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Stack Overflow: Comic Book Adventures

Today’s stack is about comic book adventures! Some are based on folklore and legends, and some are wholly new, but all of them involve magic and maybe a bit of mystery. I’ve arranged them here roughly in order of target age, with books for younger kids first and moving up to young adults.

Brownstone’s Mythical Collection series by Joe Todd-Stanton

I read two books in this series, Arthur and the Golden Rope and Marcy and the Riddle of the Sphinx. The books are framed as stories from the Brownstone family vault, which also includes mysterious artifacts from all over the world, “collected over thousands of years from every corner of the globe.” The narrator is an older man who then tells stories about the exploits of his ancestors, and apparently each story is inspired by the mythology and legends of a particular culture. Arthur and the Golden Rope is the first book, featuring a young boy named Arthur who loved stories and was an unlikely adventurer. It’s based on Norse tales: Arthur must travel across the sea to find Thor and ask him to relight his city’s fire after an attack. During his adventures, he encounters Fenrir the wolf and climbs the World Tree.

Marcy and the Riddle of the Sphinx takes place much later, when Arthur is grown and has a daughter, Marcy, who is afraid of the dark. When Arthur sets off on a journey unexpectedly, Marcy figures out that he went to Egypt and follows; she ends up meeting Thoth, challenging the Sphinx, and obtaining Ra’s eye … and overcoming her fear of the dark.

These books are sort of a blend of picture book and comic book, sometimes with portions of text accompanying pictures, and sometimes with speech bubbles in the illustrations themselves. The illustrations are a lot of fun and the various mythical figures don’t always look like they’re traditionally pictured. I will mention, though, that I’m not totally comfortable with the idea of this single fictional (British?) family amassing a collection of rare artifacts taken from various cultures, and the way that this is somewhat reflected by a British guy amassing a collection of stories taken from various cultures. There aren’t any author’s notes or even an about the author section, so I have no idea how Todd-Stanton does his research on other cultures and their stories.

Timo the Adventurer written by Jonathan Garnier, illustrated by Yohan Sacré

Timo has read every book in his small forest village, so he decides he’s ready to go out and explore the world, despite his parents’ misgivings. Once he leaves, though, he quickly discovers that reading about something in a book isn’t quite the same as experiencing it himself. But he does his best, recording his encounters in a journal and pressing onward to find adventure. His journal entries, reproduced in the book, reveal the way Timo sees the world (and are sometimes obviously incorrect). Along the way, he frees the shackled Broof, a grumpy beast (pictured on the cover) who doesn’t really want Timo tagging along and is reticent about his past—has Timo rescued the wrong creature?

This book was a lot of fun to read: it was filled with the unexpected, from a kid who sets out on an adventure intentionally to a host of strange people and creatures that Timo encounters along the way. I like the way that Broof’s past is gradually revealed, and the way that various threads of the story come together. It’s also about the way that Timo learns what it means to be a hero—and it’s not what Timo thought when he first set out.

Dungeon Critters by Natalie Riess and Sara Goetter

This hilarious comic is about four animal adventurers investigating a mysterious plant-based plot, and it plays around with fantasy tropes and is just generally silly, while still telling a compelling story that includes plenty of action and some heartfelt emotion. Prince Chirp is a frog who also happens to have an intense (but unexplained) rivalry with Baron Foxworthy, and Chirp tends to act first and think later. Juniper is a dog and her magic is all about plants; she also seems to be the one who has to clean up everyone else’s mess, especially Rose, the cat pyromancer. Rose loves puns, and her solution to everything is to set it on fire. Finally, there’s Goro, who appears to be a snake, but with big beefy arms and legs. He doesn’t say much, but seems to be pretty effective when he needs to be.

It reminded me a little bit of the Cucumber Quest series (which we’ve also enjoyed), just in the way that this world clearly has rules and expectations for how adventures happen, but the characters go over the top in playing them out. It does include some romance, so depending on whether your kid is at the “awww, how sweet” stage or “ew, ick” stage, it’s probably a middle grade and up book.

Oh My Gods! written by Stephanie Cooke and Insha Fitzpatrick, illustrated by Juliana Moon

Karen lives in New Jersey with her mom, and doesn’t know her dad well—he visits on weird obscure holidays at times, but that’s about it. So she has some hesitation about going to live with him for a while and trying to figure things out at a new middle school. As it turns out, Mt. Olympus is quite different from New Jersey, and everyone seems to know her dad, Zed, who also happens to be the dean of the school and the mayor and, oh, somebody you probably recognize from Greek mythology.

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Yep, Karen, as it turns out, is a demigoddess herself, and the kids she’s meeting at school are gods and goddesses, fauns and centaurs—not, as she first assumes, kids who take theater and costumes way too seriously. The reader is in on the joke almost from the start, but it takes Karen a long time to figure out that Apollo (“Call me Pol”) is the Apollo and that there’s not another kid in the back of that centaur “costume.” The gods and goddesses have had a modern, young makeover, and it’s a fun take on what they would be like if they were middle-schoolers. There’s also a mystery involving some students who have been found turned to stone.

