Throughout life, we all undertake the universal journey to explore our identity, a rite of passage that can take on many forms. For Pedro Martín, this journey started with a family road trip to Mexico, one that would uncover his heritage and family secrets as he reconnected with his Mexican American roots in Mexikid: A Graphic Memoir.
From the opening pages, we meet Petro (Peter), the fourth child in a family of nine, who indulges in a carefree world of reading comic books, playing with superhero action figures, and watching episodes of the sitcom tv show Happy Days (his idol is the Fonz). The year is 1977, and one day his family decides to hit the road and embark on a 2000-mile trip from their home in Watsonville, California to Jalisco, Mexico to pick up their Abuelito so he can live with them. They hop into their Winnebago motorhome and launch into their adventure. On this trip, stories are exchanged and the heroic feats of Abuelito running a mule train to bring food to warring sides during the Mexican Revolution era come to life. Lively dialogue interspersed with Spanish fill the pages—supplemented in part by occasional translated footnotes—blending in esoteric facts drawn from family stories, history, and culture.
Unfolding like a travelogue packed with cultural tidbits, this graphic memoir delves into a fascinating foray of one Mexican American family’s history and culture loaded with humor, drama, and charm. At the same time, Martín grapples with his bi-cultural heritage especially since his older siblings tease him about his inauthentic roots, having been born in the US. The text-laden panels burst with tons of cultural richness. From the vibrant musical rhythms of Chun-Ta-Ta to the romancing courtship rituals of Serenata (serenade), Martín piles on nuggets of information that infuse the narrative with intriguing insight. The back matter also features photos of his family, Mexican slang, and other fun facts that led to the crafting of his illustrious memoir.
Vibrant colors of gold and yellow accentuate Martín’s childhood escapades, while soft watercolor palettes with lighter shades signify distant flashback memories. Ben-Day dots reminiscent of pulp comics from the 1950s-1960s highlight Abuelito’s mythic adventures. The artwork and coloring is as robust as the text, capturing a multigenerational panoply of history and culture woven through stories past and present. Covering themes of identity, heritage, history, and family secrets, Mexikid adds to the ever-expansive voices of color in middle grade graphic memoir collections, one that offers a unique opportunity for Mexican Americans to tell their stories and speak their own truth and experiences.
Mexikid A Graphic Memoir By Pedro Martín Dial Books, 2023 ISBN: 9780593462287
Publisher Age Rating: 10-14 NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation: Mexican-American Character Representation: Mexican-American
Hotel Dare tells us that family are the ones you fight for. The story comes out swinging, with newly adopted Charlotte explaining she beat up a kid at school because he was saying things about her family. As eldest sister Olive points out, everything the kid said is true, the siblings don’t look alike at all and Olive is queer. Still, it’s this fighting nature, and the notion that how you protect your family won’t always be popular with them, that holds the story together. Hotel Dare offers a number of ways for families to fall apart, from the space pirate Mila being exiled from their world for who they love, to Mamá Lupe neglecting her son while she lookes for her lost husband in the magical worlds. Amidst strife there’s always the hope for love triumphing.
Olive, Darwin, and Charlotte are spending their summer with their abuela in Mexico at the Hotel Dare. It looms on the first page in a splash of boxy house shapes cobbled together and teetering at the highest levels, connected by rope ladders. Olive has an ulterior motive to their trip: to discover why it is their father and Mamá Lupe are estranged, what fight it was that separated them. Mamá Lupe makes it clear they’re there to help her clean and fix up the hotel, but softens her expectations with conchas, hot chocolate, and several days of the siblings lounging around the house.
Once the work gets underway, they split up to clean three separate rooms and simultaneously discover three closets leading to three different fantasy worlds. Olive is in a wizarding world where she finds herself comforting Brad, a muscled apprentice with chiseled features and long flowing blond locks crushed by his hideous inability to grow a beard, the most important status symbol of his world. Darwin, who almost never speaks in the real world, is drawn into a world of cotton candy colors and fluff juxtaposed with dark black glass. A fuzzy floating creature befriends him. Charlotte finds a world of space pirates and opportunities to put her tinkering abilities to good use. None of the worlds are quite what they appear and the siblings find out many family secrets as they begin to understand everything Mamá Lupe has been hiding in the Hotel Dare.
