I’m late to this party, I know. By now, I’ve been arguing with best-of-year and best-of-decade lists for weeks. I gotta admit, keeping up with new comics (both those I choose to cover on KinderComics and many others) is a full-time gig that I don’t quite have “full time” for. Truth to tell, I’m still catching up with many talked-about books from this past year (e.g. work by Ebony Flowers, Molly Knox Ostertag, Frank Santoro, and Chris Ware).
The patchiness of my reading matches the patchiness of this blog over the past year. Due to academic scheduling pressures, I published nothing substantial here between my best-of list for 2018 and late July. That was painful. I finally got in a few posts in the late summer, then returned more decisively in October, finishing out the year with a string of reviews that made me feel better. I had thought that I might need to shutter KinderComics entirely, but the sprint I was able to do late in the year has convinced me that I should stick around. Thank goodness. I love doing this work.
Below (in alphabetical order by title) are the new English-language books of comics that made the strongest impressions on me in 2019. Some I’ve reviewed on this blog. I’ve kept this list narrow, excluding translations, webcomics, reprints, and most periodical comics for the sake of expediency. As usual, the list reflects my split identity as both a children’s comics advocate and a lover of alternative and art comics and small-press work (not everything here is meant for young readers). I hope to follow this post soon with a best-of-decade list and some reflections.
The 5 Worlds series, a planet-hopping space opera for young readers, at last finds its rhythm and delivers a fairly transparent but still affecting allegory about how to maintain hope in dark times. This has always been a wildly ambitious series whose reach exceeds its grasp, but The Red Maze won me over. I reviewed this here on KinderComics at the end of July.
A beautiful, mystifying graphic novel in which two young women, fugitives, drive through a fantastical version of West Texas, pursued by shadowy figures and their own traumas and losses. Perhaps not Walden's strongest story, but a transporting experience, gorgeously drawn and colored. I reviewed this here in early November.
Razor-sharp satire and oozy body horror collide in a wickedly funny fable about gentrification. I reviewed a beta version of this novel on the Comics Studies Society's Extra Inks blog way back in Feb. 2018. So glad to see it out in the world now.
Seth's long-simmering novel of failed ambition, social withdrawal, and psychological isolation, now collected. Chilling, in the end. I expressed ambivalence about this book in my contribution to the Comics Journal roundtable, back in June, but, damn, it is a monumental, haunting work.
Reviewed here very recently. What a resource!
An anthology of wrenching work, and a project of real artistic courage. Inevitably uneven in terms of professional finish, but so, so powerful. So many very strong emotions have been funneled into this book, and so many different ways of delivering hard truths. Far from despairing, the book is, as promised, a power source -- and a timely, necessary intervention.
James Romberger's biographical fiction about the great Jack Kirby: an understated yet moving comic book, short but full, light years away from the usual thoughtless evocations of Kirby as "king." Great cartooning and real insight. I reviewed this on my Kirby studies blog in October.
I'll join the chorus of voices hailing Davis as the cartoonist of the decade. I'm not sure what to think of this dystopian near-future fable, but I can tell you that I literally shook while reading it, and stared at its final pages, stunned.
I so want to write more about this series and its creator here on KinderComics. The latest and most complex of the Hilda albums, and a perfect capper for everything that has come so far. Breathlessly exciting, as usual; also sensitive, subtly moral, and an unexpected broadening of Pearson's world. This has been my favorite new children's series of the decade.
Finding the first issue (#0) of this, Ronald Wimberly's et al.'s annual broadsheet anthology, was one of the highlights of my CALA 2018 experience. A year later, finding the second issue (oddly, it's called #4) was one of the highlights of CALA 2019. A brilliant, troubling collection of giant-sized comics (Wimberly, Hellen Jo, Emily Carroll, Richie Pope, Ben Passmore, etc.) and provocative essays and arguments. This particular issue concerns environmental catastrophe, necropolitics, and horror.
I came late to this, at year's end. I wish I had reviewed it. A matter-of-factly queer YA story of high school romance, friendship, and the struggle for moral agency, this novel is distinguished by a thousand grace notes of observation and expression. A bodily and culturally diverse cast of characters dances a complicated social dance, courtesy of nuanced dialogue and cartooning that makes them feel wholly real.
Wise as well as useful, Beautiful as well as strange. Try it on for size; it might change the way you feel about your own ability to create. See my event report from mid-October.
I happened to run into Kevin Huizenga at CALA 2019, and stood there like a tongue-tied idiot, trying to think of novel ways to gush. I love the thoughtfulness and rigor of his cartooning, and the formalist inventiveness too. Those qualities come through in this philosophical novel about an insomniac's sleepless night of contemplation and mental journeying. It feels like a super-dense lesson in thinking about thinking. Or simply a lesson in living?
I reviewed this here in early December. It's a graceful and moving evocation of friendship among two outwardly mismatched but deeply bonded Chinese American schoolgirls. A fresh new approach to what is rapidly becoming a familiar type of graphic novel, delivered by one of America's best comics artists and storytellers.
Lovely and rather terrifying: a ripe, rapturous erotic horror story in a deluxe package, formally daring, disorienting, and like no one else's work. NSFW, but to hell with safe.
