If my Stack Overflow columns have gotten a bit sporadic this year, it’s because life has felt a lot busier for some combination of reasons. I’ve found that I haven’t managed to read as many novels (even the middle grade range), so it’s been largely comics and picture books (as you’ve probably noticed). And though I do read a lot of picture books and comics, finding the time to sit down and write them up has also felt harder than usual.
At any rate, today’s entry is a big stack of comic books—some that I received for review, and some that I’ve purchased on my own. (I’ve marked my own purchases with an asterisk.) I’ve arranged them roughly in order of recommended reader age.
This absurd comic book series continues the adventures of Laser Moose (a moose who can shoot lasers from his eyes, which is helpful as often as it is harmful) and Rabbit Boy (a rabbit), but this time with time travel. A time traveler from the future appears in the present, and accidentally drops his time hopper device, which is then swallowed by a trout. That sets off a chain of misadventures as the trout jumps back and forth in time, bringing the fearsome Aquabear back from the past, sending Laser Moose and Rabbit Boy to the time of the dinosaurs, and just generally wreaking havoc on the timeline. We do get some tantalizing glimpses of the past (a young Laser Moose before he gets his powers! Doc Raccoon before he knows how to do surgery!) and, as always, a whole lot of silliness.
The back of these books include a “More to Explore” section, and this one digs a little more into time travel theory, explaining (very briefly) how a wormhole might enable time travel—though also with a lot of silliness from the cast of the book. The book mostly goes for silliness, but there is a meaningful message about the things that shape us and make us who we are.
I’ve written before about both Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl, two comic book series from Ben Hatke filled with strange creatures and other worlds. Zita felt a little more like sci-fi and Jack felt more like fantasy, but there were links showing that they took place in the same universe. Well, in the third book of the Mighty Jack series, Zita appears, along with the rest of the cast from her books. An army of giants is threatening to break down a door that connects their world to ours, and it’s up to this ragtag bunch of kids to save Earth.
The kids don’t immediately get along with each other: they’ve lived through very different experiences, and there’s a bit of mistrust to overcome, along with their different approaches to problems. In particular, Lily (Jack’s neighbor and now the new goblin king) doesn’t care for Zita’s fame and heroics, though it turns out she has some secrets of her own.
It’s a fun adventure that—at least for now—brings this chapter of both Jack and Zita to a close.
Best Friends is a sequel to Real Friends, which I covered in this Stack Overflow in 2017. It’s an autobiographical comic book about Hale’s experiences making friends in elementary school, and her difficulty navigating the pitfalls of friendship. In Real Friends, Shannon is in 5th grade, and in Best Friends she’s in 6th. It should be a great year: she’s made peace with her former bully, is best friends with the most popular girl in school, and she’s in the oldest grade in the school, the top of the social ladder.
But there are still all sorts of rules that Shannon hasn’t figured out: when are girls allowed to play with boys? Why is it okay to like some of them, but not others? Is it okay for her friends to test her loyalty? On top of that, Shannon experiences a lot of anxiety that expresses itself in stomachaches and bouts of unexplainable terror, in a time when panic attacks weren’t really well understood. This comic book is a raw, honest account of the highs and lows of relationships, and of Shannon gradually finding confidence to be herself rather than just what other people expect of her.
Throughout the book, we also get glimpses of a story that Shannon is writing—based on an actual story that Hale wrote in 6th grade—which are tied into the experiences she’s having with her classmates and friends. I love the way that these are illustrated in a different style, a little less comic book and more Golden Book, with the text set in a typeface that recalls the old dot-matrix printer she used to print it out. This part of the story is about Shannon finding her voice, realizing she wanted to be a writer, and learning that it was possible. It’s something that could inspire a young reader to try taking up writing too!
My daughters really enjoyed reading Witch Boy, so I’ve picked up the other books in the series as they’ve come out: The Hidden Witch, and The Midwinter Witch. The story (which I introduced in this Stack Overflow) is about witches who live among us in our world, but have some of their own traditions and abilities. In this family, boys become shapeshifters, and girls become spellcasters—that’s just how it is. But Aster is a boy who has an aptitude for spells; he ends up learning spells in secret, but a lot of his family (particularly extended family) are disapproving.
This particular volume is about the Midwinter Festival, an annual reunion of the entire extended Vanissen family, which includes two tournaments: one for shapeshifting and one for witchery. Aster has decided to compete this year as a witch, even though he risks upsetting people. Ariel is another young witch introduced in the second book who has powerful but dangerous magic, and the Vanissens have taken her in. But she still feels like she doesn’t quite belong, and is tempted by the potential for more power.
As I said about the first book, these books use the two types of magic as a representation of gender norms, and the books—while they do include action and magic and wonder—are also about the ways that families and friends set expectations on who we should be and how we should behave. The stories encourage the reader to be true to themselves and figure out who they are, but they also don’t try to hide some of the ugliness that can happen when you don’t fit in.
