Comics don’t have to be about Men in Tights, or even superpowers (though of course we love those stories, too). There are a lot of great comic books that tell other types of tales; today’s Stack Overflow features several I’ve read recently.
I’m woefully late with this one—it was actually published in March 2016—but I misplaced the advance proof I was sent for this book and just rediscovered it while reorganizing. Sonny Liew has worked on several comics, including The Shadow Hero with Gene Luen Yang, and I interviewed the two of them in 2014 for my Bounded Enthusiasm podcast. At that time, Liew had mentioned he was working on this book, but I didn’t know too much about it.
So, what is it?
Charlie Chan Hock Chye is the “greatest comic book artist you’ve probably never heard of.” Spoiler alert: it’s because he’s fictional, though I didn’t know it when I first started reading. The book is really a history of Singapore from the 1950s to modern day, but presented through the lens of a comic book artist who lived through it and created comics inspired by real events. Charlie Chan’s comics pull from a wide range of influences: Osamu Tezuka’s manga, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Spider-Man, Frank Miller, and more.
The book bounces between excerpts of Chan’s comics, illustrated “interviews” with him, and various sketches and illustrations from his portfolio—it really showcases Liew’s versatility as an artist and his ability to reproduce stylistic changes in comics over the span of several decades. In the back of the book are extensive endnotes explaining references, particularly those dealing with Singapore’s conflict-ridden politics. As somebody who knew very little about Singapore before, I found it a fascinating way to learn about its history, through the eyes of a fictional character. Chan himself is portrayed as a little idealistic and a little tragic, always hoping that his comics would find a bigger audience, even though the political allegory in his work is often heavy-handed.
I highly recommend this one as an excellent example of what can be done with the comics medium, and also as an introduction to Singaporean history. Unfortunately my ARC was in black and white only, but from the preview pages I’ve seen of the finished version, the colored version looks fantastic.
Thi Bui was born in Vietnam, and her family immigrated to the US when she was very young. Her family experienced the effects of the Vietnam War firsthand, and struggled to escape the country and find a footing in their new home. The Best We Could Do is Bui’s memoir in comics format, and depicts her life as an adult, becoming a mother, and then traces the story back to her own childhood, and then to her parents’ childhoods as well. Her parents are now divorced, and in the book she talks to each of them and tries to make sense of the sacrifices they made, the things that they said and didn’t say, with her new perspective as a parent herself.
It’s a beautiful, incredible book, over 300 pages long; it’s hard to believe that this is Bui’s debut graphic novel. It’s a history of the Vietnam War told from a very personal point-of-view, and a story about one family and what made them who they are.
GeekMom Karen Walsh recommended this series in the summer reading list, and I concur. The series launched five years ago and is up to the sixth book already, with a seventh coming in November this year. Author/illustrator Nathan Hale takes true stories from American history and presents them in a funny-but-true format, though with an imaginary framing story. The spy Nathan Hale (who is the subject of the first volume, One Dead Spy) is set to be hanged, but first he entertains the provost and the hangman with his tales from history—sometimes stories that had not yet happened in Hale’s time, but he has a magical knowledge of them.
Donner Dinner Party is, of course, about the tragic and gruesome story of a group of families attempting to journey to California from Illinois in 1846. What most people know is that they got trapped and resorted to cannibalism, but there’s a lot more to the story than that, as Hale shows us. Alamo All-Stars relates the origin of that famous rallying cry—but takes us back to show who was involved in that fateful battle, and how they wound up facing off against the Mexican army. It’s a story about Texas’s fight for independence, and some larger-than-life characters.
The books are written for a middle-grade audience, and I think Hale strikes a good balance between uncomfortable truth and lighter humor, usually provided by the hangman character, who is a bit of a ham.
The Lunar Chronicles is a young adult series that takes classic fairy tales and mashes them up with sci-fi (and each other). Wires and Nerve is the first graphic novel set in this world: it isn’t a retelling in comics form, though, but rather extends the story, following the various characters from the novels. I actually haven’t read the novels, but there is an intro at the beginning that briefly introduces the various characters: Cinder is a cyborg mechanic who turned out to be a long-lost Moon princess. Scarlet is a farm girl who teams up with Wolf, a biogenetically engineered soldier. This book focuses on (and is narrated by) Iko, the android with a heart of gold, who wants to know what it’s like to be a real girl.