Another CALA 2019 discovery: cartoonist Cristian Castelo and his colleagues in the Bay Area comic artists' collective Freak Comics. They had so many good things at their table, I could hardly decide what to get, but I settled on the above book: an oversized, riso-printed beauty that collects and revises the first three chapters of Castelo's ongoing series Wild, a period fantasy about mid-1970s high-school roller derby girls. It's drawn in a voluptuous style that for me recalls both Paul Pope and Los Bros Hernandez. Castelo's outsized characters fill the pages and demand attention; this is gutsy cartooning, full of sensuous, heroic figures. And the coloring and production are enough to make me swoon. I can't wait to read more from Castelo and his Freak colleagues.
PS. For the record, the new comic book serials that I found most interesting in 2019 were Walker, Brown, and Greene's Bitter Root and Wilson and Ward's Invisible Kingdom. The corporate superhero comics I enjoyed most were Bendis, Derington, and Stewart's six-issue romp Batman: Universe and Ewing and García's cosmically posthuman Immortal Hulk #25. I also dug Tradd Moore's trippy art on Silver Surfer: Black, though I wasn't won over by the book's writing. Among serials, I am currently interested in Craig Thompson's autobiographical Ginseng Roots and John Allison's droll comedy about religion, witchcraft, and community, Steeple. I am behind on faves like Saga, Paper Girls, and Monstress, but determined to catch up...
Comics: Easy as ABC! By Ivan Brunetti. Edited and designed by Françoise Mouly. With contributions by Eleanor Davis, Elise Gravel, Geoffrey Hayes, Liniers, Sergio García Sánchez, Art Spiegelman, and others. TOON Books, 2019. ISBN 978-1-943145-39-3 (softcover), $9.99; ISBN 978-1-943145-44-7 (hardcover), $16.95. 52 pages. A Junior Library Guild Selection.
This is meant to be a book "for kids." I'll be using it next term as a textbook in a college class. That ought to tell you something.
Comics: Easy as ABC! is both a book by Ivan Brunetti and a showcase for the entire TOON Books line. Not for nothing does the spine say Brunetti/Mouly, pointing to the crucial role of TOON's editorial director, Françoise Mouly, who commissioned, edited, and designed the book, drawing on a who's who of TOON authors to complement and fill out Brunetti's text. I imagine that this book was her idea; I note that it reuses the "coaching tips" for parents and educators found on TOON's website. In any case, Comics: Easy as ABC! works as both a young reader's adaptation of Brunetti's pedagogy, as modeled in his previous instructional book Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice (Yale, 2011), and a distillation of Mouly's (and TOON's) editorial ethos. That ethos brings kid-friendly storytelling and cartooning into contact with frank avant-gardism (shades of The World Is Round!).
Who would have thought that Brunetti, author behind the scabrous, post-Crumbian Schizo and other bitter, depressive, and often savage alt-comix, would become one of TOON's signature authors, and an ambassador for children's cartooning? The mind reels. But the role suits him, and his methods can help adults as well as kids. Anyone who has carefully read (or has taught) his Cartooning textbook knows that his pedagogy is precisely the sort to encourage those who "can't draw"; Brunetti extols comic art not as illustration but as a form of "writing with pictures" accessible to almost everybody. Whereas Cartooning imagines itself as a syllabus crafted by an authoritative (and strict) teacher with a classroom of official students, Comics: Easy as ABC envisions an audience of free-spirited kids with time on their hands, doing what they want to do. A comparison to Lynda Barry's new Making Comics may help: whereas Barry exhorts her adult students and readers to recover the openness and energy of childhood drawing, Easy as ABC aims right at kids themselves (though with imagined grownups peeking solicitously over the kids' shoulders, as it were). The result is a dual-purpose book: part how-to for a young (or any aspiring) cartoonist, part exhortation to "parents, teachers, and librarians."
Woven through Brunetti's pages of advice and demonstration are miscellaneous contributions from other cartoonists, with those by Elise Gravel, Sergio García Sánchez, Art Spiegelman, and the late Geoffrey Hayes being perhaps the most substantial. Benny and Penny pages by Hayes, endpapers by Gravel, a draw-your-own-conclusion strip by Spiegelman, a (too dense?) page on perspective by García Sánchez—the book is filled with diversions. Short, elliptical strips by various artists from the 4PANEL Project website insinuate an art-comics vibe by means of a traditional comics structure. Sprinkled here and there throughout the book are blurbs labeled "What works?" that offer advice either to artists or to adults coaching children through comics-reading. It's a Whitman's Sampler on the surface, a deliberate curriculum underneath.
All the "extras" are good, but what most matters to me is Brunetti's teaching method. Mixing brief texts with scads of drawn examples, he starts the budding cartoonist with encouragements to doodle and experiment with basic shapes and free mark-making. He then progresses to faces, emotions, schematic character design, bodies, body language, and point of view. Eventually he gets to comics-specific devices such as emanata, word balloons, and page layout (the back matter includes an index of comics terms). Brunetti's approach is disarmingly accessible, without stinting on specific vocabulary and questions of technique. This is why I want to use this book in my university Comics class: even more than Brunetti's Cartooning, this book lays out, very clearly, basic storytelling and craft conventions that my students will need to think about as they prepare their final comics projects (and the various short exercises that will lead up to and scaffold those projects).
