Karmen

What if you were granted a second chance to correct past mistakes and set things right in your life? What if you could influence and reshape how events would have turned out had you made decisions to achieve a different outcome? Spanish writer and artist Guillem March (Batman, Catwoman, Harley Quinn) entertains these hypothetical questions and offers a metaphysical glimpse into the afterlife in Karmen, a story packed with philosophical musings, chance encounters, and intriguing plot twists wrapped in a blend of supernatural fantasy and dream-like narrative sequences.

The story begins at a juncture in an in-between realm between life and death when a disheartened college-aged student named Catalina, having reached the end of her line from a screwed up relationship, decides to end her life in the privacy of her bathroom. Instead of succumbing to the throes of death, she encounters a capricious, pink-haired woman dressed in a skeletal outfit who identifies herself simply as “Karmen.” Awakening in a nude astral form where none of the living can see her, Cata embarks on a journey to piece together the scattered pieces of her life while helping others in the process. Although she cannot directly intervene with passersbys and strangers on the streets, making physical contact with them will “pass on” their life’s story in a flash, flooding her mind with an incredible amount of information in mere seconds. In her newfound form, she sets out to uncover the people and events leading to her breakup with her boyfriend Xisco.

In the tradition of stories like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the movie Ghost, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novel series, Karmen presents a tale sprinkled with metaphysical quandaries that explore the choices we make and how they impact fate, potentially steering the course of destiny in the lives of those with whom we interact, day in day out. The plot unfolds in a visually stunning cinematic style, capturing the direct observations of Cata as she journeys on a surrealistic voyage in search of truth beyond the afterlife. Like a wraith, she glides through intricately arranged panels stitched together, some stretching across panoramic spreads.

A side plot centers on Karmen’s role, who is supposedly charged with guiding the recently deceased to their next destination, but chooses instead to help them find peace and reconcile with the consequences of their actions. Other psychopomps like herself frown upon her unorthodox methods, believing they must avoid interfering with human lives altogether. The back matter includes selected storyboarding panel sketches and a full cover gallery, illuminating the creative process of this beautifully illustrated story. With a healthy dose of supernatural intrigue underscored by philosophical musings on life, death, and the decisions we make, Karmen delivers a compelling story and an eclectic serving of food for thought suitable for adult graphic novel collections.

Note: There are graphic depictions of death, nudity, and suicide.

Karmen
By Guillem March
Image, 2022
ISBN: 9781534319882

Publisher Age Rating: 18+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation:  Spanish,  Character Representation: Spanish,

A Chance

A ChanceIn A Chance, Spanish comics duo Cristina Durán and Miguel Giner Bou chronicle the experience of becoming parents to their daughters: Laia, who was born with cerebral palsy, and Selam, whom the couple adopted from Ethiopia. First published as separate volumes in 2009 and 2012, this engaging graphic memoir captures the day-to-day emotional and logistical complexities of Cris and Miguel’s parenting journey, one that calls upon the couple to embrace uncertainty and difference and lean into a network of professionals and loved ones to support their daughters’ complex needs. A Chance succeeds on many fronts, but its uncritical treatment of the international adoption process results in an uneven read.

Part One, “One Chance in a Thousand,” opens with the news that the couples’ newborn infant, Laia, is experiencing a brain hemorrhage. Cris and Miguel spend the next weeks in the neonatal unit, sitting with fear and uncertainty as they wait to learn more about their child’s prognosis. The medical details of Laia’s cerebral palsy are interwoven with the intimate experiences of bonding with a baby under medical care, an early infancy that’s nothing like the one they’d expected.

Once Laia is stable and at home, the family embarks on a tightly scheduled life of medical appointments and grueling physical therapy, punctuated by further health scares. Yet these tense first months and years are underpinned by Cris and Miguel’s love and gratitude for their daughter. Laia’s disability is a challenge, but it’s not a tragedy, and her happiness and quality of life are their focus. Cris and Miguel also emphasize that caring for Laia is a team effort; family members, doctors, and childcare workers step up to support the family, a vision of community care that’s radical and uplifting.

As Laia makes developmental progress and settles into a happy childhood, Cris and Miguel embark on the process of adopting a second child. Part Two, “Efrén’s Machine,” details this experience. While Laia’s complex needs were unexpected, their long-anticipated path to become parents to their second daughter is complex in entirely expected ways—a years-long process involving waitlists, screening processes, and finally, an international flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where they meet three-year-old Selamawit at her group home and finalize the adoption.

Cris and Miguel document the emotional and practical demands of navigating the adoption process and bringing their daughter home. As with Laia, becoming parents to Selam requires a great deal of personal fortitude but gives them the opportunity to build relationships with a new community, one made up of fellow adoptive parents, adoption workers, and Efrén, the warmhearted driver in Addis Ababa who gives his name to this part of the book.

