Saturday, January 30, 2016

Kaptara Volume One: Fear Not, Tiny Alien

Kaptara is a strange, funny adventure story of some astronauts from Earth who get caught up in some outer space anomaly and end up trapped on a strange planet that is a warped version of Eternia. As you can see from the image below, the welcome wagon is not a friendly one:
Our heroes end up teaming up with the strange inhabitants of this land, including a man-at-arms, a boastful prince, a naked wizard, a cat woman, and a floating orb that does not speak but displays positive affirmations and pithy sayings. This motley band ends up encountering all kinds of strangeness, from a village of crass, Smurfish, cannibalistic trolls to insect people who have small lifespans but large appetites for revelry and sport. Part of what makes this book appealing is how kooky and inventive it is, what with all the fantastic characters, creatures, and elements. But additionally there is a lot of humor injected into the story via characters' personalities, their vocal patterns, and short asides. Just check out this early sequence:

This book is the product of writer Chip Zdarsky and artist Kagan McLeod. Zdarsky specializes in humor titles and currently writes Howard the Duck, Jughead, and the award-winning Sex Criminals. McLeod is a successful commercial artist for many high profile publications, and he also created one of my favorite graphic novels Infinite Kung Fu. Together, they are a dream team, with Zdarsky providing the jokes while McLeod delivers on the inventive critters and action sequences. Both creators talk about their inspirations and work on Kaptara in this interview.

This volume collects the first five issues of an ongoing series. Mariah Senecal called the book "beautifully illustrated" and the writing " a nice concoction of sarcasm, wit, and vulgarity."  Publishers Weekly was less than taken with this book, writing "Zdarsky and McLeod pack the pages with off-kilter action, but the cartoonish style is the wrong fit for this adventurous but wildly uneven John Carter of Mars/John Waters SF comedy mash-up." Personally, I enjoyed the book pretty well. I got caught up in the story and appreciated the jokes, even though some fell sort of flat for me. Simply put, I liked it but did not love it.

Fear Not, Tiny Alien was published by Image Comics, and they have more info and previews available here.

This book features strong language, violence, and some adult situations so it is recommended for readers who can handle those things. I want to say that it is recommended for mature readers, though the puerile (not to say unenjoyable) tenor of the humor wants me want to type ironical quotation marks. So, for "mature" readers.

Monday, January 25, 2016

ODY-C: Volume 1: Off to Far Ithicaa

If you could not figure it out by looking at my name, I am partly Greek. So when I was younger I was attracted to lots of books about Greek (and Roman) myths, especially D’Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. I was almost a classics major in college. Also, I am pretty taken with a few works written by Matt Fraction, in particular his runs on Hawkeye, Iron Fist, and Sex Criminals, as well as his forays into the legend of Thor for Marvel Comics. So I was pretty psyched to read this comic, a sci-fi re-imagining of Homer's The Odyssey starring a female cast.

I dug how the dialogue and narrative boxes act like stanzas or text fragments and also how the language hewed pretty closely to the original words, only given updated science fiction twists. I also thought the story was pretty clever sometimes in how the situations were translated in a universe where males did not exist because of the actions of the gods and where the only true alternative was the subversive poly-gender version of Prometheus. But in the end, I was also pretty disappointed, if only because the retelling was mostly perhaps too closely without much panache. Most of the twists seem strictly for shock value or base jokes (Zeus having "thunder thighs," for example), and I found little to compel me to keep reading in terms of the plot and characters.

Now I have spoken about the words and story, but the true star and most compelling part of the book is the artwork by Christian Ward. Check out those compositions, imaginative character and device designs, and the eye-popping colors! Each page is a spectacle. This book harkens back to Barbarella, black light posters, and Brendan McCarthy in excellent fashion. I loved lingering over the images to see how he translated the tale into his visuals while also being in awe of his skills. This book is unique and unlike any other comics being published right now, at least in terms of its art style. Still, as great as the visuals are, I am not sure I will be getting volume 2 (which is out soon).

The reviews I have read generally praise the book while offering a couple of reservations. Matt Johnson wrote that it is "a comic that’s not going to be for everyone" but still praised it as "a rare comic that stands alone with little else to compare it to." Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and called it "A remarkable comic that gets better with each turn of the page." But I agree more with Steve Raiteri who concluded, "Strongly adult and more intriguing for its ambition and spectacle than for its story or characters but recommended." The ideas and imagery are excellent, but I had some  issues with the plot and characters.

