Batwoman, Ghostbusters, Pedrosa's Portugal, Debuter Gooch, Halderman/Marvano, and Much More | Graphic Novels Reviews

A fantastic introduction to Batwoman's world; expectations for this volume, already a best seller in France, will be high; Hopkins’s writing is relevant, funny, and warm; for readers preferring shivers to screams; this gorgeous and intricately illustrated edition is sure to catch the eye of a new generation of fans

Year in Review: 2017 “Now comics are getting way more love across the board,” exulted Marjorie Liu (Monstress) last June during LJ’s webcast “Graphically Different.” Liu also teaches comics writing—at MIT, no less. Elsewhere in the library world, the New York Public Library took over New York Comic Con’s librarian/educator content, tripling the programming. The Library of Congress began archiving webcomics and exhibited some of its own comics collection during the Awesome Con in Washington, DC. The American Library Association presented a webcast about “Hosting Your Own Comic Con,” and LJ featured luminaries such as Gene Luen Yang, Sheena C. Howard, and Jill Thompson at a recent daylong virtual event, LibraryCon Live!

A comics-as-literature trend continued as Watchmen joined Sandman in gaining an annotated edition. Celebrity authors newly embracing graphic narrative include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Mycroft Holmes and the Apocalypse Handbook), Philip Pullman (The Adventures of John Blake), and Marie Kondo (The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up). Academic publishers, such as Princeton University Press, which released in 2017 its first graphic history, Steven and Ben Nadler’s Heretics! (Xpress Reviews 7/21/17), follow the lead of Oxford in issuing nonfiction graphic narratives. Philadelphia’s Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse snagged a Cities Challenge grant from the Knight Foundation.

And the rush of nonfiction titles continues from nonacademic publishing, especially about hot topics such as drone warfare (Pratap Chatterjee & Khalil’s Verax), the refugee crisis (Kate Evans’s Threads), and health/medicine (Marissa Moss’s Last Things).

Any challenges? According to ICv2’s Milton Griepp, reporting at the New York Comic Con, comic book sales are flat or decreasing, and so are comics shop sales overall. But graphic novels are booming—in book distribution channels. NPD BookScan’s Kristen McLean added that one-third of comics buyers through book channels identify as female, and children’s titles are driving growth.—MC

Bennett, Marguerite & James Tynion IV (text) & Steve Epting & others (illus.). Batwoman. Vol. 1: The Many Arms of Death. DC. 2017. 168p. ISBN 9781401274306. pap. $16.99. superhero

When a terrorist network armed with fantastic and horrifying bioweapons begins targeting civilian populations, Batwoman and her partner Julia Pennyworth commit themselves to saving the day. The trail leads our heroes to Coryana, a small, lawless island nation, where Batwoman is even less welcome than her alter ego, Kate Kane, who visited years earlier and left more than a few loose ends. Authors Bennett (DC Comics: Bombshells) and Tynion (Detective Comics) craft an action adventure that doubles as a character study of the protagonist. Batwoman proves to be just as driven and haunted as her male counterpart, here distinguished as a more cutting-edge, technologically savvy superhero for the 21st century. Epting (Velvet), one of the top superhero artists in the business, delivers illustration that remains gritty and grounded even as the action reaches blockbuster levels. Collects the stand-alone ­Batwoman: Rebirth and single issues 1–6 of the “Batwoman” series. VERDICT ­Batwoman is one of the most exciting new characters introduced in the last ten years, and this first collection of her latest on­going series serves as a fantastic introduction to her world.—TB

Biondi, Flavia. Generations. Lion Forge. 2017. 144p. tr. from Italian by Carla Roncalli di Montorio. ISBN 9781941302507. pap. $14.99. literary

After breaking up with his lover in Milan, Matteo stumbles home to his provincial family unwillingly. He’s been estranged from his father since coming out, his beloved grandmother Nan is declining fast, and he gets a checkered reception from the trio of aunts caring for her. Plus, supported financially by his lover for three years, he now lacks skills or experience, floundering at loose ends until pushed into the role of Nan’s nurse. Biondi’s (La giusta mezura) slice-of-life story develops in micro­progressions as ­Matteo gradually finds reward and pleasure in helping his grandmother. And as he spends time with the family, he realizes that he’s been self-centered most of his life. Yet he can change, and joy in belonging can come to him. The black-and-white art uses greyscale with a light touch, conveying subtle emotion through faces, poses, and background cutaways. VERDICT This perceptive portrait of emotional maturing shows how one’s misstep or step forward sets off a resonance throughout the interlocking cultural system that each family creates. Fans of manga by Natsume Ono and Fumi Yoshinaga should like this one.—MC

