An intimate and poignant graphic novel portraying one family’s journey from war-torn Vietnam

Once I started reading this book, I couldn’t put it down. Thi Bui’s debut illustrated memoir, The Best We Could Do , is an exploration of family and identity, past and present. In the preface, Bui explains that the evolution of the work, from an oral history project turned handmade book 15 years ago to its current form as a graphic novel, meant she needed to learn to draw comics, an undertaking she describes as having a “steep learning curve.” Based on her stunningly narrative art which breathes and runs and wonders and mourns and serves as the perfect medium for the story of survival it tells, I’d say she made it over that learning curve just fine.

Though her own understanding of self — as a parent and a child — is inextricably tied to, and informed by, her specific experience as a Vietnamese American whose family fled to the US in the 1970s after the collapse of South Vietnam, the pressure, guilt, and confusion she feels as a mother and daughter are easily recognizable. Bui begins with her own labor and delivery, long and complicated. It yields, of course, the birth of her son but also a deeper empathy for her own mother. With the new found perspective of a parent trying to understand her role and relationships within her family of origin and that which she has now created, Bui takes readers back through her own childhood and her parents’. Through Cambodia, Vietnam, and the US, through the First Indochina War, to the Vietnam War, to the aftermath, in boats and bunkers and shared beds, through two generations of both unknowing and surety, of flight and fight, we come to know the Buis, Thi, Má, and Bố especially, as individuals within a family. Read the rest

Decelerate Blue: YA graphic novel about the kids who refuse to keep pace with totalitarian, high-speed consumerism

Decelerate Blue is a new dystopian science fiction YA graphic novel from Adam Rapp and Mike Cavallaro that tells the story of Angela Swiff, a teen who refuses to go along with the "Guarantee," a totalitarian philosophy that demands that everyone work, play and (especially) shop as quickly as is humanly possible.

Kindred: a powerful graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler's slavery masterpiece

Octavia Butler is a name to conjure with: the first African-American woman to rise to prominence in science fiction, Butler's fiction inspired generations of writers by mixing rousing adventure stories with nuanced, razor-sharp parables about race and gender in America; she was the first science fiction writer to be awarded the MacArthur Genius Grant, and her sudden and untimely death left a hole in the hearts of her readers, proteges and admirers.

A beautifully illustrated story about a bookseller haunted by his past

Atmosphere just about drips off these pages. There’s a haunted quality to the images in The Return of the Honey Buzzard: lots of shadows, uncluttered panels, remote locations, and big eyes.

This mood is appropriate because the main character is haunted by an incident from his childhood, and the book builds toward this reveal. The dialogue and the drawings work seamlessly together to craft a sense of isolation and loss, crying out for a resolution.

Many of the pages don’t contain any text at all. Especially in these places, the simple but expressive drawings do a masterful job of communicating a mood, a sequence of events, or even the passage of time. It might be surprising for a graphic novel set partly in a bookshop and partly in a library, but The Return of the Honey Buzzard suggests that images can indeed say more than words.

The Return of the Honey Buzzard by Aimée de Jongh SelfMadeHero 2016, 160 pages, 7.0 x 0.8 x 9.8 inches, Hardcover $23 Buy one on Amazon

See sample pages from this book at Wink. Read the rest

Aleister Crowley and Adolf Hitler wage occult war in Doug Rushkoff’s latest

Anyone who’s waded any distance into the murky waters of legend surrounding British occultist Aleister Crowley has likely heard the stories about his involvement with British intelligence in WWII. He helped interrogate Rudolf Hess after Hess flew a plane from Germany to Scotland to negotiate peace. He worked closely with Ian Fleming (and Fleming’s Blofeld is based on him). He falsified astrology charts to throw off Hitler’s soothsayers. Or, these are the apocryphal stories, anyway.

In Aleister & Adolf, author, media theorist, and now comic book writer, Doug Rushkoff makes clever use of these and other tales about the self-proclaimed Beast 666 to make a deeper point about the profound manipulating powers of “charged” symbols in our modern world. It’s ultimately a book about how the manipulation of symbols and the effective use of propaganda can have deep consciousness-changing effects on a population, and can lead to fascism. Timely, eh?

