First, a brief personal note:
You might think that being in pandemic lockdown would mean reading lots of comics, and with relish. I had thought so too. But I have to confess to feeling adrift lately; if anything, I may have been reading fewer comics than usual. I frankly don’t understand this, and it makes me sad, but there it is. COVID seems to have wrought havoc with my reading life, and many of the talked-about comics of 2020 are still unknown to me. Usually, I look back on the year in comics with a surplus of terrific new titles that I have trouble choosing among. Bounty is my normal. This year, though, I've had a hard time envisioning a Best-Of list for KinderComics.
I've been down in the dumps about this for a bit. That's why it is such a pleasure to have contributed, in however small a way, to SOLRAD's list of The Best Comics of 2020. This multi-authored listicle is an education to me: a reminder of how widespread, diverse, and unpredictable comics can be. SOLRAD, "a nonprofit online literary magazine dedicated to the comics arts," has just celebrated its first anniversary, and it's a great site, an essential stop for readers who care about innovation and artistry in comics. I'm glad to have done anything for them, and very glad to have their Best-Of list as an antidote to my blues. Please go check it out!
And now, back to what KinderComics usually does:
Shirley and Jamila Save Their Summer. By Gillian Goerz. Dial Books, 2020. ISBN 978-0525552864, US$10.99. 224 pages.
I like this sunny middle-grade mystery, which follows a pair of mismatched but true friends who investigate a theft at a local swimming pool. It’s the sort of thing that could hit the spot for fans of Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, or Nate the Great.
The setting appears to be suburban Toronto. Shirley is a super-observant Holmesian kid detective, also a social outcast: a tightly wound nerd-savant figure, perhaps implicitly an Aspie (the characterization seems to lean in that direction). Jamila, the novel’s true focal character, is an aspiring athlete, eager and restless, loved by her family yet perhaps overshadowed by her older brothers. Jamila and Shirley, temperamental opposites, need each other; both girls chafe against the protectiveness of their moms and are looking for ways to buy a bit of freedom over the summer. They team up to break out. Shirley is White, while Jamila comes from a South Asian, perhaps Afghan or Pakistani, ostensibly Muslim family; the girls' neighborhood is convincingly diverse. We learn much about Jamila’s family, the dynamics of which are deftly established, with discreet cultural cueing and an easy, lived-in complexity. (I particularly liked the characterization of her mother, a subtle and telling depiction.)
Despite some early signs of tentativeness (say, in layout and balloon placement), Goerz crafts a tightly constructed, unflagging, engaging story, one that hopscotches confidently from chapter to chapter, evokes a credible social milieu, and, best of all, vividly imagines what turns out to be a large repertory company of characters. This is, in the end, a sure-handed, well-edited, handsomely cartooned first graphic novel for Goerz: in sum, a cool book. It looks to be the first volume in a projected series; I'd happily read more.
This week's Modern Language Association (MLA) convention, to be held online January 7-11, will, as usual, feature panels and papers related to comics studies and to children's literature and culture studies. It's a giant conference, with comics and children's culture scholars making up only a small (though vital!) part of the proceedings. I'll miss attending it in person this year, as Mich and I did last year in Seattle, but it's good to see that the MLA has arranged a big, ambitious virtual alternative!
On New Year's Day, my colleague Phil Nel posted his annual blog entry listing all of this year's MLA programming related to comics, children's texts, and childhood studies. The list is a great resource, a kind of navigational aid to accompany the MLA's enormous program; check it out:
There's a wealth of very promising work on offer this year. So many names leap out at me (such as Brigitte Fielder, Margaret Galvan, Rachel Kunert-Graf, Rachel Miller, Anna Peppard, Alex Ponomareff, Jan Susina, Gwen Athene Tarbox, Erin Williams, and Daniel Worden), and I'm sure there will be informative and inspiring work by many scholars whose work I haven't gotten to know yet!
I'm particularly excited about Comics and Graphic Narratives for Young Audiences, a special panel on Saturday, Jan. 9, co-sponsored by the Forum on Comics and Graphic Narratives and the Forum on Children's and Young Adult Literature, to be chaired by Phil and our colleague, Aaron Kashtan. It's always exciting to see those two communities working together!
As I said in my previous post, these are exciting times in comics studies!
PS. Thanks, as ever, to Phil Nel for the info and inspiration!
Despite the ravages of COVID, I feel optimistic about my field, comics studies, and glad to be part of it. Important, eye-opening research continues apace, and my understanding of the field keeps getting bigger (which is to say that I keep getting challenged, in invigorating ways). The scholarly institutions I’ve been part of are doing what they can to bring communities together in spite of the pandemic. Academic conferences, independent comics festivals, and large-scale comic-cons have offered virtual programming this past year, so that life and study at home don’t seem quite so lonesome. I’m particularly happy to see the International Comic Art Forum’s slate of monthly virtual events, still ongoing, and the call for next summer’s Comics Studies Society conference.
