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Review: ‘American Daredevil: Comics, Communism and the Battles of Lev Gleason’ by Brett Dakin

American Daredevil: Comics, Communism and the Battles of Lev Gleason

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

American Daredevil: Comics, Communism and the Battles of Lev Gleason. By Brett Dakin. Toronto: Chapterhouse, 2020. 242pp, $24.99.

Lev Gleason is a storied figure, a part of the history of comics production and comic art that had yet, until this fascinating volume, to be told in any detail. A personal saga, a business history, and a detective story by a great-nephew pursuing a disappearing world: we have here a tasty package. For those interested in the popular culture angles of the American left, this makes an especially intriguing addition. A minor baron of the pulp world, Gleason supported left causes of all kinds by determined fundraising, meanwhile publishing a left-of-center imitation of the Readers Digest and even consulting the Daily Worker on how to win more readers.

During Gleason’s prime years of comics, the end of the 1930s through the middle 1950s, comics themselves were outselling any other periodical except the newspaper, and doing so with a market mostly (if by no means entirely) under 20 years of age. Gleason helped create this market through keen salesmanship and an eye to design. His very own comics, for reasons other than politics,  would lead in part to the….suppression of comics, a genre denounced and hated by the elite. His best-selling Crime Does Not Pay series (1942-55) could not be described as the most garish or violent of comics, but the outright sadism of the criminals, the “headlights” looks of the dames, this and more was unmistakably—popular! If never as popular as war and its perpetual American glorification in and out of comics.

But let’s start at the beginning. The author, a contributor to distinguished journals like Foreign Affairs and The Guardian, had to learn about his great-uncle second hand. Lev died before Dakin was born. He learned  only by his own research that Lev was the grandson of a prominent supporter of abolitionism in the border states of Kentucky and Ohio—not a small or even very safe thing to be. In family lore, Lev himself was the left-leaning financial dynamo who made a fortune and lost it. Also not a small thing.

A Bostonian mustered out of the Army in 1919, Lev wanted to make money (he had at least one ex-wife to support) and went into the magazine business as an advertising manager for a kids’ publication. He took his experience to New York in 1932, and became an advertising manager at Eastern Color Printing, an auspicious spot. Eastern actually did the printing of most of the Funny Pages of the big East Coast papers. Gleason has at least a solid claim, if not the only existing claim,  to have invented the comic book format: 64 page booklets full of comics.

Far from over-the-counter, these were first sold to corporations as give-aways. But Lev and his friends convinced Eastern to let them try selling the pamphlets at newspaper outlets, starting in 1934. The dime comic was born or rather pre-born, because only a year later did a comic appear with all original material rather than reprints from the newspaper comic pages.

As the earliest editor of Tip Top Comics, Gleason made his first and most spectacular blunder: passing on the strip by a couple of young Jewish guys from Cleveland, called Super-Man. You could say this error cost him millions. In charge of Superman, he might have avoided the dreadful cheating of the artist and scriptwriter by the comics corporations.

Gleason pressed onward and Silver Streak Comics appeared just in time for the comics’ Golden Age, helping to make it possible. The soon-to-be-famous artist Jack Cole came up with a dreaded character, The Claw, and action scenes hinted at one of Gleason’s favorite motifs in the years to come: the scantily clad maiden, obviously in trouble but also somehow tempting (psychoanalytic critics would describe comic books  as faintly masturbatory).

Daredevil, Comic House, August 1941

Daredevil, of this book’s title, was for years Gleason’s meal ticket. A handsome agent of derring do, he could punch Hitler in the face (even if no one was doing so in real life) without raising a sweat. But to make the comic work big, Gleason had to buy a “few million pages of pulp” on a promise of turning the comic around in a couple weeks in 1941. With several more of the artists and letterers destined to become famous in the business, especially Charles Biro, they did it. Daredevil was a smash hit.

But this was only one side of Gleason’s inclinations. The Popular Front oriented Theater Arts Committee (TAC) had made a name during the 1930s, bringing elements of progressive theater to ordinary audiences, but it re-blossomed along with other such entities in the antifascist war years. Gleason raised thousands of dollars for the TAC as he did for the Joint Anti-Fascist Rescue Committee, and a large handful of others, most of them destined to be placed upon the Attorney General’s list of “subversives,” despite most having actually ceased operation or even existence during the years shortly after the War.

