Bolero

Bolero

Devyn Dagny’s life is falling apart. She and her girlfriend broke up, she dropped out of college, and her best friend is marrying a man who is best described as “a pair of khakis”. After relapsing into alcoholism at her friend Amina’s concert, Devyn is given the opportunity to change things and start over completely. She gains the ability to “hop” into alternate universes, essentially possessing herself in another life. She can never return to her own reality. She can only hop a maximum of 53 times, at risk of destroying everything.

Writer Wyatt Kennedy and artist Luana Vecchio make the most out of this concept in the first half of the book, showing many wildly different realities. A medieval reality with shades of Joan of Arc. A Studio Ghibli-influenced castle in the woods. A spaceship, watching as a nearby star implodes. All of the hopping drains Devyn and she starts to lose hope of reuniting with her ex-girlfriend Nat in any reality. As despair sets in, she is advised to stop running, and to make a life for herself wherever she is.

This works out for a while. Devyn meets someone new, a male music teacher named Will. She reconciles with her friends. She thinks about having kids. Then she relapses again, and things get weird. At this point in the story I have a hard time keeping track of the plot, forgive me. It’s not clear whether we are with the same characters all the way through the story, or one of their alternates. There’s at least one large time jump. There are three different chapters titled “Finale”, and they all end the story in different ways. Throughout it all a strong emotional core remains, despite the layered and confusing plot, setting, and characters.

A large factor in Bolero working as well as it does is Vecchio’s art. It is, quite simply, beautiful. The story gives her opportunity to work in other genres and settings. At times it is explicitly sexual, at others it is tender and heartwarming. The character designs are well thought out and unique, each character looks and dresses in ways that are authentic to the character and easy to tell apart. The watercolor backgrounds are stunning, as is the use of pinks, purples, and blues to highlight the otherworldliness of the story. I will certainly be on the lookout for more work by Vecchio.

All of that said, this was an incredibly difficult review to write. Despite a confusing timeline and plot, Bolero is emotionally affecting. Although I have several major differences from the main cast of characters, I also struggle with mental illness. Kennedy and Vecchio are so effective at bringing that feeling out with their art that every time I tried to finish the book I would spiral into some level of depression myself. Usually I would simply avoid things that trigger me so much, but in this case I was compelled to keep going. It’s not like watching something awful, like a train wreck. The book is too beautiful for that. It’s more like picking at a scab, something I know is ultimately not very good for me but is incredibly satisfying.

The cover blurbs draw comparison to the comic Locke and Key and the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, as well as the comic Saga. These comparisons seem apt to me, and I would even throw out the movie Everything, Everywhere, All At Once as another. All of those are excellent, and are in fact favorites of mine. Bolero sets itself apart by how emotionally resonant it is, especially emotions the reader might not want to experience. There are some short-comings bring it up short of something like Saga, but it is still in excellent company.

Ultimately, this is a strangely-paced science fiction story that is about addiction and depression. It’s not an automatic purchase for most libraries, and it is definitely a book for adult audiences. Larger public libraries should have space on their shelves for this, and it will definitely find readers. It’s worth a purchase under those circumstances, but if you don’t have much of a patron base for adult comics that are unaffiliated with a larger series, you can safely skip it.

Bolero
By Wyatt Kennedy
Art by Luana Vecchio
Image, 2022
ISBN: 9781534323124

Publisher Age Rating: M

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation:  Addiction, Bipolar Character Representation: Korean-American, Bisexual, Trans, Deafness,  Addiction, Ambiguous Mental Illness, Depression

Blackwater

Tony Price is your average high school track star/rebel looking to prove himself to his absent, overworked father. Eli Hirsch is a meek boy with a chronic illness that keeps him from having a stable social life. Together, they experience the eerie events that plague their quaint New England town of Blackwater, such as a terrifying creature that stalks the woods and a haunting presence in the harbor that only Eli can see. As the two face the horrors of the supernatural, as well as a healthy amount of teen drama, they grow closer as friends and, in time, start to feel something deeper for each other.

