The Best American Comics 2019. Edited and introduced by Jillian Tamaki; series editor Bill Kartalopoulus. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0358067283 (hardcover), $25. 400 pages. Cover by Sophia Foster-Dimino.
The Best American Comics series does not aim at young readers, and typically includes frankly adult content. However, its editors have included great writers about childhood, such as Lynda Barry and Neil Gaiman, and great makers of comics for young readers, among them Jeff Smith and this year’s editor, Jillian Tamaki. The series’ remit is to provide “a selection of outstanding North American work” (in this case, published between September 1, 2017, and August 31, 2018). The series, one of many Best American samplers published by HMH, has been published annually since 2006, so fourteen volumes have appeared to date (under three different series editors or teams). I’ve taught two of them (Barry’s 2008 volume was a particular fave that I taught again and again, well after 2008). And I am sure I will be teaching this latest one, 2019, which is a particularly well-curated and beautifully designed edition. You couldn’t ask for a more provocative one-stop sampler of excellent contemporary comics
2019 includes a bounty of distinctive work, and, unusually for this series, few pieces I would have omitted in favor of something else (even those are provocative additions to the mix). Tamaki says that she chose comics “that stuck with me, represented something important about comics in this moment, and exemplified excellence of the craft.” In all, there are twenty-five selections, ranging in length from one page to more than thirty (about half are excerpted from longer works). These were selected from about 120 titles that series editor Bill Kartalopoulus (per the series’ SOP) sent to Tamaki. The resulting table of contents draws from diverse sources, including but not limited to self-published minicomix (for example, John Porcellino’s wonderful King-Cat #78), micro-presses (such as Perfectly Acceptable Press and 2dcloud), online comics (such as by artists Angie Wang and Jed McGowan), established alternative comics publishers (Drawn & Quarterly; Fantagraphics; Koyama Press) and children’s book publishers (Groundwood Books; First Second). Graphic novels, memoirs, floppy comic books, and online magazines (for instance The New Yorker, newyorker.com) are all represented. Interestingly, print anthologies contribute only two selections (or three if you count an excerpt from Remy Boydell and Michelle Perez’s The Pervert, first serialized in the anthology Island). Solo-authored pamphlets and books account for a larger piece of the pie.
The works included run the aesthetic range, from rough scrawls to the most elegant of illustrations, from the emphatically handmade (e.g., Lauren Weinstein; Margot Ferrick) to more obviously digital styles (e.g. Angie Wang). Painted, penciled, or inked; mimetically or expressively colored (or uncolored); spare or busy; fictional or nonfictional; straightforwardly narrative or elliptical and nearly abstract—the book embraces, as Tamaki notes, a teeming variety of approaches. I appreciate the way Tamaki and Kartalopoulus have juxtaposed mainstream works for young readers, such as Vera Brosgol’s excellent Be Prepared, with experimental small-press works. I also appreciate the roughly even split of women and men, plus at least one seemingly nonbinary artist, among the contributors.
For the record, I had read about one-third of the selections here before, but hadn’t even heard of several (half a dozen creators in the table of contents were new to me). A few were works I had been anxious to read: much talked-about comics like Lale Westvind’s Grip and Connor Willumsen’s Anti-Gone, both of which made many best-of lists in 2018 but which I had trouble finding locally. Some were comics I had snapped with my phone at festivals or shops but had failed to pick up (for example, Laura Lannes’s By Monday I'll Be Floating in the Hudson with the Other Garbage). So, the book has been an education to me. That’s one of the reasons I so look forward to teaching it.
The book’s foreword, by Kartalopoulus, and its puckish introduction, written and illustrated by Tamaki, balance seriousness and playfulness, a tightrope act carried on by the rest of the book, which ranges from mischief to poignancy to chilly disturbance—a surplus of strong feelings. High points for me include Westvind’s Grip; Weinstein’s “Being an Artist and a Mother”; McGowan’s posthuman SF fable, Uninhabitable; Sophia Foster-Dimino’s bracing memoir of abortion, “Small Mistakes Make Big Problems” (from Comics for Choice); and Angie Wang’s inventive webcomic about food, memory, and identity, “In Search of Water-Boiled Fish” (originally published on eater.com). The excerpts from bigger books, such as Leslie Stein’s Present, Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina, and Boydell and Perez’s The Pervert, work unusually well in this context. While the book presents some of the usual infelicities caused by reformatting diversely-designed works into the series’ standard size, these are minimal and not too distracting (though Wang’s brilliant scrolling layouts and limited animation cycles are sorely missed in the print version of her piece).
In all, Best American Comics 2019 is a terrific volume even by the standards of this series, and, for me, one of the two or three BAC volumes thus far that best lives up to the promise of its title. The team of Tamaki and Kartalopoulus has done excellent work here. Most highly recommended as an exhilarating reminder of what comics, in the here and now, can be.
(This book will join Eleanor Davis’s The Hard Tomorrow and Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore’s BTTM FDRS as new textbooks in my Comics class next spring.)
No Ivy League. By Hazel Newlevant. Roar/Lion Forge, 2019. ISBN 978-1549303050 (softcover), $14.99. 216 pages.
No Ivy League, a memoir of adolescence, recounts a transformative summer in the life of author Hazel Newlevant. That summer, they (Hazel) took a first tentative step out of the cocoon of their homeschooled upbringing by joining a teenaged work crew clearing ivy from the trees of Portland, Oregon’s Forest Park. That crew consisted of high school students, diverse in class and ethnicity—a sharp contrast to Hazel’s sheltered, all-white life. (Note: I refer to Hazel the character by Newlevant’s preferred gender pronouns they/them/their, though the book’s treatment of that issue is ambiguous: Hazel is addressed by her peers as “girl” or chica, but is seldom if ever referred to by pronoun.)
