Myths offer an enchanting ability to engage our imaginations since time immemorial, conjuring forth and reshaping stories with extraordinary fascination. The superhero narrative exemplifies a timeless myth that never grows old, and award-winning graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese,Superman Versus the Klan) and Bernard Chang (Batman Beyond, Teen Titans) infuse new life into a mythology drawn from a 16th century Chinese epic (Journey to the West) in the first volume of Monkey Prince: Enter the Monkey.
When a brawl breaks out in the locker room of Gotham High School, Batman and Robin rush to the scene only to find a mischievous trickster monkey proclaiming himself as the “MotherFlippin’ Monkey Prince.” Little do they realize that this magical misfit is really high-school teenager Marcus Sun, whose foster parents harbor secrets wrapped up in their work as purported freelance scientists. After getting bullied from a classmate at school one day, Marcus runs into Mr. Zhu, a corpulent janitor with pig-like features who bestows him with supernatural powers, transforming him into a monkey-like superhero. Marcus adapts to a nearly indestructible body that can shapeshift, ride on clouds, reattach dismembered limbs in combat telepathically, and other quirks. In time, he learns that Mr. Zhu is actually the Shifu (teacher) Pigsy of the legendary Sun Wukong, a nearly omnipotent monkey king from Chinese myth and legend.
The story revolves around the ups and downs of Marcus as he undergoes a process of self-discovery after gaining his newfound powers while grappling with fear, courage, and self-discipline. Sinister forces lurk in the background—from the uprising of a demon that possesses the Penguin in Gotham City to a pink-haired, kick-ass girl with a mouthful of razor-sharp fangs in Amnesty Bay. Vibrant, stunning colors of gold, red, and green from the Monkey Prince’s outfit create a stark contrast to the shady blue of Gotham City’s noir world. Intricately drawn characters occupy action-packed panels, energizing amusingly choreographed fight scenes echoing escapades from the classic Chinese myth. Episodic side plots crisscross alongside Marcus’s coming-of-age story, unraveling a somewhat confounding and complex storyline, though still maintaining a narrative momentum that intrigues.
Ushering in a brand new superhero to the DC universe drawn from the mythos of an ancient Chinese epic, Monkey Prince highlights a reluctant yet bold superhero with a playful persona whose purpose and role remains to be seen. Flashbacks to past adventures (Monkey Prince #0) reveal an epic battle against Darkseid, so perhaps DC comics will reprint those side stories to supplement missing gaps in a future volume. A mix of mystery, magic, and fantasy blend into a storyline populated by superheroes, supernatural monsters, demons, dragon kings, and more, making this a unique addition to adult graphic novel collections for readers seeking something bordering on mythic fantasies fueled with wild antics.
Monkey Prince, vol. 1: Enter the Monkey By Gene Luen Yang Art by Bernard Chang DC, 2023 ISBN: 9781779517098
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: Chinese-American Character Representation: Chinese-American
Books written for a teen audience about disordered eating and mental health must be handled with care. In Hungry Ghost, by Victoria Ying, the main character, Val, struggles with intrusive thoughts and disordered eating. Ying herself has had similar struggles, and wrote a character with similar experiences. There are potentially triggering topics of fatphobia, obsession with thinness, and disordered eating. Val’s obsession with her size and food infiltrates everything, including time with friends and family and even her ability to grieve.
Val is Chinese-American. I do not have personal or professional expertise with disordered eating and I am not a member of this culture, so I can’t speak with authority about the way Ying handles the complicated nuance of identities and mental health. However, the book is based on the author’s own experiences. As Ying writes in the afterward, “Val is not me, but I was her.” I found that she handled the difficult topics with care and in a way that could potentially reach the teens who could most benefit from the story.
