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Graphic Novelty²

Noir: A Collection of Crime Comics

Noir is a “genre of crime fiction that is characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity” and these black and white short stories definitely fit that definition. Chosen as this month’s pick from the Goodreads group, I Read Comic Books, I was intrigued and looked forward to reading the thirteen stories. However, the graphic novel got off to a very rough start and I almost put it down. 

Stray Bullets: Open The Goddamn Box by David Lapham and Clem Robins

WTF- why is the first story? A teen girl is kidnapped by two males who plan to rape her. She manages to escape but not before another rape occurs, and she seems to perceive it as retribution, and in a joking manner. I’ve noticed trigger warnings in more stories nowadays, and this story needs one as the story is bleak and wildly inappropriate. I’m sure as a woman this story affected me more than it would a male, but I’ve heard newer editions omit this story and for good reason. 

The Old Silo by Jeff Lemire

Luckily the second story in this collection was among my favorites, and let me continue with this book. A farmer about to lose his farm finds a bank robber who was hurt in the getaway on his property. He makes a choice that enables him to pay off his mortgage. A perfect noir story by the esteemed Lemire. 

Mister X: Yacht On The Styx by Dean Motter

The mysterious Mister X explains to a femme fatale what happened on a yacht when a tycoon went missing and whose body was later found hidden in his building’s cornerstone. There was a weird dystopian/sci-fi aspect to this story and it didn’t appeal to me. 

The Last Hit by Chriss Offutt, Kano and Stefano Gaudiano

An older hitman is given one last job, but then discovers a younger hitman is after him. He thinks they have come to an understanding, but he underestimated his opponent. 

Fracture by Alex De Campi and Hugo Petrus

I didn’t understand this almost wordless story. A woman on the subway witnesses an accident, or did she cause it? The story double-backs and then fractures. 

The Albanian by M.K. Perker

An Albanian janitor witnesses a bloodbath in the office building he cleans, but he escapes unscathed. Why he gave his son the murder’s puppet escapes me. I actually wondered if the puppet was evil and would hurt the child later. 

Kane: the Card Player by Paul Grist

A burglar leaves numbered playing cards behind and a crime lord seems to be mad about it. A cop is on the take and the burglar is killed. At the end, I felt a pivotal scene had been left out to explain things. 

Blood on my Hands by Paul Geary

A husband who loses his job is worried about his wife cheating on him. He wants his wife and lover killed, but accidentally sends a hitman against the wrong couple. Whoops. This twisted confessional was strangely effective, and dare I say, sweet.

Tru$tworthy by Ken Lizzi and Joelle Jones

This story was mostly text, with only a few illustrations, so it was kind of jarring to include in this graphic novel, although it actually was one of my favorite stories. A woman tries to con her way out of a bad situation, by sleeping with a man she intends to make a patsy.  But he turns the tables on her at the end.

The New Me by Garry Phillips and Eduardo Barreto

An out-of-shape woman goes to the gym whose trainer is known for getting results but also for sleeping with all his clients. Over the course of a few months, she becomes a hottie and she seduces him. But the whole time she had an ulterior reason, and in an out-of-nowhere sci-fi twist, she uses him to help her invalid husband. I liked this one, although the premise was kind of ridiculous. 

Lady’s Choice by Matthew and Shawn Fillbach

A gangster’s moll is tired of her current asshole and wants to move on to a new shady character. 

21st Century Noir by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

A woman seduces a younger man and reveals she is abused by her husband, and this man says he will help her. The lover goes to confront the husband, but there is a dark and perverted twist you won’t expect. 

The Bad Night by Brian Azzarello, Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba

The story begins blandly with a man being sent out to commit a robbery against a rich couple, but the last page takes the story in a whole new direction, once you realize who the couple and their little boy are. Bravo for that last little twist that most people familiar with DC should recognize.

All in all, an adequate anthology of stories, for as with any collection there are bound to be some strong entries but then some clunkers. I absolutely hated Stray Bullets, but Old Silo, The New Me and 21st Century Noir were excellent. My recommendation is to pick up a newer edition without the first story and I wish dearly that my Goodreads group had suggested that. 

-Nancy

Heartstopper (Vol. 1)

Charlie is seated next to Nick one morning in class, and it starts an unusual friendship. See, Charlie is quiet and shy, and also happens to be one of the only gay person in his all-boys school; Nick is a rugby player a grade above him. So it’s a surprise to Charlie when Nick asks him to join the rugby team. What’s even more surprising in that learning from Nick, Charlie starts to get good at it! He also starts falling for the older boy the more they hang out, which is not a good idea. Nick is about as straight as they come. Charlie’s deepening friendship with Nick makes Ben, Charlie’s fling, jealous and possessive. Nick stands up for Charlie, only making his crush worse. As they get closer, Nick starts questioning himself too… is Charlie more than just a friend to him?

