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The Department of Truth

The world is flat. The moon landing was faked. Reptilian Illuminati rule the world. Most people don’t believe these wild conspiracy theories, but what if they became real because collective belief could turn these theories into reality? That’s where the secret Department of Truth steps in.

Cole Turner, an FBI teacher who teaches about conspiracy theories at Quantico, is attending a Flat Earth conference when he is convinced to get into a plane that takes him and flat earth believers to the end of the world where he sees that, indeed, the world is flat. Astounded by this, he disembarks with the others just to have everyone gunned down but him. He is taken to a bunker where he is interrogated about what he saw. There is some insightful conversation about why wild theories take hold, often it is about a loss of control in someone’s life, and the wish for them to come up with explanations that make them feel important and justified. The director (whose name will be familiar to you) reveals he and the other agents are from the Department of Truth and recruit him to to their organization.

But the secrets go deeper than keeping fringe theories from becoming fact. Since outcomes can branch off into many different scenarios, agents need to make split-second decisions that don’t always tidy up neatly. A heartbreaking example is shown of a single mother whose child was killed in a school shooting, who begins to doubt her reality when she goes down the rabbit hole of internet rantings. She begins to believe her son was part of a “crisis-actors” set up, and he is being held hostage by shadowy officials. More theories are brought up- what if modern day presidents have been puppets with their lives manipulated- including the Bushes, Clinton, Obama and Trump, all for some grand scheme?

The artwork is sketchy, abstract, and frankly, messy at times. While it is apropos that this shadowy tale also has shadowy panels, I found it overkill at times. There were some full page spreads that had overlays of other graphics in a collage format that gave it an interesting stylistic look. The colors are muted, except for some splashes of red and the mysterious woman in a crimson dress who always wears sunglasses.

The graphic novel ends on a cliffhanger as Turner is confronted with yet another secret society, and the question begs, who is telling the truth? Who decides which secrets need to never see the light, and which should be revealed? Why was Turner recruited and who is the woman with the strange eyes that follows him? This was a promising, yet convoluted story with an X-Files vibe, that could go either way in the next volume.

-Nancy

Middlewest: Books Two + Three

The three-volume Middlewest series was a mash-up of the classic hero’s journey, steampunk and The Wizard of Oz. The first book had been intriguing- it was about a teen runaway named Abel and how the toxic masculinity that his father has modeled affected him as dangerous magic begins to transform him into a monstrous creature.

Book Two

Abel’s breakdown in book one has led to him turning into a storm monster at the carnival in which he was taking refuge from his father. Ashamed at the destruction he caused, he runs away. I thought there was some nuanced dialogue about following him, with a friend wanting to follow him immediately, but the older leader of the carnival making the decision to stay and help the survivors regroup. Abel journeys into a forest with his sidekick, Fox, and discovers his grandfather, who has transformed part of the forest into a hellish winter landscape. His grandfather shows his true colors, and his cruelness drives Abel away into a nearby city where he is kidnapped to become a slave worker in nearby farm fields. All the while Abel’s father Dale continues searching for him. A bleak story about lack of self-control and its consequences.

Book Three

This last book was message-heavy! Abel gets to know the other youth trapped as farmhands, and their sad backstories make him realize he is not alone. Maggie, the carnival leader, is able to put together a group that wants to help Abel and they pick up new followers as they follow Abel’s trail. Dale has also found Abel, so all paths are converging for a battle. The generational rage is addressed, with sorrow and forgiveness concluding this three-part tale.

The art by Jorge Corona was fun and the bright colors by Jean-Francois Beaulieu incorporated a lot of pink, purple and orange that helped convey the emotional tone. This was a unique graphic novel series that brought up a lot of intriguing issues- but didn’t quite stick the landing. Dystopian and fantasy aspects tied into real and gritty personal plot threads, but I wasn’t sure at times what direction the narrative was going (and what happened to Abel’s mom?). Author Skottie Young has an interesting voice, and while this series didn’t do it for me, I will continue to seek out further work by him.

-Nancy

Undiscovered Country

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

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

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

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

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

-Nancy

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.

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