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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.

Free Comic Book Day 2020

Free Comic Book Day had been scheduled for Saturday, May 2nd, and for very obvious reasons didn’t happen. I had brought FCBD to my previous library for several years and had big plans for my new library, but it had to be cancelled. With many of the issues already printed- what were the publishers and comic book stores to do? So, they decided to release the issues on a weekly basis from July 15th- September 9th. But I am resourceful and know that September 25th is National Comic Book Day, so my new library patrons will get comics after all on that day, albeit in a smaller outside the library (in a tent) event.

Here were some of my favorite issues this year, minus any DC comics that I had originally put in an order for since they pulled out of the event (boo, hiss!) since they no longer work with Diamond Comic Distributors.

Dark Ark: Instinct

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. In this short story, a spider/human hybrid is about to give birth on the boat so her mate seeks nourishment for the forthcoming babies. But instinct takes over when she thinks she can not feed them and her mate discovers what she has done when he was briefly away and his actions doom them to extinction. The art was necessarily dark and sketchy with pink and red overtones. Cullen Bunn continues his excellent storytelling in this series.

X-Men/Dark Ages

The first story was about the X-Men with the second about the Avengers. I had no idea what was going on in the X-Men story although it had gorgeous art. Different universes, tarot cards, and ominous warnings were all I got out of it. The next story was centered around Tony Stark (whom I dislike) but at least I understood what was happening. When Iron Man’s powers are strictly based on technology, what happens when the world goes dark?

Spiderman/Venom

This issue contains two stories- the first about Spiderman and Black Cat and the second one being about Venom. In the first story, Peter and Felicia are battling it out with Vulture and working well as a team. The sexual tension is high and Peter questions what Felicity is up to, as she can’t always be trusted. In the next story, Eddie Brock is warning the Avengers team that the extremely dangerous villain Knull is readying to attack. His symbiote Venom is friendlier than I remember, and the two have to battle another villain, Virus. Both stories are good lead-ins to their respective future narratives.

Bloodshot, featuring X-O Manowar

The meh Bloodshot story was only a few pages long and didn’t even list the author and illustrator, although it did show Vin Diesel on the front cover as he will be portraying him in a future movie. I enjoyed the longer second story about X-O Manowar during his Viking childhood. It connected the mythology of his ancestors with his space-traveling future.

The Resistance

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. The art is solid and was appropriately shadowy considering the storyline.

I also read Invincible by Robert Kirkman and The Boys by Garth Ennis, but they are simply reprints of their first issues to serve as lead-ins to new series on Prime Video that they wish to hype.

I appreciate that FCBD was not scrapped and adapted so readers could still pick up free issues. The comic book stores and publishers made the best of the situation with the unforeseen pandemic and DC pulling out of the event. It builds goodwill, drives people to comic book stores and thus increases sales at both the stores and for the publishers.

-Nancy

The Low, Low Woods

The Low, Low Woods is an atmospheric and surreal horror story set in the dying coal town of Shudder-To-Think, Pennsylvania.

Elements of feminism and malevolence come into play, as two young women El and Vee realize something is terribly wrong in their town. Years ago a fire moved underground into the coal mines, forcing their closures and gutting an already fragile economy. In addition, women began to exhibit strange episodes in which they were losing large portions of their memory. When this seems to happen to the two friends on an evening at the movies, they want answers. Readers then discover there is already a layer of magic, as a strange deer/human hybrid is sighted, skinned men are hiding in the woods, and there are rabbits everywhere with human eyes. There is somewhat of a Paper Girls vibe in this story, further supported that El and Vee ride their bikes everywhere, but late in the story the narrative takes a sharp and confusing turn. A witch who is trying to combat the cruelty of the men in the region, as previous sexual assaults are implied in the story but not seen, but her spells don’t always work the way she intended. The remainder of the story is the young women trying to give agency back to the women affected by the dark magic.

The illustrations by artist Dani are dark with a color palette using a lot of black and red. The panels are varied, often with a large picture with smaller ones layered on top with black gutters. But the lines can be imprecise and lacking details. For example, El who is a larger woman is often drawn blocky. But I did appreciate that the various characters were given a diverse look. There was a lot of dialogue and information given in text boxes, with a small font that made reading challenging.