Terry Blas’s writing in Hotel Dare spins out character development and action in well measured doses. We never find out much about the siblings’ pasts, beyond Charlotte and Darwin having come from orphanages. What’s important is how they act now in preserving or stressing their family. The worlds they end up in tell us more about their inner struggles and identities. Mamá Lupe’s past is fully developed, a beautiful homage to a love of fantasy stories and Mexican history and mythology. Not to mention Mamá Lupe has led a pretty badass adventure-packed life in the many worlds. Blas weaves themes of isolation, gender, justice, and bigotry into the story. There’s a lot of the plot I’m leaving out so you’ll get to enjoy it unfolding, you’ll just have to trust me. The only weakness in the book is that it ends much too soon. You will feel like there should be a sequel before you realize that the resolution is already there, you just didn’t get to experience the fallout and emotional work still to come for the characters. You want more time with the characters. The kind of longing only great books can bring.
Claudia Aguirre’s art is dynamic and busy, colors and shapes often crammed in like the erratic rooflines of the Hotel Dare. Sometimes the panels slant and crash under the action. The faces are cartoonish with crystal clear emotions, touching on the human core of the fantasy story. Color palettes and background art styles create the character of the different worlds, cool toned soaring fantasy for the wizard world, soft warm colors and childish shapes for Darwin’s world and geometric metallic settings for the space pirates. These divisions are necessary to help the reader navigate the story as it frequently switches between the different worlds. In every world, even ours, there’s always a sense of something glowing that makes Hotel Dare feel alive in your hands.
I’m reaching back a bit for this review; Hotel Dare was published three years ago. It’s an often overlooked gem that features a Latinx cast, LGBTQ issues, and the kind of fantasy multiple dimension world building that never goes out of style. I breathlessly tore through the advance reader copy, pushed it in booktalks, and for years have worn a pin on my lanyard like the mysterious one discovered in Mamá Lupe’s office. If you missed it, I hope you’ll take a second look for your collections and programming. Hotel Dare has a place in any children’s collection. There are no content issues, but upper elementary and tween students will get more from the nuances of the family dynamics. Hand it to kids reading 5 Worlds, Star Scouts, and Lumberjanes. Chapter book fans of Dragons in a Bag and visitors to Narnia, Neverland, and other magical portals will also find a lot to love.
Hotel Dare By Terry Blas Art by Claudia Aguirre BOOM! KaBOOM!, 2019 ISBN: 9781684152056
Publisher Age Rating: 9-11
NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: Mexican-American, Queer Character Representation: Mexican-American, Queer
What would you do for a lifetime pass to your favorite theme park? Maybe come up with a seemingly foolproof plan to ensure you and your friends get such passes? Jackie Chavez concocts a brilliant scheme to do exactly that in Lifetime Passes, written by Terry Blas with art by Claudia Aguirre.
Jackie lives with her tía Gina, working alongside her at the Valley Care Living Retirement Home. Ever since Jackie’s parents were deported, her relationship with her aunt has been her constant. The retirement home isn’t glamorous, but luckily Jackie has an escape: Kingdom Adventure. She and her friends spend all their free time at the theme park, a world of fantasy and magic. It was where Jackie’s parents took her as a child and told her that she could be anything, be anyone.
But theme parks are expensive and Kingdom Adventure is no exception. Jackie’s aunt can no longer afford to renew her season pass, leaving her with no way to get in and no place to go once the summer is over. She’s devastated until she overhears some of the park employees one afternoon. If a member of your party dies while you’re in the park, everyone else in the party receives a free lifetime pass, a way for the company to avoid any legal troubles. How convenient that Jackie works at a place full of elderly people!
