Snow White with the Red Hair, Vols. 1-3

Here’s a manga as charming as the anime series, which is only slightly related to the original Snow White fairy tale. Shirayuki is a young woman famous for her bright-red hair, which the prince of Tanbarun wishes to have for himself! Shirayuki escapes into the neighboring kingcom where she crosses paths with a young man named Zen and his two friends who come to her aid, but there’s something mysterious about Zen. As it turns out, he is the second prince of the Clarines kingdom and he offers Shirayuki an opportunity to come to his kingdom as his guest. Shirayuki however, is determined to make her own way in life and sets off to train in becoming a court herbalist. Her plans are sidelined though when she’s kidnapped. Once again, Zen will have to step in and save the day.

In the first volume of this manga, readers will meet and bond with Shirayuki, who’s being sought out as a concubine by her Tanbarun’s Prince Raj. Not willing to sacrifice her freedom on the whims of a prince, she cuts her hair and runs away into the forest of the neighboring kingdom of Clarines. It’s there that her adventure truly begins. While hiding out, she encounters two travelers, and an intriguing young man named Zen she attempts to heal with her knowledge as an herbalist. As she’s recounting her tale, a messenger from the prince delivers a basket full of apples, which Zen eats, only to collapse from the poison. With the threat on Zen’s life, Shirayuki travels back to Tanbarun with the Prince’s messenger to get the antidote. Unfortunately, he gives her an ultimatum: become his concubine or Zen will die. In the midst of this, Zen appears, revealing that he is not in fact some unknown traveller in the woods, but the second Prince of the Clarines kingdom, Zen. Prince Raj is defeated and told to forget all about Shirayuki. With her freedom once again at hand, she makes the choice to stay in Clarines and attempt to become a master herbalist. The volume continues with some bumpy adventures on the road to taking her entrance exam to become a court herbalist at the palace so that she may visit Zen on her own terms. The volume ends with her passing of the herbalist exam.

In the second volume, Shirayuki meets her Court Herbalist mentor Ryu, a twelve year old herbalist prodigy with some interest in the toxicity of plants. While Shirayuki finds him interesting, she finds out that not everyone is okay with his specialization. She has a tender moment with Zen upon finding out that a lot of Ryu’s study coincide with Zen’s resistance to ingesting poison. From there Shirayuki is sent on a mission to procure medicinal herbs in a town called Laxdo, when she, Prince Zen and crew encounter sickness at the Laxdo fort. Shirayuki makes quick work of it, but quickly exhausts herself by taking care of so many people. Prince Zen steps in to help her out a bit until they travel back home, where the first Prince Izana has finally arrived back to Clarines. The rest of the volume leads up to Shirayuki meeting the first prince, who doesn’t seem to like Zen’s involvement with her and intends to put a stop to it. The manga ends with Shirayuki upset and worried over what will happen between her and Zen.

The third volume of this manga picks up where the manga left off, and Shirayuki is pondering her relationship with Zen. She goes to great lengths to avoid him, until Obi (one of his attendants) takes her to spy on Zen’s meeting with his brother and Prince Raj, who’s been invited back to Clarines. Shirayuki continues to avoid the prince until after the meeting, where she calls out to Zen, explaining that she’s not as okay as she thought she might be. The majority of this volume consists of Shirayuki and Zen both asserting to Prince Izana that there’s no way they’re backing away from their relationship. Readers will find out that there’s a reason that Izana is testing them in this way, and it’s likely not so malicious after all. From there, readers will find out Shirayuki has a low tolerance for alcohol, even if it’s in medicine, and Obi will take care of her, with a brief appearance from Zen.

This manga was very interesting and similar to the anime, just not as detailed. Aside from the poisoned apple, there aren’t a lot of other elements that indicate that this is a retelling of the Snow White fairy tale, which makes the title feel a little misleading. The story moves very quickly in the manga though, which might make readers a little confused as to how Shirayuki is so comfortable with Prince Zen so quickly. Although it is a shojo manga, the romantic aspects of this story are very minimized, and I like this aspect of it. It builds in each volume so that readers begin to see how Zen and Shirayuki’s relationship is developing. Something that I think might resonate with a lot of young women reading this is the fact that Shirayuki is making her own choices, and walking her own path, without being aided by men. If anything, the men or boys in this manga are honestly very funny comedic relief.

