Miles Morales: Stranger Tides

Miles Morales is adjusting to his identity as the new Spider-Man in town. It can be tough, but it has some serious perks, like being a guest of honor at the release event for the video game launch of the century. Which is awesome . . . except it turns out the game is a trap set by an alien mastermind who plans to use it to destroy humanity.

Everyone who logs onto the game—or even sees a video of it—is frozen in a state of suspended animation. Miles would be one of them, but he is grabbed at the last moment by an unlikely rescuer: former supervillain Trinity. She and another villain, Vex, have been working with a powerful alien entity called the Stranger, who is responsible for the video game plot. According to the Stranger’s plan, in three days, the frozen people will unfreeze and attack everyone else, causing potentially millions or even billions of deaths. But Trinity doesn’t actually want humanity destroyed, so she proposes a team-up to save the world.

The problem is that the Stranger is powerful. Maybe too powerful even for Spider-Man, his loyal “man in the chair” Ganke, and Trinity to take on. Especially when Miles is distracted by worrying about his own friends and family who have been frozen by the game. Things are looking grim, but as it turns out, Trinity is not the only surprising ally willing to help Spider-Man take down the Stranger.

Miles is brave and goodhearted and has all the snarky banter one expects from a Spider-Man. His friendship with Ganke, in particular, feels caring, real, and full of fond ribbing. But Miles also feels things deeply, especially when someone he loves is hurt. This book gives considerable page time to Miles’ worry about his beloved uncle Aaron, who became frozen while driving and crashed his car, ending up in the hospital. Other family and friends are targeted by the Stranger as the book goes on, strengthening Miles’ resolve.

The art is angular and colorful, giving the pages a lively look even before the additions of classic superhero visuals like action lines and sound effects. Kool-Aid-bright colors highlight the neon lights of the city and the larger-than-life characters, settings, and action sequences. The cast is racially diverse and the characters visually distinct and expressive. Screentones are used frequently, but subtly, often to highlight a character’s altered state: for instance, simple screentones help differentiate the frozen people from others, and is one of the visual indications used when Miles turns invisible.

The stakes are high in this story, with danger both global and personal, but things do work out well in the end. The frequent fight scenes are full of teleportation and spider webbing, but no blood or graphic injuries.

This is a smart, fast-paced story with lots of superpowered action. Hand it to young readers who want a relatable hero with attitude and heart. Fans who enjoy seeing superhero comics written by popular YA authors may also like this volume’s preview of Captain America: The Ghost Army by Alan Gratz.

Miles Morales: Stranger Tides
By Justin A. Reynolds
Art by Pablo Leon
Scholastic GRAPHIX, 2022
ISBN: 9781338826395

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  African-American, Guatemalan
Character Representation: African-American, Puerto Rican

Dark Blood, Vol. 1

Superpowers, as depicted in fiction, are often a double-edged sword—there’s the freedom of flying like Superman or having enough strength to move the car that’s taking up your parking spot, but there’s also the inherent fear of others that comes with having abilities different from mainstream humanity. Add in the volatile component of racism and the superpower narrative can become quite explosive, as it does in Dark Blood, written by LaToya Morgan and illustrated by Walt Barna.

The book focuses on Avery Aldridge, a former Tuskegee airman living in 1950’s Alabama. He’s a veteran who fought in the war with the hope of making it back home to his family, but home means he and his family must endure the racism of the Deep South. While processing the trauma of war and the racism at home, he discovers that he can somehow move things with his mind. Many people, especially those who see Avery as less than them, will also be afraid of that power.

The superhero origin story is a popular trope and Morgan’s story offers an interesting take. There are multiple plotlines that run through this story, from Avery being trapped behind enemy lines to him being the victim of a racial attack that ultimately leads to him being on the run. The narrative jumps around a bit, but these stories are as vital to Avery’s superhero origin as a bite from a radioactive spider. Everything from the PTSD to how he is treated by the white people in his life all go into who he is and how he decides to use his gifts.

And when he starts using his powers in earnest, they are quite awe-inspiring, thanks to Barna’s use of dynamic POV angles that give a punch to the scenes of Avery fighting in the war as well as those showing him unleashing his powers. Where Barna really shines, though, is how he makes Avery’s telekinetic powers truly terrifying. Avery’s power builds from being able to lift small objects to stopping bullets, but it’s the characters’ body language, as illustrated by Barna, that really sells the power Avery has. From Avery’s tension-filled face as he uses his powers to people’s terrified reactions to them, readers can practically feel them thrumming off the page.

