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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free Speech Handbook (World Citizen Handbook Series)

This book opens with the free speech portion of the first amendment from the US Constitution, followed by writer Ian Rosenberg, who is Jewish, explaining the events that led to this book. Several events are referenced within the first three pages, including the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, National School Walkout protests, 2017 Women’s March, and Mollie Steimer’s arrival at Ellis Island from Russia in 1913. Steimer’s foundational court battles lead into a key consideration: “Who is truly heard in the marketplace [of ideas]? If women, minorities, and the poor are not granted equal opportunity to enter the market, how can their voices participate in the competition for truth?” This question is immediately followed by talking-head quotes from law professors Charles Lawrence III, who is black, and Catharine A. MacKinnon, who is white.

The second chapter looks at Colin Kaepernick and the act of taking a knee (originally staying seated, but changed to kneeling as a sign of respect to fallen soldiers, an oft-overlooked nuance I was glad to see highlighted). After comparing reactions for and against that act of protest, the narrative shifts to the 1935 case of a child not participating in his classroom’s pledge of allegiance. There, as in Steimer’s case and many others used in this book, Rosenberg quotes and contextualizes judges’ rulings, their immediate fallout, and what they mean for Americans’ freedoms today. In each chapter, Rosenberg cites different scholars, justices, authors, and legal precedents, ensuring that his teacherly perspective is never unilateral or unsupported by facts and expertise. This is important when debunking Donald Trump and Clarence Thomas’s hypothetical rewriting of libel laws to go after the media, for example. Further issues include but are not limited to civil rights protests, propaganda on social media, Westboro Baptist Church’s protesting at funerals, and the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville. There’s a lot to chew on in every chapter!

All of this history and legal analysis needs a skilled cartoonist to weave its various threads into a cohesive whole, and artist Mike Cavallaro is mostly up to the task. There can be paragraphs of dry text on some pages, and Cavallaro makes sure to break up each block of text with a related image, often a picture of someone in portrait. Layouts will include images designed to guide readers across the page; other times, they use broad, straightforward grids. Some metaphorical imagery underlines Rosenberg’s points, but more often than not the art is rather literal, depicting flatly delivered quotes, exposition, talking heads, and book covers. The first amendment appears as an anthropomorphic #1 wearing a red cape, battling laws aimed at restricting it. I can’t help but think back to my previous review of What Unites Us, which used color and figurative imagery more frequently and effectively. That’s not a knock against the arguments presented in this book, only its presentation.

An afterword including quick summaries of first amendment concepts, as well as a glossary of legal terms and chapter-by-chapter bibliography, provide resources for learning and recall. As one might expect in a thorough review of free speech, some of the book’s examples involve swearing, from celebrities cursing at awards shows to George Carlin’s “seven words you can’t say on television” bit, Samantha Bee’s callout of Ivanka Trump over immigration policy in 2018, and “fuck the draft” printed on a jacket during the Vietnam War. A section about Larry Flynt’s legal battles over Hustler, a pornographic magazine, does not include porn. The issues discussed in this book are undeniably pertinent to all Americans, as well as historians and legal scholars. To make another comparison to What Unites Us, this is another powerful teaching tool from the World Citizen Comics line of publisher First Second that demonstrates over and over the impact of people standing up for their rights, even (especially!) if doing so is unpopular. The presentation is scholarly, as well it should be. Close reading and factual analysis should be considered signs of respect for “the most American of virtues.”

Free Speech Handbook
By Ian Rosenberg
Art by  Mike Cavallaro
First Second, 2021
ISBN: 9781250619754

Series ISBNs and Order

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  Jewish
Character Representation: African-American, Russian, Mobility Impairment, Jehovah’s Witness, Jewish, Protestant ,

The Gift

In this imagined tale of fifteen-year-old Princess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, a camera mysteriously arrives as a welcome gift, first to photograph her life behind the palace walls, and then beyond the liminal space that the Russian revolution has generated for her and her family.

