Tony Price is your average high school track star/rebel looking to prove himself to his absent, overworked father. Eli Hirsch is a meek boy with a chronic illness that keeps him from having a stable social life. Together, they experience the eerie events that plague their quaint New England town of Blackwater, such as a terrifying creature that stalks the woods and a haunting presence in the harbor that only Eli can see. As the two face the horrors of the supernatural, as well as a healthy amount of teen drama, they grow closer as friends and, in time, start to feel something deeper for each other.
While Blackwater delivers on its more horrific moments, creators Jeannette Arroyo and Ren Graham capture a more down-to-earth, character-driven narrative in which the supernatural elements are there more for the development of the main characters rather than to give the reader a scare. This works in the graphic novel’s favor, as Tony and Eli’s relationship is a major highlight of the story. Their romance builds naturally and is constantly being tested through their actions and how they react to the odd goings on around them. There is a slow-burn aspect to their dynamic, which may disappoint those looking to jump right into the romance, but it ultimately culminates in a satisfying payoff to this slight enemies to friends to lovers build up. Other character ties are explored and gain some depth and/or resolution, though there are a few that gain some focus only to lead to loose ends. Since relationships, whether platonic, romantic or familial, play such a large role in the story this lack of resolution gives off a disjointed feeling at times.
One quality of Blackwater worth noting is the normalized intersectional representation shown through the characters. Tony is bisexual and half Puerto Rican, while Eli is Jewish, transgender, and queer. Both of them are disabled, Tony having asthma and Eli having a chronic autoimmune disorder as well as being an ambulatory wheelchair user. The representation varies in terms of what is specifically addressed, ranging from a few panels showing a menorah in Eli’s hospital room to the boys’ disabilities playing major roles in the story. Regardless, the creators treat each facet of the characters’ identity with respect, refraining from making them sole, defining characteristics.
Without a doubt, Blackwater’s standout quality is its use of multiple art styles. Arroyo and Graham’s illustrations alternate between chapters, aiming for a more “unique and dynamic” experience. Each artist creates a moody, spooky atmosphere for this small woodsy town, as the black and white color palette gives it all the charm of an old monster flick. A constant foggy texture lays within the backgrounds, giving a further air of mystery to each location. Though Arroyo and Graham both enrich the comic in their own ways, it may come down to the reader’s personal tastes whether the desired effect of both styles works or not. For me, I found myself more drawn to Arroyo’s chapters, where characters have such expressive facial features that each emotion is instantly recognizable, sometimes overexaggerated in a cartoony way that I really enjoy. Arroyo uses the entire face to her advantage when having a character emote, giving it such a dynamic malleability and making for a great range of expressions. In comparison, Graham’s designs are more static, more reserved, to the point where their features somewhat conflict with what the character is meant to be feeling. Still, Graham greatly contributes to the comic through their lush backgrounds, enhanced by the monochromatic hues. While each style has its own strengths, they both fit the story and tone perfectly.
Blackwater expertly balances a cute, budding romance with paranormal perils and a dash of teen angst thrown in for good measure, giving it an appeal akin to Heartstopper, Teen Wolf, and Riverdale all rolled up into one. Presenting a somewhat light horror, there is nothing too off-putting for those just getting into the genre, aside from some visuals of blood. The publisher gives an age recommendation of 14-18, which fits well with the teen-centric issues of the main characters and overall aesthetic. Educators and librarians that are looking for representative and diverse materials that also give variety in genre and story should consider purchasing this title.
Blackwater By Jeannette Arroyo, Ren Graham Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, 2022 ISBN: 9781250304025
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Latine, Queer, , Character Representation: Black, German-American, Latine, Bisexual, Queer, Trans, Chronic Illness, Disability, Wheelchair User, Jewish ,
Scarlett and Sophie Rickard’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists adapts a classic work of socialist fiction for a new audience. This retelling of Robert Tressell’s 1914 semi-autobiographical novel follows Frank Owen, a house painter with tuberculosis, and his fellow laborers, dramatizing their experiences with crooked bosses and chronic poverty in a pre-welfare state Britain. The graphic novel draws an unflinching portrait of working-class life, but its tragedies are interwoven with a wryly comic, yet profoundly moving message about power, politics, and the necessity of class struggle.
The book opens with a crew of painters on break, engaged in a contentious discussion of the economic issues that define their working lives. Low wages and lack of job security have left a mark on each man: Owen resorts to doing skilled decorative work for little pay, while facing the prospect of leaving his family destitute should he succumb to tuberculosis; another worker, Easton, is so far in debt that he must take in an unsavory boarder to ensure his young child has enough to eat; and the elderly Linden must continue working to provide for his family, knowing that the alternative is a punishing old age in the workhouse.
