Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Hermes: Tales of the Trickster

This tenth entry in George O'Connor's Olympians series continues an impressive streak of excellent graphic novels. Like the other volumes in this series, it is uniquely crafted to the god's personality, this time with a framing device that runs throughout the book, telling the tale of Argus the many-eyed guardian. Of course, there is a twist at the end, demonstrating just how tricky Hermes is.

There are several other tales told within this book, including the birth of Hermes, his antics against his brother Apollo, the origins of his helmet and staff, the birth of his son Pan, and the final battle against Typhon, the last child of Gaea. That last story is gloriously and horribly depicted, and I get the feeling from this book especially that O'Connor had a blast writing and drawing the whole thing.

Also, There's a great bit about dogs, too. I learned a bunch from this book!
It is meticulously researched, energetically illustrated, and smartly plotted. And like the other volumes in this series, it features lots of notes, drawings, and other interesting back matter after the main narrative. I love these books, and I have mixed feelings about the next two, excited to see them but also sad to know that they will complete the series. Luckily, I have a couple of years to deal with these emotions.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. In a starred review from the School Library Journal Mahnaz Dar summed up, "Another stellar addition to graphic novel shelves." Kirkus Reviews also gave it a star and called it "Another crowd-pleasing, compulsively readable entry in this divine series."

Hermes: Tales of the Trickster was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Prince and the Dressmaker

The Prince and the Dressmaker is an intriguing twist on the typical fairy tale story. Here, the prince and heir to the throne Sebastian is being pushed by his parents to find a bride and begin settling down for his own time to reign, but he's harboring a secret. He likes to wear dresses, a fact that only a trusted servant knows. At the onset of this book, he discovers the work of a brilliant, edgy dressmaker named Frances, and he hires her to be his secret seamstress.

Frances makes him all kinds of fantastic and glamorous gowns, and he begins to wear them out disguised as the very showy and dramatic Lady Crystallia. He gathers much attention in this venture and becomes a notorious and trend-setting figure. Of course, all of these secrets have a shelf-life, and much of this book deals with the effects and fallout that comes with being secretive and what happens when that facade begins to crumble.
The high points of this book for me are the artwork and the characters. The art is characterized by flowing lines, vibrant colors, emotive expressions, and fun energy. Wang seems to take many cues from animation in her work, and it certainly pops off the page. Sebastian and Frances are vivid and complex, and getting to spend time with them in the pages of this book is wonderful. Their relationship is not simply a working relationship, nor is it a romance really but more like a friendship that develops interesting features. The ending of the book is also not a pat one, which I feel is appropriate.

I have read a few other books by this book's creator Jen Wang, including her debut Koko Be Good and In Real Life. I think her work is excellent, and I am eager to see whatever project she undertakes next. She talks about her work on The Prince and the Dressmaker in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been largely glowing. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review that concluded, "It’s all but certain to deliver grins, gasps, and some happy tears." Elizabeth Bush wrote, "Readers new, or resistant, to graphic novels will also discover magic here in Wang’s visual storytelling." Princess Weekes gushed that it "is without a doubt one of my favorite things I’ve read so far this year and I’m so excited for everyone to enjoy it." The reviewer at Kirkus Reviews was more reserved, finding much to admire but also feeling that "Sebastian meets acceptance far too easily, particularly for such a public figure in such a conservative age."

The Prince and the Dressmaker was published by First Second, and they offer a review and more here.

A preview copy of the book was provided by the publisher.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Spy Seal, Volume 1: The Corten-Steel Phoenix

Collecting the first four issues of the series, Spy Seal: The Corten-Steel Phoenix is a an intriguing, fun spy series drawn and presented in a style reminiscent of Tintin. At first I was a bit leery of a spy story starring anthropomorphic animals, but it's by one of my favorite creators, Rich Tommaso, and the preview art was simply gorgeous, so I gave it a shot. And I was so glad I did!

The main narrative here follows a seal named Malcolm as he is transformed from unemployed dreamer to secret agent. It all starts when he attends an art gallery opening, meets a sexy female stranger, and ends up fighting off an assassin. Seeing that he can handle himself rather well, one of Britain's MI-6 divisions recruits him. After some training, he finds himself up to all kinds of dangerous spy business, including international jet-setting, elaborate disguises, hand-to-hand combat, and getting thrown out of multiple moving vehicles.
I loved the level of action and intrigue, and what is particularly impressive is that Tommaso has crafted a book that can appeal to young adult and older readers. Sure, there are some innuendo and definitely some violence, but none of it is gratuitous and I feel this book would be a hit across age demographics. It is smartly crafted, beautifully drawn, and flat-out fun to read. Plus, I loved the slightly larger page size that suits the artwork well. I am very much looking forward to any future adventures of Spy Seal.

