Little Monarchs. By Jonathan Case. Holiday House/Margaret Ferguson Books , ISBN 9780823442607 , 2022. US$22.99. 256 pages. A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection.
This post comes belatedly and is not much more than a mash note. A few days ago, I called the Eisner Award-nominated Little Monarchs, by Jonathan Case, "an extraordinary piece of worldmaking, ... dense, involving, subtle, and beautiful." I stand by that. It is one of the best graphic books for readers of any age I've read in a while (and I've been reading a lot of good ones lately, now that school is out).
I dove into Little Monarchs hurriedly, without doing my usual obsessive reading of paratexts, indicia, and so on (I'm usually a bit compulsive about how I crack open books that are new to me). I had the book out from my local branch of LAPL and was bingeing before casting my annual Eisner votes, so I was rushing. I hadn't even read the jacket copy. So, it wasn't until I finished the first of the book's dozen chapters that I began to realize that the story was set in a world I did not quite recognize, or a changed version of our world where something had gone wrong (I overlooked a detail given on the first page: that the date is 2101). In fact, Little Monarchs is a post-apocalyptic survival story, though officially a middle-grade (ages 8-12) sort of book. In it, a ten-year-old girl, Elvie, and her guardian, a forty-something biologist named Flora, drive through a drastically depopulated North America in which most people dwell underground, unable to travel safely in sunlight. Elvie and Flora mostly avoid encounters with these "deepers," preferring to go it alone. They dread attacks by "marauders," that is, scavengers who would pirate their stuff.
So, the world of Little Monarchs is different. In it, about fifty years have passed since a "sun shift" has killed off most mammal life. Prolonged exposure to direct sunlight (more than a few minutes) can be fatal. Most human survivors are socked away in underground bunkers, and only a few crepuscular or nocturnal mammals, such as bats, can hope to survive. Flora and Elvie are able to live topside because Flora has developed a medicine that keeps them safe from "sun sickness" for up to about a day and a half at a time. The medicine derives from the milkweed within monarch butterflies, so Flora and Elvie follow the yearly path of the monarchs' migration, catching butterflies, harvesting scales from their wings, releasing them, and creating ever more batches of meds. At the same time, Flora seeks a more permanent solution in the form of a heritable vaccine. Little Monarchs, then, is the story of an never-ending road trip and a scientific quest.
Remarkably, this survival story reads less like horror and more like an adventure. That has everything to do with the character of Elvie, a Black girl who is resourceful, eagle-eyed, courageous, decent, and funny. Elvie explores and improvises and above all uses her head. She can face down her fears and make do when disaster strikes. The heart of Little Monsters is the bond between Elvie and Flora, her White caregiver, who is something like a mom, big sister, tutor, and friend all at once, and whose quirks Elvie knows and forgives. You can believe that these two understand and love each other. The book gains heft from Elvie's journal entries: expository interludes that serve to orient the reader while showing off her smarts. These entries combine Elvie's home-school assignments (given by Flora), drawings, reflections, and tips. Elvie knows how to live in the wild world Jonathan Case has imagined, and her entries impart a great deal of knowledge. Case has mapped her story onto real locations, using real geographic coordinates, and included a wealth of fascinating detail about everything from knot tying to the monarchs' life cycle. The story-world fits this girl to a tee, and vice versa.
Little Monarchs takes interesting risks. As a survivalist story in a broken world, it delves into the hard ethical questions that such scenarios tend to pose: What are you willing to do to survive? Do the ethical constraints of civil society apply when the world has been upended? Must you be willing to hurt others to protect yourself? The story kicks into gear when Elvie finds another, much younger child wandering in the sunlight and has to take him in, which leads to Elvie and Flora nervously weighing the risks of involvement with other people. At first, Flora seems somewhat mistrustful, even phobic, about taking that risk, but, as things turn out, she has good reason to be. There are reversals, betrayals, and shocks in the story. The last act depicts hard things — and Elvie has to do some hard things, too. Little Monarchs isn't The Road, of course (RIP to the brilliant Cormac McCarthy), but does ask its readers to weigh questions of ethics and risk in the face of grave danger. Somehow it does this and remains a thrilling adventure and credible middle-grade story about a plucky ten-year-old kid.
And the visual artistry of it! Little Monarchs is a feast of lovely images made by hand, from the lettering to the gorgeous watercolors. Reading it against a backdrop of other recent graphic novels for young readers, even good ones, I was reminded of how seldom I get to see work at this scale that is handcrafted even down to its finest details. Case is a terrific comics artist, designing dynamic pages, drawing believable characters and environments, pacing and punctuating riveting sequences of high-stakes action as well as quiet scenes of discovery, and making every detail count. As I said a few days ago, he cartoons with an economy and grace that recall Alex Toth as well as latter-day classicists who have drunk from the same well: Jaime Hernandez, R. Kikuo Johnson, and Chris Samnee. His character designs, breakdowns, staging, and layouts are equal to his terrific writing.