Three years before A Chance was published in English, Ethiopia’s parliament banned international adoptions. Cris and Miguel nod to uncomfortable aspects of adopting a child from another country; they describe their feeling of being out-of-place as white people during their visit to Addis Ababa, highlight adoption myths held by other white prospective parents, and contrast their experience with that of Tigui, an Ethiopian-born woman returning from Europe to her home country to adopt a child.

Yet A Chance never acknowledges critiques of international adoption as a system, one that is characterized by power differentials between rich and poor countries and, in the view of the Ethiopian government and others, has the potential to cause harm to children and families. These are thorny issues, and to be clear, what’s in question here is not two parents’ individual motivations for adopting a much-loved daughter. It’s the structural pitfalls that are missing, from falsification of documents, to economic pressures resulting in families having to give up wanted children, to the impact of being removed from a culture of origin. In the first half of the book, the authors reflect on moments when systems of care fail their daughter Laia—nurses who discourage Cris from trying to breastfeed, a daycare unwilling to accommodate Laia’s disabilities—so the absence of a critical eye here felt jarring.

Durán and Giner Bou have produced an impressive parenting memoir. Readable and emotionally engaging, there’s much in this book to interest readers who’ve had similar parenting experiences, as well as those seeking to learn more about parenting disabled and adopted children. A preference for dialogue over exposition gives the story a novelistic feel, and blocky, stylized art matches the gentle optimism that defines Cris and Miguel’s parenting story. Crafting a coherent narrative with a strong emotional arc out of a chaotic time in the authors’ lives, this book will be accessible to a wide range of readers, from longtime comics fans to those new to the medium. But the memoir format, with its tight focus on the authors’ personal experiences, may be frustrating for readers seeking insight into Ethiopia’s now-banned international adoption industry. 

A Chance
By Cristina Duran, Miguel Giner Bou
Graphic Mundi, 2021
ISBN: 9781637790038

Publisher Age Rating: 12+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation:  Spanish
Character Representation: Ethiopian, Spanish, Cerebral Palsy, Disability, Mobility Impairment

Canciones

Canciones from NBM Graphic Novels brings to visual life selected poems from one of Spain’s outstanding literary figures, Federico García Lorca. Drawn from Lorca’s poetry collection of the same name, each piece is combined with fantastic and dreamlike illustrations, creating a striking blend of visual and poetic artforms.

Federico Garcia Lorca published his Canciones in 1927. The title simply translates to Songs in English. Widely influential in his time and beyond, Lorca’s poetry spends much of its time just outside of everyday reality. From a tree lamenting its own inability to grow fruit to a boy searching for his voice which is now with the king of the crickets, the dreamscapes of Lorca’s work nevertheless ring true with lines of striking observation and beauty.

“Day, it’s so hard for me / to let you go away! / You leave filled with me and you return without knowing me,” he writes in “Canción del día que se va” (Song of the Departing Day). Many of Lorca’s poems are filled with longing and regret, while others find their way to whimsy or celebrations of art and beauty. Abstract without being inscrutable, imaginative without losing their grounding in real life, each invites the reader to slow down, to linger, to wander with Lorca’s verses across landscapes real and imagined. They are powerful in their brevity and simple even as they peel back corners of experience and invite the reader to look at the world from a new angle.

This version of Canciones is more than just a collection of Locra’s work, however. Dutch artist Tobias Tak has crafted a visual journey to accompany each selected poem. Weaving both the original Spanish and the English translations into each page or panel of art, the result is a true fusion of writing and illustration. Tak’s style is highly reminiscent of older children’s book imagery, particularly fairy tales. Across these pages, people who look like trees move among anthropomorphic animals while sun and moon look down in pleasure or judgment. Elevating the fantastic dream elements of the poems even higher, Tak demonstrates a clear appreciation for the poetry while simultaneously crafting his own visual narratives to supplement Lorca’s words. Tak delivers us prologues and epilogues, taking these characters on wonderous journeys across land and sea. In his capable hands, each poem flowers into its own narrative while a broader sense of story arises from across progression of each piece, from the opening “Preludio” (Prelude) to the final “De Otro Modo” (In Another Manner). There is no true story here, but as Tak brings a version of Lorca’s vision to life, the collection reaches for a higher meaning than any one of these poems would achieve alone.

The publisher does not appear to assign an age rating to this volume, and there is certainly nothing troubling in the content of the poems or illustrations. That being said, the book will likely appeal most to an adult audience. Younger readers may be intrigued by the imagery, but the sometimes abstract nature of Lorca’s work will hold greatest value for older audiences willing to tease out the complexities of lyrical poetry.

