Karmen

What if you were granted a second chance to correct past mistakes and set things right in your life? What if you could influence and reshape how events would have turned out had you made decisions to achieve a different outcome? Spanish writer and artist Guillem March (Batman, Catwoman, Harley Quinn) entertains these hypothetical questions and offers a metaphysical glimpse into the afterlife in Karmen, a story packed with philosophical musings, chance encounters, and intriguing plot twists wrapped in a blend of supernatural fantasy and dream-like narrative sequences.

The story begins at a juncture in an in-between realm between life and death when a disheartened college-aged student named Catalina, having reached the end of her line from a screwed up relationship, decides to end her life in the privacy of her bathroom. Instead of succumbing to the throes of death, she encounters a capricious, pink-haired woman dressed in a skeletal outfit who identifies herself simply as “Karmen.” Awakening in a nude astral form where none of the living can see her, Cata embarks on a journey to piece together the scattered pieces of her life while helping others in the process. Although she cannot directly intervene with passersbys and strangers on the streets, making physical contact with them will “pass on” their life’s story in a flash, flooding her mind with an incredible amount of information in mere seconds. In her newfound form, she sets out to uncover the people and events leading to her breakup with her boyfriend Xisco.

In the tradition of stories like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the movie Ghost, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novel series, Karmen presents a tale sprinkled with metaphysical quandaries that explore the choices we make and how they impact fate, potentially steering the course of destiny in the lives of those with whom we interact, day in day out. The plot unfolds in a visually stunning cinematic style, capturing the direct observations of Cata as she journeys on a surrealistic voyage in search of truth beyond the afterlife. Like a wraith, she glides through intricately arranged panels stitched together, some stretching across panoramic spreads.

A side plot centers on Karmen’s role, who is supposedly charged with guiding the recently deceased to their next destination, but chooses instead to help them find peace and reconcile with the consequences of their actions. Other psychopomps like herself frown upon her unorthodox methods, believing they must avoid interfering with human lives altogether. The back matter includes selected storyboarding panel sketches and a full cover gallery, illuminating the creative process of this beautifully illustrated story. With a healthy dose of supernatural intrigue underscored by philosophical musings on life, death, and the decisions we make, Karmen delivers a compelling story and an eclectic serving of food for thought suitable for adult graphic novel collections.

Note: There are graphic depictions of death, nudity, and suicide.

Karmen
By Guillem March
Image, 2022
ISBN: 9781534319882

Publisher Age Rating: 18+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation:  Spanish,  Character Representation: Spanish,

Blacksad: They All Fall Down Part 1

Private Detective John Blacksad considers it a good day when he can get home with peace of mind and his knuckles intact. Sadly, days like that are all too rare, particularly when Blacksad is more frequently employed as hired muscle than for his keen insight. Such is the case when Blacksad is hired by a union president with no confidence in the police to hunt the hitman he’s sure is after him. His paranoia proves well founded and Blacksad soon finds himself embroiled in a mystery that will take him from the depths of New York City’s underworld to the lofty heights enjoyed by real estate magnate Lewis Solomon.

Coincidentally, I had the Blacksad series recommended to me as a Film Noir fan just before I had a chance to preview Blacksad: They All Fall Down—Part One. Somehow, it had flown under my radar, despite the Blacksad books being critically acclaimed and published in translated editions in 39 countries. This is largely because the original English translation went out of print before Dark Horse comics picked up the American license. Throw in the complication that the series was originally written for the French comic market by two Spanish creators and it is small wonder Blacksad is still relatively obscure in the United States outside of a few niche fandoms.

It should be mentioned that the world of Blacksad is populated by anthropomorphic animals, but this is no children’s story. Like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, different species of animals are utilized as metaphors for racial and social strife, with John Blacksad himself facing suspicion both because of his mixed-race status as a tuxedo cat and his being a predator among prey animals. The effect is like a gritty version of Zootopia, aimed firmly at adults.

The English translation of Juan Diaz Canales’ script by Diana Schutz and Brandon Kander is excellent. The pater of a 1950s detective story is replicated perfectly, despite the original French text being translated literally. Thankfully, an afterword explains some of the linguistic oddities and literary allusions, such as Blacksad’s reference to the folly in sending a fox police officer to the henhouse, when the police break-up a Shakespeare in the Park production. (Henhouse is a slang term for the cheap seats in France.)

Thankfully, the artwork of Juanjo Guarnido transcends language. Beyond the sheer variety of colorful creatures he has created to populate this world, Guarnido is a master of expressive faces. The emotions of each character is clear, despite the delightfully alien nature of their features. Guarnido is also a master at working little details into every panel.

