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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.

Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History

Author and illustrator Joel Christian Gill shares nine short stories of blacks from American history that you are probably not aware of. His title refers to the song made famous by Billie Holiday about blacks being lynched and hanging from trees, so the title immediately signifies the seriousness of the narrative. Gill’s opening message “For all those who freed themselves by cutting the rope” further amplifies this message.

Out of the Box Thinking: Henry “Box” Brown- Slave Henry Brown was desperate to escape slavery, so with help, he hid in a box and was shipped to freedom in a daring and unique way in 1849.

Harry “Bucky” Lew: Orginal Baller- Was the first black man to integrate professional basketball in 1902.

Richard Potter’s Great Illusion- Potter was a famous magician, who toured worldwide, but only revealed on his deathbed his origins.

Theophilus Thompson: From Slave to Chess Master- Thompson proved that blacks are intelligent as whites when he became a master of chess and won many championships. That he disappeared at the peak of his career points to the theory that he was killed by those who felt threatened by what he represented.

The Shame- In the late 1800s a small modest seaside village was established on Malaga Island by a mixed-race community that had been founded by a freed slave years ago. But in 1912 the nearby white community decided that the Malaga village had to go and swept in and destroyed the village, sending many of the inhabitants to the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded. The judgments that the whites passed on the community were shameful and is a stain on Maine history.

The Noyes Academy- An elderly black gentleman shares his story of studying to be a minister as a young man at the Noyes Academy in New Hampshire. But in 1835 the academy was destroyed by whites who opposed that the school was racially integrated.

Marshall “Major” Taylor: The Black Cyclone- Taylor was an amazing athlete, especially known for his cycling triumphs. Unfortunately, as he aged he lost his money and died in obscurity.

Two Letters, As Written by Spottswood Rice- Rice was an escaped slave who fought for the North, and was determined to free his daughter from his former master. The juxtaposition of the two letters poignantly showed his deep love for his child, and his determination to be reunited with her.

Bass Reeves: Lawman- Reeves was a former slave who had moved west after the Civil War. He later became a respected lawman who was known for his shooting skills and morality in bringing in fugitives from justice.

Gill’s illustrations are very cartoony, which I felt did not mesh with the seriousness of the stories. He used an earthen color palette and a standard panel layout, with an attempt to recreate the era of each story.  His tone and storytelling began to improve with the later tales, and he used large black birds effectively to symbolize Jim Crow in the last few stories. Despite my not being a fan of the illustration style, I did find the stories interesting for they certainly highlighted individuals that most people will not have heard of before. I think this book could be effectively used in classrooms with middle school and high school students. I was pleased to read this story for this month’s book selection from I Read Comic Books and I will check out volume two that came out a few years after this graphic novel. I feel it is important to know more about black history than the little that is found in history books and who whites feel are deemed worthy.

-Nancy

Fables: Legends in Exile

Fables is the Goodread’s I Read Comic Books book of the month selection with the theme being a fairy tale/folk tale/mythology adaptation. Kathleen read the entire series and loved it, and I had read a spin-off series about Jack of Fables and disliked the character but not the book, so I was pleased to get the push I needed to start the series myself.

Fractured fairy tales seem to be a dime a dozen nowadays, with it often being a literary trope, but this first volume gets it just right. Set in New York City, famous fairy tale characters have been banished from their kingdoms centuries ago by a mysterious Adversary and forced to move into the “Mundy” (mundane) world. Most of them live in a luxury high rise apartment with a divorced Snow White as their deputy mayor and The Big Bad Wolf aka Bigby as their sheriff. The main plot centers as a murder mystery when Rose Red, Snow’s estranged sister, is discovered to be missing and her apartment is drenched in blood. Bigby is tasked to solve the crime.

I enjoyed the crime thriller feature of the story (always a preferred genre of mine) mixed in with humor, adult themes, and the obvious fantasy aspect of it. I loved how Prince Charming was a Lothario who bedded any female, while Beauty and the Beast were a long-suffering couple with marital issues. Jack (Jack the Giant Killer, Little Jack Horner, Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack and Jill, Jack Be Nimble, Jack Frost, and Jack O’Lantern) was a scheming cad, Rose Red was a party girl, and Bluebeard a slimy playboy. Snow White and Bigby definitely had chemistry, and you know a relationship between the two is sure to develop in the future. The world-building was excellent, and this story is strong enough to be standalone, yet, most readers will be clamoring for more adventures with this unique cast. Part of the pleasure is figuring out who some of the characters are and reconciling how they are portrayed now with what you remember about them from their original fairytales.

