Joe Hill’s Rain

Whenever a movie adaptation of a popular book comes out, some people will bombard their social media with angry posts proclaiming that this movie will fall way short of the book’s genius. It’s a popular and well-worn refrain to say that the book is always better than the movie and people could spend all day compiling examples that prove the validity of this statement, but is the same true for the visual medium of graphic novels? Graphic novels tell a story visually, just as a movie does, through the use of comic panels and word balloons, and may sometimes even utilize sound effects like POW!, but is the retelling of a story through a visual medium automatically a lesser representation of the original work? The graphic novel adaptation of Joe Hill’s Rain, adapted by writer David M. Booher and illustrated by Zoe Thorogood is evidence to the contrary. 

People who have read Joe Hill’s novella are familiar with the premise: One day, instead of water droplets falling from the sky, needle-like crystalline shards descend from the clouds, shredding any living thing that isn’t under cover. This day was supposed to be the best day of Honeysuckle Speck’s life, the day she moved in with her girlfriend Yolanda, but the rain came and punctured her happily ever after. After surviving the storm and burying her girlfriend, Honeysuckle goes on a quest that takes her outside of the city and under a sky that could any minute rain death upon her. 

Joe Hill’s original story does what great apocalypse stories do best: it makes clear the always-present danger of this new status quo while showing moments of humanity from its characters. Honeysuckle has already had so much taken away from her that she makes the perfect protagonist that could survive a rain of crystal nails. Booher’s story doesn’t miss any of these fundamentals that made the original work. There seem to be some changes here and there, but they also weren’t drastic enough to change the story’s overall tone and conflict. 

Does adding artwork to Hill’s tale add or subtract to what the original created? It’s one thing for Hill to describe with text what a rain of crystal nails would do to a human body, but Thorogood’s artwork shows how one can be visceral even without a slaughterhouse’s worth of blood. In apocalyptic television shows and movies like I am Legend and The Walking Dead, images of life after that apocalyptic event serve to constantly remind the viewer that the reliably civilized world these characters have occupied for a majority of their lives no longer exists, and Thorogood’s artwork is a constant reminder that every moment for Honeysuckle Speck and the other people occupying this universe is a fight to survive. 

It’s possible that Joe Hill-written graphic novels like Locke & Key and Basketful of Heads are already in a library’s collection, and this book could fit right alongside it, as well as find its way into a collection on its own merit. By reimagining Joe Hill’s story for a new medium, Booher and Thorogood not only create a harrowing, heartfelt apocalyptic tale; they have also created an example of how telling a story through a visual medium doesn’t diminish it.

Joe Hill’s Rain
By David M. Booher
Art by Zoe Thorogood
Abrams, 2022
ISBN: 9781534322691

Publisher Age Rating: 13 and up
Related media: Book to Comic

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

Taproot: A Story About a Gardener and a Ghost

Blue is absolutely smitten with his best friend Hamal, a kind, soft spoken gardener with a heck of a green thumb. There’s just one problem: Blue is, well, kind of dead. Thankfully, Hamal also has the ability to see and communicate with ghosts, though lacking a physical form naturally prevents Blue from deepening his connection with Hamal. To make matters worse, something odd is happening to the local spirits who suddenly find themselves briefly flickering between a dark, decaying forest and the living world. To protect the one he loves, Blue must solve this mystery even if it costs him everything in the process. Keezy Young’s sweet, yet delightfully spooky romance, Taproot, presents a look into the delicate balance between life and death and all the love and sacrifices therein.

Taproot provides an engaging enough concept to pull readers into this mismatched couple’s story. Blue and Hamal’s dynamic is playful and endearing, but the story’s fast pace and short length prevents any sort of natural development of the relationship, the progression ultimately coming off as superficial and rushed. The overall story suffers from being somewhat frustratingly vague with certain scenes lacking a cohesive flow from one to another, all coming to an incredibly anticlimactic end.  Even the “One Year Later” segment feels tacked on, as it felt narratively needless other than to show the reader what the characters are doing after the main conclusion. Though epilogues can feel welcome in other literary scenarios, here it only adds to the slight disconnection between events. While a struggling read at times due to these elements, I can still appreciate the emphasis of queer joy and acceptance in this comic, which also features a refreshing multiracial cast and non-white leads.

Despite the somewhat underdeveloped narrative, Young manages to create an inviting, memorable world through richly illustrated landscapes and characters. The character designs immediately provide a good sense of personality, whether it’s found in Hamal’s rounded, gentle features or Blue’s angular, expressive face complete with a cheeky grin. Opting for a bluish green hue to distinguish the ghosts from the living adds more stylistic and visual intrigue as Young incorporates a good amount of framing to ensure they do not blend into the similarly colored, detailed backgrounds where Young shows off the natural wonders of this setting. Images of flora thriving around every corner exude a cozy, magical atmosphere, as we see the entire town covered in fluffy moss and colorful flowers. Even the mysterious forest has a gothic, ethereal charm to it, with its twisted, gnarled trees housing skulls and listless, chalky plant life. The environments function almost as characters in and of themselves, experiencing the same trials of life and death as our main characters, and are just as severely affected by its imbalances. Taproot’s visual style perfectly complements the tone and message of its story, marveling at the beauties of life while also stressing the inclusion of death and rebirth as a necessary part of it.