The book runs with one well-known story from the Crowley apocrypha, that he was responsible for creating the V for victory symbol to be used by Churchill as a counter-sigil (occult symbol) to neutralize the swastika. Rushkoff casts Crowley and Hitler as real-world superhero and supervillain (or maybe, supervillain working for the good guys and straight-up supervillain) in an intense war of symbols and psychic combat. Actually, we don’t see much of Adolf in this book, Aleister & Adolf is mainly about the Crowley side of the magical front lines, as seen through the eyes of a young American army newspaper photographer sent to spy on Crowley and possibly recruit him to work for the U.S. Read the rest

A darkly stylized noir Snow White set against the backdrop of Depression-era Manhattan

Snow White: A Graphic Novel reads like a silent movie. Matt Phelan’s cinematic re-telling of the classic fairy tale, film noir style, uses watercolor to soften the edges of the film genre’s brash tropes, and blur the lines between grit and glitz in Depression-era Manhattan.

I am easily overwhelmed by graphic novels and often feel as though I’ve been caught in a bombardment of text or images or both. Phelan employs text in much the same way he does color — sparsely, and to great effect — so that the movement of the story comes from the art.

Color is used like mood lighting. Though the images are reminiscent of the gray scale of black and white movies, the flashbacks to Snow’s childhood after her mother’s death (her father’s subsequent spellbound love affair with the evil Queen, and Snow’s banishment to boarding school) are fittingly sepia-toned.

A blue and white winter, perfect like Snow, shines out of the window at Macy’s. The stepmother’s scenes are often washed in greens and burgundies — the colors of witches and blood. And, though not a thatched cottage in the woods, the home of Snow’s seven street urchin devotees is warmed by an earthy brown glow.

These subtle washes are balanced with startling red stains—flushed cheeks, blood, the infamous apple, and a smudge of green blush that bluntly confirms the femme fatale’s wickedness, and more deeply, and later literally, draws connections between this classic fairy tale and another beloved, cinematically transformed story — The Wizard of Oz. Read the rest

Symmetry – Utopias are never perfect, are they?

Utopias are never perfect, are they? Symmetry offers some good heady sci-fi in the vein of 1984, Ender's Game, Equilibrium, or Fahrenheit 451. Imagine a world where humans are coddled and raised by machines, think Wall-E, but people haven’t become total blobs. Gender and identity are decided by the individual when they turn thirteen. And all races have been separated, so that most people will grow up not even realizing that other nationalities exist. Then one day a solar flare causes the machines to shut down and the wall between nations to break.

What follows is a great story that seems very relevant in today’s world. I think Symmetry does what sci-fi does best, it makes you think about what’s happening around you and where things might go if we aren’t careful. It’s clear that the creators spent a good deal of time thinking through these issues, and how the world in their book works. There’s actually a pretty lengthy sociological write-up included that dives further into some of the ideas that helped shape the story.

Volume 1 is satisfying, but definitely leaves you wanting more. The cel-shaded illustration feels like something out of a video game, which actually matches the story perfectly. Thankfully, Volume 2 is due out in December, so we’ll get to explore more of this world. Get caught up.

Symmetry Volume 1 by Matt Hawkins Image Comics 2016, 128 pages, 6.5 x 9.9 x 0.6 inches (softcover) $8 Buy a copy on Amazon Read the rest

The Twilight Children mixes spunky kids, complicated adults, and government goons with magical realism

Any fan of Love and Rockets creator Gilbert Hernandez and of Batman, Catwoman, and New Frontier writer and artist Darwyn Cooke will be excited to read The Twilight Children, a four-issue series by Vertigo collected in this soft cover book.

The Twilight Children is set in a seaside town and the cast of characters includes his familiar mix of spunky kids and “complicated” adults. There are also government goons, a metaphysical siren, and mysterious, powerful orbs. People disappear, children are blinded (yet see again), and what is the deal with the glowing balls?!?

It’s great to see the wonderful art of Darwyn Cooke again, but sadly he died suddenly at age 53 in May, 2016 and this may be one of his last books (reason enough to get the book). Cooke’s commercial art style with lively character design and simple, bold brushwork gives a more “slick” look than what you'd usually expect from a Gilbert Hernandez book. Dave Stewart (my favorite colorist and the best part of many Dark Horse comics!) does a spectacular job. His painterly, subtle palette and restrained use of color hold line art fits Cooke’s drawing perfectly. No gradient mesh or lens flare effects, just solid sponge- and dry-brush painting. The bright and colorful seaside setting is a good contrast to the darker story elements. Also included in this compilation are some nice extras, like full-page paintings between chapters and a sketchbook of characters with storyboards by Hernandez.