Trot is a Vietnamese American girl who loves to go surfing with her cat, Cap’n Bill, even when she’s supposed to be at home keeping an eye on her absent-minded grandfather. Cap’n Bill falls off the surfboard and Trot dives in to save him … only to find herself in a world of mermaids, who are at war with the sea serpents. She and Cap’n Bill (who helped fight a sea serpent) are treated as honored guests, but they also get tangled up in the war.
It’s kind of a bizarre story that has a lot of silliness in it (including the fact that Cap’n Bill can talk while he’s in the underwater world), and I’m not sure if there’s exactly a moral to the story if sneaking out results in amazing adventures, but it’s fun for fans of mermaids, and the artwork has a nice style that isn’t as commonly used in kids’ comics that I’ve read. It was partly inspired by The Sea Fairies by L. Frank Baum, which may explain a little of the strangeness of the plot.
Lily wants to become a master thief, but the Guildmaster of Thieves simply doesn’t like her and won’t give her any significant jobs. So Lily takes things into her own hands, stealing a job for herself—but she quickly finds herself in over her head in a twisty plot involving the creepy Brotherhood of Fire cult, a corrupt earl, and an ancient story about three long-dead kings. It’s an action-adventure story that’s exciting and has a good dose of humor, but I should note for parents of younger readers that it also has some blood and gore that I wasn’t quite expecting when I first started reading.
Per is a knight-in-training, but she’s not as patient as her older sister Elena, the hero of Esterpike. But when a prank goes wrong, Per finds herself playing the role of Elena in an important political meeting, despite her poor diplomatic skills. As Per goes about things in her own brash way, she discovers a plot that might tear the kingdom apart.
This story is a mix of action, humor, and political maneuvering; the artwork is manga-inspired, with occasional exaggerations and caricatures for effect. I liked it overall, but I did at times have trouble following the timeline and understanding whether something was a flashback or the current story. The story really focuses on Per, and her struggle to be her own person instead of being stuck in her sister’s shadow.
Robin Brooks covered Strange Planet in last week’s Word Wednesday, but I liked it enough that I figured I’d include it again.
Pyle’s four-panel comics depict big-eyed aliens participating in normal human activities, but narrating them with literal descriptions. Seeing things from this alien perspective reveals how strange many of our actions and rituals are, from getting a tan (“I crave star damage”) to alarm clocks (“I wish to harm the melody machine”) to ordering pizza (“We will literally pay a being to come here with sustenance”). You’ve probably seen some of Pyle’s comics online because they’re frequently shared on social media, but you may be surprised to know that he started creating these less than a year ago—that’s how quickly they gained popularity, and it’s clear that a lot of people connected to them.
The book is divided into four sections about childhood, friendship, adulthood, and recreation, and includes a mix of comics that Pyle has shared online before and some new comics. While not all the jokes may make sense to younger kids, the comic is appropriate for all ages, and my teenagers liked it. I’ve enjoyed Pyle’s observations of human behavior, and this bound stack of processed tree pulp frequently caused me to make explosive vocal sounds. Maybe it will do so for you as well.
Charlie has just transferred to the Georgia O’Keeffe College for Arts and Subtle Dramatics, and she’s trying to figure out where she belongs. The one place she’s pretty sure she doesn’t want to be is the basketball team, which is made up of a hodgepodge of students who seem … well, a little desperate. They need one more player to be eligible to form a team, and Charlie’s the only one who even wandered by their table during the activities fair.
As it turns out, Charlie is a basketball player, though she’s left that life for various personal reasons. Olivia, the team captain, won’t give up on her, though (and not just because she’s developing a crush on Charlie). She’s a go-getter with a plan, and plots with the rest of the team to get Charlie on board.
The book is a lot of fun, with a cast of girls with big personalities, and I like the way that the story switches up between Charlie’s perspective and Olivia’s perspective (sometimes replaying a scene to show what it felt like for the other character). The book models some healthy relationships, as well as how characters deal with being hurt. And, of course, there’s some good sports-based action and drama, too.
I mentioned DeadEndia: The Broken Halo in my Halloween column; it’s actually the second book in the series, so I read them out of order. This first book (as you’d expect) introduces the setting and the characters a little more fully: Dead End Drive is a theme park haunted house that also happens to be a portal to the other planes of existence (heaven above and hell below). Norma Khan is a tour guide, and she gets her friend Barney Guttman a job as janitor—though, unbeknownst to her, Barney is also camping out at Dead End Drive. That leads to his encountering some supernatural visitors, his dog Pugsley being possessed by a demon king, and the start of a pretty wacky adventure.
There’s a lot going on in the book: Norma deals with anxiety and not being able to live up to her sister’s reputation. Barney struggles with rejection from his family for being trans, and also the mixed signals he’s getting from a fellow employee he has a crush on. And meanwhile, there’s some really creepy stuff happening at Dead End Drive, with strange characters appearing from other times or dimensions trying to attack the staff. It’s a bizarre but entertaining read with a lot of heart, and I really like the wacky world that Steele has created.
