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Run: Book One

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, L. Fury, and Nate Powell. Abrams ComicArts, $24.99 (160p) ISBN 978-1-4197-3069-6

This worthy successor to the late Congressman Lewis’s March graphic memoir trilogy picks up in the civil rights leader’s life during the 1960s counterculture revolution. The narrative opens where March ended, with the hard-fought passage of the Civil Rights Act. But with these freedoms come fresh challenges and old threats that refuse to die. The Watts Riot breaks out just five days after the signing of the Voting Rights Act, foreshadowing the fraught period to come. As head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis struggles to carry on the peace-based activism of his friend and mentor, Martin Luther King Jr., in the face of waves of white supremacist violence. As militant young Black activists take up the chant of “Black Power!” and ideological divisions tear the SNCC apart, Lewis and his colleague navigate sticky issues like the Vietnam War draft (“Where is the draft for the freedom fight in the United States?”) and the Black separatist movement. “Is America ready to share its abundance with people of color?” Lewis wonders. At the same time, civil rights organizers such as Julian Bond and Marion Barry overcome enormous odds and violent opposition to win elected office, giving the still-young Lewis a glimpse of hope for his own political future. Newcomer Fury takes over capably from March’s artist Powell (who assists on this volume), drawing in a similar fluid, softly shaded style that provides continuity while guiding readers into complex issues. This living history gives faces and voices to the legends of the civil rights era and connects their struggles to the present; the police brutality, voter suppression tactics, and segregationist politics of the 1960s are not so different from those Lewis was still making “good trouble” against at the time of his death in 2020. Lewis’s stunning American story and legacy lives on in these pages. Agent: Jeff Posternak, the Wylie Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Down River People

Adam Smith and Matt Fox. Archaia, $19.99 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-68415-563-7

The sins of the past reverberate through this Southern gothic from Smith and Fox (Long Walk to Valhalla) in which family and guilt wrangle time into a seemingly inescapable loop. Myers, a sad-eyed young man who has just buried his father after finding him dead from suicide, stoically carries on operating the family’s honky-tonk in a dry rural county. Troubles stab at him from all sides, from visions of his father’s ghost to being harassed for bootlegging by the same hypocritical cops who pony up at the bar for drinks. When Myers’s long-ago-vanished mother turns up, it at first feels like just another burden. But then be begins to feel his luck might be turning, as she offers up a fresh new family—complete with a friendly half sister and a warmhearted preacher husband, with whom she runs a luxury lodge (which happily supplies Myers with liquor). The expressively haunted faces and rich coloring of the art help carry the atmospheric proceedings, even as it takes a jarring turn into horror after the midpoint. The deeply emotive portrait and undercurrent of grief and resilience helps to overcome the somewhat disjointed narrative. This solid character- and setting-driven story will resonate for fans of late-period Stephen King. (June)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Way She Feels: My Life on the Borderline in Pictures and Pieces

Courtney Cook. Tin House, $18.95 trade paper (250p) ISBN 978-1-951142-59-9

Cook’s candid and formally varied graphic memoir debut examines a central paradox of borderline personality disorder, which she was diagnosed with at 23: the disorder explains the mood swings and fear of abandonment that have haunted her since childhood, proving she’s not simply “dramatic”—yet the diagnosis is also characterized by a need for attention. Cook grows up in idyllic Winnetka, Ill., raised in relative privilege with kind parents, but she suspects that neurosurgery in infancy may have contributed to her mental health issues. These she depicts with humor and vulnerability in lists, stories, and bright digital illustrations highlighting her pink hair, phone screen, and abstract word collages. While there’s some repetition, it also shows a mind circling the same points. Cook describes her experience at a residential treatment center in contrast to most literary accounts of institutionalization, fondly recalling art therapy and kinship with other troubled teens. Maturity, medication, and continued therapy bring relative peace, but Cook is frank about her ongoing struggles, including skin-picking and idealization of acquaintances. For better or worse, “all my actions and thoughts and emotions are filtered through my borderline brain.” Readers will appreciate that same brain’s creativity and wit here. (June)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Street Cop

Robert Coover and Art Spiegelman. isolarii, $20 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-73507-503-7

