The Thud

After his mother suffers a stroke, Noel leaves Berlin to live in a somewhat isolated town in a rural area in Germany. As he gets to know his housemates and quirky neighbors he starts to ease into his new life. The book is made up of short episodes and, while there are continuing plotlines, it’s mostly a slice of life story. What sets it apart is that Noel is neurodivergent, as are most of the citizens at Neuerkerode, an inclusive village that houses 800 people with developmental and intellectual disabilities and over 500 staff members. Mikaël Ross accepted the opportunity to produce a graphic novel honoring the real life 150 year history of Neuerkerode’s mission, spending lengthy visits learning about the village and its citizens. This edition by Fantagraphics has been translated from German by Nika Knight. 

The Thud is told from Noel’s perspective, occasionally with brief narration by him. There are no labels or diagnoses talked about when it comes to Noel and the other citizens. Even the phrases “developmental disabilities” and “intellectual disabilities” only ever appear on the inside of the book jacket. The characters are presented entirely through their interactions and behavior. It’s not always clear who are citizens and who are staff (I’m still not sure about the man in the police rain jacket), speaking directly to the inclusive intentions of the village. The diversity of the citizens encompasses many types of physical and mental ability. In the beginning, Noel is seen needing his mother’s guidance in social situations and his movement into care at Neuerkode is murky. Valentin, one of Noel’s housemates, has a fascination and encyclopedic knowledge of dates—births and deaths of everyone from Princess Di to his beloved cat Fluffy IV, and an intense need to stick to schedules. Alice, who pops up a lot, is shown having a seizure at one point, bringing back Noel’s trauma from hearing his mother fall to the ground in the start of the story. One of the highlights of the type of care offered by the village is supposed to be social freedom, which is the central element to the episodes in the book. The staff mostly intervenes when injuries happen from out of control actions or the citizens find themselves too far afield. 

The characters and antics in The Thud are charming and engaging. Noel looks for love and rock and roll (the real Neuerkode is currently home to three bands). He contemplates what it means for something to die and to lose someone. There’s not a lot of depth in many of the side characters, just comments or short conversations. In an article for Der Tagesspiegal, Ross talks about how probing interviews with citizens didn’t get him very far in his research stage, but hanging around the public areas did, as they would come up to him and offer up far more. Reading the book feels like people watching. This is a limitation on its depiction of the citizens in that it feels respectful and realistic, but remains on the surface. At the same time, Ross doesn’t impose the many problematic tropes that often exist in fiction about neurodiverse characters by neurotypical writers. The lack of labels and diagnoses works to present the characters as people rather than examples; it never feels as though Ross is saying “this is what a person with autism is like,” preserving the actual diversity of neurodiversity.

There’s positivity and community exhibited in the book, but Ross doesn’t engage with any of the controversies surrounding communities that separate people from the rest of society. The whirlwind of Noel’s move from Berlin to Neuerkode does retain the confusion and fear that comes from having a major life decision carried out without your input, but Ross doesn’t editorialize further than that. Working for the foundation that supports Neuerkode doesn’t stop him from shining a brief light on a dark chapter when Noel speaks with an older citizen. Irma tells him the story of the Nazis who were placed in charge of the village and hiding from them when they came to take the inhabitants to their deaths. 

The art and style are emotionally intense. The sketchy art blends realistic features and cartoonish expressions. It is very European, but not in a way that is inaccessible to an American audience. The colored pencil palette is dramatic, keyed to characters’ reactions as well as moody environments. A standout is the scene in the disco where a dense mottled rainbow of thick distinct lines provide the sonic and socially charged backdrop for Noel and his crush. The draftsmanship of many of the establishing backgrounds makes me wonder about the documentary angle of the book—would I recognize them if I were to visit Neuerkode? Aside from a handful of expertly employed splash pages, the panel structure is simple and straightforward. Ross uses speech bubbles to punch up the dialog, jagged lines and irregular outlines conveying the volume and energy of the speaker. This physicality of the dialog really helps bring the characters to life. 

A Junior Library Guild selection, Fantagraphics bills The Thud as a YA graphic novel. There’s a stylized naked statue of a woman and a hilarious episode where Noel and Valentin are introduced to a pornographic DVD (the cover is shown featuring a topless woman) with the tv off panel, otherwise no nudity or sex. The general plotline of just trying to get along with the bunch of people you’ve found yourself surrounded by will speak to teens and adults, too. I recommend this for all collections that serve adults and teens. Neurodiverse readers may recognize aspects of themselves in the characters and neurotypical readers may experience some empathic breaking down of expectations of people they perceive as different.