Some people dismiss superhero comics as straight-up revenge fantasies, as people gaining power to get back at those who slighted them. But the kinds of slights that Avery and his family must deal with go beyond what Peter Parker endured at high school or Clark Kent endured at the Daily Planet. More than just a story full of dynamic angles and fluttering capes, this tale is more of a character study of a man who suddenly gains great power and must decide how to use it. This book is sure to be a hit with superhero fans because of its many displays of awesome superpowers, but its social commentary is also an important message of how hard it is for the marginalized and disenfranchised to rise up, with or without phenomenal psychic powers.

Dark Blood, vol. 1
By LaToya Morgan
Art by Walt Barna
Abrams, 2022
ISBN: 9781684157112

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation:  African-American
Character Representation: African-American

Clementine Book One

Writing stories set in a much loved, previously established universe is always a highwire act. It’s hard to make everyone happy. Tillie Walden takes the challenge in Clementine Book One, as she adapts a graphic novel from a Walking Dead video game character. Her success or failure is probably dependent on how invested in the Walking Dead universe you are.

This story opens with a Black teenage girl with an amputated leg traveling alone through a zombie apocalypse. She clearly knows how to take care of herself. She’s also been through a lot of trauma and doesn’t trust people easily, though no one seems to trust each other in this world. We learn that it’s been many years since the apocalypse began and Clementine has lived in this world for most of her life. We see flashbacks of what happened to her before (likely parts of the video game) and it informs who she is today. Soon she comes across a religious community and reluctantly accompanies one young man on a quest he’s undertaken to meet others on the top of a mountain in the hopes they can survive there away from the living dead. As with most zombie stories, nothing goes as planned and mayhem ensues. There is a complete story in this book but another door opens at the end in the hopes that readers will want to see what Clementine’s next steps are.

Walden’s art and storytelling are clear and distinctive. She is able to create the appropriate mood and atmosphere for a zombie apocalypse. The book is in black and white, just like the original Walking Dead series, which does make it hard to tell some characters apart. Walden uses clothing and hairstyle to do most of this work and she’s successful most of the time. The book is mostly set at night, so everything is pretty dark. This makes depicting Clementine’s race particularly challenging. In general, if you liked Walden’s art previously, you’ll enjoy what she does here.

We’ve had a lot of tales told in the world of the Walking Dead. Focusing on the trials of a capable teenage girl is a good story to tell, but it’s not breaking much new ground other than the fact she is an amputee. Fans of Tillie Walden will be interested to see her working in someone else’s “playground.” Fans of the Walking Dead and the video game will get to see Clementine’s story move forward. Not all of them will be happy about where the story takes us, though. I am curious where planned books two and three go. Image Comics head and Walking Dead creator, Robert Kirkman, has picked a good property to launch his new Skybound Comet imprint at Image with. It will be interesting to see how well this imprint expands Image’s audience to include a younger crowd of comics readers. Clementine is rated for older teens and could go in most public library YA or adult collections. Whether it stands alone or if it has too much backstory for most teens will be the test of whether it is a hit or not.

Clementine Book One
By Tille Walden
Image Skybound, 2022
ISBN: 9781534321281

Publisher Age Rating: 14+
Related media: Game to Comic

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Lesbian
Character Representation: African-American, Bisexual, Missing Limb, Prosthesis

Needle & Thread

Navigating senior year is hard enough already, but having to choose between living the life you want for yourself and living the life others think is right for you is a level up in difficulty. Nothing makes Noah feel more like himself than designing and sewing clothing, but his public servant parents are adamantly against him attending art school to pursue a career in costuming. Azarie has gotten very good at playing the part of the perfect mayor’s daughter, helping keep up the “traditional” family facade her father projects to the public as he runs for re-election, but deep down, she just wants to read comics and play video games. 

When the two teens from very different worlds accidentally run into each other at the mall, it turns out they’re not so different after all: they both just want to realize their dreams. But unfortunately for them, not everyone else supports them. As Noah and Azarie navigate their double lives and work together towards a common goal, will their new friendship and confidence in themselves hold strong? Or will the actions of those determined to maintain the status quo unravel it all?

