Graphic novels & comics

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.14.2013
Book from: Personal collection

I’ve been doing some thinking this spring about figuring out reviewing practices, or a mindset, that don’t have me regularly consuming 3+ hours for writing and headscratching that I meant to have done in one, doesn’t give me hives, and generally achieves a higher fun/stress ratio. We’ll see how this goes.

Saga Vol. 1Oh Saga! Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga is so much fun that I can only assume that if you like fun, you will like Saga. It seems like Vaughan set out to create an X-rated Star Wars in comics – galloping galactic conflict in an expansive science-fantasy universe, plus some very colorful violence, and equally colorful sexytimes wherever characters seem like they might want or need to have ’em. But its immense irreverence has me reaching for Firefly as the easiest comparison.

However, the humor feels less strained to me than Firefly‘s. (The ticking of Joss Whedon’s brain behind the goings-on, working at being quirky or heartrending or whatever, is often too loud to me.) This is helped along by how boundlessly, weightlessly, beautifully weird the universe of Saga is.

Alanna and Marko are Romeo-and-Juliet runaway soldiers and new parents – much of the emotional weight of the comic rests in the anxieties of parenthood; the star-crossing romance seems forgettable by comparison. Their getaway ship is an enormous tree powered by personal sacrifices. Their babysitter and guide is a bisected ghost-girl (whose choice in headgear and allover pinkness reminded me of Runaways‘ Molly). Their pursuers include a TV-headed robot prince who just wants to get home to his recently pregnant wife, and a taciturn uber-mercenary with relationship hangups and a puma-sized, lie-detecting hairless cat. And given that all of the characters, even those that only appear for a few panels, are believably animated by a cantankerous, stubborn humanity, none of this feels like a burden of whimsy on the reader’s patience; I moved to greet each new surprise with incredulous laughter, and greedy eyes.

Fiona Staples (check out her sketchblog here) paints lushly, lushly, with a palette heavily reminiscent of the cool, dreamy neons of, naturally, 1970’s sci-fi – the soulkillingly garish bordello planet where The Will (aforementioned mercenary) makes a detour put me in mind of Bespin’s Cloud City, on acid.

Much of the imagery is clearly, simply meant to make the reader pause, and feel the uplift of wonder; I did plenty of that. Oh, those panels of the ship-tree drawing itself together to jet through space; oh, the towering beasties and haunted blue-green woods and luminous mountainscapes.

Alana reads her favorite romance novel

I am grateful that this comic exists, and am going quietly insane until the second trade comes out (July 2!).

Go to:
Brian K. Vaughan: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: Summer 2012, and again this week
Read the comic online here.

The Story of the Bad Egg: cover image

“Once upon there lived a prince in a palace.

This morning the prince was in the twelve-acre pool. He had just received a call saying that the flood in Hampshire was not as serious at it had first seemed and had in fact done wonders for agriculture. The royal visit to share in the local suffering was thus cancelled and the prince had a blank in his calendar …”

… and that blank ends up being filled by an ill-tempered dragon, who in turn yields up four eventually voracious dragon children. The Story of the Bad Egg,” a 34-page comic by Swedish illustrator Emily Ryan, is very droll and a touch morbid. Its finely inked art is a fun mix of airy, geometric, and quietly kinetic (I like all the curves made in space when the characters go into motion), set off by visual gags and verbal irony polished to a gleam. And the “bad” egg, who is accidentally allowed to sate her appetite with books and promptly transforms into a stubby, walking representation of written knowledge, is one of the most lovable characters I’ve run into in a long while. (Watch out for the scene where she asks her foster father to chalk her pool cue for her.)

comic badegg

Go to:
Read “The Story of the Bad Egg” online

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Apologies for the utter deadness around here lately; Kakaner is fiendishly, horrendously, unspeakably busy with a very exciting new job, and I’ve been occupied trying to not get kicked out of wildly succeed in my graduate program.

But here’s another round of gender-subversive fun for fans of Revolutionary Girl Utena, and anyone whose interest was piqued by my review of Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight: Katie O’Neill’s gently goofy and heartfelt new webcomic Princess Princess, in which a dashing princess errant is the one to rescue a tower-immured damsel.

“I have a sword, a unicorn, and kick-butt hair!” – Princess Amira

Princess Princess updates once weekly, and is predicted to run up to 30 or 40 pages. You can also find additional art and bonus comics over at its Tumblr.

