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In the Pines

Best Reads of 2020

One of the few good parts of 2020: all the exemplary graphic novels we read! Once again, dear readers, we present the best graphic novels we have read this year, in no particular order.

Nancy: Pride of Baghdad was an absolutely riveting graphic novel that took the real-life story of how a pride of lions escaped the Baghdad Zoo in April of 2003 during an American raid of Iraq when it was under Saddam Hussian’s rule. This anthropomorphic tale by Brian K. Vaughn and Niko Henrichon centers around four lions in the Baghdad Zoo- male leader Zill, older female Safa, younger Noor and her cub Ali. These four lions go on to characterize how different Iraqi citizens have coped with the cruel reign of Hussian, although truly the tale is universal in scope. The conclusion, while expected, will tear you to pieces. Its illuminating clarity will make you think for a long time about the perils of war.

Kathleen: I had to redo my list once I read The Dragon Prince (Vol. 1): Through the Moon. Set between the events of Season 3 and the upcoming Season 4 of the Netflix series, our main characters embark on a journey to the land of death both for closure and confirmation. The main draw of this graphic novel, and the series as a whole, is the charming and loving interactions between all the characters. What’s more, it’s incredibly diverse in cast. This graphic novel is easily a worthy addition to the universe, and one of the best adaptations of another IP I’ve seen. You will fall in love as I have done.

Nancy: I fell in love with ElfQuest when I was in high school and my boyfriend who was collecting them introduced me to the World of Two Moons. Sometimes our dates would consist of us sitting side by side reading for hours and debating the finer points of elf lore. That my high school boyfriend eventually became my husband makes this series dear to my heart. The series began in 1978 ( I began reading it in the 1990s) and ended exactly forty years later with a four-volume conclusion called The Final Quest. I had bought the books and read them as they came out, and although I obviously blog about graphic novels I read, I did not write up any reviews, as the stories meant so much to me and I felt it hard to do it justice. But re-reading them during this spring’s Covid quarantine was enjoyable. Authors Wendy and Richard Pini fold decades worth of storyline and family connections of the elf tribes into a mostly satisfying conclusion to this truly epic fantasy series.

Kathleen: Things aren’t always what they seem. For example, Estranged may look like a middle-grade graphic novel at first glance. This is a tale about a human and fae who were swapped at birth and forced to meet when a usurper tries to take the fae throne. They must work together to save what each of them holds dear. Author Ethan Aldridge takes a deep dive into issues such as identity, family, and finding where one belongs, written without compunction, yet in a way that his target audience will understand. The art was delightfully cluttered without feeling overwhelming. Trust me – you’ll be as surprised as I was.

Nancy: I was sold on In the Pines: Five Murder Ballads as soon as I read murder ballads in the title! I’ve long been a fan of narrative songs that tell a story, with Appalachian inspired murder ballads being particularly appealing to me. Author and illustrator Erik Kriek is actually Danish, but took an American type of ballad, and turned it into a new type of art. He didn’t just adapt the song straight into comic form, instead he interpreted the lyrics to tell a fresh story, sometimes to my liking and sometimes not. The art was in duotone, with a different color for each tale. Reminiscent of scratch art or wood reliefs, Kriek’s black inks were evocative of Appalachian landscapes and times gone by.

Kathleen: Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom, adopted by Swedish parents at birth, shares her quest for finding the identity of her Korean birth parents in Palimpsest. This read was extraordinarily hard, but it’s well worth it. Though strong emotions come up throughout, there is never a point where it feels melodramatic. The information that Lisa and her husband Richey find is laid out, matter-of-factly, and in a sense the overall book is presented that way, too. Warm sepia tones, evoking rice paper and old documents, make up the whole color scheme. The presentation of this deeply personal, yet eye-opening, account shot it to this year’s best reads list immediately upon closing.

Nancy: What can I add to the dialogue about the excellent nine-volume series Saga? 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.” Fiona Staples’s art is perfect for the story. She immediately establishes the looks of a large cast of unique characters and creates believable alien worlds, with some awesome two-page spreads. Vaughan and Staple have indicated that the story is only half over, but their 2018 hiatus continues, with fans dying to know what will happen next to the little space-faring family of Alana, Marko and Hazel.

Kathleen: Akiko Higashimura starts the story of how she became a manga artist in Blank Canvas (Vol. 1): My So-Called Artist’s Journey. As a high school student, she thinks she can get by on pure talent, until she starts taking classes with Hidaka Kenzou. He is a gifted artist but a demanding teacher. Though it is a manga, the art is more realistic and has less “manga-style” tropes than I think is usual. The physical and mental demands of an artist are portrayed accurately. What intrigued me most was Akiko and Hidaka’s relationship: though it’s clear how unalike they are, Akiko clearly remembers him fondly. This is one character study I am looking forward to more of.

