The Magicians: New Class

Students in over their heads, death, sexual intrigue, dismemberment, and bickering coming to a head with a threat to the whole world; The Magicians: New Class is full of these touchstones from its parent franchise, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy. We’re introduced to a handful of hedge magicians in a house in New Orleans before seeing them on a stage at Brakebills Academy for Magical Pedagogy where Dean Fogg unveils an initiative to incorporate hedge magic into the august school. Hedge magic is traditionally taught outside of institutions, passed down in informal houses and has existed for millennia. Hedge magician Keshawn Warren will be joining the staff and three of his students will be admitted as 3rd year students, the first hedge magicians to practice at Brakebills. The new students, Pat, Emily and Audrey, find themselves in a special class with three current third year students, Brian, Sophie and Andy. Andy is outspoken in his disdain for hedge magic and is only mollified upon learning the supposed history of magic traditions class is really for learning illicit battle magic. Deadly mistakes are made. A super villain is revealed. To avoid spoilers I’ll stop summarizing now. Taking place sometime after the events of the novels and TV show, the story and characters stand separate from those. Prior experience just gives the reader a fuller sense of the world. I have seen all of the TV show but have not read Grossman’s original novels.

I have read criticisms of the novels’ narrow male focus and problems with their depiction of homosexuality. This comic is a refreshing break from this, centered on a woman, peppered with sexual tension between Andy and Pat, with a nonbinary supervillain. We spend the most time with Emily, a hedge witch who hands over her prescription meds when she starts at Brakebills and is instead given a noxious green potion that she’s told will cause her body to start producing the proper hormones. I did not pick up on the importance of that scene until 30 pages later when she’s wearing a t-shirt that says “Trans Rights”, in part because I wasn’t familiar with the names of the prescriptions and there are a number of conditions (magical and not) that could be affected by hormone imbalance. It is later specifically stated (during a discussion of crushes) that Emily is trans. I thought this was a clever way of revealing this aspect of her character and a clear benefit of writer Lilah Sturges’ perspective that makes own voices books richer. Emily is the only hedge magician really interested in the formal, academic Brakebills experience, and like the previous novel/TV hero Quentin Coldwater, she feels that magic and Brakebills represent the only chance she has left at life. 

The art by Pius Bak is sketchy and insubstantial, backgrounds are only hinted at, often only one or two faces are shown with strong emotional detail and any other faces are inscrutable or blank. I have to wonder if readers without a prior knowledge of Brakebills can get much of a sense of the setting from the occasional antiquated architectural fragments. Gabriel Cassata provides a wonderful moody color palette of muted browns inside the school, with the battle magic practice made visible as columns and circles of neon green and blue energy. When the students sneak out at night to show off to each other the panels are cloaked in heavy blue grays, crackling gold sparks of magic illuminating the scenes. 

I loved The Magicians TV show because it was charming, inhabited by fascinating characters with deep emotional journeys and lots of hijinks. I did not find much of that in this miniseries. We don’t learn a lot about the characters, other than who they’re crushing on and what kinds of magic they’re interested in. This felt like an introduction and I was disappointed to find the series was only 5 issues, I would have enjoyed seeing the characters develop in future volumes.  When they’re showing off to each other, the hedge magician Pat does a particularly meta comics trick, turning Andy’s dialog into a Mylar balloon on a string. I wanted more of that humor and playfulness that acts as a great counterpoint to the serious themes in the TV show. 

I would put this in the adult section at my library but wouldn’t be surprised to see older teens heading for it, given the crossover popularity of the original novels and show. It has strong language, gore, and sex, with Audrey’s bare back the only nudity. The violence is in a fantasy vein but still made me squirm. It may appeal to fans of Nicnevin and the Bloody Queen, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and Buffy, or any other world where young adults have to save the world. For another outstanding comic about a woman exploring the nexus of magic and trans issues, try Sex Death Revolution by Magdalene Visaggio.

The Magicians: New Class 
By Lev Grossman, Lilah Sturges, Pius Bak, Gabriel Cassata,
Archaia, an imprint of BOOM! Studios, 2020
ISBN: 9781684155651
Publisher Age Rating:  15+
Related media:  Book to Comic

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Nonbinary
Character Representation: Gay, Trans

Be Gay, Do Comics

The Nib compiles approximately fifty webcomics (many of which were previously published on from forty creators on a wide variety of LGBTQ+-related topics into this Kickstarter-backed anthology. The comics run the gamut from one-page funnies to ten-plus-page detailed glimpses into queer history. Associate Editor Matt Lubchansky’s introduction explains the origin of the title’s source, the phrase “Be Gay, Do Crime.” Lubchansky also discusses the significance of comics as a means to express queer identity in a singularly accessible manner.