– E

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.22.2012
Book from: Personal collection

I know the universe loves me because there’s a new comic called The New Deadwardians, and it’s about vampires, zombies, and class conflicts in alternate Edwardian England. I saw the first issue (from March of this year; there are to be 8 issues total) still hanging around in a comic store, picked it up, read it as soon as I got home, and wished I had bought the rest.

The cover art gives away the punchline, though the first issue never says it outright: the English aristocracy have embraced vampirism – “the cure” – in order to escape the zombified lower classes. (It’s not clear yet what’s happened to the rest of the world.) As Twilight literalized class (and race) conflict via Bella’s choice between sleek, chilly, uber-white vampires vs. rough-n-tumble, blue-collar, Native American werewolves, so Deadwardians does with poker-faced pish-posh vampires vs. sloppy Cockney zombies. Caught in between are living servants, police officers, and other members of the working class, who also appear distantly as angry unionists demonstrating against the military zoning of London. The undead – and presumably some living survivors – have been pushed back beyond “Zone B,” and hence are referred to as Zone-B’s. Har de har. I also winced at the use of “Deadwardian” in the comic itself – it’s too cutesy to be believable in-universe. Luckily, it’s the only false note struck in this issue.

The protagonist is George Suttle, a vampirized detective afflicted with some degree of existential angst, and a pruny mum who should appeal to fans of Maggie Smith as the dowager duchess in Downton Abbey. The end of the issue sees Suttle confronted with a puzzling mystery: the murder of an already undead man.

Most of the issue is devoted to building up atmosphere and setting. Artist I. N. J. Culbard and colorist Patricia Mulvihill work gorgeously together in the ligne clair/clear-line style, with smooth inking and planes of muted color that emphasize the setting’s eerie placidity and the script’s deliberate, brooding pace. A scene of Suttle walking into his almost entirely deserted office building, its many untenanted desks draped over with white sheets, and numerous shots of meticulously rendered architecture looming over sparse inhabitants, recall the trademark scenes of deserted London streets that opened 28 Days Later – this is just a century earlier.

Gloomy atmosphere, sociopolitical satire, a burgeoning mystery, immersive art: I’m hooked. I can’t wait to see what Abnett and Culbard do with the rest of the series; I’m particularly excited to see how hard they’ll play the alternate history angle. The Edwardian era was characterized by both great economic disparity, and increasing social mobility and political activism – I can’t imagine the latter two will do very well against an immortal and literally parasitic upper class…

You can see a free 6-page preview of The New Deadwardians and a brief interview with Culbard here (source: L. A. Times – did you know they covered comics? I didn’t).

Go to:
Dan Abnett: bio and works reviewed

 

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Reviewer: Emera
Dates read: Various dates between November 2010 and spring 2011
Books from: Personal collection, or borrowed from Kakaner

Reviewed here be:

Chew, Volume 1: Taster’s Choice (2009)
Chew, Volume 2: International Flavor (2010)
Chew, Volume 3: Just Desserts (2010)

Chew is the story of Tony Chu, a humorless detective who has the unfortunate ability to gain psychic impressions from anything he eats (except beets). Recruited by the FDA – now the world’s most powerful law enforcement agency in the wake of an avian flu pandemic that took hundreds of millions of lives – for his singular talent, Tony finds himself taking bites of stranger and stranger substances as his casework, increasingly muddied by connections to shadowy criminal organizations and possibly extraterrestrial conspiracies, takes him from New York chicken speakeasies to Siberian research stations staffed by vampire ladies in ushankas to tropical dictator states. Add in a generously embarrassing family, an exhaustingly cheerful cyborg partner, and a hate-filled boss, and life just won’t let up on this by-the-rules cop.

Man, this series. I had no idea what I was in for when Kakaner eagerly gifted me the first two volumes, but it proved to be a delicious combination of hyperkinetic art and zany-bordering-on-surreal world-building. Layman and Guillory are an inimitably weird team: to match Layman’s tireless inventiveness (one of the best parts of reading is trying to predict what absurd food-related superpower will next come into play), Guillory’s art is full of odd angles and wildly energetic gestures and the most! excellent! facial expressions, thanks to his characters’ crinkly, mobile features. His backgrounds, too, are stuffed to bursting with silly details (inexplicable graffiti, stray notes and photographs, etc. etc.), and as is only appropriate for an obsessively food-themed series, the distinctive color palette always reminds me of citrus popsicles:

(Even when Tony is getting a barf facial, apparently.)