Gleason had also published Friday, a popular magazine that set out in 1940 to gain part of the booming magazine audience, but did not have the advertisers to survive a single year. More important, he published Reader’s Scope (1945-49), a  lively, pocket-sized, leftish version and would-be rival to the ubiquitous Readers’ Digest, with condensed versions of articles from the liberal press. Salute (1946-48) aimed at the returning GI, was no success. There were still other unsuccessful magazines, proving that he had ideas, probably not quite the right time for them or the financial backing, but he pushed the antifascist, reform and anti-racist message forward.

Amidst all this, Gleason lived rather palatially in suburban Chappaqua,  New York, until the middle 1950s. Publishing a liberal daily  (New Castle News) to combat the local conservatives, entertaining guests of all kinds, he traveled regularly to the city with or without his family for what one could properly call anti-fascist popular culture. He was a personality of his place and time, as anyone could see. And then it fell apart.

Pursued by the FBI, Gleason also bravely fought the threatened repression of comics that was coming in the wake of the Red Scare. Indeed, the charges made against the Reds and comics were surprisingly similar, out of the mouths of rightwingers:  Jews were corrupting Christian youths. You could say that William Gaines, publisher of EC Comics, faced the same enemies, but of course, Bill Gaines was an honest (Jewish) liberal without the dangerous political connections. Gaines turned the generalized collapse of the comic industry into the vast triumph of Mad Magazine. Gleason had no such backstop, at least not in publishing.

A real estate salesman in Upstate New York, living with his family in a small house, he was cut off from a sparkling social life. These had been shut down by McCarthyism anyway. Gleason survived for a while. He died in 1971. A year earlier, in a message to fellow Harvard graduates, he embraced the civil rights and antiwar movements that respectables shunned, evidently celebrating the renewal of the American Left.

Author Brett Dakin purses this part of his great-uncle’s life by driving around, talking to old people, and by checking FBI documents. It’s a change of pace for the book, but welcome in its highly personal tone. Dakin is a family member looking for roots, like so many others. He found the most interesting great uncle that almost anyone could find. I wish I had someone like that in the family tree.

Paul Buhle is the rare leftwing scholar of comics. He is coeditor of the Paul Robeson comic, to be published in October, and drawn by Sharon Rudahl.

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Indiegogo: THE EIGHTH, a New Adventure Comic

THE EIGHTH

The Eighth is a very impressive new comic book (now on Indiegogo) by Adam Lawson (writer/director of the YouTube Original series Escape The Night, and the gaming shows Tabletop and Spellslingers) and Lawson’s longtime collaborator, Jorin Evers. First, this is the premise: an epic adventure featuring two teenagers, David Wells and Emma Adachi, who unlock a piece of ancient Sumerian armor, but mismanage its power and end up committing murder. Before they know it, they find themselves on a terrifying journey to change or destroy the world with no going back. Now, the goal of the current Indiegogo campaign is to collect all the issues of the comic book into a glorious 200-page glossy trade paperback. As Adam Lawson puts it:

For almost two years, Jorin and I have slaved away on the pages completing five of the eight issues and given away all of our free time. With your contributions, we can take this across the finish and deliver into your hands, in stunning glossy print, the 200-page story of David, the 8th and his misfit friends.

David & Emma

Taking a close look at the first issue in this series, I see a well-paced story that got my attention right from the start. Writer/creator Adam Lawson and artist Jorin Evers deliver a gritty story playing with teenage wasteland tropes that ring very true. David is the math whiz who is being raised by his mother and aunt. Emma is a teen who ran away from her foster family and lives in the same house with David. Things look pretty dire and bleak. But there’s something about both David and Emma that leaves the reader wondering. There’s that touch of strange that means everything. Infused with just the right doses of horror, science fiction, and dark fantasy, this all adds up to a most unique and compelling story.

Out to save the world.

It will be up to David to see if he can rise to the challenge. As they say in scientific circles, the cat in the box is both alive and dead up until the box is opened. David makes the choice to open the box and find out. All along the way, the reader gets deeper into the action and more involved with the characters in unexpected ways. For instance, aloof and quiet Emma has got quite a steamy crush on David. The art by Jorin Evers brings it all to life with vivid energy. Lawson and Evers nicely set it up and then, bang, the reader is rewarded with a new twist on the superhero mythos. That twist is definitely there with just the right set of circumstances. Like any good thriller, it all comes down to being careful for what you wish for. But what’s the fun in being so careful, right? That’s the devil’s bargain that David and Emma will have to deal with. The promo material already alludes to a cosmic connection with Sumerian antiquity. Well, without spoiling anything, Lawson and Evers bring you a superhero story for a new generation, full of ugly truth and full of righteous fury. The Eighth truly feels like something new, a fresh take on superheroes, and that’s saying a lot.

