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The Forgotten Blade

Tze Chun and Toni Fejzula. TKO Studios, $19.99 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-1-952203-08-4

“It’s not every day you get to kill God,” laughs Ruza the Unwashed in this visually phantasmagorical metaphysical allegory. Noa, a shamaness, has hired Ruza to slay The Allfather, the omnipotent and unseen god of the Land of the Five Rivers. Noa believes that killing this god will reunite her with her dead children—but High Diviner Tenna is determined to crush her plot and maintain his rule by religious authority. The script by Chun (The Seven Deadly Sins) embraces familiar fantasy tropes (a magic weapon, a journey to a forbidden land to kill a powerful being), but what first seems a magical quest becomes a spiritual crusade, the outcome of which could release the dead to final rest. Fejzula (the Veil series) expertly fills this lush world with mythic landscapes, bizarre architecture, and outrageous weapons like the Forgotten Blade (which resembles electric circuitry). Coloring by Roig and Helz is essential to the design, delineating each land in a specific color scheme, with bold and brilliant hues glowing brighter as the story revs up. It’s intelligent escapism in the vein of Avatar: The Last Airbender that also invites rereading and reflection. (May)

Reviewed on 06/10/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius

Donald J. Robertson and Zé Nuno Fraga. St. Martin’s, $32.50 (272p) ISBN 978-1-250-27095-5

Psychotherapist Robertson (How to Think Like a Roman Emperor) overpacks this graphic history of Marcus Aurelius (121–180 CE). Marcus, renamed Verissimus (the most truthful) for his willingness to contradict a volatile Emperor Hadrian, grows up with a series of philosophical tutors. Disjointed scenes show Marcus grappling with stoicism to reign in his temper during his early adulthood as he is adopted by Hadrian, then as he marries and fathers multiple children. Pell-mell personal biography gives way to a swirl of battle scenes, political maneuvering, and a deadly plague that follows Marcus’s ascension to emperor, but with scant framing details. Ruthlessly cruel general Avidius Cassius, whose own military career is told in scenes that interrupt the main flow, sparks a civil war, hoping to take advantage of a moment of Marcus in seeming physical decline. Robertson blends philosophical instruction with crises in Marcus’s leadership (though some episodes, such as the cult of Glykon or the discovery of a dinosaur fossil, veer tangentially). Fraga’s art is painterly but wrought with melodramatic expressions and gruesome tableaus, while showing an impressive ability to create images for the sometimes heady philosophical scenes. There’s an ambitious attempt here at marrying biography, war history, and philosophical treatise, but somehow none get quite enough space to develop fully. Those new to Roman history are likely to get lost. (June)

Reviewed on 06/10/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Why the People: The Case for Democracy

Beka Feathers and Ally Shwed. First Second, $28.99 (272p) ISBN 978-1-250-76070-8

Another excellent addition from Feathers (RE: Constitutions) to the World Citizen Comics line leavens an earnest explainer of democratic governance with enough silliness to make it go down smoothly. Feathers grounds the conceit in the angsty American political moment. Her two female characters—a young white Wisconsinite and a middle-aged Californian daughter of Chinese immigrants—kill time at an airport answering a big, rarely asked question: “What kind of government is the best?” A couple hundred pages later, Feathers has made the case for democracy by astutely and amusingly breaking down alternates. Sidestepping ideological and economic arrangements (there’s no communism vs. capitalism debate), she employs historical storytelling using robust examples, with friendly, accessible drawings by Shwed (Fault Lines in the Constitution). Saudi Arabia’s modern history showcases the push-pull between royals and reformers in aristocracies, while another section briskly illuminates varieties of “rule with just a few”: oligarchy, warlordism, aristocracy, and theocracy. Idi Amin’s dominance over Uganda illustrates the destructive forces by dictatorships. The final third of the book is given over to a granular, informative look at how democracy actually functions. Feathers lays out the potential for democratic bad (limitations on voting, threats of populism, corruption) with the good (people governing together by agreeing to shared principles). It’s a buoyant but clear-eyed addition to this useful series. (June)