I have read a previous short story, Blur,  by the author Carmen Maria Machado through LeVar Burton Reads, and she is known for her LGTBQ+ storylines in the horror genre. While this story wasn’t exactly to my liking, I like how Hill House Comics is using a variety of authors to reach different audiences. I was pleased to receive an advance copy through NetGalley and I plan on reading more of this label’s graphic novels!

-Nancy

Brain Camp

“Something isn’t quite right at Camp Fielding” is the premise for a summer camp from hell experience for a pair of young teens.

I actually read this YA graphic novel a few years ago and never reviewed it, and while recently taking a walk through my local library I spotted it and checked it out again. I also re-discovered why I didn’t review it, it just wasn’t that great, but Kathleen and I are honest in our reviews and I can share reviews even if they aren’t completely positive.

Jenna and Lucas are underachieving teens who mysteriously are selected for an all-expenses-paid summer camp, that they never applied for, under the premise that it will boost their college readiness skills. Their parents eagerly agree and off they go the very next morning arriving a week later than most campers. These two misfits bond with Dwayne and the three immediately notice that something is very off at the camp. Campers seem to be growing intellectually in leaps and bounds, but a strange bird-like creature is controlling the camp directors and feathers ominously appear in connection with unexplained events. When Dwayne is sidelined it is up to Jenna and Lucas to figure out what is happening and try to save all the campers from an insidious plot.

Faith Erin Hicks is a favored author/artist of mine (Friends with Boys, the Nameless City trilogy, Pumpkin Heads and Comics Will Break Your Heart), although in this book she strictly provides the art. And the art is what elevates this meh graphic novel. She draws appealing characters and really shows emotions and nuances that help push the narrative forward.

Taken in parts there are some good elements in the story- there is an attempt to show some racial and socioeconomic diversity, issues with growing teen bodies are addressed, and there is an interesting supernatural twist. But stitched together it didn’t quite work. As I said earlier, the art by FEH elevated the story and I have read many books by her since.  I believe a YA audience will enjoy this story and art as they consider how they themselves would save the day like Jenna and Lucas did.

-Nancy

Graphic Novel Suggestions

Graphic novels have been growing in popularity but it seems at times that prejudice against them remains, with a lingering doubt about their literary merit. But as a former elementary teacher, and now a current teen librarian, I can say confidently that graphic novels are a magnificent way to bring a story to life. And other educators agree, as teachers and librarians on the 2014 New York Comic-Con panel Super Girls: Using Comics to Engage Female Students in the High School Classroom listed these benefits and skills that are strengthened by graphic novels: “motivating reluctant readers, inference, memory, sequencing, understanding succinct language, and reading comprehension.” To find out more about how graphic novels can be used in education go to the website CBLDF (Comic Book Legal Defense Fund for they have featured articles that are designed to lessen confusion around the content of graphic novels and to help parents and educators raise readers.

There is great variety within graphic novels, with many genres available beyond the stereotypical superhero stories (although those can be great too!). No matter your interest, there is a graphic novel for you, so I have pulled together some of my favorites to highlight.

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Diversity is key in literature and even stronger when an #ownvoices author can share their experiences with the reader. As such, here are a few Diverse Reads:
Roughneck
Roughneck by Jeff Lemire is a beautifully told standalone tale of a brother and sister’s quest to reconnect with one another and their cultural identity written and illustrated by the talented Jeff Lemire. Lemire handles the storyline of Derek and Beth’s Cree heritage with grace and respect and show the reality of native families becoming disenfranchised from their cultural heritage. The ending is open to interpretation, and while I at first looked at it one way, re-reading it I saw a more melancholy but poignant way of concluding the story.