I could quibble with some of the book's claims. Consider, for example, this exhortation to rapid-fire doodling: “When we have no time to think about the drawing, we get closer to the idea of the thing being drawn” (6). This idea that the quiddity or basic “whatness” of a thing is best conveyed without fussiness or craft, and without worrying about how to capture its visual particularities, fits Brunetti’s favored notion of comics as picture writing, but seems to deny the importance of observational drawing or the evocative this-ness of a distinctive drawing. At times, Brunetti’s advice seems designed to steer artists toward semiotically handy visual cliches. This is consistent with his ethos of writing over illustrating, and is likely to be liberating good advice for up and coming artists, but it soft-pedals the considerable effort often required to find distinctive, personal ways of rendering things as cartoons. If you believe that eloquence and distinctiveness of drawing are important, Brunetti’s embrace of simplicity and very familiar forms may grate on your nerves. On the other hand, I have given similar assurances to students in my (emphatically non-studio) classes (i.e. English classes), and I find that this sort of advice and exhortation does indeed serve to unlock visual storytelling. So, I dunno, maybe I should keep my big trap shut. In any case, I will be using this book next term! I expect it will be a great guide. It’s also a delightful read on its own terms, and a summation of what makes TOON Books such a terrific publisher.
Comic Arts LA (CALA), the annual festival for independent comics lovers here in Los Angeles, is coming this Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 7th and 8th, from 10am to 5pm each day. This will be the sixth CALA, and the sixth I have attended. I wouldn't miss it: it's a wonderful event for anyone who cares about the makers' culture that is independent comics! CALA will once again be held at:
Homenetmen Ararat (Elevate Fitness Complex), 3000 Dolores St. Los Angeles 90065
(This is in the vicinity of the Atwater Village neighborhood in Glendale.) Further information about the venue, travel options, and parking can be found on the CALA website under Location.
What is CALA, exactly? I'm going to say just about exactly what I said last year: Organized by Jen Wang, Angie Wang, and Jake Mumm, CALA is a free, public, welcoming event that aims to promote (as its website says) "the appreciation of comics, graphic novels, and sequential arts among the broader Los Angeles public." It's friendly, inclusive, and diverse: a space that offers you a chance to interact with great artists whose work will be defining comics for years to come.
If you're interested in comics as an art form, not just a source of IP to be mined for other media, then CALA is your kind of happening. It's one of Los Angeles's signal events for independent publishing and art-making. As I say each year, CALA always teaches me new things and helps me discover new artists to watch out for. This year's lineup is strong as usual: special guest artist Raúl The Third (Lowriders in Space; ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to The Market!); exhibiting artists such as Jessica Campbell, Ezra Claytan Daniels, Charles Glaubitz, Laura Knetzger, Sloane Leong, Ben Nadler, Anders Nilsen, Lark Pien, Rosemary Valero-O'Connell, Malachi Ward, and so many others; and publishers such as Czap Books, Iron Circus, and Youth in Decline. And who knows what other creators, publishers, and art communities that I haven't learned about yet?
Plus, once again CALA is sponsoring this wonderful thing:
Please bring books to give!
Stargazing. By Jen Wang. Color by Lark Pien. Song lyrics by Hellen Jo. First Second. ISBN 978-1250183880 (softcover), $12.99; ISBN 978-1250183873 (hardcover), $21.99. 224 pages.
Stargazing, Jen Wang’s follow-up to last year’s The Prince and the Dressmaker, is recognizably by the same artist—one of America’s best comics artists. Yet it’s a very different sort of book. A middle-grade graphic novel about friendship and jealousy among girls, it falls squarely into Raina Telgemeier territory: a school story about finding your complementary opposite and becoming friends, but then pulling back, but then stepping forward again.
As it traces a relationship between two girls, Christine and Moon, Stargazing evokes the camaraderie and intimacy of friends sharing secrets. At the same time, it registers how selfishness and anxiety may complicate our friendships. Wang treats small betrayals among school friends as the stuff of moral drama. In particular, she pays attention to what it may mean to be an immigrant’s daughter driven by certain dreams of success, and how such a driven child might look to another girl, one far from her in class and temperament, for a kind of relief, a liberating counter-example of a life lived more freely or less anxiously. But of course that “other” girl has complications of her own. Along the way, Wang conveys differences of class and circumstance within a Chinese American community, showing how adaptation and resistance may take diverse forms. Building on her own memories of girlhood, and detailing how different families may cleave to different standards and impose different pressures, Wang fashions a portrait of community and an understated story of girlhood friendship with a very particular cultural setting. In short, this is a terrific book.
Female friendship is a, or maybe the, abiding theme in post-Raina graphic Bildungsromane. I’ve noticed various author-artists tacking in that direction (KinderComics readers may recall, for example, reviews of Larson’s All Summer Long or Brosgol’s Be Prepared). At the recent PAMLA conference in San Diego, scholar Erika Travis (California Baptist University) presented on this very topic, drawing on Jamieson’s Roller Girl, Bell’s El Deafo, and Hale and Pham’s Real Friends for examples. She showed how these books stake out the traditional concerns of girls’ middle-grade books, only in comics form. Stargazing leans in that direction too—it’s the simplest, most grounded of Wang’s books, harking back to the slice-of-life of Koko Be Good but framed as a school story. Thematically, it invites comparison to Telegemeier’s recent Guts; for example, in both books characters uses their art to cement relationships. Stargazing, though, shoulders the added complexity of immigrants’ children in a specific Chinese American context. Its protagonist is weighed down by her father’s aspirations for success—perhaps an oblique commentary on the model minority myth—and this complicates, almost undermines, her friendship with her complementary opposite.