Essentially, No Ivy League is the story of a challenging summer job. It depicts Hazel as not quite up to the challenge: a well-intentioned yet privileged and obtuse kid, painfully self-conscious, whose homeschooling has left them unprepared for the social and ethical challenges of getting along in a varied group. This can be inferred even from the book’s cover (above), which epitomizes Newlevant’s way of getting inside their teenage self and showing their social awkwardness and anxious aloneness. There are lots of fretful images of Hazel like this within the book.
I’ve been looking forward to No Ivy League since Newlevant previewed the book at the 2018 Comics Studies Society conference (they were a keynote speaker there, in conversation with fellow artist Whit Taylor). It was a pleasure to meet them and hear them reflect on their creative process. Visually, the end result does not disappoint: the book boasts sharp, emotionally readable cartooning and atmospheric settings, built out of layered watercolor washes and selective touches of brush-inking (the book’s back matter demonstrates Newlevant’s process). The drawings are made of light and shade. Newlevant makes many smart aesthetic choices, not least the pages’ rich green palette, which, fittingly, often shades into deep forest hues. The overall look conjures the green spaces of Forest Park. This is a lovely, well-designed book.
No Ivy League’s narrative, though, doesn’t quite convince me. It has a point to make; certain things (telegraphed in the jacket copy and in Newlevant’s own notes) are meant to come through clearly. Hazel is meant to see their own upbringing in a newly critical light, as they realize their white privilege and class privilege. In particular, they are meant to regret reporting a coworker of color for sexual harassment (one humiliating, profane remark), since their words cost that coworker his job. Guilt leads Hazel to examine critically the prevailing whiteness of home-school culture, and to research the history of integration busing in Oregon, which leads to a dismaying realization about their parents’ own motives for home-schooling them. In effect, all this teaches Hazel to recognize the privilege that separates them from their coworkers.
But these revelations have a second-hand quality that doesn’t feel earned. This is not for want of trying on Newlevant’s part; individual scenes are nuanced, and Newlevant does not shy away from problems. But the book’s form, as a literal memoir, does not allow for a complex treatment of the diverse work crew in which Hazel finds themself. The storytelling remains too intimately tied to Hazel’s anxieties and desires, and never builds its other characters beyond hints. Those hints are good—they suggest what Newlevant could do with a freer novelistic development of the book's themes—but everything remains keyed to the growth of Hazel’s consciousness, so that, ironically, the book’s form ends up mirroring the self-absorption that Newlevant so clearly intends to criticize. The story’s resolution, which affirms community across ethnic and class lines, feels like a lunge for closure that isn’t warranted, based on what the story gives. In short, No Ivy League feels a bit signpost-y to me, i.e. forced.
Still, there are terrific things in this book. For one thing, there’s a lot of smart dialogue and physical blocking. Newlevant well captures the awkwardness of Hazel’s social moves, their blundering, unsure way of making connections, and (again) their sense of isolation. For another, Newlevant does intriguing things with design, rhythm, and the braiding of details. A wordless two-page sequence captures Hazel’s alienation from their own once-comfortable surroundings:
Hazel’s animated video extolling the advantages of homeschooling (their submission to a contest among home-school students) comes up twice, and the second time we see Hazel watching it with a more critical eye, their own expressions superimposed over the video’s images:
On the other hand, the book includes some narrative feints that don’t come to much, such as a subplot about Hazel’s relationships with their boyfriend and with an older supervisor (on whom they have a crush). That narrative dogleg doesn’t seem to lead anywhere—though, to be fair, one could argue that that’s the point (perhaps Hazel puts aside romance in favor of a greater self-discovery?). To me, it felt like a dangling, untied thread.
Overall, I was left feeling that Newlevant’s narrative reach had exceeded their grasp. Given a conclusion that feels willed but not organically attained, I came away with, mainly, a nagging desire to learn more about what I can only call the book’s “supporting cast” (an inadvertent testimony, perhaps, to Newlevant’s storytelling potential). No Ivy League, I think, wants a form better-suited to conveying its cocoon-busting message.
That said, the book is visually elegant and transporting. Newlevant is a gifted cartoonist with a keen sense of place and mood. They are also, my criticisms aside, an ambitious writer who merits following. I urge my readers to seek out No Ivy League and give it their own considered reading.
All Summer Long. By Hope Larson, colored by MJ Robinson. Farrar Straus Giroux, May 2018. Paper: ISBN 978-0374310714, $12.99. Hardcover: ISBN 978-0374304850, $21.99. 176 pages.
All Summer Long is as interesting for what it doesn't do as for what it does. A teen-to-tween story of nervous friendship and awkward changes experienced over one summer, this middle-grade graphic novel hints at the familiar transition from palling around to the first tentative steps of romance—but it doesn't go there, and it's the better for it. Protagonist Bina, a thirteen-year-old girl, lives in suburban Eagle Rock, California, and has just completed seventh grade. As summer looms, she rather possessively longs for the usual months of uncomplicated fun with her best friend and neighbor Austin, but instead finds Austin changing, and her own social life unmoored. The novel recounts the ensuing summer, a bewildering stretch that, for Bina, climaxes in discoveries that kick up her musical aspirations and sense of self a notch. Romance plays a part in all this, but it's not the romance of Bina and Austin, nor indeed any kind of courtship story for Bina; instead it's about growing up a few small steps. Bina's story is not starkly gendered, nor does it follow a heteronormative romance plot. Rather, it's about one particular girl with a passion for music, anxious not to be left behind by her best friend but also learning that the two of them can be separate, different people. Modest in scope—the book spans just ten weeks or so—All Summer Long does not boast a complex, nail-bitingly suspenseful plot or pose terrible moral dilemmas. It's all about characterization and observation, in one short, focused, tightly-written arc. As such, it plays to author Hope Larson's strengths.
