Hasib and the Queen of Serpents

Many tales from the classic compilation of Middle Eastern folktales A Thousand and One Nights have been retold and entered mainstream Western popular culture, such as Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and the Voyages of Sinbad. But there are so many others in this collection of tales that have yet to be told in modern literature. French cartoonist David B. has created a colorful graphic novel interpretation of one little-known tale. Entitled Hasib and the Queen of Serpents, readers are taken on an adventure throughout the mythological world of the Middle East and witness the age-old tradition of storytelling.

The tale opens with Hasib, a woodcutter, exploring the nearby forest with three lumberjacks. When the men stumble upon a cave with a secret stash of gold, the three greedy men take the fortune and leave Hasib trapped inside. However, instead of meeting a grisly fate, Hasib finds himself in the court of the Queen of Serpents, who keeps him company and tells him a tale about King Bulukiya’s search for the prophet Mohammed. During his search, the King discovers the Queen and a host of other characters, each with their own story to tell.

This specific tale may be unfamiliar to most readers but with colorful characters and an intriguing storyline, the graphic novel is able to bring the story to life. The story within a story technique, commonly used in the original A Thousand and One Nights tales, is used often in this interpretation, bringing readers deeper into the world of Middle Eastern folklore. David B.’s uses a variety of colors and detailed images to invoke this ancient tale. He uses his own artistic style with detailed scenery, disproportionate or snakelike bodies, and anthropomorphized animals. This retelling blends text and art so well, with narrators providing background information for each tale and modern dialogue that keeps the story active from page to page.

Some pages contain one panel that covers an entire page, filled with characters and fantastical scenery. The artist includes the characters Scheherazade and Shahryar, the Persian queen and king from the original tales, reminding the reader which night it is within the A Thousand and One Nights. Readers who enjoy folktales and mythology will be intrigued with this interpretation, especially with the scenes of noteworthy figures of Islamic tradition, such as King Solomon and Mohammed, and characters from Middle Eastern mythology, such as Djinns and the bird Simorgh.

David B.’s Hasib and the Queen of Serpents is an artistic interpretation of an ancient tale of adventure, war, and faith. It will make a great addition to any public library’s graphic novel collection. Adult patrons who enjoy mythology and folklore, along with colorful and expressive comics will want to take a look at this tale.

Hasib and the Queen of Serpents
by David B.
ISBN: 9781681121628
NBM Publishing, 2018
Publisher Age Rating:


Delilah, Ashley, Rebecca, Becca, and Sierra: thank you.

Thank you for writing, illustrating, coloring, and editing a graphic novel for women. Thank you for the representation of women of color, women who are disabled, women who are gender non-conforming, and women of different faiths. Thank you for giving a voice to those whose whispers are often left unheard.

Thank you for a fantastic tale where the princess saves herself, the King is a woman who engages in peace, not war; every conceivable talent in the village from the librarian to the doctor to the knights (and more) is utilized and given respect, and no one is mocked for their interests or left behind. Thank you for the humor (“gadzooks” and “zooterkins”) and pop culture Easter eggs ( “According to Madame Hermione’s Monster Nullifying Manual, it should. There is always an answer in the library.”). They intensified the story for ultimate enjoyment.

Thank you for a book that made me laugh, root for the underdog, and whose characters I can identify with. King Merinor’s bout of imposter syndrome (“Chin up, back straight. I can do this, fake it till you doth make it.”) lets the reader know that even those who are perceived as being perfect, often struggle within themselves.

Thank you for giving me hope and inspiration not only as a woman but also as a graphic novel reader that not all books need to be geared for men nor should all creators be men. (Also thanks for letting Lord Riddick, the only male character with lines in the book, get “woke.”)

All the best,
Lisa Rabey

I could go on forever in my effusive thanks to this work’s creators, but first I shall need to tell you, the reader of this review, what Ladycastle is about!

In the mythical land of Mancastle, Princess Aeve is locked in a tour whiling away the days while her father, King Mancastle, searches for a husband for her. There is a curse on Princess Aeve that if she is not married soon, the village and lands will suffer horrible fate. One day, a knight comes to the village gates to tell the story that the King and all of the men in the village have been killed by a dragon because the King would not pay the toll to cross a treacherous bridge on their way home. Lord Riddick assumes that as the kingdom is now filled only with women, he will become king by default. A ghastly hand holding a sword suddenly appears to foretell that anyone who can lift the sword will become king. Merinor, the blacksmith’s wife who herself is also a blacksmith, lifts the sword and much to the chagrin of Lord Riddick, declares herself king.

