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Graphic Novelty²

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January 2020

In The Pines: Five Murder Ballads

I was sold on this graphic novel as soon as I read murder ballads in the title! I’ve long been a fan of narrative songs that tell a story, with Appalachian inspired murder ballads being particularly appealing to me. I have paired a mini-synopsis of each story with a rendition of the song it is based on. Often these songs have been covered by many artists, but I selected versions that were most well-known, or I just really liked the singer.

Author and illustrator Erik Kriek is actually Danish, but took an American type of ballad, and turned it into a new type of art. He didn’t just adapt the song straight into comic form, instead he interpreted the lyrics to tell a fresh story, sometimes to my liking and sometimes not. The art was in duotone, with a different color for each tale. Reminiscent of scratch art or wood reliefs, Kriek’s black inks were evocative of Appalachian landscapes and times gone by.

Pretty Polly and the Ship’s Carpenter

This song is the oldest of the bunch, as early versions were sung in the British Isles hundreds of years ago. In it, a woman is enticed by a sailor who promises he will marry her, but when she becomes pregnant because of their liaison and pushes for marriage, he instead kills her. He is racked by guilt and supposedly Polly’s ghost haunts his ship, wanting revenge. I did not like one of the last panels because I don’t see how Polly would ever forgive him.

The Long Black Veil

A man is having an affair with his best friend’s wife, and one night while heading home after a rendezvous, is mistaken for the killer of a local man. Not willing to betray his lover, he is hanged for he had no alibi. This story has a neat twist, that I always guessed at, but is not explicitly said in the song.

Johnny Cash is king, thus I shared one of his renditions, but Mick Jaggar did a good version of the song with The Chieftains.

Taneytown

Made famous by singer Steve Earle, this story tells of a young black man who heads into Taneytown against his mother’s advice. Upon arriving, he is set upon by a white mob and kills one of them in self-defense on his way back home. He later finds out an innocent man was accused of the crime and was hung.

Caleb Meyer

When Nellie’s husband is away, the hired man comes to terrorize her as she is left alone in a remote cabin. The most violent and graphic of all the dark stories. Although justice is served, there is an uncomfortable reminder at the end of the story, when you infer that Caleb left behind a reminder of that terrible night.

Where The Wild Roses Grow

Kriek took the most artistic license with this song written and sung by Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue, and because I was already a huge fan of this moody ballad and video, I didn’t enjoy this adaptation as much as the others.

An escaped convict meets a young woman who helps him saw off his chains, and who is easily seduced by him. Despite this, he threatens to kill her if she doesn’t hand over money that he assumes was hidden by her father who was known for robbing several banks. The conclusion was rather talky and clunky, and I didn’t think it was a good match for this murder ballad.

This book sent me on many music journeys, as I enjoyed listening to ballad after ballad, and reminding me of family vacations in the Appalachian region where my parents took my younger sister and I to music festivals and to watch clogging. So while this post became more an ode to music than to the book, it was a fun read and I’m glad I discovered it!

-Nancy

Bury the Lede

Madison Jackson interns at the prestigious Boston Lede newspaper, and she’s determined to prove that she deserves to be there. She picks up a crime scene in progress on a police scanner, the address of which is tied to a prominently social and wealthy family. Madison hopes to snatch up the scoop that will prove her worth, but she ends up being the scoop. Celebrity Dahlia Kennedy, accused of murdering her husband and son, refuses to talk to anyone but Madison, creating a social media storm that puts Madison right in the center of her own story. She tries to navigate the spotlight she doesn’t want, while trying to navigate her working relationship with Dahlia. They both want Madison to get to the truth, but Dahlia’s information doesn’t come easily, or cheaply. How far will Madison go to get the full story?

According to Wiktionary, to “bury the lede” means:

To begin a story with details of secondary importance to the reader while postponing more essential points or facts.

This graphic novel is aptly titled, as there are plot points that come up during the second act like a punch to the gut and change everything. I can’t say more without spoilers, but suffice it to say that this story wasn’t at all what I expected. It’s a psychological thriller in which you think you know the real story, who the characters really are, but by the end you find you don’t know anything at all.

The art was a little wonky – in some ways good, in some bad. The bad: the characters are rendered passably well, except for multiple instances where facial features are skewed one way or another for seemingly no reason. Lips, nose, eyes, would be slightly off-center or askew even when we’re looking at a character head-on. This occurred too often to be a printing error, and was off-putting and distracting for me. That said, the use of color, especially in the background as paint splatters, were effective in communicating lights, a mood, or a sudden emotion.