On a personal note, this year saw, at last, the publication of a long-term project of mine, Comics Studies: A Guidebook, a classroom-ready anthology co-edited with Bart Beaty (and published by Rutgers University Press). Bringing this book into the world took many years, but I'm proud of the results: essays by twenty scholars on the history, form, genres, production, and reception of Anglophone comics. These essays succinctly explain fundamental issues in the comics studies field, crystallizing complex questions, if I may say so, in ways that no book has done before, and often with real conceptual originality. I thank our contributors for their steadfastness, patience, and brilliant writing; the life of the Guidebook is in their essays. If you're a student or teacher of comics, I hope you'll check our Guidebook out.
Again speaking personally, I had the pleasure to contribute to another comics studies volume this year, Kim Munson's Comic Art in Museums (published by the University Press of Mississippi), a groundbreaking collection focusing on the exhibition of comics in museums and galleries. If you want to know more about how comics came to be exhibited and recognized in the art world, then this book can give you a grounding. The history that Munson and her contributors lay out is longer and more complex than you might expect. (I am honored to have two pieces in the book, and to have curated the 2015 Jack Kirby exhibition that is the focus of several pieces.)
What follows is a handful of comics studies books that I'm currently reading, books that I find particularly exciting at this moment. This is not meant to be a best-of for 2020, since, goodness knows, I've had trouble keeping up academically during the long lockdown (and there are new books that I haven't had a chance to dive into yet, such as Anna Peppard and company's Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero, or Frederick Luis Aldama et al.'s massive Oxford Handbook of Comic Book Studies). These are just a few of the books that recently struck me as expanding the boundaries of the field:
Sean Kleefeld, Webcomics (Bloomsbury).
Eszter Szép, Comics and the Body: Drawing, Reading, and Vulnerability (The Ohio State University Press). Disclosure: I co-edit, along with Jared Gardner, Rebecca Wanzo, and acquiring editor Ana Jimenez-Moreno, the OSUP's Studies in Comics and Cartoons series, which published Szép's book.)
Gwen Athene Tarbox, Children's and Young Adult Comics (Bloomsbury).
Rebecca Wanzo, The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging (NYU Press).
Paul Williams, Dreaming the Graphic Novel: The Novelization of Comics (Rutgers UP).
The Phantom Twin. By Lisa Brown. First Second, 2020. ISBN 978-1626729247, US$17.99. 208 pages.
The Phantom Twin, a subversive romance set in a carnival freak show, risks creepiness, with a droll style that for me recalls the late Richard Sala (and, indirectly, Edward Gorey). The book treats sideshow freaks in a complex, sympathetic way; Brown captures some of the ironies of freakishness as performance, even as a means of limited agency, and depicts the world of the carnival as an everyday, intimate circle. That circle, though closed to rubes/outsiders, offers a chance at found family and romantic love. Despite what appears to be a straight romance plot, The Phantom Twin strikes me as implicitly queer, and treads on delicate ground, with matter-of-fact depictions of prosthesis, bodily spectacle, and gender ambiguity, as well as characters who, in some cases, embrace enfreakment and reject normate society.
Briefly, the plot revolves around a pair of conjoined twins, Isabel and Jane, who perform in a sideshow until a botched separation surgery costs Jane her life, leaving Isabel, for the first time, to fend for herself. Isabel loses an arm and a leg in the process but gains the ghostly presence of her dead, but still very vocal, sister, who manifests as something like a phantom limb. (There’s a semi-Gothic air about all this that would make for a good Laika movie.) The carnival’s tattooed lady takes Isabel in, then introduces her to Tommy, who like Isabel is an artist – in his case, a tattoo artist. An interesting relationship develops, but then Isabel falls into a tryst with a muckraking reporter whose snooping ultimately threatens the whole carnival, which leaves Isabel cast out even by her fellow outcasts. The book’s ending has to resolve, all at once, the problems of thwarted romance and social ostracism – but Brown sticks the landing gracefully, with real boldness, and without too neat a fix.
Brown clearly has a passion for the history and culture of the freak show; The Phantom Twin somehow channels Tod Browning’s Freaks while delivering a YA tale with, for me, a warm, affirming payoff. I dug it. My wife Mich, though, who read the book first, found it simply too creepy. We ended up talking about Brown’s harsh depiction of normate society (cruel, vicious, coldly transactional) and the threatening hints of gendered violence scattered throughout (too frank for that notional Laika movie). There were moments, on my first reading, that unnerved me; the world evoked here is quite dark. Yet love redeems it, somewhat – love, and the possibility of community among those deemed freaks.
In sum, The Phantom Twin is gutsy and smart. It’s also elegantly drawn and colored, and eminently readable, carried along by restrained yet subtly varied three-tier layouts in classic style. In its embrace of bodily difference (and body art), it’s a courageous, insinuating graphic novel I look forward to re-reading. Many readers, I bet, will find it impossible to forget.
Palimpsest. By Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom. Drawn & Quarterly, 2019. ISBN 978-1770463301, US$24.95. 156 pages.
