I'm honored and delighted to be giving a talk as part of the Los Angeles Public Library's West Valley Big Read focusing on Jen Wang's graphic novel, The Prince and the Dressmaker (the first book I ever reviewed here on KinderComics).
Jen Wang is one of my favorite cartoonists, and The Prince and the Dressmaker one of my favorite books of the 2010s. In fact, I'd say it's one of my top ten graphic novels of the past half-decade. So doing this talk is a real treat!
As the above flyer says, the talk is happening at the West Valley Regional Branch Library on Saturday, July 23, at 11:00 a.m. LAPL has more information about the talk here: https://www.lapl.org/whats-on/events/lets-talk-graphic-novels.
Readers, I hope some of you will be able to make it — and please help spread the word!
The Tea Dragon Tapestry. By K. (Kay) O’Neill. Oni Press, ISBN 978-1620107744 (hardcover), 2021. US$21.99. 128 pages.
For weeks, my family and I have been playing the Tea Dragon Society game Autumn Harvest, based on Kay O’Neill’s comics series (the first two books of which I’ve reviewed here, and here). I’ve won a few games and lost many. I enjoy the game; it’s happy and challenging and graced with beautiful graphics by O’Neill. The gameplay feels very much in tune with the ethos of the comics. In all this time, til now, I have not thought to read the third and final volume of the comics, The Tea Dragon Tapestry. I don’t know why. Maybe I just wasn’t ready for another dose of O’Neill’s gentle and affirming storytelling, another spell in the tea dragons’ idyllic fantasy world. The past year has been bruising, and I am tired. Or maybe I feared reading through it and having to leave it behind, too quickly.
I’m glad to have read it, now. Tapestry is the most mournful, but then the most joyous, of the three books—the one that feels most like a healing for genuine hurt. As usual, the challenges and conflicts are conveyed with a tender, whispering lightness; O’Neill doesn’t push too hard. As usual, the mood is that of a communitarian, vaguely anticapitalistic pastoral: a utopia of cute and mystic creatures, some humanoid, some not, living, giving, and crafting in a spirit of contemplative harmony. You know, I really am sad to have to leave this world behind—fortunately, a book can always be reopened.
O’Neill’s tea dragons (in fact, small, catlike creatures whose bodies grow tea leaves) live symbiotically with people in an unforced arrangement that exemplifies commensalism and loving attachment. O’Neill’s humans (in fact, a range of anthropomorphic characters, such as fauns and centaurs) serve as caregivers to the dragons, as well as crafters, each devoted to a specific discipline that benefits their village community and the larger world. Scenes of brewing and drinking tea punctuate the stories, evoking an unhurried life defined by discreet rituals and communal care. In Tapestry, one of the tea dragons, Ginseng, mourns the loss of her previous caregiver, while Ginseng’s current caregiver, Greta, struggles to figure out how to help her. Meanwhile, Greta’s friend Minette, uprooted from what she thought her life was going to be, mourns the life she used to have while trying to commit to and find joy in the way she lives now. At the same time, Kleitos, a peripatetic blacksmith, considers taking Greta on as an apprentice (again the emphasis on crafting) but mourns the fact that he has lost the joy that smithing once brought him. O’Neill’s major characters all suffer from dislocation or loss, and each is quietly bereft in their own way, but they cope with these feelings in the context of a loving, sustaining community.
As ever, O’Neill’s storytelling is empathetic, understated, and rooted in everyday routines rather than bombastic and action-filled. And, as ever, the drawing is gorgeous: O’Neill renders their characters and settings without containing contour lines, as blocks of color. The colors are solid, not painterly, but often mixed with such subtlety that it helps to read the book under a bright light. O’Neill’s cartooning is sweet and elegant rather than rowdy or assertive, dedicated to form rather than line. The net effect is like that of a Miyazaki-esque ecofantasy art-directed by Mary Blair. Works for me—I have to admit, I love looking at these pages.