While Blackwater delivers on its more horrific moments, creators Jeannette Arroyo and Ren Graham capture a more down-to-earth, character-driven narrative in which the supernatural elements are there more for the development of the main characters rather than to give the reader a scare. This works in the graphic novel’s favor, as Tony and Eli’s relationship is a major highlight of the story. Their romance builds naturally and is constantly being tested through their actions and how they react to the odd goings on around them. There is a slow-burn aspect to their dynamic, which may disappoint those looking to jump right into the romance, but it ultimately culminates in a satisfying payoff to this slight enemies to friends to lovers build up. Other character ties are explored and gain some depth and/or resolution, though there are a few that gain some focus only to lead to loose ends. Since relationships, whether platonic, romantic or familial, play such a large role in the story this lack of resolution gives off a disjointed feeling at times.

One quality of Blackwater worth noting is the normalized intersectional representation shown through the characters. Tony is bisexual and half Puerto Rican, while Eli is Jewish, transgender, and queer. Both of them are disabled, Tony having asthma and Eli having a chronic autoimmune disorder as well as being an ambulatory wheelchair user. The representation varies in terms of what is specifically addressed, ranging from a few panels showing a menorah in Eli’s hospital room to the boys’ disabilities playing major roles in the story. Regardless, the creators treat each facet of the characters’ identity with respect, refraining from making them sole, defining characteristics.

Without a doubt, Blackwater’s standout quality is its use of multiple art styles. Arroyo and Graham’s illustrations alternate between chapters, aiming for a more “unique and dynamic” experience. Each artist creates a moody, spooky atmosphere for this small woodsy town, as the black and white color palette gives it all the charm of an old monster flick. A constant foggy texture lays within the backgrounds, giving a further air of mystery to each location. Though Arroyo and Graham both enrich the comic in their own ways, it may come down to the reader’s personal tastes whether the desired effect of both styles works or not. For me, I found myself more drawn to Arroyo’s chapters, where characters have such expressive facial features that each emotion is instantly recognizable, sometimes overexaggerated in a cartoony way that I really enjoy. Arroyo uses the entire face to her advantage when having a character emote, giving it such a dynamic malleability and making for a great range of expressions. In comparison, Graham’s designs are more static, more reserved, to the point where their features somewhat conflict with what the character is meant to be feeling. Still, Graham greatly contributes to the comic through their lush backgrounds, enhanced by the monochromatic hues. While each style has its own strengths, they both fit the story and tone perfectly.

Blackwater expertly balances a cute, budding romance with paranormal perils and a dash of teen angst thrown in for good measure, giving it an appeal akin to Heartstopper, Teen Wolf, and Riverdale all rolled up into one. Presenting a somewhat light horror, there is nothing too off-putting for those just getting into the genre, aside from some visuals of blood. The publisher gives an age recommendation of 14-18, which fits well with the teen-centric issues of the main characters and overall aesthetic. Educators and librarians that are looking for representative and diverse materials that also give variety in genre and story should consider purchasing this title.

Blackwater
By Jeannette Arroyo, Ren Graham
Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, 2022
ISBN: 9781250304025

Publisher Age Rating: 14-18

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  Latine,  Queer,  ,  Character Representation: Black, German-American, Latine, Bisexual, Queer, Trans, Chronic Illness, Disability, Wheelchair User, Jewish ,

Gender Queer: A Memoir

Gender Queer Deluxe EditionGender Queer: A Memoir begins with an arresting image. As a student, Maia Kobabe, who uses e/em/eir pronouns, taped over two pages of eir sketchbook with blank pieces of paper. The pages concealed an autobiographical comic about gender created for a school assignment, a topic that filled Kobabe with discomfort. In the opening of Gender Queer, we’re shown the censored pages—then, with an immensely satisfying “RIPPP!”, Kobabe tears away the paper, revealing the title page of Gender Queer itself.

Gender Queer is the self-portrait of a queer artist developing the confidence to tell eir story, in eir own words and on eir own terms. Narrating Kobabe’s gender journey from early childhood to the present, this graphic memoir chronicles eir efforts to build a life that affirms every piece of eir identity. There isn’t a single pivotal coming-out scene; instead, Kobabe embarks on a slow, continuous project of self-expression and self-knowledge, with results as precise and dazzling as the constellations that decorate the cover of this deluxe edition.