This aggrieved and bitter memoir depicts the infuriating process of trying to dig up information about a transnational adoption. The author was adopted from Korea to Sweden as an infant — a transaction shrouded in misinformation — and Palimpsest recounts her trip to Korea to find her birth mother and piece together the whole story. This quest is thwarted again and again by contradictions, evasions, and outright lies.
Much of Palimpsest’s narrative consists of correspondence, documents (usually reproduced in the author’s hand), and conversations — often confrontational ones, yet conveyed with a sort of unvarying graphic blandness. I found the book thematically compelling but also a tough, arrhythmic slog: more of a self-justifying argument than an evocative story about people, and hampered by an inexpressive, faux-naive style despite a beautiful overall aesthetic. Though the book talks about raw feelings, it consists mainly of constrained encounters between generically vague characters. The constant first-person narration is intense but not self-critical, and the other characters are mostly functionaries, save for a haunting depiction of the author’s birth mother. The story’s ending is powerfully sad, though Sjöblom's perspective on it struck me as stubbornly one-sided.
I'm not sure that's a fair critique. After all, it's hard to gainsay an author's account of personal experience. Maybe I shouldn't. But I found the book's lack of self-reflection frustrating.
Perhaps I’m just too used to self-deprecating, self-accusing autobiography? Palimpsest is something else. Still, I read it in one overtired late-night sitting despite its relative density (for a comic). The urgency of its political agenda kept me engaged. Its subject matter — the ethical and legal quagmire of international adoption — is tough and vital. Not a great comic in my opinion, nor a complex, self-knowing memoir, but a fierce expose. If Sjöblom's artistic choices sometimes damp down the book's power, what comes across is still raw: a cry of outrage and pain.
Drawn & Quarterly provided a review copy of this book.
A partial list, forever in progress (every week I learn about new stuff)!
(This Election Week post grew out of queries from colleagues as well as virtual teach-ins at CSU Northridge. It is very much a quick, tentative dispatch!)
Below is a bunch of notes, roughly organized, about comics (especially graphic novels) that engage urgent social issues such as voting, migrant and refugee experience, racism, police violence, political activism, gender, feminism, and LGBTQ+ activism. Note that not all of these books are designated as children's or young adult books, and many contain frankly adult content. OTOH, there are some excellent young reader's books here.
Besides long-form comics like graphic novels, other, shorter comics may engage such issues too, webcomics in particular. Webcomics are typically free and often address vital issues briefly and powerfully; e.g., consider the many affecting comics about living under COVID (see especially the series “In/Vulnerable,” on thenib.com, researched by reporters for The Center for Investigative Reporting and drawn by Thi Bui: https://thenib.com/in-vulnerable/).
The Movement for Black Lives and the Black Comics Explosion
March, by the late John Lewis, with collaborators Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell — a memoir trilogy about Lewis’s participation in the Civil Rights Movement. One of the most acclaimed of recent American comics, and highly recommended.
“Your Black Friend,” by Ben Passmore, a short satirical comic found in his book Your Black Friend and Other Strangers.
Also, see Passmore’s collaboration with Ezra Claytan Daniels, BTTM FDRS, an urban horror story and satire about gentrification—it’s gross and very good!
(I’d check out anything by Passmore, though he may not appeal to everyone, and some of his more underground-like work is a mixed bag. He has a new graphic novel called Sports Is Hell that I haven’t read yet. Be sure to look for Passmore’s online comics, especially on The Nib. He often engages issues of police violence and critically engages the BLM movement.)
Damian Duffy and John Jennings adapted Octavia Butler’s classic novel Kindred into a graphic novel: a heartfelt piece of work about time-traveling back into the era of slavery. They have recently adapted another of Butler’s novels, Parable of the Sower, but I haven’t read it yet.
Speaking of Jennings, he and fellow artist Stacey Robinson together drew the graphic novel I Am Alphonso Jones, written by Tony Medina—the story of a young Black man killed by police. This is often categorized as YA.
Hot Comb, by Ebony Flowers, combines memoir and fiction: a series of short, intimate stories, many exploring the consequences of racist beauty standards for Black women. Understated, powerful. Sometimes also categorized as YA.
See Jerry Craft’s New Kid for a funny, insightful middle-grade GN about being a scholarship kid of color in a tony private school. (Craft has a new book, Class Act, that I haven’t read yet.)
Bitter Root, by Chuck Brown, David Walker, and Sanford Greene, is an ongoing comic book series that filters period pulp action through African American historical and cultural lenses. There are two collected volumes so far. It’s overtly political even as it dishes out monster-smashing action: an Ethno-Gothic, steampunk, antiracist adventure. Cool. (Not understated!)
Great African American SF/fantasy novelists like Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, and N.K. Jemisin have been writing superhero comic book serials lately. Jemisin is about 2/3 of the way through a Green Lantern series with many topical elements titled Far Sector, drawn by Jamal Campbell. It concerns race and the challenge of living in a pluralistic society (a faraway world inhabited by billions of beings of several different species). Smart, rich work.
