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Unearthed: A Jessica Cruz Story

Jessica Cruz is a high school student living in Coast City. She’s just gotten a museum fellowship and hopes to study the Aztec gods, her favorite exhibit. She doesn’t have time for parties or hanging out with her two best friends or her new friend from the museum fellowship, John Stewart – she’s got too much to do and too many expectations on her. Her parents are undocumented immigrants from Mexico, and Jessica herself is part of the D.A.C.A program – but that’s not common knowledge. She’s been keeping her head down ever since a popular mayoral candidate has been campaigning on making Coast City “safer” by advocating for a stronger I.C.E. presence. When Jessica’s Papá is arrested by I.C.E., she feels like she’s falling apart. As she isolates herself, bent on revenge, she dreams of two Aztec gods: one emphasizing hope and willpower, the other giving into her anger and destruction. How can she help her Papá if she can’t even help herself?

I cried at multiple points during the story. Jessica Cruz is a character near and dear to my heart, in part due to her Hispanic heritage. Spanish is well-executed in the dialogue, which lends an extra layer of authenticity to the story. I and many other readers will emphasize with her struggle to choose willpower or anger. The Aztec gods she dreams about are not only metaphors for these emotions, they represent the Green and Red Lanterns, respectively. John Stewart serves as a friend and mentor for her in the comics, and serves the same purpose here, as well as acting as a jumping-off point for conversations about intersectionality between Black and Mexican American experiences. Together, they choose where to focus their energies for the best outcome: in anger, or in hope?

The art is truly unique, and the most memorable I’ve seen in quite some time. The square figures evoke ancient Aztec and Mayan carvings. While greens and blues are the dominant colors, the backgrounds and background figures are often washed in one or two colors. Overall, the palette is desaturated pastels – but because it looks as if they were watercolors painted wet right over pencils. It has that distinctive gray tone. I LOVED it and lapped it up like water.

If the gorgeous art isn’t enough to wow you, the story of a teen desperate to settle a war within herself to help her family and community will definitely knock you out. This is going on my Best of 2022 list.

Kathleen

Rivera, Lilliam, and Steph C. Unearthed: A Jessica Cruz Story. 2021.

Faithless (Vol. 1)

Faith, an artist and amateur magic user, wants to make the world a little bit of a better place. When she accidentally spills her coffee on a woman named Poppy and helps her avoid a persistent ex-boyfriend, they go on an adventure that quickly turns romantic. Poppy is well-connected in the art world and invites Faith to a party. There, she meets Louis Thorn, a world-famous artist – and Poppy’s father. When Poppy leaves on a trip, Faith and Louis start to create art together, and become romantically involved. Is it grief? Faith has had two friends pass away recently under mysterious circumstances. Is it a search for something more? Enigmatic Louis offers Faith a choice: to become an artist, or to become forgotten.

… I forgot why I picked this up, sometimes I look up an author to find a title and end up finding an additional book that sounds interesting, I think that was the case here. I’m glad I stumbled upon this graphic novel, because I really enjoyed it. It’s an adult graphic novel: there are explicit love scenes, strong language, and drug usage. None was gratuitous in my opinion. At it’s core, this is a story about looking for connections with others, and trying to find meaning within those connections. Faith being both an artist and novice magic user serve the story well, as she tries to connect through her art and manifestations. There are hints of supernatural elements, which I’m looking forward to learning more about.

Flat, 2D colors and shading fill the book. Details of city life, art studios, coffee shops, bars, parties, small apartments and huge lofts, flood the panels and ground us in reality even if it’s hinted that something more is going on. Thin, wavery lineart ties everything together and blurs the line between real and magical.

As we closed the book we got a glimpse of Faith’s decision; I am eager to see how it plays out in the next volume.

– Kathleen

Azzarello, Brian, and Maria Llovet. Faithless (Vol. 1). 2019.