Christine, studious, high-achieving, and serious, contrasts sharply with her new neighbor Moon, impetuous, high-spirited, and hyper. The former is quiet and restrained, and driven to academic success—partly by her well-meaning but at times insensitive father. The latter is a spitfire: bright and scattered, cheerfully defiant of rules, and prone to cold-cock other kids who are mean to her friends. Christine is the idealized academic success, Moon the subject of nervous gossip. Christine’s family is well-off; Moon’s single mother struggles to make ends meet. When Moon and her mother move into the guest home rented out by Christine’s family, the two girls strike up an unlikely friendship, and Moon’s energy rubs off on Christine, whose reserve begins to melt a bit. Moon introduces Christine to K-pop and dance. Christine’s family introduces Moon to Chinese language class (but it doesn’t take). The two bond, in a series of delightful scenes. Moon confesses to Christine her belief that she, Moon, is not an ordinary Earth girl but rather a creature from the stars—that one day she will return to a home on high. Sharing this with Christine is a gesture of friendship.
Christine, though, prompted by anxieties about academic success and social approval, backs away from that friendship. A small betrayal bumps up against a major crisis, as Moon has to face a serious, life-altering event—and Christine, dogged by guilt, has to own her past behavior and, somehow, move forward. She struggles. She hides. But hiding can't last forever. This outwardly simple plot is treated with the utmost delicacy, and a great many insinuating cultural details that enrich the context. More to the point, its resolution is moving: every time I reopen the book I get choked up. Wang is that good.
While Stargazing may be in, broadly speaking, familiar territory, it isn’t generic at all. It seems to be a dialogue around Chinese American experience and different ways of being a Chinese American girl. It evokes specific familial and communal settings with a brilliant economy. At the same time, it’s aesthetically gorgeous: Wang’s cartooning and layouts boast an elegance and lightness of touch that are rare. The book’s use of negative space—of unenclosed figures and the whiteness of the page—gives it a free-breathing, eminently readable quality. The same delicacy with character and emotion seen in The Prince and the Dressmaker comes through here, abundantly; Wang knows how to capture the finest nuances of expression. This is simply first-rate comics—and highly recommended.
The White Snake. By Ben Nadler; based on a fairy tale by the Grimm Brothers. Edited by Paul Karasik and Dashiell Spiegelman; book design by Françoise Mouly. TOON Books, 2019. ISBN 978-1-943145-37-9 (hardcover), $16.95 ; ISBN 978-1-943145-38-6 (softcover), $9.99. 56 pages.
Matter-of-fact inventiveness, marginal drollery, and a heaping helping of weirdness are the main ingredients of Ben Nadler's The White Snake, a winningly eccentric update of a Grimm Brothers fairy tale. It's a cool book.
The story is about the getting of wisdom through acts of eating—literally, by taking bites of things. Its logic is less literal than symbolic, a matter of telling parallels and a neat sense of karmic payback: its hero helps various creatures who then help him in return, making it possible for him to overcome various trials. In a sense, the hero wins out because he listens and because he cares—he has a compassionate feeling toward the world around him. This helps when he is set impossible tasks that must end in either victory or death.
The upshot of those tasks is that our hero must compete to win the hand of, you guessed it, a princess—but Nadler takes pains to update the tale so that the princess is no shrinking violet, but a smart leader who helps set things in motion in the first place. They become a team, and she the ruler of the land. The story ends with enlightenment (a blast of cosmic insight) and a not-too-crazy happily-ever-after that melds fairy-tale logic with progressive values. The fated parallels and connections so typical of Grimm fairy tales are preserved, the unselfconscious strangeness of folktales maintained, even as the book weaves in current feminist and environmentalist concerns. This is a considered adaptation, helped quite a bit, I gather, by the editorial input of Paul Karasik and TOON's Françoise Mouly. The results are wise as well as cool.
The book’s visual style is sharp and clean, almost aseptic, with pristine lines that suggest a yen for the Ligne Claire tradition. Yet at the same time there’s an anxious, post-punk quality that, for me, recalls Mark Beyer or Henrik Drescher, and a trace of eccentric gothicists like Edward Gorey and Richard Sala. Lane Smith’s early, Klee-like work comes to mind too—also Adventure Time, and perhaps Klasky Csupo animation. Which is to say that Nadler’s mark-making, though spare, retains some nervous tics; his pages, though restrained in layout and admirably clear, hint at art-comics affinities. The look here is less the Ivan Brunetti-esque schematic minimalism of Nadler's self-published risograph comic Sonder (in which bodies tend to be clean, geometric forms) and closer to the illustrative lushness of his first book, Heretics! (a graphic history of modern philosophy, co-created with his father, philosopher Steven Nadler). But we are still a long way from naturalism here. The characters are a bit stiff, as opposed to supple; faces are schematized; action is coolly posed. The frequently oblong, page-wide panels tend to stage events and travels as if they were happening in front of a scrolling panorama. The total look implies both stability and an unrepentant oddness—well suited for the blithe absurdity of the story and its deadpan embrace of the weird.
Along the way, Nadler enlivens the pages with a wealth of curious detail. There’s a great deal of whimsical chicken fat, and odd critters abound. Right from the start, you can tell that Nadler intends to draw out and reward attentive readers with all sorts of sidelong business. The result is a distinct and pleasurable graphic world, crawling with fun stuff.
