Hope Larson's "Compass South": swashbuckling YA graphic novel

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Hope Larson is a comics genius, the woman hand-picked to adapt Madeline L'Engle's Wrinkle In Time for comics, who furthermore just nailed it, and whose other projects are every bit as rich and wonderful. Today she begins a new young adult series, Four Points, whose first volume, Compass South is a treasure-chest of swashbuckling themes and action.

The first volume of Injection reads like a fairytale brought into the tech world

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Injection by Warren Ellis (author), Jordie Bellaire (illustrator) and Declan Shalvey (illustrator) Image Comics 2015, 120 pages, 6.4 x 10 x 0.4 inches $7 Buy a copy on Amazon

Science meets folklore. It’s a theme that is pervasive throughout literature, from Frankenstein to Dracula to The Dragon Riders of Pern. And like its predecessors, the first volume of Injection also poses the question, what if these two things aren’t as different as we’d like to believe?

Injection reads like a fairytale brought into the modern century, combining the folklore used by its predecessors with new computers and communication systems. The story jumps backwards and forwards in time, telling the chronicle of five brilliant people with different backgrounds who came together and built an artificial consciousness to “make the 21st century more interesting.” As anyone who has seen The Matrix or Terminator films could tell you, this creation doesn’t do what the team was hoping it would. But instead of being straight science fiction, the novel joins science with the fantastic. The creation begins mimicking folklore, and the solution to defeating it seems to lie just as much in magic as it does in science.

The artwork is classically rendered graphic novel illustration, reminding me of the Hellboy series, or Sandman. What strikes me as the most interesting part of the pictures is the range of color used in them; the palette moves from dark greys and greens to brilliant oranges and reds, and some of the scenes are done in such a surreal manner you feel as though you’ve been transported to another plane altogether (which, truth be told, might just be the case). Read the rest

Sex Criminals: Robin Hood bank robbers who can stop time when they orgasm

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Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky's creator-owned comic Sex Criminals is a filthy, hilarious heist story about a couple who discover that they can stop time while orgasming, and keep it frozen until they become horny again -- so they use their power to rob banks in order to rescue a library from foreclosure (naturally). The first two series of the comic are collected in Big Hard Sex Criminals, a fabulous hardcover whose plain pink wrapper comes off to make it look like you're reading a book on DIY pet euthanasia.

We Stand on Guard: in 100 years, America seizes Canada for its water

Brian K Vaughan's varied career in comics has had numerous and diverse hits like Saga, the epically weird and sexy space-opera; Y: The Last Man, an end-of-the-world story; now, with We Stand on Guard, Vaughan dramatically ups his body count in a tale of an American resource war that's a lot closer to home than the invasion of Iraq.

Lumberjanes: ground-breaking, wonderful, hilarious comic about adventurous girls

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I'm late to the party on Lumberjanes: I bought the first collection when it came out last summer, then promptly lost it in my overseas move; last weekend, I read it and the next two books and fell head over heels in love with this series of graphic novels for kids and adults.

Nod Away: first in a series of seven science fiction graphic novels

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Nod Away by Joshua Cotter Fantagraphics 2016, 240 pages, 7.8 x 10.2 x 0.8 inches (softcover) $21 Buy a copy on Amazon

Sometimes the most abstruse and esoteric dilemmas are best considered in the abstract, as if by not directly looking at things somehow makes them more clear. Zen masters speak in koans, Nietzsche wrote in aphorisms, and poets immerse themselves in metaphors, all of them trying to communicate things in a manner that steps outside of the constraints of language. So it is with Joshua W. Cotter’s new book from Fantagraphics Books, Nod Away.

Nod Away is the first of what Cotter promises to be a seven-volume series. Ostensibly this first volume is a sci-fi story that circles around issues such as the human desire for exploration and connection, the power structure inherent in gender politics, and the gray area created in the intersection between science and morality, but, as the book unfolds, the reader feels there is something more complicated occurring in the periphery. Cotter is exploring profound questions of consciousness itself by creating a story that asks them indirectly.

Densely detailed and tightly packed, Cotter’s pages pull and push the classic nine-panel grid layout, opening up or staying regimented as the emotional beat demands. His layouts control the reader’s experience explicitly and play with expectations in order to keep things just off balance enough to force engagement and demand active reading. Just when things start to coalesce, though, Cotter blows them apart. Read the rest

The beautiful grotesques of Megahex are back with more tales of depravity and friendship

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Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam (and Other Stories) by Simon Hanselmann Fantagraphics 2016, 164 pages, 6.6 x 9.1 x 0.8 inches $14 Buy a copy on Amazon

The entire loveably dysfunctional freak family that stole our hearts in Megahex (and sold them on the black market for hookers and blow) are back in Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam (and Other Stories). Once again we enter the bizarre funhouse world of Megg the witch, her cat familiar/lover Mogg, and their coterie of hangers on: Owl, Werewolf Jones, Mike the Gnome, Booger (a boogey woman), Dracula, Jr., and others.

