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Flung Out of Space: Inspired by the Indecent Adventures of Patricia Highsmith

Grace Ellis and Hannah Templer. Abrams ComicArts, $24.99 (208p) ISBN 978-1-4197-4433-4

Shot through with thick cigarette smoke and snappy dialogue, this graphic account by Ellis (the Moonstruck series) and Templer (Cosmoknights) of Patricia Highsmith’s early career evokes the mood of the 1940s, along with its misogyny and homophobia—neither of which Highsmith, as a lesbian and ambitious artist, was immune to herself. Highsmith spends her days writing low-brow comics and her nights typing out “good novels with criminal elements.” The mood is playfully captured in a panel where Stan Lee tries to recruit her. Highsmith’s speech bubble is filled with smoke, a handgun, and a close-up of men trying to strangle each other. (Lee’s sports caped super heroes.) Highsmith seeks psychoanalysis to become straight, but begins a romance with Virginia, a married redhead in her support group for “latent homosexuals,” and their romance and breakup form the seed of her novel The Price of Salt (later Carol). After she finally finds a pulp publisher, a fan says the work inspired her to “find my own Carol and live happily ever after.” Highsmith refuses to play the victim, but never quite escapes the forces that oppress her, which echo in the noir-esque art (dense shadows, imposing buildings). Highsmith devotees will appreciate this glimpse into how a life of secrets extended beyond the pages of her fiction. Agent (for Templer): Charlie Olsen, InkWell Management. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/28/2022 | Details & Permalink

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My Badly Drawn Life

Gipi, trans. from the Italian by Jamie Richards. Fantagraphics, $22.99 (144p) ISBN 978-1-68396-521-3

In this raw and bawdy graphic memoir, Italian cartoonist Gipi (Land of the Sons) anxiously reviews his messy life and varying maladies, and seeks some kind of peaceful balance. The fragmented biography opens with a depressed Gipi (“Nothing interests me anymore”) obsessing over illnesses, which may be in his head. He ties self-destructive loops back to youthful episodes of lashing out: a stint in a Germs-inspired punk band is drawn self-mockingly, suicide attempts are related in a blasé serio-comic manner, and drug-fueled breaks from reality are rendered in gothic, frenetic strokes (he worries that he had dosed too far and would “end up barking at closed storefronts all night”). The brisk, chaotic story is rendered in slashing hacks of scratchy black line art, which breaks only briefly for a running subplot of nightmare-fantasy—presented with oddly soothing washes of color—about a captured writer who staves off rape and murder by a shipload of depraved pirates by telling stories, Scheherazade-like. Once the narrator digs past his Rothian sexual manias, the conclusion delivers a surprisingly thoughtful and vulnerable coda to the self-battering anger that suffuses much of the work. Readers beloved of antiheroes will appreciate Gipi’s insights, though they do not come easy. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/28/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Hell Phone, Vol. 1

Benji Nate. Silver Sprocket, $14.99 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-945509-82-7

Nate (Catboy) jams out a quirky and stylish supernatural mystery that still hits her sweet spot of slice-of-life friendship comics. Sissy finds an old flip phone on the street, and when an unknown caller starts giving her odd directions, she enlists the help of her best friend, Lola. The pair become embroiled in a decades-old plot concerning the disappearances of their friend Trent’s mother and Lola’s old classmate Holly Daniels, as they follow the clues uttered by the “weird demon hell phone” to a storage unit full of old VHS tapes and eventually to Holly’s grave site and her diary buried there, which unlocks the secrets of the town. Nate’s strong sense of color and design shine; it’s a veritable lookbook of funky fashion choices, as the characters change costumes frequently (with quips like “I was having trouble picking out a grave-robbing outfit”), drawn in bold lines and a bright, limited palette. Comedic elements such as Lola putting out an electrical fire with beer (“It’s all I have!”) land, but the stakes never feel quite real, and while a cliffhanger intrigues, the tension tends to be a bit too slack. Still, for a first attempt at suspense and horror, Nate could do far worse, and there’s energy to spare for a next volume. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/28/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Hakim’s Odyssey, Book 2: From Turkey to Greece

Fabien Toulmé, trans. from the French by Hannah Chute. Graphic Mundi, $29.95 (264p) ISBN 978-1-63779-008-3