Overall, Canciones is a worthwhile read for any lover of poetry, art, or more literary graphic novels. A relatively quick read, it nevertheless is worth spending time with to absorb the full detail of Tak’s illustrations and ponder the resonance of Lorca’s poetry. While either of these artists is worth appreciating on their own, Canciones is a wonderful blending of the two, finding tension, beauty, and meaning in the melding of two rich, artistic visions.


Canciones
By Federico Garcia Lorca
Art by Tobias Tak
NBM ComicsLit, 2021
ISBN: 9781681122748

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation: Spanish, Gay

Shadowman: Book One

ShadowmanJack Boniface, aka Shadowman, is in the business of slaying demons. “The Deadside could ripple into our reality just about anywhere these days. When that happens… things crawl out… birthing themselves into this world. And it’s my job to shove back.” Jack is in Shadowman form for nearly all of this book, which means he swings a magic scythe, has hair of flickering shadow, uses supernatural vision, and wears a mask resembling a skull. As branding goes, this is as straightforward as Shadowman has ever been, using his shadow powers to wreak shadow justice. Jack is biracial, though this is not evident in the story beyond his dark skin.

He gets his powers from a shadow loa, an element of actual Haitian voodoo adapted for superheroics here, but this is no origin story. He starts out the story on the clock, so to speak, fighting one demon and on the trail of its matching partner. Each of this book’s four chapters features a showdown with a different demon that has infiltrated Earth by way of “thin spots” between here and the dark afterlife known as the Deadside. Bunn is good at twisting horror tropes, making a rampaging demon a tragic figure and a bloodthirsty hitchhiker the unsuspecting victim. Sometimes the horror is mysterious and subtle, other times violent and bloody. Negative emotions and experiences—violence, cruelty, hatred, sadness—embolden the Deadside to break through, as in the case of a toxic demon who lurks in a drug den. Baron Samedi, a teleporting skeleton who travels alongside Jack with taunts and advice, is normally a series villain but an effective foil here. The white dot in Samedi’s eye socket constantly teases mischief behind his guidance.

Jon Davis-Hunt’s illustrations bring to mind the word sharp. He uses the same amount of detail on faces and bloody violence as he does on backgrounds and outfits. The setting moves from New Orleans to an Arizona ghost town to Barcelona, Port-au-Prince, and London. Each location looks distinct, adding to each chapter’s distinctive feel. I want to look at everything on the page, from Baron Samedi’s flamboyant outfit to Jack’s smile right before he checks a mansion guard who lays a hand on him. Jordie Bellaire’s colors play a large role in the book’s appeal too, as the palette routinely morphs from natural and sickly colors in the normal world to heightened warm colors and glowing magical hues when the Deadside arrives. There are plenty of devils and antiheroes atoning for their sins in comics, but the art team here makes this a unique pleasure to read. Clayton Cowles’s lettering suits the mood too, with Jack’s uniform, white-on-black dialog and monologue bubbles contrasting against Samedi’s creeping, uneven bubbles.

A lot of Shadowman’s appeal is similar to that of a procedural TV show: hero shows up, turns over some clues, takes on a baddie, builds a little intrigue, and moves on to the next location. There’s no shame in that formula here, as it makes for efficient storytelling and it’s easy to imagine that Vol. 2 will have more Deadside demons, Samedi tomfoolery, growing threats from beyond, and look beautiful the whole time. There is a reference to a character from another comic Cullen Bunn wrote for Valiant, Punk Mambo, but the background knowledge isn’t necessary to understand this story. This collection represents a fresh take on the character, stemming from Valiant’s linewide 2012 reboot of their original 90s comics, but this isn’t a bad jumping-on point. Back matter includes some monster and setting commentary, as well as variant covers and a few black and white pages. Give this to fans of Hellboy, The Witcher, and Spawn.

Shadowman, Book One
By Cullen Bunn
Art by Jon Davis-Hunt
Valiant, 2021
ISBN: 9781682153741

Publisher Age Rating: 12+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Character Representation: African-American,

The House

The house has been vacant for over a year, nestled in the Spanish countryside within view of the ocean. Three adult siblings, José, Carla, and Vicente, have decided they’re going to fix up the house and sell it. The house is a family project through and through—their grandfather bought the land, but that’s all he could afford to do. Their father commissioned the outside structure of the house to be built and, since then, every weekend and vacation has been spent pouring time and love into the house. The children have been helping since they were barely old enough to help, and many of their childhood memories, for better and for worse, are deeply connected to the house. As they grew up, they visited less frequently. Now as adults, a year after their father’s death, they must reunite and step back into their father’s world and process their relationship with the house, their emotionally distant father, and each other.

The book has a color palette of earthy tones and muted shades of green, brown, peach, and turquoise that tie well into the themes of the book. The dusty shades seem to directly tie into the house as a site of abandonment and neglect. Green features fairly heavily in the book; José’s first task when he arrives is focused on trying to revitalize the garden and literally bring life back to the house.The need for healing and growth is strongly evident.