As a blend of a heartwarming queer romance with a paranormal edge, Taproot will interest fans of  Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper series and Suzanne Walker’s Mooncakes, both of which share friends-to-lovers relationships and distinctive styles that enhance their stories. Those looking for a quick, character driven comic may enjoy this title, though the lack of worldbuilding and disjointed plot threads may be a turn off for some readers. Young states that Taproot is intended for audiences of all ages, though it would likely appeal most to ages thirteen and up due to its romantic focus, as well as its more mature handling of the themes of life and death. This rereleased edition comes with a brand new cover, an afterword from Young, and backmatter material including original concept art. Librarians and educators looking to include more inclusive and diverse paranormal romances should consider purchasing this title.

Taproot: A Story About a Gardener and a Ghost
By Keezy Young
Oni Press Lion Forge, 2022
ISBN: 9781637150733

Publisher Age Rating: 12+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  Gay
Character Representation: Bisexual, Gay

The Legend of Brightblade

Everyone in the realm of Skald knows the legend of Lady Brightblade, the hero who vanquished the dreaded Bone Drake and brought peace to the land, her story immortalized in story and song. Now, in a time when the need for heroes has passed, her son, Alto, longs to follow in her footsteps and embark on an adventure to create his own legacy. Possessed with the skills of bardic magic, Alto escapes from the humdrum life of a prince, eventually making new friends and discovering new magic in the process. However, he soon stumbles upon a plot that threatens the very stability of Skald, and to thwart it will require more than the power of one lone bard. The stories had always made hero work sound so easy, but will Alto and his troupe be up for the task? In his newest fantasy adventure, writer and artist Ethan Aldridge introduces young readers to a visually engaging world that weaves the elements of legends, songs, and friendship into a tale truly made magical.

Being a fan of Aldridge’s Estranged series and artwork, I was naturally excited to dive into this comic, which proved to be just as engrossing as its predecessor. The Legend of Brightblade’s storyline is simpler in comparison, but stands as an impactful tale in its own right. There is more time devoted to developing the plot and character dynamics than worldbuilding, allowing the story to stay grounded and focused on its most resonating element, the friendship between Alto, the gentle troll Ebbe, and the clever Clarabel. Through these characters, the comic imparts the message of teamwork and camaraderie, of building upon each other’s strengths to achieve a shared goal while also providing meaningful support. Though the troupe at first seems like your standard fantasy trio, readers will no doubt be able to admire and resonate with Alto’s passion, Ebbe’s kindness, and Clarabel’s ingenuity. Each one is given their time to shine and make their mark on the reader, strengthening the image of them as a team with their own unique contributions.

Artistically, everything about Skald is absolutely stunning. The environments have a cozy whimsy to them and make it all too easy to lose oneself in this world. Aldridge’s watercolors present this comic as a delicacy for the eyes, giving it a distinctive style that reinforces its most charming qualities, such as the rich colors and wonderfully diverse character designs. The trolls in particular have such a fascinatingly unique look to them, as they come in various shapes, sizes, and colors, looking like they have the potential to be fearsome but are also somewhat cuddly in their own way. Even the characters in the background have interesting quirks and features, resulting in panels that become even more polished and intricate. Aldridge also incorporates a good sense of motion, as the action is easy to follow due to large, spacious panels that strike a clear balance between text and image. This leads to many impressive displays of bardic magic, which definitely give off some Dungeons and Dragons vibes, as multiple colors combine to create illustrated wonders. The visual aspect of Brightblade’s magic system brings this comic to a new level of enchanting, which is sure to entice and ensnare the imagination of any reader.

Due to its accessible plot and presentation, as well as its relatable and endearing characters, The Legend of Brightblade serves as a great introduction to the fantasy genre for any young reader. It provides a story full of adventure, magic, and heart, but is devoid of any overwhelming exposition that may make it too intimidating for those just starting out with the genre. Those already familiar with the genre may enjoy the comic as well, as it incorporates beloved fantasy tropes along with the depiction of a magic system they may not have seen in other graphic novels. The publisher has given the comic an age rating of 8-12, which is apt due to its lighter tone and narrative simplicity. Libraries that see a high circulation of fantasy titles in their youth graphic novel collections and are looking for those with a standout style and story definitely should consider purchasing this title.

The Legend of Brightblade
By Ethan Aldridge
Harper Collins Harper Alley, 2022
ISBN: 9780062995520

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  Gay

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

Chef’s Kiss

Ben Cook is fresh out of college, excited to be living with three of his good friends, and ready to use his English degree in some writing-related field. But his optimism falters as job after job turns him down, all of them requiring previous professional experience. Soon, he’s desperate (and broke) enough to consider any job at all just to keep living with his friends and avoid moving back in with his controlling parents.

