Hello, fellow readers! This past week was officially my kids’ spring break, even though they’d been home the previous week as well (and will continue to be at home until at least the end of April), so our schedule has been a bit wonky and I’ve not spent as much time reading books myself. Not to fear: I do have a good stack of comic books that I’ve read over the past couple months that haven’t made it into a column yet, so I figured today’s a good day to take a look back at them.
These are arranged roughly in order of audience age—younger readers first!
The Maker Comics series from First Second Books give you a lot of practical, step-by-step guides to doing different things (like baking or fixing cars), but couched in their own fictional narratives. In Draw a Comic!, Maggie is building a comics library and she’s hiring an assistant—that’s you! As she explains your duties, she can’t help but explain how comics are made, from a basic overview to planning out a story to printing up your own comic book. But, of course, the story wouldn’t be complete without a bit of conflict, so that’s where Dr. Carl Stephens comes in: he’s bought the building and is planning to turn it into a parking lot, unless Maggie can come up with the cash to buy it back. Maggie finds a bit of a treasure map, and then the race is on to beat Dr. Stephens to all of the map pieces and save the library. The book is cute even if the story is a little contrived, and it does provide some handy tips on creating comics that my daughter has put to use herself.
Dave Coverly, the creator of Speed Bump, is finally getting around to the cat lovers. He published a collection of dog-related strips a few years ago (see this column), so this one is a collection of strips about cats. It’s divided up into sections like “Domesti-cat-ed,” “Cat and Mouse Games,” and “Crazy Cats,” and each section also has a little story and drawings by Coverly’s friends about their own cats. If you love cats (and comics about them), then this collection is certainly worth swatting off the bookshelf into your lap. (You’ll have to wait a little, though—it’s officially released April 14.)
In case you haven’t been following along, Hilo is a comic book series about a kid robot named Hilo who crashes to Earth, and a couple of kids who become his friends. It’s also about the giant robotic creatures that have been popping up all over Earth, led by a giant robot named Razorwark who seems intent on hunting Hilo down. It’s hard to do the whole story justice without a lot of spoilers, but there’s a lot of interdimensional hopping, a bit of magic, and a good dose of humor. There’s also a bit of uncertainty: it doesn’t always seem clear who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are, since Hilo’s memory isn’t complete and more bits and pieces are revealed throughout the series. This book, though, is Hilo’s final showdown with Razorwark, the point that all the books have been building up to. Will Hilo figure out how all the pieces fit? Dive in and find out!
This book is the first collection of Wallace the Brave strips: it centers mostly on three kids: Wallace, a spunky kid; Spud, his best friend who is afraid of almost everything; and Amelia, the new girl in town whose introduction involves her throwing a rock at a hornet’s nest. Along with the kids, Wallace’s parents and little brother round out the cast, and they all live in a weird little fishing town called Snug Harbor. While the strip isn’t trying to be the next Calvin & Hobbes, it does have some of the same vibe, and is a fun read.
Jughead’s Time Police by various authors and artists
I read a few Archie comics when I was a kid, but I had no idea that from 1988 to 1991 there was a series of stories featuring Jughead as a time-traveling secret agent! The first book here collects all of those stories, as well as a bonus story from 2015 from issue #2 of the more recent Jughead series. The premise is that January McAndrews, one of Archie’s descendants (no idea how the last name became “McAndrews”) from the 21st century, comes back in time to ensure that Jughead saves Senator Bailey, a man who will someday become a great President. In the stories that follow, Jughead is eventually recruited as a time agent himself, zipping through time on various adventures. It turns out that Jughead is a hero in the future, with an entire museum dedicated to his exploits.
The stories are quite silly—one even involves Jughead’s dog, Hot Dog, getting a hold of his time-traveling beanie and having his own adventures through time, in which it turns out he’s responsible for the domestication of dogs, cat worship in Egypt, and Paul Revere’s midnight ride. But even though the stories are goofy, the writers do a pretty good job with the time-travel, which tends to use a fixed-timeline idea, leading to some fun head-spinning moments.
