Life isn’t easy for an ex-con. It is even worse when you’re an ex-supervillain in Twilight City.
Frankie “Playtime” Follis was a prodigy, pushed into villainy by her mother after she manifested the power to make any toy into a weapon. Now, fresh out of prison, she’s unable to find any work beyond making drinks at a seedy bar catering to the low-level supervillains she’s meant to be avoiding as part of her parole. Still, Frankie keeps to the code of honor the blue-collar baddies abide by, though she wants nothing more than to rebuild her life and win back custody of her daughter, Maggie.
Unfortunately, Frankie is pulled back into the life after the archvillain called The Stickman kills Kid Dusk, the sidekick of Twilight City’s protector, The Insomniac. This makes the stalwart hero snap, sending him on a violent killing spree targeting every villain in town while searching for Stickman. With Insomniac’s fellow heroes covering up his crimes, it falls to Frankie and a rag-tag group of has-beens and henchmen to bring Stickman to justice while Twilight City is still standing.
Minor Threats is not a wholly original story. Much as Watchmen put a mature spin on the classic heroes of Charlton Comics, Minor Threats is a dark and darkly hilarious Batman story that DC Comics would never dare publish. Most of the characters are clearly parodies of Batman, Robin, Joker, Riddler and more. Yet there are some original ideas, such as Scalpel, a supervillain surgeon who makes her living offering off-the-books medical care to costumed criminals… for a percentage of their earnings, of course.
Writers Patton Oswalt and Jordan Blum make every joke one would expect regarding the silliness of costumed criminals, boy wonders and how many masked heroes need psychiatric help. Thankfully, Minor Threats proves to be far more than a collective of gags about popular superheroes and genre conventions. Oswalt and Blum bring true pathos to the five supervillains forced to become reluctant (not quite) heroes, developing them into full characters rather than cardboard cliches.
The five leads’ origin stories tackle a variety of serious issues, ranging from abusive parents to coming out of the closet to embrace true love. The effect is not unlike the duo’s previous writing for the MODOK animated series or The Venture Bros. Serious emotions mix with dark comedy to tell a truly original tale.
The artwork by Scott Hepburn is equally well done. Much like Dave Gibbons on Watchmen, Hepburn draws Minor Threats like a traditional comic book. This only adds to the visual dissonance as the action goes at right angles to every expectation of a typical superhero story.
Dark Horse Comics rates Minor Threats as appropriate for ages 14 and up. I believe that to be a fair assessment of the book’s content. There is a fair bit of violence and some disturbing scenes of children dying and parents being killed in front of their kids, as well as a bit of adult language. There is no nudity or sexual content, making this safe for most teen audiences.
Minor Threats A Quick End To A Long Beginning Vol. 01 By Patton Oswalt, Jordan Blum, , Art by Scott Hepburn, Ian Hrring, Nate Piekos, Dark Horse, 2023 ISBN: 9781506729992
Publisher Age Rating: 14+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Character Representation: Black, Gay, Neurodivergent, Ambiguous Mental Illness
Life on the Isle of Man is peaceful and quiet, and it is driving Kay Farragher mad! An aspiring songwriter and singer, Kay dreams of a world beyond her rural village and caring for her ailing grandmother. She dreams of a life on stage and audiences outside of the pub where she works.
The problem with dreams, however, is that sometimes they become nightmares.
A chance encounter with a young girl named Mona on Halloween Night gives Kay more than she bargained for. Mona claims to have come from a world of eternal twilight, straight from the faerie stories Kay’s grandmother believes in. Soon Kay finds herself neck-deep in that world, where a horseshoe is a weapon, a hero of legend seeks the bride he was promised, and the scoundrels of two worlds seek to scheme their way out of their own dark bargains.
I had high expectations heading into Cold Iron. Apart from a fondness for Celtic mythology and horror tales involving faeries, I am a big fan of Andy Diggle’s writing and have been since his highly underrated run on Hellblazer. I was not disappointed.
Two things distinguish Cold Iron from similar stories. One is the setting, which draws upon the unique mythology of the Isle of Man, rather than the more familiar Irish Leprechauns or the Selkies of Scotland’s Orkney Islands. The other is the lead character Kay, who is developed far beyond being the typical strong female protagonist that takes center stage in many modern horror stories.
Kay is a conflicted character, being both a dreamer and a realist. She delights in entertaining children with spooky tales and songs at Halloween, but she doesn’t believe in the myths her grandmother accepts as gospel. She longs to see the world, but wants to maintain the family farm, even as she rebels against the idea of a comfortable life working in a fish and chips shop and marrying her on-again/off-again boyfriend. These details make Kay seem more sympathetic and more real, grounding the fantastic elements of the story.
The artwork by Nick Brokenshire, with colors by Triona Farrell and letters by Simon Bowland, manages a similar balancing act. Brokenshire proves equally adept at capturing the static beauty of the Isle of Man and in depicting the weird horror of the faerie realm. Farrell uses different contrasting palettes for both worlds, with the vibrancy of the twilight realm offering a firm divide against the stark reality of Kay’s life. Bowland also uses distinctive fonts for the Fair Folk, to subtly hint at their alien nature.