Heroes Emerge!

THE EIGHTH has got just what you’re looking for in a story that’s not afraid to blast through the page. Check out the Indiegogo campaign right here. And you really need to check out the animated book trailer, only available by visiting the Indiegogo campaign.

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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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Disney/Sony Split Inspires #SaveSpiderman and #SaveSpidey 

#SaveSpiderman and #SaveSpidey. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

This was a shaky situation right from the start: one mega-corporation owns a universe of beloved superheroes; and another mega-corporation owns one of the most beloved characters from that same universe! How is that going to work? For a brief shining moment, it looked like Disney and Sony could play nice and live in a world where Spider-Man could frolick  freely right along with his fellow Avengers. But no more, at least not for now. Disney and Sony simply cannot play nice. Fans have their own opinions on that and have #SaveSpiderman and #SaveSpidey trending like crazy. We wish all involved the best of luck! Tom Holland would have made a great Spider-Man right alongside The Avengers.

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Comics Review: ‘DC Comics: Anatomy of a Metahuman’

DC COMICS: ANATOMY OF A METAHUMAN

DC Comics: Anatomy of a Metahuman is another entertaining and informative title from Insight Editions. This is something that will appeal to teen readers and up. Whatever your level of knowledge of superheroes, particularly from DC Comics, this book is quite appealing. A “metahuman” can mean a lot of things and, in the DC Universe, it is a superhuman power. That includes the most prominent names like Superman and Aquaman as well as lesser know characters like The Cheetah and Martian Manhunter.

This book examines in detail, with bold illustrations, the powers of twelve characters. It’s an investigation carried out by, none other than, Bruce Wayne. So, Batman himself guides the reader through this top secret dossier. You never know what to expect with these metahumans, friend or foe. For the most part, these are villains. Some have gained in prominence since gracing the silver screen, like Bane and Doomsday.

Bruce Wayne doggedly pursues the secrets to Superman’s superpowers.

In the hierarchy of metahumans, it’s hard to judge the order of significance. Each can become a star within context. And often the most interesting things are going on with the least known. And, with that in mind, this book makes for an intriguing collection.

There is a fun and natural flow to this book. The reader will be delighted with the meticulous reporting by Bruce Wayne. He definitely gives it his all in attempting to dissect Superman. The reader will enjoy following Wayne’s obsessive search and question alongside him as he ponders such things as: “While it would explain many of his feats, is negative mass effect even the likeliest reason for his abilities?” In a sense, this dossier is a story within a story.

Wayne goes on to turn his attention to The Cheetah, Aquaman, and on down the line. This is a wonderful way to become more familiar with the DC Universe, all under the metahuman theme. Without a doubt, this is another great title from Insight Editions.

DC Comics: Anatomy of a Metahuman is a 160-page full color hardcover available as of September 18, 2018. For more details, visit Insight Editions right here.

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China the New Hollywood? And with Superhero Movies?!

THE ELECTRIC STATE, a graphic novel by Simon Stålenhag, soon to be a major motion picture.

China is the new Hollywood. Who knew? Big studio director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger) left Hollywood in favor of China years ago. Indeed, China is the world’s fastest-growing movie market. That said, China is poised to deliver its own blockbuster. As reported by The Wall Street Journal, much depends upon the Russo Brothers. Never heard of them? Well, you’ve definitely heard of the movies they’ve directed for Marvel. You know, some of the ones starring Captain America and the whole merry crew of Avengers. They are currently completing the next installment, “Avengers: Infinity War,” due for release on April 27, 2018.

Abra, Odessa Young, Hari Nef and Suki Waterhouse appear in Assassination Nation by Sam Levinson, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2018 Sundance Film festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The Russo brothers have recently joined with Agbo, a production company backed by China’s largest private film company, Huayi Brothers Media Corp. The goal is for Agbo to make its own superhero movies and/or related blockbuster movies. However, just because you could bankroll a successful superhero movie doesn’t mean you have the golden touch. There’s a whole graveyard of clunker superhero movies backed by buckets of money. But Agbo has cherry picked from the best. They also have the writers from the next Avengers movie working on projects. And there have been some very interesting developments.

