Miles Morales: Stranger Tides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

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

Miles Morales: Shock Waves

Miles Morales is Brooklyn’s very own friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, a role he is adjusting to with tentative confidence. His web aim may be way off, and his snappy retorts may need a bit of work, but he can turn invisible! Can Peter Parker do that? NOPE. When a wave of earthquakes devastates Puerto Rico, the homeland of Miles’s mother, he knows he must do something to help. Conveniently enough, Kyle, the new girl at Brooklyn Visions Academy, is willing to help him out with his neighborhood’s block party fundraiser. Her father works for Serval Industries, whose CEO Mr. Snow will sponsor the fundraiser and bring donations directly to Puerto Rico on his personal jet. Everything seems great, until Kyle’s father sends her a confusing text message and then mysteriously disappears. It’s up to Miles, Kyle, and Miles’s roommate Ganke Lee to put the pieces together and figure out Snow’s true motivation.

Though this book features supernatural heroes and villains, the Puerto Rican earthquakes bring a connection to recent real world events. Readers will likely associate the Puerto Rican earthquakes in the story with the real-life hurricanes and earthquakes that have caused severe damage to the island in the last few years. Miles is half Puerto Rican, so the earthquakes directly affect his family. But by showing his mother’s damaged childhood home, this book forces readers to relate to the devastation on a personal level, making the book feel like a call to action.

Miles’s thoughts provide authentic teenage narration and are clearly distinguished from the traditional rounded white speech bubbles by appearing in white text on a red background. The dialogue and narration are funny and youthful; someone references “Pics or it didn’t happen,” and at one point Kyle says, “Please don’t make me go full Karen and call security.” In what is perhaps the most charming quote of the book, Ganke references the movie To Catch a Thief, which Miles had recommended to him, to which Miles replies, “Cary Grant’s dope, right?”

I read the uncorrect proof, which switches from full color to black-and-white rudimentary illustrations in the midst of the book; the cataloging-in-publication page states that the illustrations will appear in their final form in the published book. In the approximately 20 pages that include full color illustrations, the art is striking, with a mid-20th century graphic design-inspired aesthetic. Miles and his friends look like tweens or young teens. Fans of the Marvel Comics Universe will be happy to see the cameos from Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl, with a reference to Avengers Academy. This book will most likely find its audience, but in case it needs a hand, give it to kids who enjoy realistic graphic novels with an undercurrent of tough topics, such as New Kid and Sunny Side Up.

Miles Morales: Shock Waves
By Justin A. Reynolds
Art by  Pablo Leon
Scholastic, 2021
ISBN: 9781338648041

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
Series ISBNs and Order
Related media: 

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  Black, Guatemalan-American,  Character Representation: Afro-Puerto-Rican, Black, Puerto Rican, 

Big Apple Diaries

With the twentieth anniversary of the September 11th attacks this year come new books that discuss the event or narrate an individual’s reaction. One of these is the graphic memoir Big Apple Diaries, written and illustrated by Alyssa Bermudez. Rewriting old diary pages from her early teenage years, along with additional information from friends, the author not only narrates her fears and anxieties that came about after the attacks, but the everyday struggles of any middle schooler. With the two intertwined, readers will find something familiar in her story.

Alyssa Bermudez finds comfort in drawing and writing in her diary. It certainly does help when she is dealing with the pressures of middle school, the constant traveling between her parents’ apartments across New York City, finding her cultural identity, and everything in between. But while preparing for the start of eighth grade, tragedy strikes. It’s September 11th, 2001 and the Twin Towers have collapsed. Everything changes for Alyssa and her home, but in the midst of disaster comes a bit of hope.

Bermudez’s memoir uses the journaling format that readers of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries are familiar with, but her visuals and comic pages take up either a whole page or a two-page spread. She uses a blue-grayish color scheme with highlights to accentuate a character’s face or emotions. While most scenes depict Alyssa going about her day at school or at home, she also creates short comics depicting her interests at the time (music, trends, pop culture, etc.) and fantasies involving her crush or her anxieties. The text itself reads like a typical diary page, with a date written on top of the page and sometimes a departing salutation directed towards the book. Readers will sympathize with Alyssa and understand her fears and anxieties over school and home. Including 9/11 in her narrative gives readers a glimpse into a disaster that affected so many people, especially those who lived in New York City at the time. The author also includes an author note in the back of her book, including black and white photos of her younger days and a discussion of her creative process.

