Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky: The Graphic Novel

After losing his best friend in a bus accident, Tristan is sent to stay with his grandparents for a month on their Alabama farm. The grief counselor thinks the fresh air and quiet will help Tristan process the trauma. Unfortunately, Gum Baby snatches the only thing Tristan has left of his friend, a journal of stories, and leads him on a chase that ends at a bottle tree. In his anger, Tristan punches one of the glass bottles which releases a haint (evil spirit) and tears a hole between his world and Gum Baby’s, called MidPass. 

In MidPass, Tristan meets more of the characters from his grandmother’s old stories; Brer Rabbit, John Henry, Brer Fox, and the People Who Could Fly. They work together to find the Story Box and replenish the stories to draw Anansi out to mend the hole between worlds. Along the way, Tristan meets the mysterious Uncle C, who also wants the stories to regain his strength. Tristan struggles with what being strong means and how to find his own strength. 

I knew about many of the legends mentioned in this story but not a lot of specifics. The adapter did a great job presenting enough information that the audience could follow along without drowning in the details. Honestly, I enjoyed learning about the stories from a culture I am less familiar with and appreciated that stories are presented as powerful as physical strength.  

Tristan does plenty of punching throughout the story as the title implies, which is showcased in full color. It was wonderful to see all the brown skin tones. The illustrations have enough details to convey what is happening in the story without making the art too heavy. And there are plenty of panels full of lighter colors to balance out the darker earthy backgrounds. 

Since this is from the Rick Riordan Presents lineup, it is marketed to readers between the ages of 8-12, and I agree with that assessment. There are some heavy subjects like grief, loss, and slavery; however, the story is not focused on those things. This would be an excellent addition to any graphic novel or general library collection. 

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky: The Graphic Novel
By Kwame Mbalia, and Robert Venditti
Art by Olivia Stephens
Rick Riordan Presents, 2022
ISBN: 9781368072809

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
Related media:  Book to Comic

NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  African-American,  Character Representation: African-American

Victory. Stand! Raising My Fist for Justice

Tommie Smith is the subject of one of the most iconic images from the Civil Rights Era, of two black men holding gloved fists high in a Black Power salute during the 1968 Olympics. In Victory. Stand!: Raising my Fist for Justice, Smith tells his story behind that moment. The graphic memoir, co-written with Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile gives an account of Smith’s life leading to the Olympics, his choice to make the political statement, and the aftermath.

The book opens with a race, specifically the 200 meter sprint finals.  Despite a sharp pain in his thighs and a whirlwind of thoughts, Smith leaps at the sound of the starter pistol. We then immediately flashback to his childhood, 1949 in Texas. Throughout the next few chapters, Smith flashes back and forth between the story of his childhood and school years in the segregated South with his iconic race at the ‘68 Olympics.

Smith and Barnes juxtapose his pain and resiliency during the race with the harsh realities of living and growing as a Black boy surrounded by racial injustices. His parents were sharecroppers who were hardworking and kind, but treated in a way that was obviously cruel and unfair, even through the eyes of a young Smith. He talks about the ways he perceived these inequities, and the moment when he first came to the understanding that this was all about race. In college, Smith begins to realize that his voice matters. It is with that knowledge that he makes the decision to run in the Olympics and raise his fist to the sky. The last chapter details the trajectory of his life in the aftermath. Unfortunately, it felt rushed and included details that were not relevant to the theme of sports and the Civil Rights Movement. I also wish that the parallels with the 200 meter race and his life extended further into the story. However, these are small imperfections in an otherwise fascinating book from an important voice from history.

Anyabwile’s illustrations in gray, black, and white, are filled with texture, movement and emotion. Throughout the book, the illustrations add depth to the story. Much of the emotion and drama comes through in the backgrounds with textures, shadows or expansive black. Anyabwile also did a notable job capturing Smith’s growth from child to adult, sublely adjusting looks and style as time goes on.

At pivotal moments in Smith’s life, Anyabwile steps away from Smith’s story to illustrate more striking images reflecting the reality for Black people in America. When Smith’s family eventually moves to Southern California in hopes for a better life, the very next page features a haunting two page spread with a mother and her young children screaming in pain. In the background a Black man hangs from a tree next to a burning cross. Other images include references to such events as the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing and Martin Luther King’s Assassnation. Smith came of age at the dawn of the Civil Rights era, as he was finding himself and his place in the world, these moments and realities helped to shape who he became. Anyabwile deftly illustrates these pages. They are awash with black and expand beyond the panels typical of most pages in the book. These events are monumental and his illustrations reflect their importance.

