Sunday, May 30, 2021

Losing the Girl

Losing the Girl is one of those books that has been on my to-read list for way to long, and I am very glad to have finally read it. It is the first of a trilogy, and it sets up a great many plot threads in both a compelling and moving manner. I knew vaguely that this was a book about adolescents and (maybe) some extraterrestrial hi-jinx, but it turned out to be so much more than some clever scifi romp.

The book is divided into five chapters, each one focusing on one of four teens who attend the same school. In the background of their stories is the disappearance of Claudia Jones, an honors student who attends their school. This disappearance is teased perhaps to be an alien abduction, but there is also a possibility it is linked to the presence of a homeless woman named CJ who appears around town. This mystery is secondary to the main plots, but it also provides a nice narrative through-line that builds suspense that should pay off in later books. 

The first chapter is narrated by Nigel, an African-American boy who uses humor to compensate for his struggles with his parents' divorce. He cracks wise and flirts with a lot of girls.

He has a short relationship with Emily, who is the narrator of the second chapter. She is Asian-American, and after dating Nigel, she starts pursuing her dream-boy Brett. She has a lot of choices to make when she becomes pregnant, both in terms of her relationships and her future. The third chapter is about white boy Brett, who is not a stereotypical jock but harbors a secret artistic side and an unrequited crush. The fourth chapter focuses on Paula, who I believe is Latinx, Emily's friend who gets treated poorly by her overbearing boyfriend. She has to deal with a number of complicated emotions, and she makes some questionable choices of her own. The fifth chapter returns to Nigel for a quick coda that sets up the next book.

The power in this book lays in its character-work and its artful ways of communicating feelings and emotionally volatile scenes. The artwork subtly shifts in each chapter, to capture each character's sensibility and also create unique spaces for them. So much of this book relies on verbal communication and captions, not so much action, but it still flows incredibly smoothly. The artwork is simple looking and economical, but it packs a powerful dramatic wallop. Just check out this sequence:

Losing the Girl is a page-turner that features real-feeling characters who go through realistic, complicated events. I will definitely be reading the next two books in the Life on Earth trilogy. 

This book was created by Marinaomi, an artist, scholar, podcaster, and activist who maintains multiple databases for cartoonists of color, disabled cartoonists, and queer cartoonists. She has created an array of comics in print and digital formats, including the Eisner Award-nominated Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories. She speaks about her career and works in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive.  J. Caleb Mozzocco wrote, "Deceptively simple-looking, this is a genuinely complex comics work." Rob Clough opined, "There are many familiar elements of teen romance here, to be sure, but MariNaomi approaches with a level of sophistication and humanity that's rare for any story of this kind." Kirkus Reviews summed up, "A moody, compassionate reflection of adolescence in turmoil."

Losing the Girl was published by Graphic Universe, and they offer a preview and more information about it here.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Man Without Talent

The Man Without Talent is a landmark manga book, a collection of semi-autobiographical stories by a classic creator who has not published a comic since 1987. The six chapters in this book follow the travails of Sukezō Sukegawa, a middle-aged man who is married and has a son but little direction to his life. He used to draw manga but now he is casting about for a vocation. Mainly, he tries to sell river rocks, but his improvised stand does not attract any customers and the rocks he collects impress no one. He is more successful in restoring and selling vintage cameras, but when he runs out of cameras to refurbish his prospects trickle out. I'd say that he was suffering from a mid-life crisis but it seems more like he struggles to find his place in a capitalist system. He was only good at one thing, creating manga, but he does not want to do that anymore.

His life is a disappointment to his wife, whose face is barely seen as she can't bear to look at him. And even though he shown to be a good father to his little boy, the family struggles financially and emotionally. Sukezō's melancholic state of mind manifests in many musings, concluding in a prolonged meditation on the life and works of Seigetsu, a wandering, derelict haiku poet, which closes this book. I won't call this ending hopeful, but it does comment on the potential of creating art that lives beyond its creators. Although there is no broad action in this book, what it does extremely well is present a portrait of a desperate, frustrated man and his inner thoughts. This work is more philosophical and literary, but it is nonetheless still beautiful, captivating, and impressive.

The stories here are considered classics in manga that established the tradition of I-stories, which focus more on literary matters than genre conventions. This book's creator Yoshiharu Tsuge is an important figure in Japanese comics because of the conventions he established with his various works. He has not been active in publishing for decades now, but his works and life have been adapted into a number of movies. He speaks about the recent revival of his works in English here. After a long-standing opposition he had to have his works translated into other languages, The Man Without Talent is his first book to be published in the US. It was translated and includes a great informative essay by scholar Ryan Holmberg.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. Brian Nicholson wrote that "it resonate[s] on a deeper level than simply being relatable." Morgana Santilli called it "an excellent read for anyone who wants to know more about early underground/art manga history." In a starred entry, Kirkus Reviews concluded, "Humanity stunningly observed—a treasure."

