Guerilla Green

Guerilla Green

Guerilla Green opens with author and narrator Ophélie Damblé on the Paris Metro to Boulogne-Billancourt, surrounded by people on their phones who are slowly driving her crazy. She snaps, begins handing out seeds (and green advice) to those around her and makes a dramatic exit by quoting Green Guerilla icon Ron Finley, “Let’s plant some @#*%!” Just like that, you are in the headspace this book will occupy. It swings between history lessons on green guerillas around the world, indignation at the state of the world we are in today and actions you can take today to start changing your city. It is a call to action book that uses the graphic novel format to reach out to a broader audience and soften the grim reality it’s trying to bring attention to.

Damblé’s entry into the world of guerilla gardening started when she was approaching age 30 and, having spent a decade in public relations, decided it was time for a life change. She saw friends her age fleeing from the city to the countryside, but she wanted to stay and put in the work to make Paris more beautiful and livable. She shares her research on the notion of rebellious gardening beginning in the 17th century through to today with examples of people and groups around the world continuing this work. Over the next several chapters we get lessons on topics including how to clean up your city, civil disobedience for the greater good, how and where to garden, saving biodiversity and her hopes for the future.

While she does admit that some of these acts and works might seem pretty big, Damblé makes the argument that every movement and change has to start somewhere and it can start with one person. This book is her pitch for each of us to become that one person. Any one of us can start to make a positive change in our city and help the planet by doing a little digging. She’s giving you an outline on how to get started and at the end of the book there is even a list of both French and English resources to keep reading and a list of websites to check out to stay motivated. There are interstitial breaks after each chapter titled “Ophélie explains it all” with a real life photo of Ophélie and friends from that chapter. Ophélie then elaborates on some of the facts from that chapter and any of the details she feels could use more context. These were helpful sections and I could appreciate that they were set aside to give them more serious weight.

The art by Cookie Kalkair feels reminiscent of Noelle Stevenson’s work on Nimona and Lumberjanes (which was also published by BOOM! Box) and the art is the saving grace of this graphic novel. It’s lighthearted, whimsical, and helps with the rather uneven pacing of the storytelling. The earnestness of the message was undercut at times with some curmudgeonly jabs at younger readers and an unspecified rival’s book, as well as some ill-advised references to historic figures like Rosa Parks. The pacing also varies wildly throughout the book and reading feels stilted as such. While there are some pie-in-the-sky ambitions in Guerilla Green, the hope it exudes, that we can all make a difference, is undeniable. The militaristic mindset, some of the history lessons, and the nature of the topic makes this book better suited to high school teens and older readers. Younger readers may have trouble with context for some of the biggest planetary issues addressed. Big city dwellers will also have more familiarity with some of issues addressed, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be enjoyed by those with the luxury of a backyard.

Guerilla Green
By Ophélie Damblé
Art by Cookie Kalkair
BOOM! Box, 2021
ISBN: 978-1684156634

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: French

Re: Constitutions: Connecting Citizens with the Rules of the Game

Re: Constitutions: Connecting Citizens with the Rules of the Game, the latest title from First Second’s World Citizen Comics series, tackles constitutional law through the medium of comics. Bringing an international perspective to her subject matter, political adviser Beka Feathers explores the impact of constitutional documents on everyday life. She also delivers a political call to action, emphasizing the role of civic engagement in defending our constitutional rights. The content in this youth-friendly title is compelling, but its storytelling choices may fail to appeal to a broad audience.

Re: Constitutions follows Marcus, a teenager struggling to write a citizenship essay for his summer internship. As Marcus and his jokey kid sister Aaliyah attend social gatherings and complete volunteer projects around town, neighbors help Marcus with his assignment, telling personal stories that illustrate how our founding documents set the “rules of the game” for our public lives.

As a civics lesson, Re: Constitutions is an impressive read. This book draws on examples as diverse as Kosovo, Argentina, and the United States to demonstrate how constitutions affect the lives of citizens. For an Albanian speaker in Kosovo, a fair constitution guarantees the right to speak a native language; for a woman in Rwanda, the right to female representation in government; and for Marcus’s own grandparents in the United States, the right to buy a house in a formerly segregated neighborhood. In each case, the book is upfront about constitutional failures, lingering on moments when founding documents missed the mark or were betrayed by politicians. Readers learn that it’s up to ordinary citizens to take action and uphold our shared values.