In the book, Val, as narrator, mentions the Chinese concept of guai, to be a good and obedient daughter. Val’s relationship with her mother is central to the story. She yearns to be seen as obedient, and when her mother expects thinness, obedience through Val’s eyes is an obsessive focus on food and calories. The mother’s near constant comments about food are often in the guise of looking out for Val’s health. Even at a young age, when given a slice of her own birthday cake, Val’s mom insists, “Don’t eat. Just taste.” The mother’s comments on food and health are destructive, and focus on outward appearance rather than actual physical or mental health.
The cruelty and destructiveness of Val’s obsession with food and eating filters into every moment of her life. With every bite, she calculates calories and the need to purge, going as far to plan trips to the bathroom away from prying ears. It’s intrusive and disruptive to her life and her relationships.
The book is very didactic in its representation of disordered eating, which, considering the topic, is necessary. A young adult book about such a triggering topic has to be intentional and and almost over the top in its insistence in the pain caused by this obsession. Every moment that portrays a disordered eating thought must portray the negative and damaging reality. Without repeated reminders, a book about a young woman’s obsession with appearance and food could potentially glorify the very thing Ying is writing against.
Ying illustrated the book with soft colors and lines. The palette is limited (mostly pale pink, green, and gray) and the outlines are all done with the scratch of pencils. Val has been taught to not take up space with her body or emotions, and the art reflects that. The book doesn’t have the saturated dark colors that will stand out on a shelf. The illustrations are light with sparse details. The subtlety matches the character of Val and a story about a debilitating obsession to be small.
Beautiful and softly illustrated plants, trees, and flowers are a motif throughout the book, in moments of pain and moments of healing. Peonies grace the cover, cascading from her empty stomach. Peonies, while incredibly beautiful, are fragile, thornless, and hardly able to stand on their own, but they are perennials and they will grow back. In a book about pain and a journey to healing, I appreciate the connection.
Victoria Ying’s Hungry Ghost is a well-crafted graphic novel about a difficult topic, and I recommend it for high school or young adult collections. It will appeal to readers who look for family or relationship drama and realistic narratives, and I will be recommending it to many students in my library.
Hungry Ghost By Victoria Ying First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250767004
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Chinese-American, Eating Disorder Character Representation: Chinese-American, Eating Disorder
The boroughs of New York City are filled with the stylish moves of breakdancing teens and tweens. But what happens when they add a twist to their routine? Breakdancing and yo-yo tricks are an unstoppable pair in Gale Galligan’s newest graphic novel Freestyle. The author and illustrator use their skills to create a story with relatable characters having fun expressing their style and flair on and off the dance floor.
The breakdance crew Eight Bitz need to practice every weekend if they want to win the upcoming dance competition. Their team captain is pushing their limits, causing rifts between members. However, things get a bit more chaotic when team member Cory is grounded until his grades improve. Not only that, he is stuck with quiet studious Sunna as his tutor. At first the two have trouble getting along, but things soon change when Cory watches Sunna perform some expert yo-yo tricks. As she flicks her wrist and lets the plastic bauble fly to and fro, Cory becomes mesmerized and wants to learn all the techniques. As the two become closer, however, members of Eight Bitz take note. With tensions in the dance team rising, a few members confront Cory and question his loyalty to the team and their friendship.
Gale Galligan’s artwork and storytelling go very well together. Not only are readers introduced to the world of breakdancing and yo-yo competitions, they are treated to a story of middle schoolers foraging and maintaining friendships while preparing themselves for that next level in their academic careers, high school. Each character has their own recognizable strengths which they use to achieve their goals and weaknesses that they combat in their own way. The cast is very much diverse, with characters of different gender identities and nationalities. There are also pressures of perfectionism and meeting parents’ standards within the story, common occurrences in the lives of most middle schoolers.
What really brings this story to life is Galligan’s artwork and panels packed with slick dance moves and yo-yo throwing action. In double page spreads, tweens are jumping and moving to a hip hop beat while spinning yo-yos fly in all different directions. The artist’s choice of using a bright color scheme adds to the excitement of the pages, giving readers a chance to pore over every single detail. Their research into both activities is prominently shown throughout the story, with characters using different lingos and names to describe routines, movements, and positions.