Though teens struggling to find and be themselves while under the constraints and expectations of their parents is not a new concept in teen stories, it feels fresh in David Pinckney’s Needle & Thread. The narrative decision to have Noah and Azarie stay purely platonic friends is refreshing and important, and keeps it from falling back onto the star-crossed lovers trope that so easily can happen when characters are from different racial and socio-economic backgrounds (Noah is Afro-Latine and middle class, Azarie is White and wealthy). Their friendship and character development as they discover who they are together and apart is one of the strongest aspects of the story, and readers will root for them as their bond gets tested by outside influences.

Cosplay and the world of cons are starting to crop up more in teen stories and it’s nice to see it presented as just a thing that the friends are doing, and not something that is completely out there or niche. The many scenes of Noah, Azarie, and the Cosplay Squad working on Azarie’s costume for the contest (and Noah’s portfolio) will absolutely ring true to readers who are involved in fandoms and cosplay themselves.

But of course, there could be no Needle & Thread without artist Ennun Ana Iurov’s lovely illustrations. Her line work has a pen and ink style that gives the art a fashion sketch vibe—a perfect choice for this graphic novel’s themes. The muted pastel color palette is absolutely gorgeous, and has a softness which feels right for the introspective aspect of much of the story. And yet there is still such a liveliness to the characters as she depicts both the humor and drama of teenagers trying to just exist as they are. Additionally, an especially creative touch is the intro page for each new chapter: each one has a drawing of a character’s cell phone home screen, giving little context clues like time of year (to help move the story along) and additional story teasers via social media notifications complete with hashtags, or incoming message snippets.

Teens feel pressure from a myriad of sources telling them who to be and what paths to choose. Finding the confidence to assert yourself in a world full of adults who think they know what’s best for you in order to grab hold of at least a little piece of a dream is something both Noah and Azarie strive to do. Maybe, by adding Needle & Thread to your collection, a reader might feel seen or heard enough to try for a little of that confidence too.

Needle & Thread
By David Pinckney
Art by Ennun Ana Iurov
Mad Cave Studios, 2021
ISBN: 9781952303234

Publisher Age Rating: Grade 7-9

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  African-American
Character Representation: African-American, Latine

Agents of S.L.A.M.

A new challenger has entered the ring! Katie Jones, Black twelve year-old wrestling vlogger extraordinaire, is taking on her heroes—the Agents of S.L.A.M.! Well … she’s interviewing them, that is. She’s been invited to the White House by the president of the United States (who just so happens to be the head of S.L.A.M.) to do a livestream with her idol, Bruno Bravado, and the rest of the team!

But when the World Domination Society threatens S.L.A.M. mid-stream, Katie is suddenly thrust into the top secret side of S.L.A.M. operations: protecting the world from all kinds of dangerous threats. Allegiances and trust are tested as the agents of S.L.A.M. wrestle their way all over Earth and into outer space! Will the team’s prowess be enough? Or will it be down to Katie’s superior wrestling knowledge to save the day? 

From the luchador who never takes off his mask to the intimidating, scary wrestler who’s really just a sweet mama’s boy at heart, middle grade readers will have plenty to enjoy in this story filled to the brim with both wrestling and superhero tropes. The familiarity of the tropes is what helps to make the story entertaining and easy to read. After all, what good is a villain without bumbling henchmen and a secret lair? Can a team of heroes really band together to save the day if there isn’t a plucky young newbie thrown into the mix to help guide them? What about the wise grandma who’s been around forever, but can absolutely still throw solid punches in a space suit? And of course, what about a magical object that can give ultimate power to those who wield it?

Agents of S.L.A.M. has all of these and more, thanks to Dave Scheidt’s fun, engaging writing style. Scheidt’s narrative decision to have the story begin as if readers are watching one of Katie’s vlogs was a smart move, as it brings readers into the story with her from the start, and they’ll want to stick by her to see what happens next. The dialogue throughout is quick and quippy in an age-appropriate, superhero movie way that will appeal to readers looking for something fun and funny. And sprinkled in amongst the adventure and action are beats of deeper emotion, focusing on things like hero worship, sibling relationships and family bonds, and making difficult choices. 

This graphic novel is taken to the next level, of course, with Scoot McMahon’s illustrations. McMahon’s thick, smooth line art combined with the incredibly vibrant, lively palette used by colorist Heidi Black leads to an overall look and style that evokes a kid’s cartoon. This fast-paced, animated vibe makes it feel like you’re really watching the action (especially the wrestling matches) come alive on the page, and is perfectly suited to the narrative Scheidt has created. The character design and body shapes for this diverse cast also feel quite superhero comic book-esque, almost like a more kid-friendly version of a Marvel or DC universe, which works well in combination with the many superhero tropes being evoked here.