Jackie creates a new program to use the residents of the home for their advantage. Senior Time Outreach Program, or S.T.O.P., gives the group of friends a chance to take different members of the home to Kingdom Adventure for a day outing. It’s a hit! The seniors love getting out and Jackie finds herself bonding with Phyllis, who has a lifetime of stories from her years working in the entertainment industry and a special connection to the theme park itself.
As readers spend the summer with Jackie and her friends, both old and new, more about Jackie’s parents and her struggles to fit in come out as her relationship with Phyllis blossoms. Phyllis encourages Jackie to embrace her adversity, to become stronger, and to force herself to grow. A girlfriend won’t necessarily be what makes Jackie happy, it will be herself and all the relationships she values in her life.
The book also tackles the often uncomfortable subject of elder care, through the retirement home and Jackie’s relationships with its residents. For readers watching older folks in their life move onto the next stage of life, this book helps them deal and understand those very feelings.
Lifetime Passes features characters with a number of different backgrounds, so there are multiple characters readers might find themselves relating with. Aguirre’s art matches the tone of the story and its shifts throughout. The characters are expressive, the colors are vibrant, and the world of Kingdom Adventure jumps off the pages. There is a lot of heart in the story being told and readers will root against S.T.O.P.’s goal. Readers who like stories of those who don’t exactly fit in or how you can change after making a mistake will be drawn into Jackie’s world and Kingdom Adventure.
Lifetime Passes By Terry Blas Art by Claudia Aguirre Abrams ComicArts, 2021 ISBN: 9781419746666 Publisher Age Rating: 14+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Mexican, Mexican-American, Queer Character Representation: Mexican-American, Queer
Jessica Cruz has a lot to be anxious about. Her life with her Mexican parents in Coast City could be upended at any moment if their status as undocumented immigrants is revealed. She knows this because she sees Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents take people away, never to be seen again. She has a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) renewal application to complete, but she is losing hope for her future. The local mayoral race includes candidate Francesca Villamontes, whose platform includes harsh rhetoric against undocumented immigrants. “I’m tired of pretending everything is okay when it’s not. I’m tired of dealing with people who live with blinders on,” Jessica laments.
There are reasons to hold on, though. Jessica and her classmates begin a club at school about immigrant rights, including having an immigration lawyer visit to discuss student rights. Her aunt Melody is a calming, mature influence. Her school’s guidance counselor helps her talk through her feelings, too. Jessica has friends in her neighborhood with whom she can freely swap between English and Spanish. A student internship at the museum alongside cool classmate John Stewart provides purpose and perspective. Things take a turn for the supernatural when a couple of Aztec gods on display at the museum speak to her in visions, not unlike an angel and devil on her shoulder. Chalchiuhtlicue, Goddess of the Jade Skirt, offers encouragement, telling Jessica to reach out to her friends and share her truth so that she can find support. By contrast, Tezcatlipoca, God of the Smoking Mirror, explains that anger and outwardly wielding power are the only ways to make things right in the world.
Maybe this sounds like a whole lot of story, but writer Lilliam Rivera and artist Steph C. find a winning balance through most of the book. The color palette signals Jessica’s alternating states, with green representing moments of calm and confidence while yellow represents anxiety and fear, as well as red for outright anger. These patterns of color are especially effective during a scene in which Jessica’s father is detained by ICE—her house and father are initially bathed in green, but in his absence, yellow light takes over the house while Jessica finds fleeting comfort in her mother and neighbor. Likewise, Jessica’s attitude towards her friends influences the color scheme, as comfortable bonds can turn to suspicion and anger during a microaggression or display of privilege. Jessica’s surreal visions of the Aztec gods influence whether she confides her vulnerability to them or simply concludes that “they will never understand” her fear and anxiety.
Wait a minute! Aren’t Jessica Cruz and John Stewart Green Lanterns, the colorfully cosmic guardians of the cosmos? When do they get their rings, already? Alas, this is not Green Lantern: Legacy, and the willpower-based feats are more metaphorical and driven by personal effort instead of bestowed by an external source. Jessica does find her father’s green ring, though again, it’s more a source of personal strength in the context of the story. The closest this book gets to ordinary superheroics is how many characters are drawn with uncommonly broad shoulders, plus a scene of trapping and outfoxing a malevolent ICE agent. A rather hasty ending sees a brief attempt to lend depth to Villamontes and the ICE agent, though the core message of choosing how one responds to adversity shines through.