 

The graphic novel adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s story, Kindred, was extremely well done. Butler’s original novel, published in 1979, was a groundbreaking story that liberally dipped into historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy within a time-traveling framework. The author
herself called the story “a kind of grim fantasy”, and this adaptation shows just that. This was a heartbreaking story, and through the juxtaposition of main character Dana’s experiences in two different centuries, this fantasy novel actually gives a highly realistic view of the slavery era.
Image result for the outside circle

The Outside Circle, written by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and illustrated by Kelly Mellings, tells the fictional tale of a Canadian First Nations man that comes to terms with his heritage and who begins to take responsibility for his life. The story is based on the reality that many Native people face (in Canada and the US), for the government took away thousands of children from their families over the years, breaking the circles of community and fragmenting generations of people with no connection to their tribe anymore.

 

 

Strange Fruit by JG Jones and Mark Waid has an interesting premise: what if a black Superman landed in the segregated South during the 1920s? This magical realism tale is based on the historical 1927 flooding that affected many towns in the South along rivers. As the threat of disaster looms in this story, and racial tensions are mounting, an explosion occurs nearby. An alien ship has crash-landed and out climbs a naked black man, whose ship disappears into the river muck. This novel raised more questions than it answered, but was certainly thought-provoking.

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Even though most people who know me would agree that I am a friendly woman who smiles a lot and has a good sense of humor, I obviously must have a dark streak for I love Dark and Disturbing books:

Locke & Key is truly one of the best graphic novels I have ever read, hands down. It just dominates. Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez are superb storytellers, and the six-volume series is strong from beginning to end. The story starts with a family tragedy as the Locke family is terrorized by two students who have an ax to grind with the father, Rendell. After the father’s murder, the shattered family leaves California and heads to Massachusetts to start over at the Locke family estate but malevolent horrors await them there. The new Netflix series based on this series is strong and choose to show more of the fantasy vs horror aspects of the story.

Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët was macabre, unsettling and gruesome. I loved it. This seemingly sweet graphic novel starts out with a lovely young woman having tea with a prince, and it is going splendidly well, that is until great globs of red stuff start falling on them. As everyone runs for safety, the view shifts away for a long shot, and you see little creatures pouring out of the orifices of a dead girl. And the story continues to go sideways from there.

Another series that I found outstanding was Revival, written by Tim Seeley and illustrated by Mike Norton. It was an atypical living dead story, in which a handful of dead suddenly came back to life. They quietly rejoin their former lives, not even realizing or remembering their deaths. Their new existence sets the town on edge, with media scrutiny, a government quarantine and religious fanatics taking over the region. I loved this series even before I won​ a contest run by Seeley and Norton, in which I was drawn in as a cameo character in the eighth and last volume. I will talk about this honor until my dying day.

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Sometimes real life is stranger than fiction and these non-fiction stories or based on fact stories are a great example of Real and Gritty:

The March trilogy is a perfect example of how graphic novels can bring educational content alive. This non-fiction series is a vivid account by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell about Lewis’ human rights struggle and the greater Civil Rights movement. Students can learn so much from these three novels as they bring history to life and supplements what textbooks only briefly touch on.


Briggs Land by Brian Wood and Mack Chater is an absolutely riveting series about “an American family under siege” by both the government and their own hand. Set in rural upstate New York, Briggs Land is a hundred square mile oasis for people who want to live off the grid. Established in the Civil War era, the Briggs family would give sanctuary to those who wanted to live a simple life, but this anti-government colony has taken a dark turn in recent times. The village that grew within its fences has morphed into a breeding ground for white supremacy, domestic terrorism and money laundering.

Rebels: A Well Regulated Militia is “a historical epic of America’s founding” and is very accurate in describing this exceptionally good graphic novel by Brian Wood (again!) and Andrea Mutti. It gives a window into the Revolutionary War era based in the NE corner of our new nation in the late 1700s. Divided into six chapters, Wood first gives us a lengthy portrait of the fictional character Seth Abbott and his journey from farm boy to one of the well-respected leaders of the Green Mountain Boys. Then we are given shorter non-linear vignettes of other loyalists and patriots and their contributions to the war.

