This summer, for the first time, I'm teaching a course for UCLA's California Rare Book School (CalRBS). Titled "The Social and Material Lives of Comic Art, or, How Comics Get Around," the course is part of a new partnership between CalRBS and the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives in Washington, D.C.
I'm thrilled to be doing this! As I envision it, the course will be a hands-on workshop that will draw upon the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, and other D.C.-area resources, involve several site visits or field trips, and bring in multiple guest speakers. If you'd like to know more about it, or would like to apply, visit:
Also, feel free to email me at: email@example.com. Here is the official description:
Popular yet personal, branded as trivial yet rich with meaning, comics are more than cultural scraps or leftovers. In fact, comics are everywhere: they are art objects, storying machines, readable games, tools for disseminating knowledge, and platforms for worldbuilding and political argument. Whether viewed as historical artifacts or distinctive literary and artistic works, comics carry culture with them. In this workshop, we will study how comics move through the world, socially and materially, how they can make a difference in the world, and how we, as teachers, researchers, and creators, can use them.
Comic art has a complex social life. Comic books, graphic novels, strips, and cartoons come in varied material (and now digital) forms and reach diverse readerships. Many are thought to be ephemeral, as disposable as yesterday’s newspapers or tweets; some are built to last. Many last despite their seeming ephemerality, archived by collectors, fans, and, increasingly, archiving professionals and research libraries. Conserving, organizing, and accessing these artifacts can be a challenge but also a profound pleasure; comics offer us opportunities for creative engagement as well as deep research. Our workshop will study how comics come to be, how they circulate, where and how they are archived, and how we may teach with them.
We will focus on comics’ physical materiality, on firsthand experience and “show and tell.” Our hands-on sessions will mix varied forms of nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century comic art, from newspaper pages to comic magazines, from graphic novels to minicomix, zines, and webcomics. Drawing on the resources of the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives, we will explore the material and social histories of comics, the idiosyncrasies of comics production, including differences among American, European, and Japanese traditions, and how comics have been shored against time by collectors. We will consider comics as products of various industries, cultures, and social scenes—as historic artifacts, yes, but also urgent dispatches from the here and now. Participants will come out of this workshop knowing:
Do visit the CalRBS website, above, to find out more about requirements and credits! Also, please spread the word to anyone you think might be interested!
Twins. By Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright. Scholastic/Graphix, ISBN 978-1338236132 (softcover), 2020. US$12.99. 256 pages.
Last week I belatedly read Twins, a much-praised middle-grade graphic novel published by Scholastic in 2020 — a first graphic novel for both writer Varian Johnson, who is a prolific novelist, and artist Shannon Wright, who has illustrated a number of picture books (most recently, Holding Her Own: The Exceptional Life of Jackie Ormes). Twins is good, but left me wanting more. The plot concerns identical twin sisters, Maureen and Francine, who have always been close but begin to pull apart as they enter sixth grade. They end up running against each other in a student body election, a rivalry driven by mixed or confused motives that hurts their relationships with friends and family. The book boasts many nicely observed, sometimes poignant, details: novelistic good stuff. The plotting balances the twins' need for individuation against their strong bond, with a sense of earned insight for both sisters. There are astute cartooning choices along the way, including full-bleed splash pages that capture moments of struggle, hurt, and growing realization. Compositionally, Wright delivers, with emotive characters, startling page-turns, and a confident grasp of what's at stake dramatically.