Enter Le Cochon Doré, a gourmet restaurant that needs a new cook. It’s a weird gig: the owner has hired Ben on probation, requiring him to prove himself with cooking trials over three weeks—and he tests Ben’s dishes by offering them to his pet pig! Luckily, Ben has always been good in the kitchen, and he’s up for a challenge. Besides, he only needs to work here until he can find a writing job, right? Except that Ben finds himself getting more and more invested in this job—and in cute, good-natured Liam, one of the other cooks. Is he letting a crush cloud his judgment, or is it possible that writing isn’t his one true path after all?

While the cover and title suggest this is a romance, it’s actually more about Ben starting to find his way in life. He does have a crush on Liam, but spends most of the book being much too shy to bring it up. They go on one date, which is ambiguous enough that Ben and his roommates have a debate afterward about whether it was even a date, before getting cozier at the very end. Meanwhile, lots of time is spent on Ben’s friendship with his roommates and his struggle to decide on a career path. The romance subplot really is a subplot, not the point of the story.

In addition the coming-of-age arc of Ben learning to defy his pushy parents and choose for himself, there is a slice-of-life feel to much of this book. We get a lot of Ben’s angst and conflict, and a couple of long play-by-play scenes depicting mundane activities or conversations. There is also, naturally, a lot of time spent on food and cooking. Co-creator Melendez is a food writer, and the dishes in this book sound delicious, and their preparations are portrayed in enough detail that you could almost use the comic as a recipe.

Most of the story is down-to-earth, with one distinct outlier: Watson the pig has unexplained, cartoonish abilities. For instance, after eating one particularly delicious dish, he shows his enjoyment by kicking back with a cigarette. His behavior startles Ben and the other characters, but certainly not as much as it would if a pig did these things in real life. Visually, Watson and other slightly surreal elements, like Ben’s daydreams, can be a little jarring next to the straightforward realism of the rest of the art. The characters’ expressions tend to be understated and don’t show a lot of variation, but the art is clear and easy to read, and the characters and settings all distinct from each other.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the book follows characters in their early twenties, there is some drinking, references to pot, and a little swearing. The reader sees Ben and Liam shirtless in nonsexual situations (e.g. changing clothes), and occasionally a daydream image of a scantily-clad Liam strikes a sultry pose in Ben’s head. There is a single kiss, and a few mildly suggestive comments.

If readers go into this book expecting lots of romance, they will likely be disappointed, but if they’re interested in a quirky story of a young man figuring out his life (and cooking a lot), then Chef’s Kiss will hit the spot.

Chef’s Kiss
By Jarrett Melendez
Art by  Danica Brine
Oni Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781620109045

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

The Girl from the Sea

Molly Knox Ostertag, writer and artist of The Witch Boy graphic novel series, tackles the myth of the selkies in her latest middle grade graphic novel. In The Girl From the Sea, teenage Morgan finds herself enchanted with a mysterious beauty when she slips from the cliffs of her island home and into the sea.

Even though Keltie manages to save Morgan from drowning, she cannot rescue her from her problems. Morgan lives on a tiny island with her recently-divorced mom and little brother and feels trapped, unable to tell anyone, including her close-knit group of girlfriends, that she is gay.

Morgan’s plans include getting through high school and moving off the island so that she can be her true self. Her first kiss with the shape-shifting Keltie puts a giant kink in those plans. Her younger brother is still angry about the divorce and is difficult to deal with. Morgan feels increasingly isolated from her family and friends, and hiding among the cliffs with Keltie seems like the best she can manage. 

Keltie, who lives with her family of seals on the island, cannot quite understand the human she has fallen for. Morgan wants to keep her life compartmentalized and secret, out of fear and anxiety more than anything. But her secret, and Keltie’s, are on a collision course that could put people in danger.

As with The Witch Boy, Ostertag captures the fears and feelings of isolation in young teens. This graphic novel is a rich blend of fantasy and realism. The artwork is sweetly rendered. Although the review copy was mostly black and white, the initial pages feature deep, sea green colors on a black background, evoking Keltie’s underwater world. The line art is simple but detailed, with attractive characters and, what are sure to be gorgeous when inked in the final version, rocky shoreline backgrounds.

This coming of age tale is more sweet than bitter but its poignant conclusion leaves the readers with hope, for Morgan and Keltie, and also, a sequel.

The Girl from the Sea is rated for ages 12 and up by the publisher and its honest depictions of teens in love with chaste kissing and hand-holding are age appropriate for middle grade readers. This is a must-have for a library graphic novel collection. It is available as an audiobook as well as in paperback, hardcover print, and digital formats.


The Girl from the Sea
By Molly Knox Ostertag
Graphix, 2021
ISBN: 9781338540574
Publisher Age Rating: 12+

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