When I reviewed the previous books in the series, I was rather too grumpy, complaining that their subdued, gentle approach made genuine high-stakes conflict impossible—that the books were too Edenic, too idealized, and unwilling to deal with the tough stuff. I recant those remarks! The conflicts are there; you just have to lean in close and look and listen carefully. The gentleness is intentional, but there is a critical intelligence at work too; the world conjured in these books offers ways to envision a better world of our own. The Tea Dragon series is a remarkable thing. I gather O’Neill has finished with the series, and I can only say, damn, that’s a shame—I’d love to spend more time in this bucolic yet urgently humane story-world.
The game helps.
5 Worlds: The Emerald Gate. By Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, and Boya Sun. RH Graphic/Random House, 2021.
The 5 Worlds series (five books set on five planets, published over roughly five years) has always been a high-wire act, balancing space fantasy, ecofiction, and Miyazaki-esque tropes with allegorical broadsides against neoliberalism and right-wing populism—all of this served up by a complex collaborative team consisting of five geographically dispersed co-creators. The way they have all worked together is a bit of a miracle. I’ve reviewed every volume (one, two, three, four) and keenly followed the evolving story of heroes Oona, An Tzu, and Jax and the many co-revolutionaries and loved ones they’ve gathered along the way. The series reaches it big finish with The Emerald Gate, and it’s a corker of a climax. Overall, the series has proved smart, bold, and very good—though I must admit it has left me with a sort of gnawing dissatisfaction, somehow.
Pointedly allegorical from end to end, 5 Worlds has targeted egotism, greed, environmental carelessness, demagoguery, and (most clearly in Book 5) gradualism and hidebound deference to tradition, as its youthful heroes throw off the shackles of what has been done in favor of what can be done. The story is unabashedly progressive, topical, and on the nose. The Emerald Gate, dedicated to “the young people not waiting for permission to bring long overdue change to our world,” casts lead heroine Oona as a Greta Thunberg-like climate activist who must defy authority and take big risks to make big changes. The Five Worlds of the title are suffering a gradual ecocide—that is, dying of heat death—but an oily Trumpian oligarch (possessed by an ancient dark force) is trying his damnedest to smother that fact. Only drastic measures can save the day. This final volume’s signature phrase, Green doesn’t wait for permission to grow, signals Oona’s shift from diffidence to absolute certainty; she is done questioning, and now knows the way. Though the book takes time to sow little seeds of doubt (What if Oona’s plan only plays into the villain’s plan? What if the perfect solution turns out to be perfectly disastrous?), there really is no doubt: Oona and her fellow heroes must do something radical, must play for the highest stakes, if they are to save the Five Worlds. They must rebel. Oona must rebel. Above all, she must embody moral and political certitude.
The Emerald Gate, more than its four predecessors, reveals an odd tension: between the radically egalitarian and democratic spirit to which the series aspires, and, on the other hand, the near-deification of Oona, the fated heroine who must give her all for the cause. In the home stretch, Oona undergoes a sort of ritual testing, running a gauntlet of five “filters” or “shields,” that is, moral and psychological trials, so that she can recognize “the truth.” Through this ritual, Oona rejects tradition and hierarchy, factionalism and rage, egocentrism, and personal desire. In effect, she rejects the novel’s version of neoliberalism. But this renunciation is the key to her final apotheosis; even as she rejects crude individualism, she is affirmed as The One who can channel the virtues and energies of all Five Worlds. While every member of Oona’s team plays a vital part in the novel’s ending, their final success depends on deferring to Oona’s vision and artistry (“Do not tell me your plan. I trust you”). In this way, the story uneasily mixes the political and the mythic—and remains, perhaps in spite of itself, a heroic fantasy in awe of individual gifts, somewhat at odds with its collectivist ethos.
What makes all this work is that there is a price to pay. I won’t get into the details; suffice to say that Oona’s apotheosis entails a change of state and a goodbye—though also a sort of opening into ineffable new possibilities. Her transformations are so dramatic that she cannot return to ordinary life. Nor can she be quite understood. To resolve the story, Oona must escape the containment of the story, must step outside the frame her friends (and we readers) understand. Channeling the powers of the Five Worlds means being more than a person, and so there is lovely sense of consequence to the ending. What I’m talking about is not quite the wounded bittersweetness of Frodo Baggins at the end of The Lord of the Rings, but at least something that surprised me and made me reread the last few pages with care. The Emerald Gate well and truly finishes the story of Oona that began in 2017 with The Sand Dancer.