Maia Kobabe’s story begins with a California childhood spent catching snakes, making art, and feeling completely out of step with eir peers. A series of early crushes helps Maia to realize e’s bisexual, but this doesn’t explain the deeper discomfort e feels with eir body and assigned gender. Confused and discouraged, Maia catches hold of a pair of lifelines—coming to books as a late reader, and joining a Queer Straight Alliance at eir high school. Discovering stories that reflect eir own experiences, e begins to feel less alone.

Entering adulthood, Maia finds a word—genderqueer—that reflects the complexity of eir experiences. Just as important, e continues to collect touchstones that affirm eir sense of self instead of eroding it. There’s the first time e listens to David Bowie; the male figure skating costume that fills em with gender euphoria; the queer fan fiction that sparks eir sense of the erotic, yet ultimately makes em realize that e prefers reading about romance to experiencing it firsthand. Kobabe’s sophisticated artwork explodes to life in these moments, expressive full-color panels featuring inventive imagery such as Maia’s gender leafing out like a young seedling, or Bowie’s music as a full-body, cosmic experience (complete with rocketship). 

Yet as Maia pieces together identity labels—nonbinary, mostly asexual, queer—and builds a network of supportive friends and family, the obstacles grow. Maia knows that as long as e minimizes eir gender, eir relationships and sense of self will suffer. But loved ones offer pushback when e tries to explain nonbinary identities; Pap smears are a source of trauma that medical professionals rarely take seriously; and everyday interactions come with a cost: Maia must stand up for emself, over and over, just to feel comfortable in eir own skin. This is the Maia who censored eir own sketchbook, and at the close of the memoir, this self-effacement is still palpable. Now a working artist, e hesitates over whether to share eir pronouns with students. “I think I’m carrying more fear than I need,” e realizes.

If Gender Queer is an act of bravery, it’s also a funny, sophisticated, deeply relatable coming-of-age story about charting your way alongside books and best friends into adulthood. Accessible but never didactic, Kobabe’s deft storytelling and polished, appealing artwork excels at communicating with a broad readership. For a queer and trans audience that has rarely encountered nonfiction centering nonbinary experiences, Kobabe’s memoir delivers affirmation, while for readers who are new to learning about queer identities, it educates and invites empathy. Gender Queer is also smart about the way it presents sexual material; this book doesn’t shy from frank discussions of sexuality, masturbation, and sexual health, but the content is contextualized in a way that is sensitive to the needs of younger readers, and Kobabe takes care to avoid explicit sexual depictions of underage characters.

The 2022 deluxe edition collects process pieces and select issues of the original Genderqueer comic strips, providing a snapshot of Kobabe’s creative process. An introduction by She-Ra and the Princesses of Power creator ND Stevenson reflects on the impact of Gender Queer since its initial publication in 2019. Stevenson writes about the book’s significance to himself and queer loved ones, as well as, briefly, those who have sought to remove it from public schools and libraries in “a last, desperate attempt to hammer an infinitely complex world into a small, unthreatening shape.”

Maia Kobabe’s introspective, joyful memoir is an important contribution to comics literature. It is highly recommended for any library collection serving adult and older teen readers.

Gender Queer: A Memoir, Deluxe Edition
By Maia Kobabe
Oni Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781637150726

Publisher Age Rating: 18+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation:  Asexual, Bisexual, Queer, Genderqueer, Nonbinary

Taproot: A Story About a Gardener and a Ghost

Blue is absolutely smitten with his best friend Hamal, a kind, soft spoken gardener with a heck of a green thumb. There’s just one problem: Blue is, well, kind of dead. Thankfully, Hamal also has the ability to see and communicate with ghosts, though lacking a physical form naturally prevents Blue from deepening his connection with Hamal. To make matters worse, something odd is happening to the local spirits who suddenly find themselves briefly flickering between a dark, decaying forest and the living world. To protect the one he loves, Blue must solve this mystery even if it costs him everything in the process. Keezy Young’s sweet, yet delightfully spooky romance, Taproot, presents a look into the delicate balance between life and death and all the love and sacrifices therein.

