Category Archives: Graphic Novel Reviews

Review: THE DETECTION CLUB: PART 1 by Jean Harambat

The Detection Club: Part 1 by Jean Harambat

This is one of the most inspired scenarios for a comic that I’ve seen in a while. What if all the great mystery writers of the 193os formed a club–and had amazing adventures? That is exactly what is happening in this totally cool new graphic novel series, The Detection Club, script and art by Jean Harambat, published by Europe Comics. We’re talking about the golden age for mystery writers including G. K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, and Dorothy L. Sayers. This is from the same brilliant talent who created the spy thriller series graphic novels, Operation Copperhead. If you like crisp and witty humor, then this is for you. And, yes, this book is in English. That’s an essential component of Europe Comics, your home for comics from Europe, translated into English.

The Detection Club page excerpt

First off, you need to know that there really was a Detection Club and it must have been something! Just imagine all of these world-class writers meeting on a regular basis, helping each other out with their craft, and even writing books together under the name of the club itself! I don’t think I was aware of this and, if I was, I’d forgotten. So many years and beers ago, you know. But now I’m fully aware of this fact thanks to this wonderful graphic novel series. So, that is the basis in reality for this series but Harambat takes it much further and places a select bunch of our writer heroes in quite a madcap adventure involving a crime-solving robot who may or may not have just committed murder! So, lots of fun for all ages, even for much older kids at heart such as myself.

Panel excerpt: Our main characters all in row.

I really like to showcase panel art. There are so many reasons to do this. The main reason is to simply get a closer look! This makes sense, just as you would focus on a particular passage in any novel. It gives us a moment to savor the process. What is key about Harambat is that he loves to draw. This is quite evident in the above example. Too many young aspiring cartoonists believe that any scrawl that they produce is priceless. That wrongheaded thinking is much too ingrained in the indie comics community. Yes, there is a place for spontaneity and a loose and sketchy style can be quite legitimate. But look at the dazzling results you get from rigorous  care in the pursuit of refined essentials. Everything reads as very crisp and clear! You want that kind of clarity!

The Detection Club page excerpt

Harambat is an auteur cartoonist who truly loves to write and draw economically. It is a very functional approach that makes it easier to tackle such an ambitious project that involves characters with formidable back-stories. We’re talking about some of the greatest popular writers of all time–either intimately known by readers or at least recognized to some degree. There are expectations already in place. Many readers coming to this graphic novel already have some notion as to who Agatha Christie was and expect someone unusual and clever–and will expect the same from her contemporaries. Any reader attracted to this book is already curious about the world of mystery and crime fiction and related matters. Harambat is there to deliver on all counts: he fills in the blanks, connects the dots, and thoroughly entertains. All the characters are drawn in a direct and clear way, easy to keep track of, easy to relate with. Then you bring in the villain, an eccentric billionaire living on some secluded tropical island with a huge robot at the center of a murder mystery. Bingo! What a premise to kick off this series!

The Detection Club: Part 1 is an 86-page book, available in digital format on various platforms. For more details, visit Europe Comics, your home for all European comics, all digital, all in English.

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Review: APOCALYPTIGIRL: AN ARIA FOR THE END TIMES by Andrew MacLean

APOCALYPTIGIRL: AN ARIA FOR THE END TIMES

Sometimes, a work of comics takes on a life of its own, irrespective of its creators and anything else. I think that’s what makes ApocalyptiGirl so appealing. This is a second edition of Andrew MacLean’s whipsmart comics, published by Dark Horse Comics. Now, a regular reader of comics needs a very good reason to keep turning the page and this loopy and hip dystopian comic does the trick. A lot of comics fall into traps, like trying to be too clever or explaining too much and often turn out to just be boring. ApocalyptiGirl is not boring. It is the opposite of boring: fun, engaging, a live wire act of comics!

