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Spit Three Times

Davide Reviati, trans. from the Italian by Jamie Richards. Seven Stories, $28.95 trade paper (568p) ISBN 978-1-6098-0909-6

Haunting and dreamlike, Reviati’s tome threads together the coming-of-age story of Guido, a teenage slacker who struggles to express himself, and the saga of the Stançiçs, a Roma family living on the margins of their small Italian town. Guido and his thuggish friends taunt ferocious, unkempt Loretta Stançiç. When Guido’s friend stumbles upon a battered Loretta in the woods and finds a newborn baby under her skirt, he cuts the umbilical cord and saves the infant’s life, only to be run off by Loretta’s suspicious brothers. The thread picks up years later, when Guido hears that Loretta had three children, all lost to social services. One of the Stançiç brothers interrupts Loretta and Guido’s vignettes to give a primer on the treatment of the Roma during the Holocaust: at least 500,000 killed, many more sterilized as the subject of eugenic “studies.” Throughout, Reviati probes the intersection of history and memory, composing in fragments that double back on themselves. Reviati’s pen-and-ink lines are confident: shadows heavy, faces half blank but elegantly realized. Though searching for a plot through line is difficult at times, it’s hard to discern whether that’s due to translation, murky storytelling, or poetic intention. Nevertheless, those willing to slip into the town’s mysteries will be rewarded by Reviati’s stylish, brooding art, which captures the ache of losses small and large. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Menopause: A Comic Treatment

Edited by MK Czerwiec. Penn State Univ, $29.95 (144p) ISBN 978-0-271-08712-2

This eclectic anthology in the graphic medicine genre illuminates a subject seldom discussed in comics, as more than 20 creators share their experiences with menopause. The wide range of approaches includes Maureen Burdock’s elegantly illustrated ode to the neopagan triple goddess and “moonblood,” Lynda Barry’s witty recollections of the opinionated old ladies in her Filipino family, Joyce Farmer’s playful answer to the question “Do Menopausal Women Even Get Horny?” and an appearance from Roberta Gregory’s alt-comics heroine, Bitchy Bitch, who deals with “the Change” by snarling, “Has it really been over five hundred gushers?” One of the strongest and funniest pieces, Mimi Pond’s “When the Menopause Carnival Comes to Town,” follows a mother and daughter through a fairground where attractions include the Mood Swing and the Hormone Scrambler. Several pieces are authored by medical professionals, including the editor, a nurse and educator who calls herself Comics Nurse. Trans and genderqueer creators offer perspectives, as do artists who have gone through hysterectomy and early menopause. Like many anthologies, it’s uneven, with the contributors’ artistic abilities ranging from amateur to fully assured. But the volume’s exploration of what Barry calls “un-becoming a woman” is often informative, sometimes moving, and ambitious in its frank talk about what is oddly taboo: an inevitable experience for half of humanity. (May)

Reviewed on 01/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Lupus

Frederik Peeters, trans. from the French by Edward Gauvin. Top Shelf, $29.99 trade paper (392p) ISBN 978-1-60309-459-7

This brooding sci-fi saga from Peeters (The Smell of Starving Boys) rides along with a wayward traveler through outer space’s strangest, most hallucinatory reaches. Lupus and his childhood friend Tony have set out on a haphazard, hedonistic trip: they aim to see some sights, do some space–sea fishing, and spend as much time as possible on whatever drugs they can get their hands on, much like a Fear and Loathing friendship of the hyperspace set. But picking up Sanaa, an alluring tight-lipped runaway, turns their jaunt into something more serious, first seeding jealousy between the men for her attention, then when Sanaa’s powerful father gets involved, leading them into outright danger. Peeters’s black and white brushwork is a versatile marvel, capturing everything in lush detail, from the menacing murk of deepest space to the delicate curve of Sanaa’s hip. As the sprawling graphic novel grows to encompass odd alien life-forms along with the quiet corridors of an abandoned vacation planet, his visuals grow ever more adventurous and assured. Peeters explores the drive to lose one’s self in something larger, and renders Lupus’s obliteration as terrifyingly dark as it is extravagantly beautiful. The result is a melancholic/psychedelic triumph of graphic fiction. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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A for Anonymous: How a Mysterious Hacker Collective Transformed the World

David Kushner and Koren Shadmi. Bold Type, $15.99 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-56858-878-0

