Category Archives: Graphic Novel Reviews

Review: DRAGMAN by Steven Appleby

Dragman by Steven Appleby

Dragman by Steven Appleby. Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2020. 336 pages, $28.00.

Especially today, as we continue to make huge strides, while still sometimes stumbling one step forward with one step back, it is healthy for everyone to acknowledge gender fluidity as being as natural as breathing. I’ll share this. When I was very young, I fondly recall dressing in drag a handful of times. This was back in the ’80s during my art school days. It was fun, thrilling, and even liberating. My girlfriend at the time thought I looked cuter in lipstick and pumps than she did. Anyway, life moved on and the occasion for indulging in drag became less available but one never knows. I’ve always fancied interviewing Simon Hanselmann with both of us all dolled up. We all need to loosen up, open up, and acknowledge nothing is ever really totally cut and dry. Even a conservative darling like Rudy Giuliani had a good time in drag, and this was as recently as 2000. So, with that in mind, it’s a joy and a privilege to introduce to you a new graphic novel inspired by cartoonist Steven Appleby’s own personal journey, Dragman, a story about a superhero who can fly when he wears women’s clothes.

Dragman on the case!

Now, Steven Appleby is a beloved British cartoonist, right up there with other greats like Posy Simmonds and Quentin Blake. I had quite a nice time, by the way, viewing the work of Simmonds and Blake last year at the House of Illustration in London. I’m an artist-cartoonist myself so that visit, for me, is equal to visiting Big Ben for someone else. I’d love to view Appleby originals sometime too, perhaps on a future visit. I’m not going to scrutinize the work in quite the same way as I would standing before a Rembrandt but it’s not too different either. I’m still gazing and pondering the energy. It’s that distinctive line, with its skittering quality, that is so appealing. In the case of Appleby, a cartoonist auteur, we can marvel over how the words seem to dance right along with the images. If Appleby collaborated with a writer, to be sure, we’d see a similar play too. That said, the auteur has a distinct advantage of owning the whole vision. So, for Appley, for all of us, this graphic novel provides a full-blown vision. The reader gets to enjoy a madcap adventure, all the time savoring the journey for its own sake!

Clark Kent, meet August Crimp.

As Appleby makes clear, this is not an autobiographical work, although it can’t be denied there are some similarities to Appleby and his comics alter ego, August Crimp. Both went on a particular journey in search of themselves, in pursuit of coming to terms with an attraction to dressing up as the opposite sex. What’s clear is that August Crimp, and Steven Appleby, both triumph. It’s a celebration of life. A celebration of boys dressing as girls and girls dressing as boys and anything else in between. We’re all superheroes if we just relax and let ourselves be ourselves. Dragman is a heart-felt exploration of identity while also a riveting crime mystery to boot. What more could you want from a graphic novel?

Dragman is available as of April 7, 2020. For more details, visit the family of books at Macmillan Publishers right here.

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Review: SPIT THREE TIMES by Davide Reviati

Spit Three Times by Davide Reviatti

Spit Three Times by Davide Reviatti. Seven Stories Press, New York, 2020. $28.95.

In the Age of Covid, add this to your #StayAtHome reading this: a sprawling graphic novel in the grand tradition by a romantic Italian artist-writer, a true auteur-cartoonist, Davide Reviatti. He’s one of those bulls in a china shop who is not afraid to break any so-called “rules” to storytelling. The more cloistered set might find his work a bit confounding but, no, this is authentic and passionate work. I like to call this kind of intimate and uninhibited linking of word and image, “letting the sketchbook come to life!” That’s exactly what is happening. The story, ostensibly, is about a bunch of local rough-cut teens in a rural Italian village who lock horns one doomed summer with a band of Roma gypsies. It takes a long time for anything to happen and it feels like really nothing is happening. This, of course, allows plenty of room for anything to happen during this nearly 600-page work!

Raw rage on the page.

Guido, a pint-sized punk, is supposed to emerge as our lead character but he seems to get pushed back down by the rest of the ensemble. Another tough local teen, Grisu, with his lustrous mane of hair, perpetually steals the show. Then, among the Roma gypsies, there’s crazy Loretta and even crazier Gyppo. Reviati is merciless in his depictions of both the locals and the Roma pariahs. No one is spared; no one is particularly likable in this gritty tale and therein lies the challenge for the reader to see what to make of things. Reviati does not claim to have any easy answers and is more trusting of any hard-working local mechanic than most academics whom he finds to consume mountains of books but not even shit out one letter of insight. There’s certainly much truth in that observation.

A reverie of masterful drawings full of whimsy and compelling metaphor.

Jamie Richards provides a brilliant translation to Reviati’s first book available in English. All the quirky dialogue and posturing appears to have been saved intact. Richards’s translations include Igort’s Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks, Giovanni Orelli’s Walaschek’s Dream, Serena Vitale’s interviews with Viktor Shklovsky, Shklovsky: Witness to an Era, and Igiaba Scego’s novel Adua.

Born in Ravenna (Italy) in 1966, Davide Reviati leads a double career of illustrator and cartoonist in publishing and the press (Il Manifesto, La Stampa, L’Unità), while collaborating in the screenwriting of movies. Morti di sonno, his graphic novel published in Italian by Coconino Press in 2009, was awarded the best album prize at the 2010 Napoli Comic Con. The French edition (published by Casterman) won the award for the best book in translation in 2011.