The second book is a newer release (November 2019), featuring the newer-looking Jughead and Archie and friends. In this one, Jughead gets himself banned from the local pie contest for life—and decides to invent a time machine to go back and fix things. But things don’t go as planned, and January McAndrews appears from the future, telling Jughead he needs to help her prevent the destruction of all known universes. This book uses a different type of time travel than the older stories, which means that we get to see a bunch of Jugheads along the way (including an appearance of Jughead from the Riverdale TV show). I would say the time travel plotting isn’t quite as tight as the old stories, but it’s still a very fun romp nonetheless. This book is marked as volume 1, so presumably there may be more of Jughead and the time police in the future.
I’ve read (and written about) a number of Gene Luen Yang’s books in the past, and I’m impressed by the breadth of the subject matter in his books, from coding to historical fiction to Asian parental expectations to Superman. His latest book weighs in at over 400 pages and it’s about … high school basketball? Yes. More specifically, it’s about the basketball team at Bishop O’Dowd High School, where Yang taught computer science at the time. The Dragons, the men’s varsity team, was having a fantastic year, and everyone at the school was talking about their chances of winning the California State Championship. But Yang had never really been interested in sports, and he didn’t get what the big deal was. However, he had finished his big project (Boxers & Saints) and hadn’t come up with his next story yet—could this be it?
Yang began to follow the team. He interviewed the head coach, Lou Richie, who had played for the Dragons himself when he was in high school. He got to know the various players on the team, and traveled with them to their games. He started to understand what makes sports so exciting for its players and spectators, and how that connected to his own love of storytelling.
Dragon Hoops is tremendous. Yang weaves together several threads: the basketball team, the history of basketball itself, his own life as he starts writing Superman while he’s in the middle of this story. He also shows how he wrestles with whether to include Mike Phelps, a former coach at the school who was accused in 2003 of molesting a student in the 1960s. Phelps was a big part of the story of the Bishop O’Dowd Dragons, but it wasn’t clear to Yang if he should be in the book at all. The way he handles the topic in the book demonstrates how much thought he put into the decision.
There’s a notes section at the end of the book that gives a little more background about the way things are depicted. Yang details which scenes took place exactly as they appear on the page, and which were modified for story reasons. Throughout the book, he does explain this a little—for instance, explaining to one of the players why he drew his hair a certain way, and then modifying it. You get a glimpse into the creative process behind the book, which is very cool.
Even if you don’t care much for basketball, I recommend Dragon Hoops. It’s a compelling story—both on and off the court—and it’s also just a beautiful book.
This book is in a comics format, though it’s not drawings: instead, the frames are made of photographs of little sculptures of anthropomorphic food. The stories themselves are horror-themed, though with cute foods, so it’s one that I’d recommend for kids with a gruesome sense of humor but not for kids who dislike horror. There’s a framing story involving the Cake Creeper (a one-eyed cake), who invites a cheerful cupcake to his house on a dark and stormy night. The Cake Creeper is mixing up a recipe of various items he’s collected, each one tied to a story.
There’s the strawberry, just starting to go bad, who just can’t resist going back to the pool one more time. A watermelon couple try to cheat death with an unorthodox ritual (known as planting). A group of foods gets invited to a potluck in the woods … but it turns out it’s a weird cult. And then there’s the fortune cookie who inherits his mother’s fortune-telling ability. They’re adorably creepy, and just the thing for a morbid kid (or adult).
The Book of Forks is the final volume of a trilogy that began with The Motherless Oven and The Can Opener’s Daughter. It’s set in a surreal world where kids build their parents, it rains knives from the sky, and everyone knows their Death Day. At least, it’s like that in the Bear Park. It turns out that there are other states, each with their own weird rules about parents and death.
This last book focuses on Castro Smith, who wakes up in the Power Station and finds himself following a routine of daily meetings with Poly, though it’s not entirely clear if she’s his doctor, or his patient, or what. He has been writing his Book of Forks, an explanation of the world, which we get to see excerpts of throughout the volume. Meanwhile, Vera and Scarper are trying to find Castro, following various clues and traveling between the various states.