Illustrator and author Gale Galligan combines the quick moves of breakdancing and yo-yo tricks to create an exciting, heartfelt story of friendship and expression. Public and school libraries should consider this graphic novel in their collections, especially those who cater to devoted readers of Raina Telgemeier and Kayla Miller. Middle school readers and fans of Galligan’s work on The Baby-Sitters Club graphic novels will definitely want to give this book a try and perhaps look into the exciting world of yo-yo tricks and dance crews.
Freestyle By Gale Galligan Scholastic GRAPHIX, 2022 ISBN: 9781338045802
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: Taiwanese-American, Genderqueer, Nonbinary Character Representation: Chinese-American
Where does one’s sense of identity begin, how does it evolve over time, and can it be shaped honestly to avoid misunderstandings? Laura Gao wrestles with these elusive questions as she navigates the curious wonders of growing up in her graphic memoir Messy Roots. Whether riding on a buffalo though the lily pad ponds of China, playing tricks on her little brother, or getting love struck by a slick female basketball player at her middle school in Texas, Laura Gao aims to find her identity and truth. This coming-of-age memoir presents a wildly amusing and deeply personal account of straddling between different cultures which will resonate with young adults seeking to find themselves along the universal journey of life.
Messy Roots transports readers on a ride through the curious and vivacious life of Laura Gao as she embarks on fanciful escapades in Wuhan, China, immigrates to Texas, returns overseas to her native homeland one summer, and finally reaches San Francisco in adulthood. Like an alien transplanted to another planet, she struggles to adapt to American culture by changing her Chinese name from Yuyang to Laura (after the first lady under President George Bush), hiding her Chinese dumplings for lunch at school, and defying stereotypes of being a math whiz. She further weaves cultural details seamlessly into her narrative–from reflecting on the Chinese legend about the young maiden whisked off to the moon during the mid-autumn festival to satisfying her cravings for white rabbit candy (a sweet milky confection).
Gao’s characters, rendered through sketched line drawings, resonate with comedic effect. Facial expressions and doodles capture a mixed range of emotional nuances and personas, sometimes with exaggerated effects reminiscent of manga. Intricately composed panels in some instances feature subtle details that warrant a second viewing to fully appreciate their thematic implications.
A remarkable and rollicking rampage through one teenager’s rites of passage, Gao delivers an honest and humorous take on the ups and downs of growing up in a constantly shifting world while tackling intersectional themes of immigration, assimilation, racism, sexuality, and self-identity. While the story adopts a warm, light-hearted tone, it also sheds light on more serious issues including the anti-Asian microaggressions that continue to persist during the Covid-19 pandemic. Her debut offers a refreshingly energetic voice to young adult library collections, bringing a queer Wuhanese American to the forefront of BIPOC characters.
Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese-American By Laura Gao Harper Collins Balzer + Bray, 2022 ISBN: 9780063067776
Publisher Age Rating: 14+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Chinese-American, Queer, Genderqueer , Character Representation: Chinese-American, Queer, Genderqueer,
Borrowing from the world of an invented lumber camp hero and his blue ox*,the author re-frames the familiar narratives of Paul Bunyan as a Chinese tale, told by the thirteen-year-old protagonist to the appreciative children in the lumber camp. Mei’s concocted Auntie Po is a Chinese giantess guardian who, aided by her blue water buffalo, Pei Pei, protects them from giant mosquitoes as well as outside devious enterprises. The children, both white and black, find these tales soothing as well as amusing. Alas, there are no Chinese children allowed in the camp other than Mei herself. The young protagonist, Mei, lives with her father in a Sierra Nevada lumber camp in 1885. Her father is the camp cook and Mei helps out by baking the most fantastic pies. Ah Hao, a Chinese immigrant, cooks for the white workers who have board as part of their salary and the Chinese workers who live outside of the camp itself and are not provided with board or part of the camp life.