Opening with the promise of investigative panache, this slim graphic report on the international hacker collective Anonymous unfortunately devolves into unquestioned preachiness in the later third. The narrative is structured around an interview New Yorker reporter Kushner (Rise of the Dungeon Master) did with a reclusive hacker known as Commander X, who eagerly chats Kushner through the leaderless resistance group’s credos about fighting tyranny and oppression before he outlines the group’s history. Rooted in the early Texas “hacktivist” collective Cult of the Dead Cow, Anonymous originated as a crew of online pranksters on the forum 4chan who made their bones causing mischief for the Church of Scientology. After crafting their brand of darkly ironic ominousness, with Guy Fawkes masks and doom-laden pronouncements—sketched here by Shadmi with appropriately sharp, bold lines, mixing realistic art and some cartoonish representations—Anonymous sprawled worldwide, targeting broad bad sorts, from student rapists in Steubenville, Ohio, to the Tunisian dictatorship. Enthusiasm quickly outran judiciousness in many cases, as when Anonymous’s intervention into the Ferguson riots resulted in innocent people being doxxed and targeted without pause to verify their presumed connection to the police shooting that kicked off the protests. This short, pungent history of the online protest phenomenon simulates its anarchically idealistic spread, but stops short of nuanced consideration of the big questions about tech vigilantes and ethics that it raises. Agent: David McCormick, McCormick Literary. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Dragman

Steven Appleby. Metropolitan, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-17264-8

In Appleby’s offbeat fantasy, August Crimp is keeping a lot of secrets from his wife: since his teen years he’s been dressing in women’s clothes; when wearing them he has the ability to fly; and he used to be the superhero Dragman. This all takes place in a world in which superheroes only save those folks with the proper insurance coverage and human souls can be removed from the body and then bought, sold, or stored on tiny disks. An unknown murderer is targeting trans women, stealing their souls and dumping their bodies. (Notably, the violence of these scenes are retold in prose, reducing their sensationalism.) August, who thought he’d put his crime-fighting days behind him, gets dragged back by his old sidekick, Dog Girl, and Cherry, a girl he saved. The complex plot plays out with spirited color scenes of present-day action mixed with multiple flashbacks, shown in monochrome, including a few excerpts of news clippings and “officially licensed” comics about the exploits of their superhero milieu, with Appleby’s loose, light comics reminiscent of Roz Chast and Quentin Blake. Despite its many twists and turns, the graphic novel’s emotional heart lays with August’s struggle to accept his own identity and its full power. Gender fluidity in this jaunty superhero story is trumpeted not only as a gift and a source of strength, but as something that might just save the world. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Department of Mind-Blowing Theories

Tom Gauld. Drawn & Quarterly, $19.95 (160p) ISBN 978-1-77046-375-2

Gauld (Baking with Kafka) turns out this fizzy collection of one-panel cartoons, originally drawn for New Scientist magazine, showcasing his charmingly simplified art and brainy, gently off-kilter comic sensibility. In Gauld’s landscape, the Department of Experimental Geography is at the top of an M.C. Escher staircase; a space probe scheduled to be shut down goes through the five stages of grief; and the Quantum Cartoon is “simultaneously funny and unfunny.” A reference to Professor Larson nods to the influence of the Far Side, but Gauld’s sense of funny is its own blend: half the erudition of New Yorker cartoons (where he is also a contributor), half the scrappy out-and-proud nerdiness of Internet memes. (One character interrupts an insufficiently sophisticated gag by crying, “Sir, this is an erudite science cartoon!”) His slight, dot-eyed characters, frequently drawn in silhouette for maximum anonymity, are barely more than stick figures, but they inhabit detailed backgrounds carefully filled with elaborate machinery and fanciful patterns. Cartoons that assume an equal understanding of nanobots and the Arts and Crafts Movement are, by design, not for everyone. But fans of smart science-boosting comics like the web-based xkcd—and actual scientists, of course—will grin. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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D-Day: Storming Fortress Europe

Jack Chambers and Erik Hendrix. Osprey, $26 trade paper (328p) ISBN 978-1-4728-3878-0

