Bolero

Bolero

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.

Bolero
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

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 ,

Welcome to St. Hell: My Trans Teen Misadventure

Lewis Hancox’s teen years were much like anyone else’s, filled with the typical high school drama, perpetual awkwardness, and desperation to fit in. For him, however, it seemed like there were extra hurdles to face, being a girl that had yet to discover that he was actually a boy. In Welcome to St. Hell, Hancox addresses his younger self to guide her through those messy years of hating her body, of being confused at who exactly she’s supposed to kiss, of constantly trying to pass as a “normal girl.” Being a typical teenager, the younger Hancox tries to ignore her older self at every turn but cannot deny that she feels like an alien in her own skin. What follows is a humorous, relatable, and down to Earth depiction of Hancox’s gender exploration and eventual acceptance, told in a way that educates just as much as it entertains.

Welcome to St. Hell’s story is refreshingly grounded, widening its appeal to every kind of audience. Though the author’s transness is the focal point, there are other elements and situations that distinguish Hancox’s experiences from coming solely from a trans standpoint. Anyone who has ever walked a high school hallway will relate to those feelings of just trying to survive that time while also making an identity that’s your own, or something close to it. We all face adversities when discovering who we are, and we all fumble along the way. Hancox utilizes these shared feelings within adolescence to illustrate his journey in a context that anyone can empathize with. This is also added by his inclusion of interviews he conducted with his family and friends, detailing their initial reactions to his coming out and how they came to support him. These interviews allow for a different perspective for both allies and trans youth, delivering moments of education in how to best conduct allyship and shedding light on the effects a coming out may have to both parties.

The one thing that may take some readers out of the comic is the heavy use of British slang, which can confuse those not familiar with it, though they may adapt once they find the comic’s rhythm.

Though it has its moments of heartache, Hancox’s story is ultimately one full of honesty, hope, and humor. Even the presence of Hancox’s older self brings the positivity of a future where trans youth survive and have fulfilling adult lives. While trauma and hardship are incredibly valid in one’s gender journey, a memoir that sets a more uplifting tone to a work of trans survival can bring about a great deal of affirmation in trans youths’ lives.

Matching the tone and feel of the comic perfectly, Hancox’s art style looks like it came right out of a teenager’s prized doodle book. At many points, it reminded me of a lot of different zines, though mainly due to its mostly four panel per page structure and black and white color. The art style lends itself to a lot of great, funny expressions, my favorite being Hancox’s big eyebrows that cover a range of emotions all on their own. It is not an overly ornate comic, sticking more to simple character designs and backgrounds, but will appeal to those who prefer more cartoon-like art and less busy panels.

As the memoir is split between Hancox’s high school and college years, there are some mature topics that come into play, such as alcohol use, gender dysphoria, and eating disorders, and includes some brief moments of cartoony nudity and one use of the T slur. Scholastic has given this graphic novel an age rating of 14-18, which is appropriate given the content listed above, though I’m sure college students may be able to relate to the second half as well. Welcome to St. Hell is best for those looking for representative trans comics, whether as a trans youth looking for validating experiences, especially from trans men, or an ally looking to educate themselves on trans matters. I highly recommend this title to librarians and educators aiming to include a good variety of trans works into their graphic novel collections in terms of tone and depictions.

Welcome to St. Hell: My Trans Teen Misadventure
By Lewis Hancox
Scholastic GRAPHIX, 2022
ISBN: 9781338824445

Publisher Age Rating: 14-18

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  British,  Trans , Eating Disorder

Cheer Up! Love and Pom Poms

As more books with trans characters are published, the scope of what a trans life looks like in print is expanding. It’s not all about coming out or transitioning but exploring relationships and why one person is attracted to another. Cheer Up! Love and Pom Poms examines these issues while drawing distinct personalities for its two main characters. It’s also a light, fun, high school sports graphic novel about teens falling for each other and supporting one another when things are tough.

We are introduced to Annie as she and her mom are in the principal’s office at school. Annie is smart, but also aggressive, dismissive, sarcastic and does not get along with anyone else at the school. The principal and her mom want her to find a club or team to participate in. Annie’s mom used to do cheer and she challenges her daughter’s preconceptions about what being a cheerleader is all about. As Annie rushes out of the office in anger, she bumps into Beatrice, who is putting up cheer tryout posters. Annie immediately blames Beatrice for her troubles. Having Annie and Beatrice at odds sets up the central conflict early in the book.

We find out that Beatrice recently transitioned and is on her second year on the cheer squad. Annie reluctantly tries out while Beatrice is voted to be squad captain. Her first act as captain is to advocate that Annie join the squad even though others dislike Annie, because everyone deserves a second chance. Annie and Beatrice start training together and grow closer over the course of the book, rekindling their old friendship and examining their new feelings. It is not a typical romance as Beatrice isn’t sure which gender she is attracted to and questions why Annie likes her. Does she like that she was once a boy or does she like her for who she is now? Beatrice must also confront the fact that she is included in cheer and other activities because she is a token trans person, not necessarily because they like her. Annie and Beatrice confront these issues together and help the other cheer girls understand why their tokenism isn’t right. Of course the story ends at prom with some drama and a happy ending.

