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

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Scarlett and Sophie Rickard’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists adapts a classic work of socialist fiction for a new audience. This retelling of Robert Tressell’s 1914 semi-autobiographical novel follows Frank Owen, a house painter with tuberculosis, and his fellow laborers, dramatizing their experiences with crooked bosses and chronic poverty in a pre-welfare state Britain. The graphic novel draws an unflinching portrait of working-class life, but its tragedies are interwoven with a wryly comic, yet profoundly moving message about power, politics, and the necessity of class struggle.

The book opens with a crew of painters on break, engaged in a contentious discussion of the economic issues that define their working lives. Low wages and lack of job security have left a mark on each man: Owen resorts to doing skilled decorative work for little pay, while facing the prospect of leaving his family destitute should he succumb to tuberculosis; another worker, Easton, is so far in debt that he must take in an unsavory boarder to ensure his young child has enough to eat; and the elderly Linden must continue working to provide for his family, knowing that the alternative is a punishing old age in the workhouse.

Yet The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is not simply a chronicle of suffering. The painters argue, agitate, and make us laugh as they express political opinions that feel as current in our modern era as in early twentieth-century Britain. This is a didactic novel, which means we’re treated to slightly stagey conversations in which characters wrangle over the root causes of economic inequality and explore its possible remedies. Thanks to Sophie Rickard’s eloquent and economical script, these exchanges are nearly as affecting as the labor struggles that inform them. It’s a joy to watch political dialogue take place not in classrooms or on social media feeds, but in the workplaces and homes of working-class families. Readers may or may not cosign the book’s of-its-time vision of a classical socialist utopia, but many will respond to its central thesis, that progress is possible if ordinary people engage with politics not as a spectator sport, but as citizens acting in solidarity with their fellow workers.

If Sophie Rickard’s script deftly adapts Tressell’s original 600-page epic, Scarlett Rickard’s art brings it to vivid life. Full-color panels recall the sharply observed domestic settings of Raymond Briggs’ adult graphic novels, delivering what feels like a sly satire of bucolic depictions of Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Against dollhouse-like backdrops of houses and storefronts, Rickard portrays the physicality of labor, craft, and housekeeping, reminding us that ordinary people worked hard to construct and maintain the built environments that appear in our favorite BBC costume dramas. Yet there’s also a lot of warmth in these pages; emotionally rendered scenes of holiday celebrations, family gatherings, and acts of friendship bring to life not only the struggles of the working class, but the personal relationships that make change worth fighting for.

In the decades following its original publication, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists had an outsized impact on labor politics, both in Britain and globally. The Rickards’ adaptation makes this indispensable novel accessible to contemporary readers in an effective new format. This book is an excellent choice for nearly all adult graphic novel collections, and young adult and high school purchasers should also give it strong consideration. Readers should note that, in addition to scenes of violence and worker abuse, this book contains depictions of sexual assault, postpartum depression, and suicide.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
By Sophie Rickard
Art by Scarlett Rickard
SelfMadeHero, 2021
ISBN: 9781910593929

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: British
Character Representation: British, Chronic Illness

Petrograd

In the imperial Russia of 1916, the city of Petrograd is mired in class warfare and despair. Embittered soldiers languish on the eastern front of the Great War, commoners queue in bread lines, intelligence operatives engage in furtive combat with Bolshevik revolutionaries, and people from all strata of society gossip about Rasputin, the charismatic mystic whose influence with the Tsarina threatens Russia’s stability.

Enter Cleary, a British intelligence officer of Irish extraction who’s been assigned to duty in Petrograd. Cleary isn’t patriotic; in fact, he harbors secret sympathies with Irish revolutionaries back home. But he’s committed to remaining in Petrograd, far from the terrors of the war—even if it means being tasked by distant bureaucrats to solve the Russian problem in a surprising manner. Cleary’s orders are simple: he must arrange the assassination of Grigori Rasputin.

