Category Archives: Graphic Novels

Recent Reads: Comics and Graphic Novels

Victor LaValle’s Destroyer
Issues 2 and 3
by Victor LaValle and
Dietrich Smith

The first issue of Destroyer was all promise, with it’s compelling and timely premise and gorgeous artwork. Issues 2 and 3 deliver on a lot of that promise. There’s a lot more action in these issues as well as a lot more depth of feeling as we delve into the real meat of the story. The literary allusions are a little on the nose, especially in a work that’s a little too serious to fall under the category of pastiche, but as the story gets darker I find these humorous nods to the book’s inspirations to be a welcome bit of lightheartedness. Also, and probably because I’m not a great reader of comic books, my favorite thing about this series so far is Victor LaValle’s essay at the end of Issue 3 where he writes about how the two different endings of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein led him to write this comic.

Kim & Kim Vol. 1
by Magdalene Visaggio, Eva Cabrera, Claudia Aguirre, Zakk Saam, and Katy Rex

Full disclosure: Kim & Kim was an impulse buy because I happened to see someone mention it on Twitter right when I was looking for something to put me over the $25 threshold for free shipping. It sounded cute, but it turned out to be even more fun than expected, a nice balance of sci-fi bounty hunting adventures and character-driven drama with a bright, punk rock aesthetic. The only downside of the book is that Issue 4 ends on a little bit of a sad note, and it’s not clear if/when there’s going to be an Issue 5. In the meantime, however, Kim & Kim creator Magdalene Visaggio is currently offering free pdf copies of Volume 1 to anyone who donates at least $20 to The Trevor Project or Trans Lifeline through Friday, August 4, 2017:

Monstress Volume 2: The Blood
by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

The second trade paper installment of Monstress is, like the first, a true thing of beauty. Every page is filled with Sana Takeda’s sumptuous artwork, which is in turn full of gorgeous details, erudite flourishes that reference numerous artistic inspirations, and subtly lovely colors that marvelously convey setting and mood. With a title like “The Blood” I was rather expecting more of the same unflinching brutality as in the first book, but that’s not so much the case. Instead, this volume combines Maika’s continued search for answers about her identity, the increasing danger posed by the Monstrum that lives inside her, and a seafaring journey with a fascinating and visually distinctive new cast of minor characters.

Angel Catbird, Vol. 3:
The Catbird Roars
by Margaret Atwood, Johnnie Christmas, and Tamra Bonvillain

Angel Catbird has never been more than a light, fun likely-vanity project of Margaret Atwood’s, and it didn’t suddenly transform to something more profound in its final volume. The Catbird Roars has the same deliciously silly verbal puns and visual gags that characterized the first two volumes, the same occasional side-barred cat facts encouraging readers to keep their pets indoors, and the same fast-paced absurdist plot that has our heroes dealing with the evil rat army once and for all. The biggest thing that sets this volume apart from the rest is the excellent foreword by Kelly Sue DeConnick, which tells us more of the inspirations and thought process behind Angel Catbird and to put it into a historical context that explains some of its quirks. As someone who is only lately getting into reading comics and doesn’t have a wide knowledge of the longer and broader history of the form, this information really helped me to understand and enjoy the book more fully.

Book Review: ODY-C Volume 1 by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward

ODY-C is an ambitious, psychedelic epic fantasy that needs to be completely finished and printed into one enormous, beautiful book so I can just read it all in one sitting. It’s a futuristic, gender-bent retelling of The Odyssey, and it’s a great way of bringing an ancient story to life for a new generation of readers.

That said, ODY-C is not going to be for everyone. It definitely relies on the reader having some level of familiarity with the source material, for one thing. If you’ve never heard of Homer or The Odyssey, and don’t know at least some of the highlights of the story, you may feel somewhat at sea through much of this first volume. There’s no hand-holding here, and it’s very obvious that the reader is expected to either keep up or go spend some time on Wikipedia and then come back.

Even the language is a nod to the story’s origin. It’s written partly in a kind of sound-alike version of the dactylic hexameter that characterized much of the classical Greek epic poetry. I love this choice because it maintains some of the identity of the source material in the face of a lot of other more avant garde adaptational decisions, but it can sound clunky to modern readers. While I’m not an expert on the form to be either outraged or dismayed about the execution, I found the poetic language interesting, and it really helped to set the tone of the comic and give a fascinating classical flavor to the setting that makes it a little unique. Certainly, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Christian Ward’s art, of course, is stunning. It’s just page after page of gorgeous colors and textures, from brilliantly-rendered action scenes to grand space vistas. At the same time—and this is, I think, my favorite thing about ODY-C—while the overall look of the art shows a keen attention to detail (the yonic shapes of spacecraft are a nice touch in a universe that has been scrubbed almost entirely clean of men) and an eye for beauty, there seems to be remarkably little focus on making the book’s many, many women pretty. The women of ODY-C come in all shapes and sizes and colors, from the great warrior Odyssia to various goddesses and even a hideously rendered (in the best way) cyclops.