The Man Without Talent was published by New York Review Books, and they provide a preview and more information about it here.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott

The title The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott gives away a lot of information about this book. It is about a young woman named Billie Scott, and she is indeed going blind. What it does not say is just how terrific this book is. Billie is an artist who has won a coveted spot to have a solo exhibition of her art as a prestigious gallery. Up until this book begins, she has totally isolated herself from her family and any would-be-friends, devoting herself entirely to her craft. However, through a random act of violence, she is struck and her retinas begin to detach. 

Given that she has about two weeks until she goes completely blind, she sets off to find 10 subjects to paint. She stops playing it safe and begins to actually socialize, beginning with her flatmates. Then she goes off to make acquaintances in all sorts of random places, including bachelorette parties, homeless shelters, youth hostels, and alleyways. She amasses a loose band of acquaintances but she also begins getting to know them all better. Given her circumstances, she develops more self-awareness. Also, the urgency of her project makes her much more direct and focused about her wants and needs. 

What I really ending up loving about this book was how people can unexpectedly find friendship and form relationships. Billie looks for people with interesting features so she can paint them, but she also hears their stories and gets to know them. Many of them are damaged in some way, but they exhibit strength and beauty in their own ways. Not everyone she meets is entirely friendly or trustworthy, but she does forge a number of friendships and cobbles together a sort of family. She even finds a special kinship with Rachel, a homeless musician and busker who keeps trying to score a gig at a specific local tavern. 

A story about a lonely, young woman who learns about herself and finds friends in unlikely places could come off as treacly or disingenuous, but the art, character work, and storytelling are strong enough to earn heartfelt, genuine reactions. I found this book utterly charming and uplifting. It is the real deal.

I'll be eager to see what else this book's creator Zoe Thorogood publishes. This book is her graphic novel debut, and she talks about comics, her background, and her work on Billie Scott in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book sing its praises. Caitlin Rosberg called it "a touching exploration of what it means to make art and how to find your people, and why both things are important." Nicholas Burman wrote "that art represents how people are thinking, and it’s an impressive and positive sign as to the resilience of both an emerging generation and the artistic impulse that The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott presents a UK where all the stuff that matters still matters." John Seven commented positively about the tone of this book, highlighting the "fully-realized street-level world for Billie Scott to inhabit" as well as Thorogood's "scrappy art style."

The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott was published by Avery Hill Publishing, and they offer a preview an more about it here.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Magician A


Magician A is not a book for children. It is a collection of short stories that highlight feminine sexuality and competition in different milieus, providing a range of insights into how contemporary women strive to take control of their own destinies. In some stories the women act in entrepreneurial ways, for instance a sex worker who provides her one client with a loyalty punch card, a magician who gets paid to pray for people's wishes to come true, and a young woman who provides manual relaxation for customers in a park. 

Almost all involve women who are struggling to find their confidence or way in the world, including one who has a random encounter with a really cool woman she aspires to be like in a bookstore, a fledgling magician trying to make sense of magic school, and an artist trying to find her voice and style in art school.

I found all of these stories of revelation and personal growth compelling. The author has a way of immediately portraying her characters' personalities in striking, empathetic fashion, and I found it easy to get involved with their personal dramas. Additionally, each story is unique and intricately plotted to deliver both an emotional wallop plus a good deal of suspense. These stories are not for the faint of heart or the squeamish. They are erotically charged, emotionally wrenching, and eminently memorable.

This impressive debut was created by Natsuko Ishitsuyo. I learned a lot about her from the journal entries and Q &A that appear at the back of the book.

The reviews I have read of this book were very positive. Morgana Santilli opined about the prevalence of masculine sexuality in manga and wrote, "Magician A is a striking counterpoint where instead of wallowing in self-pity and fantasizing about harming others, Ishitsuyo’s protagonists use their sexual awakenings as personal reflection and a catalyst for empowerment that men, born into power, take for granted." Katie Skelly concluded, "These are very accomplished visions from a determinedly independent creator, and we’re so lucky to have them." This book's translator Jocelyne Allen commented about the original Japanese version, "It’s so assured and unlike anything I’ve come across in the world of manga before."

