Well, we’re approaching the end of 2015, and I see that on my “Read But Not Yet Reviewed” shelf I still have a whole lot of books–and some of them have been languishing there for some time (sorry!), either because they didn’t quite fit into one of my categories or, more likely, because they did fit into some idea I had that never actually panned out. At any rate, here’s a big, extra-large helping of Stack Overflow to help me reset for the new year! Today, let’s talk comics!
Explorer: The Lost Islands edited by Kazu Kibuishi (kid comics)
Kazu Kibuishi is well-known for his Amulet series as well as editing the Flight anthologies. I always loved those because you got to get a little taste of several different comics artists in one volume. Explorer is the same idea, but with the theme of “lost islands.” With comics by Jake Parker, Dave Roman and Raina Telgemeier, Michel Gagné, and more, it’s a great introduction to several fantastic comics artists for kids. It follows up Explorer: The Mystery Boxes, also a great anthology, and was followed by Explorer: The Hidden Doors.
Chickenhare by Chris Grine (kid comics)
Chickenhare is a cross between a chicken and a hare–he’s got chicken feet and feathers, but otherwise looks like a rabbit. His best friend, Abe, is a rare bearded turtle. And they’ve been captured and sold to Mr. Klaus, who despite having a big white beard is not the jolly gift-giver you may be familiar with. No, he’s a deranged taxidermist who stuffs and mounts exotic creatures because he loves them so much he can’t stand the idea of them leaving him.
Chickenhare and Abe meet up with Banjo and Meg, who are a bit mysterious. Banjo looks like a monkey, but everyone keeps referring to him as a Krampus, much to Chickenhare’s confusion. And Meg has pointy ears and horns, and I’m not entirely sure what she is–you get hints but it’s never explained in this volume.
It’s a funny book, a bit bizarre, though you might not get to read much more of it. There were two volumes published by Dark Horse Comics in 2008 and 2009, but the third volume was canceled. Then Scholastic picked it up in 2013 and re-published this first volume, but I haven’t heard much about it since.
Tommysaurus Rex by Doug TenNapel (kid comics)
Tommysaurus Rex was originally published in 2004, but got a reprint a couple years ago as part of Scholastic’s Graphix line of comics for kids. Ely discovers a full-grown Tyrannosaurus Rex in a cave, and adopts it as a replacement for his dog, Tommy, who was recently hit by a car. But the local bully Randy, jealous of Ely (who wouldn’t be?) decides to make life miserable.
If you’ve read anything by Doug TenNapel before, you know that he’s great at drawing weird creatures, monsters, and dinosaurs. He manages to make Tommysaurus both terrifying and adorable. You may also know that characters grow and learn from their mistakes–the bad guy doesn’t just get defeated, but actually achieves some sort of resolution.
But, really, mostly it’s enough to know that this book is about a kid with a pet dinosaur, which makes for a really fun story.
Denny has a brilliant mind for solving puzzles, but he is also on the spectrum and isn’t the easiest kid to get along with. That makes it hard for his sister Jenna, who is also his caretaker because their parents are out of the picture. She tries to dump him in a residency program for genius kids, where he’s asked to solve an incredibly difficult theorem–but Denny discovers that the solution will open a portal to another world, Gossamyr. In Gossamyr, math is magic–literally. Denny and Jenna get caught up in events that began long ago and thrown into a battle that isn’t their own.
The artwork is beautiful and the story is fun to read. Denny reminds me a little bit of Gary Bell from Alphas: he has some quirks and habits that the rest of us don’t understand, but it’s because he’s seeing another reality that’s invisible to us. This book is titled “Volume 1” but as far as I know there haven’t been any more yet.
The Silver Six by A.J. Lieberman & Darren Rawlings (kid comics)
Phoebe Hemingway has been living on her own, ever since her parents died in a mysterious shuttle explosion a year ago. But she’s smart and resourceful, and has managed to fool the landlord and her teachers, so nobody knew, until now. It turns out that her parents died trying to protect a secret from Hayden Craven, head of Craven Industries, which produces Hydro-2, the fuel source of the future. (So what if they have to destroy the planet and ruin lives to get to it?) But Craven has figured out that the secret was sent to Phoebe–just before she gets picked up by Child Welfare and put into an orphanage.