APOCALYPTIGIRL: AN ARIA FOR THE END TIMES

This is the story of Aria, a lanky young woman and her pet cat, Jelly Beans, living in a series of abandoned subway cars and surviving some post-apocalypse mess of some kind. I don’t really care what kind and neither do you. We’ve had too many post-apocalypse scenarios so we simply accept the premise and move on. It’s smart to do so. Either you have some really compelling reason for everything having blown up to bits or you accept it and focus on your main character. Aria and Jelly Beans are fun to see move around and do things. The whole comic has a very pleasing look about it: fine crisp linework, nicely balanced and dynamic colors, strong composition all the better to keep your eyes moving along.

ApocalyptiGirl: An Aria for the End Times, originally published in 2015, is available in a second edition hardcover, with bonus material, releasing on March 4, 2020. For more details, visit Dark Horse Comics right here.

 

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Review: ALWAYS GOODBYE by Ray Hecht

Always Goodbye by Ray Hecht

Always Goodbye by Ray Hecht. 88 pages. TWG Press, 2019, paperback, $5.99.

With great insight and humor, Ray Hecht shares his life with the reader in his autobiographical graphic novel, Always Goodbye. This is an ambitious work as Hecht takes stock of his whole life thus far. Hecht sums up his life, year by year, and he’s up to the challenge. He’s definitely an interesting subject: an artist, filmmaker, journalist, and author. What he’s doing here is giving the reader a window into what he’s done all his life: traveling, observing, and creating art. Like the results of a conversation between good friends, this graphic novel provides many gifts.

circa 1990

The theme of the book is found in the title. While traveling can be enlightening and full of adventure, it often comes at a price. And, of course, all travel is not completely voluntary. A lot of the nuts and bolts of travel are not glamorous and bring in a whole lot of issues including the trauma of displacement.

circa 2012

No doubt, Ray Hecht is doing exciting work with comics, both as a creator as well as an instructor. And he certainly has a wonderful track record of prose novels, including South China Morning Blues and The Ghost of Lotus Mountain Brothel. Hecht is an artist down to his bones and I definitely relate to that. Hecht has harnessed a creative drive that’s led to compelling work. Anyone interested in the inner life of an artist will get a lot out of his latest book. If you enjoy a hearty work of autobiography, this will appeal to you. Hecht’s comics have got enough of that quirk factor that earns him a place within that fine tradition of auto-bio comics that includes such luminaries as John Porcellino, Tom Hart, and Lynda Barry.

Always Goodbye is published by TWG Press and available right here.

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Review: ‘Survivors of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children’

Survivors of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children

Last June was the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. This year we observe 75 years since the liberation of the Nazi death camps beginning with the Soviet Army’s 322nd Rifle Division entering the concentration camp at Auschwitz. One book that helps young readers understand these events from the perspective of children has recently been published by Sourcebooks entitled, Survivors of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children. What is striking about this book is how accessible it is through its honesty and specificity.

Stepping into history, at the start of the Second World War.

It is understandable if you might think the subject of the Holocaust is too much for a young reader but this book finds a way that honors young readers ages 10 and up. It is as if a thoughtful grandparent is telling their story. Each vignette is told my a real survivor in terms that inform and enlighten. The layout is inviting. The characters are engaging. The stories are revealing as with any good reportage. These are stories of the displacement and survival of Jewish children and young people amid the backdrop of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party’s persecution of millions of Jews across Europe between 1933 and 1945.

A growing international crisis.

Because these are stories told by individuals, you get very specific points of view. For example, the reader is there with Ruth as her family manages to escape from Germany to England and she hears the official start to the war on the railroad intercom. Or, another example is Martin and his family, along with other Jewish families, who are rounded up by the Nazis. In order to avoid crossing into Poland and triggering an international conflict, the Nazis force Jewish families to walk along the railroad tracks that separate the borders. That strategy works, at least for a while. Survivors of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children is an essential book for young readers interested in better understanding one of the most tragic events in modern history. For more details, and how to purchase, visit Sourcebooks right here.

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Review: SPRING RAIN by Andy Warner

SPRING RAIN

Spring Rain by Andy Warner. St. Martin’s Press. 2020. 202 pages. $19.99.