Hand this to fans of Rivera’s previous works such as Goldie Vance and prose novel The Education of Margot Sanchez, as well as Green Lantern: Legacy and Nubia: Real One. DC’s standalone graphic novels for younger readers have been averaging more hits than misses in my book. The tilt toward real-life issues in the YA books in particular has been a welcome hook when booktalking. Jessica Cruz is a great character within DC’s pantheon of heroes, and this is a great introduction to her for new readers and a fresh take for anyone familiar.
Unearthed: A Jessica Cruz Story Vol. By Lilliam Rivera Art by Steph C. DC, 2021 ISBN: 9781779500519
Publisher Age Rating: T
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Mexican, Puerto Rican-American Character Representation: Mexican, Mexican-American, Anxiety
La Voz de M.A.Y.O.: Tata Rambo is a book that aims to fill a gap in the historical record, highlighting the contributions of Ramon Jaurigue (Tata Rambo) to the Pascua Yaqui tribe in Arizona and the Mexican American Yaqui Organization (M.A.Y.O.). Ramon Jaurigue is the great-grandfather of the book’s writer, Henry Barajas, who channels his background as a journalist into piecing together Jaurigue’s story through interviews, oral histories, newspaper clippings, and the scant recorded history available through his public library.
The story opens in 2015, with Barajas taking an aging Jaurigue to a protest, relating to the reader that it may be the last march he would be able to attend, before traveling back in time to 1969. The book traces Ramon’s involvement with M.A.Y.O. to protest the construction of the I-10 highway, which would have further displaced around 12,000 members of the Indigenous Yaqui community. A vital step to blocking the measure is to get the tribe recognized by the federal government, an ongoing five-year-long struggle depicted over the course of the book. Barajas includes both community-oriented anecdotes and personal stories, with tension slowly building as more time dedicated to the community often seemed to mean less time he spent with his own family.
Barajas re-appears in the story several times, but always briefly and as a supporting character, prompting the reader to think of Jaurigue’s legacy and how history is recorded and remembered. The storyline can feel a little stunted with abrupt transitions between scenes, which may reflect Barajas’s difficulty with piecing together his great-grandfather’s story. But as a result, Barajas represents key moments in the history of the M.A.Y.O. without losing the facts in too much fictionalized connective tissue.
The art is very bold and stylized, with thick black outlines—almost any panel looks like it could be made into a poster. The color palette centers around shades of red, blue, and yellow, invoking traditional comic book colors, but with a twist—shades of teal and turquoise, deep red-orange, and muted sunflower yellow—that also references the American Southwest. The consistent use of these colors brings some unity to the disjointed scene changes.
In the book’s foreword, scholar Frederick Luis Aldama stresses the importance of corrective counter-narratives that balance our understanding of American history with appropriate, truthful representations of people of color. He describes how comics have become an important medium is this regard, and La Voz de M.A.Y.O. is an excellent example.
After the story, the book includes a two-page interview between Barajas and Congressman Raul Grijalva; five full issues of the titular newsletter, La Voz de M.A.Y.O.; various newspaper clippings; and a five-page letter from Ramon himself. Barajas has produced a well-rounded work that would be easy to place in a classroom curriculum, with a wonderful opportunity for studying primary texts alongside a historical narrative.
Librarians wishing to shelve this book and teachers looking to teach with it should be aware of the following content warnings: police brutality, brief depictions of colonial violence, and brief depictions of war.
