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Before the Storm (Aero #1)

Zhou Liefen, Keng, and Greg Pak, trans. from the Mandarin by Yifan Jiang and Winni Woo. Marvel, $17.99 trade paper (136p) ISBN 978-1-302-91944-3

A wind-wielding heroine swoops into the Marvel universe in this airy English-language adaptation from the publisher’s new Chinese-original series. Lei Ling juggles her busy, fulfilling profession as an architect and date nights with her neglected “beautiful boyfriend,” Zou Yu, all while keeping a secret identity: she’s the superhero Aero, protector of Shanghai. With aerokinesis (wind powers), she battles buildings transformed into monsters by her mentor turned nemesis, Madame Huang. Aero challenges Madame Huang and her new apprentice Keystone, a hard-hitting rock man, saving citizens in between ducking out of an awkward dinner conversation with Zou, who seems ready to pop more than one big question to his suspicious-acting girlfriend. Aero’s got charm and a wry personality, and the briskly paced volume smoothly introduces her super-abilities and supporting cast. Keng’s art shows Manga influences, but otherwise doesn’t break from standard genre conventions (including Lei’s exaggerated bust for her slim/muscular figure). The dialogue’s simplistic, though with multiple jump cuts and flashbacks, readers may still need to go slow to keep track of things. This accessible opener adds international character to the Marvel line but plays it too tame with its career vs. romance story tropes. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Everything Is Beautiful, and I’m Not Afraid

Yao Xiao. Andrews McMeel, $14.99 (128p) ISBN 978-1-5248-5245-0

Chinese-born cartoonist Yao blends slice-of-life comics with surreal introspection in this remarkable debut collection. Previously serialized on her webcomic Baopu, each short piece draws from Yao’s life, such as her family’s rocky path to accepting the fact that she’s bisexual, as she tries to grasp her future self. The tensions between queer sexuality and traditional, conservative Chinese culture prove fertile ground for literally extraterrestrial explorations of self-worth and the weight of family as Yao floats through the ether; while stories such as “Amplified Voice” take more piercing aim at the erasure and racism the author faces, feeling dissociated from Western LGBTQ categorization. Yao’s struggles to attain and maintain self-acceptance and self-love take poignant shape through her fluid cartooning—at turns refined and intentionally childlike, with blocky bright colors alongside subtle shading. She also offers heartfelt advice for those grappling with similar emotional difficulties, such as in the viral comic “If You Want to Say Thank You, Don’t Say Sorry.” This heartfelt collection proves that the most relevant and relatable art comes from those who need it most themselves. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Art Life

Catherine Ocelot, trans. from the French by Aleshia Jensen. Bdang, $20 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-77262-046-7

This sardonic, somewhat navel-gazing volume fantastically illustrates conversations between a stand-in for the author—a 43-year-old cartoonist and mother—and a variety of comical characters. Everyone is drawn as colorful half-birds, with wings for arms, who stand upright on human legs. The cock-eyed gaze is set in the opening, as a university president approaches Catherine, the author of Talk-Show, a graphic novel, at a public pool. First he invites her to participate on a panel, only to disinvite her once he sees her child and learns her age (he’s shocked that she’s over 40). Catherine, struggling to find inspiration for her next project, then queries a series of fellow creatives about their process. Her friend Natacha makes work based on her world travels, so Catherine decides she will make observational drawings, but only of the interior of her own apartment. The whimsical bird-figures and layered watercolors are reminiscent of Lisa Hanawalt’s work—but without facial expressions, Ocelet’s flock tends to blend together. Though the looping handwritten dialogues offer insights into artistic friendships, they can also drag; it’s possible some of the wit may have been lost in translation. Quite lovely to look at, but insular in focus, this autofiction will be most meaningful to the niche of artists also questioning the direction of their voice. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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We Served the People