Spit Three Times is best described as a languorous graphic novel but in a most offbeat and delicious way! Reviatti, by allowing himself a large canvas, gives his characters all the room they need to bare their souls. In fact, there is quite an intriguing sequence with the local boys all dreamily lounging about naked, letting it all hang out, without a care in the world, uninhibited and unbridled. Perhaps one will only add a cowboy hat to his attire as he gets a beer. Maybe another will decide to literally piss on his friend as a prank. And then, just as impulsively, they all jump in for a dip in the lake. They all laugh for no reason. The scene gently dissolves as Reviatti adds the grace note observation that, “at twenty, you’ll laugh at anything; at forty, we only laugh in scorn.” That’s the sort of world-weary wisdom found here that charms every page.

Spit Three Times is available as of April 28, 2020. For more details, visit Seven Stories Press right here.

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Review: A FOR ANONYMOUS by David Kushner and Koren Shadmi

A FOR ANONYMOUS by David Kushner and Koren Shadmi

You have probably heard of Anonymous, the so-called, “hacker activist group,” but perhaps you’re not so clear on the details. Then consider this new graphic novel: A for Anonymous: How a Mysterious Hacker Collective Transformed the World (Bold Type Books; on sale March 31) by David Kushner and Koren Shadmi. The journalist and illustrator, who teamed up once before on Rise of the Dungeon Master, tell the story of the legendary hacktivist group Anonymous—from their origin story to their most daring exploits.

Who or What is Anonymous?

As a cartoonist myself, I can tell you that Kushner and Shadmi both understand the comics language. The art of visual storytelling requires a precise and concise translation from another medium. Unless you’ve done it yourself, it can be hard to appreciate the work involved. Yes, you need to edit like a madman but you also have to strike a balance as you juggle various facts and events. Some wrongheaded critic may accuse you of taking too much out and leaving a disjointed thread. But, if you’ve carefully laid out your work, cooler heads will prevail and hail you a genius! Kushner knows how to write a comics script and Shadmi knows how to compliment the steady tempo that Kushner has set up. And off we go as we follow Kushner’s reportage on the whole Anonymous phenomena.

Anonymous is not a group and it’s not a person.

In A for Anonymous, Kushner and Shadmi follow the Anonymous phenomena, including its acts of rebellion set to embarrass rich and powerful targets—from Sony and Paypal to the Church of Scientology and the Ferguson Police Department—all in the name of freedom of speech and information. Much like Kushner’s well-received New Yorker article from which this book is adapted, this work follows Commander X as a guide to all the anonymous activity, giving readers a character they can follow through a story that involves a wide variety of shadowy figures. What we come to appreciate is that Anonymous is not any one person or group but a vast network, not all pursuing the same goal. The origins of Anonymous go back to early efforts by a small club of hobbyist coders known as The Cult of the Dead Cow. Back in the mid-1980s, they chose to deliver a blow to the powerful and nefarious Church of Scientology. They started messing with their online forum. It was a small but significant act of protest, one of the earliest hacks. Not exactly the work of a sinister criminal element. And then things began to snowball into bigger acts of protest like crashing government websites in support of downtrodden rebels. We follow along to the development of 4chan and the swamp of cowardly acts of hate and violence. Not all fun and games by a long shot. All in all, this is a fascinating guide to help us better appreciate and understand the virtual rabbit hole that attracts virtually anyone.

A for Anonymous is a 128-page trade paperback, black & white, published by Bold Type Books will be released on March 31, 2020. For more details, visit Hachette Book Group right here.

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Review: AN EMBARRASSMENT OF WITCHES by Sophie Goldstein and Jenn Jordan

An Embarrassment of Witches

An Embarrassment of Witches. Sophie Goldstein and Jenn Jordan. Top Shelf Productions, $19.99 (208p)

Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, make room for our main character, Rory Rosenberg, who could be called, Rory the Millennial Slacker. Cartoonist Sophie Goldstein’s new graphic novel, co-authored with Jenn Jordan, revels in the drama and the humor found within a community of young people who just happen to be supernatural. An Embarrassment of Witches has just been released by Top Shelf Productions.

An Embarrassment of Witches

Goldstein draws in a highly-composed and spare style which concentrates the action and evenly loads the page. Follow along the path led by a series of short lines forming simple shapes, all the better to focus the viewer’s attention onto one spot. A deftly-drawn hand becomes a container which acts like a picture frame, bouncing the viewer’s attention back if it starts to drift off. Like a neon light, well-executed drawings keep your attention steadily connecting from one spot to the next. Goldstein keenly understands the power of comics. Her work catapults the reader into the story. We quickly get it that Rory has just been abandoned by her boyfriend and that she does not do well with change nor with plans for the future. And then, just as we’re processing that, we quickly accept that she’s a witch in a supernatural world of witches, dragons, and hobgoblins. It’s up to Rory to figure out her next move, especially after she has to backtrack on a much anticipated vacation which was supposed to allow her more time to relax and not think about her future.

An Embarrassment of Witches

Goldstein is a 2013 graduate of the prestigious Center for Cartoon Studies. The very next year, she won the much coveted Ignatz Award for her mini-comic, House of Women, Part I. In 2017, House of Women was collected and published by Fantagraphics. In 2015, Goldstein released The Oven, published by AdHouse Books. House of Women and The Oven are quite different but share the same off kilter sensibility. Goldstein clearly has a magic way with a touch of strange. Both stories are set on other worlds and, while the characters deal with universal struggles, everything is spiked with a deliciously unsettling quality. It’s as if Goldstein figured out the look and feel to her universe of comics ahead of time and then moved forward with a very distinctive and purposeful vision.

An Embarrassment of Witches

As if often the case with comics of the highest caliber, much of the fun is simply going along the journey. It matters little if Rory becomes a veterinarian or a talk show host. The reader is hooked and is rooting for Rory, in the same spirit as we all root for Sabrina and for Buffy.

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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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