Purgatori: Witches Get Stitches

The nineties were a time when a company could sell a comic simply on the artwork, of what many would call style over substance. It was a time of holographic covers, collector’s issues, and the gorgeously-rendered characters within these books all possessed a gritty, acerbic aesthetic and attitude (in short, a typical ‘90s attitude). Some might look at these kinds of characters with a feeling of nostalgia while others might simply find them exhausting. The main character in Purgatori: Witches Get Stitches, the latest Purgatori collection written by Ray Fawkes and illustrated by Alvaro Sarraseca, highlights this dichotomy. 

The character of Purgatori looks more devil than vampire, complete with fiery red skin and leathery bat wings. She is a thousands-year-old vampire who sustains herself from the blood of others, not only stealing their life essence, but also their memories. Feeding adds to Purgatori’s own skills and abilities, but it also leaves her with a swirling cacophony of memories and emotions all struggling for dominance. A coven of young witches seek to take advantage of this and use Purgatori for their own selfish purpose. Purgatori must stop them before she begins to lose control of herself. 

Ray Fawkes inserts some interesting folklore creatures and the people who hunt them, but the very nature of Purgatori, and Fawkes’s rendition of her, makes Purgatori a character that doesn’t seem capable of having her own identity. Purgatori is basically a cypher who absorbs the memories and personalities of those upon which she feeds to the point that she is swept away on the experiences of her victims. She even comments on how she feeds on bad people for awhile, until she becomes bad, then she feeds on enough good people to point her moral compass the other way. Purgatori has a distinct lack of agency in her long-lived existence, and with her dialogue being mainly snarky and suggestive one-liners doesn’t allow her to be a multifaceted character. Purgatori’s dialogue also affects the story. When humor is purposefully inserted into horror, it creates moments of levity in what could otherwise be suffocating darkness. When humor is used too much, it saps all the tension from the story.. 

Sarraseca’s artwork offers some eye-catching horror moments, such as the shapeshifters Purgatori encounters and the witches combining more than just their energies to attack her. However, it doesn’t detract from the scantily clad, centerfold-adjacent renditions of the heroine, whose uniform is a black leather bikini. Purgatori isn’t contorted into unnatural shapes that defy physics and anatomy, but there’s also no denying that Purgatori’s pin-up looks are a major part of the book’s appeal. The book tacitly admits this in their cover gallery by inserting photos of a few professional models dressed up as Purgatori among the other sexualized drawings of the book’s star. 

As for this book’s purpose in a library’s collection, it might find some circulation among other gen-X and millennial males who spent their hard-earned money at their local comic shops, and in that vein, it could even be considered an artifact of a long-ago age. But unless a library has a collection featuring other pin-up fantasy comic heroines like Vampirella and Lady Death, this book could probably stand to be lost to history, or at least passed over when making selections. 

Purgatori: Witches Get Stitches
By Ray Fawkes
Art by Alvaro Sarasecca
Dynamite, 2022
ISBN: 9781524121679

Publisher Age Rating: 13 and up

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Canadian,

Welcome to St. Hell: My Trans Teen Misadventure

Lewis Hancox’s teen years were much like anyone else’s, filled with the typical high school drama, perpetual awkwardness, and desperation to fit in. For him, however, it seemed like there were extra hurdles to face, being a girl that had yet to discover that he was actually a boy. In Welcome to St. Hell, Hancox addresses his younger self to guide her through those messy years of hating her body, of being confused at who exactly she’s supposed to kiss, of constantly trying to pass as a “normal girl.” Being a typical teenager, the younger Hancox tries to ignore her older self at every turn but cannot deny that she feels like an alien in her own skin. What follows is a humorous, relatable, and down to Earth depiction of Hancox’s gender exploration and eventual acceptance, told in a way that educates just as much as it entertains.