I look forward to rereading this series all at one go. Aesthetically, it’s remarkably cohesive, a seamless collaboration despite the complex interworking it so clearly required. The Emerald Gate is (as I’ve come to expect) a sumptuous feast of worldbuilding and of deft, surehanded cartooning. The payoff in the end is rousing and full of feeling, enough to knock me for a loop. Overall, the book comes across as a paean to the indomitable spirit and visionary energy of the young—though this is one of those texts that, in my Children’s Literature classes, we’d be cross-examining to see what its construction of youth says about the hopes and needs of adults. While 5 Worlds depicts young people as radically free, it follows a didactic agenda that tries to teach young readers to be those free spirits, and to save us all. Ultimately, it rejects the shaded, tragically complex vision of one its avowed inspirations, Miyazaki, in favor of an unequivocal ending in which hesitation and gradualism can be identified with a hated Dark Lord and summarily banished. It’s all about the certainty of Truth. Yet the skeptic in me wants something a shade more tangled and complicated. In the end, I found myself wondering if the utopianism of 5 Worlds conflicts with some of the messages it has been trying so hard to convey.
But, oh, what a rapturous five-year ride.
Despite hard times, I've been blessed with good comics reading, especially around this winter holiday season. I've contributed a list of favorites from 2021, along with commentary, to The Comics Journal's annual Best-Of, and what they have assembled is a great resource, well worth checking out (more than 20,000 words by close to thirty different critics). Meanwhile, the slideshow below offers an expanded list of personal faves, sans commentary, just FYI.
I'm sure I've missed many great comics this year, as usual. Who can keep up?
Of the thirty-two comics shown below, only six or seven are clearly "for" young readers. Some are decidedly adult. I note that, once again, I've listed more books (seven) from Drawn & Quarterly than any other publisher. I've also listed four from Fantagraphics. I've reviewed four of the titles below for SOLRAD: The Online Literary Magazine for Comics and three of them here on KinderComics.
The books are listed alphabetically. Click on a book's cover to go to a webpage with more info about the book:
A few notes about some of the above titles:
Shirley & Jamila’s Big Fall. By Gillian Goerz. Color flatting by Mary Verhoeven. Dial Books, 2021. ISBN 978-0525552895, US$12.99. 240 pages.
The first comic I read in 2022! I read it on January 1. I thought I'd break out of my self-imposed hiatus to write this quick review:
More complicated and less charming than the first Shirley and Jamila book (which I reviewed almost exactly a year ago), this one adapts a Sherlock Holmes tale by Conan Doyle into a somewhat incredible middle-grade story of bullying and comeuppance, one in which Shirley and Jamila commit burglary and break a lot of rules in order to solve a nasty problem for everyone at their school. I admire the book’s emphasis on kids’ agency and cleverness — adults don’t solve the problems here, kids do — but the resulting story is hard to believe. Essentially, Goerz has taken up an Edwardian thriller, in which the blackmailer gets his just desserts at the point of a revolver, combined it with familiar middle-grade tropes about the excitement and anxiety of a budding friendship, and then tried to engineer a nonviolent, affirming, and progressive payoff. I didn’t quite buy it.
The Shirley and Jamila books recast the Holmes and Watson relationship with two middle-grade girls, the White, Anglo-Canadian Shirley Bones and the Pakistani Canadian Jamila Waheed. Goerz portrays contemporary Toronto as a welcoming multiethnic community and promotes an ethic of inclusivity and diversity. The first book, Shirley & Jamila Save Their Summer (2020), is about a theft, but the thieves turn out to be relatable and redeemable characters, and the book becomes a paean to tolerance and understanding. This second book, however, has an out and out villain, one who isn’t quite humanized and certainly not redeemed. He is, tellingly, a rich White boy who epitomizes privilege. This villain seeks to hide his insecurity by gathering secrets, blackmailing his classmates, and turning them against each other. Masking his aggression with smarm and false concern, he is an abhorrent character, loathsome through and through.
