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Our Dreams at Dusk: Shimanami Tasogare, Vol. 1

Yuhki Kamatani, trans, from the Japanese by Jocelyne Allen. Seven Seas, $12.99 trade paper (180p) ISBN 978-1-64275-060-7

This impressive first volume portrays a raw slice-of-life story (with some fantastical elements) centered around the queer experience in Japanese society. High schooler Tasuku Kaname is outed by classmates as gay (one spots porn on his phone) just two days before summer break. Terrified of the consequences, Tasuku contemplates suicide; but before he leaps from the stairs climbing the cliffs of his hilltop town, he leans over the railing to see a woman jumping out of a window from a nearby building. Tasuku rushes down to the base of it, where he meets a small demolition and construction crew, made up of volunteers, called Cat Clutter, along with the woman he saw—who is fine and alive—who goes by the name Someone. When he discovers they are also an LGBTQ community, Tasuku is encouraged to return and spend his summer helping them renovate abandoned houses. The script by Kamatani (the Nabari No Ou series) works harmonically with his intricate illustrations and their symbolism (such as a frame that portrays Tasuku breaking into pieces of fragmented glass, with reflections of a classmate and Someone). While manga frequently portrays the characters in yaoi/yuri (“boys’ love”/“girls’ love” genres) in a fetishized light, this series takes a refreshing turn, and the high-quality art makes it a potential breakout for broader audiences. (May)

Reviewed on 05/10/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Bitter Root, Vol. 1: Family Business

David Walker and Chuck Brown. Image, $16.99 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-5343-1212-8

“Since the dawn of civilization, a Great Evil has plagued humanity” begins the not particularly original opening to this fast-paced horror series. Fortunately, Walker (The Life of Frederick Douglass) and Brown pump life into a familiar good vs. evil formula with a well-crafted, vividly illustrated setting. In 1920s Harlem, the Sangerye family carries on its generations-old work of fighting jinoo, evil spirits that periodically erupt into the mortal world. When humans start turning into jinoo, the Sangeryes’ mission becomes more complicated, as rival demonologists and possessed humans present new obstacles. Historical fiction mixes with supernatural horror, producing a hybrid fantasy world of voodoo spells, mad science, monster Klansmen, and Jazz Age demon hunters wielding steampunk versions of Ghostbusters proton packs. The dynamic, richly colored art, with its expressive characters and imaginative monster designs, elevates the predictable plot. Above all, it’s the background details that sing, from meticulously drawn Harlem streets to cluttered rooms filled with period detail. Comics fans will look forward to future volumes of this energetic dark fantasy that effectively mixes thrills and scares. (May)

Reviewed on 05/10/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Death Orb, Vol. 1

Ryan Ferrier, Alejandro Aragon, and Chris O’Halloran. Dark Horse, $19.99 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-1-5067-0824-9

A rote futuristic action adventure, this collection reads like the daydreams of a metalhead and follows a biker known as The Rider as he travels a dystopian American wasteland in search of his kidnapped pregnant wife, leaving a trail of gory mayhem in his wake. Society persists in cities governed by the Lords, a religious order that blends faith with science, their efforts overseen by the megalomaniacal Father, who plots the destruction of humanity in order to rebuild it. His master plan, “The Great Impact,” involves dropping a massive satellite—the death orb of the title—onto the planet, thus ensuring an extinction-level event. He is opposed by a gang of outlaws and dissent from within his own ranks. The Rider joins the outlaws and their plan to rescue a psychic child who knows the location of Father’s temple city, which they must reach in order to bomb it into oblivion. The creative team trots out a catalogue of sketchily rendered postapocalyptic tropes that’s visually equal parts Mad Max, Blade Runner, and Akira; though they nod to their influences, they don’t do them justice in panels that at times look unfinished or rushed. Give this one a pass. (June)