Emei Burell. Archaia, $24.99 (160p) ISBN 978-1-68415-504-0

A daughter depicts her mother’s oral history of life in China in the 1960s and ’70s in this educational and inspiring portrait of perseverance. Yuan is 17 when she becomes a “rusticated youth”—a student who is sent from Beijing to the southern countryside during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. On a Yunnan rubber plantation, Yuan’s hard work and canny handling of her scheming superiors earns her an envied position as a tractor driver. When she returns to work in Beijing after 10 years, Yuan has to fight undermining managers to pursue her interrupted education. As Yuan moves through life, Burell’s straightforward drawings transition from solid black lines and flat colors to softer pencil lines and a muted palette. Perhaps most affecting is how Yuan credits those who helped her—a fellow driver whom she reconnects with decades later, a friend who encourages her to apply to university, a kindly official who facilitates her education, her uncle who helps her get a visa to Sweden. With poignancy and completely free of sentimentality, this illuminating personal history shows how human connection can flourish even in the most rigid of systems. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Bix

Scott Chantler. Gallery 13, $29.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-5011-9078-0

Chantler’s bracing look at the life of jazz musician Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke (1903–1931) frames musical genius as both gift and burden. Born in Iowa and distinguished as a child prodigy with a piano, Bix grows up to be an absolute failure at everything except jazz. Chantler’s page layouts mimic the genre’s irregularity: in miserable periods, regular panels march across the middle of the page in a repetitive line, but when Bix discovers the family piano and later the cornet, meets the woman he loves, and thrills in musical collaboration, panels joyfully pepper the page. The narrative keeps a tight focus on Bix’s perspective, questionably eliding some reported scandals, and is nearly wordless (only a few conversations are recorded in text). The crisp, monochrome visuals are reminiscent of midcentury newspaper comics, as well as Seth’s Clyde Fans. Throughout, Chantler returns to mine the fault lines of Bix’s character, such as a tendency to quit on promises and relationships—everything except the alcoholism that killed the musician at age 28. Flasks, bottles, and glasses undergird the story as regularly as a drumbeat, their final toll exacted in a melancholic, gorgeously orchestrated ending sequence. This graphic biography of an artistic innovator mimics the music he loved: chaotic, creative, and open to interpretation. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Omni, Vol. 1: The Doctor Is In

Devin Grayson and Alitha E. Martinez. H1, $14.99 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-64337-619-6

Grayson (the Batman series) and Martinez (the Black Panther series) wield their combined superhero comics experience to launch this inventive series set in H1’s new alternative universe. Dr. Cecelia Cobbina can project nine differently colored psychic avatars, each endowed with a distinct intuitive skill set. She’s working with Doctors Without Borders in Central Africa when she defuses an operating room hostage crisis with empathy, avoiding violence. Accompanied by cartoonist Mae Walters (who fictionalizes their adventures in comic book form), Cecelia returns to the U.S., soothing various explosive events involving other superhumans, such as getting young hero Antony Miller out of police custody. But to her dread, she discovers her powers are not natural gifts—they are symptoms of a poisoned and dying Earth. When Cecelia is recruited by the enigmatic Sajan to run the ultrasecret Omni Corporation, ostensibly an underground institute to help the newly powered, the question becomes: is Omni a force for good or evil? Martinez’s realistic figure drawings are employed in dynamic and energetic motion work, while Bryan Valenza’s colors pop and sizzle, with lively polychromatic splashes across the page. Suitable for a young adult audience and sporting a diverse cast, this is a fresh, activism-oriented spin on the genre. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Churchill: A Graphic Biography

Vincent Delmas, Christophe Regnault, and Alessio Cammardella, trans. from the French by Ivanka Hahnenberger. Dead Reckoning, $19.95 (120p) ISBN 978-1-68247-528-7

A foreword by historian Andrew Roberts (Churchill: Walking with Destiny) starts off this slim graphic biography of Winston Churchill on a high note: tart, incisive, and celebratory while brooking no illusions. Delmas (Charlemagne) picks up the baton in assured fashion, portraying the young British aristocrat as starving for adventure and fame. Eager to fight in British colonial skirmishes from South Africa to Sudan, and convinced he will die young, Churchill is presented as an impetuous glory seeker determined to “make history” by writing it himself, if necessary. His ambitious climb to political power (Parliament, the Admiralty) are rendered with great elan in the art by Regnault and Cammardella. Once the world wars begin, though, Delmas’s account turns more narrowly heroic in scope. While noting Churchill’s missteps, such as the Dardanelles fiasco during WWI, the narrative is more eager to present him as the one-dimensional British bulldog who defeated Hitler. Besides sidestepping controversies like Churchill’s role in the 1943 India famine and ignoring nearly any personal aspects (from his prodigious writing to bouts of crippling depression), Delmas also curiously drops the story at the end of WWII. The result is an energetically drawn but perfunctory portrait. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Phoolan Devi, Rebel Queen

