Comics Worth Reading » Graphic Novel Reviews Independent Opinions on Comics of All Kinds Tue, 03 Mar 2015 11:33:24 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Possessions Volume 4: The Final Tantrum Mon, 23 Feb 2015 03:59:27 +0000 It’s been three years since the previous book (author Ray Fawkes was putting out two graphic novels for adults as well as working on several titles for DC in the meantime), but we finally get to find out what the pit demon Gurgazon will do now that she’s broken free of zoo-like captivity. Don’t be misled by the title, though — the series doesn’t end here.

Gurgazon first appeared in Possessions: Unclean Getaway, where she became part of a collection of ghostly curiosities. In book two, The Ghost Table, and book three, The Better House Trap, Gurgazon plotted and schemed to escape her new, ensorcelled home while she (and we) got to know more about her fellow inhabitants.

Each book starts with an origin for one of those other ghosts — in book two, it’s the Ice Field Lights, a presence from the frozen north; in book three, the headless Pale Lady; here, my favorite, the Duke, a possessed jukebox who speaks in song lyrics. Each book also has a signature monochrome color; here, it’s a surprisingly effective orange.

Gurgazon has become gigantic, the better to destroy the houses of the women who collect and restrict the spirits. That’s only a preliminary to summoning the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to destroy the world, as she’s been promising to do for years. Only no one seems to have taken her seriously, the more fools they. We also get some darkly funny flashbacks to Gurgazon’s creation and purpose way back when.

As we learn more about the other cast members, the big mystery that remains is exactly what’s up with the butler, Mr. Thorne, and his near-omniscient abilities to foil the spirits’ escape plans, as well as his astounding survival skills. He tries to rally the other freed ghosts to work together against the massive threats they face, but the question I’m eagerly waiting to see answered is his origin. That’s only one of several open items left at the end of this book, as we see only part of what happens to Gurgazon’s plans and struggles.

Possessions is a fun, different action romp with a horror overlay. Kids, particularly, will revel in the Godzilla-like destruction Gurgazon
indulges in. The fifth volume is planned for 2016. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)

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From the Earth to Babylon: Gerald Bull and the Supergun Sun, 22 Feb 2015 16:10:34 +0000 Now that convention season planning is upon us, it’s time for me to go through the stacks of items I picked up at previous shows and madly attempt to catch up. Exhibit A: This limited edition historical graphic novel by Diana Tamblyn she was kind enough to give me at last year’s Toronto Comic Arts Festival, I think it was.

I like non-fiction comics and graphic memoir. I find them, when done well, wonderful ways to learn about people I wouldn’t otherwise know about. However, this volume — perhaps because it’s labeled Part One — left me feeling confused most of the time.

Gerald Bull and the Supergun cover

I got the impression throughout that I was already supposed to know who Gerald Bell was, and what he was famous for. Perhaps that’s true if you’re a Canadian reader, since he was a scientist there, but I’d never heard of him before, and the book doesn’t lay sufficient groundwork to overcome this feeling of uncertainty. Apparently, based on the book’s web page, a large part of his significance relates to his mysterious death by assassination, but that segment of his life, although casually referred to, doesn’t appear here.

The “supergun” similarly isn’t explained to a novice reader. The most coherent part of the book in regards to that subject is an introductory chapter about the Nazis shelling Paris, an event that isn’t connected well to the rest of the content. It’s a neat read on its own, though. The other events don’t come together well in the bigger picture; perhaps if I was more aware coming in of what we were leading up to, of Bell’s life overall, their selection would have made more sense.

Visually, the content resembles illustrated text, with lots of narration and talking heads. I wish there were more panels that were graphically interesting in content or technique.

The key moments, as far as I can tell, of Bull’s life are included, but I never got a sense of him as a person. We’re told of his schooling (at a young age due to advanced intellect) and his accomplishments, but I never got any idea or suggestion of how he might have felt about all this. Many of the significant personal events in his life, such as his marriage, are glossed over in a narrated panel or two in favor of many sequences on what was being built and how much it cost. Perhaps that’s just a distinction between what the author wants to write and draw and what I would rather read about.

I’d also rather have seen more exploration of different perceptions of the man, particularly near the end, when he turns into an international arms dealer after converting university research into his own company. Tamblyn paints this in a “he had to go out on his own because the government didn’t see how important this research was” light, but I suspect her perspective may be shadowed by her relationship with her grandaunt, who was Bell’s personal secretary during the 1950s. She discusses this in her afterword, where she also talks about working with Bell’s family on this project. That will certainly give the storytelling a particular slant.

Tamblyn mentions that this take on his character differs from the “many books and documentaries made about Bell”, so as a reaction, of course this will read differently to someone who’s seen all those and one who hasn’t. Someone already familiar with him may find this a refreshing corrective; the many who aren’t, though, like me, may be confused by the approach or feel left out. This area may also be explored in more depth in the forthcoming Book Two. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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*Brick by Brick — Recommended Sat, 10 Jan 2015 18:00:57 +0000 What a perfect book for a new year! Stephen McCranie has collected various illustrated essays into an inspiring collection of “principles for achieving artistic mastery”.