In this riotous futuristic genre mash-up from Coover (The Public Burning) and cartooning great Spiegelman (Maus), a nameless ex-detective and ex-addict gets a shot at redemption as a wizened street cop. The rare human in a profession filled with nightstick-happy robots, he narrates the episodic action in a hardboiled voice that Coover leavens with a perfect measure of deadpan (“Arrest by robots: the disrespect that murderers now have to live with. Homicide used to be such a big deal”). The detective bounds from one surreal encounter to another (including with sarcastic talking flying cars and a store that sells zombies as pets) while carrying on a half-baked infatuation with his digital assistant, Electra. Like an Italo Calvino fable for the 21st century, the shifting cityscape’s technological wonders and horrors range from killer drones to 3D-printed buildings. The semi-comedic flatness recalls Jonathan Lethem and Paul Auster, as with a scene in which the narrator is nearly crushed in a building “suddenly rolled up like a carpet.” Interstitial full-page drawings by Spiegelman bang out a cacophony of early 20th-century newspaper strip icons (Dagwood, Annie, Betty Boop, his beloved Ignatz) jammed into comix-style debauchery. While the humor of world-weary disaffection may keep some readers at a distance, others will thrill at the discordant chaos. (June)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Vain

Eliot Rahal and Emily Pearson. Oni, $19.99 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-62010-887-1

Despite sporting a bevy of sexy vampires, this historical horror fantasy has trouble hooking into a meaty enough story behind the bloodsucking. The narrative follows a group of attractive undead criminals from the 1930s to the present, a promising concept that feels rushed into a single volume. The Blood Bandits’ escapades include robbing blood banks, conducting espionage in WWII, tangling with gangsters in revolution-era Cuba, and starting a blood cult in 1970s California. The mix of globe-trotting adventure and supernatural horror is enticing, and the book periodically revels in cocky absurdity with dialogue like, “We’re vampires. And we want to kill some Nazis.” But the action moves too quickly to establish characters, motivations, or a plot arc. The thin thread of an overarching narrative is provided by a government agent who glimpses the vampires at work and becomes obsessed with exposing them. The vamps themselves have sketched-in personalities, and amid the choppy, breakneck action they never come into focus. Pearson has drawn attractive art for comics like The Wilds, but the blocky, thickly lined figures and sketched-in backgrounds here don’t match that standard. The story unrolls rather than builds, creating the impression that, like its ageless antiheroes, it’s just marking time between bloodbaths. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/21/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Secrets of Chocolate: A Gourmand’s Trip Through a Top Chef’s Atelier

Franckie Alarcon, trans. from the French by Montana Kane. NBM, $19.99 (112p) ISBN 978-1-68112-278-6

Alarcon draws for his dessert in this frothy diary-style account of his year spent shadowing a renowned chocolatier. Alarcon is a chocoholic who rewards himself with bites of 70% dark chocolate to motivate his drawing work. After he met chef Jacques Genin, he fell for his chocolate-covered pastries and candies. In late 2013, Alarcon began regularly visiting Genin’s kitchen to observe, sketch, ask questions, and bother the staff. He learned about creating truffles, mendiants, tarts, rochers, ganache, praline, and more. Later, he interviewed another chocolatier who roasts and processes his own cocoa beans and travels with him on a trip to Peru to scout out a new cocoa plantation. Alarcon is a squeamish traveler who winces over the food he is offered by the indigenous Peruvian farmers, and throughout he comes across as rather starstruck and weak-willed. (Sexist and xenophobic humor, meanwhile, such as women always swarming the chef or caricatures of an Asian tea purveyor, don’t do him any favors.) Alarcon’s drawings are simple but effective, easily capturing lively gestures and technical details. There’s a puff piece feel to the proceedings, but Alcaron’s fellow sweet-tooths will appreciate the recipes and industry secrets. (June)

Reviewed on 05/21/2021 | Details & Permalink

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I’m in Love with the Villainess, Vol. 1

Inori, Aonoshimo, and Hagata, trans. from the Japanese by Joshua Hardy. Seven Seas, $12.99 trade paper (180p) ISBN 978-1-64827-800-6

The manga adaptation of Inori’s light novel hits its mark in this goofy yet intriguing volume. Chronically overworked salarywoman Rei awakens to find herself reborn in the fantasy world of Revolution, her favorite dating simulation video game, as its protagonist. But rather than try to romance any of Revolution’s intended male suitors, Rei throws herself upon her favorite character: Claire, a cruel aristocratic bully and the game’s de facto villain. Much of the ensuing action follows an expected trajectory as Claire’s attempts to torment Rei meet only with relentless doe-eyed adoration, rendered with tongue-in-cheek visual humor and plenty of sight gags by Aonoshimo. But there’s more at stake than just a one-sided crush, as Rei slowly teases out her knowledge of political subterfuge and events still to come in the game’s timeline while insinuating herself deeper into Claire’s life. Thoroughly entertaining, this first volume will be well received by fans of the original series while remaining inviting the uninitiated. (July.)

