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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

Sugar (Vol. 1)

Twenty-three year-old Julia Capella is a student trying to put herself through college. It isn’t easy after using her tuition money to pay her sister’s medical bills after she was in a horrific accident. John Markham is a successful businessman, but freshly divorced. At his business partners, Richard’s insistence, he goes to a “sugar party” – one where older men and younger women mingle in hopes of becoming sugar partners. It’s an arrangement where the woman agrees to be the man’s partner (from platonic to romantic) in exchange for monetary allowances or other material goods. Richard swears by it – it saved his own marriage, after all! – but John isn’t so sure. That changes when he and Julia meet. He knows she’s in financial trouble, but Julia won’t take charity and her romantic sensibilities refuse to engage in a relationship where she feels like a hooker. They eventually agree that Julia will become his partner – his sugar baby – as long as Julia pays the money back. Their relationship started as an arrangement, but could it turn into something more?

This is the start of a companion series to Sunstone and Swing, both of which I’ve heard of but have yet to read! Both of these series are adult romance series, with sexually explicit material. Sugar is no different, but it appears to be more on the tamer side than Sunstone (which is about a lesbian couple who are into BDSM). The love scenes here are tender and not overly graphic.

What’s most interesting to me about this story are Julia and John themselves. They are both struggling, which makes them sympathetic. Though they have the same views as their audience at first about sugar babies and daddies, they communicate openly and honestly to come to a mutual agreement. That’s the strongest aspect of this graphic novel, I think: showing how important communication and boundaries are in any interpersonal relationship, whether or not it’s romantic.

The art is manga-esque in a few different ways. First, the features of the characters have long features and large eyes: Julia in particular, to suggest youth and innocence. Second, much of the details are in the characters and not in the backgrounds, to keep readers’ attention on the people and their relationships. Background effects such as hearts and bokeh bubbles are used occasionally, to highlight important parts or heightened emotions. While it’s not a manga, the art deliberately skews in that direction, to remind readers they are holding a romance story, such as they may find in popular romance manga.

As this is a sexually explicit graphic novel, I’d give it to older teens and adults, maybe younger high school students depending on the maturity of the reader. Teens could learn much from Julia and John’s example of communication about their relationship. Everyone else will fall head-over-heels for this romance – I know I have 😉

-Kathleen

Hawkins, Matt, Jenni Cheung, and Yishan Li. Sugar (Vol. 1). 2018.

Plutona

Plutona was a spontaneous read for me, as I was sorting through my library’s graphic novel collection and discovered this book that I didn’t know we owned, plus I had never heard of it. Intrigued with the Stand By Me premise and that it was penned by Jeff Lemire, I gave it a go.

We are introduced to five characters- superhero expert Teddy, insecure Diane, troubled bad-boy Ray, edgy Mie and her younger brother Mike- who all converge one afternoon after school on accident. Teddy is capespotting, looking for superheroes who guard the nearby Metro City and Ray is interested but doesn’t want others to know. When Mie and Diane arrives he resumes being a jerk, when Mike slips away to the nearby woods. Following him, all five then discover the dead body of Plutona, a female superhero.

The story includes five chapters, and concluding each chapter is a few pages of Plutona’s adventures and what led to her defeat and being found in the woods. The five youth feel that they should bury Plutona, but don’t wish to tell anyone the news of her death. Planning to meet after school the next day, Teddy arrives back to the spot early as he wishes to gain some of her powers by comingling their blood, and convinces Mike to do so too. What happens when the other three arrive is heartbreaking and the conclusion was melancholy and open-ended. This coming-of-age story left me wanting, as this character-driven tale had several characters that I despised.

The art is credited to Emi Lenox, although the Plutona interludes looked like Lemire’s trademark sketchy art style. The illustrations certainly set the mood, and Lenox created five diverse individuals whose personalities shown through the uncluttered panels. A concluding art gallery showed the five-issue covers, each featuring one of the youth. Jordie Bellaire always shines as a colorist, with these five covers being evocatively colored.

Growing up is not always easy, and some youth who can’t think beyond the here and now may end up making decisions that carry dire consequences. The bleak storyline led me to feel disappointed with this story, but as a stand-alone graphic novel, it effectively told a complete but sad tale.