The artwork is certainly lovely, but doesn’t have those super clean lines that I would normally expect out of a shojo manga. When I did a little research, it seems that the reason is because this was originally published in 2009 in the shojobeat magazine. Even with it being published so long ago, it stands up well, and has some really fun side panels and non-related side stories at the end of the manga that I think readers will love. They’re not your typical happily ever after side stories either. They forge a deeper connection and delve into some of the harder emotions that the main manga hasn’t gotten into yet. Readers will be able to delve into this manga without needing to know any Japanese words, as it’s been translated with only English as the language. There are a few characters to keep track of, but they’re quite memorable, and there’s a guide at the beginning of the manga to remind readers of the most important ones.

Snow White with the Red Hair is sure to be a manga that will appeal to a wide variety of readers, and is very true to the teen rating it has. This would be a good pick for both shojo and shonen readers because of the fact that it’s not very romance heavy, and does have some good action scenes going on. It’s a very lighthearted tale with characters who will leave a good impression on readers, and will have them picking up the next volume. This would make a perfect addition to all collections of manga.

Snow White with the Red Hair Vols. 1-3
By Sorata Akiduki
ISBN:

VolumeISBN
19781974707201
29781974707218
39781974707225

Viz Media, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: 13 +
Series Reading Order: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snow_White_with_the_Red_Hair (Wikipedia or Goodreads)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16)

Ghosted in L.A.

Ghosted in L.A. is a new Boom! Box series by Sina Grace, illustrated by Siobhan Keenan with colors by Cathy Le. If Grace’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s behind the solo X-Men book Iceman, in which Iceman comes out of the closet. While Ghosted in L.A. isn’t a superhero comic it does have that same witty and heartfelt dialogue I’ve grown to love from Grace. This is a realistic comic with a paranormal bend.

Daphne Walters follows her boyfriend to college in Los Angeles and gets way more than she bargained for in the process. Daphne doesn’t really ask herself what she really wants in life, and instead takes on the interests and hobbies of her boyfriends. Her best friend, Kristi, calls her out on it right before Daphne moves from Missoula, Montana to the city of Angels. This results in Daphne cutting off her Kristi.

Daphne is idealistic and unfettered as she takes on the new adventures awaiting her in college, but things don’t go as planned. Her roommate is a moody girl who drives Daphne out of their room by hosting bible studies and Ronnie, her boyfriend, dumps her the first week of class. This sends her running into (literally) Rycroft Manor, a seemingly abandoned apartment complex. Daphne takes a dip in the pool only to discover Rycroft Manor is haunted! The ghosts are mostly friendly and lead by Agi, who agrees to let Daphne stay on a temporary basis. What could go wrong?

Ghosted in L.A. is a fun story that has a bit of mystery to it. Why are the ghosts haunting Rycroft Manor? Why hasn’t a developer hasn’t tried to flip the property? What’s the backstory of each ghost? And will Daphne figure out what she wants in life? All these answers lie in most of the first volume, and I’m eager for the second volume to come out so I can find out more! Also, there’s a great LGBT storyline between one of the ghosts and Ronnie.

Content warning for sexual assault in one storyline. Daphne goes out with a pushy bro to get over Ronnie. He isn’t good at taking no for an answer, and luckily the ghosts save the day. This is definitely an older teen and up read.

Grace is great at weaving a compelling story, and I love how Daphne’s slang is a little out of time and place just like the ghosts she befriends. Keenan’s art has clean lines and she’s great at fashions since the ghost range from the 1930s to the present. Grace lends his artistic hand to the first three pages and some of the covers. His style is a little blockier than Keenan’s, but it still fits in with the tone of the comic. The colors are fantastic in this book! Le is great at using a subdued palette for the ghosts and supernatural activity while having living characters pop with brighter colors. If you’re looking to add to your older teen/new adult graphic novel collections then Ghosted in L.A. would be a welcome addition.

Ghosted in L.A. 
By Sina Grace
Art by Siobhan Keenan and Sina Grace
ISBN: 9781684155057
Boom! Box, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Teen

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Gay
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, LGBTQIA+ Creator

Almost American Girl

Robin Ha writes in the Acknowledgements page at the end of her graphic novel, Almost American Girl: “So you can only imagine how thrilled Mom was when I finally told her I had been working on this memoir for over a year and found a publisher for it. After realizing there was no turning back on this project, Mom insisted that I at least leave her out of my story completely. I told her that would be impossible. She was the driving force behind it. If she hadn’t wanted me to write this story, she shouldn’t have brought me to America in the first place. Mom was so upset with me that she avoided me for months.”

