Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Through the Woods

This book is another one I am kicking myself for not reading years ago when I first got it. Luckily, one of the students in my Graphic Novels and Multiliteracies seminar chose it for our weekly read, and not only did I get to experience it but will get to discuss it, too. Put simply, Through the Woods is a collection of five gorgeous, horrible, and chilling stories.

These stories are reminiscent of classic, gothic horror tales a la the Brothers Grimm. They feature dark strangers, wintry settings, isolated families, envy, loneliness, ghouls, mysterious manors, and labyrinthine forests. Also, they are all master classes in pacing, revelation, and building suspense. Everything in this book, the artwork, the poetic text, the character designs, and the layouts, contributes to beautifully rendered stories, an atmosphere of dread, interesting characterizations, and scenes of pure fantasy and amazement. I am not even going to go into detail about the separate stories, because I think a reader should get to experience them for themselves to get the optimal impact.

I cannot heap enough praises on this book. It blew me away.
Seriously, you need to buy or borrow this book RIGHT NOW.
This book's creator is Emily Carroll, who won multiple awards for this debut, including two Eisners and an Ignatz. She publishes much of her work online and has a good number of her stories available to read online at her website. They are well worth checking out. She talks extensively about her work and career in this interview.

The reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. Amal El-Mohtar called it "stunningly beautiful" and "magnificently executed." Sarah Horrocks wrote, "There is also a poetry to Carroll’s written word that you rarely get in western comics." Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review and summed up, "A sure winner for any reader with a yen to become permanently terrified. Brilliant."

Through the Woods was published by Simon & Schuster, and they have a preview and more info about it here.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Castle in the Stars: The Space Race of 1869, Book One

Castle in the Stars is an all ages science fiction/steampunk tale that looks and feels like a fairy tale. It has something for everyone: A brave woman who pushes the bounds of science and discovery, seemingly losing her husband and son in the process. Shifty Prussian spies who seek to kidnap people. Hot air balloons powered by a supernaturally powerful fuel. A castle. A Bavarian king under siege. A band of crafty children who are up to mischief. Gorgeously painted imagery (just check out that preview).
After the events in the excerpt, things shift a year into the future where Seraphin and his father Archibald still wonder what happened to Claire. Archibald is upset that his son will not let go of his mother's seemingly crazy scientific ideas. But some unwanted, unsavory visitors come on the scene to indicate that perhaps she was not so off-the mark in her search for aether after all. What happens next takes father and son far away to a wonderful castle where they strive to complete her research and find out what really happened to her.

This story is complex yet easily grasped, and it is one of those rare ones that I feel is entertaining to a wide variety of ages from the very young to adults. The artwork plays a very large part in my recommendation, as it is a colorful and lush feast for the eyes. The larger format of the book is apt for admiring and revisiting these sumptuous images.

This book contains the first three chapters of a series originally published in France. Its author Alex Alice also has a number of other works, including a trilogy based on the opera Siegfried, available in English. His blog has not been updated in a while, but you can learn more about him at his entry at the Lambiek Comiclopedia.

All of the reviews I have read sing this book's praises. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review, concluding, "Like the best steampunk, this story is one excellent distraction after another, with enough blueprints to hold people’s attention while they’re waiting for Book 2." Publishers Weekly summed up, "Lushly painted scenes, an abundance of banter among the young heroes, and plenty of action and gadgetry make for an engrossing tale of discovery and betrayal." Todd Young wrote, "The art and creativeness of the story make it a book I would recommend to anyone, regardless of age." Kelly Fineman called it "Perfect for folks interested in history, alternate history, steampunk, space exploration, science, and adventure."

Castle in the Stars was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here.

A preview copy was provided by the publisher.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Fantasy Sports Number 3: The Green King

This just in: Comics creator Sam Bosma, who is also known for his work as an artist on the cartoon show Steven Universe, has created another masterful graphic novel in the Fantasy Sports series. Fans of this blog might have realized by now that I am in love with these books (please see reviews for books 1 and 2). In this third book, they wash upon an island where a great beast has taken control. And there is a change of pace, narratively speaking, as the duo gets separated. Left to her own devices, Wiz gets to take part in a lot more action, embroiled in a mini-golf match with the titular Green King. Along the course, she learns much about him and how he has been reduced to his current state of despair.

Mug, conversely, is imprisoned and does not see much action. Still, with his interactions with his jailers and a couple of key flashbacks to the early days of the Order of the Mages, things get put into a different context. At the end of the book, when the two are reunited (spoiler- I guess), they compare notes and what they have observed and come to the conclusion that things they have taken for granted might be very much up for contest. Something about the Order stinks, and in the next book a whole lot of shoes are going to drop.