This volume is recommended for readers 18 and older. Having not read the earlier volumes of Blacksad, I can’t vouch for the series as a whole, but that seems a bit high for this particular chapter. There is bloodshed and murder, but nothing in excess for an Older Teen series. There is also some sexual content, with a perverted peeping tom spying on one of his neighbors and slapping a woman on the bottom, but no nudity. I would still advise keeping this series in the adult collection, however, given that the sensibilities and historical context of this series are more likely to appeal to older audiences.

Blacksad: They All Fall Down Part 1
By Juan Díaz Canales
Art by  Juanjo Guarnido
Dark Horse, 2022
ISBN: 9781506730578

Publisher Age Rating: 18+

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

A Chance

A ChanceIn A Chance, Spanish comics duo Cristina Durán and Miguel Giner Bou chronicle the experience of becoming parents to their daughters: Laia, who was born with cerebral palsy, and Selam, whom the couple adopted from Ethiopia. First published as separate volumes in 2009 and 2012, this engaging graphic memoir captures the day-to-day emotional and logistical complexities of Cris and Miguel’s parenting journey, one that calls upon the couple to embrace uncertainty and difference and lean into a network of professionals and loved ones to support their daughters’ complex needs. A Chance succeeds on many fronts, but its uncritical treatment of the international adoption process results in an uneven read.

Part One, “One Chance in a Thousand,” opens with the news that the couples’ newborn infant, Laia, is experiencing a brain hemorrhage. Cris and Miguel spend the next weeks in the neonatal unit, sitting with fear and uncertainty as they wait to learn more about their child’s prognosis. The medical details of Laia’s cerebral palsy are interwoven with the intimate experiences of bonding with a baby under medical care, an early infancy that’s nothing like the one they’d expected.

Once Laia is stable and at home, the family embarks on a tightly scheduled life of medical appointments and grueling physical therapy, punctuated by further health scares. Yet these tense first months and years are underpinned by Cris and Miguel’s love and gratitude for their daughter. Laia’s disability is a challenge, but it’s not a tragedy, and her happiness and quality of life are their focus. Cris and Miguel also emphasize that caring for Laia is a team effort; family members, doctors, and childcare workers step up to support the family, a vision of community care that’s radical and uplifting.

As Laia makes developmental progress and settles into a happy childhood, Cris and Miguel embark on the process of adopting a second child. Part Two, “Efrén’s Machine,” details this experience. While Laia’s complex needs were unexpected, their long-anticipated path to become parents to their second daughter is complex in entirely expected ways—a years-long process involving waitlists, screening processes, and finally, an international flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where they meet three-year-old Selamawit at her group home and finalize the adoption.

Cris and Miguel document the emotional and practical demands of navigating the adoption process and bringing their daughter home. As with Laia, becoming parents to Selam requires a great deal of personal fortitude but gives them the opportunity to build relationships with a new community, one made up of fellow adoptive parents, adoption workers, and Efrén, the warmhearted driver in Addis Ababa who gives his name to this part of the book.

Three years before A Chance was published in English, Ethiopia’s parliament banned international adoptions. Cris and Miguel nod to uncomfortable aspects of adopting a child from another country; they describe their feeling of being out-of-place as white people during their visit to Addis Ababa, highlight adoption myths held by other white prospective parents, and contrast their experience with that of Tigui, an Ethiopian-born woman returning from Europe to her home country to adopt a child.

Yet A Chance never acknowledges critiques of international adoption as a system, one that is characterized by power differentials between rich and poor countries and, in the view of the Ethiopian government and others, has the potential to cause harm to children and families. These are thorny issues, and to be clear, what’s in question here is not two parents’ individual motivations for adopting a much-loved daughter. It’s the structural pitfalls that are missing, from falsification of documents, to economic pressures resulting in families having to give up wanted children, to the impact of being removed from a culture of origin. In the first half of the book, the authors reflect on moments when systems of care fail their daughter Laia—nurses who discourage Cris from trying to breastfeed, a daycare unwilling to accommodate Laia’s disabilities—so the absence of a critical eye here felt jarring.

Durán and Giner Bou have produced an impressive parenting memoir. Readable and emotionally engaging, there’s much in this book to interest readers who’ve had similar parenting experiences, as well as those seeking to learn more about parenting disabled and adopted children. A preference for dialogue over exposition gives the story a novelistic feel, and blocky, stylized art matches the gentle optimism that defines Cris and Miguel’s parenting story. Crafting a coherent narrative with a strong emotional arc out of a chaotic time in the authors’ lives, this book will be accessible to a wide range of readers, from longtime comics fans to those new to the medium. But the memoir format, with its tight focus on the authors’ personal experiences, may be frustrating for readers seeking insight into Ethiopia’s now-banned international adoption industry. 