This acknowledgement is a bittersweet moment for this reader after spending time with Ha’s journey as a young teen, first in South Korea and then in the southern United States, powerless and bewildered and, at that time, totally dependent upon her single mother. Ha could not have articulated, in print and illustration, her story without her mother’s presence whom, at the beginning of Ha’s tale, was considered a superhero to her daughter. This memoir effectively and beautifully illuminates Ha’s early experiences as well as contemporary issues of immigration, the sense of belonging, parent and child relationships, the stress resulting from social hostility toward single parenthood, bullying, and, in balance, highlights the power and impact of art in determining self.

Ha’s artistic ability is the grounding for her as she presses forward counter to new step siblings that are obstructive at every junction, not understanding much of the language at school or the school culture, and being able to make friends. She also no longer has access to the volumes of manga and manhwa she and her friends devoured. This is a time of extreme tribulation and only subsides when circumstances allow her and her mother to move to a more accommodating part of the country where she finally connects with others who are much more compatible with her. Ha’s command of the written word is a testimony to this blossoming journey of self awareness and growth as an individual and artist. The comic drawing class she is encouraged to join becomes her escape from her seclusion and gloom.

Ha’s art illuminates the locations in both Korea and the United States, her realistic characters are actualized and individualized, and is permeated with a soft color palate with splashes of bright color when she is experiencing excitement or other strong emotions. Ha’s illustrations extend a glimpse into the frustrations and alienation caused by the paucity of comprehension of unfamiliar language and society. The varied employment of panels successfully carries the transitions the reader experiences from Ha’s ordinary life to that of her fictional world and back again. The chapters are all delineated by a solo snapshot page filled with dense colours that offer a glimpse to the episode to follow. This is an emotional ride for all those involved, characters and reader.

Highly recommended.

Almost American Girl
By Robin Ha
ISBN: 9780062685094
Harper/Balzer + Bray, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Young Adult

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13), Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Korean American
Creator Highlights: Own Voices

Dragon Hoops

After finishing his graphic novel duology Boxers & Saints, cartoonist Gene Luen Yang is worried about finding his next story. In the halls of Bishop O’Dowd High School (where he taught computer science), Yang starts hearing about “the big game.” Bishop O’Dowd’s men’s basketball team, the Dragons, have a chance at winning the California state tournament. Sensing a story, Yang finds himself stepping outside of his comfort zone to record the Dragons’ journey to the state tournament.

Dragon Hoops is a combination of personal narrative and sports story, with a dollop of history for flavor. Yang interweaves his personal journey with those of head coach Lou Richie and the team members to build up the journey to the big game. The inclusion of Yang’s struggle to figure out his career helps tease out the story’s main themes, which include the importance of putting yourself out there and taking risks. Yang reflects on the journey with good humor and admiration for the Dragons, although he doesn’t pull punches while addressing difficult topics. The result is an engaging, dense story that pulls you in and gets you thinking.

Yang’s artwork strongly conveys the emotion behind the story and helps make the story manageable. Yang’s dynamic panels capture the characters’ athleticism and emotions, making the reader feel like they’re in the middle of the action. The strong sports action is balanced with lighter scenes that capture the camaraderie and humor in the daily lives of these athletes. The story, with its heavy detail and topics, could feel over-crowded in parts, but Yang’s artwork makes it easy to follow. The art also helps highlight the themes. One particularly powerful recurring image is a foot crossing a line to show when someone was taking a risk or making a transition.

Dragon Hoops will appeal to readers who enjoy sports stories, and it will also garner interest with those who like memoirs. First Second recommends Dragon Hoops for ages fourteen to eighteen, and this reviewer agrees with that rating as a starting point. The narrative is fairly complex and, at various points, wrestles with ethical questions, such as how to accurately report on sensitive topics (for instance, a scandal involving the basketball team’s previous head coach). With its compelling, meaty story, adult readers will also find much to enjoy here. Libraries that have Yang’s previous works or are looking to expand their nonfiction graphic novel collection will want to purchase Dragon Hoops.

