Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Megahex may very well be the funniest and saddest graphic novel I read this year. On the surface, the stories seem simple enough. There are three roommates, Megg (a witch), Mogg (her cat/lover), and Owl (a large anthropomorphic Owl) living in a house. They get high, they pull pranks on each other, and they cavort with their friends. Much of the beginning of the book is full of drug humor and gross bits, like an ugly feet contest and their friend Werefwolf Jones taking a grater to his genitals (it's not pretty). What is pretty is the painterly quality of the art, with cartoon images combined with watercolors. The storytelling is also quite deft, with a combination of one page gags like this:
It also has extended sequences like this one, which are episodic looks at their mundane lives:

Owl often is the butt of abuse, and for the most part these sequences are darkly humorous. As I read the book though, I began to realize more and more that it was also strongly about Megg's depression and her overwhelming sense of dread. The latter sequences of the book are a strong portrayal of a very troubled person trying to anesthetize herself to reality. So, in the end for me, this book is a great mass of contradictions: beautiful art used to tell base, stoner jokes and a pretty basic humor structure that slowly builds into a very serious drama. Megahex is a provocative and complex piece of art.

Simon Hanselmann created this book. He publishes new Megg, Mogg, and Owl webcomics each week at VICE. He speaks about his life, inspirations, and work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book praise it highly. Hilary Brown wrote, "There may be an abundance of stoner comedies, but very few stoner tragedies exist; Hanselmann’s subtle approach makes Megahex both at the same time." Henry Chamberlain explained, "Megahex, as is apt for its name, has magic. It is also way out there, our best connection today to the heyday of the comix underground." Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and concluded. "The story is depressing as often as it is funny, a cautionary tale that’s at its best when Hanselmann spreads his writing wings, extending beyond a gag strip into an honest exploration of his deeply flawed leads."

And if it is unclear by now, this is a book strictly for adults. It is full of drug use, sexual situations, crude humor, explicit language, disgusting bodily functions, and adult themes.

Megahex was published by Fantagraphics Books, and they provide a preview and much more here.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Walt Disney's Donald Duck: A Christmas for Shacktown

Carl Barks is a comics legend, a member of the William Randolph Hearst Cartoon Hall of Fame, an inaugural inductee to the Eisner Awards Comic Book Hall of Fame, and during his heyday when most comics artists were not recognized by name he was know as "The Good Duck Artist." For a couple years now Fantagraphics has systematically been reprinting his many works for Disney in beautiful hardback editions, and during this busy holiday time I chose to share A Christmas for Shacktown.

Reviews of this book have been glowing. Mark Squirek wrote, "This is classic art and storytelling from a master of the form." Duy Tano called this book "nothing less than a visual and narrative treat." And I wholeheartedly agree with J. Caleb Mozzocco who called it "pretty much perfect."

I do not think I have much to add to the heap of praise on this book, and so I will share with you this preview from the title story:

As you can see, Barks packs all kinds of personality, spirit, and verve into his works. The rest of the 22 stories in this book are not holiday themed, and they run the gamut from one-page gags to longer tales of humor and adventure. I would recommend them to readers of all ages, and I know that personally these are some of the comics that made me love the medium.

A Christmas for Shacktown was published by Fantagraphics Books, and they the rest of a preview and much more here.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

This One Summer

This One Summer is about two teenage friends who meet up every year during their summer vacations. Rose is slightly older than Windy, and her family situation is pretty tense. Her mom and dad have been trying to have another child, and there are complications. Windy's family is more free-wheeling and quirky. Together, the two girls get involved in the local scene, which revolves around a small convenience store, where the duo goes to rent scary movies. Rose has a crush on the clerk, but he is pretty oblivious. Windy is simultaneously encouraging, bemused, and critical of this arrangement. All of these situations add up to a summer full of new experiences, some unpleasant and some quite fun.

I know a lot of this sounds cliched, but this graphic novel has a quotidian quality where I felt that I was involved with the characters in a very direct way. There are many small details that make the story come alive, many of them coming through the fantastic artwork, which is bursting with personality and energy. Just look at this sequence from early on in the book:
At a conference recently, my friend Laura and I were talking about it, and I called it "a Viewmaster into the soul." I think that's a great way to sum the book up, and I will stand by that statement here.

