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The Stretcher Bearers

Reid Beaman and Ryan Beaman. Dead Reckoning, $24.95 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-68247-619-2

A young soldier wades through mud, blood, terror, and torment in this turbulent, bluntly told debut tale by the Beaman brothers, set in the 1918 Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Sixteen-year-old Maxwell Fox’s unit of stretcher bearers shuttle the injured back from the front. Against this grim background Maxwell slowly discovers a sense of family, his first ever, in the men of his unit—testy, disillusioned Frank; shell-shocked Ralph; and father figure Graham Calviner—as they inch slowly forward under torrential rain and German fire. Ultimately, only Maxwell’s left alive, but he finally finds a home with Graham’s family after the war. Reid’s artwork complements the depths of despair and hopelessness the cast traverses; there’s no glory or humor here. The coloring employs dark teal blue-green as highlights, rendering the constant mud, muck, and blood in the same stark shades, like a sepia-toned film. Rather than a battle action piece, the work harkens back to mature, realistic war comics such as EC’s Frontline Combat or Marvel’s The ’Nam, and the emotional ending tears at the heart without being manipulative. This is a solid historical war narrative—and an intense and moving portrayal of brotherhood. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/07/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Our Colors

Gengoroh Tagame, trans. from the Japanese by Anne Ishii. Pantheon, $32.50 (528p) ISBN 978-1-5247-4856-2

Eisner winner Tagame (My Brother’s Husband) returns with an affecting coming-of-age/coming-out saga, presented in 21 episodic chapters. Sixteen-year-old Sora Itoda, an earnest high schooler in suburban Japan, has artistic aspirations and a penchant for dreamily relating colors to his emotional state (“All the colors of the world seem to brighten when he’s near”). Fearful of rejection or ostracism, Sora keeps his same-sex attractions, particularly to hunky classmate Kenta Yoshioka, hidden from friends and family. Things brighten when he befriends an understanding, openly gay middle-aged café owner, Mister Amamiya, who hires Sora to paint a mural in the café. But when a figure from Amamiya’s past reappears, conflict and painful misunderstandings ensue. Eventually, with the support of his understanding childhood gal-pal, Nao, and with the wise counseling of Amamiya (“Nobody comes out just once”), Sora is able to start living more authentically. While hitting many familiar story beats, Tagame’s intimate narrative mixes pathos with a healthy dose of melodrama, and his supremely confident artwork, replete with genial character designs and dynamic panel compositions, lend it gravitas. It’s a poignant story that should delight devotees of queer comics, with nice crossover appeal for YA readers. (May)

Reviewed on 01/07/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Crema

Johnnie Christmas and Dante Luiz. Dark Horse, $19.99 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-1-5067-2603-8

Christmas (the Tartarus series) and newcomer Brazilian artist Luiz brew up a coffee-themed supernatural drama with a winning blend of steamy queer romance and intergenerational intrigue. Esme, a Brooklyn barista who can see ghosts when she’s sufficiently caffeinated, falls for Yara, the alluring owner of Cherry Mountain Cafe. A corporate coffee chain buys the café, triggering events that send Esme and Yara to Brazil to deal with a sketchy executive, a ghost on a rampage, a century-old feud, and the fate of Yara’s family’s coffee bean farm. There’s enough going on to power a telenovela even without witty details like Esme’s friendship with the ghost of a frustrated TV actor, but the volume incorporates all the disparate elements into a tale of timeless romance and hauntings both literal and symbolic. The muted café colors render the streets of Brazil inviting, with passionate glow lended to the love scenes between the likeable leads. It’s as satisfying as a just-made café con leche. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/31/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Real Hero Shit

Kendra Wells. Iron Circus, $12 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-1-945820-83-0