The story begins on a snowy winter day with a moth attending the birth of the fourth Romanov princess. The disappointment in the birth of a fourth daughter is only mitigated by the subsequent birth of her brother. His illness, while often a large part of this family historic record, is only a side note to both Anastasia’s historical and fantastical experiences with the revolution and the filmic documentation with the mysterious camera. Although she never discovers the identity of the gift giver, the camera becomes an integral part of her daily life. She carries it everywhere with her, seemingly having an unlimited supply of film that is developed on a regular basis. At first, the photographs are benign pictures of the monotonous life of the children behind the palace walls but soon Anastasia is visited by vivid dreams and then, in her peripheral vision, discovers that she is being followed by a creature that may not be human. The most haunting aspect of this creature, and ultimately the story itself, is that it is not a foreshadowing of the devastation and death that we know is coming for this family but a personal connection for Anastasia that becomes violently disconnected at the end of the tale. The reader is left with many questions and no distinct answers.

The moth returns at the end to this succinct and partially wordless narrative to replicate the feeling of the circular action of many folktales, which initially attracted this reader to the storytelling in the book. Also, previously, eons ago, I had been fascinated by the Romanov story, and this book, while not factually truthful, brought me full circle to my earlier self which was an additional unexpected gift for me. While not an uplifting tale, The Gift satisfied and delighted me in so many ways.

Canadian illustrator and writer, Zoe Maeve, undertook a great deal of research on the Romanov family history for the story but soon deviated from historical accuracy to create her own backdrop for her tale. While not adhering to the historical record, this research is paramount in making her story rich and inviting for the reader. The generally unadorned but detailed illustrations, done in delicate inks and rendered in varied shades of blue, establish, and embellish the evocative and poignant dreamscape of the story.

This is not an uncomplicated novel to ignore and easily forget. Initially intended for a young adult audience, this book should appeal to a wide age range of readers interested in the supernatural, horror, Russian history, and photography.

The Gift Vol. 
By Zoe Maeve
Conundrum, 2021
ISBN: 9781772620559

Publisher Age Rating: YA
Series ISBNs and Order
Related media: 

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

Geeky Fab 5, vol. 2: Mystery of the Missing Monarchs

Geeky F@b 5 returns with volume 2, Mystery of the Missing Monarchs, an educational adventure full of friendship and girl power. Geeky F@b 5 is a collaboration between pre-teen author Lucy Lareau and her mother, Liz Lareau, that tackles “geeky” STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) topics for young readers. The first book, It’s Not Rocket Science, brought together the group of friends for their first challenge: creating a new school playground. In volume 2, the girls discover an abandoned lot near their school full of native plants, monarch butterflies, and honeybees.They fall in love with their “secret garden,” but it’s soon threatened by a mysterious developer that wants to bulldoze the area to build a new convenience store. The girls must rush to discover the identity of the developer and find a way to save the endangered insects.

Although I personally enjoyed the first book more and felt the plot and writing was a little stronger, Mystery of the Missing Monarchs is still a worthy addition to the series. There is a healthy dose of educational content about monarch butterflies and the role they play in the ecosystem, as well as the dangers they currently face. As with the first book, the girls face a problem that seems insurmountable—something that would be a challenge even for grown-ups—but their determination and creative thinking, as well as the support of the adults around them, carry them through. This volume shares the same energetic, upbeat tone as the first, and does a good job making STEM topics accessible and interesting for young readers. Mystery of the Missing Monarchs can stand alone, despite being a sequel, so there is no worry about adhering strictly to the series order. The first chapter introduces the characters and setting, and makes for an easy entry point for readers.

An element I continued to appreciate in this comic is the diversity of the main group of friends. They are not only racially diverse, but one is adopted, and they represent a wide variety of interests and hobbies ranging from those often seen as masculine (math, computer programming, sports, etc.) to those often seen as feminine (art, fashion, singing, etc.). The comic does not gender these hobbies and doesn’t value one type at the expense of the other. In this volume, we are also introduced to the brother of one of the girls, who is a person of color with a disability.

One thing I particularly liked about the comic was that the eventual solution to the main conflict was small-scale and realistic, making it seem achievable and inspiring for readers eager to follow in the girls’ footsteps. As with the first book, things tend to fall into place fairly conveniently for the story (characteristic of many books for young readers) but I felt the girls’ solution in this volume was more reachable than in the last. The comedy provided by Hubble the cat was a bit too much for me at times, but the humor might be just right for the target age group.