Welcome to St. Hell’s story is refreshingly grounded, widening its appeal to every kind of audience. Though the author’s transness is the focal point, there are other elements and situations that distinguish Hancox’s experiences from coming solely from a trans standpoint. Anyone who has ever walked a high school hallway will relate to those feelings of just trying to survive that time while also making an identity that’s your own, or something close to it. We all face adversities when discovering who we are, and we all fumble along the way. Hancox utilizes these shared feelings within adolescence to illustrate his journey in a context that anyone can empathize with. This is also added by his inclusion of interviews he conducted with his family and friends, detailing their initial reactions to his coming out and how they came to support him. These interviews allow for a different perspective for both allies and trans youth, delivering moments of education in how to best conduct allyship and shedding light on the effects a coming out may have to both parties.

The one thing that may take some readers out of the comic is the heavy use of British slang, which can confuse those not familiar with it, though they may adapt once they find the comic’s rhythm.

Though it has its moments of heartache, Hancox’s story is ultimately one full of honesty, hope, and humor. Even the presence of Hancox’s older self brings the positivity of a future where trans youth survive and have fulfilling adult lives. While trauma and hardship are incredibly valid in one’s gender journey, a memoir that sets a more uplifting tone to a work of trans survival can bring about a great deal of affirmation in trans youths’ lives.

Matching the tone and feel of the comic perfectly, Hancox’s art style looks like it came right out of a teenager’s prized doodle book. At many points, it reminded me of a lot of different zines, though mainly due to its mostly four panel per page structure and black and white color. The art style lends itself to a lot of great, funny expressions, my favorite being Hancox’s big eyebrows that cover a range of emotions all on their own. It is not an overly ornate comic, sticking more to simple character designs and backgrounds, but will appeal to those who prefer more cartoon-like art and less busy panels.

As the memoir is split between Hancox’s high school and college years, there are some mature topics that come into play, such as alcohol use, gender dysphoria, and eating disorders, and includes some brief moments of cartoony nudity and one use of the T slur. Scholastic has given this graphic novel an age rating of 14-18, which is appropriate given the content listed above, though I’m sure college students may be able to relate to the second half as well. Welcome to St. Hell is best for those looking for representative trans comics, whether as a trans youth looking for validating experiences, especially from trans men, or an ally looking to educate themselves on trans matters. I highly recommend this title to librarians and educators aiming to include a good variety of trans works into their graphic novel collections in terms of tone and depictions.

Welcome to St. Hell: My Trans Teen Misadventure
By Lewis Hancox
Scholastic GRAPHIX, 2022
ISBN: 9781338824445

Publisher Age Rating: 14-18

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  British,  Trans , Eating Disorder

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Scarlett and Sophie Rickard’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists adapts a classic work of socialist fiction for a new audience. This retelling of Robert Tressell’s 1914 semi-autobiographical novel follows Frank Owen, a house painter with tuberculosis, and his fellow laborers, dramatizing their experiences with crooked bosses and chronic poverty in a pre-welfare state Britain. The graphic novel draws an unflinching portrait of working-class life, but its tragedies are interwoven with a wryly comic, yet profoundly moving message about power, politics, and the necessity of class struggle.

The book opens with a crew of painters on break, engaged in a contentious discussion of the economic issues that define their working lives. Low wages and lack of job security have left a mark on each man: Owen resorts to doing skilled decorative work for little pay, while facing the prospect of leaving his family destitute should he succumb to tuberculosis; another worker, Easton, is so far in debt that he must take in an unsavory boarder to ensure his young child has enough to eat; and the elderly Linden must continue working to provide for his family, knowing that the alternative is a punishing old age in the workhouse.

Yet The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is not simply a chronicle of suffering. The painters argue, agitate, and make us laugh as they express political opinions that feel as current in our modern era as in early twentieth-century Britain. This is a didactic novel, which means we’re treated to slightly stagey conversations in which characters wrangle over the root causes of economic inequality and explore its possible remedies. Thanks to Sophie Rickard’s eloquent and economical script, these exchanges are nearly as affecting as the labor struggles that inform them. It’s a joy to watch political dialogue take place not in classrooms or on social media feeds, but in the workplaces and homes of working-class families. Readers may or may not cosign the book’s of-its-time vision of a classical socialist utopia, but many will respond to its central thesis, that progress is possible if ordinary people engage with politics not as a spectator sport, but as citizens acting in solidarity with their fellow workers.