For fans of journal books and graphic memoirs, Big Apple Diaries is a great choice. Bermudez’s story not only reflects the aftermath of a national disaster, but the common struggles all middle schoolers go through. Public libraries should consider this book for their children’s and young adult collections. The same goes for school libraries, especially those who work with middle schoolers and junior high students.

Big Apple Diaries
By Alyssa Bermudez
Macmillan, 2021
ISBN: 9781250774279
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

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

To Dance: Special Edition

Included in the ever-growing demand for graphic novels of any genre is graphic non-fiction. To Dance: Special Edition is an expanded edition of the Robert Siebert Award Honor book from 2007, To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel. The Robert Siebert Award goes to authors and illustrators of “informational books for children.”

The autobiography is written by Siena Cherson Siegel and illustrated by her husband, Mark Siegel. It tells the story of Siena’s early childhood in Puerto Rico, where she dreamed of dancing, and her journey to New York, where she entered the School of American Ballet at age eleven. She studied at the school, founded by George Balanchine, and performed as a child dancer on stage with the New York City Ballet Company alongside the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov.

The memoir is told with a child’s view of the grueling physical work of studying ballet, including injury and sacrifice, but without a trace of darkness. The pure, childlike joy of dance and movement is portrayed with sweet simplicity in the writing and illustrations. The graphic novel shows Siena balancing her home life with her studies–even her parents’ divorce and her eventual career-ending injury—with the peace she found through dance.

Mark Siegel, editorial director of First Second, whose most recent creative work includes the science fiction children’s graphic novel series, 5 Worlds, captures the fluidity of dancers well. The best illustrations feature panel-less layouts that stretch across the page with the elegance and beauty of a prima ballerina.

This book embraces childhood hopes and dreams, without the bittersweet aftertaste of adulthood. Siena Cherson Siegel’s dancing career may have ended too soon, but she continues to embrace the spirit of dance in a way that will enchant readers young and old.

Libraries that don’t already own this book would be smart to add it to their graphic novel collection.

To Dance: Special Edition
By Siena Cherson Siegel
Art by Mark Siegel
ISBN: 9781481486644 1481486640
Simon & Shuster, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: 8-14
Series Reading Order: (Wikipedia or Goodreads)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Character Traits: Puerto Rican

The Unstoppable Wasp, vols. 1-2

We all know Janet van Dyne, The Wasp, but Nadia, The Unstoppable Wasp, is a whole other experience. She’s smart, she knows it, and she’s here to shake things up, starting with the scientific patriarchy. Oh, and take down the organization that kidnapped and raised her. And make friends, even with villains. And finish her dad’s projects. And maybe take the bomb out of her friend’s head. Who needs sleep?

Every once in a while, there’s a comic that has a very sound concept, but has trouble with follow-through. Unstoppable Wasp is such a case; volume one is interesting enough at first, though a bit unbearably cheerful and manic, before descending into just kind of silly to the point of feeling pandering. Volume two picks up at the end of volume one, ties them together, and adds in another level of depth and interest.

My primary problem with the Unstoppable Wasp comics is the writing; the first volume especially feels like one long advertisement for diversity in science, especially with the significant number of pages at the end dedicated to interviews with real women in science. Of course, they’re not just women in science, but women in science who also have social media handles and/or are involved in TV or YouTube.

That’s great, and sure, we should talk more about it, but within the story it comes across as the White Savior bringing together her plucky team of disadvantaged girls of color. Because, of course, the rest of the team are girls of color, each from a slightly different background. It doesn’t help that after forming the Agents of G.I.R.L. (an unfortunate acronym that matches the phrase Nadia ascribes to it), the plot never comes back to them for the rest of the first volume. Thankfully, the second volume circles back and gives more detail to each girl beyond just say, Black, into pop culture, quirky dresser, and engineer. Overall though, there’s a weirdly strong emphasis on whether they’re interested in fashion or not, adding to a Barbie feel.