The power of the tales’ characters and the telling of the stories become the backbone of this moving graphic novel. Within the storytelling and outside, in the historical recreation of the lumber camp itself, Shing Yin Khor delves into weighty and relevant matters such as identity, grief, loyalty, gender issues, privilege, racism, and family in an uplifting and honest manner for young readers. This is a tale where the telling of stories and the power of storytelling shine!
Mei and her father’s life are filled with hard work, but there is joy and friendship within the camp until they experience severe repercussions from the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. This piece of legislation renders their quiet life style amuck. Not even the famous pies seem to calm matters down, but the stories of the adventures of Auntie Po and her blue water buffalo, Pei Pei, help both Mei and her listeners navigate the muddy waters that are the result of decreed prejudice. During this time of introspection Mei realizes that her close friendship with Bee, the white daughter of the camp manager, is not quite as she hoped since Mei looks to Bee as a romantic partner, but Bee has a different future in mind. The honest and nuanced portrayals of friendships between both Mei and Bee and their two fathers highlights the distinct levels of privilege afforded the two families.
Khor’s digital pencil and hand-painted watercolor illustrations are as straightforward as her text. The illustrations of the camp scenes are factually accurate and those of the fantastical characters in the stories of Auntie Po intermingle with the historical world, alluding to their possible existence for Mei in times of stress. The backgrounds of the frames are predominantly white, while the bulk of the illustrations are infused with colour and emotion. The efficient use of diverse sized frames embodies the emotional pressure of the main characters when dealing with various degrees of grief, death, anger, discrimination, anxiety, and joy. The fresh, dramatic line work and muted watercolors depict both the perilous realities of logging and the occasional moments of serenity successfully. The openings to the individual chapters are illuminated with the thematic collections of tools of the logging camp and of their kitchens, offering the young reader further knowledge about the activities of loggers and cooks.
The back matter includes a brief bibliography and an author’s note where Khor acknowledges the Indigenous peoples on whose traditional lands this work of historical fiction takes place. “If history failed us, fiction will have to restore us.” – Shing Yin Khor, Afterword (286)
Highly recommended for all library collections.
*Although the story of Paul Bunyan mostly originated as advertising for logging companies, it eventually entered oral tradition in America.
The Legend of Auntie Po By Shing Yin Khor Penguin Random House, 2021 ISBN: 9780525554882
Publisher Age Rating: 9-13
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Middle Grade (7-11), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: Chinese-American Character Representation: Chinese-American, Lesbian, Genderqueer
When young Grace is bullied by some older boys who tell her she doesn’t belong because her father is Chinese and her mother is white, her dad tells her the legend of an ancient Chinese emperor who gave his fiercest warriors a drop of his immortal blood. Just like Grace, these warriors were mistrusted because of their dual backgrounds, but according to legend, the emperor’s gift gave them the strength of dragons and, more importantly, courage and compassion. The message is clear: Grace herself must use these qualities to face her own life’s trials. Perfect for fantasy-adventure fans of Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet series or the Wings of Fire graphic novels, City of Dragons: The Awakening Storm has plenty of high-stakes action, but also delves into what it means to embrace dual racial and cultural identities.
Flash forward three years after the bullying incident. Grace’s dad has died of cancer and Grace moves from the U.S. to Hong Kong with her mom and new step-dad, who is white like her mother and happens to be the doctor who treated her dad’s cancer. At her new elite private school, Grace quickly makes friends with a racially diverse group of friends who have an equally diverse skill set—there’s the technology-savvy Ramesh, brainy James, and Hong Kong native Jing who’s fluent in Cantonese.