Some of the most interesting comics in the anthology serve to educate readers about various aspects of the queer experience. These include histories, cultural and national disparities in treatments of queer people, and procedures like embryo adoption and securing birth control as an asexual person. One historical highlight is The Life of Gad Beck, written by Dorian Alexander, which details gay Jewish Beck’s resistance under Nazi Germany. Levi Hastings’ gorgeous illustrations are rendered in black, white, and pale blue, with thick outlines (there is no art tool information in the book, but it looks like Hastings used oil pastels). Another particularly informative contribution is Sam Wallman’s A Covert Gaze at Conservative Gays, an illuminating piece about historical and contemporary right-wing activism among queer people. At first glance, Wallman’s panelless comic closely resembles a infographic by a Mad Magazine artist; Al Jaffee comes to mind. But this black, white, and pink comic strikes a perfect balance between discussing “gay supervillains” like Milo Yiannopolous and more sympathetic conservatives like gun advocates in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub shooting. Kazimir Lee’s What’s It Like to Raise Kids in Malaysia When You’re LGBT? is another interesting piece which details political perspectives and individual experiences of queer people in Malaysia. The standout art is reminiscent of a mid-20th century picture book; the full-color illustrations are predominantly in earthy reds, pinks, yellows, and browns, and there are minimal outlines in the characters’ block-like head and body shapes.

The anthology balances its drier informational pieces with funny one-page strips and relatable memoirs. A memoir highlight is Dancing with Pride by Maia Kobabe (Gender Queer) and is about eir experience in a folk dancing class where dancers are assigned different roles based on their perceived genders. The simple illustrations appear to be in pencil and watercolor, and feature a page where the dancers are lined up in order so their shirts make a rainbow, a very subtle and sweet nod to queerness in non-queer spaces. Another moving piece is written by Sarah Mirk and details activist Pidgeon Pagonis’s experience as an intersex child. The piece, Gender Isn’t Binary and Neither Is Anatomy, is illustrated by Archie Bongiovanni (A Quick & Easy Guide to Pronouns, Grease Bats).  A couple laugh-out-loud funny highlights include Joey Alison Sayers’s The Final Reveal, in which the extremes of gender reveal parties are spoofed, and Shelby Criswell’s Astrological Signs as Classic Queer Haircuts

As is always the case when I read comic anthologies, there were pieces that didn’t resonate as well with me as those I’ve named above. Rather than specify them, I will argue that it is because this book features something for every reader. If a piece didn’t resonate with me, it is sure to resonate with someone else. The queer representation is so varied, with gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, nonbinary, intersex, and ace representation, and with countless intersectional queer identities, that I am confident every queer reader will find something to relate to in this book. Due to its array of art styles and queer representations, I would particularly recommend Be Gay, Do Comics for fans of Iron Circus’s anthologies, like FTL, Y’all, Smut Peddler, and The Sleep of Reason.

Be Gay, Do Comics
Edited by Matt Bors
ISBN: 9781684057771
IDW, 2020

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Traits: Asexual, Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Queer Gender Nonconforming, Genderqueer, Intersex, Nonbinary, Trans
Creator Highlights: Black, Filipino-American, Puerto Rican Asexual, Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Queer Gender Nonconforming, Genderqueer, Nonbinary, Trans

No One’s Rose

“Solar punk,” an optimistic, greener version of the steampunk genre, tackles environmental and social issues when envisioning the future. In the future depicted in No One’s Rose, the environmental is the social, as humanity has holed up inside a biodome called The Green Zone, in an attempt to ride out the apocalyptic conditions raging outside. Two white-presenting siblings, Tenn and Seren, are involved with opposing factions within The Green Zone. Is life under protection of the ruling PELU (Post-Environmental-Liberation-Union) as safe as it really seems? How will each of them handle revelations to the contrary?