On the surface, little has changed. The revolving door of Megg and Mogg’s house still spins to let their drug-addled crew enter, hatch a series of ridiculous schemes, inhale all of the drugs and fast food, and then we get to watch as one nightmarish scenario after another plays out like a slow-motion train wreck. But there are deeper relationship themes that run through Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam. Over the course of the book, strips begin to introduce trouble in Megg and Mogg’s relationship, and Megg’s growing attraction to Booger. Werewolf Jones also is having trouble in his marriage and is fighting to retain custody of his two sons (while doing every boneheaded thing in the world to ensure that doesn’t happen). The title of the book refers to a trip that Megg and Mogg take to Amsterdam to try and patch up their failing relationship. Read the rest

The Collector follows an 1880's rogue and dandy as he travels in search of treasures

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The Collector by Sergio Toppi Archaia 2014, 252 pages, 8.5 x 11 x 1 inches $23 Buy a copy on Amazon

I was delighted to discover this terrific collection of comics by Italian artist Sergio Toppi. Although I’d never seen his work before, it instantly got my attention and seemed familiar. It combines a flat graphic art style, a swashbuckling sensibility and witty writing that I found irresistible.

Sergio Toppi (1932-2012) was an artist and illustrator from Italy, whose books have been published for decades in Europe but only recently translated and available in the U.S. through Archaia, a division of Boom Entertainment. The Collector won the Soleil D’Or prize for Best Series at the Soliès-Ville Festival. It’s easy to see why.

The book follows the exciting exploits of an 1880’s rogue and dandy, known as “The Collector,” as he travels the globe in search of treasures. Not a seeker of gold or jewels, he collects only artifacts with historical significance. This sets the stage for adventures featuring Hopi Indians in the American Southwest, camel-riding Ethiopians, Mongol tribesmen, warring Irish clans, Maori chieftains and more. Although the artwork is in black and white, it’s most highly folkloric and historically colorful. The separate wide-ranging episodes and characters are knitted back together into a satisfying finale.

Each page is laid out in dramatic fashion with bold layouts. Some pages have conventional multiple comic panels, while others feature free-wheeling compositions, along with other full-page designs, more fine line illustration than comic book. Read the rest

Something New: frank, comedic, romantic memoir of a wedding in comic form

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Lucy Knisley is a favorite around these parts, a comics creator whose funny, insightful, acerbic and disarmingly frank memoirs in graphic novel form have won her accolades and admiration from across the field. With her latest book, Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride, Knisley invites us into her wedding, her love life, her relationship with her mother, and an adventure that's one part Martha Stewart, one part French farce comedy.

Baba Yaga's Assistant – A pseudo fairytale that blends present with myth

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I have long been a fan of Emily Carroll’s distinctive art style, which I was first introduced to in the video game The Yawhg. Her beautiful illustrations fit perfectly with Marika McCoola’s wonderful pseudo-fairytale about a young woman named Masha, called Baba Yaga's Assistant. Masha feels out of place after her grandmother passes away and her father remarries a woman who has her own daughter. So, when Baba Yaga puts out an advertisement for an assistant, Masha decides to leave and try her hand at working for the terrifying witch of Russian folklore. Masha will have to use her wits and memories from her youth to thrive in her new profession.

The story blends present with myth and memory, and these different moments are beautifully conveyed in Carroll’s pictures, with different styles for each storyline. For example, when Baba Yaga’s bear attacks Masha, she recalls fairytales from her childhood in order to figure out how to dissuade him from eating her. The style or art changes, with the panels outlined with geometric designs, and the internal images appearing as abstract watercolors. Later, when Masha remembers moments from her past, the images are frequently rendered in duller colors, creating a hazy appearance that appeals to our sense of what memory “looks” like. At other points, the panels spill over into each other, pushing the story quite literally from one section to the next.

My favorite thing about the book is Masha herself, who is plucky enough to stand up to Baba Yaga, and independent enough to pursue her own path. Read the rest

The Nameless City: YA graphic novel about diplomacy, hard and soft power, colonialism, bravery, and parkour

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Faith Erin Hicks (Zombies Calling, Friends with Boys, Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong) is back with the first volume of a new, epic YA trilogy: The Nameless City, a fantasy adventure comic about diplomacy, hard and soft power, colonialism, bravery, and parkour.