Of course, Goerz can’t have him shot at point-blank range, à la Conan Doyle, but she has to defang him somehow. This is where the book’s secondary plot about friendship comes in, as a new friend of Jamila’s becomes the means of his undoing. In essence, Goerz introduces a new character into Jamila and Shirley’s friendship dyad, testing their connection to each other, while trying to convert Conan Doyle’s tale of a blackmail victim’s revenge into something more positive. Along the way, the story skirts moral complexity, justifying questionable decisions made by Shirley and Jamila in the pursuit of justice. The original Conan Doyle story endorses vigilantism (key to Holmes's appeal) and excuses Holmes’s deceptive tactics, spying, and use of disguise and feigned friendship in the name of a higher good; these same moves look strange when committed by a fifth-grader. Again, I didn’t buy it.
So, I have my doubts about recasting Holmes and Watson, originally 19th-century British men of fortune, as contemporary school kids in a progressive milieu. This second book stirs up those doubts. Its plot-rigging is, again, hard for me to believe, and the Jamila/Shirley relationship isn’t helped by Shirley’s Holmesian habits of secrecy and spying. The resulting mix is unsteady, with Goerz working hard to foreground Jamila's perspective but Shirley upstaging Jamila with her eccentric, Holmes-like brilliance and cool scheming.
That said, this is a briskly cartooned, inventively laid-out graphic novel, more visually dynamic than its predecessor. The story’s highlight is the extended, multi-chapter burglary carried out by Shirley and Jamila, a sort of tightly wound heist sequence that takes up a good 90 pages. This is exciting stuff, a tense, precisely staged caper (I imagine that Goerz relished the challenge of staging it). I have to admit, I expected more serious moral repercussions afterward, and I’m disappointed that Goerz didn’t push the hard questions, but there are some nice, suspenseful moments along the way. I hope Goerz will do further Shirley and Jamila books, though I also hope that she doesn’t pattern their stories so closely after Conan Doyle — her characters and milieu seem to call for something else.
Regretfully, I must announce that KinderComics is on indefinite hiatus. I'm not sure what this means, exactly, but I do know that I will post few if any reviews here from now until the end of the academic year (so, June 2022), and nothing big. Worse, I can't be sure that I'll be returning even after that. As an academic, meaning a teacher first, scholar second, and critic third, my yearly cycle is keyed to the traditional school calendar, which for me equals August through May. During those months my hands are full, and these days I feel an ever-greater pressure to devote summers to the scholarly projects and teaching prep that I cannot get done during the other nine to ten months. I know that something, some things rather, have to give, and, sigh, KinderComics seems to be one of those.
For the past three and a half, going on four, years, this site has been my pride and joy. I've enjoyed writing here, and putting myself to work thinking about some great comics. Yet I know this site has never been able to sustain real momentum, not enough for KinderComics to become a known and trusted source for reviews; that has been a source of regret. I haven't been able to get out in front of new book releases, to be timely as reviewers tend to be. And I've never been able to expand this site beyond reviews to interviews and longer features as hoped; again, regrets. So, not once but repeatedly, I've been forced to admit that this is an extracurricular pursuit of mine, squeezed in between the other aspects of my working life.
I should admit that something else is going on too. I'm writing this through a fog of bereavement, as both my mother, Ella Jane Ellington Hatfield, and my father, Jerry Hatfield, have passed since midsummer. I've experienced their deaths as sudden shocks to the system; I seemed to have been turned upside down and inside out. I find myself wanting, needing, more time than I have. I feel a need to refocus. Since I have several long-range projects in the works (here's one), and since there ought to be more to life than sprinting to catch up on my comics reading, I need to take a break, somewhere. Here, I'm afraid.
The thing is, writing reviews is my favorite form of writing. I like the elasticity of it, the freedom of writing less formally and at different lengths. I love concentrated encounters with works of art that interest me, and I like the more or less constant practice of writing for a blog. Also, I like staying in the swim when it comes to comics, especially young readers' comics. That matters to me. KinderComics was created to satisfy all those itches. So, to press the Pause button on it, with the thought I may never be able to unPause it, that's a blow. But I'll continue writing occasional criticism for the excellent SOLRAD: The Online Literary Magazine for Comics, and I hope for The Comics Journal too, my two favorite platforms for online comics criticism. Those trusted online magazines have been an outlet for me, and I can write for them without spending much time on social media trying to draw eyes to my work; I look forward to continuing with them when I can. Readers, I hope you'll look for my work there, and thanks for listening.