Yet The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is not simply a chronicle of suffering. The painters argue, agitate, and make us laugh as they express political opinions that feel as current in our modern era as in early twentieth-century Britain. This is a didactic novel, which means we’re treated to slightly stagey conversations in which characters wrangle over the root causes of economic inequality and explore its possible remedies. Thanks to Sophie Rickard’s eloquent and economical script, these exchanges are nearly as affecting as the labor struggles that inform them. It’s a joy to watch political dialogue take place not in classrooms or on social media feeds, but in the workplaces and homes of working-class families. Readers may or may not cosign the book’s of-its-time vision of a classical socialist utopia, but many will respond to its central thesis, that progress is possible if ordinary people engage with politics not as a spectator sport, but as citizens acting in solidarity with their fellow workers.
If Sophie Rickard’s script deftly adapts Tressell’s original 600-page epic, Scarlett Rickard’s art brings it to vivid life. Full-color panels recall the sharply observed domestic settings of Raymond Briggs’ adult graphic novels, delivering what feels like a sly satire of bucolic depictions of Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Against dollhouse-like backdrops of houses and storefronts, Rickard portrays the physicality of labor, craft, and housekeeping, reminding us that ordinary people worked hard to construct and maintain the built environments that appear in our favorite BBC costume dramas. Yet there’s also a lot of warmth in these pages; emotionally rendered scenes of holiday celebrations, family gatherings, and acts of friendship bring to life not only the struggles of the working class, but the personal relationships that make change worth fighting for.
In the decades following its original publication, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists had an outsized impact on labor politics, both in Britain and globally. The Rickards’ adaptation makes this indispensable novel accessible to contemporary readers in an effective new format. This book is an excellent choice for nearly all adult graphic novel collections, and young adult and high school purchasers should also give it strong consideration. Readers should note that, in addition to scenes of violence and worker abuse, this book contains depictions of sexual assault, postpartum depression, and suicide.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists By Sophie Rickard Art by Scarlett Rickard SelfMadeHero, 2021 ISBN: 9781910593929
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: British Character Representation: British, Chronic Illness
In this imagined tale of fifteen-year-old Princess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, a camera mysteriously arrives as a welcome gift, first to photograph her life behind the palace walls, and then beyond the liminal space that the Russian revolution has generated for her and her family.
The story begins on a snowy winter day with a moth attending the birth of the fourth Romanov princess. The disappointment in the birth of a fourth daughter is only mitigated by the subsequent birth of her brother. His illness, while often a large part of this family historic record, is only a side note to both Anastasia’s historical and fantastical experiences with the revolution and the filmic documentation with the mysterious camera. Although she never discovers the identity of the gift giver, the camera becomes an integral part of her daily life. She carries it everywhere with her, seemingly having an unlimited supply of film that is developed on a regular basis. At first, the photographs are benign pictures of the monotonous life of the children behind the palace walls but soon Anastasia is visited by vivid dreams and then, in her peripheral vision, discovers that she is being followed by a creature that may not be human. The most haunting aspect of this creature, and ultimately the story itself, is that it is not a foreshadowing of the devastation and death that we know is coming for this family but a personal connection for Anastasia that becomes violently disconnected at the end of the tale. The reader is left with many questions and no distinct answers.
The moth returns at the end to this succinct and partially wordless narrative to replicate the feeling of the circular action of many folktales, which initially attracted this reader to the storytelling in the book. Also, previously, eons ago, I had been fascinated by the Romanov story, and this book, while not factually truthful, brought me full circle to my earlier self which was an additional unexpected gift for me. While not an uplifting tale, The Gift satisfied and delighted me in so many ways.
Canadian illustrator and writer, Zoe Maeve, undertook a great deal of research on the Romanov family history for the story but soon deviated from historical accuracy to create her own backdrop for her tale. While not adhering to the historical record, this research is paramount in making her story rich and inviting for the reader. The generally unadorned but detailed illustrations, done in delicate inks and rendered in varied shades of blue, establish, and embellish the evocative and poignant dreamscape of the story.
This is not an uncomplicated novel to ignore and easily forget. Initially intended for a young adult audience, this book should appeal to a wide age range of readers interested in the supernatural, horror, Russian history, and photography.
The Gift Vol. By Zoe Maeve Conundrum, 2021 ISBN: 9781772620559
Publisher Age Rating: YA Series ISBNs and Order Related media:
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Canadian, Character Representation: Russian, Chronic Illness,