La Voz de M.A.Y.O.: Tata Rambo By Henry Barajas Art by J. Gonzo ISBN: 9781534313637 Image, 2019 Publisher Age Rating: T+ (Teen Plus)
Browse for more like this title Character Traits: Pascua Yaqui, Mexican American Creator Highlights: Latinx Creator, Chicano Creator
Twenty-three-year-old Nina, a bartender struggling with an addiction to pills, is the “crazy baby” of her family, or so her older sister, Marisa, tells her. Ever since the earthquake that upended her life ten years ago, she’s been convinced that the city of Los Angeles is overrun with powerful sorcerers, called paragons, a community of elite sorcerers living in their own pockets of the city. What she doesn’t understand is why everyone else in her life seems to have entirely forgotten the enormous magical creatures that saved their lives during the earthquake. When another accident throws Nina into the world of the paragons, she has to fight to protect her family—and learn some difficult truths along the way. With a strong 80’s aesthetic and quick-moving plot, Blackbird is an exciting new title from writer Sam Humphries and artist Jen Bartel.
Jen Bartel’s saturated, vivid illustrations carry the story to heights it could never reach alone. She fills her stylized, detailed version of Los Angeles with characters with a range of skin colors, body sizes, and fashion sensibilities. The city of Los Angeles emerges as its own character, one with as many secrets as any other member of the cast. The result is a beautiful, rich world, but it’s often hard to follow the story taking place within it.
Blackbird starts off strong. Her relationship with her sister is complicated and realistic, as is the depiction of her drug addiction. The loss of their mother and the absence of their father weighs heavily on Nina and Marisa, and their tenuous reliance on each other serves as the one real family connection they have left. When Marisa is kidnapped by the same enormous beast that Nina saw on the night of the earthquake, Nina goes in search of a paragon who can help her rescue her sister. It’s at this point that the story begins moving too fast to reliably follow.
The world of the paragons opens quickly to Nina, but the details of that world are few. The dialogue grows stilted, advancing the plot without adding any depth to the characters. There is so much happening, so much movement and action, that there’s no room for the story to really shine. Blackbird is at its best when it explores the relationship between Nina and her family members, but as the story moves farther from this central theme, it begins to lose its heart.
This comic shares a lot of similarities with McKelvie and Gillen’s acclaimed and long-running series The Wicked and the Divine, and will be a solid addition to a collection where that series is popular. It would also be a good recommendation for fans of other 80’s-inspired titles like Jem and the Holograms and Stranger Things, as well as anyone with a great appreciation for beautiful illustrations. The content touches upon parental death, drug addiction, and alcoholism, and is best suited to an audience of teens and adults.
Blackbird, vol. 1 By Sam Humphries Art by Jen Bartel ISBN: 9781534312593 Image, 2019 Publisher Age Rating: T+ (16-18)
Browse for more like this title Character Traits: Latinx Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator, LGBTQIA+ Creator
I think it’s safe to say most of us have heard of the infamous girl detective, Nancy Drew. Created in 1930 as the counterpart to popular teenage detectives, The Hardy Boys, Nancy has been solving mysteries for nearly 90 years. Nancy remains wildly popular as ever; she is everywhere from books to movies, to TV shows (with a third incarnation happening this fall on The CW). There is also the award-winning popular computer game series about Drew which you can buy on Steam and there is even an annual Nancy Drew convention. Nancy is also the inspiration for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars.
Nancy is everywhere.
In Nancy Drew: The Palace of Wisdom, Nancy has received a threatening letter and returns to BayPort after many years. After much admonishing from her friends for not keeping in touch, Nancy reconnects with bestie Bess Martin, along with Bess’s cousin, George Fayne, George’s girlfriend, Danica, the Hardy brothers; Frank and Joe, as well as newcomer Pete, to solve a cold case: the death of Pete’s mother. While digging deeper into Pete’s mother’s death, Nancy stumbles upon a drug cartel masquerading behind a commercial lobster company as the bodies continue to pile up. What do the drugs, lobsters, and Pete’s mother’s death have in common? A lot, it seems.