Dark Horse Comics rated this volume as appropriate for ages 12 and up. I think that might be a fair assessment of the story, which has nothing more objectionable than a bit of violence and a few curse words. The artist notes in the back of the book, however, feature some sketches of naked fairies that are a bit extreme for a T-rating. I would shelve this volume in the older teen or adult section just to be safe and since I think the story is more likely to appeal to older audiences, who can appreciate the full horror Mona finds in the future.
Cold Iron By Andy Diggle Art by Nick Brokenshire, Triona Farrell, Simon Bowland, Tom Muller Dark Horse, 2023 ISBN: 9781506730875
Publisher Age Rating: 12+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: British, Irish, Scottish, Character Representation: British,
Private Detective John Blacksad considers it a good day when he can get home with peace of mind and his knuckles intact. Sadly, days like that are all too rare, particularly when Blacksad is more frequently employed as hired muscle than for his keen insight. Such is the case when Blacksad is hired by a union president with no confidence in the police to hunt the hitman he’s sure is after him. His paranoia proves well founded and Blacksad soon finds himself embroiled in a mystery that will take him from the depths of New York City’s underworld to the lofty heights enjoyed by real estate magnate Lewis Solomon.
Coincidentally, I had the Blacksad series recommended to me as a Film Noir fan just before I had a chance to preview Blacksad: They All Fall Down—Part One. Somehow, it had flown under my radar, despite the Blacksad books being critically acclaimed and published in translated editions in 39 countries. This is largely because the original English translation went out of print before Dark Horse comics picked up the American license. Throw in the complication that the series was originally written for the French comic market by two Spanish creators and it is small wonder Blacksad is still relatively obscure in the United States outside of a few niche fandoms.
It should be mentioned that the world of Blacksad is populated by anthropomorphic animals, but this is no children’s story. Like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, different species of animals are utilized as metaphors for racial and social strife, with John Blacksad himself facing suspicion both because of his mixed-race status as a tuxedo cat and his being a predator among prey animals. The effect is like a gritty version of Zootopia, aimed firmly at adults.
The English translation of Juan Diaz Canales’ script by Diana Schutz and Brandon Kander is excellent. The pater of a 1950s detective story is replicated perfectly, despite the original French text being translated literally. Thankfully, an afterword explains some of the linguistic oddities and literary allusions, such as Blacksad’s reference to the folly in sending a fox police officer to the henhouse, when the police break-up a Shakespeare in the Park production. (Henhouse is a slang term for the cheap seats in France.)
Thankfully, the artwork of Juanjo Guarnido transcends language. Beyond the sheer variety of colorful creatures he has created to populate this world, Guarnido is a master of expressive faces. The emotions of each character is clear, despite the delightfully alien nature of their features. Guarnido is also a master at working little details into every panel.
This volume is recommended for readers 18 and older. Having not read the earlier volumes of Blacksad, I can’t vouch for the series as a whole, but that seems a bit high for this particular chapter. There is bloodshed and murder, but nothing in excess for an Older Teen series. There is also some sexual content, with a perverted peeping tom spying on one of his neighbors and slapping a woman on the bottom, but no nudity. I would still advise keeping this series in the adult collection, however, given that the sensibilities and historical context of this series are more likely to appeal to older audiences.
Blacksad: They All Fall Down Part 1 By Juan Díaz Canales Art by Juanjo Guarnido Dark Horse, 2022 ISBN: 9781506730578
Publisher Age Rating: 18+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+) Creator Representation: Spanish, Character Representation: African-American,
Originally published in 1993 in Angels & Visitations, this short story was apparently written in one weekend and is one of Neil Gaiman’s most reprinted stories.[i] The story is charming with a medieval knight on a quest, a wise, delightful elderly woman, and, of course, The Holy Grail found in a second-hand store. Mrs. Whitaker spends a good deal of time checking for bargains at the store and this time she finds the perfect ornament for her fireplace mantel. She barely puts it into place when Galaad arrives hoping to purchase the Grail from her to complete his quest. But, you know, it is the perfect knickknack for that spot! He continues to visit her with additional items to trade for the Grail but to no avail. He does get served tea and cake however and to visit with the enchanting woman. Eventually she makes a worthy trade for two of the exotic items he offers her: the Philosopher’s Stone and Egg of the Phoenix.
The prose story is whimsical and romantic, filled with grace, loyalty, honour, and friendship. The collaboration with Colleen Doran’s illustrations moves it beyond the charm of the prose and into the realm of magic and alchemy. Doran, a long-time collaborator and friend of Gaiman’s, wears this story with pride and her own tenure. She has created a masterpiece, interweaving the ancient tales of the Arthurian knights with a more contemporary story of a widow surrounded by memories and a quiet lifestyle in a small British village while remaining faithful to Gaiman’s writing style and text. I particularly appreciated the sharing of stories between Galaad and Mrs. Whitaker, his about his mother Elaine and other members of the Arthurian circle, illustrated in three full pages each with a series of vignettes, while Mrs. Whitaker’s stories of her husband are accompanied by images and artifacts from World War II. Doran was responsible for adapting the short story, the illustrations, and the Illuminated Manuscript Lettering. Todd Klein did the rest of the lettering which also adds to the charm and whimsy of the tale being told.
