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The Dollhouse Family

A dollhouse lures generations of people into its clutches, but why?

In 1979 Britain, Alice mysteriously receives an elaborate old-fashioned dollhouse from a great-aunt that she was unaware of. She loves to play with it and the dollhouse family to escape the abuse that her father is inflicting on her family. With a child’s innocence, she accepts it when the dolls talk to her and is thrilled to use the chant they teach her so she can become small and join them. There is an unusual balance in the house, the dolls seem content yet they are aware there is an evil entity in the house that soon draws Alice in and tries to make a Faustian bargain with her. This is where the plot goes sideways to me- a tragedy befalls Alice and she spends years in a foster home. But as Alice grows up and has a daughter herself, we get odd flashbacks to Ireland in the late 1800s and how a surveyor’s exploration of a cave and his meeting with a succubus lead to the dollhouse. We get the expected fight of good vs evil at the end, but only after the narratives of past and present are confusingly knit together.

The art was good, and I actually found the illustrations portraying the past to be evocatively authentic and more to my liking than the modern-day depictions. I enjoyed the chapter openings that showed creepy dolls that gave a hint of what was to come. Some of the lettering in my online copy was off, such as additional details to the side of the illustrations were covered by the art or so faint as to be unreadable. I would hope in a print edition this would be corrected. 

Despite the strong start with the Hill House label, this third graphic novel isn’t up to snuff. It felt like a mix of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline plus a weak Locke and Key, which Joe Hill wrote.  In fact, Hill’s single-issue Small World was all about a dollhouse, so this felt like a convoluted British knockoff of it. But I still look forward to the last two titles in this label and am glad I was able to read an early copy through NetGalley. 

-Nancy

The Low, Low Woods

The Low, Low Woods is an atmospheric and surreal horror story set in the dying coal town of Shudder-To-Think, Pennsylvania.

Elements of feminism and malevolence come into play, as two young women El and Vee realize something is terribly wrong in their town. Years ago a fire moved underground into the coal mines, forcing their closures and gutting an already fragile economy. In addition, women began to exhibit strange episodes in which they were losing large portions of their memory. When this seems to happen to the two friends on an evening at the movies, they want answers. Readers then discover there is already a layer of magic, as a strange deer/human hybrid is sighted, skinned men are hiding in the woods, and there are rabbits everywhere with human eyes. There is somewhat of a Paper Girls vibe in this story, further supported that El and Vee ride their bikes everywhere, but late in the story the narrative takes a sharp and confusing turn. A witch who is trying to combat the cruelty of the men in the region, as previous sexual assaults are implied in the story but not seen, but her spells don’t always work the way she intended. The remainder of the story is the young women trying to give agency back to the women affected by the dark magic.

The illustrations by artist Dani are dark with a color palette using a lot of black and red. The panels are varied, often with a large picture with smaller ones layered on top with black gutters. But the lines can be imprecise and lacking details. For example, El who is a larger woman is often drawn blocky. But I did appreciate that the various characters were given a diverse look. There was a lot of dialogue and information given in text boxes, with a small font that made reading challenging.

I have read a previous short story, Blur,  by the author Carmen Maria Machado through LeVar Burton Reads, and she is known for her LGTBQ+ storylines in the horror genre. While this story wasn’t exactly to my liking, I like how Hill House Comics is using a variety of authors to reach different audiences. I was pleased to receive an advance copy through NetGalley and I plan on reading more of this label’s graphic novels!

-Nancy

Basketful of Heads

Joe Hill is having a moment. With his Locke & Key series now on Netflix, and his novels and short-story collections in high demand, DC has given him a prestige project, his own label- Hill House Comics. While not all of the graphic novels under this label will be penned by him, this first story is.

