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Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio

Best Reads of 2021

It’s the post you look forward to all year – Nancy and Kathleen’s best reads! Here are GraphicNovelty²’s Top 10 Reads of 2021, in no particular order.

Kathleen: I surprised myself by reading a lot of nonfiction graphic novels this year – and happening upon so many GOOD ones. The first on my list is Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio. On Monday, May 4th, 1970, the National Guard opened fire on Kent State students peacefully protesting the Vietnam War. Thirteen seconds and sixty-seven shots later, the nation was left shaken. Creator Derf Backderf recreated the last days of the four students who died through interviews, eyewitness accounts, and archival materials. All illustrations are in black and white, in a style reminiscent of cartoons and comic strips popular at the time, but without being over the top. Everything available to us for this story was laid out very clearly and carefully, yet readers can’t help but be compelled to look for answers that aren’t there – due to willful silence or simply being lost to time.

Nancy: Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross was my very first read of 2021 and I loved it and mentioned that it might make the Top 10 list, and it did! This amazing story gives the perspective of everyday people living in a world populated with superheroes, villains and mutants. We see the world through their eyes as they try to make sense of the incredible things happening around them. Beginning in 1939, we first meet Phil Sheldon a young photojournalist and his friend Jonah Jameson who are amazed when superheroes begin to appear in New York City. The populace is at first scared and then in awe of these costumed avengers and soon admires them as they help fight for American freedom in World War II. But as the decades go by, in a 35-year span, perception of them waxes and wanes. The Fantastic Four are beloved for awhile but later pilloried. Later, the poor mutants get the brunt of the public’s hate. The photo-realism art style was outstanding and strengthened the narrative.

Kathleen: Mr. Freeze is my favorite villain, so imagine my delight when the YA graphic novel Victor & Nora: A Gotham Love Story was announced. Author Lauren Myracle and artist Isaac Goodheart reunite to present this tale of a young Victor and Nora. How do two teenagers meet in Gotham? The answer is a cemetery, of course. Both teenagers are mourning someone, or their future selves, but in different ways. Victor wants to cheat death by developing technology to stop it completely, but Nora wants to live what little time she has left before death by disease takes her. While at first the art and colors separate Victor into blues and Nora into pinks and oranges, as they become closer, the colors blend and become purple-y. What made it stand out for me was the compelling dialogue and story that stood so well on its’ own, it could have been unrelated to the Batman mythos and still worked.

Nancy: Harleen by Stjepan Šejić proves the adage, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” in this origin story of Harley Quinn, formally Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel, who meant to reform Joker and instead became his lover. Fans of this anti-hero will love this self-contained story about her downfall. I will definitely be looking for more work from Šejić who is both author and illustrator of this excellent graphic novel.

Kathleen: The best memoir I’ve read this year was And Now I Spill the Family Secrets by Margaret Kimball. Her mother’s suicide attempt on Mother’s Day 1988 is something her family simply does not talk about. Starting with this event, Kimball traces her family history backwards and forwards in order to understand how prevalent mental illness is in her family and how it affected her and her relationships with her family going forward. While a tough read on it’s own, the presentation intentionally made it more uncomfortable. The black and white illustrations are almost exclusively of scenery: a room in a house, the exterior of a building, or recreations of diary entries, family photos, and stills from family movies. There is no narrator to serve as a buffer between the reader and Kimball’s dirty laundry. We are simply left alone in a room with only her words to guide us. Easily the best presentation I’ve seen all year.

Nancy: Back in 2016 I read the first volume of Invincible by Robert Kirkman, Cory Walker & Ryan Ottley, and really enjoyed it, but it took the new animated series on Amazon Prime to get me to read volumes 2-12 this year. Why did I wait so long?! So this entry is more an ode to the entire series, rather than just one volume of it. The series took familiar superhero tropes and twisted them in unusual and bloody ways with fresh commentary on issues going on in our own world but adapted into the Invincible universe. 

Kathleen: Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human scoffs at the tired, boring, and uncomfortable way of sex education for a YA audience. Creators Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan address male and female reproductive anatomy, how sex works, and how to avoid STIs, sure. But they also talk about SO much more: gender and sexual identities and how to start defining yourself, how to ask someone out, how to talk to your partner about your sexual needs, the different forms masturbation can take, how to more positively see your body (and yourself!), and how to deal with difficult emotions that love and sex can bring up. Each chapter dealt with one of these topics, or a few closely related ones. Each chapter was also presented as a group of 2-4 highly diverse teens or young adults speaking with each other, reinforcing body positivity and breaking the stigma of never talking about sex with your peers.

Nancy: I loved Brazen! 29 stories of kick-ass women are shared- spanning centuries and continents. Author and illustrator Pénélope Bagieu gave each woman three to five pages and would start their story at their birth before proceeding chronologically and would touch on what made each woman so unique. I applaud the diversity found within, for while you might recognize a few names, most will be unknown to readers. Bagieu choose an Apache warrior, a Chinese empress, an astronaut, a volcanologist, a Greek gynecologist, athletes, singers, painters- even a bearded lady!

Kathleen: In My Last Summer with Cass, creator Mark Crilley shows us two girls who grow up, then apart, and maybe back together again through their art. Megan and Cass meet up for one last summer in New York City before their first year of college. They haven’t seen each other since they were little and their families used to vacation together in Michigan. They rekindle their shared creative spark and plan to exhibit their work in a real art gallery. Bold Cass pushes the more reserved Megan to take chances, but when does her critique go too far? This story of two friends trying to fix what broke between them was heart-wrenching and hopeful at the same time. The artwork appeared to be rendered in pastel or charcoal pencils, perfectly reinforcing the prevalent theme of reinvention.

