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Crash Course: If You Want to Get Away with Murder Buy a Car

Woodrow Phoenix. Street Noise, $16.99 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-951491-01-7

This urgent treatise by Phoenix (Rumble Strip) decries the mortal threat posed by errant drivers and a dysfunctional automobile-centric society. The graphic essay is composed of declarations (“the causal link between action and consequence is unhooked in a way that would be considered psychotic in any other area of our lives”) spooled over empty street scenes and repetitive sequences of white roadway arrows painted on highways. Phoenix rails against the arrogance of consumers, carmakers, and government leaders who protect drivers over pedestrians; the dangers of self-driving cars; and the inequity in risk to drivers, themselves, exposed in the deadly police shootings of African-Americans during traffic stops. Accusations are punctuated by alarming statistics, such as a rise in bike fatalities in New York City, despite recent changes in urban planning to make the city more foot- and bike-friendly. The reliance on blacktop visuals can become as monotonous as a long drive, though rarer spreads—such as of a pedestrian fatality depicted with stick figures—or a sobering rendering of a makeshift memorial on a curbside where a cyclist was killed, lend emotional impact. The psychoanalysis of narcissistic drivers sometimes loses sight of larger societal forces and counter arguments (did urban sprawl outpace mass transit expansion, for example). This is a resolute protest against vehicular deaths as a silent epidemic, though its impact is ironically buckled-in by static visuals. Agent: Louise Pritchard Assoc. (May)

Reviewed on 04/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Wendy, Master of Art

Walter Scott. Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95 trade paper (276p) ISBN 978-1-77046-399-8

Scott (Wendy’s Revenge) continues the saga of his round-eyed, loose-limbed heroine with this delightful volume, the best of the bunch, which parodies the worlds of fine art and art education. Wendy is stuck in the tiny town of Hell, Ontario, working toward her MFA. There she meets a motley crew of fellow millennials, among them Yunji, who is obsessed with using string in her art; Maya, an overachieving, globe-trotting wunderkind; and Eric, a hypernervous type eager to prove his “woke” credentials. Wendy navigates fraught relationships with each of them, as well as a romance with an attractive young man who is also involved with another woman, while she battles alcohol dependence and creative blocks—and desperately attempts to create meaningful art. Scott’s drawing style is loopy and cartoony, to consistently funny effect. He’s also a skillfully economic storyteller with a sharp wit, especially sending up academic art-speak. (Eric introduces himself to the class: “My work seeks to propagate systemic qualities of erasure in non-human logic (inhale) IN speculative environments, HOWEVER.”) But Scott never loses sight of his characters’ humanity, conveying a genuine sweetness under the snark. The flaws and foibles of Wendy and crew prove hilarious, relatable, and highly entertaining. (June)

Reviewed on 04/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Everything Is an Emergency: An OCD Story in Words and Pictures

Jason Adam Katzenstein. HarperPerennial, $19.99 (256 pages) ISBN 978-0-06-295007-9

In this candid examination of life with obsessive-compulsive disorder, New Yorker cartoonist Katzenstein draws his brain as a broken record. “Your hands are dirty. Scrtchh. Your hands are dirty. Scrtchh. Your hands—.” Katzenstein succinctly conveys what it feels like to be trapped in a mental loop dominated by panic, guilt, and fears of “contamination.” Sometimes he’s a sweaty Sisyphus, mentally pushing a boulder up a hill even as he builds a relatively happy life in New York City; sometimes he’s swirling in an isolation, unable to get out of bed. For years, Katzenstein has managed day-to-day with the mantra—born of an acid trip that freed him briefly—“find the seconds that feel okay and live in them.” But eventually he realizes that to stretch out seconds into livable days, he has to accept the professional help he’s long resisted, and face his anxieties head-on. The moment he’s finally able to sit on a public toilet seat, he feels like a superhero. Katzenstein’s drawings range from broad caricature to genuinely creepy replays of darker fears. This refreshing and accessible debut, with crossover potential for older teens, will be a welcome addition to the growing canon of graphic medicine. Agent: Dan Mandel, Sanford J. Greenburger Assoc. (June)

Reviewed on 04/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Algériennes: The Forgotten Women of the Algerian Revolution

Swann Meralli and Deloupy, trans. from the French by Ivanka Hahnenberger. Penn State Univ, $24.95 (120p) ISBN 978-0-2710-8623-1