What follows is less spy thriller, more absurdist satire in the “war is hell” tradition of World War I literature. Cleary’s plot is soon co-opted by a pair of dilettante Russian noblemen, whose modus operandi as amateur assassins resembles a Looney Tunes sketch. Rasputin himself is a shadowy opportunist whose political importance is dubious and whose spooky reputation mostly exists in the minds of his fellow Russians. And Cleary is not so much an action hero as a dupe, as he quickly realizes that, when this ill-conceived assassination goes south, he’ll be left holding the bag.

I liked a lot of the storytelling and artistic choices in Petrograd, particularly those that ground the mythology of Rasputin and revolutionary-era Russia in the gritty reality of class politics and global imperialism. In crafting the story of Petrograd, author Philip Gelatt draws on an unsubstantiated theory that British intelligence was involved in Rasputin’s death; though fictionalized, the story draws on a wealth of scholarly sources. Illustrator Tyler Crook elevates the project with evocative sepia-toned art that conveys the calm-before-the-storm atmosphere of a Russia on the verge of revolution.

Yet as spy fiction, Petrograd fell flat for me. Cleary is an intriguing character, a pawn of the British Empire whose need to save his own skin puts him at war with his better self. Yet the other characters who populate this story—with the exception of the elusive Rasputin—feel one-dimensional, without any of the subtleties and hidden motivations that make spy capers so darn fun. Nor did this script really gel for me as an adventure story; scenes are weighed down with dialogue and “as you know, Bob” exposition, with action hijinks mostly confined to the book’s climactic pages.

Ultimately, not only did this flat storytelling make for an unsatisfying read, but it did a disservice to the subject matter. By positioning Cleary as the only fully realized character in the dystopian landscape of wartime Petrograd, this book falls into Orientalist cliché, casting Russia as a backward nation whose inhabitants are nefarious, hapless, and doomed. Cleary may be an antihero, but he’s nevertheless the only character who feels like he has any real agency. A scene near the end places him in a crucial role in the 1917 February Revolution; in other words, Russians aren’t even given full credit for their own political revolution.

Petrograd will appeal to historical comic readers interested in a fresh, unusual retelling of the events of 1916/17 Russia, as well as fans of Tyler Crook’s award-winning art. The comic did rekindle my interest in 20th-century Russian history, from its revolutionary politics to the figure of Felix Yusupov, the queer, crossdressing nobleman who was one of the chief co-conspirators of the Rasputin assassination. While this one was ultimately a pass for me, Gelatt and Crook do succeed in bringing this history to life and making its complexities accessible to general readers.


Petrograd
By Philip Gelatt
Art by Tyler Crook
Oni Press Lion Forge, 2022
ISBN: 9781637150153

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Representation: British, Irish, Russian, Queer, Gender Nonconforming

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

Wicked Things

Charlotte Grote has won renown for her crime-solving skills, but now she’s aging out of the child detective category. But before she heads off to college and her plans to become a regular adult detective, she has one last hurrah: the magazine National Solver has nominated her for “Teen Detective of the Year (16-18),” and the awards ceremony will take place at a fancy hotel full of brilliant young minds from all over the world.

Lottie is thrilled to meet her counterparts from around the globe and finally get some recognition… until she is framed for the murder of one of the adult sleuths! She agrees to work with the police to clear her name, but it won’t be easy. And the real killer is still on the loose.

Wicked Things is set in the same world as John Allison’s Giant Days and Bad Machinery series, each of which include Lottie as a character. Here she is aged up a bit, and has a record of successful detective work. She is quirky, melodramatic, and often humorously oblivious to danger. Working with the police, she finds herself paired with a capable, no-nonsense detective who finds that Lottie strains his patience, especially when she keeps turning out to be right. In the meantime, her friend Claire starts her own unofficial investigation into the crime that someone is trying to pin on Lottie.

That said, we don’t actually see a lot of detecting taking place in this story. Lottie has hunches and takes mental leaps that end up being startlingly accurate. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, she does not then explain all the clues that led to her conclusion, so it sometimes feels like she just guessed and got lucky. Her friend Claire actually seems more methodical, despite not being the award-nominated child detective of the duo.

The art is active, with characters whose faces and postures stretch and squish into humorously exaggerated expressions. Each character has a unique appearance, including an individual style of dress and body language. The backgrounds are rich with detail, but not distracting. The palette is just on the colorful side of realistic, with the background colors helping to set the mood as well as make setting and scene changes clear right away.