With a nearly 100-year-old property, it’s always dicey to see how the reinvention will turn out. Kelly Thompson, of Mega Princess, Jessica Jones, and Jem and the Holograms fame, stays true to her style with feminist and diverse characters. George is a lesbian and her girlfriend, Danica, is a person of color. Nancy’s love interest, Peter, is half-Mexican and half-Black. The diversity of the characters isn’t used cheaply and it paints a portrait of 21st-century life. Thompson’s version of Nancy and her crew are realized characters with their own personalities and quirks. The only umbrage I take with Thompson’s universe is she made the librarian, Mrs. Simpson, a stereotype, which rankles my librarian self. But I digress.
Thompson’s writing is smart and her voice clear and fresh with its customary wit and banter. Nancy’s inner dialogue sometimes borders on fourth-wall breaking and at times it can be a bit heavy-handed, but it is used to further the action along rather than just produce thoughts. While sex and romance are sub-sub plots, it does warrant the age range of Young Adult, a time when sex and romance can be a bit tricky, and Thompson pulls it off beautifully.
The art by Jenn St-Onge, Thompson’s long-time collaborator, is gorgeous. I love her view of the Bayport gang. In previous versions of Nancy Drew, Nancy is often drawn a bit exaggerated while here she looks like a normal teenager. The only thing missing is Nancy’s trademark blue convertible, but alas we can’t have everything. The visual storytelling is straight forward and constant as well as the characters themselves. The colorist, Triona Farrell, uses color as a shift in the storyline. St-Onge and Farrell are perfectly paired.
There is a lot to recommend about The Palace of Wisdom. It’s a quick read that introduces a new generation to Nancy Drew. The language and attitudes of the teens are on par with today’s generation, so the speech will feel natural to the reader. The characters feel like your best friends, so there is a definite connection between the book and the characters. The mystery can be a bit choppy at some points, but it still remains polished. The book ends with Nancy being handcuffed by the police, leaving the story open-ended. I reached out to Thompson to see if there will be a continuation of the storyline; the answer is no. There was a pitch to continue with the story, but Dynamite passed. This is such a shame, because The Palace of Wisdom is a lot better both storytelling and art-wise than most books on the market.
The Palace of Wisdom does not disappoint in capturing the spirit of Nancy Drew. There is some intrigue, romance (Bess and Joe! George and Danica! Nancy and Pete!), and of course sleuthing. While the story itself is more focused on friendship and togetherness in addition to the mystery, it does not diminish the undercurrent reality of racism, classism, and sexism that are so pervasive in the 21st century. Nancy Drew has always been a sign of the times, but this time she is as finely written as she should have been all that long ago and that is a huge relief.
Nancy Drew: The Palace of Wisdom By Kelly Thompson Art by Jenn St-Onge ISBN: 9781524108496 Dynamite, 2019 Publisher Age Rating: Young Adult
Browse for more like this title Character Traits: Black, Latinx Lesbian, Straight
Harriet has just moved to Chicago and her parents are too busy with their new jobs to help her adjust to her new life. Lonely and frustrated, Harriet waits for replies from her camp friends and struggles to get through her summer reading. As she develops a relationship with her elderly neighbor Pearl, Harriet learns to confront her fears and adjust to her new situation.
Sincerely, Harriet is a quiet, tender story featuring a young girl struggling with loneliness and her own burdens. At first glance, the story seems crafted from scenes that don’t fully connect, but a closer reading shows an arc full of love and growth. Although Harriet is passionate about stories and friendship, she often comes across sullen and difficult because she lies in her postcards to camp friends and makes up tall tales about strangers and acquaintances. Because she is frequently seen doing solitary and sedentary pastimes, the story’s pacing can be slow. The character arc is also not straightforward because readers do not immediately understand the cause of Harriet’s behavior. However, Searle sprinkles in little details that hint at Harriet’s inner life and her struggles, and patient and observant readers will be rewarded with a thoughtful and engaging tale.
Searle’s appealing artwork draws in readers. The art brings Harriet and her world to life with colorful illustrations, and Searle excels at conveying Harriet and other characters’ emotions. Additionally, Seale uses the illustrations to reveal little details that clarify some aspects of the story and foreshadow others.