Re: Constitutions is intelligent and incisive, but I worry it’s a book without a clearly defined readership. The teenage protagonists, paired with Kasia Babis’s crisp, colorful art, feel aimed at a middle- or high-school audience. However, this book isn’t an obvious choice for a civics classroom—it’s just too unstructured, more longform essay than textbook. The one exception is the “Guide to Drafting Your Own Constitution” included in the appendix, which gets into the nuts and bolts of constitutional documents and would be an engaging exercise for the classroom.

Though I can’t see this book as a class assignment, I’d be equally surprised if a politically-minded teenager picked it up for leisure reading. In short, Re: Constitutions reads like edutainment. Its artificial framing device and sweetly earnest cast of characters are well-executed but unmemorable, a formula likely to turn off readers. I think this book would have been better served if it had leaned into its own wonkiness and adopted the “explainer” format popularized by Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, where a stand-in for the author walks readers through a complex topic.

Consider purchasing Re: Constitutions for larger young adult or school library collections, particularly those that emphasize nonfiction comics or civics titles. There’s a chance this book might have relevance for the right reader—perhaps a civics student completing their own citizenship assignment. However, I don’t see this as an essential title for the average public or school library.

Re: Constitutions: Connecting Citizens with the Rules of the Game
By Beka Feathers
Art by Kasia Babis
First Second, 2021
ISBN: 9781250235435

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)
Character Representation: African-American, Black

What Unites Us: The Graphic Novel

Dan Rather has seen some stuff. If current events and recent history get you down, Rather’s autobiographical examination of American history and its lessons offers an opportunity to zoom out to consider the long arc of justice as well as zoom in to see help and progress on the ground. He opens the book reminiscing about his family vacation in their ‘38 Oldsmobile back in the ‘40s, waxing nostalgic about a time in his life and a bygone era before offering this statement that is also a crux of the book:

“I know now that the country I was growing to love had its flaws. I already knew the pain of the Great Depression and would soon live through the crisis of world war. I would then go on to a career that forced me to confront the often simmering and sometimes explosive injustices of the United States; its bigotry, exploitation, callousness, and corruption. It may seem counterintuitive, but these flaws made me love my country even more.”

Artist Tim Foley uses imagery that directly ties Rather’s words to the flow of history and spirit of citizenship. Examples include protesting, helping others in a crisis, draping oneself in the American flag to feel superior, Native Americans standing in the shadow of the American flag, and a crowd drenched in red and blue stripes. While the colors red, white, and blue are used throughout, they are also signifiers of when a given issue has permeated one person or group of people and not another. Juxtaposition is also important, as when Rather discusses America’s poor decisions following the attacks of 9/11. As the text descends next to the wreckage of the World Trade Center, the words become white on black and describe progressively worse decisions America made in response. As with all thoughtful graphic novels, simply reading the words will not convey the full meaning of each page.

Each chapter of the book focuses on a general trait that, ideally, unites the American people. Each trait is viewed through the lens of Rather’s personal experience, whether from his youth or assignments as a professional reporter. The general narrative for each chapter follows a similar arc of describing a problem in America that used to be a lot worse or virtue that used to be a lot more evident, followed by describing some historical and recent examples that give Rather hope for the future. What is commendable in this rather even-keeled approach to American history, with its shame and achievement, is Rather’s humility regarding his place in it all. He acknowledges his own blind spots and lapses in judgment over the decades. He presents himself as a growing, learning person, not a finished, perfect standard everyone else must strive toward.

There’s plenty to learn from Rather, whether it’s about meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers in the ‘60s, examining how books and literacy connect Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, and Dolly Parton, or how the spirit of civic duty manifested in Rather’s day compared to now. He also covers McCarthyism, electoral populism, science deniers, artistic movements, America’s immigration policies and treatment of immigrants, and lessons in community and empathy from his modest childhood among neighbors so poor their houses didn’t have floors.

If there’s a weakness to the book, it’s repetition from Rather. True to its title, the book is always looking to make connections and speak to people’s better nature and shared principles, but that also leads to hearing non-specific calls to action with each chapter. We should all band together, look out for each other, do our best, look at the big picture, and… do something! Respect your neighbors, education, journalism, and voting rights, at the least. Vague advice, but it seems to come from the heart. There’s a lengthy afterword where Rather reiterates in text everything the graphic novel just said.