This self-contained volume collects five issues into a single trade. The first three issues are great at building up The Green Zone as a place full of lore and history, including class tensions and misinformation. Tenn and Seren are bright, observant, and want to help make society the best version of itself. Their methods, however, are polar opposites. Sister Tenn is on the socially stable path of helping a government laboratory research breakthroughs in plant health while brother Seren organizes public demonstrations against the ruling and upper classes. Conspiracies abound, as Tenn’s supervisors recognize her scientific talents as well as unique scapegoat position for their own misdeeds. Meanwhile, Seren’s black boyfriend with the dome’s security force is aiding an approaching coup.

Alberto Alburguerque’s illustrations and Raul Angulo’s colors fill each page with lush scenery. This almost-utopia is full of plants in all modes of life, from the enormous, bio-engineered tree that supports all life in the dome to vegetarian meals to agricultural portrayals. The relatively clean urban life of the upper and lower dome classes contrasts heavily against the dirty, violent outside world of mud, pollution, and lightning storms. The speculative sci-fi nature of the story leads to futuristic props such as multi-legged vehicles, plant-powered breathing masks, and hover carts. Layouts are similarly lush, with plenty of panels and dialogue/monologue bubbles to navigate in some sequences.

What sets No One’s Rose apart from other sci-fi tales about overthrowing a deceptive dystopia is that there are few genuine villains. There are genuine quality of life gaps between the classes, and the dome’s official leadership can be shady, but nobody wants the dome’s residents or its life-sustaining tree to die. The central conflicts are about how the dome can address its shrinking window of opportunity to either invent a new solution or migrate to a new location. An away mission takes characters to an offsite, agrarian town that represents an alternative, more adaptive mode of living. This idea-centric approach means a back half that can feel anticlimactic to anyone expecting a big, conclusive showdown against a clearly coded antagonist. It also means a constructive finale that emphasizes grassroots efforts and community support.

No One’s Rose is one of a kind among sci-fi graphic novels, or at least I haven’t read much else like it. Comics fans don’t often read a story that starts with disruptive protests and leads to conversations about non-human rights and fertilizing techniques. There’s plenty of visual sumptuousness to keep readers following along with all of the ideas presented. Where content matter is concerned, there are four-letter words, some guns and punching, and a bare butt, but they are not the core of the book. I would recommend this series for teens and up.

Additionally, I wrote about the storytelling techniques of the first issue for Comics Bookcase a while back. You can see more about how the book looks and works here.

No One’s Rose
By Zac Thompson and Emily Horn
Art by Alberto Alburquerque
ISBN: 9781939424747
Vault Comics, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Teen Plus (16+)
Series ISBNS and Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18)
Character Traits: Gay
Related to…: Book to Comic

You Brought Me The Ocean

You Brought Me The Ocean is not your average coming-of-age and coming out story. Sure, our protagonist, Jake Hyde, lives in a town too small for his aspirations. And, yes, Jake has not yet come to terms with his sexuality. And, of course, his best friend, Maria is tragically in love with him. You Brought Me The Ocean has all the makings of a generic YA novel. But this graphic novel is different for one reason alone: the universe of this story is inhabited by superheroes and villains.

Jake is not only struggling to come out as gay to his family and friends, he is also trying to come to terms with his superhuman ability to control water. Though this is an interesting, and certainly unique, concept the execution of the story falls flat. Unfortunately, You Brought Me The Ocean is not the intricate story of sexual identity wrapped up in themes of self-discovery, defining the “superhero”, and magic realism it deserves to be. Instead, it is a shallow depiction of both the coming out story and the superhero origin story. Neither plot line gets the attention it deserves and, quite frankly, the two concurrent plot lines are not the only victims of this narrative.

Aside from Jake, the characters in this book are all woefully underdeveloped. Jake’s best friend, Maria, is resigned to being identified solely by her unrequited love for Jake and the fact that, unlike Jake, she enjoys living in the desert. Similarly, Jake’s love interest, Kenny, has few defining characteristics. And, as is often a problem with underdevelopment, the dialogue throughout the story is stilted and unrealistic. Let’s look at the following lines of dialogue spoken between Jake and Maria, as they head out on a hiking trip:

Jake: Ready to journey to the ends of the Earth?
Maria: So long as we’re back by dinnertime.

The dialogue throughout the entirety of You Brought Me The Ocean carries this same tone. Namely: awkward and cliched.

