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Adler

Lavie Tidhar and Paul McCaffrey. Titan Comics, $16.99 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-78276-071-9

Set in an age in which an ailing Queen Victoria’s kept alive with a steampunk apparatus by Dr. Jekyll, this thrilling comic bursts with reimagined period characters and features Sherlock Holmes’s adversary Irene Adler, who must thwart Ayesha—the warrior queen of H. Rider Haggard’s novel She—from declaring war on Great Britain. Irene is aided by a wide cast of real and fictional Victorian figures including Jane Eyre, Miss Havisham (younger, livelier, and more energetic than Dickens’s), and the little orphan, Annie. Even more obscure cameos like that of Carmilla, Le Fanu’s gothic vampire (and literary predecessor to Dracula), are organically woven into these spirited capers. The concept owes much to Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but World Fantasy Award winner Tidhar (By Force Alone) keeps a constant breathless pace of chases that are swashbuckling enough to forgive the relative simplicity of the plot: stop Ayesha from bombing London with Marie Curie’s radium, which has been weaponized by Nicola Tesla. The art by McCaffrey (Anno Dracula) complements the script with vigorous fight sequences and sharp character design. While, perhaps forgivably, not as developed as a Doyle-original Holmes mystery, the mash-up offers solid light entertainment with strong crossover appeal, as well as twists and derring-do aplenty. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Billionaires: The Lives of the Rich and Powerful

Darryl Cunningham. Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-77046-448-3

Cunningham (The Age of Selfishness) cogently combines portraits of the lives and careers of Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers, and Jeff Bezos into a graphic treatise that considers both the responsibility that wealth and power demands and the inevitability of such power corrupting absolutely. In chapters on Murdoch and the Koch Brothers, Cunningham portrays young men of privilege corrupted by a relentless desire to amass wealth and power at the expense of others, whether in Murdoch’s collusion with conservative leaders and his brutal suppression of unions, or the Koch Brothers’ efforts to bring fringe Libertarian philosophies into the Republican political mainstream. Cunningham then demonstrates how Bezos’s comparably modest upbringing didn’t prevent him from building an empire that exploits its employees. The minimalist color palette and pared-down visual style render this complex study on the machinations of billionaires consumable in a single sitting. Cunningham jumps from shot to shot through panels infused with irony and symbolism, such as the recurring motif of money emerging from industrial pipes, or giant hands and feet grabbing and crushing. The result is a witty but brutal critique of capitalism and corruption. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Penny: A Graphic Memoir

Karl Stevens. Chronicle, $19.95 trade paper (156p) ISBN 978-1-4521-8305-3

“Am I in denial that I am living in a prison?” muses Penny, the pet cat of Stevens (The Winner), in this gracefully drawn, intermittently amusing “graphic memoir” imagined from the feline’s perspective. Penny reveals her philosophical inner life along with her deeply mercurial nature, and the humor stems from this duality. She contrasts her days living on the streets as a stray with her present life as a seemingly domesticated house cat, forever torn between longing for the “glory of the next grand adventure” and her comfortable day-to-day with her humans (whom she observes with mild disdain). For example, she fantasizes about murdering a seagull perched outside, but moments later mentions she doesn’t need more than “eighteen hours of windowsill sleeping” to be happy. Stevens employs his detailed and stylistic realism to nice comic effect, especially during a flight of fancy when Penny imagines herself traversing another dimension, “one with the cosmos.” The emphasis on Penny’s feral impulses results in a kind of satire of the typical cat-humor collection (“Am I watching the people sleep to be sure they’re ok? Or am I waiting for them to die so I can eat them?”). Stevens’s clever send-up should delight the feline faithful. Agent: Meg Thompson, Thompson Literary. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Secret to Superhuman Strength

Alison Bechdel. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24 (240p) ISBN 978-0-544-38765-2