Phoebe manages to escape, along with five other kids who were also orphaned by the same explosion, and they discover the big secret along the way. The story has an over-the-top evil CEO, a diverse group of intrepid orphans, a klunky robot named Max, and lots of action.
Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm (kid comics)
The Holm siblings are well-known for Babymouse and Squish, but this graphic novel takes on a more serious topic. Sunny Lewin is visiting her grandpa in Florida for summer break, but it’s not as great as she had hoped. Her grandpa lives in a retirement community, and there aren’t a lot of kids around. A lot of the book is about her trying to figure out how to have fun in Florida, but she’s also dealing with a family secret–the real reason she’s in Florida by herself instead of being on a beach vacation with the whole family.
Although the story builds up to this secret, I think it’s worth mentioning here because it may help you decide whether this is an important book for your own kids or somebody you know. Sunny’s teenage brother is doing drugs, and she knows–but he’s convinced her not to tell their parents. She’s kept her mouth shut even though she knows what he’s doing is wrong. When the secret comes out, their family trip is canceled and she’s sent to Florida while her parents help deal with rehab. Throughout most of the story, Sunny thinks it’s her fault, and the story is really a lesson for kids about drug and alcohol abuse.
The Holms grew up with a relative who had substance abuse problems, and felt embarrassed and ashamed about it. They wrote this book to help kids know that it is a confusing and difficult situation, but that it’s also important to talk to somebody about it, and to help the person with the substance problem. Even though it’s a serious subject, Sunny Side Up does a good job of presenting the story in a kid-friendly way, with both humor and empathy.
Dragons Beware! by Rafael Rosado & Jorge Aguirre (kid comics)
We had an exclusive cover reveal of Dragons Beware! last year, but then somehow I didn’t manage to write about the book when it finally came out. Probably because my daughters made off with the book and read it repeatedly for a while before I got it back. Dragons Beware! is the sequel to Giants Beware!
The sorcerer Grombach is attacking the town with an army of gargoyles. Claudette’s dad Augustine decides to go retrieve his magic-resistant sword. The only problem is, the sword is in the belly of the dragon Azra the Atrocious, along with Augustine’s arm and both legs. So of course Claudette decides it’s up to her to get the sword, with the help of her little brother and her friend.
Claudette is fearless, as before, and the story has a lot of great action and also quite a bit of humor. My kids loved the first book and were delighted to finally read this second volume.
Hereville series by Barry Deutsch (kid comics)
The Hereville series is about a spunky young girl who gets herself into trouble, wants nothing more than to slay monsters, and has some fantastic adventures. Oh, and she’s an Orthodox Jew. It’s a great series with a lot of humor, but also (for us Gentiles) it’s a small window into an unfamiliar world. The dialogue is peppered with Yiddish phrases (with translations in the footnotes), and Mirka has various responsibilities and expectations placed upon her, some of which she doesn’t agree with.
The first book involves a talking pig, a knitting troll, and the titular sword. It’s a great introduction to Mirka and her family. In the second book, a meteor has been turned into Mirka’s doppelganger and is trying to replace her by being a better real girl than Mirka herself. In the third one, she and her little sister Layele have a run-in with a wish-granting fish–one that Mirka’s stepmom Fruma encountered many years before.
I really love Fruma as a character, too–when we first encounter her, it’s from Mirka’s point of view, and she seems like this mean stepmother. She’s strict, and she loves to argue with Mirka. But over the course of the books we do see how she cares for her kids (even Mirka) and that she really is driven by her faith. It’s not just a set of mindless rituals (as Mirka sometimes sees it) but a significant part of their lives. I think Barry Deutsch has done a great job of mixing the magical fantasy with faith. Although he’s not Orthodox himself, he treats the subject with respect and not as a joke.
Oh, boy, is this one really from 2012? Let me dust it off.
Ah, yes, Maria Dare and detective agency, consisting of herself, Toby the muscle, and Jojo the rabbit. They’re really in need of a success, because rent is due and they’ve had their license suspended. Along comes a bizarre plot that involves a monkey villain, mobster pandas, abominable snowmen, and Chinatown. Oh, and a musical revue.