Little Monarchs urges engagement with the natural world and offers readers all sorts of potential adventures off the page as well as on. You could take this book on the road with you and learn a lot. More than anything, it is a classic quest story, pulled off with warmth, wit, and bravery, surprising and gutsy right up to its very last page. After reading so many well-intended moral and political fables for children in which messages are reliably delivered and conclusions are just what one would expect, I took delight in its splendid eccentricity. Highest recommendation!
I like to keep up with the Eisner Awards. I'm a former judge, I value recognitions of excellence in the comics world (even when they're contentious), and I like staying in touch with the process. Honestly, it can be hard to find and read every single nominee, but each year I pay particular attention to, and try to spend time with, all the nominees in the young readers' categories. Currently, that means three categories: Early Readers, Kids (ages 9-12), and Teens. Over the past week, I've read about ten books to get up to speed!
I'm told that today, June 9, is the last day to cast votes (officially, the vote is "open until June 10, 2023 12:01 AM (GMT-05:00) Eastern Time"). So, this evening I'm going to vote in as many categories as I feel qualified to vote in!
This year's Eisner process has been especially vexed and controversial (leading to a retroactive withdrawal from the ballot). The ballot has been a bit mystifying to me, with some, IMO, startling omissions and puzzling categorizations. But controversy is in the nature of the awards, and I still appreciate the heuristic value of this, let's say, yearly exercise. Here are my thoughts on the Early Reader, Kids, and Teens categories:
Early Readers: I admit, this is not a category that interests me much this year. There are some lovely images here (for sheer sumptuousness, Dav's Disneyesque watercolors are hard to beat), and some nice comic bits (the page-turns of Higgins, the pacing of Willems), but for the most part these books strike me as pat and aesthetically undaring. There's a lot of shtick here, which tires me out. I miss seeing some good TOON Books in this category; 2022 seems to have been fallow for them. That said, my choice here is this charming, quietly ironic, aesthetically delicate take on friendship and learning:
Kids (9-12): This is a more interesting category by far, in fact one of the deepest in this year's ballot. The craft on display is impressive (dig the cartooning in Frizzy and Swim Team), and the ambition (dig the near-wordless storytelling of Isla to Island, a complex tale of immigration, loss, and discovery; or the interactive, formally ingenious Adventuregame). But my hands-down choice is Little Monarchs, an extraordinary piece of worldmaking, which is cartooned with an Alex Toth-like economy that reminds me of elegant classicists like Jaime Hernandez, R. Kikuo Johnson, and Chris Samnee. An amazing book, so dense, involving, subtle, and beautiful:
Teens: It's nice to see Tillie Walden in this category, for a book that is a change of pace for her. But I think the outstanding title here is the already much-talked about, groundbreaking Wash Day Diaries, a suite of stories about four Black women and the strength of their friendship and interconnection. Every character in this book has a backstory, but Rowser and Smith smartly leave us guessing, focusing on the energy, grace, and good humor of the four. Darkness marks the edges of the story, but joy wins out. The book seems casual, the way eavesdropping on good friends can, but that's deceptive; there's a lot going on. The chapter devoted to their "group chat" is a wonder of form as well as characterization. I admit that I didn't see this as a YA book at first, but then, I usually have that reaction to books that turn out to be very good YA books!
A few observations:
The 2021 Eisner Awards were announced in a virtual ceremony or video released on Friday, July 23, part of Comic-Con@Home. The ceremony, hosted (once again) by actor Phil LaMarr, runs just over an hour and can be viewed via YouTube on the Comic-Con International channel:
This year's was a solid and fairly satisfying Eisner Awards crop, and mostly unsurprising, given the ballot announced on June 9. Out of the thirty-two award categories, I was mildly surprised by five or six. Going into the ceremony, I had strong feelings about just three or four categories. In almost all cases, my daughter Nami was able to call the winner just before LaMarr announced it!
These past few weeks, I’ve been checking out a number of Eisner nominees and winners from my local library, the LAPL. Good reading!
I congratulate all of this year's winners, and, again, particularly congratulate the nominees in the Academic/Scholarly Work category. Readers, do seek out all the books in that category, especially the Award-winner, Rebecca Wanzo's The Content of Our Caricature, which is innovative and important! As I've said before, when that book came to my mailbox, I stood transfixed and read a whole chapter before even sitting down. The book is brave, startling, and bracing: a must. My congratulations to Dr. Wanzo on this well deserved (further) recognition!
