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Left Turns

Joshua Ross. Source Point, $29.99 (368p) ISBN 979-8-88876-002-4

Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy draws sad comics about girl—the Chasing Amy–esque story line rings only too familiar in this earnest if uneven outing from Ross (Tales of Mr. Rhee). Through years of sacrifice, David has nursed his ambition—always just out of reach—to become a professional comic book artist. Along the way, his neuroses have confounded his family and alienated his friends (“Can’t I sulk by myself?”)—and now his longtime girlfriend has dumped him. The aspiring cartoonist struggles at the drawing board and in pitching his portfolio, and is introspective to the point of myopia, ignoring more than one cute girl throwing herself at him as he bemoans his lack of dating opportunities. Drawn classically handsome, he’s also a classic crank, literally bothered by the cracks where the light gets in: “There’s just enough sun shining through these windows to be annoying.” Ross’s clean-line style and simple monochromatic color scheme draw readers into David’s world, and there are insightful and self-aware moments that will resonate with starving artists and the people who love them. But the inability to connect is David’s fatal flaw, both in the plot and for those weary of romans à clef detailing the angsty love lives of misanthropic cartoonists. Whether readers dig this may depend on how stuck they still feel in their own youthful regrets. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 03/08/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Third Shift Society

Meredith Moriarty. Webtoon Unscrolled, $19.99 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-998-85429-5

Moriarty collects her Eisner-nominated supernatural-mystery webtoon into an irreverent if often derivative print debut. Out strolling and texting one day, unemployed 20-something Ellie McGuinness stumbles on a demon battle (“That guy’s about to get turbo murdered!”) and rescues Ichabod—a “paranormal detective” with a jack-o’-lantern for a head. With her mundane existence forever altered by the discovery that she has latent magical abilities (blue flames shoot from her hand when she steps between Ichabod and a wolflike monster with a skull head), Ellie agrees to train her powers as Ichabod’s assistant and accompanies him on spooky gig work—a little bit Ghostbusters, a little bit Sherlock. She’s thrust into an underworld populated by flirtatious demons, vengeful spirits, “mystery voids,” cursed library books, and a host of other quirky softcore-horror delights. Moriarty’s color cues, angular trick shots, and other cinematic framing enhance the caper’s more dynamic sequences. Peppered with jokes and sardonic literary references (there’s a humanoid beetle named Greg Samson, and Alice­­­­­—of Wonderland—shows up in a void-dimension), the script tends to rush characterizations and leans heavily on convenient contrivances. Still, it’s an easily digestible and affectionately mixed blend of genre tropes. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/08/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The Mushroom Knight

Oliver Bly. Mad Cave, $19.99 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-960578-79-2

Bly’s riotously imaginative dark fairy tale debut plunges readers into a “wide green world” of adventure beneath the feet of oblivious humans. Gowlitrot the Gardener, a humanoid mushroom who rides a frog named Hopalong, sets out on a quest to retrieve an artifact called the Candle Fly. To Gowlitrot and his fellow faeries, their forest is an expansive realm of massive trees, treacherous grass jungles, and complex magical societies. Seen from human scale, it’s a wooded lot in Philadelphia. The two worlds intersect when Gowlitrot has a run-in with Lemuelle, a young Black girl looking for her lost dog. It sounds like the premise of a whimsical children’s book, but Bly executes the concept as wickedly smart high fantasy for mature readers, evoking classic folklore that portrays the faerie world as ruthless, dangerous, and alien. In lush clear-line art, he renders a magical realm filled with mysterious villages, colorful characters, local dialects, and endless tantalizing worldbuilding details, all tucked away amid naturalistic forests, fields, and streams. “The entire world is a joke writ by clowns for the amusement of devils,” a character warns Gowlitrot. Fantasy lovers will relish this gorgeously wrought escapade. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/08/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Osamu Dazai’s ‘The Setting Sun’: The Manga Edition

Osamu Dazai and Cocco Kashiwaya, trans. from the Japanese by Makiko Itoh. Tuttle, $14.99 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-4-8053-1761-7

