Devyn Dagny’s life is falling apart. She and her girlfriend broke up, she dropped out of college, and her best friend is marrying a man who is best described as “a pair of khakis”. After relapsing into alcoholism at her friend Amina’s concert, Devyn is given the opportunity to change things and start over completely. She gains the ability to “hop” into alternate universes, essentially possessing herself in another life. She can never return to her own reality. She can only hop a maximum of 53 times, at risk of destroying everything.

Writer Wyatt Kennedy and artist Luana Vecchio make the most out of this concept in the first half of the book, showing many wildly different realities. A medieval reality with shades of Joan of Arc. A Studio Ghibli-influenced castle in the woods. A spaceship, watching as a nearby star implodes. All of the hopping drains Devyn and she starts to lose hope of reuniting with her ex-girlfriend Nat in any reality. As despair sets in, she is advised to stop running, and to make a life for herself wherever she is.

This works out for a while. Devyn meets someone new, a male music teacher named Will. She reconciles with her friends. She thinks about having kids. Then she relapses again, and things get weird. At this point in the story I have a hard time keeping track of the plot, forgive me. It’s not clear whether we are with the same characters all the way through the story, or one of their alternates. There’s at least one large time jump. There are three different chapters titled “Finale”, and they all end the story in different ways. Throughout it all a strong emotional core remains, despite the layered and confusing plot, setting, and characters.

A large factor in Bolero working as well as it does is Vecchio’s art. It is, quite simply, beautiful. The story gives her opportunity to work in other genres and settings. At times it is explicitly sexual, at others it is tender and heartwarming. The character designs are well thought out and unique, each character looks and dresses in ways that are authentic to the character and easy to tell apart. The watercolor backgrounds are stunning, as is the use of pinks, purples, and blues to highlight the otherworldliness of the story. I will certainly be on the lookout for more work by Vecchio.

All of that said, this was an incredibly difficult review to write. Despite a confusing timeline and plot, Bolero is emotionally affecting. Although I have several major differences from the main cast of characters, I also struggle with mental illness. Kennedy and Vecchio are so effective at bringing that feeling out with their art that every time I tried to finish the book I would spiral into some level of depression myself. Usually I would simply avoid things that trigger me so much, but in this case I was compelled to keep going. It’s not like watching something awful, like a train wreck. The book is too beautiful for that. It’s more like picking at a scab, something I know is ultimately not very good for me but is incredibly satisfying.

The cover blurbs draw comparison to the comic Locke and Key and the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, as well as the comic Saga. These comparisons seem apt to me, and I would even throw out the movie Everything, Everywhere, All At Once as another. All of those are excellent, and are in fact favorites of mine. Bolero sets itself apart by how emotionally resonant it is, especially emotions the reader might not want to experience. There are some short-comings bring it up short of something like Saga, but it is still in excellent company.

Ultimately, this is a strangely-paced science fiction story that is about addiction and depression. It’s not an automatic purchase for most libraries, and it is definitely a book for adult audiences. Larger public libraries should have space on their shelves for this, and it will definitely find readers. It’s worth a purchase under those circumstances, but if you don’t have much of a patron base for adult comics that are unaffiliated with a larger series, you can safely skip it.

By Wyatt Kennedy
Art by Luana Vecchio
Image, 2022
ISBN: 9781534323124

Publisher Age Rating: M

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation:  Addiction, Bipolar Character Representation: Korean-American, Bisexual, Trans, Deafness,  Addiction, Ambiguous Mental Illness, Depression

El Deafo: The Superpowered Edition

Cece Bell’s Newbery Honor award winning and #1 New York Times bestselling graphic novel is back in an all new edition. Enjoy the same wonderful story, now with 40 additional pages of  background information on how Bell drew the first images that she submitted to her editor, childhood pictures of Bell herself, how the pages came together as she developed the story; and maybe best of all, fan mail and artwork she has received and cherishes.

This story begins with how as a young girl, Bell, lost her ability to hear after an illness when she was four years old. She has to learn how to adapt to life with her hearing aid, the Phonic Ear, and how to better lip read so that she can again communicate easily with others around her.  When Bell transitions from a private school for deaf children to a public school, she  is no longer surrounded by classmates who have hearing loss just like her. Instead she’s going to be the only one that has hearing loss, and the only one wearing a Phonic Ear device. The Phonic Ear works well, but it comes with visible cords coming down to a box that hangs from her neck and sits on her chest. It’s not anything that she can hide, when she just wants to fit in with her classmates. It has her feeling alienated, self-conscious, and like she might never make a true friend. 

The artwork in this comic is a cute and appealing style to young readers. The backgrounds are simple and colorful. The characters are drawn as bunnies, thus emphasizing their ears. The pages are full of easy to follow panels with not too much text, so the story flows smoothly. It’s one that’s easy to understand, yet has a lot of depth to it, and creativity as she stylizes pages uniquely to emphasize different moods or dramatic events. 