Chronin Volume 1: The Knife at Your Back by Alison Wilgus
Chronin Volume 2: The Sword in Your Hand by Alison Wilgus
It’s been a while since I’ve had a Stack Overflow focused on time travel (I do have a big backlog of time travel books to read!) but here’s another time travel comic book that has a fantastic title. Because what else would you call a time-traveling ronin than Chronin?
Well, okay, Mirai Yoshida is not actually a ronin from Japan in 1864. She has an authentic costume and blade, but she’s actually a manga-obsessed university student from New York in 2042, where she is studying Japan’s political revolution using newly developed (and not quite fully understood) time travel. She and her group were supposed to zap into the past, spend a few hours while making as little impact as possible, and then return home. Instead, they’re ambushed and slaughtered, and only Mirai escapes—but without the beacon that allows her return to her present.
These two volumes follow Mirai’s journey as she meets Hatsu, a tea mistress, who hires her as a bodyguard—but then discovers Mirai’s secret. In the meantime, Mirai knows that the shogunate’s reign is about to come to an end, and she doesn’t want to be stuck in the wrong place when it happens. We also meet Kuji, Mirai’s classmate (and ex-boyfriend), who is also stuck in the past and seems to be working on his own agenda. He’s joined forces with the samurai who are plotting to overthrow the shogunate— but things take an unexpected turn when events fail to play out according to the history books they’ve studied.
These two volumes play out the complete story. The first is about 300 pages, and the second is nearly 450 pages. The illustrations are in black and white with a manga-inspired style, and the tale does draw from actual Japanese history. I liked the fish-out-of-water premise, with history students getting stranded in history and discovering that their book knowledge doesn’t necessarily make it easier to survive in the past. There are some other surprises and twists in the story, so if you like time travel and samurai stories, it’s worth checking out!
I just read Binti by Okorafor this summer, so when I came across this at the bookstore, I was intrigued. In this story, aliens—of all sorts—have come to Earth, and LaGuardia Airport is one of the big entry points (and is perpetually under construction). Although aliens have integrated into human society, there is, as you might expect, still a lot of xenophobia. In Nigeria, where aliens first landed, there’s been a backlash, with many Nigerians wanting to establish an alien-free state. In the midst of this turmoil, Future Nwafor Chukwuebuka returns from Nigeria to the United States alone, pregnant and smuggling an alien plant named LetmeLive.
The story is filled with aliens from outer space, but it’s not hard to connect the dots with our own, very human, stories of illegal aliens and fear of the unknown. Future’s grandmother is an immigration lawyer, and part of the plot involves fighting for three recently arrived Sudanese students, who have been caught by a travel ban imposed on regions with large alien populations. Future’s fiancee, Citizen Raphael Nwabara, is dealing with his own prejudices about aliens back in Nigeria.
It’s a fascinating book that doesn’t shy away from the ugly parts of human nature, but is ultimately optimistic about the future.
Speaking of illegal aliens and immigration, here’s a non-fiction book that addresses some of the same fears touched upon in LaGuardia, but from a different angle. Bryan Caplan is an economics professor (and, incidentally the author of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, which I wrote about many years ago). He’s an advocate of free migration: the idea that immigration between countries should be unrestricted and open, that we should allow people to move wherever and whenever they want. It’s a position I hadn’t really seen argued before from either side of the aisle, and I was really curious to see what the arguments would be.
Caplan tackles the issue from a few different perspectives, examining the primary concerns that people tend to have about immigrants, like economic collapse, cultural disintegration, and an attack on freedoms. Those concerns are addressed both from a scientific and ethical point of view: what sort of evidence do we have of the effects of immigration, and how do we approach immigration when it comes to our moral obligations? The illustrations are by Zach Weinersmith (who creates the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal webcomic), and they illustrate Caplan’s arguments in a way that makes them easy to grasp.
His conclusion is already right there in the title, of course, so there’s no spoilers, but I was surprised by how he arrives at that conclusion, and I have to admit that I found it pretty convincing, even though it’s probably not a position I would have taken before. Now, I’m not going to pretend that everyone who reads this book will change their minds; I’m guessing if you’re in favor of building the wall, the title alone may be enough to turn you off. But if you’re curious why in the world Caplan would suggest that immigration should be unrestricted (and also how he proposes to address some of the concerns that it would raise), this is certainly a lot easier to read than a dry economic paper on the subject.
Madison Jackson is an intern out to prove that she’s got the chops to be a real reporter, listening in on a police scanner for the latest scoop. And she finds one: Dahlia Kennedy, a Boston socialite, has just been arrested for murdering her husband and presumably her son, who is nowhere to be found. For some reason, she’ll only talk to Madison, who soon discovers that she is now the story, not the reporter.
It’s a murder mystery that leads to a political cover-up and other dark revelations, and Madison quickly finds herself out of her depth as Dahlia uses her to manipulate the story. Murder, intrigue, romance, newsroom drama, and scandal! If that sounds like fun to you, then give this one a read.
Disclosure: I received review copies of the titles in this column except those marked with an asterisk (*), which I purchased myself.