When a woman in the marketplace gives Grace an egg and tells her she is Hùnxué, it’s Jing who explains that means mixed blood—just like the warriors from the legend Grace’s dad told her. The pieces start to fall together when Grace’s egg hatches a blue water dragon and the four tweens are hunted down by a black-suited security detail intent on acquiring the dragon at any cost. Although the plot leans heavily on familiar tropes (will anyone be surprised when it turns out the step-dad is the power hungry bad guy?), there is lots to like in this adventure, including loads of Chinese dragon lore, a sea goddess, magical gems, a cave with ancient prophecies written on its walls, and danger at every turn. The manga-style drawings are complemented by richly saturated colors and dynamic panels that draw the reader in and keep the fast-paced action moving; the dragon spreads are particularly magnificent. Ultimately, just as Grace’s dad taught her, it’s courage and compassion that are needed to save the day and Grace has plenty of it. Though the immediate danger is vanquished, the story ends with a hint at more dragons to be awakened in the coming volumes.
City of Dragons, vol. 1: The Awakening Storm By Jaimal Yogis Art by Vivian Truongg Scholastic GRAPHIX, 2021 ISBN: 9781338660432 Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11) Character Representation: Chinese-American
The life of Nova Huang, teenage witch, had been going through its usual motions: helping her grandmothers run their bookshop, loaning out spell books to the local magic users, and investigating the odd supernatural occurrence in the community. Naturally, she did not expect to run into her long-lost childhood friend and werewolf, Tam Lang, facing off against a malevolent horse demon in the woods. Currently on the run from those looking to steal their wolf magic, Tam turns to Nova for aid. What follows is a resurgence of unspoken feelings, their relationship deepening as they reconnect over hopes, fears, and uncertainties both old and new. In this brand-new collector’s edition of the Hugo Award nominee, Mooncakes weaves a beautiful story that will captivate readers with the wonders of magic, self-discovery, and the unshakeable strength of love and family, both born to and found.
Wendy Xu’s muted, yet charming color palette immediately engulfs readers into the atmosphere of the story, as the comic opens on a panel filled with the alluring reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn. A sense of coziness in the colors persists in the backgrounds, whether in the forest surrounding Nova’s town or in the book-filled backroom of her grandmothers’ bookshop. Even the clothing of the characters goes a long way in strengthening the fall vibes that linger within each page, displaying comfy sweaters and stylish button-ups and jackets. From the art alone, Xu’s illustrations bring about an urge to whip up the warmest, most comforting beverage, wrap yourself in a soft blanket, and nestle within them. The use of larger panels as well as a straightforward layout scheme make this an accessible read, its more character-driven scenes being the most standout portions of the story. Panels in which there is no dialogue are fairly common, relying completely on Xu’s artistic choices to accurately convey the underlying emotions of the scene. As a result of the depth and versatility of the characters’ expressions, each of these scenes hit their marks perfectly.
The story itself is mostly grounded, all fantastical elements aside. Nova and Tam’s relationship serves as the emotional crux and, though we fall into the middle of their developing romance, this does not make it any less compelling. Their constant support and loyalty to each other cements them as a couple we want to see succeed and overcome all odds. Both of them try to anchor the other through their own emotional insecurities, whether it is Nova’s fear of leaving behind the only family she has left or Tam’s doubt of their own abilities and need for acceptance and family. The open and honest communication between them is equal parts refreshing and endearing as we follow them through their shared journeys. This dynamic aside, the comic underlies the story with a healthy amount of humor with the characters naturally bouncing off of each other. Though the danger of whatever is lurking in the woods remains prevalent in the story, the action mostly takes a backseat to the exploration of the characters and their dynamics.
One element that Suzanne Walker and Xu weave expertly in Mooncakes is its representation, which, although present and utilized in the story, does not make up the sum of the characters. Both Nova and Tam are Chinese-American, with Nova also being bisexual, hard of hearing, and a hearing aid user, while Tam is genderqueer and goes by they/them pronouns. The intersectionality of these representations does not come off as “how many identities can we stack on top of each other,” but as realistic facets of these characters, as they should be. Neither of the main characters’ main conflicts revolve around these parts of their identities, nor does the comic completely shy away from how they do impact their lives. These two elements balance each other perfectly, leading to a representative material that treats its characters like people first and foremost.