Meralli and Deloupy offer a thought-provoking look into the dangers and risks women endured during the Algerian War of Independence and its aftermath. Beatrice, a French woman whose reticent father fought in the conflict, decides in the present day to dig up its buried history. She interviews Saïda, an Algerian immigrant who escaped the war-torn country when she was young, only to be confined in a French concentration camp. Now a grandmother, Saïda asks, “If you go to Algeria, could you bring back a picture of my house?” Beatrice takes on the quest. At the Martyr’s Memorial in Algiers, she meets Djamila, who tells her, “You won’t find the real Mujahidates here,” relaying harrowing tales of serving in the resistance and her torture upon capture. Beatrice travels to the countryside seeking Saïda’s home and encounters Bernadette, a French woman who refused to leave Algeria after the war, choosing neither “the suitcase nor the coffin.” With dry-brush ink textures and sepia-tinged colors, the handsome art portrays brutalities and moments of personal triumph. Each woman brings a distinct and humanizing perspective—though the frame of a white woman gaining enlightenment through encountering the pain of colonized women of color is hackneyed at best. This complicated examination of colonialism is well worth unpacking. (May)

Reviewed on 03/27/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Nori

Rumi Hara. Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95 trade paper (228p) ISBN 978-1-77046-397-4

Kyoto-born, Brooklyn-based cartoonist Hara evokes the wonder of childhood, with equal parts precision and whimsy, in this meticulously observed debut. Noriko “Nori” Iwasaki, a rambunctious, imaginative little girl, spends her days in 1980s suburban Japan with her Grandmother while her parents are at work. She chases magical rabbits across her preschool’s playfield, explores the neighborhood’s ditches and shopping district, celebrates at festivals, plays with sassy local kids and the varied urban wildlife that hide around every shrub, and, in the book’s longest sequence, vacations in Hawaii on a trip won at a fair. The world of adults hums away in the background, still healing from WWII; old-timers reminisce about wartime privations, and the Hawaii escapade is held up as “a symbol of peace and revival” by the neighborhood business association. But Hara always returns to Nori’s private world, masterfully immersing the reader in a small child’s perception, cramming panels with Richard Scarry–like ramshackle houses and busy gardens, irresistible fantasy sequences, and details—an ice cream advertisement, fish swimming in a tidal pool—a preschooler would light on. Nori and her playmates are sketched in loose lines with pitch-perfect body language. These satisfying sunny adventures succeed at being specific to their time and place while tapping into a sense of collective young memory, leaving the reader lighter and nostalgic. (May)

Reviewed on 03/27/2020 | Details & Permalink

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On Ajayi Crowther Street

Elnathan John and Àlàbá Ònájìn. Cassava Republic, $24.95 (192p) ISBN 978-1-911115-90-8

At Reformed End-Time Ministries church, Reverend Akpoborie places his hands on a worshipper and in “da mighty name of Jesus” declares him healed from the sin of homosexuality. But hypocrisy runs deep in this biting satire written by John (Becoming Nigerian): the “healed” gay man is a hired actor, the scamming Reverend is himself full of demons, and his own children question their sexuality and relationships. In simple, jerky linework, Ònájìn captures the daily lives of families in modern Lagos, including splendid background details such as colorful billboards, opinionated aunties and their brilliant textiles, and Akpoborie’s frustrated daughters’ resplendent side-eyes. The flushed colors, interwoven family drama, and slice-of-life storytelling recall Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie’s Aya: Life in Yop City. Here also, the Akpoborie family and their neighbors’ intimate dramas of romance, religion, and reputation unfold amid a clamor of big social issues. Women discuss antigay legislation as they get their hair braided; a neighborhood meeting kicks off a debate over whether to speak in English, Yoruba, or Pidgin; a maid worries over where to sleep after her employer molests her. This wicked-funny tour of Nigerian life will be eye-opening for many American readers. (June)

Reviewed on 03/27/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Child Star

Brian “Box” Brown. First Second, $19.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-250-15407-1

Brown (André the Giant) made a reputation for offbeat and accessible graphic nonfiction, but in this savvy graphic satire, he shows an equally sure hand at fiction. The tragicomic narrative follows Owen Eugene, a 1980s child star who who may remind readers of real-life actors Gary Coleman and Ricky Schroder. Appearing younger than his age due to a congenital disorder, Eugene becomes a sitcom superstar playing a kid with a sassy catchphrase, and his life goes downhill from there—from having his face plastered on lunch boxes to struggling to land ironic TV cameos, and separating from his exploitative parents along the way. The book’s mockumentary format pieces his saga together from the testimonies of supporting actors in his life: directors, costars, estranged family members, his pro-basketball-player buddy. But Eugene, who never gets to speak for himself except in media clips, remains an enigma. Brown works in such elements as Eugene’s bizarre Saturday morning cartoon, his sitcom’s slew of very special episodes, and his descent into desperation. The blocky art moves the narrative along at an enjoyable clip, and it’s appropriate that Eugene, irresistible to TV-land fans, often looks lumpy and off-putting. This in-the-know skewering of celebrity and pop culture will entertain children of the ’80s as well as their own children. (June)