ODY-C: Off to Far Ithicaa was published by Image Comics, who has much more info this book and the whole series here. This books features sex, nudity, and violence and is suggested for readers who can handle those things.
By Zeus!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Bass Reeves: Tales of the Talented Tenth, Volume 1:

I run across new graphic novels all over the place apparently, even in the pages of my Bostonia alumni magazine. Bass Reeves: Tales of the Talented Tenth is the first part of an initiative to publish stories about obscure or neglected accomplishments of African-Americans in US history. This volume follows the exploits of Bass Reeves, an ex-slave turned US Marshall who may have served as inspiration for the Lone Ranger. For some reason, when Bass was a young boy his master felt it was better to teach him to shoot than to read. He used that shooting ability to win many contests.
During the Civil War he escaped into Native American territory where he lived for a few years before returning as a union soldier. After wandering some after the war, he was enlisted as a US Marshall, a position in which he excelled. Me made more than 4,000 arrests over his career, including many harrowing ones described in this book.
As you can see from the excerpts above, the artwork is simple and abstract, but I feel it is very pleasant and efficient in its storytelling. Actions and emotions come across very clearly, and I was caught up in the energy of the story. I also liked some of the more iconographic aspects of the book, such as the personified Jim Crow characters and the images used to stand in for racial slurs. I feel this would be an excellent resource in an upper elementary or middle school, though I am an adult and enjoyed the heck out of it. In the end, I feel one's mileage will depend on how one regards the artwork.

This book's creator Joel Christian Gill is the Associate Dean of Student Services at at the New Hampshire Institute of Art. Prior to this book he has published the graphic anthology Strange Fruit, Volume 1: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History. He speaks more about Bass Reeves and his other comics work in this interview and also this interview.

I was not able to find many substantive reviews of this book, and the ones I found ranged pretty widely. R.C. Harvey wrote, "Gill has adopted a refined simplicity for his drawings, and he deploys the resources of the medium skillfully." Bobbi Booker called the artwork "vivid and whimsical." The reviews on Goodreads ran from very positive to pretty negative (though not always for reasons that pertain to the book itself).

Bass Reeves: Tales of the Talented Tenth was published by Fulcrum Books, and they have more information about the book here.

Later volumes in the series will focus on motorcycle pioneer Bessie Stringfield, Congressman Robert Smalls, and Union spy Mary Bowser, and I plan to keep an eye out for them.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Ghosted Volume One: Haunted Heist

This book collects the first five issues of Ghosted, a comic book series that combines two things I love: crime and horror comics. The covers are by Sean Phillips, whose work on Criminal and other books I adore, but the guts of the story did not really live up to my hopes. The premise here is a high-concept one: a rich, old, crooked eccentric hires a seasoned, troubled crook to steal a ghost from a haunted house where a remarkable amount of murders took place:
In order to accomplish this job, the crook, the impressively named, Jonathan T. Winters, gathers a rag-tag crew. I have to be honest, some of the folks in this group just seem thrown in for the sake of driving the plot forward, and some of them are clearly just cannon fodder. You can see the potential victims here:
And because this is a heist book, complications arise, backstabbing happens, and there are a bunch of plot twists.

In the end, this book was not really my cup of tea. The characters were unlikable, which I actually don't have a problem with (I like Arrested Development and The League for instance), but also very flat and uninteresting. I get that Jackson T. Winters is supposed to come off as some kind of master criminal/John Constantine type, but he falls way short of those expectations. Also, the heist aspects of this book just left me cold. There were points where big twists, turns, and reveals happened, but I did not feel there was ample set-up to make them satisfying. I enjoyed some of the horror aspects of the book though. And the artwork, while not spectacular, was solid in its storytelling and especially fun when it focused on the gruesome spirits. Maybe later volumes are better, but I don't really feel motivated to seek them out.

This volume of Ghosted is a collaboration between writer Joshua Williamson,  artist Goran Sudžuka (Y, The Last Man), and colorist Miroslav Mrva. Williamson talks a bunch here about the origins of the series, which is currently up to issue 16.

The reviews I have read about this book have been pretty mixed. Rob McMonigal felt it started badly but got better and summed up, "Horror fans who appreciate carefully crafted visual storytelling really need to jump on this one."  Nina savaged it in her review, writing, "The book is notable deficient in terms of plot, artwork and characterizations without even mentioning the author’s insulting attempts to shock his audience in that very first panel." Patrick Hester liked the book but his review seems lukewarm, including blah statements like "It definitely falls in the supernatural horror genre, and if you're a fan, you'll like this."