This first in the Under Fire series takes readers to the front lines of the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, but despite significant investment toward historical fidelity, the retelling is so overwhelmed by detail that the narrative gets lost. Chronicling the actions of British and American soldiers as they face the Nazi forces at sea, in the air, and on land, pages overflow with historical detail and some impressive compositions of landscapes, planes, and other military vehicles. The narration jumps from battle to dramatic battle, diving into short vignettes featuring both soldiers and civilians, then moving rapidly and relentlessly to the next point of action. Copious research bolsters the undertaking, but the script falls flat and the drawings are stilted; the figures of the soldiers and other participants lack personality, with troops depicted as assemblages of talking heads with similarly rendered faces in period-accurate military gear. Even familiar power-players such as Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler are reduced to mannequins. While military history buffs will give due respect to the creators’ exactitude, this effort doesn’t have the human-interest hook to keep general readers engaged. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Harrowing of Hell

Evan Dahm. Iron Circus, $15 (128p) ISBN 978-1-945820-44-1

Dahm (Rice Boy) nobly tackles one of the less commonly dramatized stories from Christian mythology: the days between Christ’s death and Resurrection, which, according to apocryphal tradition, Jesus spent freeing righteous souls from Hell. After Caesar’s verdict and the Crucifixion, Dahm’s large-eyed, soft-spoken Jesus descends to an underworld that resembles the Roman Empire, where he faces mocking demons, unbelieving dead, and the same human complexities that also make the redemption of the living difficult. With brushy line work, the stripped-down color scheme represents Hell and death in washes of red, and the world of the living in black and white. Not a simple Sunday school retelling of scripture, Dahm’s ambitious graphic novel grapples with the revolutionary humility of Christ’s message, envisioning the cost of fighting evil with nonviolence and compassion. In the climax, Jesus meets the devil and faces his own personal hell: a future in which his followers become conquerors themselves because “the only kingdom they know is the crucifying kingdom.” If this slim but provocative volume doesn’t provide enough space to fully explore the demands and contradictions of Christianity, it still succeeds as a challenging conversation starter. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Drawing the Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Voting in America

Tommy Jenkins and Kati Lacker. Abrams ComicArts, $24.99 (208p) ISBN 978-1-4197-3998-9

This rapid-fire history illustrates the evolution of and challenges to U.S. voting rights from the colonial-era Stamp Act to modern voter ID laws. Leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, Jenkins, a literature professor in North Carolina, asked his students if they planned to vote. To his dismay, only a few raised their hands. What, he wondered, could “show people, especially young people, how important voting is?” This graphic work takes that lofty aim, but in the contemporary context of the President calling elections “rigged” and foreign government’s interference in political campaigns, Jenkins notes, “it takes a Herculean effort to shake up the political status quo.” How, he argues, could the U.S. actually make it easier for more people to vote? Taking a broad survey of 250 years, at times the narrative unfolds like a well-illustrated Wikipedia article. But the exposition and Lacker’s simple but energetic illustrations combine to pack valuable information on each page, while making even complex issues (such as the racism of white suffragists who fought for the 19th Amendment) easy to follow. Suited best to younger readers new to the topic, Jenkins’s work lays out the high-stakes history clearly and succinctly. Agents: Su Wu and Judy Hansen, Hansen Literary. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Apsara Engine

Bishakh Som. Feminist Press, $24.95 trade paper (250p) ISBN 978-1-936932-81-8

Som’s provocative collection of short comics explores the idiosyncrasies of gender, desire, friendship, courtship, family, and culture through speculative fiction. Each of her eight stories, rendered in fine pen and exquisite watercolor, explores a different facet of life in distinct futures, with a focus on South Asian perspectives and cultures. “Apsara Engine” is the least narrative of the bunch, a puzzle-like mapped series of vignettes of futuristic people on the phone, in lust, and attaining nirvana. In “Throat,” a man is confronted with an acquaintance’s pet human/dog hybrid and finds it more intelligent than its owner believes, while “I Can See It in You” finds an interracial couple in strife after an impossible guest crashes a party. The resonant “Swandive” features two desi transgender people who meet at an academic conference, bond, and map out a glorious urban trans future in (literal) blood. Som’s delicate lines are turned to sharply expressive faces and gestures, with subtle sepia tinting the stories and luminescent, layered colors on chapter openers reminiscent of retrofuturistic stained glass. And the font is a precise cursive, as if pulled from an illuminated manuscript. Som is a master of pacing, letting the emotion of her scenes churn and roil in the reader; her debut heralds the rise of new talent to watch. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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