The plot setup is simple. Austin's month-long sojourn at soccer camp upends his and Bina's fond summertime tradition of keeping a "combined summer fun index" (a playful numeric scoring system):
Bina, feeling adrift, gets mad, sad, bored, and, finally, musical, playing her guitar and getting into a favorite new band:
Bina tries to keep up contact with Austin via texting, but long silences from him, and then telltale signs of separateness or withdrawal, leave her feeling lost. She strikes up an odd friendship with Austin's much older sister, Charlie, but there the age differences prove too great for anything like an equal friendship. Austin returns from camp different than when he left, and needs space; Bina feels rejected. Even the shared experience of a gig by Bina's favorite new band doesn't help. The two friends fall out—but then Bina learns what's really been going on with Austin, a discovery that brings reconciliation while also definitely canceling any possibility that the two will pair up romantically as per the stereotypical adolescent courtship plot.
The book ends by affirming Bina's budding sense of identity as a musician (an emphasis hinted at by the cover and the chapter breaks, which suggest her dedication to guitar practice). Mild spoiler: her friendship with Austin, though now less exclusive, endures. The events of the summer look different in the rear view mirror, so to speak, and Bina enters eighth grade with a newfound sense of who she is and what she wants. The denouement is both definite yet open-ended enough to invite the reader to think about what's coming next (online info suggests that All Summer Long is part of an "Eagle Rock Trilogy," though I saw no signs of this on the book itself).
All Summer Long recalls Larson's early graphic novel about summer camp, friendship, and coming of age, Chiggers (2008). Aesthetically, its tangerine-soaked two-color scheme (courtesy of colorist MJ Robinson) gets closer to her adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time (2012), in which a light blue served as the second color. Larson has become increasingly fluent and emotionally nuanced as a cartoonist (Wrinkle, a demanding project, seems to have tested and extended her skills). All Summer Long is not a subtle or elusive text; the important thing is that the art communicates, words and pictures working in tandem, keyed to physical action but especially to the rhythms of dialogue. In fact, dialogue is one of Larson's not-so-secret weapons. Her characters have a sense of humor, and know how to spar verbally. Dialogue exchanges are brisk, and Larson has a playful way with language:
I confess, though, that I don't find Larson's drawings very transporting. They are good at conveying the in and out of relationships and the lived-in business of feeling and negotiating. They're likewise good at putting characters in spare but habitable spaces, and working out their interaction visually and physically. Only occasionally do they give off any mystery or magic. This was a problem for some of my students, and for me, when I recently taught Larson's Wrinkle alongside Madeline L'Engle's original novel. Larson's adaptation does many things well: it is patient, thorough, as close to the details of L'Engle's text as it can get, and yet eminently readable. Larson (and her publisher) made a good decision in letting the story breathe and expand (up to near 400 pages), a call that too few makers of comics adaptations of literature are willing to make. Larson's Wrinkle cleaves to L'Engle, parses out the action carefully, and seeks to uphold the original's weirdness (despite Larson's confessed aversion to L'Engle's religious themes). She does all she can to give the novel a measured, thorough, and deep treatment. But when it comes to depicting the spiritual, the metaphysical and cosmic, the book falls oddly flat, with prosaic images that, perhaps inevitably, cannot capture L'Engle's use of paradox and self-cancelling figures of speech. My students were quick to pick up on L'Engle's impossible descriptions, which at once invite but frustrate any literal visual depiction. They were also quick to criticize Larson's pages for not living up to those mystical, or I might even say theological, moments. Those passages appear to call for an escape from the grid, from careful, measured steps, and a plunge into the odd and disorienting. Larson doesn't really deliver that, though. She does use layout ingeniously to convey the impossible experience of tessering (transporting), but her alien vistas and creatures tend to be rather ordinary. It's clear from Larson's work as a comics writer (for example, the seafaring adventure of Four Points, with artist Rebecca Mock), or indeed from the magical elements of her early graphic novels (e.g., Gray Horses; Mercury), that she has a yen for the fantastical, but her own drawing seems more methodical than dazzling. All Summer Long, again, plays to her strengths.
Larson has been a prolific creator, from her early burst of original graphic novels (2005-2010), through the long haul of Wrinkle, to a lot of subsequent work writing for other artists: again, Four Points, but also Who is AC?, Goldie Vance, and Batgirl. (She has also written and directed a short film.) All Summer Long is her first solo, self-drawn book since Wrinkle, and comes after a brief period during which, it appears, she struggled to sell a new graphic novel, but then moved into a long spell of collaborative work, much of it in periodical form. After all that, All Summer Long seems to tack in the direction of current tastes; it's the kind of book that is all the rage in graphic novels today: namely, a middle-grade coming-of-age story about and for girls. This is not startlingly new territory. But Larson is good, very good, and if All Summer Long leads to a series of books in a similar vein, they will be worth the reading.
5 Worlds: The Red Maze. By Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, and Boya Sun. Random House, May 2019. Paperback: ISBN 978-1101935941, $12.99. Hardcover: ISBN 978-1101935927, $20.99. 256 pages.
5 Worlds — the epic science fantasy series by brothers Mark and Alexis Siegel and the artistic team of Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, and Boya Sun — has been overstuffed with invented worlds, scenic wonders, and dizzying plot twists from the start (that being 2017’s The Sand Warrior and its 2018 followup, The Cobalt Prince). The series has bounded from one setup to another with a breathless energy and worked up a sprawling, spiraling plot. Its delights are many, but its confusions too, inspiring mixed reviews from yours truly (the first here, the second here). It’s a labor of love, obviously, and the complex collaboration behind it has wrought visually seamless results: a remarkable artistic and editorial feat. There have been times, though, when 5 Worlds has seemed to rush narratively from one thing to another: this world, and then that; a tip o’ the hat to this influence, then that one; another disclosure of tangled backstory, another "huh?" moment. I’ve sometimes wondered if the influences were going to cohere into something distinct, and if the long game wasn’t getting in the way of the individual volumes. But no longer. The recently-released third book, The Red Maze, gathers up, extends, and deepens 5 Worlds with confident character and thematic development, careful pacing, and a troubling relevance. It’s the strongest, most sure-handed of the three books to date, also the sharpest and most topical. An ambitious entry, it gains depth on rereading, while still pulling this reader eagerly on, toward the next volume. Now we’re talking.