This graphic novel contains strong language, nudity, blood and gore, and love scenes, which puts it at high school age and up. The majority of the love scenes are between an LGBTQ+ couple. I must commend writer Gaby Dunn for the way these characters were written – they are characters, first and foremost, who just happen to be gay. As it turns out, Gaby herself is publicly bisexual and non-monogamous, and is a writer for various publications and media. She knew how important it was for the sexual orientation of her characters to not be a huge deal in the story, which can not only make the book awkward, but make it seem forced for the sake of inclusion and not serving the story. More media, not just graphic novels, with LGBTQ+ characters should strive to this standard.

-Kathleen

Dunn, Gaby, Claire Roe, and Miquel Muerto. Bury the Lede. 2019.

LeVar Burton Reads: Season Four

LeVar Burton Reads season four included some real gems in the following eleven short stories!

Miracle by Tope Folarin

A young man, a recent immigrant, attends an evangelical Nigerian church where the congregation has gathered to witness the healing powers of a pastor who they believe can perform miracles. When he is chosen and the prophet declares that his eyes are healed, yet he still needs his glasses, he plays along for he realizes that the true miracle is the faith one holds and that his family is safely together in America.

Free Jim’s Mine by Tananarive Due

Lottie, a slave pregnant with her first child, escapes with her Cherokee husband William, and hopes for freedom. Lottie is eager to find her Uncle Jim, a former slave who is now free, in North Carolina as part of their journey as they head North. Jim warns them that he doubts their journey will end well and decides to hide them for the evening in a mine shaft. In the wet gloom, they are faced with supernatural evil, and Lottie discovers her uncle bought his freedom at a high cost. While the story starts with a historical fiction angle, it takes a dark turn and was quite effective.

Kwoon by Charles Johnson

Set in Chicago, a young man named David opens a martial art studio to not only teach fighting skills but to teach others self-control and accountability. Ed, an older new student joins and challenges David to a fight in front of other students, but fights dirty and beats David up. Although we are given Ed’s perspective of why he choose to do this, this puts David’s livelihood in jeopardy as he was shamed in front of everyone. But David perseveres in the end, not through physical fighting, but through his attitude and values. I was really rooting for the aptly named David, in what turned out to be a David and Goliath tale.

The Best We Can by Carrie Vaughn

Star Trek and other science fiction stories would lead you to believe that “first contact” is a game-changer for Earth civilizations and pushes us to discover the rest of the universe and countless other species. But this short story wryly recounts how when a scientist finds an abandoned alien space vessel in Jupiter’s orbit, how bureaucracy gets in the way of progress. This story seemed very realistic in how a discovery that you think would be life-changing ends up as almost an after-thought in the scientific world.

Mister Hadj’s Sunset Ride by Saladin Ahmed

In this old west tale, a young bounty hunter recounts his previous adventures with an older Arabian bounty hunter, whom he shared a common heritage with. The two men fight an evil preacher and his two sons and have a showdown with these men, with a bit of a supernatural twist. Often when we think of early immigrants, we think of those with European backgrounds, but this story had a welcome diversity although it also showcased how people lose their customs and family connections. This storyline reminded me of the graphic novel High Moon.

Republica and Grau by Daniel Alarcón

Maico is a ten-year-old boy who is forced to beg with a blind man on a street corner and is to bring all his wages home to his abusive father. The boy is compliant and does what he can to please both his father and the blind man until they both betray him and use him as a pawn. I was aghast at both men, whose selfish machoism affected both Maico and his poor mother. I was so proud of Maico of how he stood up to them, and what he did to end his partnership, yet…what does the future hold for him? As a reader, you hope this coming-of-age moment is the pivot for turning his life for the better, but reality is often harsh and you know he will face consequences for his actions.

The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex by Tobias S. Buckell

I found this tongue-in-cheek short story delightful. Sometime in the future, Earth has become a tourist playground for wealthy aliens, with Manhattan being the favored location. While aliens are looking for authentic experiences in the city, life for humans actually living on Earth has become anything but, as the entire economy is based on the service industry and catering to tourists. A cab driver, whose flying taxi is on its last legs, has to deal with an alien falling to their death from his vehicle and trying to avoid an interspecies war when the aliens family investigates. While this tale is amusing, it’s also a reflection on how our society relies on social media with trying to make their life look perfect when really it’s only a facade.