Reviewed on 03/27/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Little Josephine

Valérie Villieu and Raphaël Sarfati, trans. from the French by Nanette McGuinness. Humanoids, $17.99 (120p) ISBN 978-1-64337-534-2

Villieu and Sarfati chronicle life with Alzheimer’s in this poignant account of Villieu’s time caring for the elderly Josephine. An experienced visiting nurse, Villieu was nevertheless struck by the isolation and indignity of Josephine’s life: living alone, Josephine spent months wearing broken glasses, often missed meals due to spotty caregiving, and lacked access to her own money. Sarfati’s playful imagery in depicting these cruelties—negligent authorities are drawn as wolves—drives home both Josephine’s vulnerability and her retreat into a childish state of mind. As Josephine declines, the kindness of Villieu and Sandra, another of Josephine’s caregivers, stands out starkly against the sterile care of hospitals and nursing homes. As the narrative progresses, rigidly ordered panels begin to overlap and scatter, evoking Josephine’s jumbled state of mind. Though Villieu’s writing lacks distinction, her message is unmistakable and soulful: readers, if they live long enough, may become Josephine. In centering the day-to-day experience of elder care, Villieu and Sarfati show how that stage of life doesn’t have to be a tragedy—but only if society commits to doing better. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/20/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Dancing After TEN

Vivan Chong and Georgia Webber. Fantagraphics, $24.99 (168p) ISBN 978-1-68396-316-5

The process behind this collaborative graphic memoir by Chong and Webber (Dumb: Living Without a Voice) is as noteworthy as its unusual illness narrative, even if the life lessons imparted by Chong don’t quite land. She is vacationing in Saint Martin with her roommate (and ex-boyfriend), Seth, and his family, when Chong has a severe reaction to a medication, leading to Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis syndrome, a coma, protracted and humiliating medical treatments, and scar tissue that causes visual and later hearing impairment. Seth abandons her as soon she is hospitalized. Her current boyfriend, Michael, who finds her after she is air-lifted to Toronto, is more responsible but still no prize. She finally confronts Seth, who oozes self-centered shame, and forgives him during a role-playing exercise in a healing workshop, an activity no doubt more satisfying for the participant than the reader. Chong finds artistic outlets, including stand-up comedy and developing this memoir, which she begins originally as a theatrical endeavor after surgery temporarily restores some of her sight. While uneven in character development, the artistic collaboration is thoughtful—Chong’s shaky and unfinished sketches alternate with Webber’s more professional renditions in firmer lines with teal shading. Webber’s own prior graphic memoir described losing her voice; the dance between their styles illustrates how artists with differing experiences and abilities can partner to make art that’s elevated by the experiment. Chong’s conclusion that “freedom is forgiveness” doesn’t resonate nearly as much as the work’s subtler implication, that freedom is resilience and teamwork. (May)

Reviewed on 03/20/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Naked Body

Edited by Yan Cong, R. Orion Martin, and Jason Li, trans. from the Chinese by R. Orion Martin and Joey Schwartzman. Paradise Systems, $21.95 (120p) ISBN 978-0-99890-509-9

In this revelatory anthology of comics from underground Chinese cartoonists, the formal restriction set for creators is that their main character must be naked. First published in China in 2014, where independent publishing is illegal and the depiction of nudity censored, the collection’s editors and artists faced real risks in putting these eclectic stories to print. The weird variety of comics show the influence of European comics more than manga styling, and each has its own distinct visual or thematic approach. Cong’s untitled piece and Wang XX’s “Hair” deal with self-image and are rendered in a cartoony and minimalist style. Tianxing Wan’s “Naked” and Shijie Hai’s “Mortal Questions” employ a feathery line in narratives about angels and murder, respectively. Tao Benyuan’s untitled selection and Yuwei Gong’s “About Love” are absurd tales that feature swirling, abstracted colors. Intimacy and raw desire are key to Shur An’s “Rêver” as well as the untitled contributions of Leng Zhiwen and Hanada. Nudity is observed as a metaphor for death in Sadan’s “Another World” and Wang Hang’s “Not Today.” Zhai Yanjun’s naturalistic line in “Xiao Ma’s New Outfit” aids his fashion satire. “Naked” (again) by Inkee Wang and Zuo Xin’s “Watermelon Man” use a lurid palette in boundary-pushing, outrageous scenes. This risky collection offers a rare reading experience. (May)

Reviewed on 03/20/2020 | Details & Permalink

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