If I get back to writing here, I'll sound the trumpets! In the meantime, this site is staying up for the foreseeable future. If you see something here that sparks your thinking, and you want to reach out, use the Contact form, above! I'd be glad to chat.
PS. Back in September, I described Sas Milledge's comic book miniseries-in-progress Mamo as "a warmly humanistic, implicitly queer-positive, inclusive fantasy" and "an aesthetic delight." Now that it's done, I can strike the "implicitly" from the above, and can also affirm that the finished story is just as strong as I hoped it would be. Highly recommended; I bet there will be a trade collection soon! Milledge is one of the great talents I've learned about thanks to KinderComics (good god, Kat Leyh, Jen Wang, Rumi Hara, Jerry Craft, Molly Knox Ostertag, Chad Sell...). I'll look out for whatever she does next.
Thirsty Mermaids. By Kat Leyh. Gallery 13 / Simon & Schuster, 2021. ISBN 978-1982133573, $US29.99. 256 pages, hardcover.
Briefly, Thirsty Mermaids is an absolute ass-kicking delight of a graphic novel, a riotous yarn about three loopy mermaids who, thanks to a drunken binge and some iffy magic, get stranded on dry land in human form. In what starts as a sort of screwy Disney parody, the three mermaids, Pearl, Tooth, and Eez, find themselves part of our world, marooned at a seaside tourist trap (very much Spring Break territory) and taken in by a kindly bartender, Viki, who soon becomes part of their friendship “pod.” What ensues is a series of raucous escapades, ever escalating, as the three mermaids struggle to pass as human, make sense of human bodies and customs, and find landlubber jobs, all while hoping that the spell that humanized them can be reversed so that they can return to the sea.
Author Kat Leyh is known for co-writing the Lumberjanes series and for the exquisite middle-grade graphic novel Snapdragon (reviewed here recently). I guess Thirsty Mermaids is what happens when she is not working specially for young readers. Make no mistake, this is a ribald comic, full of drunken humor, F-bombs, and, often, naked mermaids. So, this is Leyh working blue. From the start — a great drunken belch that shatters the Romantic loveliness of the undersea setting — we understand that our three freewheeling, hard-drinking mermaids have no Fs left to give. From binge to hangover to regrets, this is a story of them screwing up, a sort of R-rated comedy of friendship amid bad behavior (Leyh's original working title for it was Merbitches). Oddly enough, though, the whole thing feels quite innocent and good-natured. If the book has a potty mouth, there is not one mean-spirited bone in its body. Sure, I wouldn’t hand it to a ten-year-old (and, really, the hardcover format and high cover price seem designed to steer kids away). Then again, I wouldn’t try to wrest it from a ten-year-old’s hands either. I can imagine certain teenage readers, especially those raised on Disney, delighting in its raw humor and affirming characterizations.
If the story of Thirsty Mermaids starts out as a romp, it gains in depth and sympathy as it goes. While Pearl and Tooth take on human jobs and relationships, Eez struggles with depression and confusion, separated as she is from the source of her identity and her magic. From near-constant chuckles to a nervous empathy with the characters, I found myself pulled in, deeper and deeper — ultimately into what turned out to be a layered story with a climax so awesome that I literally mouthed expletives when I got to it. No lie! What I observed of Snapdragon applies here: an inclusive, queer-positive ethos; vivid, gutsy cartooning; a mix of irrepressible drawing and narrative subtlety. Yep, that’s Kat Leyh for you. Man, is she good.
Thirsty Mermaids isn’t “for" children, but it’s a charming adult comedy in dialogue with childhood stories. Its pages are inventive, elastic, color-drenched, and wild — they hit that impossible sweet spot between rambunctiousness and elegance. I can’t think of a recent comic that has given me more spontaneous pleasure.