Reviewed on 05/10/2019 | Details & Permalink

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King of King Court

Travis Dandro. Drawn & Quarterly, $29.95 (464p) ISBN 978-1-77046-359-2

Punctuated with close-ups of the details that fill a small boy’s life, Dandro’s debut memoir is an extended poetic gaze on intergenerational helplessness and the violence it begets. Dandro draws both his six-year-old and teenage self with empty circles for eyes, as if he is a vessel for receiving his surroundings—including the inconsistent presence of his father, Dave, a tough guy with dark sunglasses, a muscle car, and a drug problem. It doesn’t help that his mother, despite remarrying, alternates between fleeing Dave and rekindling their affair. This is the ’80s, and when Travis hears a story about the kidnapping of Adam Walsh, his anxieties bloom into nightmares. Dandro expertly balances a child’s-eye view with authorial empathy; Dave is drawn both larger-than-life and human and hurting; and his mother as loving, even as she fails her son. Though over 400 pages, the story flies by in often wordless, poignant sequences. At the end, Dandro watches a fish tank scuba diver repeatedly surge toward the surface, only to be pulled down by the weight of a sunken chest that undoubtedly contains both treasure and tragedy. This gloriously scribbled story doesn’t rest on easy morals, or even attempt to forgive the past—Dandro’s triumph is drawing the reader through both the pain and beauty of his upbringing, and then moving forward. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/10/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Olivia Twist: Honor Among Thieves

Darin Strauss, Adam Dalva, and Emma Vieceli. Berger, $19.99 trade paper (136p) ISBN 978-1-5067-0948-2

Strauss (Half a Life) and Dalva ambitiously adapt Dickens’s classic serial with a diverse, futurist aesthetic that lacks novelty and depth. London of 2050 is controlled by Provis, a robotics corporation which relies on the slave labor of human children to fuel its growth. After Olivia, an orphan styled rather like Rosie the Riveter as a teen girl in jaunty overalls, rebels against her overlords to protect a newcomer named Pip, she escapes and, with the help of the felonious Artful Dodger, joins a female-centered revolutionary cell called the Esthers. Vieceli (the Jem and the Holograms series) refreshingly attempts to update the original cast with more diverse characters (referencing several of Dickens’s other well-known protagonists), but Strauss and Dalva’s fleshing out of the crew is sketchy and uneven, including a token nonbinary character whose backstory consists only of nondescript abuse “by everyone.” Much of the plot is a standard MacGuffin hunt in which various players attempt to secure a locket which can only be opened with Olivia’s blood, confusingly paced with help from some extraordinarily plot-convenient seizures. For all its laudable themes of empowerment for the disenfranchised, Strauss and Dalva’s text is too by-the-numbers to make a lasting impression. (May)

Reviewed on 05/03/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Tonta

Jaime Hernandez. Fantagraphics, $19.99 (104p) ISBN 978-1-68396-205-2

When the reckless and exuberant Tonta, star of this antics-filled graphic novel, opens her roller-coaster tale, her biggest worry in life is her ongoing crush on Eric Lopez, lead singer of Ooot. Her attempts to gets Eric’s attention are interrupted by complications spinning out of a rich country club owner’s pursuit of Tonta’s beautiful half-sister, Vivian. Dark clouds are ushered in by a crew of lowlifes, a gun, and a shooting—and hints of far more disturbing family secrets. As usual, Hernandez (the Love and Rockets series) effortlessly sketches a rich supporting cast: “The Gorgon,” an ugly girl who befriends Tonta and watches the goings-on from her forest hangout; and Gomez, a classmate who timidly participates in Tonta’s mission to uncover their PE teacher’s suspected secret pastime as a lucha libre wrestler. These lighthearted shenanigans come to a screeching halt when Tonta’s mother is accused of arranging her husband’s murder—and maybe the deaths of several previous husbands. Hernandez revisits many of his favorite themes in a story that seamlessly shifts from Archie-like teen adventures to the burdens of a dysfunctional family. This rambunctious ride may be more minor in the Hernandez catalog, but it’s still a master class in cartooning. (July)

Reviewed on 05/03/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Shanghai Dream

Philippe Thirault, trans. from the French by Mark Bence. Humanoids, $17.95 (112p) ISBN 978-1-643378-51-0

With equal parts pluck and schmaltz, this graphic novel follows the filmmaking dreams of an enterprising young Jewish couple, Illo and Bernhard. In 1930s Berlin, the encroachment of Nazi thugs—held temporarily at bay by the war hero status of Illo’s aging father—forces the couple to attempt to relocate to a refugee community in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. An opportunity to leave early presents itself, but would require Illo to leave her father behind. Guilt-ridden, Illo disembarks as the ship leaves port, abandoning Bernhard. Thirault’s art echoes the characters’ cinematic aspirations in sumptuous layouts of soaring urban architecture and claustrophobic ghettos. Illo’s melodramatic screenplay-in-progress is cleverly imagined as if a real movie, which shifts with the first draft set in Berlin, then the New York of their imagination, and finally to Shanghai and the Chinese countryside. But the graphic novel suffers from the same syrupy tendencies as the film script, embodied by the cliché of too-good-to-be-true Lin Lin, who cleans Bernhardt’s room and conveniently has connections to the fledgling Shanghai film industry. The writing veers between genres, introducing then hurrying away from more violent scenes, as though to insulate the characters from the full scope of their horror. This curious project brings attention to a lesser-known Jewish refugee community via a tale about art as therapy and homage; though an uneven effort, it’s packed with details for historical fiction buffs. (July)

