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Wonder Woman (Vol. 1): The Just War

Note that this is still technically Rebirth, but they gave it a Volume 1, probably because the original Rebirth storyline was wrapped up in the last volume.

Steve Trevor goes MIA on a covert mission to the war-torn country of Durovnia. In rushing there to find him, Wonder Woman instead finds Ares! He has escaped from his imprisonment on Themyscira to… fight for truth and justice, as Wonder Woman does? But what does his escape mean for Diana’s homeland? Steve, meanwhile, is among a group of mythical beasts led by a boy to none other than Aphrodite. She explains that she has no memory of how she came to be on Earth and that she cannot find her way back to Olympus. Steve begs her to help him and Wonder Woman stop the war – but how do you stop a war with love?

There are no right or wrong answers in this graphic novel. There are only intentions, actions, and consequences. Some turn out good, others not so good. We see our heroes trying to wield love and forgiveness against hate and fear. Not only during the war-like conflict, but against prejudices and fear of refugees.

The art was very stylish. The figures are fluid and the action dynamic. Though there are some big fight scenes, it never feels cluttered. The facial expressions looked kind of weird at times: as if they were too stretched out or too squished, and it was distracting.

Overall I was pleased with G. Willow Wilson’s Wonder Woman debut, and I am eager to see what else she does with the character.

– Kathleen

Wilson, G. Willow, Cary Nord, Xermanico, and Jesus Merino. Wonder Woman (Vol. 1): The Just War. 2019.

Daphne Byrne

This Gothic story is an interesting mix of Rosemary’s Baby meets The Omen!

Set in New York City in 1886, fourteen-year-old Daphne has just lost her father, and her mother is being bamboozled by a spiritualist who has a sinister plan in store for her. A ghostly young man appears to Daphne- and we are never sure of his intents or origins, but his shadowy specter convinces her to explore her inner darkness. Are some of her underworld experiences real or the delusions of a grieving daughter? But she takes her new-found power to help her mother when she is kidnapped by a nefarious cult-like group who wishes her to bear them a child of the Devil. 

The art is a mixed bag. Drawn in a pulp-fiction style, the art veers between cartoony and realistic. There can be detailed panels with cool imagery (look for creepy surprises drawn into some of the backgrounds), but then the faces can be distorted and shown incorrectly. Despite Daphne and some classmates being teens, some shadowing and lines were added to make them look old and haggard. Closeups were nobody’s friend in this book. A late scene of nudity made me chuckle, as I enjoyed seeing how they would draw the bodies to have something always blocking their private parts. The chapter breaks included cover art drawn in a different style that was striking- with the one of Daphne sitting at a graveside being my absolute favorite. 

This story appealed to me more than I thought it would- in one way it was campy, yet I liked the way Daphne gave into her inner demons to utilize them to her benefit. Thank you to NetGalley for giving me an advance online copy of this fourth entry in the Hill House label!

-Nancy

The Dollhouse Family

A dollhouse lures generations of people into its clutches, but why?

In 1979 Britain, Alice mysteriously receives an elaborate old-fashioned dollhouse from a great-aunt that she was unaware of. She loves to play with it and the dollhouse family to escape the abuse that her father is inflicting on her family. With a child’s innocence, she accepts it when the dolls talk to her and is thrilled to use the chant they teach her so she can become small and join them. There is an unusual balance in the house, the dolls seem content yet they are aware there is an evil entity in the house that soon draws Alice in and tries to make a Faustian bargain with her. This is where the plot goes sideways to me- a tragedy befalls Alice and she spends years in a foster home. But as Alice grows up and has a daughter herself, we get odd flashbacks to Ireland in the late 1800s and how a surveyor’s exploration of a cave and his meeting with a succubus lead to the dollhouse. We get the expected fight of good vs evil at the end, but only after the narratives of past and present are confusingly knit together.

The art was good, and I actually found the illustrations portraying the past to be evocatively authentic and more to my liking than the modern-day depictions. I enjoyed the chapter openings that showed creepy dolls that gave a hint of what was to come. Some of the lettering in my online copy was off, such as additional details to the side of the illustrations were covered by the art or so faint as to be unreadable. I would hope in a print edition this would be corrected. 