There is a certain amount of crime in this book, including a small amount of violence and peril. Much of this is treated in a less-than-serious way, as when Lottie complains that being taken hostage is “hurtful.” The only real harm done is to the detective Lottie is accused of murdering, and that attack happens off-camera, so to speak.

Collecting issues 1 through 6 of Wicked Things, this volume stands alone but does have something of an unresolved ending. It packs in lots of humor, but not as much mystery-solving as readers might expect from a book with a sleuth protagonist. Fans of Goldie Vance may enjoy another peppy teen girl detective, though Lottie is older and considerably weirder than Goldie, and the mysteries she investigates are a bit more dangerous. Hand it to fans of Giant Days or Bad Machinery, and to readers who like snarky humor.

Wicked Things
By John Allison
Art by Max Sarin
Boom! Box, 2021
ISBN: 9781684156061

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

Adler

The year is 1902 and nurse Jane Eyre is newly returned to London from the Boer War. After facing the horrors of combat in South Africa as a combat medic, Jane is having a hard time readjusting to civilian life, particularly regarding how society seems to think proper ladies should act. After years of having to do the work of a doctor in places where there was none, it is rough to be told you cannot do such things by men who have not seen what you have. Thankfully, Jane finds a sympathetic ear and kindred spirit in the Lady Estella Havisham, who helps Jane with another problem she is having – finding a suitable roommate.

Enter Irene Adler; an American and an actress, who is also in need of someone to help her pay the rent. Given Victorian London’s opinion of Americans and theatrical types, Jane is certain she and Irene will get along like a house on fire even before they meet. However, Irene is far more than a simple actress, living a double life that places her at war with both the respectable and unrespectable elements of society. Soon Jane finds herself drawn into Irene’s world and a conflict beyond imagining, as a foreign queen declares war on the British Empire for what they did to her nation and seeks the advanced science of Marie Curie to unleash a power undreamed of upon the world!

It is impossible to consider Adler without thinking of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. (Indeed, the advertising for Adler described it as “The League of Extraordinary Gentlewomen.”) While this is an easy comparison to make, it is also an unfair one, despite both series having the same base concept of taking characters from Victorian literature and putting them into a story together. While Moore’s central conceit was to devolve the superhero genre to its penny dreadful roots and tell a Victorian superhero story, Adler’s tale is closer in tone to the pulp fiction and weird science stories that dominated popular fiction in the early 20th century.

Adler also has a stronger focus on its characters, with Jane Eyre becoming the Dr. Watson to Irene Adler’s Sherlock Holmes, but getting a bit more to do than offer Irene someone to talk to when exposition needs to be delivered. Lavie Tidhar’s focus on the characters and commitment to adding complexity to their motivations is such that one even feels a certain degree of sympathy for the villain Ayesha (aka the Amazon queen from H. Rider Haggard’s She: A History of Adventure), who shows surprising nobility by freeing the captive performers of a freak show while in the middle of plotting to kill thousands of innocents. There are also hints of a romance between Ayesha and her chief assassin, the vampire Carmilla.

The artwork by Paul McCaffrey proves equally well-crafted. The many action sequences of the story are well-choreographed and flow freely and smoothly from panel to panel, guiding the reader along. The character designs are also worthy of note, as McCaffery makes all the characters look distinctive so there is no chance of confusing any of the cast.

Adler Vol 1 is aimed at audiences 12 and up and I consider that to be a fair rating. There is a bit of bloodshed, with realistic depictions of garroting, radiation poisoning and bullet wounds, but nothing inappropriate to a T-rated graphic novel. Many of the literary references may fly over the heads of the intended audience, but adults will find a lot to enjoy in Adler beyond picking out the nods to characters from The Prisoner of Zenda and The Amateur Cracksman.


Adler Vol. 01
By Lavie Tidhar
Art by  Paul McCaffrey
Titan Comics, 2021
ISBN:9781782760719

Publisher Age Rating:  12+ Only

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Israeli, Jewish
Character Representation: American, British, Central African, Lesbian,