Anya’s Ghost, by Vera Brosgol (2011) E

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, 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

Legends of the Mouse Guard, by David Petersen and others (2004) E

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

Hellboy, Vol. 1, by Mike Mignola (1994) E

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

Bone Vol. 1, by Jeff Smith (1993) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 11.23.11
Book from: Personal collection

Bone: Out from BonevilleBone, Volume 1: Out From Boneville

“After being run out of Boneville, the three Bone cousins – trusty Fone Bone, grasping Phoney Bone, and obliviously cheerful Smiley Bone – are separated and lost in a vast, uncharted desert. One by one, they find their way into a deep, forested valley filled with wonderful and terrifying creatures. Eventually, the cousins are reunited at a farmstead run by tough, cow-racing Gran’ma Ben and her spirited granddaughter, Thorn. But little do the Bones know, there are dark forces conspiring against them and their adventures are only just beginning…”

Late to the bandwagon as usual! I’d wanted to read the ever-popular Bone saga for years, and was lucky enough to find a slightly battered copy for half-off while comic-shopping recently. The first volume instantly brought me back to reading Asterix comics on the couch in second grade: Smith’s old-school art is fluidly expressive and filled with gentle slapstick and visual gags. (A recurring one: whenever he’s overcome by his crush on Thorn, Fone Bone’s mouth crumples up into a scribbled line, and he litters the area with trails of pink hearts.) It’s just comforting to read, sweet, funny, and expertly paced – a good old-fashioned adventure to enjoy on a sunny afternoon.

While I don’t feel too driven by the storyline yet (seems like war with the carrion-eating rat creatures lies ahead), I do love the oddness of the world: the way the seasons arrive with comically accelerated timing in the valley, talking katydid Ted and his giant cousin, the introduction of comics and paper currency (the latter with less success) to the valley inhabitants by the Bones. What exactly is the relationship between the valley and the external world, and what, really, are the Bones? I’m eager to see what comes along, especially if it involves more Gran’ma Ben thonking rat creatures.

And my favorite sequence of art: the evolution of Thorn’s facial expressions and hand gestures on this page (click for a close-up of the whole page).

Go to:
Jeff Smith: bio and works reviewed

Mouse Guard: Winter 1152, by David Petersen (2009) E

Date read: 7.18.11
Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

Mouse Guard: Winter 1152

“After Midnight’s Rebellion in the Fall of 1152, the following Winter proves to be a cold and icy season. The Guard face a food shortage threatening the lives of many a mouse in the Territories. Some of the Guard’s finest – Saxon, Kenzie, Lieam, and Sadie, with the old grayfur Celanawe by their side – traverse the snow-blanketed Territories, acting as diplomats to improve relations between the mouse cities and the Guard, and seeking vital supplies for their headquarters at Lockhaven. But hungry predators, the dangers of ice and snow, and a wrong turn into the haunted depths of the abandoned weasel tunnels of Darkheather place even so intrepid a band of Guardsmice in mortal peril…”

As Kakaner assured me, Mouse Guard vol. 2 has much more emotional meat on its bones than did the first arc. Reading this volume, it’s clear that Fall 1152 was just a taster; here our sense of the Guard’s mythology and traditions is deepened, and the worldbuilding continues apace, both within the comic and in the (again) adorable and obsessively detailed appendices.

Midnight’s obligatory power-hungry rebellion is revealed to have longer-lasting implications for the politics of the Mouse Territories and the integrity of the Guard, while Sadie, Kenzie, and Saxon’s descent into the mindblowingly byzantine tunnels and vaulted caverns of Darkheather brings us closer to the darkness and horror that lie in the Guard’s recent past. On Lieam’s end of things, Celanawe drops hints about the mythology of the Black Axe – a lone, mysterious arbiter of justice – and teaches some lessons about self-reliance. All of this is clearly paving the way for Lieam’s impending ascension to full-blown badass. And then there are epic battles with a vengeful one-eyed owl, and torrents of bats in purplish gloom, and beautifully desolate lamplit snowscapes, and Kenzie/Saxon bromance (brodentmance?)…

Also, I underwent a weird little cognitive tweak reading this volume. During the first I’d felt I just couldn’t get the characters, and tenatively chalked it up to the dialogue being a bit stilted. This time around I realized that it’s also that the mice generally only have two facial expressions: peering intently, or squinting determinedly. And once I realized that, I was fine with it; it’s like I’d placated an otherwise expectant emotional processing circuit. Conclusion: Brains are weird. Have some more cute mice.

Mouse Guard: Winter 1152

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

Mouse Guard: Fall 1152, by David Petersen (2007) E

[Pssst – Readercon 22 reports are in the works. Thanks to some sitey issues, we’re holding off on really image-heavy posts for the moment; have an only moderately image-heavy post in the meantime.]