It’s an entertaining comic that takes mythology and puts a modern twist on it, sort of like the Percy Jackson series, and it’s a fun read. My only complaint is that sometimes I felt like things were made a little too obvious for the reader, rather than leaving us in the dark a little longer so that we come to the realization at the same time Karen figures things out. Still, if you like twists on Greek mythology, Oh My Gods! is pretty entertaining.

The Daughters of Ys written by M.T. Anderson, illustrated by Jo Rioux

This graphic novel is based on an ancient Breton folktale: it’s about a kingdom powered by the magic of Queen Malgven, who raised its walls and tamed the sea monsters. When Malgven dies and King Gradlon becomes a hopeless wreck, their two daughters start down different paths. Rozenn, the older daughter, has no interest in running the country and would rather ride her horse in the countryside; Dahut learns her mother’s magic and starts to rule at her father’s side, mastering the forces that keep the sea at bay. This magic comes at a cost, though: one that Dahut knows about and continues to pay, even as she and Rozenn grow further apart from each other.

The story is a dark one, with murder and lust and power that corrupts, but it is beautifully told and illustrated. I’d recommend it for young adults and older because of the content, especially those who enjoy folklore. I didn’t know of this story before, though there’s definitely something familiar about the way that the magic works, the way that actions are rewarded or punished.

Disclosure: I received review copies of these books. Links to Bookshop.org are affiliate links and help support my writing, thanks!


My Current Stack

I recently finished reading The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book by Kate Milford and it was delightful. You’ll be hearing more about that a little closer to the publication date next month, but if you’ve enjoyed her Nagspeake books, you’ll want to add this one to your list for sure.

Just before the end of the year, I finally read The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins—I hadn’t been avoiding it, but I missed it at first and then … just never got around to it. So I zipped through the books, and then in the past few weeks I also watched all four films (since book 3 was split into two films, as they seem to do often these days). I knew the general premise of the book, and I knew that there was a love triangle involved, but that’s basically it. I had pretty much managed to avoid spoilers for all this time. (Spoiler alert: So, uh, if you still haven’t read it but you’re thinking about it, you might want to skip this section.)

I’m going to presume, if you’re still reading this, that you’ve read the books or seen the movies already, so I won’t rehash what they’re about. What struck me about the books—and what I hadn’t expected when I first started reading—was that Katniss isn’t really the hero of the story in the usual sense. Sure, she’s the protagonist, the main character, but despite the fact that the rebels use her as their symbolic hero during the war, Katniss is more like a pawn that is being used by others. Early in the story, Peeta says he doesn’t want to become just a piece in their games, and Katniss doesn’t really get what he means. Later on, she begins to understand, but it’s pretty much too late: the people in charge have been using her in their moves and countermoves the entire time. Even when she goes against orders and tries to take things into her own hands, Coin is able to turn that into another propaganda tool. When Katniss turns against Coin, it’s a move that Snow had predicted.

Because of that, the books felt much more cynical than I had anticipated. From just the imagery I’d seen on movie posters and the fact that it was a young adult series, I kind of assumed that it would be more of a “rising hero” sort of story, one where the scrappy rebels take on the powerful Capitol and triumph over corruption. But instead, what we get is the revelation that the rebels—or at least the leadership—isn’t that much better. In fact, they’re not even that different.

Given the events of the past few years, the stories still seem very relevant. While watching the films, it was particularly disturbing to watch the scenes of the Peacekeepers attacking the mostly Black population of District 11, as it called to mind images of police and protestors from this past year. And an army of rebels marching on the Capitol? I don’t need to explain how that ties into current events, either.

What I’ve also realized is that everyone wants to cast themselves as rebels, going up against an oppressive regime, whether you’re talking about Hunger Games or Star Wars or any number of other stories. I could see conservatives arguing that the Hunger Games Capitol represents the liberal elite—control of the media, disconnected from the people who produce their food and clothing, and of course their colorful hair and tattoos. And I could also see liberals saying that it’s a mirror of conservatives—as corporations who exploit the workforce, using military might to control the citizens. But by the end of the trilogy, it’s not clear that you are supposed to side with the rebels. Sure, they won freedom for the districts and there’s a sense of relief, but there’s also a foreshadowing that it may not be long before people forget, and you wind up with a new oppressive regime anyway.

I also felt a little irony—especially while watching the movie—in the fact that Hunger Games is in part a critique of the way the citizens of the Capitol watched this violent spectacle as a form of entertainment, while presenting us with a violent spectacle as entertainment. Sure, in our entertainment there wasn’t any real death—these are fictional characters, actors on a screen—but does that really excuse our appetite for more excitement, higher stakes?

Anyway, I know all of this is coming a decade late, that you’ve probably had these conversations already. It’s a good reminder that, even when we think we’re fighting for a worthy, noble cause, it’s possible that we can veer off course in the process and that we can become the thing we tried so hard to defeat.

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This post was last modified on January 17, 2021 7:53 pm

Jonathan H. Liu

Jonathan H. Liu is a stay-at-home dad in Portland, Oregon, who loves to read, is always up for a board game, and has a bit of a Kickstarter habit. I can be reached at jonathan at geekdad dot com.

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