This One Summer was created by cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. The two have collaborated before on the multiple award-winning Skim. For her work on This One Summer Jillian won the prestigious Governor's General Award in the category of Children's Literature Illustration.

This book has been well reviewed in prominent venues. It is also appearing on many year-end, best-of 2014 lists. Susan Burton called it "moving, evocative book" in her New York Times Sunday Book Review. CBR's Kelly Thompson gushed that it " is a near perfect book and an example of two creators working in such perfect sync they appear more as one creator than two." The Comics Journal's Sean T. Collins had much good to write about the book, stating that "Jillian’s art is like Proust’s madeleine, calling to mind half-forgotten memories with real sensual power" and adding that Mariko's writing "is often equally vivid."

This One Summer was published by First Second. They have teachers guides and much more here. Jillian Tamaki has a preview and more here.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Black Science, Volume 1: How to Fall Forever

Black Science is at once familiar and compelling. After reading it, I found myself grasping to make analogies to describe it, and here are some of them:
  • Like Venture Brothers, only with dimension travel and played seriously.
  • Like Lost in Space, only darker and with alternate worlds.
  • Like John Carter, only with a family and lab partners and crossing over multiple worlds.
  • Like Dr. Who, but American, with corporate dynamics of Avatar.
  • Like Jumper, with a family, but I have not seen that movie so I can't really do much more contrasting.
What I can say though, is that this series is intriguing and fun, and although it may seem reminiscent of some other media, I did not feel it was derivative. And moreover, the parts I felt were reminiscent of other works were parts I found appealing and enjoyable. This book is an enjoyable bunch of sci-fi adventure.

The basic elements of the story are these: Dr. Grant McKay, a brilliant, pretty unlikeable, and self-centered scientist invents a "Pillar" that allows people to jump through dimensions. His funder, Kadir, is extremely shifty, manipulative, and controlling. On the day that they were to test the pillar, something goes wrong. Grant, Kadir, Grant's wife and collaborator Jen, Sara (an assistant who is having an affair with Grant), Ward (the chief of security), Shawn (a younger male assistant), Chandra (Kadir's sycophantic assistant), and Grant's two children, Pia and Nate (a teen and a tween) are transported to another world. The Pillar is broken and just keeps launching them into different dimensions on a uncontrollable timer. Making matters worse, there are a lot of competing interests among the cast, and some characters have vendettas to sabotage others.

Like the cast, most of the worlds in this story thus far are pretty hostile, inhabited by frog people who look like they were genetically engineered by Frank Frazetta, tribal people who wear futuristic bird-armor, trench warriors who look like they are still fighting World War I, and giant macaques. If the constant jumping, reorienting, in-fighting, and struggling to survive were not enough under these conditions, there are also a couple of people who seem to be aware of what's going on, and who seem to be jumpers themselves, in pursuit of this band of adventurers. Clearly, the plot has a lot going on, but I think that is what makes this series so interesting.

This series was created by Rick Remender, Matteo Scalera, and Dean White. Remender is a writer known for his varied original series Fear Agent, Last Days of American Crime, Strange Girl, and The End League. His work seems ubiquitous today, as he has a long list of credits at Marvel and is currently writing their crossover series Axis, which spawned from his prior work on Uncanny Avengers. Scalera has drawn a number of comics for different companies, most notably runs on Secret Avengers and Deadpool for Marvel. His artwork is very kinetic and sketchy, almost cartoonish, in places, and I think it well portrays movement and emotions. White provides the colors, and his work adds depth and a painterly quality, which make most pages appear like the beautiful, old pulp covers. He also has a long list of comics credits, many of them at Marvel.

Most of the reviews I have read praise this series for its combination of sci-fi and pulp elements. And I have to say I agree with the majority of them. I found the story quite compelling, with lots of cliffhangers and jarring plot twists. The character dynamics are a big part of the appeal, because the disparate players all have different motivations and lengths they will go to, which keeps things fresh and fluid. But don't just take my word for it: Derek Royal wrote, "If you like your science fiction “hard,” and you appreciate a bit of the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff, then Black Science is the series for you." Keith Dooley summed up his review simply, "it’s just plain fun."