Mamo #1-3 (of 5?). By Sas Milledge. BOOM! Studios / BOOM! Box. July-September, 2021. $US 4.99 per issue. 44-56 pages each.
I don't ordinarily review periodical comic books, in the sense of single issues aimed at the direct market, on KinderComics, especially when the stories are still in progress, but for Mamo I must make an exception. Sure, this fantasy about two young women sharing magic and solving problems together is yet another witch-themed story for young readers (of the type I've been covering lately, here, here, here, here, and here). Sure, its storyworld and its visuals are decidedly Miyazaki-esque, with particular nods, I think, to Miyazaki's versions of Kiki's Delivery Service and Howl's Moving Castle. Genre-wise, this has become familiar territory: I'm convinced that Hayao Miyazaki is the key to much of what is happening in contemporary fantasy comics (see for example my comments on Mark Siegel and company's 5 Worlds or Tillie Walden's Are You Listening?). I see many homages to his work even when attending small-press festivals. In that sense, Mamo is not new. But Melbourne-based artist Sas Milledge really delivers the goods here. This is a nuanced, breathtakingly beautiful story, with smart, insinuating characterization, a deliberate, thought-through, but not mechanical approach to magic, and a healthy respect for mystery, both the secrets of the heart and of the world. It really is something, and I can't wait to read it to the end.
I won't go into detail here (I expect to come back to Mamo when it is collected), but, briefly, the story takes place in and around an agrarian village, a place that may coexist with the modern world yet seems firmly preindustrial and bucolic. The setting seems vaguely European, ambiguously Irish or Scandinavian or Nordic (with perhaps a nod to Finland's Tove Jansson). But the ambiguity may be important. Protagonist Joanna Manalo, or Jo, is a Filipina. Her co-protagonist, the book's leading witch, boasts an Irish name, Orla O'Reilly. Their village includes a variety of people. Jo and Orla's relationship is the mainspring of the plot: Jo enlists Orla's aid to counteract a seeming spell or curse that overlies the village. Orla's grandmother, the Mamo of the title, once served as the village witch but seems to have died, while yet leaving behind traces of herself that contain powerful and vexatious magic. Jo and Orla must travel round the village and environs to find spots haunted by Mamo, spots of weirdness and trouble that need to be calmed. So far, Mamo is less a character than the precondition of the whole story, but exactly why her spirit is still unsettled remains a mystery, as does the nature of Orla's seemingly ambivalent relationship to her grandmother. As Orla and Jo circle round the village, marking a map to chart their progress, the two women develop a wary yet increasingly warm friendship (and perhaps something more?), and each reveals secrets.
Two things really impress me about Mamo. One is the sense of atmosphere conveyed by Milledge's gorgeously colored pages (produced in collaboration with color flatter Belle Murdoch). The environments here remind me of Kazuo Oga's beautiful art direction and backgrounds for various Studio Ghibli films, including many of Miyazaki's: My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki, and so on. The mingled colors and shadows, the play of shadow over color and over forms, results in a transporting loveliness. Even the darkest moments are dappled with filtered sunlight, a delicious effect that Milledge can't seem to get enough of. I'm reminded of Tillie Walden's bold way with colors, as well as, of course, the quietly lovely countryside of Totoro.
The other thing that gets me is, again, Milledge's understanding of magic. Mamo has its own theory or philosophy of magic, which emphasizes giving, accepting, and mutuality: the sharing of power (power shared is power doubled). Magic means relationships, and that means constraints and obligations, not just unbridled power. Favors and connections are everything. The idea that magic comes with obligations and limits isn't new (I picked something like this up from reading Le Guin's Earthsea, long ago). But Milledge seems to have thought this issue over very carefully. Logically, her philosophy of magic provides the ideal setting for the story of a budding relationship; really, the relationship and the magic are the same thing. I get the feeling that magic, in Mamo, is a meaningful system built out of mutual regard and strong feeling. All this is conveyed without pedantry or tedious exposition. Many fantasy writers have tried to work out a system of magic that preserves a sense of mystery and wonder without giving way to an anything-goes sort of sloppiness. Milledge does this better than most, the result being a very grounded, though no less wondrous, type of fantasy.