The artwork is, regrettably, as disappointing as the text. Artist Julie Maroh is perhaps best known for her work on Blue is the Warmest Color; a famous French graphic novel about the tumultuous relationship between two young women. Aside from the fact that Maroh has previously published LGBTQA+-themed work, she seems an odd stylistic choice for You Brought Me The Ocean. Maroh’s often monochromatic coloring washes out pivotal scenes throughout the story. Take, for example, a scene in which Jake uses his water-bending powers to part a flash flood. Rather than bright, deep blues and a menacing, stormy sky painted with grays, the reader gets a wave of neutral colors. Maroh is clearly a talented artist, but her work here clashes too much with the story to be ignored.

Ultimately, this is a disappointing book with an incredibly promising premise. However, I hesitate to discourage adding this to your graphic novel collection entirely, given the dearth of LGBTQA+ representation in the superhero genre. Though You Brought Me The Ocean does not exactly live up to its premise, one can only hope this book is an indication of better—and more LGBTQA+ representative—superhero comics that are yet to come. For now, You Brought Me The Ocean may have to suffice.

You Brought Me The Ocean
By Alex Sanchez
Art by Julie Maroh
ISBN: 9781401290818
DC Comics, 2020

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13), Teen (13-16)
Character Traits: Black, Chinese-American, Gay
Creator Highlights: Latinx, Gay

Heartstopper, vol. 1

Charlie has been out of the closet for a year, and has faced some bullying at the British all-boys’ high school he attends. His classmates seem to be over it, and Charlie is finally disentangling from a toxic relationship situation. Maybe this year will be better? But not if he manages to fall in love with a straight guy. And Charlie’s new friend, the big-hearted rugby player Nick, is totally straight. Isn’t he?

Nick has heard of Charlie—who at their school hasn’t?—but never really hung out with him before this year. Now they have a class together, and it turns out Charlie is pretty cool. Plus, after seeing him run during gym class, Nick convinces Charlie to join the rugby team, where he fits in better than either of them expected. Lately, they’ve even been spending time together outside of school. Nick feels different when they’re together than he does around his other friends. He’s only had crushes on girls in the past, but could Nick be falling for Charlie?

Heartstopper is a sweet love story with a relaxed pace and a strong sense of atmosphere. This first volume invites the reader into crisp autumn days on campus, followed by snowy frolics and cozy cuddles inside as winter sets in. Against this comfortable backdrop, Charlie and Nick slowly become friends and begin to question whether they might want to be more.

As the author explains in a note at the front of this book, Heartstopper began with two side characters who appeared in the author’s debut YA novel, Solitaire. Charlie and Nick caught the author’s imagination, and she went on to develop their backstory into a popular webcomic. This book is the first of the print volumes collecting that webcomic.

The art is expressive, with simple backgrounds leaving the focus firmly on the characters. Varied panel layouts give the pages a dynamic feel, as do the elements outside the panels, like the autumn leaves and snowflakes that swirl around the edges of many pages. For the print adaptation, the grayscale art of the webcomic has been redone in a two-tone color scheme. It still uses black for outlines and very dark areas, but now the shading is done in a soft blue-green instead of gray.

While most of this book is slow-moving and gentle, there is one situation that introduces some urgency and conflict: Charlie’s in-progress breakup with closeted classmate Ben. Ben used Charlie for secret make-out sessions, but never respected him. And now that Charlie doesn’t want to be his side piece anymore, Ben isn’t taking it well. Luckily, Charlie is no longer a bullied outcast at school. He has lots of friends who support him, none more fiercely than Nick.

This volume is set mostly at school, its cast populated largely by the students of Truham Grammar School for Boys, though we do get a few cameos from Charlie and Nick’s family members. There is a little swearing, including some f-bombs, and a few fraught situations, mostly involving Ben. For the most part, though, this volume is a sweet will-they-or-won’t-they romance—or, at least, the first part of one, given that the story ends in a clear “to be continued” situation. There are currently three volumes out, with at least two more in the works.

Heartstopper comes with a built-in fanbase, thanks to the webcomic. It will surely win lots of new readers, too, especially among fans of Bloom by Kevin Panetta, Check Please by Ngozi Ukazu, Fence by C.S. Pacat, and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki.