-Nancy

 

Saga: Volumes Seven-Nine

Here concludes my Saga saga (for now!) as volume nine came out in 2018 and author Brian K Vaughn and illustrator Fiona Staples took a hiatus from putting out new volumes until an undetermined future time. A quote from the series to set the stage: “Anyone can kill you, but it takes someone you know to really HURT you. It takes someone you love to break your heart” -Hazel

*Some Spoilers Ahead*

Volume Seven

Hazel has been reunited with her parents and they couldn’t be happier, especially as they are also expecting another child. A former prisoner, transgender Petrichor, has joined the family, as she slipped through the portal when Klara chooses to remain in the detention center with her new loved ones. Along with Izabel and the Prince Robot, the group needs to refuel their spaceship and their brief sojourn to the planet Phang ends up lasting for six months. The Will tracks down Gwendolyn and Sophie, but Sophie and Lying Cat remain with Gwen, despite The Will’s plea to join him. War comes to Phang and the family needs to leave quickly, leaving behind some friends they had made, and Alana gets hurt during their sudden departure.

Volume Eight

This volume was HARD to read. Known as a controversial series, I have to admit the opening page was a gut punch and it shocked and disturbed me. While I am 100% pro-choice, the picture seemed flippant, but of course, as you read on the narrative was nuanced and I hope it pushed readers to think critically about their beliefs.

This story had a lot of character development as it took a brief break from action (although of course there is some) for Alana, Marko, Petrichor, Prince Robot and The Will. Even little Hazel gets some poignant scenes with her ghostly brother. The volume ends a sweet note, but I know what that means- we are being lulled into complacency so we can be devastated in the next volume.

Volume Nine

Groups are converging for a show-down, as the lull in the action in the last volume was just setting the stage for this narrative. While some families have been reunited, and some couples are deepening their connections, other characters are so caught up in their hate that they can’t see the humanity in others. I felt like I was watching a horror movie, and wanted to yell at some of the characters to not do that, go there, or trust that person. And I was right- as there were additional deaths and betrayals. Then there was that ending- NO!!!!!!!

Now, I join all other Saga fans who are waiting and waiting and waiting for volume ten. With such a cliff-hanger it is almost cruel for Vaughan and Staples to make us wait so long. I read that they consider the series halfway done, so we are to expect another nine volumes in the future- but when will it start up again????

To wrap up, I noticed on these three volumes that artist Fiona Staples was given first credit, and I applaud that because in graphic novels it is often the ART that makes the story. Staples’ visuals are top-notch and while Vaughn’s storytelling is superb, it would not be the same story if not for the illustrations (I feel the same way about Locke & Key). I now impatiently wait for Saga to continue, as I wipe away my tears from the heartbreaking last page.

-Nancy

Catch up on previous volumes: Volume One, Volumes Two-Three, Volumes Four-Six

Saga: Volumes Four-Six

After taking two years between reading the first epic volume and then volumes two and three, I decided I will take a page out of how I read Harrow County and read and review the entire series (thus far) in close succession. *Some Spoilers Ahead*

Volume Four

Marko and Alana are hiding in plain sight while raising Hazel to toddlerhood on a remote planet Gardenia. Alana has improbably become an actress for a soap-opera type series called Open Circuit, leaving Marko and his mother to the day-to-day parenthood duties.  While the family might be disguised, they are taking incredible risks, and can’t risk making friends who might discover their secret. The luster is off their marriage, both parents are stressed, and they find out some of their choices have dire consequences. Prince Robot IV misses the birth of his son, and because of his oversight, the baby is kidnapped by a disgruntled janitor robot who feels the royal house has taken advantage of the populace during the war. When the kidnapper also grabs Hazel, the two feuding fathers need to band together to find their children before its too late.

Volume Five

All the various groups are separated- Alana and Klara are trying desperately to escape from Dengo the janitor who is holding Hazel and the baby robot hostage, Marko and Prince Robot IV are trying to find their children, plus The Brand, Gwendolyn and Sophie are trying to find an elixir to heal The Will. The Last Revolution, a radical anti-war group, gets added into the mix with shifting alliances and betrayals that lead to the death of several characters. While there are family members reunited, other family groups remain splintered.