Artists Ryan Jampole and Jen Hernandez continue to serve up cute, distinctive characters in panels with lots of movement, energy, and color. There is a simplicity to it, with most of the attention focused on the foreground and the characters, which pairs well with the story and helps to move it along.

The Geeky F@b 5 series is a fun way to emphasize and teach positive messages about girls in STEM, female friendship, and children’s capacity for thinking about and addressing large-scale problems in the world. These important ideas are timely and useful for kids of all genders to be exposed to. It will be interesting to see how the series continues to develop as more books are created.

Geeky F@b 5, vol.2: Mystery of the Missing Monarchs 
By Lucy Lareau Liz Lareau
Art by Ryan Jampole Jen Hernandez
ISBN: 9781545801567
Papercutz, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: 7-11

Browse for more like this title
Character Traits: Black, Latinx, South Asian,

The Silence of Malka

Winner of the Best Foreign Graphic Album at the Angoulème Festival in Belgium and recently translated into English from the original French text, this version of the traditional Jewish legend of the Golem is innovative for me, a person who has collected these legends for a long time.

Inspired by oral stories told to the author by his grandmother, the story follows young Malka and her family from the pogroms of the Russian shtetl to the Argentine pampas to better their living conditions at the end of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, things are not much improved for them in this new scorched country. A visit from the prophet Elias to Malka’s uncle results in the creation of a Golem to aid and protect the new comers. Their mythical Golem, created from the earth, resembles a human and lives among the people as a neighbor peacefully for many years.

As time passes, however, another danger emerges when the Golem aids the family in taking an ill child, on the recommendation of their doctor, to the indigenous Old Wise Medicine Woman, Tomasa. The child is fine but the Golem and Tomasa’s young niece, Rosita, notice each other. Events escalate when Tomasa prepares a love potent which backfires horrifically. The Golem murders Rosita and then, running amuck as the Golem often does in the variants of these legends, he continues his murderous journey. Years later Malka, now an adult, meets Elias and is told the Golem’s story and instructed on how to destroy the monster who has continued his murderous journey as a bodyguard to corrupt politicians and gangsters.

The story is equally violent and hopeful, with a wide and vivid array of brightly and menacingly illustrations ardently activating this powerful tale. The imaginative layout and strong artwork bring, simultaneously, a historical time alive and subtly highlights the relevancy to today’s political environment. All while reworking one of the most powerful Jewish legends and breathing fresh air into its creation.

Prefacing the story is an essay by the author describing the genesis of his story and a concise history of the Jewish journey from Russia to a land of promise. There are also numerous sketches, figure studies, and full page watercolor paintings that follow the story itself, enclosing the hardcover graphic novel in a circle of love, memory, tragedy and hope.
Highly recommended.

The Silence of Malka
by Jorge Zentner
Art by Rubén Pellejero
ISBN: 9781684052875
IDW, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: OT (16+)

Koshchei the Deathless

I always approach a Hellboy story with great anticipation to see how effectively the reworking of traditional folklore, most often Russian folklore, has been accomplished. I am particularly fond of the ambiguity of the Baba Yaga figure in the body of traditional tales where she may be an evil mother figure or good mother figure, depending on her mood and the intent of the storyteller. Hellboy’s Baba Yaga does not disappoint and I was equally delighted with the focus on one of another of my favorite East Slavic villains: Koshchei the Deathless.

Although he does not appear in as many tales as the Baba Yaga, Koshchei is equally ambiguous in his appearance and his background. He has been described as an ogre, an evil sorcerer, a father of dragons (not the adopted son of a dragon as in the Hellboy tale), and a husband to the fierce Baba Yaga. Seduction, deceit, infidelity, secrecy, and betrayal are consistent leitmotifs associated with him as is his immortality. Hellboy and the reader discover that Koshchei is only deathless because his mortality is kept hidden outside of his body. His death is hidden inside an egg and nested further in a series of objects and animals which vary from one tale to another. The egg is most frequently inside a duck, inside a hare, in a chest and buried under an oak tree. He is also well-known as an abductor of maidens.