Toward Happy Civilization by Samanta Schweblin

In this surrealistic short story, a man is caught at a railroad station when the ticket master won’t give him a ticket out of town because he doesn’t have the correct change. Oddly, the ticket master and his wife take him in along with other passengers and they form a makeshift family of sorts. Eventually, they try to escape this purgatory type of existence, but the entire time I just wondered why they didn’t revolt or walk to the next station. Highly unsatisfying- my least favorite of the LeVar Burton Reads stories.

Flying Carpets by Steven Millhauser

This coming of age story was of the magical realism genre, which I typically do not like, but this story gets it right. A pre-teen youth is given a magical flying carpet to master, and although you might first think of Arabian Nights, he lives in an anonymous suburb. Master it he does and pushes it to the extreme limits before tiring of it and putting it away. The flying carpet is more a metaphor for growing up and outgrowing things you previously loved.

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang

A lyrical Arabian Nights fable meets science fiction time traveling tale in this evocative short story. Fuwaad, a merchant in Bagdad, enters a new silver shop in the marketplace and unexpectedly is shown a time-traveling hoop that the shop owner, who is also an alchemist, explains to him. He is told three stories of people who have utilized time travel-“The Tale of the Fortunate Rope-Maker,” “The Tale of the Weaver Who Stole from Himself,” and “The Tale of the Wife and Her Lover” – and thus we begin a tale within a tale. Finally, Fuwaad tries the time travel himself, going back 20 years, as he hopes to right a wrong from his past although he is told that events can not be undone- the past or future will not change. Lessons are learned in these lovely circular tales of fate and were worth the two storytelling sessions taken on the podcast to finish.

L’Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars) by Dean Francis Alfar

The story starts out promisingly as 16-year-old Maria Isabella from the Philippines falls in love with a young man who is an astronomer. Determined to catch his attention, she convinces a butcher’s boy to help her find all the materials she will need to construct a kite that she could fly to the stars and get the astronomer to fall in love with her. But the quest to find the materials takes her 60 years and during that time she conscripted the butcher’s boy to help, thus wasting both of their lives. Despite being her traveling companion for decades she never once asks him his name or returns his affections. Her obsession was cruel, misguided and foolish to the extreme. While she is successful in obtaining what is needed, it comes at a steep price, and I hated her for it. I was shocked the LeVar said this was one of his favorite stories, as this tale of unrequited love was one of my least favorites.

This season proved to be it’s most uneven- I had more favorites than usual, but then it had two stories that I hated. My favorites included The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, Republica and Grau, The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex, and Free Jim’s Mine. The two I disliked were The Kite of Stars and Toward Happy Civilization.

As of now, I only have one more season until I catch up. LeVar’s selections are always interesting (even if I don’t like them) and I have been exposed to so many wonderful authors and stories through his podcast. Listen for yourself, “but you don’t have to take my word for it.”

-Nancy

Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass

Harleen Quinzel has a measly $5 in her pocket when she gets off the bus at Gotham City. Her mother has sent her to live with her grandmother for a while. To Harleen’s chagrin, she finds her grandmother has passed away, but Mama, the current tenant of her apartment, gladly takes in the eccentric teenager. Harleen’s spirits are not dampened by this turn of events; she embraces Mama and his cohort of drag queens just as enthusiastically as they’ve embraced her. However, big changes are coming to the neighborhood. The Kane family, who owns Millennium Enterprises, are looking to buy out the block to build upscale condos and “improve” the area. Harleen faces a difficult choice. Should she organize community protests with her new friend Ivy and her family? Or should she burn the corporation down with the mysterious Joker?

I have to say, this one surprised me. I’m not a Harley Quinn fan, but DC Ink has put out some fine stories, so I decided to check it out. This reimagining of Harley’s origin story will be hard to top.

Harley’s distinctive voice and character lent particular weight to the themes in this story: African-American and LGBTQ+ rights, gentrification, and poverty. As it’s written from Harley’s point of view, her colorful and optimistic speech firmly place us in her head. We see from the art more than hear from Harley about the injustice that happens in the world around her, showing the audience that while you can hide from problems in your head, you can’t escape the real-world causes and consequences. Harley ultimately has a choice: whether or not to see the problems, and how to respond to them. Is there a right or wrong way to fight for justice?

