Stack Overflow: Comics

Stack Overflow: Comic Books

Columns Comic Books Stack Overflow

Stack Overflow: Comics

Today’s Stack Overflow: a few comic books that I’ve read lately with very different subject matter: a young girl exploring the vast sea, a Japanese monster boy hero, single-panel comics about criticism, and more!

Island Book

Island Book by Evan Dahm

This lovely graphic novel is a story about a small community that lives on an island. Sola is considered cursed, ever since a monster rose from the sea when she was very young, and she was the only one who faced it, unafraid. So she sets out, looking for answers, seeking out the monster in the endless sea—and discovers several other islands, populated with very different people. One island is a giant fortress, with warriors bent on finding and destroying the monster; another, the Island of Wind, is filled with artists who are more concerned with writing poetry about the monster than what it’s actually like. Sola finds companions from these places who also don’t seem to belong, and together they go out to seek the monster. What they find isn’t what anyone expected.

The illustrations are fantastic, with color schemes that shift from island to island. The characters are round and cute, but the story has some surprising depth to it. I like that it leaves things a little bit unsettled, and not all the questions are neatly answered by the end. The spine of the book has a “1” on it, so presumably it’s the first book in the series, but it also feels like a complete story, rather than having a big cliffhanger at the end.

The Breakaways

The Breakaways by Cathy G. Johnson

Faith has just started middle school and isn’t sure how to fit in, but she gets invited to join the soccer team by a popular 8th-grader. What she doesn’t expect is that she’s on the C team, a band of misfits who are pretty bad at soccer. Eventually, though, the team figures out a way to bond and become good friends, despite a rocky start. The cast of characters is very diverse, and you get a peek at the various struggles that the kids are dealing with. And although I don’t think a difficult family life excuses bullying, I do think the story may help kids empathize with people they don’t initially get along with. I also appreciate that The Breakaways doesn’t end with the usual trope that once they become friends, they also become an unstoppable soccer team—they’re actually still terrible at soccer. But it’s okay. It turns out maybe winning at soccer isn’t the most important result of friendship after all.

Kitaro: The Birth of Kitaro

Kitaro: The Birth of Kitaro by Shigeru Mizuki

I’ve had a copy of this for an embarrassingly long time (it was published in 2016) but finally got around to starting the series. Kitaro is a Japanese manga, translated into English in this edition, featuring a yokai child who becomes a sort of superhero. It’s a bizarre origin story: Kitaro digs himself out of a grave because his parents died of an illness before he was born; he’s raised by his father’s eyeball (which pops out and grows a tiny body to fulfill its fatherly duties). And now Kitaro has become the one that humans call upon when they have trouble with the supernatural.

The Kitaro comics were actually published in the late 1960s, and each of these volumes from Drawn & Quarterly includes a bit of the history of Shigeru Mizuki, the folklore and mythology of Japan, and how Kitaro came to be. The various chapters of the book have Kitaro encountering all sorts of yokai, which are strange and supernatural beings or occurrences. There’s a bit of creepiness to it all, but also a lot of silly humor, and may be a fun read for kids who like a little spookiness to their stories.

Everyone's a Critic

Everyone’s a Critic: The Ultimate Cartoon Book edited by Bob Eckstein

This book is a collection of single-panel comics all about, well, critics. From film and book critics to Yelp and Uber, the characters in this book critique anything and everything. Kids rate their parents; a panel gives feedback to Santa Claus; cavemen comment about the true meaning of Art. Like the Ultimate Cartoon Book of Book Cartoons (mentioned in this Stack Overflow column), it’s a fun book to just browse through. Whether you consider yourself a critic or you’re tired of being criticized, you’ll find something to make you laugh in this book. That, or I’ll give your sense of humor 1 star out of 5. (Hey, the book is funnier than I am.)

Stop Looking at Your Phone

Stop Looking at Your Phone: A Helpful Guide illustrated by Son of Adam

Okay, so there are a couple schools of thought about our use of phones and whether we should spend less time looking at them, or put them away in certain social contexts. While I’d generally agree that most of us spend too much time on our phones, I do appreciate the way that they can also connect us to faraway people (just as much as they can sometimes separate us from people who are geographically nearby). Anyway, this tongue-in-cheek book is filled with diagrams that illustrate how to (and how not to) use your phone in various situations.

The diagrams are all done in an instruction manual style: picture the safety instructions on the airplane, for instance, and you’ll have a sense of these. There’s some text, but most of it is done with the illustrations and iconography. The book uses absurd situations to illustrate why you should put away your phone, pushing the phone usage to the extreme: for instance, the guy walking past a stack of cash with a big “Free Money” sign because he’s looking at his phone, or the people lining up for a cashier who don’t realize they’re all standing in line behind a mannequin. Each situation has a “don’t” and “do” page, so you can easily learn the proper behavior. It’s a silly little pocket-sized book and is good for a few laughs, as long as you don’t take it too seriously.


Beverly by Nick Drnaso

Beverly is a bit of an odd comic book, and it’s definitely written for adult audiences. The book is a series of vignettes, with some characters that reappear in other stories. The stories are just little slices of life in America, and they’re filled with characters that aren’t totally happy. A family on a vacation struggles to keep things upbeat, though the teenage daughter is sneaking off with some boys she met at the pool and the younger brother is having weird sexual fantasies. A mom is excited to watch a new sit-com as part of a focus group, but then disappointed to discover that all the questions are about the advertisements and not the show. A neighborhood is shaken by news that a girl was abducted, but the perpetrators aren’t who they expect.

The drawings have this sort of precise, simple quality that seems to iron out the wrinkles and details, but then the stories themselves show all the cracks in the facades. It’s not really a pleasant read, so if you’re looking for something to help you relax and escape, this probably isn’t it. But as a portrait of suburban America, Beverly is fascinating, and makes you squirm a bit while reading it.

Bookshelves and boxes of books
My office area in the basement is overflowing with books… Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

My Current Stack

I’m currently in the middle of facing some hard facts about my ability to read and review all of the books that arrive in the mail. The photo above shows a few bookshelves I have set up near my desk in the basement, along with all the boxes of books that keep me from reaching those shelves easily. This doesn’t include the boxes of picture books that are currently encroaching on more and more of our living room floor space, or the full shelf of comics in the upstairs den.

The hardest part for me is that at this point I have to weed books that I haven’t read, which becomes an exercise in (literally) judging books by their covers. If somebody sends me a book to review, I want to make every effort to read it and write it up, but I have to admit that, well, I have more books currently in my basement than I could probably read and review in an entire year, or maybe two—and that’s if I stopped receiving any new books. Do I get rid of older books that are several years old, or do I keep what I currently have and stop adding anything new? I haven’t decided yet, and have just been weeding out a mix of books. It feels sadly like giving up, but I suppose part of my goal is to curate a list of books that I’ve enjoyed and would recommend to you.

Hopefully I can clear a bit of this mess off the floor, and continue sharing great books with you! But I’d love to spend more time reading and writing, and less time … sorting.

Disclosure: I received review copies of these books.

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