The storytelling session with Hellboy at a pub in Hell offers an opportunity for Koshchei to recount his long and horrific journey from an ordinary warrior, with exceptional fighting skills, to the evil entity used and abused by the Baba Yaga in her ascent to supremacy. She took advantage of his fear of losing his soul (death). One of the escalating quests assigned to him is to slay the last dragons including all the hatchlings. She proclaims that this effort will spare the defeat of mankind but, in following her directives, he kills the family of his adopted father. Koshchei’s latest mission is to kill Hellboy. “The Baba Yaga came to me and promised me my soul back if I would kill you and bring her your left eye.” In a previous encounter with the Baba Yaga, Hellboy had shot out her left eye and, in this volume, he recounts the encounter to Koshchei, over several pages of atmospheric combat in a graveyard. After Koshchei shares all his tales of anguish, the two antagonists part ways with Hellboy leaving Koshchei to his horrific memories and Hellboy to his somber and sincere sadness for his ill-fated and extremely miserable adversary.

The six-issue story arc compiled in this volume pays homage to oral storytelling along with the Russian folklore and the long association between Hellboy and the Baba Yaga in previous stories. The storyline includes guest appearances from other Russian folklore characters such as the Leshi, the spirit of the forest and hunting. Traditionally, the Leshi is masculine and humanoid, surrounded by packs of wolves and bears, and is occasionally shown with horns. All these elements are exemplified in this story as is his power over his forest domain. Vasilia, possibility the best-known story of a young stepdaughter and her doll in all folklore, also plays a pivotal role in the stories Koshchei tells Hellboy. Koshchei reminds Hellboy, and the reader, of Hellboy’s previous encounter with this young woman. Mike Mignola frames this story to make his Vasilia an ancient ghost.

Koshchei’s stories are vividly brought to life through the bright colour palette and atmospherically dynamic illustrations. The multitude of close-ups of facial expressions adds to the immediacy of the horror, terror, revenge, and remorse of all the characters involved. There is, indeed, a great deal of violence as well as melancholy that is totally appropriate for both the Hellboy universe and the world of medieval Russian folklore. Beyond the ever-present bloodshed lies the story of an individual spiraling out of control through bad decisions, evil associations, and the never-ending quest for ultimate power, his own and others. There are several bittersweet romantic episodes, surprising for this traditionally unrepentant seducer of maidens. His passion for women, of course, is ultimately one of his downfalls.

Along with my admiration of the reworking of traditional folklore in this volume is my appreciation of the power and role of oral storytelling and the art of active listening demonstrated by the two main characters. Well done!

Koshchei the Deathless
By Mike Mignola
Art by Ben Stenbeck, Dave Stewart
ISBN: 9781506706726
Dark Horse, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 14

Green Monk: Blood of the Martyrs

Have a weakness for quest narratives? Enjoy a good bildungsroman? Like to learn a super hero’s origins? You can satisfy all three cravings in Green Monk: Blood of the Martyrs, by Brandon Dayton. This historical-fiction-meets-fantasy tale set in 15th-century Russia follows the life of Alexey, a boy surrendered at birth to a monastery. However, Dayton manages to upend the expected messianic story line to leave his readers contemplating the continuum between peace and violence.

As many superhero and savior stories begin, this tale opens with a mother offering her child up to the care of others with her dying breath. The monks are advanced in their years and characteristically unaware of how to care for a child. Alexey flourishes under their watch, learning about their order and how to read, weave baskets, and treat people and animals with kindness. In his first journey to a nearby village, Alexey sees local boys beating a deer, and he frees the animal, returning to fight with them. The monks are disappointed in his choice of violence, reminding him that their order was founded in blood and that they have therefore set out to live a life of pacifism. After failing this first trial, Alexey experiences his first vision, in which he is armed with a sword, fighting a demon, but is mortally wounded when he heeds the reproach of his father monk. As the story continues, Alexey again must choose between pacifism and action. With each conflict, Alexey experiences another vision and is further challenged to choose between the peace of the brotherhood and the way of the sword. He desperately tries to honor his upbringing, but even choosing a harmless blade of grass as a weapon turns into an opportunity to kill those who are murdering his brothers. There is no clear path ahead, and we leave Alexey shut outside the walls of the monastery, ordered to make penance for the lives he took in saving the lives of others.

