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Graphic Novelty²

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January 2021

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

The Lost Carnival: A Dick Grayson Graphic Novel

Dick Grayson is a teenager working with his family as the main act of Haly’s Travelling Circus: The Flying Graysons. However, Dick wants more out of life. It’s been two weeks into the summer and already he’s chafing at the long months of performing for thin crowds before he goes back to school. He sneaks his best friend and magician Willow out for a party. In breaking up a fight, a girl who banished dark creature with a mysterious power vanishes before Dick can talk to her. He wanders to the carnival that’s set down across the road from the circus in order to find her. Luciana warns Dick not to get too close to her, because she isn’t all she seems, but the two can’t help but see and grow fond of one another. Amid tensions between the carnival and the circus, and Willow suddenly falling very ill, Dick must solve the mystery of the Lost Carnival – and Luciana – in order to save his best friend.

I fell in love with the cover of this graphic novel, and hoped that the whole book would use the black and gold Art Deco elements. Unfortunately, they were reserved only for the cover pages and chapter breaks =( The rest of the book is deftly rendered in white and cerulean when we are with the circus, and red and yellow when we enter the Lost Carnival. The color palettes are mixed for great effect at crucial moments in the story. There is somehow an old quality about the book in the thick, shaky linework and gentle shading.

The main theme of the book is time. Time that has been lost, and appreciation for the time that we have, especially with loved ones. Most readers will know that Dick Grayson eventually loses his parents, is taken in by Bruce Wayne, and becomes the first Robin and eventually Nightwing. There is also a point made about a child’s path not needing to be the same as their parents’, and that’s okay! I wish the book had spent a little less time on the romance and a little more time with Mr. and Mrs. Grayson to highlight these points further – though I understand that Dick is a teen and this is a YA graphic novel, which is likely why this wasn’t the case =P

I VERY much enjoyed the Dark Tower reference on page 37… if you get it, you get it 😉

This story is set before Dick Grayson becomes Robin, so it doesn’t require too much background knowledge. The limited color palette is used to great effect. Though too much time was devoted to the romance for me, the themes of time and carving your own path independent from your parents are adequately handled. The target audience and Dick Grayson fans will enjoy it.

– Kathleen

Moreci, Michael, and Sas Milledge. The Lost Carnival: A Dick Grayson Graphic Novel. 2020.

Child Star

“Hollywood makes you grow up fast”.

Based on true stories of television child stars of the 1980s, this graphic novel basically fictionalizes the life of Gary Coleman, star of Different Strokes, as Owen Eugene and is heavy on the nostalgia factor.

Told as if this story was a documentary, we know almost immediately Owen is dead, as he is spoken about in the past tense by his family and business associates who recount his life. His parents share his early years and the health problems that would stunt his growth, making him look younger than his actual years. This served him well for many years, as he could portray a character younger than himself, but had the intelligence to make it seem as if he were a comedic prodigy. He became the breakout child star in a sitcom, with the catchphrase ” I don’t understand” becoming his Achilles heel in later years. Behind the scene manipulation of sitcom storylines show the artificiality of it all, with the child actors taking the brunt of it. His parents, agents and producers use Owen for their own gain. He never gets to rest, as he is hustled from his television series to various television movies with no break for years. When he becomes a teenager, he is still forced into juvenile roles as he looks much younger, and when he truly begins to look older the roles dry up as his short stature and typecasting prevent him from being taken seriously in adult roles. His adult life is a series of disappointments, with two disastrous marriages (some issues are brought up but not explored) and a steady decline in his health. 

The artwork is cartoonish, drawn with broad strokes. The layout is comic strip style, often with nine equal panels. A limited color palette was used- black and white with different color gradients of pink and red for shading. The art captures the essence of the many different people being interviewed, with a few caricatures of real people like Ronald and Nancy Reagan and Farrah Fawcett. 

