Poison Ivy: Thorns

Poison Ivy: ThornsPamela Isley is going through some growing pains. Her father uses her body for science experiments, manipulating her genes to find a cure for her comatose mother. At school, she faces bullying through the forced gender norms of high school, after refusing to let some teenage boy have his way with her and claim she slept with him. Her only solace is taking care of the school’s plants in the greenhouse, and a new friend/love interest Alice Oh, who seems more genuine than her other classmates.

Poison Ivy: Thorns begins with a familiar sight for Ivy fans, as Pamela tries to save plants by unleashing a poison in a construction zone. Of course, her newly-minted friend Alice Oh lives nearby and Pamela must keep her experiments secret after discovering she probably (definitely) poisoned some people. As Alice and Isley begin to fall for each other, the seeds of Poison Ivy’s powers and trauma begin to bloom. 

Thorns was an interesting choice of subtitle for this original graphic novel. In writing a version of Pamela before the vindictive and cutting persona of Ivy was developed, author Kody Keplinger has essentially removed the thorns from Ivy. In actuality, we are seeing the very events that led to Ivy’s thorny attitude. We get a sense of where Ivy’s hatred for toxic masculinity came from, with the character of Brett and the school principal. Her early love of the goth/punk girl evokes the Harley/Ivy relationship of later years. Keplinger knows high school students, playing on similar themes as in her novel The Duff: societal pressure, public image, and self-expectations. Pamela’s journey to become Ivy felt very real, and this is in part to Keplinger’s understanding of how a young Pamela would approach these teenage social issues.

Sara Kipin’s art is very expressive on the facial features, with character closeups throughout that show a range of emotions and reactions. While her characters felt very real, I often found the background art to seem lacking or unfinished. Background people would sometimes just be black-bordered humanoid shapes with a solid color. This may have been a decision to keep the focus on the characters, as it is an origin story, but it sometimes detracted from the reading experience as the world in the comic felt less real. The closest analogy I have to some of the background art, is the Hanna-Barbera cartoons of the 60s and 70s where it seemed like the characters are more detailed moving pieces on a less detailed static background.

DC indicates this is a graphic novel for young adults, with their marketing stating 13+. I agree with this age rating and would even say some tweens could read this, as even though it touches on things like teenage sex, it does so tactfully and without being vulgar. While I did find the art lacking, the story more than overcame its shortcomings. I’d easily recommend this book to a YA fan of empowered women, even if they weren’t usually a DC Comics reader This would fit into any graphic novel collection in a library, as it walks the line between slice-of-life drama and comic origin story very well.

Poison Ivy: Thorns
By Kody Keplinger
Art by Sara Kipin
DC, 2021
ISBN: 9781401298425
Publisher Age Rating: 13+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)
Character Representation: Bisexual

The Hazards of Love, Book 1: Bright World

The Hazards of Love began as a webcomic in 2015, with issue covers and occasional splash pages in color, the rest a thickly lined and crosshatched black and white. In 2018 author/artist Stan Stanley told Women Write Comics that she set out to create a creepy, queer YA story with a Latinx cast, the kind of story she’d love to have read as a teen. Book 1 collects the first 11 issues (plus an issue zero), fills every page with blazing color, and contains more teeth than you can imagine.

Amparo Uribe and Iolanthe’s meet cute is Amparo hiding from school authorities in the library after pulling the fire alarm. After a great evening with Iolanthe (that was not a date), Amparo’s abuela reminds them of the ways they’re letting their mom down by making mischief at school. So when a talking cat appears in their bedroom and offers Amparo a wish, they wish to become a better person. Unfortunately the cat was really just stealing Amparo’s name, body, and life. Now the cat is living Amparo’s life in Queens and Amparo is exiled to a lush, animalistic wonderland called Bright World, where everything loves to eat humans. Nameless and shoeless, they are helped by/fall prey to tavern owner Mimi, an anthropomorphized hairless dog. As a way out of Mimi’s doomed indentured servitude, they are helped by/fall prey to El Ciervo, who buys them from Mimi—but not before cutting their hands off. Given the name Fawn and new, morphing blue flame hands, they continue searching for an escape to the real world, aided by one of Mimi’s servants, Juliana. 