Victory. Stand!: Raising my Fist for Justice is a notable addition to the graphic memoir genre. It is a definite purchase for my high school collection. Tommie Smith is an important voice from the Civil Rights Movement and I think this book will appeal to a broad range of readers.

Victory. Stand! Raising My Fist for Justice
By Tommie Smith and Derrick Barnes
Art by Dawud Anyabwile
W. W. Norton & Company, 2022
ISBN: 9781324003908

Publisher Age Rating: 13 and up

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

Miles Morales: Stranger Tides

Miles Morales is adjusting to his identity as the new Spider-Man in town. It can be tough, but it has some serious perks, like being a guest of honor at the release event for the video game launch of the century. Which is awesome . . . except it turns out the game is a trap set by an alien mastermind who plans to use it to destroy humanity.

Everyone who logs onto the game—or even sees a video of it—is frozen in a state of suspended animation. Miles would be one of them, but he is grabbed at the last moment by an unlikely rescuer: former supervillain Trinity. She and another villain, Vex, have been working with a powerful alien entity called the Stranger, who is responsible for the video game plot. According to the Stranger’s plan, in three days, the frozen people will unfreeze and attack everyone else, causing potentially millions or even billions of deaths. But Trinity doesn’t actually want humanity destroyed, so she proposes a team-up to save the world.

The problem is that the Stranger is powerful. Maybe too powerful even for Spider-Man, his loyal “man in the chair” Ganke, and Trinity to take on. Especially when Miles is distracted by worrying about his own friends and family who have been frozen by the game. Things are looking grim, but as it turns out, Trinity is not the only surprising ally willing to help Spider-Man take down the Stranger.

Miles is brave and goodhearted and has all the snarky banter one expects from a Spider-Man. His friendship with Ganke, in particular, feels caring, real, and full of fond ribbing. But Miles also feels things deeply, especially when someone he loves is hurt. This book gives considerable page time to Miles’ worry about his beloved uncle Aaron, who became frozen while driving and crashed his car, ending up in the hospital. Other family and friends are targeted by the Stranger as the book goes on, strengthening Miles’ resolve.

The art is angular and colorful, giving the pages a lively look even before the additions of classic superhero visuals like action lines and sound effects. Kool-Aid-bright colors highlight the neon lights of the city and the larger-than-life characters, settings, and action sequences. The cast is racially diverse and the characters visually distinct and expressive. Screentones are used frequently, but subtly, often to highlight a character’s altered state: for instance, simple screentones help differentiate the frozen people from others, and is one of the visual indications used when Miles turns invisible.

The stakes are high in this story, with danger both global and personal, but things do work out well in the end. The frequent fight scenes are full of teleportation and spider webbing, but no blood or graphic injuries.

This is a smart, fast-paced story with lots of superpowered action. Hand it to young readers who want a relatable hero with attitude and heart. Fans who enjoy seeing superhero comics written by popular YA authors may also like this volume’s preview of Captain America: The Ghost Army by Alan Gratz.

Miles Morales: Stranger Tides
By Justin A. Reynolds
Art by Pablo Leon
Scholastic GRAPHIX, 2022
ISBN: 9781338826395

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  African-American, Guatemalan
Character Representation: African-American, Puerto Rican

Dark Blood, Vol. 1

Superpowers, as depicted in fiction, are often a double-edged sword—there’s the freedom of flying like Superman or having enough strength to move the car that’s taking up your parking spot, but there’s also the inherent fear of others that comes with having abilities different from mainstream humanity. Add in the volatile component of racism and the superpower narrative can become quite explosive, as it does in Dark Blood, written by LaToya Morgan and illustrated by Walt Barna.

The book focuses on Avery Aldridge, a former Tuskegee airman living in 1950’s Alabama. He’s a veteran who fought in the war with the hope of making it back home to his family, but home means he and his family must endure the racism of the Deep South. While processing the trauma of war and the racism at home, he discovers that he can somehow move things with his mind. Many people, especially those who see Avery as less than them, will also be afraid of that power.

The superhero origin story is a popular trope and Morgan’s story offers an interesting take. There are multiple plotlines that run through this story, from Avery being trapped behind enemy lines to him being the victim of a racial attack that ultimately leads to him being on the run. The narrative jumps around a bit, but these stories are as vital to Avery’s superhero origin as a bite from a radioactive spider. Everything from the PTSD to how he is treated by the white people in his life all go into who he is and how he decides to use his gifts.