Due to the art style of the comic, its themes on identity and acceptance, and the meaningful relationship between the main leads, Mooncakes is best for those 13 and up looking for a good mix of heart and humor with a paranormal edge. This special edition also includes a new introduction and afterword, as well as previously unpublished materials, such as concept art, scripts, and letters from the characters that give additional worldbuilding. Librarians and educators looking for more inclusive materials or character-driven stories for their collection should considered purchasing this title.
Mooncakes Collector’s Edition By Suzanne Walker Art by Wendy Xu Oni Press, 2021 ISBN: 9781620109731 Publisher Age Rating: 13-16
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Chinese-American, Queer, Genderqueer, Hearing loss Character Representation: Chinese-American, Bisexual, Queer, Genderqueer, Hearing loss
From the creative imagination of Pornsak Pichetshote (Infidel) and Alexandre Tefenkgi (Outpost Zero) comes a gritty crime thriller set in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the socio-political climate of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The year is 1936, the maid of an ailing millionaire has gone missing, and his son has hired a Chinese American detective from Honolulu to unravel this conundrum in the first volume of The Good Asian.
In classic pulp fiction style, Pichetshote delves into a spiraling mystery that unreels like a noir film starring Edison Hark, a Chinese American detective who tackles the case in a cool and collected manner. He is initially hired by Frankie Carroway, son of the millionaire Mason Carroway (and Edison’s adopted father), to track down the whereabouts of twenty-five-year-old Ivy Chen. In a slick, calculating persona like the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes, Edison dives into this mystery with a keen eye, collecting details meticulously and leaving no clues unturned. In each scenario, he absorbs information with laser-sharp focus, whether it be the frayed sleeves of a colleague, unlatched locks on a door, or a bloodied hatchet at the scene of a crime. The trail leads him through a vibrant cast of characters and locales. The story begins in the barracks of the Angel Island Immigration Station, shifts to the mansion of the wealthy comatose Mason Carroway, segues into the soiree of an extravagant Chinatown night club featuring flamboyantly adorned dancers, and through the dark back alleys of Chinatown where lurks a reputed hatchet man. One clue leads to the next as he assembles clues that snowball into a daunting mystery that may even connect with his mother’s death.
Complementing Pichetshote’s plotting are monochromatic and dull colors that amplify the noir tone in this seedy atmosphere where malevolent forces strive to elude the self-effacing sleuth. Deftly illustrated scenes packed with action, drama, and nuanced character expressions unfold cinematically like the Kuleshov effect, challenging readers to connect images and actions occurring in between panels. Most intriguing is the characterization of Edison Hark, who navigates the labyrinthine streets of a criminally infested, racially discriminating society while wrestling with his own identity as a Chinese American.
While scores of pulp fiction mysteries abound, few have positioned Asian Americans in positive leading roles. Thus, The Good Asian will enrich adult genre collections, transcending standard tropes by addressing themes of immigration, identity, and racial prejudice. The back matter includes historical notes on the Angel Island Immigration Station that detained Chinese immigrants arriving in America and an annotated chronology of anti-immigrant legislation to contextualize the socio-political milieu of this era. This first volume delivers a fascinating twist on a noir mystery in the vein of Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich, presenting an alternate view of the American experience and subverting the Charlie Chan stereotype of Asian Americans as model minorities, spotlighting them instead as agents of change to achieve social justice.
The Good Asian, vol. 1 By Pornsak Pichetshote Art by Alexandre Tefenkgi Image, 2021 ISBN: 9781534320949 Publisher Age Rating: M
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+) Creator Representation: Thai-American Character Representation: Chinese-American
Just when things were going so well! The Avant-Guards, a quirky basketball team at an equally quirky arts college, have been having a great season; but now stress and interpersonal conflicts are stirring. When Nicole realizes that her passion is not music, but comedy, and wants to change her major; how will her parents react? Will a new player who sets off Charlie’s anxiety derail Charlie’s relationship with Liv? Meanwhile, their newly-formed league has been hit with a funding crisis that could sink it for good. Can the Avant-Guards pull together for a fundraiser to save the league?