King Merinor’s first act is to let Princess Aeve out of the locked tower; Princess Aeve’s own first act is to chop off all of her hair. King Merinor then declares that women can cut their hair, dress however they want to, and do whatever they please. King Merinor’s next actions are to create a round table and sewing circle to prepare the town’s defenses, stock up on food, and basically get the village ready for fights with the coming monsters. Punch and pye will be served.

Mancastle is then renamed Ladycastle. Thus begins our journey into the wonderful world of Ladycastle, where the villagers fight to save their land while also trying to break the curse. They work together on taking care of each other, using their various skills to defeat the monsters as they come—from the salamanders set upon the village to destroy only to be captured and used for lighting and heat, to the werewolves who are caught and discovered to be men who were cursed themselves, as well as the harpies who invite the residents of Ladycastle to tea and strike up a mutually beneficial arrangement, rather than just eating the villagers.

There is, thank goodness, no romance in the book. Princess Aeve and the rest of Ladycastle are not saved by men, they do not desire men to save them, and Princess Aeve herself is not married off as a condition to break the curse.

Ladycastle is perfect, which I’m sure you gleaned from my fan letter and gushing praise. I found no fault within the book and I was bragging about how much I loved it and was recommending it on Facebook even before one word of this review was written. There is, however, a slight downfall of the story—there is what could be called a cliffhanger at the end of the book but there does not seem to be any likelihood of more issues or books. The bright side to this, however, is the storyline and plot are exquisitely crafted and not one word is wasted. I’m not typically a reader of fantasy and I’m behind in legends and lore, but you don’t need to have a background in either to follow the story. I will add the caveat that having a thorough grounding in pop culture for the Easter eggs is super helpful, but not being hip to such things will not take away your enjoyment.

Ashley A. Woods and Rebecca Farrow’s illustrations are a huge complement to the story and the bright watercolor-like coloring by Rebecca Nalty adds even more of a fantasy element to this a gem of a masterpiece.

The fantasy and fairy tale elements of Ladycastle will appeal to readers of all ages, and there isn’t any gore or language that would make this inappropriate for younger readers. However, the pop culture references and humor make this most suited for teen or adult collections. It is especially suited for graphic novel lists of women comic creators as well as fantasy stories.

by Delilah S. Dawson
Art by Ashley A. Woods, Rebecca Farrow, Elsa Charretier
ISBN: 9781684150328
Boom! Studios, 2017

The Divided States of Hysteria

Imagine a United States full of division, distrust and racism. Looks a lot like the present—except things are even worse, and are about to go into a full tailspin. As the story opens, we meet Frank Villa, a CIA field officer. The President of the United States and most of the Cabinet had been assassinated a month before, leaving a low level politician as President (much like the TV show Designated Survivor, although the details of the attempted coup are not spelled out in detail). Villa is convinced that a serious terrorist attack on Washington DC is in the offing, and has drones tracking the suspects. Turns out he was right, but the female terrorist (who was hiding the bomb as a pregnancy) gives surveillance the slip, rendezvousing with several other women in New York City. In a story not notable for visual restraint, a single white panel with the word “BOOM” in the middle speaks volumes.

The explosion is the worst domestic terror nightmare: a combined effect equal to a low-kiloton atomic bomb. The blast (plus an airborne toxin) decimates much of Manhattan, killing as many as three million people. The destruction of the United States’ financial infrastructure cascades out to the rest of the country and the world, spreading chaos and anarchy. After resigning from the CIA, Villa joins a private security firm and vows to get revenge on the planners of the attack—as well as prevent them from doing any more damage. They are an unlikely alliance of white supremacists, black militants, Islamic fundamentalists, and a former Russian oligarch whose only agenda appears to be money and power.

Villa recruits a motley group of murderers serving life sentences in prison for his hit squad, like in the 1967 film The Dirty Dozen (or DC Comics’ Suicide Squad). Much of the story is devoted to their sting operations to take out the terrorist network, along with the inevitable internal conflicts within the team—interspersed with scenes depicting average citizens behaving deplorably, and terrorist acts inspired by the situation.The team is predictably dysfunctional, but they get the job done: lots of intrigue and action. The terrorists did indeed have a masterstroke planned, which is foiled at the last minute, in fine action film fashion. The squad gets their reward, and one member in particular gets much more. The prospect of macho Villa hooking up with a transgender convict may not be entirely earned in-story, but these are strange times.