Like Jaime Hernandez's The Dragon Slayer (another folklore-inspired TOON Graphic "for middle grade visual readers," i.e. experienced comics readers), The White Snake is less a solo act than a group effort. It appears to have been carefully curated by TOON's editorial director Mouly and guided by input from editor Karasik, who supplies the educational back matter: a brief essay on folktales, including a frank discussion of how the book has adapted and revised the Grimms' version. All this contextualizes the book without interfering with its story or damping down its quirkiness. The result is delightfully odd—another TOON title yoking together children's literature and alt-comix aesthetics. It has put Ben Nadler on my radar, for which I'm grateful, and joins a growing smart set of folk and fairy tale-based comics. Recommended!
Guts. By Raina Telegemeier. Scholastic/Graphix. ISBN 978-0545852500 (softcover), $12.99. 224 pages.
Raina Telgemeier is an engine, a star, a phenomenon. All of us who follow the world of graphic novels have heard this. For several years Telgemeier has borne a job description that, until recently, perhaps no one imagined we would ever need: America’s best-selling graphic novelist. Hype surrounds her like a halo (go, Raina!) Her success is proof of the graphic novel’s decisive new mainstreaming, and further proof, if any were needed, of the buying power and cultural clout of tweenage girls. She is, we’re told, “the Judy Blume of graphic novelists,” and her stardom has been a bellwether of the children’s graphic novel movement.
Telgemeier’s publisher, Scholastic, has capitalized on all this with gusto, rolling out the red carpet for each new release and boosting Raina to million-copy print runs. Earlier this year, a spinoff product, Share Your Smile, a kind of “interactive journal,” signaled a new phase in the branding of Raina: an exhortation to her readers to write their own autobiographical stories in the vein of Telgemeier’s breakout books, Smile and Sisters. I honestly don’t know what to think of Share Your Smile, which seems more about design than revealing content: a guided activity book comparable to Wreck This Journal, The Diary of an Awesome Kid, and so many others. I suppose I had wanted to see something more reflective or essayistic, less about prompts and nearly-blank pages for readers to fill in. (It strikes me that young readers may get more from how-to cartooning books like James Sturm et al.’s Adventures in Cartooning or Ivan Brunetti’s Comics: Easy as ABC!)
Telgemeier’s latest, though, Guts, now that’s a real book — and for me, her best.
Guts is a middle-grade girlhood memoir akin to Smile and Sisters, and designed to match (Telgemeier’s autobiographical books and fictional books are distinguished by different design schemes). It’s in familiar Raina territory: a story of social awkwardness and anxiety, family and friendship, and the minute moral decisions and moments of confusion, defensiveness, and selfishness that can make school life so complicated. Predating the events of Smile, it depicts Raina, the author’s childhood self, going through fourth and fifth grade. Though it matches its sibling titles (indeed, Scholastic has just released all three in a boxed set), it stakes out its own thematic turf, revealing Raina’s anxieties and phobias in an emotionally charged way that goes a step further. It’s a brave book, and, I’m tempted to say, one that only a well-established children’s author could get away with.
Guts depicts panic attacks and (as the title hints) upset stomach, cramping, and retching, as well as social and eating-related anxieties. It joins the considerable body of autobiographical comics that deal with anxiety, psychological distress, and neurodivergence. (Such themes are foundational to autographics as a genre, from Justin Green onward.) For a middle-grade graphic novel, Guts is, well, gutsy; it includes many scenes visualizing physical and psychological discomfort, and in some cases sharp pain and outright terror. It also includes quite a few scenes of bathrooming, bodily embarrassment, doctor’s office visits, and therapy sessions. “Treatment” is essential to its story. In short, Guts contributes to the graphic medicine movement. In the process, it yields the most harrowing and inventive pages Telgemeier has yet created. At the same time, Guts is very much a young reader’s book, never forgetting its main audience and taking care to explain and palliate the scary stuff—not with promises of quick cures and happy-ever-afters, but by showing that anxiety and panic are survivable and can be understood and, with practice, coped with and reduced. Young readers who dig Telgemeier’s books are likely to find Guts a warm, awkwardly funny, and ultimately reassuring guide.
I tend to think that Telgemeier’s best books are her memoirs. Her fictional graphic novels to date, Drama and Ghosts, have been well-intentioned liberal fables with under-examined premises (Drama has been faulted for reproducing romantic stereotypes of the antebellum South, and Ghosts for naive cultural appropriation and whitewashing colonial history). Both have tried to do good things: Drama is a queer-positive, gender-defying romance, and Ghosts a story of family affected by illness and disability. But they aren’t tough-minded books, and Telgemeier doesn’t quite skirt the pitfalls built into their premises. In her memoirs, however, Telgemeier has crafted a believably human alter ego, just anxious and at times selfish enough to pose serious ethical dilemmas, and she has a way of disclosing certain hard things that don’t get solved, even as her boisterous cartooning conveys a bright, affirming outlook on life. The balance is exquisite, and Telgemeier usually nails it.
Guts is the Raina book I’ve liked best. I will remember its formal gambits (startling for a middle-grade graphic novel) and its honesty. Telgemeier, at once a first-class storyteller and a commercial powerhouse, has clearly hit her stride. This book take chances, the chances pay off, and I’m impressed by the way she manages to walk the tightrope.
Below is a byline that I have cherished. No one wrote about the comics community and comics creators with the same mix of moral intelligence, goodwill, and improving sharpness than Tom Spurgeon, the famed Comics Reporter, who, to my very deep sorrow, has just passed away.