PS. I hope I will be able to write up some of my recent reading here at KinderComics. This is a time of bereavement and struggle for my family, so my writing and reading time is sorely limited, but I do hope to reconnect, here, in this space I've tended for so long. Peace, everybody.
The nominees for the 2021 Will Eisner Comics Industry Awards – the most prestigious set of awards given within the US comic book and graphic novel industries – were announced on June 9. This year’s judging panel consisted of comics retailer Marco Davanzo, Comic-Con International board member Shelley Fruchey, librarian Pamela Jackson (San Diego State University), creator/publisher Keithan Jones, educator Alonso Nuñez, and comics historian Jim Thompson. As usual, the ballot recognizes an eclectic mix of material, with awards in thirty-two categories, including the following three young-reader categories:
Best Publication for Early Readers (up to age 8)
Wow, what a list!
This year’s ballot looks smart and interesting to me. As always, I could gripe about oversights, omissions, and puzzling choices. Of course! I’ve been an Eisner judge myself (2013), so I know that the job is challenging, even overwhelming. I get it. The Eisners represent several different communities (after all, they are not a guild prize like the Oscars or the Grammys) and it’s not easy for the yearly ballot to satisfy everyone. That said, I am learning a lot by looking up this year’s nominees.
In addition to the nominees in the dedicated young-reader categories above, there are nominations in many other categories that may interest followers of children’s and young adult comics. What follows is not an exhaustive list, but just a few items that I noticed:
Best Single Issue:
Readers, I urge you to seek out all of these works!
On a personal note, I'm honored that the book I co-edited with Bart Beaty, Comics Studies: A Guidebook (Rutgers University Press), has been nominated for an Eisner in the category Best Academic/Scholarly Work. This is a testimony to the superb work of our co-contributors: Jan Baetens, Isaac Cates, Mel Gibson, Ian Gordon, Martha Kuhlman, Frenchy Lunning, Brian MacAuley, Matt McAllister, Andrei Molotiu, Philip Nel, Roger Sabin, Kalervo Sinervo, Marc Singer, Theresa Tensuan, Shannon Tien, Darren Wershler, Gillian Whitlock, and Benjamin Woo.
Our Guidebook is in excellent company. The other nominees for Best Academic/Scholarly Work are:
More than one of these books has fundamentally changed the way I look at my field. Again, readers, I urge you to check out these thought-provoking works. Also, check out the work in the other comics scholarship category, that of Best Comics-Related Book:
Update, June 29, 2020: Due to a technical or information-security problem, the Eisner Award voting has been restarted from scratch on a new online platform, and the new deadline for votes extended until tomorrow, Tuesday, June 30, at 11:59pm Pacific. Reportedly, voters who previously cast a ballot have been sent emails inviting them to vote again. I'm voting again at this very moment!
Voting for this year’s Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards (the Eisners for short) will soon end, so file this post under "belated." Sigh. Unfortunately, the current COVID-19 lockdown and related stresses have slowed me down, so this comes late.
But: onward. This year’s list of Eisner nominees (announced on June 4) is another extraordinary snapshot of a (as ever) divided field that encompasses multiple, sometimes divergent, communities, a field that often feels like many fields at once. Having been an Eisner judge (2013), I can attest to what a joy and challenge it is to access, read, and debate so many different kinds of comics with other judges assembled from several different disciplines. If the final results of the Eisner voting are often an index of popularity, or simply of the kinds of comics that get noticed readily in shops, the ballot is less predictable and more expansive, reflecting the painstaking efforts of longtime Eisner Award Administrator Jackie Estrada and the diverse, carefully-selected judging panels she recruits. Those panels are typically balanced to include comics creators, retailers, journalists, critics, and scholars, and, once recruited, are fully autonomous and, in my experience, absolutely honest about what they like and don’t. It’s a great, once-in-a-lifetime gig.
In my case, I spent a long weekend in a San Diego hotel conferring with my fellow judges. This year’s panel, however, has had to judge remotely, connecting via social media and Zoom (I can’t imagine). The process reportedly took two months longer than usual. But the panel sounds like it was an amazing group: journalist and scholar Jamie Coville; graphic novel reviewer Martha Cornog; my friend, scholar/teacher/designer Michael Dooley; comics writer and novelist Alex Grecian; podcaster and Comic-Con volunteer Simon Jimenez; and retailer and festival organizer Laura O’Meara. Michael has some telling comments and reflections on this year’s process, and his own values and priorities as a judge, in a PRINT magazine interviewer with Steven Heller that came out last week (worth a look). I agree with Michael that the list of nominees is the important thing, “the news that readers can most usefully use”; like him, I didn’t particularly care about who won the final voting, but loved taking part in the crafting of the ballot. This year’s list is an excellent and illuminating guide to this particular moment in comics.