The Divided States of Hysteria generated considerable controversy during its initial run as individual issues. The original cover for issue #4 portrayed a violent hate crime against a person of color, lynched in a street, having suffered genital mutilation, with a racial slur tagged on the body. The issue preview created such outcry that Image Comics and Chaykin agreed to substitute another image–this collection includes the original cover and Chaykin’s public statement about it. But it has to be said that the entire series was clearly intended to be provocative: the collection’s cover has a woman wearing a burqa made from an American flag, and even a casual examination will find profanity, racial slurs, rough sex, and ugly racial stereotyping. Chaykin has worked on mainstream comics characters for Marvel and DC, but his creator-owned work has often employed antiheroes, pulp adventure and sex–going back to his landmark series American Flagg! (First Comics, 1983), and more recently titles like American Century (Vertigo Comics, 2001). This book reads like a howl of rage, a vulgar, black, dystopian extension of the current state of the world, with an entire cast of disagreeable characters. In a sense it’s like Chaykin turned up to 11. Even for a Chaykin fan it can be downright uncomfortable to read, as if he is more interested in being outrageous than telling a story.

Lettering and design play an unusually important part in the artwork. The pages are full of interstitial information between the panels: sound effects, signage, and barely intelligible bits of news feeds and social media postings. It creates a visual static that mirrors the uneasy emotional tone of the events in the story. A very interesting process piece by letterer Ken Bruzenak describes how it was done, as well as the creation of the series logo and all of the faux-product logos and designs that litter the text. Whether you like the effect or not, there is no denying that it creates a unique visual look for the series.

Howard Chaykin certainly has a fan base likely to be interested in this collection; the controversy might actually generate additional interest. It is definitely for adults only, and capable of offending just about anyone (by design).

The Divided States of Hysteria
by Howard Chaykin
Art by Howard Chaykin
ISBN: 9781534303836
Image Comics, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: M/Mature

The Backstagers, Volume One: Rebels without Applause

When you go to a play, have you ever been fascinated by what you don’t see on stage? By the unseen mechanics of stage hands that bring sets in and out of frame, lighting cues that direct your attention to the right actor? Intrigued by the magical and dangerous tunnels that run through the high school putting on the play?

In The Backstagers, Volume One: Rebels without Applause, Jory is the new kid at St. Genesius Prep and feels out of place at his new all-boys school. He has to find something to do after school, and where is one place a studious outcast looks for friends? Drama club of course! When the comically egotistical star actors/twins send him off to get a prop, Jory meets the stage crew, or backstagers. During his first foray backstage, the crew embraces him, introduces him to the dangerous and mysterious tunnels only known to the backstagers, and puts him to work corralling the odd creatures known as tool rats. Jory is hooked and filled with questions. To find answers, and realizing the actors aren’t going to be his new pals, he decides to join Aziz, Beckett, Sasha, and Hunter as a backstager.

Much like a stage play, readers get to follow a great ensemble cast, with Jory as a stand-in for the readers. Each act’s adventure offers the opportunity to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of each member of that ensemble. This cast is the book’s greatest strength. In a culture where media starring boys can overemphasize the importance of brute strength, The Backstagers offers a more balanced approach, mixing emotional vulnerability, using mind over matter, and when needed, taking action and fighting off some giant spiders. The characters’ friendships are obviously important to them, and at the possibility of losing one of those friends, they aren’t afraid to express anger and worry. The ensemble is diverse in identities and cultures. Jory and Aziz are characters of color, and there is strong LGBTQIA+ representation. Jory and Hunter have crushes on one another and are constantly blushing when interacting. Beckett is transgender and smitten with an ex-classmate from the all-girls school they attended before transferring to St. Genesius.

Another aspect of the writing that works really well here is the pacing. Writer James Tynion wastes no time getting us backstage and introducing the magical mysteries that carry the book, and revealing just enough of the mysteries to keep readers hooked from act to act. The magical tunnels feel like they are inspired by stage plays, their movements and periodic reorganization similar to the way a set changes during a performance or the way sets get recycled for a future show. Rian Sygh’s art and Walter Baiamonte’s colors pair well here, playing with lights and darks that fit the particular part of the set the characters are in. While the dangers are ever present in the setting, the overall look does a wonderful job of never being too scary for younger readers. The most unnerving artwork is used sparingly at the end, and to good effect setting up volume two.

