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Sins of the Father (Killadelphia #1)

Rodney Barnes, Jason Shawn Alexander, and Luis NCT. Image, $9.99 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-1-5343-1569-3

Fast-paced, violent, and not afraid to get a little goofy, this supernatural thriller works as a blood-drenched horror comic and as timely advocacy around Black lives and police violence. Philadelphia police detective Jimmy Sangster revives a case abandoned by his late father and winds up on the trail of a vast, centuries-old vampire underworld. Soon he’s at the center of an all-out war as competing factions of the undead battle for control of the city and the nation. In this modern gothic cityscape, Black vampires ambush corrupt cops, street-level vamps say things like “gimme another hit of that blood, kid,” and the conspiracy goes all the way to the top and a conniving undead president. Writer Barnes has a TV background (Runaways, American Gods), so it’s not surprising the pacing mimics bingeworthy shows, plunging into action with little background explanation and never slowing down. Alexander’s hyperrealistic, heavily photo-referenced art creates an appropriately dark atmosphere, spattering dynamic fight scenes across rain-drenched streets and shadowy housing projects. Full of sex, blood, and National Treasure levels of audacious nonsense (turns out everyone’s searching for a book of vampire secrets), this smart, stylish thrill ride runs on enough social relevance to appeal to an audience outside of gore hounds. (July)

Reviewed on 08/14/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Eddie’s Week

Patrick Dean. Birdcage Bottom, $14 (196p) ISBN 978-1-73315-092-7

Dean lays out a cataclysmically strange week for hapless protagonist Eddie in his surreal debut. A platoon of city workers charge into Eddie’s apartment and a blithely chipper bureaucrat announces he has been made part of a new program that deals with prison overcrowding by housing inmates with citizens. Though Eddie’s new roommate Randall sports the charming nickname “The Backstabber,” the two get along well enough. But complications increase as Randall’s lurking presence keeps Eddie from romancing a date and breaks into his usual schedule of napping and watching werewolf movies. Eddie is knocked from one absurdist situation (getting swept up in the silly yet slightly malevolent and pun-loving Living Bearly Club) to another (being framed for murder) with herky-jerk pacing. The forces surrounding Eddie have a stoner joke quality to them that keeps the comic from tipping into the noir territory that Dean’s shadowy and claustrophobic art implies. Though the leap from oddball nightmare into straight magic takes proceedings in an unexpected direction, for the most part Dean delivers a winningly comedic scenario. The result runs like Kafka as interpreted by the Three Stooges. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/14/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Victory Point

Owen D. Pomery. Avery Hill, $18.95 (80p) ISBN 978-1-910395-52-3

Pomeroy (British Ice) crafts a thoughtful narrative about coping with life’s transition points that also acts as a visual celebration of architectural design and urban planning. Ellen, a bookseller, returns home to Victory Point to spend time with her father. The quiet, picturesque coastal town is an architectural marvel selected in 1933 to be built by M.L. Schreiber to foster and represent inclusion and “a modern way to live.” As Ellen revisits the places and people of her formative years and spends time with her dad, she begins to see the changes in her life and feels a “calm detachment from everything.” Ultimately, her wandering through the community and grappling with purpose brings her to the decision to pursue her dream of owning her own bookstore. Pomery’s precise artistic design mimics putting life in perspective, as the viewpoint pulls back to show figures from above or far away. Full-page renderings of white houses, clear skies, and blue beaches convey a sense of peace and open space that contrast with Elle’s indecisive inner turmoil. This impressive yet unpretentious comic boasts both a cool look and sincere heart. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/14/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Maids

