she would dump Laura, but she just can't seem to bring herself to do that. She seeks the advice of a fortune teller and an advice columnist as well, but she does not really attend to anyone.

In addition to the major plot-line involving this romantic entanglement, this book is also one about friendship, particularly Freddie's with her best friend Doodle (Deidre). Doodle tries to support her but is frustrated by her failure to take up for herself. Also, she has quite a few issues of her own going on, issues that Freddie is too preoccupied to notice or offer support.

This book is exceptional in two ways, as a powerful narrative and as a phenomenally drawn book. Both combine to actualize strong characters, as even the secondary ones are vibrant and unique. Just as important is the setting, Berkeley, California, a place full of diverse people in a variety of senses. It is also a bohemian place full of coffee shops and organic food restaurants. All these factors combine to make a realistic, vital story. I very much appreciated how the relationships are depicted, warts and all, as well as how the individuals are shown as strong but flawed. This cast was great to spend time with and get to know, even when I was frustrated by some of their actions. This book really captured the ambiguity of being in a failing relationship but also feeling powerless to end it. I love how it disrupts simple notions of romantic love.

Both of this book's creators have won multiple awards for their work in comics. Writer Mariko Tamaki is known for This One Summer, Skim, and a number of more recent works for DC and Marvel Comics. Artist Rosemary Valero-O'Connell is best known for a number of excellent short stories that have been collected in Don't Go Without Me. Both creators speak about their collaboration on Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me in this interview.

This book has been hugely celebrated, winning Eisner, Harvey, and Ignatz Awards, and all the reviews I have read about it have been excellent. Kirkus Reviews concluded their starred review, "A triumphant queer coming-of-age story that will make your heart ache and soar." Shanda Deziel called it "fresh and exhilarating." Oliver Sava described it as "complex, experimenting with form to find different ways to expressively convey information."

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more info about it here.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Speak: The Graphic Novel


Speak is a landmark book in terms of YA literature, about Melinda Sordino, an incoming freshman who is shunned because she called the police who busted an end-of-summer high school party. As a result, she keeps to herself and lives in her head, which is not a very safe place, because what nobody knows is that she called for help because she was raped. What follows is a horror story, where her former friends and current schoolmates bully or shun her. Her former best friend Rachel won't speak to her, and worse yet, starts dating Andy, the boy who attacked her. At home, her parents are very unhappy in their own relationship, and they pay little attention to her, except to punish her for her increasingly poor grades.

This story is a powerfully charged one, and it exposes a system where victims are blamed and aggressors' actions are ignored or even encouraged. It also provides a realistic portrait of a suffering teen, along with all the signs of how her trauma manifests in multiple ways, even as she strives to simply dismiss it. I was also struck by how much the atmosphere of the school, complete with its array of various teachers, do and do not contribute to her being able to cope and find help.

I think it is fitting that the art style brings out a sense of dread and horror that suits the narrative. The black, white, and grey tones set a stark tone, and there are multiple images that are so striking that they will linger with me. So much of the visceral aspects and physical violence come through via the imagery, and this book does an excellent job making the reader empathize with Melinda's situation.

I feel that the message of this book is both necessary and also still controversial, evidenced by how often Speak frequently appears on banned book lists even 20 years after its original publication. I have never read the original novel, so I cannot compare how well the adaptation works in that sense, but I was profoundly moved by this graphic novel. I feel that it is still an important book, one that might be a buoy for someone struggling with pain from abuse or a helpful signpost to someone who might recognize similar suffering and be an ally.

This book is based on the original novel by Laurie Halse Anderson, and was adapted by Emily Carroll. Anderson is a best-selling author and two-time National Book Award Finalist, and some of her other works include the books Shout and Fever 1793. Carroll is an Eisner and an Ignatz Award winning artist who is known for her graphic novels Through the Woods and When I Arrived at the Castle. Both creators speak about their work on this adaptation in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. Andrea Ayres wrote, "This graphic novel stands distinctly on its own, making its mark in the world of young adult literature and bringing its powerful message of resiliency to a brand new generation." In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "powerful, necessary, and essential." In another starred review, Kelley Gile opined that "it is amazing how closely this version evokes the style and feeling of the original."