Immigrant and Refugee Experience
Alberto Ledesma shares reflections from his life as an undocumented immigrant in Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer, a very personal scrapbook of sorts that grew out of a series of Facebook posts. Eye-opening for me, and poignant.
Besides superheroes, Nnedi Okorafor has written a SF comic called LaGuardia that deals with immigration and nativist backlash—but on a planetary level! It’s drawn by Tana Ford.
Escaping Wars and Waves, by graphic journalist Olivier Kugler, depicts Syrian refugees living in refugee camps, and is excellent.
Border: A Crisis in Graphic Detail, edited by Mauricio Alberto Cordero, is a recent comics anthology about migrant experience at the US’s southern border, and a fundraiser for the South Texas Human Rights Center. Powerful stories and testimony.
The Scar, by Andrea Ferraris and Renato Chiocca, is a brief but powerful treatment of the US/Mexico border.
Migrant: Stories of Hope and Resilience, written by Jeffry Korgan and illustrated by Kevin Pyle, recounts personal stories of crossing the US border (I haven’t had a chance to read it yet).
Thi Bui’s graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do, about five generations in the life of a Vietnamese American family, is brilliant, a great book. (Matt Huynh’s webcomic Cabramatta resonates with this: http://believermag.com/cabramatta/. So does GB Tran's book Vietnamerica.)
The recent YA graphic memoir by Robin Ha, Almost American Girl, depicts a Korean American experience that perhaps invites comparison.
There are quite a few graphic memoirs about the experience of immigrants’ children—see, e.g., I Was Their American Dream, by Malaka Gharib.
They Called Us Enemy, by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker, is an autobiographical account of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WW2. Much to learn here.
Immigration policy is discussed in Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, by Bryan Caplan and Zack Weinersmith, though I haven’t gotten to read it yet. It’s a didactic graphic book: less story than argument. But there are many great comics like that!
Comics on the Political Process
Unfit: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy, by Daniel Newman and George O’Connor—though I’m afraid I haven’t read this yet.
Drawing the Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Voting in America, by Tommy Jenkins and Kati Lacker.
Comics about Indigenous Lives
For comics by Indigenous creators, see for example the anthology Moonshot, and check out publisher Native Realities: https://redplanetbooksncomics.com/collections/native-realities.
In particular, the collaborations of artist Weshoyot Alvitre and writer Lee Francis IV (e.g., Sixkiller; Ghost River: The Fall and Rise of the Conestoga) have captured my attention. Look also for the anthology Deer Woman, co-edited by Alvitre and Elizabeth LaPensée.
A recent scholarly collection, Graphic Indigeneity, ed. Aldama, will help here.
Celebrated comics journalist Joe Sacco (who produces one stunning book after another) has just recently published Paying the Land, a book about resource extraction and energy politics, but most particularly the history of an Indigenous Canadian people, the Dene. I’ve read only the opening chapter so far (which is remarkable) but the book looks ambitious and informative. Know that Sacco is not an Indigenous author (he is Maltese-American), and scholar colleagues versed in this area have shared some eye-opening critical points with me; still, Paying the Land will surely be worth your time.
Gender and Sexuality (Feminist, Queer, and Trans Perspectives)
Drawing Power, edited by Diane Noomin, is a stunning anthology of stories about sexual violence, harassment, and survival. Strong, stinging, varied work there, sometimes harrrowing—a response to #MeToo.
Maia Kobabe’s nonbinary memoir, Gender Queer, is tender and revelatory. You could call it a YA book, though of course its reception in YA circles has been fraught. (It's a frank depiction of, among other things, gender expression and sexual exploration — so, well, let's just say that some Amazon customers disapprove.)
Look for the LGBTQIA anthology Love Is Love, a 2017 benefit to help victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting—short comics, but often powerful, and varied in approach.
Justin Hall’s No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics is essential history.
Edie Fake's Gaylord Phoenix is a mind-altering, phantasmagorical quest fantasy from a trans perspective: a mostly wordless transition fable that rewrote the way I think about comics! Highly recommended. (Be aware: this is not tagged as a young reader's book, and includes startling images of violence and self-harm as well as sexual abandon.)
Disability, Graphic Medicine, and Care
Check out the graphic medicine movement, devoted to comics treatment of illness, wellness, and dis/ability: see https://www.graphicmedicine.org.
Note also the prevalence of disability memoirs in comics that are not medical in focus, e.g. Cece Bell’s great children’s comic, El Deafo; or the very recent (fictionalized) YA book, The Dark Matter of Mona Starr, by Laura Lee Gulledge, about depression; or any number of webcomics about life on the autism spectrum. Kabi Nagata’s manga My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness concerns not only sexuality but also anxiety and depression. Allie Brosh’s work also addresses depression and anxiety (Hyperbole and a Half; Solutions and Other Problems). Katie Greene’s Lighter Than My Shadow depicts her life with anorexia and an eating disorder.
