I still prefer paper books—I just don’t like reading on my computer screen as much, and I usually fire up the iPad to play a game instead of reading. But many comics send out review copies in PDF form only, and I just forget they exist—or I read them, and then I don’t have them in my “to be reviewed” stack and I forget them then. And then there are just the comics that get filed on the shelf and then immediately buried by other books. So, today’s Stack Overflow consists of some comics that I’ve been reading lately—some old, some new.
This series is mostly kid-friendly (I’d say tweens and up): some mild swearing here and there, but mostly they say “Worrr.”
I found a couple of advance reader copies of Bad Machinery as I was organizing my stacks: volume 2, 4, and 5—I missed them because they’re just printed on copy paper and stapled, so they have no spine (and in most cases no covers). Well, it turns out they’re brilliant and I should’ve read them ages ago.
Picture the mystery-solving kids from Scooby Doo, only a bit younger, and in England. And instead of unmasking old Mr. Johnson as the culprit, the solution is something otherworldly and bizarre. I love the huge cast of characters: kids, parents, teachers, and more. The characters are so much fun. They’re also aging as the series goes—in Volume 5 the shifting relationships between the boys and the girls provides one of the plot points in the story.
Volume 2: The Case of the Good Boy involves a magical pencil that draws the future (or so the girls believe), a mysterious creature that has been snatching babies, and a very strange dog that shows up. Volume 4: The Case of the Lonely One brings along a new boy, Lem, who is sullen and quiet and eats onions all the time. Oddly enough, nearly everyone in the class becomes friends with him … and they start eating onions. Shauna, one of the few who hasn’t been drawn into Lem’s circle, investigates. Volume 5: The Fire Inside interweaves a couple of storylines: a new girl shows up and is great at swimming but doesn’t seem to know much else; Mildred falls in love with a boy but then has to deal with his vengeful ex, Sasha.
The dialect is unfamiliar but fun. John Allison jumps abruptly from scene to scene, in little vignettes that eventually all tie together into a bigger story, and each volume is actually a sizable book. You can actually read Bad Machinery online—I went back and so far have caught up through Volume 7—but the book versions by Oni Press look beautiful, too (and are in higher resolution, for us readers who don’t like to squint).
Seriously, folks, they’re SO GOOD. I mean, maybe you already know about them, since they’ve been online for years, but it’s a comic that I think will appeal to both boys and girls, and both kids and adults.
This is actually the second volume of The Crogan Adventures (I haven’t read the first), but they seem to be stand-alone books that can probably be read in any order. This seems to be a republication of the series with updated covers. They’re historical adventure stories, all featuring different people from the (very large) Crogan family tree. The framing story, at least in this volume, has two boys arguing over whether the older brother can take away the younger brother’s choices for his own good—and then the dad launches into a story about the Foreign Legion and Peter Crogan, a crack-shot who has just lost a comrade in the sandstorm.
The book has a lot of action and humor, but also digs into the tense relationship between the French Foreign Legion and the population they are policing in North Africa. There are desert raiders, a mysterious creature in a cave, and a ridiculous commander who has a lot of charm but isn’t much for tactics. It’s an all-ages book, though there is a lot of (somewhat cartoony) death, particularly in one battle scene.
Webster’s ready to start his first day of high school, but before he even gets there, he finds himself pushed into an unsanctioned, back-alley spelling bee, thus entering the high-stakes world of head-to-head competitive spelling, where the spellers go by stage names and words are flung back and forth like weapons. Webster gets recruited by the mysterious Outlaw King, who has been banned from the official bees, to compete in the regionals and nationals, hoping to take down the Spelluminati.
It’s silly and over-the-top, and kind of wonderful. I was a spelling bee kid myself, so I have a soft spot for them. Buzz turns them into a spectacle, a sport with screaming fans and snazzy costumes. It’s pro wrestling, Scripps-Howard-style. What’s fun is that you actually do learn some vocabulary while reading the comic, even while piecing together some mysteries surrounding Webster’s family.
Some of the GeekMoms have written about Lumberjanes already in the past, but somehow I never got around to it. I don’t know why—it’s fantastic. It’s about a group of girls at a Girl Scout–like camp (Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types), but it’s filled with really bizarre things. Five very different girls (and their by-the-book scout leader, Jen) get into all sorts of adventures, starting from the day they see an old woman turn into a bear and decide to investigate.
The books are illustrated by different artists throughout the run, so you get to see a lot of different styles, and the chapter headings are made to look like pages from the Lumberjanes Field Manual, named after pun-tastic merit badges. (Example: Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fondant Badge, earned for winning a bake-off.) It’s a great, girl-focused series (occasionally there are some interactions with the nearby boys’ camp) and it’s packed with action, laughs, friendship, and a good dose of paranormal activity.
So far there are three volumes of collected issues, with a fourth on the way this month.