Black Science is published by Image Comics. They have previews and more information about the entire series (currently at issue #11) here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Kill My Mother

Jules Feiffer cuts a large figure in the world of comics. He was an apprentice to Will Eisner in the 1940s, a time when comics were in a nascent state. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his cartoon work, all but created the genre of alt-weekly comics with his work for The Village Voice, was a comics historian, wrote the screenplay for the classic film Carnal Knowledge, and illustrated classic books like The Phantom Tollbooth. But until now, he had not written or drawn a graphic novel.
And this is some debut. It has lots of elements of 1940s noir films, which I guess should not be a surprise as the book is dedicated in part to Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, John Huston, Billy Wilder, and Howard Hawks. It stars the prerequisite private detective, though he is pretty much useless, a drunken lout who tries to be a womanizer and who seems to enjoy wearing women's panties. The folks who actually do things are all women, and what roles they play. There is Elsie, a young widow who decides to work as a secretary for a PI so she can investigate her policeman husband's murder. There is her daughter, Annie, who resents her absent mother while bossing around her friend Artie. There is a mysterious blond who hires the PI to find a tall, blond woman whom she resembles.

And of course, this being a noir tale, there are lots of scenes in seedy place like apartment buildings, smoke filled cabarets, and boxing matches.
The story is split into two parts, one in 1933 in Bay City, and the other in 1943 in Hollywood, where we see what has transpired in ten years. The tone of the second half is much different, as we see the movers and shakers behind movies, radio programs, and USO tours. Their world may seem cleaner and more civilized, but there are still bitter undercurrents of jealousy, greed, and potential murder. It is like having a movie and its sequel in one work, and I think that this graphic novel works extremely well in terms of its narrative. In fact, I think this is a book with all kinds of details that demands to be read and then re-read.
Part of what makes the story interesting is how it is laid out. I think that the panels (and at times, lack of panels) are constructed in interesting and fluid ways. There is something experimental about them in how they attempt to track how readers' eyes will move across pages. The sketchiness of those movements are a strength but also sometimes a detriment. The biggest issue I had with this book was that some of the characters look alike, but that seems partly the purpose in a book about changing societal roles and shifting identities.

Feiffer makes a great hash from his many influences, including dimestore novels, old comic strips, and noir films, as well as his years spent as Will Eisner's apprentice. This book is sort of a paean to those modes of telling stories, but it is also a commentary and critique of them, playing with their conventions and making something vital. The story is entrancing, and the artwork is provocative, ranging from paneled scenes to full page splashes that are surprising effecting and poignant. You can read more about Feiffer's influences and choices for making this book in this profile.

All the reviews I have read about this book regard it as a work to be reckoned with, even if they were not always uniformly positive. In the New York Times Sunday Book Review Laura Lippman called it "terrific" and wrote that it was "a thoughtful meditation on female identity and whether the not-so-simple art of murder can ever be defended as a moral necessity." Alan Cheuse called it "a darkly drawn confection." Dash Shaw was more critical of the book's layouts, calling them "herky-jerky" and summing up his review, "It looks like it was fun for him to make. I wish it was fun for me to read."

Kill My Mother was published by W.W. Norton & Company, and they provide a link to previews and more here.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Rocket Girl, Volume 1: Times Squared

Sometimes I buy a book because its topic interests me, or I like the creators' work, or it's part of a series. And sometimes I buy a book just because it looks so beautiful. That was the case with this particular book, a trade paperback collection of the first 5 issues of the comic book series. I had no idea what Rocket Girl was about or who made it, but I knew it looked great. I am also happy to report that it read very well and that I enjoyed it very much.

The plot revolves around time travel. Dayoung Johansson, aka Rocket Girl, is a 15-year-old police officer from the future year of 2013 where flying cars and jetpacks are typical modes of transportation. If you are at all aware of reality you realize that there is a lot off in that last sentence, as we don't have those kinds of vehicles or law officers. The issue seems to be based in Quintim Mechanics, a corporation that is so large that it runs the government in 2013, but in a clandestine way, because no one seems to know who its board of directors are. In 1986, where the bulk of this story happens, QM is a research operation that makes a device that brings Rocket Girl back to past but blows up in the process. It seems hardly a threat, made up of a ragtag band of researchers, scientists, and graduate students.

