The Hazards of Love began as a webcomic in 2015, with issue covers and occasional splash pages in color, the rest a thickly lined and crosshatched black and white. In 2018 author/artist Stan Stanley told Women Write Comics that she set out to create a creepy, queer YA story with a Latinx cast, the kind of story she’d love to have read as a teen. Book 1 collects the first 11 issues (plus an issue zero), fills every page with blazing color, and contains more teeth than you can imagine.
Amparo Uribe and Iolanthe’s meet cute is Amparo hiding from school authorities in the library after pulling the fire alarm. After a great evening with Iolanthe (that was not a date), Amparo’s abuela reminds them of the ways they’re letting their mom down by making mischief at school. So when a talking cat appears in their bedroom and offers Amparo a wish, they wish to become a better person. Unfortunately the cat was really just stealing Amparo’s name, body, and life. Now the cat is living Amparo’s life in Queens and Amparo is exiled to a lush, animalistic wonderland called Bright World, where everything loves to eat humans. Nameless and shoeless, they are helped by/fall prey to tavern owner Mimi, an anthropomorphized hairless dog. As a way out of Mimi’s doomed indentured servitude, they are helped by/fall prey to El Ciervo, who buys them from Mimi—but not before cutting their hands off. Given the name Fawn and new, morphing blue flame hands, they continue searching for an escape to the real world, aided by one of Mimi’s servants, Juliana.
Back in Queens, time is passing and Iolanthe is suspicious of the suddenly sweeter Amparo. But feline Amparo wins her over, and sets about bringing up their grades, holding down a job, and making their family proud. They go to prom and graduate from school and keep trying to build a future. But a cat’s life isn’t as long as a human, and this cat has been alive for a while already. When they disappear, Iolanthe begins a strange search involving an underground psychic.
My summary can’t do the writing justice. There are twists and turns and sickening reveals and the dangers of Bright World can’t be easily cataloged. Memories and things humans keep on the inside are currency in Bright World, combining identity and survival in a primal way. Amparo is established as using they/them pronouns early on, and is questioned occasionally throughout the book about their gender. They speak in terms of being “bad at being a girl” or not really feeling one way or the other, not choosing labels. What it means to be “you” is constantly challenged in both the Queens, NY and Bright World storylines. Many of the characters speak Spanish and all of the signs in Bright World are in Spanish. The characters are often sparse on details yet vibrant, like Juliana, who retains a fiery spirit in the midst of having lost most of her memories. We spend little time with Iolanthe, but feel her deep concern and care for Amparo.
I originally read this in a digital copy, on Hoopla. The bright colors glow and the characters jump off the screen. When I decided to review it I scored a hardcopy from my library and while I don’t usually worry over digital vs paper, the black of the pages made me fall in love with the art in a new way. The entire page and between the panels are a deep black, starting out with straight gutters in the beginning that start to wiggle and swirl as magic enters the story, then remaining wild twisted things, sometimes resembling thorns, for the rest of the story. These are shown in the digital copy as well but were brilliantly shown in the printed version. Bright World is colorful in the manner of poisonous plants and animals, standing against the black panes of the pages like stained glass or the images on prayer candles. Stanley has said she was inspired by her childhood in Mexico and the riot of color reflects this as much as the folk art animal shapes and characters. In violent contrast, El Ciervo is a flat black deer head above a crisp suit. He has blue eyes, white antlers, and occasionally his pointed teeth glint, but his face is mostly a void of darkness that quietly menaces Amparo. I want to read more, but love the colors so much I think I’ll wait for Book 2 instead of reading ahead from the webcomic.
There are few sections that are challenging in readability, including an issue that divides the pages horizontally with an undulating boundary showing Amparo’s Bright World troubles and Iolanthe dealing with the deceitful cat’s antics side-by-side. Sometimes following tightly stacked speech bubbles of conversations took a little more care. But the jumbled style and the extra attention it required from me felt appropriate somehow and well worth the trouble.
The Hazards of Love is best for older teens and has more than enough complexity for adults. From a content standpoint it’s fine in a teen or high school collection. Stanley has taken care of the language in the webcomic by simply scribbling out swear words, there’s no nudity or sex, and the violence is swift and cerebral, with only a little gore. Fans of gothic comics like The Last Halloween and twisted fairytales will find a lot to sink their teeth into.
