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The Incredible Nellie Bly: Journalist, Investigator, Feminist, and Philanthropist

Luciana Cimino and Sergio Algozzino, translated from the Italian by Laura Garofalo. Abrams ComicArts, $24.99 (144p) ISBN 978-1-4197-5017-5

As depicted in this celebratory graphic biography, pioneering journalist Nellie Bly led a life as extraordinary as the stories she reported. In the 1920s, journalism student Miriam hopes that writing about Nellie will forward the cause of female journalists at Columbia. (Though her conversations with an ailing Nellie form a somewhat unnecessary framing device, and overall the approach is heavy on exposition.) After watching her mother struggle first as a poor widow and then in an abusive second marriage, stubborn and adventurous Nellie works her way to The World in New York City. In 1887 she goes undercover at Blackwell’s Island, the city’s largest mental institution for women. Her reporting on the cruel conditions leads to increased funding for asylums and other institutions, and to prestigious assignments: covering female factory workers, interviewing the first woman to run for president, and traveling the world à la Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. Cimino and Algozzino capture Nellie’s daring spirit and righteous anger in confidently loose lined illustrations colored in teals and yellow watercolor style. This concise primer serves as a welcoming introduction to Bly’s biography—educational but not deeply inspiring. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Write It in Blood

Rory McConville and Joe Palmer. Image, $14.99 trade paper (136p) ISBN 978-1-5343-1835-9

Old disputes come unburied at an inopportune time for two hard-luck gunmen in this fast-paced and high-body-count country noir. McConville (Big Jim) opens things in a corpse- and bullet-casing-strewn house in rural Texas, where the criminal Pryce brothers, having just gunned down several rivals, are arguing over whether their boss, the Baron, might give them a gold watch upon their retirement. Arthur’s cynical, while the childish Cosmo mutters, “It’d be a nice gesture.” Their fractious-yet-loving dynamic sustains through the tangle of violent double- and triple-crosses that follow as the lava-tempered Baron discovers Arthur has been sleeping with his wife and a rival gang comes after the brothers for holding one of its members hostage. Cosmo’s convinced he can patch things up with the Baron, while Arthur fantasizes about escaping to Mexico. McConville’s scripting is pitched between hyperbolic and laconic as the gangsters jaw and scheme over coffee between blowout gun battles. Though in the end, it races a bit too quickly to the finish line. Art by Palmer (the Judge Dredd series) offers big-sky epic, with wide-open frames, harshly canted faces, and washed-out primary tones. This sibling saga is one seriously brash and bloody piece of work. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Elegy for Mary Turner: An Illustrated Account of a Lynching

Rachel Marie-Crane Williams. Verso, $24.95 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-78873-904-7

Marie-Crane Williams (Run Home If You Don’t Want to Get Killed) documents the 1918 murder of Mary Turner in this harrowing graphic work that incorporates explicit block prints, historical newspaper clippings, and yellowed telegrams to create the feel of a haunted scrapbook. In May of 1918, white mobs in southern Georgia went on a rampage, lynching 11 Black people in 10 days. Mary Turner, who was eight months pregnant, spoke up to denounce the lynching of her husband. In response, the mob brutalized and murdered her, as well. Marie-Crane Williams builds her wrenching elegy around a series of evocative prints interspersed with tactile, infuriating primary source documents. Horrifying depictions of Turner’s murder are juxtaposed with clips from contemporaneous news articles stating Turner made “unwise remarks” that “the people in their indignant mood took exceptions to... as well as her attitude.” The introduction by Mariame Kaba connects the event to current activism: “As organizers today insist that we must #SayHerName in reference to Black women (cis and trans) whose lives are cut short by state-sanctioned violence, Mary Turner calls out to us from the grave.” This succinct work confronts readers with atrocity, in a necessary tribute. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Crossroads: I Live Where I Like: A Graphic History

Koni Benson et al. PM, $20 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-62963-835-5

Black women who led resistance to South Africa’s apartheid policies tell the powerful story of their collective struggles to live with safety and dignity in this collaborative graphic work. In the 1970 and ’80s, the Crossroads settlement became internationally famous as the community of between 4,000 and 7,000 people resisted the South African government’s eviction orders and efforts to bulldoze their homes. Based on over 60 oral histories that Benson collected, the narrative aims to bring this ethnography into conversation with South Africans’ dire need for affordable housing today. Originally published as several single-issues, the collected edition shows some rough edges, such as big blocks of backstory rendered in compressed fonts, but shines when the voices of the community members are quoted directly (such as when police plan a raid and Crossroads resident Mama Nomangezi tells the other women, “We are going to fight today, because we’ve got nowhere to go”). The art by the South African artists, André Trantraal, Nathan Trantraal, and Ashley E. Mara is crisp and dynamic, with rounded figure drawings that straddle comedy and pathos; the portraits of community members particularly stand out. Their voices resonate through the panels to speak to activists today—and to any reader who wants to delve deeper into the apartheid struggle. (May)