This welcome addition to the growing LGBTQ+ representation in graphic novels is very cute. It’s sweet without being saccharine and feels real without being overdramatic. The tone is just right, as is the pacing. We are pulled along by the boys’ heartstrings as they get to know each other, and by extension themselves, more.

Quick, lively linework and a non-traditional panel layout capture high school’s frenetic energy perfectly. The primary color is mint green in thin washes to build up value. Black and white is used as well. The monochromatic palette allows for greater focus on the story and characters. While the character designs seem simple, they are very effective in conveying the character’s emotions.

Overall, this was a highly comforting read. This is only the first volume, and so ends on a cliffhanger, but I can’t help feeling that it’ll all turn out okay. For a light, quick, sweet read that’s chock-full of LGBTQ+ representation, look no further.

– Kathleen

Oseman, Alice. Heartstopper (Vol. 1). 2020.

Middlewest: Books Two + Three

The three-volume Middlewest series was a mash-up of the classic hero’s journey, steampunk and The Wizard of Oz. The first book had been intriguing- it was about a teen runaway named Abel and how the toxic masculinity that his father has modeled affected him as dangerous magic begins to transform him into a monstrous creature.

Book Two

Abel’s breakdown in book one has led to him turning into a storm monster at the carnival in which he was taking refuge from his father. Ashamed at the destruction he caused, he runs away. I thought there was some nuanced dialogue about following him, with a friend wanting to follow him immediately, but the older leader of the carnival making the decision to stay and help the survivors regroup. Abel journeys into a forest with his sidekick, Fox, and discovers his grandfather, who has transformed part of the forest into a hellish winter landscape. His grandfather shows his true colors, and his cruelness drives Abel away into a nearby city where he is kidnapped to become a slave worker in nearby farm fields. All the while Abel’s father Dale continues searching for him. A bleak story about lack of self-control and its consequences.

Book Three

This last book was message-heavy! Abel gets to know the other youth trapped as farmhands, and their sad backstories make him realize he is not alone. Maggie, the carnival leader, is able to put together a group that wants to help Abel and they pick up new followers as they follow Abel’s trail. Dale has also found Abel, so all paths are converging for a battle. The generational rage is addressed, with sorrow and forgiveness concluding this three-part tale.

The art by Jorge Corona was fun and the bright colors by Jean-Francois Beaulieu incorporated a lot of pink, purple and orange that helped convey the emotional tone. This was a unique graphic novel series that brought up a lot of intriguing issues- but didn’t quite stick the landing. Dystopian and fantasy aspects tied into real and gritty personal plot threads, but I wasn’t sure at times what direction the narrative was going (and what happened to Abel’s mom?). Author Skottie Young has an interesting voice, and while this series didn’t do it for me, I will continue to seek out further work by him.

-Nancy

Victor & Nora: A Gotham Love Story

Victor and Nora meet in a cemetery. Victor’s older brother, Otto, is buried there. He died in a horrible fire, which Victor blames himself for. Though Victor is only 17, he is an intern at Boyle Labs working on a cryogenic project called Accela-Freeze. If he can figure out the formula, it will successfully freeze a subject without destroying its’ DNA, and could have healing potential. Nora’s mother, who died when she was 10, is buried in the same cemetery. Nora has a rare disease called Chrysalis, which will eventually take her mobility, then her memories, before she dies. She intends to kill herself before that happens, though she has told no one, and wants to live her life to the fullest before she does. The two teens can’t help but be drawn to each other: the fire to the ice. When they get too tangled up in each other, how can they possibly let go?

Mr. Freeze is my favorite villain, so I was delighted to learn of this graphic novel about Victor Fries – by Lauren Myracle, no less! I really enjoyed her last DC YA graphic novel, Under the Moon: A Catwoman Tale, so had high hopes for this one. It did not disappoint, and I loved it even more than Under the Moon.

Both characters are obsessed with death in different ways. Victor thinks he can cheat death, and wants to delay the inevitable. Nora accepts her fate, and wants to make the most of the life she has. The most compelling dialogue between these two is their conversations about their respective viewpoints. This truly was a whirlwind romance: you, as well as the characters, are propelled forward by your morbid curiosity to the conclusion you know is coming, and yet it still punches you in the gut.