Back in Queens, time is passing and Iolanthe is suspicious of the suddenly sweeter Amparo. But feline Amparo wins her over, and sets about bringing up their grades, holding down a job, and making their family proud. They go to prom and graduate from school and keep trying to build a future. But a cat’s life isn’t as long as a human, and this cat has been alive for a while already. When they disappear, Iolanthe begins a strange search involving an underground psychic. 

My summary can’t do the writing justice. There are twists and turns and sickening reveals and the dangers of Bright World can’t be easily cataloged. Memories and things humans keep on the inside are currency in Bright World, combining identity and survival in a primal way. Amparo is established as using they/them pronouns early on, and is questioned occasionally throughout the book about their gender. They speak in terms of being “bad at being a girl” or not really feeling one way or the other, not choosing labels. What it means to be “you” is constantly challenged in both the Queens, NY and Bright World storylines. Many of the characters speak Spanish and all of the signs in Bright World are in Spanish. The characters are often sparse on details yet vibrant, like Juliana, who retains a fiery spirit in the midst of having lost most of her memories. We spend little time with Iolanthe, but feel her deep concern and care for Amparo. 

I originally read this in a digital copy, on Hoopla. The bright colors glow and the characters jump off the screen. When I decided to review it I scored a hardcopy from my library and while I don’t usually worry over digital vs paper, the black of the pages made me fall in love with the art in a new way. The entire page and between the panels are a deep black, starting out with straight gutters in the beginning that start to wiggle and swirl as magic enters the story, then remaining wild twisted things, sometimes resembling thorns, for the rest of the story. These are shown in the digital copy as well but were brilliantly shown in the printed version. Bright World is colorful in the manner of poisonous plants and animals, standing against the black panes of the pages like stained glass or the images on prayer candles. Stanley has said she was inspired by her childhood in Mexico and the riot of color reflects this as much as the folk art animal shapes and characters. In violent contrast, El Ciervo is a flat black deer head above a crisp suit. He has blue eyes, white antlers, and occasionally his pointed teeth glint, but his face is mostly a void of darkness that quietly menaces Amparo. I want to read more, but love the colors so much I think I’ll wait for Book 2 instead of reading ahead from the webcomic.

There are few sections that are challenging in readability, including an issue that divides the pages horizontally with an undulating boundary showing Amparo’s Bright World troubles and Iolanthe dealing with the deceitful cat’s antics side-by-side. Sometimes following tightly stacked speech bubbles of conversations took a little more care. But the jumbled style and the extra attention it required from me felt appropriate somehow and well worth the trouble.

The Hazards of Love is best for older teens and has more than enough complexity for adults. From a content standpoint it’s fine in a teen or high school collection. Stanley has taken care of the language in the webcomic by simply scribbling out swear words, there’s no nudity or sex, and the violence is swift and cerebral, with only a little gore. Fans of gothic comics like The Last Halloween and twisted fairytales will find a lot to sink their teeth into.

The Hazards of Love, Book 1: Bright World
By Stan Stanley
Oni Press, 2021
ISBN: 9781620108574
Publisher Age Rating:  Grade 9 and up

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Mexican, Queer
Character Representation: Latinx, Queer, Nonbinary

Shadow Life

Aging can be a scary ordeal, one which we must all experience as we travel along the path of life, for the threat of death looms overhead. In her debut graphic novel Shadow Life, Hiromi Goto and Ignatz-nominated cartoonist and illustrator, Ann Xu take us on a slice-of-life journey through the lens of an elderly woman who defies the pervasive, menacing fear of death, preferring, instead, to embrace and savor life to its fullest.