I will be honest: the plot was good enough to sustain my interest and keep me wanting more, part fish-out-of-water story about a future traveler trying to adjust to the past/part mystery about what happened to make such a future occur. By the end of the book, I was left wanting to read more and looking forward to volume 2, but the plot is not the main star here. Just look at this 3-page sequence and you'll see what I am talking about:
I loved the energy and dynamism in the layouts, the expressive lines and vibrant colors, and I could luxuriate in those images for a while. I love that the protagonist looks like an athletic teenager and is not overly sexualized. I like that the art is a sort of modern take on the European comics artists I saw featured in 1970s and 1980s Heavy Metal magazines. Pretty much the worst thing I can say about the art is that 1986 New York City is not depicted in gritty enough fashion. It was a rougher city back then, with a lot more sleazy elements, and the day-glo images above make it look pretty clean. But that is a teeny tiny quibble.

This is the second book from these creators, the first being Halloween Eve. The art is by Amy Reeder, a multiple Eisner Award nominee whose past works include the manga Fool's Gold as well as runs on DC Comics' Madame Xanadu and Batwoman titles. The story is by Brandon Montclare, who has worked as an editor for a large number of DC Comics and Vertigo titles in addition to his writing a handful of individual issues and limited series for Image, DC, Marvel Comics, and TokyoPop. Both creators speak extensively about this book and series in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this volume have applauded it. NPR's Etelka Lehoczky gave it praise, "There are all kinds of wonderful plot and character points in Rocket Girl, not to mention the sound effects." Niko Silvester called it "an appealing mix of elements with a definite tongue-in-cheek accent." Paul Fiander wrote, "From a vague beginning Rocket Girl has developed into a fun time traveling romp."

Rocket Girl: Times Squared was published by Image Comics, and they have a preview and much more available here.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Twelve Gems

When I was a kid, I got into a few comic books, like The Amazing Spider-Man, The New Teen Titans, Mad magazine, and various Archie titles, because I liked reading adventures and parodies. It was not until later that I found something "deeper" from reading comic books, and the first titles that really gripped me in a meaningful way were cosmic odysseys by Jim Starlin, notably his Adam Warlock and Captain Marvel runs. Those comics were the gateways for me into reading more into my comics and opening up my mind to the possibilities for more philosophical or metaphysical narratives. Those comics also built on a tradition at Marvel Comics that has recently been embodied in the movies with the extremely popular film, The Guardians of the Galaxy: the epic space opera.

Now I bring these all up not just because I am a nostalgic old fogey but also to talk about what today's entry made me think and feel as I read it. Twelve Gems is a classic space opera done in a black and white style with lots of cross-hatching. I felt a lot like I did in reading fantastic space stories of my childhood, and the frank and blunt attributes of the story and artwork also harkened back to a child-like sense of storytelling where anything was possible but things were also tethered to a familiar framework. I don't mean that in a bad way, like this book is childish, because I do not think that is entirely true. I think my reaction to it borders on my wondering if it is meant as a sort of parody.  For instance, the stock, stereotypical characters seem to be crying out to be analyzed as commentary about genre comics. But the book's earnest storytelling and detailed artwork do not betray as much as a wink to the audience. All of this meandering thought is to say that I do not know much about what to make of this book but to say that I really enjoyed reading and re-reading it.

The plot is a simple one. A motley band of space folk are joined together in a common quest, hired to find twelve space gems for an eccentric scientist. Dr. Z wants them to animate a female robot, which seems to be an unrequited love object. But there may be something more sinister to his intentions. The band of space explorers is a trio:
Dogstar is a winged dog who can talk, repair anything, and fly spaceships. He's shy and very resourceful. Of course, he has a crush on...
Venus, a buxom space warrior who wears a slinky outfit and is tough as nails.
The third member of their band is a porcine, hulking, hairy, violent fellow named Furz, who is a criminal wanted for multiple crimes. Maybe his name should have been "Ham Solo" (sorry I could not resist). Together, the trio embarks on their voyage and come into contact with friends, foes, killer robots, many-eyed beasts, and lots of other strange characters. Also, interspersed in the action are lots of double page spreads that are pretty and lend an epic view of our heroes, if they do not really advance the plot much.
This book is the product of Lane Milburn, a comics creator who has published the Xeric Grant winning graphic novel Death Trap and the mini-comic The Mage's Tower. Milburn speaks more about his work on this book in this interview.