Reviewed on 05/03/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Amazing Decisions: The Illustrated Guide to Improving Business Deals and Family Meals

Dan Ariely and Matt R. Trower. Hill & Wang, $17.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-0-374-53674-9

The fraught process of decision making is given a jaunty exploration in this perkily drawn graphic handbook. Behavioral economist Ariely (Predictably Irrational) presents his theories through the characters of energetic scientist Dana and befuddled Adam, who thinks he has to choose between two sets of norms. One is represented by the market fairy (who flits around in a suit and tosses off statements like “We thrive through competition and the free market”) and the other by the social fairy (“You completely missed the point of a social exchange!”). In basic drawings, Adam is walked through the balancing of social and market forces required to negotiate the tricky territories of friendship, families, and gift giving (hint: don’t offer to pay your mother for Thanksgiving dinner, no matter what the market fairy says). Thereafter, Dana overviews social science experiments, which have shown how people react to motivation in complicated and nonintuitive ways. For instance, subjects in one test worked less hard on a routine computer problem when offered money than those offered nothing. In another example, simple social reminders incentivized better than punishments. This easy-reading guide is a useful addition to the pop social-science canon, likely to get clipped for slideshow presentations from classrooms to boardrooms. Agent: James Levine, Levine Greenberg (July)

Reviewed on 05/03/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Grass

Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, trans. from the Korean by Janet Hong. Drawn & Quarterly, , (481p) $29.95 ISBN 978-1-77046-362-2

In telling the difficult, moving story of Korean former “comfort woman” Granny Lee Ok-sun, Gendry-Kim faces a philosophical question as well as an artistic one: what can be redeemed in a life defined largely by cruelty? In swift black brushstrokes that feel both contemporary and, in key wordless pauses, classical, Gendry-Kim follows Ok-sun’s narration of her life (based on interviews) with minimal editorializing. Ok-sun—depicted as a wrinkly old woman in the present day and a round-faced, triangle-nosed girl in her youth—is sold twice as a child into domestic work (though promised she was going to school) in poverty-stricken, occupied Korea before Japanese forces kidnap her. At the Chinese outpost where Japanese soldiers rape her regularly, there is no “comfort,” just a dirty work camp where her visitors, up to forty a day, are “all the same.” When Ok-sun describes her first rape, Gendry-Kim draws six black panels with Ok-sun’s terrified face bursting out of the frame. After the war, Ok-sun finds relative peace, but it’s clear that politicians lack the power and will to enact true healing. The best anyone can hope for, Gendry-Kim seems to conclude, is to say, collectively, “This happened.” Despite occasional moments of disjointed plotting, Gendry-Kim tells Ok-sun’s powerful story with grace, artfulness, and humility; it deserves witness. (June)

Reviewed on 04/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Follies of Richard Wadsworth

Nick Maandag. Drawn & Quarterly, $19.95 (152p) ISBN 978-1-770-46361-5

Maandag (The Libertarian) showcases his excellent deadpan, cringe-inducing humor in this hilariously unsettling collection of three short stories. Using a spare line and a minimum of expressiveness, he repeatedly skewers the self-important, the self-righteous, and the self-absorbed. In the title story, Wadsworth is a buffoonish philosophy professor whose baser instincts lead to increasingly poor and absurd decisions (with some mistaken identity mishaps along the way). In “Night School,” an absurdly byzantine business class veers into madness when a visiting fire chief adds his own deranged input on leadership and discipline. A monastery is the site of “The Disciple,” wherein lust-crazed monks try to find loopholes for their desires while a monkey makes fools of them all. Maandag’s iron-clad commitment to each story’s setup is essential to how uncomfortably funny they become as he layers on absurdist elements, and the occasional surprise visual gags are effective (such as when Wadsworth starts climbing a wall like Spider-Man). This painfully funny book will resonate with anyone coping with arbitrary, pompous authority figures. (June)

Correction: An earlier version of this review misspelled the Nick Maandag's last name.

Reviewed on 04/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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