This is a wholesome accounting of American history, including anecdotes from Rather’s life and career, whether as a passive observer or active participant/reporter. The visual elements do a lot to avoid boredom or potential eyerolling at the “stories from grandpa” effect. This book is recommended for teens and older who are looking for stories of America’s promise, whether unfulfilled, under fire, or still in progress. This is a great title for personal enrichment as well as social studies collections.

What Unites Us: The Graphic Novel
By Dan Rather, Elliot Kirschner
Art by Tim Foley
First Second, 2021
ISBN: 9781250239945

NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16)

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

Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy

Reading Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy felt like an important act. After finishing another contentious election season where it was clear many politicians wanted to limit how many people could vote, finding any source of hope with fresh new ideas is important. While Unrig lays out in frank, informative detail all the ways our democracy is ailing, remedying these problems seems challenging at best.

Published by First Second as the first of a new graphic nonfiction series called World Citizen Comics, Unrig is written by government accountability expert Daniel Newman. Newman is depicted in cartoon form throughout the book as the voice that guides us through various problems with our democracy and some of the solutions. George O’Connor is the artist and he draws Newman consistently throughout the book. His lines are simple and clean and it is easy to follow what is happening. When he draws a real person, it is usually a good likeness. Choosing to write this book as a comic indicates that the authors hope to connect a wider, possibly younger audience to many reform ideas from around the country.

The first chapter starts in a promising way by laying out how difficult it is for regular people to run for office because of how expensive and time consuming it is. It focuses on the Seattle area and an innovative program involving democracy vouchers. Each citizen receives vouchers that they can donate to a political candidate whether they have a lot of money or not and the vouchers translate into real money for candidates. This allows people who don’t usually get to participate in democracy to have their voices and interests heard. Younger citizen activists who may have student loan debt may be viable candidates if they can get enough vouchers. It’s an inspiring idea and a good way to start the book.

Later chapters focus on lobbying, gerrymandering, something Newman calls the “wealth hoarders,” and how our Democracy does and doesn’t work. Possible solutions that get discussed are ranked choice voting, early voting, same day registration and on-ad disclosure statements. All of the solutions discussed are good ideas and worth implementing, but the problems he discusses are so enormous, that these solutions seem like grains of sand in a sandstorm. The artist consistently depicts the big moneyed interests as a dark, tentacled creature that is subsuming our whole system. It’s clear from the final chapter that they want to spur more citizen action as they give several ways that people can make positive changes, including visiting their website, My worry is that they paint so bleak a picture that people may stop reading or give up before they get to the end. Devoting more time to individuals who are successfully making changes might provide more inspiration. 

This book and series is a welcome addition to the growing graphic nonfiction scene. It could easily go in a teen or adult nonfiction section in any library, or a nonfiction comics section if you have one. There is an extensive well researched notes section in the back as well with a lot of ideas for next steps. I’m hopeful that future volumes provide a little more inspiration and hope along with outlining our problems.

Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy
By Daniel Newman
Art by George O’Connor
ISBN: 9781250295309
First Second, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: (Teen 13+)
Series ISBNS and Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Related to…: Book to Comic

Paying the Land

“What do you mean by paying the land, Fredrick?”
“You give it something, he says. ‘A bullet, perhaps, water, tobacco, or tea. It’s like visiting someone. You bring the land a gift’” (p. 50).

As much as I have appreciated Joe Sacco’s graphic journalism in the past, I opened Paying the Land in trepidation that the western view would once again supplant the reality of the Canadian Northwest Territories and its inhabitants. I gave a heavy sigh of relief when I realized that the first and last chapters completed a circle, an important element in both Indigenous communities and in the world of traditional storytelling. The circle made me feel that I was safe with the maestro. “You find yourself in the circle” introduces the reader to the land, the people, and the traditional lifestyle of the Dene. “The circle is closed” leaves the reader in the contemporary world of the land and people but now the lifestyle is more conflict than tradition. 

Between these two chapters Sacco, through the words of the people of the communities visited in his research, tells the complex and ongoing story of how the Dene became so conflicted and affected by colonialism, sovereignty, cultural genocide, commodification, appropriation, and contemporary resource extraction practices. Sacco successfully manages his massive undertaking of illustrating the intricacies of the area, from the first arrival of European settlers, the fur trade, and specifically the Canadian government’s tactics of treating the Indigenous people through the years while sustaining his initial focus on climate change.

