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Mawrth Valliis

EPHK. Image, $14.99 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-5343-2054-3

A rebellious fighter pilot chases down her enemy in this sexy, ultra-stylized sci-fi cat-and-mouse adventure that’s told entirely in an original Martian language. After annihilating almost all opponents in a dogfight, the unnamed protagonist disobeys orders in an effort to catch the one that got away. Between action scenes, she encounters unexpected galactic dangers and incomprehensible mysteries. When her foe becomes a savior, together they get caught up in a Black Mirror-esque twist. EPHK’s art style puts a glowing modern spin on classic sci-fi, with bold character designs and thickly applied lines, mixing organic and geometric backdrops. Many pages could stand alone as pinups—and while not overdone, the pilots do boast wasplike figures, with plenty of convenient camera angles showcasing their curves. While the chase ends in an enticing reveal, it’s ultimately more style over narrative substance. The entirely Martian dialogue and thought-bubbles are a cool touch, which put weight on the sound effects (still written out in roman “boop” and “bleeps”) for tension-building. Overall, the gimmick keeps readers at a muted distance, acting as another art element rather than providing insight into the protagonists’ motivations. This chase may trip on some hurdles, but it’s also serious and innovative eye candy that should catch its rightful share of attention. (July)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Another History of Art

Anita Kunz. Fantagraphics, $24.99 (136p) ISBN 978-1-68396-446-9

In an act of trickster feminism, Kunz re-envisions famous Western paintings by swapping in monkeys and cartoon characters where viewers are accustomed to seeing people, angels, monsters, and Jesus. The captions are more subdued, simply feminizing artists’ names while offering mostly historically accurate accounts of their lives and work. The effect of the textual re-gendering can feel a bit one-note, but the paintings are playful and irreverent. In “Vincenza Van Gogh’s” “Self Portrait as Goofy,” a flapping dog’s ear hangs from the artist’s bandaged head. Kunz’s human subjects are often tattooed and goggle-eyed (though remain mostly white skinned). “Edwina Degas’ ” “Little Dancer of Fourteen Tears” leans on crutches, and “Seated Girl with Scar” by “Augusta Renoir” has a mastectomy scar, providing a counterpoint to Renoir’s statement that “For me, a picture must be a pleasant thing, joyous and pretty.” Kunz’s women are not universally joyous and pretty; in their biographies, they get to live the full, often tragic, lives that male artists went down for in history. The collection reads like an exhibition catalog, best consumed by dipping in and out and circling back, taking away something new each time. (June)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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RE: Constitutions: Connecting Citizens with the Rules of the Game

Beka Feathers and Kasia Babis. First Second, $28.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-250-23543-5

Sporting Schoolhouse Rock charm (sans peppy guitar soundtrack), this educational comics guidebook to constitutions takes on a commendable international scope. The YA-friendly framing device is clunky but effective: high school student Marcus, frustrated over an assignment to write about the meaning of citizenship, queries a multicultural mosaic of friendly and informed neighbors for help. A series of beaming chatterboxes with roots spanning Rwanda, India, and Kosovo, among others, patiently explain to Marcus how constitutions have similarities, but vary from country to country based on the needs of a nation’s people. Feathers applies her background as an international legal adviser in conflict zones with crisply delivered breakdowns of basic constitutional principles, though also some eye-roll–inducing dialogue (“But Dad, isn’t that just stuff that sounds good on paper?”). Helped along by Babis’s charming if somewhat overly smiley character drawings, the team goes beyond the basics to tackle more substantial examples (such as how Rwanda’s 2003 constitution required 30% of government decision-making bodies to comprise women) and urgent particulars (“the constitution is only as strong as the people who use it”). Granted, it’s more a work of advocacy—a democratic citizenry handbook—than objective reporting, but given the strain such documents are currently under globally, that might be exactly what’s needed. (July)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Two-Week Wait: An IVF Story

Luke C. Jackson, Kelly Jackson, and Mara Wild. Scribe, $20 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-950354-63-4