Pop culture is laid bare in this narrative, with adult readers like myself, uncomfortably looking back at the sitcoms of our youth. I couldn’t help but feel bad for stars of my youth like Coleman and Emmanual Lewis who couldn’t make the move from child star to adult actor. Even actors and actresses with no physical impairments were so jaded and broken by the system, that drug abuse and faded careers become the norm for some of them. And while this book spotlights the heyday of the 80s sitcom, has Hollywood fared better nowadays? Today many failed young Disney actors or musical pop groups have fame yanked away from them. While not a perfect book, this sobering story will make you think about what secrets lie behind the laugh tracks. 

-Nancy 

Seen: True Stories of Marginalized Trailblazers: Edmonia Lewis

Seen: True Stories of Marginalized Trailblazers is a graphic novel series, newly published in September 2020, that focuses on highlighting historical figures of different colors, races, gender, and sexual orientation. The first volume is about Edmonia Lewis. She was a Black/Native American sculptor who lived and worked from 1844 – 1907. Throughout her childhood, she created Native American wares (baskets, moccasins, and the like) with her aunts. She was educated at the abolitionist Oberlin College, which was radical for the time. A scandal at Oberlin caused her to move to Boston and seek out a sculpting tutor. After a few months, she opened her own studio and was successful in selling marble busts of abolitionist figures. In order to better connect her work with fine art, Edmonia moved to Rome in 1866. She spent most of her remaining life there, working and creating, until her death in London in 1907.

While a small, short graphic novel, it is positively packed with information. The writing is straightforward and matter-of-fact, with little embellishment or fuss. But Edmonia Lewis’ story was so fascinating that it doesn’t feel dry at all! This series is obviously made for the classroom: there are definitions sprinkled throughout for words students might not be familiar with, a reference list, and a teaching guide for grades 6-10 at the end.

My only complaint about the presentation is that the book is much smaller than I expected. The small size, of course, makes for small font. For how text-heavy this graphic novel is, it could have been bigger to more easily accommodate bigger text. Younger students and those needing special accommodations for poor eyesight will struggle with it.

Also journalistic in presentation was the art. Precise line and color work made for not only a clean foundation for all the text, but more accurate depictions of Edmonia and her artwork. As far as I could tell, the illustrations of her sculptures were very true to life – er, well, marble!

I highly enjoyed this first in a new series, and learning about their flagship heroine: sculptor Edmonia Lewis. She was an inspiring figure in both life and work. I imagine students will enjoy it as well, even if they are made to read it for school 😉 Highly recommended and can’t wait to see what other figures they highlight.

– Kathleen

Walls, Jasmine, Bex Glendining, and Kieran Quigley. Seen: True Stories of Marginalized Trailblazers: Edmonia Lewis. 2020.

Once & Future: Old English

In the first volume of Once & Future, British academic Duncan and his monster hunting Gran, Bridgette, fought off an un-dead King Arthur that some Nationalists had reanimated to keep Britain pure. While they were successful in defeating him, the king is now down but not out with the Otherworld in disarray, leaving other legends and deadly creatures to emerge and fight for power. 

The second volume begins with Duncan rightfully angry at his grandmother, who had kept secrets from him his whole life, and now he has to be on his guard for new dangers. His colleague Rose, who is also a love interest, uses some magic to determine where the next problems will pop up and he is exhausted keeping up with it all. But when Beowulf appears, King Arthur and an evil Merlin try to harness his strength to their advantage. And for those familiar with the Beowulf mythology, there are additional monsters such as Grendel and his mother, who show up at Bridgette’s assisted living home and cause havoc and destruction as Duncan races over to help. 

The artwork continues to be amazing, although I did notice a change in making some facial reactions extreme and anime-like. I prefer a more realistic approach, as the monsters and mayhem were always detailed and naturalistic, and I don’t want the hunky Duncan to become a caricature.  The Otherworld had vivid almost hallucinogenic colors, with the floating orbs a clue that magic was moving into the regular world and they should be wary. 

I continued to enjoy this new series, and look forward to more warped British mythology. King Arthur remains a threat, and Duncan also has to contend with his family disfunction as his long-gone mother and half-brother are part of the Nationalist group that opened the portal into the dark world. That the volume ends with a real-world politician ready to make an unholy allegiance open the story to more exciting plots! 