Warning: Some readers may feel unsatisfied with the ending. Read the rest

Roller Girl: Newberry-honored coming of age graphic novel about roller derby and difficult tween friendships

Victoria Jamieson's 2015 graphic novel Roller Girl won the prestigious Newberry Honor Award and it's easy to see why: Jamieson's story of a young teen's interest in roller derby is the perfect vehicle to explore the difficult and even traumatic way that girls' friendships change as they become teenagers, while never losing sight of the core story, about personal excellence, teamwork, and hard-hitting, girl-positive roller derby.

Kaijumax – Like Orange is the New Black, but the prisoners are monsters straight from Godzilla

Kaijumax is a fun comic that will make you get all the feels for giant city-destroying monsters. It’s like Oz or Orange Is the New Black, only the prisoners in this case are monsters straight from your favorite Godzilla movies. The monsters are kept in check by guards who have Ultraman-like power suits, allowing them to grow to skyscraper size and lay down their own form of justice.

The story follows Electrogor, a monster and father who was apprehended for chewing on power cables in order to feed his children. As the new monster at Kaijumax, you follow him as he learns the ins and outs of how the prison works. There’s everything you could possibly hope for in a facility that houses the world’s deadliest creatures: corrupt guards, drugs, gangs, and a cult of mecha-monsters.

The artwork’s incredible. It brings a lightness to the otherwise surprisingly heavy subject matter. If you’re a fan of Godzilla, Power Rangers, Ultraman, or any other Kaiju movie or show, you’ll see some familiar characters hidden throughout. This is one of the weirdest comics that I’ve read in a while, but I loved every minute of it. Give giant monsters a chance, and check this one out.

See sample pages from this book at Wink.

Kaijumax Season One by Zander Cannon Oni Press 2016, 168 pages, 6.6 x 10.1 x 0.4 inches (softcover) $8 Buy a copy on Amazon

Read the rest

If you're in for Lovecraftian horror and Nazi punching, pick up B.P.R.D: 1946-1948

I can’t get enough of Mignola’s occult investigators. The Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense first appeared in the Hellboy series, however the comics have spiraled off to rightfully stand on their own. This HUGE hardback collects stories from the Bureau’s early years, not long after its creation in 1944. If you’ve been following the series, this collection fills in a large gap between the organization's inception, and where the Hellboy comics pick up in the modern day.

A year after WWII ends, the Bureau is left trying to stamp out one of Hitler’s last ditch efforts to turn the war around. Professor Trevor Bruttenholm, Hellboy’s guardian, is seen here as a younger man battling the forces of evil, and trying to prevent the Reich from amassing power yet again.

There’s so much to love about this book – vampires, an evil Nazi head in a jar, sentient chimpanzees. The artwork is incredible. Mignola worked with a whole slew of illustrators all who brought a unique interpretation to the gothic style that fills out this world. Knowing a little about the Hellboy universe is helpful, but not necessary. If you’re up for some Lovecraftian horror and Nazi punching, definitely pick this one up

B.P.R.D: 1946-1948 by Mike Mignola Dark Horse Books 2015, 472 pages, 6.9 x 10.4 x 1.4 inches (hardcover) $24 Buy a copy on Amazon Read the rest

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye – But just who is this great Singaporean comic artist?

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is one of the most intricate and impressive graphic novels I’ve ever read. It’s a biography of the great Singaporean comic artist Charlie Chan Hock Chye, and traces the evolution of Chan’s career by showing the wide array of artistic styles he experimented with. These range from Marvel-style superhero comics to celebrity caricatures, cartoonish science fiction, manga, noir, and more. All this is complemented by explanations and annotations of Chan’s work, which are also presented in graphic form.

The work is complex not only in style, but also in content. A driving theme throughout Chan’s career has been uncompromising political satire. Thus the survey of Chan’s work is also a dense and dizzying tour of 20th-century Singaporean history. The comics depict the complex Singaporean identity following independence from Britain, as the tiny nation-state struggled to define itself ethnically, politically, and economically.

While this is a weighty topic, there’s an ever-present humor in Chan’s comics. For instance, his superhero parody is called Roachman. Roachman worked as a human waste collector in Singapore’s pre-plumbing period, and gained his powers from the bite of a cockroach. His transformation into a superhero allows for commentary on the social ills of the day, as well as providing a snapshot of a country just before rapid urbanization and development.

The big conceit in all this is that Chan isn’t real. He’s a fictional character invented by Sonny Liew to take readers through a simultaneous history of Singapore and of 20th-century comics. Read the rest

The much-anticipated Part Three of the Tonoharu trilogy is hot off the press

My wife, Carla, is the executive editor of Tofugu, a Japanese language and culture blog. Today she ran her review of the third and final installment of Lars Martinson's Tonoharu trilogy.