Mamo is the kind of comic book that overcomes my habit of trade-waiting: a floppy series that compels me to break down and just buy the next issue, already! A warmly humanistic, implicitly queer-positive, inclusive fantasy, it's also an aesthetic delight. I recommend checking it out.
Snapdragon. By Kat Leyh. First Second, 2020. ISBN 978-1250171115, $US12.99. 240 pages.
I favored Snapdragon to win this year’s Eisner Award for Best Publication for Kids (though, um, another book ended up winning). Of all the recent comics about witches that I’ve reviewed here, Snapdragon strikes me as the most sure-handed and persuasive, as well as the richest. It shares with most of the other “witch” books a progressive, inclusive, queer-positive ethos and Bildungsroman structure. Snapdragon, though, brings even more to the table, without ever overcramming or pushing too hard. Unsurprisingly, the book has a utopian, welcoming, vibe, but author Kat Leyh stirs in so much complicated humanness that the results never seem pollyannish or schematic. What we get is a winningly complex cast of characters, queer and trans representation that is central to the story while being gloriously unflustered and direct, spooky supernatural details that resolve into unexpected affirmations, and, above all, vivid and confident cartooning – one terrific, nuanced page after another. I was just a few pages in when I realized that I was in the hands of a master comics artist.
The book has guts. Its first panel delivers a closeup of hungry birds tearing into carrion (roadkill), then zooms out to Snapdragon, or Snap, barreling through the woods on her bike. “Our town has a witch,” Snap’s opening captions tell us. “She fed her eye to the devil. She eats roadkill. And casts spells with the bones…” So, by way of opening, Leyh leans into the creep factor:
But Snap, a fierce young girl, isn’t having it; the town’s rumors of a witch are “bull,” she thinks. “Witches ain’t real,” her skeptical thoughts go, as she brings her bike skidding to a halt in front of the witch’s (?) home. But soon enough Snap has joined forces with this supposed witch, a quirky old woman named Jacks who cares for animals but also salvages and sells the bones of roadkill to collectors and museums. Is Jacks a witch? Does she wield real magic? The book remains coy about this until halfway through, but Snap quickly bonds with Jacks, who welcomes Snap into her work, mentors her in animal anatomy and care, and becomes a sort of avuncular (materteral?) queer role model.
That bond helps Snap claim her own implied queerness – that, and Snap’s friendship with Lou/Lulu, an implicitly trans schoolmate labeled as a boy but anxious to claim her girlness. All the book’s relationships are worked out with care, including the crucial one between Snap and her overworked but wise single mom, Vi. Leyh’s characterization is slyly intersectional, including sensitivity to class (Lu and Snap are neighbors in a mobile home park, a detail conveyed with knowing matter-of-factness). Almost every character has more to give than at first appears – the sole exception being Vi’s toxic ex-boyfriend, a heavy whose sudden reappearance at the climax is the book’s one surrender to convenience. Everything else feels truly earned.
Snapdragon is the kind of book that, described in the abstract, might seem to be playing with loaded dice. In less sure hands, its story could have come across as pat and programmatic, a matter of good intentions as opposed to gutsy storytelling. But, oh, Leyh is absolutely on point here; her mix of irrepressible cartooning and narrative subtlety, of bounce and insinuation, is a wonder to behold. Snap and Jacks are great characters, and in good company. Their world feels real and vital. Leyh infuses their story with grace, understanding, and nonstop energy. I’ve read this book multiple times and expect to read it again. I’d read sequels, if Leyh wanted to offer any. And I’ll follow her whatever she does.
Jonna and the Unpossible Monsters. Book One. Written by Chris Samnee and Laura Samnee. Drawn by Chris Samnee. Colors by Matthew Wilson. Lettering by Crank! (Christopher Crank). Oni Press, August 2021. ISBN 978-1620107843, $US12.99. 112 pages.