If Sophie Rickard’s script deftly adapts Tressell’s original 600-page epic, Scarlett Rickard’s art brings it to vivid life. Full-color panels recall the sharply observed domestic settings of Raymond Briggs’ adult graphic novels, delivering what feels like a sly satire of bucolic depictions of Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Against dollhouse-like backdrops of houses and storefronts, Rickard portrays the physicality of labor, craft, and housekeeping, reminding us that ordinary people worked hard to construct and maintain the built environments that appear in our favorite BBC costume dramas. Yet there’s also a lot of warmth in these pages; emotionally rendered scenes of holiday celebrations, family gatherings, and acts of friendship bring to life not only the struggles of the working class, but the personal relationships that make change worth fighting for.

In the decades following its original publication, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists had an outsized impact on labor politics, both in Britain and globally. The Rickards’ adaptation makes this indispensable novel accessible to contemporary readers in an effective new format. This book is an excellent choice for nearly all adult graphic novel collections, and young adult and high school purchasers should also give it strong consideration. Readers should note that, in addition to scenes of violence and worker abuse, this book contains depictions of sexual assault, postpartum depression, and suicide.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
By Sophie Rickard
Art by Scarlett Rickard
SelfMadeHero, 2021
ISBN: 9781910593929

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: British
Character Representation: British, Chronic Illness

Doctor Who: Missy: The Master Plan

They say that a hero is only as good as their villain. Would Sherlock Holmes be as impressive without a Professor Moriarty to test him? Would Superman be as super without a Lex Luthor? Absolutely not! This belief is what drives The Master, the twisted counterpart of The Doctor, who is driven to conquer everything The Doctor strives to protect.

The Master’s current incarnation and first female incarnation, who goes by the nickname Missy (short for Mistress) is neck-deep in another scheme, seeking a Time Lord artifact known as the Key to Time. And she is not working alone, having gone back in time to enlist the help of an unexpected ally—the first incarnation of The Master to battle The Doctor on Earth. There is, however, the slight complication that The Master is currently in an ultra-secure prison, leading Missy to pose as the newest incarnation of The Doctor, come to check up on her greatest enemy. Because Missy knows how untrustworthy her past self is and isn’t about to give away the game just yet by needlessly risking a paradox. Yet.

Doctor Who: Missy: The Master Plan is another brilliant Doctor Who story from Jody Houser, who has been wowing Doctor Who fans with her Thirteenth Doctor comics, as well as specials like Doctor Who: Time Lord Victorious, for some time now. There are two reasons why Houser is rightly praised as a Doctor Who writer. First, Houser has a tremendous grasp of the characters, and fans of the show are sure to hear the velvet purr of Michelle Gomez and the distinctive voice of Roger Delgado as they read Missy and The Master’s dialogue. Second, despite showing a clear knowledge of the show’s history and the characters, Houser makes her stories accessible to newcomers, so fans of the current Doctor Who series, who might never have seen a classic Third Doctor story, will not need to worry about becoming lost in the narrative.

Roberta Ingranata once again proves herself the perfect partner in crime to Jody Houser. Best known for her work on Witchblade, Ingranata has established herself as one of the premiere Doctor Who artists ever since Titan Comics picked up the license several years ago. The likenesses of the actors from the show are captured perfectly, yet show none of the stiffness that is sometimes seen in comic book adaptations of a popular television show. The expressions of the characters are natural and the action flows smoothly from panel to panel in a way that is frankly gorgeous.

This volume is rated 12+ and I consider that to be a fair and accurate rating. There is nothing in this book that would be considered objectionable for teenage audiences, and I dare say some younger children could probably handle the language and the content. There is no sex, nudity, harsh language, or gory violence. There is a fair bit of action, however, with some daring sword fights, but nobody dies, and no bloodshed is depicted. I highly recommend this volume to all fans of Doctor Who and anyone who might be looking for an entry into the comics based on the show, if not the show itself.