This title fits very well with the Boom Box imprint, and will appeal to readers who enjoy those titles, like Lumberjanes, Goldie Vance, and Diesel: Ignition. It will also appeal to readers who enjoy series that mix real dangers in an gentler and often cute setting, like Steven Universe or Gravity Falls. Put simply, this book is a super fun read with representation I would like to see more of in YA titles.

The Backstagers, Volume One: Rebels without Applause 
by James Tynion IV
Art by Rian Sygh
ISBN: 9781608869930
Boom!, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: 12-17

Poppies of Iraq

In Poppies of Iraq, Brigette Finkakly tells the story of her childhood in Mosul, Iraq during the political turmoil of the 1960s and 70s. After her family emigrates to France, she watches as the rise of Saddam Hussein and the accompanying upheaval impact her family. As she reflects on her home country today, Finkakly mixes personal narrative, historical context, and cultural information into a thoughtful, if somewhat fragmented, narrative.

Toward the end of Poppies of Iraq, Findakly remarks that she loved the moments when her family was together, and Poppies of Iraq’s strength lies in those family stories. Woven with historical context, Findakly’s family stories reveal the impact of the political unrest and cultural differences on people’s lives and freedom. Poppies of Iraq reveals these details in a quiet and reflective way; it is definitely a work to read carefully because it can be easy to miss the significance of the individual stories.

Although the personal narrative sections are solid, Poppies of Iraq has excess material that does not consistently contribute to the narrative. Throughout the book, there are brief interludes that reveal cultural facts about Iraq. For example, one section explains that sometimes relatives will give a sterile family member a baby to raise—a fact that has no real bearing on the narrative. Although the random cultural facts are usually interesting, they break up the story’s flow and prevent a real narrative arc from forming.

Lewis Trondheim’s simple artwork effectively conveys the narrative. Trondheim eschews traditional panels, and the illustrations are arranged fluidly on the page with corresponding text above. Due to the book’s small size, the simple illustrations work well, and Findakly’s flat, soft colors enhance the narrative’s quiet tone.The book also includes some small photographs of Findakly’s family. It is possible to distinguish major characters, but a lack of captions and poor image quality prevents consistent identification or comprehension of the images. This review is based on an advance copy, so it is possible that the photographs will be clearer in the final version.

It is difficult to pinpoint an age range for Poppies of Iraq: there is no particularly questionable content, but the narrative’s fragmented structure and some of the cultural and historical references—which aren’t always full clarified—lead the reviewer to believe that adult audiences would be most likely to enjoy this work. Poppies of Iraq may especially interest readers who enjoyed works such as Marjane Satrape’s Persepolis or Zeina Abirached’s Game of Swallows—both of which focus on the authors’ lives in the Middle East.

Poppies of Iraq
by Brigette Findakly Lewis Trondheim
Art by Lewis Trondheim
ISBN: 9781770462939
Drawn & Quarterly, 2017

Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq

American involvement in the Middle East has been going on for over a decade, and stereotypes and conceptions about those involved are quite common. But what are the stories of those living there? In Rolling Blackouts, cartoonist Sarah Glidden explores the experiences of citizens and refugees by chronicling the trip she took through Turkey, Iraq, and Syria with her journalist friends, Sarah and Alex, and a military veteran, Dan. Among the individuals and groups they meet are a man accused of terrorism and deported from the United States; Iraqi refugees living in Syria; and refugees living in former prisons. The result is a thoughtful, nuanced narrative that examines these experiences and the role of journalism.

Early on in the story, Glidden claims Rolling Blackout’s focus is on the process of journalism and its ethics. However, as a reader, I found the stories of those interviewed more compelling and more immediately visible. Glidden weaves Sarah and Alex’s struggles of finding and developing a good story into the narrative, and these elements help contribute to the reflective nature of the story as well as to humanize the journalists, who, according to Sarah, are frequently viewed with suspicion and disgust.