Overall, this is an outstanding comic. It is one that is sure to never be on the shelf, and instead be in a young reader’s hands. Middle schoolers will love how fun and relatable this story is. The enjoyable drawing style, combined with Bell’s witty sense of humor, make this a wonderful addition to any collection. There are many important themes throughout the story, from believing in yourself, friendship, disability, and overcoming life changing challenges. Bell is truly deserving of the recognition and awards that she has won for producing this timeless piece of artwork, with excellent storytelling. 

El Deafo: The Superpowered Edition
By Cece Bell
ISBN: 9781419748318
Harry N. Abrams, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9), Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Character Traits: Deafness
Creator Highlights: Deafness

Princeless: Raven the Pirate Princess, vols. 1-4

Raven Xingtao, whose story begins in the third volume of Princeless [see our review here], Jeremy Whitley’s Eisner-nominated series, is the daughter of the Pirate King and an accomplished pirate in her own right. She is heir to her father’s fleet, but her two greedy younger brothers convince her father that because she is a girl, she should be imprisoned for her safety instead.

Book One, aptly titled Captain Raven and the All-Girl Pirate Crew, opens with Raven, newly freed from the tower in which her scheming brothers imprisoned her, on the hunt for a crew to sail a ship she’s stolen from another pirate. Book Two (Free Women), Book Three (Two Boys, Five Girls, and Three Love Stories), and Book Four (Two Ships in the Night) follow Raven and her crew as they learn to work together, face down their rivals, and grow strong enough to confront Raven’s brothers.

Initially, the story focuses on Raven’s single-minded quest for revenge, but as she assembles her all-female crew and sets sail, the story increasingly focuses on the connections among the women on-board and the way they protect and care for one another. The ship becomes a haven against the incompetent grandstanding common among the pirate men who challenge them along the way. Raven’s crew consists of women of diverse races, sizes, abilities, and sexualities. Multiple main characters are openly LGBTQ+, including Raven herself, and the friendships and romantic relationships among these characters feature prominently throughout the series.

Jeremy Whitley writes every issue of Raven the Pirate Princess, and it is similar in tone to Princeless. Raven and her crew are funny, resourceful, and endlessly supportive of one another as they learn to work together as a team. While this is not an Own Voices story, Whitley navigates Raven’s feelings and experiences, and those of the other crew members, with grace and thoughtfulness. Artists Rosy Higgins and Ted Brandt (Books 1-3) and Xenia Pamfil (Book 4) complement the story with scenery and characters that are distinctive and rich in detail.

While Princeless is suitable for audiences of any age, Raven the Pirate Princess includes content that may be better suited to the tween and teen crowd. For example, when Raven is interviewing pirates to form her crew in Book One, most of the humor hinges on the reader understanding the references behind the sexism of the male candidates (“You’re probably not even a real pirate girl,” one laments. “I bet you don’t even know what Captain Fraction’s name was before he changed it!”). Though younger audiences may certainly enjoy the series, and there is no content that would be inappropriate for this age group, some cultural references and tongue-in-cheek jokes may fly over their heads. This title will appeal most strongly to readers who recognize and appreciate these references to real-world frustrations.

There is one caveat to my enthusiastic support of Raven the Pirate Princess: there is a sharp thematic change between the third and fourth volumes. Book four came out after a year long hiatus and features the opening arc of a new title (Raven The Pirate Princess: Year Two). The focus of the story veers sharply away from the camaraderie and revenge narrative driving the first three books and toward shallow disagreements and manipulative cat-fighting among the crew members, whose personalities deviate significantly from their Year One counterparts. The plot of books 1-3 goes unmentioned entirely. It is a significant and jarring departure from an otherwise very strong series.

Despite my disappointment in the fourth installment, it is worth purchasing the series in its entirety, as Raven the Pirate Princess is still ongoing. Book Five: Get Lost Together was released on June 26th. While Princeless vol. 3 establishes the context for Raven’s story, it is not necessary to read Princeless before beginning the Raven series. Raven is structured with new readers in mind, and the first pages provide enough exposition to follow the story fully. This series is an excellent purchase for fans of Princeless and other high-energy and relationship-driven adventure series, including Lumberjanes, The Legend of Korra, and Misfit City.

Raven the Pirate Princess, vols 1-4
by Jeremy Whitley
Art by Rosy Higgins,Ted Brandt, and Xenia Pamfil
vol 1 ISBN: 9781632291196
vol 2 ISBN: 9781632291295
vol 3 ISBN: 9781632291400
vol 4 ISBN: 9781632292643
Action Lab, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: 9-12 years