The entire trilogy takes place over the course of one year, as we follow the main character, Dan Wells, an awkward 25-year-old English teacher who has just moved to the remote town of Tonoharu, Japan. Being the only American in a rural area an hour away from the nearest small city is a culture shock that Dan hasn’t anticipated. Over the course of the series we are right there with Dan as he struggles with issues that most new assistant language teachers will likely deal with to some degree: loneliness, making friends, fitting in, improving Japanese language ability, overcoming cultural barriers, and figuring out what’s next.

Previously:

Video trailer for Tonoharu graphic novel

Tonoharu: Excellent graphic novel about an English teacher in Japan

Tonoharu Part Two: Excellent graphic novel about an English teacher in Japan Read the rest

4 time-saving tips from a guy who spent 13 years drawing a comic

Lars Martinson, creator of Tonoharu, an excellent graphic novel trilogy about an American teaching English in a rural Japanese village, made this video about the lessons he learned after spending a large part of his life writing and drawing it. Read the rest

Aliens 30th Anniversary: The Original Comic Series

Aliens is one of my all-time favorite movies. A perfect mix of action, sci-fi and horror, which I would argue hasn’t been replicated. Then there’s Alien 3, and everything that came after it. I don’t like to talk about that. But, in 1988 after Aliens came and four years before the next movie would come out, this comic series ran which gave me the followup story I wanted.

The series has been published as Aliens: Book One, Aliens: Outbreak, and in novel form as Aliens: Earth Hive (a lot to keep track of), but since these publications were made after Alien 3 came out, names were changed to avoid confusion from the films continuation of the story. So Wilcks = Hicks and Billie = Newt. Thankfully this comic doesn’t do that. This printing features the comic as it was intended to be read with the characters we’re familiar with.

The story picks up a few years after the film ended. An adult Newt and aged Hicks are struggling to deal with the horrors they witnessed, and Ripley is ominously missing. The black-and-white comics really capture the gritty world that the movies take place in, expanding on it in the best way. Although the comic ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, the story is continued in Aliens: Nightmare Asylum, but you will have to deal with the name change of the main characters.

The book itself is beautiful. And black. Very black. It feels like something that was designed by H.R. Read the rest

Django/Zorro – Like dipping french fries in a milkshake, the pairing oddly works

Django/Zorro by Quentin Tarantino (author), Matt Wagner (author/artist) and artists Francesco Francavilla, Jae Lee, and Esteve Polls Dynamite Entertainment 2015, 192 pages, 7.1 x 10.4 x 0.9 inches $20 Buy a copy on Amazon

Is the concept of a Django and Zorro team-up ridiculous? Of course. But like dipping French fries in a milkshake, the pairing oddly works. Django/Zorro is an official sequel to the film Django Unchained and was written by Quentin Tarantino himself along with Matt Wagner, having just completed a run of Zorro comics.

The story picks up a few years after the film, and Django is still working as a bounty hunter, sending money back to his beloved Broomhilda. While collecting one of these bounties, he happens to meet an older Don Diego de la Vega, whose alter ego (Zorro) hasn’t given up his freedom-fighting ways. If you were a fan of the film, you’re going to like this, because it reads like another Django movie. It’s action packed and has some great dialogue, but what I found really special about this is that it offers a glimpse into Quentin Tarantino’s future.

As a huge fan of Tarantino’s work, I was saddened when I heard him announce that he’s hanging up his director hat after ten films. This only leaves two more to look forward to. But if the Django/Zorro comic is any indication of what he plans on doing after he stops directing, then comic fans get to rejoice.

As a special bonus for writers to geek out over, there’s a full script of the first issue included in this collected edition. Read the rest

The Longest Day of the Future – Chris Ware meets Terry Gilliam

See sample pages from this book at Wink.

The Longest Day of the Future by Lucas Varela Fantagraphics 2016, 112 pages, 7.8 x 10.5 x 0.6 inches (hardcover) $25 Buy a copy on Amazon

On this Earth-like planet, only two corporations exist. One is represented by a pig mascot, the other by a rabbit. Each cult-like corporation produces everything a person could need or want – food, entertainment, housing, vehicles, employment, etc. One day, an alien spaceship crash lands on the planet, disrupting the barely-functioning balance between the rival corporate tribes. This Brazil-like story is told in the form of a wordless graphic novel by Argentine cartoonist and graphic designer Lucas Varela. The art is superb, bringing to mind Chris Ware. I read this twice, savoring every beautiful panel, filled with insanely weird and wonderful robots, buildings, vehicles, and creatures. I can't wait to see what Varela does next.

Read the rest

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