The plot is obviously going somewhere, but frankly I’ve been so distracted and entertained and perplexed by the moment-to-moment madness of each volume that I haven’t been working all that hard to piece the bits together – though the gathering momentum was obvious by the end of volume 3, and left me hoping for some interesting developments IN SPACE.

I also have to single out Chew‘s creators for the fact that even though they make merry with pulp/genre stereotypes (well hello, melon-breasted Asian lady assassin, nice to roll my eyes at you again) and just-plain stereotypes (the female assassin is exaggerated to clearly satirical proportions; I’m far less comfortable with the fact that the only recurring black character in the series is, straighforwardly, a cowardly criminal), having gone for the Chew/Chu pun, Layman and Guillory obviously committed thereafter to representation of a varied cast of Asian characters. In other words, they didn’t let Tony’s ethnicity stay a one-off joke and then pat themselves on the back for being inclusive by way of one nonwhite protagonist. Which, frankly, I think plenty of other writers, especially in comics, would have done.

I give them heaping points, of course, for having a cool, competent male Asian protagonist in the first place; discounting of Asian men in pop culture as comical, emasculated etc. (if they’re not ninja/samurai) is a major pet peeve of mine. (I did a count once of the number of female Asian superheroes [ooo, so exotic!!] vs. male once, and the ratio was pretty dismal.) But from there, numerous members of Tony’s family, immediate and extended, have also gotten plenty of pagetime, including his cheerfully self-aggrandizing chef brother and adorable, NASA-employee twin sister.

Though character development takes second seat to conceptual and narrative whimsy in Chew, most of the characters are amply buoyed by the series’ manic energy and humor. It’s refreshing and gratifying to see a broad cast of Asian characters getting the same treatment, and adds immeasurably to my enjoyment of a series that already leaves me grinning at every turn.

Go to:

John Layman: bio and works reviewed 

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.30.2012
Book from: Personal collection

The Umbrella Academy, Vol. 2: DallasThe Umbrella Academy: Dallas begins and ends with presidential assassinations; in between, a whirlpool of crises sucks in the already battered members of the Umbrella Academy superhero “family,” and spits them out again even more embittered and doubtful of their humanity. In between, there’s extensive time travel, nuclear annihilation, a brief interlude in heaven, a man with a goldfish for a head, and page after page of Gerard Way’s incredibly sharp, incredibly funny, incredibly on storytelling and dialogue. (I found myself wanting to deliver affirmations like, “Why yes, Gerard Way, a pair of Girl-Scout-cookie-obsessed hitmen WOULD sound exactly like that!!”)

The presiding metaphor of this volume is of the jungle, and jungle beasts. (“I am in the jungle and I am too fast for you. You have teeth and stripes and things that tear. But I am much too fast… […] Only I know where the jungle is… only I know…” goes Number Five’s crazed self-paean as he single-handedly destroys an army of time-traveling enforcers. It’s both hilarious and chilling, in combination with Bá’s increasingly saucer-eyed rendition of Five and Dave Stewart’s lurid colors for the scene.)

Umbrella Academy works off of the psychological model for superheroes that’s prevailed since Watchmen: they’re average human beings – willful, petty, self-absorbed – acting out their neuroses and capacity for brutality, both emotional and physical, on superhuman scales. Kraken is the series’ Rorschach, obsessed on a primal level with vigilanteism. Spaceboy began as (to jump comic universes) the moody, nobly pathetic X-Man, ashamed of his physical monstrosity (his head was grafted to a Martian gorilla’s body in a lifesaving operation at some point in the past), but by the beginning of this arc has gone over to Nite Owl – overweight, impotent, haunted by crumbling ideals of heroism.

Spaceboy is an obvious visual manifestation of the jungle-beast metaphor: the superhero who’s at least as much monster as man, a Frankensteinian creation as cognitively dissonant and surreally comical as the intelligence-augmented chimps that now constitute a significant proportion of the world of the Umbrella Academy. The chimps were also experimental creations of the Academy’s founder, Sir Reginald Hargreeves, of course. The brief glimpses we get of frigid, controlling Hargreeves are some of the most disturbing moments of the series; it’s a wonder that the Umbrella kids, his grandest experiment, didn’t turn out even more dysfunctional.