Briefly, 5 Worlds depicts a system of five planets (to be visited over the series’s five volumes) that are dying of heat death and can only be saved by the lighting of a series of ancient “Beacons,” one on each world. Each new volume of the series focuses on one of the worlds and uses an integrated color scheme implying the dominant culture(s) of that world. The protagonists, a classic heroic triad, are Oona, trained in the ancient discipline of “sand dancing,” who is tasked with reigniting the Beacons; An Tzu, a street urchin of unknown origins and powers, still coming into his own; and Jax, a sports star and (secretly) an android, though archly nicknamed “The Natural Boy.” Each has an unfolding origin story full of twists and surprises, from Oona’s true heritage (revealed in The Cobalt Prince) to the newfound humanity of the Pinocchio-like Jax (who was waylaid for most of the second book but returns and grows more complex here), to An Tzu’s “vanishing illness” (i.e. disappearing body parts) and newly discovered oracular powers. All three have nonstandard, stereotype-defying qualities and hail from vividly realized cultures (carefully imagined in terms of ethnicity and class). In The Red Maze, all three have arcs, problems, and discoveries, without any one of them being overshadowed by the others. From the book's opening, a frantic action scene that reintroduces Jax, to its final pages, which tease the forthcoming Volume Four, the plot rockets along, and yet, more so than in past volumes, makes room for quiet, character-building exchanges and epiphanies. The Red Maze made me want to reread all three volumes with an eye on that proverbial long game. If the second book improved on the first, this new volume overleaps them both.
The Red Maze’s special power comes partly from its pointed political relevance. The book allegorizes the current politics of our world in a way that's pretty much on the nose, and crackles with urgency. At last, it seems that 5 Worlds is discovering (or perhaps I am just belatedly discovering?) its themes, which include, broadly speaking, fighting impending ecological disaster while speaking truth to power, and finding one’s identity in principled resistance without losing the joy of life. The Red Maze depicts its heroes saying "hell no" to the short-sightedness and greed of oligarchs and false populists who have vested interests in denying that anything is wrong. Along the way, of course, it tells multiple coming-of-age stories, as each of our three heroes has self-discoveries to make — but it's the constant backdrop of world-threatening climate change that sharpens everything and raises the stakes. This particular volume takes place on “the most technologically advanced of the Five Worlds,” the supposedly free and democratic Moon Yatta, against the background of, ah, an election campaign that pits the ordinary mendacity of a self-serving incumbent politician against the demonic scheming of a populist gazillionaire challenger, a demagogue boosted by authoritarian media and keen to exploit xenophobia. Both would like to silence our heroes’ message of looming environmental collapse. Basically, we’re dealing with climate change denial here, as well as a stew of political chicanery, nativism, and bigotry. Familiar?
There’s more. The Yattan regime, we learn, suppresses a minority of protean “shapeshifters” who have the ability to change bodily form (and gender) but who are subdued by “form-lock” collars (clearly, signs of enslavement). Signs of oppression are everywhere, most obviously in a diverse crew of rebellious street kids who become an intriguing if perhaps under-developed new supporting cast. Despite the kids' help, though, our heroes' attempts to penetrate the industrial complex or “maze” around Moon Yatta’s Beacon come to nothing. So, desperate measures are called for. Jax, athletic superstar, is coopted to play in a much-hyped televised championship that becomes a propaganda coup for the challenger, supported by the obscenely wealthy “Stoak” brothers. And if all that doesn’t come through clearly enough, allegorically, consider this blurb on the book’s inside front cover:
...Moon Yatta is home to powerful corporations that have gradually gained economic control at home and on neighboring worlds... [Its] democratic system of government is widely admired in the Five Worlds, but there is increasing concern that it may be undermined by the political influence of its corporations.
Indeed, a cabal of super-rich profiteers, aided by the rantings of a Limbaugh or Alex Jones-like media blowhard, works to undercut the Yattan democratic system. Everything, it seems, is about money, even health care: a hospital scene depicts a boastful, tech-savvy doctor determined to leech every penny from his patients. Other scenes show populist xenophobes towing the oligarchs’ line and condemning the shapeshifters for threatening the social order. Racism and homophobia are implicitly evoked (you have to read between the lines, but what’s there isn’t that hard to see).
Unsympathetic readers might call this propaganda, but children's fiction, including fantasy fiction, has always been value-laden if not didactic. My description may make The Red Maze sound less like a story than a screed, but it actually is a story, and a thrilling one, a rattling good yarn. At its heart is a spiritual crisis for Oona: the weight of expectation on her is so great that it crushes her joy in dancing, in using her near-magical art. She falters, bewildered and panicked by the retreat of her powers. (This recalls, for me, Kiki’s temporary loss of confidence and magic in Miyazaki’s adaptation of Kiki’s Delivery Service.)
Late in the book, a training sequence, that is, a mentor-mentee sequence, allows Oona — and the story — a calming and refocusing moment, a catching of breath. Thus Oona is able to take a perspective beyond that of the looming crisis, and learn a crucial new power. Her dilemma has to do with finding ways to sustain her spirit in the face of overwhelming environmental and political odds: how do you keep going when things are so terrible? That’s a kind of dilemma, and story, that needs telling right now.
