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Graphic Novelty²

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January 2023

Ronan and the Endless Sea of Stars

This beautifully written memoir of child loss is gut-wrenching, yet also affirming. The author, Rick Louis, shares the loss of his toddler son to the debilitating and always fatal Tay-Sachs disease.

He and his wife Emily were thrilled at Ronan’s birth, but within a few months, they started to notice that Ronan was not hitting developmental milestones. But it wasn’t until an eye exam, that the truth was revealed, and they discovered there is no cure, with children typically not living beyond their third year. Despite therapy, Roan’s health declined, and sadly, so did Rick and Emily’s marriage. Unfortunately, grief destroys many marriages that undergo the loss of a child, thus this was a double loss to the little family. Ronan’s death is depicted tenderly, and I ached for the parents. Despite being a mother, I actually connected much more with Rick than Emily, although he does his best to be fair to his ex-wife and what she went through.

Artist Lara Antal illustrated the bittersweet narrative in black and white with shades of blue. These colors conveyed the somber mood and gave an accurate depiction of the family. The pictures flowed into one another, using few panels. The illustrations varied from factual to whimsical and spanned the entire gamut of emotions. The art matched the tone of the book, and you can tell great care was taken to share Rick’s story with respect.

After I read the story, I looked up some of the resources listed and found out that Emily has remarried and has another child. I’m unsure if Rick has remarried or had other children, but a quote of his, “Being Ronan’s father was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Sometimes I think taking care of him was the only truly important thing I ever did in my life. If it meant that I could see him just one more time, I would do it all over again. Even knowing I had to lose him”, touched my heart. I admire his honesty in sharing his memories of his sweet Ronan with the world and I hope it was cathartic for him.

Nuclear Winter: Volumes One, Two & Three

Volume One

We are introduced to an alternative reality in Montreal, Canada. Nine years have passed since a nuclear power plant exploded, leaving the region trapped in a permanent nuclear winter. Flavie is a young woman in her 20s, living with her slacker boyfriend, and is a mail/package courier on a snowmobile who seems more worried about making deliveries than the harsh winters. As Flavie drives around town, we see that many people have developed mutations, some more obvious than others. She gets caught up in drama with the local hottie, and the two have to dodge giant mutants, rabid wildlife and deadly snowflakes.

The art is simple and cartoony, reminiscent of Skottie Young’s (I Hate Fairyland & Middlewest) work. The author and illustrator, Cab, has crafted an appealing heroine, and the sight gags and mutant illustrations will appeal to readers young and old. In addition, I had the added connection of working in a town with two nuclear towers, so this storyline gave me a somewhat whimsical look at what could happen if there ever was a nuclear accident. I’m ready for more adventures with Flavie!

Volume Two

Flavie’s boyfriend is gone, but so is her best friend Léonie, which I found disappointing. While we are introduced to Elsie, Flavie’s spunky younger sister, I don’t know why Léonie had to be booted to make room in the narrative for her. When Marco, the love interest, gets sick Flavie is tasked with finding him the medicine he needs. She discovers that a group of people living in a nearby mountain resort are stealing the medicine before it arrives in Montreal. The two sisters, plus the mutant raccoon from the first book, put an end to that! This story felt a bit off- we get hints that the sister’s father is dead, but then find out he is alive and Flavie just avoids both her divorced parents. That plot thread seemed like a bait & switch- not cool.

Volume Three

The action picks up again in the last volume, with Flavie getting re-involved with her meteorology department at her former university. While the weather has been warmer recently, the research team needs to get readings from various weather stations to determine trends. Marco is half-living with Falvie, but their interests are very different and they seem ill-suited for one another. On the other hand, Alex from her team seems like a great guy and seems to be a better match for her. The team needs to visit the nuclear plant that blew up years prior, and Flavie risks radiation poisoning to get the data that is needed. The last few pages put a neat bow on the story, showing Flavie and her sister leaving Montreal for a much-needed vacation when Alex shows up.

The words that I would use to describe the entire series are cute and light-hearted. Despite this, it actually showed a nuanced view of relationships. Flavie realizes her first boyfriend was no good and then later comes to understand that while Marco wasn’t a bad guy, once the initial appeal of him wore off, she saw that he was using her for what she could do for him and there was no lasting connection between the two. Sometimes you have to go thru some toads to find your prince.

I read the first volume for the January pick for the I Read Comics Books book club on Goodreads, and then quickly read the two following books in the series, once I discovered that I liked the vibe of the first. The French-Canadian artist and author Caroline Breault (aka CAB) created a fun world, and I’m glad it was translated into English for more readers to enjoy!

Once & Future: The Wasteland

In this concluding fifth volume of Once & Future, it is up to Gran, Duncan and Rose to save everyone from the deadly Otherworld that has now infiltrated the entire U.K. It all started when 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. Due to some magical treachery, the Otherworld is now out in the open, and reality and fantasy have become co-mingled. Our three heroes try to save their friends and family while battling new creatures, but Duncan’s mother Mary and his half-brother always complicate matters.