The Thud
By Mikael Ross
Fantagraphics, 2021
ISBN: 9781683964063

Publisher Age Rating: age 13-18

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation:  German
Character Representation: Neurodivergent

Firefly: The Unification War Deluxe Edition

FIrefly: The Unification War

Despite the short run of the original series, Joss Whedon’s Firefly went on to be a cult classic and cultural phenomenon that has found continued life across media forms as numerous creators have added their voices to the ongoing story. (Whedon himself has faced a number of abuse allegations in recent years, so readers may like to know that he had no direct involvement with this volume aside from originally creating the characters.) Firefly: The Unification War Deluxe Edition is set alongside the timeline of the original show, combining an original story with a look back at the conflict which forever altered the shape of the Firefly universe.

From BOOM! Studios, The Unification War sees Greg Pak penning a new adventure for Whedon’s iconic characters as they scrape out a living on the fringes of an inter-planetary society divided along lines of resources and ideology. A seemingly simple protection job quickly spirals out of control when Mal and Zoe—captain and first mate of the Firefly class transport ship Serenity—find themselves wanted for alleged war crimes during the Unification War. Stranded on a hostile planet, caught in a web of ever-shifting partnerships and betrayals, and pursued by a fierce agent of the harsh Alliance government, the past they thought they had left behind comes crashing into the present. What began as a simple attempt to earn money and repair their grounded ship soon releases ripples that tear open the wounds of the failed fight against Alliance control and threaten to unleash another round of bloodshed on veterans and civilians alike. Through the eyes of new and familiar characters, Pak weaves together memories with an examination of the moral uncertainty of large-scale conflict and the scars it leaves behind. As best intentions drive everything toward an explosive clash, Mal and Zoe will be forced to reckon with their pasts if they are to have any hope of protecting the future.

The Unification War promises to reveal the untold story of the war that shaped both Mal and Zoe into the characters we now know from the show.  While it does deliver on this promise in part, the flashbacks we actually get are narrow and serve mostly to inform the present-day conflict of the comic’s central story. With plenty of page time for our favorite crew of misfits and filled with the banter that helped set the original show apart, The Unification War is a delightful return to the world of Firefly. Pak, along with a side story written by Josh Lee Gordon, demonstrate a clear familiarity with and love for the series in between section breaks decorated with quotes from the original series. There is a lot to love in the fast-paced and fun story told here—a story of crime and survival that ultimately finds its way into questions of humanity, morality, and the cost of violence.

Unfortunately, the opening promise of The Unification War is ultimately its weakest point. It delivers a fresh look into only a few moments of the war, reckoning more with the effect of the conflict than the actual events. And while there are plenty of strengths to the writing, a few key moments and the ultimate climax of the story feel out of character and out of continuity to what has already been established. The end result is a story that doesn’t quite deliver what established fans will be looking for—while also requiring a little too much familiarity with the larger universe to be fully enjoyed by readers new to the franchise.

Illustrated primarily by Dan McDaid, The Unification War delivers a rough and somewhat line heavy art style that is not out of place in the semi-lawless landscapes of the Firefly universe. With clear storytelling across action sequences and quiet moments alike, the artists serve to bring Pak’s story to life across nearly 400 pages of space-western adventure. Even as the central story transitions to the bonus chapters of backstory for new friends and old enemies, McDaid and the others capture the humor, desperation, and dark twists that this series has to offer.

Even as it deals with some more mature themes, Firefly: The Unification War can comfortably be read by older teens as well as adults. Grounded as it is in the larger universe, this volume will have the greatest appeal to existing fans of the show—but could serve as an entry point for anyone who enjoys science fiction or action and adventure comics with strong characters and themes as well as rich dialogue.

On the whole, The Unification War is an engaging new entry in the Firefly saga. It ultimately falls short on its promise to deliver the untold history of two of the series’ central characters, while also suffering from some unfortunate continuity missteps and a somewhat awkward open-ending. Its strengths are numerous enough that it’s worth the time of any fan looking for another romp alongside the crew of Serenity, and its shortcomings are not so glaring as to ruin the things the comic does well. The end result is a flawed but enjoyable adventure of war, survival, and found family that embraces the complexity, big themes, and fun mishaps that have made the franchise beloved by so many.