Kumiko Saito, a seventy-six-year-old widow, resides in an assisted living home where her well-intentioned daughters have placed her, much to her discomfort. One night, she sneaks out and runs away in pursuit of a little freedom, finding refuge in a cozy apartment. She touches base online with her eldest daughter Mitsuko, but refuses to divulge her secret hangout. While relaxing at her home away from home, she relishes in the mini pleasures in life—swimming at a community pool, snacking whenever she pleases, and taking cat naps at her leisure. In the midst of her private revelries however, a malevolent supernatural being has surfaced and begins to hound her with relentless determination. Later on, she pays a visit to have tea with her former female lover from another life time, but detects another spirit occupying her home. Sinister forces and other eerie occurrences are set into motion as she must soon combat the onslaught of death itself.

Goto and Xu have constructed a captivating story that explores the steadfast will of an elderly character who challenges stereotypes of aging. While she goes about taking care of daily tasks such as taking pills and cooking meals, the feisty Ms. Saito must also navigate a labyrinth of threatening obstacles seeking to ensnare her at every corner. Shadow Life depicts the dynamic resilience of an elderly woman whose courage perseveres at all odds while she dispenses a few bad ass tricks to battle the encroaching specter of death. A fluid storytelling style, combined with intrepid characters and sparse dialogue, creates a symbiotic narrative flow. Similar to watching a silent film, each shot captures minute details with careful attention, sometimes in a montage style. From quizzical facial expressions and photo snapshots to shadowy beings lurking in the corners, the intricately crafted elements in each panel unify to produce a visually gripping and well-designed plot.

Many stories featuring Asian seniors portray them as sage gurus, but this story offers a refreshing and rarely seen take by creating one imbued with agency. A haunting story interspersed with bits of the macabre and supernatural realism, but also radiating with warmth and compassion, Shadow Life offers a thrilling piece of literary fiction fit for all library collections.

Shadow Life
By Hiromi Goto
Art by  Ann Xu
First Second, 2021
ISBN: 9781626723566

Publisher Age Rating:  General Adult

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation: Japanese-Canadian, Queer,
Character Representation: Japanese-American, Bisexual,

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

It’s hard to say what Mannie Murphy’s debut graphic novel I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is about without listing all of the contents, but I’ll try. I’ll admit to being disappointed by the publisher’s summary.

Murphy begins with their adolescent memory of being at a slumber party and hearing the news of River Phoenix’s death. The story takes a deep dive into Phoenix’s life story, film highlights, and his work on My Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant’s seminal film about queer underground culture in Portland. It then ricochets around Portland-adjacent stories of violent white settlers, redlining, and racial strife through the centuries. The explosive trial of neo-Nazi skinhead Kenneth “Ken Death” Mieske for the murder of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw in 1988 takes up a considerable length of the book. A muse of Gus Van Sant, he is the narrative’s path into the rise of white supremacy and its stranglehold on Portland. The strategic infiltration of the police force and the subsequent violence is a case study for the current national crisis. Murphy then circles back closer to home and their experiences at a Portland high school that valued individuality and questioning authority. 

The writing is a thoroughly compelling blend of confession and heavily researched true crime, all told in a stream of consciousness style. The text is neat handwritten cursive filling up half of each page, with varied spacing as needed. In an interview with the Center of Cartoon Studies, Murphy said that the cursive script is meant to function in part as a barrier the reader must be willing to scale, and an emblem of the diary format, as well as funneling access to their 35-55 year-old intended demographic. The ability to read cursive also squares with the requisite generational knowledge to remember Geraldo Rivera, part of a key moment related in the book when skinheads literally broke onto the mainstream American TV scene. Honestly, I hope more people are learning cursive than the alarmist news media reports, because I want Murphy’s progression of thoughts to bloom in younger minds as well. After reading it twice, I can tell the book has only begun growing in my own mind. 

The art and visual format are challenging but rewarding. There are no panels or speech bubbles; one could perhaps make an argument for it as a picture book or illustrated memoir rather than a graphic novel. School newsprint with handwriting guide red and blue lines buckles under the weight of the ink washes Murphy uses for half-page illustrations. Luminous eyes and thickly-lined faces evoke moments from movies, magazine spreads and photojournalism. I couldn’t always tell from the picture alone which celebrities were depicted, but Murphy captures the cool vulnerability of River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves in particular. All of the people have a ghostly aspect that haunts the pages. The landscapes recall postcards. The physicality of the paper and its wrinkles, the visible bleed from the back of the splash pages announcing the chapters, all reinforce the idea of the book as a personal artifact. 