Wells (Tell No Tales: Pirates of the Southern Seas), known for her artwork in role-playing game web series like Critical Role and Dimension 20, rolls out an ambitious if underdeveloped adult queer fantasy romp. Seeking respect and new friends, Prince Eugene, heir to the Kingdom of Marble, decides to join a team of adventurers and immediately gets on the bad side of the party’s wizard, Ani. Still, his presence comes in handy when the squad stumbles across a conspiracy implicating a high-ranking church official. Wells’s world is lived-in, her character designs are lively and diverse, and it’s hard to miss the prominent LGBTQ inclusion efforts; the party’s cleric, Hocus, comes from a culture with at least five genders, which Wells illustrates with a helpful Venn diagram (and Eugene eagerly internalizes, the better to flirt with them). But just as it seems the Ani-Eugene feud is about to boil over into fantasy class commentary, Wells takes the easy way out with a sex scene, which is fun and frothy but sidesteps character growth. This feels like a warm-up act for a second volume. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/31/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Lions of Leningrad

Jean-Claude van Rijckeghem and Thomas Du Caju, trans. from the French by Joseph Laredo. Dead Reckoning, $19.95 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-68247-792-2

The WWII-era Soviet Union provides a treacherous setting for this well-crafted military thriller. While on a child transport, four Soviet teenagers escape a Nazi air attack, only to be stranded behind enemy lines. They make it to safety and kill some Nazis along the way, becoming heroes celebrated as the “Lions of Leningrad.” As the war stretches on, the friends continue to fight on the home front, but poverty, desperation, and disillusionment threaten to destroy their friendships and their lives. Not even their heroic history protects them after the government erases it from the official record. “Comrade Stalin has yet to ban friendship,” they quip, yet gradually they betray one another. Dense and wordy, the comic sometimes feels slow despite plenty of action scenes. The precise but emotionally stiff art, meanwhile, is better at period architecture (with elegant shots of wartime Russia in winter) and military vehicles than human expressions. This throwback to classic European war comics (though originally French, it recalls gritty British boys’ comics like Charley’s War) should satisfy military buffs, and promises teen crossover appeal. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/31/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Walk Me to the Corner

Anneli Furmark, trans. from the Swedish by Hanna Strömberg. Drawn & Quarterly, , $29.95 ISBN 978-1-77046-494-0

Furmark (Red Winter) meditates on love, lust, and longing in midlife in this evocatively drawn and elegantly narrated outing. Together for 23 years, journalist Elise and her husband Henrik are “uncommonly happy” until Elise strikes up a long-distance text relationship with Dagmar, a doctor she meets at a party. Dagmar is also married, to a woman with whom she has children. Elise and Dagmar treat their affair like a force of nature, and after Elise tells Henrik about her attraction, Henrik begins an affair with a grad student. Elise is deeply hurt, and the two stumble toward divorce. Meanwhile, Dagmar has no intention of leaving her family. Elise’s lack of insight about her own betrayal of Henrik may frustrate readers, but there’s a trenchant realism here in the embracing of contradictions. “When I was young, I saw older people like they were some sort of joke,” Elise confesses to her grown son.“ But... when you’re older, it turns out the drama is just as big.” In jewel-toned, mixed-media illustrations, Furmark paints moody landscapes that mirror Elise’s internal churn. The result’s a complex, nuanced portrait of heartache. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/31/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Decorum

Jonathan Hickman and Mike Huddleston. Image, $39.99 (408p) ISBN 978-1-5343-1823-6

Stunning artwork carries this heady tale of far-future espionage from Hickman (the X-Men series) and Huddleston (the Middlewest series) to imaginative heights. In a universe teeming with aliens, dinosaurs, giant mushrooms, planet-size diamonds, and galaxy-spanning cults, Neha is an unremarkable teenage courier who risks her life to make deliveries. Her luck changes when a “priority package” brings her into contact with elegant assassin Imogen Smith-Morley, who sees potential in the fast-talking street tough. Imogen takes Neha under her wing and enrolls her in the Sisterhood of Man, an all-female school of interplanetary assassins. Neha is reluctant to kill, a serious drawback to her apprenticeship (Imogen, on the other hand, is less bothered by murder than by the state of her shoes afterward). Hickman’s script fits the cheeky neo-space-opera mold of series like Saga or Invisible Kingdom, but Huddleston’s art launches it into a fantasy tour de force, as he swirls watercolor painting, black-and-white brushwork, psychedelic spot color, Jack Kirby–inspired digital collage, and retro pop-art touches (dig those oversize Ben-Day dots!) into a phantasmagoric vision. Text sections explicate world-building details ranging from the fearsome Church of the Singularity to the street noodles Neha inhales. Readers will enjoy the trippy, tricked-out ride. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Secret Passages: 1985–1986

