How does it feel to fly? To soar above the world, nothing but you, your plane, and the sky? Would that be enough?
For pilot Jay Corvidae, it has been. Flying for AVO, the country’s aviation guild, with his best friend and fellow pilot and engineer, Sable Auliya, is what he knows, and what his future seems to hold. Until the day his plane is chartered for a flight by the mysterious Fix Vulpes, who certainly knows quite a lot about radio operation for a no-class thief.
As AVO asserts their power and takes control over international governments, Jay and Fix’s adventures take a turn for the dangerous (and the amorous), while Sable charts her own course as she rises through AVO’s ranks. With war looming on the horizon, the truth can shift and change in an instant, and Jay, Fix, and Sable must all face the same question: what does freedom really mean?
With Eighty Days, A.C. Esguerra has built a world very similar to our own. Though the world they created is purely fictional, with countries named things like Easterly and Northerly, and no year adjacent to our timeline is specified, the setting and character design emulate a 1930s-esque Europe on the brink of WWII. AVO, then, could serve as a stand-in for any fascist government in Western history, though the style of their uniforms (and much of how the high ranking AVO officer side characters look in general) will likely have readers associating them with Nazi Germany.
Similarities to our world aside, Esguerra’s world-building is strong and highly detailed. Teen readers will be thrust immediately into the world of Eighty Days with background information coming out slowly throughout the graphic novel’s 300+ pages. It is divided into four “books”, and takes turns centering the three central characters’ journeys. This deep end approach to storytelling may be daunting for some readers, and some may even get a bit lost as they try to follow the intricacies of the plot. But it may also serve to help immerse some readers and keep the stakes high.
It is impossible, however, to separate Esguerra’s textual storytelling and world-building from their absolutely stunning artwork. Rendered completely in black and white with shades of grey, their swooping, sweeping line work evokes the beauty and grace of flight. This style works well to create a sense of place and tone for this quasi-historical tale, and is especially effective in the many wordless sequences of train travel and flight. Esguerra’s stylistic choices do fall short, however, in some of the action and fight scenes, where the loops and swirls that worked so well in skyscapes become muddled and harder to decipher when characters moving at high speeds are being depicted instead.
That said, the characters in general are beautifully drawn, and each has their own vibrant personality that shines through in their character designs. Jay has a more guarded, yet cocky look behind his glasses, and it’s clear how he was unable to resist Fix with his unruly curls and sweet but impish smile. Sable, a young woman of color (perhaps their world’s equivalent of South Asian?), exudes both strength and elegance in equal measure.
Aimed at teens 13 and up, Eighty Days will challenge readers to question what they know about the world around them, especially regarding oppressive governments, and will show what a difference just a few people can make. It would be a solid additional purchase for collections where adventures, slow burn LGBTQIA+ romances, and alternate universe historical stories are popular, and where the art aspect of graphic novels is especially appreciated.
Eighty Days By A.C. Esguerra BOOM! Archaia, 2021 ISBN: 9781684156573
Publisher Age Rating: 13+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Filipino-American, Nonbinary Character Representation: South Asian, Gay
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
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
Many publishers are getting graphic novel imprints and it’s exciting to see new creators with a fresh look creating comics for kids. I’m especially pleased at the excellent offerings for beginning and intermediate readers, as I work a lot with this age group and they love comics!
This series starter comes from Random House Graphic and an experienced picture book creator, Mika Song. It’s an adorable story about two squirrels, Norma and Belly. Now, in the interest of honesty and my own experience, I have to say that squirrels are not like this in real life. But in the story, Norma and Belly, well, you’ll see.
One fall morning Norma wakes up Belly for pancakes. They’re in the middle of their pancake dance when disaster strikes—the pancakes burn! Belly is comforting Norma, when they smell a new smell. “It smells like crispy sugar, oil, and a hint of linden flowers.” Joined by all the hungry squirrels, Norma and Belly discover a food truck and doughnuts! They quickly hatch a plan to exchange chestnuts for doughnuts for all the squirrels, but it’s very complicated and involves roller skates, weevils, and a stopwatch.
Song’s artwork, which I have appreciated in her previous picture books, is a lovely accompaniment to this gentle and sweet story. Soft browns and greens fill the simple panels and quick, sketched lines and splashes of color fill in the tall and sneaky Norma, plump and kindly Belly, and all their squirrel friends in a rush of browns and quick lines. The little girl who inadvertently supplies the roller skates has a purple helmet, brown skin, and straight black hair. The doughnut machine purveyor is one of the most interesting side characters—his initially grouchy exterior, conveyed with a few quick lines on his face and downturned mouth, eventually cheers up as he discovers the squirrels’ present, and all ends happily with a flurry of brown squirrels and a colorful line of people looking for doughnuts. Subtle bits of humor, like Belly warning away the weevils, spot the pages and the spare, simple text fits well into the soft washes of color in the illustrations.
The aura of kindness and gentle humor that pervades this story will make it a favorite with sensitive young readers and anyone who likes watching the antics of squirrels. Hand to fans of Narwhal and Jelly, Elephant and Piggie and to readers not yet able to read Stick Dog. And don’t forget to pick up the sequels as Norma and Belly explore more potential food sources!
Donut Feed the Squirrels By Mika Song ISBN: 9781984895837 Random House Graphics, 2020
Title Details and Representation NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9) Creator Highlights: Filipino-American