Despite the strong start with the Hill House label, this third graphic novel isn’t up to snuff. It felt like a mix of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline plus a weak Locke and Key, which Joe Hill wrote.  In fact, Hill’s single-issue Small World was all about a dollhouse, so this felt like a convoluted British knockoff of it. But I still look forward to the last two titles in this label and am glad I was able to read an early copy through NetGalley. 

-Nancy

Superman Smashes the Klan

While stopping a villain called Atom Man, Superman pulls out the green rock which powers his suit. It also makes Superman sick! It should be impossible! He begins to have visions of strange aliens, talking in a language he can’t understand.

Meanwhile, the Lee family moves from Chinatown to Metropolis. The two children, Tommy and Roberta, are of varying opinions on the subject. Tommy is active and eager to make new friends and readily joins the local baseball team. Roberta longs for their old home, and has a hard time opening up to new people.

When the Klan of the Fiery Kross leaves a burning cross on their new lawn, the Lees are torn between feeling angry and scared. Reporters Lois Lane and Clark Kent jump on the story, but then Tommy goes missing. Roberta, certain the Klan was behind his disappearance, tries to get help, but no one else seems to be worried. She seeks out the only person she knows will help: Superman. However, his exposure to the green rock is still making him sick and giving him strange visions. Can Superman and Roberta recover from their fears and doubts, unlock their inner power, and smash the Klan?

This graphic novel is based on an arc in the Adventures of Superman radio serial titled “Clan of the Fiery Cross.” While the story takes place in 1946, it has a timeless quality to it. Yet it’s timely, too. Many issues this graphic novel tackles – immigration, acceptance of one’s neighbor, making a new home – is still vitally important today.

One thing I especially loved about the setting was the slight de-powering of Superman. In his canon, this was before he could fly, so he ran on power lines in order to not hold up traffic. How cool is that??? As the story moves on, he discovers more and more of his power, but I can’t say further without spoilers. Suffice it to say that this was a beautiful way to mirror the growth that many other characters go through.

It was at times hard to read. The Klan of the Fiery Kross is based upon the Ku Klux Klan, and as the radio serial was given insider information about the Klan, this graphic novel is obviously very well-researched. Creators Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru strive to make one of the Klan the characters as sympathetic as the heroes. It was disturbing to read someone trying to justify their hate, but in a good way. Only through seeing (or in this case, reading!) someone else’s perspective can we gain understanding.

What I love about Superman is that he believes in the ordinary-ness of people. The Klan is stopped by a combination of Superman’s powers and ordinary kids standing up for each other, and what’s right. Just as the radio serial is still relevant, the graphic novel will still be relevant in the years to come.

– Kathleen

Yang, Gene Luen, and Gurihiru. Superman Smashes the Klan. 2019.

 

*Nancy loved this book too! Read her take on the book: Superman Smashes the Klan

Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed

It’s Diana’s 16th Born Day! She is very eager to turn 16, as she hopes it means her Changeling phase is over. She often wonders if there is something wrong with her, as she was shaped from clay instead of being born naturally, to make her go through such an ugly phase that her sisters have never been through. During her Born Day Feast, a storm whips up, which starts throwing lifeboats from the outside world against her shores. The boats are full of war refugees. In saving their drowning children, the way back to Themyscira is closed to her and Diana becomes a refugee herself. She ends up traveling to a refugee camp in Greece, and from there to America, by a married couple named Steve and Trevor. Posing as an exchange student, they set her up with a Polish woman named Henke and her granddaughter, Raissa. Diana quickly learns about the bad and seedy side of New York City, but has Raissa to help guide her and show her the ways of this new world. When they discover a child trafficking scheme, can these two teenage girls make a difference?

I had been looking forward to Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA rendition of Wonder Woman, and was not disappointed. This is a heavy graphic novel chock full of questions of diversity and social justice that Ms. Anderson is never afraid to ask. Diana’s naive nature translates beautifully to the minds of a teen reader just starting to ask these big questions for themselves. We see our main character transform from a teenager to an adult in both body and socially, to become an informed and upstanding citizen of the world. That sure is something for our youth to aspire to today.