Reviews I have read of this book are varied, though they tend to be positive. Ben Humeniuk wrote about it, "There’s a surreal, Adult Swim quality to some of the gags, and the combat is no holds-barred. We’ve got blood. Punches. Explosions. Laughs. It’s episodic, earnest, and it’s totally a riot." Hillary Brown offered a conflicted view, writing that "sometimes the amateurness of the execution (the Napoleon Dynamite-like shading, the clunkiness of the plot, the extreme weirdness of the third act) is strangely charming, but it mostly illicits confusion and questions like 'Am I missing something?' Perhaps, but it may not be worth the effort to discover what that something is." Alger C. Newberry III offered this as his final verdict: "A valuable gem to add to any collection focusing on independent comics and alternative storytelling with its avant-garde narrative voice, classical art style, and brilliantly paced sense of adventure."

As you can see from the reviews, individual mileage may vary, but I enjoyed reading Twelve Gems very much.

Twelve Gems was published by Fantagraphics Books, and they provide a preview and more information here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Last year, the prolific and legendary Gilbert Hernandez impressed with his semi-autobiographical exploration of childhood, Marble Season. This year, he follows up that book with his second one published by Drawn & Quarterly, Bumperhead. If Marble Season was about childhood, then Bumperhead appears to be about adolescence. The main narrative here follows the titular Bumperhead, who's really named Bobby, during five different periods of his life, which are defined by his musical choices and relationships. Interestingly, the book seems to start in the 1970s, but it really seems to exist in a strange state where each section happens in the exact same time period even though they depict very different portions of Bobby's life. It is as if time has collapsed into itself and all things happen simultaneously, and I felt it was a great way to think about the function and impact of memory on our lives.

In the first part, Bobby is a young boy who is teased because of his noggin. We meet his parents, his Spanish-speaking dad who cannot really communicate well in the US and his chain-smoking and detached mother. We also meet his friends, including his buddy Lalo who has a magical object that lets him see the future. Bobby is interested in certain girls he knows, but he is too shy to do anything.
He is also menaced by an ominous and horribly human-looking sky.
Over the course of the later chapters, Bobby and his friends age, horse around, and experiment with music and substances. Bobby begins to find it easy to talk to girls, and he passes in and out of relationships with several. He gets into glam artists like Mott the Hoople and Gary Glitter for a while, gets into a harder rock phase where he idolizes Alice Cooper and The Ramones, and settles into the raucous punk scene where he listens to groups like The Sex Pistols and The Germs. His musical tastes are part of his metamorphosing identity, and much of the book looks at how he fits into the world, how his family life radically transforms, and how religion fits into everything. Even though it seems to be the deceptively simple story of a life, and Bobby's tale takes on a sort of mythic or magical kind of status. In the end this is a book about a mundane life, the universe, and everything.
All of the reviews I have read of this book have been full of praise. The Onion A.V. Club's Oliver Sava called it "an engaging, immensely rewarding story about the nature of time and reclaiming the present from a tortured past." In The Comics Journal Richard Gehr opined, "Bumperhead finds Hernandez at his most humane and personal." Emily Temple lauded its "frantic" storytelling, commenting that "it reads like how memory feels: you get it in snatches, in patterns, in moments of glory or pain." Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, advising readers, "Do not miss this delicate, heartbreaking masterpiece."

Hernandez sheds more light on the origins and autobiographical aspects of the book in this interview.

Bumperhead was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they provide an excerpt, reviews, and more here.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Terra Tempo, Volume 3: The Academy of Planetary Evolution

Imagine you were a student in a selective class where you could study natural history by actually traveling through time. Where you could hear lectures about whales from Herman Melville, from Andrew Carnegie about the evolution of the horse in North America, from Annie Montague Alexander on paleontology, and from Alfred Russel Wallace on mammalian evolution. That is the premise of this book, The Academy of Planetary Evolution, the third entry in a series of Terra Tempo titles. I must admit I have not read the earlier titles in the series, but if they are anything like I've seen in this book, they are also very worthwhile reading that can enliven any science class or be of interest to a science-minded reader.