The Hazards of Love, Book 1: Bright World By Stan Stanley Oni Press, 2021 ISBN: 9781620108574 Publisher Age Rating: Grade 9 and up
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: Mexican, Queer Character Representation: Latinx, Queer, Nonbinary
In this moving narrative about his father’s experiences in escaping Nazi-occupied Belgium to his eventual safe arrival in Canada, Cary Fagan effectively and efficiently offers contemporary young readers with relatable background information about this historical era.
Fagan’s introduction to Maurice Fejgenbaum begins abruptly; the reader is thrown immediately into the apprehension, chaos, and confusion experienced by the fourteen-year-old protagonist and his Jewish family as they frantically pack their belongings to flee persecution in Brussels. Along with the approaching lack of freedom, Maurice, who changed his surname to Fagan when he immigrated to Canada, articulates the everyday losses that the family is experiencing as they are displaced from their community. The family travels by train to Paris, Spain, and Portugal to finally escape to an internment camp in Jamaica, where there is little independence. Fortunately for Maurice, he finds a great deal of family and community support, along with some camp administration assistance. This support gives Maurice an informal but valuable education and the ability to obtain a second-hand English language dictionary, which becomes both his English language teacher and his talisman in his successful journey to becoming a lawyer at the University of Toronto in Canada.
It is Maurice’s thirst for knowledge and the strength of his family support that creates a foundation of hope against the ravages of war and antisemitism. His informal education does him in good stead as he applies to the local high school, Jamaica College. “I have learned the smallest act of kindness can make a huge difference” (41). This lesson is exemplified throughout the graphic novel, adversity is faced and overcome with the aid and kindness of those Maurice and his family meet in their struggle for autonomy.
The book as an object is deceptive as it appears to be a picture book intended for younger readers. However, opening the covers immediately dispenses with that assumption. The sepia illustrations and the panel layout illuminate the perils the family faces leaving their home, crossing Europe, and the tossing seas that accompany their voyage to Jamaica. As with the text, the illustrations offer lightness and hope within the borders of the horrifying wartime experiences while at the same time being authentic portrayals of them. The dangers and horrors the refugees experience during wartime are not sugar coated by either the text or the illustrations. The color palate used by Mariano contrasts the sombre colors of war with orange backgrounds that illuminate the memories, and future plans held by the individual members of the family. The facial expressions, especially the mouths, of all the characters add to the immediacy and emotions of the moment and effectively enhance the engagement of the reader.
The supplementary Author’s Note comprises additional historical background, photographs of the family and the ship, and documents of the Fagan family. It includes the poignant photograph of the mended, faded red dictionary now residing on the author’s own desk. It also delineates the loss of the rest of the extended family in the Holocaust. The dictionary of the title, while not a major focus of the story, plays an invaluable role in this tale, cementing the past with the present by demonstrating Maurice’s perseverance and hopefulness and witnessing the strong familial connection of the author to his father’s story.
Fagan’s family story of survival and persistence continues to be relevant in today’s time of turmoil, unrest, and continued and renewed antisemitism and is highly recommend for elementary school and public library collections.
Maurice and His Dictionary: A True Story By Cary Fagan Art by Enzo Lord Mariano Owl Kids Books, 2020 ISBN: 9781771473231 Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11) Creator Representation: Jewish Character Representation: Canadian, Jewish
Life for superheroes can be rough. Life for a Black superhero is complicated and dangerous in a whole different way. What happens when you are trying to help but no one sees you as the hero? This is the question at the heart of Nubia: Real One as the reader gets to know the first Black Amazon, what her life is like as a teen, and what her connection to Wonder Woman is.
Nubia is a relatable teen. She’s got good friends, very protective moms who stifle her social life, awkward crushes, and real anger at the injustices in our world. She also has superpowers like Wonder Woman that she’s supposed to keep hidden. When she disrupts a convenience store robbery and later defends her friend from a predatory bully, Nubia starts to come into her own as the hero she will become. She also violates the rules set out by her moms to protect her. Later, Nubia and her friends go to a racial justice march that her friend Quisha organizes, and Nubia has to decide how to use her powers and what kind of hero she wants to be.