Date read: 7.18.11
Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

“Mice struggle to live safely and prosper among the world’s harsh conditions and predators. Thus the Mouse Guard was formed. They are not simply soldiers who fight off intruders: they are guides for common mice looking to journey safely from one hidden village to another. The Guard patrol borders, find safeways and paths through treacherous terrain, and keep the mouse territories free of predators. They do so with fearless dedication so that mice might not just exist, but truly live. In Fall 1152, follow the adventures of three of the Guard’s finest – Lieam, Saxon, and Kenzie – as they seek to uncover a traitorous plot against the Guard…”

Mouse Guard: Fall 1152

In an obvious progression from my childhood love for Redwall, I’d been longing to read Mouse Guard for ages ever since I spotted its cover in a bookstore a few years back; Kakaner obliged me last week by thrusting the first two volumes into my hands. While the story is pretty much a throwaway (Petersen could really use an editor for grammar alone), the comic works purely on the basis of visuals and concepts.

Mouse Guard: Sadie receives an urgent message

Petersen’s figures aren’t very dynamic, but his panels are often beautifully composed, and his pairing of liberal hatching and stippling with a rich, autumnal palette creates delicious texture and depth. The climactic battle that spans the last chapter – heralded by a shift in the palette first to moody plum shades, then to an eerie, luminous red – is surprisingly dark and gritty; again the visuals are successful in generating drama and atmosphere despite lackluster storytelling.

And let’s be honest here: it’s SO. CUTE. Oh my god big-headed mice in cloaks. Oh my god tiny glassblower blowing tiny bottles. Oh my god tiny castle masonry and kilns and inkwells and… you get the idea.The scenes of everyday life in Barkstone, the town where the central trio uncover the anti-Guard conspiracy, and Lockhaven, the Guard’s fortified headquarters, pretty much had me spasming with glee; equally so the faux-historical tidbits and diagrams on mouse trades and settlements included at the end of the book.

Thanks for the conniptions, Petersen! I look forward to more in volume 2: Winter 1152.

Go to:
David Petersen: bio and works reviewed

Mythology Anthology: Katabasis/Anabasis (2010) E

Date read: 4.28.11
Book from: Personal collection. Now available as a PDF.
Reviewer: Emera

Home-brewed comics, yum. The is the second comic anthology published by artist collective WHIRR WHIRR WHIRR. I never got my hands on the first volume, also mythology-themed. This one is specifically themed around katabasis and anabasis – descent and ascent, most often used in a literary/mythological context to refer to a hero’s journey to the underworld, but here interpreted with pleasing variety and in a range of mythological traditions. The bold, Dürer-remixing cover art is by Hunter Heckroth; evocative inset illos rendered in pencil by Kris Mukai draw upon the myth of Isis recovering her slaughtered husband’s body parts. My favorite was a surprisingly sinewy Isis mid-flight, viewed from behind – all of the illustrations in Mukai’s series seem to keep the drama focused somewhere offstage, creating a sense of suspension and quiet intensity.

Laura Kovalcin starts off the comics in the collection with the melancholy, slightly saccharine, but beautifully rendered tale of a lonely banshee:

I greatly admired her fluid linework, and her use of negative space creates wonderful atmosphere – I was reminded faintly of some of Charles Vess’ work on Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. (Maybe it’s the hair, too.)

Erica Perez follows with an interpretation of a Taino death/creation myth from Puerto Rico; her quirkily simplified figures capture the myth’s absurdity and sublimity equally well. The scene below, for example, illustrates the reactions of a pair of parents to the discovery that the body of the son they’ve murdered has been transformed into fish (don’t you hate it when that happens?):

Continue reading Mythology Anthology: Katabasis/Anabasis (2010) E

The Umbrella Academy, Vol. 1, by Gerard Way & Gabriel Ba (2008) E

Date read: 3.17.11
Book from: Library
Reviewer: Emera

book umbrella

From the back cover:

In an inexplicable worldwide event, forty-seven extraordinary children were spontaneously born by women who had previously shown no signs of pregnancy. Millionaire inventor Reginald Hargreeves adopted seven of the children; when asked why, his only explanation was, ‘To save the world.’ These seven children form The Umbrella Academy, a dysfunctional family of superheroes with bizarre powers. Their first adventure at the age of ten pits them against an erratic and deadly Eiffel Tower… Nearly a decade later, the team disbands, but when Hargreeves unexpectedly dies, these disgruntled siblings reunite just in time to save the world once again.”

The Umbrella Academy is clearly an enormous excuse for Gerard Way to make moody, tentacular love to all the tropes of the superhero comic. Father-figure issues, intra-team rivalries and romantic tensions PLUS frolicsomely deranged villains and a tortured, vengeful supervillainess PLUS nonstop, glibly surreal* storytelling = one gloriously dark, weird, and addictive series. I can’t speak to there being much real substance under the surface – other than Way’s manifest passion for superheroes and their particular brand of wounded humanity – but it’s a terribly stylish and entertaining comic, with occasional moments of real sweetness and charm.

Art highlights: Dave Stewart’s yummy colors – heavy on dark, desaturated oranges and purples. And I love the weight of Gabriel Ba’s figures, and their elastic, elongated torsos – makes for interesting stances and gestures. Also, I could stare at the cover forever. Hi, Vanya. What shapely F-holes you have.