Katie Skelly. Fantagraphics, $19.99 (112p) ISBN 978-1-6839-6368-4

Skelly (My Pretty Vampire) plays with the dark side of femininity in this quietly vicious graphic novel based on a historical murder case, which unfurls like a wicked fairy tale. In 1930s Paris, sisters Lea and Christine Papin work as maids to the Lancelins, a family too wrapped up in petty personal dramas to view the help as more than occasionally malfunctioning appliances. The narrative observes the sisters through daily chores—cooking, cleaning, tending the garden and the chicken coop—and flashes back to their troubled past, including hiding from their alcoholic mother and an unhappy stint at a convent. Christine takes an obsessively protective role toward Lea, who suffers intrusive thoughts and visions. “No one would ever know who we were before,” they intone to each other. But those old wounds haven’t healed, and new injuries from their callous employers push the sisters past their breaking point. Skelly’s signature spindly, long-limbed figures, with sweetheart mouths and bloodied hands, look like old-fashioned fashion drawings gone just a bit wrong. Under the aggressively girly gloss, the tale writhes with sex, violence, madness, and rebellion. This subversive horror story will satisfy readers who like their crime stories served with gender and class analysis and a pretty whipped topping. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/14/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Phantom of the Opera: The Graphic Novel

Varga Tomi. A Wave Blue World, $16.99 (128p) ISBN 978-1949518-09-2

The latest of several graphic adaptations of the Gothic melodrama captures the glamor of the 19th-century Paris Opera but stumbles on the human story. As in Gaston Leroux’s novel, young singer Christine Daaé is entranced by the mysterious “Opera ghost” who takes her under his tutelage. Those who interfere with the Phantom’s plans for his protégé, including her suitor Raoul, face deadly retaliation. Tomi lavishes attention on the period setting and costumes. The opera house becomes a character, full of glittering décor, eerie catacombs, and crowds of extras. The Phantom, drawn in gruesome detail that owes a debt to classic horror cartoonists like Bernie Wrightson, is a terrifying treat to behold. But the other characters often appear awkward and saggy, and their story gets lost amid the spectacle. Chunks of plot, meanwhile, are covered in text at the beginning of each chapter rather than dramatized. Christine’s dedication to her art, an element often lost in other adaptations, is the strongest thread. “There is some music that is so terrible that it consumes all those who approach it,” the Phantom warns her, forcing her to choose between artistic greatness and humanity. Despite its flaws, this adaptation proves a faithful and attractive enough version that die-hard Phantom fans will likely pick it up. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/14/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Woods

Mike Freiheit. Birdcage Bottom, $15 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-73315-091-0

Freiheit (Monkey Chef: A Love Story) delivers chills in this brooding if unpolished psychological thriller. After suffering a schizophrenic breakdown triggered by the 2016 presidential election (“How could they elect this rapist? God explained it to me, this is hell!”), Beth moves to an isolated cabin with her husband, Jason, hoping to start fresh. But visions and voices continue to haunt her, and she begins to feel that the woods are urging her back toward the quasi-religious revelation that she experienced “like a lightning bolt through my brain” during her breakdown. She obsessively follows horrific news stories on the radio and rages at locals who bark slurs at her interracial marriage. “There’s another world, and I can get us there!” she tells the increasingly worried and worn-out Jason, but when the two find themselves trapped in the cabin for the winter, there may be no escape. Freiheit’s roughly inked black-and-white art is sometimes crude, but spooky in its evocation of an ominous forest setting, where it usually seems to be night and shifting somethings peer from between trees. In his first horror outing, Freiheit sometimes wobbles, but achieves a claustrophobic sense of threats from both inside and out. Freiheit disconcertingly draws readers into paranoia in this cooped-up cabin fever–dream. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Lon Chaney Speaks

Pat Dorian. Pantheon, $25 (160p) ISBN 978-1-5247-4743-5

Dorian’s bold illustrations match the broad strokes of his debut, an “imagined biography” of film legend Lon Chaney (1883–1930), remembered as “The Man of a Thousand Faces.” In the introduction, Dorian notes that Chaney’s extreme privacy necessitated taking some artistic license in scripting the details of his portrait from known facts. He sets the stage with Chaney’s childhood in Colorado, raised by parents who were deaf, with the suggestion that their loving relationship imbued Chaney with empathy for the social outcasts he later portrayed with nuance on-screen. Chaney rises from working backstage and performing in vaudeville to launching his career in moving pictures. Milestones from his personal life are filled in, including his miserable first marriage; the birth of his son, Creighton (later to become a known actor in his own right as Lon Chaney, Jr.); and a happy second marriage with devoted wife Hazel. When Chaney achieves a successful film career, he is celebrated by critics and audiences alike for his transformative, often physically taxing makeup artistry in classic films like The Phantom of the Opera and London After Midnight. Dorian’s nostalgic drawing style, reminiscent of cartooning great Syd Hoff, is energetic and accessible. This spirited homage honors Chaney’s life, as well as the silent film era in which he formed his legacy, appealing to cinema and comics fans alike. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Patience and Esther: An Edwardian Romance