The land has always been central to the Dene but the resource extraction of gas, oil, and diamonds, while creating jobs, also created havoc with the building of pipelines, roads, and toxic waste, which scarred the landscape and damaged its inhabitants with the escalating issues of debt, drugs, and alcohol. For non-residents to understand the situation more fully, Sacco delved into the background of colonialism with the ongoing residue of the destructive residential school system and the progression from living on the land to becoming wage earners living in settlements. “Dear Reader,” Sacco clarifies, in tiny narration rectangles at the onset of the chapter entitled “A savage who can read,” “something has been circling above these stories, in fact, haunting this entire project. Perhaps I should have mentioned it before…” (p. 121).

While Canadians may be more aware of this recent history, readers from elsewhere need to address the disastrous effects of residential schools and the several generations of children removed by the Canadian government to attend institutions with the express purpose of “removing the Indian from the child.” When these children finally return to the north and their families from these schools, their self-worth, their language, and their culture have been, for the most part, eradicated. What remains is intergenerational trauma with the severing of connections to community, family, and the land. Sacco also clarifies the historic and contemporary background of treaty negotiations and land claims that add to the complexity of the situation of the Indigenous north. He also engages the reader with the intricacy and balance of a multiplicity of viewpoints within the various Indigenous communities. Some of the residents are inclined to encourage resource extraction as beneficial for their communities for wide-ranging reasons while others oppose it because they favor the return to a more traditional land-based lifestyle. Still others are inclined to marry the two polar perspectives as the most positive outcome for the people, balancing the two by maintaining many of the elements of the traditional lifestyle while also engaging in the mining and construction in their local area. Self-determination is a positive force and one that Sacco respects and offers without judgement. 

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission also figures in the balanced journaling of the narrative. Sacco credits the opportunities to relate and record the stories the Indigenous population shared with the Commission as a valuable aid in his own research. All is not gloom in the north, and Sacco demonstrates this continuous resilience through various community celebrations and numerous bursts of humour. He displays his fascination with traditional games and contests and, by enlightening his readership with his personal commentary, he continually educates non Indigenous readers without being condescending.

Sacco visited the sprawling Mackenzie River Valley in March 2015 for research material for a magazine article and returned in March 2016 when he realized the larger scope of the story. He interviewed approximately 35 residents of Tulita, Norman Wells, Sambaa K’e (Trout Lake), Fort Simpson, Fort Liard and Yellowknife. Among those featured are former Paul Andrew, Premier Stephen Kakfwi and the late Father Rene Fumoleau, among others. A big part of the four-year process in creating the book was taking the time to ensure that his quotes were reviewed and approved by the informants before the publication of the book. This was my second pleasant surprise in reading the book. 

Father Rene Fumoleau, who is featured in the book, was a good friend of mine. We had shared many stories and glasses of wine when he visited Edmonton and had several surreal experiences when traveling together to storytelling festivals and library-related conferences. He was also told his stories as part of a storytelling project that I was involved in.[1] Reading the brief chapter featuring my old friend relaxed me even more as I could hear him through the pages. I have also visited several of the locations depicted in Paying the Land and felt that Sacco was giving the land and the people quality service and voice.

Sacco’s realistic black and white illustrations, heavily hatched with lines, effectively and economically complement the journalism and storytelling. His landscapes are breathtaking and evocative, bringing an immediate awareness of the vastness of the area and the modifications that have occurred over time. He establishes a robust sense of place of the land and of the small communities and larger cities. His depictions of the characters, including himself, are likewise superb. The faces are promptly distinguishable, the body language telling, and the dogs and machinery equally realistically rendered. The panels are organic, following the flow of the storytelling. Many of the backgrounds are simple and uncomplicated but those that are not are filled with meticulous details that add immense depth to the vignettes. Sacco pays homage to the land and the people by portraying them and their environment as accurately as possible. The only character who is portrayed in a slightly cartoony manner is Sacco himself. Readers familiar with his work, however, would easily recognize his caricature. This is an outstanding documentary in print.

This book is highly recommended for high school students and adult readers in and outside of Canada. There is much to digest and reread here.