The meat of the story lies in the experiences of the people the group interviews. Glidden does not force individuals’ words to fit a particular narrative. As a result, Rolling Blackouts reveals the wide variety of opinions and experiences among those directly affected by the conflict as well as the messy nature of the lives affected. Glidden’s simple, clean artwork allows readers to focus on the individuals’ experiences as they describe them. Glidden excels at demonstrating characters’ personalities through gestures and expressions, and the soft colors evoke a thoughtful mood. The artwork fits well with the slower pacing of the story: Rolling Blackouts is not a book to be read in one sitting, but rather requires one to pause to reflect on the stories being told.

Rolling Blackouts will appeal to teenage and adult readers seeking a nuanced story about the impact of the conflicts in the Middle East. The book also would provide a great opportunity to discuss journalistic ethics and the methods of constructing a story. Because this book does not provide much historical context, readers seeking background information will want to look elsewhere. That being said, Rolling Blackouts’ thoughtful portrayal of the experiences of those in the Middle East will give it a place in most library collections.

Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq
by Sarah Glidden
ISBN: 9781770462557

Drawn and Quarterly, 2016

Blackjack: Second Bite of the Cobra

blackjackSeventeen years ago, in the waning days of the Great War, Arron Day watched his father, soldier of fortune Mad Dog Day, walk back into Cairo, humbled by defeat at the hands of the Cobra, a Bedouin warlord fighting to evict the British from his people’s land. The Cobra spared the lives of those he defeated, leaving them to their shame as he disappeared back into the desert. Now a mercenary himself, code-named Blackjack, Arron has renown, success, wealth, and a new home in the wealthiest part of New York City despite the efforts of those who don’t believe an African-American man should share their neighborhood. But the past comes calling when Blackjack receives word from Cairo that the Cobra has returned, and Silas Lincoln, his late father’s partner, has been grievously wounded attempting to capture the man. Day immediately plans his return to the land of his childhood, determined to bring the Cobra down. Aided by Maryam, Silas’s new partner and an enigmatic martial artist with a mysterious past, Blackjack plots his revenge, unsure who to trust in this new-old city of alliances and betrayals.

In Blackjack, Alex Simmons has created a new, old-school herohuman, flawed, driven, and layered. Simmons’ story, like his protagonist, is multi-faceted; Second Bite of the Cobra is a wild adventure, but it’s also a story of family and loyalty and of finding yourself in a world that tries to label you according to its narrow views. Set in 1930s Egypt, in the tense period between the world wars, Blackjack captures the spirit of those tumultuous times, as men fought for the soul of countries and continents and to advance their own self-interests. Though the focus is on the adventure, Blackjack touches on serious social issues, including racial prejudice, colonialism, and cultural and resource exploitation, with an authenticity that gives the story depth. Joe Bennett’s art helps to set the scene, capturing the striking locations and giving each character a distinctive face and personality, and contributing to Blackjack’s old-school appeal.

Blackjack brilliantly harkens back to the early days of adventure comics, a fast-paced and violent quest for vengeance set in an exotic locale and peopled with inscrutable characters. Arron Day is a compelling hero, a man who survives and thrives by the quickness of his mind and the strength of his arms. At a time when readers are seeking more diversity in comics, Blackjack offers a story with a strong African-American protagonist and a diverse supporting cast. Maryam is a strong female supporting character whose origins seem to be Bedouin or Egyptian, and Blackjack’s recruited team includes a Frenchman, a Native American, and a white man who goes by Red, short, he claims, for Redneck.

This Dover edition reprints the Blackjack series originally published by Dark Angel Productions in 1996, and the volume includes a new foreword by Joe Illidge and an afterward by David Colley. Dover doesn’t provide an age rating for Blackjack, but it is likely appropriate for most teen collections. While there is plenty of fighting, including numerous deaths by guns and swords, the violence is generally not over-the-top, though it is frequently on-screen. Some readers, however, may be disturbed by instances of violence against children in addition to the body count. The Cobra is presented as a Muslim, with numerous references to Allah, while references are also made to Bedouin cultural practices and beliefs, including the honor killing of women who have been victims of sexual violence that may be concern to some readers.

Blackjack is a new look at an old genre, a remembrance of a time when heroes didn’t wear capes or armor, but instead were human, flawed, and still capable of dazzling through their exotic adventures. Readers tired of the superhero saturation of many mainstream comics may find that Blackjack offers a strong hero with a different kind of appeal.

Blackjack: Second Bite of the Cobra
by Alex Simmons
Art by Joe Bennett
ISBN: 9780486798523
Dover, 2015