I met Lucy Bellwood at the XOXO conference last fall, when she was doing live sketches of the conference speakers, and learned that she loves ships. When she was a teenager, she spent a couple of weeks on the tall ship Lady Washington and totally fell in love with it. Baggywrinkles is a comic book collecting various bits and pieces of the things she learned—what it was like to be a deckhand, what various tattoos symbolize, and the dreaded scourge known as scurvy. It’s highly entertaining and informative and would fit nicely on the shelf with First Second’s Science Comics series (except, of course, that my comics are organized alpha by author). The book’s not out until September (hey—I’m ahead of schedule on this one!) but can be pre-ordered now. I hope to have an interview with Bellwood for my Bounded Enthusiasm podcast closer to the release date.
Here’s another nautical tale, though a little more fanciful. The town of Blood’s Haven in Chesapeake Bay is built on oysters—literally, in some parts. The town’s economy depends on the oyster trade, and the population eats so many oysters that the shells pile up in the bay, creating new land to build upon. There’s a serious threat to Blood’s Haven, though, in the form of oyster pirates led by Treacher Fink: they dredge up oysters by night, depleting the oyster beds entirely rather than abiding by the regulated harvesting limits.
Thus the Oyster Navy is formed: led by Commander Davidson Bulloch, a no-nonsense man with some serious muttonchops, the Oyster Navy is charged with taking out Treacher Fink and his crew. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of people looking for work—there’s a lot more money in oysters (legal or illegal) than the state has to offer, so Bulloch has to make do with an odd-looking bunch of misfits.
Meanwhile, Treacher Fink is rumored to have a magical artifact that will give him incredible power—not that Bulloch buys any of this superstitious nonsense. Can Bulloch bring Fink to justice? Are the sailor’s superstitions actually true? Oyster War is a fun read, appropriate for middle grade readers and up, with a mix of real history and imagination.
This one’s for young adults and up: nothing too explicit, but some innuendo.
Penny seems to have terrible luck. At the beginning of the book, she’s just lost her job and her apartment on the same day and has nowhere to go … until she has the brilliant idea of moving into her friend’s recently emptied storage unit. She winds up working at a laundromat run by an 11-year-old kid, and starts dating a guy who works at the gym so she can get free showers there. It’s a really funny comedy of errors, but also a sweet love story, a little reminiscent of Scott Pilgrim. You never know when it will switch into manga action mode.
I really liked the combination of the somewhat absurd situations and genuine emotions—it made me laugh and cringe at the same time. It’s all about the awkwardness of being an adult when you don’t feel ready for it—or realizing you are an adult when compared to kids.
This one’s an older one that got lost on the shelves until recently. It’s set in New York City in the early 1900s, where twin sisters Esther and Fanya grow up and follow very different paths. Esther gets a job assisting dancers in a burlesque theater and whorehouse; Fanya works for an obstetrician who performs illegal abortions. The story begins when they’re very young and follows them through adulthood, as their chosen (and unchosen) careers pull them farther and farther apart.
It’s a story of Jewish immigrant life, and life isn’t pretty. A lot of it is tragic, and people do what they must to survive. One interesting aspect of the book is that the Yiddish is never translated for you. There aren’t little footnotes and editor’s asides to explain it; some you can figure out from the context, and some you can’t.
Stumptown is a comic about a private investigator, Dex Parios, set in Portland, Oregon. I’d seen the comic in stores and had been somewhat intrigued because of the setting, but just hadn’t taken the time to read it. I found an ARC of Volume 2 and decided to check it out and see if it would make sense not starting from the beginning. As it turns out, it works out all right. I may have missed out on a little bit of character-building for Dex, but the story here is a self-contained episode about one particular case: The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case.
As it turns out, the “Baby” is a particular guitar belonging to rock star Mim Bracca; returning home to Portland after a long tour, Baby is stolen and Mim hires Dex to track it down. There’s clearly something shifty going on: Mim doesn’t want to call the police, and Dex catches some skinheads shaking down Mim’s guitar tech at his home. And that’s before the DEA shows up.
Dex is a great character: like Jessica Jones, only without the superpowers and the drinking problem. (Apparently she has a gambling problem, though I didn’t see much evidence of that in this particular story arc.) She thinks fast and isn’t afraid to take action, and sometimes things get a little crazy. The case itself is interesting, too, and I was intrigued to see where it was all going to end up. And, of course, it’s all set here in Portland, so there are locations that I recognize—but this is a grittier version of Stumptown than you’ll see in Portlandia. After reading this one, I may have to go back and catch up from the beginning.
This one’s for adults: violence, gore, nudity, language.
Trine Hampstead is an odd sort of detective. She sits on the sidewalk and can answer anything you ask her: what happened to Oodles’ chew toy, why you got fired from your job, where your dad stashed his will. If you give her a mystery, she just knows everything about it. But the one thing she can’t answer is about herself: how does her ability work, and what caused it?
In this first volume, Trine takes a rare trip to Siberia with a scientist to investigate some curiously well-preserved mammoth remains, and then gets mixed up in something much bigger. Pretty soon, there’s a shifty assassin out to get her—and anyone she cares about. I really loved the way that Trine uses her abilities, and her no-nonsense attitude. (I can’t say more without revealing more about Trine’s abilities, but it’s worth checking out!)