Brick by Brick cover

This isn’t a how to draw book or a getting hired or publishing comics instruction manual — instead, it’s a collection of thoughts on how to become a good artist, one who is true to oneself, one who learns from the world around them without getting bogged down or discouraged, one who can find the fun in work. He says early on it’s not about how to do, but how to be.

McCranie writes about how to be inspired, where to gain motivation, the importance of knowing what you really want to achieve, how to make it possible to get there, avoiding procrastination, the value of immersion, and staying focused on what you can control. The section on changing goals from something like “getting published” (which depends on other people’s decisions) to “making work that makes it hard not to get published” (which is totally individual) is must reading for any aspiring creative person, but then, I could say that about the whole book.

His title comes from the idea that great art comes from the daily small actions and choices, diligently working towards big goals over time with achievable steps. I loved that simple principle, which seems obvious, but his breakdown and discussion is newly inspiring to take it truly to heart. I also enjoyed his emphasis on life beyond art, on not making work your entire being.

His essays can be read straight through, but the images give the words wings. They demonstrate the emotional affect or exaggerated response that make the text powerful and easy to relate to. His palette of peach and teal is both comforting and energizing.

This is an amazing book, one that has helped me reinforce a couple of my resolutions for this year in prioritizing choices appropriately. More importantly, it’s helped me recover a sense of joy about creation, about the importance of enjoying what you do.

I had borrowed this book from a friend, but now that I’ve read it, I’m buying my own copy immediately, because I want to be able to come back to it. It’s that kind of work, one that you’ll learn from in different ways at different times in your life. You can get it direct from the author at his website. There you can also sample a lot of his material and read beyond the book.

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Street View Sun, 04 Jan 2015 23:46:27 +0000 Street View cover
Street View

Pascal Rabaté’s Street View is a fascinating art object, a creative take on storytelling that uses format to drive the reader’s attention. It’s an accordion book, a set of painted double-page spreads between two cardboard boards that can be read through one way, showing daytime scenes, and then flipped over to see the evenings. Each sheds new light on the others.

Each image is a straight-on shot of four buildings. As in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, we watch the inhabitants across the street as they go about their business. The Hitchcock reference is quite intentional, since a bald, pudgy man in a dark suit appears in the first image, and one of the “characters” is having his own film festival that includes Vertigo and North by Northwest.

Street View is Where’s Waldo? for adults, a fascinating puzzle that rewards the attention paid to it. You can take in the scene as a whole, or follow just one or two people through the sequence. I found some of the stories — a painter and his model, an unhappy couple — quite easy to comprehend, while others I’ll have to come back to and read again.

(The publisher provided a review copy.)

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*A Treasury of Victorian Murder Compendium II — Recommended Fri, 02 Jan 2015 21:54:36 +0000 If you haven’t had the pleasure of trying Rick Geary’s Treasury of Victorian Murder series, this new omnibus volume is a wonderful starting point. For those of us, like me, who have long recommended these explorations of sometimes-unsolved mysteries of long ago, the handsome hardcover is a delightful way to be reminded of author Rick Geary’s skill.

This substantial volume contains five books’ worth of material: The Borden Tragedy, The Mystery of Mary Rogers, The Saga of the Bloody Benders, The Case of Madeleine Smith, and The Murder of Abraham Lincoln. It’s a great value — considering typical discounts from the cover price, you get these cases for about $5 a story. (The first Compendium only contained three books: Jack the Ripper, The Fatal Bullet (about the assassination of President James A. Garfield), and The Beast of Chicago (serial killer H. H. Holmes and his murder house).) I think the thicker hardcover also better suits the material, since the classic format better matches the straightforward, old-fashioned flavor of the art and storytelling. In comparison with my previous editions, this reproduction seems darker and crisper as well.

Originally published between 1997-2007, this set of stories starts with one of the best-known unsolved murders of all time: the 1892 axe murders of Lizzie Borden’s parents. The case of Mary Rogers is less-known. She was recognized for her beauty, particularly among the customers of the cigar store where she worked, but we don’t know who killed her and dumped her body in the river. She inspired the Edgar Allan Poe story “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”.

The Benders, on the other hand, are known villains, a Kansas family who set up a remote grocery store and small inn. Visitors carrying cash who pass by are rarely seen again, until the number of disappearances cause them to flee, at which point a number of bodies are discovered on their property. The mystery here is what happened to them and where they ended up.

Madeleine Smith is a suspected poisoner in Glasgow, a privileged young woman who wanted to dispose of a secret boyfriend who has become inconvenient. After trial, her guilt is considered “not proven”. The volume concludes with the details behind the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln.

I love the way Geary opens each story with a map to set the stage and remind the reader of how places have changed from decades ago. The approach is journalistic, laying out the facts of the case and presenting the various theories so the reader can judge for herself. It’s often frustrating, not to know for sure what happened, and it’s playing to our morbid curiosity to go into such detail, so it’s important not to succumb to cynicism about human nature. It’s also easy to think “oh, we know so much more about investigation now, this kind of thing wouldn’t happen again” — but that ignores the universality of jealousy, selfishness, hatred, greed, stupidity, and other vices that cause the murders and mistakes in the first place. Each of these stories, although set long ago, involves elements we can identify with, whether the spreading of rumors or sensationalized journalism or the question of how much to trust our neighbors or the ruinous dedication of political groups to lost causes. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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*Over Easy — Recommended Sat, 20 Dec 2014 02:55:59 +0000 Graphic memoir is the hot genre these days in publishing. Where fantasy stories can be hit or miss, true-life autobiographical comics have an immediate hook — this story actually happened to someone.

