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War Bears

Margaret Atwood and Ken Steacy. Dark Horse, $19.99 (104p) ISBN 978-1-5067-0898-0

Despite a powerhouse creator team, this boisterously drawn tale of a WWII-era Canadian comic artist by Atwood (Handmaid’s Tale) and Steacy (Astro Boy series) falls flat. After landing a job as an illustrator with Canoodle Comics, Alan Zurakowski creates Nazi-fighting animalistic superheroine Oursonette in hopes of inspiring the troops. But the disapproval of his father, the demands made by his publisher, and news about his brother fighting in Europe all take a toll on his mental health. While he turns his struggles into fuel for his pen, Alan discovers that his dedication and creativity may not be enough to keep Oursonette alive when the post-WWII homegrown comics industry faces the popularity of the American market. Steacy’s cartoonish, colorful, stylistic design playfully evokes the 1940s, but it’s not enough to sell the script (though Oursonette’s comic-within-a-comic is good fun), where contrived writing is phoned in with throwaway one-liners and stereotyped characters. It’s a disappointing turn out for the talent; readers would be better off revisiting the real golden-age source material. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Credo: The Rose Wilder Lane Story

Peter Bagge. Drawn and Quarterly, $22.95 (108p) ISBN 978-1-77046-341-7

The idiosyncratic, independent life and work of Rose Wilder Lane—Laura Ingalls Wilder’s conservative daughter—gets its due in this spiky graphic biography by Bagge (Fire! The Zora Neale Hurston Story). Bagge’s affinity for rendering characters as toothy, rubber-limbed ranters and ravers dovetails neatly with Lane’s wild emotional extremes. Born in 1886 in South Dakota, Lane was raised in the Missouri Ozarks after her parents gave up on homesteading. Restless, adventuresome, and bipolar, Lane heads to San Francisco in the early 1900s, where, after an unhappy marriage and a suicide attempt, she becomes a writer. By 1918, Lane is churning out serialized romances and fictionalized biographies (Charlie Chaplin threatened to sue over his). In the decades after, she pursues a bifurcated life: one part as a well-paid women’s magazine writer and world traveler, and another as a Missouri homebody not-so-secretly helping her ungrateful mother write the Little House on the Prairie series. Her strong libertarian turn (“F.D.R.’s ‘New Deal’ is more like a deal with the devil”) is given a sympathetic treatment by Bagge, himself a Reason contributor. Yet while he defends her against charges of being an Ayn Rand clone, he admits she was a “conspiracy theorist embarrassingly prone to hyperbole.” This loopy, frantic, and personality-packed tribute is fitting for one of America’s lesser-known gonzo feminist writers. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Bezimena

Nina Bunjevac. Fantagraphics, $29.99 (248p) ISBN 978-1-68396-209-0

This unsettling, horrific erotic fantasy begins with a hypnotic series of stories within stories: an unseen narrator tells the tale of Bezimena the Old, a wise woman in a mythic Grecian setting, who in turn sets into motion the story of Benny, an awkward, disturbed young man living in the early 20th century. While working as a janitor at a zoo, Benny develops an obsession with a former classmate, stalks her, then finds a sketchbook filled with evidence that she returns his interest. This leads to dreamlike sexual encounters and strange visions, before the shock of an unreliable narrator revelation. Bunjevac wrote and drew the volume to process sexual trauma she experienced as a girl in Serbia; in the afterword, she dedicates the book to “all forgotten and nameless victims of sexual violence.” But this extended visit to the inner fantasy world of a disturbed mind may be too acutely real for many readers to take (and the surprise twist is a bit pat). The work, however, is stunning to look at, with elegant full-page illustrations, painstakingly crosshatched and stippled to resemble woodcuts or antique photographs. Eerie, symbolic images fill each page: owls, snakes, eyes, the moon. Even if it falls short of its ambitions, Bunjevac’s forceful, uncomfortable vision will linger with readers.. (May)

Reviewed on 03/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Hawking

Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick. First Second, $29.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-62672-025-1