The focal point of this book, and the series are three children from Oregon, Ari, Jenna, and Caleb. Ari seems to be the ringleader, and he possesses a map of geologic time he found on one of his earlier journeys. Joining their clique in this book are Annie, who is from Berkley, California where her mom works as a professor, and Mara, a girl from West Virginia who has more economic interests than the others and who is quite interested in the potential windfalls of fracking. Of course, this is a contemporary issue where there is continual debate on whether it is harmful for the environment or not (disclaimer: I do not know if it is much of a debate in terms of the science. Most of what I have read is about how dangerous it is).
The inclusion of Mara in this group introduces some tension, because she and Ari are constantly trying to demonstrate just how much smarter each is over the other. Also, there is a move toward a more nuanced debate over issues of how much development humans should undertake with nature. Mara is not entirely unsympathetic, but in the end I think the debate presented here is pretty one-sided. Most of the scientists and naturalists the group encounters are interested in peer-reviewed, open access work, but there is a mustachioed, villainous figure, Seth Wilson who you can see in that crystal ball scene above. He tries to take the map from Ari, and he has been chasing these kids for a while now. Here, we learn that he is trying to recruit talent from the Academy for the seemingly innocuous company Resource and Energy Development, Inc. Thus, potentially anti-environmental business interests become associated with this nefarious character, and it's hard to find a reason to stand with his reasoning.

This is not to say that I think this book is entirely a leftist piece of propaganda. Andrew Carnegie was one of the wealthiest businessmen in the world and here he is portrayed rather positively. I think the overall message, which is particularly hammered home in the ending, is for there to be open and honest debate based on scientific facts and foresight, not simply based on economic interests.
One area I feel that this book really shined was in its artwork. It is somewhat sketchy and cartoonish at times, bringing energy to the proceedings. The coloring is done to great effect, and in particular the naturalistic scenes where the characters travel back in time, such as the one above, are fantastic. Those scenes are so lush and detailed that I really bought that these characters were transported to other epochs and eras. There were a few sequences where I felt the exposition took over a little too much from the artwork, but for the most part this book succeeds in storytelling with its action and naturalistic sequences.

This book is a collaboration between writer David R. Shapiro and artist Christopher Herndon. Shapiro is a business developer, author, and the founder and driving force behind Craigmore Creations. I am unaware of any other comics work Herndon has published, but he has illustrated a number of children's books. Also, he has awesome facial hair and shares a lot of fun pictures on his blog.

There were not many reviews of this book I could find online, but the ones I did read were positive. Kirkus Reviews called it "edifying and entertaining" and stated that it is "recommended for serious dinosaur aficionados looking for scholarly, in-depth information." Katie Cardwell wrote that the series "takes concepts which could be considered dull when read in a textbook and brings them to life in a full color graphic novel that will keep audience’s attention without question." In addition these reviews also remark on the usefulness of the academic features, which include a set of maps, bios, and a glossary.

The Academy of Planetary Evolution was published by Craigmore Creations. They have a preview and much more information about the book here

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Thank you, whoever chose to send it to me!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood

If you have read my other reviews of books in this series, you may remember that I feel they may be the best historical graphic novels I have ever read. The facts and events are very well researched, but more importantly they are presented in a most readable and enjoyable way. Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales are among the most engaging and interesting books I have ever read. So, does this book keep that spotless record intact?

In a word, YES. I thought that this book was most impressive, in that it packed a complete war account into a small space while also creating thrills, showing horrors, and cracking a couple of jokes. Here is the set-up:

And he is correct; this is not a pretty story. It's full of massive casualties, cruelties, and military mayhem. Although the artwork never gets explicit or shows gore, it does show just how brutal and unconscionable the destruction of World War I was. It also tells a very broad story, but not without some specific details included, like the story of Cher Ami, the carrier pigeon that saved 200 lives, and an account of the development of the tank, which was first used in this war to counter trench warfare.

Like I said, what is particularly marvelous to me about this book is how much ground it covers. Part of the reason it accomplishes this goal is the excellent and intelligent artwork. Hale chose to portray the combatants as animals, not only for metaphorical reasons but also because those depictions make it much clearer who is who in the conflict. Although the Executioner tries to play the animals for comic effect, they are not very funny (a few clever puns aside). Seeing a bunch of wolves, eagles, griffins, bulldogs, bunnies, and roosters (among others) engaged in war helps communicate situations almost instantly, in much quicker fashion than using elaborate explanation.
Spoiler: The war ends.
The great economy and efficiency of the artwork works like a combination of infographics and politic cartoons, as you can see in the page above. It is pregnant with ideas and implications about what happened at the end of this war and how it forecasted what would precipitate the next world war. That Hale accomplishes so much in such a short space, and for a wide audience of readers at that, is simply amazing.