Reviewed on 06/10/2022 | Details & Permalink

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As a Cartoonist

Noah Van Sciver. Fantagraphics, $19.99 (110p) ISBN 978-1-68396-561-9

A gloom-struck aging cartoonist grapples with disillusion in this self-satirizing collection of tales from Van Sciver (Fante Bukowski), flavored with a dash of untrustworthy narration. Alternating real life and fiction, the volume’s united by roiling anxiety over a troubled childhood (separated parents, leaving Mormonism, legacy of abandonment) and the grinding penury of the artist’s life. Recurring features like “Mellow Mutt” and “19th Century Cartoonist” recast Van Sciver’s worries as comic interludes. Longer autobiographical pieces are carried by regret-tinged humor. A would-be celebratory homecoming trip for a Denver museum exhibit is crashed by his boorish brother. A fellowship at a remote Vermont college results in isolation (first shunned for his Mormon upbringing, then attacked as “intolerant” by easily triggered students). A fantastical cartoon convention interlude, filled with adoring fans and the occasional alien, works wonders as an homage to Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, right down to the dialogue (“Your earlier funny work is my favorite”). Yet the most memorable scenes are often the most straightforward, such as the expansive, serene landscapes accompanying a heartbreaking moment in which he seeks inspiration: “Okay God, it’s now or never to show yourself to me.” While navel-gazing solipsism is not rare in comics autobio, Van Sciver’s mixture of vulnerability and passion for the form makes this an unusually emotional and resonant work. (July)

Reviewed on 06/10/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Halina Filipina: A New Yorker in Manila

Arnold Arre. Tuttle, $14.99 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-0-80485-544-0

Is it still culture shock when the culture is supposed to be your own? That’s the question at the heart of this charming fish-in-new-waters love story from Arre (The Mythology Class). Halina Mitchell, a mixed-race Filipino American, takes a trip to Manila, where she meets Crisostomo, a snarky but sweet movie critic who is native to the Philippine capital city. He opens her to new experiences, but meanwhile, her connection to home grows ever more tenuous. Her boyfriend in New York City doesn’t return her calls—while her Filipino family embraces her as one of their own. Still, Halina’s “foreignness” shows in her limited familiarity with Tagalog and Filipino food and customs, and it’s literally put on display when she appears on a hyperactive television game show. (Tagalog is sprinkled throughout the book without translation, though some is understandable from context.) The black-and-white art brings Manila to life with uniquely Filipino settings such as crowded jeepneys and sari-sari convenience stores. The graceful linework makes for appealing and expressive characters in both broad comedic scenes and quietly dramatic moments. While the story relies heavily on the trope of pairing a regular schlub with a beautiful woman, in this rare case it proves a winning formula for readers looking for a fresh twist on romantic comedy. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/10/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Joseph Smith and the Mormons

Noah Van Sciver. Abrams ComicArts, $29.99 (464p) ISBN 978-1-4197-4965-0

Van Sciver (One Dirty Tree) pulls off an ambitious feat: a nuanced graphic biography of Mormonism’s founder. In 1825, treasure hunter Joseph Smith (1805–1844) tells Emma Hale about his visions of an ancient record etched on gold plates. Against her family’s wishes, they marry and return to Smith’s home in Upstate New York to dig it up. Smith, using a seer stone, translates the record and publishes it as the Book of Mormon. He gains followers preaching about “Zion” and establishes a community in Kirtland, Ohio (though the locals tar and feather him). After his upstart bank fails, he decamps with believers to Illinois, where the recently converted, scheming John Cook Bennett helps establish a new city with sweeping political independence. After Bennett is ousted for immorality, and some leaders vehemently reject Smith’s teaching on polygamy, Smith ends up murdered by a mob. Van Sciver captures how the faithful hung on Smith’s charismatic oratory, and depicts spiritual innovations such as God as a deified human and baptism on the behalf of dead relatives. Van Sciver makes an intriguing artistic choice to present supernatural events, like Joseph’s visions of angels, in blue outline, and his oddly proportioned, oft-grimacing character drawings add levity and personality. Van Sciver was raised Mormon and expertly threads the needle here, allowing space for genuine belief while highlighting human moments of doubt, dissembling, and anger in the Latter-day Saint prophet. It’s an exemplar graphic narrative, reminiscent of Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, and will resonate with both believers and skeptics. Agent: Matthew Carnicelli, Carnicelli Literary Management. (July)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Primordial

Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino. Image, $24.99 (176p) ISBN 978-1-5343-2216-5