[1] For more information on the recording, see


Paying the Land
By Joe Sacco
ISBN: 9781627799034
Metropolitan, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Adult
Series ISBNS and Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Traits: Canadian Dene
Related to…: Book to Comic

Second Coming, vol. 1

Second Coming was a source of controversy long before its first issue was published. How could it not be? A comic based around the idea of Jesus of Nazareth returning to Earth after 2000 years (give or take) and sharing a two-bedroom apartment with a Superman parody, in an Odd Couple-style comedy where the two argue about the best ways to go about saving humanity? Clearly, this would be a work of total blasphemy that would end with fire falling from the skies, dogs and cats lying with one another and people thinking Jesus was some long-haired hippie who just wanted people to be nice to each other!

While Vertigo canceled the series before the initial launch after a public backlash, Second Coming ultimately saw publication under the Ahoy Comics banner and proved to be far less shocking than the base description suggested. Rather than an attack on organized religion in general and Christianity in specific, Second Coming proved to be a thoughtful examination of how the message of Jesus of Nazareth’s teachings often gets lost in translation. True, Mark Russell presents that message through a God depicted as a loving but distant father who believes in tough love, and a Jesus who is sheltered and overly optimistic, but there is nothing here that goes against the Old or New Testament, even if God does try to drive home the cruelty of practical jokes to one new arrival in Heaven by telling him the paperwork got mixed up and he was supposed to get tossed in the Lake of Fire.

There are some who may be displeased with the idea of God kicking back with a chilled wine at the end of a hard day, declaring that he is done with humanity and lamenting that he’s tried his best to get humans to stop hurting each other and even drowning the planet didn’t stop them. Yet there is nothing in Second Coming that is any more blasphemous than the sections dealing with God and Jesus in the films History of the World, Part I or Bruce Almighty. That puts Russell and his artistic collaborators in good company. Quite honestly, Superman fans are far more likely to take offense at Second Coming and the “punch first, ask questions later” characterization of the hero Sunstar, than Christians will to the book’s depiction of Jesus.

The artwork matches Russell’s script in quality. Richard Pace illustrated the entire series, but subtle differences in inking and coloration coupled with him subtly altering his usual style result in an interesting visual effect that makes it seem as if they had two different artists illustrating the sections of the story set on Heaven and those set on Earth. This is thanks to Leonard Kirk and Andy Troy, who worked on the Earth sequences as inker and colorist, respectively. Pace captures the humor of Russell’s script, while still crafting images that would not look out of place in a traditional superhero book or an Illustrated Bible.

Second Coming is rated 18+ only, and fairly so. This series does not shy away from depicting man’s inhumanity to man or the more adult portions of the Bible, including a fully naked Adam and Eve. This and the occasional profanity are far more likely to upset certain audiences than the adult situations discussed as part of the story, including Sunstar’s difficulties in having a child with his girlfriend, which are implied to be due to her infertility or his, rather than the fact that they’re two different species.

Second Coming, vol. 1
By Mark Russell
Art by Richard Pace, Leonard Kirk, Andy Troy
ISBN: 9780998044279
Ahoy Comics, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 18+ Only

Browse for more like this title
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Middle Eastern

Spring Rain: A Graphic Memoir of Love, Madness, and Revolutions

Spring Rain: A Graphic Memoir of Love, Madness, and Revolutions by Andy Warner is an evocative story about one man’s experience battling mental illness and uncertainty whilst living in the middle of the 2005 Cedar Revolution in Beirut, Lebanon. Pulling from both personal memory and historic fact, Warner pieces together the everyday and the revolutionary in a thorough and thought-provoking memoir.

Andy Warner traveled to Beirut to study literature in 2005. He broke up with his girlfriend and was completely miserable, despite living in a city that has rebuilt itself after years of upset and war and is a glowing source of potential in the Middle East. He befriended a small group of mainly LGBTQ+ expats and students who showed him around the city and took him to all the trendy spots. They were having a great time smoking, drinking, and imbibing in a variety of illicit substances, but slowly shards of unrest and unhappiness in the city began to break. Meanwhile, Andy himself is going through the beginnings of a mental breakdown. Protests continue, the city divides, and Andy spirals deeper and deeper into his own mind.

Warner’s storytelling is powerful. He brings to light the physicality of mental illness by including his own experiences and feelings. He describes his breakdown as it felt to him and how his body and mind reacted to it. His ability to illustrate thoughts and feelings that are already abstract is excellent. The illustrations are clear and concise with just enough reality imbued within to remind the reader that these are real events with real historical figures. The use of illustrated maps is also helpful during the explanation of the Syrian Civil War and the events that happened prior to Andy’s arrival in the city. Overall, Warner’s use of real-life experience in regards to his own experiences with the revolution and mental illness paired with his simple yet eye-catching illustrations makes this graphic novel particularly powerful.