I highly recommend Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber's collaborative memoir, Dancing after TEN, which recounts a life-changing medical crisis for Chong that robbed her of sight; as well as Webber's own solo book about literally losing her voice, Dumb.
Re: aging and elder care, see such graphic memoirs as Roz Chast’s Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? and Joyce Farmer’s Special Exits.
Just a random recommendation
For depiction of progressive activism in a near-future dystopia, basically just a few steps from our own, read The Hard Tomorrow, by Eleanor Davis. This one rattled me, and it's beautiful.
One last note (preaching to the choir?)
As many KinderComics readers may know, children’s and young adult graphic novels are the fastest-growing, most robust sector of comics publishing in the US. They often deal with complex immigrant or minority experience, and offer queer-positive portrayals as well. Check out anything by Mariko Tamaki, Jillian Tamaki, Jen Wang, or Tillie Walden. This publishing movement is really doing bold new things in queer representation and identity narrative.
Almost American Girl. By Robin Ha. Balzer + Bray / HarperAlley. Paperback: ISBN 978-0062685094, US$12.99. Also in hardcover, Kindle, comiXology, and Nook. 240 pages.
Robin Ha’s Almost American Girl, a Korean American memoir of emigration and acculturation, evokes hard truths and traumatic memories through a mostly gentle, almost decorous style. The style belies Ha’s toughness. A complex story of cultural displacement and loss, but then again gradual near-assimilation—or, better, ongoing negotiation of identity—Almost American Girl boasts a delicate watercolor aesthetic and, by contrast, stilted digital lettering. The style is sometimes straitened or stiff, yet tender and personal; the balance suggests both tentativeness and poise. I confess, I didn’t warm to it easily—but Ha’s story has stayed with me, provocatively.
Young Robin, raised in Seoul, suddenly finds herself uprooted and forced to adapt to life in the US. Her mother, a single parent, makes that choice, indeed all the choices, for them. Ha’s complex relationship to her mother—who at first, it seems, did not want this book to get made—accounts for Almost American Girl’s pointed, unsentimental, and clear-eyed qualities. The book relives Ha’s memories of anger toward her mother, which could not have been easy to set down on the page, but also portrays her mom as a self-driven woman determined to break out of a South Korean society premised on gender conformity and suffocating moralism. Gradually, Robin develops empathy for her mother’s struggles, even as she learns to be critical of stereotypic gendering in her own life—and it is her (re)discovery of comics as an artistic outlet, a move encouraged by her mom, that enables Robin to stake out these positions.
So, to say that Ha’s treatment of her mother is necessarily double-edged would be an understatement. The negotiations behind the book’s making must have been complicated. Just so, the finished book is hard and sort of unfinished. Much of it replays old hurts with fresh anger. In the home stretch, though, Ha fast-forwards into life changes that bring a warmer, more resolved ending; the book seems to leapfrog to its finish. This shift perhaps comes a bit too fast, reflecting, I suppose, the YA genre’s demand for at least some provisional resolution. However, to Ha’s credit, hanging questions remain. The result is clear but not pat, and emotionally rich.
Almost American Girl joins other graphic memoirs of divided identity and enculturation in the US: comics about immigrants and immigrants’ children working their way into a robust but ambivalent sense of Americanness (Thi Bui, say, or Malaka Gharib). In this post-Raina moment of comics memoirs for young readers, the graphic story of renegotiated identity has become a distinct and powerful vein of storytelling. Ha adds worthily to that growing list, with work that is at once aesthetically subdued yet piercingly written. It’s very good, and I imagine it will make a big difference for many readers.
PS. Dig Ha and Raina Telgemeier’s online panel from the recent Comic-Con at Home: a warm, collegial chat (with some drawing!). This has been one of my favorites of the many online “convention” events I’ve watched recently; you can tell that these authors are used to fielding questions from readers young and old. It is hard for me to imagine a Comic-Con panel like this fifteen years ago. Thank goodness the world keeps changing!
Here's the video:
Also, Robin Ha has a nice how-to / process video on YouTube, from this past May, courtesy of Epic Reads: see here.
About eight weeks ago, I announced that KinderComics would be “taking a roughly six week-long break.” Every time I say something like that, I sigh—and sigh again when, eventually, tardily, KinderComics returns. So, okay, here I go again:
Scheduling pressures under COVID, the endlessness of preparation and grading in my online teaching, and a looming sense that the world is going wrong, that it could explode any day—these things have been getting in my way. I admit I often consider closing this blog and moving on. Only reading and writing pleasure draws me back. So, let me switch gears and get down to the stuff that matters:
5 Worlds: The Red Maze. By Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, and Boya Sun. Random House, May 2020 Paperback: ISBN 978-0593120569, $12.99. Hardcover: ISBN 978-0593120552, $20.99. 240 pages.