Doctor Who: Missy: The Master Plan
By Jody Houser
Art by Roberta Ingranata
Titan, 2021
ISBN: 9781787736450

Publisher Age Rating: 12+
Related media:  TV to Comic

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Character Representation:  Ambiguous Mental Illness

The History of Science Fiction

Setting up the history of any subject as a novel carries various risks with it. Will the reader looking for history be turned off by the storytelling? Will those looking for a good narrative be disappointed by the way facts shape the story? Depicting this history in comic form adds to the difficulty. But maybe, just maybe, comics will make the material more accessible to people who wouldn’t read a history of science fiction in the first place. That is certainly the hope and desire of Xavier Dollo and Djibril Morissette-Phan as they try to tell The History of Science Fiction as a graphic novel.

The authors tell the story of science fiction in three parts. The overall story conceit is that in the future a few famous robots happen upon a museum of speculative fiction in all its forms and the museum host relays to them how science fiction developed as a genre up through the 19th century. This origin tale is the first section of this book and it is the best part. Each literary reference has its own picture that depicts either the author’s struggle or an image from the work, from Cyrano de Bergerac to Frankenstein to Conan the Barbarian. From there, Jules Verne and HG Wells get many pages devoted to their contributions as the images from their texts come to life in Morissette-Phan’s drawings. Edgar Rice Burroughs and HP Lovecraft follow suit. Other authors and the development of pulp magazines drive speculative storytelling ahead while the term “science fiction” is coined in 1929 by Hugo Gernsback. The reader gets a real feel for the creativity and ingenuity on display in early science fiction writing through the first part of this book.

It is at this point that we enter the golden age of science fiction and this history takes a troublesome turn. The robot narrators are nowhere to be seen. Instead, a conversation between famous authors like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Theodore Sturgeon, among others, begins. We see these authors as young men and then as elder statesmen of the genre talking around a dinner table. Gone are the comics depicting their stories. For the most part, we see comics of men talking about science fiction.

Once the golden age wraps up, we go back to our robot narrators and the “crossroads of sci-fi” in the final section of the book. From here, we get one long list of important sci-fi writers including a few women, but far too few POC or Black writers. A Tardis shows up to transport a new set of authors around as they talk about modern and British sci-fi before we land back with the robots for a quick wrap up.

While the history is interesting for a fan of the genre, and I discovered many stories that I would like to read (“Who Goes There” and “To Serve Man” among them), the authors give up the great advantage that sequential art affords them. The first third of this book effectively depicts what happens in a variety of stories with vibrant pictures and action. The author and artist know they could draw all the amazing images from the books, but they abandoned this style for an endless stream of talking heads in parts 2 and 3. All but one of the talking heads are white men, which only serves to highlight how badly this genre needed to change. The fact that they chose to mostly ignore the great advances women and people of color have made in science fiction recently is perplexing (N.K. Jemisin is barely mentioned). The artist does depict the various historical figures accurately and the color palette regularly changes which helps the pacing of the narrative.

Public libraries with adult graphic novel collections, particularly ones with a lot of nonfiction, will want to purchase this title as it is informative, despite its flaws. College libraries might take a look at it, too. That being said, I can’t help but think that an opportunity was squandered here.

The History of Science Fiction
By Xavier Dollo
Art by Djibril Morissette-Phan
Humanoids, 2021
ISBN: 9781643379142

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)

The Queen’s Favorite Witch, Book 1: The Wheel of Fortune

Readers will enter the vivid world of Elizabethan England in The Queen’s Favorite Witch, a story of magic and intrigue. Daisy is an ambitious young witch living near London with her mother. Her poverty and her mother’s fear for her safety are barriers to her becoming the Queen’s Witch, the most coveted role in the country for a magical practitioner. Daisy’s mother wants her to stay home and help sell their healing potions. Against these wishes, she travels to London. Through pluck and bravery Daisy gains a position competing against more wealthy and worldly witches to earn this position. 