I enjoyed the story, but I think I would have gotten even more out of it if I were familiar with the novels, particularly since some of the characters play small roles in Wires and Nerve but clearly have some background that the reader should know already. The next book in the series is due out in January 2018.
This comic book from Kaboom! is set in the world of the Cartoon Network series of the same name. Again, I didn’t know anything about the cartoon series, but this book has two stand-alone tales that I was able to enjoy, even without knowing the larger story of Greg and Wirt. In the first, “Dreamland Melodies,” Greg (a young boy) and his pet frog, Sheriff Jason Funderberker, journey into the woods, accompanied by Greg’s stuffed animal Robber Raccoon. It’s a crazy tale in a fairy-tale land filled with talking animals, gnomes, and a mysterious ghost. Although the frog and the raccoon don’t actually say anything intelligible (and the raccoon does nothing more than a plush raccoon could), Greg interacts with them both as active participants in the story, which may or may not all be a dream or imaginative play while he’s in bed.
The second story, “Homeland,” has a very different tone. It’s about Anna, a young girl who lives on her own in a forest cabin. She searches for her father through a telescope, afraid to venture too far from home, and has built a life of solitude for herself. When her deceased mother appears to her in reflections, Anna is overjoyed to reconnect, but is also resistant to her mother’s suggestion that she should get out and find other people and build relationships. It’s a tender story about growing up, about parenting, about stepping outside of a comfort zone.
I think this book is lovely even without having watched the show, but it does make me want to look up the show and catch up sometime.
Okay, one more book for which I was missing some background, and then we’ll get to more stand-alones.
Lumberjanes is an ongoing series about the girls at Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types. They’re a diverse group of scouts who have a whole bunch of mostly supernatural adventures. Gotham Academy is an ongoing series about … well, that’s the part I didn’t know going in. I think I was picturing Batman as a teenager? Yeah, it’s not that. It’s set in Batman’s world, and is about the students at Gotham Academy, a prestigious boarding school that happens to be right near Arkham Asylum. Hijinks ensue.
In this crossover comic, the Lumberjanes’ camp counselor goes missing, as does one of the professors at the academy. The only clue seems to be an invitation to a birthday party in a supposedly abandoned cabin in the woods—for a date in 1986. The two groups of kids team up and find themselves in a bizarre tale filled with ’80s pop culture and fashion.
Sherlock Holmes relied on a network of street kids called the Baker Street Irregulars to gather intelligence and deliver messages. In this book, three young wanna-be detectives are thrown together while pursuing a stone lion come to life. Together, they encounter the great Sherlock Holmes, who recruits them to investigate the mystery of the missing statues while he’s busy with a more pressing case. The story plays out a little bit like a Sherlock Holmes-meets-Scooby Doo, with these meddling kids (and a clever dog!) discovering the truth behind the missing statues … and a bit more about Sherlock Holmes, too. Though in this case the answer does involve the supernatural. If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes, you may enjoy this funny twist on a well-known character; younger readers may discover a love for the great detective after reading this comic.
The fourth installment in the Cleopatra in Space series is due out this week! My kids have really enjoyed these and are always eager for the next one. Cleopatra finds out that the Golden Lion has been located—it’s a fallen star that would give incredible power to whoever harnessed it—and of course she’s not the only one who knows about it. This time, though, she’s not up against Xavius Octavian, but a new enemy. And another familiar face turns up—Antony the thief, who often has his own agenda in mind. It’s another action-packed adventure, and is that a little bit of romance? Well, just a smidge.
Avani is having trouble fitting in—she’s new in town, and joining the Flower Scouts troop isn’t working because the girls there are only interested in pop music and boys. But then she gets abducted (accidentally) by Mabel, a Star Scout alien who was supposed to be collecting specimens at the time and wound up with Avani. Avani finally finds a place where she fits in … as long as her dad doesn’t figure out that’s she’s going far, far away for her troop meetings.
Star Scouts is the first in a planned series, and it’s fun to watch Avani and Mabel—both sort of misfits in their own ways—find each other and discover their strengths. When they meet some mean scouts at Camp Andromeda and there’s a big showdown, they also learn some valuable lessons about winning and losing.
For another set of great comics, check out this Stack Overflow: The Wide World of Comics.
Disclosure: I received review copies of these titles.