And when he starts using his powers in earnest, they are quite awe-inspiring, thanks to Barna’s use of dynamic POV angles that give a punch to the scenes of Avery fighting in the war as well as those showing him unleashing his powers. Where Barna really shines, though, is how he makes Avery’s telekinetic powers truly terrifying. Avery’s power builds from being able to lift small objects to stopping bullets, but it’s the characters’ body language, as illustrated by Barna, that really sells the power Avery has. From Avery’s tension-filled face as he uses his powers to people’s terrified reactions to them, readers can practically feel them thrumming off the page.

Some people dismiss superhero comics as straight-up revenge fantasies, as people gaining power to get back at those who slighted them. But the kinds of slights that Avery and his family must deal with go beyond what Peter Parker endured at high school or Clark Kent endured at the Daily Planet. More than just a story full of dynamic angles and fluttering capes, this tale is more of a character study of a man who suddenly gains great power and must decide how to use it. This book is sure to be a hit with superhero fans because of its many displays of awesome superpowers, but its social commentary is also an important message of how hard it is for the marginalized and disenfranchised to rise up, with or without phenomenal psychic powers.

Dark Blood, vol. 1
By LaToya Morgan
Art by Walt Barna
Abrams, 2022
ISBN: 9781684157112

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

Needle & Thread

Navigating senior year is hard enough already, but having to choose between living the life you want for yourself and living the life others think is right for you is a level up in difficulty. Nothing makes Noah feel more like himself than designing and sewing clothing, but his public servant parents are adamantly against him attending art school to pursue a career in costuming. Azarie has gotten very good at playing the part of the perfect mayor’s daughter, helping keep up the “traditional” family facade her father projects to the public as he runs for re-election, but deep down, she just wants to read comics and play video games. 

When the two teens from very different worlds accidentally run into each other at the mall, it turns out they’re not so different after all: they both just want to realize their dreams. But unfortunately for them, not everyone else supports them. As Noah and Azarie navigate their double lives and work together towards a common goal, will their new friendship and confidence in themselves hold strong? Or will the actions of those determined to maintain the status quo unravel it all?

Though teens struggling to find and be themselves while under the constraints and expectations of their parents is not a new concept in teen stories, it feels fresh in David Pinckney’s Needle & Thread. The narrative decision to have Noah and Azarie stay purely platonic friends is refreshing and important, and keeps it from falling back onto the star-crossed lovers trope that so easily can happen when characters are from different racial and socio-economic backgrounds (Noah is Afro-Latine and middle class, Azarie is White and wealthy). Their friendship and character development as they discover who they are together and apart is one of the strongest aspects of the story, and readers will root for them as their bond gets tested by outside influences.

Cosplay and the world of cons are starting to crop up more in teen stories and it’s nice to see it presented as just a thing that the friends are doing, and not something that is completely out there or niche. The many scenes of Noah, Azarie, and the Cosplay Squad working on Azarie’s costume for the contest (and Noah’s portfolio) will absolutely ring true to readers who are involved in fandoms and cosplay themselves.

But of course, there could be no Needle & Thread without artist Ennun Ana Iurov’s lovely illustrations. Her line work has a pen and ink style that gives the art a fashion sketch vibe—a perfect choice for this graphic novel’s themes. The muted pastel color palette is absolutely gorgeous, and has a softness which feels right for the introspective aspect of much of the story. And yet there is still such a liveliness to the characters as she depicts both the humor and drama of teenagers trying to just exist as they are. Additionally, an especially creative touch is the intro page for each new chapter: each one has a drawing of a character’s cell phone home screen, giving little context clues like time of year (to help move the story along) and additional story teasers via social media notifications complete with hashtags, or incoming message snippets.

Teens feel pressure from a myriad of sources telling them who to be and what paths to choose. Finding the confidence to assert yourself in a world full of adults who think they know what’s best for you in order to grab hold of at least a little piece of a dream is something both Noah and Azarie strive to do. Maybe, by adding Needle & Thread to your collection, a reader might feel seen or heard enough to try for a little of that confidence too.

Needle & Thread
By David Pinckney
Art by Ennun Ana Iurov
Mad Cave Studios, 2021
ISBN: 9781952303234

Publisher Age Rating: Grade 7-9

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  African-American
Character Representation: African-American, Latine

Nubia: Real One

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

Bitter Root, vol. 2: Rage & Redemption

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