TV wrestling is already a campy, over the top form of entertainment, so why not add, “but what if they were superheroes?” to the mix? It certainly pays off for Agents of S.L.A.M., and middle grade readers will enjoy it whether they know anything about wrestling or not. A solid addition to any library collection, hand this book to readers who enjoy graphic novels that are funny and action-packed, with super cool girls leading the way.

Agents of S.L.A.M. Vol.
By Dave Scheidt
Art by  Scoot McMahon
Oni Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781637150221

Publisher Age Rating: 9-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Character Representation: African-American,

Another Kind

A charming and diverse group of kid cryptids live together in a protected home called the Playroom, until one day the protection fails and they must run for their lives. Deemed “irregularities” by society, the kids manage to escape being kidnapped by an evil “Collector” of oddities—for the moment. With no place to turn and no one to trust but each other, the group flees from hazard to hazard, each new danger adding to their doubt that anyone will ever accept them for who they are.

Mutants and aliens have long served as a metaphor for prejudice of all types, and the lesson isn’t neglected here. Society is set against the children because they are different, and in most cases the children’s families were also persecuted. As their journey unfolds, so too do their traumatic backstories. White-haired and white-skinned yeti Omar had to watch his Sherpa Nani die in front of him as she tried to protect him from being taken away. Will-o-the-wisp Sylvie, pale-skinned with pointy ears, was imprisoned as a child because she can fly. She also has a darker power: the ability to control anyone who threatens her safety. Newton, a green, scaly reptilian alien clone who can take on the appearance of a white boy, has been ostracized from his stoic people because he shows too many human emotions. Brown-skinned Jaali is one of the Nandi bears of Kenyan legend. When he was young, he and his father were discovered in their transformed states and captured, but Jaali escaped and his father did not. Ever since, he has been haunted with worry for his dad. Selkie Clarice and green-skinned, tentacled Maggie were both stolen from their ocean families. Each kid’s candid sharing about their past evokes empathy for their plights, and the regular-kid hijinks, even as they face threat after threat, add to the group’s likability.

Various havens serve as interludes between the dangers, reassuring the kids that not all the world is against them. A street urchin named Tibbs leads them to an abandoned theater where the group is delighted to find many more young cryptids like them. A brief Romeo and Juliet-esque side plot develops, revealing that prejudice exists even among the cryptids themselves. Meanwhile, Tibbs gives Omar a quick lesson on pronouns, leading Omar to later realize he is nonbinary. Though not germane to the plot, the group’s easy acceptance of Omar’s decision highlights the support they offer one another.

Visually, the panels are a delight: uncluttered and easy to follow but laid out in a variety of shapes and tonal themes. The clean pages prevent the large cast from becoming unwieldy and make it all the more fun to pore over the occasional highly detailed spreads, such as the montage of the kids’ foray into various cryptid locations.

The concept may be reminiscent of YA comics like Brian K. Vaughan’s Runaways or James Patterson’s Maximum Ride, but Another Kind strikes a perfect middle grade balance: the high-stakes adventures are perilous enough to keep the pages turning, but the love and loyalty the children show for the found-family they’ve formed makes it clear there’s hope for a better future. This mix of action, sweetness, and humor is sure to appeal to readers who enjoy series such as Molly Ostertag’s Witch Boy, Jeremy Whitley’s Princeless, and Mark Siegel’s 5 Worlds.

Another Kind
By Trevor Bream, Cai May
Art by Cai May
Harper Collins Harper Alley, 2021
ISBN: 9780063043534
Publisher Age Rating: 10+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Creator Representation: Queer
Character Representation: African-American, Nonbinary

Blade Runner: Origins

Blade Runner OriginsThe year is 2009 and robot evolution has just entered the Nexus phase, with robots that can pass for human becoming more and more commonplace on Earth. The Tyrell Corporation, manufacturers of the Nexus 4, are justly proud of their achievements and have money and power aplenty. Money and power enough, at least, to make the LAPD stand at attention when they ask for a detective to come in and fast-track an investigation into the death of one of their scientists, confirming their belief that she committed suicide.