A Chance
By Cristina Duran, Miguel Giner Bou
Graphic Mundi, 2021
ISBN: 9781637790038

Publisher Age Rating: 12+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation:  Spanish
Character Representation: Ethiopian, Spanish, Cerebral Palsy, Disability, Mobility Impairment

Waluk: The Great Journey

Waluk: The Great JourneyIn this book’s opening, the titular Waluk, a young polar bear orphaned as a cub, happens upon an older bear named Manitou. The two form a beneficial partnership in which Manitou shares his wisdom with the young Waluk, and Waluk helps Manitou (who’s missing a few teeth) hunt for food. The story moves through a series of episodes in which the two polar bears interact with other bears, humans, a snowy owl, and a team of sled dogs. The events of the story highlight real challenges faced by animals in the Arctic. These include difficulty finding enough food, which leads a mother polar bear to team up with Waluk and Manitou, and the encroachment of shipping lanes into the bears’ habitat as the ice caps thaw. While portraying realistic conditions, the book also contains fantastical elements such as great animals who appear in the sky to assist in times of trouble, and a giant white dog who comes to the rescue when sled dogs are threatened by their owner. 

The full-color watercolor illustrations present the animals and the Arctic landscape in beautiful detail. The book is laid out with typically four to six panels per page in a landscape style, allowing the art to take center stage, while the text per page is minimal. Characters are clearly defined, with a few brief moments when some of the polar bears can be difficult to tell apart. A clear contrast is shown between the animals with their shades of white, brown, and black, and the humans who introduce colors unnatural to the setting such as red, and yellow.

While episodic, the events of the book tie together as Waluk and Manitou encounter a pair of humans and their team of sled dogs in multiple circumstances. One small episode that stands apart from this continuity is when Waluk is briefly entangled in a research robot of some kind. This event seems out of place, though it does continue the theme of the bears facing off against human intervention. The majority of the humans present in the book cause trouble for the animals, whether intentionally or through ignorance. Nevertheless, while humans might meddle with nature, the story shows the natural world with the power to overcome those challenges. 

While Waluk: The Great Journey contains beautiful artwork and a positive message about conservation, its portrayal of the culture and mythology of indigenous Northern peoples is problematic, and the book has proved controversial. The many animals which appear in the sky at the book’s climax, along with a great dog which helps the animals, seem designed to mimic Native beliefs while not corresponding to the true mythology of any indigenous group. Furthermore, the character of Manitou was named “Eskimo” in advance copies of the book and later changed. Scattered textual errors, probably due to translation problems, make the text awkward in places. It is unfortunate that a book with such beautiful artwork and an important message about protecting the environment is marred by cultural insensitivity. 

Waluk: The Great Journey
By Emilio Ruiz
Art by Ana Miralles
Abrams, 2021
ISBN: 9781951719050

Publisher Age Rating: grades 4-6

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  Spanish
Character Representation: First Nations or Indigenous,

Shuri and T’Challa: Into the Heartlands

Princess Shuri of Wakanda may be just a kid, but she has invented a weather-control device. Surely this will win her the kind of respect accorded to her older brother, T’Challa. And when the sacred Soul Washing Ceremony is threatened by rain, Shuri sees her chance. Fancy tech isn’t allowed at the ceremony, but surely this is worth making an exception! But when she tries to use her invention to clear up the weather, T’Challa steps in to stop her and things go terribly wrong.

Now a frightening illness is striking people who were at the ceremony—including Shuri’s mother. Is it a curse brought on by Shuri and T’Challa for angering their ancestors? Shuri has to fix this, and she might know a way. A cure is said to lie in the fabled Heartlands and while most people don’t believe the Heartlands are real, Shuri thinks she knows how to find them. Since no one will listen to her, she’s going after the cure alone. Or she would, if T’Challa didn’t insist on following her…

This action-packed story features much younger versions of Shuri and T’Challa than we see in most Black Panther stories, but with the seeds of their adult personalities: a serious T’Challa who desperately wants to live up to his title and responsibilities, and a brilliant Shuri who loves making fun of her brother. Readers are treated to the rich backdrop of Wakanda, including technology, traditions, clothing, and more. There is also a secondary setting, the Heartlands, where over a third of the story takes place: a fantastical jungle in which Shuri and T’Challa meet strange creatures and uncover secrets about themselves and Wakanda’s history.