The content and themes are adult, without any lurid or graphic language or illustrations. Older teens who are into true crime and cultural introspection may enjoy it. While a connection to the 80s and 90s can add to the reader’s understanding, it’s not necessary. I struggle to come up with readalikes, it makes me think of Peter Kuper and Art Spiegelman in their attempts to gather accessible stories around monumental concepts. Despite the journal approach to the writing, there are few direct stories of Murphy’s life; they traffic more in public tragedies. And yet, I’m also reminded of Julie Doucet’s New York Diary.

I Never Promised You A Rose Garden is a singular experience and I hope most libraries with adult graphic collections will give their communities a chance to read it. 

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden
By Mannie Murphy
Fantagraphics, 2020
ISBN: 9781683964100

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation: Queer

Getting it Together

There are more similarities between Getting it Together and the hit television show Friends besides Jenny D. Fine’s inspired cover art (six 20-somethings dressed in black and white holding primary-colored umbrellas). The group of friends is anchored together by a pair of Persian-American siblings, Lauren and Sam Aziz. Lauren’s dating Jack, Sam’s best friend, but she slept with Ashton (not while “on a break” but after the couple decided to “open their relationship up”). Lauren is in an indie rock band called Nipslip with Annie and Elijah. Sam is gay and hooking up with guys through dating apps. Their lives in the San Francisco Bay area intersect through a series of bars, coffee shops, and apartments while they are all trying to make sense of their relationships and themselves.

The biggest and most welcome difference from Friends is the diversity. The most colorful part of that show was the umbrellas in the opening. Getting it Together has a colorful, diverse cast of characters with different racial, cultural, and sexual identities.

It’s not always easy to follow the web of relationships, but a flowchart might help. Co-creators, Sina Grace and Omar Spahi have created a relatable, honest look at a likable group of young people (they seem to be in their early 20s-30s, so they are on the cusp between Millennials and Gen Z).

Grace was the comic book artist working on the iconic and all-too-short Iceman coming out arc for Marvel and has a string of both big titles for big comic publishers as well as his own indie comics.

Getting it Together is cute, but not too cute. It’s funny, but not hilarious. It’s honest, but not brutal. The characters are quirky, but not weirdly so. The first act throws us into the middle of Lauren and Jack’s breakup, and the second finds Sam stuck in the middle. The realization that the pivotal character is Lauren comes during a drug-filled truth session after a Nipslip gig at a rooftop bar.

Young adulthood is a weird time in everyone’s life. You’re blessed with youth, beauty, and friends, but lacking in self-awareness and direction. Getting it Together illustrates this beautifully in muted, earthy colors, and well-drawn panels.

And while it is filled with sex, drugs, and rock & roll, it’s a fairly tame slice of life comic that is light on tragedy and big on the kind of relationships that get us through our 20s.

Getting it Together would work in any adult graphic novel collection (mostly due to the aforementioned sex, drugs, and rock & roll).

Getting it Together
By Sina Grace, Omar Spahi
Art by Jenny D. Fine, Sina Grace, Mx. Struble
Image Comics, 2021
Publisher Age Rating:  M for Mature

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation: Queer

Kimiko Does Cancer: A Graphic Memoir

Kimiko Tobimatsu, a 25-year-old queer, mixed-race Canadian woman with no history of health problems discovers a lump on her breast. In this powerful and honest autobiographical memoir, depicting her emotional and physical experiences with breast cancer, superbly illustrated by Keet Geniza, the reader weaves through the corridors of this disease with Kimiko. Her story commences with the newly complex life of constant appointments, evaluations, treatments, and the difficult conversations with everyone she cares about as she contemplates having breast cancer. The most appealing aspect of this novel, for me, is how the author and illustrator expand the customary narrative of cancer patients to illuminate the continual issues, rarely discussed, once a patient is deemed “cancer-free.”

