Blackwater

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 ,

A Chance

A ChanceIn A Chance, Spanish comics duo Cristina Durán and Miguel Giner Bou chronicle the experience of becoming parents to their daughters: Laia, who was born with cerebral palsy, and Selam, whom the couple adopted from Ethiopia. First published as separate volumes in 2009 and 2012, this engaging graphic memoir captures the day-to-day emotional and logistical complexities of Cris and Miguel’s parenting journey, one that calls upon the couple to embrace uncertainty and difference and lean into a network of professionals and loved ones to support their daughters’ complex needs. A Chance succeeds on many fronts, but its uncritical treatment of the international adoption process results in an uneven read.

Part One, “One Chance in a Thousand,” opens with the news that the couples’ newborn infant, Laia, is experiencing a brain hemorrhage. Cris and Miguel spend the next weeks in the neonatal unit, sitting with fear and uncertainty as they wait to learn more about their child’s prognosis. The medical details of Laia’s cerebral palsy are interwoven with the intimate experiences of bonding with a baby under medical care, an early infancy that’s nothing like the one they’d expected.

Once Laia is stable and at home, the family embarks on a tightly scheduled life of medical appointments and grueling physical therapy, punctuated by further health scares. Yet these tense first months and years are underpinned by Cris and Miguel’s love and gratitude for their daughter. Laia’s disability is a challenge, but it’s not a tragedy, and her happiness and quality of life are their focus. Cris and Miguel also emphasize that caring for Laia is a team effort; family members, doctors, and childcare workers step up to support the family, a vision of community care that’s radical and uplifting.

As Laia makes developmental progress and settles into a happy childhood, Cris and Miguel embark on the process of adopting a second child. Part Two, “Efrén’s Machine,” details this experience. While Laia’s complex needs were unexpected, their long-anticipated path to become parents to their second daughter is complex in entirely expected ways—a years-long process involving waitlists, screening processes, and finally, an international flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where they meet three-year-old Selamawit at her group home and finalize the adoption.

Cris and Miguel document the emotional and practical demands of navigating the adoption process and bringing their daughter home. As with Laia, becoming parents to Selam requires a great deal of personal fortitude but gives them the opportunity to build relationships with a new community, one made up of fellow adoptive parents, adoption workers, and Efrén, the warmhearted driver in Addis Ababa who gives his name to this part of the book.

Three years before A Chance was published in English, Ethiopia’s parliament banned international adoptions. Cris and Miguel nod to uncomfortable aspects of adopting a child from another country; they describe their feeling of being out-of-place as white people during their visit to Addis Ababa, highlight adoption myths held by other white prospective parents, and contrast their experience with that of Tigui, an Ethiopian-born woman returning from Europe to her home country to adopt a child.

Yet A Chance never acknowledges critiques of international adoption as a system, one that is characterized by power differentials between rich and poor countries and, in the view of the Ethiopian government and others, has the potential to cause harm to children and families. These are thorny issues, and to be clear, what’s in question here is not two parents’ individual motivations for adopting a much-loved daughter. It’s the structural pitfalls that are missing, from falsification of documents, to economic pressures resulting in families having to give up wanted children, to the impact of being removed from a culture of origin. In the first half of the book, the authors reflect on moments when systems of care fail their daughter Laia—nurses who discourage Cris from trying to breastfeed, a daycare unwilling to accommodate Laia’s disabilities—so the absence of a critical eye here felt jarring.

Durán and Giner Bou have produced an impressive parenting memoir. Readable and emotionally engaging, there’s much in this book to interest readers who’ve had similar parenting experiences, as well as those seeking to learn more about parenting disabled and adopted children. A preference for dialogue over exposition gives the story a novelistic feel, and blocky, stylized art matches the gentle optimism that defines Cris and Miguel’s parenting story. Crafting a coherent narrative with a strong emotional arc out of a chaotic time in the authors’ lives, this book will be accessible to a wide range of readers, from longtime comics fans to those new to the medium. But the memoir format, with its tight focus on the authors’ personal experiences, may be frustrating for readers seeking insight into Ethiopia’s now-banned international adoption industry. 

A Chance
By Cristina Duran, Miguel Giner Bou
Graphic Mundi, 2021
ISBN: 9781637790038

Publisher Age Rating: 12+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation:  Spanish
Character Representation: Ethiopian, Spanish, Cerebral Palsy, Disability, Mobility Impairment

Prophet Against Slavery: Benjamin Lay: A Graphic Novel

If you’ve ever had a disagreement about history, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “It was a different time.” On its face, this is a factual statement—people in the past didn’t share our values, and understanding their worldviews requires patience and curiosity.

Yet “it was a different time” is often hauled out to excuse bad behavior—as if all people in the past shared the same mindset, rendering them constitutionally incapable of recognizing cruelty or unfairness. David Lester’s Prophet Against Slavery debunks this commonplace with the true story of an early Quaker activist who articulated a moral case against slavery decades before the emergence of the white abolitionist movement.