Crystal Frasier creates a light, fun sports comic that touches on some dark issues but resolves them neatly, so we get a positive, inclusive ending. Fans of Check, Please! and Heartstopper will likely enjoy the sweet, queer romance here. The art by Val Wise is clean and lively. Each character is easy to differentiate and a variety of body types and sizes lends the story some realism while keeping things light. The vibrant coloring also helps here. These stories tend to lean heavily on cis men as their villains and this book is not an exception. A more nuanced approach to what brings dramatic tension would be welcome.

Most public libraries will want to carry this book as I’m sure it will be popular with teens looking for a light romance with good art. High school libraries will likely want to add it as well, depending on your community and their comfort with trans and lesbian/queer romances.


Cheer Up! Love and Pom Poms
By Crystal Frasier
Art by Val Wise
Oni Press, 2021
ISBN: 9781620109557
Publisher Age Rating: 13-16

NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Trans
Character Representation: Queer, Trans

Girl Haven

It has been three years since Ash’s mother, Kristin, vanished without a trace. Now Ash lives in her childhood home, where old clothes and possessions still linger, but none more precious than her old studio, which houses the secrets of a special place: Koretis. Koretis, born from Kristin’s childhood imagination, is a female-only fantastical land, filled with magic, fanciful creatures, and anthropomorphic animals. One day, after a Pride Club meeting at school, Ash invites a few friends over to explore the studio, eventually coming across a spell to transport them to Koretis. Naturally, they attempt the spell in jest, but are amazed when they find themselves on a lush hillside, discovering that there may be more truth to the stories than they realized.

Yet, somehow, Ash, assigned male at birth, is there as well. What does this mean? Everyone has always referred to Ash as a boy. Shouldn’t the spell have kept Ash out?  Or does Ash’s entry into Koretis reveal something a little deeper, a story that has yet to be told?

The world and presentation of Girl Haven is admittedly simple, yet surprisingly accessible. Though I was not met with sweeping, detailed landscapes or a striking color palette, the illustrations still hold an almost nostalgic charm through their expressive qualities and designs. To give a comparison, Meaghan Carter’s style appears as a satisfying mixture of Molly Ostertag’s The Witch Boy and Gale Galligan’s work on The Baby-Sitter’s Club. The individual looks of the characters never come off as overbearing, although there are some instances of wonky proportions in particular panels. Adding to the overall readability of the comic, the layout and size of the panels make the images easily digestible and convey action and emotion in a way that is eye-catching and gripping. However, some scenes could have used a few transitional panels, as characters tend to sporadically appear from one location to another almost instantly, without the use of magical spells this time, of course.

What ultimately sets Girl Haven apart from other portal fantasies is its focus on gender exploration and acceptance. To see a story marketed towards children that deals with transgender identities in such a supportive and genuine way is nothing short of heartwarming. While Ash’s journey in questioning their gender is somewhat surface level, it serves as a worthy introduction to these issues. The comic showcases self-doubt and uncertainty as valid parts of this experience, while also stressing, in the preface, that this story is only one version of it, as not all transgender people share the same experiences. Since Ash’s arc is the focal point along with the journey to Koretis, this does not leave much time in this 160-page comic to develop the other characters, mainly Ash’s friends Eleanor, Junebug, and Chloe, who have the potential to be as fully developed if given the chance. Still, each of them have enough of their own stand-out moments to ingratiate them to a variety of readers.

The publisher and other sites recommend this title for the 10 and up crowd, though I believe that, due to the accessibility of its art style and layout, its simple plot structure and characterizations, and lack of serious violence or any other potentially harmful material, it is also suitable for 9-year-olds and perhaps 8-year-olds at the youngest. Positive transgender representation in fantasy materials, especially for younger readers, is still somewhat scarce, and those curious or wanting to see themselves in such stories deserve to have them readily available should they be appropriate for them. Girl Haven can appeal to children facing similar experiences to Ash or to those wondering how to be supportive to those on their own gender journeys.

Giving further context to Ash’s story, the back matter of the comic includes definitions on gender, gender identities, gender expression, and sexuality as it pertains to gender. There is also a portion highlighting the significance of pronouns and how to respectfully use them. Librarians that are interested in strengthening and diversifying their youth LGBTQ+ comic collections and have a good circulation of character-centered fantasy stories should consider acquiring this title.

Girl Haven Vol.
By Lilah Sturges
Art by  Meaghan Carter
Oni Press, 2021
ISBN: 9781620108659

Publisher Age Rating: 10-99

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  Trans
Character Representation: African-American, Lesbian, Queer, Nonbinary, Trans,