As with all the volumes, King Arthur and Merlin play a big part in the narrative. But there are several versions of them that have appeared, all believing themselves to be the true King and wizard. There are many twists and turns, and Rose’s adoption plays a pivotal part towards the end. There are sacrifices made, but Gran and Mary always know what to do and how to manipulate the situation in their favor.

Author Kieron Gillen is obviously an expert in English stories, but the average reader is not, so there were times the warped mythology became too confusing. Throughout the entire series, he threw in so many different characters and plots from English folktales and legends that it was hard to keep straight who was who and how they all connected to one another. However, I learned from his previous series, The Wicked + The Divine, that you can’t get caught up in the small details, as you have to step back and look at the big picture.

I really enjoyed the art by Dan Mora and how he drew the characters plus all the fantasy elements. Fond of many panels per page, the action flowed in cinematic-like sequences.  Mora created amazing monsters and landscapes, and the coloring by Tamra Bonvillain was perfect. The floating orbs that were previously a clue that magic was moving into the regular world and they should be wary of are now everywhere, so on the flip side, when the story ended, I was sad to see the orbs disappear.

The concluding page points to the possibility of further adventures, which Gillen confirms in his farewell statement. The mythology in this series was deliciously warped, so I look forward to future adventures with hunky Duncan and his ass-kicking Gran if this creative team decides to reanimate the story in the future!

Read the rest of the series!

V1: The King is Undead

V2: Old English

V3: The Parliament of Magpies

V4: Monarchies in the U.K.

20th Century Ghosts

I am a big fan of Joe Hill, first becoming aware of him through his graphic novel series Locke & Key. Afterward, I read other graphic novels by him, plus his horror-themed short story collections. I read this book years ago and found it uneven, for it was his first published book. While it did include some gems, he has honed his writing since then.

Best New Horror (4/5): An editor on the lookout for a promising author finds him in a home reminiscent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Did he escape?

20th Century Ghost (3.5/5): A theatre is haunted. Alec buys it anyway.

Pop Art (4/5): I almost gave up on this magical realism tale, but it grew on me. An inflatable boy is real- just go with it.

You Will Hear the Locust Sing (2/5): Radiation turns Francis into an insect. Chaos ensues.

Abraham’s Boys (4/5): Atmospheric rural gothic horror.

Better Than Home (2/5): Skipped most of this baseball-themed story.

The Black Phone (5/5): First of my two favorites. A boy is kidnapped and the disconnected black phone in his prison will help save him. Recently it was tuned into an excellent movie with Ethan Hawke.

In the Rundown (4/5): Kensington is a punk who gets drawn into a domestic tragedy. Who will be believed?

The Cape (4.5/5): This story is the reason I picked up the collection. I read the graphic novel that is based on this story, hoping for more insight. Turns out the graphic novel story is more fleshed out than this story. A solid and disturbing story. Read my review of the illustrated version, plus its prequel.

Last Breath (3/5): Saw the ending coming a mile away.

Dead-Wood (3/5): Super short story about trees.

The Widow’s Breakfast (4/5): Historical fiction set during the Depression with a slightly creepy end.

Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead (3.5/5): Not scary at all, and the a$$ in the story might steal away his ex.

My Father’s Mask (2/5): Weird, weird story with a 70s vibe.

Voluntary Committal (5/5): Second fav, and the longest of the stories. A cool and creepy story about brothers and other dimensions.

Even if this collection didn’t knock my socks off, I adore his work as a whole, and will always seek his books out.

The Flintstones

Yabba Dabba Doo! This satirical look at the iconic Flinstones is a treat.

I recently read Not All Robots by Mark Russell which had some social commentary about a futuristic society, and on Goodreads, I noticed several reviewers mentioned this earlier work, which goes back in time to offer more biting wit. We drop in on the town on Bedrock 100,000 years ago and meet Fred & Wilma with their tween Pebbles, along with their best friends Barney & Betty and their son Bamm-Bamm. While these Hanna-Barbera characters are similar to the cartoon, the creative team takes them in new directions.

Each chapter/issue is self-contained telling a new story, similar in a way to episodic television.  Russell ties in wry commentary on society, into what we remember about the Flintstones, with a not surprisingly liberal bent. In this narrative, Fred and Barney are veterans of the Paleolithic Wars and we get a look at how the Bedrock community came to be after soldiers destroyed the prior tree-living inhabitants, mirroring how America was colonized after killing off Native American tribes. This sad chapter also explains how Bamm-Bamm came to join Barney and Betty, as he is the last survivor of a tree-dwelling tribe after an unjustified raid. We also have chapters on materialistic society, with riffs on Flinstones vitamins and the animals that are used by the Bedrock community as appliances. These animals that serve as sight gags actually get some bittersweet dialogue about their lives as pawns. Religion and the sanctity of marriage are also addressed.