Adapted from Marcus Rediker’s 2017 book The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist, Lester’s graphic biography depicts the life of the little-known Lay, who protested slavery at a time when it was neither politically expedient nor socially acceptable to do so. Born in Britain in 1682 and radicalized against slavery during a stint in Barbados, Lay migrated with his wife Sarah to Philadelphia in 1731. Incensed that enslavement was practiced by Philadelphia’s Quaker elite, Lay made it his business to call out Quaker hypocrisy around the institution of slavery.

Benjamin Lay’s activism debunks a second misconception: that protest through direct action was an invention of the twentieth century. In the opening scene of the book, Lay strides into a Quaker meeting, proclaims the evils of slavery, and plunges a sword into a book titled HORRORS OF SLAVERY, spewing fake blood (pokeberry juice) everywhere. Unsurprisingly, a tussle ensues. Born with dwarfism and a curved spine, Lay’s physical difference was probably a factor in the solidarity he felt with other disadvantaged people, while his egalitarian philosophy emerged from his Quaker faith and an early life at sea. His forceful speech and public protests were forever getting him kicked out of Quaker meetings, and later life found him living in a cave outside Pennsylvania, adopting a vegan diet and spinning his own clothing out of flax.

Lester’s grayscale art has a hand-drawn quality that owes something to both old-fashioned printmaking and zine culture—lively and not overly refined, it suits the biography of a man whose politics were fundamentally punk rock. The artist is careful not to caricature Benjamin and Sarah’s dwarfism, and images of the enslaved in shackles—and in one painful image, completing an act of suicide—are sensitively rendered.

Yet wordless images depicting the barbarity of slavery point to a structural problem underlying this book: this story is about slavery, but Black voices are missing from the narrative. Was Lay speaking to enslaved Africans as well as speaking for them? The text is vague: Lay refers to his “dear friend Cudjo,” and states “I have talked with a great many Africans,” but we don’t see these conversations on the page. I counted just one line of dialogue spoken by a character of African descent.

There are obvious reasons that Lay, a white man, would be unable to form meaningful relationships with Black Philadelphians. By the end of the 18th century, Philadelphia would be known for its sizable free Black community, but this was not the case in 1731. Yet I would have liked this book to show more curiosity about the absence of Black voices from the primary sources documenting Lay’s life. We can and should wonder: what was it like to be an enslaved African in 18th-century Philadelphia? What might enslaved onlookers have made of Lay’s theatrical protests and the Quaker elites’ ruthless response?

In Lester’s telling, Quaker attitudes around slavery had begun to shift by the time of Lay’s death in 1759. This, too, is a narrative I would have liked to see Prophet Against Slavery develop more fully—the story of how Benjamin Lay was remembered and then forgotten, and his lasting impact on Quaker political philosophy. Social movements are propelled by communities as well as individuals, and I was sorry that the tight focus on the biographical details of Lay’s life didn’t leave more room for this kind of big-picture analysis.

Despite these caveats, this book is a solid introduction to Benjamin Lay’s remarkable life. It will be of interest to older students and adult readers and is suitable for library collections that emphasize the history of slavery, Quakers, and radical politics.

Prophet Against Slavery: Benjamin Lay: A Graphic Novel Vol.
By David Lester
Beacon Press, 2021
ISBN: 9780807081792

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation:  Canadian,  ,  Character Representation: British-American, Disability, Protestant ,

November, Vols. 1 and 2

Dee is a junkie and highly active sexual creature who is given an inordinate amount of money to do a job as prescribed by a mysterious man known as Mr. Mann. Her daily tasks are minimal, and she ends up spending most of her earnings at strip bars or peep shows, from which she is constantly forcibly removed. Kowalski is a 9-1-1 operator and a workaholic, avoiding her home life and staying on for double shifts, triple shifts, or even longer. Lastly, a nameless woman finds a pistol in the street outside her friend’s apartment complex and calls the non-emergency line, which connects her to Kowalski. The building ends up being Dee’s, as is the gun, and this is the beginning of the three women being pulled together into a criminal plot that spans their city. 

Much of Matt Fraction’s body of work delivers solid storylines with plenty of humor. This story departs from that style and delves headfirst into obfuscating and providing tidbits to hopefully bring the reader along on this mystery. The description provided by the publisher for this series gives much more insight into how these three stories are connected than the first volume and a half does. Until one small clue starts to tie these ladies together, November is essentially three separate stories. There is quite a bit of mystery and intrigue, but there might not be quite enough revealed in the first few volumes to keep readers interested in continuing. Dee frequenting strip clubs also seems like an unnecessary character detail that serves to be a reason to include naked women throughout the story, rather than adding complexity to her as a person.

The lettering has won the hearts of critics for its beauty, but it is often hard to read. Kowalski’s inner monologue is all in cursive, and not an easy-to-read spaced out cursive. Pages are often crowded with many illustrations and text bubbles that threaten to overtake the action, which makes me wonder why these volumes need to be so short. With only 80 pages currently, panels could have been spaced more and the overall story would happen over more pages, but some of the sequences of art would have been easier to follow along. 