Dragon Hoops
By Gene Luen Yang
ISBN: 9781626720794
First Second, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Chinese, Black, South Asian
Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator

Samurai 8: the Tale of Hachimaru Vol. 1

In his first big manga series since Naruto, Masashi Kishimoto, welcomes readers to a world of samurai, bushi, and princesses, but also cyborg bodies and robot animals who can change shape and fly. This is the world of Hachimaru, a very ill young man who wants nothing more than to become a great samurai and live a life of adventure. Unfortunately, he can’t even leave his house. But that just might change soon. Hachimaru’s great adventure is about to begin, whether he’s really ready for it or not.

First and foremost, the setting of Samurai 8: the Tale of Hachimaru is phenomenal. I love the feel of the bio-organic samurai and their animalistic companions; this is not a world where robots and technology equals harsh, straight lines that feel cold. Instead, everything is very rounded, and flows together in ways that feel natural. Just in the first page or two, the reader gets a strong feeling for the setting of this story. The one caveat is that facial expressions and faces aren’t as highly detailed, so characters’ faces and expressions can feel kind of blank or flat in comparison to all the riotous detail around them.

Though the world of Samurai 8 is exciting and a fun take on the classic samurai adventure story, the storytelling sometimes holds everything back. The reader is thrown into this world, with names and concepts equally tossed with no context at first. Then, the names and concepts are brought up again to explain them. In some cases this works out well, but there were more than a few awkward moments in the story that could’ve been avoided if they’d just been explained at the start. The plot also jumps in escalation, though I don’t want to go into details as that would run into spoilers. Essentially, it’s the kind of thing typical in adventure stories: the young protagonist finally gets what they want, so they immediately jump in, disregarding any parental figures around them (who also mysteriously don’t put up much of a fuss), and almost immediately get into a fight that shows their remarkable abilities. Otherwise, there’s definitely heavy use of the tropes of samurai stories, such as the character with a mysterious past and the unusual looking character that turns out to be a famous samurai. I enjoyed that, but I could see it being frustrating for some readers.

I’ll admit, I was concerned that Kishimoto might not be able to shake his lengthy past of writing Naruto, and create something new. There are certainly parallels that can be drawn, but many of those are, like I just discussed, part of the typical adventure story, so aren’t necessarily strong comparisons to Naruto itself. Instead of a focus on ninja and ninja culture, we’re looking at samurai and samurai culture, which are fundamentally very different. There’s also the simple fact that Samurai 8 is most definitely sci-fi, with talk of other worlds and space travel. And honestly, there’s a greater sense of destiny and focus on the story’s direction than Naruto generally had. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, and am looking forward to picking up the next volume. It’s a great choice for anyone looking for a new high action adventure manga that’s less dark than titles like Demon Slayer and less set in the real world like Fire Force.

Samurai 8: the Tale of Hachimaru Vol. 1 
By Masahi Kishimoto
Art by Akira Okubo
ISBN: 9781974715022
VIZ Media, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: Teen

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13), Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Traits:

Magus of the Library, Vols 1-2

Imagine a world that combines the medieval view of the sacredness of the the written word and the scarcity of texts with a modern library’s stance on access. Center it around a vast central library and set it in a magical, Arabian Nights-style country with a hint of dark magic and enter the world of the Kafna.

The main protagonist is a boy from the slums of a small town. His older sister labors ceaselessly so he can attend school and he devours knowledge—and books. However, his mixed heritage, giving him elf-like ears, pale skin, and blonde hair, makes him stand out from the darker-skinned villagers. They torment him constantly, as well as refuse him access to the library.

Enter the Kafna, or librarians, traveling from the massive and powerful Aftzaak Central Library. Sedona, a dramatic young woman, is from the Protections office, working to protect valuable texts. Anzu, a gentle middle-aged woman, is from the Liaisons office, working with the branch libraries to serve their patrons. PiPiri, who is of the Kokopa race, is a small, fairy-like creature with a short attention span and a hot temper. She comes along with, Nanako, a reserved, dark-skinned teenager and together the two represent the Restorations Office, working to restore and preserve even the most trivial of books as well as the most dangerous.

When the boy meets the Kafna, his life is forever changed. Through a series of exciting and dangerous events, they encourage him to continue seeking knowledge, open new doors for him, and give him the ambition to be a Kafna himself. The first volume ends with his name revealed as Theo Fumis, and a final chapter rejoins him seven years later, at the age of thirteen, ready to begin his journey to Aftzaak and take the challenging tests to become a Kafna.

