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Graphic Novelty²

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January 2022

Dark Ark: Forty Nights

Back in 2020, I read an issue of Dark Ark: Instinct through Free Comic Book Day, and I said, “This dark what-if tale was fascinating. Many of us have heard the biblical story of Noah and the ark saving people and animals for the future, but this tale speculates that a sorcerer Shrae builds an ark to save the unnatural animals.” I went back to the source material, as Instinct had been a one-off based on this first volume, and I am a fan of much of Cullen Bunn’s work.

Family man Shrae, known for his evil ways, has a parallel journey to Noah during the biblical flood but is trapped on board with gruesome monsters who are all bloodthirsty and not doing well with being confined in the ark alongside other creatures. Juxtaposed along with these monsters, are a pair of unicorns who bemoan that they should have been on Noah’s boat instead (and really are a sly wink to these mythical creatures’ fate). Humans are chained in a hold, obviously, they are to be used as feed for the creatures, and Shrae’s adult children struggle with this, as they all were fellow villagers at one time. When Naga, a serpentine creature is found killed, a murder mystery is established, with many suspects. Kruul, a manticore, who has odd and unhealthy shifting allegiances with the humans, is not to be trusted nor are the vampires. Angels visit this ark, mistaking it for Noah’s (I’m sorry- but come on! There are only two arks in this flooded world, and they go to the wrong one??) and tie Shrae and Noah’s fate together. If Noah’s ark doesn’t survive, neither will Shrae’s.

The art by Juan Doe was necessarily dark and sketchy with pink and red overtones. The various creatures were appropriately monstrous-looking, with many mystical creatures from legends and myths portrayed. I especially enjoyed two facing 9-panel pages that had Shrae interrogating the monsters about Naga’s death. However, the additional family members were hard to distinguish from one another, as all were drawn very blocky-like with no distinguishing characteristics.

There are two more volumes in this series, and I aim to read them too as I wish to find out how these monsters of yore fare on the ark and then upon landing in a new world.

-Nancy

Spider-Man: No Way Home

This review is as spoiler-free as possible, as the film is still playing in theaters and is currently not available on streaming services.

No Way Home picks up right where the mid-credits scene for Far From Home ended: with J. Jonah Jameson of the Daily Bugle streaming a video of Quentin Beck (Mysterio) revealing Spider-Man’s secret identity to the entire world. Peter is made a celebrity overnight, but he’s not much a fan of that as it puts MJ and Ned in the spotlight as well. Because of their association with him, all three teens are rejected from MIT: their dream school, where they had planned to start over.

Wanting a normal life more than ever, Peter goes to Doctor Strange for help. He asks for a spell to make everyone forget that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. Strange agrees to cast the spell for him, but loses focus with Peter’s repeated revisions during the spellcasting to make at least his loved ones remember who he is. While Strange manages to contain the spell, it was very difficult – and didn’t work. People from other dimensions are coming through, all of whom knowing that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. All of whom also seem to remember a different Peter Parker, a different Spider-Man, and their final battles with them before being pulled into a different universe. All of whom, they figure out together, seem to have died during their battles with their own Spider-Men. Peter won’t let that happen to them, and sets about curing all of them. When they are betrayed, Peter must decide what being Spider-Man truly means.

… Wow. Just… WOW. This movie was everything I wanted in a Spider-Man movie and then some. Despite the issues I had with it, especially regarding a glaring plot hole, Husband and I highly enjoyed it and would definitely recommend.

Let’s start with that plot hole which concerns Doctor Strange’s communication with Peter about the spells. Why didn’t he think to tell Peter about the consequences of the first spell he cast, but not the second one at the end of the movie? Because the plot needed him to NOT do that. Nothing in the movie would have happened if they had taken 5 minutes to ensure all of Peter’s loved ones still remembered he was Spider-Man before casting the first spell. At the same time, Strange needed to explain the consequences of the second spell at the end of the movie in order for Peter and the audience to fully understand them. So this was a double-edged sword: a problem, but a necessary one.

The CGI was also sometimes okay at best for a Marvel movie. Some CG characters were (likely) deliberately kept in shadow for most of their scenes, as it’s easier for CG to look better when in shadow. Costumes on characters appearing from other universes were also obviously CG, where they might not have been in their original movies. That took away some of the experience for me, but mostly because I’m old and cantankerous =P

With this being really the first completed Spider-Man movie arc, this Spider-Man’s story wrapping up is extra satisfying. Through the characters appearing from other franchises, we also get a glimpse of their stories being wrapped up as well. This wasn’t just a ploy for the nostalgia-bait trope that’s so hot right now. No Way Home was an opportunity for ALL of the Spider-Men movies to be wrapped up. Remarkably, this doesn’t take away from Tom Holland’s Peter Parker’s arc at all. This Peter was (to me) most believably a teenager with great power thrust upon him, and his struggles to learn to use them responsibly felt authentic and up-to-date for teenage and young adult audiences today. His great sacrifice at the end of this movie not only proved how much his character grew and matured, but gave us an ending for Spider-Man that movies have been trying to give us since 2002.