In addition to creating the first three entries in this series, Nathan Hale also has drawn two other graphic novels, Rapunzel's Revenge and its sequel Calamity Jack. He has also worked on a variety of children's books, including Frankenstein: A Monstrous Parody and The Dinosaurs' Night Before Christmas. He shares a lot of fun artwork and news via his blog. He speaks much more about his career and work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read have been very positive. Kirkus Reviews called it "A neatly coherent account with tweaks that allow readers some emotional distance—but not enough to shrug off the war’s devastating cost and world-changing effects." Johanna Draper Carlson praised this entry in a "terrific series" and added, "I really appreciate Nathan Hale’s (the author, not the character, although that applies too) ability to streamline complicated historical events in such readable fashion." Miriam, Age 10 wrote, "This book was interesting and interestingly told, and very entertaining for a history book."

Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood was published by Amulet Books. There is a preview available at Amazon. And if you are a fan of this series like I am, there is good news: a fifth book, The Underground Abductor, is on the way!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Taxes, The Tea Party, and Those Revolting Rebels: A History in Comics of the American Revolution

In this "golden age" of graphic novels, one amazing aspect is that many older works are coming back into print. Taxes, The Tea Party, and Those Revolting Rebels is one notable example of this phenomenon. Originally published in 1994, it tells a very detailed, well researched, and juicy version of the events leading up to and also immediately following the American Revolution. It does not shy away from making judgments and portraying the founding fathers and their British adversaries in less than flattering lights.
Greedy Brits!
Greedy King!

Even prominent colonists, most notably George Washington, are taken down a peg or two in how they are depicted. I think that the editorializing is actually a great feature, giving a very specific slant to the proceedings. Mack's narrative style breathes life into what could be a bland rehash of historical events. Instead of cold facts, we get jokes, jabs, and other insights into the real people and conditions of the period.
Stanislaw actually appears throughout the book. The journey through US history is also in part shown through his ventures.
I love how he clearly and easily portrays complex issues such as Triangle Trade, the divide caused by northern and southern economies, and other political concerns using strong visuals and quick dialogue.
Not everything is kosher in the colonies' social orders.
And perhaps most importantly, even though there are maybe a couple areas where myths get reiterated (like the one that Paul Revere made his midnight ride by himself), the book strives greatly for verisimilitude, including scenes and information about the common people of the time. This book does not simply show us the Washingtons, Jeffersons, Franklins, and Hamiltons of the US colonies, it also shows us what roles women, slaves, Native Americans, and freed blacks played in these events. 

This book's artist/writer Stan Mack has been a comics creator for decades, known for his long running comic strips, "Stan Mack's Real Life Funnies," which appeared in the Village Voice, and "Stan Mack’s Outtakes," which appeared in Adweek. He also published the autobiographical Janet and Me, about a long term relationship cut short by cancer. Of late he has turned his attention to making historical comics in the form of graphic novels. He has collaborated with co-author Susan Champlin on Road to Revolution! and Fight For Freedom.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been full of praise. Publishers Weekly called it "a strongly recommended work whose 'cartoony' art style works well with a narrative that openly addresses the roles played by women, slaves, and Native Americans in the twenty-eight year struggle and its aftermath." The School Library Journal's Francisca Goldsmith described it as "accessible, thought-provoking, and highly discussable." Robot 6's Chris Mautner wrote that it was full of "energy and detail" and "never becomes a dreary slog or appears slapdash."

Taxes, The Tea Party, and Those Revolting Rebels was published by NBM. They have a bunch of information about the book here.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Shadow Hero

Gene Yang is one of the premier comics creators working today. He won the Printz Award for his graphic novel American Born Chinese, and he explores themes of immigration, belief, identity, and growing up in his many works, including The Eternal Smile, Level Up, and the twin volumes Boxers & Saints. In The Shadow Hero he once again weaves a tale of immigrant identity, only this time in a superhero narrative. The protagonist in this book is Hank Chu, the son of Chinese immigrants. He works in his dad's grocery store, and after one fateful day his mother insists he become a superhero. The sequence where she tries to get him powers is pretty hilarious.
Turns out all those comic book origin stories don't really work.
It's not exactly the typical superhero origin story, but this is not exactly the typical superhero. Even though he has no powers, Hank trains hard and ends up becoming the Green Turtle. He fights assorted criminals, petty thugs, and even gangsters who are hassling his family for protection money. But this is not just a story about good and bad guys, it also has a lot of heart, showing complex family relationships, mythological beings, a potential romance, and national history.
Not only is this story excellent and multifaceted, what is additionally amazing is that it is all based on an actual Golden Age comic book superhero who has not really appeared anywhere for 70 years. The back matter in this book contains a fascinating look at the original series and also why Yang and Liew felt it needed to be revived here. For interested readers, the original five issues of Blazing Comics are in the public domain and can be accessed and read here.