I love how the character’s motivations are layered and deep, and not everyone makes the best decisions. Some people start with the best of intentions and then make cowardly decisions, and on the flip side, some weak characters end up standing up strong when needed.

Volume Six

Time has gone by and Hazel is now kindergarten age as she and her grandmother are being held in a Landfallian detention center. Marko and Alana are finally reunited and determined to find Hazel and Klara so they blackmail a certain someone to help them onto the Landfall prison. The Will has made a recovery but no longer has his sidekick Lying Cat, instead, he has his sister’s dog-like creature, Sweet Boy. He has become heavy and mean, and hallucinates frequently. Meanwhile Hazel and Klara have made the best of their detention and both have acquired some allies who help them when Marko and Hazel make their brazen rescue attempt. Nothing ever goes perfectly, and the family’s reunion is bittersweet.

Wow, although I had a slow start with this series, the storytelling keeps amping up and I am now devouring the volumes. Staple’s art remains strong, with additional crazy aliens and planets, yet it all remains relatable. Expect reviews for the next three volumes to drop next week!

-Nancy

Saga: Volumes Two and Three

Although I was a big fan of the first volume of Saga, it has taken me almost two years to start reading further into the series! An epic sci-fi adventure with liberal doses of violence and sex, this series is a favorite of many but also criticized for the illustrated depictions of said violence and sex. Author Brian K. Vaughan jokingly described the series as “Star Wars for perverts.”

Volume Two

Marko’s parents showed up at the end of the first volume and it is immediately established that they don’t approve of their son’s marriage to Alana, who is of an enemy species. But within minutes Marko and his mother Klara need to leave to rescue Isabel, the babysitter who was just sent into another dimension by Marko’s mother on accident. And right away we see why this series is so controversial, we get an extreme close up of a giant’s privates (and I do mean giant). During this time Alana bonds with Barr, Marko’s father and as he tries to make items that will protect his extended family, and we learn a sad truth about him.

There is some important backstory to how Marko and Alana met, which is crucial, as in the first volume the reader was just dropped into the story and expected to pick up what was going on. We also learn of Marko’s upbringing and start to see a more nuanced view of why the different alien species are at war. Interestingly, a key reason why Alana was open to a romance with a warring species was a pulp romance novel that she was crazy about that showed interspecies love in a flattering light. Saga has a huge cast of characters and we also get some backstory on the Prince Robot, The Will and a certain someone from Marko’s past. Plus, there is a lot of chaos natch.

Volume Three

Marko and Alana’s family is reeling from their recent tragedy and take refuge in an unlikely ally’s home. The ragtag family has a brief time to recover and bond, but soon enough they are on the run again. If you think there is a large cast of characters- think again, as even more are added. Now we have two journalists who are following the scandalous story of Alana and Marko’s marriage and their infant Hazel, while the government wants to cover up that a child has been born of their union. The Will is joined by another morally ambiguous assassin and a six-year child they saved from prostitution.

Snappy dialogue and great art are trademarks of this series. Artist Fiona Staples has created an authentic universe with a myriad of different aliens and varied planets. I’m amazed at how much background she fits in, as many artists would simplify the panels, as the aliens themselves are a lot of work, but Staples doesn’t skimp. She also very ably shows emotion, and thus the whole cast of characters seems more authentic because of how she draws and colors them.

On a side note, I have this series at the library I work at and had the most recent Volume Nine up on display with all the other newly bought graphic novels. I was in my office when one of the circulation clerks came to get me to report that one of our library patrons was lodging a complaint against it. When I came out to speak to her she said the book was pornographic and we should not have it in our library. I explained that as a library we offer diverse reads and can not dictate what our patrons read. I said that we kept it in the adult section, and it had a Mature label on the back that lets readers know of the adult content. While I agreed that the content was indeed mature, we would be keeping it on our shelves as we do not ban books. She calmed down, and while she was not happy, she did not ask for the paperwork to formally lodge a complaint. I took that as a win.

Once again, I enjoyed this series, and I hope I can catch up on the remaining volumes (thus far) soon.