Burnham, Erik (text) & Dan Schoening (illus.). Ghostbusters 101: Everyone Answers the Call. IDW. 2017. 162p. ISBN . pap. $19.99. SF

When the Environmental Protection Agency threatens the Ghostbusters with huge fines for “introducing a toxic element [in]to a residential area,” Peter-the-opportunist talks fellow paranormal exterminators Ray, Egon, and Winston into accepting paying student interns. But the “kids” get itchy fingers and in messing with the equipment trigger an inter­dimensional merge. Fortunately, alt-­reality Ghostbusters Abby, Erin, Holtzy, and Patty get transported to Peter’s reality, bringing double the expertise—and loopyness—to the crisis. The characters derive from all three Ghostbuster films, and the numerous spirits released by the disturbance include the great whale Moby Dick himself. Burnham (Ghostbusters; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) dives back into the technobabble-heavy dialog with obvious relish, and his frequent collaborator Schoening brings a cockeyed view to the misadventure. Expect still more cool futuristic gear, improbable solutions to fantastic problems, and the characters’ intermixture of skill and incompetence. ­VERDICT Newbies to the Ghostbuster universe will appreciate the appendix about the “science” of ghostbusting in this hilarious team-up of an expanded set of characters that enriches the wildly popular catalog of franchise films, animations, games, and prior ­comics.—MC

Cornell, Paul (text) & Ryan Kelly (illus.). Saucer Country. IDW. 2017. 320p. ISBN 9781684050956. pap. $29.99. SF

Arcadia Alvarado, governor of New Mexico, has set her sights on the U.S. presidency. Immigration policy, the economy, and concern for all citizens become her campaign’s key points. But she fears that she and her ex-husband were abducted by aliens. Enter a supporting cast of UFO scholars, UFO believers, staffers for both presidential candidates, those mysterious men in dark glasses, and the aliens—maybe. Can Arcadia win and save the world from invasion? A Hugo Award nominee originally published 2012–13, Cornell’s (Wolverine; Dr. Who) insightful mashup of UFOlogy and political chicanery reads as remarkably relevant to the 2016 election with its female candidate and its “fake news” meme. What’s true? What’s fabrication? And what’s simply a mystery—for now? The ending reveals just enough to satisfy, while leaving key stones to unturn in the forthcoming Saucer State. Kelly’s realistic art in subdued colors gives the aura of a documentary. VERDICT With multiple entangled plot threads to wallow in, this déjà vu satire of politics and credibility will entertain sf fans and those intrigued by how mythologies about aliens reflect ourselves.—MC

Franklin, Tee (text) & Jenn St-Onge & Joy San (illus.). Bingo Love. Inclusive: Image. Feb. 2018. 88p. ISBN 9781534307506. pap. $9.99. LGBT ROMANCE

It’s the 1960s, decades before the ­Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision legalized gay marriage. Thirteen-year-old Hazel helps new kid Mari get acquainted with their school, and the girls become best friends. Five years later, they recognize a bond way past friendship, but their horrified African American families force a separation. Regretfully, each woman gets married and starts a family, having lost track of the other, but a chance meeting over Bingo nearly 50 years later—both are now grandmothers—upends everyone’s expectations. Franklin, who created #BlackComicsMonth, makes her full-length graphic novel debut with this black-queer romance that began as a Kickstarter campaign pulling nearly three times its funding goal. St-Onge (Jem and the Holograms: The Misfits) brings a curvy charm to the characters, and fans of Alison Bechdel’s Dykes To Watch Out For may see similarities in the wonderfully expressive faces and clothing details. VERDICT Teens and young adults tend to dominate love plots, so it’s refreshing to see a romantic tale built around people who age from adolescence through elderhood. Delightful yet realistic, the teen-graded story also works for adults and sophisticated tweens. Indirect sexual references.—MC

redstarGooch, Chris. Bottled. Top Shelf: IDW. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9781603094207. pap. $19.99. F