Shaman is bonkers and goofy and absurd – and grounded in reality

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“He’s the one who makes your whole world possible. This is a world of noble heroes, and savage villains. A world where men and women of great power die everyday. And the Shaman? The Shaman is the one who brings them back.”

Ben Kahn and Bruno Hidalgo’s Shaman Vol. 1 is, on its surface, an entertaining, fast-paced, self-deprecating story about a guy who raises the dead, his young daughter who wields magic from her mystical tattoos, and a teleporting former superhero-turned-sidekick who travel around bringing back to life those whom “the personification of life itself” tells them to. Along the way, they fight skeletons and Cosmic Guardians and giant green monsters, all the while throwing down quips and wisecracks and pop culture references. It’s fun stuff all around, pulling you in and making you laugh out loud.

But coursing underneath throughout the narrative is an examination of the concepts of right and wrong, good and evil, life and loss, and what it means to be a “family.” Ben Kahn’s storytelling works in the gray areas where nothing is clean cut, and everything, therefore, becomes far more interesting. What could easily be flat, one-dimensional characters are, here, complex, multi-dimensional beings whose motivations and choices are constantly examined and second-guessed. As outlandish a concept as Shaman is, it's grounded in the human reality; the reader knows these characters because the reader is these characters.

So often in comics the intent of the writer gets lost in the complexity of the artist’s choices, but not so in Shaman. Read the rest

A dark, psychedelic coming-of-age story by award-winning comic artist Michael DeForge

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Big Kids by Michael DeForge Drawn & Quarterly 2016, 96 pages, 5 x 6.2 x 0.6 inches $12 Buy a copy on Amazon

I have been fascinated by the work of Canadian comic artist Michael DeForge for a while now. If you like unvarnished explorations of the human psyche and the high weirdness that an unhinged mind and a free hand can render, check out Michael’s Lose series, Very Casual, and Dressing, all from Toronto-based comics publisher of note Koyama Press.

Big Kids is something of a departure for DeForge, or at least it starts off seeming that way. On the surface, Big Kids is a dark and mopey coming-of-age tale. It concerns a troubled teen boy who lives with his parents and a recalcitrant uncle in the basement and has awkward, restless sex with his best friend, in-between dangerous dares, bullying, bouts of petty vandalism, and other adolescent antics.

When the boy’s uncle gets kicked out of the house and a female college student moves in – a girl with a very different take on life who hangs with a group of more sophisticated, less juvenile delinquent friends – something extraordinary happens. Too many other reviews of this book spoil what comes next, which I think is a shame. I knew nothing of what was about to happen and was really stunned by the whole thing as a result. The book is obviously meant to be a meditation on the profound transformations we go through at different stages in our lives (especially in becoming a teen), and how strange, terrifying, and wondrous those changes can be. Read the rest

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is here to kick butts and eat nuts

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Doreen Green is a totally normal teenager. She’s starting college, she’s a fan of the Avengers, she’s trying to get her new roommate to like her... and she has “the proportional speed and strength of a squirrel.” She can talk to squirrels, and she’s here, squirrel-like, to “kick butts and eat nuts.” She’s Squirrel Girl!

When the cashier at my local comic book store told me about Squirrel Girl I thought he was pulling my leg — she’s half-girl, half-squirrel? And she’s unbeatable? Squirrel Girl is a hoot. There are dilemmas universal (How does one save the world from a super-villain?) and personal (How does one hide her tail in her jeans?). You can race through Squirrel Girl reading for the goofy plot and funny banter, or you can stop and linger over the fine details and hidden wisecracks.

Some comics are written with the long-time dedicated fan in mind, but Squirrel Girl also works for people who are new to the series, or even new to comics. Iron Man plays a role, but it’s clear from context who he is — and if you’ve seen the movies, you’ve got all the backstory you need. And Thanos makes an appearance, as does Galactus, but Deadpool helpfully has provided trading cards to bring you up to speed — and let’s be honest, these aren’t subtle characters here, you can figure it out as you go along. Squirrel Girl is suitable for elementary school kids through adulthood (and beyond! Read the rest

After 3d grade complaint, Florida school district bans award-winning "This One Summer" from high-school library

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Peter from the National Coalition Against Censorship sez, "A Florida parent thought 'This One Summer' was too graphic for an elementary school library. The district agreed, and then went further; they're restricting access to the graphic novel in the high school libraries as well. Read the rest

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

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