In fact, if I’m honest, graphic memoirs are a bit of a drag on the market. Just because a story is true doesn’t always make it entertaining or well-told; structure is a huge challenge with autobiography. And one of the most common types of memoir is the coming-of-age story, or “this is when I realized (event) was a major life change”.

Mimi Pond in Over Easy manages to tell us of a key point in her life without it seeming repetitive or overly familiar. I suspect that’s because she focuses on the other “characters”, the colorful people she was interacting with at a time when she wasn’t as much of a personality. She was still young and uncertain, so her role as an observer is well-chosen. The result is a fresh, unusual, rewarding take on the genre.

Pond has been in art school, but she’s just been notified that her financial aid has run out. She isn’t particularly compelled to be an artist, instead seeking an escape from her suburban family. Dealing with the question of “what do I do now?”, she wonders into a cafe and talks herself into a job as a dishwasher, later waitress.

Pond’s word is green-tinted. The book is monochrome in an unusual tone reminiscent of faded money. She lightly caricatures everyone, including her young self, allowing the reader to concentrate on events instead of likenesses. Early on, she narrates, as she is first given a tour of the coffee shop and its workers, “All of this seems so familiar that I find myself trying to remember where and when I met these people. It seems like we’ve already known each other for years.” Reading this story gives much the same feeling.

As the book progresses, we get a few more details about the cooks and waitresses, the cast of the story Pond is watching (and sometimes making up). She envies their (perceived) self-possession, their romances and desires, their spats and insults and affairs. It’s all about the moments and the conversations. Individually, they’re not meaningful or memorable, but it all pulls together into a sprawling mosaic that perfectly illuminates the time and young adulthood.

In addition to her detailed portraits, I also greatly appreciated how Pond manages to portray the 70s without being overly valedictory or self-congratulatory. Too many boomers seem to think that the world and culture has and will always revolve around them, to the point where it becomes tiring, as a member of another generation, to read about how glorious things were then. That’s not a problem here.

Pond’s world has a general rosy glow, as suits a story of the past worth telling, but it’s not overdone, and the problems also make their appearance. Too young to be a hippie, early on she expresses dismay at how the overtones of the previous generation are hanging around, with casual drug use and unthinking, beatifically blissed acceptance becoming annoying. There are hints of a coming punk revolution, but this particular time period is one of being unsettled and uncertain, both personally and culturally.

There’s more information at the publisher’s website. The Comics Reporter interviewed Pond about her creative process and the forthcoming sequel. For the next few days, Over Easy can be ordered from your local comic shop with Diamond code DEC14 1463. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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*Displacement: A Travelogue — Recommended Wed, 17 Dec 2014 14:43:38 +0000 Displacement is a followup to Lucy Knisley’s previous travelogue, An Age of License, but this time, instead of portraying a young woman starting her life, she tackles the end. She describes the difference like this: “That trip was about independence, sex, youth, and adventure. This trip is about patience, care, mortality, respect, sympathy, and love.”

Knisley accompanies her grandparents on a cruise for the elderly, and Displacement is her journal about taking care of them while they travel. In her introduction, she describes her feeling “loneliness … at hiding my own terror and heartbreak at my grandparents’ decline in health”. It’s something that will or is challenging many of us, and while the details can be scary, it’s reassuring to see others going through a similar struggle.

It’s a topic that more of us will have to deal with in coming years — one that Roz Chast addressed in the deservedly well-regarded Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? — how to deal with aging loved ones. It’s not a topic previously tackled much in comics, and I’m glad, as the medium has expanded over the past few decades, to see it covered.

Knisley is in her late 20s, while her grandparents Phyllis and Allen are in their early 90s. They have issues with hearing and mobility, so she has mixed emotions about the trip — joy at the chance to spend more time with them, fear and frustration at what the details of taking care of them might involve. They’re both struggling with memory issues as well (the scariest aspect of getting older). Although Knisley has plenty of her own uncertainties, she feels driven to be the organized one in the face of her grands’ confusion at travel.

Like many adults, she doesn’t see them often enough to keep up with the details of their health. Instead, visiting every few years means they seem to have declined rapidly, since she’s comparing them with memories. At one point, she draws a looming monster labeled “the horror of age, infirmity, and death in a young person’s mind”, a perfect summation.

Knisley is extraordinarily talented at journal comics, with clean-line, attractive figures and a good eye for summing up moments in scattered illustrations. Her graphic novels avoid the paneled grid of standard comics for a more open page that I find welcoming and insightful, particularly when it comes to the variety of feelings involved.

Knisley’s grandfather previously wrote a memoir of his time in World War II as a pilot, and she interweaves excerpts of that document, with her own illustrations, as a counterpoint to their current journey. The incidents are familiar to anyone who’s heard soldiers’ stories, but she selects them well to balance the modern-day events. Although she’s there to help her confused grands, the situation itself is confusing to anyone, with a giant cruise ship effectively being a floating city holding 4,700 people.