The Arab Spring began nearly a decade ago. Graphic artist Andy Warner recalls the predawn of revolution, Lebanon in 2005, in his new graphic memoir. In the span of little over a season, about five months, Warner seems to live a lifetime of experiences during his brief study abroad in Beirut at the age of 21. In his book, Warner sheds away any inhibitions and provides the reader with a confessional tale. This is Warner’s coming-of-age story amid a surreal worn-torn landscape. Anything goes. Sex. Drugs. Anything. To his credit, Warner navigates through all the rough terrain with compelling results.

As much as we might think we know about the Middle East, it’s clear that we don’t know enough. Warner is sensitive to this fact and carefully lays out people, places, and events. Simply for the sake of gaining insight into the region, this book is essential for any age. Through Warner’s adventures, including a mix of backgrounds (students, LGBTQ, foreigners and Lebanese), the reader becomes acquainted with a vibrant and multicultural Beirut. The reader gets a firsthand account of the dynamics at play in the aftermath of the assassination of a Lebanese icon, the tycoon, Rafik Hariri. He swindled billions and created luxury estates. But he also created schools, hospitals, and, perhaps most important, he provided a symbol of hope. Legends, just like memory itself, can be complicated and messy.

Page excerpt from SPRING RAIN

Warner shares as much as he can about his own memories and struggles with mental health, particularly during those intense months in Beirut filled with protests, bombings, and self-discovery. If you read only one graphic novel this year, you would do well to pick this one up. Warner proves to be a reliable and trustworthy narrator and guides the reader on many levels, including the often daunting creative process. Warner’s artwork is an appealing combination of semi-realism and cartoony. It is cartoonists like Andy Warner who rise to the occasion and live up to the potential of the comics medium. In doing so, Warner and other great cartoonists contribute to greater understanding of, and empathy for, the world at large.

Spring Rain is available as of January 28, 2020.

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Review: COOL VALLEY by Craig Frank

Cool Valley by Craig Frank

Craig Frank’s new graphic novel, Cool Valley, published by Fahrenheit, provides an intimate look at childhood with a masterful command of the comics medium. Frank has a zeal for storytelling that is rooted in his background in animation and his overall passion for creative pursuits. In fact, the reader will see Frank’s first stir of interest in comics and drawing within the pages of his new book. I was completely won over by Frank’s debut graphic novel from a few years ago, the quirky and surreal, JFK: Secret Ops. Read my review here. This new book shares a similar live wire sensibility, set in a small town in Missouri in the 1970s, packed with an uncanny amount of vivid details.

Cool Valley by Craig Frank

There’s a bit of Huck Finn mixed in this series of vignettes interlaced together building up to a sobering existential assessment. Along the way, there are more than some touches of the supernatural too. Actually, it may have been helpful to bring the supernatural elements to the forefront due to their compelling thematic strength. What is intriguing, and deliciously spooky, is how Frank ultimately approached things by having all the scary stuff gradually emerge! So, it’s something of a toss up. You can start in with a story already with built-in expectations or you can surprise an audience with unexpected material. Going in, the reader does not know to expect anything about demons. That said, the reader quickly picks up from the first few pages that there’s a melancholy and strange tone brewing.

Cool Valley by Craig Frank

Demons aside, young Frank is jumping from one misadventure to the next. While talk of demons is only one aspect to this narrative, that eerie sense of dread is woven throughout, especially since it involves a series of tragic events that gradually, then suddenly, take over amid a narrative that includes both sorrow and joy. Frank does a wonderful job of presenting this tableau of light and dark, always wondering about meaning, always daring to express frustration with elusive answers. This is a mature work for all ages that thoroughly respects and rewards the reader. It’s a great work for young adults and older adults alike.