In the second volume, readers are introduced to more of the mythology, magic, and scenery of Theo’s world as he journeys with his eccentric and tough mentor across wastelands to reach the city of Aftzaak. After many adventures, and gaining new companions that include a dramatic and somewhat spoiled young girl and a street-wise boy, Theo meets his first challenge as a Kafna hopeful, the written test. This lasts over three days and the book ends with a suspenseful moment as the test ends.

Throughout each book are mini comics introducing characters, landmarks, and the background story of the seven magi who fought the Emissary of Wormwood and created the countries as they are known today. There are many hints throughout that a great evil is returning and Theo, with his unique heritage and determination, may be the one to save the world. The story is heavily interwoven with reflections on the power of books and knowledge, the importance of continuing to work hard despite all odds, and very, very detailed explanations of book repair, book binding, making paper, etc.

The fantastic settings are a real draw for the story. Different races are shown, varying from the tall Rakna traders from the coast to the tiny, fairy-like Kokopa, who wear feathered head-dresses. Animals include mythical beasts with magical powers, massive, dinosaur-like beasts, and and more ordinary, but still mysterious creatures. Most of the diversity of the races is shown in their clothing, culture, and behavior. Part of Theo’s journey includes interacting with different races and encouraging others to learn more about different cultures instead of despising them. Theo is mostly a typical manga hero, with spiky hair, boundless energy and enthusiasm, and his own flair for the dramatic. The second volume is interleaved with famous landmarks from Theo’s travels, showing monuments, swamps, strange rock formations, and more. There are busy marketplaces, elaborate book stores, and, of course, more libraries to discover.

Besides the library theme, this is a fairly typical fantasy adventure. It’s most likely to appeal to librarians themselves (although I found the vocational awe more than a bit overdone) and teen readers who are voracious readers and believers in the power and importance of stories. While the lengthy digressions into book repair and the philosophy of libraries being likely to discourage the average manga reader, if you have a large collection and want some relatively tame teen manga for your fans, this is a fun series to pick up.

Magus of the Library
By Mitsu Izumi
Art by Wharton
ISBN:

VolumeISBN
19781632368232
29781632368454

Kodansha Comics, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: T 13+

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16)

Banned Book Club

The Banned Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook, is based on the personal experiences of the author, who grew up during a time where South Korea was under a totalitarian government. It begins with Hyun and her mother arguing over her choice to go to school. Her mother wants her to give up school and continue to work in the family restaurant. Hyun ducks out to end the argument and attend her first day of school. Once off the bus, she is surrounded by protestors and police. Tear gas is exploding all around her, people pushing their way through the cloudy air to escape arrest. Hyun makes it to class and the teacher informs her that they need to stay away from Communist activities and not participate in protests.

Hyun wants to remain above the fray and avoid politics. She decides to join the folk dance team. They perform a dance for the school, which ends up turning political. She meets a young man on the team named Hoon who begins introducing her to new ideas. He runs the school newspaper and hides political messages in the articles. Hoon develops a crush on Hyun and the feeling turns mutual. He begins drawing her further into danger. She must decide how far she is willing to go.

The simplicity of the black and white artwork draws you into the horror of the situation. When Hyun first gets on campus, she experiences a moment of contentment. She is on a bus, headed to school, with a smile on her face. The minute she steps out, she is greeted with chants for the President to step down. The scene pulls back to reveal riot police with shields moving towards the protestors. Scenes shift to different angles, adding to the tension and chaos of the scene. There are two scenes of torture in the book. One is brief with the person having scrapes and bruises on their face. The other, while only a few pages seem as if it goes on forever. Part of it is left to the imagination as we see the objects he has been beaten with. The other act is quite cruel with the person’s face being smashed into the ground.

In the beginning, I found the title hard to get into as I had no familiarity or understanding of Korean history. The title Banned Book Club made me believe the story would be about how books changed the lives of students living in a brutal dictatorship. It was this aspect that I kept hoping would appear. After 94 pages the story began to take shape and I could see clearly where the author was going with the narrative. The theme became about how a young girl learns how to stand up and find her voice living with a government who wants to shut down any opposition or free thought. I highly recommend this book and suggest that readers learn about the Gwangju uprising to deepen their understanding. This graphic novel is most appropriate for older teens, but probably will be more appreciated by adults who are interested in historical events.