A strength of this work is the sensitive way Searle portrays living with a disability. Searle’s gradually reveals that Harriet has multiple sclerosis. This portrayal is a quiet and sensitive way of handling disability that realistically balances its impact with the fact that multiple sclerosis is only a part of her experience and identity. Searle’s decision does affect the story’s pacing, but this is a way of handling disability that should hold appeal.
Another strength lies in Harriet’s relationships with her parents and her neighbor Pearl. Harriet’s habit of lying puts her at odds with the people in her life, but she is also surrounded by people who care about her. Searle effectively shows the depth of Harriet’s relationship with her parents through their actions toward one another, and she uses Pearl’s discussions of books and her family to build Harriet’s relationship with her elderly neighbor. Harriet’s growing relationship with Pearl is a major catalyst for her character growth; she begins to step back from her usual actions and be more open.
Despite its slow pacing, Sincerely, Harriet is a well-crafted story that will hold appeal for readers looking for a warm coming of age story. Public libraries looking to include more stories about disability in their collections would do well to consider this one. Graphic Universe recommends this work for ages nine to fourteen. The subtle portrayal of certain details and slower pacing probably limits it to mature readers in that age range, yet the quiet, subtle storytelling and illustrations would also appeal to readers older than fourteen.
Sincerely, Harriet By Sarah W. Searle ISBN: 9781541545298 Graphic Universe, 2019 Publisher Age Rating: Grades 4-8 (ages 9-14)
Browse for more like this title Character Traits: Characters Ability, Mexican American, Multiracial
Old school Hong Kong action movies, Brooklyn B-Boys, giant space robots, the power of music, and the importance of friends and family are slammed together in an all-ages remix, Yehudi Mercado’s new stand-alone graphic novel Sci-Fu. It’s a premise that demands examination. Kung fu movies have been occasional fodder for comics, but it’s a difficult genre to emulate in a static format; creating a musical story in a silent medium is similarly challenging. A project with audacious ambitions like these is bound to have some eccentricities, but as is true for all creations worthy of the name, its successes far outshine its shortcomings.
The book’s plot centers on adolescent African-American hip-hop DJ Wax coming of age and dodging bullies in 1980s Brooklyn. Along with wannabe MC Cooky P, Wax dreams of proving himself to his ice cream vending uncle Rashaad and his ruthlessly brainy little sister D. He also wants to attract the attention of a pretty Hispanic girl known as Polly the Pirate, both for her eyepatch and her nautical flair. After he embarrasses himself by penning a cheesy love song to Polly, Wax redeems himself with his sick skills on the wheels of steel, creating a beat so perfect that his whole building is transported into deep space. On Discopia, a planet inhabited and run by robots, Wax takes part in a weaponized rap battle, and begins training in Sci-Fu, a martial art that turns the music of the spheres into skills to pay the bills. However, as he gains power and fame, he begins to alienate his friends and family from Earth in the pursuit of his DJ dreams, making mistakes that might end with Wax accidentally selling out both friends and the whole human race!
With an obvious love for the intersection of hip hop and Hong Kong action movies (Wax faces down robot crew Five Deadly Dangers in a reference to The Five Deadly Venoms, a noted favorite film of the Wu Tang Clan), the story attempts to thread the needle between ‘derivative’ and ‘homage.’ It usually succeeds, though it does run the risk of coming across as ‘Scott Pilgrim, Jr’ at times. The characters and the fast-paced story are largely comprised of tropes familiar to most casual fantasy and sci-fi fans. However, with a cast comprised almost entirely of people of color, this book stands out from others in this genre by placing black and Hispanic characters in main roles. The plot is also not as tightly scripted as might be expected—there’s a character who accidentally comes along for the ride and ends up disappearing into her apartment for the rest of the novel—and some challenging action sequences require more than one reading to follow. However, the storytelling is fast-paced and fun, and the art is vibrant, with a neon graffiti-inspired palate that brings Sci-Fu’s unearthly urban landscapes to life. The book also successfully brings music into its story, with credible rhymes and a visual shorthand that makes it clear who’s singing or rapping throughout. Plus, the uncle faux-swears by screaming out the names of exotic ice cream flavors. What’s not to love?