I’ve read that further movies for this Spider-Man are in the works. I am totally against this. No Way Home was a definitive end for this Spider-Man. A bittersweet, cathartic, yet hopeful, ending, but nonetheless: an ending. There is a case to be made for letting franchises run their course, and No Way Home is the poster child. This Peter is done. Let him be and introduce another Spider-person, such as Miles Morales (MY VOTE, PLEASE) or Gwen Stacy.

No matter which Spider-franchise you’re a fan of, you will find something to love in No Way Home. Please be safe and take every precaution to stay healthy if you venture to the theater for it.

Kathleen

Watts, John (director). Spider-Man: No Way Home. 2021.

I Am Not Starfire

Mandy is superhero Starfire’s daughter. They’re opposites in every way: Starfire is tall, thin, tan, and glowing with power and being adored by millions. Mandy is shorter, bigger, loves black, and has zero superpowers and one best friend in Lincoln. She recently walked out of her SAT exam and isn’t planning to go to college. She wants to get away from anything and everything having to do with superheroes, including being the child of one. Things might be taking a turn for the better when Mandy’s paired up with Claire for an English project. The Claire whom Mandy won’t admit even to herself that she has a crush on. When a picture of Claire with the Teen Titans shows up on her social media after a study session at Mandy’s house, and Starfire finds out about the missed SAT exam, it looks like things can’t get any worse. But something from her mom’s past catches up with her and Mandy is forced to make a choice – and see just how much like, or unlike, Starfire she really is.

Nancy recommended this one to me, thinking I’d like it. She knows me so well 😉

Lincoln himself best summed up the book on page 155: “What I said was we hold our parent’s hope for a new future, but that future isn’t necessarily going to be what our parents thought it would be.” At its heart, this is a story duality and trying to carve yourself a place in the world outside your parent’s influence and expectations. Each character is struggling with this in a different way. Mandy doesn’t have superpowers like her mom, but doesn’t want to follow a predetermined path such as college either. Lincoln is a first-generation Asian American and does want to go to college to make systems better for POCs. Mandy’s life looks perfect on social media, but she also carries expectations of others that make her be a person she doesn’t want to be.

The art reinforces this by constantly setting up different dualities. Mandy and Starfire are often positioned across the panel or a whole 2-page spread from one another, reinforcing how different they are by simple distance. Starfire’s colors are primarily pink, yellow, and purple, while Mandy’s primary colors are black, grey, and green. When they do find common ground in the end, their placement side-by-side feels earned and we see that they compliment each other rather than set each other off. The lineless style art is very modern, not like “traditional” comic book art of the ’80s, when Starfire was first introduced. This further reinforces the idea of forging your own future ahead, rather than sticking with what your parents did.

Older middle-grade readers, YA audiences, and up will love Mandy’s journey of figuring out who she is and what she wants outside of her mother’s influence.

– Kathleen

Tamaki, Mariko, and Yoshi Yoshitani. I Am Not Starfire. 2021.

Behind You: One-Shot Horror Stories

This creepy collection of one-panel stories was absolutely perfect! Each page is its own little eerie story that gives you an introduction to a greater narrative of your own choosing. As a child, I loved the book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg which gave you pictures and a one-sentence prompt, and this graphic novel does the same. Joe Hill, of Locke & Key fame (and fellow IDW author), gives an introduction, so be on the lookout for one of the later illustrations to pay homage to his series.

As a librarian, the picture above made me pause…you never know what lurks around the corner behind a bookshelf! Other favorites of mine included any cemetery image, the girl building a puzzle, the boy retrieving his ball, the old man with his birthday cake, the thief in the hallway of portraits, and the last picture of a long-limbed animal in the woods.

Make sure you check out Coldrick’s art at his Tapas site for more horror one-shots, some of which are animated gifs! Enjoy this book that you can read all at once, or in small little bites, and remember…look behind you!

-Nancy

All pictures are from Coldrick’s online work.

Heartless Prince

Evony, Princess of Destireth, was orphaned as an infant by a witch attack on her kingdom. Since then, she’s lived in the kingdom of Gallea with the king and queen and their children, Ammon and Nissa. She has the unique ability of being able to sense witch familiars. After a deadly encounter when a familiar follows his parents home from a hunting trip, Ammon wants to show them that they must fight the threat, not simply hide behind the kingdom’s magical barrier. He and Evony begin to sneak out of the castle at night to hunt and kill familiars. They are caught one night out, not by the king and queen, but by the witch Aradia. She rips out Ammon’s heart. Slowly, he will start to become a familiar. When Nissa is kidnapped and spirited to the Witchlands, Evony can no longer sit idly by. She follows her adopted siblings into the witch’s realm, not knowing how far she will really have to go to get them back.