Tom was free-minded and honest, by turns tolerant and critical as the occasion demanded. His BS detector was keen, but he wrote without spite. I've been edited by Tom (in the pages of The Comics Journal) and interviewed by Tom (at the Reporter) and lucky enough to spend a little, just a little, time with him over coffee or breakfast at the San Diego Comic-Con. He made time for that, for which I will always be grateful. Sadly, I have never yet been to Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC), the comic art festival for which Tom served as Executive Director, and now I will never be able to see it with him. I didn't see him often enough, frankly. When I did, my world seemed a bit bigger and bit better.
Tom had the gift of real magnanimity. He could argue and make points and dig for news without rancor or crude self-interest. His heart was that large. Tom would ask piercing questions, and in our conversations I was always aware that his mind was bent toward reporting, but I never had a conversation with him that made me feel smaller. I always felt boosted by his interest and kindness. Comics had no better ambassador: one who did the work without ever surrendering to smarm, false praise, or shallow, feel-good bromides. Tom's writing about comics creators and industry practices often stung with his moral insight; he made no apologies for what was ugly in comics, and again and again he stood up for those who make comics.
Tom was tough-minded but gracious, with a genuine feel for people that had nothing to do with being ingratiating. And he could write in so many different ways. I found him a delightful mystery. I mean, he edited The Comics Journal, a magazine known for its critical ferocity, then went off to write the comic Wildwood (1999-2002) for cartoonist Dan Wright, a gentle, faith-filled strip about a rural church and its pastor, a quiet giant of a bear. He had studied in seminary before he became a writer. He dug up dirt, but also worked to bring people together. He could be razor-sharp and humanly decent at the same time. That he valued decency seemed to part of conscious working-out of things in his life. Tom had soul, and worked to sustain it. My god, he was something.
I want to note here that when my colleagues and I were in the process of founding the Comics Studies Society, Tom was very interested in this. When we met up on several occasions, Tom asked me pointedly how the work of founding the CSS was going. He supported comics scholarship and asked smart questions about it, as I witnessed many times. For example, when the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum held its grand reopening festival in 2013, Tom and I were there, and I remember his unfeigned delight in the proceedings, his sense that comics study had found a grand new home. He loved it. I admired Tom's intellectual curiosity and farsightedness, qualities that I reckon made him perfect for the CXC job.
The world of comics feels smaller tonight; Tom Spurgeon has gone. I hope that the US comics community will find ways to honor Tom that bring support back to the community and its struggling artists, something that would be in Tom's spirit. RIP to a great good person who made a great difference in my, and in so many, lives.
Too soon gone, too soon gone: a bright shining light, now shuttered. I'm staring at this computer screen, lost, wondering what I can do. Tom, I'll never forget your example.
My deepest condolences to all Tom's family, friends, colleagues, and loved ones, everywhere.
Are You Listening? By Tillie Walden. First Second. ISBN 978-1250207562 (softcover), $17.99; ISBN 978-1626727731 (hardcover), $24.99. 320 pages.
Are You Listening? boasts colors unlike any I’ve seen in other comics. It blends and dapples contrasting colors in rapturous ways I literally haven’t seen before. And that heady palette is crucial to the transporting effect of the story: a dreamlike road trip, or wayward, puttering anti-quest, which eventually turns into something more intent and directed.
On this odd, minimally detailed trip, the two protagonists, Bea and Lou, both young women with things to get away from, motor through a color-drenched mystic vision of west Texas landscape. They are pursued by indistinct and merely functional antagonists (less men than shadows). En route they find a cat, a perhaps-magical one, whose mysterious nature provides some shape and urgency to the trip. Logic is not the story’s strong point — but, oh, is this an easy book to love. Tillie Walden strikes again.
One of Walden’s strengths is dialogue among women, especially young women. From prickly defensiveness to guarded care to unguarded tenderness, she traces the growing relationship between Bea(trice) and Lou, two queer fugitives whose friendship and love may remind readers of other tender pairings in Walden’s work. They are funny together, and sharp-edged enough that their growing bond feels earned rather than programmed. Just watching Lou teach Bea to drive is a pleasure. The dynamic between these two is the heart and soul of Are You Listening?. On the other hand, the book’s ventures into Miyazaki-esque fantasy are not worked out as thoroughly, or really worked out at all, on anything other than a symbolic level — which is to say that the story feels great but sort of collapses when you try to summarize it. Okay. Why do I still dig the book so much?
It’s solidly in Walden territory, recalling the romantic dyads and love-motored plots of several of her earlier books, though without the rich social surroundings evoked in Spinning or On a Sunbeam. It’s perhaps a Thelma and Louise homage, crossed with the more elusive Miyazaki of films like Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle, where a felt sense of symbolic fitness matters more than the literal working-out of plot-logic. At its heart are half-hidden losses and traumas that eventually come into the open, via revelations handled with a thankfully discreet touch: the terror that Bea is running from, the bereavement that has propelled Lou out onto the highways. Re-reading the book, you can see these things signaled early on, with moments of barely-quelled panic, ragged intakes of breath, creepy and confining interiors, and enigmatic, triggering exchanges. Walden has a gift for gnawing suspense as well as bruised tenderness, and Are You Listening? is a straight-up master class in how to pull readers into the minds of brave but anxious protagonists. The book invites trembling.