Nancy: Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done? is a new graphic novel about Eddie Gein who was a necrophile serial killer who inspired Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs! This true-crime story was horrifying, yet of course sickly fascinating. Established author Harold Schechter who has written a previous book about Gein is paired with artist Eric Powell, and they proved to be a superb team to tell this tale. Darkly disturbing, and scarier because it is based on facts, this story is not to be missed for true-crime aficionados!

It was tough to choose our 2021 best reads! It seems roles were flipped this year, with Nancy having multiple excellent superhero comics on her list, and Kathleen only having one in favor of nonfiction and memoirs 😉 Thank you once again for another great year. Have a wonderful and safe holiday season!

– Nancy & Kathleen

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio- Take Two

As a fan of Derf Backderf’s prior graphic novels (My Friend Dahmer, Trashed & Punk Rocks and Trailer Parks), I knew I wanted to read his newest book that gives a thorough look at the May 4th, 1970 tragedy at Kent State University in Ohio. Kathleen first reviewed this book back in February, saying it will most likely be on her top 2021 list, but I too wanted to give it a read.

Backderf recreates the days leading up to the shooting and we are introduced to four students- Allison Beth Krause, 19, Jeffrey Glenn Miller, 20, Sandra Lee Scheuer, 20, William Knox Schroeder, 19- knowing the entire time they will die. He inserts himself into the story briefly, for as a child he lived nearby and saw the National Guard protecting his hometown while the Teamsters Union was on strike. It would be some of these guards that were then deployed to Kent State when tensions arose. With the Vietnam War ongoing, students were protesting, as many of the male students had the specter of the draft hanging over them. Background knowledge is worked into the panels, as we learn about how political and social tensions morphed into a crisis because many campus and town leaders operated out of fear and faulty information. Contributing to local tensions were military leaders who were unequipped to handle the volatile environment and meddling government agencies that were adding more issues to the already challenging situation. A powder keg was ready to explode with one wrong move, and there were many made that tragic day.

Backderf’s artwork is very reminiscent of Robert Crumb and of Don Martin from Mad magazine, with an underground comix vibe. It is all drawn in black and white, and while not an attractive art style, it really represents the 70s era and Ohio landscape well. Of all the four books I have read by Derf, this is the one I found the most authentically drawn, for in past books there was a touch of caricature in the people, but here he based his drawings on photographs and videos of the campus students. While there are some text-heavy panels, they are crucial to understanding, and some maps of the day’s events help too.

I applaud the author for pulling together this comprehensive narrative, for he put in the work by interviewing survivors and researching the information that would guide his story, as extensive notes show how his work was led by facts and not conjecture. A heartbreaking author’s note sadly shows how the mistakes made were covered up, and fifty years later no one takes responsibility or accountability for the shootings. Plus, the short epilogue shows the callousness shown by President Nixon, reminds me sadly of some current politicians, and how the American public is still struggling today with certain political issues. This was a truly thought-provoking graphic novel and is well worth a read.

-Nancy

Picture from Pop Culture Classroom website, which offers a free teaching guide

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio

On Monday, May 4th, 1970, the National Guard opened fire on Kent State students peacefully protesting the Vietnam War. Thirteen seconds and sixty-seven shots later, four students were dead and nine more wounded. Derf Backderf recounts the weekend leading up to, and the events of, that tragic day. Rising political and social tensions, both in the state and nationwide, coupled with angry students and fed-up, sleep-deprived Guardsmen, created a ticking time bomb which exploded into Monday’s events.

Backderf (who also penned My Friend Dahmer, which Nancy’s reviewed) used interviews, eyewitness accounts, and archival materials to build the narrative, from multiple viewpoints. Most prominently, we see the last days of the four students who were murdered. We see what the Guardsmen, campus and Kent police, FBI, and other law enforcement agencies’ responses were throughout the weekend. We see reactions of Kent citizens (who were not college students) and beyond to a lesser extent. Though much is still unknown about the event, this is as comprehensive a picture as you can get.

The presentation of this book, through the difficult subject matter, is exceptional. The entire book is in black and white. Figures are long and lanky, outlined in thick black ink, evoking a ’60s and ’70s art style without being too distracting or hokey. Though it’s text-heavy, great care is taken with especially wordy sequences so that panels aren’t cluttered. Chapter breaks are given at the start of each of the four days chronicled here, and timestamps in especially important spots. At some points where maps and aerial view shots are needed, there are arrows indicating movement of people, and numbered labels to help put the sequence of events together. There is also an extensive notes section at the back Everything is laid out very clear, in black and white (forgive the pun), making this hard read a little easier to get through.

No doubt about it: this is a very difficult read. Though the events here took place in 1970, many elements still hold true today. Paranoia, clashing ideals of the young and old, misinformation and generalization of a population… sound familiar? Your morbid curiosity compels you forward to the tragic conclusion, hoping for answers that unfortunately cannot be revealed or provided, whether through willing silence or simply being lost to time.

The stellar presentation of the difficult subject matter has already put this graphic novel at the top of my 2021 best reads list. A hard read, and a hard won one. Required reading for all.

– Kathleen

Backderf, Derf. Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio. 2020.

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