Who is the author of Five Worlds? This sprawling adventure series is the work of what seems to be an impossibly harmonious five-person team; somehow, the results comes across as the work of a single hand. Aesthetically, the series is gorgeous, a real feat of cartooning. Structurally, it’s tricky, with a modular, five-book shape, each book color-coded and focusing on a different world and different puzzle to solve (or secret to uncover, or McGuffin to find). Politically, it’s timely, with ever more obvious allegorical broadsides against Trumpism, neoliberalism, and xenophobia; in this progressive fantasy, world-building goes hand in hand with topical commentary that feels, as I’ve said before, on the nose. Alongside its familiar genre elements—the hype invokes Star Wars and Avatar: The Last Airbender as comparisons, but Miyazaki hovers over the whole thing too—Five Worlds conjures the anxieties of our times, and scores palpable hits against “fake news,” noxious right-wing media, climate change denial, and the shamelessness of greed-as-doctrine. KinderComics readers will know that I’ve been fairly obsessed with this series, reviewing Volumes One, Two, and Three in turn, and that I found the third, 2019’s The Red Maze, the most successful thus far at balancing genre convention, fresh discovery, and political relevance. With the latest volume, The Amber Anthem, the series has reached its fourth and penultimate act, and appears to be barreling toward a big finish. It’s actually a bit of a blur.
In The Amber Anthem, the McGuffin is a song—the anthem of the title—and the story’s climax depends on thousands of voices lifted in song together, in a vision of peaceful yet powerful resistance that suggests real-world analogies: the Movement for Black Lives, and the recent surge in street protests despite COVID. (The book must have been written and drawn before that surge, and before the pandemic too, but its spirit of protest makes such analogies irresistible.) Here the dominant color is yellow, and the world is Salassandra, a planet briefly glimpsed before but now the center of the action. Our heroes, Oona, An Tzu, and Jax Amboy, once again seek to relight a long-quenched “beacon” in order to save the Five Worlds from heat death and environmental collapse. The Trumpian villain, Stan Moon—a host for the dreaded force known only as The Mimic—redoubles his attacks, even as Oona, An Tzu, and Jax take turns in the spotlight. The plot, as usual, is complicated, a tangled quest. Ordinary Salassandrans alternately help and hinder that quest (many having been persuaded that our heroes’ mission means ruin for the “economy,” and so on). The climax depends upon bringing together people of “five races.” Jax, a sports star, joined by a beloved pop singer, uses his celebrity to draw those people together—a handy metaphor for the way pop culture may provide opportunities for activism and community-building when official politics becomes hopelessly corrupt.
Along the way, Anthem clears up several nagging mysteries, in particular the backstory of An Tzu (whose body has been, literally, fading away, book by book). I expected as much. Each new volume of Five World has delivered some big reveal or transformation for one of the heroes; now, with An Tzu’s history disclosed, the series seems poised for its finale. There’s a sense of unraveling complications here, yet of a tense windup at the same time. I confess that the big reveals here, though some of them came out of left field, didn’t leave me gaping or even happily stunned. Instead, I found myself jogging, not for the first time, to keep up with the frantic plot. Reveries and remembrances, sorties and missions, switchbacks and betrayals: it's a lot.
The climax, though, is beatific: a shining vision of pluralism and collaboration and a lyrical evocation of “many strands…interweaving.” It's a triumphant close, but a corking good cliffhanger in the bargain, introducing a new moral dilemma and setting the stage what promises to be a breathless final volume. I’m keen—Five Worlds has been an annual stop for me, and I look forward to seeing how it all plays out.
Five Worlds is a marvel of coordinated effort and cohesive design; again, its author-in-five-persons communicates like a single voice. Its world-building is lovely—I would happily pore through sketchbooks showing the collaborative process behind these books. That said, I’m starting to wonder whether the series’ complex rigging, breakneck plotting, and moral certainty are robbing it of some degree of complexity (as opposed to structural complicatedness, which it has in spades). The effect of Five Worlds on me, so far, has been like that of an action movie with soul, but its compression and momentum have not allowed for the sort of complex characterization that marks, say, Jeff Smith’s Bone, whose deepest characters, Rose Ben and Thorn, are sometimes at odds and go through hard changes. Five Worlds gestures toward the hard changes, and has enough soul to tend to the hearts and minds of its heroes, but everything feels a bit rushed. Despite the loveliness of the proceedings, then, at times the generic tropes come across as just that (Stan Moon, for example, speaks fluent Villain). When stories are ruthlessly streamlined, often what we remember are the clichés.
I hope not.
I look forward to the last chapter, The Emerald Gate, which I hope will bring everything—world-building, political urgency, and layered characterization—into balance one last, splendid time. When I open up the fifth and final volume, I’ll be holding my breath.
I have not been a fan of 21st-century DC Comics. Often I have criticized DC for not acting like a real publisher and for pushing more of the same ugly, self-defeating work: grim heroes, continuity porn, line-wide reboots, and other rigged and desperate moves. But nonetheless I found myself reeling from this week’s news of massive layoffs and restructuring at DC, part of a general purge at WarnerMedia (Heidi MacDonald has the best think piece on this that I’ve seen, over at The Beat). That was hard news. With DC losing a reported one-fifth of its editorial staff—indeed, as MacDonald says, “almost an entire level of editorial executives“—and the company’s publishing plans downsized, this seems like a fraught moment for comic-book culture here in the USA. I have to imagine that it’s a heartbreaking moment for many; the human cost of this sweep is considerable.