Jonna and the Unpossible Monsters has a premise that was just waiting to happen, one that somebody, somehow, had to get around to: a postapocalyptic children's fantasy about fighting giant, kaiju-like monsters. There's a touch of Jack Kirby's Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth about this, and maybe a touch of Pacific Rim too. Co-creators Laura Samnee and Chris Samnee describe Jonna as a story they "could share with [their] three daughters," something created "for them" but also "inspired by them"; the comic, though, will appeal to action-starved fans of Chris Samnee's work on such superhero comics as Thor the Mighty Avenger, Daredevil, Black Widow and Captain America (or his current martial arts fantasy with writer Robert Kirkman, Fire Power). The heroic Jonna is a wild, monster-clobbering girl with a whiff of Ben Grimm or Hellboy. She comes across as untrammeled, almost feral, yet delightful. When Jonna goes missing in a ruined, kaiju-ravaged world, her older sister Rainbow – the more fretful, responsible one, naturally – tries to find her, then corral and (re)civilize her. Jonna, though, remains a unpredictable force of nature. You don't need to know much more; the first half dozen pages give you whopping big monsters, and plenty of synthetic worldbuilding. There's a sense of the familiar about all of it, but novelty and excitement too.
By now it's almost a cliché to speak of Chris Samnee's masterful storytelling and sheer chops (I've paid tribute before). It is true that I will read just about anything drawn by him, especially when it's colored by Matt Wilson, his steady collaborator for more than a decade. Granted, I got impatient with Fire Power within a few issues. Though I dug its bang-up start, Fire Power strikes me as a shopworn White martial arts fantasy à la Iron Fist; it's tropey, and conceptually a bit tired. I've stayed with it, however, because of Samnee and Wilson's visuals, and it has become my monthly dose of old-school craft and loveliness, balancing breathless action with an Alex Toth-like elegance. Samnee manages to be polished and rugged at once; his drawing offers classicism and grace, but with a terrific infusion of energy. Jonna, I think, may be the best thing he has ever done: the pages sing, and roar, and astonish with their gusty action and playfulness. Freed somewhat from the stylized naturalism of mainstream superhero comics (though that skill set is still very much in evidence), Jonna cartoons with a joyful freedom. Wilson's coloring, too, is eye-wateringly good.
All this is my way of saying that Jonna is craftalicious and affords plenty of gazing and rereading pleasure after the initial readerly sprint. But what does it amount to? On some level, it remains a kind of superhero comic, not only because Jonna packs a mean punch but also because a couple of other characters discovered along the way, Nomi and Gor, are seasoned fighters as well (Nomi boasts powerful prosthetic arms). So, this is a slugfest. But there's more: moments of poignancy, sisterly anxiety, and Jonna's weird, ferine energy and charming social cluelessness. And the Samnees allow a certain melancholy to creep in; the world of Jonna is a fallen one, full of sundered families, lost loved ones, bereavements. In one scene, a ragtag group of survivors huddles around a fire, and their dialogue says a lot: My whole family gone. My home destroyed. My village destroyed. Everything destroyed. Without pressing the point, the story has a genuinely apocalyptic feel that, to me, reeks of COVID. That it manages to be cockeyed and funny at the same time is no small feat.
Though billed as a children's story, Jonna is just as much for grownups. The book (originally serialized in floppy form) splits the difference between direct market-oriented cliffhanger series and middle-grade graphic novel, so it's courting multiple audiences. Moreover, a theme of "families and belonging" (as the Samnees put it) threads through the book, familiar from many an animated family film, and like such films Jonna offers adults a kind of reassurance even as it aims for kids. That is, it offers childhood as a cure for ruin and heartbreak. The basic ingredients are familiar – there's nothing revolutionary about this tale – but I'm at a time in my life where seeing kids wallop monster does me a world of good. This first volume (a second is promised for Spring 2022) sets up some mysteries, not least the mystery of Jonna herself, and doesn't answer very many questions, but I enjoy paging through it and rereading it. In fact, I enjoy it more than I can say.
PS. The excellent magazine PanelxPanel, by Hass Otsmane-Elhaou and company, devoted a good chunk of its May 2021 issue (No. 46) to Jonna, and includes a revealing interview with Chris Samnee. Plus, the issue contains other articles on depictions of children and on young readers' graphic novels. Well worth checking out!