Axelle Lenoir, trans. from the French by Pablo Strauss and Aleshia Jensen. Top Shelf, $19.99 trade paper (184p) ISBN 978-1-60309-499-3

Capturing the wild strangeness of childhood with fantastical meta-narrative touches, Lenoir (Camp Spirit) sets the stage for an autofiction multiverse in this series launch. Axelle, with a partially shaved head and ripped jeans, opens her narration with the revelation that her “cosmic twin died.” Most of these pages, however, are devoted to her first grade year, which she spends watching cartoons, arguing with her brothers, resenting school, and developing a love-hate relationship with the forest near her home. She fears that her parents—drawn with oversize, blacked-out, almond-shaped eyes—are aliens. Periodically, adult Axelle answers “reader questions”; when someone asks why young Axelle’s thoughts are so mature, for instance, she explains, “Even though a kid doesn’t have an adult’s vocabulary, they experience the same range of emotions and sensitivity.” Lenoir periodically interjects her expressive two-tone cartoons and maniacal character drawing (which look like a more cartoony version of Sophie Campbell’s Wet Moon) with flashes of color (and child’s crayon drawings) and hints at the parallel universe in which she’s a boy with human parents (presumably he’s the cosmic twin). Her work is strongest when depicting the inner landscape of an imaginative, anxious child who’s full of passion (especially for the Sears catalog), terror, wonderment, and weird games. It’s an enjoyably odd place to live in for a while. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Putin’s Russia: The Rise of a Dictator

Darryl Cunningham. Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95 trade paper (164p) ISBN 978-1-77046-504-6

In this blistering broadside of a graphic biography, Cunningham (Billionaires) outlines the life of the modern world’s most powerful autocrat. Acknowledging that Vladimir Putin’s early history is sketchily documented, Cunningham still provides a timeline for the rise of an unlikely czar. Born in 1952 in war-ravaged Leningrad, the young Putin dreamed of joining the KGB, which he did in 1975. Returning from East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he “mysteriously found” government jobs that positioned him to take advantage of the 1990s post-Soviet chaos. Attaching himself to powerful men, Putin became president in 2000 and leveraged crises like the 2004 Beslan terrorist attack to “further consolidate his power” with xenophobic and homophobic appeals to nationalism and masculinity. Presented as an unknowable cipher—Cunningham’s bright, flat art creates a kind of blank of his subject—Putin emerges here as corruptly self-enriching (stealing perhaps $200 billion) and amoral, and connected to numerous murders (attempted and successful) of journalists and politicians. After chronicling the shadow wars (Ukraine, Syria), disinformation campaigns, and the interference in the 2016 U.S. election that Putin has used to keep rivals off-balance, Cunningham castigates American leaders for having “missed Putin’s transformation” from bureaucrat into “megalomaniacal dictator.” It’s an infuriated and eye-opening guide to a real-life supervillain. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Metax

Antoine Cossé. Fantagraphics, $34.99 (300p) ISBN 978-1-68396-515-2

Cossé (Showtime) employs his signature watercolors to elevate a standard dystopian narrative in this dreamlike science fiction adventure. The city-state of Ronin is a tyrannical monarchy powered by metax, a miraculous substance that’s enabled Ronin’s rulers to enforce their military will. Metax also empowers a gang of masked rebels to wage guerilla war, changing their bodies into birds to escape the King’s police. But as Ronin’s supply of the substance dwindles, the King’s Engineer is marked for death by the regime he serves, and his rebel daughter Sabrina is driven to drastic action to save her family. Cossé tends to experiment with color in his work, but takes a different tack here: Sabrina and her father’s struggle plays out against an almost entirely gray-washed backdrop, with Cossé devoting nearly all of his attention to crafting shadows and extremely economical linework. Only when readers finally glimpse the miraculous metax in its true form does Cossé let the rainbow erupt onto the page, a catharsis that’s well crafted and narratively earned—even if the story itself, boiled down to its essentials, isn’t especially remarkable. Cossé’s visual creativity makes retreading familiar genre story beats a pleasure. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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