The overall message, that caretaking for others is an incredibly difficult, exhausting task, should not be surprising, but Knisley’s well-selected details brings it home in sympathetic pain, fatigue, and loneliness. It’s horrific but important.

Displacement: A Travelogue can be preordered from your local comic shop with Diamond code DEC14 1508. It’s due out in February. There’s a preview at the publisher’s website. (The publisher provided an advance review copy.)

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Cleopatra in Space: Target Practice Mon, 15 Dec 2014 03:26:20 +0000 Cleopatra in Space: Target Practice cover
Cleopatra in Space: Target Practice

Cleopatra in Space started as a webcomic, but when it was picked up for print publication, author Mike Maihack created a new story that explains the title heroine’s origin.

His design, as you can see from the characters on the cover, is cute and snappy, punctuated by Egyptian-themed futurism, and his work is full of action and movement, as though it was animated. Cleo is the historical going-to-be-queen of Egypt, but she chafes at her coming responsibilities and so welcomes being transported to the future.

A talking cat named Khensu helps her adjust to the academy where she’s sent to study. She’s prophesied to save the galaxy from a generic villain, but in the meantime, she’s a teen girl in school. She has trouble paying attention in all her classes except for the target practice one, because she loves action. She doesn’t want to sit and learn. She’s determined and spontaneous, with no fear of jumping into adventure.

There’s not a lot of substantial story in this volume. Instead, pages are filled with typical space-war background info dumps and good cartooning as we get to know the characters, including Cleo’s roommate and a techie fellow student. They’re fun to spend time with, and kids should love the light-hearted adventure.

A preview is available at the author’s website. A second book, The Thief and the Sword, will be out next spring. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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*The Wicked + the Divine Volume 1: The Faust Act — Recommended Fri, 28 Nov 2014 21:25:40 +0000 The first collection of new series The Wicked + the Divine is bargain-priced and mind-blowing, which makes it a wonderful deal.

Kieron Gillen writes and Jamie McKelvie draws the story of reincarnated gods as pop stars. It’s a dynamite high concept, but one that becomes something a lot deeper. Laura meets Luci, short for Lucifer, at a concert, and her desire is so great it gets her backstage. The portrait of a dedicated fan, finding meaning in life through adoration of a performer, is both very current and disturbing, particularly since her object of worship is literally that. The gods are doomed to die within two years, but Luci takes a different route, getting imprisoned after exploding the heads of some guys trying to kill them.

Sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the surface. McKelvie’s art is so slick and attractive, and Gillen’s dialogue so snappy, that it can be difficult to comprehend everything going on, particularly when the gods are lesser-known. Everyone’s got some idea of what Lucifer means, for example, even when she looks like a young David Bowie, but Sakhmet or Amaterasu are much lesser-known. They’re global, though, drawing from more traditions than the European, another modern touch.

Reading all the issues of The Wicked + the Divine at once helps. The idea of reincarnating gods is a particularly potent one for the comic business, with their superheroes being reinvented every so often for a new generation. Sometimes it clicks, and sometimes it’s a failure that fades away. Playing with the concepts of youth and power and sex and fame and passion and yearning is nothing new to comics, but this incarnation is darned attractive. It’s very enthusiastic about the nature of death and transformation, another idea that often fascinates the young, with their unconscious feelings of immortality.

Lucifer is birthed through fire and mysticism, surrounded by phrases that carry significance beyond their cliches. It’s not just the art that speaks to us, it’s what we bring to it, what it touches in us. Idols once meant gods; now they mean pop stars. Or here, both. Their countdown to magic, “1-2-3-4″, also sounds like a drummer getting ready to start playing the next hit.

As for the book, I understand, I suppose, the desire for a work to speak for itself, but I found Gillen’s text pieces in the issues very helpful in understanding what I’d just read, particularly the one from issue #5 that talks about the themes that inspired the book’s creation. Those pieces, sadly, aren’t included here. I suspect that’s to drive single-issue sales, but that effort seems to look backwards, towards keeping the market the way it has been. A collection should include all the significant material from the issues, in my opinion, since it’s got so much more potential to be found by a wider audience.

On the positive side, all the gorgeous variant covers are included in this book, plus a gallery of promo art. I wonder what happens in the next story in this series? And whether we get to find out who Tara is? We’ve seen a number of the pantheon, but not all twelve yet. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)

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Museum of Mistakes: The Fart Party Collection Sun, 23 Nov 2014 01:03:05 +0000 Before she published Drinking at the Movies and The Infinite Wait and Other Stories, Julia Wertz’s autobiographical comics were published as the “regrettably known” Fart Party.

The now-out-of-print first two Fart Party volumes, as well as material that would have made up a third book, all dating from 2005-2012, are now available as Museum of Mistakes: The Fart Party Collection. Also in the book are Wertz’s early work, before her style developed into the familiar, blocky, black-anchored panels; behind-the-scenes material, including sketches and process pages; and a scrapbook of fan letters and answers and short stories.

At 400 pages, it’s a lot to take in at once, but the format lends itself well to pick-up-and-put-down reading. The chronological look back is presented with recent context. I found it refreshing that Wertz, as a more mature artist, doesn’t cringe over or regret or edit her early work. It doesn’t reflect where she is now, but it can be insightful to dip into over a decade of moments and jokes. It’s the ephemeral that can be revelatory, because we don’t think about how we’re presenting it or recasting it to be memorable for the ages. It’s also obvious that someone would and should change a lot between their mid-20s and mid-30s.

