Letter 44 – Aliens lurk in the asteroid belt, sending Earth into turmoil in this tense graphic novel

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On the day of his inauguration, Stephen Blades, the 44th president, finds a letter left on his Oval Office desk simply marked “44.” In it, outgoing President Carroll reveals a dark secret that he’s kept throughout his administration. An alien presence has been detected in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. And the beings there are building some sort of massive and potentially threatening structure.

President Carroll (obviously “inspired” by George W. Bush) has dragged the United States into two protracted wars and nearly broken the back of the country in the process. Now incoming President Blades learns to his horror that these wars were largely a ruse for achieving combat readiness for a possible alien attack. He also learns that, besides there being a deep black ops program for building next-gen military technology for confronting a possible alien menace, a secret one-way mission, with nine astronauts, has been dispatched by Carroll to the asteroid belt and will be arriving at the site of the alien construct soon. “Mr. President, they’re ready for your swearing in.”

And so begins the thrilling and surprisingly complex and tense ride that is Letter 44. Author Charles Soule and artists Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque, Guy Major, and Dan Jackson do an impressive job of creating a rich and layered world within this satisfying sci-fi comic series. The book confidently lays the interleaving stories of the first contact space drama, the cutthroat politics on the home front, and the geopolitical dramas as President Blades tries to carry on with two wars he now knows are shams and to prepare for a potential war coming from the stars. Read the rest

Over 2000 pages, the Akira series is a sci-fi epic

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See sample pages of Akira at Wink.

At the far too early age of seven I watched Katsuhiro Otomo’s film Akira. In a time before the internet, my parents had made the mistake of thinking that since it was a cartoon it couldn’t be that bad. If you’ve seen the movie you know just how wrong my parents were. If you haven’t, what followed was two hours of high-octane animated violence, drugs, and mind-bending psychokinesis. Being too young to really appreciate what many critics believe to be one of the greatest animated movies of all time, which helped bring Japanese anime into American culture, I retreated to the warm comfort of Disney. Thankfully as I got older I rediscovered this great movie, and this even better comic series.

This isn’t me just saying “Well, I read the book which is far better than the movie.” (Imagine me saying that with a snooty condescending accent). The movie barely skims the surface of the comics. It would be like if HBO took all the Game of Thrones books and turned them into a single two-hour special.

Spanning over 2000 pages the Akira series is a sci-fi epic. The story follows a teenage delinquent as he unknowingly gets caught up in psychic warfare that leads to an all-out revolution. Like the amphetamine that the main characters eat like candy, you’ll get addicted to this book – also, you might lose your teeth, but that could be unrelated.

Dark Horse did an exquisite job reprinting the comics into six volumes (although I did notice a typo in Volume 2 on page 228, so someone might want to contact Dark Horse about that). Read the rest

Released today! Beverly – Six intertwined stories that show the underside of suburban life

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Nick Drnaso’s Beverly, released today, is a brilliant set of six intertwined stories that show the underside of suburban life. Each story starts off with a smile, while pretty pastel colors and manicured lawns are plentiful. The art is crisp, geometric, simple and orderly. But scratch just a bit underneath the astroturf and horrific, heart-breaking details emerge. Broken-down parents cut their family vacation short after walking in on their sexually-repressed son in the middle of a cringe-inducing act. A teen girl who disappears from the diner she works at isn’t as innocent as her xenophobic town first thinks. A lonely housewife has stars in her eyes when she takes part in a sitcom focus group, only to find out she’s been duped.

With a structure like Richard Linklater’s Slacker and the temperament of Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World, each story of bored, angst-filled teens and desperate adults features at least one character from one of the other stories, and yet each is its own separate tale. I was completely taken in, thinking at times that I was right there sharing the same stifled air as these folks, and now they exist in my mind as memories, rather than pieces of a graphic narrative.