Lemire and Sorrentino (the Gideon Falls series) reunite to craft a darkly curious animal allegory about the costs of the Cold War, which swells with empathy and imagination but fails to deliver on its inventive premise. The story opens in an alternate 1961, after the American space program has been shut down following a test mission that ended due to reports of the deaths of its lab monkeys, Able and Mrs. Baker. MIT researcher Dr. Pembrook arrives at Cape Canaveral for a top-secret project, where he’s told by a mysterious operative that the monkeys didn’t in fact die, but that along with the Soviets’ test dog Laika, they were “taken... and we think they’re still out there somewhere.” Pembrook travels to East Berlin, where Laika’s old caretaker, Yelena, draws him further into the conspiracy. Sorrentino’s shadowy, sinister art in the terrestrial scenes contrasts neatly with the bright, psychedelic images set in outer space, where the monkeys and Laika have met, bonded, and appear to be heading home courtesy of an alien intelligence. The hints provided to outline this skewed alternate world are tantalizing (Nixon beat Kennedy in 1960) but too thinly laid out. The test-animal story line is heartbreaking, laced with tragedy-haunted sweetness. Though fans of mystery-minded speculative fiction (plus monkeys) will enjoy the premise, the inconclusive third act will likely leave them wishing there was a sequel. There’s a lot of potential here, but not enough of it is realized. (May)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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July Underwater

Zoe Maeve. Conundrum, $20 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-1-77262-069-6

In this introspective graphic novella, Maeve (The Gift) spins a tale of loss and self-discovery, connecting a teen’s mourning to passages from Virginia Woolf and Patricia Highsmith. Lina, a high school graduate, has plans to celebrate with her classmates, but first must attend the “kinda awkward” funeral of her childhood friend, Alicia. Lina attempts to work though messier emotions around Alicia’s death and questions the “role [she] should play,” as she “feels a selfish sense of guilt for existing.” The book opens quoting Ophelia (“There’s Rosemary, that’s for remembrance”), with images of water and allusions to drowning repeating throughout. Alicia hangs with friends at a lake but gets “weird vibes” from a male classmate; later she recalls a childhood memory when she and Alicia floated a burning shrine on the lake. Interspersed, Maeve draws Lina “flung out in space” in scenes from The Price of Salt and To the Lighthouse. There’s even a chart looping through how the books connect to her conflicted sense of self. Maeve employs colored pencils, ink washes, and brush work, with different hand lettered fonts, flipping between detailed and simplistic character designs to create a raw, diary style. It’s organic and unpolished, and will appeal to fans of unusual indie mini comics, with the caveat that readers unfamiliar with the literary touchpoints may find themselves lost. (June)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Grip of the Kombinat

Simon Roy and Damon Gentry. Image, $16.99 trade paper (196p) ISBN 978-1-5343-2301-8

Futurism goes totally over the top in this collection of fast-paced, black-humored science fiction adventures by Roy (the Prophet series) and Gentry (the Vinegar Teeth series). In a galaxy run by the ruthless super-corporation P.U.K. (Peerless Universal Kombinat), every human, alien, and robot is part of one giant business plan. The intricately structured society comes tumbling down, though, when citizens act against the P.U.K. to hilarious effect. Roy and Gentry fill the scenes with profane O. Henry twists and a delightful cast, including bounty hunter Chauncey Rhinestone, morose robots, company president SLAUGHTERLORDXXX_69, and office peon Helen, who works her way up the management ladder not for careerist motives but because she has the hots for P.U.K.’s mascot, a giant slug named Percy. The script’s scathing mockery of capitalism is enlivened with a bombastic and exaggerated black-and-white cartoon art style. It’s macabre and piercing social satire in the vein of 2000 AD’s The Ballad of Halo Jones or Rogue Trooper: “Go ahead and make my space-day!” one trooper declares. For fans of Warren Ellis or Grant Morrison, this will make their space-week. (June)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Young Men in Love: A Queer Romance Anthology

Edited by Joe Glass and Matt Miner. A Wave Blue World, $19.99 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-949518-20-7

Twenty satisfyingly sundry short comic stories celebrate queer love between men told in a diversity of genres, as well as race and body types of characters. The lineup includes mainstream DC and Marvel creators like Sina Grace and Terry Blas, as well as indie artists such as DJ Kirkland and newcomers Vic Regis and Josh Cornillon. Tales range from delightfully lesson-less romps that lean into enjoyable tropes, such as spies falling in love, to somber retrospectives relevant to queer culture that balance the desire to be desired with caution against being fetishized. Standouts include Tate Brombal and Jacoby Salcedo’s Peter Pan–esque summer fling of self-discovery “Second Star to the Right”; Anthony Oliveira and Nick Robles’s “Act of Grace,” which packages internalized homophobia stemming from religious tradition with lush, dramatic views of a Catholic school setting; and Ned Barnett and Ian Bishbal’s “Another Name,” which features one of the most memorable shots of the collection, as Ned suffers the crushing weight of gender dysphoria rendered as a sweeping wave. There’s something to delight in for every fan of men-who-love-men romance. (July)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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