Black Cat (2019, Vol. 1): Grand Theft Marvel

Felicia Hardy’s relationship with Odessa Drake, the head of the New York Thieves Guild, is – complicated. She may have complicated it further from stealing a painting from Odessa, but who’s to say? She’s already moved on to bigger and better things. Black Fox, the man who taught Felicia and her father everything they know about thievery, is back in town, and has a job for Felicia and her boys. He’s got one last big job in him before he retires. The hit? The Vault of the New York Thieves Guild. First though, they need to procure some things from the Sanctum Santorum and the Fantastic 4’s house – and that’s just for starters. Simple, right?

This good ol’ heist story had the same feeling as Trail of the Catwoman did. From a story-telling standpoint, I feel this book fared better, even if from an artistic stantpoint I feel the Catwoman book was done a tad more stylishly (to be fair, it’s very hard to top Darwin Cooke). MacKay managed to get some great characterization in despite the non-stop action and breakneck pacing – all while maintaining a light and humorous tone. This was done mostly through flashbacks of Black Fox and Felicia or her father, helping to explain their relationship and how Felicia turned out the way she did. All memories were pertinent to the situation in the present time. I missed the first title card in the first flashback and so was confused until the next one, but this was probably my own fault and not that of the creators or design of the book itself.

Movement was emphasized above all else in the artwork here. The backgrounds, while drawn well, are colored with simple washes to further bring the characters and their actions to the foreground. Thin linework allows the characters to move as they need to. The action sequences (and there are a lot of them) were exciting and well-done. I felt overall that the colors were too dark and muted to really work for such an action-oriented story, but it didn’t take away too much from the experience.

This volume only had Felicia and the gang stop at two famed Marvel landmarks in New York City, promising more in further volumes. I’m curious to see where their adventures lead next and to learn more about Felicia’s character. Fans of Black Cat and and the Spider-verse are sure to enjoy, but Marvel fans in general (I’m sure there are Easter eggs that flew right over my head) and readers who like heist and action stories will also want to check it out.

– Kathleen

MacKay, Jed, Travel Foreman, Michael Dowling, and Nao Fuji. Black Cat (2019, Vol. 1): Grand Theft Marvel. 2020.

Magic (Vol. 1)

Ravnica is a great city led by ten different Guilds. These Guilds are watched over by the Guildpact and the chair, Niv-Mizzet. Guildmasters Kaya, Ral, and Vraska all have the “spark,” or the ability to jump between the many planes of the multiverse: more colloquially, they’re called “Planeswalkers.” These three Guildmasters are all attacked at the same time, and they decide to team up to get to the bottom of it. When even their friend, telepath Jace, is targeted and left with a psychic trap in his brain, they know they’re onto something big. Meeting with the Guildmaster of the assassin’s guild and multiple Planeswalkers only confirms this idea. Whoever is behind it wants to raze Ravnica to the ground, but who and why? Who will believe and help them out of this deep conspiracy?

For some reason, it didn’t occur to me that this was a Magic the Gathering graphic novel until I was looking at the bib page to write this review. I don’t play the popular deck-building game and have zero knowledge of the lore. That said, I didn’t need any to read, understand, and highly enjoy this graphic novel. I was totally swept away by the extensive world-building, the rollicking adventure, and the city’s inner workings. While there is a lot of exposition, it’s carefully spread out so that it doesn’t feel overwhelming, and the bits you get are immediately relevant to the story at the point it’s revealed in. As the story went on, I only got curiouser and curiouser at the dynamics, magic, and politics.

Fantastical art only deepened the sense of immersion. Different Guilds and magic users all have their own color palette to more easily distinguish between them. For example, Ral is a lightning mage and the head of the Guild of scientists, so his color palette is predominantly blue; whereas the medusa-like Vraska is head of the Guild of the Undercity citizens, so her color palette is predominantly green. Raya, who has the ability to kill ghosts, and as the reluctant head of the Guild of “priests and bankers, ghosts and gangsters” (pg. 5, what a line, I just had to share it) has a mostly pink and orange color palette. Razor-sharp lineart helps to tidy up the huge action sequences.

The best-worst cliffhanger I’ve ever read makes it clear more are in the works. I NEED THEM!!! I’m not a Magic fan at all and if I loved it this much, I can only imagine how crazy fans will go for it. Whether or not they’re a Magic player, if YA readers and up like political fantasy with tons of action, they will love this graphic novel.