Nubia: Real One tackles myriad issues that teens are confronted with today: racism, sexism, consent, police violence, transphobia, cyberbullying, and more. Yet McKinney emphasizes the importance of teen friendships, joy, and fun as well. While the problems can seem overwhelming, Nubia’s relationships ground the book and help her through all the drama. Smith’s artwork is a bit cartoony and consistent. It’s easy to know who each character is and the facial expressions are spot on at portraying the appropriate emotions. The pastel palette in most of the book adds to the consistent tone and feeling throughout. Many different colors are used for skin tones and some of the darker tones, particularly for Nubia, made her expressions harder to see in the digital edition. Switching to pastel colors on the characters’ bodies in some of the panels helps break this up a bit. The fact that the creators choose to depict Nubia as very dark is purposeful, though, and adds to the story they are telling.
This title is another solid publication from DC Comics as they continue to create original graphic novels for the YA and kids’ markets with YA authors in addition to their monthly comic books. Nubia: Real One is a must-buy for any school or public library with a teen graphic novel collection. It’s a great story depicting a Black teen superhero dealing with just about every topical issue facing teens these days, made by two Black creators. Many teens will see themselves represented in Nubia. A variety of teens and adults will want to read this one.
Nubia: Real One By L. L. McKinney Art by Robyn Smith DC Comics, 2021 ISBN: 9781401296407 Publisher Age Rating: 13-18
Title Details and Representation NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Character Traits: African-American Creator Highlights: African-American
The front cover of Flamer has a lofty quote from Jarrett J. Krosoczka: “This book will save lives.” It may seem like an overstatement, but when one finishes reading Flamer, they will invariably agree. Flamer may be a devastating read, but it provides a much-needed update to Dan Savage and Terry Miller’s It Gets Better Project that feels current in spite of its mid-1990s setting.
Aiden Navarro is spending his summer earning badges at Boy Scout camp. In the fall, he’ll start at public school, choosing not to return to the Catholic school he’s attended—and where he’s been relentlessly bullied—for years. Aiden is chubby, Filipino, and effeminate, all qualities that render him an easy target for the aggressively masculine white boys at his school (and, for that matter, at Boy Scout camp). Unfortunately, Aiden’s home life is difficult as well. His father is verbally abusive, and his mother leans heavily on Aiden for emotional support after their fights. At its best, Boy Scout camp provides Aiden a refuge, a space where he and fellow campers are free to rank their favorite X-Men characters and where friends value his thoughtful perspectives about how to treat their girlfriends with dignity. At its worst, though, Boy Scout camp is a hotbed of daily micro and macro-aggressions. One camper targets Aiden with a relentless stream of racist comments, and another holds Aiden down to pull out his ponytail, ripping out some of his hair in the process.
In spite of his discomfort with the homophobic jokes other campers make, Aiden is convinced he’s not gay. After all, as he puts it, “Gay boys like other boys. I HATE boys.” But after daydreaming that he is Jean Grey to his bunkmate Elias’s Cyclops and experiencing a handful of other clues—like an accidental erection in the boys’ shower—he begins to suspect he is different from his girl-obsessed peers. He writes to his BFF Violet to express his concerns. After a particularly embarrassing moment with Elias, and suspecting that Violet’s lack of response to his letter means she’s ashamed of him, Aiden reaches a breaking point. He contemplates suicide and is confronted by a humanoid manifestation of the fire inside him; a flame, often used as a pejorative for queerness, is literally his savior. This powerful moment is likely to resonate with anyone who has tried to push away an aspect of their identity only to realize it is integral to who they are.
Curato’s art, in colored pencil and ink wash, is predominantly drawn in thick, pastel-like black and white lines. Curato uses fiery spot colors to indicate particularly emotional moments, such as scenes where Aiden is being bullied or where Aiden feels conflicted about his Catholic background. There are three particularly powerful panels of artwork I’d like to highlight. In one, Aiden is sinking into a deep pool of water created by his mother’s tears. Another is reminiscent of the Rider-Waite tarot deck’s Nine of Swords: Aiden is covering his eyes in his bed in one corner of the full-page spread, while the walls around him are scrawled with his own negative self-talk. The third depicts Aiden, saved by the fire inside him, reborn as a phoenix in flames.