Reviewed on 01/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Cyclopedia Exotica

Aminder Dhaliwal. Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95 trade paper (268p) ISBN 978-1-77046-437-7

Reviewed by Carmen Maria Machado

The opening pages of this graphic novel by Dhaliwal (Woman World) employ the rigid language of a fictional encyclopedia, sketching the history of cyclopes and their fluctuating relationship with the dominant “two eyes” culture. But as Dhaliwal arrives at the modern era—in which a cyclops sex icon Etna graces the cover of a pornographic magazine—the form falls away to loosely interconnected stories about cyclopes and their lives. Stories, Etna tells us, can define us—whether it’s the one we tell ourselves, or the ones told about us. And the characters in Dhaliwal’s stories sparkle. They’re tenderly rendered and their problems are real. There’s Vy, a model who regrets being the face of a product that enforced false beauty standards; Bron, a self-hating cyclops haunted by a failed eye surgery; Pari, an anxious mother-to-be married to a two-eyed spouse; Pol, lonely and trying to date; and Jian and Grae, two artists trying to make their stamp on a two-eyed world. Dhaliwal’s art is charming and expressive. Fans of Jillian Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy and Kate Beaton’s work will find much common ground here. Dhaliwal places funny, surprising details: one of my favorites involves a vintage breast separator—once meant to “normalize” the cyclops mono-breast—repurposed by young cyclopes as a BDSM device. The struggle of the cyclops unfolds in metaphors for race, sexuality, gender, and disability, tangling with ideas about fetishization, interracial relationships, passing, and representation. But it also can slip, frustratingly, into didactic tendencies. For example, there’s a sharp send-up of the way publishing loves marginalized stories written by unmarginalized authors, which starts as an extremely good gag: an advertisement for a popular picture book Suzy’s One Eye, which allegedly captures “the voice of a young Cyclops girl in a Two-Eyed space,” is followed by a solemn photo of the (senior, two-eyed) author, “pictured at his private ranch where he resides alone.” But overexplaining undermines this point. Bron tries to write his own book, only to arrive back at the (very basic) plot of Suzy’s One Eye, and a section duplicating the full text of Suzy’s One Eye is far less effective than letting it serve as a textual McGuffin. But despite these missteps, when it works, it works. I keep returning to Pari, who at one point puts on a very ugly dress. “I thought it would be cool to wear a dress designed by a cyclops,” she tells her husband, “I hate the dress but I want to support the existence of the dress.” I challenge any marginalized person to say that they haven’t had the exact same conversation about a book or film or television show created by someone with their shared identity—the overwhelming sense of responsibility placed on glass-ceiling breakers, yes, but also the desire to be seen as you truly are, and on your own terms. (Apr.)

Carmen Maria Machado is the author of In the Dream House, Her Body and Other Parties, and the graphic novel The Low, Low Woods.

Reviewed on 01/15/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Mirka Andolfo’s Mercy: The Fair Lady, the Frost, and the Fiend

Mirka Andolfo, trans. from the Italian by Arancia Studio. Image, $16.99 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-5343-1658-4

Andolfo starts slow but builds to a satisfying crescendo of Lovecraftian horror in this lavishly illustrated graphic novel. A small 19th-century mining town is visited by the mysterious Nolwenn Hellaine, a beautiful woman curious about local legends of the “Devil of Woodsburgh.” Gradually, the townspeople discover that Lady Hellaine and her faithful retainer are otherworldly monsters who need to feed on human brains to survive. The early chapters are a slow burn as Andolfo takes time to introduce his sizable cast of characters, but once the action kicks in, it becomes a thrill ride rife with sex, gore, and cosmic horror, not to mention wild-card elements like an Indigenous monster-hunting squad that shows up looking for Lady Hellaine. The art is almost too sleek and glossy for a horror story, but succeeds with attractive, expressive characters, detailed period settings, and, when the story heats up, twisted shape-shifting monsters and gruesome violence. The result is a stylish chiller sure to please genre fans. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 01/22/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Devil’s Highway, Vol. 1

Benjamin Percy and Brent Schoonover. Upshot, $9.99 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-953165-01-5