Set in September 1983, on Brody Island in Maine, the story establishes an 80s horror flick vibe. June is visiting her boyfriend Liam who is wrapping up his summer job as a deputy before going back to college in the fall. But a prison break (with a homage to Hill’s father Stephen King) puts their reunion in jeopardy. The two head to the police chief’s palatial estate during a growing storm and are amazed by the chief’s Viking artifacts collection. A battle-ax comes in very handy when the convicts land on their doorstep…

There are some twists and turns as to who the convicts are and who they are connected to on the island. As June fights for her life, grabbing the first weapon in sight, the ax’s power manifests in that the decapitated head is still alive and can continue talking. But heads begin to roll (!!) as June tries to find Liam and has to fight off several more criminals. Many secrets of corruption on the island are revealed by these talking heads. A final show-down discloses some heartbreaking truths and June obtains justice for a young woman who had been used and abused that summer.

Artists Leomacs and Riccardo La Bella really captured the era and northeast region well. There were crude jokes with some characters getting an almost Mad magazine type of caricature treatment, especially three times when a character is drawn with two heads as they are reacting to news. I loved the chapter breaks, as June’s basket fills and how the chapter numbers are symbolized. These sight gags, plus others, matched the tone of the narrative and made me laugh.

I enjoyed the dark humor as the horror-aspect of it all was played fast and loose. Thanks to NetGalley for this advance copy, for with this graphic novel as the first in the collection, I am looking forward to the others coming out in the months ahead. Joe Hill, both in graphic novels and books, is now definitely a favored author of mine.

-Nancy

Everything is an Emergency

Everything is an Emergency is a heartfelt graphic novel by Jason Adam Katzenstein that details his life with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Katzenstein’s first memories revolve around some common childhood fears, that his parents were able to manage with typical strategies, but these fears became deeper phobias that took more and more managing to control. At first Katzenstein’s phobias could be explained away, but they soon started taking control of his life and his childhood and teenage years were challenging because of his extreme anxiety. He developed OCD tendencies to cope but then became a slave to them. Eventually, he moved to NYC to work as an artist, but his phobias held him back professionally, romantically and affected his relationships with his family members.

Katzenstein defined himself as a tortured artist, so he resisted taking medicine thinking he wouldn’t be him anymore, and that it could affect his creativity. However, he needed to push through and break the destructive cycles he was in, so he explored exposure therapy and medication. And by doing so he actually opened himself up to new avenues of creativity, as he wasn’t locked into panic attacks and crippling anxiety.

Katzenstein’s artwork in black and white was evocative and surreal at times. Some of his swirling expressive pictures reminded me of New Yorker editorial cartoons, so it was apropos to find out he has had some of his artwork showcased in that magazine. He finds humor in his agony, but it also will give you optimism to see that he has worked through many of his issues and has come out stronger because of it. Thank you to NetGalley for bringing to my attention a graphic novel that addresses mental health issues in a respectful and hopeful way and shows that therapy can be a life-saver.

-Nancy

Spy x Family

Spy x Family by Tatsuya Endo is the first volume in what promises to be an exciting new manga series.

Twilight is a debonair spy who needs to infiltrate an elite school to gain access to a political leader for an important mission. But he needs to gain a wife and child to do so, all within a week. At first, he hopes that just a child will do so he adopts Anya, a darling little girl who turns out to be a telepath, from a sketchy orphanage. He then later needs to convince a woman to masquerade as his wife, and whoops, Yor turns out to be an assassin. But they all have their private motivations in looking like a family, so they go ahead with the ruse of enrolling Anya in this private school and passing the stringent tests to get in. There is the requisite comedy of errors as these three people need to convince others they are authentic, and of course, they begin to bond despite their best of intentions not to.

The art is crisp and attractive, with a nice balance of action sequences and smaller poignant moments. I believe this will be a popular series, as readers will be delighted with Anya and rooting for Twilight and Yor to find a way to truly become a family together with Anya.  In an interesting coincidence, my oldest son who is a huge manga fan discovered this story on his own and ordered himself a book. Typically I am not a manga reader, so it was nice to be able to chat about this book with him.

As I order graphic novels for my library, I plan to order this series once there are three volumes out for my library’s collection. Thanks to NetGalley for an advance online copy, and putting what looks like a promising new manga on my radar.

-Nancy

Something is Killing the Children

Something is Killing the Children– if this title doesn’t grab your attention, I don’t know what will!