At court, Daisy must compete against rival witches who fit a somewhat tired “mean girls” mold. Helping her with these challenges are her rat familiar Nathaniel, chambermaid Edith, Valentyne the friendly con man, and John Dee, the real-life astrologer to Elizabeth I. Various skin tones are represented in the cast of characters.

The action of the story culminates in an attack from an infamous deceased monarch, who decides that death is no barrier to rule. Through all her trials, Daisy shows creativity, spirit, and a willingness to struggle through the aspects of herself that hold her back from success.

The Queen’s Witch offers a mixed bag of appeals. On one hand is the charm and wit of Daisy’s adventures. Daisy is set the task of enchanting a group of spiders, which usually resist enchantment. Instead of forcing them to her will, Daisy offers them the dead insects stuck in her hair, and in return they weave a web that reads “Long live Queen Elizabeth.” The final crisis with the aforementioned deceased monarch is also full of narrative delights and satisfying humor. The volume ends with Daisy’s immediate problems solved, but the last page makes it clear that the larger story is only beginning.

On the other hand, the toxic court environment that confronts Daisy feels forced. We’re used to seeing modern sensibilities overlaid on historical settings, but these social politics feel more 1980s than 2020s. Daisy’s competitors are catty and conniving in a two-dimensional, female-coded way. We never learn more about their motivations, other than that a man’s influence is behind most of their behavior. 

Daisy’s relationships with her male supporters at court are in some ways just as toxic as those with her bullies. She reflects that her friend Valentyne has greatly helped in her performance of magic, but his coaching amounts to the encouragement to “just let it flow” and “not force it.” In several instances, Daisy is lectured by her male supporters, who are fond of telling her things like, “you know the real problem” You’re trying to be something you’re not,” and “can you stop thinking of yourself for one minute?” After her rat familiar upbraids about what being a witch is “about,” she replies with “I’m sorry…I’m sorry I wasn’t better.” The repeated criticism from the males in her life don’t sound like frustrated support, but as enraged, gendered take-downs.

An additional issue with The Queen’s Favorite Witch is an episode that takes a strange and disquieting turn. One of the plots against Daisy by her rivals is to take her to a pub, over-serve her beer, and drug her so that she is too seemingly hungover the next day to perform magic. The fact that she’s 12 is never mentioned in this context. Although in every other way this is a middle grade graphic novel, this instance of unquestioned underage drinking would cause most librarians to wonder if it is appropriate for that age group.

These serious plot issues aside, The Queen’s Favorite Witch is a charming and fun read. The pacing of frames brings the story forward with expertise, pausing to emphasize an important moment, or moving quickly to pull the reader through an exciting passage. The visual humor is a delight, as when Daisy’s mother catches her coming home late by magically lighting a candle instead of dramatically flipping a light switch. 

The Queen’s Favorite Witch will appeal to young fans of history and fantasy. Lovers of Dylan Maconis’ Queen Of the Sea are an obvious target audience, but fans of friendship comedies like Shannon Hale’s Real Friends will also find themes to connect with. Because of its appeal and forthcoming volumes, The Queen’s Favorite Witch: the Wheel Of Fortune is recommended for medium to large graphic novel collections.

The Queen’s Favorite Witch, Book 1: The Wheel of Fortune
By Benjamin Dickson
Art by Rachael Smith
Papercutz, 2021
ISBN: 9781545807224
Publisher Age Rating: 7-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13)

Once & Future, Vol. 3: The Parliament of Magpies

I’m compelled to start by saying that I love this book and trying to figure out how to talk about it without spoiling it is nearly impossible. Once & Future as a series is consistently throwing new ideas and characters at you that change the whole shape of the story. I have to mention a few of those big twists to cover the scope of what all happens, but I’m going to leave the ending alone because, boy howdy, is it a wild ride.