The artwork in The Dare Detectives looks like something out of a Cartoon Network show–which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising, considering Ben Caldwell is the creator of Ben 10. There’s a whole lot of action, a tough-as-nails heroine, and a really convoluted evil scheme. It’s rated “all-ages,” though I should note that some of the women (particularly the villain Madame Bleu) are a bit cheesecakey.
Delilah Dirk series by Tony Cliff (teen comic)
Delilah Dirk is a swashbuckling, globetrotting enigma. She doesn’t have much respect for authority and there always seems to be somebody in pursuit, but she seems to be on the side of good, for what that’s worth. Set in the early 1800s (though in an alternate world where there are things like flying boats), Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant pairs Delilah with Selim (after a daring rescue), who makes a great cup of tea but isn’t necessarily prepared for the level of action and excitement that surrounds Delilah at all times.
Currently the first book is available, and the second, The King’s Shilling, (of which I’ve been lucky to receive an advance copy) is due in March 2016. I highly recommend both–it’s sort of on the borderline between all-ages and teens. The books are just exuberant and gleeful, and Delilah and Selim make a great odd couple. The first book is when they meet and begin their adventures together, and in the second one we find out more about Delilah’s history while she tries to foil a plot to sully her name. She’s accused of treason, and wants to clear her name–but she also has to deal with her mother.
I wrote about Battling Boy and The Rise of Aurora West last year when I interviewed Paul Pope for my Bounded Enthusiasm podcast. Although the books share a connected storyline, they have a slightly different format. Battling Boy is a larger book, in color, and is a bit more action-based; Aurora West is smaller, in black and white, and has a lot of flashbacks to her past. This is the second book focusing on Aurora West.
Aurora has been tracking down the monsters who killed her mom. She’s training with her dad to become a science hero like him, but she’s also secretly doing research into her mom’s death. This story is a flashback, leading up to the time of her father’s death, and Aurora learns some more secrets about her parents. It’s a tragic story about growing up and uncomfortable truths, and what makes a hero.
There’s one more Battling Boy book planned that should wrap up these storylines–I can’t wait to see it.
I reviewed the first Teen Boat book a few years ago–it’s about a teenager who can transform into a small yacht, reminiscent of that ’80s cartoon Turbo Teen. It’s hilariously absurd, though with some innuendo in it I wouldn’t recommend for young readers.
The second book in the Teen Boat series finds Teen Boat embarking on a journey to Boatlantis, a mysterious city of sentient boats. Will he finally find the place where he fits in? And will he finally appreciate his relationship with his best friend, Joey, or is he going to keep pining after foreign exchange student Nina Pinta Santa Maria? One thing’s for sure: there will be a lot of boat puns.
Peanut by Ayun Halliday & Paul Hoppe (teen comics)
Sadie isn’t excited about switching to a new school. She wants to stand out, to redefine herself, to take advantage of her new start. So she decides to pretend she has a peanut allergy. And it works–she makes new friends, finds a boyfriend who’s very attentive about her allergy, and is having a great time … until the truth comes out. It’s a coming-of-age story about being comfortable with who you are, and the consequences of trying to be something you’re not.
The plot of Down. Set. Fight! is really strange: think of it as an action-comedy. “Fearless” Chuck Fairlane was a pro football player until the day he beat up a costumed mascot and got kicked out. Today, he’s a high school football coach–but then a costumed mascot shows up and attacks him, which sets off a journey across the country, beating up mascots along the way.
But there’s more to the story than that. We get flashbacks of Chuck’s dad, a compulsive gambler who has always treated him more as a source of income than a son. There’s no doubt that his techniques to build Chuck into a great football player worked, but they’re insanely cruel. Meanwhile, Chuck is trying to figure out what’s going on with all these warmongering mascots, and the FBI is tracking Chuck.
Liz Prince was never a girly girl. She didn’t like wearing dresses, she didn’t play with dolls, and she liked things like Battle Beasts. But as she grew up and encountered kids at school and adults in public, she realized that there were gender norms she wasn’t conforming to. This book is a memoir about her own struggles with her gender identity–what it means to be a “girl” and how she became comfortable with who she is.