Oona's mentor Zelle (one of a long line of mentor or donor figures in 5 Worlds) tells her, “We each have our own red maze. We can be lost there.” What’s needed, Zelle suggests, is joy and inspiration: some delight in the doing, right now, whatever the odds against us. Oona, though, admits that she feels stuck “inside the red maze. I feel confused just thinking about the place.” She has to look for other perspectives on her task, other angles on the problem. Out of that crisis comes the through-line that gives The Red Maze its depth and integrity.
This third volume of 5 Worlds makes everything click. It's aesthetically dazzling, of course; 5 Worlds has always been beautifully designed, rendered, and colored. The Red Maze is another master class in revved-up graphic storytelling, the pages at times bursting into frenzied action, during which bleeds, diagonals, and unframed figures spike the book's ordinarily measured and lucid delivery (dig, for instance, the ecstatic climax). The series has always been good at that sort of thing. Yet now 5 Worlds is jelling narratively and thematically. The Red Maze builds smartly on the previous books, and brings fresh nuances to its heroes, growing each into a deeper, more interesting character. The myriad artistic influences are still there, but the world-building no longer feels, say, stenciled from Miyazaki; instead the story-world has gained enough heft and momentum to draw this reader into its own singular orbit. And the stakes feel genuinely high.
I expect that, when 5 Worlds is completed, rereading it all and watching it come together is going to be a very rewarding experience. Granted, The Red Maze won't make sense to those who haven't read the first two volumes: though 5 Worlds has a modular structure (one world per book), it is definitely one continuing story, not an episodic series. (Start with The Sand Warrior.) But this third volume is a terrific reward for those who've been following along: a timely, urgent, artfully layered adventure. I think we’re looking at some kind of monument in the making.
Random House provided a review copy of this book.
KinderComics, alas, has been away for too long. This spring and summer, I have had to channel my energies elsewhere. I hate to admit it, but my academic-year workload does not make room for frequent blogging, and when the summer or intersession comes around, well, then I end up having to advance or complete other long-simmering projects. Lately I’ve had to cut back, refocus, and make a point of not driving myself nuts! Still, I am going to push for several reviews this summer; I want to keep KinderComics alive. The field of children’s comics is too important, and my interest in it too intense, to let go.
I’ll have a review of 5 Worlds: The Red Maze up later this week, and then a few (probably short) ones between now and Labor Day, in order to keep the engine humming. Thank you, readers, for checking out or revisiting KinderComics. I’ll keep pushing.
There has been a great deal of news on the children's comics front during my four-month absence. Would that I could go into all these stories in detail:
Besides all that news, awards have been given out:
My gosh, what a busy and exciting field. Keeping up is a challenge! I hope to do a better job going forward.
A sad postscript
When it comes to public-facing scholarship and comics criticism, one of the most inspiring figures to my mind was the late Derek Parker Royal, co-creator, producer, and editor of The Comics Alternative podcast. Derek, a major critic of Philip Roth, Jewish American literature and culture, and graphic narrative, passed away recently, leaving a grievous sense of loss in the hearts of many. He was a scholar, innovator, and facilitator of a rare kind, generous, engaged, and prolific, and will be greatly missed in the comics studies community. He brought many people into that community; for example, at the Comics Studies Society conference in Toronto last weekend, his longtime collaborator Andy Kunka spoke movingly of how Derek encouraged him to enter the field. I will think of Derek whenever I post here, and the soaring example that he set.
RIP Derek. Thank you for your scholarship, your advocacy, and your spirit.
Sadly, this blog has been temporarily waylaid by academic duties (insert drawn-out Schulzian sigh here). However, I can poke my head out of the ostrich hole long enough to report, albeit belatedly, that the graphic novel Archival Quality (Oni Press, 2018), by Ivy Noelle Weir and Steenz, recently worn the 5th Annual Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics given out at the Long Beach Comics Expo. Geoff Boucher had the news, at Deadline Hollywood, back on Feb. 15. I'm sorry I didn't catch this fast enough! I reviewed Archival Quality last March.
This year's other nominees for the McDuffie Award for Diversity were: Papa Cherry by Saxton Moore and Phillip Johnson (Pixel Pirate Studio), Exit, Stage Left!: The Snagglepuss Chronicles, by Mark Russell and Mike Feehan (DC), Destroyer by Victor LaValle and Dietrich Smith (BOOM!), and The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya by Reimena Yee (self-published, about which, more here).
Tempus Fugit Dept.:
What follows is a rundown of English-language comics newly published in North America in 2018 that have left strong impressions on me — but it is NOT intended as a "best of 2018" list. Frankly, it's too quirky, too patchy and selective, to qualify as a professional survey of the field's best. It testifies to a comics-reading life hemmed in by other obligations, and by the amount of time I've spent rereading, teaching, and writing about titles from before 2018. For example, this list is manga-less, testifying to the fact that I tend to binge-read manga seasonally, guided by nudges from my daughter Nami Kitsune Hatfield (and those binges usually consist of older titles; my time lag on manga is considerable). Likewise, this list is Eurocomics-free. These are sad omissions, but a fair take on how my year has gone. Also missing are webcomics, as I don't yet have a steady webcomics-reading habit or a firm sense of that huge, and vital, field.
That said, I stand by the following list, which contains, IMO, some of the best print comics published in North America this past year. They are not all young readers' comics, i.e., not all books I'd review for this blog — but those I have reviewed on KinderComics are mostly up top. (Doing KinderComics has certainly shifted the balance of my comics-reading toward kids' titles.) Two picture books round out the list, at the bottom.
The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang (First Second Books). A gorgeously drawn, progressive, Belle Époque fairy tale about couture, gender, desire, hiding out, and coming out. Its nuanced artwork, tender and expressive, is charged with complex, unspoken feeling. I dig both the aesthetic loveliness and generous spirit of this graphic novel, which is positively swoonworthy. KinderComics reviewed this on March 14.