Bechdel (Are You My Mother?) makes a welcome return with this dense, finely wrought deep dive into her lifelong fixation with exercise as a balm for a variety of needs: “My reasons... run the gamut from the physical to the mental to the emotional to the psychological to the more numinous.” Progressing chronologically, from the 1960s through to the 2020 pandemic, Bechdel’s early, whimsical efforts to adopt various regimens such as running and karate (at a “feminist martial arts school”) bloom in adulthood into often-obsessive attempts to achieve enlightenment. Eventually she begins to suspect that her fanatical focus on a variety of exhausting workouts offers her a way to avoid difficult issues, particularly in her relationships: “I’d managed dad’s death so well because I hadn’t managed it at all. Who knew you were supposed to have feelings!” Throughout, Bechdel conjures the histories of literary figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Jack Kerouac, and Adrienne Rich, all of whom wrote about their own attempts at inner transformation with philosophical movements such as romanticism and transcendentalism. Bechdel’s ever-elegant drawings, with nuanced coloring provided by her partner Holly Rae Taylor, perfectly match the tonal shifts of her kaleidoscopic narrative, alternating between soul-searching angst and dry self-satire. At the close of each chapter, the colors disappear and are replaced by a warm gray wash, symbolizing seemingly a hope for harmony and oneness. Grappling with the desire for spiritual transcendence in the most intensely personal terms, Bechdel achieves a tricky—even enlightening—balance. Agent: Sydelle Kramer, Susan Rabiner Literary Agency (May)

Reviewed on 03/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Chase (Breaklands #1)

Justin Jordan and Tyasseta. Dark Horse, $19.99 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-1-5067-2441-6

Nearly 150 years ago, an event called the Break upturned the world of this gory, postapocalyptic, and madcap science fiction series from Jordan (the Strange Talent of Luther Strode series). The Break gave (almost) everyone powers, and granted a few the power to reshape the world entirely. Kasa’s brother, Adam, is one of those few, but Kasa herself was left with no powers. They’ve kept hidden all their lives, but Adam disobeys Kasa and reveals themselves, and is promptly captured. Kasa’s journey to recover her sibling makes for a fun thrill ride across the wasteland, propped up by a nifty premise, shocking but not overly gratuitous violence, and inventive uses for characters’ powers. Newcomer Tyasseta’s flat and angular art is reminiscent both of Euro comics and throwback computer video game graphics. Her unusual perspectives will keep readers on their toes. But the adventure lacks an emotional underbelly; the secondary characters have no skin in the game, and the relationship between badass Kasa and her delinquent brother doesn’t get much attention before he’s whisked away. Overall, the slick ride hasn’t yet caught enough gravity, but there is much potential for future installments; readers may want to dip in at Comixology, where the series is running, for the edgy art but await future volumes for their verdict on the story line’s success. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/26/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Flash Forward: An Illustrated Guide to Possible (and Not So Possible) Tomorrows

Rose Eveleth. Abrams ComicArts, $24.99 (272p) ISBN 978-1-4197-4547-8

Science fiction and philosophy entangle as Flash Forward podcaster Eveleth and a rotating cast of artists explore the ways technology could change humanity for the better, worse, or somewhere in between. A dozen thought-experiment scenarios are presented doubly as short illustrated fiction and followed by Eveleth’s reflections on the ramifications of the imagined change. Some are recognizable what-if tropes, like “Never Lay Me Down to Sleep” by Matt Lubchansky, in which a drug allows people to function without rest. The Blade Runner–styled future-noir “Piraceuticals” by John Jennings imagines guerrilla biohackers stealing code from price-gouging Big Pharma in Robin Hood fashion. In Kate Sheridan’s “Ghostbot,” technology allows humans to (somewhat) live on after their death, which Eveleth frames generously: “The way we process death is both personal and cultural.” As science fiction, the pieces are overly familiar, and more effective when embracing their positioning as talking points, such as in Sophia Foster-Dimino’s “Animal Magnetism,” which spins an absurd dialogue between animal rights extremists into a thoughtful debate on the morality of pet ownership. Eveleth’s bright tone provides ample food for thought, and fellow futurists will appreciate this buffet of prognostications. Agent: Gary Morris, David Black Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/26/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Our Work Is Everywhere: An Illustrated Oral History of Queer and Trans Resistance

Edited by Syan Rose. Arsenal Pulp, $16.95 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-55152-815-1

Rose makes her trade debut by bringing together a stirring variety of queer voices to challenge normative notions of “work.” In the foreword, poet Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha describes the anthology as “a seed library passed around that kin near and far... can plant from,” which asks organizers to reimagine community work (including timely missives dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic). For the members of PLUMP! collective, it’s how creating Fat: The Play provoked radical vulnerability and a queer body-positive community; for trans activist Ceyenne Doroshow, it’s discovering empowerment in sex work and challenging the rigidity of traditional nonprofit structures; for incarcerated trans woman Amber Kim, it’s simply tapping the resilience to build trust and hope amid violence. For each piece, Rose reinterprets the speakers’ words into expressionistic layouts, with dreamlike illustrations and a juxtaposition of poetry and prose. Though her hand-lettering and tendency to twist sentences into more visually pleasing curved lines sometimes impedes the readability, Rose and her collaborators’ emotionality shines through. It’s an inspirational volume for current and aspiring queer community workers to “keep showing up” to build a better world together. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/26/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Stone Fruit