DEBUT Jane is bored. Her boyfriend is self-absorbed, her mother and philandering stepfather bicker endlessly. She wishes she had a more exciting, bohemian lifestyle, far from the suburbs. When her college friend Natalie, now a successful fashion model living in Japan, comes home to visit, Jane can barely muster the energy to pick her up from the airport. In his debut graphic novel, Australian cartoonist and author Gooch presents what seems like a standard tale of millennial disaffection, until a night out with Natalie ends with a confession of betrayal that leads to Jane making a shocking decision that veers the story into noir territory. Readers might be stunned to discover that this is Gooch’s first book, as he demonstrates a masterly sense of storytelling and character development, as well as a fantastic knack for color and pacing. In many scenes, notes of alienation or dread radiate from the smallest gesture. VERDICT Thriller and crime fiction fans are sure to embrace this ­unnervingly dark, expertly crafted volume that announces Gooch as a creator to watch.—TB

The Graphic Canon of Crime and Mystery. Vol. 1: From Sherlock Holmes to A Clockwork Orange to Jo Nesbø. Seven Stories. 2017. 352p. ed. by Russ Kick. ISBN 9781609807856. pap. $29.95. Mys

Seven Stories continues its “Graphic Canon” anthology series, this time taking a deep dive into the rich and diverse world of crime fiction. Featuring adaptations of famous crime classics, most of which were created specifically for this volume, this work displays a range of absolutely stunning talent. From a relatively straight­forward depiction of the murder scene in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment to a wildly experimental take on Stanley ­Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, editor Kick (The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature) presents a fantastic survey of the literature concerned with criminal activity, as well as a primer on everything possible in the graphic format. Kick organizes these radical visions and interpretations in three thematic sections: “The Act,” which focuses on depictions of crime; “Whodunnit,” which details mysteries and famous detectives; and “Judgment,” which deals with fallout and punishment and highlights parallels among stories written centuries apart. VERDICT Most of the 30 selections here adapt single chapters or scenes from their source material, which might cause some consternation among readers looking for a more immersive experience. But as an introduction to the crime genre, this edition is second to none.—TB

redstarHalderman, Joe (text) & Marvano (illus.). The Forever War. Titan Comics. 2017. 144p. ISBN 9781785860898. pap. $19.99. SF

This adaptation of American author Haldeman’s classic 1974 sf novel follows college physics student William Mandella as he’s conscripted into the UN Exploratory Force and sent into space to face an unknown alien threat. Readers hoping that this setup will result in thrilling action set pieces won’t be disappointed, but Haldeman (War Year) and illustrator Marvano (The Jewish Brigade) have deeper concerns. Our protagonist finds himself engaged in a conflict he doesn’t understand, which seems increasingly unnecessary and dictated by the whims of bureaucrats far from the fighting. A return home from the war finds him struggling to fit into a culture that has changed and moved on since he’s been away. His friends and family view him as a relic, and his government seems determined to use him as a cog in their propaganda machine. Alternately pulse-pounding, brutal, and heartbreakingly tender, this original novel was first written as a response to the Vietnam War yet still resonates today. VERDICT Released in France in 1988 and recently made available here, this gorgeous and intricately illustrated edition is sure to catch the eye of a new generation of fans.—TB

Leheup, Jody & Sebastian Girner (text) & Nil Vendrell & others (illus.). Shirtless Bear-Fighter. Vol. 1. Image. 2017. 160p. ISBN 9781534305304. pap. $16.99. COMICS

This gloriously goofy action epic from former Marvel editors Leheup and Girner and rising artist Vendrell introduces a new kind of hero in the form of the titular hirsute macho man. Raised by a race of civilized bears until a tragedy saw him eschew society and embrace a solitary life of bear slaughter in the woods, Shirtless Bear-Fighter is the only one capable of saving the day when an evil industrialist with an army of bears at his disposal launches attacks upon cities across the United States. Before long, our hero himself is in the middle of a vast conspiracy with ties to his own tragic origins. Collecting the entire five single issues of the series, this volume is about as silly as it sounds. And while the humor works a tad better when it veers more absurd and less scatological (and it does get fairly scatological), it’s a total blast to spend some time in this very strange, bizarrely well-developed world. VERDICT Featuring almost as many jokes as Shirtless Bear-Fighter has hairs in his thick, inky black beard and an admirable devotion to a ridiculous concept, this title has the exact right energy to garner a huge ­following.—TB

Niffenegger, Audrey (text) & Eddie Campbell (illus.). Bizarre Romance. Comics Arts: Abrams. Mar. 2018. 168p. ISBN 9781419728532. $24.99. stories

Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife; The Night Bookmobile) writes tales of wistful unease, normality morphing gently into the weird. Campbell (From Hell; Bacchus), Niffenegger’s husband, has illustrated numerous genres, including memoir and horror. For these 13 selections, many previously published, his color storybookish drawings “grow on the lattice each story provides.” Some appear as comics, some as illustrated text, and some as mostly text. A man with angels in his attic calls an exterminator but then adopts one as a pet. A woman on a cruise wishes her life had been different—and it happens. Two pieces imagine backstory for real events: a young model photographed getting out of bed by Eadweard Muybridge, and Charles Altamont Doyle painting fairies. In a clever take on post­romance blues, a woman ruminates about former boyfriends, concluding: “Next time he will be perfect. Next time.” Campbell illustrates this with a simplified naked male paper doll, surrounded by various clothes, accessories, and body parts. ­VERDICT This unsettling collection touches on many facets of relationships and how intentions fall short. Niffenegger and Campbell’s delicate not-quite-horror will appeal to readers preferring shivers to screams.—MC

Marra, Benjamin. Night Business. Fantagraphics. 2017. 240p. ISBN 9781683960706. $24.99. sf

A masked slasher who preys upon exotic dancers, an evil secret society, nefarious gangsters, a masked vigilante seeking vengeance, plenty of motorcycle mayhem, and copious machine guns all feature in the latest, extremely graphic work from Marra (Terror Assaulter O.M.W.O.T. [One Man War on Terror]). Over the course of his career, Marra has specialized in crafting stories that feel somehow less like parodies of 1980s trash culture (B horror and action movies, cheap paperback novels, etc.) and more as though he’s parodying the mind-set that might have taken that material a little too seriously. His ideal audience might be a seething teenager waiting outside the principal’s office while administrators decide his punish­ment for carving the name of his favorite metal band into his teacher’s leg. In this, probably his magnum opus, Marra combines a manic glee for pushing the violence and carnality on display to new extremes with a strange sincerity. While the story is often purposefully overwrought, it’s never senseless. VERDICT Marra’s work isn’t for everyone, but readers nostalgic for old exploitation films or a sense of humor that skews toward the preposterous are sure to greet this one with real enthusiasm.—TB

redstarPedrosa, Cyril. Portugal. NBM. 2017. 264p. tr. from French by Montana Kane. ISBN 9781681121475. $39.99. biographical f

Cartoonist Simon Muchat is drifting through his 30s, stuck in a rut. His work has stalled, owing to a lack of inspiration; his relationship with longtime girlfriend Claire is falling apart; and he’s wasting his time working as an art teacher to make ends meet. Worst of all, Simon doesn’t seem to mind that he’s going nowhere. An invitation to attend a comic book convention in Lisbon, Portugal, where he lived briefly as a child, stirs something in Simon, encouraging him to visit his somewhat estranged extended family. A summary of the plot here doesn’t quite do the book justice, as it isn’t what happens to Simon that makes this semiautobiographical tale from award winner Pedrosa (Equinoxes) special. It’s the way Pedrosa allows Simon’s story to build slowly, creating scenes in which characters speak and interact with a naturalism rare in any genre, resulting in absolutely brilliant, lively illustration that threatens to leap off the page. VERDICT Expectations for this volume, already a best seller in France, will be high. Luckily, this masterpiece is actually even better than the hype.—TB

Ribon, Pamela (text) & Cat Farris (illus.). My Boyfriend Is a Bear. Oni. Apr. 2018. 176p. ISBN 9781620104873. pap. $19.99. GRAPHIC NOVELS

Twentysomething Nora bounces numerous suitors for oddball flaws (like wearing suspenders), but when she drunkenly invites a hungry black bear in to raid the refrigerator, it’s mutual fireworks—and suddenly flaws dwindle to mere challenges. Surprisingly considerate and tender, Bear learns to wear clothes and builds shelves for the cat. Nora adapts to his appetite and messiness and sticks up for him when friends protest. We could take this as a parable about what folks do for amour (chemistry always wins out) and that anyone’s knotty courtship problems can be handled. But mostly it’s just good fun with nothing icky or salacious. Ribon boasts numerous writing credits at Disney, including serving as a consultant on DisneyNature’s Bears. Farris (Emily and the Strangers) works the rom-com formula to the hilt in a colorful cartoony style, using chibi figures occasionally for extreme emotions. VERDICT A sort of alt-Disney meets Jane Austen, this delightful confection showcases an unconventional relationship that will pull giggles and snuffles from romance lovers.—MC