The illustration style was attractive, although I wasn’t a fan of the cover or the opening pages to each chapter. I personally liked it more realistic, as shown by the pictures I attached. There were some fun splash pages, with me liking the office that Snow was in, for it showed artifacts from their fairyland-era. Plus, for visual clues any time the past was referred to, an ornate frame would be drawn around the panels which were a nice nod to the fantasy origin of this narrative and often were purple-hued. Because of the quarantine, I had to read this volume online through Hoopla so it was hard for me to really examine the illustrations like I would with a physical book.

This first volume is a delightful, but very mature, look at postmodern reimaged fairytales. I very well might continue with the series, but I will wait until I can read physical copies again, for a graphic novel’s appeal lies in the art, and I wish to savor all the intricacies that are drawn into the series.

-Nancy

This was a laugh-out-loud scene about poor Pinnacho. In later volumes, his appearance changes dramatically, and not to my liking at all.

Strange Comics

I recently read two comic books that were both funny and have strange in the title, hence this post! While I didn’t feel I could write long enough blog posts about these webcomics individually, combined I could.

Strange Planet by Nathan W Pyle

I adored this comic book! This comic, most commonly viewed on Instagram, has blue aliens going about their lives in a human-like manner. The humor lies in the way they describe what they are doing, and you realize the absurdness of many of our rituals. After you read just a few of Pyle’s strips you will start to think about how you could describe what you are doing in a sly manner. Divided into sections- young beings, friendship, adulthood and recreation; these four-paneled strips have an appealing blue, purple and pink color palette. My favorites included having a cat as a pet, parenthood (the lies we tell our children about Santa and the tooth fairy!), star damage, eating honey and wearing ties. The author’s off-beat perspective on our everyday life made for a clever book, and can be enjoyed daily by following his online work.

 

Comics for a Strange World by Reza Farazmand

This collected book of comic strips from the Poorly Drawn Lines website was the December pick for the I Read Comics Books bookclub on Goodreads. It was amusing, with minimalist drawings with typically four to five panels. However, the simple drawings don’t necessarily mean simple ideas, as many of the strips were very clever with sly humor. Two animals showed up over and over again, a large green bear and a bluebird that looked suspiciously like the Pigeon from Mo Willem’s children’s books, that were funnier than if a human character said the same thing. My favorite strips were the baby that plagiarized, the shapes club, asteroid plans, planets talking about life (“it’s when a bunch of tiny organisms do sex on you”) and the longer astronauts in a cave story.

Nathan Pyle and Reza Farazmand now join Sarah Andersen’s Sarah’s Scribbles and Nick Seluk’s Heart and Brain comics that I follow on Twitter and Instagram for their insightful jokes. These two author and illustrators offer some strange and wonderful comics!

-Nancy

They Called Us Enemy

I have been a fan of George Takei for years, as his character of Lieutenant Commander (later Captain) Hikaru Sulu of Star Trek was one of my favorite TOS crew members. I have admired his civil and LGBTQ+ rights advocacy and have followed his popular Oh Myyy Facebook site for years. So it was a no-brainer that I was going to pick up his debut graphic novel, and it was a bonus that it was this month’s selection for Goodread’s I Read Comic Books.

In the same vein of the March trilogy by John Lewis, this book takes a long hard look at America’s shameful secret of forcing Japenese Americans into internment camps during World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there was mass hysteria that people of Japenese ancestry would be loyal to Imperial Japan and attack our mainland. President Franklin Roosevelt forced the relocation and incarceration of about 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom lived on the Pacific Coast. George Takei and his family were one of these families.

George was a young boy when he, his parents and a younger brother and sister were forced from their Los Angeles home and sent to the first of two camps that they would spend three years in. They lost their house and dry cleaning business and endured humiliation after humiliation. That Takei and his siblings were so young, they did not fully understand the ramifications of their relocation, whereas his parents were the ones who had to deal with the daily legalized racism of these camps. In fact, Takei found some pleasure during those years as his parents worked hard to shelter their children and normalize their upbringing as best as they could. But these years also helped shape him into the leader he is today, for he learned about courage, leadership and activism from both his parents who made hard decisions in that time period.