One of the best things about these books is their size, big enough to feature the gorgeous artwork and invite repeated rereadings to see all the detail and Easter eggs strewn about. Personally, it will kill me that I have to wait a year for the next, final book in the series. It is consistently phenomenal. If you love great comics, fantastic character designs, action, intrigue, humor, and a dash of sports, this series is for you.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. Kirkus Reviews called it "A hole-in-one," adding, "This slim, oversized volume is fast and furious fun, mixing fantasy and sports in a distinct and refreshing way." Stephanie Cooke wrote, "There are plenty of great indie and small press books out there, but few are as beautiful and as fully realized as Fantasy Sports." Antony Esmond opined, "The energy of this series is off the scale and after one read I’ll guarantee that you’ll head back to see what Easter Eggs you missed."

Fantasy Sports Number 3 was published by Nobrow Press, and they have a preview and more information available here. There is also a video preview available here.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King

I have to admit something, I have not read Mighty Jack, the book that immediately precedes this one. After reading this volume though, I feel I need to remedy that situation pretty soon. This second book in a series is fantastic, full of action, adventure, and suspense, and all done in a playful and thoughtful manner. The premise here is a take-off on the classic Jack and the Beanstalk tale, only now is prodded on to rescue his autistic little sister Maddy, who was kidnapped by an ogre through a portal into a floating world full of fantastic, gruesome creatures. Magic beans were involved in all of this, of course.

And although the title of the book only features Jack, he is not alone on his journey. His partner-in-quest Lilly is no shrinking violet. The two of them contend with adversity and injury along the way. And when they get separated Lilly finds herself face to face with the Goblin King, a conflict which takes her to a surprising place.

Even though I did not have the prior book, at no time did I really feel lost or uninformed. The story started midstream and caught me up to speed in no time. I was also thrilled and moved by the stakes at hand and the stamina and fortitude the human protagonists display. Plus, the book ends in a way that completes this story but also opens up a huge avenue for further adventures. Put simply, this book is breathtakingly awesome.

This book's creator Ben Hatke is a graphic novelist and artist known for his Zita the Spacegirl trilogy, the graphic novel Little Robot, and the picture book Julia’s House for Lost Creatures. His artwork is usually simple and expressive, and I feel it very pleasing and fun. In this book his art got more detailed in a way that made things more dynamic though still as enjoyable.

All the reviews I have read of this book have been full of praise. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred reviewed and summed it up as "Another outstanding adventure from a master storyteller." Dustin Cabeal wrote, "Hatke can write serious moments, fun and exciting adventures and still keep a perfect pace while telling the story." Trisha Jenn Loehr called both Mighty Jack books "absolutely stunning."

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here.

A preview copy was provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Pantheon: The True Story of the Egyptian Deities

As you might guess from the cover, depicting a buff Horus kicking his uncle Set square in the family jewels, this is not your typical take on ancient myths. Read from a contemporary stance, Egyptian mythology is full of some strong, strange stuff, including incest, murder, sex, sibling rivalries, and dismemberments. Pantheon: The True Story of the Egyptian Deities tells those stories in a faithful fashion (it is prefaced by a Egyptologist who vouches for it), but it also modernizes them with a current sensibility, slang, and sarcasm. The result is pretty hilarious, gross, and compelling. For the most part, the book focuses on the misadventures of the brother/sister/husband/wife duo of Osiris and Isis as they contend with their brother Set and his efforts to disrupt the world and their lives. But everything begins with the story of creation that I partially excerpt here:
As you can see, the artwork was appropriately cartoonish and quite clever in many places. I loved how it was a combination of iconography and comic conventions and also how it balanced storytelling with joking. The dialogue and pacing in the excerpt give an accurate picture of the tone of the entire book. Many of the events seem surreal and hilarious, but they are also reflective of the superhuman flaws and personalities of the gods themselves. They mess up continually, feud, and allow themselves to be ruled haphazardly. Still, despite the capriciousness and hilarity, there is an element of sincerity and depth that especially arises in the book's ending. Before reading it, I had a passing knowledge of the Egyptian pantheon, but I feel that I learned much more here. I also got a good number of laughs from it, which was a huge bonus.