The Dragon Slayer: Folktales from Latin America, by Jaime Hernandez (TOON). The first children's book by the great Xaime (see Love & Rockets, below) is a treasure: a set of three stories that have the off-kilter, arbitrary, but oh-so-perfect logic of traditional tales. These are droll and lovely comics, delivered with the author's trademark classicism, clarity, and verve. Just a plain delight. In a better world, folk and fairy tale comics like these would be reaching millions of young readers every month, in affordable comic book form (I dream of a more culturally diverse Fairy Tale Parade for the 21st century). May there be more of this kind of work from Xaime! KinderComics reviewed this on April 5.
Be Prepared, by Vera Brosgol (First Second). The author of Anya's Ghost switches gears, from children's Gothic to a Raina-style memoir of summer camp. An ambivalent, though affirming, tale of cultural heritage, tween awkwardness, and hard lessons. Sharp, funny, and refreshingly unsentimental, with killer cartooning and comic timing. I like the fact that Brosgol sometimes lets her kid protagonists be jerks and that she indulges in bodily and occasionally raw humor. KinderComics reviewed this on May 21.
The Cardboard Kingdom, by Chad Sell et al. (Knopf/Random House). A paean to creativity and community: a diverse bunch of kids get together, make stuff, and transform their suburban neighborhood into one nonstop live action role-playing campaign: a shared game of let's-pretend, populated with stalwart “heroes” and gleeful “villains.” Remarkably, this novel follows almost twenty distinct characters (each chapter focuses on a different character or group, and each is co-written by Sell and another creator) and yet it all hangs together, building to a big, punchy climax. Along the way, many of the characters defy societal norms — especially around gender and sexuality — and Sell and co. build a utopian vision of community that happily incorporates and celebrates difference. I’ve admired this book from the first, but when I reviewed it back on May 28, I did complain a bit, saying that the story seemed a bit too perfect, too quickly and neatly resolved, and that the book telegraphed its punches too obviously. However, having reread and taught The Cardboard Kingdom this past week, I’ve come to see it as a remarkable achievement, and I expect that it’s going to be a watershed for middle-grade graphic novels. Sell’s cartooning, lively and eminently readable, is the unifying factor, and should not be underrated (he hides his painstaking work in plain sight: everything seems effortless). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better treatment of what superheroes can mean for young children. (What is the “Gargoyle” chapter, if not the story of a young Batman fan?)
On a Sunbeam, by Tillie Walden (First Second). Walden has great artistic courage, and a genius for comics. Like Jillian Tamaki and Eleanor Davis, she shows such skill and daring that she leaves me gobsmacked. Collecting and revising her epic webcomic, this graphic novel could serve as Exhibit A of her dumbfounding excellence. It’s a tale of love and community, exile and rescue. In a boarding school. In space. A first-class genre-masher, it works as both a heartfelt queer romance and a caroming space opera. Walden's graceful, economical art conjures up a fantastical world and a found family of diverse, shaded characters. The work is generous, yet dares you to take it on its own terms. I read this in one breathless, late-night sitting, wow, and reviewed it on October 26. Book of the Year?
Sabrina, by Nick Drnaso (Drawn and Quarterly). Not a children’s book. Chill and frightening, but oh so terribly human and believable. Here's what I had to say about this timely and upsetting graphic novel on its initial release: "A tense, quietly devastating clockwork of a book—drenched in unease and punctuated by moments of muted terror. A study of misinformation, fake news, post-9/11 paranoia, and epistemological doubt—and, more importantly, how it feels to live with these things, on an everyday human level. Sterile, clip-art like drawings, deadpan, seemingly emotionless, and inscrutable, become, as you read in deeper, perfect conveyors of dread." I stand by that: reading this book was an unsettling experience that stayed in my head, haunting me, nagging me, for days.
Why Art?, by Eleanor Davis (Fantagraphics). A satirical allegory of sorts, smart and stinging as a whip, but humane and thrilling too. It starts by poking fun at the fatuous self-regard of artists, but then upshifts into a poignant, confounding fable about how much (too much?) we demand of art in catastrophic times. Davis is one of the best comics artists today, an impeccable cartoonist and designer, also a great writer. Again and again, she turns mockery into sympathy, unsettles settled opinions, and overturns smug knowingness in favor of a more complex, and earned, humanity. Small book, big yield. I reviewed this at Extra Inks (the Inks and Comics Studies Society blog) on March 24.
Girl Town, by Carolyn Nowak (Top Shelf). I discovered Nowak through her erotic minicomic, No Better Words (which is great — see my mini-review here). Soon after, Top Shelf released this, her first big collection, which includes the celebrated story "Diana's Electric Tongue" and other tales. Aptly named, Girl Town is a queer-positive anthology of young woman-centered tales that evoke uncertain, often unspoken feelings (it could be considered Young Adult fiction, though I don’t think it’s YA by design). The stories are perhaps uneven, some more finished-seeming than others, but every one of them hits home. The best of them are great. Nowak does tenderness and feeling so well; you can feel the desire welling up in her characters. Her cartooning and timing: flawless. I bet we’ll be raving about Carolyn Novak years from now.
Flocks, by L. Nichols (Secret Acres). This memoir about growing up queer in a fundamentalist community depicts its protagonist as a rag doll, surrounded by characters rendered in more conventional fashion. At the same time, the pages are full of scientific notation, as if guilt, fear, and alienation could be drawn out as a physics problem — aesthetically, I’ve never seen another comic like it. Flocks does that thing that I long for comics to do: communicate feeling through a complex visual language of its own. Remarkably, this story about how to find your identity within and between your “flocks” (your communities, or social worlds) avoids rancor in favor of a comprehensive love and understanding, even as it criticizes and ultimately rejects fundamentalism and its protagonist literally transitions into a new life. A beautiful, affirming book, deeply personal, and a compelling addition to the growing comics literature on trans experience. I wrote about this briefly on KinderComics, on October 9.
