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Isabellae, Vol. 1

Raule and Gabor, trans. from the French by Montana Kane. Dark Horse, $29.99 (152p) ISBN 978-1-50671-274-1

In this bloody period piece, a katana-wielding heroine leaves a trail of dismembered bodies behind her. Set in 1192 during the Kamakuru era in feudal Japan, the hack and slash adventure features a red-headed warrior named Isabellae who, accompanied by the spirit of her dead father, is in search of her sister, Siuko. While her father was a great samurai, her late mother was an Irish witch, and Isabellae seems to have inherited between them an almost magical ability to cut enemies in half. She gathers a few companions for timely assistance and comic relief, then sets to tracking down her elusive sister. Nifty fantastical elements they encounter include the Night Man, a kind of fallen angel who may be either “god or demon,” and a ghost ship full of zombies. Beautifully drawn by Gabor, moving from one color scheme to another as scenes change, the palette is atmospherically spot-on. And Raule (Jazz Maynard) intersperses the stylized kill scenes with exchanges between Isabellae and her dead father. Text-heavy action scenes are difficult to parse, however, with the book’s oddly spaced font bursting in the word balloons. The sum of these parts doesn’t rise above standard fare, but fans of the genre will find it holds some appeal. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/21/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Persephone’s Garden

Glynnis Fawkes. Secret Acres, $21.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-9991935-6-3

Inspired to retell the myth of Persephone, which ancient Greeks used to explain the cycle of seasons, Fawkes presents this autobiographical collection as a hilarious and moving meditation on girlhood, motherhood, and the unyielding passage of time. An archeological illustrator, Fawkes has a wonderfully lithe, Thurber-esque line, which adapts effortlessly to the humorous and quotidian. In some stories she recounts her many trips to Greece, first as a young single woman working on excavations and then as a harried wife and mother, willful children in tow. But, as she confesses, “I still associate being in Greece with my adventurous youth.” Some of the funniest strips show her endless attempts to engage her children in cultural activities, against which they consistently push back. The collection reaches an emotional climax with “The House on Thurman Street,” which describes a visit to her parents at her childhood home in Portland, Ore. She contrasts the reminiscences the visit stirs in her with her mother’s devastating memory loss due to Alzheimer’s, a disease Fawkes realizes can be hereditary. “The jaws of my memory want to close on this house so hard,” she concludes. Combining small moments that will ring true for many readers, Fawkes uncovers big themes in this funny-sad, satisfying mosaic. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 06/21/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Lightstep

Milos Slavkovic, Ivan Brankovic, and Mirko Toplaski. Dark Horse, $19.99 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-5067-1084-6

In the distant future, this pedestrian space fantasy’s multi-page introductory info-dump explains, the descendants of Earth have attempted to wipe humanity from their biology. The ruling class descend from the Primogenitor, who spawned his line via his “bedchambers and gene alchimenarium” (and purged all other children). When January Lee—a pureblood, highest of the high—refuses to execute her brother in a royal accession ceremony, she’s jettisoned into space. She’s soon picked up by Jazzman, a gruff Han Solo–style space pirate, and alien sidekick Sixty Six, a cheerful pee-wee pixie-ish clone. They’re threatened by Dada, a grotesquely obese alien slug. January is taught to perceive beyond time and space by a mischievous diminutive alien and prevails in an impossible piloting mission. From there, adventure alternates with backstory, shot through with overworn SF tropes, finally ending with a clumsy paraphrase of a famous Douglas Adams quote. The saving grace is Slavkovic’s smooth, fluid, and gently curving art, reminiscent of Mike Allred or Alan Davis. Slavkovic’s coloring is equally astute, with excellent composited pigments of bright highlights and soft pastels against the stark icy black of space. But the cool look can’t salvage this clichéd script; this comic’s very pretty to look at, but it’s all fluff beneath. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Super Fun Sexy Times, Vol. 1

Meredith McClaren. Limerence, $19.99 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-62010-650-1