– Kathleen

MacKay, Jed, Ig Guara, and Arianna Consonni. Magic (Vol. 1). 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.

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.

Clean Room (Vol. 1): Immaculate Conception

Chloe Pierce’s fiance has committed suicide, leaving behind a self-help book as his only clue. Chloe spirals in her grief and become hospitalized herself. She comes to with the realization that in order to unravel the mystery of Philip’s death, she needs to investigate the author of the book: Astrid Mueller. She’s become THE self-help person to most of the world, including Hollywood. Her biggest success story is a former child actor whom she helped to get clean. As a reporter, Chloe has the clearance to get into her headquarters in Chicago and demand an audience with her. However, after seeing the fabled and feared “Clean Room,” it’s clear that Astrid and her company are not what they seem. The suicide of the child actor, under the same circumstances as Philip, has not only Chloe but the rest of the world questioning what it is Astrid actually does.

Horror is not usually a genre I read. I picked this up because Gail Simone co-wrote it with Jon Davis-Hunt, and as an extra bonus, Jenny Frisson created the covers. There’s a great start here for a commentary on the dangers of cults preying on faith and religion in a supernatural horror setting. The events here in the first volume are wrapped up nicely, yet open-ended enough to intrigue readers into the second volume.

The art was totally gross… but in a good way that befits the story and it’s creepy, ominous, and antagonistic tone. There is nice contrast between the inside of Astrid’s headquarters (sterile colors and precise linework) and the outside world (muddier colors and messier lines) that I appreciated.

I gotta say, it was entertaining enough for me to get through with (relative) ease, but it’s not one I’ll be continuing. There’s a reason I don’t read horror – I’m a certified scaredy cat – and it seems not even the great Gail Simone can convert me =P

– Kathleen

Simone, Gail, Jon Davies-Hunt, and Quinton Winter. Clean Room (Vol. 1): Immaculate Conception. 2016.

Amethyst (2020, Vol. 1)

Amy Winston leads a double life. On her 16th birthday, she receives gifts from her adoptive parents on Earth, then heads to Gemworld for her royal birthday bash. When she arrives, she finds Amethyst, the kingdom she rules over, has been completely destroyed, and all her subjects missing. Well, except for her trusty Pegasus, Ypsilos. She wonders if Opal, the evil king of the northern lands, has anything to do with it. Entreating the other Houses for help has so far been a wash, but a Turquoise warrior named Phoss and Maxixe, Prince Aquamarine, join her quest. Out of ideas, they follow a crystal healing book Amy got as a gift from her adoptive parents, opening her third eye chakra – and allowing Amy to see that all her subjects, including her birth parents everyone assumes to have died – have been trapped in amethyst. Can they figure out how to reverse the spell before it’s too late?

I read and highly enjoyed Amethyst’s too-short New 52 run and the ’80s omnibus (must not have gotten around to reviewing it for the blog, on the to-do list!) and. This reboot has so far been the least enjoyable of the title for me. I don’t think it’s bad, per say, but it just doesn’t quite scratch the fantasy comic itch the same way the original does.

The writing felt like it skipped around a bit. Some aspects weren’t fully explained for someone who’s new to the title (or who’s rusty, like me). Eventually you just learn to live with it as you’re reading, but it’s a tad frustrating. Though it tried to tell a story of found vs. birth family, there are too many threads going with too little significant character development. Ultimately, it falls flat even though everything is seemingly wrapped up by the end. This trade paperback covers issues 1-6 of what’s planned to be a 12-part series, so I have to wonder what the second 6 issues are going to tackle. For someone who is strictly looking for an action/adventure story, this will be less of an issue, for there’s plenty of fight sequences and traveling through fantastical lands to go around.

To make up for the subpar story, the art is LOUD – but in a good way. The visuals are overall trippy and psychedelic. Colors are rendered in bright jewel tones. Figures are drawn with bold, confident lines, while backgrounds are almost more like muted washes, to help the characters and their actions stand out.