The art is also variable; the first volume is very smooth, but the girls all look strangely the same in body shape, facial features, and coloring. The exception is Lashayla, who is actually a darker-skinned Black girl, an unusual sight in comics. The second volume gives much greater visual variety, though Lashayla is strangely much lighter in skin tone, which is disappointing. The one consistent complaint I have with the art is that the girls all have overfull lips in both volumes. It’s a little disconcerting, but also something of a nod to older comics. Otherwise, the art does a good job of conveying the frenetic energy of Nadia and handling this very dialogue-heavy comic.

The most distinguishing feature of Unstoppable Wasp is that it discusses mental illness in teenagers. We’ve seen discussion of mental health in comics before, even in Marvel (consider the Mariko Tamaki run of She-Hulk), but as far as I know, almost never with youth. And the most remarkable part of it is that they don’t do a bad job of it. There’s discussion of likely genetic links, therapy sessions, and medication. There’s supportive family and friends, encouraging her to take care of herself. Mixed in with that is talk of having to separate the public, heroic image of a person and the personal image that can be more troubled. This means a brief discussion of domestic abuse; I wish that had been expanded a little more because it feels like that particular topic is brought up and quickly set aside, though not done poorly.

I can’t strongly recommend this series because the first volume is so rocky, but if you’re looking to add to your collection with more diverse superheroes and something tailored towards teens, Unstoppable Wasp is a solid choice. It would be a great suggestion as further reading for lovers of comics like Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel, or Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat.

The Unstoppable Wasp, vols. 1-2
By Jeremy Whitley
Art by Elsa Charretier, Alti Firmansyah & Gurihiru


Marvel, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: T+
Series Reading Order: (Wikipedia or Goodreads)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13), Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Traits: Characters with Disability East Asian, Black, Latinx Queer,
Creator Highlights:
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Heavy Vinyl, vol. 1

Chris is (almost) 17, and thinks the biggest challenge in her life is figuring out who she is and wants to be. Little does she know what’s in store for her after-hours at her new job at the record store Vinyl Destination. Heavy Vinyl is packed with exciting action, ’90s nostalgia, girl power, and a passion for music.

It’s 1998, and it’s been a month since Chris started her job at Vinyl Destination, the best record store in town. She’s still waiting for it to change her life and help her figure herself out. All her coworkers seem secure in themselves, and there’s something enviable about their confidence and utter coolness—especially Maggie, who Chris can barely be around without blushing. As if dealing with her crush and her identity crisis isn’t enough, Chris soon discovers her coworkers’ big secret: they train after hours as a vigilante fight club, ready to take on crime and the patriarchy as a whole. Chris’s first mission: to find and rescue the musician she absolutely idolizes, Rosie Riot, who has gone missing.

This first volume of Heavy Vinyl was a ton of fun, and I personally can’t wait for more. Those who grew up in the ‘90s immersed in pop culture will get the most from the references and name-drops of various bands, movies, comics, and so on, but it’s not necessary to come armed with this knowledge to enjoy the story. The book also completely embraces the ‘90s’ particular brand of unapologetic and uncomplicated feminism. Vinyl Destination’s employees are all young women, talking mostly about female-led music and culture, and fighting alongside each other with both their brains and their fists. There’s a lot of early Buffy the Vampire Slayer flavor to it, and I think fans of that show would also get a kick of out Heavy Vinyl.

Aside from the interesting premise, one of my favorite aspects of the book is the representation it provides. The main relationship depicted is F/F (Female/Female), and there are additional queer relationships throughout, including one interracial relationship. There’s a second interracial M/F (Male/Female) relationship, and two of the five Vinyl Destination employees are characters of color (black and Puerto Rican). Additionally, it was really refreshing for me to read a story with so much queer representation where nothing bad happens to those relationships, and where the story isn’t about coming out, how difficult it is to be gay, etc. While those stories are important and need to be told, it’s a relief to simply enjoy a fun comic in which characters happen to be queer. It also meant a lot to me that Chris was non-gender-conforming. This type of representation would have made a real difference to me as a teenager.