In a startling but welcome departure from her fantasy serial Hinges, McClaren dives into sexually explicit territory in this collection of five superhero-themed erotic short stories. Each of McClaren’s episodes peeks in on a different pair of heroes and villains (and other associated characters, such as an “expert tactician and intel collector”) in various steamy scenarios: a hero’s sidekick and a villain’s hired thug share an illicit encounter while trapped in a laboratory after their bosses’ battle; a flustered virgin negotiates kitten play with her alien boyfriend; an aging assassin gets some much-needed reassurance from his dominant husband. McClaren’s skill and familiarity with the tropes of both superhero comics and erotic romance add up to more than the sum of their parts; each story is layered with solid character work and snappy banter, which inevitably leads to highly enjoyable smut (be prepared for truly porno graphics). But it’s the natural, lived-in diversity of McClaren’s worldbuilding that sets her collection apart, delivering a variety of body types, orientations, skin tones, and genders all experiencing pleasure in their own way, and with an emphasis on respect and consent. This smart, sexy, and super collection flies above its combined genres, setting a higher bar for both romance and cape comics. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Snow, Glass, Apples

Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran. Dark Horse, $17.99 (64p) ISBN 978-1-5067-0979-6

Doran (Amazing Fantastic Incredible) outdoes herself in adapting Gaiman’s inventive short story into a stylish graphic novella. The dark fairy tale recasts “Snow White” from the queen’s point of view; in this version, White is a seductive vampire, the dwarfs are sinister “forest folk,” and cutting out the princess’s heart does nothing to stop her wintry reign of terror. To match the script’s eerie mood and transgressive themes, Doran draws visual inspiration from Harry Clarke, an early-20th-century illustrator and stained-glass artist with a romantic, decadent sensibility. Her panels drip with fin de siècle elegance: beads, flowers, flowing hair, Celtic designs, and dense collages of figures, landscapes, and patterns. The result is a lush, unabashedly sexy fantasy/horror comic with a timeless, mythic feel. To compensate for the story’s scant page count, the edition includes notes and sketches from Doran explaining her creative process. It’s one of the best Gaiman adaptations to come along in some time, and it’s a must-read for lovers of mature fantasy and art nouveau. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Rooftop Stew

Max Clotfelter. Birdcage Bottom, $12 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-0-982-65958-8

Mini-comics stalwart Clotfelter’s trade debut proffers a potent variety of short stories that embrace the grotesque aesthetic of underground comics while also revealing his own personal traumas. Working in an almost suffocating drawing style that emphasizes cross-hatching, comically distorted figures, and dense blacks, Clotfelter alternates between fiction and reality. His absurdly tragic, misshapen Redeye character opens the volume, in “Redeye Lives Más,” in which he’s forced by his violent, drug-addicted parents to sell his baby sister. Clotfelter follows that with “Chasing Tail with Pappy,” a true story in which Clotfelter and his father go out to cut the tail off of a dead raccoon. These opening salvos set the tone for a trippy barrage of sordid yet somehow funny tales about poverty, neglect, abuse, freaks, desperate circumstances, drugs, and poor choices. Throughout, Clotfelter references his rural Southern roots and current urban life, with episodes such as “Country Cousin Hal Smokes P.C.P.” spotlighting both worlds. Clotfelter stays true to the extremes of his aesthetic while also seeming self-aware of the complicated influences of the underground comix movement. This is a yawp of a book that highlights Clotfelter’s willingness to confront his demons head-on and turn them into visceral and emotionally affecting art. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Magicians: Alice’s Story

Lev Grossman, Lilah Sturges, and Pius Bak. Archaia, $26.99 (208p) ISBN 978-1-68415-021-2

This graphic adaptation of Grossman’s bestselling fantasy tale promises a fresh take—by shifting focus from the novel’s protagonist, magician-in-training Quentin Coldwater, to that of his classmate and love interest, Alice—but it never fully delivers. Bright, driven, and gifted, Alice finds Brakebills College, a hidden school of magic, where she hopes to learn the fate of her missing brother Charlie. But the adaptation gradually moves away from Alice’s character development and goals—the mystery of Charlie is resolved early and never brought up again—and falls into simply retelling the events of the novel from an only marginally different perspective. Quentin, Alice, and their friends become disillusioned with their decadent magical life, where “you can do anything, or nothing, and none of it matters,” and seek out the sunny promise of Fillory, a Narnia-like realm described in a series of children’s books. The brightly-colored art sets the right tone, enchanted but grounded in a modern adult sensibility. Artist Bak lavishes equal care on fantastic landscapes and ordinary dorm rooms. Though “Alice’s Story” doesn’t add much to the source material, Grossman’s devoted fans are still likely to enjoy this companion volume. (July)