Banned Book Club
By Hyun Sook Kim
Art by Hyung-Ju Ko
ISBN: 9781945820427
Iron Circus Comics, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: OT

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: South Korean
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, BIPOC Creator

Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide

Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide is famous for her haunting black and white photos. Isabel Quintero and Zeke Pena have created an enthralling graphic novel in which Iturbide’s story and photographs are brought to life for a generation who may be entirely unfamiliar with their groundbreaking work. Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide is an important graphic novel for the current culture. Mexican stories need to be told. Graphic novels like this are a reminder that the history and culture of Mexican art and artists is vast and rich. This graphic novel may be a few years old but its review is crucial.

The story opens at an art gallery with photographs on display. A group of young people ask the photographer about their style and methods. That photographer is Graciela Iturbide. She explains her methods and motives to the young attendees while the story fades into the past. The story moves through time—back and forth—from the Sonoran Desert and Mexico City to India and Frida Kahlo’s bedroom. It covers her most famous photographs as well as her childhood and relationship with her father. Graciela appears to explain in her own words what was going on at the time, the inspirations for the photographs, and her own thought process.

Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide is uniquely illustrated. The artist painstakingly recreates Graciela’s history and photographs through similar yet powerful black and white illustrations. The actual photographs accompany the illustrated versions. It’s refreshing to see artwork and photography depicted in this way, particularly in a graphic memoir. It is one thing to see an illustrated version of a piece of art, but to see it held up against the real thing is entirely different and adds great depth to the story. The attention to detail is astounding and the artist made the right decision to keep color out of the book. Graciela’s medium was black-and-white and her biography should be the same.

The writing itself feels a bit stilted and that may be entirely based on the translation. It’s hard to feel a rhythm while reading. The author includes an interesting use of a second person point of view. The author addresses the reader in short snippets of text before each chapter break. These breaks in the fourth wall are a way to introduce the reader to where the story will take place next. It’s helpful in a way, but also a bit distracting. Graciela’s descriptions are poetic and imaginative while these breaks feel unnecessary. Graciela is more than capable of telling her own story in her own way. Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide is a fascinating look into the life of a prolific and iconic Mexican photographer. Their work resides in many museums around the world. This graphic novel cannot tell Graciela’s story in its entirety, but it does a great job of introducing readers of all ages to her life and her work.

Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide is appropriate for readers 13+. It is enjoyable to readers of Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam, Pénélope Bagieu’s Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World, and Liana Finck’s Passing for Human.

Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide
By Isabel Quintero
Art by Zeke Pena
ISBN: 9781947440005
Getty Publications, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: T

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Character Traits: Latinx

In Waves

The graphic memoir has become an increasingly important genre for the comics medium. With his graphic memoir In Waves, A.J. Dungo is joining the likes of Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, and Tom Hart. It’s heady company to be in, especially considering that Maus, Fun Home, and Rosalie Lightning are all different kinds of survivors’ stories. Dungo’s first-person narrative—when it is a first-person narrative—tells of his survival even as Kristen, the love of his life, slowly succumbed to cancer. Combined with tales from the history of Hawaii and the history of surfing, it’s an odd story, but that’s okay. Comics is an odd medium, and some of its best work is done in the service of strange tales, strangely told.

In Waves is Dungo’s first book and began as an art school project focused on two major figures in the history of surfing: native Hawaiian Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku and surfboard innovator Tom Blake. The project’s ambitions expanded naturally when he decided to incorporate his partner Kristen’s story into the existing narrative. The results are eccentric, but overall quite moving. It’s a slow-paced story whose moments seem to come and go like tides. From the beginning, the reader knows that Kristen will not survive this story, but that does not lessen our attachment to her, nor does it reduce her significance. And while his inclusion of Blake and Kahanamoku’s stories in a book about a loved one is an unusual choice, it adds a pleasing ebb and flow to the narrative. Dungo and Kristen were both surfers, so learning about the sport’s royal Hawaiian origins and its many developments fits into their story more naturally than one might expect. There’s a sorrow to both of these men’s triumphs, and to surfing itself, and a kind of parity in the way that these great surfers used their boards to escape their worldly problems. Using this same technique, surfing is everything to Kristen and “her boys” as well, and the narratives flow unexpectedly naturally between the past and present. The result is an emotional portrait of different times, flowing together into one. Adding in the visual influence of Hokusai—the Japanese artist most famous for The Wave—this book is an elemental experience rather than a plot-driven one.