Haunted Heist was published by Image Comics, and they have more info about this book and series available here. This book features nudity, extreme violence, profanity, and some scary supernatural images, so I recommend it for readers who can handle those things.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Zombies and Forces and Motion

There is a dearth of decent graphic novels about science, and certainly even fewer aimed at younger readers, so I decided to check Zombies and Forces and Motion when I got the chance. What I found was that this book is entertaining (though not really laugh out loud funny to me) and also educational. It covers a bunch of ground, from Issac Newton's laws of motion to definitions of gravity, acceleration, momentum, mass, weight, and inertia, in an amusing and engaging way. There is not really an overarching narrative, so much as there is a bunch of vignettes that illustrate scientific principles and laws with reference to a zombie apocalypse survival guide. Most of these deal with a couple of guys trying to escape from zombies by rolling downhill in a car or zombies being shunted around in the payload of a pick-up truck. Basically we have cars and zombies bouncing off each other, which makes for some compelling imagery.
And as you can see, the illustrations are great and very clear, as are the explanations of the science. Even though the subject matter is gruesome, it's in a fun, wholesome way that's not off-putting or too gross. Sure, zombie arms get pulled off, but there's no blood or gratuitous gore. Probably the worst thing I can say about this book is that it is very short and not very detailed. Still, I found it breezy and fun to read. For those looking for a quick introduction/refresher of basic scientific ideas, there are many worse places to look.

This book was made by writer Mark Weakland and artist Gervasio. Weakland is a reading specialist, educational consultant, and pretty prolific writer of books for children. Gervasio is an Argentinian illustrator who belongs to a collective called La Productora. I can't say much else about either of them, but I enjoyed their work here.

I was not able to find many reviews of this book, but the few I found spoke well of it. Diane R. Chen called it "the number one crowd pleaser among upper elementary and middle school teachers and librarians" she presents to. Daniel Kraus praised the artwork, stating, "Gervasio’s comic panels and green-faced ghouls are well above par for the typical nonfiction stab at this kind of high-interest presentation." Jessica Bingham wrote, "The illustrations are wonderful and the text is very easy for lower elementary students to understand."

Zombies and Forces and Motion was published by Capstone Press as part of their Monster Science series.  You can get more info about the book here. I plan to check out more books from this series as soon as I can.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Hyperbole and a Half: unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened

Hyperbole and a Half is a collection of stories, half published and half original, that combine elements of comics and blogging in a unique manner. The drawings are pretty raw but very expressive, and they only intensify these stories of childhood events, mental health struggles, and relationship issues. It is a very direct and powerful work, but also highly infused with humor. Probably the funniest bits have to do with a pair of dysfunctional and simple dogs. Here, for instance is "Simple Dog:"
But much of these tales, despite often uncomfortable and uproarious sections, deal with very real problems, most notably dealing with depression. These are some very candid and confessional comics, and they are brutally honest, more self-reporting than self-pitying. I felt that they gave great insight into personal struggles and helped me learn about what many people have to contend with.

Allie Brosh publishes her comics/essays on a blog where half of these (and more!) stories were originally published. It is a playful site full of links to more drawings and jokes not found in the book and well worth checking out.She talks more about her life and art in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Jeff Provine called it "an excellent exploration of humanity, and added, "Brosh is hilarious, witty, and all around enjoyable." Publishers Weekly wrote that "Brosh is an evocative writer who bares her foibles and shortcomings, from childhood to her present life, with a lack of vanity and a sense of catharsis that is palpable." Kirkus Reviews summed it up as "Part graphic novel, part confessional, overall delightful."

This book version of Hyperbole and a Half was a #1 New York Times Bestseller published by Simon & Schuster, who has more info about it here. And in case it has not become clear, this is not a book for young children.

Gene Yang: The Anointed One!

I cribbed that title from this New York Times article, but Gene Yang has been named by the Library of Congress as the national ambassador for young people's literature. He is the first graphic novelist to be named to this position, which has existed since 2008.

He is a prolific creator, whose graphic novel and comics work has been pretty much exceptional across the board. And I guess to some degree this appointment indicates just how much more mainstream graphic novels are becoming. Congratulations, Mr. Yang!

Friday, January 1, 2016

My Favorite Graphic Novels of the Year

Well, it's that time of year again. 2015 was an eventful year for me personally. I became a dad; I got married; I got a book contract, and I read a lot of books. Looking back, I noticed that I liked a lot more escapist stuff than usual this year, which maybe I should have expected.