That said, Are You Listening? isn’t Walden’s best-plotted book. Truth to tell, it’s the first one by her that has nudged me toward ambivalence — that is, toward some delicate balancing of swooning gratitude against the sense that something hasn’t quite worked. But, okay, I’ve grown fairly besotted with Walden's comics — meaning that I’ve fallen head over heels, in such a way that I doubt that I can render a dispassionate judgment. Who can blame me? Walden draws like anything: beneath the fragility of her line lies an unassuming confidence in form, an ability to draw just whatever she needs and ditch the rest. You’ll find here nary a trace of underdrawing, tentativeness, or fuss. My guess would be that she works as hard as hell to make her comics look like no work at all — that behind these beautiful pages is plenty of the usual agonizing effort of the comics artist. If that’s so, Walden hides it superbly; the images seem to have arisen spontaneously from some lovely Other Place. And her use of color? Damn. The coloring here, pressing on from what was already delicious in On a Sunbeam, makes a world.
Most of all, though, what matters is the writing of character. Bea and Lou, like so many of Walden’s heroines, balance sweetness with strength and rawness with principle, revealing reserves of determination and agency when the story pushes them hard. They are worth rooting for. At the same time, Walden has the wisdom not to insist on affirmation and closure on every front — here, as in other books, she leaves you with a live wire of ache, even to the end.
Walden has a gift for intimacy in the face of big things: quiet spaces amidst the panorama of unfurling landscape (west Texas, or, as in Sunbeam, deep space). This is her stock in trade: moments of reunion, reconciliation, and self-discovery against the backdrop of a huge, obscurely glimpsed world. On that score, Are You Listening? delivers in spades. Hell, I’ll read anything this artist does — she makes my eyes mist over.
Pumpkinheads. By Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks. Color by Sarah Stern. First Second. ISBN 978-1626721623 (softcover), $17.99; ISBN 978-1250312853 (hardcover), $24.99. 224 pages.
Pumpkinheads is a breeze of a graphic novel: a busy, boisterous story of roughly six hours shared by two high school seniors one Halloween night. It follows Deja and Josie (Josiah), two seasonal workers at a Midwestern pumpkin patch (replete with corn maze, hayrides, petting zoo, etc.). Deja and Josie are wistfully anticipating graduation and goodbyes, but insist on sharing this “last” Halloween together, which turns out to be a bit of a crazy night. What starts with a gesture of farewell ends by hinting at the possibility of shared times to come.
Deja, who seems to have dated every other girl and boy at the patch, comes across as the more socially conscious and proactive of the two, while Josie, a “most valuable” employee and pumpkin geek, is shy, passive, and obtuse. Deja aims to help Josie talk to another patch worker, a girl he’s been mooning over fecklessly for the past three years—this may be his last chance to break out of his shell and strike up a relationship with her. Yet finding that girl in the big sprawl of the patch proves a challenge, as the two run into one colorful mishap after another. Outwardly, the suspense has to do with getting Josie to that girl, but what really matters is the relationship right in front of us: Josie and Deja. The book hints and hints at the special nature of their friendship—will they recognize it before the night is through?
Deja and Josie are complementary opposites, but both love, in an unselfconsciously nerdy way, the corniness of the pumpkin patch and its attractions. Where they differ is in their attitudes toward sociability. Josie is the type to wait for good things to come to him — he doesn’t know how to initiate a relationship — but Deja tells him that he must make choices and act on them if he is to get anywhere with anyone. The plot consists mainly of their walking, talking, and solving minor crises at the patch: together they run into various of Deja’s “exes,” navigate the fudge shoppe, s’mores pit, and corn maze, and reunite a lost child with her mom. There’s a lot of funny, rowdy action, but, again, what matters is their dialogue, which telegraphs an unacknowledged depth of feeling between the two. We readers perhaps get to know them better than they know themselves.
Scriptwriter Rainbow Rowell captures the offhand, familiar quality of friendly banter; you can believe that Deja and Josie have known each other for a long time. Cartoonist Faith Erin Hicks supplies (as the book’s back matter makes clear) the layout and rhythms, pacing and punctuating the action with wordless panels full of significant glances and sly, well-observed business. Theirs is a felicitous collaboration, intently focused on the two leads, their comical backdrop, and their dawning self-awareness. The results are seamless and fun to read.
Pumpkinheads is perhaps thematically slight, reflecting Rowell’s stated desire to do something “light and joyful.” It may be utopian; certainly it's idyllic and matter-of-factly progressive. Tonally, the book echoes many middle-grade stories that anticipate high school without the critical awareness of social power and inequity typical of YA fiction. Set in an idealized Midwest, it skirts questions of racism and homophobia (Deja, a queer young woman of color, is treated as wholly accepted and socially unremarkable). Implicitly, the book promotes body positivity: Deja is (as Rowell describes her) chubby, and one scene deals subtly with fat-shaming, but her beauty and vivacity are never in doubt. Josie, in contrast, is the very image of cornfed white Midwestern handsomeness. The supporting cast is discreetly diverse (though we learn little about them). Mainly, this is a charming story about discovering the depth of a relationship, equal parts ebullient comedy and quiet romance. Rowell and Hicks understand and love their characters, and Hicks draws their interplay with a keen eye for pauses, insinuations, and unspoken currents of feeling. In the end, Pumpkinheads is succinct, pleasant, and remarkably well crafted: a model middle-grade graphic novel, thematically unexceptional maybe, but sweetly human.