Curatoincludes a handful of practical resources alongside the narrative. Since the story takes place at summer camp, Curato seizes the opportunity to teach the reader about aspects of camping, such as different knot shapes, orienteering, hemp bracelet stitches, and how to find and use good firewood. Additionally, after Curato’s afterword, in which he details how Aiden’s story is similar to his own experiences, he shares information for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the TrevorLifeline.
Flamer doesn’t sugarcoat its subject material, so readers who enjoyed the similar handling of tough subjects for tweens in Tillie Walden’s Spinning and Kacen Callender’s King and the Dragonflies are sure to love this book. With its soft-edged illustrations and frequent daydream sequences, Flamer retains an otherworldly quality even while grounded in the real world’s brutalities. This truly intersectional queer graphic novel is a must-have for all libraries serving teens and adults.
Flamer By Mike Curato Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, 2020 ISBN: 9781627796415 Publisher Age Rating: 14-18
Title Details and Representatio NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Filipino-American, Gay, Character Representation: Filipino-American, Gay, Catholic
Chioma, a young Nigerian American woman visiting her family in Nigeria, opens her door for a young boy in After the Rain, and that fateful event sets the stage for a disturbing, horrific ordeal that tests her sanity and well being.
Chioma tries to help the young boy with a gaping head wound, but cries out in pain when she touches him. It is clear in subsequent days that something from the boy infected Chioma as she struggles to contain the uneasy feeling she is left with. She starts to hear noises and see strange disturbing visions as local lizards invade her family home. But is she the only one who can hear these sounds and see the visions? What follows is an eerie mix of ancient Nigerian spirits, body horror, and guilt associated with Chioma’s actions in America both before and after she became a police officer. Chioma is tested and brought to the edge of her sanity.
Based on a short story called, “On the Road” by Nnedi Okorafor, author John Jennings ably adapts the short story to graphic novel form. The original story is quite short, but Jennings and his artist, David Brame, add depth and many visual details that are not evident in the short story. Chioma’s nightmare is vividly brought to life in ways the text cannot convey. Brame effectively portrays Chioma’s horror with the expressions in her mouth and eyes. His fluid art style with heavy lines lends to the unsettled, mystical nature of the whole story. Some panels cease being solid lines as the dark power of the ancients overwhelms the story and the regular panel grid. The full color palette used here effectively draws the reader in, particularly when depicting colorful lizards and spirits. There are occasional moments when Chioma is in action or running that a more realistic style would have helped, but overall, the art effectively tells this story. Warning: the body horror depicted in this graphic story is unsettling, more so than in the short story.
Jennings has picked an interesting tale to kick off his Megascope imprint with Abrams Publishing in After the Rain. I’m definitely looking forward to the other books coming soon in this imprint. It’s also a good way to introduce readers to Okorafor’s writing if they aren’t familiar with it. I sought out her short story collection called Kabu Kabu and found several interesting stories along with ‘On the Road’. Most public libraries with adult graphic novel collections will want to get this story. Many university libraries may well want it as well. Okorafor fans will want to take a look at this adaptation and make their own comparisons.
After the Rain By Nnedi Okorafor John Jennings Art by David Brame ISBN: 9781419743559 Megascope, 2021
Title Details and Representation NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+) Character Traits: Nigerien-American Creator Highlights: Nigerien-American Related to…: Book to Comic
The Nib compiles approximately fifty webcomics (many of which were previously published on thenib.com) from forty creators on a wide variety of LGBTQ+-related topics into this Kickstarter-backed anthology. The comics run the gamut from one-page funnies to ten-plus-page detailed glimpses into queer history. Associate Editor Matt Lubchansky’s introduction explains the origin of the title’s source, the phrase “Be Gay, Do Crime.” Lubchansky also discusses the significance of comics as a means to express queer identity in a singularly accessible manner.