Taproot provides an engaging enough concept to pull readers into this mismatched couple’s story. Blue and Hamal’s dynamic is playful and endearing, but the story’s fast pace and short length prevents any sort of natural development of the relationship, the progression ultimately coming off as superficial and rushed. The overall story suffers from being somewhat frustratingly vague with certain scenes lacking a cohesive flow from one to another, all coming to an incredibly anticlimactic end.  Even the “One Year Later” segment feels tacked on, as it felt narratively needless other than to show the reader what the characters are doing after the main conclusion. Though epilogues can feel welcome in other literary scenarios, here it only adds to the slight disconnection between events. While a struggling read at times due to these elements, I can still appreciate the emphasis of queer joy and acceptance in this comic, which also features a refreshing multiracial cast and non-white leads.

Despite the somewhat underdeveloped narrative, Young manages to create an inviting, memorable world through richly illustrated landscapes and characters. The character designs immediately provide a good sense of personality, whether it’s found in Hamal’s rounded, gentle features or Blue’s angular, expressive face complete with a cheeky grin. Opting for a bluish green hue to distinguish the ghosts from the living adds more stylistic and visual intrigue as Young incorporates a good amount of framing to ensure they do not blend into the similarly colored, detailed backgrounds where Young shows off the natural wonders of this setting. Images of flora thriving around every corner exude a cozy, magical atmosphere, as we see the entire town covered in fluffy moss and colorful flowers. Even the mysterious forest has a gothic, ethereal charm to it, with its twisted, gnarled trees housing skulls and listless, chalky plant life. The environments function almost as characters in and of themselves, experiencing the same trials of life and death as our main characters, and are just as severely affected by its imbalances. Taproot’s visual style perfectly complements the tone and message of its story, marveling at the beauties of life while also stressing the inclusion of death and rebirth as a necessary part of it.

As a blend of a heartwarming queer romance with a paranormal edge, Taproot will interest fans of  Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper series and Suzanne Walker’s Mooncakes, both of which share friends-to-lovers relationships and distinctive styles that enhance their stories. Those looking for a quick, character driven comic may enjoy this title, though the lack of worldbuilding and disjointed plot threads may be a turn off for some readers. Young states that Taproot is intended for audiences of all ages, though it would likely appeal most to ages thirteen and up due to its romantic focus, as well as its more mature handling of the themes of life and death. This rereleased edition comes with a brand new cover, an afterword from Young, and backmatter material including original concept art. Librarians and educators looking to include more inclusive and diverse paranormal romances should consider purchasing this title.

Taproot: A Story About a Gardener and a Ghost
By Keezy Young
Oni Press Lion Forge, 2022
ISBN: 9781637150733

Publisher Age Rating: 12+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  Gay
Character Representation: Bisexual, Gay

Clementine Book One

Writing stories set in a much loved, previously established universe is always a highwire act. It’s hard to make everyone happy. Tillie Walden takes the challenge in Clementine Book One, as she adapts a graphic novel from a Walking Dead video game character. Her success or failure is probably dependent on how invested in the Walking Dead universe you are.

This story opens with a Black teenage girl with an amputated leg traveling alone through a zombie apocalypse. She clearly knows how to take care of herself. She’s also been through a lot of trauma and doesn’t trust people easily, though no one seems to trust each other in this world. We learn that it’s been many years since the apocalypse began and Clementine has lived in this world for most of her life. We see flashbacks of what happened to her before (likely parts of the video game) and it informs who she is today. Soon she comes across a religious community and reluctantly accompanies one young man on a quest he’s undertaken to meet others on the top of a mountain in the hopes they can survive there away from the living dead. As with most zombie stories, nothing goes as planned and mayhem ensues. There is a complete story in this book but another door opens at the end in the hopes that readers will want to see what Clementine’s next steps are.