In the end, disaster is averted and the world is saved, but at the cost of the life of a good man, and further erosion of the tenuous bonds among the Umbrella Academy. I was pretty heartbroken by the end of the volume, especially after the emotionally devastating bonus story, “Anywhere But Here,” which reveals a pivotal moment from Vanya’s past. Way and Bá have taken their superheroes to such depths of despondency that it’s hard to imagine where they’ll go from here, but I trust that they’ll continue to unfold their heroes’ fates with style, wit, and humanity.

Go to:
Gerard Way: bio and works reviewed
The Umbrella Academy, Vol. 1: Apocalypse Suite (2008): review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.28.2012
Book from: Personal collection, via Vertical, Inc.

(Yeah, the cover design is pretty punishingly cute. And also, classy! Oh Vertical, you know how to win my heart.)

The friend who egged me on in my desire to read this series, which has the proud distinction of siring the “princely girl” anime subgenre (i.e. Rose of Versailles, Revolutionary Girl Utena), described it as “nonstop shoujo bullshit.” Honestly, I can’t add much more to that than “but there’s lots of wacky gender stuff, too!!”

Adapted from the cover blurb:

“A mischief-making angel’s prank goes too far when the newborn princess of Silverland ends up with two hearts — one male and one female. Since the laws of Silverland only allow a male heir to ascend the throne, Princess Sapphire is raised as a prince. Princess Knight is the fast-paced tale of a heroic princess who can beat any man at fencing, yet is delicate and graceful enough to catch the eye of Prince Charming. Filled with narrow escapes, treacherous courtiers, dashing pirates, meddlesome witches, magical transformations and cinema-worthy displays of derring-do, you’ll be swept right along as Sapphire tackles one challenge after another.”

“One challenge after another” is only too right: the plot twists (potions, prisons, a desirous island queen, hellish pacts, Swan Lake references, etc. etc.) are addictive to a point, but past that point get exhaustingly frenetic. My patience was also tried by the fact that Sapphire is actually pretty dull. Apart from intermittent feats of gallantry, she doesn’t accomplish much other than throwing herself into defeatist fits of tears and mooning with disturbing passivity over her square-jawed and also dull main squeeze, Prince Franz. It comes as a relief to those of us rooting for a pluckier hero/ine that Tezuka has Sapphire close out her gender-bending with a bang: even though she ultimately prefers traditional femininity (she declares her desire to just get married in a dress, please), she’s still up for a swordfight even after her “boy heart” has been revoked.

One more photo and further thoughts on characters and gender after the cut:

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 11.24.11
Book from: Personal collection

“Of all the things Anya expected to find at the bottom of an old well, a new friend was not one of them. Especially not a new friend who’s been dead for a century. Falling down a well is bad enough, but Anya’s normal life might actually be worse. She’s embarrassed by her immigrant family, self-conscious about her body, and she’s pretty much given up on fitting in at school.

Anya really could use a friend – even a ghost. But her new BFF isn’t kidding about the “Forever” part . . .”

Great characters, great dialogue, fabulous art. Brosgol’s style is elastic and rounded, equally ideal for conveying weightless movement and solid figures; the same could be said of her writing.

The resolutions to Anya’s emotional and social conflicts head towards conventional teen-movie territory, but Brosgol has such a light touch (her sharply contemporary dialogue often comes in handy) that none of the “wholesome realization! reconciliation and mutual understanding!” moments feel too heavy or forced. The climax, in particular, surprises by deliberately backing off of a too-easy, emotionally violent “conclusion.” I love how honest Anya comes to be about her own shortcomings. I’m also rather in love with her acerbic, squinty, spiky-skinny best friend Siobhan:

Siobhan
Siobhan, Exhibit A.

I found the comic a clear-eyed exploration of how so much of what makes teen girls unhappy – social pressure, body image, embarrassing family, lack of perspective – can come close to making some into little monsters of selfishness, and how they/we (been there, not so long ago) can come to back away from that brink. All in all: Anya’s Ghost is funny, scary, sad, and beautifully drawn.

(I first found Brosgol’s work, by the way, through the Draw This Dress Tumblr she shares with Emily Carroll, where the two post their lively illustrations of historical and sometimes not-so-historical fashion. Anya actually models a Victorian bathing suit in one post!)