Lee Lai. Fantagraphics, $24.99 (236p) ISBN 978-1-68396-426-1

The central couple in Lai’s subtly layered graphic novel debut appear in its first panels as feral creatures with giant, elongated catlike eyes and sharp teeth, chasing through the woods with their equally monstrous niece, Nessie. A phone call from Nessie’s mother transports them back to the real world, and turns them and back into women—anxious, emotive Rachel and reticent, depressive Bron. But the motif of transformation is threaded throughout the story of their family dynamics, and echoed in Lai’s fluid, blue-gray illustrations. Tension builds: Rachel’s sister (Nessie’s mom) isn’t fond of Bron, and Bron misses her estranged family but doesn’t know how to talk about her feelings. During a three-month separation, each looks to their family of origin for answers. Rachel describes Bron’s parents as “waspy Christian maniacs” who never came to terms with their daughter’s gender transition. Bron’s dad sees Rachel as “that angry Chinese girl.” Yet the women’s youthful us-against-the-world mentality is wearing thin: “All the structures we’d built together suddenly felt unbearably fragile,” Rachel observes. Lai’s cinematic juxtapositions and dreamlike fugues give visual structure to a breakup story that’s heavy on processing, sharpening its edges. Lai also skillfully captures the ways family dynamics and histories play out in romantic relationships, and how heavy those legacies can land. The result is a poignant and mature rumination on how people change, and change each other, proving Lai a talent well worth watching. (May)

Reviewed on 02/26/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Dear Noman, Vol. 1

Neji, trans. from the Japanese by Leighann Harvey. Yen, $13 trade paper (196p) ISBN 978-1-975320-08-9

This sweet manga tale by Neji (Beauty and the Beast Girl) puts a magical spin on processing grief. Mashiro Unohana, a 14-year-old girl whose older sister has died, sees wildly different, odd creatures that no one else seems to notice. When she finally decides to interact with one, it tries to eat her. Luckily, she’s saved by Bazu, a crow spirit and employee of the Boundary Preservation Society. Mashiro’s recruited into the society to partner with Bazu and help the “Nomans” that she sees, who may be humans or animals that have died or “natural spirits, traditional monsters, and the spirits that serve the gods.” (When a deceased human or animal Noman lingers in the human world for too long, it can become dangerous.) Neji does a lovely job getting readers invested in the spirits and their dilemmas; there’s tear-jerkers as well as emotional hijinx. Her characters are multidimensional: Mashiro’s a “goody two-shoes,” but she never feels like a pushover, able to hold her own against the loud-mouthed Bazu. Neji’s delicate line art and thoughtful grayscale shading technique grounds the fantastical elements, lending a serious tone to its themes of grief. The bevy of nifty creatures to explore will draw in manga fans, and leave them with weighty reflections on loss and life. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 02/19/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Box of Bones: Book One

Ayize Jama-Everett and John Jennings. Rosarium, $19.95 trade paper (174p) ISBN 978-1-73263-884-6

For this tastefully out-of-the box-horror anthology, Afrofuturist thriller novelist Jama-Everett (The Liminal People) partners with comics writer/artist and editor Jennings (Parable of the Sower) to script a genre narrative rooted in collective trauma, with rotating artists. The comic frames the bloody accounts collected by Lindsay Ford, a Black female folklore student who is researching a mythical chest full of monsters: The Nobody, a Medusa-like gremlin; The Wretched, a living lynching tree; The Dark, a slave ghoul who wears a cross-shaped mask; and The Suffering, a noose-wearing rage giant. Each creature wreaks carnage during a dire setting in Black history (Haitian slave revolt, Jim Crow South, the Vietnam War, etc.). Jennings, also an artist, nails his impressionist layouts in two chapters, including the opening “The Troubles I’ve Seen.” Jamal L. Williams, Jarmel “Blaqzart“ Williams, and Alex Batchelor elevate their chapter, “Suffering on the Hill,” with dynamic character designs and deep shades and blood-red hues, and bring a cinematic energy that’s lacked in other entries. This spirited project is part of the trend of ethno-gothic fiction in the comics market, and offers a landscape ripe to contemplate such spooky and strange fruit. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/19/2021 | Details & Permalink

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