This layered graphic biography of the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking presents a heroic yet nuanced portrait of the 20th century’s second-most famous scientist, after Albert Einstein. A gawky motormouthed teen “hopeless at building things, and speaking Hawkingese,” Hawking was a brilliant yet haphazard student at Oxford, with no respect for the “grey men” who spent their time studying. The physics that filled his buzzing mind are explored by Ottaviani (Feynman) as more like an endless play, and Myrick’s dramatically angled but simplistic artwork often renders his subject with a wry grin. The motor neuron disease that eventually progressed to Hawking requiring a motorized wheelchair plays in the background while the authors unfurl complex spreads laying out how Hawking debated with his contemporaries and used his equations to explore the far corners of existence (“At this level, math is as much art as it is anything else”). Hawking’s divorces and emotional distance from his family are poignantly represented, but the story remains about science, which is delivered in an accessible form yet hardly watered down. This smart and wondrously exploratory scientific biography reveals as much about black holes as the man who explored them. (July)

Reviewed on 03/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations

Mira Jacob. One World, $30 (354p) ISBN 978-0-399-58904-1

Snippets of dialogue between Jacob (The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing) and her family and friends form the basis of this breezy but poignant graphic memoir that takes on racism, love, and the election of President Trump. The bisexual daughter of Indian immigrants, Jacob effectively conveys how the 2016 election impacted LGBTQ folks and people of color in ways that were searing, personal, and often misunderstood (such as that awkward moment when the older gentlemen at her mother-in-law’s dog’s “bark mitzvah” think she’s the help). As her Trump-supporting Jewish in-laws insist they still love her, her six-year-old son wants to know not only if he can turn white like Michael Jackson (and “Did he lose his other glove?”), but how to tell which white people are afraid of brown people. Jacob pastes simple character drawings, cut like paper dolls staring directly at the reader, over grainy photos of New York City, her childhood home in New Mexico, and other locales, emphasizing the contingency of identity. The collage effect creates an odd, immediate intimacy. She employs pages of narrative prose sparingly but hauntingly, as when she learns that a haughty, wealthy woman once lost a child: “in that place where you thought you would find a certain kind of woman... is someone you cannot begin to imagine.” The “talks” Jacob relates are painful, often hilarious, and sometimes absurd, but her memoir makes a fierce case for continuing to have them. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood and Renée Nault. McClelland and Stewart, $22.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-3855-3924-1

Equal parts gorgeous and horrifying, Nault’s adaptation faithfully follows both the plot and style of Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel. Narrator Offred lives in Gilead, a United States that is both unrecognizable and too familiar: the government strips women of their freedom in the name of protecting them, discards the old and infirm, and loves fetuses more than the living. Offred says, “Everything Handmaids [women conscripted into rape-based surrogacy] wear is red: the color of blood, which defines us.” Nault’s reds are rich and layered watercolors, rust to flame. In one frame, she draws hanged Handmaid bodies as drooping crimson flowers. Nault’s semiabstracted interpretations of traumatic scenes are stronger than the story’s more pedestrian moments, when it’s hard not to feel the flatness of the pale characters’ expressions. Painting life in Gilead’s toxic, war-torn Colonies, Nault takes great advantage of the graphic form. In Atwood’s text, exile is frightening because it is a void. Here the cancer-eaten jaw of an “unwoman” worker is on full display. Atwood fans may shrug at another incarnation of this classic, but it’s skillfully done and likely to appeal to younger readers; the tale’s relevance and Nault’s talent are undeniable. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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I Was Their American Dream

Malaka Gharib. Clarkson Potter, $16.99 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-0-525-57511-5

This charming graphic memoir riffs on the joys and challenges of developing a unique ethnic identity. With a Catholic Filipino mother, whom she lives with in Southern California; a close-knit extended Filipino family; and an Egyptian Muslim father and mother-in-law, whom she visits in the summer after her parents’ divorce, Gharib tries to find a balance between the cultures that are her heritage. It proves difficult at her racially diverse high school, where aligning with a specific group is integral to fitting in, and almost equally so at Syracuse University, where Gharib discovers that her constant exposure to white people in pop culture didn’t prepare her for the clash of living among them—or the pressures (and guilt) of assimilation. Gharib’s enthusiastic, if naive, scribbly art style is reminiscent of Lynda Barry in the way it captures moments of chaotic Filipino family life. With the inclusions of recipes, Tagalog flashcards, tongue-in-cheek charts, an excerpt from her high school zine, and even a “Microaggressions Bingo” card, Gharib’s storytelling remains upbeat through life’s ups and downs. This lighthearted narrative, self-reflective but never angst-ridden, has wide appeal. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Gender Queer