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Now that I’ve covered other genres in graphic novels, I want to share some Classic Superhero stories that go deeper than most:

Although Superman: American Alien by Max Landis has Superman in the title, it is really focused on Clark Kent stories. Each of the seven stories features a different artist and are put in chronological order to fill in the gaps in the Superman canon. We start with Clark as a boy learning how to fly, move through his adolescence, and finally settle in his early years in Metropolis. Every story is strong and fits in seamlessly with what we already know about Superman. I highly recommend this book, for it humanizes him. All seven stories are excellent, and they flow and connect into one another to form the larger picture of who Clark Kent is and who he will be. A must buy for Superman aficionados!

Kingdom ComeKingdom Come, written by Mark Waid and illustrated by Alex Ross, was praised by IGN with the statement, “One of the greatest comic book stories of all time”, and they were not far off the mark. I am typically more a Marvel fan, but this DC story was fantastic for the moralistic debate featured in the storyline. The artwork is top-notch, with a distinctive photo-realism look and holds up 20 years after first being published. This book stays true to each character’s back story, so kudos to the team’s familiarity with the history of all the superheroes! As such, the epilogue was a perfect ending.​

Vision- Little Worse Than A Man by Tom King and illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta is as far from a superhero story as possible. While grounded in the Marvel universe, with cameos by other Avengers and villains, this book is about our definition of humanity. This quietly ominous story had such power and felt especially moving to me to read at this time when I worry about our nation’s future. I feel some in our country have embraced a bullying rhetoric, and turn a blind eye to facts and justice for all. It’s sequel Little Better Than A Beast was equally strong.

 

Marvel 1602, written by the esteemed Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert, was marvelous (get the play on words?)! The story was a perfect way to freshen up the franchise and reboot some of the hero’s storylines. The story takes place in 1602 and is an alternate world in which Europe and colonial America’s history is jumbled and out of order due to a rift in the timeline, with America’s first child of European descent, Virginia Dare, surviving and traveling overseas to London with her bodyguard Rojhaz. Court intrigue during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I abounds, and there are several betrayals, with many of the mutants needing to travel far to escape persecution for being “witchbreed”. Eventually, America becomes a sanctuary for these people with magical abilities, and an answer as to why they are in 1602 is made clear.

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While I could wax poetic about many other books, I hope those featured encourage you to pick up a graphic novel for the first time or introduces you to new titles if you already are a fan.  Happy Reading!

-Nancy

*This post was originally on another blogger’s page as a guest post, but as the blog is no longer active, I transferred it back here, since I wrote it myself back in 2018. I have learned to keep a copy of my guest posts as I learned the lesson the hard way when another post written by me disappeared when another blog was deactivated.*

Basketful of Heads

Joe Hill is having a moment. With his Locke & Key series now on Netflix, and his novels and short-story collections in high demand, DC has given him a prestige project, his own label- Hill House Comics. While not all of the graphic novels under this label will be penned by him, this first story is.

Set in September 1983, on Brody Island in Maine, the story establishes an 80s horror flick vibe. June is visiting her boyfriend Liam who is wrapping up his summer job as a deputy before going back to college in the fall. But a prison break (with a homage to Hill’s father Stephen King) puts their reunion in jeopardy. The two head to the police chief’s palatial estate during a growing storm and are amazed by the chief’s Viking artifacts collection. A battle-ax comes in very handy when the convicts land on their doorstep…

There are some twists and turns as to who the convicts are and who they are connected to on the island. As June fights for her life, grabbing the first weapon in sight, the ax’s power manifests in that the decapitated head is still alive and can continue talking. But heads begin to roll (!!) as June tries to find Liam and has to fight off several more criminals. Many secrets of corruption on the island are revealed by these talking heads. A final show-down discloses some heartbreaking truths and June obtains justice for a young woman who had been used and abused that summer.

Artists Leomacs and Riccardo La Bella really captured the era and northeast region well. There were crude jokes with some characters getting an almost Mad magazine type of caricature treatment, especially three times when a character is drawn with two heads as they are reacting to news. I loved the chapter breaks, as June’s basket fills and how the chapter numbers are symbolized. These sight gags, plus others, matched the tone of the narrative and made me laugh.