Walden’s art and storytelling are clear and distinctive. She is able to create the appropriate mood and atmosphere for a zombie apocalypse. The book is in black and white, just like the original Walking Dead series, which does make it hard to tell some characters apart. Walden uses clothing and hairstyle to do most of this work and she’s successful most of the time. The book is mostly set at night, so everything is pretty dark. This makes depicting Clementine’s race particularly challenging. In general, if you liked Walden’s art previously, you’ll enjoy what she does here.

We’ve had a lot of tales told in the world of the Walking Dead. Focusing on the trials of a capable teenage girl is a good story to tell, but it’s not breaking much new ground other than the fact she is an amputee. Fans of Tillie Walden will be interested to see her working in someone else’s “playground.” Fans of the Walking Dead and the video game will get to see Clementine’s story move forward. Not all of them will be happy about where the story takes us, though. I am curious where planned books two and three go. Image Comics head and Walking Dead creator, Robert Kirkman, has picked a good property to launch his new Skybound Comet imprint at Image with. It will be interesting to see how well this imprint expands Image’s audience to include a younger crowd of comics readers. Clementine is rated for older teens and could go in most public library YA or adult collections. Whether it stands alone or if it has too much backstory for most teens will be the test of whether it is a hit or not.

Clementine Book One
By Tille Walden
Image Skybound, 2022
ISBN: 9781534321281

Publisher Age Rating: 14+
Related media: Game to Comic

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Lesbian
Character Representation: African-American, Bisexual, Missing Limb, Prosthesis

Mars Attacks Red Sonja

Mars Attacks Red Sonja is the sort of project that only comes about because of corporate fiat. On the one hand, we have Mars Attacks—a science fiction story dictated through a 1962 Topps trading card set, which was later adapted into a 1996 movie. On the other hand, we have Red Sonja—a fantasy heroine originally created for Marvel Comics in 1973 to meet the demand for a female Conan, revived later by Dynamite Entertainment in 2005.

There is no logical way to bring these two franchises together. There is also no aesthetic reason for Dynamite Entertainment to do so. The only reason this series exists is to hoist a plethora of variant covers upon the teaming masses of comic book speculators, who will happily buy dozens of comics to secure the 1:100 variant where Red Sonja, clad in nothing but an anachronistic thong, faces down a Martian death machine several times her size.

The damnable thing is that writer John Layman does a fair job of justifying this madcap idea. The story is set in the distant past of both Mars and Earth, when the Martians were an advanced and peaceful people and Earth was savage and untamed. Enter Chief Science Advisor Xi’Zeer, a xenophobic soul who dreams of a Martian empire built on conquest. He heads to Earth on what is nominally a mission of exploration and peace, but really an excuse for him to take over Hyborian Age Earth, use the helpless humans as fodder for his weird science, and generally be a jerk without the Martian Emperor around to stop him.

The only thing standing in his way, of course, is Red Sonja. Well, Sonja and a few other random fantasy heroes who are barely given names and mostly not given dialogue, so really it is just Sonja. The setup isn’t bad, but it is a bit cliché, even by the standards of genre fiction and there’s nothing done with this war between the worlds that hasn’t been done before and done better elsewhere.

The artwork is flat and lifeless, for the most part. This is odd given how much bloodshed the story contains. Unfortunately, there’s little personality to any of the human characters and the Martian villains all maintain the same expression from scene to scene, showing emotion only as their heads are being crushed or sliced by the barbarians fighting them. The colors don’t help, with most of the comic rendered in muted pastels that don’t match the vivid coloration of the original Topps trading cards or your average Red Sonja comic.

This volume is rated Teen Plus for audiences 13 and up. I seriously question that rating, given as the violence within this book, ineffectually drawn as it is, retains enough detail to be worth a 16 Up rating, at least. There are several scenes of people and horses being cut in half, Martian and human heads being crushed with viscera leaking out, and one intensive scene involving Red Sonja being beheaded. Unfortunately, while some of the variant covers in the gallery that follows the story are inventive in paying tribute to various B-movies, the actual comic book story is easily skipped.