Museum of Mistakes: The Fart Party Collection can be pre-ordered, for a few more days, from your local comic shop with Diamond Distribution code NOV14 1056. There are a lot of preview pages at the author’s website.

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The Shadows of Salamanca Sun, 09 Nov 2014 18:47:18 +0000 Regular blog readers know that I’m not a fan of horror. (I’m terribly squeamish and identify too sympathetically with victims.) However, thanks to the wonder of a review copy, I found myself appreciating The Shadows of Salamanca more than I expected.

It’s fun to see how Europeans incorporate American culture into their works, and here, it’s the creepy small town with a secret. Writer Christophe Bec and artist Stefano Raffaele present the story of Sarah and David. They’ve left the big city for a home in the woods, to help Sarah deal with her depression. They’re hoping for a fresh start, but since there are monsters in the various tunnels underneath the old mining town, that’s unlikely.

The art is lovely, detailed and complex in building a portrait of these characters and setting. The pages tend to have many more panels than is typical of American comics, with a dozen not unusual. These image slivers more effectively set the mood and build suspense, providing details that add up to a more creepy atmosphere.

That’s not just external, coming from the animals, but internal. Sarah and David no longer trust each other and are fragile, tip-toeing around their interactions. Sarah’s hearing voices, a split personality as a way of dealing with childhood trauma, and a place where she’s shunned as a newcomer doesn’t help her loneliness. Then she finds something in the basement…

The overall theme is what we do for, and to, children. It all spirals down from there, weaving together a number of horror conventions — something happening in one’s home, the creepy neighbors who decorate their cabin with animal skulls, a cursed ghost town, the monster in the woods, the child abuser and murderer, the town with a guilty secret, the evil monster child, country cannibalism — into a story I found effectively horrifying, all the more so because the art is so attractive. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)

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Barbarella Sun, 09 Nov 2014 16:13:59 +0000 Humanoids has brought the infamous sexy sci-fi French comic Barbarella back into print in two options: a high-priced print edition or a much more reasonable digital version. The print book is described as the Deluxe Coffee Table format, limited to 1,200 numbered copies, and priced at $80, while the same story digitally is $6.

In January, the publisher plans to release a combined volume with both book one and book two called The Wrath of the Minute-Eater. I suggest, if you’re curious about the erotic adventurer made famous on-screen by Jane Fonda, you wait for that one, although it will be black and white, while this edition is duotone, with a lovely slate blue picking out details. Book two in the combined volume will be in English in the first time.

So, enough about the package, what about the contents?

Barbarella originally began serialization in 1962, written and drawn by Jean-Claude Forrest. The title character was an early heroine of sexual liberation, since her adventures across the universe often involved her getting naked or making out with the people she meets or both. This edition is given a new adaptation by Kelly Sue DeConnick, which ensures it feels fresh and modern.

This volume, book one, is only 68 or so story pages, which is about right. Barbarella’s encounters are very episodic, and too many of them at once would be a drag, as well as overly repetitive. Surprisingly, it’s not as naughty as you might think, given its reputation.

Barbarella by Jean-Claude Forrest

The book opens with Barbarella crash-landing into a greenhouse with roses that attack her, tearing her spacesuit off. She’s rescued by a scientist who explains that they’re in the middle of a cultural civil war. She volunteers to serve as a messenger, but when she voyages out to meet the other tribe, they undress her before throwing rocks at her. She’s rescued, flying away telepathically under the control of a leader who calls her “a cauldron of fire and lust”. It’s that kind of book, but it’s hard to get mad at it, because it’s more playful than prurient.

The time lapse between its original publication and now helps as well, making it quaint instead of troublesome. For a similar reason, the storytelling is wordy, explaining everyone’s motivations and cultures. Barbarella narrates what’s happening to her, as do other characters. The panel flow can be jumpy, with events moving quickly from place to place so Forrest gets more chances to draw his heroine. Changes between chapters aren’t indicated; suddenly, there’s just another place and challenge, whether it’s a giant jellyfish with people living inside or killer dolls sent by evil twin princesses or a prison labyrinth with a blind angel inside.

I can’t say I loved the comic, but it was awfully neat to get to see such a time capsule piece for myself. To find out more about Barbarella, read Paul Gravett’s lengthy piece putting her into the cultural context of the times. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)

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Blacksad: Amarillo Mon, 03 Nov 2014 00:14:06 +0000 The latest album in the series, Blacksad: Amarillo, is the fifth, after Blacksad: A Silent Hell and the three reprinted as simply Blacksad. All are gorgeously painted explorations of classic American tropes told by Europeans, which gives the series its unique approach.

Well, that and the anthropomorphic black panther detective who’s the title character. All the cast members are animals of some kind, often selected for an indication of their personality. Blacksad, for instance, is coiled fury, power about to strike. The stupidly self-centered instigator of events in this book, dedicated to his art in sprite of the effects on others, is a bull.

In Amarillo, Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido tackle the great American story of a road trip across the southwest. Blacksad’s stuck in New Orleans, looking for work, when he lucks into a job driving a rich man’s yellow Cadillac Eldorado back to Tulsa. Two crazy writers (one of whom, a poet, might be recognized by readers of “Red Soul”, included in the Blacksad volume) steal the car, so Blacksad pursues them to Amarillo, Texas, and beyond.