“There’s not a lot of writing out there on cancer and disability. Maybe because for those of us who are now cancer-free, the ongoing symptoms are after-effects (of surgery, radiation, meds), not the result of disease still being present.  Or maybe it’s because the mainstream cancer narrative is about overcoming adversity, not about experiencing ongoing disability” (92).

Kimiko’s relative youth generates a multitude of additional concerns once the cancer has been contained. She becomes highly aware of her body, its image, the food she consumes, the relationships new and old, being queer, all while becoming attuned for the perpetual need to rest, regroup, and rejuvenate. Her relationships with her family, especially her mother, play a huge role in Kimiko’s self-discovery as does her floundering relationship with her partner. She addresses many popular mindsets, within and outside, the medical profession regarding gender expression, reconstructive breast surgery, reproduction, early menopause, and the stereotypes perpetuated by the ubiquitous “pink ribbon” campaigns. In this compellingly told story, she shares with the reader her discoveries of how she found her own approach to move forward and the energy and dedication that the move demanded on her personally. As mentioned previously this is a robust resource for others who do not see themselves in standard breast cancer tales.

Geniza’s use of muted blues, blacks, and grays intensify the gravity of the situation, highlighting, through the expressive facial portraits, the fatigue and worry that the experience has on all those involved, not only the protagonist. The illustrations add to the tenderness, the pain, and the hope of those within Kimiko’s circle. The illustrations effectively and economically enhance the text in the relating of the narrative and in bringing the characters alive for the readers.

I must add a disclaimer here, your reviewer experienced similar encounters with the upside-down experiences of being diagnosed with breast cancer and its after effects. Kimiko’s story, although quantitatively different, strongly resonated with me as I reviewed her story and especially her disclosures about the aftermath of being “cancer-free”. Ironically, perhaps, I found reading this graphic novel experience joyful and poignant. It reverberated loudly with me although I match the perceived demographic of breast cancer patients in Canada. Her story strongly demonstrates that each person’s experience is uniquely their own, regardless of common, or in this case, uncommon markers of the disease and treatment. It also points to the unexpected interconnections in the shared experiences as well.

This graphic novel is a strong entry in the genre of graphic medicine and should be widely accessible in all public libraries as well as academic library collections highlighting memoirs, health and wellness narratives, and LGBTQ dialogues.

Kimiko Does Cancer: A Graphic Memoir
By Kimiko Tobimatsu
Art by Keet Geniza
ISBN: 9781551528199
Arsenal Pulp, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Adult

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Queer
Creator Highlights: Japanese-Canadian, Queer, Genderqueer, Disability

Be Gay, Do Comics

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

The Avant-Guards: Down to the Wire

Just when things were going so well! The Avant-Guards, a quirky basketball team at an equally quirky arts college, have been having a great season; but now stress and interpersonal conflicts are stirring. When Nicole realizes that her passion is not music, but comedy, and wants to change her major; how will her parents react? Will a new player who sets off Charlie’s anxiety derail Charlie’s relationship with Liv? Meanwhile, their newly-formed league has been hit with a funding crisis that could sink it for good. Can the Avant-Guards pull together for a fundraiser to save the league?

This volume concludes the story of the Avant-Guards, taking them from the team’s formation in volume one to the end of their first basketball season. The three volumes—collecting twelve issues of the comic—include character arcs for all the members of the team, though the greatest focus remains on reticent transfer student Charlie and exuberant team captain Liv. Volume One was told entirely from Charlie and Liv’s perspectives, while Volume Two introduced the viewpoints of teammates Jay and Tiffany and their coach, Ash. This volume gives us a Nicole-centered storyline before returning to Charlie and Liv. We also glimpse the perspective of the team’s newest member, who unintentionally throws the team into turmoil just when they need each other most.

As in previous volumes, on-the-court action is interspersed with hanging out, planning, arguing, and other off-court drama for the Avant-Guards. Readers of the first two books will be familiar with these vivid and varied characters, all with their own motivations and hang-ups, adding depth to the interpersonal scenes. Meanwhile, the basketball games—which sometimes include sprawling, dynamic double-page spreads—make for a fun and different way to view the characters. The big fundraiser, too, neatly showcases the talents and interests of each member of the team, reminding us of what they’re all actually going to art school for.