It’s a great book that really digs into expectations vs. reality, and because it’s based on Prince’s own life, it feels very personal and honest. It’s one I think is best for older readers because of the strong language, although sections of it could be helpful to kids who have their own struggles with not conforming to gender norms.
Soppy: A Love Story by Philippa Rice (adult comics)
Soppy is a little collection of cartoons based on Philippa Rice’s relationship with her boyfriend. They’re just little vignettes: the beginning of the relationship, moving in together, playing board games or watching TV, having a silly argument about who should make the tea. It’s not a big sweep-you-off-your-feet romance, but instead a record of the little moments that add up to a life together.
There’s nothing explicit so it’s not a book you have to hide from your kids, but it’s also a book that I think younger kids probably may not appreciate the stories as much, though the illustrations are really cute. Yes, it’s a little sappy, but it’s sweet and I really enjoy flipping through it.
reMIND by Jason Brubaker (adult comics)
This two-volume graphic novel began its life as an online comic, and Brubaker had two successful Kickstarter campaigns to fund the printing of some gorgeous hardcover versions. Brubaker was an artist at Dreamworks Animation, and his illustrations are dynamic and beautiful. The story begins with Sonja, who takes care of the lighthouse in a seaside town. Her cat, Victuals, goes missing and everyone suspects the Lizard Man–a local urban legend dreamed up by her dad to boost the tourist industry. But then he turns up again, able to talk and claiming to be somebody else …
It’s a strange tale about mind transplants, underwater lizard people, a princess, a dastardly villain, and lots of action. There’s not an easy way to summarize the story, but that’s a good thing. Just enjoy the ride.
aama 3: The Desert of Mirrors by Frederik Peeters (adult comics)
I wrote about the first two volumes of aama in this Stack Overflow in February, and have since read the third book (but not the fourth, which was published this fall). It’s nearly impossible to describe the plot in a way that doesn’t give away something. In this one, Verloc is still working his way through his journal, so we continue to unravel what happened up until the time he woke up without his memory. This volume has a bit of graphic violence, all the more disturbing because of the fantastic, dreamlike quality it has. And Verloc himself is finding the lines between the real world and his dreams starting to blur. This comic series is really unlike anything else I’ve read, and it’s both refreshing and troubling when you have no idea where a story is going to go next.
Celeste by I. N. J. Culbard (adult comics)
Celeste is another graphic novel with a very surreal feel. A man stuck in traffic on the 405 gets a phone call about his wife. Two women on the Underground turn and see each other just before the train pulls up to the station. A Japanese artist goes to the forest, intending to hang himself. And then the world changes–suddenly everyone else in the world vanishes: all the cars on the 405 are empty. London is vacant. And the artist finds the forest filled with mythological creatures.
Culbard uses this surreal premise to ask the question: if there were no consequences, what would you do? Who are you when nobody else is looking?
The artwork is stunning and it’s another book where you really don’t know where it’s going until it gets there. If you like nice, tidy explanations, this is probably not for you. But if you like being surprised and intrigued, Celeste fits the bill. Note: between some nudity, strong language, and just the overall premise, this is definitely for adult readers.
This hard-boiled crime tale is inspired by the real-life “Encounter Cops” of Mumbai from the 1990s. The city was overrun by organized crime, so the government sanctioned elite cops to execute wanted criminals, using the euphemism “encounters” and filing the paperwork as if the criminals were killed during a gunfight rather than while in custody or unarmed.
Arjun Kadam was one of the Encounter Cops, taking down mobsters. But then he realizes that some of these cops are more interested in setting up as the new criminal underworld rather than ridding the city of crime, so he makes an attempt to set things right.
The story is a detective noir, but instead of the gritty streets of New York you might be used to seeing, it takes place in Mumbai. Bollywood stars, crooked cops, and a whole lot of guns.
Well, folks, I’ve got a few more on the shelf but I better wrap it up for today. Stay tuned for more shelf-clearing goodness next week!
Disclosure: I received review copies of these titles.