Spring Rain: A Graphic Memoir of Love, Madness, and Revolutions is appropriate for readers 16+ due to explicit drug use and sexual situations. Those interested in the history of the Arab Spring in particular will find this an interesting and informative read as it describes events as they were to those on the ground and living in the city of Beirut. It is enjoyable to readers of Erin William’s Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame and Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future: A Graphic Memoir.

Spring Rain: A Graphic Memoir of Love, Madness, and Revolutions
By Andy Warner
ISBN: 9781250165978
St. Martin’s Press, 2020

Browse for more like this title
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Gay, Bisexual, Queer

Flying Kites: A Story of the 2013 California Prison Hunger Strike

Did you know guidelines from the United Nations limit the use of solitary confinement to 14 days maximum, yet incarcerated people in the United Staes have spent years or even decades in isolation?

Created collaboratively by the Stanford Graphic Novel Project class of 2018-2019, Flying Kites tells the story of a fictional family caught up in the real events of the 2013 California Prison Hunger Strike. Balancing education with emotional impact, the book follows college student Luz Santiago and her incarcerated father, Rodrigo, as they begin to speak out against and challenge the human rights abuses of solitary confinement in California prisons.

Rodrigo has been incarcerated for most of Luz’s life. The book is vague on the details of his initial crime, though there are references to him having stabbed or possibly murdered someone. For the last ten years, Rodrigo has been confined to the SHU, or Secure Housing Unit, meaning he spends 23 hours a day in a very small space by himself. The single hour a day he is allowed out of his cell is spent alone in a slightly bigger enclosed space where he can “exercise.”

Luz, who is now in college, knows only a little about her father’s circumstances and mental state. She works hard to juggle a job, her classes, socializing with peers, and driving nine hours to visit her father on a regular basis. She diligently communicates with Rodrigo through hand-written letters, but he hesitates to share with her the raw details of how much he and the other inmates in solitary confinement truly suffer on a daily basis. When Luz and Rodrigo learn about a planned hunger strike to protest the use and abuse of the SHU, they each become involved in their own way: Luz attends protests, spreads the word, and speaks to the media, while Rodrigo participates by refusing food with his fellow inmates. Each hopes the strike will lead to lasting change that will help not only their family, but incarcerated people throughout California and the United States.

According to the notes and materials at the end of the book, the most of the specific named people in Flying Kites are composite characters, bringing together details of real people’s lives into fictionalized characters who can tell a story. The comic makes good use of these composites, allowing the story to have personal impact and a clear emotional narrative. As a result, the real information woven throughout doesn’t feel too heavy-handed and deliberately educational, and readers have an entry point to connect with events that might otherwise seem distant from their own lives.

The events and issues described by Flying Kites are extremely important and are still relevant today. The information isn’t popular knowledge, and there is still a lot of work to be done around prison reform and the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. The members of the Stanford Graphic Novel Project have clearly done their research, and provide a wealth of resources after the conclusion of the story in a number of appendices and notes, so it’s easy to take the book as a jumping off point for further exploration of the topic. I began reading the comic with only vague knowledge of the issue, and came away feeling much more informed and concerned about the widespread use of a practice that is considered torture by the United Nations.

I also found the creation process behind this comic very intriguing. The Stanford Graphic Novel Project is a two-semester undergraduate college course focused around the creation of a graphic novel. As a group, the students choose and research a topic, develop a story, then write and draw the entire comic. For the most part, the quality of the book is comparable to those by professional creators. Some of the notes in the back of the book provide more details about the course and the creation of the comic, and more information about the Stanford Graphic Novel project can be found on their website.

My only real complaint about Flying Kites was the variability of the artwork, likely due to the collaborative nature of the book. The style and quality of the art changes often, sometimes even from page to page, and there were some styles that I liked much more than others. Though the characters are still recognizable, and it didn’t affect my understanding of the story, I found it a little jarring at times, and was not a fan of some of the more simplistic, sketchy illustration work.