I enjoyed the dark humor as the horror-aspect of it all was played fast and loose. Thanks to NetGalley for this advance copy, for with this graphic novel as the first in the collection, I am looking forward to the others coming out in the months ahead. Joe Hill, both in graphic novels and books, is now definitely a favored author of mine.

-Nancy

Undiscovered Country

Years ago, America suddenly walled itself off from the rest of the world and went silent. It has been shrouded in mystery until a message is received granting a small group approval to go inside. What awaits them?

We are introduced to a group of seven individuals who have been selected for the mission- the war hero pilot, Lottie a medical doctor and her adventuring brother Daniel, Ace who is an expert on American culture, a journalist Valentina, and two political representatives from warring alliances, Janet and Chang. Given specific coordinates, they take a helicopter into American air space but are shot at and they crash land in the desert. Confused as to why they were invited in but then attacked, they see a surreal Mad Max type of group coming at them, but luckily a masked man ushers them into the safety of a cave.

And this is where the story goes sideways. As they ran for safety the group saw that the vehicles coming at them were pulled by a motley assortment of creatures such as walking sharks and other sea creatures. The masked man leads them to a group of rebels who are hiding underground and talks of a mystical spiral that needs to be discovered that will help them solve the mystery of why America closed and why it has changed so very dramatically.

The art was strong, with a dusty and apocalyptic vibe. Fun was obviously had drawing the fantastical creatures and the strange armada of vehicles in this new America. While I found the storytelling confusing, the art tried to tie it together and give visual clues to help the narrative. I enjoyed the chapter breaks with quotes from former citizens of the US about their experiences when they became stranded outside of the borders. The book ends with a lengthy and informative afterword by the two authors, a timeline of events and many well-drawn variant covers.

I have to say, for all the buzz I’ve heard about this book, it fell flat for me. I heard about Undiscovered Country a year ago and it sounded fascinating, for with our current political climate, this story seemed to be timely. However, despite many good parts of this graphic novel, all the pieces didn’t equal a cohesive story for me.  I won’t be continuing with further volumes, for while the group will be journeying on the Spiral, I felt this story spiraled out of control. So instead, if you truly want to read an excellent gritty dystopian tale that has a timely political message, you should read Warlords of Appalachia by Phillip Kennedy Johnson and Jonas Scharf.

-Nancy

Twilight Zone (2020): Season Two

Last year when I heard Jordan Peele was producing and hosting a new Twilight Zone series, I was excited, for I am a huge fan of the original. I have watched many of the 1959-1964 series episodes over and over again and my family looks forward to the TZ marathon that the Syfy station puts on television every New Years Day. I also was a big fan of the 1985-1989 series, although I did not watch many episodes of the 2002-2003 series.  I was pleased with the first season as a whole, although it was a bit uneven, so I looked forward to this second season.  Careful- a few spoilers in the following quick recaps.

Meet in the Middle:

Phil, a lonely bachelor who longs for a romantic connection yet doesn’t seem to have the ability to form one, unexpectedly makes a telepathic connection with a woman Annie. Not understanding how it happened, they are both freaked out, but in time form a friendship and later a romantic connection. Desperate to meet her in real life, Phil heads to meet her, but when Annie disappears a secret about her is revealed.

Downtime:

Michelle, a beautiful and professional woman, finally lands her dream job as the manager of a high-end hotel. Elated, her victory is short-lived when the world seems to stop in their tracks and she is left as the only one who is aware of reality. But her reality is soon called into question when it is discovered she is a he who is living out a fantasy world in his sleep. A heart attack and then a coma has stranded him in this alternative world, but Michelle wishes to stay there, despite having his real-life wife try to convince him to disengage from the dream and come back to her. An interesting episode about perceived reality and how our online personas can become more real to us than our physical lives.

The Who Of You:

A struggling actor, who is behind on the bills and suspects his girlfriend is cheating on him, decides to rob a bank. Unexpectedly, his consciousness slips into the teller’s body, and her’s into his. He decides to slip out with the money now that he’s in a new body, but then his consciousness hopscotches from body to body, all while his original body is now in police custody. This was a fun episode as the police detective clues in that personalities seem to be slipping in and out of the original bearded actor. It goes without saying that there is an additional sly twist at the end for the actor to deal with.

