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Graphic Novelty²

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Nancy

I'm a busy mom and teen librarian! I manage to fit in some time to be the co-writer of the blog Graphic Novelty².

The Crossroads at Midnight

The Crossroads at Midnight is a collection of five creepy short stories written and illustrated by Abby Howard. It is a good introduction for an older YA audience looking for horror graphic novels, who are ready for some gore, but not too much.

The Girl in the Fields

A queer teen is outed when her private online correspondence is read by her conservative parents.  They threaten that their pastor will cure her, and living out in the country, Frankie has nowhere to escape to.  But she seems to strike up a friendship with a neighboring girl who she can’t see because of the tall fence. Determined to meet in person, she climbs over but can’t find her, but unfortunately runs across a farmer who is a religious zealot and who plans to kill her with his tractor. This was a heavy story to start off with, but it had an interesting blend of reality with the unexpected.

Mattress, Used

Christina, a frazzled college student who is crashing in a friend’s apartment snags a used mattress from a city street. Her roommate is rightfully disgusted, as stains are evident. But Christina’s nights become filled with nightmares with a large creature says he wants her flesh. Upon waking she is exhausted, feverish and develops a bad rash. After a horrific long hospital stay in which she loses a lot of skin, she is visited by the creature once she returns home. Is she doomed to lose the rest of her skin? The last panel shows the mattress out on the road again- who’s next???

The Boy From The Sea

Two sisters vacation with their father at a beach, when a strange boy befriends the younger sister. The older sister clues in that the boy means her harm and is on guard to keep her sister safe. But the older sister needs to make a heartbreaking decision when he comes to drag her sister into the ocean. Thirty years pass and another agonizing scene occurs with no recourse.

Our Lake Monster

The naivete of youth! A young teen reminisces about the days in which her family traveled with a lake creature, before a tragedy occurred, putting an end to their side-show income. She believes the lake monster is still kind as it was when it was young and much smaller, and waxes poetic to her little brother about it. She then makes a decision that has terrible consequences for the entire family.

Kindred Spirits

This melancholy story was strangely sweet, although it was the only story that did not include a young character. An older woman Norah who has never married or had children lives out in the country, which is adjacent to a bog. A bog woman mysteriously shows up at her doorstep and believe it or not, the two women strike up a friendship of sorts. Two other voiceless bog women join them, and Norah researches who they might have been in the past and the circumstances of their death. Later, after rejection after rejection by the townspeople during her time of need, she makes a decision that brings her peace.

Howard’s black and white art was powerful. Her crosshatching of shadows and effective use of white vs black gutters to hint at the changing tone was spot-on. Her art reminded me of Junito Ito’s work- both in style and substance. Body horror was forefront in most of the narratives, and you need to have a strong suspension of disbelief. These bittersweet tales are a perfect slice-of-life horror.

Thanks to NetGalley for an early online copy. As a teen librarian, I will definitely be buying a copy for my library’s collection!

-Nancy

Noir: A Collection of Crime Comics

Noir is a “genre of crime fiction that is characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity” and these black and white short stories definitely fit that definition. Chosen as this month’s pick from the Goodreads group, I Read Comic Books, I was intrigued and looked forward to reading the thirteen stories. However, the graphic novel got off to a very rough start and I almost put it down. 

Stray Bullets: Open The Goddamn Box by David Lapham and Clem Robins

WTF- why is the first story? A teen girl is kidnapped by two males who plan to rape her. She manages to escape but not before another rape occurs, and she seems to perceive it as retribution, and in a joking manner. I’ve noticed trigger warnings in more stories nowadays, and this story needs one as the story is bleak and wildly inappropriate. I’m sure as a woman this story affected me more than it would a male, but I’ve heard newer editions omit this story and for good reason. 

The Old Silo by Jeff Lemire

Luckily the second story in this collection was among my favorites, and let me continue with this book. A farmer about to lose his farm finds a bank robber who was hurt in the getaway on his property. He makes a choice that enables him to pay off his mortgage. A perfect noir story by the esteemed Lemire. 

Mister X: Yacht On The Styx by Dean Motter

The mysterious Mister X explains to a femme fatale what happened on a yacht when a tycoon went missing and whose body was later found hidden in his building’s cornerstone. There was a weird dystopian/sci-fi aspect to this story and it didn’t appeal to me. 

The Last Hit by Chriss Offutt, Kano and Stefano Gaudiano

An older hitman is given one last job, but then discovers a younger hitman is after him. He thinks they have come to an understanding, but he underestimated his opponent. 

Fracture by Alex De Campi and Hugo Petrus

I didn’t understand this almost wordless story. A woman on the subway witnesses an accident, or did she cause it? The story fractures with possible alternate realities.