Pantheon is the work of Hamish Steele. It is his debut graphic novel, and he got funding for its initial version via a Kickstarter campaign. He also works on a biweekly webcomic called Deadendia.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been celebratory. Publishers Weekly wrote, "After the parade of slapstick and gross sexuality that comes before it, it’s a surprising conclusion that makes the ancient stories feel relevant and alive." Joe Gordon called it "an utter, cheeky delight." James Smart opined, "This take on ancient Egypt is educational as well as hilarious." Kevin Harkins called it "one of the cleverest ideas I have seen in a while."

Pantheon was published by Nobrow Press, and they have a preview and more info about it here. I suggest this book for mature readers because of profanity and a number of these attributes listed on the back cover:

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Best We Could Do

Parenthood changes a person, and it is the framing sequence of The Best We Could Do, a complex, heartfelt, and evocative book that touches on family, history, and humanity. The initial scenes from a hospital precipitate everything that follows, and this book touches on a great number of serious topics. It looks at relationships with parents, but it also puts her specific relationship into context by delving into their pasts. Along the way, we are privy to their formative years in Vietnam, get to know about their families and their hopes and aspirations, and then see how life played out. Like the narrative throughout the book, these depictions are presented in non-linear, rich, and human fashion. The parents' lives are not simple hero narratives, but shown to be full of tragedies, triumphs, luck, routines, patterns, and stamina.
Also, the setting of this book shows the effects of colonialism on a country, the effects of war, the travails of being a refugee, and the discomforts that come from being an immigrant. This last set of concerns is especially topical right now, as we see similar situations over the world, with there being a dehumanizing and hateful backlash to people trying to find a place in the world. This book puts a much needed human face on such circumstances without resorting to simple good/bad narratives.
The simple, sparse artwork tells a strong story with a devastating economy. Several simple juxtapositions communicate volumes, such as drawing a country to be a person's spine or seeing a mother's pained face in the delivery room where her daughter is about to give birth. These simple features belie complicated pasts and relationships in a few strokes, and the muted colors and stark figures add much affect in surprisingly powerful fashion. I did not know what to expect when I started this book, but I loved it. As a parent and a son of immigrants (though not ones from such plights as the ones here), I found much to relate to, sympathize with, and ponder in this beautifully and intricately rendered book.

Thi Bui created this book over the course of many years, beginning it from her thesis project on her family's oral history. She teaches high school, and this book is her debut graphic novel. She speaks about her work on it and much more in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. Robert Kirby called it "an important, wise, and loving book." Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and wrote, "In excavating her family’s trauma through these brief, luminous glimpses, Bui transmutes the base metal of war and struggle into gold." John McMurtie noted that "Bui’s memoir elicits complex emotions from understated pen-and-ink drawings."

The Best We Could Do was published by Abrams ComicArts, and they have a preview and much more information about the book here. There is also another lengthy preview from PEN America.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Shape of Ideas

Social media made me read this book. I follow this book's author on Instagram and also saw a shout-out to this book on Twitter from one of my friends, so I thought I would check it out. First off, let me say that it is not a traditional graphic novel in terms of telling a single narrative. It is more like a collection of chapters that revolve around and extend specific themes. So what I am saying is that this book is full of chapters that operate like pieces of jazz music, with comics riffing on motifs. And each comic is a meticulously constructed gem. This is not a book to plow through but one to bask in and savor.
As you can see from the excerpt, these comics are clever and cerebral. The artwork is colorful and clear, slightly reminiscent of Tom Gauld's style (to me at least), which I feel is a wonderful thing. I loved this book's playful, inventive qualities, and I feel that it has much to offer in terms of inspiration, advice, or understanding for aspiring artists or those who appreciate the arts. A few of the entries may seem redundant, but most are noteworthy and unique. And there were quite a few sections that I felt were phenomenally well executed. There are far more hits than misses in this book.

The man behind this book, Grant Snider is an orthodontist by trade and also well known for creating Incidental Comics. His work has appeared online and also in many prominent venues like The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review. He speaks about his work on this book and in general in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly summed up, "The tongue-in-cheek wit and self-deprecating style make this a pleasant introduction to the joy and frustration of making any kind of art, and the beautifully designed presentation—with a charming die-cut cover—is a fine proof of concept." Andrew Jarman called it an "incredibly unique and wonderful graphic novel that I absolutely loved." Kevin wrote, "While there is some repetition of ideas here, Snider’s exploration of the creative mind through comics and graphics will surely make you contemplate the wistfulness of creativity, and perhaps inspire you to make your own."

The Shape of Ideas was published by Abrams ComicArts, and they have a preview and more information available here.