Mars Attacks Red Sonja
By John Layman
Art by Fran Strukan
Dynamite Entertainment, 2022
ISBN: 9781524119935

Publisher Age Rating: 13+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Representation: Bisexual

Mooncakes Collector’s Edition

The life of Nova Huang, teenage witch, had been going through its usual motions: helping her grandmothers run their bookshop, loaning out spell books to the local magic users, and investigating the odd supernatural occurrence in the community. Naturally, she did not expect to run into her long-lost childhood friend and werewolf, Tam Lang, facing off against a malevolent horse demon in the woods. Currently on the run from those looking to steal their wolf magic, Tam turns to Nova for aid. What follows is a resurgence of unspoken feelings, their relationship deepening as they reconnect over hopes, fears, and uncertainties both old and new. In this brand-new collector’s edition of the Hugo Award nominee, Mooncakes weaves a beautiful story that will captivate readers with the wonders of magic, self-discovery, and the unshakeable strength of love and family, both born to and found.

Wendy Xu’s muted, yet charming color palette immediately engulfs readers into the atmosphere of the story, as the comic opens on a panel filled with the alluring reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn. A sense of coziness in the colors persists in the backgrounds, whether in the forest surrounding Nova’s town or in the book-filled backroom of her grandmothers’ bookshop. Even the clothing of the characters goes a long way in strengthening the fall vibes that linger within each page, displaying comfy sweaters and stylish button-ups and jackets. From the art alone, Xu’s illustrations bring about an urge to whip up the warmest, most comforting beverage, wrap yourself in a soft blanket, and nestle within them. The use of larger panels as well as a straightforward layout scheme make this an accessible read, its more character-driven scenes being the most standout portions of the story. Panels in which there is no dialogue are fairly common, relying completely on Xu’s artistic choices to accurately convey the underlying emotions of the scene. As a result of the depth and versatility of the characters’ expressions, each of these scenes hit their marks perfectly.

The story itself is mostly grounded, all fantastical elements aside. Nova and Tam’s relationship serves as the emotional crux and, though we fall into the middle of their developing romance, this does not make it any less compelling. Their constant support and loyalty to each other cements them as a couple we want to see succeed and overcome all odds. Both of them try to anchor the other through their own emotional insecurities, whether it is Nova’s fear of leaving behind the only family she has left or Tam’s doubt of their own abilities and need for acceptance and family. The open and honest communication between them is equal parts refreshing and endearing as we follow them through their shared journeys. This dynamic aside, the comic underlies the story with a healthy amount of humor with the characters naturally bouncing off of each other. Though the danger of whatever is lurking in the woods remains prevalent in the story, the action mostly takes a backseat to the exploration of the characters and their dynamics.

One element that Suzanne Walker and Xu weave expertly in Mooncakes is its representation, which, although present and utilized in the story, does not make up the sum of the characters. Both Nova and Tam are Chinese-American, with Nova also being bisexual, hard of hearing, and a hearing aid user, while Tam is genderqueer and goes by they/them pronouns. The intersectionality of these representations does not come off as “how many identities can we stack on top of each other,” but as realistic facets of these characters, as they should be. Neither of the main characters’ main conflicts revolve around these parts of their identities, nor does the comic completely shy away from how they do impact their lives. These two elements balance each other perfectly, leading to a representative material that treats its characters like people first and foremost.

Due to the art style of the comic, its themes on identity and acceptance, and the meaningful relationship between the main leads, Mooncakes is best for those 13 and up looking for a good mix of heart and humor with a paranormal edge. This special edition also includes a new introduction and afterword, as well as previously unpublished materials, such as concept art, scripts, and letters from the characters that give additional worldbuilding. Librarians and educators looking for more inclusive materials or character-driven stories for their collection should considered purchasing this title.


Mooncakes Collector’s Edition
By Suzanne Walker
Art by Wendy Xu
Oni Press, 2021
ISBN: 9781620109731
Publisher Age Rating: 13-16

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Chinese-American, Queer, Genderqueer, Hearing loss
Character Representation: Chinese-American, Bisexual, Queer, Genderqueer, Hearing loss