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,

Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands

I am beginning this review with two caveats. First, I am a mother of a daughter who works in the trades and while she has not worked in Fort McMurray, she has experienced many of the same behaviors that Kate Beaton confronted in her two years in the camps. Second, I am an Albertan who has visited both the city and the camps in the oil field areas numerous times.  Throughout the several readings of this graphic novel I was reminded again and again of the stories from my daughter and the observations I took away on my short visits. The contradictions innate in the oil-rich area around Fort McMurray has become better known outside of Canada in recent years, but it has always been controversial for the Canadian culture, economy, and, more even more recently, politically.

This was an amazing read, one that I highly recommend for everyone but especially for young women going forward in a disastrous misogynist society. Beaton’s memoir explores through her dialogue a myriad of complex issues including abuse of economic and human resources, lack of respect for the Indigenous inhabitants and culture, sexual harassment and rape, commodification, environmental destruction, isolation, and personal identity. These conversations, and graphic novel, begin with the home life she had before leaving her small town in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia to travel across the country for lucrative jobs in the oil sands of Alberta to pay down student loans. She was 21, naïve and unknowing, when she arrived. Her readers, through her bleak illustrations and chronological recording, journey with her in her personal discoveries of the enormity of the environmental tolls on the land and the people who work at the various sites.

When hundreds of ducks are snagged in a hazardous tailings pond and a co-worker dies in an onsite accident, Beaton becomes highly cognisant of the global and environmental consequences of the tar sands and camp life. At the same time, she must also contend with the rampant sexism, sexual harassment, and crassness of many of her male co-workers and bosses who have also come from away (the Maritime provinces). Her use of dialogue is effortless and natural, bringing the various characters to life, including Kate herself. There are flashes of subtle and wry humor that provide a welcome balance to the reading experience. Her use of muted grays and the proliferation of wordless panels exemplify the vastness of the landscape and the giant machinery. Beaton’s layout of mostly small panels emphasized the confined environment for the workers and herself. Her illustrations of the interiors reveal the limited spaces and rooms crammed with bed bunks, other furniture, and tools. These interiors are in direct contrast to the vastness of the exterior landscape and sky that she brings to life so effectively, often is full page spreads.

The isolation, loneliness, bleak lifestyle, and the lack of normalcy take its toll on the people in the camps. Some people handle it admirably, but so many were physically exhausted and mentally stressed in living conditions as foreign as the landscape. Her portrayal of the people she encounters and the experiences she has had in the various camps is candidly sincere. She relies on her own acute observations, underlining her personal connections with the people, land, and machinery. The graphic novel is commendably honest. The responses to the fate of the ducks contrasted to those of the Indigenous health and land concerns and the mental health of the migratory workers within and without the boundaries of the oil industry was frightening and telling. The repercussions of this willingness to overlook the dangers of the oil fields because of commercial gain underlies her novel but Beaton is never didactic in her remarks. This is a story that honors critical thinking on behalf of readers.

Beaton suffers through several horrendous experiences but maintained her humanity with her online connections and her creation and postings of Hark! A Vagrant webcomics. Her homepage for the webcomic eventually garnered half a million visitors each month and led to the publication of her first picture book, The Princess and the Pony and the printed collections of Hark! The story ends with hope as Beaton pays off her loan and returns to Cape Breton and her newly found career as a successful cartoonist. Here too, unfortunately, there is another repercussion of her time in Alberta. Becky, her sister who also worked in the oil sands, is diagnosed with cancer. Beaton writes about this in her afterword and later in an article for New York Magazine’s The Cut discussing the failure of the medical world in responding to Becky’s symptoms seriously in much the same way as the suffering of other workers and the Indigenous were treated with silence in previous decades.

Honest investigative reports from journalists and books such as Ducks help illuminate that silence and deserve a large audience. Highly recommended for high school students with a caveat regarding the inclusion of sexual abuse and mental distress. This is an essential purchase for public libraries and highly recommended for academic libraries as well.

Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands
By Kate Beaton
Drawn & Quarterly, 2022
ISBN: 9781770462892

Publisher Age Rating: Adult

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

Batter Royale

Rose is an amateur baker working as a waitress in a small town restaurant. When she makes a special dessert for a food critic, she is invited to participate in a baking competition with her childhood friend Fred. This isn’t an ordinary competition though as the contestants are faced with obstacle courses, sabotage, and surprise ingredients like brussel sprouts.

Rose is motivated to win the grand prize in order to attend college at a prestigious cooking school. She is also dealing with her parents’ eminent divorce, her developing feelings for Fred, and a rival who is willing to do anything to prove herself to be the best. It’s no wonder she finds herself distracted and just managing to stay off the bottom in the competition. 

This story has all the feelings of a Hallmark romcom. The author/illustrator does a fantastic job of balancing the plot with humor, seriousness, and the competition. The judge makes a lot of corny baking puns, which is a fun recurring joke throughout the story. The illustrations are crisp and with just enough details to convey the emotions and visual cues that readers should be able to easily pick up.

Although there is not a lot of technique explanations in the text, this book does include detailed recipes sprinkled throughout the story. I did not have the chance to try making any of them, but the ingredients look to be standard baking fare and the directions easy enough to follow. Younger readers will need help from an experienced adult to help them understand some of the unexplained terms, but preteens and teens should be capable enough to follow along.

Batter Royale is recommended for any collection aimed at preteens or younger teens.  

Batter Royale
By Leisl Adams
Amulet Books, 2022
ISBN: 9781419750755

Publisher Age Rating: 12+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  Canadian,  Character Representation: Assumed Black, Canadian,

Stillwater, Vol. 2: Always Loyal

Stillwater, Vol. 2: Always Loyal takes readers back to a town that’s not only frozen in time, but its residents are unable to die, no matter what bodily harm befalls them. It’s not easy to keep the law in Stillwater. Incarceration and even capital punishment lose their sting due to the town’s immortality. The law is handled by one man, the Judge, who is the absolute authority in the town. That all changes at the beginning of Volume 2, where outside forces are moving in and a faction inside the town is also attempting to fill the sudden power vacuum.

Volume 1: Rage, Rage introduced readers to many of the main players in this story. There’s Daniel, who is a recent resident of the town, having been smuggled out of town when he was a baby by his mother Laura. There’s also town hardcase, Ted, who has aspirations to be, if not the law in Stillwater, then its enforcer. In Volume 2, Ted has brought in some old military friends to help him take control, but there are also new factions making themselves known and they’ve had ample time to plan. People not part of Stilwater’s blessing (or curse) of immortality have died to keep the town’s secrets, but with battle lines being drawn, the town may soon no longer have secrets.

One would think that a town where literally no one can die means that there are no stakes, nothing really to fight for, but that immortality only lasts within Stillwater’s city limits, and Zdarsky’s story adds dramatic tension by having various factions fight for the direction of Stillwater. With many residents wanting to venture outside its borders, how long can Stillwater remain a secret? This conflict gives this book life where many other stories involving immortality, and basically an inability to die, might stall. Daniel’s place as the audience’s entry point, as well as the tale’s reluctant hero, should keep readers engaged in his individual plight and the overall plight of Stillwater’s citizens. Add in some elements where bodily injury is depicted in all its visceral and anatomically correct glory, and this title definitely earns its rating as an older teen/adult title.

Speaking of bodily injury, this is where Ramon Perez’s artwork shines. The review of Volume 1  goes into great detail about Perez’s use of color and linework, but he also doesn’t shy away from splattering the pages with gore. Bodies will be disemboweled, shot, blown apart, and burned, and seeing those same bodies knitting themselves together from normally life-ending injuries cements itself as a horror title, but Zdarsky’s story grounds the tale, preventing it from becoming just a comic about how many ways a body can explode.