If volumes 1 and 2 of Once & Future (previously reviewed on NFNT here) were all about setting the stage for Arthurian legend to be real in our time, volume 3 is the crescendo that builds at a furious pace. Up to this point, the story has been set over days or weeks, but this volume happens, basically, in one stretch. While it’s a lot to keep up with, this is not at all to the detriment of the story. In fact, it’s pretty satisfying to follow the pace of this book and reach what is a pretty jaw dropping, cliffhanger ending.

In Once & Future, Vol 1: The King is Undead our hero Duncan learns that the Arthurian legends he’s studied his whole life are real and his cranky-but-loveable grandmother Bridgette is actually a butt kicking, gun toting, secret keeper of the mystic peace. The “stories” are real and it turns out their family is tied to them, specifically the Grail. The Grail, for the sake of this series, is now Chekov’s Gun being introduced here in Act 1. Once & Future, Vol. 2: Old English has Duncan reluctantly embracing his role, and his former colleague/romantic interest Rose is now a mystic asset partially tied to the stories, too. Enter Beowulf and his mythology to the greater mix. There are lots of roles being assigned to different members of this group as if they are being cast in the legends themselves.

In this volume, the pace somehow picks up and introduces The Green Knight. He kills a bunch of Nationalists in a biker bar and finally Rose stands up to him. She winds up becoming Gawain to prevent Duncan from being tied to yet another another character, as he’s already Percival and Beowulf. This is somehow the least crazy thing that will happen in this volume. Merlin is in Otherworld watching Arthur fall apart (literally) as his time is running out. Galahad is now officially an abomination, he’s a centaur of nightmares with maggots coming out of him and when his mother Mary (Nimue, Elaine, Guinevere) sees what’s become of her golden boy she vows revenge on Merlin. We meet the government contact that Rose has been in touch with and finally get some idea of how “the accord” works between Bridgette (and those before her) and the British government.

This volume also delivers the only thing that was truly missing from the first two in terms of building an epic fantasy tale: a dragon. There is a knight introduced here—that I won’t spoil because it’s a fantastic moment—but it leads to a four-way standoff with the Grail on the line until the dragon changes all the odds. We finally see the Grail and the chase is good and truly on to keep it from Merlin and Arthur. This is about all you can say without giving away some of the most fun, crazy, and satisfying parts of this book. The ending of this volume almost convinced me it was time to start collecting the individual issues of the comic, as I can no longer wait for the collected volumes.

The writing from Kieron Gillen has been compelling and intriguing through this whole series. He has crafted the Otherworld to feel familiar to fantasy fans, while the modern day characters seem relatable and real. The historic pieces of this story don’t require you to have a working knowledge of Arthurian lore, but for those that have some recollection of these tales, it helps color the world. Dan Mora’s illustrations also create a memorable, unique, and detailed world that I really appreciate. All of the real world settings feel textured, lived in, and familiar. Otherworld is like something out of a 1970’s or 1980’s fantasy novel or heavy metal album cover. It’s so distinct and stark that it helps you immediately feel the shift from our world to somewhere supernatural. The character design and execution is also fantastic across the board. Bridgette looks and feels like a grandmother, Duncan is rumpled and tired, the Otherworld characters are all different from one another while still belonging to the same imaginary world. This is a good time to give a shout out to Tamra Bonvillain who is the colorist here and has made some bold choices that really make this pop off the page and stick in your memory.

The thing that sets most enjoyable, successful comics apart from successful prose novels is great design: both in story structure and illustration. They are outlined well and the illustrations show thought out planning. This series is designed well on both sides of the credits and it’s easy to recommend to fans of fantasy, history, legend, knights, etc. There is nothing romantic or sexual in these books, so in terms of content advisories, you’re really only contending with some violence. This series would be suitable for teen readers and older. It is hard to say how many volumes you may be committing to by investing in this series, but this feels like a story that has a definite end point planned and shouldn’t run indefinitely.

Once & Future, Vol. 3: The Parliament of Magpies
By Kieron Gillen
Art by Dan Mora
BOOM! Studios, 2021
ISBN: 9781684157037

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)