From Lone Mountain, by John Porcellino (Drawn and Quarterly). John P is a national treasure. From Lone Mountain is an exquisite collection of four to five years’ (seven issues’) worth of comics and stories from his indispensable zine King-Cat. Tender, heartbreaking remembrances of everyday life and of life-changing loss and struggle, all distilled down into John P’s crystalline, oh-so-spare, Zen-minimalist style. A record of a hard passage in the life of one of America’s greatest cartoonists — and that rare thing, a truly moving comic that brings tears to my eyes. I reviewed this wonderful book for The Comics Journal, back in March.
Poochytown, by Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics). Woodring returns to the Surreal, dreamlike world of Frank (bucktoothed zoomorph of uncertain species) to rewrite, or unwrite, an earlier episode. It's as if the jury has been instructed to disregard earlier testimony (but who can ever forget such testimony?). The result feels like having a recurrent dream with variations, or like winding back to the start of something that seems oddly familiar but then fails to stick to what you expected. No matter: the wordless misadventures (joys, sufferings, weird trips) of Frank and company are among the most hypnotic comics I know, and also the most alarming, as the characters' surface cuteness often gives way to amoral selfishness, self-defeating foolishness, and even downright cruelty (these are adult books). Behind the mask of cuteness lies a loving terror at the mysteries of life. This graphic novel is an especially loaded example. In short, Poochytown (rendered as ever in the mesmerizing Woodring Wavy Line) is strange and delightful. Whenever I finish a Woodring book, I feel as if I've come back from a journey to a distinct and unnerving place — one I always want to revisit.
In addition to the above self-contained graphic books, I have, of course, continued following a number of comic book (i.e. pamphlet or floppy) serials this year. Most, but not all, have been direct-market series in the traditional sense. Here are the four that have impressed me most. None began this year, and so none is quite new, but of all the floppies I've tracked, these have been the most meaningful for me:
Tongues #2, by Anders Nilsen (No Miracles Press). It might not be quite right to call this a "floppy" serial, but it is literally that, i.e. a saddle-stitched comic book periodical (or sporadical). Really, it's as lavish as any of the books listed above: a real art object. It's also narratively dense and, frankly, mind-boggling. At once a fable, myth fantasy, puzzle, and brutal take on our brutal world, Tongues consists of multiple intertwining stories that promise some kind of awful shared meaning. Nilsen uses the fantastic to probe and trouble, never to back away from what's hard. I have no idea where this is going, but each new issue startles and then haunts me. And its beautiful, oversized format is narratively meaningful: not just sumptuous, not just lavishly drawn and printed, but insinuating, teasingly coded, designed down to the last significant detail. These are masterful comics, eerie and destabilizing in the best way. (I reviewed the first issue of Tongues for Extra Inks on August 1.)
Frontier #17, by Lauren Weinstein (Youth in Decline). Like Tongues, Frontier might be considered a kind of "art floppy," one that few comic book stores will carry. That's too bad, because this quarterly anthology is outstanding. It devotes each issue to a single artist, and there have been some wonderful ones: Jillian Tamaki, Eleanor Davis, Rebecca Sugar, Emily Carroll, Michael DeForge, and more. Honestly, every issue is strong. This issue, by Lauren Weinstein, consists of "Mother's Walk," a memoir of childbearing and parenting, in fact the story of her second child’s birth. Gutsy, explicit, tender, alarming, and funny, it’s a wonderfully frank comic about a dimension of life too often soft-pedaled, sentimentalized, and mystified. Weinstein paints and cartoons in a way that's deliriously free and unconventional. As soon as I read this book, I decided to add it to the reading list in my comics class next semester. Weinstein says she has more stories to tell in this vein — a whole book, even — and, wow, I would queue up for that. She is great. I wrote about this briefly on KinderComics, on October 9.
Love & Rockets #4, 5, and 6, by Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics). I love no comic book series more than this one. Launched in 1981, L&R has lasted long enough to come to terms with its own history, and recent stories by Gilbert and Jaime have done that, with lived-in characterizations, loving revisitations, reflections on growth and change, and, most importantly, fresh, disconcerting, surprises. Just when I think I’ve got them pegged — just when I’m getting all nostalgic about their work — they throw another curve ball, and I get a little shock, a mild sense of disorientation. And I love it. Funny, poignant, masterfully drawn comics, always a pleasure. This year’s issues have been particularly great, confirming yet again that Los Bros are two of the best cartoonists alive.
Sex Criminals, by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky (Image Comics). This risk-taking genre mashup, a ribald, at-times explicit tale of desire, shame, romance, and crime, no longer quite works as a traditional comic book serial: long wait times have attenuated its suspense, and these days each new issue requires me to reread the previous ones just to stay more or less unconfused. (I’ve had that same experience with L&R.) Sex Criminals is an odd duck, pushing at the seams of several genres at once, and sometimes it falters. Further, its queasy comedy may sometimes seem glib. But I think it's terrific; from my POV, Fraction has far outgrown glibness. Further, I delight at Fraction and Zdarksy’s self-questioning way of complicating, perhaps even sabotaging, their initial premises. Gutsy, weird stuff. So, I look forward to reading this series to its end.
And, on the more obviously commercial, work-for-hire side of serial comics, there's the final arc of Mister Miracle, by Tom King and Mitch Gerads (DC Comics). By rights I should hate this, but I don't. A dark, depressive update on Jack Kirby's beloved Fourth World character — the super escape artist, emblem of freedom and possibility — this story begins with the hero trying to kill himself, and goes downhill from there. But then uphill, maybe? The final movement, and last couple of issues, are enigmatic but guardedly affirming. Overall, though, this series is harsh, troubling. King, the direct market's laureate of depression and trauma, works in an Alan Moore-ish vein, with a similar clinical formalism that offsets the bruising emotional content. At times ultraviolent, at other times perversely comic, this is one revisionist superhero comic that actually seems to be trying to say something. I can't say I love it, but it has a mind, and some genuine ache, behind it. Increasingly, I find myself rejecting nostalgically literal takes on Kirby, and this came as a sort of tonic relief from that mode — something oddly personal. So, yeah.