The Jacksons, married educators and parents of two, partner with artist Wild to tell a compassionate story about the struggle to conceive based on their own experiences and interviews with other couples who have dealt with fertility issues. After a year of trying and failing to get pregnant, the fictional Joanne and Conrad seek medical help, discover that Joanne has endometriosis, and begin the long, difficult process of IVF. There are funny moments, as when Conrad tries to figure out how to get a sperm sample into a tiny test tube (“At what possible angle...?”), but also grueling medical procedures and emotional strain that threatens to tear their marriage apart. “It makes me feel like I’m broken,” Joanne confesses. They consider adoption and alternative medicine; spend time with children and think on how to be parents; and find that opening up to others helps them push through their isolation and frustration. Wild’s loose, fluid, warmly colored pencil art perfectly complements the script; in swooping curves and simple shapes, she draws emotive characters in domestic settings that look lived-in. Gentle and empathetic, this enters a growing trying-to-conceive graphic medicine genre, recalling Sarah Glidden’s and Lucy Knisley’s work, and offers a touchstone for any reader dealing with IVF. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Chartwell Manor

Glenn Head. Fantagraphics, $29.99 (244p) ISBN 978-1-68396-425-4

This harrowing memoir from Head (Chicago) breaks through the facade of upper-middle-class New England life like a wrecking ball, exposing the damage wrought by the abusive, pedophilic head of a “British-style” boarding school in New Jersey. In 1971, 13-year-old “Glen” is sent to Chartwell Manor and becomes one of the victims of headmaster Terence Lynch, “slimier than any Dick Tracy villain.” Lynch kisses and fondles the boys under his supervision, gives them “hernia exams,” creeps into their rooms at night, and slickly grooms them for molestation. He also subjects them to severe corporal punishment: “Everybody gets hit,” Glen is informed by jaded upperclassmen. Glen grows up into an alcoholic and self-destructive young man, and since his parents won’t discuss the past—“What good will it do?” —he looks up former classmates and finds he was far from the only long-term casualty. Head’s appropriately gritty alt-comix artwork adeptly evokes both the pristine exteriors of the New Jersey suburbs and the hidden landscapes littered with cigarettes, junk food wrappers, and the detritus of brawls. His art shows the influence of classic underground cartoonists like Spain and S. Clay Wilson, and in particular, the searing confessionals of autobio comics pioneer Justin Green. Unflinchingly honest and hypnotically powerful, this is a standout entry on the shelf of the great graphic autobiographies. (June)

Reviewed on 06/18/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Minamata Story: An EcoTragedy

Seán Michael Wilson and Akiko Shimojima. Stone Bridge, $14.95 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-61172-056-3

Wilson and Shimojima (The Satsuma Rebellion) lead readers capably, if somewhat drily, through the generational repercussions of a shocking environmental disaster. Minamata Disease, a neurological disorder caused by mercury poisoning, struck a Japanese fishing village in the 1950s. Even when it was traced to water pollution, there was little governmental response, and cases mounted for years, with symptoms ranging from disability to coma to death. As panic spread and the local fishing economy tanked, the afflicted families were discriminated against and scapegoated. Wilson tells this tangled story through a modern-day college student named Tomi, who discovers while researching a class project that his grandmother lived through the period. This frame distances without adding much perspective; though the more effective present-day scenes feature real-life victims sharing their memories from an assisted living facility. Shimojima’s simplified, old-fashioned character designs against detailed backgrounds read occasionally stiff and uneven, but come alive when depicting the fish, the sea, and the natural beauty of southern Japan. Though the execution falls short, the complicated history of environmental injustice depicted makes this worthy reading. (June)

Reviewed on 06/18/2021 | Details & Permalink

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River of Ink

Etienne Appert, trans. from the French by Ben Croze. Life Drawn, $22.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-64337-561-8

Appert’s myth-spinning meditation on creativity weaves family history with the tale of Saurias, a young soldier, and Saminia, the lover who draws his shadow to remember him while he’s at war. The ambitious effort opens with a child asking “Why do you draw?” In the pages that follow, the narrator and the child row “a river of ink, back through all of human history,” with Maurice, the boyhood version of the narrator’s grandfather, whose own soldier father sent him sketches of his outpost during WWI. Appert incorporates interviews with artists François Boucq and Edmond Baudoin, who observes, for example, that lashes that connect or abuse are similar to drawn lines. An interview with American cartoonist Scott McCloud accompanies the English translation, adding another layer to the “why draw?” question, as an escape from fixed reality: “art as an antidote to life.” Appert plays with panel structure and populates his dreamscape with a range of styles, from a child’s doodles to surreal backgrounds full of hidden bodies, skulls, or glyphs. Though statements like “Art reaches a dimension that speaks to all mankind” can veer so broad as to lose focus, Appert makes his point otherwise through fluid art and story. When Saurias dies, Saminia draws him again to immortalize him and, in the process, herself. Appert’s themes will resonate with both artists and their appreciators. (July)