Heartstopper, Vol. 1
By Alice Oseman
ISBN: 9781338617436
Graphix, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 12+

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Traits: Gay, Bisexual
Related to...: Book to Comic

Crowded Vol. 2: Glitter Dystopia

America’s least favorite girl and her infamous bodyguard are back in the second volume of Crowded: Glitter Dystopia, and the action is still as crazy as the things Charlie decides are good ideas. This time, they take a quiet tube trip to Las Vegas, meet up with an old friend of Charlie’s, and hit the road to meet one of Vita’s old friends. Nothing goes wrong and everything is quiet. No, not really; the combination of Vita and Charlie means that nothing goes right, and there’s a whole lot of shooting. Dog is okay though, don’t worry.

With high action series like this, there can be a problem of keeping up the energy without having to constantly up the ante or getting repetitive. Crowded does a fantastic job of pacing in this volume to keep things moving even when the protagonists are facing gunfire. And this volume has a lot of what could be considered downtime, which could really drag, but it manages to stay engaging. Something fantastic about the writing of Crowded is that though yes, there is interpersonal drama, it doesn’t end up just becoming the same story of people not communicating or blaming others for their problems. There’s definitely still a lot to learn about these two, and their complicated lives means they have complicated relationships.

One of the distinctive things about Crowded is its visual style; the art is dynamic, the color palette very strong, and the paneling inventive. Something that really stood out with the first volume was the sense of motion this comic manages to have, and the team kept that same sense in this volume. It can be easy to feel detached from the action since it’s not moving, but Crowded pulls the reader in, partially due to the fantastic use of expressive onomatopoeia. Words like “krak” or “kaboom” aren’t just shaped to follow the line of the action they’re describing, they’re also textured and colored to simulate that action. A similar dedication to detail is seen in the backgrounds, where things like stickers on Vita’s trunk are always in the right place, text on newspapers is there, shop names are readable. This is then supported by the great color palette and paneling, making a very cohesive whole.

There aren’t really content warnings to speak of for this comic that aren’t typical of action films, but yes there is blood and violence. Lots of guns, but also knives and more inventive or unusual weapons on occasion. This volume also has implied sex, though no visible sex acts other than characters straddling others while fully clothed, cuddling while clothed, and kissing. Some mild cursing, but nothing extreme or unusually offensive, either. One of the other great things about Crowded is that it avoids fatphobic comments and heteronormative assumptions, and seems to actively pursue showing diverse bodies.

One problem however is reading this volume digitally; there are several cases of paneling that crosses both facing pages (the pages the book is open to) which translates very choppily into a digital format, since speech bubbles get cut off only to finish a page later if the ebook is set up just to scroll down rather than page across. Not a huge issue, and of course not specific to this series in particular as many comics like to periodically do a full page spread, but something to consider when purchasing physical versus digital.

Crowded is great for fans of action films, parodies, and criticisms of capitalist culture. Seriously, though this comic is very true to the action genre, it is also incredibly clever and funny. It’s an excellent addition to an adult graphic novel collection to round out offerings that involve action without the grit and grimdark of titles like The Boys or Atomic Blonde, while still definitely being inspired by the genre. Also fantastic for fans of the John Wick franchise, because it also has a bit of that wink and nod to the audience and awareness of the genre it exists within.

Crowded, Vol. 2: Glitter Dystopia
By Christopher Sebela
Art by Ro Stein, Ted Brandt
ISBN: 9781534313750
Image, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: T+

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Gay, Queer,

Ghosted in L.A.

Ghosted in L.A. is a new Boom! Box series by Sina Grace, illustrated by Siobhan Keenan with colors by Cathy Le. If Grace’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s behind the solo X-Men book Iceman, in which Iceman comes out of the closet. While Ghosted in L.A. isn’t a superhero comic it does have that same witty and heartfelt dialogue I’ve grown to love from Grace. This is a realistic comic with a paranormal bend.

Daphne Walters follows her boyfriend to college in Los Angeles and gets way more than she bargained for in the process. Daphne doesn’t really ask herself what she really wants in life, and instead takes on the interests and hobbies of her boyfriends. Her best friend, Kristi, calls her out on it right before Daphne moves from Missoula, Montana to the city of Angels. This results in Daphne cutting off her Kristi.

Daphne is idealistic and unfettered as she takes on the new adventures awaiting her in college, but things don’t go as planned. Her roommate is a moody girl who drives Daphne out of their room by hosting bible studies and Ronnie, her boyfriend, dumps her the first week of class. This sends her running into (literally) Rycroft Manor, a seemingly abandoned apartment complex. Daphne takes a dip in the pool only to discover Rycroft Manor is haunted! The ghosts are mostly friendly and lead by Agi, who agrees to let Daphne stay on a temporary basis. What could go wrong?