At it’s core, this is a story about finding the humanity in yourself and in others. It might be difficult to see and hold onto, but the risk is always worth the reward. However, in the same vein, what was supposed to be the big plot twist about Evony’s true heritage was very predictable for me – target audiences may still be surprised. The end was well set up for a sequel, so I anticipate more of this theme going forward.

At the same time, the creators don’t pull punches with the action. While not overly violent, there are scenes of battles and bloodshed. The figures are drawn lean and quick, emphasizing constant movement. Evony is obviously no stranger to weapons and wields twin sickles, which is honestly the coolest thing ever. Though Evony and Nissa are both princesses, they are wonderfully resourceful and cunning. Nissa was plotting her escape from the witch’s lair even before Evony came to her rescue!

It felt to me like there were a lot of Russian influences in this book. The way the figures were drawn and dressed reminded me of medieval Russian illustrations or tapestries. The backgrounds also evoked older Disney films for me (Hyperion Disney was the publisher for this one – happy accident?). Each area of this world had a different color palette. Gallea’s palace and grounds were warm yellows and greens. All scenes with the witch Aradia were deep, dark reds and blues that were nearly black. The Witchlands themselves were cold, sterile whites and gray-blues. Not only was this a nice visual cue to differentiate places, it emphasized how many layers there are to this world.

Overall, I enjoyed this graphic novel for the lovely Russian-inspired illustrations and butt-kicking princesses. Older middle-grade and YA readers will love the creepy witch atmosphere and action. Looking forward to more 😉

– Kathleen

De Vito, Angela, and Leigh Dragoon. Heartless Prince. 2021.

Pearl: Volume One

Can an accidental assassin find love in a rival group?

The story is about an albino Asian-American young woman named Pearl, who is a tattoo artist, who inadvertently gets involved with the San Francisco Yakuza mob. Written and illustrated by the Jessica Jones team of Brain Michael Bendis and Micahel Gaydos, it is set in Bendis’s Jinxworld.

Pearl meets Rick, a fellow tattoo artist, and saves him from an assassination attempt by a rival Yakuza clan. Her local crime boss, Mr. Miike forces her to become an assassin for his group, as she showed a killer instinct that he plans to use to his benefit. Thus, the story is somewhat of a Romeo & Juliet inter-generational crime saga, as Rick and Pearl are from rival clans.

Gaydos’s photorealism art was in full display and was a strength in the story. The tattoo work and the San Francisco cityscapes were especially beautiful, with a muted blue and pink color palette. But, OMG, all those speech bubbles! While Bendis is known for his snappy dialogue, he is also known for overdoing it, and that was the case throughout the story. Gaydos did his best to incorporate all the dialogue into the panels, in fact, he just leaned into it on one page, with Mr. Miike’s dialogue just spiraling around him.

Chosen as January’s graphic novel selection by the Goodreads group I Read Comic Books, I appreciated being pushed to try a book I would not have picked up on my own, however, it will be a hard pass for me in regards to reading further volumes. The self-indulgent dialogue, the problematic issue of neither author or artist being Asian, plus my lack of connection to Pearl or Rick made this a one-and-done.

-Nancy

Whistle: A New Gotham City Hero

Willow Zimmerman lives in the Down Rivers district of Gotham City, a historic Jewish community. Her mantra is, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” So it happens that she meets her newest friend Garfield while petitioning outside her school for more funding for Gotham’s public schools. She introduces Garfield to the stray Great Dane she’s been calling Lebowitz. After Willow’s mom tells her she’s stopping her cancer treatments because they’re costing too much, Willow gets an overnight job cleaning the animal shelter. The money she brings in isn’t enough. An old family friend, E. Nigma, reaches out to Willow after a long time of no contact due to drug abuse. He’s clean now and looking to reconnect. After hearing of Willow and her mom’s troubles, Eddie gives her money and offers her a job: game runner for his poker nights. She now makes INSANE money, enough to cover her mom’s medical bills and much more… but she discovers that Eddie’s poker buddies and their wealth are slowly tearing down her own neighborhood. After a run-in with Killer Croc and Poison Ivy, Willow gains the power to talk to dogs, including her Lebowitz. How can she use her powers for good if she knows that her job supporting her family is part of the problem?

There’s a lot going on in this graphic novel, but in the end… it didn’t really feel like it went anywhere. It felt unfinished in that for all of Willow’s wanting to change the world, losing her drive, and finding it again resulted only in her willingness to continue her double life. Perhaps the creators were trying to set up for a sequel? Willow is a whip-smart and passionate young woman, which on the one hand is good for my heart, but on the other, just makes it even more upsetting that she didn’t really seem to grow by the end. Great lengths were gone to so that readers could see how busy Eddie’s job kept her and how it alienated her from her friends and mother. Her character arc by the end felt like a compromise rather than true growth.