While some readers may be drawn in to figuring out how these disparate elements connect, and Fraction’s existing fans might be willing to extend some faith to his work, most readers won’t find much about the storyline itself to continue reading past volume one.


November, Vols. 1 and 2
By Matt Fraction
Art by Elsa Charretier, Matt Hollingsworth
ISBN:

Volume

ISBN

1

9781534313545

2

9781534313699

Image Comics, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: Mature
Series ISBNS and Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Disability

Ladycastle

Delilah, Ashley, Rebecca, Becca, and Sierra: thank you.

Thank you for writing, illustrating, coloring, and editing a graphic novel for women. Thank you for the representation of women of color, women who are disabled, women who are gender non-conforming, and women of different faiths. Thank you for giving a voice to those whose whispers are often left unheard.

Thank you for a fantastic tale where the princess saves herself, the King is a woman who engages in peace, not war; every conceivable talent in the village from the librarian to the doctor to the knights (and more) is utilized and given respect, and no one is mocked for their interests or left behind. Thank you for the humor (“gadzooks” and “zooterkins”) and pop culture Easter eggs ( “According to Madame Hermione’s Monster Nullifying Manual, it should. There is always an answer in the library.”). They intensified the story for ultimate enjoyment.

Thank you for a book that made me laugh, root for the underdog, and whose characters I can identify with. King Merinor’s bout of imposter syndrome (“Chin up, back straight. I can do this, fake it till you doth make it.”) lets the reader know that even those who are perceived as being perfect, often struggle within themselves.

Thank you for giving me hope and inspiration not only as a woman but also as a graphic novel reader that not all books need to be geared for men nor should all creators be men. (Also thanks for letting Lord Riddick, the only male character with lines in the book, get “woke.”)

All the best,
Lisa Rabey

I could go on forever in my effusive thanks to this work’s creators, but first I shall need to tell you, the reader of this review, what Ladycastle is about!

In the mythical land of Mancastle, Princess Aeve is locked in a tour whiling away the days while her father, King Mancastle, searches for a husband for her. There is a curse on Princess Aeve that if she is not married soon, the village and lands will suffer horrible fate. One day, a knight comes to the village gates to tell the story that the King and all of the men in the village have been killed by a dragon because the King would not pay the toll to cross a treacherous bridge on their way home. Lord Riddick assumes that as the kingdom is now filled only with women, he will become king by default. A ghastly hand holding a sword suddenly appears to foretell that anyone who can lift the sword will become king. Merinor, the blacksmith’s wife who herself is also a blacksmith, lifts the sword and much to the chagrin of Lord Riddick, declares herself king.

King Merinor’s first act is to let Princess Aeve out of the locked tower; Princess Aeve’s own first act is to chop off all of her hair. King Merinor then declares that women can cut their hair, dress however they want to, and do whatever they please. King Merinor’s next actions are to create a round table and sewing circle to prepare the town’s defenses, stock up on food, and basically get the village ready for fights with the coming monsters. Punch and pye will be served.

Mancastle is then renamed Ladycastle. Thus begins our journey into the wonderful world of Ladycastle, where the villagers fight to save their land while also trying to break the curse. They work together on taking care of each other, using their various skills to defeat the monsters as they come—from the salamanders set upon the village to destroy only to be captured and used for lighting and heat, to the werewolves who are caught and discovered to be men who were cursed themselves, as well as the harpies who invite the residents of Ladycastle to tea and strike up a mutually beneficial arrangement, rather than just eating the villagers.

There is, thank goodness, no romance in the book. Princess Aeve and the rest of Ladycastle are not saved by men, they do not desire men to save them, and Princess Aeve herself is not married off as a condition to break the curse.

Ladycastle is perfect, which I’m sure you gleaned from my fan letter and gushing praise. I found no fault within the book and I was bragging about how much I loved it and was recommending it on Facebook even before one word of this review was written. There is, however, a slight downfall of the story—there is what could be called a cliffhanger at the end of the book but there does not seem to be any likelihood of more issues or books. The bright side to this, however, is the storyline and plot are exquisitely crafted and not one word is wasted. I’m not typically a reader of fantasy and I’m behind in legends and lore, but you don’t need to have a background in either to follow the story. I will add the caveat that having a thorough grounding in pop culture for the Easter eggs is super helpful, but not being hip to such things will not take away your enjoyment.

Ashley A. Woods and Rebecca Farrow’s illustrations are a huge complement to the story and the bright watercolor-like coloring by Rebecca Nalty adds even more of a fantasy element to this a gem of a masterpiece.

The fantasy and fairy tale elements of Ladycastle will appeal to readers of all ages, and there isn’t any gore or language that would make this inappropriate for younger readers. However, the pop culture references and humor make this most suited for teen or adult collections. It is especially suited for graphic novel lists of women comic creators as well as fantasy stories.

Ladycastle
by Delilah S. Dawson
Art by Ashley A. Woods, Rebecca Farrow, Elsa Charretier
ISBN: 9781684150328
Boom! Studios, 2017