Directors Joe Russo, left, and brother Anthony Russo at a press event last year at Durham Cathedral in England, a location for their forthcoming ‘Avengers: Infinity War,’ slated for release in April. PHOTO: MIRRORPIX/COURTESY EVERETT COLLECTION

The most exciting project is an adaptation of “The Electric State,” a science-fiction graphic novel the brothers see as having franchise potential, directed by Andy Muschietti, best known for last year’s “It.”

Another exciting prospect, in conjunction with the new independent distributor Neon, is a $10 million buy for distribution rights to “Assassination Nation,” a teen-girl revenge thriller that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

So, China is the New Hollywood? Well, not exactly but definitely on the right track.

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Review: THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF NICK WILSON #1 (of 5)

THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF NICK WILSON #1

You know how some comics get you right away? This is one of them. In fact, I’ll say THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF NICK WILSON has provided me with just the spark I need–and inspired me to start my Best of 2018 list. This is for everyone who regularly follows comics as well as anyone who enjoys sly humor.

The aches and pains of post-superhero life.

Amid all the stories out there that are deconstructing the superhero genre, what I find here already is a good dose of that X factor: Nick Wilson, our down-and-out ex-superhero, is a guy we can relate to and we want to like. Nick has not only lost his superpowers but he has lost something even more precious, his zest for life. Thus, our story: maybe he makes a comeback; or maybe he has an epiphany.

It is important to note the impressive writing talent here. The story is by writer/producer Eddie Gorodetsky. His credits include Desert Bus, Mom, Two and a Half Men, Dharma & Greg, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Mike & Molly, Saturday Night Live, SCTV Network 90, and Late Night with David Letterman. And this comic is written by Marc Andreyko, a comic book writer and screenwriter, known for his work on books such as Manhunter for DC Comics, and Torso, a creator-owned true crime series he wrote with Brian Michael Bendis. I sense from this first issue a real love for spinning the mundane foibles of life into compelling entertainment. Yes, indeed, funny stuff can be made of Nick Wilson, the former superstar, who has let himself become a low rent loser.

Despite Nick’s determined slide into mediocrity, there are signs that he seeks redemption. Even lower on the food chain, a permanent bottom feeder, is Nick’s so-called manager. Nick instinctively despises him. While all too prone to lying on the couch with his bong, there seems to be a flicker of hope. Ironically, Nick seems to be a bit more introspective now that all the fame and glory is behind him.

Sounds interesting, no? It’s not easy to really make a superhero character interesting but it works here, both with the writing and the art. Steve Sadowski’s art is masterfully natural, smooth, and funny. And that’s saying a lot. It takes a special skill, and sensitivity, to genuinely convey humor in a superhero comic book, even an ironic anti-superhero comic book. Oh, sure, there are many fine examples but there are only so many of them–and this is one of them. So, definitely, go take a look. We’ll go ahead and give this the highest rating. 10/10.

THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF NICK WILSON #1 is available as of January 17, 2018. For more details, visit Image Comics right here.

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Review: MISTER MIRACLE (2017) #2

MISTER MIRACLE, script by Tom King; art by Mitch Gerads

I have not been following a Batman title, or any mainstream superhero tile, for quite a while. But all that has changed with just one name: Tom King. As many of you already know, King is the man on Batman. He’s a writer who knows when and how to expand on a moment as he recently did with a whole issue devoted to a certain gathering for dinner (see Batman #29). And then there’s his work on Mister Miracle. King has brought back the character first created by Jack Kirby in 1971. For this latest 12-issue run, Tom King’s script is decidedly existential. Our hero, Scott Free, happens to be one of the fabulous New Gods. His backstory is a little complicated. Think Wonder Woman. To add to the complexity, Scott hides his secret identity as a world-renown escape artist. And, lately, he’s been struggling with his greatest challenge of all: Scott wants to escape death.

So far so good. Any story with a guy dancing with the Grim Reaper gets my attention. What wins me over is the everyday moments between Scott and Barda. They’re, in many respects, just a typical young married couple. Maybe they take each other for granted sometimes. Maybe they push each other’s buttons at other times. That sort of thing. But they’re also awesome superheroes, right? King and artist Mitch Gerads (The Punisher) keep that balance working very nicely. Frankly, any talk, at least at first, of New Genesis and Darkseid and my eyes will fully glaze over. Maybe I’d get into it after a while. I just need a hook. Honestly, all of us readers need something to hook into and the truth is that few of us are going to care as much about the superhero stuff without first investing in the characters. That said, this creative team understands that very well.