Beverly by Nick Drnaso Drawn & Quarterly 2016, 136 pages, 7.5 x 9.5 x 0.4 inches (softcover) $17 Buy a copy on Amazon Read the rest

The Explorers Guild graphic novel - "Rudyard Kipling meets Indiana Jones"

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The Explorers Guild: Volume One: A Passage to Shambhala is a throwback to the golden age of adventure stories. It’s one part pulp novel and one part graphic novel, brought to cinematic life by Hollywood director Kevin Costner. I first heard about The Explorers Guild on an episode of the Tim Ferriss podcast. Costner described it as a book that could stand the test of time. "I like the idea of taking something off the shelf that has the heft of this [book] and actually having to blow the dust off it”.

I was immediately hooked.

The story is set during World War I and revolves around the Guild’s quest to find the mythological holy Buddhist city of Shambhala, a search that will take them from one side of the globe to the other, and unveil an incredible secret. The story is Rudyard Kipling meets Indiana Jones. It’s good fun.

The old timey language took me a while to get used to, but after a few chapters the style and voice really enriched the story and made it feel even more like an adventure from another time. The plot meanders a bit, like an old black-and-white Saturday matinee movie, always begging you to turn the page to find out just one more secret, but I found that perfect for this kind of story. If you enjoy plunging into mysterious, sprawling worlds you will probably like it too. I enjoyed returning to it again and again each night as I read. Read the rest

Usagi Yojimbo - 1160 pages of adventure tales starring the antrhopomorphic ronin rabbit

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There are few graphic novelists living today who can command such a dramatic level of respect as Stan Sakai. For over 30 years, Usagi Yojimbo has been winning Eisner awards and rewarding fans with the ongoing tales of the ronin rabbit, Miyamoto Usagi. While it’s certainly not unusual for funny book heroes to stick around from generation to generation, it’s almost unheard of for a character to be written and drawn by the same creator for three decades and counting. Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition captures the first seven years and over 1100 pages of the titular lagomorphic swordsbunny, and this two-volume set is a bona fide comic treasure.

When I was a kid, I was a big fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and I had most of the old action figures. My favorite was, by far, Usagi Yojimbo (his figure was objectively the coolest); however, I only had the vaguest of notions that Usagi was not just a Ninja Turtle guest star, but a title character in his own comic series. It took me a few years of comics fandom to figure out that Usagi Yojimbo was serious business. Usagi has even appeared in other characters' books, Sergio Aragonés' Groo being a notable example (Sakai provides the lettering for Groo, and has for many years). Usagi gets around, and it’s no wonder; there’s something absolutely satisfying when anthropomorphized animals are given room to be more than just cartoons. Read the rest

Gene Luen Yang's inaugural speech as National Ambassador for Young People's Literature

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Gene Luen Yang burst on the graphic novel scene in 2006 with the Eisner-award winning American Born Chinese, a brilliant memoir about growing up as an Asian American; and followed up with a diverse oeuvre that spanned video games, Asian representation in superhero comics, and digital literacy.

Fear and Loathing – The gonzo classic gets a brilliant graphic novel treatment

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Anyone who's read Hunter S. Thompson's iconic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas knows that the technicolored, bug-eyed, meth-fueled craziness of that narrative is hard to capture in another medium. The Tim Burton movie did an admirable job of conveying the “savage journey” of the book, if sometimes overdosing on the goofballs in the process.

When it comes down to it, the madness of Fear and Loathing is probably best expressed in comic book form (as Ralph Steadman showed in the original illustrations, Gary Trudeau hinted at with Uncle Duke, and Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson's Transmetropolitan paid impressive homage). If Hunter S. Thompson didn't exist, it would be necessary for comics to invent him. And I can't think of anyone better suited to fully render Thompson's warped vision of the American dream (aka 70s Vegas) than Eisner Award-nominated Troy Little. His 176-page comic adaptation manages to effectively distill the roman à clef gonzo masterpiece into a form that feels completely natural, managing to retain and celebrate inspired moments of Thompson's brilliant prose-poetry.