Some of the most interesting comics in the anthology serve to educate readers about various aspects of the queer experience. These include histories, cultural and national disparities in treatments of queer people, and procedures like embryo adoption and securing birth control as an asexual person. One historical highlight is The Life of Gad Beck, written by Dorian Alexander, which details gay Jewish Beck’s resistance under Nazi Germany. Levi Hastings’ gorgeous illustrations are rendered in black, white, and pale blue, with thick outlines (there is no art tool information in the book, but it looks like Hastings used oil pastels). Another particularly informative contribution is Sam Wallman’s A Covert Gaze at Conservative Gays, an illuminating piece about historical and contemporary right-wing activism among queer people. At first glance, Wallman’s panelless comic closely resembles a infographic by a Mad Magazine artist; Al Jaffee comes to mind. But this black, white, and pink comic strikes a perfect balance between discussing “gay supervillains” like Milo Yiannopolous and more sympathetic conservatives like gun advocates in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub shooting. Kazimir Lee’s What’s It Like to Raise Kids in Malaysia When You’re LGBT? is another interesting piece which details political perspectives and individual experiences of queer people in Malaysia. The standout art is reminiscent of a mid-20th century picture book; the full-color illustrations are predominantly in earthy reds, pinks, yellows, and browns, and there are minimal outlines in the characters’ block-like head and body shapes.
The anthology balances its drier informational pieces with funny one-page strips and relatable memoirs. A memoir highlight is Dancing with Pride by Maia Kobabe (Gender Queer) and is about eir experience in a folk dancing class where dancers are assigned different roles based on their perceived genders. The simple illustrations appear to be in pencil and watercolor, and feature a page where the dancers are lined up in order so their shirts make a rainbow, a very subtle and sweet nod to queerness in non-queer spaces. Another moving piece is written by Sarah Mirk and details activist Pidgeon Pagonis’s experience as an intersex child. The piece, Gender Isn’t Binary and Neither Is Anatomy, is illustrated by Archie Bongiovanni (A Quick & Easy Guide to Pronouns, Grease Bats). A couple laugh-out-loud funny highlights include Joey Alison Sayers’s The Final Reveal, in which the extremes of gender reveal parties are spoofed, and Shelby Criswell’s Astrological Signs as Classic Queer Haircuts.
As is always the case when I read comic anthologies, there were pieces that didn’t resonate as well with me as those I’ve named above. Rather than specify them, I will argue that it is because this book features something for every reader. If a piece didn’t resonate with me, it is sure to resonate with someone else. The queer representation is so varied, with gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, nonbinary, intersex, and ace representation, and with countless intersectional queer identities, that I am confident every queer reader will find something to relate to in this book. Due to its array of art styles and queer representations, I would particularly recommend Be Gay, Do Comics for fans of Iron Circus’s anthologies, like FTL, Y’all, Smut Peddler, and The Sleep of Reason.
Be Gay, Do Comics Edited by Matt Bors ISBN: 9781684057771 IDW, 2020
Title Details and Representation NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Character Traits: Asexual, Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Queer Gender Nonconforming, Genderqueer, Intersex, Nonbinary, Trans Creator Highlights: Black, Filipino-American, Puerto Rican Asexual, Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Queer Gender Nonconforming, Genderqueer, Nonbinary, Trans
This is the first of a new nonfiction graphic novel series highlighting, as the series says, “marginalized trailblazers.” This volume tells the story of the life of Edmonia Lewis, a Black/Ojibway woman born in 1844 in New York, who triumphed over prejudices against her race and sex, the challenges of poverty and lack of education, to become a well-known sculptor.
Information on her early life is sketchy, but she apparently spent much of her childhood with her Ojibway aunts, after her parents’ death. Her brother, who supported her artistic career, followed his father’s career as a barber from the age of twelve. Supported by abolitionists, Lewis struggled to get an education despite prejudices against her race and sex, present even in the partially-integrated schools available. Her college career at Oberlin ended disastrously, when she was falsely accused of poisoning two of her classmates and attacked and left for dead before the trial. Although she was acquitted, the school continued to suspect her and, accusing her of theft, forced her to leave without matriculating.
She started her sculpting career in Boston, under the aegis of the Abolitionist movement, and then traveled to Italy with the help of various Abolitionist patrons. There she found her skin color less of a hindrance than her sex and poverty, but she continued to forge her own pathway, although she sometimes angered her patrons and fellow sculptors. She reached the zenith of her career with her sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra, exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. After this triumph, she returned to Rome, but the changing artistic trends and decline in the popularity of Neoclassic sculpture eventually left her in obscurity. She eventually moved to London and died there in 1907. Her greatest work fell into obscurity only a few years after its exhibition and was only found and restored in the 1990s. Contemporaries and visitors of Lewis reported her as continuing to work and maintain her bright and cheerful personality until her death. She maintained a close relationship with her brother, who continued to support her as well.