This is a great book for introducing younger readers to kung fu movies and priming their future selves as readers of books like Ed Piskor’s multi-volume graphic history Hip-Hop Family Tree. There is a lot of sci-fi fisticuffs throughout, but Mercado uses the old Saturday morning cartoon cheat of only “killing” robots, so violence will not be a big concern to most readers or parents. A good buy for librarians looking to add action, color, and fun for the tweens (ages 10-13) who like to peruse the children’s comics section, and especially recommended for urban libraries. Also great for fans of action action-comedy and deft rap lyrics.
Sci-Fu by Yehudi Mercado ISBN: 9781620104729 Oni Press, 2018 Publisher Age Rating: Tween
El Tigre is not the hero he used to be. It’s been thirty years since his heyday, and he is a shadow of the great fighter that he used to be. He has run from Mexico, the country he loved and swore to protect, to become an alcoholic punching bag for amateur wrestlers. El Tigre was going to blearily continue down this path, until news brought to him by a desperate young woman stirs him out of his stupor and back into action.
This comic has every right to be amazing. It’s a redemption tale inter-cut with stories of the past, it has a unique premise, and great characters. But despite all of that, Strongman fell short of its promises. Take El Tigre, who doesn’t love a redemption tale? We’re ready for this man to remember the titan he was and stand up for the little man of the burrio again. As he finds his way toward that path, there is a great commitment to never allow Tigre to take off his luchador mask. Even as he’s wallowing in the middle of a trashed apartment, he is El Tigre. It’s a very striking image. However, when El Tigre takes to the streets, the comic goes easy on the reader. The most obvious problem is no one mentions that El Tigre is wearing a mask. People remark on his size, and poor state, but only two people in the comic seem to realize that the weirdest thing about El Tigre’s appearance is that in the middle of New York, this guy is walking around with a luchador’s mask on like it’s a baseball cap. I’m not holding a vendetta against masks, there are just no cues from the art or words as to whether or not the reader is supposed to feel this is intentional, or as misplaced as it feels.
Masks aside, El Tigre is no Sherlock. When it comes to tracking down the criminal who is trafficking human body parts, Tigre has to find one bar (which he is told) and ask two people. The first person he didn’t even have to threaten, and the second that’s all he did. I’m not an expert in illegal pushing, but if that is all I had to do to find the head of a criminal operation? I’d be rethinking my employees.
The story continues like that. El Tigre is overwrought in his sense of justice. Its as if he flipped on a switch he forgot he had over the past 3 decades. He doesn’t carry a sense of gray into battle, there is just what is right, and what is wrong. He is full of all of the bad one-liners you would expect from a pro-wrestler, and delivers right in the face of the bad guy. Speaking of him, he is so decidedly evil, it stops being fun at some point. The comic started with a promise of exploring a unique character in a realistic setting. But Tigre becomes the epitome of all things good, and the bad guy is so ludicrously evil the reader has no hope of empathizing with him.
All of this is completely unfair to the reader. As these revelations are disappointing, different story points keep coming up that make the narrative potentially compelling. I can’t specify what happens without throwing out the baby and bath water, but there are about three different instances in the comic where I felt driven to read more because the author had tossed in an authentically interesting twist.
Out of everything, I certainly can’t complain about the art. It is rendered in grayscale, line and tone, and is completely serviceable. The book is only eight or nine inches high, and most pages have six or more panels on them, which keeps the art pretty small. That said, it is still very legible. It’s a shame that the art isn’t given more room to breathe, but it does make the reading face paced.
Strongman had the potential to hit on so many levels, it is frustrating to see it fall short. It feels as if you could rub out a couple word balloons and cut out some of the extra cheesiness to the story, it hit you right in the emotional gut. As it stands, it falls squarely in the middle of success, a rank that does not befit a grand character such as El Tigre.
Strongman by Charles Soule Art by Allan Gladfelter ISBN: 978-159362152 SLG, 2009 Publisher Age Rating: OT (16 )