Reviewed on 06/07/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Ryuko, Vol. 1

Eldo Yoshimizu, trans. from the Japanese by Motoko Tamamuro and Jonathan Clements. Titan Comics, $14.99 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-78773-094-6

Multimedia fine artist Yoshimizu bursts onto the manga field with this stylish crime thriller. Yakuza boss Ryuko’s Black Dragon Group operates on an international chess board of violence and political conflict while she attempts to sort personal issues. Decades ago, one of her father’s underlings sought to rule their crime crew, so he held Ryuko’s mother hostage and banished her father to Afghanistan, where he allied with a local king and amassed a fortune. Growing up amid the Soviet-Afghan War, Ryuko becomes a hardened warrior and murders her father when he sells out the king to a rebel general. His reign over, the king entrusts Ryuko with his newborn daughter, Valer, whom Ryuko raises as her own. In the present, Ryuko learns her mother is alive and deploys forces to enact vengeance against her father’s betrayers and her mother’s kidnappers, while also handling assassins, rival crime bosses, Russian spies, and assorted James Bond–ian mayhem. Yoshimizu’s art is a stylistic blend influenced by manga legends Leiji Matsumoto (Galaxy Express 999) and Monkey Punch (Lupin III), and European comics tropes of the 1960s and ’70s, especially Italian cartoonist Guido Crepax (Valentina). Though wearing its influences on its sleeve, this lively series opener avoids being a mere pastiche and warrants return readership. (July)

Reviewed on 06/07/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Ambedkar: India’s Crusader for Human Rights

Kieron Moore and Sachin Nagar. Campfire, $16.99 (168p) ISBN 978-9-3811-8281-9

Remarkable and yet largely unknown outside of India, the life story of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891–1956) is given a solid and uplifting rendering by Moore (Buddha: An Enlightened Life). Born into the Mahar caste, believed by many Hindus to be “untouchable,” Ambedkar suffered enough indignities as a child that he changed his name to hide his origin. However, after his sharp mind gained him scholarships to study in New York and London, Ambedkar spent the rest of his adult life declaring his experiences as Mahar. He established Mahar support organizations and, with thundering rhetoric, became an activist in India (“How can I call this land mine when we are treated worse than cats and dogs?”) and butted heads with the British and nationalist leaders, including Gandhi, who seemed content to ignore Mahar rights. The graphic volume’s relentlessly adulatory focus leaves little room for nuance. Still, the intensity of Ambedkar’s dedication practically burns off the page, with help from Nagar’s dramatic and color-splashed artwork. Also, there are more than enough curious wrinkles of history—such as Ambedkar’s quest for a new religion that the Mahars could convert to en masse—to keep the narrative moving. This sometimes didactic yet still inspiring graphic biography presents a heroic portrait and should find a particularly welcome spot on school library shelves. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/07/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame

Erin Williams. Abrams ComicArts, $24.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4197-3674-2

Williams (The Big Fat Activity Book for Pregnant People) chronicles the everyday humiliation she feels as a female in this frankly illustrated war cry. The events she recounts are simple: Williams wakes, dresses, takes the train, works, comes home, and cares for her infant daughter. Throughout, she delves into flashbacks of trauma, frustrated fury, experiences with substance abuse and sobriety, self-criticism, and, ultimately, triumphant discovery through friendship and the love of other women and their creativity. In loose-but-evocative, spare lines, often depicting only the barest contours of the body, Williams identifies the persistent harm done to women, through everything from ogling to rape, how that harm is internalized, and how women cope. There is blackout alcoholism for “oblivion junkies,” men to lose one’s self in, and the renewal of self that motherhood can bring. Williams does not shy away from her shame. She is also angry, and she knows she is not alone, and that brilliant anger is where the book becomes truly great. Her confidence—and literal straight gaze at the reader, full of vulnerability and challenge—makes this volume a critique, a lament, and a sigh. As Williams elegantly argues, many women need all three. This sharp and splendidly drawn memoir will strike a strong chord in the current moment. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 06/07/2019 | Details & Permalink

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