The color palette alternated between cold blues (Victor), and warm pink/oranges (Nora). The more the story goes on, the more they blend to create lovely purples, which is a neat visual cue as to how close the characters are getting to each other. While most of the book was in a whimsical, yet realistic style, some parts are stylized differently during conversations or monologues – such as in a Tim Burton-esque style, or that of a romance novel cover. Of course, there were fun visual Easter eggs for Batman fans sprinkled here and there.

This is already on my Best Reads 2021 list. Victor & Nora is a love story with provacative themes about life and death, written and illustrated beautifully. Though it takes DC as its’ source material, it really could stand on its’ own as a story unrelated to the Batman mythos. Highly recommended.

– Kathleen

Myracle, Lauren, and Isaac Goodhart. Victor & Nora: A Gotham Love Story. 2020.

Flamer

Flamer by Mike Curato is a layered graphic novel set in 1995 about a teen who is struggling with the growing realization that he is gay. 

Aidan is a Filipino-American Boy Scout who is attending summer scout camp and struggles with the toxic masculinity that the other boys demonstrate. However, despite these issues, he feels more at home with his troop, after enduring worse treatment in middle school. Nervous about transferring schools to avoid his bullies, he wonders if high school will be more of the same, so this pause between the known and unknown is a time of growth for Aidan. 

A devout Catholic, he finds solace in his church, but that has also fueled his worries that he will be cast out and deemed a sinner if he reveals that he is gay. Plus, all the messages that he receives from others indicate that being gay is wrong, and in addition, he worries he would be kicked out of scouts, for at that time gay males were not allowed in scouting. His attraction to males is pushed down, for he is afraid of the ramifications with his family, friends and faith if he reveals what he truly feels. 

Aidan’s friendship with his friend Elias is put to the test when Aidan’s growing attraction to him is acted upon, and Elias reacts negatively. Afraid that he has jeopardized everything, Aidan debates committing suicide but is saved by an epiphany. By the end of the story, Aidan becomes more comfortable with himself and his future. 

Author and illustrator Mike Curato’s narrative is all the stronger because it is semi-autobiographical and is #ownvoices as he is gay. His sketchy black and white drawings, with limited orange and red highlights, captures teen angst and will be very appealing to a YA audience. A mix of fantasy and reality is woven together to tell a strong tale of self-discovery and acceptance. At times the narrative can become very heavy and might benefit from some trigger warnings as the homophobia and suicide attempt could be upsetting to some readers. However, I believe that LGBTQ+ readers will feel seen, and others might gain a greater understanding of their peer’s lives. 

-Nancy

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio

On Monday, May 4th, 1970, the National Guard opened fire on Kent State students peacefully protesting the Vietnam War. Thirteen seconds and sixty-seven shots later, four students were dead and nine more wounded. Derf Backderf recounts the weekend leading up to, and the events of, that tragic day. Rising political and social tensions, both in the state and nationwide, coupled with angry students and fed-up, sleep-deprived Guardsmen, created a ticking time bomb which exploded into Monday’s events.

Backderf (who also penned My Friend Dahmer, which Nancy’s reviewed) used interviews, eyewitness accounts, and archival materials to build the narrative, from multiple viewpoints. Most prominently, we see the last days of the four students who were murdered. We see what the Guardsmen, campus and Kent police, FBI, and other law enforcement agencies’ responses were throughout the weekend. We see reactions of Kent citizens (who were not college students) and beyond to a lesser extent. Though much is still unknown about the event, this is as comprehensive a picture as you can get.

The presentation of this book, through the difficult subject matter, is exceptional. The entire book is in black and white. Figures are long and lanky, outlined in thick black ink, evoking a ’60s and ’70s art style without being too distracting or hokey. Though it’s text-heavy, great care is taken with especially wordy sequences so that panels aren’t cluttered. Chapter breaks are given at the start of each of the four days chronicled here, and timestamps in especially important spots. At some points where maps and aerial view shots are needed, there are arrows indicating movement of people, and numbered labels to help put the sequence of events together. There is also an extensive notes section at the back Everything is laid out very clear, in black and white (forgive the pun), making this hard read a little easier to get through.

No doubt about it: this is a very difficult read. Though the events here took place in 1970, many elements still hold true today. Paranoia, clashing ideals of the young and old, misinformation and generalization of a population… sound familiar? Your morbid curiosity compels you forward to the tragic conclusion, hoping for answers that unfortunately cannot be revealed or provided, whether through willing silence or simply being lost to time.