Speak: The Graphic Novel was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and they offer a preview and more here.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021



Allergic is a graphic novel that focuses on Maggie, a 10-year-old girl who is going through a rough patch. She is just about to start at a brand new school. Her mother is pregnant and due to deliver within a month, so she and her husband are very preoccupied. Her younger brothers Liam and Noah are twins who are always together, usually doing something rambunctious. She feels like the fifth wheel in her house, although all that is about to change, because she is going to get a dog for her birthday. But...

the catch is, she finds out that she's wildly allergic to dogs. And later on, after a doctor's visit, she learns that she is allergic to anything that has fur or feathers, and this news devastates her. She feels that her sole way of finding companionship is lost. She does try some other pets, like lizards and fish, but things do not really work out. Luckily, a girl a little older than her, Claire, moves in next door, and the two become fast friends. That is, until Claire gets a dog.

This graphic novel is aimed at tween or slightly older readers, and it touches on the ways that family and friendship dynamics shift. I like how it normalizes how people can isolate themselves, even unintentionally, and how they do not always know what others are thinking or feeling. Also, it has plenty of  information about how and why people have allergies, and how they need to deal with them. A big aspect of this book hinges on communication and how that is key to dealing with life. I can see this book being popular in the same way that The Babysitter Club graphic novels are.

This book was a collaboration between author Megan Wagner Lloyd and artist Michelle Mee Nutter. Lloyd has written a number of children's picture books, and Nutter does design work as well as commercial art. Both contribute to make a story that is relatable as well as full of bright, expressive, and colorful illustrations. They speak about their work on Allergic in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "a heartachingly enjoyable tale of resilience." Publishers Weekly called it a "warm and well-paced story." Avery Kaplan called it "a bright and welcoming middle grade graphic novel."

Allergic was published by Scholastic Graphix, and they offer a preview and more info about it here

A preview copy was provided by the publisher.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Best Friends

Best Friends is the follow-up to Real Friends, a very well-received, well-reviewed graphic memoir about the ups and downs of elementary school friendships. In this book, things get even more complicated when Shannon gets to sixth grade, the final grade of elementary school. Her friendships seem to carry higher stakes, as the oldest girls in school become the most popular and also have the most power to level at outliers and less social children. 

Being in the popular group brings its own pressures, and things get weird when some of her friends start doing things to purposely test Shannon's loyalty and trustworthiness. Also, she does not seem to watch the same TV shows or listen to the same music they do, which makes her feel out of touch and uncool. And on top of everything else, some of the friends start hitting puberty and turning their attentions to boys in complicated, often confusing ways.

Not only is Shannon dealing with a lot of moving parts in terms of school, friends, and gender politics, she also has to deal with her own struggles with anxiety. These manifest in stomachaches, very dark thoughts (about loved ones dying or her house burning down), and OCD tendencies, and they also hinder her confidence. One of her coping mechanisms is to channel her feelings into her creative writing, here a story of Princess Alexandra who finds a magic jewel with mysterious powers. She is quite imaginatively playful in general, an aspect of her personality that the popular girls just don't seem to get.

By the end of the book, and the onset of middle school, she learns more about what works for her and what satisfies her in terms of friendships and future aspirations. Not everything ends in tidy fashion, and I appreciated the attention paid to a realistic portrait of a young person's emotional life. I think that there is much here for younger (and even older) readers to relate to and even find solace in.

This book is another collaboration between author Shannon Hale and artist LeUyen Pham. The back pages of the book feature a lot of information about them and how they collaborate, and they seem like they are having a blast working together. Hale is a prolific children's book and YA author, and she has a few graphic novels under her belt, too, including Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack. Pham has drawn a good number of children's books, including The Bear Who Wasn't There, and has worked with Hale before on a series of The Princess in Black books. Both creators speak about their work on Best Friends in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews called the book "insightful, introspective, and important." Sam Wildman opined, "I can relate to almost every panel on every page and I know young readers will feel the same." Ayla Jaganjac wrote that it was "amazing."

Best Friends was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more about it here. The third book in this series, Friends Forever, (about life in 8th grade) is due out in August.