Enter Cal Moreau, one of the few honest cops left in a dishonest world, who joined the LAPD to try and make the slum he grew up in a safer place. Already on the outs with his bosses, Moreau is an ideal patsy for a job that could quickly send heads rolling. Unfortunately, there are too many details that don’t add up: a brother who insists there is no way his sister would ever kill herself, a lab assistant who knows more than she is saying, and indications that the Tyrell Corporation’s next model, the Nexus 5, may have escaped and started turning upon the humans that created it.

Titan Comics’ exploration and expansion of the world of Blade Runner continues, this time taking a trip into the past and exploring the world before robots became illegal on Earth and the first Blade Runners began hunting Replicants hiding among the human population. This prequel series perfectly captures the aesthetic of the original films in both its story and its artwork.

Cal Moreau is an immediately strong protagonist, cut from the same hard-boiled cloth as Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard. He is notable for having a sick sister in a coma, whom he visits and reads to on a regular basis. It is hinted that he’s gay, as he frequents a bar run by a drag performer named Divina, who chases away a woman who flirts with Cal, saying that she couldn’t “let the poor girl go on thinking you have time for her. Or money.” Despite this, Cal doesn’t show much interest in men or women. Instead, he’s married to his work and the duty he feels he has to save lives, having joined the force after serving in the military, and still suffering PTSD flashbacks from his time in space.

The artwork by Fernando Dagnino suits the film noir feel of the story and of the original films, with quite heavy inks. The colors by Marco Lesko are also duller than one might expect given the vibrant neon hues employed throughout the movies. Despite this, every panel of this book feels true to the core aesthetic of Blade Runner. This is sure to please fans of the original movie and purists like myself, who might doubt the ability of a comic book to match the tone of the film.

Blade Runner: Origins is rated 15+ for Older Teens and I feel that is a fair rating, if a bit conservative. The action of this book is intense, but there is surprisingly little bloodshed. There are some disturbing images and several on-page deaths, but most of what is seen would probably make the cut for a Teen-rated manga. There is also little sexual content, apart from one scene with implied nudity where everything is concealed in the shadows.

Blade Runner: Origins
By K Perkins, Mellow Brown, Mike Johnson, Michael Green
Art by Fernando Dagnino
Titan, 2021
ISBN: 9781787735873

Publisher Age Rating: 15+
Related media:  Movie to Comic

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Representation: African-American, Gay,  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Women Discoverers: Top women in science

The cover of this collection of biographies shows a background of mathematical equations and a line-up of women with varying skin tones, dressed in clothing from an astronaut suit to historical gowns, but all with the same slim silhouette and of roughly the same height.

This sets the stage for a series of overviews of twenty women in the sciences, which manage to be largely similar, despite their different backgrounds and areas of study. The collection is oddly unbalanced, starting with approximately 20 pages on Marie Curie, giving a rapid overview of her life, relationship with Pierre and other romantic entanglements, and ending with her daughter Irene continuing her work. This is followed by several more contemporary scientists, with an overview of their lives and accomplishments in text accompanied by a thumbnail image and a single graphic panel showing them with other scientists in a lab or involved in their scientific work.

Several shorter comics, about ten pages each, profile Ada Lovelace, Hedy Lamarr, Rosalind Franklin, and Mae Jemison. Lovelace’s narrative is bracketed by a modern teacher introducing her to high school students and ends abruptly with her losing “everything” at gambling and then dying. Most of the narrative with Hedy Lamarr is given over to her personal life, including a full page on her husbands. Franklin’s narrative focuses heavily on her unsuccessful struggle for equality, emphasizing that she was most accepted and happy during her work in Paris. Mae Jemison’s story is upbeat, the only prejudice shown in her family huddling around a televised report of Martin Luther King’s death and a class of smiling white children playfully tossing a paper ball at her head. There are no sources cited or back matter. The longer comics all include what appear to be quotations from primary source material, but also fictional dialogue.