Kashiwaya makes her English-language debut with a faithful manga adaptation of a grim 1947 novel by Japanese author Dazai. In the wreckage of WWII, young divorcée Kazuko moves to the countryside to support her formerly privileged and now-impoverished family. Working in the fields, Kazuko grows stronger as her sickly, aristocratic mother weakens, until their uncertain new balance is upended by the reappearance of Kazuko’s “rascal” brother, a veteran and opium addict. Meanwhile, Kazuko falls for a married, alcoholic writer, imagining that his sensitive novels betray an inner nobility. Despite the bleakness of the tale, a thread of hope runs throughout as Kazuko finds new freedoms in the destruction of the old order and comes to believe that “humans are born for love and revolution.” Kashiwaya’s attractive if old-fashioned art style is a pleasant match for the period setting, but the retelling does little more than dramatize the original plot; there’s none of the daring artistry found in the manga versions of Dazai’s No Longer Human drawn by Usamaru Furuya or Junji Ito. Still, it’s a solid introduction to Dazai’s oeuvre. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/08/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Adversary

Blue Delliquanti. Silver Sprocket, $15.99 trade paper (80p) ISBN 979-8-88620-038-6

Delliquanti (Across a Field of Starlight) delivers a thoughtful and tense graphic novella about the uneasy sexual relationship between Curtis, a newly out 50-something self-defense teacher, and his former student, who has since their last encounter transitioned to the male gender. The story is set in spring 2021 Minneapolis, amid the lingering threat of Covid and the fallout from the murder of George Floyd. The former student, Anton, approaches Curtis in a bar, buys him a drink, and entices him into reenacting familiar self-defense role-playing exercises as consensual adult sex scenes. But Anton is cagey about his motivations and Curtis begins to chafe: “Why does every question you ask me feel like a test?” Eventually, secrets and sorrows are revealed. Anton sums up a central theme—the unknowability of others and the roles people play, consciously and unconsciously, in relationships—in his response to Curtis’s question: “Every interaction is a test of what reality the other person lives in. If we can trust each other.” Delliquanti shows a nuanced hand when it comes to character development, infusing Curtis’s and Anton’s role-playing scenes with sharp eroticism. They also ably capture the streets of Minneapolis through small details (graffiti; shop signs), evoking a city that—like these two protagonists—still grapples with multiple traumas. This complex work rewards multiple readings. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/08/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Army of One

Tony Lee and Yishan Li. Oni, $17.99 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-5493-0798-0

This energetic, universe-hopping action series from Lee (Hope Falls) and British-Chinese artist Li (the Hell Boy series) hits the ground running but occasionally trips over its own conceits. Carrie, a typical Illinois teenager, is thrown headfirst into adventure when she meets a group of superpowered alternate-universe versions of herself—and the interdimensional assassins out to eliminate them. All the doppelgängers, she learns, are “shards,” copies of their original: Sister Fortune, a powerful being who was destroyed by her sibling Brother Havoc. Every character Carrie meets, including the many versions of herself, harbors a different agenda, and she’s hurled across the multiverse on the run for her life before she or the reader can catch up to whose side to be on. “I can’t be the chosen one,” she complains. “I have a math test on Friday.” Though aimed at adults, the story line holds obvious crossover appeal for teens. Li’s clean and dynamic art excels in the action sequences and, enlivened by warm colors, rises to the challenge of rendering each version of Carrie visually distinctive. But the large cast, multiple rival groups, alternate universes, prophesies that may or may not be true, and other story elements (including which Carrie has which specialized superpower) may leave readers dizzy. Those who hop on board will hope this speedboat rights its course in volume two. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/01/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Gender Studies: True Confessions of an Accidental Outlaw

Ajuan Mance. Rosarium, $9.95 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-73263-886-0

Mance (What Do Brothas Do All Day?) interrogates gender identity in an insightful graphic memoir grounded in nuanced and amusing explorations of her gender expression as a Black, “woman-identified gentleman scholar.” Revisiting her college dating life in the mid-1980s, when boyfriends saw her as a “guy friend who’s also a girl friend,” Mance describes how she admired her partners’ clothes and hairy knuckles before discovering the “difference between being interested in masculinity and being attracted to men.” The brief yet effective chapters dig into the intersection of Blackness and gender through anecdotal stories on such topics as how Black women perform femininity through hairstyles and how young kids perceive gender. Mance’s trademark stylistic flair is subdued here, but her vivid coloring and sharp linework strike a contrast between dense text and characters drawn in titanium white. Her witty personality comes through particularly in the final entry, “Check All That Apply,” which relates several “Black nerd stories” and an Octavia Butler–inspired speculative timeline that transports her to a “1983 meeting of the East Bay Black Lesbian Collective” in Oakland. Newcomers to the artist’s oeuvre will feel welcomed by this endearing work, which affirms how far the understanding of gender identities and experiences has come since Mance’s coming-of-age in the 1970s. It’s a celebration of queerness that will resonate with fans of Lawrence Lindell’s Blackward. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/01/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Queen

