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Graphic Novelty²

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September 2018

The Stone Heart

Faith Erin Hicks’s second book of her The Nameless City trilogy continues to be superb!

In the first book we were are introduced to the fictional city Daidu, aka Dandoa, named by the Dao’s, the most recent conquering nation. However, due to centuries of conquest, the inhabitants of many different nationalities simply call it The Nameless City. This politically important Asian city sits alongside a mountain pass and is the only route to the sea, making it a critical location for trade and military movements. An ancient people carved a passageway through the mountain, but the technology they used has been lost to the ages. The main characters are teen Kaidu, a Dao recently of the distant Homelands who is sent to the city to train as a soldier and a street-wise girl named Rat who has lived in the city her whole life. Their unlikely friendship helps prevent the General of All Blades from being assassinated in book one.

In this second book, the plot is more character driven, and Kaidu and Rat’s back stories are fleshed out. Not only do we learn more about their families,  we get a brief interlude that further worldbuilds, for Hicks has created a believable and exquisite city based on 13th century China. In addition, we are shown an authentic friendship and realistic banter between Kaidu, Rat and others.

We are also given background on the General’s son Ezri and his mysterious green-eyed bodyguard Mura. Ezri and Mura are shown to be calculating and murderous, and both make decisions that will can only lead to the ruin of the tenuous treaties that the Dao nation was making with other kingdoms. They storm the monastery The Stone Heart, which houses irreplaceable books including a mystical tome that they believe will give them powers to dominate all the surrounding nations. What they do next sets in motion the narrative for the final book The Divided Earth.

I eagerly look forward to how Hicks will wrap up this powerful graphic novel series. Her art work and storytelling are absolutely first rate!

-Nancy

Hicks, Faith Erin. The Stone Heart. 2017.
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Batgirl (Rebirth, Vol. 3): Summer of Lies

Batgirl and Nightwing get the same tip, for the same spot, at the same time. Which can only mean one thing: it’s a trap! Two girls, identical to someone from their shared past, attack them before jumping off the roof. Someone has brought this Dynamic Duo back together for what can only be one reason: revenge. Batgirl and Robin once worked a case together, way back in their early days of crime-fighting. It involved the Mad Hatter, a new kind of drug, Barbara’s new friend Ainsley, and the growing chemistry between Batgirl and Robin. They’re going to have to reflect back on that summer – on all the painful memories – if they’re going to have a chance at uncovering who’s behind this newest scheme.

I do love me some Nightwing with my Batgirl ;D The plot unfolds in ways you don’t expect and keeps you on your toes as much as our heroes are. The emotional investment that Barbara has in this case is palpable – just as in the flashbacks, we’re shown that it’s difficult for her to keep Barbara and Batgirl separate. The feels stakes are pretty high here. A nice artistic touch was the sepia tone that was overlaid on the flashbacks – infused with a little more golden light that perfectly recalls looking back on summers past.

Before the main story, there are two one-shots. The first is about Batgirl’s investigation of a ghost in the local Y’s pool. The second, and infinitely more adorable, is about the disappearance of internet celebrity pets – and how Batgirl finds herself teamed up with Catwoman, of all people, to recover them! Eagerly looking forward to more~

– Kathleen

Larson, Hope, Chris Wildgoose, Jose Marzan Jr., and Mat Lopes. Batgirl (Rebirth, Vol. 3): Summer of Lies. 2018.

Northlanders: Books Four & Five

Northlanders continues to wow, after my initial rough start with Book One. The fourth book in the seven book series was my absolute favorite!

The Plague Widow: Book Four

The story takes place in the frozen Volga region in AD 1020. A plague has come to the seven hundred person settlement in October, and as winter has started, burials in the cold ground are impossible so pyres of dozens of bodies are lit to dispose of the diseased bodies. Frantic with worry the inhabitants listen to their elderly leader plus the local priest Boris. Boris counsels strongly that the settlement go under quarantine and those who show any sickness be banished so those remaining may live. But what they don’t take into account is how claustrophobia sets in, and they find they locked the greater danger inside their walls with them.

Hilda, a young beautiful widow with an eight year old daughter, is caught in the crosshairs as her former status as a wealthy woman is stripped when her husband dies of the plague. Destitute, with a long winter ahead, she struggles to survive and is targeted by Gunborg, who is the second in command and has it out for her after she votes against him in council. Two other men want her as a wife, but each man has different motivations and their jealousy of one another results in bloodshed. A final battle between Boris and Gunborg comes to a head, and Hilda and her daughter are given a chance to escape.