Stillwater, Vol. 2 does its part to move the story along and leaves on a very interesting cliffhanger that signals the series could be rocketing toward a conclusion. Librarians that have Volume. 1 will definitely want Volume. 2 to continue the story. Those collection librarians who have yet to purchase either book, and who want to add to their horror graphic novel collection will want to visit Stillwater, a town that resists change, no matter how much blood is spilled.

Stillwater, Vol. 2: Always Loyal
By Chip Zdarsky
Art by Ramón Pérez
Image, 2022
ISBN: 9781534320048

Publisher Age Rating: 16 years and up

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

Living with Viola

Raina Telgemeier’s breakthrough graphic novel Smile opened the door to a host of memoir-style books for tweens and teens, focusing on the angst of friendship troubles, first crushes, and negotiating the often difficult path into becoming teenagers and onward to adulthood. However, despite the flow of read-alikes, it’s only been in the last few years that a more diverse selection of voices have begun to be heard.

Rosena Fung’s story of a young tween trying to please her family, fit in at school, handle microaggressions as a second-generation immigrant, and deal with her growing anxiety is shaped by her own experiences. She is the daughter of a family that immigrated from Hong Kong to Canada and as a teen she dealt with her own mental health challenges.

Livy stumbles onto the page with a disastrous first day at a new school and the constant presence of Viola, the embodiment of her growing anxiety, who berates and taunts her. She finds refuge in her art and the library, and moments of joy as she makes dumplings with her mother at home. Eventually, she starts to be accepted into a trio of girls she joins for a group project. But the weight of her family’s expectations and the ever-growing presence of Viola keep her off-balance. As she worries that there might be something wrong with her, she grows obsessed with the family gossip about a cousin who has mental health issues and is further distressed by the break-up of the trio of girls she is trying to join. Her issues are exacerbated by the sometimes subtle, sometimes overt racism and harassment she receives as an Asian-Canadian and the child of immigrants. Will Livy break under the strain and what will her parents do when they find out how much she is struggling?

Fung’s artwork packs a huge range of emotions into the pages. As Livy’s anxiety grows, it’s shown as a looming, blue, ghost-like figure that hovers over her and drags along a torrent of negative words, thoughts, and images. Livy swings from wild enthusiasm over the things she loves, with starry eyes and bouncing ponytail, to abruptly recoiling into herself, physically crouching under the weight of the damaging words of family, friends, and her own inner voice. Some of the most entrancing art is the explosion

of sounds, scents, and tastes as Livy relaxes with her mom, creating the food they love together. Some of the most painful scenes show Livy with hunched shoulders and a nervous smile, as she struggles to navigate between the competing pressures in her life. Fung uses her nuanced artwork to show the widely differing personalities and cultures of Livy and Charlotte, the other Asian-Canadian in her friend group. Charlotte is a self-contained person, shown with a short bob, plaid skirts and jumpers, and unlike Livy’s wild emotional swings, she appears to be indifferent to the harassment they both suffer for their heritage. However, as the presence of Viola increases towards the end of the story, Charlotte breaks out of her mold as well. Once Livy is able to work past some of her anxiety, both she and Charlotte are able to deepen their friendship, with Charlotte breaking out of her containment with a genuine smile and banding together with Livy to speak out against how the other girls are treating them.

This graphic novel will appeal to fans of the fictionalized memoir genre, and also offers a welcome aspect of diversity to the genre. Readers who struggle with mental health issues or their cultural identity will find much to relate to in this story, while other readers will be prompted to consider how they relate to their fellow students and the experiences of others.

Living with Viola
By Rosena Fung
Abrams, 2021
ISBN: 9781773215488

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  Canadian,  Anxiety, Depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) Character Representation: Canadian,  Anxiety

Prophet Against Slavery: Benjamin Lay: A Graphic Novel

If you’ve ever had a disagreement about history, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “It was a different time.” On its face, this is a factual statement—people in the past didn’t share our values, and understanding their worldviews requires patience and curiosity.