Notes, sources, and an extensive study guide are included in this slim volume. The art is detailed and focuses on red-tinged earth hues. Edmonia is shown as a determined, strong woman with curly black hair, dark brown skin, and a red cap perched on her curls. She moves through the panels as the central figure in a swirl of historical characters and her white contemporaries. Her Neoclassic style is well-represented in the lines and faces of her white marble statues and busts. While the art focuses primarily on faces and the eponymous “talking heads,” action and interest is added by interposing examples of Lewis’ work and shifting from panels to spreads of her surrounded by action and movement as she moves through her career.
The unique subject matter, accessible art, and extensive resources for teaching in the back (they include educational standards, a multiplicity of questions on the art and subject, and educational activities) should make this a stand-out title. However, there’s one serious problem – the size and layout of the book. It’s a tiny volume, 7×5 inches, and the font and art is correspondingly reduced. While there is plenty of detail and emotion in the faces shown, it’s difficult to catch the nuances when the faces are so tiny and many readers will find the small size of the font frustrating. At less than a hundred pages, this title will quickly disappear on a shelf or be lost and only the most dedicated readers are likely to work through the small size of the font.
Nonfiction graphic novels are extremely popular with my middle school and high school readers, the best audience for this small but dense volume, but sadly, this one is likely to go unnoticed. However, with its very affordable price point and availability in paperback, schools may find it useful to purchase in bulk for a class read. The publisher appears to be planning one volume per year (Rachel Carson in 2021 and Willem Arondeus in 2022) and I can only hope that they will perhaps consider binding them into one large volume and enlarging the art and text to correspond.
Seen: Edmonia Lewis By Jasmine Walls Art by Bex Glendining, Kieran Quigley (Colorist), DC Hopkins (Letters) ISBN: 9781684156344 Boom, 2020 Publisher Age Rating: Series ISBNS and Order
Title Details and Representation NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13) Character Traits: Black First Nations or Indigenous Creator Highlights: Black
In this conclusion of the Ronin Island series, Hana and Kenichi have to protect the Island and figure out how to defeat the shogun. The pair and their ragtag group of refugees have made it back to the Island, but the elders deny them entry because they are afraid they are all infected. Somehow, the people on the Island already know about the spores, even though that particular mutation happened just recently. Hana and Kenichi set up on the beach across the straight from the Island and prepare to make their stand against the Shogun, his for-hire bandits, and the byonin. Reinforcements arrive in the form of the Island elder and many of the Island’s soldiers. After the battle that robs the Shogun of many of his forces, everyone, including Hanna and Kenichi, retreat to the island to make preparations for the Shogun’s eventual invasion. Hana and Kenichi must make some difficult choices and sacrifices in order to successfully stop the invasion.
While the original story and concept of the byonin was conceived well before 2020, there is something well timed about a deadly virus that turns airborne and can mutate people into monsters. The Shogun is a man who has manipulated science into doing his own bidding, and he’s overall an ignorant man who refuses to listen to anyone wiser than himself. The parallels to real world 2020 are striking, and some readers may need some distance from this year in order to appreciate the story without reality blurring the lines.
There is a strong theme throughout these three volumes of chasing a sense of belonging, and it is unresolved at the end of this story. Hana is still an outcast, and the Islanders still have a deep-seated hatred towards anyone who they claim doesn’t belong. This is in stark contrast to the motto of the Island where everyone is welcome and can find a home amongst their ranks. The growth of Kenichi is understated as most of the story focuses on Hana, but he’s nevertheless made into a leader in the village and must help rebuild everything. Hana gives herself a task off the Island at the end of the story, and it could make for an interesting story, but this is the end of the Ronin Islandadventures.