The harrowing second volume in Toulmé’s Hakim’s Odyssey series (after From Syria to Turkey) provides a rare and detailed account behind the headlines about migrants making dangerous overseas journeys. In the previous volume, Hakim—a young man (interviewed by Toulmé) who fled Syria following its descent into civil war—ended up in Istanbul with his young family but struggled to find work. The stakes are higher in this volume as Hakim strives to protect his family. Now, as his wife and in-laws head to France, a bureaucratic breakdown prevents Hakim and his young son from joining them. Despite numerous attempts to get into France legally, Hakim is thwarted by increasingly frustrating administrative barriers. Out of desperation, he and his young son migrate illegally by boat. It’s here where Toulmé’s storytelling and crisp visual style shines, as Hakim navigates the seedy and opportunistic economy built to profit off tragedy, with illicit taxi services and hotels, and merchants selling ocean survival kits and nautical transportation of uncertain reliability. Toulmé’s work comes alive in the minutiae, and he makes palpable the migrants’ terror as they cross the sea, struggling with failed motors that threaten to strand them and leaky boats on the verge of sinking. This work powerfully brings home for readers the horrors of this global crisis and the impossible choices migrants must make. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/28/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The All-Nighter

Chip Zdarsky and Jason Loo. Dark Horse, $19.99 trade paper (136p) ISBN 978-1-5067-2804-9

Eisner winners Zdarsky and Loo (Afterlift) reunite with a snappy blend of superheroes and mythical monsters. The All-Nighter diner is, as advertised, nocturnal—because it’s run by vampires. Assistant chef Alex has a comic book obsession and a dream for a different life, using his arcane powers to become the masked hero Nightshock. However, that kind of exposure’s exactly what the mythological community wants to avoid, and the other diner employees, friends, and fellow members of his vampire sect are terrified he’ll blow their cover, but each winds up helping him. The All-Nighter’s staff face cops, a minotaur, other mythical creatures, and an over-the-top demon clown bogeyman named Buttons Scareworth in a final showdown against humans and their own kind. The epilogue’s provocative secret identity revelation paves the way for sequels. As usual, Zdarsky infuses his script with clever concepts: monsters are brought into existence by human belief in them, so why shouldn’t they become superheroes, the newest mythology? The spry and cartoony style served by Loo, reminiscent of Mike Allred, energizes talking head and action scenes. It’s a modern gothic adventure with a classic theme: even among bloodsuckers, family means family. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/21/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Two Heads: A Graphic Exploration of How Our Brains Work with Other Brains

Alex Frith et al. Scribner, $30 (352p) ISBN 978-1-5011-9407-8

Neuroscientists Uta and Chris Frith team up with their children’s book author son Alex (100 Things to Know About Space) and artist Daniel Locke (Out of Nothing) to construct this comprehensive graphic guide to the workings of the brain, covering topics spanning autism to the psychology of game theory. Uta and Chris chaperone the reader through opaque mysteries of academia, explicating a range of experiments and case studies on different aspects of how the mind operates. In particular, they focus on the ways people’s minds interact with one another and the world around them. For example, the truism that “we copy those we like because we want to be liked” is bolstered by evidence that copying is efficient learning not only for human and animal brains, but also machine learning. It’s chock-full of science facts and delves into issues such as bias in academic research and mental disorders. Personal anecdotes wind a path through dense topics made accessible for general readers. The art style, however, skews picture book and sometimes feels flat. Though the presentation leaves something to be desired, the work overall has the feel of being invited to dinner with a friend’s eccentric genius parents: there are some awkward moments, but readers will learn much by the last course. Agent: Patrick Walsh, PEW Literary. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/21/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Let There Be Light: The Real Story of Her Creation

Liana Finck. Random House, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-1-984801-53-1

In an irreverent yet profound retelling of the Book of Genesis, Finck (Excuse Me) presents God as a woman artist wearing a Burger King–style crown who struggles with existential questions and intermittent depression (the beginning of creation is also “the beginning of disappointment”). The conceit begs being read as a counterplay to R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis; in Finck’s version, God seems more hurt and fallible than fickle: “As the world grew, she withdrew herself more and more” until “only in God’s absence can we begin to comprehend her love for us.” This cohesive and moving motif unfolds alongside the Old Testament stories of Cain and Abel, the bizarre “Begats” (“If you are easily bored, you may skip it”), Noah, etc., in whimsical black-and-white line drawings playfully punctuated by spot colors: red, for the Eden apple; one stripe of the post-flood rainbow; and of course Joseph’s colorful coat. Finck leans into biblical idiosyncrasies while taking humanity quite seriously. Leah, the “idol” worshipped by Laban, looks like a giant sheet ghost; he’s creepy as a man infatuated with an inflatable doll. But compassion from God, Rachel, and Esav make Leah real. Throughout, God and readers are reminded that light can’t exist without darkness, or creation without destruction. Finck’s exploration offers much light in both senses: levity and illumination. Agent: Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, Gernert Company. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/21/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Rave