Maia Kobabe. Lion Forge, $17.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-5493-0400-2

This heartfelt graphic memoir relates, with sometimes painful honesty, the experience of growing up non-gender-conforming. From a very young age, Kobabe is unsure whether to claim a lesbian/gay, bisexual, or even transgender identity: “I don’t want to be a girl. I don’t want to be a boy either. I just want to be myself.” Kobabe comes of age having to navigate expressions of identity such as clothing and haircuts, with fraught attempts at romantic and sexual entanglements. Eventually, Kobabe’s supportive sister concludes: “I think you’re a genderless person.” (Kobabe: “She knew before I did.”) Kobabe continues to explore the challenges of a nonbinary identity, including the use of alternate pronouns (in Kobabe’s case, e/em/eir), the trauma of cervical exams, refuting misplaced concerns from a loving relative who believes “female to male” transgenderism could be rooted in a form of misogyny, and learning that the term autoandrophilia actually applies “for me.” Intermixed are lighthearted episodes relating Kobabe’s devotion to LGBTQ-inspired Lord of the Rings fan fiction and hero worship of flamboyant ice-skating champion Johnny Weir. Kobabe is a straightforward cartoonist who uses the medium skillfully (if not particularly stylishly), incorporating ample cheery colors, with a script that’s refreshingly smooth and nondidactic for the topic. This entertaining memoir-as-guide holds crossover appeal for mature teens (with a note there’s some sexually explicit content) and is sure to spark valuable discussions at home and in classrooms. (May.)

Reviewed on 02/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Witchbody

Sabrina Scott. Weiser, $18.95 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-57863-664-8

This digressive rumination on magic and nature, with unusual ideas of what counts as “natural,” might inspire occult-minded readers as they dive deep into its incantations and wonderfully witchy drawings—but it will leave others puzzled. Scott follows the pull of the magical over the course of 80 lushly inked pages and hand-scrawled declarations, illustrated with coiling river currents and ferns, the bodies of small animals, and a woman interacting with it all against a city skyline. “Witchcraft knowledge is body knowledge,” she writes, as she seeks wonder everywhere from grimy city streets to ocean vistas, and urges collaboration with ecosystems (“What might happen when trees and concrete are perceived as bodies in the political arena?”). If there is a thesis of this nebulous, loosely linked tract, it lies in Scott’s passion for finding interconnected “realness” all around her and her earnest belief in magic’s role in protecting and appreciating it. Many inquiries are raised (“How do you hold the things you believe? What do you believe about belief itself?”), and she cites theorists such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jane Bennett in grounding her ideas. The book’s amorphous structure seems true to its all-encompassing message, but doesn’t offer readers anything resembling a through line. While spellbinding in sections, the volume brews lovely art with a muddy message. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Herbert Marcuse: Philosopher of Utopia

Nick Thorkelson. City Lights, $15.95 trade paper (132p) ISBN 978-0-87286-785-7

Thorkelson’s informative graphic biography of philosopher Herbert Marcuse includes a foreword by political activist Angela Davis, but just as revealing are the scathing antiendorsements directed at its subject. In 1967, Spiro Agnew demanded the University of California, San Diego, fire Marcuse, claiming that his lectures were “poisoning a lot of young lives.” The Ku Klux Klan also vowed to kill Marcuse, a Jewish-German refugee, if he didn’t leave the country. Thorkelson’s thoroughly researched biography, rendered in crowded pen-and-ink drawings, focuses on the ideas that made Marcuse a firebrand, rather than on his personal life. It concisely sums up the antiestablishment leftist’s complex and evolving arguments on power, patriarchy, and human possibility, while life events such as his marriages and children pop up only marginally. But Thorkelson’s art, reminiscent of Larry Gopnick’s Cartoon History series, spices up panels with visual gags and broad caricatures. Marcuse’s continued relevance in contemporary political turmoil is felt; as he’s quoted, just before his death in 1979, “I know wherein our most basic value judgments are rooted: In compassion, in our sense for the suffering of others.” The density of this Cliff Notes version of Marcuse’s place within 20th-century philosophy leaves the narrative hard to follow, but it’s a useful summary of Marcuse’s thinking for newbies more likely to pick up a comic book than his texts. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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