In a quiet Wisconsin town, children are disappearing. While most will never come back, a precious few escape and come back with horrifying stories of a monster in the shadows. The townspeople are distraught, so enter Erica Slaughter, who comes to Archer’s Peak ready to kill the monster on hand. This Goth looking Buffy The Vampire Slayer interviews a survivor and heads into the woods to kick some ass.

The world-building is intriguing, as you can’t help but wonder at Erica’s past and her intentions. There are hints that she belongs to a society of monster-killers, each with a small talking talisman- her’s being a purple octopus plushie.  She has quite an interesting look, her side-swept bangs always camouflaging one of her eyes along with what looks to be a glowing implant in the side of her face. She often wears a mask to cover the lower half of her face, with a fang motif, that I have to admit would be a bad-ass print to wear on a facemask nowadays with the pandemic we are in the middle of.

The artwork is definitely atmospheric- gloomy, creepy and bloody. Drawn by Werther Dell’Edera, his work is sketchy and imprecise. There are many closeups of people, and some come off as grotesque with an emphasis on crosshatching to signify lines and shadows. When fighting the monster, the gutters become black, with an even darker color palette. Colorist Miquel Muerto keeps all the colors muted, as to signify the darkness of the narrative.

I’ve heard good buzz on this new series- on Goodreads, on NetGalley and even better the staff at my comic-book store, Graham Crackers, recommended it to me.  It joins some books that have immediately hooked me in: Briggs Land (which Dell’Edera illustrated parts of V2), Locke & Key, Harrow County, Revival and Bone Parish. Thank you to NetGalley for an advance online copy so I could get in on what promises to be an exciting new horror series.

-Nancy

Paying The Land

“From the ‘heir to R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman’ a masterful work of comics journalism about indigenous North America, resource extraction, and our debt to the natural world”

Author and illustrator Joe Sacco is known for his insightful graphic novels Footnotes in Gaza, Palestine and The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo. He is a well-regarded comix-journalist who immerses himself in different locations around the world to interview and understand his subject. He once again does this with this recent graphic novel, as he journeys to the subarctic Northwest Territories of Canada to stay among the First Nations Dené tribes.

Sacco begins the book by having some elders share how they used to “live in the bush” at least part of the year, which means their families were living off the land and were often nomadic. Men and women shared duties, with no gender division because if you were alone in the wild, you needed all the life skills, not just half, to survive. This lifestyle began to change with permanent settlements which resulted in specific gender roles, technology such as snowmobiles replaced the dog sleds, jobs in the industries that were advancing into the area and the enforced residential schools run by the government. Not only was a way of life disappearing, but their surrounding habitat was changing, as oil, gas and diamond mines were wrecking the environment.

There was so much to cover and Sacco ably shows the research and time he poured into this project. He interviews several chiefs (who have different ways of looking at the economy vs environment issue), activists, trappers, oil workers, priests and elders. Different chapters tackled some of the big topics – a changing way of life, land claims, and residential schools.

The chapters on the residential schools really stood out, as they devastated the families and tribes in both Canada and the US. Children were ripped from their cultures and identities and told that they must conform to European-type standards. And while those schools have been thankfully closed for a while now, their insidious legacy lives on. The transfer of dysfunction has now moved from their abusers who were strangers (at the schools) vs bringing home that dysfunction to their families so now abuse exists within families. Parental disengagement is rampant, as is extreme alcoholism. These unhealthy cycles are now being passed down to other generations, years removed from the residential schools. Another excellent graphic novel that touches on this disengagement from their tribes and families is The Outside Circle.

At 272 pages, this a dense piece of non-fiction that will take multiple sittings to finish. In fact, even after finishing it, you will want to go back and look at certain chapters to gain even more information. I would suggest that this text-heavy graphic novel could be used in the classroom as a supplemental resource to trying to fully understand some First Nations issues. As with any complex issue, there are no easy answers and Sacco questions after many interviews “Is there really such a thing as the best of both worlds?”. He admits that because he not Native American there are some issues that simply can not be understood. While he was given much access to the communities, there are certain people, events or situations he could not be privy to.