Texas, particularly in the unspecified past (but kind of 50s, especially since one character reads Kurtzman’s Mad comic) shown here, is a wild land to imagine, particularly in the dives where these noir-influenced characters hang out. The detail in Guarnido’s art is incredible, and it’s easy to spend a lot of time poring over these beautiful pages.

The story relies a lot on the expected developments, particularly betrayal. The poet steals the novelist’s manuscript to teach him a lesson, and so the novelist kills his friend after a night of drunken debauchery. There’s a carnival, to reinforce the idea of a place for travelers and lost souls, as well as a couple of FBI agents pursuing everyone, representing proper authority and fitting in. All of it is leavened with casual racism, sexism, and violence changing people’s lives.

But as I said above, it’s fun to see how America gets reflected and retold through outside eyes. One can’t read this story without thinking of Jack Kerouac, of course, but there’s also the idea of the hidden heiress who needs rescuing and the villain finding nobility with a moment of redemption. Familiar elements provide a level of comfort while they’re rearranged in a new fashion for reading enjoyment.

Unlike the previous volumes, this edition is adapted by the well-known American comic artist Neal Adams. He provides an introduction about his discovery of Blacksad and his dislike of previous translations, explaining his love of the series and how he came to work on it. It’s exuberant, larger than life, much like Adams’ personality.

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In Real Life Sun, 02 Nov 2014 22:37:58 +0000 It’s a timely topic, the struggle of a young woman to play an immersive video game, but the recent explosion of debate over the place of women in gaming has unfortunately overtaken the events of In Real Life. It’s unfair of me to wish that the story of this graphic novel better reflected what everyone’s been forced to talk about over the past few months, but because the world has moved past this book, even though it’s just been released, it feels a bit outdated through no fault of its own.

Anda is fairly good at computers, but she isn’t inspired until a gamer speaks to their class about her online guild in Coarsegold Online, an MMORPG (online role-playing game). The presentation is about the importance of playing as a girl character, of presenting views of active women in the game. I found myself wondering what the rationale was for promoting gaming in school — but maybe Anda lives in a area where they don’t have obsessive parents looking for any “liberal” material like this to raise a fuss with the school board.

Anda’s new friend Sarge shows her certain missions, raids where they’ll be compensated for killing gold farmers. Although one of the messages is about girls playing together and heaping each other, we don’t see Anda interacting much with anyone but Sarge, who recruits her into making money, and one of the gold farmers, who becomes a friend. Raymond lives in China and wants to learn English.

Writer Cory Doctorow stacks the deck by opening the book with an introduction that talks about how the book will address “a bunch of sticky, tough questions about politics and labor.” It’s great that he wants to tackle big economic issues and the importance of organizing into movements, but the book might have been a more gripping read with less attention to high-minded ideas, a little more time spent on entertaining plot twists. It takes In Real Life a while to get to the meat of the story, the premise that’s been promoted. (Ironically, he later praises our era for “the degree to which it allows us to abolish all the boring stuff that used to be required for any kind of ambitious project.”)

Jen Wang’s art is simply lovely, though, with a good sense of personality for each character. She transitions nicely between everyday life — giving it the drab ordinariness it needs for this story — and the fantasy beings of the game world. I did wonder about the choice to show Raymond as some kind of elf, an artistic choice that makes him seem cute, young, and harmless, like a doll. It slants the reader’s reactions, although it’s in keeping with the “everything works out ok” happy ending.

There are some great lessons here about realizing that the characters you’re interacting with online are people, with their own lives and struggles, but no one specifically attacks Anda for being female. She has her eyes opened about how privileged most American lives are in comparison to other places in the world, though. Don’t let my criticisms sway you too much — although I wanted to challenge some of the specifics of this story, I still enjoyed reading a tale about a girl’s experience in video gaming.

You can read an excerpt online. Note: after writing this review, I discovered that the story was originally written in 2004, and Jen Wang adapted it to comics as well as drawing it. You can read more about her process doing so in this interview. (The publisher provided a digital review copy. )

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The Wicked + The Divine #5 Mon, 27 Oct 2014 19:03:35 +0000 The first storyline of The Wicked + The Divine concludes in this issue. And it’s terrific.

The Wicked + The Divine #5 cover

Midway through, I found myself a little lost, but everything clears up nicely here. The various characters have sorted themselves out for me, or maybe I found them clearer when seeing how each acts when events all comes to a head.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot, since this is the ending, except that the tone throughout is highly passionate, with desperate events taking place. It’s literally a matter of life and death, which is nothing new for comics, but it all seems more real and powerful and symbolic here. That’s in large part due to the presence of Laura, a fan given the chance to be much more, a desperate woman with half-green hair trying to save what she doesn’t understand. Her emotional involvement is palpable.

Kieron Gillen’s afterword comes full circle, in that it was originally intended to be an introduction but he thought it too bleak. It lays out the theme, of how we deal with death, clearly and beautifully. What better thought for a book about the modern gods? Very impressive (and it also explains Young Avengers). I admire Gillen’s self-awareness, and this piece puts the whole thing into new perspective for me.