For all that, it was enjoyable. It was interesting seeing Gotham’s supervillain attacks from a citizen’s perspective rather than a hero’s; one example is them calling buildings Poison Ivy has attacked “greened” buildings. Riddler is not a character we see used too often and I think his inclusion here was generally effective.

Great swaths of color permeate the book. Oranges dominate, underscoring Willow’s vivaciousness and love for her home. The linework reminded me of George Pérez’ artwork: delicate, yet strong. There are plenty of Easter eggs for DC fans to pick out in the backgrounds: Harley Quinn graffiti, a Flash button on a backpack, a poster of Black Canary’s band. And, of course, all the pups were so cute 😉

While it fell flat for me from a story and character arc perspective, Whistle is still an inspiring and enjoyable graphic novel. I hope to see more of Willow, Lebowitz, and everyone else in the future.

– Kathleen

Lockhart, E., and Manuel Preitano. Whistle: A New Gotham City Hero. 2021.

The Resistance

Back in 2020, I read the first issue of The Resistance through Free Comic Book Day, and I said, “The evocative cover drew me in, and this story ended up being my favorite FCBD issue as it was a complete first issue of a new series, not just a taste like so many FCBD stories are. In fact, the narrative is eerily similar to what we are going through now, as a pandemic sweeps through the globe. In this tale, the pandemic is even more deadly, with a 95% fatality rate. But suddenly, the virus stops- as if a switch were turned off. The remaining world needs to regroup, with hints that there might be a mystical or otherworldly reason for what happened.”

Reading the entire graphic novel after a solid introduction was enjoyable- the world building was strong, for while the first chapter showcased a pandemic that changed the world order, the remainder of the book deals with the fallout. With only 5% of the world population remaining, political alliances are in turmoil, when suddenly millions of survivors begin to manifest superhuman powers (shades of the Marvel X-Men). What do these new powers symbolize- will these evolved humans bring hope to a fragile Earth, or are they super soldiers that were mutated by some aliens who plan to overthrow our planet? Governments step in to control these “reborns”, but many are cautious of the authority that is placed upon them, thus a resistance is born.

The art is solid and was appropriately shadowy and moody considering the storyline. The artist Mike Deodato Jr is very fond of grid overlays (see bottom picture) and it works very effectively. Deodato is an established artist, and his work reminds me both of Michael Gaydos’s work in the Jessica Jones graphic novels and a grown up version of the scratchy art I recall from Image’s early days in Wild C.A.T.S. and Youngblood.

Author J. Michael Straczynski offers fresh commentary about heroes and villains and ties it all into our current pandemic and certain fascist regimes. But he also has fun with it, as one of the chapters is just plain entertaining as you follow James, a new reborn being introduced to a superhero school, and he gets a behind-the-scenes look at how fake and controlled the heroes are. He was obviously inspired by the Marvel, DC, Invincible and Jupiter’s Legacy hero worlds, but makes it all his own. In his afterword, he mentions this will be a new universe that other AWA Upshot authors can connect into, so I look forward to this continuing story plus other tie-ins!

-Nancy

Beneath the Trees: The Autumn of Mister Grumpf

Beneath the Trees by creator Dav is a series of four books for young readers originally published in France starting in 2019. Each book coincides with a season. The Autumn of Mister Grumpf is the first volume.

Mister Grumpf, the badger, is trying to clean his leaves before winter sets in… but he keeps getting distracted. First, Squirrel and his rowdy kids go by, trying to stock up on nuts before it gets too much colder. Hedgehog wants to share one more worm before hibernating for the season. And young Mouse needs help with his kite stuck in a tree. With all the help he’s giving others, can he finish his own task before the snow starts?

I can sum this graphic novel up in one word: ADORABLE. I loved every single minute of reading it, and I’m far older than the intended young readers audience 😉 There is a great message here in doing everything you can to help others and being neighborly, but not at the expense of letting others take advantage of you. Dialogue is succinct and easy to understand for young readers.

The author and artist, Dav, states that traditional hand-drawn Disney films were the biggest inspiration for this series. It’s immediately obvious even if you have no further context. The backgrounds and characters are round and cute, with exaggerated features. Colors are bright and vivid and extra crisp, just as you would find on a sunny autumn day. My favorite part was actually inside the front and back covers of the book. Printed here are Dav’s sketches that could have been taken from behind the scenes of a Disney film.

Everyone kids and up will enjoy this graphic novel about a grumpy yet helpful badger. Older readers will especially appreciate the traditional Disney inspiration. Looking forward to the next installment.

– Kathleen

Dav. Beneath the Trees: The Autumn of Mister Grumpf. 2021.

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