Jessica Campbell. Drawn & Quarterly, $22.95 (168p) ISBN 978-1-77046-460-5

Unfolding at the intersection of budding sexuality and evangelical Christianity, this gripping graphic novel from Campbell (XTC69) depicts a quietly tragic coming-of-age. Fifteen-year-old Lauren appears no more swayed by her pastor’s warnings about remaining “a pure bride of Christ” than his own disaffected, heavily pregnant daughter. After Lauren is paired with classmate Mariah—rumored to be a witch—for a school project on evolution, the two quickly become constant companions: talking, making out, and engaging in some light shoplifting. Certainly, Lauren finds Mariah much more appealing than the church boy who wants to get married and “have a kid every nine months,” or the vibe at the youth ministry rave (“Jesus Christ was the first raver”). Yet, amid sermons against same-sex marriage and swirling rumors about her, Lauren breaks up with Mariah. As the pastor preaches about how girls must fend off weak, lustful boys, Mariah tries to do just that, to no avail, one night at the local reservoir. The church blames her subsequent disappearance on Wicca; and a sharp turn in the plot is genuinely shocking. With thick black lines and contemplative, wordless sequences, Campbell effectively conveys both Lauren’s turmoil and the harm done by a religion set on turning youthful passion into intolerance. It’s a testament to the hold of belief systems, even when one no longer believes. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/21/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Secret Land

Christofer Emgård and Tomás Aira. Dark Horse, $19.99 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-1-5067-1659-6

This conspiracy theory–inspired cosmic horror story from Emgård (the Hyper Scape series) and Aira (the War Stories series), set at the close of WWII, overflows with gratuitous violence and clumsy narrative intrusion. Ben is a special forces frogman in the Pacific theater and Katherine is a spy infiltrating a secret Antarctic Nazi base following Germany’s surrender. Their matching seashell necklaces apparently mean they share a telepathic connection. Though Ben is told Katherine has died, he suspects otherwise and soon heads to Antarctica to recover her. The over-narrated, overwrought rescue adventure that unfolds, hinging on the theory of a Nazi superweapon, incorporates horror elements and requires a nearly impossible suspension of disbelief. The excesses include a character pulling out his eyes with skewers, fan-service nudity, and an absurd monstrous reveal that’s unintentionally humorous over horrific. While the art handles mechanized warfare reasonably well, it can’t keep characters’ faces distinctive, and long-distance shots can get equally confusing. This one’s just not a keeper. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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M.O.M.: Mother of Madness

Emilia Clarke, Marguerite Bennett, and Leila Leiz. Image, $24.99 (152p) ISBN 978-1-5343-2093-2

Game of Thrones actor Clarke teams up with writer Bennett (Bombshells) and artist Leiz (The Last Book You’ll Ever Read) for an ambitious, self-aware feminist superhero tale. Maya, a single mom with a career in chemical engineering supplemented by part-time sex work, balances a superhuman secret on top of her busy schedule. Due to a childhood chemical accident, her emotions and hormones trigger an assortment of powers. Anger gives her superstrength, happiness makes her stretch, her laughter is a sonic blast, and all her powers are heightened during her menstrual period. With the help of her supportive found family, Maya becomes M.O.M., a superhero in a funky, non-sexualized costume, and sets out to stop an evil CEO. Between villain bashings, Maya opines on social justice and affirms that she’s “more than a body, or a brain, or the chemicals in my blood.” Leiz’s bright, dynamic art buoys this snarky but sincere effort, though the script suffers from trying to do too much in a limited space; in a thin volume, Maya and her team slog through battles great and small while tossing big ideas around, leaving little space for the story and characters to breathe. But it’s a fun, flashy introduction to a superhero who will appeal to readers who enjoy a mix of politics and punching. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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