You can read the whole storyline in the first series collection, The Faust Act, due out next month at the bargain price of $9.99.

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*Action Philosophers: The Tenth Anniversary Uberedition — Recommended Sat, 25 Oct 2014 21:51:27 +0000 I recommended Action Philosophers last decade, and that opinion hasn’t changed. What has changed is how you read it — once nine self-published issues, now the entire series is collected in one hardcover, cheaper than the out-of-print paperback, with a bonus eight-page story (more on that later).

Fred Van Lente (The Comic Book History of Comics) and Ryan Dunlavey (Dirt Candy: A Cookbook) make an amazing team, conveying a history of philosophy and notable thinkers in dynamic, entertaining fashion. The stories are grouped into four sections:

  1. “It’s All Greek to You!: Ancient Philosophy”, including Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes, and Epicurus
  2. “That Old-Time Religion: Medieval Philosophy”, including Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Machiavelli
  3. “Blinded Me With Science: Modern Philosophy”, including Descartes, Hobbes, Rousseau, Jefferson, Kant, Kierkegaard, and Mary Wollstonecraft
  4. “Our Stupid Age of “-ISMs”: Contemporary Philosophy”, including Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Sartre, and Ayn Rand

I’m listing just the best-known philosophers covered, but there are many more you’ll learn about in these 350+ pages. The Plato story is available as a preview at the publisher’s website.

As you’d have to do to cover so much material, most of the panels are narrated, with text explaining the history, but Dunlavey’s art is not a secondary element. His images are amusing in their own right, driving home the concepts with a snarky modern tone. He also throws in plenty of pop culture references, as when we’re told that Confucius is more properly known as Master Kong. The following panels reference King Kong visually, with a giant bearded man opening huge gates and reaching for a young woman. Directly relevant? No, but certainly memorable, symbolically interesting, and funny.

There are so many ideas here that it’s a book to dip into or portion out, not read all at once, or your head will be left spinning. But it’s also a fun reference to remind yourself of the core ideas of the best-known mental world-shapers.

The new story is immensely up-to-date, taking on common fallacies found online and promoting wisdom and understanding over knowledge. I wish that was available more easily online, because it’d be valuable to have to direct others to. This volume also reprints all of the previous issue covers; some sketches with Dunlavey’s commentary; and recommended reading to learn more about each philosopher, accompanied by pictures from the staging of the play based on this comic. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)

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Jim Henson’s The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow Thu, 23 Oct 2014 13:59:31 +0000 As part of Archaia’s continuing line of Jim Henson-related works — such as their publication of Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand and Fraggle Rock comics — they’ve put out Jim Henson’s The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow, a print version of a never-produced Thanksgiving TV special by the puppet master.

The adapter and illustrator is Roger Langridge, a talent who’s previously demonstrated how well he understands Henson’s creations in his work on The Muppet Show comics, which were outstanding.

This is a simpler fable than that multi-layered show, but charming all the same. It’s set in 1968, giving us a reminder of a simpler time, and making the kids’ hobby of folk music a bit more sensible. Timmy and Ann like to play guitar in the woods, but an evil neighbor covets their land and chases them away with a pitchfork. He’s the wealthiest turkey farmer in Turkey Hollow and a bully. (His characterization is not subtle.)

Timmy goes to practice one day only to find himself accompanied by odd-sounding harmonies. The musical monsters, seven voyagers from space of different furry shapes, help him get the songs right. Portraying music in comics is difficult, and Langridge handles it both by lettering lyrics and having display text float through the panels, punctuated by drawn musical notes, as shown here.

The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow panel

Timmy’s new friends cause trouble as they follow him to school, and when the bad guy sees them, he riles up the townspeople to drive out the “demons” among them. There are accusations of theft and fear-mongering and the problem of dealing with those different from us, until everything wraps up neatly as Thanksgiving is celebrated with friends and feasting and music. Jim Henson’s The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow isn’t a deep or challenging book, but it’s a comfortable one, suitable for all ages, and a holiday pleasure to read.

The book opens with an explanatory note by a Henson Company archivist, giving the history of the project, and a photo of Henson’s daughters with the original puppets, built but never used. It closes with biographical sketches of the creators and some insight into the development process. Finally, there’s an amazing drawing of what it might have looked like to see the puppets being operated, creating in me a closing fondness for the genius and talent of Jim Henson. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)

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*Princess Ugg Volume 1 — Recommended Sun, 19 Oct 2014 02:19:33 +0000 The first collection of Princess Ugg is due out at the end of November, and the timing is well-chosen, since I’m thankful this new series by Ted Naifeh exists.

As I said in my review of the first two issues, this series is “a social satire, a fresh take on what it really means to be a princess.” Volume 1 collects the first four issues, in which we meet and come to admire the barbarian Princess Ülga.

She’s come to the civilized lands for personal reasons, revealed over the span of the story, and she conflicts with the more proper princesses, who are more concerned with dresses and attention than the earthier Ülga. The contrast provides a good deal of comedy, but there are important lessons as well — about the value of each individual, about different not being bad, about learning to get along with people not like you, of finding knowledge in new places while still valuing where you came from.