While this isn’t the Amethyst title for me, there is still plenty of action and adventure to carry it for another reader. The art serves this purpose by pushing the figures to the forefront. I’ll pick up the next trade paperback and see if it gets better for me in the second half.

– Kathleen

Reeder, Amy. Amethyst (2020, Vol. 1). 2021.

Future State: Wonder Woman

Future State is the event DC had this past summer that offered mini series on characters and events occurring either in the multiverse or far in the future after the events of Death Metal (which I’m ashamed to admit I still need to read…). This trade paperback collects all the Wonder Woman stories:

First, L.L. McKinney’s Nubia as Wonder Woman attempts to stop a villain named Grail from stealing artifacts from various goddesses. Sensing they may be connected, she seeks answers from her Aunt Nancy. Apparently these artifacts come together as a master key to open doors throughout the universe. The last piece Grail needs to steal is Nubia’s tiara… but there’s nothing THAT special about it, is there? This magic-based story, brought to life by Alitha Martinez, Mark Morales, and Emilio Lopez, is rendered in deep, vivid colors, and emphasis is given to character design and expressions. It creates a lush background for McKinney’s story.

Next is the first appearance of Yara Flor, who is my new favorite DC character! In Hell to Pay, she is the Wonder Woman of a distant future. She slays a hydra, meaning to take one of its heads to the Underworld to exchange for the soul of her sister warrior. A spirit called Caipora guides her into the bureaucratic Underworld. Through a series of mishaps, Yara finds herself in front of Hades himself, who offers her a challenge to find Potira’s soul and lead her out – or take her place. Joëlle Jones is both writer and artist for this mini series, with Jordie Bellaire coloring. While the story is essentially a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the main draw here is Jones’ art and Yara herself. Yara is fiery, impatient, quick to anger: so different from cool-headed Diana, and for all that, she’s lovable and has a good heart. Jones’ pencils strike just the right balance between realistic and cartoony, while Bellaire’s colors emphasize reds and mute greens, making Yara stand out on every page – just as she’d want.

If you couldn’t get enough of Yara with the last story, you’re in luck! The next story is Superman/Wonder Woman, which teams Yara’s Wonder Woman up with Jon Kent’s Superman. One morning, two suns rise over the Earth. The new sun is a tyrannical machine bent on destroying Superman. The current sun is a Brazilian god named Kuat, and he is none too happy about the intrusion. Both suns challenge Yara and Jon to a race or battle to determine which sun gets to stay – how can they possibly outwit them? I found this to be the weakest of the collection. While Dan Watters’ story was a fun look at a new Worlds-Finest-esque team-up, the art by Leila Del Duca and Nick Filardi left something to be desired. It seemed unfinished in parts: there is a panel in Issue #2 where Yara is in the background and we should be able to clearly see her face, but it’s nothing but two dots for her eyes and a red slash for her mouth. Overall the characters seemed to float above the ground, there wasn’t enough shadow to give depth or weight. The art took me out of the story and I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have.

Last, but certainly not least, Immortal Wonder Woman takes a look at Diana, a long time into the future, after humanity and all her fellow heroes have died. She is trying to persuade the Amazons to take Swamp Thing and locate to another planet to save The Green. Her sister Amazons would rather stand and protect the planet they have left… but Diana knows they won’t be able to stand against the Undoing. It is a force that simply… eats worlds, undoes them as if they never existed in the first place. When the Undoing swallows the Earth, what will become of Diana? Becky Cloonan and Michael W. Conrad pen a great story about hope in the face of losing everyone and everything. Jen Bartel’s art really drives it home. Her colors are soft, almost pastel-like, and there is a soft light diffused throughout, like a sunset, even in the cold depths of space.

Overall, this was an enjoyable look at multiverse Wonder Women. I hope that this collection drives DC into a new direction with the character. There is much potential to play with gods from other cultures in Nubia and Yara, instead of the same, tired old Greek mythology. If you need some switching up with your Wonder Woman mythos, this is the one for you.

– Kathleen

Various. Future State: Wonder Woman. 2021.

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