Twins, I admit, strikes me as more reassuring than challenging. It's on familiar middle-grade turf, with a story of girls becoming tweens and growing more sensitized to social nuances and strained friendships. There are soooo many graphic novels currently working this turf. The setting is anodyne: a comfortably middle-class suburbia with dedicated students, supportive teachers and families, wise parents, and lessons on offer about self-discipline, self-confidence, and leadership. Loose ends are tied and every arc resolved, or at least reassuringly advanced, by book's end, with no one coming off the worse. Some elements, however, seem under-thought or cliched — for instance an ROTC-like "Cadet Corps" at the school, a plot device that allows for a fierce, drill sergeant-like teacher and moments of tough discipline for the more timid of the two sisters, who of course comes out the stronger (but oh the unexamined militaristic overtones). The book is inclusive and aims to be progressive, focusing on protagonists of color (Maureen, Francine, and their family are Black) while downplaying the usual generic thematizing of racism and classism as "problems" to be suffered through (a tendency expertly spoofed by Jerry Kraft in New Kid). One scene deals with shopping while Black and implies a critique of unspoken racism, but that thread isn't woven through the whole book. That in itself might be refreshing; the book thankfully avoids potted depictions of racialized suffering and trauma. Yet for me there is too little sense of social or institutional critique; the twins' relationship and personal growth are the main things, to the point of presenting adult choices uncritically and tying up the story without any lingering sense of mystery or depths remaining to be plumbed. In a word, it's pat.
Perhaps I'm guilty of wanting this middle-grade book to be more YA? That wouldn't be fair, of course. But Twins is one of so many recent graphic novels that, from my POV, appear boxed in by children's book conventions, more specifically by the rush to affirm and reassure. The contours of this kind of book are starting to seem not just clear, but rigid. Young Adult books too have their conventions, one being skepticism of adult choices and institutions, and I don't know if I'm asking for that. Perhaps what I'm wishing for is something else: a touch of mystery, maybe, or a respect for the unfinished business of living. Twins is a traditional tale well told, with all its arcs well finished and its major characters affirmed and advanced. I just can't imagine re-reading it for pleasure.
Some readers will stick to the book like glue, I expect. The characterization of the twins is complex, and Maureen, who is the book's focal character and real protagonist, is especially well realized: a socially anxious nerd and academic overachiever but not a shrinking violet, not a cliché. Johnson and Wright know these characters and treat them kindly; their dialogue clicks. Plus, the art is full of smart touches, and Wright offers clear, crisp cartooning and dynamic layouts throughout. Some moments registered very strongly with me: for example, the scene early in the book where Maureen and Francine get separated at school and a page-turn finds Maureen stranded in a teeming crowd of other kids, lost. Yet the book's brightness and formulaic coloring, which favors open space, solid color fields, abstract diagonals, and color spotlights, strike me as simply functional, and in the end more busy than harmonious. While Wright excels at characters, the settings appear textureless and a bit bland. Her page designs are restless, inventive, and clever, the storytelling clear, yet the governing sensibility seems, again, generic to my eyes. It's right in the pocket for post-Raina middle-grade graphic novels, but doesn't grip me.
The middle-grade graphic novel is one of the most robust areas in US publishing, and the novel of school, friendship, and social navigation is its nerve center. Twins is a fine example of that. I think I'm becoming more and more jaundiced about that kind of book, though. I can now see the outlines of a formula, and I'm getting jaded. I admit, this realization has me rethinking the bright burst of enthusiasm with which I began Kindercomics five years ago.
No Best of Year?
This has been a fallow year for KinderComics. I've been fairly out of touch with new comics for young readers, not because the field isn't thriving (on the contrary, children's and young adult graphic novels are still mushrooming like crazy) but because of other factors I don't think I'll write about here. Suffice to say that both hard things (losses in my family) and good things (new opportunities for work) have diverted my attention. I have been reflecting and readjusting.
I continue to fight the urge to close up shop and declare KinderComics a done deal. I'd hate to do that. Yet I don't know when or how I can get back to writing here, with so many other things piled on my plate. I've worked up a list of favorite comics from the past year, a sort of Top Thirteen (baker's dozen), which is part of The Comics Journal's Best Comics of 2022. It doesn't include any children's or YA work, though. I can see that my interests have been shifting.
With all this in mind, I am declaring KinderComics on indefinite hiatus, once again. Sigh.
PS. I'm working on two books, one near-term, the other a bit farther off. And I'm designing a seminar about Marvel for the coming semester. So, work continues.
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
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
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.
Favorites of 2021
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
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.
KinderComics on Hiatus
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.