The art, although depicting a wide variety of women in different time periods, has a strong similarity. The women are all shown with the same slim figure and average height. Only Marie Curie is shown to age, with her lightening hair, stooped posture, and a few wrinkles. The backgrounds are also similar, with Curie and Franklin shown against tree-lined avenues in Paris and a few sepia-toned war scenes, Jemison in darkened, indoor areas until she blossoms in the sunny, outdoor spaces of California, and Lovelace in groups of indistinguishable people. It’s ironic that, despite the introduction claiming that the purpose of the book is to bring to light hitherto overlooked female scientists, the five women given the longest profiles are already well-known and their comics focus more on their personal lives than on their scientific achievements. Even Curie’s longer comic is taken up with images of her wedding and later romantic entanglements, while Lamarr’s is mostly a series of images of her in provocative period gowns and bathing suits, with a success of husbands, and later as a recluse in Florida. Her inventions outside of the frequency-hopping idea are not referenced, but her plastic surgery is. Rosalind Franklin is, ironically, erased from her own comic, which transitions from her work with DNA to showing the male scientists laughing about her and her ideas at a pub, and then to their awards, overlooking Franklin completely with a brief mention of her later work before her early death. The comic ends with the belated and posthumous recognition of her work, shown in plaques and a statue. Jemison is depicted in the most upbeat fashion, with an emphasis on her hard work and early achievements and ending with her inspiring girls at a science camp.

The aim of the book is worthy, but it is far from the only reference on the subject and it is poorly designed. The translation is rough, with frequent exclamations, choppy sentences, and the occasional typo. Readers interested in graphic interpretations of women in science will do better to explore Primates by Jim Ottaviani, selected Science Comics that emphasize the contributions of women, like Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers, or, for lighter fare, Corpse Talk from DK.

Women Discoverers: Top Women in Science
By Marie Moinard
Art by  Christelle Pecout
NBM, 2021
ISBN: 9781681122700

Publisher Age Rating: 12 years and up

NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  French
Character Representation: African-American, American-Austrian, British, French

Shadowman: Book One

ShadowmanJack Boniface, aka Shadowman, is in the business of slaying demons. “The Deadside could ripple into our reality just about anywhere these days. When that happens… things crawl out… birthing themselves into this world. And it’s my job to shove back.” Jack is in Shadowman form for nearly all of this book, which means he swings a magic scythe, has hair of flickering shadow, uses supernatural vision, and wears a mask resembling a skull. As branding goes, this is as straightforward as Shadowman has ever been, using his shadow powers to wreak shadow justice. Jack is biracial, though this is not evident in the story beyond his dark skin.

He gets his powers from a shadow loa, an element of actual Haitian voodoo adapted for superheroics here, but this is no origin story. He starts out the story on the clock, so to speak, fighting one demon and on the trail of its matching partner. Each of this book’s four chapters features a showdown with a different demon that has infiltrated Earth by way of “thin spots” between here and the dark afterlife known as the Deadside. Bunn is good at twisting horror tropes, making a rampaging demon a tragic figure and a bloodthirsty hitchhiker the unsuspecting victim. Sometimes the horror is mysterious and subtle, other times violent and bloody. Negative emotions and experiences—violence, cruelty, hatred, sadness—embolden the Deadside to break through, as in the case of a toxic demon who lurks in a drug den. Baron Samedi, a teleporting skeleton who travels alongside Jack with taunts and advice, is normally a series villain but an effective foil here. The white dot in Samedi’s eye socket constantly teases mischief behind his guidance.

Jon Davis-Hunt’s illustrations bring to mind the word sharp. He uses the same amount of detail on faces and bloody violence as he does on backgrounds and outfits. The setting moves from New Orleans to an Arizona ghost town to Barcelona, Port-au-Prince, and London. Each location looks distinct, adding to each chapter’s distinctive feel. I want to look at everything on the page, from Baron Samedi’s flamboyant outfit to Jack’s smile right before he checks a mansion guard who lays a hand on him. Jordie Bellaire’s colors play a large role in the book’s appeal too, as the palette routinely morphs from natural and sickly colors in the normal world to heightened warm colors and glowing magical hues when the Deadside arrives. There are plenty of devils and antiheroes atoning for their sins in comics, but the art team here makes this a unique pleasure to read. Clayton Cowles’s lettering suits the mood too, with Jack’s uniform, white-on-black dialog and monologue bubbles contrasting against Samedi’s creeping, uneven bubbles.