Ghosted in L.A. is a fun story that has a bit of mystery to it. Why are the ghosts haunting Rycroft Manor? Why hasn’t a developer hasn’t tried to flip the property? What’s the backstory of each ghost? And will Daphne figure out what she wants in life? All these answers lie in most of the first volume, and I’m eager for the second volume to come out so I can find out more! Also, there’s a great LGBT storyline between one of the ghosts and Ronnie.

Content warning for sexual assault in one storyline. Daphne goes out with a pushy bro to get over Ronnie. He isn’t good at taking no for an answer, and luckily the ghosts save the day. This is definitely an older teen and up read.

Grace is great at weaving a compelling story, and I love how Daphne’s slang is a little out of time and place just like the ghosts she befriends. Keenan’s art has clean lines and she’s great at fashions since the ghost range from the 1930s to the present. Grace lends his artistic hand to the first three pages and some of the covers. His style is a little blockier than Keenan’s, but it still fits in with the tone of the comic. The colors are fantastic in this book! Le is great at using a subdued palette for the ghosts and supernatural activity while having living characters pop with brighter colors. If you’re looking to add to your older teen/new adult graphic novel collections then Ghosted in L.A. would be a welcome addition.

Ghosted in L.A. 
By Sina Grace
Art by Siobhan Keenan and Sina Grace
ISBN: 9781684155057
Boom! Box, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Teen

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Gay
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, LGBTQIA+ Creator

Fence: Rivals

Fence: Rivals returns to the tense environment of the students at Kings Row; with Nicholas starting to realize just how much work he has to catch up not only to Seiji, but to Jesse. This is the first time the Kings Row boys will compete in a team competition and their lack of teamwork is very apparent. Seiji may finally have to admit that fencing isn’t just a solo sport, and learn to trust his team.

Since Rivals is a continuation from the first three volumes, there’s a lot of backstory that will be missing if a reader picks this volume up first, especially because Fence doesn’t fall into the problem many mainstream comics do of re-explaining things at the start of each issue, which gets incredibly repetitive once the issues are collected into a volume. This does mean however it’s also hard to talk about the plot of Rivals without running into spoiler territory.

That being said, the story does still move pretty slowly. At least in Rivals, we don’t spend the entire graphic novel covering just one event, so compared to the previous volumes the story is starting to pick up. A primary issue is that often, the story stops to explain basic fencing concepts using Nicholas as the in-story reason to do so. This is understandable, to a certain degree, because fencing isn’t as common a sport in most groups as say soccer or football, so the creators can’t assume readers have a base understanding of the sport’s rules. It does make Nicholas look, now in the fourth volume of this series, like he never actually learned to fence and just was incredibly lucky to have stumbled into a fencing uniform, across the piste, and somehow won matches.

The art has always been very clean and simple, and this volume is no exception. It does seem like the manga influences are getting more apparent, with use of screentones and gestures common to manga as well as making characters small and cute (a state referred to as chibi, a Japanese word for short) in certain situations. Something I’ve found kind of amusing with Fence’s art style is how it tries to make fencing uniforms look cool. Unfortunately, fencing uniforms are just not cool, and often look a little silly. Johanna the Mad does her best though, I’ll give her that. The one problem I have with the art’s simplicity is how often there are no background details in panels, at best a wash of color and maybe some action lines or generic people shapes. It really solidifies that this is a story about the people, not the setting, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but can be frustrating for a reader that likes background details.

As an American series, Fence is pretty unusual for covering fencing, but because of the themes of teamwork, rivalry, and hints of romance it’s the perfect comic for fans of manga like Haikyuu! and Kuroko’s Basketball, or novels like Foxhole Court. I know, I know this is a comic review but C.S. Pacat is better known for her Captive Prince trilogy and Foxhole Court feels like the novel version of Fence.

A final note, in case readers are confused: The series was changed from an ongoing one, released in numbered volumes, to original graphic novels, which means going forward each volume will have a subtitle, like this one. So there are volumes 1-3 of Fence, and now Fence: Rivals. There is also a novel coming out in the fall, written by Sarah Rees Brennan. No word yet on subsequent graphic novels.