S.W. Searle. Iron Circus, $20 (280p) ISBN 978-1-945820-70-0

This heart-melting lesbian romance blends historical fiction with explicit sexual scenes to create a sweet and smutty celebration of unexpected love. In 1910, Patience, oldest daughter of a poor Scottish family, goes into service at Honeycutt Estate. Esther, the Indian-born ladies maid, takes Patience under her wing, helping her navigate the unfamiliar social customs and trickier aspects of the job. They share an immediate spark of attraction, but both are too shy to admit it—until a tentative kiss. Their growing erotic and emotional connection is put to a sudden test when the lord of the estate dies and his widow decides to give up the house and dissolve the staff. Esther is offered a position in London with the lord’s independent, sexually adventurous suffragette niece—but will Patience be able to follow? What kind of lasting life could they make together in the city? Searle draws her characters with fondness, representing diverse body types in all their glory. Patience’s scar, stretch marks, and rounded abundance are tenderly portrayed, entwined with wiry Esther. Panels are lit up with expressive, warm coloring. For genre fans eager for inclusive casts, this charmer serves scorching heat in a sugar coating. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Welcome to the New World

Jake Halpern and Michael Sloan. Metropolitan, $21.99 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-250-30559-6

This perceptive work of graphic journalism from Halpern (Bad Paper) and Sloan (Zen of Nimbus series) expands on their Pulitzer-winning New York Times series, which follows one refugee family, the Adalbaans, on their journey from war-torn Syria to Connecticut on the eve of Donald Trump’s election. Once arrived, they are given an absurd three months to find work and integrate into American life before their aid runs out. At the center is Naji, the oldest son of Ibrahim and Adeebah, whose pop-culture-driven American dream gets a sharp reality check when he encounters bullies and boredom. Some elements of the story are all too familiar among immigrant narratives—the humiliation of scrounging for work, terrifying encounters with racist harassment—but Halpern and Sloan’s smart use of humorous and heart-wrenching details particularize the family’s story while effectively conveying their political message. For example, Adeebah has many legitimate fears about life in Connecticut, but she is also very worried about bears (she’s heard rumors they invade yards). And when an elderly neighbor shows Naji her Life Alert bracelet, Naji imagines fleeing Syrians pressing buttons on their wrists as they escape a burning city. Moments like this underscore the world’s inequalities while uplifting idiosyncratic moments of connection. Sloan’s loose-lined art is simple but evocative both in poignant and playful scenes. For readers raised on Persepolis, this moving documentary portrait hits home. (Sept.)

Correction: An earlier version of this review mischaracterized how much of the book originally appeared in the New York Times.

Reviewed on 07/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Graphic Novel

Cynthia Levinson, Sanford Levinson, and Ally Shwed. First Second, $28.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-250211-61-3

This jaunty graphic adaptation of the Levinsons’ 2017 youth guide to “the framers, their fights, and the flaws that affect us today” highlights the enduring problem points in the foundational document of the United States. Each chapter opens with real-life dilemmas that, according to the authors, stemmed from “crises we’ve faced since 1787 [due to] the limitations, ambiguities, and flatly bad ideas in the Constitution.” The work is at its strongest in these personalized anecdotes, such as an elderly woman disenfranchised by voter ID laws and an undocumented immigrant’s fight for legal status, but focus gets lost as 21 chapters race to cram in examples of how the Constitution impacts contemporary America in matter ranging from gerrymandering to farm subsidies. Shwed’s crisp layouts and cute character design manage to make the information overload more digestible, while Gerardo Alba’s red-white-and-blue color palette provides even the driest topics some pop. The Levinsons can be credited with a mountain of research and noble aims. But while it may appeal to students eager to avoid a standard textbook slog, the combination of dense text and rambling focus proves less accessible than the comics treatment promises. All the elements for a timely resource are here, but the result feels a touch underbaked. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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