This series creator Rich Tommaso has created all kinds of comics over the past two decades. He has drawn horror comics like She-Wolf and The Horror of Collier County. He's drawn noir books like Dark Corridor and the forthcoming Dry County. He's even drawn some comics for film buff like Pete and Miriam and also won an Eisner Award for his work on the historical graphic novel Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow. He speaks more about his work on Spy Seal in this interview as well as this one (if you'd rather listen to a podcast).

The reviews I have read about this book have been largely positive. Tegan O'Neil called it "fun in the best way." Insha Fitzpatrick wrote, "It’s gripping and utterly stunning in its art and brilliant in its narrative." Publishers Weekly was less taken with the plot and characters but still stated that the "visuals are as strong and crisp as ever."

Spy Seal: The Corten-Steel Phoenix was published by Image Comics, and they offer a preview and more info about the series here.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman

I was anxious and excited to read this new biography by Box Brown. Anxious because I have read, watched, and learned a lot about Andy Kaufman over the years, and I wondered if there was going to be anything novel or revelatory about this book. Excited because I have very much enjoyed pretty much every comic, mini-comic, and graphic novel I have read by Brown, including his biography of Andre the Giant and his history of Tetris. I am glad to report that this book is fantastic.
It details Kaufman's childhood and career, hitting all the high points like his work as a stand-up, on Saturday Night Live, Taxi, and his tenure as the Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World that led to his feud with "The King" Jerry Lawler. He was a unique figure, obviously very talented but also interested in seeing how far he could go to get crowds to both love and hate him. He died of cancer in 1984, but there are still those who wonder whether that was also some elaborate stunt he pulled. Probably what is most impressive about The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman is how well it ties a unifying thread through all of these proceedings. Also, it has lots of great stories that will interest people unfamiliar with Kaufman, but it still had some insights and tales I was unfamiliar with, so it should appeal to some more informed fans, too. Brown interviewed many folks to get some unique angles, and the ending especially was pitch-perfect to me.

The artwork is clean, with strong, simple lines that are surprisingly evocative. The storytelling is excellent, and overall I feel that this book is Brown's most heartfelt, mature, and best work yet. I am very much eager to see what his next project will be. For those who are interested, Brown speaks more on his work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been good. Publishers Weekly wrote, "It is a well-researched, enjoyable yarn written by the one author working in the comics medium who fans would want to tell Kaufman’s story." Pharoah Miles called it "an excellent book, which reminds me so much of how much of a virtuoso Kaufman truly was." And I agree with the reviewer at This Weblog is Unique who wrote,"The details that create funny, touching, discomfiting, and heartwarming moments make the book feel intimate and honest."

Is This Guy For Real? was published by First Second, and they have a preview and much more available here.

A preview copy of the book was provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Baking with Kafka

Baking with Kafka is a wonderful collection of witty, literary comics by Tom Gauld. He is one of my favorite contemporary comics creators, and I love his point of view and proclivities toward literature. Goliath and Mooncop are brilliant graphic novels you should definitely check out, and his prior collection You're Just Jealous of My Jetpack was comedy gold. The comics in this particular collection are similarly hilarious and range all over the place. They were originally published in The Guardian and are mostly about books and/or history. There are a couple of patterns to them that I noticed. Many of them mess with classics and modernization:
Others comment on authors, their works, and their lives:
Still others offer meta-commentary about the literary field/business. What I like about this book mostly is that I can pick it up and read a few comics whenever I want. They are random, sure, but all amusing at least and often hilarious. This book is the modern equivalent to me of The Far Side albums I would read when I was a kid, although they are way more literary than science-themed. It's full of weird, funny stuff, and I like that it connects with some of my favorite topics, which include reading and books.

The reviews I read of this book were mostly positive. The reviewer at Publishers Weekly liked it, summing up, "The art is dominated by shadowy stick figures that inhabit often complex spaces, which somehow makes it all the more droll." Rob Clough gave an in-depth analysis of the comics in this book and wrote, "I prefer his long-form work as it's drier and more restrained in its humor, but that's not to say that his pure gag work isn't entertaining as well." Annie Mok was less taken with the book, concluding her review, "Read this if you want to be mildly amused and you find it at your local library, but $20 is just too much for a stray chuckle or two out of 160 pages."

Gauld's art style is pretty minimal, kind of like Ed Emberley by way of Edward Gorey, but to me it is well suited to his sensibility and voice. For those who are interested in learning more, Gauld speaks about his work on this book in this interview.

Baking with Kafka was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they have a preview and more available here.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Everything is Flammable

I have heard a lot of praise about Gabrielle Bell over the years. She is a comics artist's comics artist who is revered by many (or at least many of the people I pay attention to). Her semi-autobiographical series Lucky is regarded by many of those folks as a stellar work of comics, a touchstone publication. So I am sad and glad to say this is the first work of hers I've read.