Ronin Island Vol 3 By Greg Pak Art by Giannis Milonogiannis and Irma Kniivila ISBN: 9781684156238 Boom! Studios, 2020 Publisher Age Rating: Teen (13+) Series ISBNS and Order
Title Details and Representation NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Character Traits: Japanese, Korean Creator Highlights: Korean-American
This is a book close to my storyteller’s heart highlighting the power of stories to transcend time and place while remaining relevant and personal. Initially, the protagonist Tien and Hien, his mother, listen to each other read folktales to gain language skills and deepen the strong ties between the immigrant mother and her American-born son. She struggles with English and he is not conversant in Vietnamese, but they both comprehend the tales they share. Interwoven with the tales are the very real bittersweet concerns of a mother homesick for Vietnam and the family members left behind and of her teenage son, Tien, who is searching for the precise words in Vietnamese to come out to his parents about his sexuality. The telling of the folktales, intertwined with the personal experience stories, exemplifies the alienation both characters are experiencing and the trials and challenges they must overcome along the way while illuminating the strong family bonds, love, and respect for each other.
The three folktales, the number so pertinent to the genre of western folklore, include two variants of the Cinderella tale type, a loose adaptation of the German variant “Allerleirauh” and “Ta’m Cam” from Vietnam, and The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. They serve to emphasize both the universality of the archetypes and the cultural differences in the traditional tales as well as the innate visual interpretations of the listeners reflecting their own backgrounds and individual needs.
As the author explains in his after note, Tien would be most familiar with the western sensibilities of princess stories popularized by contemporary toys and cartoons reflecting the anachronistic visual details of these tales and these sensibilities are faithfully illustrated in this retelling. The second variant is told by his mother’s aunt on her visit to Vietnam upon the death of her mother. Here, the tale is reminiscent of French colonial elements in the building structures and clothing of the characters. The third tale is told to Tien by his mother, reflecting her visual memories of Vietnam, Hong Kong, and San Francisco. “The mermaid is a stand-in for Helen’s [Hien] experiences, a woman who wanted to escape to another world and manages to make it there at the cost of her ability to communicate. It is this underlying element of not being able to adequately communicate that ties the three folktales and the contemporary story together so successfully. Because the three tales are told with such care and detail, readers of the graphic novel share the stories along with the characters. Nguyen trusts the folklore to do their magic as they illuminate Tien’s struggle to come out to his mother and the unconditional love his mother has for him as she struggles to comprehend what he is trying to tell her. The contemporary story also amplifies the friendship and acceptance that Tien has from his school mates, if not the school administration. There is one dark segment when the teacher and priest’s guidance is detrimental to Tien’s well being, but this is eventually overcome as well.
The expansive retellings are delineated by the light purple backgrounds, while the sandy yellow background signifies Hien’s memories, and Tien’s contemporary 1998 experiences is rendered in tones of red. The black and white illustrations themselves are simple with clean lines and layout except for the marvelous clothes and buildings in the folktales themselves. Most of the illustrations were created digitally, a new, but ultimately successful, experience for Nguyen.
This quiet and reflective book also warms my librarian heart as it validates the effectiveness of libraries and books. It is a book that I raved about to Gina Gagliano, publishing director of Random House Graphic, in a personal conversation without realizing her robust contribution in bringing the book to fruition. I join in Nguyen in thanking her as this is a book I will be raving about in my university courses on comic books and on storytelling and with friends.
Highly recommended for readers of all ages of folktales and those who appreciate the values of compassion and human kindness.
The Magic Fish By Trung Le Nguyen ISBN: 9780593125298 Random House, 2020 Publisher Age Rating: 12 +
Title Details and Representation NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16) Character Traits: Vietnamese American, Queer Creator Highlights: Vietnamese American, Queer Related to…: Book to Comic
Remember when Bitter Root launched and the buzz was just beginning (including my review of volume 1)? The follow-up is here, and it opens with more swagger than ever. There’s the golden Eisner Award ‘E’ on the cover, labeled “Best Continuing Series Winner 2020.” A note on the rear cover mentions that a movie adaptation is in development. The first page is loaded with four genuflective blurbs, followed by a Sangerye family tree and credits pages for the six issues within, including the Red Summer Special anthology. Can this golden series continue its winning streak, or has it reached a sophomore slump?
That family tree will come in handy if readers have forgotten any of the characters from volume 1, because the Red Summer Special that kicks off volume 2 is a cluster of short chapters from the Sangerye family’s past, going from 1850 to the story’s present in the 1920s. Among the lore is the introduction of Blink’s friend Wu. Wu and her family hunt guizi, the same monsters the Sangeryes call jinoo, suggesting each race has its own classification and means of handling the dangerous transformations of racism. Elsewhere, in a realm known as Barzakh, a multiracial coalition of warriors protects Earth from demons beyond Earth’s plane of existence. The inclusiveness of the campaign against bigotry invites readers of all stripes to feel like they can pitch in, too.