Yet “it was a different time” is often hauled out to excuse bad behavior—as if all people in the past shared the same mindset, rendering them constitutionally incapable of recognizing cruelty or unfairness. David Lester’s Prophet Against Slavery debunks this commonplace with the true story of an early Quaker activist who articulated a moral case against slavery decades before the emergence of the white abolitionist movement.

Adapted from Marcus Rediker’s 2017 book The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist, Lester’s graphic biography depicts the life of the little-known Lay, who protested slavery at a time when it was neither politically expedient nor socially acceptable to do so. Born in Britain in 1682 and radicalized against slavery during a stint in Barbados, Lay migrated with his wife Sarah to Philadelphia in 1731. Incensed that enslavement was practiced by Philadelphia’s Quaker elite, Lay made it his business to call out Quaker hypocrisy around the institution of slavery.

Benjamin Lay’s activism debunks a second misconception: that protest through direct action was an invention of the twentieth century. In the opening scene of the book, Lay strides into a Quaker meeting, proclaims the evils of slavery, and plunges a sword into a book titled HORRORS OF SLAVERY, spewing fake blood (pokeberry juice) everywhere. Unsurprisingly, a tussle ensues. Born with dwarfism and a curved spine, Lay’s physical difference was probably a factor in the solidarity he felt with other disadvantaged people, while his egalitarian philosophy emerged from his Quaker faith and an early life at sea. His forceful speech and public protests were forever getting him kicked out of Quaker meetings, and later life found him living in a cave outside Pennsylvania, adopting a vegan diet and spinning his own clothing out of flax.

Lester’s grayscale art has a hand-drawn quality that owes something to both old-fashioned printmaking and zine culture—lively and not overly refined, it suits the biography of a man whose politics were fundamentally punk rock. The artist is careful not to caricature Benjamin and Sarah’s dwarfism, and images of the enslaved in shackles—and in one painful image, completing an act of suicide—are sensitively rendered.

Yet wordless images depicting the barbarity of slavery point to a structural problem underlying this book: this story is about slavery, but Black voices are missing from the narrative. Was Lay speaking to enslaved Africans as well as speaking for them? The text is vague: Lay refers to his “dear friend Cudjo,” and states “I have talked with a great many Africans,” but we don’t see these conversations on the page. I counted just one line of dialogue spoken by a character of African descent.

There are obvious reasons that Lay, a white man, would be unable to form meaningful relationships with Black Philadelphians. By the end of the 18th century, Philadelphia would be known for its sizable free Black community, but this was not the case in 1731. Yet I would have liked this book to show more curiosity about the absence of Black voices from the primary sources documenting Lay’s life. We can and should wonder: what was it like to be an enslaved African in 18th-century Philadelphia? What might enslaved onlookers have made of Lay’s theatrical protests and the Quaker elites’ ruthless response?

In Lester’s telling, Quaker attitudes around slavery had begun to shift by the time of Lay’s death in 1759. This, too, is a narrative I would have liked to see Prophet Against Slavery develop more fully—the story of how Benjamin Lay was remembered and then forgotten, and his lasting impact on Quaker political philosophy. Social movements are propelled by communities as well as individuals, and I was sorry that the tight focus on the biographical details of Lay’s life didn’t leave more room for this kind of big-picture analysis.

Despite these caveats, this book is a solid introduction to Benjamin Lay’s remarkable life. It will be of interest to older students and adult readers and is suitable for library collections that emphasize the history of slavery, Quakers, and radical politics.

Prophet Against Slavery: Benjamin Lay: A Graphic Novel Vol.
By David Lester
Beacon Press, 2021
ISBN: 9780807081792

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation:  Canadian,  ,  Character Representation: British-American, Disability, Protestant ,