The art by Leandro Fernandez is a perfect match to the story. He captures the isolation of a Viking settlement shown mostly in dull colors with overlays of blue wash, which effectively shows the icy coldness of Russian winters. Some of the changing artists in this Northlanders series have not been to my liking, but the pairing of this excellent story with Fernandez’s precise artwork made this a winner.

Metal and Other Stories: Book Five

After how much I loved The Plague Widow, this book turned out to be disappointing in comparison. Metal is the long middle story, with two much shorter stories book-ending it.

The Sea Road

Illustrated by Fiona Staples who is now known for the Saga series, this short story takes place on the open sea in AD 760. Captain Dag is running cargo along the coast when he suddenly decides to turn the tiller and sends him and his crew westward towards the unknown. Putting his men at risk on a moments whim, he wishes for greater glory but instead encounters storms, mutiny and crew members experiencing hallucinations and going berserker. When they finally make landfall on Greenland, the few surviving members are met with treachery by the captain and their epic journey is for naught. This was an interesting take to show that many unknown sailors died ignobly with their discoveries unrecorded.

Metal

I recently read Boxers & Saints, about how Christianity changed China forever, and how many fought the new religion as it significantly changed their culture and resulted in many old traditions being outlawed.  So it was quite a coincidence that a week later I read another graphic novel story about Christianity changing Norway in AD 700.

Erik is a young blacksmith who is tied to traditional Norse Gods and is against his settlement allowing a new Christian church to be built. He watches as priests and nuns move in, along with a teenaged albino girl whom the nuns mistreat. In the night Erik burns down the church but first rescues the girl Ingrid and they run off together. The story then becomes a Bonnie and Clyde caper, with a strange magical realism aspect, that doesn’t match the rest of the series of realistic fiction. There was no subtlety, it was just Eric slaughtering any Christians he encountered, so the reader could not take his side at all in his wanting the Nordic Viking traditions to live on.

The art by Riccardo Burchielli was awful. Not only was I unable to get into the story, but the people he drew were grotesque looking. Erik is drawn as a hulking troll, not even resembling a human (the picture in this post makes him look normal, the rest of the series does not). Ingrid is drawn slightly better, but there are some sequences that she was drawn so horribly, and I didn’t understand why. In the concluding pages, Erik is drawn so differently that I question if the same artist drew him.

The Girl In The Ice

The best of the three stories is illustrated by Becky Cloonan and is a character study of an Icelandic fisherman set in AD 1240. Jon is an elderly widower who discovers a young girl frozen in the lake ice. He carves her out and brings her back home to investigate who she is and how she died. With no obvious trauma on her body to explain her death, he doesn’t understand why no alarm in the nearby settlement would have been sounded when a girl went missing.  Soon some patrolling soldiers discover Jon trying to hide the body and take him into custody believing he is the killer. He is taken into town to be tried for the murder, and we learn how the girl came to be in the ice. It ends on quite the melancholy note.

I have the last two volumes on hold and look forward to wrapping this series up. My only real complaint is that the art in the various volumes is so inconsistent. While I liked the first and last illustrators in this book and the cover art throughout by Massimo Carnevale was top notch, when a story has sub par art the entire story suffers.

-Nancy

Book One

Book Two & Three

Persephone

Persephone is just a regular girl… and, well, that’s sort of the problem. Her mother, Demeter, is a powerful witch and Persephone has no powers whatsoever! People have expectations for Persephone that she feels she’s not able to meet. Persephone knows she’s adopted, but has a feeling that her mother is keeping more secrets from her; Demeter shuts down at Persephone’s questions about her birth, her lack of powers, about Demeter’s role in the war with The Underworld. Adding to her curiosity are the recurring nightmares she’s having. Armed with her mother’s diary for a school trip, Persephone decides to find out the truth for herself. Never did she imagine she’d be going to Hades herself to find her answers…

This one was praised in advanced reviews as a phenomenal coming-of-age story – but I found it rather flat. The pastel-colored art is messy and hard to get through. While it is a retelling of the myth of Hades and Persephone, the setting is a mashup of magical, modern, and myth that doesn’t quite mesh. I could easily see Persephone’s inner struggle of this storyline working well enough on its own in the original Greek mythology setting, but the Studio Ghibli-like magical realism the author was going for didn’t quite fit right. If you go in not expecting it to be a carbon copy of the original myth, you’ll probably enjoy it more than I did!

– Kathleen

Locatelli-Kournwsky, Loïc. Persephone. 2018.