Ovation:

The classic “watch out what you wish for” when an aspiring singer is gifted a coin that brings her fame and fortune. But the constant adulation and ovations comes at a cost and becomes so over the top that Jasmine realizes it is not authentic. Her sister throws the coin away for her and Jasmine goes into seclusion. During this time there is a new singer who becomes an overnight sensation, and who it is comes as no surprise. This perils of fame episode was weak.

Among the Untrodden:

As weak as the previous episode was, the next proved to be my favorite! Irene is a nerdy girl who transfers into a boarding school and immediately comes under fire from mean-girl Madison and her nasty group of friends. Irene is fascinated by ESP and during a science-fair experiment clues in that Madison has latent powers. At first dismissive, Madison eventually agrees to meet with Irene and the two girls do experiments to figure out what powers Madison holds. Woven into the story is Irene’s need to be accepted by Madison and her posse and we watch Madison start to look out for Irene. Later you will suspect that it is actually Irene with the powers and she’s manipulating everybody, but the episode has some surprising twists and turns in store.

8:

This episode is a mix of The Abyss and Alien movies, in a short 30-minute burst. Scientists are studying newly discovered octopuses that because of a thinning ice sheet have been captured for the first time. The different teams are secretly planning to monetize or weaponize their findings, but the highly intelligent octopus has other plans. An entertaining monster-of-the-week episode with a fun but highly unrealistic ending.

A Human Face:

Grief overpowers logic in this meh episode. A grieving couple whose daughter committed suicide is packing up as they prepare to move when an expected cosmic flare occurs. But this flare brought a shape-shifting alien to their home who takes the form of their daughter. The mother immediately embraces the alien as her daughter but the father resists. The alien even admits that she is there to conquer Earth, but human emotion has made her reevaluate her mission. The ending was preposterous with too much of a need for suspension of disbelief.

A Small Town:

A sweet episode in which a small town’s mayor’s widower finds a magical model of the town and begins to make repairs to it that correspond to the real town, but then the slimy current mayor begins to get credit for the improvements. The widower resorts to some petty aggressions but eventually has to fess up when things go wrong. The episode could have gone deeper with the political angle, but instead concluded with a happyish ending.

Try, Try:

Imagine Groundhog Day but with a creepy stalker. A graduate student studying Indigenous masks is saved from being hit by a truck outside of the museum she is headed to, and once inside runs into her good Samaritan. The two hit it off, although the man seems to be hitting his marks a little too perfectly. It is revealed he is in the middle of a time loop, and every day he relives his meeting with her, with an intent to make her love him. But his nice-guy persona wears off and he comes off as a psychopath who only views her as a conquest. The conclusion is left ambiguous as to what will happen next, which I felt was apropos for a TZ episode.

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Gah. This messed up episode is their conclusion for season two? An overly commercialized and sterile world is linked to the original series episode To Serve Man and to the Kanamit alien species. I’m not even going to summarize this episode- it was boring, weird and far from clever. The only good thing I can say is that George Takei voiced one of the trio of the Kanamit aliens which is a nice nod to the original series, as he starred in the episode The Encounter before he became famous on Star Trek. If this had been in the middle of the season, I could have moved on, but it was a bad idea to end on this note.

Of the ten episodes, Among the Untrodden was by far the best, with Downtime and The Who Of You being strong contenders. I enjoyed some guest stars such as Topher Grace,  Gillain Jacobs, Christopher Meloni, Jenna Elfman, Morena Baccarin and Joel McHale. The quality fell off in later episodes which was a shame. But keep in mind any anthology like this is going to have clunkers. There are some absolutely cringe-worthy episodes from the original, but I still think fondly of the entire series, so I will hope there will be a season three of this new updated Twilight Zone.

-Nancy

Pride of Baghdad

Pride of Baghdad was an absolutely riveting graphic novel that took the real-life story of how a pride of lions escaped the Baghdad Zoo in April of 2003 during an American raid of Iraq when it was under Saddam Hussian’s rule.

