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Forgotten Queen, Vol. 1

Tini Howard and Amilcar Pinna. Valiant, $9.99 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-68215-324-6

Howard (the Assassinistas series) introduces a fierce new female lead in Vexana the War-Monger, an acid-tongued, immortal mystic with a deadly gift, who wreaks havoc from Ancient Mongolia to the present day. But what starts as a sorcerer’s origin narrative strays into a tragic failed romance, and never quite strikes the right balance to keep readers invested. Vexana, a mysterious Sumerian woman, gains favor with Genghis Khan by wielding her powers to ignite homicidal bloodlust in his warriors, spurring mortal combat between fellow soldiers and even Cain and Abel. But when she falls for a female heir of Khan (“Of all the chaos the War-Monger had sown... there was no match for the chaos she felt when she fell in love”), it sets off a centuries long conflict. A present-day, ill-fated deep-sea research mission, tracking desert artifacts in the ocean, raises up the War-Monger, but that plot leads nowhere, and clichéd alternating timelines and a subplot involving Vlad the Impaler spin in too many other directions. Pinna (the Generation X series) wonderfully renders all the vivid bloodlust and fury. But, while this dark character study will appeal to fans of swords and sorcery and the Valiant universe looking for more diverse and queer-friendly casts, it’s too flawed to hold out for a second volume to solve its plot issues. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/02/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Creation

Sylvia Nickerson. Drawn & Quarterly, $21.95 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-77046-377-6

Nickerson chronicles her life as an artist and single mother in Hamilton, an aging industrial city and “the armpit of Ontario,” with honesty and imagination. Alternating between self-examination and social engagement, she searches for direction, as does the city, which suffers simultaneous decay and gentrification as its population of blue-collar workers, transients, and starving artists is pushed out to make way for wealthier residents. The death of Nancy, a local homeless woman, becomes a focal point for Hamilton’s identity crisis. Meanwhile, Nickerson juggles dealing with her parents’ failing health, raising her young son, and remaining active in the local art scene. While hosting visitors to her art studio, she worries that “I’ve turned into a baby cooing, babbling, brainless, child-centric bore.” Nickerson’s art depicts city life in impressionistic black-and-white ink wash. The human characters appear as blobby, Keith Haring–like figures, while the busy streets, apartment interiors, and crowded skylines are drawn with jittery detail and personality. Multipage spreads of people and animals lost among clouds, smog, park corners, and broken glass suggest the chaos of a city struggling to survive. Nickerson’s study thoughtfully considers the connections between people, places, and artistic expression. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/02/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Rat Time

Keiler Roberts. Koyama, $12 trade paper (124p) ISBN 978-1-927668-70-2

Ignatz Award–winner Roberts (Chlorine Gardens) continues to gently guide readers on meandering, illuminating rambles through the quotidian in this newest autobiographical installment. The narrative loosely encompasses “the time when we had rats;” pets that Roberts’s daughter, Xia, acquires while the family adjusts to seismic shifts in their lives. But that construct is the springboard for Roberts to ruminate—via sketched-out memories and doodles of everyday life—on death, art, childhood, growing up, relationships between humans and animals, and more. A description of the art class Roberts teaches leads to memories of her own high school days, which lead to a trip to the Body Worlds exhibition of preserved corpses, which remind Roberts of eating dried squid, and so on. Meanwhile, Roberts gradually finds her equilibrium after being diagnosed with MS. The stream-of-consciousness storytelling and preoccupation with mundane details—cooking, driving, going through the routines of childcare, pondering questions such as “What makes me cry?”—recall pioneering autobio zine-ster John Porcellino. But Roberts’s stark, distanced visual style and abrupt humor is all her own. Her narrative threads seem constantly in danger of fraying into nothing before looping back to repeating images, themes, and the occasional gut punch. Roberts defines her philosophy: “the world is precious and its detail is remarkable”; her graphic memoir embodies that attentive spirit. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/02/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Frogcatchers