Go to:
Vera Brosgol: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.17.11
Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner

Legends of the Mouse Guard features thirteen Mouse Guard tales by a broad spectrum of guest artists and authors. Cute, fun, mostly not really worth reading except for a few outstanding cases of either extremely beautiful art, great visual storytelling, or occasionally both. Highlights for me:

  • Jeremy Bastian’s “The Battle of the Hawk’s Mouse and the Fox’s Mouse:” Mindblowingly detailed faux-etchings in colors of faded heraldry.
  • Ted Naifeh’s “A Bargain in the Dark:” The storytelling could have been sharper, but Naifeh’s ink-heavy, swoopingly angular style (which I’d seen before via his collaborations with Caitlín Kiernan and Holly Black) stands out here from the more traditional illustrations in most of the rest of the collection. And they couldn’t be more perfectly suited to Darkheather’s subterranean vaults, where his story of a wary alliance between a mouse and a bat takes place .
  • Gene Ha & Lowell Francis’ “Worley and the Mink:” Possibly my all-around favorite, for the combination of good humor, rich art and excellent action sequences. A tubby, bespectacled banker-mouse outwits both a tribe of hostile mice and a voracious mink.
  • Guy Davis’ wry & wordless “The Critic,” in which a warrior takes too much inspiration from an artist’s rendering of derring-do.
  • The sweeping tundra scenes of Karl Kerschl’s “Bowen’s Tale” (also wordless), which wonderfully convey the immensity and severe beauty of the arctic from a mouse-sized perspective.

Petersen provides the framing story, of customers at an inn competing in a tale-telling contest to cancel their bar tabs, the totally epic cover of horn-blowing mice (my favorite Mouse Guard cover so far), and some equally epic spreads of other legendary mouse exploits, which appear in-universe as paintings on the inn’s walls.

Go to:
David Petersen: bio and works reviewed
Mouse Guard: Fall 1152, by David Petersen, review by Emera
Mouse Guard: Winter 1152, by David Petersen, review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 12.1.11 (re-read; originally read circa 2006)
Book from: Personal collection

Hellboy, Volume 1: Seed of Destruction
Art by Mike Mignola, script by John Byrne

“When strangeness threatens to engulf the world, a strange man will come to save it. Sent to investigate a mystery with supernatural overtones, Hellboy discovers the secrets of his own origins, and his link to the Nazi occultists who promised Hitler a final solution in the form of a demonic avatar.”

It’s alllll about the broody menace. I was not too impressed by my first read of Hellboy‘s first volume, five years back, having gotten idiotically hung up on what I dismissed at the time as “unoriginal” plot elements. (Hello, 2006 Emera, paying tribute to pulp favorites is the point…) This time I just sat back and let the consummately pulp-noir atmosphere swallow me up, to much better effect.

After all, there’s so much to enjoy about Hellboy. The storytelling, even if often predictable, is crisp and fast-paced, cannoning the reader from a glimpse at Hellboy’s WWII origins into a present-day case featuring frog demons, an Arctic expedition gone awry, and a cursed family. The dialogue and exposition (vol. 1 is kinda exposition-heavy) are loaded with menace and portent, the action sequences are so beautifully composed as to look balletic (even when they mostly involve Hellboy punching demons), and now let’s talk about how much I love Mike Mignola’s art.

LOOOOVE. I love the way that he builds his compositions mostly out of shadows and looming statuary, frequently in suggestive poses (when Hellboy first manifests in a churchyard, the two angels carved in relief in the background seem to make gestures of threat and aversion); I love the way his craggy, massive, mostly stone-faced figures lend themselves to expressions of unexpected tenderness and piercing emotional simplicity. One of my (many) favorite single panels in this volume is the one below, in which Hellboy attempts to comfort his adoptive father, the aged paranormal investigator Trevor Bruttenholm:

This volume includes generous art extras: early sketches of Hellboy, the two mini promotional stories in which he first appeared, and an excellent gallery of guest art. I should note though that the trade paperback edition has terrible binding – the cover cracked away from the glue on the spine after I’d been reading for about 45 minutes. So, definitely not worth it unless you happen to find it on sale.

That aside, Hellboy is eerie, tightly written, and features an intriguing cast and Lovecraftian/Revelations-inflected apocalyptic mythos. (The chapter headings have scenes from Revelations as their backgrounds: the seven-headed beast, the Four Horsemen, etc. Again, LOOOOVE.) This time around, I’m going to have to follow the series to its finish; I’d love to get to know Hellboy and his teammates better.

Go to:
Mike Mignola: bio and works reviewed
B.P.R.D.: Hollow Earth & Other Stories, by Mike Mignola, review by Emera

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