As I said, the comics community often feels like several disparate communities: different, even conflicting, publics and aesthetic formations. The Eisners, unlike guild awards such as the Oscars or Tonys, are voted on by a wide, dispersed group not held together by membership in a professional body, and the judging and voting processes reflect that. Jackie Estrada has deliberately set out to recruit diverse judges that can represent some of the many publics that make up the comics field and yet can also dialogue across boundaries and bring some focus to the awards. The continuing excellence of the yearly ballots bears out the wisdom of her efforts – congratulations, once again, to the judges and Jackie for a job well done!
Of particular interest to KinderComics are the nominees in the young readers’ categories, and this year they’re terrific:
Best Publication for Early Readers
Best Publication for Kids
(I confess to some disappointment here. Where is Luke Pearson's Hilda and the Mountain King? Where's Jen Wang's superb Stargazing?)
Best Publication for Teens
I also want to note that Lois Lowry’s classic dystopia for young readers, The Giver, has been adapted by P. Craig Russell into a graphic novel nominated in the category Best Adaptation from Another Medium. In addition, children’s and YA comics creators were nominated in several other categories:
A few more observations:
All told, there are some 180 Eisner nominees this year, spread over thirty-one categories (again, the full list is here). This year’s judges have moved even farther afield that usual, testifying to the increasing impact of not only children’s and YA comics but also digital comics, native webcomics, and other sectors beyond the traditional comic book shop. The ballot strays off the usual beaten paths and is an education in itself. While there are a number of categories in which I do not have a strong opinion (teaching through the pandemic has curtailed my comics reading these past few months), I’m greatly impressed by the lists for Best Short Story, Best Webcomic, Best Archival Collection/Project—Strips, Best Graphic Album—New, and the three journalistic and scholarly categories: Best Comics-Related Periodical/Journalism, Best Comics-Related Book, and Best Academic/Scholarly Work.
In fact, I just have to list the nominees in the following three categories, which are incredible:
Best Academic/Scholarly Work
(This is a great year for comics studies titles. Dig the diversity of topics and publishers!)
(As soon as the ballot came out, I went and read or re-read all the nominees, Wow!)
Best Short Story
(Again, a rich, revelatory list!)
Finally, I commend the judges for inducting artists Nell Brinkley and E. Simms Campbell into the Eisner Hall of Fame, and for nominating fourteen others, out of which four will be inducted by the voters: Alison Bechdel, Howard Cruse, Moto Hagio, Don Heck, Jeffrey Catherine Jones, Francoise Mouly, Keiji Nakazawa, Thomas Nast, Lily Renée Peter Phillips, Stan Sakai, Louise Simonson, Don and Maggie Thompson, James Warren, and Bill Watterson. (That’s a hard list to choose from!)
A final note: The Eisner winners were to be have been announced at the usual gala ceremony on Friday night (July 24) during the San Diego Comic-Con; now, however, they will be announced online instead, sometime in July I hear, most likely as part of Comic-Con@Home. Details TBA.
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.
San Diego's mammoth Comic-Con International is happening this coming week, July 18-22, once again filling the city's Convention Center, harborfront, Gaslamp Quarter, and myriad hotels with thousands and tens of thousands of pop culture fans and purveyors. I, though a CCI veteran, will be sitting out Comic-Con this year, for financial and personal reasons, but, as usual, I have been skimming the Con program with interest. It's my way of staying in touch. Studying the CCI program reminds me of the delights and frustrations of the Comic-Con experience, the sheer scale of the thing, and the uneasy overlapping of fan communities that make CCI such a beast.
I've learned to look out for specific things in the program and focus on them ruthlessly, while filtering out literally hundreds of other things. The personalized online scheduling provided by SCHED.org, with its color-coding and organization by day, venue, and category, makes filtering that much easier. This year I have a particular eye for the following:
This year I note an especially strong emphasis on progressive political issues, including questions of diversity and inclusion, representation, social justice, geek activism, the challenges of bullying and incivility, and the pitfalls of cultural appropriation. I also see, as expected, a continuing emphasis on children's and YA publishing, which have become crucial parts of Comic-Con.
What follows is a list of particular panels I'd be trying to get to if I were at Comic-Con, aside from the obvious spotlights on individual artists (Bui, Ferris, Liniers, Walden, Wang, Reynaldo) and graphic novel publishers that I admire (e.g. Abrams, Drawn & Quarterly). Clicking on the panels' titles will take you to online descriptions:
Teaching with Comics: An Interactive Workshop for Educators