Cool Valley by Craig Frank

Craig Frank has taken a very original and idiosyncratic path with his comics–and that is where the most authentic comics come from. It’s great for a budding cartoonist to follow an influence and emulate his or her favorite artist. We can always have yet another cartoonist who echoes the cool vibe of Daniel Clowes. That’s a tall order and to be applauded when it works. However, it’s even better when you develop a style and vision all your own and that also takes time and dedication. And another thing, sometimes the next graphic novel is the one that catches on and lifts up the one that came before. I think Cool Valley is definitely a perfect entry point to Frank’s work. Then make your way over to his hilarious JFK: Secret Ops and then…well, we’ll just have to see what Craig Frank comes up with next!

Here is a book trailer for Cool Valley:

And here is a panel discussing the relationship between comics and animation at SPX this year that includes Craig Frank:

Cool Valley is published by Fahrenheit.

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Review: SWIMMING IN DARKNESS by Lucas Harari

Swimming in Darkness by Lucas Harari

Swimming in Darkness, by Lucas Harari, published by Arsenal Pulp, is an exceptional graphic novel on so many levels. It manages to get you to see comics in a totally refreshing way. This is certainly no easy task to accomplish, especially for the serious comics reader who is perhaps a little too primed to expect the unexpected. As for me, I am in a privileged positon as a reviewer that folks in the comics industry keep up with. As another year comes to a close, one that leaves us without Tom Spurgeon, one of our beloved leaders in the comics world, I feel all the more determined to pick my comics wisely and keep to meaningful reviews, upholding a standard carried forth by my trailblazing colleagues like Rob Clough, Frank Santoro, and Johanna Draper Carlson, just to name a few. All this comes to mind as I contemplate this book. This is what comics is all about and, if I was to choose just one book to represent what is possible within comics, no one would fault me for choosing this one. It is utterly stylish, graceful, and packed with a finely-tuned sense of suspense.

Pierre is odd man out.

Any good story needs to hook you in and, with this tale, there are plenty of hooks. We begin in Paris, as a downpour compels a man to seek refuge in a tavern. The reader is quickly swept up with intriguing stories, and legends, within other stories, and bits of speculation, hosted by one narrator upon another. We begin with the ghostly narration of presumably the author of the book himself as he kicks off a tale he heard from his father, Harari, the elder, as it were. It’s the father who stumbles in out of the rain and encounters Pierre, our protagonist. It turns out that Pierre was a student of Harari. Pierre had shown great promise during his formal study of architecture up until he abruptly left school. Harari is curious about what became of Pierre’s dazzling academic work. But enough about Harari. Our story quickly takes off to the Swiss Alps as Pierre is determined to make up for lost time.

A mystery daring to be solved.

Pierre is marching off in search of the legendary Vals Thermal Baths, designed by the famous Swiss architect Paul Zumthor, ensconced deep within the bowels of a delicate and rarefied resort hotel cradled within the mountain range. It’s been said that a secret passage connecting the thermal baths to the heart of the mountain lures a foreigner to his death every hundred years. Enter Pierre! This is such a finely drawn work that compliments, stroke for stroke, such a tightly woven narrative. And then there’s that meticulously modulated color scheme of blue and red maintaining a steady balance, or delicious imbalance of cool and warm. As I’ve said before, here is a prime example of what I believe to be an ideal graphic novel: a highly compelling work created by a cartoonist auteur that is a stand-alone book of about a hundred or so pages. There are so many fine examples and this is absolutely, without a doubt, one of them.

The secrets lie within plain sight.

Swimming in Darkness is a 152 page hardcover, in duotone, with a new English translation by David Homel, published by Arsenal Pulp. For more details, visit Arsenal Pulp right here.

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Review: THE CRIPPLER’S SON by Max Riffner 

The Crippler’s Son by Max Riffner

From time to time, I like to go back and explore work. The Crippler’s Son, is a short graphic novel quite worthy of a revisit. It is by Max Riffner, published by Fantagraphics, and available as a digital comic at comiXology. What strikes me as interesting about this book is the attention to character development and a strong consistent look throughout. Riffner favors a classic indie style (James Sturm, Daniel Clowes), very clean lines, understated tension. He puts his considerable talents to use here in the service of a story about, James, a young man at a crossroads. James is drifting, a diffident individual trapped in banal settings. He has a life but he’s not flourishing. On the first page, we get a clue as to what preoccupies James: the lackluster career of a pro wrestler known as, The Crippler.