Though the book didn’t have a set color scheme, gold and teal are used throughout. Most notably, they are used at the very beginning and very end, serving as a nice visual bookend. The linework is thin and delicate, which belie the great strength and emotion in the story and the characters.

For fans of Ms. Anderson’s prior work, this is a must-read. For everyone else, it’s a Wonder Woman story perfectly suited for our times.

-Kathleen

Anderson, Laurie Halse, and Leila Del Duca. Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed. 2020.

Primer

Ashley Rayburn is meeting some new foster parents: scientist Yuka and artist Kitch Nolan. While she likes them a lot, she doesn’t think it will ultimately work out. Ashley is unfortunately a magnet for trouble. She supposes she gets it from her dad, who is currently in prison. As Ashley adjusts to her new home and school, warms up to Yuka and Kitch, and makes a new friend in Luke, it feels like things are looking up. It’s not long before she discovers a briefcase of new paints which look innocent at first… but it turns out they are body paints which grant the wearer special powers! She can be a superhero! However, the government was promised those paints for the military, and they want them back. Ashley must make a choice: to save herself, or save her new family.

While this is a middle-grade novel, and the story to me was pretty predictable, it was still a delightful ride!

The main theme of this book is family: blood and chosen. While we see Ashley’s father insist he is her real family, the audience can see he’s not a fit parent. While Yuka, Kitch, and Luke may not be related to Ashley by blood, we can see how much they care for her, and how much Ashley eventually comes to care for them. Having a family doesn’t always mean blood relations, but sometimes instead those who love and care for you.

I loved all of the non-traditional gender roles that pervaded this book. Yuka is a woman who is a scientist and avid football fan. Kitch is a man who is a teacher, artist, and who loves to cook. Luke is a boy in Ashley’s class who is aspiring to become a hairstylist. It added to the overall quirkiness of the story, and made for some great jokes, but this is also very important representation kids need to see.

In a refreshing change from many of DC’s main titles, the art in this graphic novel was so bright, and vibrant, and fun! Colors are splashed every which way. The figures were cartoony and exaggerated, but it only served the overall happy and fun tone of the story.

This middle-grade novel introduces a fun new superhero to children, though older kids and adults will love it too. It’s a fun, fast, light-hearted read that’s full of color and love. I’m looking forward to more!

Kathleen

Muro, Jennifer, Thomas Krajewski, and Gretel Lusky. Primer. 2020.

The Oracle Code

After a robbery gone wrong, teenage Barbara Gordon is shot, crippled from the waist down, and finds herself looking at a long life in a wheelchair. Her father, Commissioner Gordon, checks her into the Arkham Center for Independence (or ACI): a facility that specializes in therapy and independence for differently-abled people. Dr. Harland Maxwell, the head of the facility, assures Commissioner Gordon that they will be able to help Babs, but she remains skeptical. She used to love solving puzzles and cracking codes, but this one is too big for her to handle. Slowly, Babs makes new friends and even catches herself having some fun. However, patients start disappearing from the facility under mysterious circumstances: one of them being a newfound friend. Does Babs still have it in her to solve puzzles in order to find out what happened?

Though we’re all tired of hearing how to “adapt to the new normal,” this book will help teens do exactly that. Babs went through a huge change: losing her mobility. We clearly see her go through the five stages of grief as she mourns the use of her legs and the future she saw for herself. The emotions she goes through are not only appropriate, but completely normal for making and learning to deal with such a huge adjustment.

As the ACI is Arkham-adjacent, a big element of the book is a ghost story. It’s appropriate too as Babs feels scared by the person she has become, and is mourning her past self, as mentioned above. Much of the book deals with overcoming fear, and the spooky elements only add to that tension.

The art was pretty standard for a Batman related graphic novel. The colors were predominantly muted, with blue and grey backgrounds on which other colors popped. There were motifs of puzzle pieces and computer code sprinkled throughout that I thought were very clever. Some are more obvious than others. There were, however, a few typos; closer editing would have been welcome.

As we have all had to make a huge adjustment, so has teenage Barbara Gordon here. I’d give it to any teen or adult that needs a bit of help doing this for themselves, and validation that their emotions are completely normal.

Kathleen

Nijkamp, Marieke, and Manuel Preitano. The Oracle Code. 2020.

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

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

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