Magician A was published by BDP, and they offer more info about it here. There are previews available here at the Kickstarter page where this project was originally funded. If you have gotten this far into my review, you probably know that this book is suggested for mature readers.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Tono Monogatari

The original version of Tono Monogatari was published in 1910 by folklorists Kunio Yanagita and Kizen Sasaki, recording a number of folk stories from the Tono region of Japan.These tales feature all sorts of creatures, including yōkai, unpredictable spirits that haunt the wilderness, and kami, which are minor deities that frequently wreak havoc on people's lives. These tales are also significant in that they are roughly the equivalent of the Brother Grimm's fairy tales, a record of the folklore of a particular country. 

The stories adapted here are often unsettling, creepy, and/or weird. Many of them have the flavor of a spooky campfire tale, and they often end abruptly without a moral or lesson. A couple also contain sexual imagery, so I would curate this book if I were using it with younger readers. The ones that stuck with me included a few accounts of women being kidnapped to be spirit brides, one where a fisherman murders a fox that was impersonating his wife, one where a man is blessed with a grinder that turns rice to gold, and another where a young woman is hounded by a yama haha, a spirit that resembles a large, old woman. In all there are 119 stories in this book, arranged thematically, so you can read them in bunches or take your time to enjoy them individually.

The artwork in this book is also a highlight. The backgrounds and landscapes are drawn in highly realistic fashion, and there are a few breath-taking double page spreads. The characters who inhabit these stories are more cartoonish and caricatures, especially the male ones. The various supernatural creatures are appropriately gruesome and fantastical. All in all, I think there is a great sense of joy and craftsmanship in this book. It seems a project completed in love.

This book's creator Shigeru Mizuki was an artist and historian best known for creating the series GeGeGe no Kitarō. It began in 1960 and starred a yōkai named Kitaro and told many supernaturally themed tales. It was wildly popular and has been adapted many times as anime and movies. In a fun, metafictional move, he inserts himself into the book as a character who is visiting the region, tracing the footsteps of his forbears and even having a ghostly conversation with original author Kunio Yanagita.

There are a few color pages among the B&W.

This book was translated into English by Zack Davisson, a translator, writer, lecturer, and scholar of manga, Japanese folklore, and ghosts. He has translated a number of Mizuki's works, including the Eisner Award-winning Showa: A History of Japan. He provides some prose to help contextualize the mythological and cultural features of these stories, which is a very helpful and informative feature.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Alison Fincher called it "a culturally-important celebration of an enduring work of literature presented by one of Japan’s greatest popular artists." Rebecca Silverman wrote, "The art is beautiful, and as always makes use of Mizuki's trademark style of cartoony people on photorealistic backgrounds." Publishers Weekly concluded, "The acrobatic visuals lend these fables a giddy charm, and the inviting collection opens up Japanese history for a broader readership."

Tono Monogatari was published in the North America by Drawn & Quarterly, and they offer a preview and more here.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021


I think this is the first book in what began as the DC Ink imprint I've read that features totally original characters. The two protagonists of this book are a study of opposites, both in their civilian and super-powered guises.

Piper Parajo, aka the Hummingbird, is a newbie superhero with super-strength. She is learning how to use her powers and her exploits bring her into conflict with the local police who are unsure of her motivations. Sloan MacBrute, aka The Grey, is more calculating, and she uses her talents to steal items around Gotham City (yes, that one). Eventually, these two come into contact, and a la Freaky Friday, their minds are transferred into each other's body, so they have to learn to cooperate in order to not blow each other's cover.

This series of events leads each to consider their own lots in life and also to appreciate the perspective of the other. Piper is upbeat and popular at school, but she misses her absent parents. Sloan is a loner, straight-A student by day and thief by night. Over the course of the book though (slight spoiler), it is revealed that she is not nefarious but beholden to a dark force in order to provide medical care for her single mother. 

I know that much of this plot may sound a bit "afterschool special," but I think that the drama is pulled off very well here. All the characters seem very real, and their plights are moving. What is more, I really liked the action and suspense woven throughout the narrative. Although the ending came a bit too quickly for me, this book is compelling because of its strong characterizations. I would love to see more adventures with these characters by these creators.

This book was written by Kate Karyus Quinn and Demitria Lunetta and drawn by Maca Gil. Quinn and Lunetta have written all sorts of works, in young adult as well as other categories. I think they have written a very good plot that was imbued with dynamism and life by Gil, who is a storyboard artist and illustrator. Her artwork is one of the highlights of the book, adding much energy and emotion to the story. All three creators speak about their work on this book in this interview. This other interview with them all is also quite good.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Ray Goldfield called it "one of the most charming and original superhero stories to come out of DC in a long time." Krysta wrote, "It deals with important issues without ever getting too dark and, perhaps more importantly, never feels too childish." Publishers Weekly stated, "Gil’s expressive characterization and thoughtful use of color create a distinctly cinematic feel, akin to that of an animated series."

Anti/Hero was published by DC Comics, and they offer more info about it here.