Everything is Flammable is her first full-length graphic memoir, and I thought it was fascinating and compelling. The main happening in the book is that Gabrielle's mother's house burned down and so she needs to regroup and rebuild. Their relationship is complex, loving, but sometimes standoffish. Her mom is a pretty isolated, independent woman and when Gabrielle comes cross-country to help her buy a new house and stove and also generally find her feet, there is some static. Some of the interactions are uncomfortable or bring up uncomfortable things, but they come across as very human and moving. The rest of the book are various accounts of her life and trying to get by. All of these situations are mundane, but they are also strangely suspenseful and relatable.
Autobiographical comics can be pretty boring or humdrum, but the various chapters in this book celebrate the ordinary in an extraordinary way. They come across as testaments to human fortitude, stamina, and behavior. Every page in this book has something phenomenal on it, clearly indicating a master talent at work. Bell portrays herself as anxious and tentative, but she is an exceptional observer, has a unique point of view, and is able to deliver comics that pack a punch, even when they portray a simple conversation. I will definitely be reading more of her work as soon as I can.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. Kirkus Reviews concluded their starred review, "A provocative, moving, and darkly funny book that seems almost worth the crises that it chronicles." Publishers Weekly also gave it starred review and wrote, "Bell’s vignettes peel back the layers of the mother-daughter relationship with self-deprecating comedy, displaying irritation but also patient forbearance." Pharoah Miles called it "a book that should be on everyone’s lap."

Everything is Flammable was published by uncivilized books. They have more info about it available here. There is some profanity in the book, so it's recommended for readers mature enough to handle that.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Black Hammer, Volume 1: Secret Origins

Winner of the 2017 Eisner Award for Best New Series, Black Hammer is a unique and interesting take on superheroes. Writer Jeff Lemire, one of the hardest working guys in comics, with a tremendous amount of titles to his credit wrote in the introduction to this book that he came up with the concept a while ago soon after finishing his Essex County Trilogy (some of the best comics I've read and well worth checking out). The plot follows a superhero team after they have spent ten years stranded in a small, rural town in another dimension following a grand battle to save the universe.

The characters in the book stand well enough on their own, though experienced comic book readers will recognize them as analogues for some pretty well established figures. Abraham Slam is very similar to Captain America, an older hero who lacks powers and is nearing the end of his career. Barbalien is an alien who seems a lot like the Martian Manhunter. Golden Gail is superheroine a lot like Mary Marvel, only she is unable to transform back to her human form so she is a 50-year-old woman trapped in the body of a 9-year-old. Colonel Weird is a version of scifi adventurer Adam Strange who is unstuck in time, and seems to be aware of the past, present, and future, though he cannot make sense of any of it. He is accompanied by a helpful robot called Walky Talky (who spends a lot of time hiding out). Madame Dragonfly is a lot like Madame Xanadu, a mystic possessed of great magical power. The final member of the team is Black Hammer, a hybrid version of Thor/Steel/Orion who has godlike powers but a strong drive to cater to humanity, though he is seemingly dead. He did have a daughter though, and she is still striving to find out what happened to the team while others have moved on and simply concluded they are dead.

This motley bunch is stuck in this place, though they don't know how they got there or why they cannot seem to leave. The kicker is that they still retain their powers (mostly) maintain a particularly low profile. Some, like Abraham Slam, find they like the quiet, mundane life while others view it as a horrid circumstance. Golden Gail is especially galled to have to relive elementary school and often gets drunk and is abusive to others. What makes this series compelling is more the personal angles to the relationships and plight they are in. Each chapter focuses on a particular character, recounting their secret origin and adding insight into their current status. The plot is also propelled by attempts to escape this place, not to mention the drive to find the mysterious cause of their situation. Clearly, this book has a lot going on, but the plot never gets convoluted. Black Hammer was the best kid of superhero comic for me, very easy to get into and very difficult to set aside. I am very much looking forward to picking up the next volume soon.

Joining Lemire in this collaboration are artists Dean Ormston and Dave Stewart. Ormston hails from the UK and is known for his work on 2000 AD and various Vertigo titles. Stewart is a veteran colorist who has won multiple Eisner Awards for his work.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have sung its praises. Thea James wrote,"I can’t really remember the last new superhero book that I read and desperately wanted more: Black Hammer is the superhero comic you need." Cam Petti praised the comics creators because they "use those cultural touchstones as tools not to celebrate, but to examine humanity, and in this way, they strike out on their own and craft an excellent story." Spencer Church called it "an incredible display of character development and storytelling."

Black Hammer was published by Dark Horse, and they have a preview and more information about this volume here.