Although this memoir concentrates on a retelling of his family’s time in the camps, Takei does take time to give a larger picture of what was happening in the world before, during and after his incarceration. He names some key political figures who pushed for these camps, but also extends grace to those that helped fight the injustice. It is a great irony that President Roosevelt, who helped the country out of the Great Depression and has many other laurels to stand on, was the one who signed orders for thousands of American citizens and/or residents to be sent to these internment camps. No wonder there was little mention of them in my history books growing up, for while we can condemn other countries for gross injustices, our country had taken away the liberty, finances and dignity of a segment of our population just because they were of a certain nationality.  And this story sadly has a parallel today, as President Trump had set up camps for families trying to immigrate from Mexico, and has been blatant about his prejudices against people he does not deem American enough.

Harmony Becker was a perfect choice to illustrate this graphic novel, for her evocative black and white drawings were historically accurate, and brought to life daily camp realities, showing both the good and bad from a child’s perspective. In fact, some of her drawings slid into an anime-style when George and his siblings were experiencing joy. This not only was a great way to show their emotions, but it is also a nod towards Japanese culture. That Becker is #ownvoices elevates the story, for her talent and cultural sensitivity go hand in hand. I also wish to mention co-writers Steven Scott and Justin Eisinger, who helped shape the narrative into a strong lesson for us all. Takei and his team deserve major kudos for shining a light on issues from the past so that way we learn from them today.

-Nancy

Heathen

Heathen was this month’s selection from the Goodreads group  I Read Comic Books as this month’s topic was own voices. At first, I wondered if the author, Natasha Alterici, was a half-naked woman Viking, but no, she is lesbian and we are given a fresh take on Viking mythology with a welcome LGBTQ+ storyline.

Aydis is a young Viking woman warrior who has recently been outcast by her tribe for she was caught kissing another woman and did not renounce her feelings like the other young woman did to save face. Her father was told to give her two choices- death or marriage, and her father knows she has the skills to survive on her own, so he lies and tells the villagers she is dead. Aydis wishes to take her destiny into her own hands, so she seeks Brynhild, a former Valkyrie banished by Godking Odin for disobeying him, and forced to marry any mortal who can free her from a magical mountain. Already the parallels are clear-  women are being punished by the patriarchy for going against their wishes of what they feel is proper.

A short interlude introduces us to Skull (aka as Sköll) and Hati who are two wolves from Norse mythology that are forever trying to eat the Sun and Moon. At first, their inclusion in the story seemed odd, but as the story progressed there was also Aydis’s talking horse Saga and the trickster God Ruadan who appeared as a bull. All of this contributed to the world-building of this fantasy-based Viking tale, in addition to Aydis’s journey to Odin’s decadent castle with the Goddess Freyja.

The art, also by Alterici,  really grew on me. Inked in black and white with a few sepia and blush overwashes and black gutters, it captured the iciness of the Northlands. The ladies were often very scantily clad lithe beauties, and I being a practical lass, wondered wouldn’t they be cold or more battle-worn? Then it dawned on me that guys aren’t the only ones that can admire the female form! While not a lot of background is drawn into the panels, it lent itself to a more character-driven story.

A fan of Brian Wood’s Viking series Northlanders, this similarily themed graphic novel was lighter with more of a mythology angle. I found it extremely appealing, and plan to read volume two that just came out of the planned three-volume series.

-Nancy

Alterici, Natasha & Rachel Deering. Heathen. 2017.

Animal Man

Animal Man was this month’s selection from the Goodreads group  I Read Comic Books and because of it I was introduced to the kitschy awesomeness of Grant Morrison’s 1988 take on this B-level superhero. The graphic novel starts with a lengthy introduction by Morrison that explains how he and other Brits were contacted after Alan Moore’s success with Watchman and Swamp Thing, to give life to DC’s back catalogue of superheros. Morrison choose Animal Man and the rest is history.