When the other girls choose dresses, Ülga selects battle-axes. They use her lack of knowledge of their customs against her, but her ignorance doesn’t make her stupid, as she later proves when training another princess’ unicorn. (Yes, this is a fantasy story.) Not only the author but an authority in the story has a sense of humor, as they send Ülga to room with Julifer, the most precious of the young ladies.

Ülga gets lessons in etiquette and fashion and grace and history, and finally, an ally in the quest to learn diplomacy. In issues 3 and 4, Julifer’s pet, in preparation for competition, demonstrates the difference between a beautiful appearance and an attractive demeanor.

Ted Naifeh’s art is full of detail, whether he’s drawing hordes of warriors on ice-covered craggy peaks or young women surrounded by feudal castle luxury. The characters have great emotion and expressiveness. Ülga is one of several recent characters that young women of many ages can admire for breaking the mold of the typical girl. I enjoy reading her adventures and hope to see many more. (The publisher provided an advance digital review copy.)

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Build Your Own Website: A Comic Guide to HTML, CSS, and WordPress Fri, 03 Oct 2014 20:46:47 +0000 Build Your Own Website: A Comic Guide to HTML, CSS, and WordPress is a useful starting point for the very basics of getting started with your own website, particularly if you want to use WordPress. It’s got a cute comic in it featuring Kim (and her dog Tofu), an artist who wants to put a portfolio on the web. Unfortunately, the two have little to do with each other.

Each chapter has an introductory comic followed by a substantial text section that actually explains the coding. You could read the text and learn all the information without ever needing the comic. (A good idea for later reference, but not much of an argument for the comic pieces being essential.) The text is dense — there’s a lot of material conveyed — but clear and informative. I know having some comic-format material will get this book noticed by potential customers and perhaps attract those frightened by pure text and code, but the comics feel unnecessary, unless you need a friendly virtual hand to sympathize with in Kim.

Even when there is coding content in the comic, it’s mostly panels of a guru telling Kim the same things found in the text. For some reason, her coding work in the comic is set in a forest (?) where Kim crash-landed her spaceship (??) during a dream (oh!). I don’t know why they didn’t just stick with the introductory classroom, unless it was considered too visually boring. By setting up, for example, 404 errors to be drawn as attacking dragons, the art seems to have gone too far the other way, picking metaphors to make for exciting visuals without much connection to the actual content.

Kim Gee’s style is simple and direct, which is helpful in attracting non-comic readers. It deceptively seems like something almost anyone could draw, which matches nicely with the “you can make a website!” tone of the material. The four major chapters cover the most basic HTML, what CSS is, why you want to use WordPress and how it works, and using themes and plugins to customize your WordPress site. If you don’t want to use WordPress, you will find half the book useless, and it may seem like a big ad to you. (I say this as someone who uses a self-hosted WordPress installation on this site. I like the technology, but the book is very enthusiastic about it.)

I liked the book, and I can see it being helpful for a certain type of user, particularly younger ones, so maybe my criticisms aren’t needed. Heck, I’ve been on the web for 20 years (yikes!) and I found the CSS chapter, in particular, useful as a refresher. I just don’t care for the way the two types of content don’t feel fully integrated. I can’t satisfactorily answer to myself the question, “Why did this book need to be a comic?” (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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*Finder: Third World — Recommended Fri, 03 Oct 2014 13:55:43 +0000 The newest Finder volume is the tenth (following Finder: Voice), although that doesn’t matter, since the series is more like a set of novels with the same setting and some of the characters than a typical serialized comic series. It’s also the first in color (done by Jenn Manley Lee and Bill Mudron), which takes a little getting used to but makes the full world more substantial.

Surprisingly, it’s also a great starting point. Third World follows Jaeger as he takes a new job delivering packages for a courier service. His ability to go almost anywhere suits the position well, and the setup brings him in contact with a wide variety of character types. Carla Speed McNeil is exploring a huge diversity of her world’s settings here, as well as using the contacts to show us a lot more about who Jaeger is and what he’s afraid of. This is the most we’ve learned about the character since his introduction in Sin-Eater, the first two books of the series.

The introductory stories are short, demonstrating Jaeger’s creativity and determination, setting up the concept, reminding us of his personality, and exposing us to this civilization. I could have read several more chapters of this type, because they’re fascinating. Dark humor, creative extrapolations on a future culture, clever twists, touching or disturbing interactions, even a ghost story populate this section, before Jaeger is abandoned outside the big cities. McNeil describes her series as “anthropological science fiction”, a wonderful summation, and one that allows her to explore a huge variety of story types and characters.

That leads into the meat of the volume, where Jaeger’s background and some of the strange creatures of this world become more prominent. The final section postulates a disturbing medical world that puts him into a life-threatening cliffhanger.

McNeil’s art is astounding, full of character and action. Even when a character is sitting silent, there’s a tension and a dynamism that keeps us focused on them. She’s clearly thought through her fully realized world, as demonstrated in the extensive annotations, my favorite part of the book. Beyond the stories, beyond the fiction, there are the author’s observations on references, homages, artists I’m not familiar with (but should be), notes that add depth to the scenes, and comments on the larger world. They make every volume something to read multiple times.

I’m a tad disappointed that I’m left wondering how Jaeger’s going to survive — although I have no doubts that he will — and that’s only because I don’t know how long it will be until the next book. I’ll be eagerly awaiting it.

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