Claire Fauvel, trans. from the French by Montana Kane. NBM, $34.99 (224p) ISBN 978-1-68112-251-9

Based on the autobiography of Phoolan Devi (1963-2001), India’s notorious “Queen of the Bandits,” this passionate battle cry of a graphic tribute by Fauvel (Catherine’s War) roots itself in Devi’s early experiences as a member of the oppressed Mallah community of the Shudrah caste, a child bride, and a survivor of repeated sexual violence. Devi is married at 11 and raped by her husband. She’s rescued by her father only to be tormented by men and boys in her village and gang-raped by police. From there, she’s captured by—then joins—a roving gang of bandits, among whom she grows to regional infamy. Throughout, she plots revenge, which she eventually enacts by beating, maiming, and killing men who harmed her or other poor women and girls, and by robbing the wealthy and redistributing funds to impoverished surrounding communities. Her capture, imprisonment, pardon, and subsequent election to Parliament are given shorter coverage in bookending scenes. Fauvel’s loose, scribbly pencil drawings and jewel-toned colors capture both the rare joy and extreme sorrows of Phoolan’s early life, including disturbing, graphic rape scenes. Fauvel portrays Phoolan’s tender expressions of charity, and her love marriage to a fellow bandit, and her most violent acts against the powerful in the same vibrant strokes. This striking biography is as memorable as its vigilante heroine. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Battle Born: Lapis Lazuli

Maximilian Uriarte. Little, Brown, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-316-44896-3

Former Marine Uriarte (Terminal Lance), who served two tours of duty in Iraq, follows up his semiautobiographical The White Donkey with this tense graphic novel set in present-day Afghanistan. A Marine squadron arrives in cold, mountainous Badakhshan on a mission to break up the Taliban’s interference in the local gemstone trade. They face reticence from the villagers and Taliban patrols who attack on horseback—and the overall moral ambiguity of trying to fix what years of interference from America, Britain, and Russia have wrought—as well as internal threats of racism, sexism, and egotism among their own ranks. The story centers on no-nonsense African-American marine Sergeant King, whose innate humanity doesn’t prevent him from committing acts of shocking violence. Uriarte lends a gritty sense of realism to the action, which helps surmount some over-familiar tropes playing through the script. Uriarte’s drawing is labored at times—it’s particularly hard to tell the armored-up characters apart—but his storytelling is assured and often thrillingly cinematic. The page count gives the narrative room to breathe, with wordless images of tiny human figures against the vast mountains and a bravura ending. This visceral war story reinforces the difficulty of decisions by forces fighting across blurred lines. Agent: Katherine Boyle, Veritas Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 02/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Hell’s Paradise: Jigokuraku, Vol. 1

Yuji Kaku. Viz, $12.99 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-974713-20-2

Kaku transforms the clichéd ninja hero trope into an unexpected psychological thriller in this genre-blending manga. Ninja Gabimaru the Hollow, nicknamed for his résumé of emotionless assassinations, awaits death, sentenced by a double-crossing chief. Though resolved to his fate (“Any parting words?” “Nah.”), Gabimaru proves impossible to kill, despite several gruesome methods attempted. His ninjutsu training kicks in subconsciously, fueled by a deep-seated instinct to survive and return to his wife. Offered the chance to have his crimes pardoned, Gabimaru agrees to leave on an expedition with a group of death row criminals—and master decapitator, Yamada Asaemon Sagiri, who is charged with keeping Gabimaru in line—to find the elixir of life on a legendary island of paradise. But paradise comes with a price: those who set foot on the island never return—and their decaying corpses morph into thousands of delicately blooming flowers. Using densely hatched lines and manga’s typical lack of color to his advantage with copious shading, Kaku blends horror and shonen (teen male-oriented) genres. His detailed illustrations, reminiscent of Junji Ito’s horror manga, imbue the tale with an unsettling, gruesome charm. This mysterious first volume, and its intricate artwork, launches the series with promise. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/21/2020 | Details & Permalink

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