The artwork remains lively, colorful, and expressive. The backgrounds and the characters’ outfits are packed with fun little details, from posters on the walls to the way the different characters dress for the big fundraiser. At the end, the book contains a series of sketches, showing pages in progress, early character designs, and more. It also lists, with illustrations, the other teams in this unusual basketball league, including the Jetts (playing for The Royal Academy of Punk Rock), the Cuddly Retrievers (of The American Institute of Veterinary Curiosities), and the Baristas (hailing from The Academy of Specialty Coffees and Loose Leaf Teas).

Like the first two volumes, Down to the Wire is funny and heartfelt, populated by sympathetic characters who make mistakes but mean well. There are certainly stakes—mostly emotional ones, though the league’s funding is in jeopardy as well—but this is a feel-good book that isn’t here to stress readers out. Given the trajectory of the series overall, it will not surprise readers to hear that things work out in the end.

The Avant-Guards: Down to the Wire 
By Carly Usdin
Art by Noah Hayes
ISBN: 9781684155613
Boom! Box, 2020
Publisher Age Rating:
Series ISBNS and Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Character Traits: African-American, Chinese-American, Bisexual, Lesbian, Nonbinary, Anxiety
Creator Highlights: Queer

The Magic Fish

This is a book close to my storyteller’s heart highlighting the power of stories to transcend time and place while remaining relevant and personal. Initially, the protagonist Tien and Hien, his mother, listen to each other read folktales to gain language skills and deepen the strong ties between the immigrant mother and her American-born son. She struggles with English and he is not conversant in Vietnamese, but they both comprehend the tales they share. Interwoven with the tales are the very real bittersweet concerns of a mother homesick for Vietnam and the family members left behind and of her teenage son, Tien, who is searching for the precise words in Vietnamese to come out to his parents about his sexuality. The telling of the folktales, intertwined with the personal experience stories, exemplifies the alienation both characters are experiencing and the trials and challenges they must overcome along the way while illuminating the strong family bonds, love, and respect for each other.

The three folktales, the number so pertinent to the genre of western folklore, include two variants of the Cinderella tale type, a loose adaptation of the German variant “Allerleirauh” and “Ta’m Cam” from Vietnam, and The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. They serve to emphasize both the universality of the archetypes and the cultural differences in the traditional tales as well as the innate visual interpretations of the listeners reflecting their own backgrounds and individual needs.

As the author explains in his after note, Tien would be most familiar with the western sensibilities of princess stories popularized by contemporary toys and cartoons reflecting the anachronistic visual details of these tales and these sensibilities are faithfully illustrated in this retelling. The second variant is told by his mother’s aunt on her visit to Vietnam upon the death of her mother. Here, the tale is reminiscent of French colonial elements in the building structures and clothing of the characters. The third tale is told to Tien by his mother, reflecting her visual memories of Vietnam, Hong Kong, and San Francisco. “The mermaid is a stand-in for Helen’s [Hien] experiences, a woman who wanted to escape to another world and manages to make it there at the cost of her ability to communicate. It is this underlying element of not being able to adequately communicate that ties the three folktales and the contemporary story together so successfully. Because the three tales are told with such care and detail, readers of the graphic novel share the stories along with the characters. Nguyen trusts the folklore to do their magic as they illuminate Tien’s struggle to come out to his mother and the unconditional love his mother has for him as she struggles to comprehend what he is trying to tell her. The contemporary story also amplifies the friendship and acceptance that Tien has from his school mates, if not the school administration. There is one dark segment when the teacher and priest’s guidance is detrimental to Tien’s well being, but this is eventually overcome as well.

The expansive retellings are delineated by the light purple backgrounds, while the sandy yellow background signifies Hien’s memories, and Tien’s contemporary 1998 experiences is rendered in tones of red. The black and white illustrations themselves are simple with clean lines and layout except for the marvelous clothes and buildings in the folktales themselves. Most of the illustrations were created digitally, a new, but ultimately successful, experience for Nguyen.