Artist Steve Pugh has created a clever universe, that honors the original, but has fun poking fun at it. The men aren’t drawn quite as crudely as their cartoon counterparts, giving them a slightly more realistic look. The women are still hotties, as many sitcoms from the Honeymooners to King of Queens, pair a buffoon with a beautiful woman. As I said earlier there are many sight gags, plus there are caricatures of famous people and situations. I’m sure the artist had fun creating many of the jokes found throughout.

For fans of satire and for those with fond memories of The Flintstones, this is an amusing book that will make you chuckle and as a bonus, think!

Strange Weather

Strange Weather is a collection of four novellas by a favored horror novelist of mine, Joe Hill. I listened to it on audio, and was pleased by the four different narrators, two of them Star Trek alum!

Snapshot (4.5/5)

Set in California in 1988, awkward and friendless Michael helps his elderly former babysitter back home when she is found wandering the neighborhood. Shelly, suffering from dementia, tells Micahel of a strange man who has taken pictures of her using a Polaroid-type camera to steal her memories. Micahel agrees to be her occasional caretaker and learns that her ramblings were actually correct when this evil man comes after her again. After the deadly struggle, there is a surprisingly long conclusion where teen Micahel grows up and takes steps to help Shelly escape her mortal life from her ignoble life in a nursing home. This was a sad and poignant story about the loss of identity and family ties. Voiced well by Wil Wheaton.

Loaded (4/5)

This story was rough. An unhinged mall security guard seemingly saves the lives of others when a shooting between a jewelry store owner and his jilted mistress results in collateral damage at the mall. The readers know how he illegally gained his gun and how the shooting truly unfolded, but to those in his community, he is hailed as a hero. But a single mother journalist, who has her own story of an unjustified shooting in the past, begins to find holes in the guard’s story. The conclusion was deadly and heartbreaking and proves the quote: “Guns don’t kill people, people do”.

Aloft (3.5/5)

A young man’s first parachute jump goes haywire when as the last to jump of his friends, he lands on a strange cloud that had looked like a UFO…and is. Stranded there this ship senses him and taps into his mind giving him a cloud woman based on his unrequited love, but he knows it is but a fantasy and stumbles upon the remains of three people from the 1800s who had perished there after crashing their hot air balloon on the UFO. He discovers the alien (the description reminded me of the tentacled alien found on the animated The Simpsons) and then makes the decision to jump using the old hot balloon silks. I wondered how he would explain that he landed two states away from his jump point.

Rain (4/5)

On an ordinary day in Boulder, Colorado, a deadly rainstorm suddenly appears- raining down crystal spikes that kill anyone unlucky enough to be outside. A woman who had been excited that her girlfriend was moving in that day, instead sees her beloved die. She then takes off on a post-apocalyptic road trip to tell her lover’s father what happened and, of course, is besieged. There are a few political digs towards Trump/Pence that will amuse you (me) or make you mad. Voiced by the indomitable Kate Mulgrew aka Captain Janeway.

All four stories had different feels, from very dark to almost light-hearted. In his afterward Hill said, “Short novels are all killer, no filler” and I agree. I love short stories (that’s why I love the LeVar Burton Reads podcast so much) because they get straight to the point, for there is an economy to the writing that is stronger than some authors who write 500+ page books that are overflowing with unneeded details. This is yet another book of Hill’s that I would recommend to others!

Refrigerator Full of Heads

DC Black Label gave author Joe Hill his own comic label- Hill House Comics, and the first book in his line was Basketful of Heads, which was full of dark humor and was ridiculous fun. This sequel, led by a new creative team and authored by Rio Youers, builds off the first but amps up the gore and ludicrousness by 100%!

The year is 1984, and a year has passed since June survived a massacre on Brody Island and threw the magical Norse axe into the bay. Two undercover Department of Defense agents arrive on the island to find the axe, but a biker gang is also on the trail. June, who has tried to put to distance herself from last summer’s tragedy is pulled into it again, as the biker gang has located more Norse weapons that are deadly and magical and want her to reveal where the axe is to complete their collection. When the axe is discovered by the DoD agents, it comes in very handy when a great white shark attacks them. The story leans into the absurd with this shark and soon the vacation rental’s refrigerator starts to fill up with the heads of bikers and corrupt cops. While I liked June and the DoD agents, Calvin (loved his shirt!) and Arlene, the bikers were simply created to be evil with no redeeming characteristics. You must have a huge suspension of disbelief throughout, especially for a certain rolling head that points to yet another sequel in the future.

Artists Tom Fowler and Craig A Taillefer gave the characters a Mad magazine type of caricature treatment, which was the aesthetic established in the first book, but further supported in that Fowler has worked for Mad in the past. I loved the chapter breaks, as different authors gave their interpretations of the story. The action scenes, especially with the shark, could get to be a bit much with too many panels. There were times in a two-page spread I wasn’t sure if I should read top to bottom and start at the top of the second page again, or if it spread over the entire two pages.

While I wouldn’t recommend this book to a newbie, it builds off the first story well, so if you liked Basketful of Heads you should definitely check out this over-the-top story as well!

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