This book is an excellent choice for anyone interested in the topic, concerned with issues of social justice, and who enjoys comics about real historical events. It can also be used effectively in a classroom setting to begin or further a discussion of the issues of prison reform and human rights abuses. Nothing is graphically depicted, but readers should be aware there are mentions of death, suicide, self-harm, mental illness, and other disturbing effects of the psychological torture that is solitary confinement. Flying Kites is freely available on the Stanford Graphic Novel Project’s website for reading online or downloading as a high resolution PDF.

I hope this important book can receive the attention it deserves, and I look forward to reading more of the Stanford Graphic Novel Project’s work from both past and future years.

Flying Kites
By Stanford Graphic Novel Project
ISBN: n/a
Stanford University, 2019

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Black, Latinx
Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator, LGBTQIA+ Creator

Your Black Friend and Other Strangers

In his introduction to Your Black Friend and Other Strangers, author and illustrator Ben Passmore writes, “I know you picked this book up thinking you were gonna read a whole lot of wokeness from a mad inspired and inspiring melaninated revolutionary King” And I’ll admit, he was relatively spot on for me—I thought I would be reading a collection of comics that would educate me about my unintentional racism and about the lived experiences of Black people in America. Reflecting on that thought, it seems a rather stilted expectation; luckily the collection did that, but had even more to offer.

The original Your Black Friend by Passmore was published as a 12-page zine by Silver Sprocket in 2016. It was nominated for an Eisner, won an Ignatz Award, and made it on NPR’s 2017 list of 100 Favorite Comics and Graphic Novels. Your Black Friend and Other Strangers was republished in March 2018 as an anthology of Passmore’s previously published pieces, as well as some of his new work. In the title piece, which is summarized in this three-minute animated clip, Passmore narrates his experiences as “your Black friend,” navigating the constant spectrum of racial expectations White people have, regardless of whether they view themselves as allies.

Because I can’t describe it better myself, I leave Silver Sprocket’s description of the comic to list the topics included in the anthology: “race, gentrification, the prison system, online dating, gross punks, bad street art, kung fu movie references, beating up God, and lots of other grown-up stuff with refreshing doses of humor and lived relatability.” Also notable is Passmore’s warning in the Introduction that “There are a bunch of comics in here that are supposed to turn you into Anarchists.” My favorite pieces, like “A Letter from Stone Mountain Jail” or “Whose Free Speech?”, were those that were more narrative- or politically based, telling stories of Passmore’s experiences in protests or his reflections on what political movements (e.g., Black Lives Matter versus Antifa) might actually have a chance of making long-term impact. My least favorite were the ones that were most abstract, such as “A Pantomime Horse I” or “Goodbye.” I found myself just confused at the end of several pieces, flipping back through to see what I had missed.

Passmore’s art aligns with the genre of the piece he’s writing. The pieces that are based on experience have a more literal style of cityscapes and corner stores, with large blocks of small text providing background information. However, pieces like “It’s Not About You” or “The Punklord” are vibrant with color and abstract creatures and imagined settings. I like the punk influence of his art—the characters with mohawks, piercings, gauges, and tattoos—as well as just more “realistic” characters with beards, dreads, hoodies, and suspenders. There is some violence and “gore,” but most of that is relegated to the more fantastical pieces of the book. (However, at one point two punks do end up biting, shooting, then beheading a police officer… but when the characters look like they belong in a punk adult version of the 90s Doug cartoon, it’s not as gory.)

Both the art and the writing ask for your attention in more than one sitting. I read the collection in one sitting, and it was a lot to take in. However, I will return to it in bits and pieces. There may be some parts that I never understand, as several other reviewers have mentioned similar feelings, but I know there is much in both the text and the art to appreciate repeatedly throughout the book.

I think this a comic worth investing in. It will be a good addition to a memoir collection, and it’s important to include memoirs by authors of color, especially about the experience of racism and activism in America. It’s likely best for readers who are 13 and up. Even younger teens (13-16) will benefit from reading about and gaining a better understanding of race and friendship, and the importance of activism and standing up against brutality and injustice. Many of the pieces have an elevated vocabulary and an expectation for a baseline understanding of anarchism and nihilism, which younger readers will likely lack, but as is evident throughout this review, the anthology is sort of a “mixed bag.” Anyone can find something of interest, but there will be pieces that some readers don’t understand or are just confused by. Ultimately, if everyone just reads at least the title comic, the world might be a better place.

Your Black Friend and Other Strangers
By Ben Passmore
ISBN: 9781945509209
Silver Sprocket, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: T (13+)

Browse for more like this title
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Black
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, BIPOC Creator