This volume concludes the story of the Avant-Guards, taking them from the team’s formation in volume one to the end of their first basketball season. The three volumes—collecting twelve issues of the comic—include character arcs for all the members of the team, though the greatest focus remains on reticent transfer student Charlie and exuberant team captain Liv. Volume One was told entirely from Charlie and Liv’s perspectives, while Volume Two introduced the viewpoints of teammates Jay and Tiffany and their coach, Ash. This volume gives us a Nicole-centered storyline before returning to Charlie and Liv. We also glimpse the perspective of the team’s newest member, who unintentionally throws the team into turmoil just when they need each other most.
As in previous volumes, on-the-court action is interspersed with hanging out, planning, arguing, and other off-court drama for the Avant-Guards. Readers of the first two books will be familiar with these vivid and varied characters, all with their own motivations and hang-ups, adding depth to the interpersonal scenes. Meanwhile, the basketball games—which sometimes include sprawling, dynamic double-page spreads—make for a fun and different way to view the characters. The big fundraiser, too, neatly showcases the talents and interests of each member of the team, reminding us of what they’re all actually going to art school for.
The artwork remains lively, colorful, and expressive. The backgrounds and the characters’ outfits are packed with fun little details, from posters on the walls to the way the different characters dress for the big fundraiser. At the end, the book contains a series of sketches, showing pages in progress, early character designs, and more. It also lists, with illustrations, the other teams in this unusual basketball league, including the Jetts (playing for The Royal Academy of Punk Rock), the Cuddly Retrievers (of The American Institute of Veterinary Curiosities), and the Baristas (hailing from The Academy of Specialty Coffees and Loose Leaf Teas).
Like the first two volumes, Down to the Wire is funny and heartfelt, populated by sympathetic characters who make mistakes but mean well. There are certainly stakes—mostly emotional ones, though the league’s funding is in jeopardy as well—but this is a feel-good book that isn’t here to stress readers out. Given the trajectory of the series overall, it will not surprise readers to hear that things work out in the end.
The Avant-Guards: Down to the Wire By Carly Usdin Art by Noah Hayes ISBN: 9781684155613 Boom! Box, 2020 Publisher Age Rating: Series ISBNS and Order
Title Details and Representation NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Character Traits: African-American, Chinese-American, Bisexual, Lesbian, Nonbinary, Anxiety Creator Highlights: Queer
Remember when Bitter Root launched and the buzz was just beginning (including my review of volume 1)? The follow-up is here, and it opens with more swagger than ever. There’s the golden Eisner Award ‘E’ on the cover, labeled “Best Continuing Series Winner 2020.” A note on the rear cover mentions that a movie adaptation is in development. The first page is loaded with four genuflective blurbs, followed by a Sangerye family tree and credits pages for the six issues within, including the Red Summer Special anthology. Can this golden series continue its winning streak, or has it reached a sophomore slump?
That family tree will come in handy if readers have forgotten any of the characters from volume 1, because the Red Summer Special that kicks off volume 2 is a cluster of short chapters from the Sangerye family’s past, going from 1850 to the story’s present in the 1920s. Among the lore is the introduction of Blink’s friend Wu. Wu and her family hunt guizi, the same monsters the Sangeryes call jinoo, suggesting each race has its own classification and means of handling the dangerous transformations of racism. Elsewhere, in a realm known as Barzakh, a multiracial coalition of warriors protects Earth from demons beyond Earth’s plane of existence. The inclusiveness of the campaign against bigotry invites readers of all stripes to feel like they can pitch in, too.