Jeff Lemire. Gallery 13, $19.99 (96p) ISBN 978-1-982-10737-6

Eisner Award–winner Lemire (Sweet Tooth) hooks the reader with a mystery in this slim, dreamy fable in which a man wakes up in a hotel room with no memory of how he got there. This scene is preceded by a seemingly unconnected one of a boy catching frogs, who sees an IV drip in the water, which segues into a series of strange images that include a chest X-ray. Together, these passages telegraph, rather unsubtly, the crux of the narrative. The man’s subsequent encounters with the frog-catching boy at the hotel and his attempts at avoiding the dreaded Frog King provide more clues. The man and the boy dodge the agents of the Frog King, enter his forbidden chamber, and escape out the window. Lemire’s scratchy lines and bursts of color in the “real world” add a visceral quality to this meditation on coping with mortality. The book’s puzzle structure points rather obviously to the pay-off; but more affecting is how Lemire simply depicts the man coming to terms with regrets and his fate. This cathartic reverie is carried off with striking visual themes, if sometimes with a heavy hand. Agent: Charlie Olsen, InkWell Management (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/02/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Baaaad Muthaz

Bill Campbell, David Brame, and Damian Duffy. Rosarium, $14.99 trade paper (140p) ISBN 978-1-73263-881-5

A love letter to black American pop culture of the 1970s and ’80s, this rollicking comic is aimed squarely at readers who experienced that era (and will get its insider jokes). Fronted by vocalist/bionic supersoldier Afro Desia, the Baaaad Muthaz are a four-woman (and one genderless alien) James Brown revival band with a sentient snake as manager and pilot of their spacecraft. They’re also deep-space smugglers tasked with transporting valuable Karvgjian semen, a “super-sperm” prized for its role in its species’ reproduction—and as a delicious dessert topping. An attack by rival pirates maroons the band on a planet where they must headline at the natives’ annual reproductive ritual/music festival. The lunacy only escalates as a horned entity resembling Prince, communist mandrill guerrilla soldiers, and other oddball elements are thrown into the mix. It’s a booty-licious throwback, stuffed with references that will likely go over the heads of anyone who wasn’t immersed in black subculture during the Nixon-through-Reagan years. Much of the minimalist artwork evokes the look of psychedelic black light posters and album cover art of the post-hippie era, and is as funky as the music and movies from which it draws inspiration. Campbell and company’s retro groove is perfect for those who appreciate trippy exuberance. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Tenderness of Stones

Marion Fayolle, trans. from the French by Geoffrey Brock. New York Review Comics, $32.95 (144p) ISBN 978-1-68137-298-3

This poignant fable charts a family’s complex response to illness. Fayolle (In Pieces) opens with the narrator’s announcement that her family has buried one of her dad’s lungs, depicted as large enough to require several pallbearers, who lay it to rest in a field. She remarks on how somber everyone is about this circumstance, but holds out hope that her father is just playing a tasteless joke (as he is wont to do). Soon after, however, other parts of his body begin to detach, as people in white coats arrive, until he is forced to wear his nose on his neck, carry his other lung behind him, and borrow his daughter’s mouth to be able to speak. Eventually the narrator is forced to acknowledge that her father’s transformation is real and unstoppable. Fayolle’s picture book panels teem with emotive hatching and cross-hatching, and wordless sequences swell with pathos, perched over cursive lettering by Dean Sudarsky, much like an illustrated, fantastical diary. Fayolle’s visual storytelling makes a profound statement about how people attempt to understand and respond to the process of watching a loved one being eroded and to accepting their mortality. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Palimpsest

Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom, trans. from the Swedish by Hanna Strömberg, Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom, and Richey Wyver. Drawn & Quarterly, $21.95 (156p) ISBN 978-1-77046330-1

Sjöblom delivers an often searing and poignant, if occasionally tedious, graphic memoir of her quest to unearth her roots. Despite being raised in Sweden by loving adoptive parents, who did their best expose her to the Korean culture of her ancestry, Sjöblom struggles with racism and an internal “sense of not fully existing.” With help from her husband and a Korean-raised friend, she begins an investigation into her origins that reveals the dark history of foreign adoption: children “laundered like money and transformed into legal ‘paper orphans.’ ” The participating institutions, meanwhile, do their best to dismiss, obfuscate, and gaslight Sjöblom as she investigates, though the experience of her sifting through layers of paperwork and bureaucracy can be less than riveting. Sjöblom inks her story on parchment and transcribes numerous emails and letters over illustrations of envelopes. Her round, sweet-faced characters are set against black-and-parchment backdrops. Sometimes the result is overly text-heavy; more often, Sjöblom’s loneliness and frustration churns on the page. An unflinching indictment of foreign adoption, Sjöblom’s story is also, ironically, an homage to the chosen family who help her find her first family. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Hard Tomorrow