There’s no consistent visual pattern for when a shift is made from present to memory. Sometimes memories are shaded in stark contrasting colors—dusty rose, warm sand—and once bleeding into an ombre when the past and present blur together. Sometimes the color change is a subtle shift, a dull yellow growing a shade brighter and sunnier. Sometimes memories are the same color as the present, and you have to reconsider the dialogue to remember what is taking place when. Sometimes memories take place within the same panel, with the same characters from two timelines experiencing the past and present simultaneously.

Ultimately, Roca shows that memory is a complicated thing.

Distance also helps us understand things differently. As the children recount bitter anecdotes about their father to their spouses and children, their family members reinterpret the memories, unclouded by resentment. Vicente’s son offers clarity to how their father handled the death of their mother; it wasn’t that he didn’t care, it’s that he was lonely, and he handled this loneliness by working on the house rather than opening up to his children.

There’s a shift in the writing in about the last quarter of the story. The storyline of the siblings seems to be wrapping up in a fairly tidy matter, but these scenes are interspersed with the last days of their father, and we learn more about his sudden decline in health. The two storylines are paced differently, showing the children speeding up and moving on after his death, while their father slowly breaks down, his whole world coming slowly to a halt. Though the siblings seemed to have resolved their feelings of guilt and bitterness around their relationship with their father, the story ends on a heavy note, resting solemnly with the reader. Roca’s divergence into parallel storylines reminds us that there is often more to people than what appears on the surface, and how heartbreaking it is to lose that perspective without ever truly understanding it.

The House would be an excellent addition for any library looking to expand their selection of comics for adults, particularly if they are looking to expand their selection of graphic novels in translation.

The House
By Paco Roca
ISBN: 9781683962632
Fantagraphics, 2019
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)

Browse for more like this title
Character Traits: Spanish
Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator

Kid Beowulf, vol. 3: The Rise of El Cid

Alexis E. Fajardo has returned with another exciting installment in his Kid Beowulf graphic novel series (see my previous reviews of volume 1 and volume 2). In this third installment, entitled Kid Beowulf. vol. 3: The Rise of El Cid, it is 1068 and Spain is a nation divided into kingdoms consisting of both Christian and Muslim rulers. A number of citizens are forced to choose sides, leading to conflicts between rulers and soldiers, especially within the kingdoms. As these events continue throughout the land, the two heroic brothers, Beowulf and Grendel, find themselves on the sidelines as they try to find their way home.

Rodrigo Diaz, later to be called El Cid, is a young knight from Spain who follows the chivalrous rules of all knights. However, when his beliefs result in the death of his high commander, he is banished from the kingdom of Castile, along with two of his close friends. The group finds themselves in the small town of Calahorra, recently destroyed by the king’s champion when the citizens could not pay tribute to their ruler. After hearing about their recent battles, the former soldiers are called upon to defend the town from an upcoming invasion, receiving help from former allies and new ones. Meanwhile, Beowulf and Grendel find themselves lost in Spain and being pursued by two former enemies from Daneland. They are discovered by a small group of pilgrims from Britannia who believe the brothers are the gods Mithras and Tauro. At first the boys and the Danes play along in hopes of returning home, but things soon turn complicated when they find themselves in the middle of a battle in Calahorra.

For this new adventure, Fajardo choses the Spanish epic The Song of My Cid for his story and characters. He retells this ancient poem using a combination of dramatic scenes and comedic characters, along with plenty of action panels that keep the reader’s attention. The characters’ motives and personalities help the story along, whether they are seeking revenge or redemption. Even the brotherly banter between Beowulf and Grendel provides some dramatic action and a few comedic asides. Fajardo continues to use his cartoon artistic style, with a vibrant color palette, unique character appearances, and comedic onomatopoeia. But what makes this series interesting is Fajardo’s extensive research into his chosen setting and characters, especially iconic figures or lesser known ideologies. For the third book, readers are introduced to the ancient Mithras religion, the historical figure of Boudica, and a fencing style called La Verdadera Destreza. Readers can learn more about these individuals and other historical ideals in the book’s More To Explore section, which can be found in the last few pages.

Kid Beowulf, vol. 3: The Rise of El Cid is a great choice for young readers who enjoy mythological and adventure stories. Fans of the graphic novel series will be thrilled with this latest book and look forward to the next adventure. Public and school librarians will want to have this latest installment on their shelves, especially for their 3rd-6th grade readers.

Kid Beowulf, vol. 3: The Rise of El Cid 
By Alexis E. Fajardo
ISBN: 9781449493844
Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
Series Reading Order: https://www.goodreads.com/series/198381-kid-beowulf (Wikipedia or Goodreads)