The diversity of skin color is exceeded by the color on the page, which is often bathed in warm yellows and oranges, with plenty of blues and purples used for shadows and nighttime. The vibrant palette fits the continuing supernatural conflict, as a new, more powerful avatar of hatred, Adro, crosses over to Earth. New York’s local leaders, a diverse group of men (I detected at least Black, Chinese, and Irish among them), debate the alliances needed to face it. Wu and Blink hunt monsters and defend neighborhoods against jinoo against the “old-fashioned” wishes of their families’ matriarchs who would rather they contributed from home. “You think Ida B. Wells could’ve done what she did from a kitchen?” Blink asks. Elsewhere, in an elongated flashback, a Black and Indigenous alliance discovers what appear to be Black jinoo, leading to questions of what varieties of spiritual corruption are possible.
Some things haven’t changed since volume 1. The Sangerye family continues to battle jinoo on multiple fronts. Berg, whose vocabulary marks him as “the smart one” in every scene, loves to say “indubitably” and “salubrious.” Now there are also monsters transformed by trauma called inzondo, and characters respond to their existence differently, right down to hunting methods and even empathy for them. The faith and community afforded by a Christian church represent sources of support. Berg observes as part of his own inzondo infection: “There is a grief that cries out so loud it drowns out all sound. But when the screams fall upon deaf ears, the soul becomes tormented.” Physical self-defense is as significant as reaching out and curing people before they attack anyone. The versatility of this condition as a metaphor for various social ills means the story has as many hooks as the reader brings to it.
The multiple perspectives from the first volume continue here, plus a couple more, leading to an overstuffed plot. It’s hard to summarize the juggling act of a story in digestible terms, not because it’s too complex, but because the context shifts a lot. Almost every scene takes place in a different time, place, and character perspective. Some readers may need to flip back and forth to keep the timeline straight as it bounces across years, days, and hours. Scenes do not always transition smoothly, with action left hanging and feeling disorienting upon return. The Tulsa race massacre, sunset towns, church burnings, and lynching are all salient plot points, and anyone who would object to such charged imagery would have to also reckon with the history behind them.
While the buildup in this volume is interesting and even compelling at times, it leads to an action-packed finale in which heroes verbally refute Adro’s hunger for hate and narrate their feelings out loud. On top of all this, little animals that had been used to sniff out demons make their own transformations and crowd out both the page and story. Sanford Greene and Sofie Dodgson’s talented visual work extends from the frequent martial arts action pages (there is no small action here) to heartfelt monologues. It seems like David F. Walker and Chuck Brown try to stack too many elements at once, resulting in a precariously teetering historical action / horror / mystery hybrid in need of greater focus. Big does not always lead to epic.
Hooray, then, for the back matter, where a multitude of scholars use the comic as a platform for exploring the Tulsa Race Massacre, Zora Neale Hurston’s speculative fiction, epigenetic trauma, creative resistance, oral tradition, Bitter Root’s logo design, whiteness, and power fantasies. Variant cover art pays homage to the films Do The Right Thing, Purple Rain, Boyz In The Hood, New Jack City, and Juice. There are also some process pages of roughs, inks, and colors to demonstrate how the book came together. This comic practically contains a whole class about itself, and the digging is fruitful. I just wish the story was as masterfully executed as all the lofty examinations extracted from it.
Is Bitter Root still worth collecting? Absolutely. This is a continuation and fulfillment of characters and settings established in volume 1, and should work fine for teens and up who can handle violence and some fantasy gore. There are plenty of story threads to pick up in the third arc, on its way in 2021. Language-wise, a character from Mississippi says “sumbitch,” and a sign outside a sunset town in Georgia uses the N word.
Bitter Root, vol. 2: Rage & Redemption By David Walker Chuck Brown Art by Sanford Greene ISBN: 9781534316607 Image, 2020 Publisher Age Rating: M (17+) Series ISBNS and Order
Title Details and Representation NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18) Character Traits: African-American, Chinese-American Protestant Creator Highlights: African-American Related to…: Book to Comic