Eleanor Davis. Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95 (152p) ISBN 978-1-77046373-8

Davis (Why Art?) gently observes the foibles of modern social justice seekers in this vulnerable domestic drama. Hannah, a home health aide and activist, is attempting to get pregnant while she organizes grassroots leftism as her husband, Johnny, faces their future with considerably less drive. Their worlds are largely separate, as evinced through Davis’s elegant, romantic, and densely drawn linework: Hannah is immersed in elder care, protesting, politics, and her charged friendship with fellow activist Gabby; while Johnny drifts from completing the building of their home to working on a noxious friend’s survivalist compound. Rather than glory in the couple’s flaws, from Hannah’s naiveté to Johnny’s idleness, or sand down these rough edges, Davis presents her protagonists’ messy humanity in a kind, plain light. Their miniature saga feels less like the arc of fiction and more like a few days lifted intact from real lives. But, then, Davis seems to argue that any life is rich and complicated enough to merit its own book—and she convinces the reader she is right. Agent: Steven Malk, Writers House (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Black Cotton Star: A Graphic Novel of World War II

Yves Sente and Steve Cuzor. Pegasus, $25.95 (160p) ISBN 978-1-64313-205-1

This poignant if uneven graphic novel of war, racism, and the American Dream delivers the lesson that justice delayed is justice denied—and examines how such injustice is amplified over generations. Sente (the Blake and Mortimer series) opens his WWII adventure on an Allied base in England ahead of D-Day, focusing on Private Lincoln Bolton and two fellow black soldiers, all of whom enlisted after the Pearl Harbor attacks. Their patriotism is rewarded with a thankless assignment; they are barred from combat. However, a dramatic mission awaits, flashing back first to Bolton’s (underdeveloped) ancestor, Angela Brown, a free Black servant of Betsy Ross. Brown is left powerless when a racist landowner kills both of her brothers. She defiantly stitches the black star into Ross’s first American flag, offered to George Washington, thus creating a MacGuffin that will set Bolton and his peers (the multilingual Conor, towering Johnson, and a reluctant white officer) on a daring operation to recover it from a high-ranking Nazi. Cuzor employs sepia tones and thoughtful coloring to render the mountainous European countryside and the bustling streetscapes of Colonial Philadelphia. This epic enterprise lends due weight to the hopes and disappointments of its African-American protagonists; despite its flaws, this is a notable war comic for modern readers. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/19/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Excuse Me: Cartoons, Complaints, and Notes to Self

Liana Finck. Random House, $20 (416p) ISBN 978-1-984801-51-7

Bringing her signature shaky sketch style to bear once again, Finck (Passing for Human) compiles more than 500 cartoons in this weird, often funny (but sometimes less-so) collection. Drawing on extensive New Yorker archives (as well as comics previously published on Instagram), Finck delivers biting commentary on structural misogyny, the 2016 election, and the foibles of interpersonal contact in the 21st century. Of course, no New Yorker mainstay escapes without obligatory “talking dog and their therapist” bits, and Finck obliges, alongside a few gags that riff somewhat toothlessly on nothing in particular (for example, a box of batteries reading “batteries not included!”). Finck is at her best when grappling with personal turmoil, though, and her higher-stakes soul-searching bits are chilling; though the “Notes to Self” section contains little of the expressionistic linework that carries so much emotion throughout the rest of the book. Finck’s spare prose and anxiety-ridden lists carry this collection to a tearful, bitterly relatable non-resolution. Finck’s brick of a gag collection will bring readers down with a grin. Agent: Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, DeFiore and Company. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/19/2019 | Details & Permalink

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