The stellar presentation of the difficult subject matter has already put this graphic novel at the top of my 2021 best reads list. A hard read, and a hard won one. Required reading for all.

– Kathleen

Backderf, Derf. Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio. 2020.

Venus in the Blind Spot

Having recently read Uzumaki: Spiral Into Horror, a classic in manga body horror, I was impressed by the author and illustrator Junji Ito. When I heard that a collection of his short stories was being released, I was anxious to read more of Ito’s macabre stories.  His ten stories include three written by others, but all have his distinctive art style and otherwordly terror. The book also includes some full-color artwork in the beginning, which is a treat because most of the stories are in black and white only. Get ready for a grotesque set of stories! 

Billions Alone

Michio is a teen who has isolated himself from the world for seven years, but is coaxed out by former classmates who wish him to join them in their graduation ceremony. But the town has had some gruesome murders, with people being discovered sewn together. It seems groups meeting together are being targeted, with mass murders and elaborately staged kill sites. People are scared and begin to isolate themselves, but paradoxically Michio is lured out more and more by his love for a classmate who has shown him kindness. 

The Human Chair (Edogawa Ranpo)

Adapted from a 1925 story, this tale is of obsession but was more ridiculous than scary. A young wife discovers that a man who is in love with her has hollowed out her favorite chair and lives in it, so he can always be with her. Defying credibility, he kills her husband and the wife falls in love with him and joins him in the chair. The ending has a modern-day chairmaker explain that he is descended from them, as they had children together. In a chair???

An Unearthly Love (Edogawa Ranpo)

A new wife discovers her husband is unnaturally attached to a life-size doll. When she destroys it so his affections will return to her, he can’t bear it. 

Venus in the Blind Spot

A group of UFO enthusiasts fall in love with the club president’s daughter Mariko, but all begin to have vision problems that they are unable to see her if she is directly in front of them. It turns out the girl’s scientist father has done something to the men, but the plan backfires spectacularly when the men turn on Mariko. 

The Licking Woman

This story was WEIRD. A mysterious woman accosts people on dark streets and licks them with her poisonous tongue. Then the tongue takes on a life of its own. 

Master Umezz and Me

Autobiographic in nature, Ito shares how his love of manga began as a child. He especially idolizes manga artist Kazuo Umezz. 

How Love Came to Professor Kirida (Robert Hichens)

A misanthrope professor has a woman’s spirit attach to him, as she is obsessed with him. Disgusted by her desire, he shares his haunting with a friend who is a priest. These two men have unhealthy boundaries and I wondered why women would want to be with either of them.

The Engima of Amigara Fault

An earthquake reveals a fault line in which silhouettes of people’s bodies are revealed. People begin to flock to the area to see this phenomenon, and some people discover the holes are a perfect fit for them. The people fit through the holes and disappear into the mountain never to be seen again. But where are they going? Months later when explorers find the other side of the fault, a creepy visual shows what happened to them. 

The Sad Tale of the Principal Post

The shortest of all the stories, a man gets caught under the supporting post of his new house and his family lets him die there instead of damaging the house. Ok, sure. 

Keepsake

This unnatural tale was an excellent way to end the collection. A baby is discovered in the grave of a woman who died nine months before. Her husband, who quickly remarried, takes the baby to his new wife who has a child of her own, as they had been having an affair before the first wife’s death. We learn that they poisoned the wife, but while the husband was holding vigil over her body before she was buried, had sex with her body. The second wife is horrified, and the conclusion has a similar circumstance, and you find out the husband is now married to a third wife…

As I said in my Uzumaki review- the creatures are macabre and Lovecraftian in nature, so even if the narrative dips into absurdness at times, the art keeps you riveted- and this collection follows suit. This was an interesting collection, and many of the stories are extreme and unbelievable, but you must suspend your disbelief and just enjoy the experience of Ito’s amazing imagination!  

-Nancy

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics

Tom Scioli presents this unofficial Jack Kirby biography in “first person.” The author’s note at the beginning states that the prose was adapted from sources such as interviews, where Kirby recounted events in his own words.

Jack’s parents were from Galacia, though Jack and his brother David were born and raised in the Bronx, New York City. Jack’s childhood was rife with childhood gangs, Sunday and pulp comics, and his mother’s stories. As he grew up, he took odd jobs before breaking into an artistic career by drawing the in-between shots in animation. Eventually he started drawing comics. The biography details his career, first drawing comic strips, then superhero comics for both Marvel and DC, including his creation or co-creation of many, many characters we know and love today. We also see his personal life, from getting married, to time served in World War II, to his many, many collaborations with other creators, to his children being born and his parents and brother passing away, and how they all eventually made their way into his work – art imitating life.