The Albanian by M.K. Perker

An Albanian janitor witnesses a bloodbath in the office building he cleans, but he escapes unscathed. Why he gave his son the murder’s puppet escapes me. I actually wondered if the puppet was evil and would hurt the child later. 

Kane: the Card Player by Paul Grist

A burglar leaves numbered playing cards behind and a crime lord seems to be mad about it. A cop is on the take and the burglar is killed. At the end, I felt a pivotal scene had been left out to explain things. 

Blood on my Hands by Paul Geary

A husband who loses his job is worried about his wife cheating on him. He wants his wife and lover killed, but accidentally sends a hitman against the wrong couple. Whoops. This twisted confessional was strangely effective, and dare I say, sweet.

Tru$tworthy by Ken Lizzi and Joelle Jones

This story was mostly text, with only a few illustrations, so it was kind of jarring to include in this graphic novel, although it actually was one of my favorite stories. A woman tries to con her way out of a bad situation, by sleeping with a man she intends to make a patsy.  But he turns the tables on her at the end.

The New Me by Garry Phillips and Eduardo Barreto

An out-of-shape woman goes to the gym whose trainer is known for getting results but also for sleeping with all his clients. Over the course of a few months, she becomes a hottie and she seduces him. But the whole time she had an ulterior reason, and in an out-of-nowhere sci-fi twist, she uses him to help her invalid husband. I liked this one, although the premise was kind of ridiculous. 

Lady’s Choice by Matthew and Shawn Fillbach

A gangster’s moll is tired of her current asshole and wants to move on to a new shady character. 

21st Century Noir by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

A woman seduces a younger man and reveals she is abused by her husband, and this man says he will help her. The lover goes to confront the husband, but there is a dark and perverted twist you won’t expect. 

The Bad Night by Brian Azzarello, Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba

The story begins blandly with a man being sent out to commit a robbery against a rich couple, but the last page takes the story in a whole new direction, once you realize who the couple and their little boy are. Bravo for that last little twist that most people familiar with DC should recognize.

All in all, an adequate anthology of stories, for as with any collection there are bound to be some strong entries but then some clunkers. I absolutely hated Stray Bullets, but Old Silo, The New Me and 21st Century Noir were excellent. My recommendation is to pick up a newer edition without the first story and I wish dearly that my Goodreads group had suggested that. 

-Nancy

Middlewest: Books Two + Three

The three-volume Middlewest series was a mash-up of the classic hero’s journey, steampunk and The Wizard of Oz. The first book had been intriguing- it was about a teen runaway named Abel and how the toxic masculinity that his father has modeled affected him as dangerous magic begins to transform him into a monstrous creature.

Book Two

Abel’s breakdown in book one has led to him turning into a storm monster at the carnival in which he was taking refuge from his father. Ashamed at the destruction he caused, he runs away. I thought there was some nuanced dialogue about following him, with a friend wanting to follow him immediately, but the older leader of the carnival making the decision to stay and help the survivors regroup. Abel journeys into a forest with his sidekick, Fox, and discovers his grandfather, who has transformed part of the forest into a hellish winter landscape. His grandfather shows his true colors, and his cruelness drives Abel away into a nearby city where he is kidnapped to become a slave worker in nearby farm fields. All the while Abel’s father Dale continues searching for him. A bleak story about lack of self-control and its consequences.

Book Three

This last book was message-heavy! Abel gets to know the other youth trapped as farmhands, and their sad backstories make him realize he is not alone. Maggie, the carnival leader, is able to put together a group that wants to help Abel and they pick up new followers as they follow Abel’s trail. Dale has also found Abel, so all paths are converging for a battle. The generational rage is addressed, with sorrow and forgiveness concluding this three-part tale.

The art by Jorge Corona was fun and the bright colors by Jean-Francois Beaulieu incorporated a lot of pink, purple and orange that helped convey the emotional tone. This was a unique graphic novel series that brought up a lot of intriguing issues- but didn’t quite stick the landing. Dystopian and fantasy aspects tied into real and gritty personal plot threads, but I wasn’t sure at times what direction the narrative was going (and what happened to Abel’s mom?). Author Skottie Young has an interesting voice, and while this series didn’t do it for me, I will continue to seek out further work by him.

-Nancy

Flamer

Flamer by Mike Curato is a layered graphic novel set in 1995 about a teen who is struggling with the growing realization that he is gay. 

Aidan is a Filipino-American Boy Scout who is attending summer scout camp and struggles with the toxic masculinity that the other boys demonstrate. However, despite these issues, he feels more at home with his troop, after enduring worse treatment in middle school. Nervous about transferring schools to avoid his bullies, he wonders if high school will be more of the same, so this pause between the known and unknown is a time of growth for Aidan. 