-Nancy

I love how Bridgette is so kick-ass!

Wonder Woman 1984

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

In order for me to fully critique the movie, it’s easier to spoil it. The movie is still in theaters, and will be on HBO Max until January 25th, so there is still ample time to watch it even from home =)

A young Diana participates in a contest on Themyscira. Though she performs admirably for most of the race, she cheats to get to the end. Her Aunt Antiope pulls her out of the race, explaining that no good thing is worth getting dishonestly.

In the present day, it is 1984 in Washington, D.C. Diana works at the Smithsonian while moonlighting as Wonder Woman. A new coworker, Barbara Ann Minerva, is asked by the FBI to identify articles from a robbery. Diana has taken a liking to Barbara and offers her help (also, Diana was the one to stop the robbery, as Wonder Woman 😉 ). The two women become friends, but Barbara begins to grow jealous of Diana.

Businessman Maxwell Lord also takes an interest in Barbara, but for a different reason. He was behind the attempted robbery and is after one of the artifacts: the Dreamstone. It can grant one wish to anyone who holds it. It has unknowingly been used by both Diana and Barbara: one wish for more time with a loved one, and one wish for becoming like someone else. Maxwell Lord wishes to become the Dreamstone, so he can make everyone else’s dream’s come true – but at a terrible price. For as the wishes get granted, something gets taken away. In Diana’s case, Steve Trevor being back means the gradual loss of her powers. How can she let go and renounce her wish, when she finally has everything she ever wanted?

I’m sure you guys have been wondering for my take on this movie. I’ve been putting it off because… I didn’t like it. I was entertained enough to sit through it once. Don’t get me wrong. My expectations weren’t very high to begin with. I figured they wouldn’t be able to top the first movie, and I was right on that. I just wasn’t expecting it to be… that bad.

My biggest issues were with the length of the movie and the writing. It could easily have been 45 minutes shorter. WW84 suffers the Aquaman problem of wanting to use more villains in a single movie than they know what to do with. As Aquaman underutilized Black Manta, his arch nemesis, in favor of Orm; WW84 did the same thing with underutilizing Cheetah, her arch nemesis, in favor of Maxwell Lord.

And, oooh boy, did they mess up with Cheetah. It felt as if they tried to do the New 52 route, where Diana and Barbara were close before Barbara’s transformation. But it was so rushed, so little time dedicated to building their relationship, to where it might as well not have been in the movie at all. I was SO hoping and looking forward to seeing Diana build a female friendship equivalent to Carol Danvers’ relationship with Maria Rambeau in Captain Marvel (Nancy’s review and my comparison of CM and WW). These relationships are so, SO important and I was hoping there would be more of it in the DCEU after CM’s release. Instead, we got one work scene, one dinner scene, one gross scene of a drunk guy trying to assault Barbara, wherein Diana saves her and leading Barbara to make her fatal wish – and that was it. That was the only time dedicated to their relationship. At that point they may has well plopped Cheetah into the movie as an arch nemesis, with no context, as was the case with some villain introductions over comic book history.

Speaking of gross guys… this movie is full of them. And full of the gross, blatant misogyny that made Captain Marvel so insufferable for me to sit through. I get that it was the ’80s, and maybe it is a somewhat realistic representation of what women went through at the time, but I was totally surprised at the lack of subtlety from the first movie to this one. The microaggressions that were so effective in the first movie are totally missing here, in favor of the insultingly obvious “jokes,” unwanted advances, and the like. “They Captain Marvel‘d it,” I said to my husband later: an inside joke with us that means a complete and total lack of subtlety.