The “first person” literary device was extremely effective. Though Kirby is gone, through this graphic novel, “written” in his own words and with his own distinctive voice, he lives again. The intimacy and immediacy of the narrative would have been lost without it. There are some passages that are in what I believe to be German and Hebrew, which only add to this effect. Though no translation is provided, you can get the gist of what’s being said from context =) There are some instances where different characters “speak” in the same style, but their exposition boxes are in different colors to indicate the shift.

Not only was the “prose” in the characters’ own words, the art was in Kirby’s own style. There were plenty of examples of his work, in the style of the times. As the book went on, you could see it change and evolve. The touch that was most fun for me were the pencil smears. The exposition boxes, speech bubbles, filler space, and some illustrations all had pencil smears on them. It wasn’t overpowering – everything is still legible – but it added an earthy, tangible touch to the book: like you’re holding a precious original instead of a mass-produced item.

The element that was least effective for me, and took me out of the experience at times, was the character design for Kirby himself. Every other character had small eyes, sometimes mere lines and dots for pupils without the whites, which was common practice at the time. Jack Kirby had big, anime-esque eyes. I imagine this was a deliberate choice made to differentiate him from other characters, but it looked weird and out of place. In that vein, a “cast of characters” page and yearly (or decade) timestamps would have also been helpful for navigating a dense read with many people in it.

The end of the book has a meaty “Notes” section, a bibliography, and an index.

All in all, this was an enlightening and endearing look at one of the most influential people in the comics industry. I learned a lot, and it was a real treat to get an “insider look” on how Kirby worked, and how his work was influenced by his eventful life. The “first person” prose is what makes this biography so special. Coupled with the resources at the back, I could easily see high school students using this graphic novel for a biographical project. Recommended for anyone who wants to see how comics were made.

– Kathleen

Scioli, Tom. Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics. 2020.

Harleen

The adage, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is proved in this excellent origin story of Harley Quinn, formally Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel, who meant to reform Joker and instead became his lover.

We are introduced to Harleen as a new psychologist who has the theory that sociopathic behavior could be modified if scientists could understand the stages of losing one’s empathy in this downward spiral. She believes by studying the stages of deteriorating empathy, one could then identify sociopaths in the making. Her lecture leads to her funding by Bruce Wayne, so she heads to Arkham Aslyum to begin interviewing the prisoners there for her research. But before she begins, she is witnesses a battle in the Gotham streets between Joker and Batman. At one point the Joker holds up a gun to her, but he chooses not to shoot her. The incident shakes her and she begins to fixate on him, losing her impartiality. 

Harleen is shown as a woman with few friends and no family. She had some missteps in college when she had an affair with a professor, and it is held against her years later by her peers. But she truly does have the right intentions, and wants to redeem her reputation, but gets sucked into the Joker’s orbit. While she does interview other inmates and shows compassion to Poison Ivy, her mind returns to the Joker and he begins to manipulate her. Her lapses of judgment are jaw-dropping (compounded with sleep deprivation and too much alcohol), and eventually, she succumbs to his toxic charms. A plot of corruption within the police department ties in at the end with how Harleen turns a corner with her morality and joins the Joker in his escape. 

While you know the entire time that this story is set in Gotham, Batman’s cameos are almost surprising, because you are so immersed in Harleen and Joker’s universe. Truth be told, I’ve never been a fan of the brooding Batman, and in some small way, you might even start to root for Harley and Joker, as you want the familiar trope of a good woman who saves a bad man with her love to actually work. The ending is a bit ambiguous because we all know in the DC universe Harley isn’t all evil and will at times help Batman. 

Stjepan Šejić is both the author and illustrator and he does an amazing job with crafting the story and illustrating it. In fact, I am shocked this is the first book I have read by him. His art is detailed and precise and is a treat after recently reading a few too many graphic novels with minimalist art. He is truly talented and I loved how realistic the people looked and then the details he would add into the panels, such as the bank building’s interior (see picture below). His splash pages were fantastic and there was a nice variety of panel placements. His coloring was subdued but had pops of red with Harleen’s clothing that would foreshadow her Harlequin costume. The only tiny misstep was too many panels of Harleen biting her lip and looking sideways- I get it, she’s conflicted! 

Harleen is an outstanding self-contained story about her downfall, and fans of this anti-hero will love it.

-Nancy

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