As with all comic books, my biggest complaint about ODY-C is that it’s not long enough, and I have to wait for more, which is even more frustrating since it seems to have a somewhat laissez-faire production schedule. I want more, and much sooner than I’m likely to get it.

Book Review: Bitch Planet, Volume 1, Extraordinary Machine

I can’t believe I waited so long to read this comic. Like, I’m truly appalled at myself, and now that I’ve read the first five issues, I can’t even remember why I hadn’t been that interested. Bitch Planet is a gorgeously drawn, tightly plotted feminist masterpiece that should be required reading for women everywhere. It’s also brutal and heartwrenching and more than a little uncomfortably close to the truth of many women’s experiences.

The first issue is a shocking bait and switch that sets up the rest of the story, which deals with a group of women judged “non-compliant” and sent to an off-world “Auxiliary Compliance Outpost” colloquially referred to as Bitch Planet. It’s exactly as terrible as it sounds like, and women are imprisoned there for any number of offenses from “wanton obesity” to being a bad mother to murder. It’s as if The Handmaid’s Tale had a comic book baby with a prison exploitation film; as in Margaret Atwood’s classic, the most terrifying part of Bitch Planet is how familiar it feels.

The standout issue of the first arc is definitely #3, which is the first of several issues planned to deal with the story of a single character. This one is about Penny Rolle, and it’s equal parts chilling—with lines like “…see yourself through the fathers’ eyes” and “How long since you prioritized how others see you?”—and empowering. It’s an incredible story of oppression, abuse, and dehumanization—and how a woman can survive those things with her identity and spirit intact. It also does more than any other issue so far to frame non-compliance as active resistance—to be non-compliant is to be victimized by a system that despises women, but it is also a sign of resilience and can be a source of pride.

The only problem that I have with this collection of the first five issues is that it doesn’t include the original comics’ wonderful supplementary materials. Each issue contains essays that complement and expand upon the issue’s themes, and those are further supplemented by letters and, increasingly, photos of folks’ rad NC tattoos. While the comics certainly speak for themselves and can be read and enjoyed just fine without the extra materials, the essays in particular add valuable context and depth to each issue that isn’t made up for by just tacking on a short study guide at the end of the collection. It might be hard to get your hands on the print issues, but digital issues are cheap.

Book Review: Rat Queens, Volume 2: The Far-Reaching Tentacles of N’Rygoth + Braga #1

If possible, I think I love Rat Queens even more now than I did after finishing Volume 1. Volume 2 addressed the few quibbles I had with the first collection, and the Braga special issue tells the story of one of my favorite secondary characters from the comic.

When I read the first volume, I lamented a little that there wasn’t a whole lot of backstory for most of the characters. A friend assured me that this was something I could look forward to in the second volume, and he was absolutely right. I won’t say that there was as much backstory as I could ever want, but it’s definitely enough to both partially satisfy my desire for more information about the characters and whet my appetite for the series.

The character who was least developed in Sass and Sorcery was Dee, and we learn a lot more about her here. What I love, however, is the way Dee’s background is revealed here, in slow stages, while continuing to maintain a sense of mystery about her. I’ve got a much better sense of who Dee is, but I don’t think we’ve got the full measure of her yet.

The stand-out characters here, though, are Violet and Hannah. Violet’s backstory is great, with just the right amount of humor, properly deployed to lighten it up. It introduces a couple of really excellent minor female characters as well. For Hannah, we get some of her personal history as well as some new information that helps explain her difficult relationships with secondary characters Sawyer and Tizzie. I love that we get to see a little bit of softness and depth for both Hannah and Violet, which prevents them from slipping too comfortably into any Strong Female Character tropes. Instead, and this is particularly true for Hannah, they are pleasantly complex, with sometimes surprising depths.

Unfortunately, this isn’t true for Betty, who remains woefully unexplored in comparison. Her relationship with Faeyri is touched upon, but overall Betty has rather little to do. I hope that means the next arc will include more of Betty’s background, as she’s a potentially interesting character who so far is still a little one-note which becomes glaringly obvious as other characters gain more and more dimension.

The Braga special issue is excellently done, and it’s refreshing to find a story about a transgender character whose transness is almost incidental to her story. I have a particular love for stories about orcs in general, and this one is wonderfully different while still being very classically orc-story-like. It’s numbered, so I’m looking forward to more Braga stories in the future.