The Crippler’s Son by Max Riffner

Aside from that seemingly obscure interest in pro wrestling, James is a medical student and he has a lover, Mike, who he struggles to emotionally connect with. As we progress, we discover just how important pro wrestling is to James. As it turns out, pro wrestling is at the nexus of James’s existence. There’s a significant family connection that has the potential to empower or destroy James. This is quite a quirky premise and my hat goes off to Riffner for pulling it off. Lots of fun action to boot. Riffner brings the scene to life with plenty of kayfabe! 

The Crippler’s Son by Max Riffner

The Crippler’s Son, by Max Riffner, is highly recommended. Now, just a few more words about the creator. As all of us cartoonists know, there is no guaranteed financial gain from the act of creating a work of comics. You do it because you love it. If you get good at it, it will show and demonstrate that you take your art seriously. Such is the case with Max Riffner. I think he’s found a wonderful balance between following one’s passion and making a living that fits and compliments it. Be sure to visit him and learn more at his website right here. And pick up a digital copy of The Crippler’s Son at comiXology right here.

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Review: ‘The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television’ by Koren Shadmi

Rod Serling, quite the twilight man.

There is this amazing new graphic novel that tackles, for the first time, the life and work of Rod Serling. It is The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television, by Koren Shadmi, published by Humanoids as part of their new imprint, Life Drawn. I have a lot to say about this book, in no small part, due to the fact that I have my own graphic novel that overlaps on some of what’s going on in this book. I’m still in the process of getting my book out but I think it’s actually good to see a book like this out there. This is Koren Shadmi’s Rod Serling and his take on related events. There is definitely room, and interest, for more such books. One perfect example is what appears to be an ever-growing number of graphic novels on Andy Warhol. But I digress a bit. 

I am familiar with Koren Shadmi and his work. I had the privilege of interviewing him in 2015 for one of my podcast interviews. In fact, I made a reference to The Twilight Zone and discovered that Koren, in Israel, had not grown up with the original Twilight Zone like so many of us did in the States. I don’t know about you but I’ve always had access to it. As a kid growing up in the seventies, TZ was well into syndication and very well accepted as part of the culture, even better than during its original run from 1959 to 1964. Anyway, Koren is a masterful illustrator on a fast professional track. Is it any wonder then that he was able to create this book in such a relatively short amount of time? I’d peg it at sometime during or after his previous book on Gary Gygax and Dungeons & Dragons which came out in 2017. Koren’s book on Rod Serling is fascinating and goes into as much detail as possible, even daring to cast Serling in less than a favorable light.

Rod Serling, chasing his dream.

If you want to see Rod Serling cast in an unfavorable light, look back fifty years ago. It was on November 8, 1969 that a TV movie was broadcast on NBC starring Joan Crawford, directed by Steven Spielberg, and written by Rod Serling. It was to be the pilot for the ill-fated anthology series, Night Gallery. It was pitched as something like Twilight Zone but turned out to be lackluster. Shadmi spends a good bit of time showing us the Rod Serling after The Twilight Zone and it’s not a pretty picture that he paints. Instead of wrapping up his graphic novel on an upbeat note, Shadmi has no qualms over depicting Serling as falling from grace, a little desperate and seeking approval in all the wrong places. We see Serling doing very un-Serling things: appearing in commercials, hosting a game show, and giving up all creative control all for the sake of being back in the game with Night Gallery. And, the coup de grâce for any Serling fan: Shadmi makes a reference to Serling engaging in an extramarital affair. I can only chalk it up to Shadmi compelled to show the man warts and all. But, if you want to see Serling at his best, well, there is plenty of that, enough to overlook a man’s weaknesses.