-Nancy

In-jokes abound, as Vaughan makes this sly dig against writers (like himself!).

Blackbird (Book 1): The Great Beast

Nina Rodriguez has known her whole life that there was magic in this world, ever since she was thirteen and a great beast saved Nina and her sister Marisa from being crushed to death during an earthquake. She’s spent her whole life trying to find the magic again, against her family’s wishes. They call her “Crazy Baby” and tease her, but Nina knows what she saw. Ten years later, she’s struggling with panic attacks, addiction, joblessness, and still struggling to find the magic in the world – until the great beast reappears and takes Marisa away. Nina has to pull it together if she’s to save her sister. It’ll take a little help from Nina’s childhood cat and a mysterious boy who is a Paragon – who has magical powers. What if, in her quest to save her sister and uncover the truth about magic – Nina realizes her entire life has been a lie?

I didn’t know I’d been itching for some good ol’ urban fantasy until I read this. And in graphic novel form! I was in heaven and now I want more! It does have some classic urban fantasy and straight fantasy tropes: spunky, outcast, loud-mouthed female lead who doesn’t realize she has powers, knowledgeable love interest she doesn’t need, and so forth. But it was put together so charmingly I didn’t mind.

The setting is what grounds this graphic novel. It takes place in Los Angeles in the modern day. We get detailed backgrounds of the city with some recognizable landmarks. We get the glitz and glamour of the City of Angels. But we also get a parallel world, the magic world, which peeks through Los Angeles’ seedy veil every now and then throughout… making you believe that maybe, just maybe, there could be a magic world underneath. Though the overall palette is neon, the real world tends toward darker colors, and the world of magic towards pastels.

While overall the art was solid, especially in the colors, I found the characters a little stiff. Their poses and expressions seemed lacking to me, even during times of high tension or stress. It’s mostly in the writing and Nina’s inner dialogue where the emotional impact comes from, and not her expressions or her actions. The scenery, the details, the colors, and the worldbuilding and atmosphere are all so solid – but it’s lacking much of it’s emotional depth because what we’re reading and what we’re seeing in the characters’ facial expressions and body language don’t always match.

Overall, however, this is a great start to what is sure to be a hit graphic novel/urban fantasy series. I eagerly look forward to more!

-Kathleen

Humphries, Sam, and Jen Bartel. Blackbird (Book 1): The Great Beast. 2018.

Spawn Kills Everyone!

I recently took a trip to Georgia for a girl’s weekend with my college friends when I saw a comic bookstore named Mountain Man Comics, so I slipped away from them so I could properly geek out in peace. While browsing, I came upon this humorously titled graphic novel and I spontaneously purchased it for my library, thinking the patrons (and I!) would like it.

In 2016 there was a Spawn one-shot comic that spoofed the villain by having him portrayed as a potbellied child attending a comic-con and then going on a killing spree. Wanting a movie deal like the Marvel or DC heroes, he struts around killing anyone he views as a threat, although they in actuality are cosplayers. There is a tongue-in-cheek moment when he meets Todd McFarlane, his creator, but McFarlane is dispatched quickly. This storyline reminded me incredibly of Skottie Young’s 2017 FCBD I Hate Image comic, but Young managed his narrative and art better, as this story just seemed crass. Nevertheless, this was a popular story, with several printings to account for the demand.

So two years later, a second story about baby Spawn was issued with another artist. The story remains the same, Spawn wishes to kill everyone but this time he is able to create little minions to help him- turd babies! Yes, he creates evil little babies on the toilet! Do I even need to share much more about the narrative than that? There actually are some clever moments in this story, especially about how he kills Captain America and the Hulk. Often the names of the heroes are not mentioned and their costumes are a bit different to get away with using copyrighted heroes from other companies in an Image publication. At the end of this story Spawn goes to bed happy that his kill count was so high, and is so very proud of his little turds.

Artist JJ Kirby established the chibi style of Spawn with exaggerated child-like features in the first story. His anime-inspired art was darker, with cluttered panels and a black border. The second artist, Will Robinson, had cleaner looking art with a better panel flow. Plus, he got to draw the adorable (but insidious) turd babies! Both artists had fun with the story, as obviously that’s what attracted me to pick up this graphic novel.