Fence: Rivals
By C.S. Pacat
Art by Johanna the Mad
ISBN: 9781684155385
Boom! Box, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: teen
Series Reading Order: (Wikipedia or Goodreads)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: East Asian, White, , Gay

The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese and The Carp on the Chopping Block Jumps Twice

The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese has a lot more going for it than just the very unique title. This gay, romance manga by artist and writer Setona Mizushiro breaks a lot of stereotypes of the genre.

In this adult drama, salaryman Kyoichi Ootomo is busted by a private investigator for cheating on his wife. The private dick just happens to be Imagase Wataru—an acquaintance of Kyoichi’s from university. And not just any acquaintance, he’s a gay man who has been been suffering from a bad case of unrequited love for the oblivious adulterer, Kyoichi.

Imagase decides to use his leverage against Kyoich. If he agrees to have sex with Imagase, the detective won’t reveal the other man’s indiscretions. This is a typical plot device in manga. A gay character pursues a straight man and they end up having incredibly dubiously consensual sex. Except, The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese gives readers something that is as rare as gold: A complex, interwoven tale of love, infidelity and a whole batch of (okay, three) female characters with agency! Too often, the characters in gay romance manga seem to exist on a planet inhabited solely by men.

This volume and its follow-up, interestingly titled, The Carp on the Chopping Block Jumps Twice, delves deep into what it means to be in a relationship and how one’s views and actions (or lack thereof) affect a partner.

Kyoichi is an easy-going philanderer. Alternately falling into bed with women and Imagase because it’s the path of least resistance. And Imagase, with the deeply suspicious nature of a private eye, can never feel secure in his relationship with Kyoichi.

Part romance, part couples-therapy, it can be emotionally traumatic reading. Visually, the manga are quite good. These are well drawn. The realistic visuals lack any gag panels due to the more serious, mature nature of the plot. Muzishiro was nominated for an Eisner Award in 2007. They are stylish and explicitly drawn with clean lines, attractive characters and nice background work. 

Some readers take issue with the gay romance manga because it can seem that many of the plots are lifted from teen romances. Which is not all bad. Both genres share a lot of the same tropes and both are (for the most part) written for a female audience. But for readers looking for a dramatic, in-depth story of grown ups dealing with real-life problems in a romance, The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese and The Carp on the Chopping Block Jumps Twice will definitely fill that need.

Please note that both volumes are labeled for explicit material and are for adult readers. They are great additions to any adult manga collection. Interestingly, I wouldn’t consider this a series, even though it is listed as such. Both volumes can be read as stand-alone books and not necessarily in order.

The manga, published in Japan in 2006, is licensed in English by Seven Seas Entertainment and has been made into a live action film being released this year in Japan.

The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese
By Setona Mizushiru
ISBN: 9781642757590
Seven Seas Entertainment, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Adult (18+)

The Carp on the Chopping Block Jumps Twice
By Setona Mizushiru
ISBN: 9781642757606
Seven Seas Entertainment, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Adult (18+)

Secret XXX

Shohei Ikushima is a part-time worker at a pet shop specializing in rabbits. He adores the sweet, fluffy creatures, as well as the cute owner of the store, Itsuki Mito. But in spite of his attraction to Mito, he never sticks around after his shifts.

He’s hiding a secret from his boss that could endanger his job. It doesn’t stop Mito from noticing something special about Shohei. Secret XXX unfolds like a typical boys love manga. Beautiful boy meets gorgeous boy, and it doesn’t take much for sparks to fly. In this case, however, Mito is harboring dark secrets of his own. What will happen when their secrets are exposed? Will the couple be able to overcome what sets them apart?

This one-shot romance unfolds in three short chapters with efficient use of romantic manga tropes, including dubiously consensual sex, a meddlesome brother with a brother complex, cross dressing, fear of discovery, and a sweet, happily ever after.

The plot is as deep as a bird bath, but the art is very good and it’s a bon bon of a boys love title. This is the first of Hinohara’s works to be licensed in English by SubLime, Viz Media’s boys love imprint, but the publisher is also releasing another title, Therapy Game, which features a character from Secret XXX (Mito’s younger brother, Minato).

Thin plot aside, the manga is really well drawn. Explicitly so. This makes this a strictly adult-only addition for any boys love fan or a library with a large manga collection. I enjoyed the artwork more than the writing, ranking the work up with two of my favorite current boys love mangaka, Ranmaru Zayira and Scarlet Beriko.

Secret XXX
By Meguru Hinohara
ISBN: 9781974712410
SubLime, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 18+

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Japanese, Gay