A lot of Shadowman’s appeal is similar to that of a procedural TV show: hero shows up, turns over some clues, takes on a baddie, builds a little intrigue, and moves on to the next location. There’s no shame in that formula here, as it makes for efficient storytelling and it’s easy to imagine that Vol. 2 will have more Deadside demons, Samedi tomfoolery, growing threats from beyond, and look beautiful the whole time. There is a reference to a character from another comic Cullen Bunn wrote for Valiant, Punk Mambo, but the background knowledge isn’t necessary to understand this story. This collection represents a fresh take on the character, stemming from Valiant’s linewide 2012 reboot of their original 90s comics, but this isn’t a bad jumping-on point. Back matter includes some monster and setting commentary, as well as variant covers and a few black and white pages. Give this to fans of Hellboy, The Witcher, and Spawn.

Shadowman, Book One
By Cullen Bunn
Art by Jon Davis-Hunt
Valiant, 2021
ISBN: 9781682153741

Publisher Age Rating: 12+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Character Representation: African-American,

Free Speech Handbook (World Citizen Handbook Series)

This book opens with the free speech portion of the first amendment from the US Constitution, followed by writer Ian Rosenberg, who is Jewish, explaining the events that led to this book. Several events are referenced within the first three pages, including the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, National School Walkout protests, 2017 Women’s March, and Mollie Steimer’s arrival at Ellis Island from Russia in 1913. Steimer’s foundational court battles lead into a key consideration: “Who is truly heard in the marketplace [of ideas]? If women, minorities, and the poor are not granted equal opportunity to enter the market, how can their voices participate in the competition for truth?” This question is immediately followed by talking-head quotes from law professors Charles Lawrence III, who is black, and Catharine A. MacKinnon, who is white.

The second chapter looks at Colin Kaepernick and the act of taking a knee (originally staying seated, but changed to kneeling as a sign of respect to fallen soldiers, an oft-overlooked nuance I was glad to see highlighted). After comparing reactions for and against that act of protest, the narrative shifts to the 1935 case of a child not participating in his classroom’s pledge of allegiance. There, as in Steimer’s case and many others used in this book, Rosenberg quotes and contextualizes judges’ rulings, their immediate fallout, and what they mean for Americans’ freedoms today. In each chapter, Rosenberg cites different scholars, justices, authors, and legal precedents, ensuring that his teacherly perspective is never unilateral or unsupported by facts and expertise. This is important when debunking Donald Trump and Clarence Thomas’s hypothetical rewriting of libel laws to go after the media, for example. Further issues include but are not limited to civil rights protests, propaganda on social media, Westboro Baptist Church’s protesting at funerals, and the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville. There’s a lot to chew on in every chapter!

All of this history and legal analysis needs a skilled cartoonist to weave its various threads into a cohesive whole, and artist Mike Cavallaro is mostly up to the task. There can be paragraphs of dry text on some pages, and Cavallaro makes sure to break up each block of text with a related image, often a picture of someone in portrait. Layouts will include images designed to guide readers across the page; other times, they use broad, straightforward grids. Some metaphorical imagery underlines Rosenberg’s points, but more often than not the art is rather literal, depicting flatly delivered quotes, exposition, talking heads, and book covers. The first amendment appears as an anthropomorphic #1 wearing a red cape, battling laws aimed at restricting it. I can’t help but think back to my previous review of What Unites Us, which used color and figurative imagery more frequently and effectively. That’s not a knock against the arguments presented in this book, only its presentation.

An afterword including quick summaries of first amendment concepts, as well as a glossary of legal terms and chapter-by-chapter bibliography, provide resources for learning and recall. As one might expect in a thorough review of free speech, some of the book’s examples involve swearing, from celebrities cursing at awards shows to George Carlin’s “seven words you can’t say on television” bit, Samantha Bee’s callout of Ivanka Trump over immigration policy in 2018, and “fuck the draft” printed on a jacket during the Vietnam War. A section about Larry Flynt’s legal battles over Hustler, a pornographic magazine, does not include porn. The issues discussed in this book are undeniably pertinent to all Americans, as well as historians and legal scholars. To make another comparison to What Unites Us, this is another powerful teaching tool from the World Citizen Comics line of publisher First Second that demonstrates over and over the impact of people standing up for their rights, even (especially!) if doing so is unpopular. The presentation is scholarly, as well it should be. Close reading and factual analysis should be considered signs of respect for “the most American of virtues.”

Free Speech Handbook
By Ian Rosenberg
Art by  Mike Cavallaro
First Second, 2021
ISBN: 9781250619754

Series ISBNs and Order

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  Jewish
Character Representation: African-American, Russian, Mobility Impairment, Jehovah’s Witness, Jewish, Protestant ,