It’s hard to know what to expect of DC going forward, though. Can we perhaps read some silver lining into this storm cloud? Interestingly, DC editorial will be run by two women (for the first time ever?), Marie Javins and Michelle Wells, the latter the head of DC’s Young Reader division. And, as MacDonald speculates, it seems likely that “DC’s kids and YA books will be more important going forward.” I take that as good news—but I’m afraid the news for direct-market comic book shops doesn’t sound so good (see my recent reflection on that subject here). DC Publisher Jim Lee, who remains in place after the layoffs, gave an interview to The Hollywood Reporter last Friday that puts a bright face on the changes; it seems intended to be reassuring. But I’m not reassured. (See Heidi MacDonald and Rob Salkowitz for informed readings of that interview.)
I am, however, guardedly impressed by DC’s current Young Adult line, despite initial skepticism and misgivings about the work continuing to be work-for-hire in the traditional DC way. This brings me to (forgive me for pivoting so sharply) a happy review of a newish book:
You Brought Me the Ocean. By Alex Sanchez and Julie Maroh. Lettered by Deron Bennett. Edited by Sara Miller. DC Comics, ISBN 978-1401290818 (softcover), 2020. US$16.99. 208 pages.
(BTW, this is the third in an occasional series reviewing children’s and Young Adult graphic novels from DC. See the first here and the second here.)
You Brought Me the Ocean is a smart, beautifully rendered queer YA romance in the guise of a superhero origin story, and a whole, rounded novel to boot. Despite being set in a desert town, it’s about water, about the ocean, and about learning to live as an “amphibian” in a mostly dry world. There’s something about Aquaman in it, and Superman does a distant fly-by, but, really, this story belongs to young Jake Hyde, his lifelong friend and neighbor Maria Mendez, and the young swimmer Jake falls in love with, Kenny Liu. (Jake is basically a new take on the Young Justice version of Aqualad, for those keeping track.) Kenny opens new doors in Jake’s life, just as Jake has to contemplate leaving home for college and a complex shift in his relationship with Maria. Fittingly named, Jake Hyde is closeted in several ways—in fact he is an unknown even to himself—but the story represents his coming out and coming into his own, folding together hero-origin tropes with high school and romance conventions. Loved ones and bullies alike exhibit homophobia—but, with the exception of one foul thug, the major characters all reveal unexpected depths and changeability. Characters disappoint, but then happily surprise. As Jake realizes his powers—the reason for the strange, scar-like markings on his skin—he, Maria, and Kenny become a triad of friends, and the denouement is wish-fulfilling but not pat. (There could and should be a sequel.)
If Ocean revisits some familiar stuff—protective or disapproving parents, homophobic bullies repping toxic white masculinity—its characters are distinct and nuanced, and have humanizing touches. Further, the familiar stuff feels pretty convincing: these aren’t cliches so much as things that commonly happen and should be acknowledged. The book has a confident sense of its characters from the first; I can believe, for example, that Maria and Jake are longtime friends, with a shared history and personal language. Their interaction feels real enough. Scriptwriter Alex Sanchez (Lambda Award-winning author of the Rainbow Boys trilogy) handles characters and world deftly, with a smart, unforced touch. And artist Julie March (Blue Is the Warmest Color) seems to know these characters’ physicality—their carriage and body language—as well as an artist could. Maroh’s figures are compact, sensual, and expressive. Most importantly, they are distinct.
You Brought Me the Ocean benefits from a unified aesthetic that is unusual for DC Comics. Bathed in watery blue and silver-gray, and then again in muted desert browns and tans, the book enacts the major conflict in Jake’s life through its very palette. Thanks to Maroh and designer Amie Brockway-Metcalf, it boasts a visual wholeness and integrity that set it apart. Subtle yet dynamic layouts, unhurried pacing, and mostly understated action define the book, which sidesteps epic superhero dust-ups in favor of smaller, though still dramatic, discoveries. That said, the art remains ravishing; Maroh’s individualized figures and muted colors cast a spell even as they do the vital work of characterization. This appears to have been a harmonious, lovingly edited collaboration; it’s a remarkable feat for a first-time team.
As I said, I’d read more. You Brought Me the Ocean is YA superheroics done with grace and a sensuous visual language. In fact, it’s only a superhero story on its edges; fluency in the DC Universe is not required. At heart, it’s an affirming story of love and friendship with a fantastical, magic-realist touch. Recommended!
PS. KinderComics is taking a roughly six week-long break, sigh, so that I can start the new semester at CSU Northridge more or less sanely. See you in about a month and a half!
