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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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

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