I only wish I’d read this all in the same afternoon as I read the first book, which I highly recommend doing for those who’ve just started the series. Do it. Just read it all in one go. You know you want to.

Book Review – Rat Queens, Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery

So, there’s really no good reason I put off reading this comic for so long. I think I was just turned off by the word “sass” in the title of this first collection. I don’t think there’s any word used to describe women that pisses me off more than “sass” (or any iteration thereof).

I’m glad I finally relented and picked it up, though, because Rat Queens is fucking excellent.

The Rat Queens–Hannah, Dee, Violet, and Betty–are one of several groups of adventurers working out of a town called Palisade. However, we learn early on that not everyone appreciates what the Rat Queens and their fellow mercenaries bring to the town. When someone tries to have all the adventurers killed, hijinks ensue as the Rat Queens try to save the day.

In many ways, this series is a pretty straight forward sword and sorcery adventure of the R-rated persuasion (it’s very full of coarse language, sex, drugs, and tons of extremely bloody violence). However, it’s not the usual sort of testosterone-fueled romp one might expect from this genre. Which is refreshing.

Even better, it’s nothing so simple as just gender-flipping things and writing about a bunch of women who “act like men.” Rat Queens plays with a lot of the genre-standard tropes in really clever and extremely funny ways, and it also develops each of its characters with loving attention to detail and a clear commitment to treating them all like full human beings.

This is especially apparent in the artwork, which is consistently nicely done. The main characters are a group of diverse women with plausible body types wearing adventure-appropriate costumes that reflect their roles and personalities. This in itself is enough to recommend the book to me, but when you toss in a good sprinkling of visual gags and some excellently-drawn action–without any obvious fan service–I consider the artwork a home run.

My only criticism is that I actually could have done with a little more exposition about each woman’s background, and I would love to know a little more about some of the secondary characters, too. Some of this, I’m sure, is just because I’m used to reading novels, which have fewer space limitations than comics have. Mostly, though, I just really love these characters and want to know everything about them.

I guess I’m just going to have to hope that the series runs for a long time.

Rat Queens is exactly the kind of feminist comic I want to read–mostly in that its feminism is all in the execution of the work, with no preachy, ham-handed messages getting in the way of a good story, and no ugly, sexist artwork to get in the way of my enjoying it. It’s an almost perfect comic that I can’t wait to read more of.

Book Review: Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Nimona is actually my twelve-year-old daughter’s book. I knew it was good when she didn’t even want to put it down long enough for us to check out at the book store. When she finished it the next day, I knew I had to read it myself. I’m so, so glad I did.

So, apparently Nimona started life as a web comic,  but to read the whole thing now you have to buy the book.

It’s totally worth it. You should go buy it right now. Maybe even buy two copies, because this is a book that I could easily see reading over and over again. Also the sort of book that your friends aren’t going to return after you force them to borrow it, so it won’t hurt to have an extra copy laying around.

The art is simple, especially at the beginning, which again betrays  Nimona‘s internet origins, but I found it enjoyable to see the work evolve over the course of the story. Noelle Stevenson’s style is fluid and impressionistic. Every panel looks as if it’s in motion, which adds a sense of realism that is reflective of the naturalistic portrayal of the characters and their relationships. At the same time, Stevenson avoids realistic or consistent color schemes in favor of constantly changing palettes that tell a story of their own and convey moods extremely effectively. I especially liked the oranges in the middle of the book and the acid greens near the end.

Nimona herself is a great character. Though at times she skirts a little too close to Manic Pixie levels of quirkiness, she doesn’t exist in service to anyone’s story but her own. I love the growth of her friendship with Lord Blackheart, and it’s nice to see a bit of gender role reversal here, with Nimona as the rash, bloodthirsty one and Blackheart as a temporizing force and voice of reason. Blackheart and Sir Goldenloin are both nicely written, with a good backstory, and the ending of their story feels organic and earned. I also really appreciate that the only other two significant characters, The Director and Dr. Blitzmeyer, are women, another smart authorial choice that avoids the fantasy convention of marooning female characters in a sea of testosterone. While Nimona doesn’t get much interaction with these women, just their existence avoids one of the biggest problems I tend to have with fantasy stories in general.

The thing about Nimona is that it’s utterly charming. It’s funny and smart and sweet and deploys its pathos in exactly the right ways at exactly the right times to tug at the reader’s heartstrings. Like many web comics, it does tend to meander now and then, but the story is overall well-conceived and deftly executed with a minimum of sidetracking so that it’s cohesive when published in a single volume.

Nimona is a great book and a fast read, and it might (probably) will make you cry. Highly recommend.