Sonny Liew is the artist of this book. He has been nominated for an Eisner Award and is best known for Malinky Robot as well as his work on Vertigo’s My Faith in Frankie and Marvel’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. Here, his style evokes that of old comic books, but it is also great for depicting mundane scenes and personal interactions. He captures the action and dynamism of superheroes as well as the facial expressions and emotions of regular folks. Yang speaks about their work on this book in this interview. For his part, Liew speaks about his work in this interview conducted by Yang.

This graphic novel has received accolades in many of the reviews I have read. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and praised it as "an origin story that blends classic comics conventions...with a distinctly Chinese perspective." The Washington Post's Michael Cavna called it "an inventive and culturally intelligent marvel." Eddie Huang recommended this graphic novel for anyone wanting to learn more about Chinese culture in his The New York Times review.

The Shadow Hero was published by First Second, who has a preview and much more available here. More links for the book are also available at Yang's site here.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copy!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Zombillenium, Volume 1: Gretchen

Happy Halloween!

I don't usually vary from my "publish on the 5s" policy for blog posting, but when I was doing some research for another post, I happened upon a familiar name on NBM's list of authors, Arther de Pins. He is a French artist and animator whose work I have admired for some years now, even though I could not really find much of it in English. So when I saw that he had at least one work in English from a publisher I could easily get books from, and that the book was about an amusement park run by monsters, well voila, you are reading the fruits of that happenstance.
Zombillenium begins with scenes of a disgruntled mummy trying to quit his amusement park job and hitchhike to Cairo. He gets picked up by a vampire and talking skeleton who take him back to the park. That was a pretty strange couple of sentences to type. Back at Zombillenium, we learn that it is part of a larger corporation, and that it is 18th out of 20 amusement parks in revenue, largely because people do not find it scary any more. We also are privy to its strange denizens, the logic of the place, and how the higher-ups in management are literally evil incarnate. It seems the bosses have a plan in motion that would unleash a powerful evil on the land, but they also want it to be an attraction that people buy tickets to see. It's almost a perfect metaphor for capitalism (wink).

What makes this book really work for me, aside from its beautiful artwork, is how it both normalizes the supernatural and fantastical cast and setting while also mining them both for humor. We get an unusually realistic look at what a place run by witches, vampires, zombies, demons, and other assorted ghouls would be like. We also get some interesting and surprising scenes, like the one below where the witch Gretchen, who is older and savvier than she appears, handles an armed robber.
The artwork is polished, and pages look almost like series of animation cels. I think that the glossy illustrations and bright color enliven the proceedings, which is only further enhanced by de Pins's depictions facial features and expressions. Sometimes when images are too polished, they seem more like advertisements or cold objects, but here I feel that they are instead masterful and excellent. There seems to be as great glee and attention in capturing small moments and emotions as there is in depicting the gruesome items (severed hands and eyeballs seem particularly popular) available at the monster workers' cafeteria and the Gothic architecture of the park.

This book is the first of a series that won the Angoulême Fauve Award for best youth comic in France, and all the reviews of it I have read have been laudatory. Mark Squirek praised de Pins' work, calling it "his best story yet." Publishers Weekly wrote, "De Pins does a wonderful job of creating a brand of humor that matches perfectly the cartoony world of monsters he presents." The School Library Journal's Mike Pawuk called it "just outstanding and a treat." That last review in particular raises a point about who the audience for this book is. It does seem to be for children, though their are some adult situations and strong language. I'd say this is a parents' discretion book that requires review before sharing.
his best story yet
Angoleme Comic Convention Award for Best Youth Comic in France - See more at: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/zombillenium-gretchen#sthash.kVyRvKFR.dpuf

Zombillenium is published by NBM in America, and you can find video preview and much more at the series' official site