The story establishes Buddy Baker as a married “everyman”, who as he nears thirty is having an identity crisis. In this world, heroes are common with Superman and Wonder Woman being the recognized top tier, with the other heroes scrambling to find a niche and a super-group. Buddy struggles to provide for his family, so he wishes to gain recognition, hoping to join a prestigious group and use his powers of temporarily picking up the abilities of animals nearby. Despite the campiness, the stories could be more nuanced than you would think. Animal cruelty,  family responsibilities, societal commentary and humanizing villains are all tied into the story lines. However, these themes are inconsistently used, as sometimes they are pulled together in  a witty way, but other times they are groan-worthy.

So let’s talk about The Coyote Gospel. OMG- I loved it. The jokes were so sly- starting with the trucker (who looked like Freddie Mercury) and hitchhiker singing the The Modern Lovers song Road Runner right before they accidentally struck the human like coyote in the desert. Animal Man is actually just a secondary character in this chapter as the coyote man and trucker duel it out. This homage to Will. E. Coyote in Looney Tunes, and comparing him to Jesus, was a trip. By coincidence I attended a small anime convention last week and as I was looking through the bins of posters of comic covers, I ran across the picture of Animal Man being painted on the road in an obvious crucifix symbolism. One week ago I would not have known who Animal Man was or the significance of the pose, but now I can claim more credibility as a comics fan!

I also picked up the recent Jeff Lemire version and absolutely hated it. The art was grotesque and I quickly put it down. Which goes to show that no matter how good the story is, art can torpedo a graphic novel. Luckily this first version has strong art with a Golden Age vibe and it elevates the stories. Artists Chas Truog, Doug Hazlewood and Tom Grummett, with some Brain Bolland covers, bring the Baker family to life along with the animal menagerie that Buddy encounters in every chapter. All in all, I enjoyed this graphic novel especially the deeper themes of animal rights activism that Animal Man advocated for.

-Nancy

Star Wars: Darth Vader

Darth Vader gets his first extended graphic novel series penned by Kieron Gillen and it gives us a look at Vader’s life between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Not surprisingly, Vader is a bad ass here.

I recently joined a Goodreads group called I Read Comic Books and every month a new graphic novel is chosen to discuss. I wished I had joined this group earlier as they have discussed many books that I have enjoyed and reviewed in the past. March’s vote strongly skewed towards this Star Wars selection and I happily decided to join in.

In this first volume,  the action picks  up soon after the destruction of the Death Star. The Emperor is far from pleased with Vader and puts him under the command of Grand Admiral Tagge, a man Vader looks at as simply a data cruncher with no vision. Vader knows he needs to watch his back so while doing the Emperor’s bidding, Vader decides to build his own droid army. He employs some familiar faces such as Jabba the Hutt and Boba Fett as well as a dark haired Wookie. He also conscripts shady Dr. Aphra and two assassin robots, 000 and BT-1, to do his dirty work. Interspersed throughout are his memories of his time with Padmé, and in the end the bounty hunters give him his first clue in identifying Luke as his son.

Last year I read the excellent short story collection Star Wars: From A Certain Point Of View and I discovered a character that I didn’t know before that collection is in this graphic novel.  Double checking my review, I wrote of the story The Trigger “Aphra is a dubious archaeologist who skirts the law on Dantooine. Captured by stormtroopers she talks her way out of trouble. She was an unfamiliar character to me, but her fleshed out backstory hinted that she plays more of a role in Star Wars canon, so I wasn’t surprised to realize she can be found in many Star Wars graphic novels.” And guess who wrote that short story? None other than Kieron Gillen! Gillen’s work in these Star Wars novels and The Wicked and The Divine series shows that he has an excellent handle on pop-culture.

The artwork was appropriately dark hued with black gutters. Artist Salvador Larroca ably recreated characters from the movies while creating new inhabitants in the Star Wars universe that fit in with the space look we have come to expect from the movies. I really enjoyed the cover art on chapter two from Adi Granov that showed Vader striding by a bunch of Stormtroopers and Tagge with his cape flying out behind him and the coloring by Edgar Delgado was spot-on.

This book fits in the approved Disney canon, but it didn’t move me as I am really only a fan of the Star Wars movies and I wasn’t invested in the narrative. Because all the action is between two movies you know the main characters will live while new characters will die, thus when Palpatine threatened Vader with replacing him with new apprentices, I was not worried in the least. So while I understand on one level that this is a well written and illustrated graphic novel, I will not continue with the series due to my personal preference for the movies.

-Nancy

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