The black and white art shows a comix vibe, which is meant for mature audiences. Not only are the pages filled with a lot of text to convey information, but the pictures are also detailed and precise. Whenever he includes himself in a scene, he draws himself in an exaggerated caricature style, yet everyone else is drawn accurately and with respect. The beautiful landscapes are lovingly drawn in, so then the juxtaposition of seeing how some areas have been destroyed is heartbreaking.

This was a deep and reflective look at life for the Dené, and Sacco tried to wrap it up with a nugget of hope as young activists there are trying to work on a myriad of issues. I would suggest you pair this well-researched book with other books written by #ownvoices authors to get a nuanced view of the joys and struggles of people who live in that region. Thank you to NetGalley for an advance online copy of this thought-provoking story.

-Nancy

How I Broke Up With My Colon

Heart: Author and illustrator Nick Seluk has a new comic book coming out soon!

Brain: Well, Heart, it’s not about us- it’s about “fascinating, bizarre and true health stories”.

Colon: Stand back Heart and Brain, and let some other parts of the body take center stage in this comic book. In my chapter, The Breakup, I treat my human horribly and get removed.

Spine: Seluk illustrated 24 weird medical stories that different people shared with him. I star in Attack of the Spine!

Stomach: I play havoc in several stories, with a new nurse getting the brunt of my distress in the chapter Pancakes.

Kidneys: I make stones that sadly are not appreciated in the chapter The Geologist.

Gall Bladder: I’m a big big helper in the same chapter!

Butt: Some people are complete idiots with their body, as in the solution my human came up with to prevent diarrhea in MacGyver Syndrome.

Testicle: Although the less precise medical terms nuts was used in my chapter The Shark That Went Nuts, this last chapter included the craziest story with a shark that bit my human in a very delicate location.

Eyes: Be on the lookout for this book in March, drawn in Selak’s trademark adorable anthropomorphism-like style. Thanks to NetGalley for this early copy.

Brain: Until next time! For more comic books in the Awkward Yeti series read: Heart and Brain, Gut Instincts, and Body Language.

-Nancy

Two Dead

Tagline: “Stunning crime-noir graphic novel exploring the intertwining threads of crime, conspiracy, racism, and insanity in the post-World War II Deep South.”

When I saw this graphic novel was drawn by Nate Powell, the artist of the excellent March trilogy, I knew I wanted to give it a chance just based on that and eagerly requested it from NetGalley. His collaboration with author Van Jensen proved to be strong and I enjoyed this historical drama.

Gideon Kemp is a soldier who is fighting PTSD, who has recently returned from WWII and accepts a job as a police lieutenant detective in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1946. As Gideon is an idealistic rookie, Mayor Sprick warns him against the mob in the city and problematic Chief of Detectives Abraham Bailey. The officers are fighting a sadistic serial killer, and this white police force comes up against Chief Jacob Davis and his black police force when a victim is found in their jurisdiction. Ugly racial prejudices are shown, with postering and threats made, when the two groups should have been working together for the greater good.

Mob activity increases and Chief Davis tries to keep his brother Esau out of it, as racial tensions are about to explode. In the midst of this Chief Bailey is shown to be unstable, with lingering effects of guilt and schizophrenia affecting his everyday actions. All four men are caught up in the ugly cycle of violent segregation and are drawn together in an explosive finale. A fellow cop’s statement becomes symbolic, “Stay a cop long enough you go down one of three paths: you become a cynic, a reformer or a drunk” as justice is not always achieved.

Powell helps the book come alive, and makes the narrative flow through his powerful black and white illustrations. His work is historically accurate and he faithfully duplicates the era. Black backgrounds when there is violence was emblematic, but on the other hand, hard to follow. With a lot of speech bubbles to keep track of, I felt I was missing part of the story, for I was trying so hard to read the conversations that had small lettering. A second read of the story when it is published will be necessary to catch what I missed in the online version.

Far from a light read, author Jensen created a layered thriller, that was inspired by true events. I applaud him and Powell for showing how some deep-seated issues resulted in social ills for everyone in the community, and that they didn’t shy away from showing the tragedy that unfolded because of it.

-Nancy

Jenson, Van and Nate Powell. Two Dead. 2019.

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