Firefly: The Unification War Deluxe Edition 
By Greg Pak, Josh Lee Gordon
Art by Dan McDaid
BOOM! Studios, 2020
ISBN: 9781684156023

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation:  Korean-American
Character Representation: Neurodivergent,

Kismet: Man of Fate

Kismet was the first Muslim superhero in comics. From Algeria, he first appeared in 1944 in Bomber Comics to fight Nazis behind enemy lines in World War II. Created by the pseudonymous Omar Tahan, after four issues, he disappeared from the comics arena as abruptly as he arrived. The character was rediscovered in 2007 by Bostonian academic (and Muslim convert) A. David Lewis, who revitalized and reworked the character to reflect contemporary problems. These problems, unfortunately, are the same issues facing the original Kismet: discrimination, prejudice, ignorance, the newly labeled alt-right, and the upsurge of Nazism. Kismet reappears in Boston, fused with activist Qadar Hussein in a deadly fight, and allied with Qadar’s sister Deena and her friend Rabia. With the death of Qadar, Kismet continues to invest his energies to fighting these unremitting evils. His superpower is his ability to see momentarily and instantaneous into the future, only enough to dodge an attack but not long enough to delve into impending actions.

The city of Boston is an active character in this volume through the contemporary landmarks and activities. Along with the strong and proud Muslim identification of the protagonist, this Boston is filled with citizens that are principally minorities and/or female. This Boston is unapologetically interracial and filled with characters of varied religious and sexual identities coexisting to bring the city alive and operational. There are no stereotypes here. Kismet is a man out of the past, but soon, with the aid of his friends, becomes a fighting force for social and political activism.

I found the illustrations muddy with a distinct partiality to dark backgrounds interspersed with infrequent brilliant splashes of reds and greens. Facial expressions are often hinted at rather than clear and I had difficulty at times differentiating characters. At the same time, however, the story arc was easy to follow and the solid characters rose above the muddiness to deliver a strong picture of today’s American society through the eyes of the past. The graphic novel is action packed and very relevant—public libraries for sure and high schools as well would benefit from having it in their collections.

Kismet: Man of Fate
By A. David Lewis
Art by Noel Tuazon
ISBN: 9781949518009
A Wave Blue World, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: Adult

Browse for more like this title
Character Traits: Neurodivergent, Multiracial, Lesbian, Genderqueer

Woman World

At the start of Woman World, a genetic defect wipes out all male humans within a few generations. Then a series of natural disasters devastates the planet. From the ashes rises a new civilization: one made up only of women.

Then: wacky hijinks!

Despite its grim beginnings, this is a silly, sometimes sweet look at a post-apocalyptic—and post-man—world. Here, a village bands together under a flag bearing an image of Beyoncé’s thighs. (As we later discover, the neighboring villages also chose parts of Beyoncé’s body as their standards.) Within that village live women of a variety of ages, races, and body types. There’s the grandmother who is the only one who can remember real live men, and her granddaughter who scavenges through the ruins for pieces of the old world. (Her most prized discovery: a DVD of Paul Blart: Mall Cop.) There are single women and women in relationships, women writing poetry and women who have decided to be naked all the time. Together, they live a cooperative, generally peaceful existence.

In Woman World, men are remembered with a fond wistfulness, a lost part of human culture. But women don’t spend too much time missing or wondering about them: they’re busy living their lives. (That said, a lot of the jokes do involve people making incorrect assumptions about what the old world was like.)

The stakes are generally low in this slice-of-life comic. Conflicts arise from arguments, anxiety, and the occasional unrequited love. There is also concern about the future of the human race: surviving sperm banks are an option for women who want to have children, but they won’t last forever, and other methods are still experimental. But in the meantime, everyday concerns revolve mostly around relationships, romantic or platonic.

The book Woman World is a print collection of the popular Instagram webcomic of the same name. The art is grayscale, with a few full-color pages sprinkled through the book. There are usually three to five panels per page. Some pages can stand alone as one-off jokes, while others are part of continuing plot arcs. The characters’ faces are simple but expressive, while their distinctive body shapes, hairstyles, and outfits make them easy to tell apart. Shading indicates different skin and hair colors. One character has a prosthetic leg, and one has surgical scars; some have piercings or wrinkles or other visible differences that make them easy to distinguish while also making the world of the comic richer and more interesting.

As far as content, there is no violence and no on-page sex, just some kissing. There is frequent nudity, but it is never sexualized, and no genitals are drawn in, just triangles that are understood to be pubic hair. A small number of swear words appear, generally as part of a joke.

Woman World may portray a post-apocalyptic civilization roughing it in the wilderness among the ruins of our world, but it’s actually a rather relaxing read. The characters usually mean well, and no one gets hurt. Just women of all kinds supporting each other and going about their business, with some jokes thrown in. Hand it to anyone looking for a gently funny stand-alone read.

Woman World
by Aminder Dhaliwal
ISBN: 9781770463356
Drawn & Quarterly, 2018