A good part of the book going in covers Serling as a brash young man eager to see combat during World War II. And that he does. While considered too short to be a paratrooper, Serling’s persistence wears down his company commander. Serling, cut from the same cloth as Hemingway, pushes himself to his limits, working as hard on his writing as his proving his manhood. Repeatedly, he pursues physical thrills and danger in the boxing ring and on the battlefield. He leaves the army permanently shell-shocked, experiencing nightmares for the rest of his life. It is such a uniquely talented and driven man who finds his way to writing for radio and later for television in New York City during the dawn of the golden age of television. And, on the strength of his landmark work on Playhouse 90, Serling ultimately finds himself on top of the world as one of television’s original show runners for The Twilight Zone. All of this and more, Shadmi faithfully brings to life on the page. It is more than enough to forgive him for daring to show the great man when he was down.

The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television is a  180-page trade paperback in duotone, published by Humanoids.

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Review: ONCE UPON A TIME IN FRANCE, published by Dead Reckoning

Once Upon a Time in France, written by Fabien Nury and illustrated by Sylvain Vallée

Once Upon a Time in France is such a gorgeous book. One of the best ways that I can demonstrate to you the beauty and artistry that you will find in this graphic novel is to show you a sample page, in black & white, next to the same page in color. Once Upon a Time in France, written by Fabien Nury and illustrated by Sylvain Vallée, is published by Dead Reckoning and makes for a most riveting and immersive story like you probably have not read in quite some time. This is the story of Joseph Joanovici, a Romanian Jew who immigrated to France in the 1920s and became one of the richest men in Europe as a scrap-metal magnate. For some, he was a Nazi collaborator villain. For others, he was a French resistance hero. He undoubtedly played both ends against the middle! It makes for a fascinating story. The graphic novel series was an international bestseller with over 1 million copies sold. Thankfully, Dead Reckoning has collected the entire French series in this new English translation omnibus edition.

Sample one in b&w

I just completed some traveling in Europe and so I’m still processing all of that. Of course, World War II looms large, bursting at the seams of history, as you make your way through such places as Paris and London. It can be no other way. The past pulls you in and makes itself present. The past is always present. It seeps its way into the culture and the daily lives of the natives. History is more respected and acknowledged in Europe than it is in the United States. And that’s not so much a criticism as a simple observation. There is a special connection to the past in Europe that encourages readers and thinkers in all strata of society. It is a culture that celebrates books and has a unique love for comics and graphic novels. That’s certainly not to say that thoughtful expansive works in comics are not appreciated in the U.S. but it is to say that an even keener appreciation by large numbers of readers will be found in Europe, without a doubt. That said, I highly recommend to my American friends that they check out a book such as Once Upon a Time in France in order to get a better sense of the appeal of serious works in comics outside of the United States.

Sample two in color

This omnibus edition collects six books of comics. As I’ve mentioned before, I prefer the typical European format of a hardcover book of comics spanning less than 1oo pages. So, this collection is a total of 360 pages, comprising six books of about 60 pages each. And that is a perfect setup. Tell a riveting and expansive tale within the covers of six manageable books! The European culture accepts that format and treats a series of books such as this in the way that Americans treat following a television series. Of course, you see similar efforts in the U.S. with much of it taken up by the big two superhero publishers followed by various other publishers and rounded out by an assortment of micro, indie and self-publishing cartoonists. Speaking of history, we’re right in the thick of a significant time in comics history as the comics medium continues to redefine itself and position itself within the book market in general. And, again, I say that everyone would do well to seek out this wartime thriller as a brilliant example of what is possible within comics!

A thrilling story that won’t quit.

You will be utterly pleased by reading this impressive omnibus edition. It satisfies on many levels: as a brilliant example of the comics medium; as a wonderful taste of European culture; and as a rollicking good thriller! In fact, I can easily see this book adapted into an amazing series at such venues as Hulu, Amazon or Netflix.

An elegant wartime thriller.

Once Upon a Time in France is a 360-page trade paperback, published by Dead Reckoning.

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