The art is phenomenal. In both an homage to and deviation from your typical Batman, Gotham-style book, it’s rendered in cool sepia. Pops of color come through at critical moments or in flashbacks: Harley red, Joker yellow and purple, hot pink. It feels like reading an old black and white film where someone expertly colored over the reel in the most emotionally charged moments. There are a few Easter eggs and homages to Harley’s history sprinkled throughout that both old and new fans will enjoy.

The question Harley faces here, how to respond to injustice and what the right way is to fight for justice, is something many teens can relate to. The timely, yet timeless, message and stellar art make for a Harley origin story that will be hard to beat in the future.

– Kathleen

Tamaki, Mariko, and Steve Pugh. Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass. 2019.

Bone Parish: Volumes Two & Three

Happy New Year!  Last January, I read the first volume of Bone Parish and loved it and I said in the comments: This series was like Briggs Land and Locke & Key got married and had a child. While early in the year, this could be one of my contenders for Best Reads of 2019. Considering it did make my Best Reads of 2019 list, how do the two concluding volumes match up?

To recap the premise of the first book:  “A new drug is sweeping through the streets of New Orleans—one made from the ashes of the dead. Wars are being fought over who will control the supply, while the demand only rises” and the Winters family of New Orleans has discovered how to manufacture the ashes of the dead into a powerful hallucinogenic drug that lets the person snorting the drug to experience everything the dead person lived through when they were alive.

Volume Two:

This book opens with the funeral of Wade, the youngest of the four Winter siblings, who was killed by a rival cartel who wants to take over the Winter’s ash business. You see the guilt, resentment, and anger that the surviving family members harbor, as they all cope in different ways. Unfortunately, this tragedy doesn’t seem to bring them together, instead, it drives them farther apart. Brigitte works on developing a new strain of ash in her laboratory to punish those that killed Wade and want to take over their business, while other cartel scientists try to create ash themselves with horrifying results. New villains are introduced while the Winters family struggles to stay ahead of the game.

I find the family dynamics fascinating- as Grace treats her daughter Brigitte with an icy aloofness as there seems to be no mother/daughter bond, Brae shows only disdain towards Leon whom he blames for Wade’s death while also being cruel to his sister and mother. Only Leon shows compassion for his family as he is the one that remembers that their dead father told them that family loyalty was all-important. As we work towards the conclusion, the reader can’t help but observe that creating this drug and building the drug empire is dooming their family.

The art and coloring remain as strong as ever. The visuals at the funeral tugged at your heartstrings, along with the monstrous consequences for the people who ingested the bogus ash from a rival cartel. The layouts of the panels guided you through the story, with effective coloring to show flashbacks.

Volume Three:

Alliances and betrayals between the Winter family and their rivals continue to evolve, with Brea unknowingly getting seduced by a bloodthirsty killer intent on getting revenge for her brother being killed earlier by the Winters. Leon begins to make some power moves, and he and his sister Brigitte experiment with how to tap into other people’s memories to look for clues. Leon barely survives the experience and his visions are suspect, although he views them as true. While I had considered him the most moral of the family, he then sacrifices someone during the gang wars.

We get a flashback to Brigitte introducing the idea of marketing the ash to her parents and I was shocked to realize it hadn’t been too far in the past. The Winters had lived in modest circumstances up until then, so the mansion and opulent surroundings that they lived in now were but recent acquisitions. But knowing that family members were already paying the price, was it worth it? She is literally playing God, trying to use her scientific knowledge with the mysticism she learned from a dead lover to cheat death. Things are spinning out of control with each family member operating separately and not uniting as their father had wanted them to. It all comes to a head, with a tragic conclusion, and fittingly, not everyone survives.

Jonas Scharf’s art was fantastic start to finish, with Leon’s visions being especially well-done. I have to say colorist Alex Guimarães’ work is the best I have ever seen. His vibrant pinks and purples to signify the hallucinogenic effect and the color palette that he uses throughout the narrative are second to none. I hope to see a lot more from this artistic team.

I was very impressed with the three-volume series, in fact, I wish it lasted longer, as I’m sad to be saying goodbye to the enigmatic Winters family. This necromantic horror story had it all- it was a riveting crime thriller and it had a thought-provoking moral debate about drug culture and the sanctity of life and for the body after death. A must-read for all graphic novel readers!

-Nancy

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