Reviewed on 05/21/2021 | Details & Permalink

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It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be

Lizzy Stewart. Fantagraphics, $24.99 (168p) ISBN 978-1-68396-435-3

Childhood transitions into adulthood through poignant and pointed vignettes in this graphic novel from Stewart (Walking Distance). Two unnamed women, friends since childhood, discover that old bonds are difficult to permanently sever. Their stories, set in the U.K. between country and cityscapes, often consist almost entirely of conversations between them, much of it seemingly casual, until the subtext breaks through; for example, a pointed “Oh. But. That’s not how I feel, at all” shatters both the character’s and the reader’s assumptions. Temporary grade school alliances prepare the way for intense, 1990s angst-tinged teenage friendship and the realization that growing up sometimes means drifting apart, but not forever. Slices of life outside of the core narrative provide texture, but also highlight that there’s scant space given to one of the two central friends. (While it emphasizes an imbalance in the relationship, readers are also left wishing they learned more about her.) The soft lines and muted colors or monochrome of Stewart’s art subtly heightens the emotionality. There’s a quiet but powerful immediacy to this that will appeal to lit fic fans who may not always pick up comics. (July)

Reviewed on 05/21/2021 | Details & Permalink

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1984: The Graphic Novel

George Orwell and Fido Nesti. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $22 (224p) ISBN 978-0-358-35992-0

Orwell’s classic dystopian nightmare is lent new life in this atmospheric graphic adaptation by Brazilian artist Nesti. In Orwell’s bleak totalitarian world engaged in perpetual war, Big Brother is always watching (ever-present in the comic’s setting via ubiquitous ominous signs posted), and Thought Police stand guard to mete out brutal justice for thoughtcrimes. Hero Winston Smith, drawn as a drab everyman, is both gifted and cursed with pre-dictatorship memories, and reflects that “even the outline of your own life lost its sharpness.” When he enters into a forbidden love affair with Julia, a fellow apostate, together they join a secret revolutionary group called The Brotherhood. While this adaption is rather text-heavy—perhaps necessarily so to fully impart Orwell’s complex ideas—Nesti’s accessible gray and orange drawings provide balance and light, giving Orwell’s oppressive vision a lyrical touch. His artistic style also lends a Depression-era vibe, one that would have read as retro even in 1949, when the novel was originally published. This artful reinterpretation reminds how Orwell’s warnings of the dangers of authoritarianism have remained frighteningly timeless. Agent: Bill Hamilton, A.M. Heath. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/21/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness

Kristen Radtke. Pantheon, $30 (352p) ISBN 978-1-524-74806-7

As Radtke (Imagine Wanting Only This) notes at the outset of this gripping graphic investigation, she had no way of knowing, when she began researching isolation in 2016, how on-trend her topic would become. Combining personal narrative with social science, evolutionary biology, and pop culture analysis, Radtke’s work is innovative in form and painfully relevant in content. People who are socially isolated die sooner in numbers that cannot be explained simply by slip-and-falls or unchecked vices, she notes. “We need to feel deeply troubled when we observe minor social shuns so we can correct our behavior,” she says, drawing convincing lines from loneliness to totalitarianism (citing Hannah Arendt) and mass shootings. She devotes a large section to Harry Harlow, whose famous studies of baby rhesus monkeys’ need for affection contradicted early 20th-century messaging that cuddling one’s children was unhygienic. Radtke’s astute observations about social media implicate herself yet extend gentleness to her fellow lonely humans. (For example, Radtke recounts looking down on selfie-takers at an art exhibit only to end up taking one herself.) Somber illustrations range from journalistic to starkly symbolic, in variations on gray that establish a flat and lonely world, making the gradient sunset hues that sometimes burst through that much brighter. As a montage of people’s faces blends together, the effect enacts the book’s hopeful thesis that loneliness can be a catalyst for connection. For a treatise about the perils of being alone, it creates a wonderful sense of being drawn into conversation. Agent: Jin Auh, the Wylie Agency. (July)

Reviewed on 05/14/2021 | Details & Permalink

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