The whole trilogy is very bizarre, but brilliant. I re-read the first two volumes before diving into this one, and was glad I did. The world that Rob Davis created has its own internal logic, and The Book of Forks gives an explanation of some of that logic, so you start to see how things fit together, but at the same time it’s still a bit of a mystery. The trilogy did something that is rare these days: it confounded and surprised me, because it’s really not like anything I’ve read before. It’s hard to categorize because it doesn’t fall easily into a trope or pattern. If you’re looking for something truly weird to puzzle over, this trilogy would be a fantastic choice.
The appearance of a new Tom Gauld collection is always a cause for celebration. This one is all about science cartoons, delivered in perfectly Gauldian (that’s a word, right?) fashion. His drawings are minimalist—lots of people who are just barely more than stick figures—and yet it’s amazing how expressive they are, even without mouths (or sometimes faces!). The delivery often feels deadpan, allowing the reader to chuckle even while the characters themselves are dead serious. Space exploration, time travel, genetic modification, grant applications—there’s a little bit of everything here, and pretty much every page is one you’ll want to show somebody and say “Look at this one!”
If you’ve ever felt like you were a perfect parent, two weeks of quarantine with your kids just might make you change your mind. Fowl Language is a comic strip by a dad who recognizes his faults but can see the humor in them, and if you’ve ever struggled with your kids, you’ll laugh-cry when you see that somebody understands your situation.
This particular volume is organized a bit like a parenting book, with chapters on things like babies, sleeping, pooping, school, extracurriculars, and so on. Except it doesn’t offer much advice—just comics about those topics. Each section does have a little introductory essay, but they’re more about commiserating than counseling.
A note to parents: the title isn’t just a pun—it’s also a content warning. There’s plenty of profanity in the comics and essays, so be aware of that before you set your kids loose on it. (And anyway, they might not get why some of the cartoons are funny anyway.)
While we’re on the topic of cartoon birds that swear a lot … False Knees is a collection of comics that is—despite the title—not actually based in science. The animals, which are mostly birds but also include raccoons, squirrels, bears, and spiders, are usually realistic-looking, but they interact with each other in ridiculously human ways. They interrupt each other, argue about trivial things, hide from the world, and, well, argue some more about trivial things. It’s another book that is very funny, and also probably not for younger kids.
Okay, one more book featuring cartoon birds that swear! Bird Brain features googly-eyed pigeons dealing with anxiety and depression, along with some very personal essays about Chuck Mullin’s struggles with mental illness. The comics are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but are all drawn from her own experiences, which gives them a real impact. For somebody who has similar illnesses, the book can help put experiences into words (and pictures); for somebody who doesn’t have anxiety and depression, it can be a window into that world and help build empathy. While Mullins continues to battle depression and anxiety, the book does end with a chapter about positivity—not that things will magically be wonderful, but that improvement is worth pursuing even when it’s not linear, and that there are others out there who understand and are fighting the same battle.
My Current Stack
This week I started reading Exhalation by Ted Chiang after a friend recommended it to me—I’ve really enjoyed some of Chiang’s previous stories, and so I ordered a copy. The collection opens with a time travel story, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” which is set in Baghdad and uses a tale-within-a-tale structure inspired by the 1,001 Arabian Nights. I’ve read several of the stories so far, and each one has been a gem. Chiang’s science fiction is thoughtful and thought-provoking, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.
I’ve tried not to write a whole lot about COVID-19 so far, just because I know pretty much everything you read these days seems to be more about the virus and how it’s affecting all of us. But this one may be worth sharing with your kids, particularly if you have young kids who are having trouble understanding why our routines have been disrupted. A Kids Book About is a fairly new publisher that tackles some big topics and helps to make them kid-sized, and A Kids Book About COVID-19 explains what the coronavirus is, why it’s got people worried, and what kids can do about it. It encourages kids to follow suggestions like washing hands and preventing the spread of the disease, but it also reminds them that fixing it isn’t their responsibility and it isn’t their fault. Hopefully this book can give kids a little more information and some reassurances as we work to slow down the virus. A Kids Book About COVID-19 is available for free in digital form.
Disclosure: Except for Exhalation, I received review copies of the books reviewed in this column.