Reviewed on 06/18/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Night Bus

Zuo Ma, trans. from the Mandarin by Orion Martin. Drawn and Quarterly, $34.95 trade paper (412p) ISBN 978-1-77046-465-0

The somber but mesmerizing stories in Ma’s debut collection follow a Lynchian dream logic, underpinned by themes of loss and a demented sense of humor. In “Niu Niu The Evil Hound,” Ma spins a twisted tale starring an anthropomorphized version of a beloved shih tzu he owned long ago. Other pieces are similarly grounded in Ma’s real-world experiences, such as dramatizing conversations about his professional stagnation, or his observations around China’s industrializing landscape. But even the more realistic narratives get interrupted by an abrupt encounter with the uncanny. In “Night Bus,” Ma reckons with his grandmother’s memory loss by envisioning the journey she takes as her cognition returns and fades; Ma imagines her as a young woman traveling through a dreamscape in search of the “night bus” that will spirit her off to the next world, where she encounters a series of oddities, such as two boys hunting for giant snails who are suddenly surprised by a UFO shaped like a cocoon. While Ma’s defiantly incomprehensible narratives leave an impression, it’s not always sustainable in the longer selections. But adventurous readers will awe at Ma’s transporting visions. (July)

Reviewed on 06/18/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Day the Klan Came to Town

Bill Campbell and Bizhan Khodabandeh. PM, $15.95 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-62963-872-0

Strength in solidarity is the prevailing theme of this galvanizing graphic dramatization by Campbell (Baaaad Muthaz) of a real-life clash between residents of Carnegie, Penn., and the KKK in 1923. Cabbriele, an Italian immigrant haunted by the memory of being tormented by a lynch mob (“We done caught us a guinea instead”), joins Irish, African American, and Jewish protestors who aim to upend “Karnegie Day,” a rally of armed Klansmen supported by elements of the local government. His grinding path from Sicily to America helps form the story’s emotional core and frames how he banded together with others to organize a counterprotest, which ended in a brawl that ousted the Klan. “A man without his friends will have nothing but trouble throughout his life,” utters a white working class man to a Black comrade in this effort, neatly summing up Campbell’s theme. Khodabandeh (The Little Black Fish) supplies chilling panels of Klan members in full regalia, including an image of child pulling a miniature noose around the neck of an African American female doll. Campbell reflects in the afterword on how the anti-rally had been largely forgotten as Carnegie—his hometown—developed away from its immigrant roots. Now readers have this emotionally charged record of how hatred born in American forced a community of immigrants and marginalized people to rally and model the best version of their nation’s ideals. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/18/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Alberto Breccia’s Dracula

Alberto Breccia. Fantagraphics, $19.99 (88p) ISBN 978-1-68396-439-1

The late Breccia (Perramus) brings a stunning, nightmarish, and politically charged vision to Dracula’s final days in this wordless volume, which tells five disconnected tales as the vampire wanders through a city, encountering old lovers, would-be victims, and Edgar Allan Poe. Breccia (1919-1993), whose major surrealist works satirized the Argentinian dictatorship, first published these full-color painterly comics stories in Spain’s Comix Internacional in 1984. Their characters appear twisted and abstracted, an outward expression of moral decay. Together they reveal a desperately lonely figure who, despite the grandiosity of his mythology, is increasingly feckless in the face of a crumbling society. Some pieces run almost like jokes. For instance, Dracula roams a carnival, stalks a beautiful woman, and tries to victimize her, but he’s thwarted by a man in a Superman outfit (sans logo); when the hero follows the woman, lured by the promise of romance, he discovers that she herself is a vampire. The fourth installment, though, ends not with a punchline, but with a descent into nightmare, as Dracula navigates a hellscape overrun by secret police, cannibalism, and mass starvation. His immortal power useless, Dracula becomes a scared witness, and the episode ends with him clutching a cross and praying in a church—while unsubtle, the commentary plays against the familiar conventions of the character. Breccia’s gothic visions skewer the power of myth and make a salient statement about a society that would support fascist rule. (July)

Reviewed on 06/11/2021 | Details & Permalink

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