Still, I think there were a good many quality books this year, and a bunch more that might be just as good if not better, only I did not get around to reading them yet. In any case, if you click on the hot-linked title for each book below, you will go to my original, lengthier review. So without further ado, here is my list of best books according to categories I just made up on the spot:

Best Overall Book

 I thought this book was exceedingly clever, funny, and nuanced in surprising ways. Plus, it stars a not-so-villainous villain named Lord Ballister Blackheart and a not-so-heroic hero named Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin. I would recommend this book to pretty much anyone interested in reading or graphic novels. Or those interested in reading graphic novels.

Funniest Book
Fantasy Sports No. 1

This book made me laugh out loud frequently. This tale of a couple of magical tomb raiders who have to play an epic game of basketball against a surprisingly skillful mummy was full of heart, humor, and beautiful artwork displayed in a tabloid-sized format. I am so glad there is at least one sequel on the way.

Best Comics Version-of-Road-House-starring-a-former-assassin-who-looks-like-Kurt-Russell-from-Escape-from-New-York

 If you have read my blog with any regularity you will know I love the work of Kyle Starks. I literally will buy anything he produces sight-unseen. This parody/homage to 1980s action films was not only right up my alley, it also showed just how great the man is at telling a story and also cracking lots of hilarious jokes.

Best Artwork
The Divine

Full of lush greens and beautiful linework, The Divine tells a story that weaves together the horrors of war, questions about youth and innocence, issues of colonialism, and the powers of myth in one gorgeous, thought-provoking package. 

Best Superhero Book
Fall of the House of West

 This third book in the Battling Boy series fills us in on the tragic backstory of Aurora West, a heroine who worked with her father to battle the monsters who steal children. Simultaneously thrilling, sad, emotional, and scary, this book contains some grade A world-building.

Best Use of Comics as Nonfiction

 A dissertation in comic book form, Unflattening is a sequential art exploration of philosophy, education, and communication. This contemplative works employs a true combination of word and image, not just the typical "talking head" kind of academic comics that abound. It is a great book to read, re-read, and contend with.

Best Series
Last Man

 This series is manga done Euro-style, starring a young boy, his mother, and a down-on-his-luck pugilist who allies himself with them out of convenience. It features a fighting tournament, surprising twists, a courtroom run like a professional wrestling match, and interesting characters who live in a not-quite-medieval world where they have more than modern technology.

Best Book About Adolescence

 A harrowing (for all parties involved) tale about a high school student bullied by a sadistic classmate, and what happens when an opportunity to turn the tables presents itself. It's very visceral and emotionally direct in terms of the story and the illustrations.

Best Artwork, Part II
Exquisite Corpse

Originally published in France, this gorgeously rendered book is about a young woman who happens to strike up a relationship with a renowned, reclusive author. It features some good plot twists and a satisfying story, but the artwork is truly exceptional.

Best Use of Comics as Fiction
Russian Olive to Red King

 A genre-defying book, or as one of the creators put it, "It's a ghost story, but it's not frightening. It's a romance, but it's not passionate." It's the story of a couple where one of them gets lost in an accident and the other tries to carry on living while also keeping some semblance of hope alive. This might sound cliched, but I found it an excellent tale of love, loss, and the redemptive powers of art.

Best Use of Comics as Fiction II
Tim Ginger 

Another genre-defying book, this one about an ex-test pilot on a book tour who runs into an old flame. A beautiful book about growing old, finding one's way in the world, and dealing with conspiracy theorists. Also, it features a few meta-narrative touches that make reading this book a unique experience.

Best Nonfiction for Younger Readers
The Underground Abductor

I might as well just call this the "Nathan Hale Award," but it is pretty insane how consistently excellent each entry in his Hazardous Tales series is in terms of style and substance. This one about Harriet Tubman taught me a lot about her history and my own ignorance.

Best Nonfiction for Adults/Older Readers
Omaha Beach on D-Day

It may not be fair for me to even name this book here, because it is so unlike anything else I have read. A three-part exploration of the life and work of war-time photographer Robert Capa via comics, his photographs, and a few essays. A thorough and apt tribute to an artist I was unfamiliar with.

Best Debut
Invisible Ink

This award might seem like a misnomer, because Bill Griffith has been drawing comics since 1969, but this is is first graphic novel. His account of his searching for clues about his parents' relationships and pasts shows a master artist in charge of his craft in terms of delineating personal moments and overall storytelling. Its insights into families, love, and life are lasting and provocative.

Best Ending
The Sculptor 

I have to admit I am not enthralled with the totality of this book, because it is sort of a cliched tale about a tortured artist finding troubled love and inspiration from a manic pixie dream girl. However, the first actual graphic novel from comics theorist and academic Scott McCloud, about a Faustian deal, features one of the best closing sequences I have ever read. I found it breathtaking, and it stuck with me for a while.