Tattooed, taciturn Afghanistan vet Sharon Harrow returns home to the overcast winter of Drift County, Wisc., to investigate her father’s murder in this pulpy thriller. She batters and brawls her way through the Upper Midwest, taking on a satanic cult of truckers who kidnap and torture prostitutes, and a vulgar faction of shady, sleazy men—from a grotesquely obese truck stop pimp to a creepily grinning reptile salesmen. It all climaxes with a tractor-trailer duel and a fiery funeral pyre, capped with a frustrating coda (hinting there’s plenty more trucker sadists still out there for future stories). The script by Percy (the Wolverine and X-Force series) is fast-moving enough to plow right through plot holes and missing beats (much of Sharon’s investigation is from info found on the dark net with little explanation) though it relies overly on clichéd characters (including hookers with hearts of gold). Schoonover (the Astonishing Ant-Man series) paints the region as suitably gloomy and claustrophobic, though his faces are often similar enough to invite confusion of characters. But the over-helping of shock and repulsion result in a revenge tale more purge than catharsis. The spectacle will appeal to fans of the Alien franchise and indie sci-fi/horror comics such as Garth Ennis’s Caliban or Rick Remender’s Black Science. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/22/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Tono Monogatari

Shigeru Mizuki, trans. from Japanese by Zack Davisson. Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-77046-436-0

Mizuki (NoNonBa) adapts Kunio Yanagita’s 1910 folklore history of yokai, or spirits, into an energetic series of manga vignettes that are often silly and sometimes genuinely terrifying. The tales are set in the small town of Tono, which was close to mountains that were believed to be full of yokai. Spirits range from deadly to annoying to occasionally helpful, including a beautiful, raven-haired young female spirit that causes agonizing death for those who cross her path and a fox creature who reanimates corpses. (A particularly unexpected encounter cleverly ties the dozens of episodes together.) Just as Yanagita inserted himself into his narrative, so too does Mizuki, who presents himself as a reverent narrator traversing the region and running into spirits. Mizuki encounters the spirit of Yanagita himself, and they have a conversation that leads Mizuki to believe he had lived in Tono in a past life. Released in Japan on the 100th anniversary of the prose classic, late in Mizuki’s career (the artist died in 2012), it also reflects his turn to more personal work; he had based his comic Kitaro on Yanagita’s yokai, and the adaptation is imbued with his respect for Yanagita and affection for the Tono region. Mizuki’s cartoonishly exaggerated character design blends with his lush backgrounds, bending reality while also grounding the work in local detail. The acrobatic visuals lend these fables a giddy charm, and the inviting collection opens up Japanese history for a broader readership. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/22/2021 | Details & Permalink

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My Life in Transition: A Super Late Bloomer Collection

Julia Kaye. Andrews McMeel, $14.99 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-1-5248-6046-2

Kaye (Super Late Bloomer) continues her candid journal comics series with an intimate look at her life as a trans woman post–coming out. Having lived openly as herself for three years, Kaye has become more and more comfortable in her own skin, but that doesn’t mean her life has gotten simpler. Kaye attempts to navigate the rocky world of dating in the 21st century, bouncing between iffy experiences with men on hookup apps and turbulent monogamous relationships, while her experiences of gender dysphoria and sexual attraction subtly shift. The arc of the narrative hinges on a messy breakup with ex-girlfriend Liv and Kaye’s slow journey toward healing. Kaye bares her soul via blunt, confessional narration, and occasional flares of expressionism break up her spare, black-and-white cartooning, lending weight to those moments. “We’re just people with the same wants and needs as anyone else,” writes Kaye. By conveying simply that, this collection is a success, illuminating the reality of everyday trans life. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/22/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Parakeet

Espé, trans from French by Hannah Chute. Graphic Mundi, $21.95 (148p) ISBN 978-0-271-08805-1

Espé’s heartbreaking graphic novel gets at the insidious nature of depression and how it is inexplicable to those not in its grasp. Eight-year-old Bastien witnesses his mother, Marie, cycle through psychiatric facilities and treatment plans, none of which do more than provide a temporary respite from her mental illness, while his father and grandparents struggle to handle her episodes. Espé’s expressive linework and color choices—some sections are hued with greens, others blues, but the panels where Marie is overcome by her rages are red—convey Bastien’s shifting emotions as he watches his mother deteriorate. Often, he is relieved not to be around her, even as he misses her. Espé’s artistic virtuosity shines when depicting how Bastien uses his imagination as a defense. As Marie gets electroshock therapy, for instance, Bastien envisions the superhero Wolverine strapped to a table for experimentation, and that his mother also will evolve into a superhero. But despite the limited relief of these fantasies, Bastien just wants his mother to be present. In one scene, with her depression at bay, Marie and Bastien hike in the woods and she teaches him about wildlife and comforts him when he’s scared. “When I’m not there, promise me you’ll only think about the good times we’ve spent together,” she says in one rather devastating moment. This beautifully told and brutal story strikes home. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/22/2021 | Details & Permalink

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