This quiet and reflective book also warms my librarian heart as it validates the effectiveness of libraries and books. It is a book that I raved about to Gina Gagliano, publishing director of Random House Graphic, in a personal conversation without realizing her robust contribution in bringing the book to fruition. I join in Nguyen in thanking her as this is a book I will be raving about in my university courses on comic books and on storytelling and with friends.

Highly recommended for readers of all ages of folktales and those who appreciate the values of compassion and human kindness.

The Magic Fish
By Trung Le Nguyen
ISBN: 9780593125298
Random House, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 12 +

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16)
Character Traits: Vietnamese American, Queer
Creator Highlights: Vietnamese American, Queer
Related to…: Book to Comic

Crowded Vol. 2: Glitter Dystopia

America’s least favorite girl and her infamous bodyguard are back in the second volume of Crowded: Glitter Dystopia, and the action is still as crazy as the things Charlie decides are good ideas. This time, they take a quiet tube trip to Las Vegas, meet up with an old friend of Charlie’s, and hit the road to meet one of Vita’s old friends. Nothing goes wrong and everything is quiet. No, not really; the combination of Vita and Charlie means that nothing goes right, and there’s a whole lot of shooting. Dog is okay though, don’t worry.

With high action series like this, there can be a problem of keeping up the energy without having to constantly up the ante or getting repetitive. Crowded does a fantastic job of pacing in this volume to keep things moving even when the protagonists are facing gunfire. And this volume has a lot of what could be considered downtime, which could really drag, but it manages to stay engaging. Something fantastic about the writing of Crowded is that though yes, there is interpersonal drama, it doesn’t end up just becoming the same story of people not communicating or blaming others for their problems. There’s definitely still a lot to learn about these two, and their complicated lives means they have complicated relationships.

One of the distinctive things about Crowded is its visual style; the art is dynamic, the color palette very strong, and the paneling inventive. Something that really stood out with the first volume was the sense of motion this comic manages to have, and the team kept that same sense in this volume. It can be easy to feel detached from the action since it’s not moving, but Crowded pulls the reader in, partially due to the fantastic use of expressive onomatopoeia. Words like “krak” or “kaboom” aren’t just shaped to follow the line of the action they’re describing, they’re also textured and colored to simulate that action. A similar dedication to detail is seen in the backgrounds, where things like stickers on Vita’s trunk are always in the right place, text on newspapers is there, shop names are readable. This is then supported by the great color palette and paneling, making a very cohesive whole.

There aren’t really content warnings to speak of for this comic that aren’t typical of action films, but yes there is blood and violence. Lots of guns, but also knives and more inventive or unusual weapons on occasion. This volume also has implied sex, though no visible sex acts other than characters straddling others while fully clothed, cuddling while clothed, and kissing. Some mild cursing, but nothing extreme or unusually offensive, either. One of the other great things about Crowded is that it avoids fatphobic comments and heteronormative assumptions, and seems to actively pursue showing diverse bodies.

One problem however is reading this volume digitally; there are several cases of paneling that crosses both facing pages (the pages the book is open to) which translates very choppily into a digital format, since speech bubbles get cut off only to finish a page later if the ebook is set up just to scroll down rather than page across. Not a huge issue, and of course not specific to this series in particular as many comics like to periodically do a full page spread, but something to consider when purchasing physical versus digital.

Crowded is great for fans of action films, parodies, and criticisms of capitalist culture. Seriously, though this comic is very true to the action genre, it is also incredibly clever and funny. It’s an excellent addition to an adult graphic novel collection to round out offerings that involve action without the grit and grimdark of titles like The Boys or Atomic Blonde, while still definitely being inspired by the genre. Also fantastic for fans of the John Wick franchise, because it also has a bit of that wink and nod to the audience and awareness of the genre it exists within.

Crowded, Vol. 2: Glitter Dystopia
By Christopher Sebela
Art by Ro Stein, Ted Brandt
ISBN: 9781534313750
Image, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: T+

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Gay, Queer,