The art is energetic, expressive, and complements the story well. There is variety in the character design, though one way to make it even better would be more body type variety, and I hope the creators consider this for future issues. (Depiction of visibly disabled characters wouldn’t hurt, either.) Backgrounds are generally low on detail, serving their purpose without distracting from the main story, and the colors were nicely chosen.

Adults who remember and grew up in the ‘90s would likely enjoy this book the most, though the story can also appeal to teens who don’t mind missing out on the references. There is certainly something for young people to relate to in Chris’s struggles to find her place in the world and to figure out how to express her feelings for Maggie. Although there is some violence depicted (it features a fight club, after all), it’s fairly tame and bloodless, and relationships are mainly depicted at the level of hand-holding and kisses. Heavy Vinyl is a good purchase for libraries, and I’m hoping BOOM! Box releases more of it soon.

Heavy Vinyl, vol. 1
by Carly Usdin
Art by Nina Vakueva
ISBN: 9781684151417
BOOM! Box, 2018

Miles Morales: A Spider-Man Novel

I need to begin this review by stating my unabashed love for author Jason Reynolds. I’ve been enamored with Jason’s work for the past few years and I’ve had the chance to see him talk or present at readings, performances, and conferences five times this year. (I’d like to think these five times were all coincidental, but let’s say that two of the five were coincidences and the other three I went to because I knew I’d have a chance to see him and brag about how many times I saw him later, like right now.)

Reynolds is a writer of the adolescent human spirit and the Black experience. He can express the sensations, frustrations, and temptations of middle school-age characters in novels like Ghost and As Brave as You as easily as he can depict grittier coming-of-age stories of high school-age characters in novels like All-American Boys, When I Was The Greatest, The Boy in the Black Suit, and the forthcoming Long Way Down.

In Miles Morales, Reynolds injects Miles Morales with social conscience and dynamic optimism that readers of his other books will find familiar. Miles is a five-day boarding student at Brooklyn Visions Academy (BVA), which he attends on a scholarship. I know what you’re thinking, dorms and academic quadrangles don’t belong in Brooklyn; the pressure to turn some 14-year-old’s dorm into rentals would be way too high for that to work, but go along with the story here.

As one of a few scholarship students at BVA, Miles feels a little on the outside. Aside from his best friend and sidekick Ganke, who lacks for a loving family but presumably doesn’t have to prioritize which bills to pay, and Miles’s love interest, Alicia, who comes from Harlem Renaissance royalty, the only other classmates who seem to get any airtime are the other scholarship students at BVA. Adding to Miles’s outsider status is history teacher Mr. Chamberlain, who seems a little too eager to defend the slave-owning south and admires Jefferson Davis. Miles’s spider-sense is activated by Mr. Chamberlain, and Miles’s reaction to this is interpreted by Mr. Chamberlain as academic misbehavior.

Miles’ issues continue when he considers ditching his work-study job manning the on-campus convenience store for a hot minute to go see Alicia at a poetry reading and receive extra credit. He uses his powers of camouflage to leave the store and go unnoticed on the security camera. During his brief absence, canned sausages are stolen and Miles is suggested as the culprit. Miles refuses to admit that he stole the sausages, but he is also loath to admit the truth about his absence. As a result, superhero Miles is put in an even more vulnerable position as his room and board scholarship is revoked. It’s clear that somebody wants Miles to be vulnerable—but who? Why? What do they know about him?

A few too many interfering plot elements (a letter from a long-lost cousin, the struggle to write a poem for English class, the loss of an uncle, some sketchy neighborhood dudes) bog this book down a bit and detract from the excitement of the villains’ pursuit of Miles. When the big bad boss villain finally arrives deep into the story, there isn’t enough time or space to flesh the villain out to make Miles’ eventual victory satisfying. As much as I admire Reynolds’s riffing here, especially the heart and soul of sidekick Ganke, in a superhero story I want him to stick to the script.