This anthropomorphic tale centers around four lions in the Baghdad Zoo- male leader Zill, older female Safa, younger Noor and her cub Ali. These four lions go on to characterize how different Iraqi citizens have coped with the cruel reign of Hussian, although truly the tale is universal in scope. In the beginning, Noor waxes poetic about life in the wild to her son, although captured very young she truly has little memory of it, with Zill adding in his memories of sunsets on the far horizon. But it is Safa who truly remembers that life in the wild was dangerous and unpredictable, as she remembers the hungry times and her attack by male lions that left her traumatized and blind in one eye.

Noor dreams of escape aided by the other zoo animals, but unexpectedly she is given her wish when a bombing destroys the barriers at the zoo and the lions and many other animals make their escape. With a mix of hope and trepidation, the lions enter the city and find out their new freedom comes at a heavy cost.

The three adults quarrel often, as they all have different expectations based on their previous experiences. Safa is the most hesitant, her past has led her to be more accepting of captivity and the safety it affords her. Radical but at times unrealistic Noor scoffs at Safa, but Safa’s practicality comes in handy at certain times. Zill, the fading leader holds on to the dreams of the past and isn’t always up to the task when troubles arise. All the while, Ali has loyalties to all three, and his innocence in the face of the true realities is heartbreaking to witness.

The artwork was perfect. I am amazed that I have not seen other work by Niko Henrichon, as his pencils and details elevated this story. The panels are well placed and guide you through the entire story, with some amazing one and two-page spreads. His animals are incredibly realistic, yet their expressions convey so much emotion. The colors aid in the story as they move from the earthen tones at the zoo and the lion’s memories of the wild, and then through the fiery orange colors of the war-torn streets of the city.

Author Brian K Vaughan, now famous for the Saga series, effectively raises questions about the various interpretations of liberation. Can freedom be given or does it need to be earned? Can one feel pride during their captivity or does it only come when you fight for freedom? Should we hold onto the supposed greatness of the past or realize that change comes with a cost? How many sacrifices need to be made? The four lions show aspects of all these questions and more, that a narrative with people wouldn’t have conveyed as well.

The conclusion, while expected, will tear you to pieces. I loved this graphic novel and it will absolutely be on my Best Of list this year. Its illuminating clarity will make you think for a long time on the perils of war.

-Nancy

To know more about the real-life incident read The Guardian article about the sad deaths of the lions and many of the other zoo animals.

 

Black Widow: Bad Blood

I belong to the Goodread’s group, I Read Comic Books, and entered a contest to win a free podcast about the Black Widow. I was pleased to find out I won a free subscription to the premium digital audio and reading platform Serial Box for the fourteen episode series Black Widow: Bad Blood. While I am familiar with her through the Avenger movies and am looking forward to the delayed solo movie about her, I actually have not read any graphic novels about just her.

Warning- some spoilers

Episode One: Blackout Protocol

We are introduced to Natasha Romanoff, who as a freelance spy, is wrapping up a job in Chicago in which she was tasked with catching online espionage. She fights a modified villain Viscose, contacts Fury from S.H.I.E.L.D. to report in, and then plans how to disengage from her undercover job that had lasted months. During her time as a mild-mannered IT employee, she had made friends with several other women and heads out for the last night out with them, as she has told them she is moving for another job opportunity.  But the night ends badly…

Episode Two: Something Stolen, Something Red

Waking up from her mysterious attack, Natasha is weak and unclear as to what happened. She barely remembers what happened or how she escaped, but she knows she needs answers. She makes her way to Bruce Banner aka the Hulk, a scientist who she hopes will help her discover what was done to her. There she finds out her blood was removed for some sinister reason. But why?

Episode Three: Bury Me Face Down

Natasha realizes that if she is being targeted, another enhanced human would be too- Bucky Barnes aka The Winter Soldier. She has a history with Barnes, as he was loaned out from Hydra to trains future widows in the Red Room. She heads to Albania where Barnes is hiding out and tracks him down.

Episode Four: Sleep When I’m Dead

Natasha finds Barnes’s hideout, but not him, but clues lead her to believe he was attacked. Banner lets her know there have been other thefts of biological data, and she heads to the VECTOR Institute for more answers.