Boxers & Saints

Boxers & Saints is a companion set of historical fiction graphic novels that gives a unique look at the Boxer Rebellion of China between 1899-1901. This magical realism tale delivers a heartbreaking look at the violent upheaval that occurred in Chinese society during this time period.

The longer first book, Boxers, sets the stage for young Lee Boa to see how both foreigners and encroaching Christianity are changing his rural village as well as his entire country. Boa is entranced by a local warrior who teaches him and the other peasants a form of kung fu that incorporates mysticism. When his mentor dies, Boa and his band leave their village to roam the countryside to drive out the foreign “devils” and the Chinese Christianity converts whom they call “secondary devils”.

The story does not shy away from bloodshed. This group, who call themselves The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fist, at first are viewed as noble vigilantes that take inspiration from the Gods of old and the first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang. But soon their commitment to saving Chinese culture ends up destroying it as their original intent morphs into extreme violence. While Boa remains a sympathetic figure, you can see the conflict in his heart as he struggles with what he feels would be best for China.

The second book, Saints, tells the story of Vibiana, a young girl who is abused by her family. Her conversion to Christianity at first is just an experiment and a way to get away from home rather than experiencing a real love of Christ. But slowly, as she learns more about it, and she is offered different opportunities than she would be given if she remained at home, she starts to actually live out the tenets of the faith.  Her inspiration is Joan of Arc, whom she sees in visions.

Boa and Vibiana meet in Peking (now known as Beijing) when the Boxer Rebellion comes to a head. Both are fighting for a cause they feel strongly about and we see where their loyalties lay. We see nuanced views from both perspectives and see the extremes that people will go to in the name of faith and country.

To put the stories in context, in an interview with Austin Chronicle, author Gene Luen Yang said “I wanted to do two volumes because I was not sure which side in the conflict were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and I noticed connections between contemporary terrorists and the Boxers. So in a lot of ways, I was trying to write the story of a young man who was essentially a terrorist, and I wanted him to be sympathetic, but I also didn’t want the book to feel like I was condoning terrorism. So it was kind of a fine line.”

The art is deceptively simple, with a very muted color palate. More color is used in the first book when Boa and his band of rebels transform into Gods of the Opera. Readers are not spared from the blood of the victims, but it is only right to be truthful to the fact that this rebellion resulted in much loss of life, both for the Chinese and the foreign Westerners. Yang draws the people and the traditions of his ancestral land with pride and dignity, and you can tell he spent much time researching the era and region to draw it accurately.

It seems almost a trope to say that this duology is thought provoking, but it truly is. The magical realism both added and detracted from the power of the story for me. Created for a YA audience, this magical element helps show what the young protagonists were thinking, and drives the narrative. As an adult I struggled with it, for I wanted a more realistic rendering of this time in history. But ultimately I believe this set of books is perfect for youth to explore this little known rebellion and will hopefully lead to them studying more about it. Huge kudos to Yang for creating this atypical graphic novel series that will have readers pondering their faith and political views.

-Nancy

Green Arrow (Return, Vol. 4): Straight Shooter

The Elevast Corporation wants to build a mega tourist center to bring a little life back to Star City. Trouble is, they want to evict residents of a neighborhood called Lamb Valley to do so. Lamb Valley is filled with construction workers that Elevast helped immigrate from Zimbabwe to build the project. Understandably, a lot of them are angry. Green Arrow has to chase them away from the construction sites they once worked on, but are now bent on destroying. By day, Ollie funds the lawsuit against Elevast, led by Joanna Pierce. The niece of Jefferson Pierce, Black Lightning, has an appropriately electric personality that Ollie finds himself drawn to. But things are finally patched up with Dinah… he can’t throw that away. Besides, those Elevast construction sites are now overrun with ogre-like creatures. Ollie’s love life is just going to have to go on the back burner.

Either it had been so long since I picked up this series that I’d forgotten, or the last volume wasn’t as bad, but this volume was more violent than I’d remembered this run being. There was also a women in refrigerators plot point, which I’ve had enough of in my Green Arrow – see my post about Arrow Season 4. There is, however, plenty of emotional turmoil to go with your action in this run. Winick, as Meltzer did before him in Volumes 1-3, does a good job of balancing Ollie’s inner conflicts with the outside wars and drawing parallels between them. A side I haven’t seen a lot of yet reading GA comics is Ollie’s corporate fighting side, which was fun. Personally, I keep coming back for Hester and Parks’ art, because I’m finding the writing falling back on disappointing tropes.

– Kathleen

Winick, Judd, Phil Hester, and Ande Parks. Green Arrow (Return, Vol. 4): Straight Shooter. 2004.

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