The diversity of skin color is exceeded by the color on the page, which is often bathed in warm yellows and oranges, with plenty of blues and purples used for shadows and nighttime. The vibrant palette fits the continuing supernatural conflict, as a new, more powerful avatar of hatred, Adro, crosses over to Earth. New York’s local leaders, a diverse group of men (I detected at least Black, Chinese, and Irish among them), debate the alliances needed to face it. Wu and Blink hunt monsters and defend neighborhoods against jinoo against the “old-fashioned” wishes of their families’ matriarchs who would rather they contributed from home. “You think Ida B. Wells could’ve done what she did from a kitchen?” Blink asks. Elsewhere, in an elongated flashback, a Black and Indigenous alliance discovers what appear to be Black jinoo, leading to questions of what varieties of spiritual corruption are possible.
Some things haven’t changed since volume 1. The Sangerye family continues to battle jinoo on multiple fronts. Berg, whose vocabulary marks him as “the smart one” in every scene, loves to say “indubitably” and “salubrious.” Now there are also monsters transformed by trauma called inzondo, and characters respond to their existence differently, right down to hunting methods and even empathy for them. The faith and community afforded by a Christian church represent sources of support. Berg observes as part of his own inzondo infection: “There is a grief that cries out so loud it drowns out all sound. But when the screams fall upon deaf ears, the soul becomes tormented.” Physical self-defense is as significant as reaching out and curing people before they attack anyone. The versatility of this condition as a metaphor for various social ills means the story has as many hooks as the reader brings to it.
The multiple perspectives from the first volume continue here, plus a couple more, leading to an overstuffed plot. It’s hard to summarize the juggling act of a story in digestible terms, not because it’s too complex, but because the context shifts a lot. Almost every scene takes place in a different time, place, and character perspective. Some readers may need to flip back and forth to keep the timeline straight as it bounces across years, days, and hours. Scenes do not always transition smoothly, with action left hanging and feeling disorienting upon return. The Tulsa race massacre, sunset towns, church burnings, and lynching are all salient plot points, and anyone who would object to such charged imagery would have to also reckon with the history behind them.
While the buildup in this volume is interesting and even compelling at times, it leads to an action-packed finale in which heroes verbally refute Adro’s hunger for hate and narrate their feelings out loud. On top of all this, little animals that had been used to sniff out demons make their own transformations and crowd out both the page and story. Sanford Greene and Sofie Dodgson’s talented visual work extends from the frequent martial arts action pages (there is no small action here) to heartfelt monologues. It seems like David F. Walker and Chuck Brown try to stack too many elements at once, resulting in a precariously teetering historical action / horror / mystery hybrid in need of greater focus. Big does not always lead to epic.
Hooray, then, for the back matter, where a multitude of scholars use the comic as a platform for exploring the Tulsa Race Massacre, Zora Neale Hurston’s speculative fiction, epigenetic trauma, creative resistance, oral tradition, Bitter Root’s logo design, whiteness, and power fantasies. Variant cover art pays homage to the films Do The Right Thing, Purple Rain, Boyz In The Hood, New Jack City, and Juice. There are also some process pages of roughs, inks, and colors to demonstrate how the book came together. This comic practically contains a whole class about itself, and the digging is fruitful. I just wish the story was as masterfully executed as all the lofty examinations extracted from it.
Is Bitter Root still worth collecting? Absolutely. This is a continuation and fulfillment of characters and settings established in volume 1, and should work fine for teens and up who can handle violence and some fantasy gore. There are plenty of story threads to pick up in the third arc, on its way in 2021. Language-wise, a character from Mississippi says “sumbitch,” and a sign outside a sunset town in Georgia uses the N word.
Bitter Root, vol. 2: Rage & Redemption By David Walker Chuck Brown Art by Sanford Greene ISBN: 9781534316607 Image, 2020 Publisher Age Rating: M (17+) Series ISBNS and Order
Title Details and Representation NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18) Character Traits: African-American, Chinese-American Protestant Creator Highlights: African-American Related to…: Book to Comic