Finally, I also want to mention two picture books from 2018 that do not seem to be "comics" in the usual sense but happen to be by established comics artists and are wonderful visual poems:
They Say Blue, by Jillian Tamaki (Abrams). A young girl looks at the world around her in light of what people conventionally “say” about it — and her thoughts deliver up the world anew, richer and more beautiful than convention will allow. The landscape, the weather, the water, the sky, and small observations about everything: They Say Blue builds out from these, in lyric rather than narrative form. The book steers into Romantic conceptions of the Child as naively wise and gifted with unblinkered sight — yet at the same time Tamaki thankfully includes notes of mundane business and everyday frustration, touches that ground the book’s sense of wonder. Very much an observational picture book in the modernist here-and-now tradition — Tamaki does not regard it as a comic — They Say Blue is visual poetry of a high order, and a drop-dead gorgeous book. Is there anything this supremely gifted artist cannot do? KinderComics reviewed this on April 26.
We Are All Me, by Jordan Crane (First Second). Lately I've been teaching this picture book in English 392, and Crane recently came to my campus to talk with my class and other visiting students. This too is a lyrical picture book rather than a storybook, and in fact it is even less "narrative" than They Say Blue. Built around the concept of interdependence, We Are All Me is a brief but very rich poetic evocation of the web of life. It balances figural and abstract forms and creates its own system of colors and color-transitions, taking us from the individual human figure to the cycle of life and then into the atomic, even the quantum, level. As it moves toward the infinitesimal, it embraces the infinite. Finally, it brings us back to the human form, the individual "me," yet also the affirming collective "we." This is not a very original conceit -- indeed, the book builds upon a familiar, almost proverbial, wisdom -- but Crane realizes it with beautiful, glowing pages and a suite of braided and nested forms and inspired visual rhymes. The total effect is transporting. I have never seen a mass-market book with such fluorescent, eye-boggling color. Quite lovely: a book to get drunk on.
The above are the graphic books that have meant the most to me in 2018. They have stood out in mind and stayed with me, and in many cases moved me. I’ve read and re-read them, stared at and savored and wondered over them.
In my opinion, it's been a great year for comics in the US, and there's lots more to love beyond these few titles. Man, do I have a lot of catching up to do as a reader! For example, there are new titles or new US translations by Emily Carroll, Junji Ito, Nagata Kabi, Hartley Lin, Héctor Oesterheld & Alberto Breccia, Katie O'Neill, Keiler Roberts, and others that I want to experience. Plus, there's a number of ongoing floppy-to-trade serials I am seriously behind on, such as Monstress, Saga, and Paper Girls, and there are promising new floppy series to track (The Seeds and Bitter Root, among others). In fact, there's a ton of promising new work out there! (And what about the comics I don't yet know anything about, the genuine surprises? Maybe this week's CALA festival will once again introduce me to a few. So much to learn!)
And, no, I haven't yet finished Jason Lutes's collected Berlin. I'm saving it. :)
PS. I have to say, First Second Books is my Publisher of the Year. They have put out such strong books in 2018 (including ones by Sarah Varon, Graham Annable, and Aaron Renier that very nearly made the above list). Theirs is one amazing catalog. Twelve years and counting, they've been bringing great comics into the world, but 2018 in particular has been a superb year for them.
Comic Arts LA (CALA), the annual festival for independent comics lovers here in Los Angeles, is coming this Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 8th and 9th, from 10am to 5pm each. This will be the fifth CALA ever, and the fifth that I have attended. I wouldn't miss it! CALA will be held at:
Homenetmen Ararat (Elevate Fitness Complex), 3000 Dolores St. Los Angeles 90065
(This is in the Atwater Village neighborhood of Glendale.) Further information about the venue, travel options, and parking can be found on the CALA website under Location.
CALA, organized by Jen Wang, Angie Wang, and Jake Mumm, is a free, public event that aims to promote (as its website says) "the appreciation of comics, graphic novels, and sequential arts among the broader Los Angeles public." It's WONDERFUL: a friendly, inclusive, diverse space that offers you a chance to interact with great artists whose work will be defining comics for years to come.
I always go to CALA. If you're interested in comics as an art form — not comics-based movies or other media, but comics purely as an artistic and literary form, as an expressive outlet, and as a culture of makers — then CALA will be right up your alley. I always get "schooled" at CALA (and I've been studying comics for a good part of my life). It's one of Los Angeles's great events for independent publishing and art-making. This year's lineup is super-strong: special guest artist Ronald Wimberly, panelists Nalo Hopkinson and Rachelle Cruz, panelists/exhibitors like Yumi Sakugawa, Richie Pope, Julia Kaye, and Molly Knox Ostertag (and many more), plus exhibitors like Robert Goodin, MariNaomi, Sophie Yanow, Malachi Ward, Czap Books, Youth in Decline, and the Center for Cartoon Studies (and, oh, about a hundred others). And who knows what artists unknown to me I'm going to learn about this time?
Plus: CALA is doing this once again, which is awesome:
This Friday: KinderComics's favorites of 2018!
Lest we forget, the bulk of the comic books Stan Lee wrote were children's comics. The effect they had on childhood "me" would be hard to overstate. At my Jack Kirby-themed blog, Hand of Fire, I pay tribute to the late Mr. Lee and grapple with complex feelings about his reputation and work:
See Hatfield, comics and children's culture scholar