Our two young heroes have some typical sibling arguments and resentments, but they come through for each other when it counts. The events of this story prompt them to talk about a tough issue: Shuri only exists because her mother married their father after T’Challa’s birth mother died, leading Shuri to wonder if T’Challa resents her. This question is handled with sensitivity and warmth. The siblings clearly love and support each other, though with a hearty dose of good-humored ribbing.

There is a small amount of comic-book violence, with no blood or serious injury to anyone. The “techno-organic virus” is visually creepy, and the illness adds high stakes to the story, threatening the lives of Shuri’s mom and others. The story does not shy away from serious and emotional issues like complicated family dynamics and the importance of doing the right thing even when it might have a heavy cost.

The art is vividly colorful, with many panels flooded with pink, purple, turquoise, and other lively colors that emphasize the vibrant setting. The characters are expressive, but at different levels, suiting their personalities: exuberant Shuri has her big emotions on display, while T’Challa can be more restrained. The outfits—from ceremonial finery to casual wear to uniforms—contribute to the immersive setting, as do the various backgrounds, ranging from jungle to laboratory to the palace library.

This fun and heartfelt stand-alone story presents a kid-friendly adventure with relatable versions of two popular Marvel characters. Hand it to young fans of Black Panther and other Marvel properties.

Shuri and T’Challa: Into the Heartlands
By Roseanne Brown
Art by  Claudia Aguirre, Dika Araújo, Natacha Bustos,  Ellen Willcox
Scholastic GRAPHIX, 2022
ISBN: 9781338648058

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation: Brazilian, Ghanian-American, Mexican, Spanish, Lesbian
Character Representation: Black

Canciones

Canciones from NBM Graphic Novels brings to visual life selected poems from one of Spain’s outstanding literary figures, Federico García Lorca. Drawn from Lorca’s poetry collection of the same name, each piece is combined with fantastic and dreamlike illustrations, creating a striking blend of visual and poetic artforms.

Federico Garcia Lorca published his Canciones in 1927. The title simply translates to Songs in English. Widely influential in his time and beyond, Lorca’s poetry spends much of its time just outside of everyday reality. From a tree lamenting its own inability to grow fruit to a boy searching for his voice which is now with the king of the crickets, the dreamscapes of Lorca’s work nevertheless ring true with lines of striking observation and beauty.

“Day, it’s so hard for me / to let you go away! / You leave filled with me and you return without knowing me,” he writes in “Canción del día que se va” (Song of the Departing Day). Many of Lorca’s poems are filled with longing and regret, while others find their way to whimsy or celebrations of art and beauty. Abstract without being inscrutable, imaginative without losing their grounding in real life, each invites the reader to slow down, to linger, to wander with Lorca’s verses across landscapes real and imagined. They are powerful in their brevity and simple even as they peel back corners of experience and invite the reader to look at the world from a new angle.

This version of Canciones is more than just a collection of Locra’s work, however. Dutch artist Tobias Tak has crafted a visual journey to accompany each selected poem. Weaving both the original Spanish and the English translations into each page or panel of art, the result is a true fusion of writing and illustration. Tak’s style is highly reminiscent of older children’s book imagery, particularly fairy tales. Across these pages, people who look like trees move among anthropomorphic animals while sun and moon look down in pleasure or judgment. Elevating the fantastic dream elements of the poems even higher, Tak demonstrates a clear appreciation for the poetry while simultaneously crafting his own visual narratives to supplement Lorca’s words. Tak delivers us prologues and epilogues, taking these characters on wonderous journeys across land and sea. In his capable hands, each poem flowers into its own narrative while a broader sense of story arises from across progression of each piece, from the opening “Preludio” (Prelude) to the final “De Otro Modo” (In Another Manner). There is no true story here, but as Tak brings a version of Lorca’s vision to life, the collection reaches for a higher meaning than any one of these poems would achieve alone.

The publisher does not appear to assign an age rating to this volume, and there is certainly nothing troubling in the content of the poems or illustrations. That being said, the book will likely appeal most to an adult audience. Younger readers may be intrigued by the imagery, but the sometimes abstract nature of Lorca’s work will hold greatest value for older audiences willing to tease out the complexities of lyrical poetry.

Overall, Canciones is a worthwhile read for any lover of poetry, art, or more literary graphic novels. A relatively quick read, it nevertheless is worth spending time with to absorb the full detail of Tak’s illustrations and ponder the resonance of Lorca’s poetry. While either of these artists is worth appreciating on their own, Canciones is a wonderful blending of the two, finding tension, beauty, and meaning in the melding of two rich, artistic visions.


Canciones
By Federico Garcia Lorca
Art by Tobias Tak
NBM ComicsLit, 2021
ISBN: 9781681122748

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation: Spanish, Gay