Barda and Scott

Okay, so now for the finer points. The comic pretty much sticks to a grid of nine panels per page. It’s a great look and King and Gerads can get really creative with this more arty approach. Well, I say “arty” as I think of that nine panel grid as definitely calling attention to itself. It has a great deal of potential as seen in other titles such as Hawkeye from Marvel Comics. King and Gerads have made good use of this structure for both dramatic and comedic affect. There’s a moment where Scott and Barda must go through the ritual of kneeling before their leader, the Highfather. It’s an extended moment that allows for all the necessary timing. But you’d expect that sort of thing from King, king of the pregnant pauses. It’s totally funny. Now, I’m just wondering if we’re simply going to see more and more of the nine panel grid as it works so well on mobile devices. Hopefully, we’ll always have the Kings of comics overseeing quality control with excellent content.

MISTER MIRACLE #2 is available as of September 13, 2017. For more details, visit DC Comics right here.

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A New European Batman Graphic Novel: ‘The Dark Prince Charming’ by Enrico Marini

MARINI’s BATMAN!

French publisher Dargaud caused plenty of buzz when it announced last month a two-volume Batman graphic novel by legendary European comics creator Enrico Marini (Le Scorpion, Eagles of Rome, Gipsy). By itself, that is exciting news. But there was no news about a simultaneously published English version. Perhaps that was a secret that can only now be revealed. DC has just announced that it will be publishing this work, entitled, “Batman: The Dark Prince Charming.” Now, that’s some Batman news!

MARINI’s CATWOMAN!

With this work, Enrico Marini will make his American comics and mainstream superhero debut. If you’ve seen his work for “Le Scorpion,” for instance, you can expect some cool swagger. And Batman will need all his confidence for this new story as he confronts his arch-nemesis The Joker. According to the DC press release, what distinguishes this story from other Batman tales is that this time, “it’s personal!” When has it not been personal when it comes to these two characters? Whatever the case, this time, Batman is…European! And let’s not lose sight of another character in this tale: Catwoman! I will have more to say about Catwoman in an upcoming post.

MARINI’s BATCAVE!

Here is the official description of the story according to DC:

What secret connection do both Batman and The Joker share with a strange and mysterious young girl? After she’s kidnapped by The Joker, Batman must plunge deep into the underworld of Gotham City and race against time to find out where she’s being held. The stakes are high, and for Batman, it’s personal!

MARINI’s GOTHAM CITY!

Pretty cool news however you spin it! Book one of Batman: The Dark Prince Charming will be in stores on November 1, 2017. Look for book two coming in spring 2018!

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Filed under Batman, Catwoman, Comics, Dargaud, DC Comics, DC Entertainment, Enrico Marini

Review: THE GUMAZING GUM GIRL: GUM LUCK

THE GUMAZING GUM GIRL: GUM LUCK

GUM LUCK is the second in the Gumazing Gum Girl series, published by Disney-Hyperion Books, and it is as irreverent and quirky as you may expect. Illustrated by Rhode Montijo, written by Montijo, with Luke Reynolds, this is a perfect book for young readers. This book is hilarious and there is method to all the madness too. Gabby Gomez has quite a conflict to deal with: bubblegum gives Gabby superpowers but her dentist dad is totally against bubblegum. Gabby feels compelled to confess her big gum secret but she can’t risk losing her powers.

Reading GUM GIRL

The script by Montijo and Reynolds provides a fun mix of kid reality and kid fantasy. For example, in one chapter, Gabby is alarmed to see a car skidding its way towards a collision. Instantly, Gabby sets loose her gum powers and brings the car to a sticky, but safe, stop. However, once Gabby arrives at school, she discovers her permission slip to go to the zoo is covered in bubblegum. Without a readable permission slip, Gabby is forced to stay behind in a classroom with other kids who can’t go to the zoo.

Pages from THE GUMAZING GUM GIRL: GUM LUCK

Montijo’s bold artwork is a real treat and keeps the action moving along. Montijo has managed to channel is own take on the Power Puff Girls. Gabby Gomez and her family are easy to relate to while Gum Girl is whimsical and fun to follow along. Montijo offers up a very pleasant and animated style. It is spare and clear and will be especially appealing to a younger age group of ages 6-8. This book also happens to have a pleasing hint of bubblegum scent!

THE GUMAZING GUM GIRL: GUM LUCK is a 160-page color hardcover, available as of June 13th. You can find it at Amazon right here.

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