Reynolds is absolutely a poet first and a plotter second. While this strength works well for most of his stories, readers who are picking up this story for cinematic fight scenes and sweeping city travels by web rather than subway are going to be disappointed. However, those who immerse themselves in the story will have an opportunity to visit a larger conversation about race relations in current times. We see Alicia fight for what’s right with protest instead of superpowers and we are given an opportunity to ask if racists are aware of their own hatred. Even Miles’s most utilized superpower in this novel, the ability to go invisible, is a subtle nod to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

What we learn from this book is that the bravest thing isn’t flying from building to building or defeating a villain with our cunning, because even if we defeat the villain today, systematic oppression will just generate a new villain tomorrow. Instead, we are at our bravest when we work on a broader level to make oppression visible and force others to recognize our humanity through words and actions. But if we happen to have superhuman powers and a costume, even better.

Miles Morales: A Spider-Man Novel
by Jason Reynolds
Art by Kadir Nelson
ISBN: 9781484787489
Marvel, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: (12+)

21: The Story of Roberto Clemente

21-coverBiographical comics strike me as one of the most difficult genres in the world of graphic novels. How do you sum up a life, particularly one that is well-known and researched, in 200-ish pages, using a format that can consume pages at a time with a single picture? You can pare down your story to key moments, ones that reflect the subject, how they lived their life, the choices they made, and the impact they had on the world around them. Inevitably something gets left out, but depending on the story you tell and the way you tell it, your omissions may make for a stronger tale. But then again….

21: The Story of Roberto Clemente revolves around the September 30, 1972 game, when Clemente made his 3000th hit. We bounce back to his childhood, growing up in Puerto Rico and playing baseball with a homemade bat and bottle caps. We see his family tragedies, his time in the Puerto Rico Baseball League, and his struggle with Jim Crow segregation. Santiago intermittently returns to the 1972 game, but also explores Puerto Rican history and the debate over its independence, as well as Clemente’s humanitarian work. Throughout the biography, Santiago weaves in the story of the three magi kings, visually tying it in with the plane crash that ended Clemente’s life in December, 1972. His 18 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates are portrayed in scattered episodes, with focus on their 1960 World Series run against the Yankees.

The art is done in bold strokes and sepia tones. Santiago fills the page with warm tones, using a style reminiscent of charcoal and mixed with off-whites, bright oranges, and brown-blacks (as a Giants fan, I have to say the color scheme reminded me more of San Francisco’s than Pittsburgh’s). Many of the side characters are drawn as caricatures, particularly the crowds attending the games, while Clemente, his teammates, and family members are drawn more realistically. Anyone familiar with the iconic pictures of Clemente will see the similarities between those and Santiago’s art. This style beautifully portrays the intense games and Clemente’s epic playing style.

Santiago’s art is the star of the book. The writing is fractured, leaping to different points in Clemente’s life with little reference for the reader. The story shifts quickly and the panels on the page are inconsistent in their flow – I often felt disoriented by the narrative. The book suffers from its lack of focus – is it about Clemente’s amazing career? The racism that he and other players overcame? Or Puerto Rico’s history? It’s about all of these things, and yet doesn’t cover any of them satisfactorily.

As someone who follows baseball but has limited knowledge of its history, I was eager to read about this important player. I came away knowing little more about Clemente and his career. Perhaps those with a stronger background in baseball history would find more to enjoy about this biography, but I’m not sure that they’d glean anything new about Clemente or baseball in the 1950s and 60s. I was inspired to research more about his life and career, particularly his impact on the game and humanitarian efforts; for such a fascinating person, 21 gives you a limited glimpse of his life. It’s the depictions of Clemente’s games that create the most powerful moments in the book, and those don’t make up a large part of the story.

This book is listed on YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for 2012, but it’s hard to see the teen appeal in this biography. Baseball fanatics may pick it up, but might be disappointed with the minimal amount of games featured in the story. When they are the focus of the story, they’re gorgeous, relying on a classic, old-school style and color scheme. As a biography, though, there are large gaps in information about Clemente and his career. The narrative style is confusing and may leave veteran graphic novel-readers rereading pages at a time. While the book is a visual treat, the story leaves a lot to be desired. For those interested in learning more about Clemente, Santiago provides a list of online and print references.

21: The Story of Roberto Clemente
by Wilfred Santiago
ISBN: 9781560978923
Fantagraphics Books, 2011