Little's art has the right kind of energy and violence to effectively convey Thompson's unusual subject matter. He knows how to render the drug-amped fear, anger, outrage, and surprise on Raoul Duke's face, his beady eyes forever burning behind gigantic amber-tinted aviator glasses. The book itself is beautifully produced, with a spot varnish hard cover and brilliant, vividly printed interiors that reproduce the colors of crazy in a way that would do Ralph Steadman proud. Read the rest

Pablo – A graphic biography captures the prolific life of Picasso

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Before reading this massive comic book biography about Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), I knew almost nothing about him. I thought he’d spent most of his life in Spain, so I was surprised to learn that he began his career in Montmartre, the Bohemian district of Paris in the early 1900s. The story is mainly told through the recollections of Fernande Olivier, who was Picasso’s lover before Picasso became famous and who modeled for over 60 of his paintings. In addition to chronicling Picasso’s early years, Pablo is like a short course in the art scene of Paris at time. It never feels like a textbook, though, thanks to Julie Birmant’s fine storytelling.

Each panel, rendered by Clement Oubrerie, is a lush watercolor painting. I had to slow down while reading it to appreciate the detail.

Pablo: Art Masters Series by Julie Birmant and Clement Oubrerie SelfMadeHero 2015, 342 pages, 7.5 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches (paperback) $21 Buy one on Amazon Read the rest

Graphic novel about the series of events that led to India's communist uprising

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I began reading Amar Bari, Tomar Bari, Naxalbari whilst waiting for my connecting flight at Bengaluru airport and was inclined to continue reading it as turbulence took over the plane at 27,000 feet an hour later. For that was the power it held over me. Amar Bari, Tomar Bari, Naxalbari reads like a history lesson but with the many facts and stories that our teachers forget to tell us. Written and drawn by Sumit Kumar, the graphic novel is a story of how a series of events led to India’s communist uprising and how the term ‘Naxal’ originated. Having grown up on the evergreen Tinkle magazine and the historic Amar Chitra Katha series, I feel Sumit Kumar’s latest work is worthy of a mighty applaud and will go a long way in bringing back the appeal of comics (mainly satirical comics) to India. – Ushnav Shroff

Amar Bari, Tomar Bari, Naxalbari by Sumit Kumar Horizon Books 2015, 160 pages, 6 x 9 x .23 inches (paperback) Approx $6 Buy a copy on Amazon Read the rest

Never Goodnight: a Swedish punk Peanuts

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In 1982, Coco Moodysson was a 12 year old punk in Sweden, along with her best friend and her best friend's sister. They gave themselves spiky haircuts, started a band called Off to the Alps, wrote a song called "Ecco Shoes" and demanded that the adults in their lives take them seriously.

A young cartoonist takes her very old grandparents on a cruise, and finds it exhausting

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I'm pretty bad at keeping up with new cartoonists. I'm stuck in the world of artists who emerged in the 80s and 90s: Daniel Clowes, Mary Fleener, Julie Doucet, Carol Tyler, Lynda Barry, Los Bros Hernandez, Jim Woodring, Roberta Gregory, Peter Bagge, Chris Ware, Dori Seda.

Lucy Knisley is one of the rare younger cartoonists that I've gotten hooked on. (I interviewed Lucy on my podcast Gweek in 2013.) I'm a fan of the "ligne claire" drawing style, which Lucy exemplifies, and her sense of page composition is clean but with the perfect whimsical touch. She also colors her drawings with watercolors, not Photoshop, so they have a nice texture.

Her work is mostly autobiographical. Her 2008 book, French Milk, is an illustrated journal about living (and eating) in Paris with her mother. Her next book, Relish, is about growing up in the food industry.

In 2015 she wrote Displacement, a comic book travelogue about taking her frail grandparents on an ocean cruise. Lucy does not have children, and was not familiar with taking care of dependent people, so she was stunned by how exhausting the "vacation" was. Her 91-year-old grandmother had dementia and didn't really know who Lucy was, and her 93-year-old grandfather had an incontinence problem that he didn't care about. Lucy ended up having to wash his trousers every evening when she was able to convince him to take them off.