Episode Five: Flashback City

Novosibirsk, Russia, is her next location and it brings back memories of her training in the Red Room. On the outskirts of the Institute, she encounters Barnes and he attacks her. But he seems off, as he seems not to remember her and physically he isn’t in top form, which allows her to escape him. She is able to bring him back to reality and convinces him to partner with her so they find out what happened to them both.

Episode Six: A Trap with a View

Natasha relives her shared experiences with Barnes, as they both deal with the trauma of their training and the guilt they carry for their past actions when they were part of evil organizations. She decides not to let S.H.I.E.L.D. in on her plan and starts to pull together the threads of her Chicago job together with what is happened to her and Barnes now. Are they being led towards something?

Episode Seven: Of Monsters and Men

Leaving Barnes briefly to recuperate from his ongoing illness, Natasha explores the area and is disappointed with herself when she falls prey to two thugs. But she quickly turns the table on them, and during her interrogation of them is pointed to a female scientist from VECTOR who might have some answers she is looking for.

Episode Eight: Old Friends

Utilizing several costume changes to gain access to the VECTOR compound, Natasha infiltrates the government building. But she doesn’t get all the answers she is looking from, despite finding the scientist she was clued into by the thugs from the previous episode.

Episode Nine: Black Tie

This was a bit of a filler episode- Natasha and Barnes head to Geneva, Switzerland, to infiltrate a black-tie event that the philanthropist that might be behind the stolen blood will be at. They get fancy duds, look great and the chemistry between the two is obvious. That’s it.

Episode Ten: White Nights

This episode made up for the last one, with Natasha and Barnes meeting Holt, who was waiting for them despite all their precautions. Turns out he has been leaving breadcrumbs for them to follow so he could meet them, along with a certain associate that Natasha had dealt with earlier. A second wave of sickness prevents her from learning more.

Episode Eleven: The Carrot and the Stick

Scheduled to meet with Holt the next day, Natasha recovers enough for her and Barnes to head to his laboratory. Holt’s pleasant demeanor masks his ulterior methods as he leads them deep into his bunker to reveal his reason for taking these two soldier’s blood. Although they are wary, Natasha and Barnes want answers, but are they putting themselves at the mercy of Holt?

Episode Twelve: A Rock and a Hard Place

Bleh, it was the typical crap villain plot in which an evil leader wants to create a master race just minus the race and religion aspect of it. But then another villain gets into the action and chaos erupts.

Episode Thirteen: Fast and Dirty

Natasha and Barnes escape and use Holt’s state-of-the-art helicopter to chase down the parasite from being unleashed on the world. Of course, they know how to fly the helicopter- don’t all good spies and assassins know how to?  They grudgingly agree to let Nick Fury in on the details and ask for his help.

Episode Fourteen: Friends in High Places

Natasha and Barnes locate the two trucks carrying the parasite in the Alps, and fight Viscose to prevent the parasite from being released into the world. While dealing with a realistic recovery afterward, the ending hints at further adventures…

This was a highly enjoyable podcast that was wonderfully voiced by Sarah Natochenny and  I looked forward to weekly, as new episodes dropped. Natasha was fleshed out, she wasn’t just some unrealistic superhero hottie who could win any battle and had a quip for every comment. Barnes was as much an unknown character to me as Natasha, so his involvement gave me some additional insight into him too. One thing that I very much appreciated in this story was the emphasis on Natasha’s friends in Chicago. Typically a loner because of her spy status she had allowed herself to make friends during her undercover job and missed them. A problem with so many books and movies is the lack of authentic female friendships, so their inclusion in the story was indeed refreshing (although the depth of their friendship in just two months was unrealistic). That these friendships were brought up in the last minutes, make me wonder what is in store for them, if and when a second season is produced.

-Nancy

Written by Lindsay Smith, Margaret Dunlap, Mikki Kendall, L.L. McKinney, and Taylor Stevens. Edited by Taylor Stevens. Art by Jamie McKelvie. Narrated by Sarah Natochenny.

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