Overall, this was a disappointing read. The humor was too crude, with too much gore. I didn’t expect finesse in a story like this, but I still felt let down. Perhaps I should have spent more time looking at it before I purchased it as I guess my humor is slightly more mature than a teenaged boy…

-Nancy

McFarlane, Todd, JJ Kirby & Will Robinson. Spawn Kills Everyone! The Complete Collection. 2019.

The Wicked + The Divine: Volumes Eight + Nine

These last two volumes bring this series to a close! Read on to find out if I found the entire run wicked or divine!

Volume Eight: Old Is The New New

This volume proved to be very atypical…it doesn’t continue with the big reveals from the previous volume…instead it is an interlude of historical specials that had been released at different times during the five year run of the series.

455 AD- You think you know how Rome fell to the German Vandals? Think again! Artist André Araújo drew great historical backgrounds but was not as precise with his humans.  Color by Dee Cunniffe and Matthew Wilson.

1373 AD- Lucifer and Ananke have a battle of wits, as Ananke reveals she has brought the plague to Europe and beyond which resulted in the Black Death. There are religious overtones to this story as Lucifer is a mix of demon and nun. Art by Ryan Kelly and colors by Dee Cunniffe and Matthew Wilson.

1831 AD- Love this one- it features the Gods as Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelly and Claire Claremont during their famous retreat in Geneva in which the novel Frankenstein (for a beautiful retelling of the real Mary Shelly’s life read Mary’s Monster) was started. The art by Stephanie Hans was dark, lovely and appropriately Gothic looking.

1923 AD- This story read more like an Agatha Christie novella for it was very text-heavy with limited illustrations. Previous visits to the past cycles were but vignettes, but this story was very fleshed out and had direct connections to the modern-day cycle. By the time you read this story, you can catch Ananke’s manipulations that will crop up again. The Art Deco type illustrations by Aud Koch were outstanding and really added to the story.

We then have the uneven Christmas Special that included some vignettes of the Gods before they were chosen and some afterward- let’s just say there was a lot of sexy time. Then there are the Funnies- that included other artists making fun of the series with the Scooby-Doo parody being my favorite.

Volume Nine: Okay

This is it! Can Gillen and McKelvie bring this series to a satisfying close? Since Volume Eight was basically an interlude (although two of the previous historical stories will tie-in to this one), we basically are picking up from Volume Seven’s action.

Woden, Minerva and Baal are planning a concert to suck the energy of the Gods and concert-goers to supposedly prevent The Great Darkness, although Baal is but an unknowing pawn in the first two’s evil plan. Sadly, Baal’s justification for this mass-murder is due to Ananke’s previous manipulations of him.

Persephone has clued into Ananke’s manipulations and who she is masquerading as. She rallies the remaining Gods to stop the concert…but things don’t go as planned (of course). There are some more reveals, some deaths, some rebirths and a lot of fighting and chaos that occurs as the remaining Gods group together for the final showdown. As I don’t want to spoil the ending or let on who survives and who doesn’t, all I can say the final confrontation is epic. Many puzzle pieces are finally joined together, with connections to the past, but ultimately it is our advanced, modern technological world that finally thwarts Ananke. An epilogue ends the series on a somber note, and its slower pace lets you reflect on the nature of how we perceive others and how we let other’s perceptions of us color ourselves. As Laura, formally Persephone, wisely states, “Dreams aren’t real”.

The art in this series was absolutely divine. For a huge cast of characters, each God was inked with attention to detail and was so incredibly distinctive. The colors added maximum visual impact -with certain hues matching each God’s personality. There were unique panel configurations and the story always flowed. McKelvie, Wilson and Cowles have a partnership that rivals any other artist teams out there, for their style, colors and lettering can’t be beat.

This contemporary fantasy skewered celebrity obsession and media culture in a truly thought-provoking way…and yet, it was so damn confusing at times! There were several times I almost gave up on this nine-volume series, yet I persevered because the unique narrative and outstanding art kept pulling me back in. Ultimately, this series proved to be more divine than wicked, and I’m glad I finished it.

-Nancy

Catch up on the previous volumes:  One, Two + Three, Four + Five and Six + Seven 

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