A devout Catholic, he finds solace in his church, but that has also fueled his worries that he will be cast out and deemed a sinner if he reveals that he is gay. Plus, all the messages that he receives from others indicate that being gay is wrong, and in addition, he worries he would be kicked out of scouts, for at that time gay males were not allowed in scouting. His attraction to males is pushed down, for he is afraid of the ramifications with his family, friends and faith if he reveals what he truly feels. 

Aidan’s friendship with his friend Elias is put to the test when Aidan’s growing attraction to him is acted upon, and Elias reacts negatively. Afraid that he has jeopardized everything, Aidan debates committing suicide but is saved by an epiphany. By the end of the story, Aidan becomes more comfortable with himself and his future. 

Author and illustrator Mike Curato’s narrative is all the stronger because it is semi-autobiographical and is #ownvoices as he is gay. His sketchy black and white drawings, with limited orange and red highlights, captures teen angst and will be very appealing to a YA audience. A mix of fantasy and reality is woven together to tell a strong tale of self-discovery and acceptance. At times the narrative can become very heavy and might benefit from some trigger warnings as the homophobia and suicide attempt could be upsetting to some readers. However, I believe that LGBTQ+ readers will feel seen, and others might gain a greater understanding of their peer’s lives. 

-Nancy

Venus in the Blind Spot

Having recently read Uzumaki: Spiral Into Horror, a classic in manga body horror, I was impressed by the author and illustrator Junji Ito. When I heard that a collection of his short stories was being released, I was anxious to read more of Ito’s macabre stories.  His ten stories include three written by others, but all have his distinctive art style and otherwordly terror. The book also includes some full-color artwork in the beginning, which is a treat because most of the stories are in black and white only. Get ready for a grotesque set of stories! 

Billions Alone

Michio is a teen who has isolated himself from the world for seven years, but is coaxed out by former classmates who wish him to join them in their graduation ceremony. But the town has had some gruesome murders, with people being discovered sewn together. It seems groups meeting together are being targeted, with mass murders and elaborately staged kill sites. People are scared and begin to isolate themselves, but paradoxically Michio is lured out more and more by his love for a classmate who has shown him kindness. 

The Human Chair (Edogawa Ranpo)

Adapted from a 1925 story, this tale is of obsession but was more ridiculous than scary. A young wife discovers that a man who is in love with her has hollowed out her favorite chair and lives in it, so he can always be with her. Defying credibility, he kills her husband and the wife falls in love with him and joins him in the chair. The ending has a modern-day chairmaker explain that he is descended from them, as they had children together. In a chair???

An Unearthly Love (Edogawa Ranpo)

A new wife discovers her husband is unnaturally attached to a life-size doll. When she destroys it so his affections will return to her, he can’t bear it. 

Venus in the Blind Spot

A group of UFO enthusiasts fall in love with the club president’s daughter Mariko, but all begin to have vision problems that they are unable to see her if she is directly in front of them. It turns out the girl’s scientist father has done something to the men, but the plan backfires spectacularly when the men turn on Mariko. 

The Licking Woman

This story was WEIRD. A mysterious woman accosts people on dark streets and licks them with her poisonous tongue. Then the tongue takes on a life of its own. 

Master Umezz and Me

Autobiographic in nature, Ito shares how his love of manga began as a child. He especially idolizes manga artist Kazuo Umezz. 

How Love Came to Professor Kirida (Robert Hichens)

A misanthrope professor has a woman’s spirit attach to him, as she is obsessed with him. Disgusted by her desire, he shares his haunting with a friend who is a priest. These two men have unhealthy boundaries and I wondered why women would want to be with either of them.

The Engima of Amigara Fault

An earthquake reveals a fault line in which silhouettes of people’s bodies are revealed. People begin to flock to the area to see this phenomenon, and some people discover the holes are a perfect fit for them. The people fit through the holes and disappear into the mountain never to be seen again. But where are they going? Months later when explorers find the other side of the fault, a creepy visual shows what happened to them. 

The Sad Tale of the Principal Post

The shortest of all the stories, a man gets caught under the supporting post of his new house and his family lets him die there instead of damaging the house. Ok, sure. 

Keepsake

This unnatural tale was an excellent way to end the collection. A baby is discovered in the grave of a woman who died nine months before. Her husband, who quickly remarried, takes the baby to his new wife who has a child of her own, as they had been having an affair before the first wife’s death. We learn that they poisoned the wife, but while the husband was holding vigil over her body before she was buried, had sex with her body. The second wife is horrified, and the conclusion has a similar circumstance, and you find out the husband is now married to a third wife…

As I said in my Uzumaki review- the creatures are macabre and Lovecraftian in nature, so even if the narrative dips into absurdness at times, the art keeps you riveted- and this collection follows suit. This was an interesting collection, and many of the stories are extreme and unbelievable, but you must suspend your disbelief and just enjoy the experience of Ito’s amazing imagination!  

-Nancy

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

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 

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!

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

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