In Waves has its limitations. Dungo sketches his historical figures carefully from photographs, but his contemporary characters have sparse facial features. He sometimes seems aware of this problem, as he often draws the backs of his characters’ heads. This can limit their emotions as well as make it easy for readers to confuse different characters, and it minimizes the impact of the fact that his primary characters are largely Asian American. Even so, his art is patient and directed, with monochromatic pages skillfully dictating mood and pacing through color, panel structure, and design. His words are largely dispassionate, but somehow a passionate mood infuses everything his characters say and do. As a result, this book transcends both its apparent limitations and ambitions. In its words, pictures, and silences it has much to say. It is a book that one person could read many times, and never quite get the same meanings from twice.

Death is a part of life and history, and every library—public, school, or otherwise—serves people of all ages who have lost loved ones. This is a very valuable book for any collection because it speaks honestly and accessibly about loss but not just about loss. Dungo is describing loss as part of a living tapestry. It isn’t the end, but it can’t be discarded. This book is a significant graphic memoir and is highly recommended for all libraries and is unusually accessible for such an artistically-rendered story. That said, In Waves is most appropriate for libraries with teen and young adult comics collections, though it wouldn’t look out of place in an adult collection. Other than the fact that it is a book about a loved one’s death, there are no content warnings attached to this book.

In Waves
By AJ Dungo
ISBN: 9781910620632
Nobrow, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: Teen+

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Character Traits: Characters with Disability Japanese, Hawaiian or Pacific Islander
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, BIPOC Creator

Isola, vol. 1 

A tiger and a royal guard are on a journey to a place that only exists in stories, yet it is their only hope for fixing everything that’s gone wrong. Isola throws us into a world full of magic and magical creatures, harsh landscapes, and the difficulty of balancing duty and necessity. It’s an experience that pulls the reader in, not letting go until the last page.

One of the most distinctive features of Isola is the art: the style feels very inspired by manga through use of symbols for sounds instead of words in English, as well as the use of silence and exchange of eye contact for meaning. It’s something I feel is often underrated in Western comics, and since one of the characters in Isola is a tiger, silence (and meaning through facial expression) is something of a necessity. The color choices are also fantastic, as they add to the truly fantastical feel of the world and aren’t the typical jewel tones of fantasy. Instead, it’s teals and blues against oranges and pinks, the contrast adding to the tension of each scene.

Something that many stories attempt but few succeed at is throwing the reader into the world in the middle of a situation, with little explanation; Isola succeeds. We get just enough information to keep us in the story and interested until the next piece, and the next. It helps that the protagonist is often clueless as well, so the reader isn’t kept out of every conversation, but we’re also not given huge blocks of exposition. This helps work with the art to create an atmospheric experience; the reader is drawn in by the beautiful and mysterious scenery, then kept there with just enough hints to make them want more.

Isola explores questions of morality and humanity without going too heavy-handed or heavily into darkness and gore, as many graphic novels and books of a similar vein often do. When we see a corpse or someone dies, it has impact in this story; it’s not just one more body for the pile. There are also some elements of horror, especially body horror, as the story progresses. As such, Isola is likely to appeal most to adults, with definite crossover to older teens. I feel the fact that it’s rated teen plus by Image is more likely related to the lack of extreme content rather than appeal, but it’s something to consider when collecting this title.

I have to admit, Isola is one of my new favorite series; it’s sad and beautiful and the storytelling is phenomenal, especially paired with the stunning art. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it’s also diverse fantasy, part of a growing trend of graphic novels that feature characters from varied backgrounds and lives. It’s perfect for readers of series like Sleepless, or people who like darker fantasy like Monstress, but want a break from the dreariness of it and other titles in that style. I’ve also heard it recommended to fans of Hayao Miyazaki, and I can see why. The second volume comes out in February 2020, so it might be worth waiting until then to start collecting this series.

Isola, vol. 1 
By Karl Kerschl, Brenden Fletcher
Art by Karl Kerschl, MSASSYK
ISBN: 9781534309227
Image Comics, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: T+