I don’t know that much about Maxwell Lord in the comic book lore, and I’m not opposed to the character making an appearance in the DCEU, but I do believe that the movie focused way too much on him, to Cheetah’s detriment. To me, he felt like the epitome of the ’80s sleazeball character, though I believe he’s supposed to be a Lex Luthor equivalent. I would have liked to see less of him – perhaps him effectively stealing the stone back, but not much more than that – in favor of a more developed relationship between Diana and Barbara, and a more gradual transformation from woman to Cheetah, from friends to enemies. They still could have had their showdown in the end. Diana’s speech about truth and honesty would still have been effective had she just been talking to her friend instead of the whole world.

(My bias could be because I’m just not a fan of Pedro Pascal… but I think my point about the writing still stands)

The best part of the movie for me, hands down, was Steve and Diana’s role reversal. This time around, Steve is the naïve one, the fish out of water, and Diana is his mentor. Of course, Gal Gadot and Chris Pine were able to recreate their magical chemistry from the first movie. But that was about the only carryover. I did also appreciate that Steve was able to lead Diana to more of her powers developing, namely the ability to make an invisible jet, and the power of flight. The contest at the beginning was a welcome scene, as we never got a “traditional” contest of Amazons to see who would be worthy to take up the mantle. I was so excited to see the same young actress who played little Diana in the first movie to reprise her role!

I found no issue with the cinematography or editing. It was a nice movie to look at, but in a different way than the first. The look of these movies reflected the times they were set in. The first movie, set in World War I, was more toned down and monochromatic. There was a bit of a sepia tone overall. WW84 was brighter, more vibrant without being as garish as the decade is known for being. Unfortunately, due to all the issues I have with it, I found it to be all beauty and no substance.

Of course, my very favorite part was the mid-credits scene… if you know, you know 😉

I have seen people both love and hate this movie. I can see it both ways. Fans of Wonder Woman the character will always love anything Wonder Woman that comes out. Fans of Wonder Woman comics will always be critical.

I can see it both ways, and I find myself more in the middle. As a fan of Wonder Woman the character, I was entertained enough by the movie. It was nice to look at, the action sequences were adequate, and Hans Zimmer’s score was effective. The message of truth and honesty is much needed in these times. But as a fan of Wonder Woman comics, I was so shocked with the nosedive the quality of the writing took, and Cheetah being cheated out of adequate character development and screentime, that ultimately… this movie was a miss for me. I didn’t love it by any means, but neither do I hate it. I meant to watch it again before reviewing, but I honestly couldn’t bring myself to. Truly, you are not missing anything if you don’t get around to seeing it. I was hoping to see it in theaters later, perhaps a re-release when it’s safer, but now I don’t think I will.

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Kathleen

Jenkins, Patty. Wonder Woman 1984. 2020.

A Thief Among the Trees

Elias, Helene, and Tavi have embarked on a mission to the South Isle. The three are Fivers – students at Blackcliff Academy who have been recruited into the Martial Empire’s military – and this mission is an important one. They are to steal vials of a poison that is manufactured on the island. However, they are ambushed and separated when they reach the shore. In trying to regroup with the other two, Elias discovers that the group making the poison is also testing it – on captive children. When he meets back up with Helene and Tavi, they are joined again by their Fiver classmates, sent to compete with them on the same mission. Competition between the Fivers is fierce and can often turn deadly. Will they find a way to steal the poison as originally assigned, or will they do something about it?

This graphic novel is a prequel story to the popular YA series Ember in the Ashes, also by Sabaa Tahir. I think this book expects you to have read the main series first – I haven’t and I was totally lost. There was very little exposition to explain the significance of the poison, the Fivers and Scholars (and the differences between them in this case). I skimmed through again before this review to make sure it wasn’t just pandemic brain, and I think my point still stands. I also found on my skim-through that there was not a real sense of urgency to the story, though there should have been (though, again, this could be due to my lack of knowledge about the series). If I had to pick one, more exposition about the world these characters live in would have been most welcome.

Nevertheless, the dilemmas presented in the writing are well done. There are serious questions of the ethics of what the characters are doing, and each of the main characters has a different point of view. Multiple sides of the same issues are presented, making for a fascinating, multi-faceted read. This is where this book really excelled: the story simply would not be the same without these multiple viewpoints.