(I know. I’m sorry.)

I devoured the first volume in one sitting, and am jonesing to get my hands on the second. Also, this may well be my favorite single line of comic-book dialogue: “And just as I suspected – ZOMBIE-ROBOT GUSTAVE EIFFEL!”

* The kids’ surrogate mother is an animate anatomical model. What’s not to love?

Go to:
Gerard Way: bio and works reviewed
The Umbrella Academy, Vol. 2, by Gerard Way & Gabriel Bá (2009): review by Emera

Three appreciations for comics on the web

Two very short, one very long. (The comics themselves, I mean.)

(Considering everything else going on in the world in these past weeks, it seems unreal that I can sit down to write a blog post about comics.)

His Face All Red was Emily Carroll‘s comic offering for this past Halloween, and is one of my favorite works in any medium, ever.


From the first panel onwards, the comic’s atmosphere is one of unspoken strangeness and menace, backed by Carroll’s psychologically acute storytelling. (I always love the simple humanity of Carroll’s characters, whether narrated or purely illustrated; here she creates as much sympathy and pity for her downtrodden, haunted protagonist as she does trepidation.) Add in the fact that the wickedly clever layout turns the physical act of reading a webcomic – every stretch of scrolling, every click to the next page – against the viewer, and the suspense and anxiety build to unbearable levels. The last, horribly silent pages had me unnerved to the point of physical discomfort.

I’ve also been trying to find the time to catch up on Carroll’s more recent comics work: a mythical love story for Valentine’s Day, and a series of dream journal-snippets – many of them just as eerie as His Face All Red, from the looks of it.

Ryan Andrews’ Nothing is Forgotten hit me in much the same place that Studio Ghibli films do. With the same sweet, thoughtful gravity, and edged with that frisson of the inexplicable, the comic offers a glimpse at the life of a grieving boy, and an odd encounter he has in the woods.

Every wordless, monochrome panel – just ink and soft-grained, digitally applied textures – is so beautifully composed that you could frame it. They’re perfect compressions of action and emotion, light and shadow. This one in particular had me tearing up. (It’s an emotional “spoiler,” so don’t click till you’ve read the whole comic.) Like Carroll, Andrews also turns the process of scrolling into a means to establish pacing and mood.

I originally found the comic via Andrews’ blog post detailing his artistic process, which really gives you an appreciation for the care put into each panel.

Finally, Digger, Ursula Vernon‘s epic yarn of a no-nonsense wombat transported by an errant tunnel to a land of territorial hyenas, oracular slugs, and veiled warriors in the service of a talking statue of Ganesh, concluded this Thursday after a run of over 4 years.  I’d been reading since sometime in 2008, and I did NOT see that coming. Raise a glass! I’ll miss having Digger to cheer up my Tuesdays and Thursdays.

– E

New X-Men: Hellions (2005) E

Date read: 12.23.07
Read from: Digital collection
Reviewer: Emera

book hellionsA four-issue side-series off of the most recent New X-Men storyline, featuring, obviously, the current crop of Hellions, Emma Frost’s protégés and the New X-Men’s bestest rivals within the Xavier Institute. Written by Nunzio deFilippis and Christina Weir, pencils by Clayton Henry.

At the end of the school year (and prior to the events of M-Day), Julian/Hellion brings his team members back to California with him to hang out at his family’s mansion. Unfortunately, after a typical Hellion-style scuffle at the airport, his parents cut him out of the family fortune. Spiteful and disgruntled, Julian digs deeper into his parents’ background, and ends up making a deal with the same figure who got his parents rich – the Kingmaker, who proceeds to grant the dearest wish of each of the Hellions. Sooraya/Dust is reunited with her mother at an Afghan refugee camp, Cessily/Mercury finds herself welcomed home again by suddenly loving parents, Santo/Rockslide becomes a wrestling star (dream big, boy), and so on. But after the trial period is up, The Kingmaker returns to extract payment…

This was a REALLY fun read, and  made me realize how boring by comparison pretty much the entirety of the New Mutants series was, revolving as it did around petty disputes and page after page of overwritten adolescent moping. Not that Hellions was that much deeper or more novel, but let’s face it, rebellious teams are pretty much always more fun (even if their leader is a twit), and being limited in length, the series packed a lot more interest into a lot fewer pages. The writing was tight and featured equal helpings of action and character exposition; I’ve always been fond of Cessily and Sooraya in particular, so it was fun and occasionally genuinely affecting to see a bit into their pasts and family lives.  Coloring was too shiny for my tastes, but the pencils and inks were strong and consistent. All in all, something that might actually have re-read value for me, unlike the rest of the pre-M-Day New Mutants/New X-Men: Academy X storyline. (No, I don’t know why I kept reading it, either. Of course as soon as most of the irritating characters had been dispensed with and Skottie Young started doing the art and I was getting genuinely interested in the series, it was cancelled.)

Go to:
Nunzio deFilippis: bio and works reviewed
Christina Weir: bio and works reviewed