This is a dreadful, harrowing time in my country, and such a harrowing, wonderful time in comics. It's a rich and confounding, confusing and delightful time, promise-crammed despite the body blows that comics retailers, publishers, creators, and readers have had to endure and continue to endure. At this moment of real change in the American comics business, I am reminded that I founded KinderComics precisely to learn new ways of looking at comics and to challenge my own tastes and habits. That experience keeps on going, more dizzying and eye-opening with each passing month — and, speaking selfishly, that's a continuing gift to me. As a comics scholar and critic, I'm blessed to have an "object of study" that just won't sit still.
Please forgive a bit of navel-gazing:
KinderComics covers children's and young adult comics from a perhaps unusual angle: I'm a comics fan weaned on (first) newsstand and (then) direct-market comic books, a reader of superhero comic books for nearly fifty years who wavers between nostalgia for and impatience with that genre, and, on the other hand, an adherent of alternative and art comics in the post-underground tradition. At the same time, academically, I'm a scholar-teacher of children's literature and culture. These different experiences and commitments sometimes come into conflict, hopefully in a stimulating, useful way for my readers. I come at young readers' graphic novels with great enthusiasm but also a dose of, I hope, healthy skepticism regarding how they are promoted and judged. This skepticism has been stoked by both my knowledge of the long history of comics and the academic study of childhood as a cultural construct. More than anything, though, I'm just interested in good comics, no matter what audience or bloc they are marketed toward. As I say on this blog's About page,
I'm strongly invested in the idea of comics as a form of art and of text with its own traditions and aesthetics, and...I'm less concerned about work that is "good for" or improving for children, more concerned about work that I find artistically startling and enriching.
In other words, I have an abiding interest in comics' aesthetic form that tends to outweigh even considerations about what works for children and adolescents as readers. And I tend to look at contemporary comics for young readers against a long backdrop of historic comics for and about children, including comic strips and comics magazines; that is, I resist the presentism of the graphic novel era. Further, I resist questions framed in terms of "age-appropriateness" or didactic agenda. As a teacher of children's literature, I often have to field such questions — for example, what age is this book for? — but I tend to fence with such questions rather than answer them outright. A bad habit, maybe — probably a frustrating habit for my students! — but that's me. I'm interested in young reader's comics as an aesthetic revolution, not just a social and educational one. That, for me, is what KinderComics is all about: following a new source of good comics.
With all that in mind, I'm keenly interested in news about the shifting markets for comic books and graphic novels in the US, especially the news that sales in my beloved direct market (that is, the network of comic book specialty shops) are being overtaken by comics sales in the mainstream book trade — plus the news that kid-oriented original graphic novels are surpassing superhero and related comic book serials in sales. Now, these are not very surprising bits of news; in fact, I founded KinderComics with the expectation that this would happen, that it was only a matter of time before the stats reflected these changes. Lately, the stats have been dramatic: if comics sales enjoyed something of a record year in 2019, it was books aimed at young readers that drove that sales spike. Here are a few recent sources that confirm these trends:
One concern of mine — a concern further stoked by the pandemic emergency — is that direct-market comics shops are in a poor position to compete with mainstream bookstores and online retailers when it comes to selling original graphic novels. This is not because comic shops lack expertise or good customer service; in fact, many comic shops do a good job of hand-selling comics graciously, with a personal touch, because they tend to know their customers. But comic shops within the direct-market system do not enjoy the advantages of returnability and deep discounts that an entity like Amazon takes for granted. Structurally, they simply have a hard time competing with high-volume retailers that can afford to sell some books at a loss in return for customer loyalty and bigger returns down the road. As the balance of sales shifts from traditional DM floppy or pamphlet comics to original graphic novels, the decks are somewhat stacked against comic shops. Bookstores, Amazon, and the Scholastic book fairs (Scholastic is by far the number one comics publisher in the US right now) work by different rules. What were advantages when dealing with a fan clientele in the direct market have become liabilities as comics shift their footing to different retail channels. The huge upsurge of comics in children's and YA publishing has everything to do with this sea change.
Even before COVID-19, the challenges of returnability and working with multiple distributors were insuperable barriers to many direct-market comic shops. Rolling with the changes is not easy. The commercial dominance of original graphic novels for young readers requires new arrangements and new thinking, lest comic shops be shut out of comics' most explosive growth spurt in generations.
I'm watching in the shadows of COVID, anxiously, hoping that my favorite comic shops — the kind that combine expertise and passion, carry and promote most genres, and work hard to serve a diverse community of readers — can survive and find the means to adjust to a potentially bright, yet differently structured, future. Beyond outlasting this pandemic, I think adapting to the rise of young reader's graphic novels is the greatest challenge facing North American comic shops today. This is not simply because comic shops tend to be more welcoming environments for adults than for young readers (some shops have already sought to create a more welcoming atmosphere). It's also because the terms of the business make it hard for comic shops to compete for original graphic novel readers. Negotiating new terms and risking new forms of outreach will have to be part of the comic shop toolkit, going forward.
As I said, a rich and confounding, confusing and delightful time. I think I created KinderComics as a way of thinking through this time. Thanks, readers, for joining me.