I found the art somewhat lacking. Though use of color and lighting was decent, I found it very hard to distinguish between the characters, as they all wore basically the same clothes. Of course, the main characters are part of a school, and thus are wearing a uniform, but even the “bad guys” wore the same dark shirts and pants, in the same colors and styles. If there is any special significance to it, it was obviously lost on me. I also found the anatomy and poses very stiff.

It’s obvious that prior fans of the series, who have read the books, will enjoy this more than I did. While the art is serviceable, the careful presentation of ethical questions, from all sides, presented in the story is what sets this graphic novel apart.

– Kathleen

Tahir, Sabaa, Nicole Andelfinger, and Sonia Liao. A Thief Among the Trees: An Ember in the Ashes Graphic Novel. 2020.

Rogue Planet

Eight crew on the salvage vessel Cortes track a rogue planet because they believe it to have a large payload. But things don’t go as planned!

The crew members are introduced to the readers as they land on this unknown planet, with five crew venturing out to discover the never named payload. They immediately discover a graveyard of space ships that crash-landed, but that does not detour them, nor the large blobby creature that had multiple lungs, mouth and teeth that looms above them. Strangely, they keep sauntering along looking for their mythical payload. But soon enough this creature attacks them, picking them off one by one and incorporating them into their mass. When they are down to only three crew of the original eight, they try to leave the planet, but soon join the other crashed ships. An alien race who live on this planet are shown worshipping another life-form, with some sort of Genesis plot and sacrifice rituals. The last survivor finds a remaining humanoid from another ship and his hallucinations seem to tie into what is going on, but then the narrative is bookended by the aliens and their rituals that didn’t make sense to me. 

The art was solid with a good variety of layouts, and it definitely aimed to have an Alien movie vibe. Saying strange creatures are Lovecraftian is an easy way to describe a certain style of art, and it leaned that way but wasn’t quite there. The crew members had a nice diversity to them, and the colors really popped. In fact, my pdf version of this graphic novel was the easiest to read online yet and the colors were vivid, which I so appreciated, as online reading is not my preferred method. 

Cullen Bunn is an established horror writer, with his Harrow County and Bone Parish being among my favorite graphic novel series. However, this stand-alone scifi story didn’t bring it home for me. While it wasn’t bad, it was cliched and somewhat bland. Not a single character stood out, and the ending confused me. However, Bunn is a favored author of mine, and I was glad to get an early look at this book through NetGalley.

-Nancy

Wonder Woman: Come Back to Me

In this serial, Steve Trevor sets out to pilot an experimental plane from Washington, D.C., to Puerto Rico. However, he disappears along his route. Wonder Woman finds out upon returning home from putting out a wildfire in Montana. She and Etta Candy immediately take off for his last known location: the Bermuda Triangle. They get sucked into a giant storm and crash land on an uncharted island full of giant, deadly creatures. In their quest to rescue Steve and his crew, Diana experiences the loss of some of her powers, and they meet friends, foes, and acquaintances they do not expect. Can they untangle the mystery of the island and go home together?

When I got this trade paperback and saw the cover, I was reminded of the art from Gail Simone’s run, and I knew it was going to be good. I was correct! There is something old fashioned about this serial that I really enjoyed. First, the exposition panels that were so frequent in Golden and Silver Age comics make an appearance here. Second, this is just a good, ol’ fashioned adventure story. No big questions of good and evil, no moral ambiguity, just good, clean fun. Good beach read!

I liked that it showcased Diana talking to animals, a power of hers that is often glossed over. Like I said, the art reminded me of Bernard Chang’s work in Gail Simone’s run, and I’m a sucker for that style. It got a little long-winded near the end for me, so I skimmed to finish. It wasn’t bad, I just didn’t have the attention span at time of reading (pandemic brain strikes again). I’m considering purchasing this book for my collection, and to finish it properly some day.

If you’re looking for a light, fun, WW read that’s loosely canon, look no further!

– Kathleen

Connor, Amanda, and Jimmy Palmiotti. Wonder Woman: Come Back to Me. 2020.

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