Jean-Marc Rochette, trans. from the French by Edward Gauvin. SelfMadeHero, $25.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-914224-19-5

This lavish and unpredictable historical epic from Rochette (Snowpiercer) delves into the disintegrating relationship between humanity and nature. Édouard Roux, the untamable son of a woman who practices pagan rituals and is rumored to be a witch, grows up in rural France at the turn of the 20th century and witnesses the killing of what is believed to be the last bear in the region. Édouard’s family has a long connection to bears and the wilderness they represent, as revealed through flashbacks following a prehistoric bear cult that continues in secret through the Middle Ages. As he grows up, Édouard maintains the ancient belief that “so long as bears rule the mountains, the sun will rise in the morning.” Disfigured in WWI, he seeks a new face from Jeanne Sauvage, an artist who makes lifelike masks. (When Édouard tells her he’s ashamed to show his face, she replies, “The society that did this to you should be ashamed.”) The two fall in love and retreat into the forest, where Jeanne creates wildlife sculptures, including of a bear, that win plaudits from urban tastemakers like Picasso and Cocteau. Unfortunately, the couple’s wilderness idyll can’t survive against the forces of modernity. Rochette’s scratchy, deeply shadowed art has the organic look of woodcuts, and he draws marvelous wild animals and sweeping natural vistas. Melding ancient myth and modern history, Rochette’s bold narrative entrances. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/01/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Polar Vortex: A Family Memoir

Denise Dorrance. The Experiment, $19.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-615-19905-1

Dorrance (Mimi at Home) takes her quirky approach to semi-autobiographical comics to the next level with her vulnerable latest. A Londoner originally from the American Midwest, Dorrance relates the story of her abrupt return to her hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, following her 91-year-old mother’s injury due to a fall and subsequent dementia diagnosis. Landlocked in a place she thought she had left behind, Dorrance struggles to navigate the logistics of her mother’s recovery as a historic winter storm—a “polar vortex”—looms on the horizon. Wrestling with the implications of her mother’s confusion, helplessness, and impending mortality, Dorrance is also forced to reckon with the depth of her own emotional estrangements from her family, the rural community in which she grew up, and the person she used to be before she left it all behind to pursue a creative career. Her loose-lined, gestural art style is punctuated by abstract flourishes that fill simple panels with raw emotion and occasional bursts of absurdist humor (a conversation with her mother about recovery options transforms the hospital bed onto a game show stage: “Let’s Make a Deal!”). The gentle lines, soft color palette, and quippy narration bring a sense of comfort and familiarity to the bittersweet story of family, memory, and the inevitability of loss. Dorrance demystifies the challenges of elder care with this sensitive snapshot of the many ways in which memory shapes family history. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/01/2024 | Details & Permalink

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My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Book Two

Emil Ferris. Fantagraphics, $39.99 (412p) ISBN 978-1-68396-927-3

The much-anticipated conclusion to Ferris’s dazzling debut proves a triumph. In it, readers are invited deeper into the mind of Karen Reyes, a 10-year-old girl in 1960s Chicago who sees the world through a kaleidoscope of fine art, classic movie and pulp fiction monsters, and mystery. Karen now lives with her older brother, Deeze, a brilliant but troubled artist in danger of being shipped off to Vietnam. As she continues to investigate the death of her neighbor, Holocaust survivor Anka, she becomes enamored with Shelley, another monster-loving girl. Together they form a secret society called the Eternal Guild of the Benevolent Undead. The free-flowing plot develops organically as Ferris lavishes attention on Karen’s obsessions: visits to art museums where she pictures herself climbing into the paintings, conversations about philosophy and paranoia with a Greek chorus of street people, and expeditions into the depths of her spooky old apartment building to unearth family secrets. “All my family does is hide stuff from me,” Karen gripes, even as she discovers that the adults in her life have reasons to bury the truth. Ferris coaxes images of uncanny depth and vitality from ballpoint pen on lined notebook paper, and the dialogue carries similarly offbeat beauty: “Mama used to say Dante’s voice was like butter melting off a honey factory.” Elevating gritty urban realism to the heights of her protagonist’s flights of fancy, Ferris brings forth a gloriously subversive world of the imagination. Agent: Holly Bemiss, Susan Rabiner Literary. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/23/2024 | Details & Permalink

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