Nancy: Do you think you know King Arthur’s story? Think again! In this alternative fantasy world by Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora set in Britain, Duncan McGuire is a handsome but bumbling academic out on a disastrous date when he gets a call that his grandma is missing from her assisted living home. But his doobie smoking gran Bridgette turns out to be a monster hunter who has been keeping a lot of secrets from Duncan whom she raised. Soon he is in the middle of a crusade to block a woman Elaine from reanimating King Arthur who is not the kindly king of lore. In a Brexit-inspired plot, a group of Nationalists wishes for him to keep Britain pure so they bring his remains back to life. Then it a race to prevent a dark prophecy from taking hold, with several twists and turns and improbable family connections. The first volume of Once & Future sucked me in, and I already have volume two at home for a January review.

Kathleen: Last, but not least, for me, is the middle-grade DC hero debut of Primer. Ashley Rayburn’s new foster home is with scientist Yuka and artist Kitch Nolan. Though she likes them, she knows her penchant for getting into trouble won’t let her stay last long. After doing just that by discovering a suitcase full of paints that give her special powers, she must make a choice: save herself, or save her newfound family. The draw is in the art here: cartoony, loud, bombastic, and bursting with color. Each character is diverse and bends a traditional gender role, which only adds to the quirky sitcom tone – in a tasteful way. Readers of all ages will love this.

Friends, while 2020 was not what any of us expected, we were still fortunate enough to read these stand-out graphic novels, and more. It’s our hope that 2021 is a better one. Thank you all for another year of blogging, good reads, and solidarity. Wishing you a warm, safe, and happy holiday season,

– Nancy and Kathleen

In The Pines: Five Murder Ballads

I was sold on this graphic novel as soon as I read murder ballads in the title! I’ve long been a fan of narrative songs that tell a story, with Appalachian inspired murder ballads being particularly appealing to me. I have paired a mini-synopsis of each story with a rendition of the song it is based on. Often these songs have been covered by many artists, but I selected versions that were most well-known, or I just really liked the singer.

Author and illustrator Erik Kriek is actually Danish, but took an American type of ballad, and turned it into a new type of art. He didn’t just adapt the song straight into comic form, instead he interpreted the lyrics to tell a fresh story, sometimes to my liking and sometimes not. The art was in duotone, with a different color for each tale. Reminiscent of scratch art or wood reliefs, Kriek’s black inks were evocative of Appalachian landscapes and times gone by.

Pretty Polly and the Ship’s Carpenter

This song is the oldest of the bunch, as early versions were sung in the British Isles hundreds of years ago. In it, a woman is enticed by a sailor who promises he will marry her, but when she becomes pregnant because of their liaison and pushes for marriage, he instead kills her. He is racked by guilt and supposedly Polly’s ghost haunts his ship, wanting revenge. I did not like one of the last panels because I don’t see how Polly would ever forgive him.

The Long Black Veil

A man is having an affair with his best friend’s wife, and one night while heading home after a rendezvous, is mistaken for the killer of a local man. Not willing to betray his lover, he is hanged for he had no alibi. This story has a neat twist, that I always guessed at, but is not explicitly said in the song.

Johnny Cash is king, thus I shared one of his renditions, but Mick Jaggar did a good version of the song with The Chieftains.

Taneytown

Made famous by singer Steve Earle, this story tells of a young black man who heads into Taneytown against his mother’s advice. Upon arriving, he is set upon by a white mob and kills one of them in self-defense on his way back home. He later finds out an innocent man was accused of the crime and was hung.

Caleb Meyer

When Nellie’s husband is away, the hired man comes to terrorize her as she is left alone in a remote cabin. The most violent and graphic of all the dark stories. Although justice is served, there is an uncomfortable indication at the end of the story, when you infer that Caleb left behind a reminder of that terrible night.

Where The Wild Roses Grow

Kriek took the most artistic license with this song written and sung by Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue, and because I was already a huge fan of this moody ballad and video, I didn’t enjoy this adaptation as much as the others.

An escaped convict meets a young woman who helps him saw off his chains, and who is easily seduced by him. Despite this, he threatens to kill her if she doesn’t hand over money that he assumes was hidden by her father who was known for robbing several banks. The conclusion was rather talky and clunky, and I didn’t think it was a good match for this murder ballad.

This book sent me on many music journeys, as I enjoyed listening to ballad after ballad, and reminding me of family vacations in the Appalachian region where my parents took my younger sister and I to music festivals and to watch clogging. So while this post became more an ode to music than to the book, it was a fun read and I’m glad I discovered it!

-Nancy

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