Kid Gloves: Nine Months of Careful Chaos. By Lucy Knisley. First Second. ISBN 978-1626728080 (softcover), $19.99. 256 pages.
Kid Gloves tells of author Lucy Knisley’s pregnancies and miscarriages, and finally the birth of her and her husband’s child. Blending memoir, childbirth education, and self-help, the book also offers, at times, sharp criticism of both sexist birthing institutions and natural childbirth truisms. Between chapters of personal narrative, Knisley inserts brief interchapters devoted to “pregnancy research”—actually, a mix of contextualizing details and Knisley’s pointed editorializing: often humorous, sometimes exasperated. These interchapters are didactic but droll, and not impersonal; they resonate with Knisley’s own story. The larger personal narrative takes us through Knisley’s miscarriages and resulting depression, then on through the conception, bearing, and delivery of her child—itself a traumatic, life-threatening event (due to eclampsia and seizure). A lot of scary stuff is replayed in this story, but also a great deal of joy and good humor. Knisley comes across as a friendly but not uncritical guide to the vagaries of pregnancy, opinionated, blunt, and confidential. She relays her story from a safe retrospective distance: her introduction shows Lucy and the baby, weeks after delivery, doing okay, and the narrative captions reassuringly carry us along. That is, the story is recounted in hindsight, rather than rawly dramatized. All this is delivered (sorry!) via Knisley’s reliably excellent, toothsome cartooning, dynamic yet readable layouts, and beautiful colors—signs of her offhand mastery of the craft. Wow, can she make comics.
I admit I approached Kid Gloves a tad nervously, unsure of whether Knisley’s writing would be equal to her subject. My first experience of her work, her memoir Relish (2013), had frustrated me with what I took to be its unexamined entitlement, skirting of emotional complexity, and preference for glib affirmation over fierce self-examination. Knisley does not do raw confessionalism or self-damning underground memoir. While her work does take on hard things, she tends to adopt a position of earned confidence and matter-of-factness (again, self-help is a useful point of reference). Her rhetorical construction of self is not the fractured self of Green or Kominsky-Crumb, nor the compulsively self-questioning, reflexive self of Spiegelman or Bechdel (though she does indulge here in comically grotesque caricatures of her changing body and its trials). Knisley the narrator seems secure even when Kid Gloves depicts the depths of depression or the harrowing trials of illness and emergency. It is a reassuring sort of memoir that offers a sane perspective-taking rather than an unsettled, open-ended questioning (in this, it reminds me of what Ellen Forney has done in her memoirs of bipolarity).
Indeed, at times Kid Gloves skates over complex things much as Relish did. For example, in a sequence that my wife Michele called to my attention, Knisley recalls the aftereffects of one of her miscarriages, and what she characterizes as her mother’s insensitive response:
You might think that this characterization would lead to a considered treatment of her mother throughout the remainder of the book, one that would balance daughterly love and forgiveness against frustration and critique. But Knisley accepts this tension between mother and daughter as an unresolvable, and moves on, not revisiting these hard feelings but tucking them away. (You won’t find here, for example, the extended, ambivalent treatment of parent-child relationships that you’ll see in Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do.) I worried that this key moment, which comes early in the text, would cancel Knisley’s piercing depictions of depression, that she would paper over complexities in the quest for a feel-good equanimity such as we so often see in popular memoir and self-help books.
Knisley, however, proved me wrong. Her narrative goes on to address challenging issues, including her and her husband’s anxieties, her triggers and preoccupations, the wrenching bodily demands of pregnancy, and her tense relationship with childbirthing dogma. The actual birth of her son, accomplished by cesarean and blurred out by medication, brings an explosive change to Knisley’s pages, suggesting lingering trauma and loss. Further, when her own life hangs in the balance, Knisley switches focalization to her husband, with drastic changes in her technique. There are moments when her always decorous, conspicuously well-designed pages become unsettled and the delivery of her story becomes most piercing. The book’s climax moved me beyond my expectations.
Michele read Kid Gloves before I did, and told me frankly that the book raised up some difficult memories for her. This was perhaps another reason why I approached the book with a bit of dread. It’s true that reading it brought up some of my own memories of how Michele and I wrestled with medicalized childbirth and its outcomes. Frankly, I was surprised by how much Knisley criticizes natural childbirth rhetoric and embraces what she calls “hospital-based interventions” (even as she recounts what were arguably cases of medical malpractice). Kid Gloves, it's fair to say, takes a jaded view of the power struggles between obstetrics and traditional midwifery. These notes brought up memories of our own childbirthing experience; they also got me to question Knisley's wisdom. At times, the old feelings of impatience regarding her writing came back to me. There was a whiff of unexamined entitlement about Knisley's weighing of women’s “choices” in childbirth (“as long as everyone’s healthy”), and behind her settled self-presentation I sense a certain hardheadedness. But, still, Kid Gloves is a forthcoming and bracing story, one that will surely prove inspiring to many readers going through the childbirthing experience or seeking to put it into perspective afterward. By book’s end, I felt grateful for the ride.
In sum, Kid Gloves uses the all-at-onceness and richness of the comics page to tell a story that is at once personal, instructive, and political. I don’t quite love it the way I love comics that tell of childbearing from a rawer, less protected place (check out Lauren Weinstein’s superb Mother’s Walk), and I note that Knisley continues to walk the knife’s edge between personal exploration and tidy, marketable endings. But Kid Gloves marks a step forward for her as a writer, and I recommend it.