Sulaiman, Hamid. Freedom Hospital: A Syrian Story. Interlink. Mar. 2018. 288p. tr. from French by Francesca Barrie. ISBN 9781623719944. $40; pap. 9781623719951. $20. f

Syria’s ongoing civil war began as mostly peaceful people’s protests against Bashar al-Assad’s repressive regime. But when Assad responded with violence, the opposition expanded to include armed revolutionaries plus groups of radical Islamists, some with Daesh/ISIS affiliation. Sulaiman, who fled Syria in 2011, based this fictionalized account on actual events. It’s 2012, and pharmacist Yasmin runs a clandestine hospital near the Turkish border, treating the wounded without taking sides. Around her the chaos intensifies and more people die, combatants and civilians alike. Front-matter profiles introduce the characters: clinicians, patients, and locals of all factions, each with allegiances and betrayals. Sulaiman works in stark, expressionist black and white, his images like glimpses lit by explosions seen while running. In some panels, text blocks identify weaponry as “made in Russia” or “made in the U.S.,” indicating outside support for the various parties in the struggle. VERDICT This devastating, intimate view of a complex international tragedy bypasses easy labeling to empathize with all participants as victims. An English PEN’s Writers in Translation grantee and a compelling read for book groups and concerned Anglophones.—MC

Additional Graphic Novels

Hopkins, Suzy (text) & Hallie Bateman (illus.). What To Do When I’m Gone: A Mother’s Wisdom to Her Daughter. Bloomsbury USA. Apr. 2018. 144p. ISBN 9781632869685. $22. GRAPHIC MEMOIR

In her early 20s, artist/writer Bateman (Brave New Work) spent a sleepless night imagining what her life would be like without her mother, author Hopkins (Friends & Neighbors magazine). To whom would she turn for advice about matters big and small? The next morning, Bateman asked her mom to write a guide that would prepare Bateman for her absence. This memoir is Hopkins’s reply to that request, paired with Bateman’s illustrations. The day-to-day list of instructions includes dealing with grief, encouragement in the face of adversity, and tips for making all sorts of decisions. Full of the kind of counsel that will have readers longing to call their own mother, the book additionally features recipes that, while lacking in precision, exemplify Hopkins’s charming, loving voice. Bateman’s naive, whimsical style and rich color palette augment the text, yet her drawings often feel awkward and tacked onto the daily meditations. In many places, they actually distract from the poignancy of the narrative’s message. ­Verdict Hopkins’s writing is relevant, funny, and warm; unfortunately, Bateman’s artwork does not possess the same qualities.— E.W. ­Genovese, Andrew Bayne Memorial Lib., ­Pittsburgh

redstarTomasi, Peter J. (text) & Sara Duvall (illus.). The Bridge: How the Roeblings Connected Brooklyn to New York. Comics Arts: Abrams. Apr. 2018. 208p. ISBN 9781419728525. $24.99. HIST

In 1865, engineer John Augustus Roebling set out to begin surveying the site of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge with the help of his son Washington. But John would not ever actually participate in its construction, as a fatal accident during a walk on the waterfront pier ultimately takes his life. Thus, the construction and convincing the Bridge Company trustees to put their faith in him now falls to Washington. In 1870, ­Washington begins to oversee construction of the first caisson. Unfortunately, the road to completing the structure is not without tragedy. Many of the workers die or develop decompression sickness, including Washington, whose illness results in intermittent paralysis and blindness. Enter Emily ­Roebling, who stands in to represent him to the trustees and at the bridge site as well. The journey for Emily and ­Washington is a hard one, fraught with doubt, sickness, and, ultimately a bittersweet triumph. Tomasi (House of ­Penance) brings together a story that depicts the labor of love that is the Brooklyn Bridge, while the drawings of debuter Duvall add a layer of passion through the expressions of characters in every panel. VERDICT With just the right balance of history and drama, this very well-done work keeps readers intrigued right to the end. The overall tension of what Washington and his family experience leaves an intense roller coaster of emotions at the end. Highly recommended. [See “Editors’ Spring Picks,” p. 31.—Ed.]— Laura McKinley, Huntington P.L., NY

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