This story heavily emphasizes the conflict between keeping peace at the cost of ignoring justice. The monks call for inaction, citing a desire to live holy, blameless lives. Yet, in his visions, the Holy Mother calls Alexey to defend the pitiful and the weak and to choose a weapon to cut down her enemies. Can Alexey exist somewhere on the continuum between pacifism and militarism, or must he choose only one of two options—inaction or action, black or white, right or wrong? By allowing the weapon from his vision to carry into the real world, Dayton suggests that there might be rifts in reality and shades of grey in justice. As the Scripture states, there is a time for love… but there is also a time for war.

The majority of the story progresses without dialogue, relying on the artwork to follow Alexey’s coming of age. Dayton zooms in and out on the action, intensifying the action pane by pane only to interrupt with a snapshot of still life, from bird’s eye views of the buildings to a close up of a spilling wine cup. Alexey’s dream sequences function in the same style, varying between action and still shots, and Dayton offers no warning to the reader of when the story has shifted from reality to dream. These pauses in the action serve as moments of reflection—what is the best path?

Green Monk is rated for Teens, and this seems to be an accurate assessment of audience. While younger teens may not be as attuned to the nuances of the moral conflict, the book is still a great coming-of-age story about a monk who can cut down trees and people with a blade of grass. It merits purchase not only for fascinating assessment of pacifism but also for its unique setting in medieval Russia and its blend of folklore and religion. It also is set up for a continuing series if Image should decide to pick it up, and I certainly hope they do!

Green Monk: Blood of the Martyrs, Vol. 1
By Brandon Dayton
ISBN: 9781534308312
Image Comics, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: T

Geeky Fab 5, vol.1: It’s Not Rocket Science

Geeky Fab 5, vol. 1: It’s Not Rocket Science is an energetic book full of female friendship, determination, and acceptance for girls with strong passions and curiosity about the world. Co-created and co-authored by Liz Lareau and her 12-year-old daughter Lucy, the comic presents five girls celebrating their “geeky” STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) interests in pursuit of helping their school and each other.

Lucy Monroe is about to start fourth grade at a new school. Her family just moved to Normal, Illinois, and it’s her first day at Earhart Elementary. She’s starting along with her sixth-grader sister Marina, who Lucy thinks is super cool. Lucy soon meets three other girls in her class, and the five become friends. They bond over their interests in topics girls aren’t “supposed to” like, such as math, science, computers, and sports. When the school playground is shut down for good for safety reasons, the girls band together, along with Lucy’s cat Hubble, and use their skills to help the school fund and build a new, creative playground at the end of the year.

The characters of Geeky Fab 5 are memorable and diverse, and I really appreciated that the girls have mixed interests. For example, the character Sofia likes computer programming as well as glitter, art, and fashion, while Zara loves math as well as music/singing. This makes the girls feel more real and rounded, while also mixing some hobbies traditionally seen as feminine with others often seen as masculine, thereby celebrating both at once rather than pitting them against each other. The group of girls is racially diverse as well, and Lucy’s older sister is adopted.

The comic has a lot of positive energy, with the girls finding encouragement from parents, teachers, and the school principal as they work toward their goal. The biggest challenges they face are from boys who think girls can’t or shouldn’t be involved in computers and science, and from older kids who try to sabotage their fundraisers for the playground. But the Geeky F@b 5 pull through to be celebrated by the whole town.

The art by Ryan Jampole is cute and fitting, and does a good job giving the characters lots of personality. Lots of exaggerated expressions, large sound effects, and action lines capture the liveliness of kids the age of Lucy and her friends, and the playful depictions of the cat Hubble add to the comedy of the story.

The book reminded me somewhat of Lumberjanes, but for a younger audience and without the supernatural elements. The girls’ strong friendship, unique skills and personalities, and dedication to encouraging and helping each other were welcome aspects. Teaching girls not only to feel confident about their geeky interests, but also to support each other and treat each other with compassion, are all essential messages, and it’s nice to see a comic tackling these well. I’m looking forward to seeing more of this series, and would be excited to see even more diversity of representation in future volumes.

Geeky Fab 5, vol. 1: It’s Not Rocket Science
by Lucy Lareau, Liz Lareau
Art by Ryan Jampole
ISBN: 9781545801222
Papercutz, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 7-11