In between the diary entries about things like waiting in line for 3 hours to board the ship, calling her father asking for help (he wasn't helpful), and putting up with the bossy ship's crew, Lucy included excerpts from her grandfather's WWII journal, which shows him to be an excellent, observant writer, much like Lucy herself. Read the rest

Blankets: New edition of Craig Thompson's graphic masterpiece

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Craig Thompson's second graphic novel, the 582-page mammoth Blankets, swept the field's awards, taking three Harveys, two Eisners, and two Ignatzes. More than a decade later, and buoyed by his later successes (such as 2011's seminal Habibi), Drawn and Quarterly has produced a beautiful new edition.

At least Turkey's tragic politics gives material to comics artists

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Today, Firstsecond publishes Ozge Samanci's Dare to Disappoint, a graphic novel memoir of growing up in Turkey. Ms Samanci has favored us with an essay describing the tumultuous relationship between Turkey's authoritarian, thin-skinned president and her fellow cartoonists.

A graphic novel about a leaf - it's better than it sounds

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See sample pages from this book at Wink.

Being a fan of wordless graphic novels like Shaun Tan’s The Arrival and Thomas Ott’s The Number, I was eager to experience Chinese artist Daishu Ma’s Leaf. Like those previous efforts, Leaf is rendered in meticulous black and white pencil sketches. Unlike those others, spot colors, namely blue and yellow, are used as a narrative device.

Leaf is about a single tree leaf that unexpectedly blows into the life of the book’s young, unnamed protagonist. Where thousands of similar leaves have surely blown by this young man before, unnoticed, this one has an inner yellow glow like no leaf he’s ever experienced. A fascination with his discovery sends him on a journey through the rather dystopian, labyrinthian world in which he lives as he tries to learn more about his pet leaf and then to try and recover it after it gets lost.

You’re never quite sure exactly what is going on in Leaf and the meaning of the story is definitely open to interpretation. Some may find this “openess” in the wordless narrative annoying, but I really enjoy this aspect of such books. Leaf is filled with hundreds of soft pencil illustrations and many of them have a very touching, lyrical quality that effectively captures human emotion, community, memory, and the innocence of youth (as well as the dreariness of the world of Leaf). The artwork and book production are really beautiful and there is a gentle quiet at the center of this work that perfectly mirrors the muffled quiet of fall. Read the rest

Stunning graphic novel presents the entire iTunes Terms and Conditions

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I thought Robert Crumb's unabridged graphic novel of the Book of Genesis was a herculean effort, but cartoonist R. Sikoryak has tackled an even more arduous task: incorporating the complete, unabridged iTune's user agreement into a graphic novel. Sikoryak is very good at drawing comics in the style of other cartoonists, and he uses this skill here to great effect. Take a gander:

Page 48 (after Chester Gould)

Page 46 (after Hergé)

Page 42 (after Otto Mesmer)

Page 41 (after Rube Goldberg)

Unbelievable! You can buy hardcopies here: THE UNABRIDGED GRAPHIC ADAPTATION: ITUNES TERMS AND CONDITIONS, PART A & PART B | THE UNABRIDGED GRAPHIC ADAPTATION: ITUNES TERMS AND CONDITIONS, PART C & PART D Read the rest

The Abaddon: graphic novel based loosely on Sartre's No Exit

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In Koren Shadmi’s The Abaddon, five dysfunctional roommates are trapped in an otherworldly apartment, echoing Jean-Paul Sartre’s classic 1944 play No Exit. In the beginning of The Abaddon, central character Ter finds himself immediately and irrevocably trapped in a literal Abaddon: a place of destruction; the depths of hell.

Wytches – A terrifying trip into the dark heart of parental fears and malevolent forests

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See sample pages from this book at Wink.

Scott Snyder's Wytches really worked its creepy magic on me. This trade paperback edition collects the first six issues of the popular comic series, which has received widespread praise and counts Stephen King among its many vocal fans. Read the rest

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