Working in watercolours, the delicate illustrations have a soft and dreamy look, harking back to the ancient Medieval illuminated manuscripts that Doran employed as inspiration. The brilliant blues and reds that make a frequent appearance on the pages add to the enigmatic and tranquil spirit of the story. In the Notes section at the end of the book she clarifies that she used 18K gold for some of the illumination, while attempting to evoke the watercolors of one of her favorite artists—Peter Rabbit creator, Beatrix Potter. The two styles compliment each other and complete the fantastical experience for the reader. No one is surprised that a medieval knight wearing armor and riding a horse visits the neighbourhood or that he finds a grail of another sort at the same second-hand store. The varied panel layout moves the story at a measured pace—this is not an action tale, this is one where the reader takes time to savour the illustrations, the prose and, perhaps, too, the idea of another cup of tea. Expressive faces and body language add an additional dimension to the story being related, especially with the incidental but important story of Marie.
I highly recommend this exquisite graphic novel for the story and the illustrations, but even more so for the collaboration between the text and art.
For those interested, there is currently an exhibition of this work at the Cartoon Art Museum: The Cartoon Art Museum presents Chivalry: The Art of Colleen Doran, an exhibition of original artwork from the Dark Horse graphic novel Chivalry illustrated by Doran and written by Neil Gaiman. This exhibition features Doran’s beautiful cover painting and twenty original pages personally selected by the artist and is on display from April 23 through September 18, 2022.
[i] Wagner, Hank, Christopher Golden & Stephen R. Bissett. Prince of Stories: The Many Worlds of Neil Gaiman. N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press, 2008, 381.
Chivalry By Neil Gaiman Art by Colleen Doran Dark Horse, 2022 ISBN: 9781506719115
Related media: Book to Comic
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Character Representation: English
It’s difficult being a struggling actress in the age of social media. Fame feels so close yet still so far away, until the day you’re the one in the viral video. Everyone is Tulip, written by Dave Baker with art by Nicole Goux, follows one actress who finds herself in a dream situation of fame that might turn out to be more of a nightmare.
Becca felt lost in her Arizona town. She worked in fast food, lived with her drunken father, and was in a relationship she’d completely checked out of. So far, life in Hollywood doesn’t seem to be that much better. Picking up acting gigs here and there doesn’t pay the bills, so Becca works at a café and spends her free time obsessively looking at her phone for job opportunities and checking out who’s liked her most recent posts. She’s ready to give up when she answers an ad for a gig that asks “Is art a verb or a noun?” and her life takes an unexpected turn.
Paradox is a video artist who wants to evoke people through his works. Becca becomes his muse as they create a series of videos where Becca repeats the title phrase over and over, in elaborate ensembles and make-up, which instantly go viral. People recognize her on the street, she’s attending huge industry events, and she’s even being invited to audition for major roles. But fame isn’t all a dream and instead quickly turns into a nightmare. Her relationship with Paradox becomes physical, even though he only wants her to be Tulip. She doesn’t know who she can trust. No one can see her as anything beyond Tulip. Her life changed overnight, but was it for the better?
Everyone is Tulip is a story about internet culture, what it means to follow your dreams, and the fleeting nature of virality. The book deals with the ethics of art and who owns an idea. Unfortunately, this is explored at the very end of the story, leaving the reader with an ambiguous ending. Included in the back matter is an essay by Baker on the creators’ inspiration and why they’ve told this story. The story of the perils of fame is a familiar one, but Baker puts a very timely, modern spin on it.
Throughout the book are multiple spreads of Becca in her various Tulip costumes, with pages of what are essentially screenshots of the video. The art shines on these pages, with lots of inspired fashion. The color scheme of the book, done by Goux and Ellie Hall, is a highlight. The flashbacks to Becca’s life in Arizona are done in a muted, earthy tone, while her current life is brighter, with lots of pastel colors. The fashion Becca dons as Tulip jumps off the page.
While Everyone is Tulip is a book for adults, older teen readers may be drawn to this story of the dark side of influencers and internet fame. There is some nudity and sexual situations, as this is intended for an adult audience. Becca struggles with her body image, so that is discussed throughout the book, as well as brief mentions of disordered eating.
Everyone is Tulip is recommended for public libraries, where it can live on the adult shelves but still be available for some younger readers to check out. Readers who enjoy celebrity culture, as well as criticism of it, and learning more about the darker side of YouTube and social media are likely to enjoy this graphic novel.
Everyone is Tulip By Dave Baker Art by Nicole Goux, Ellie Hall Dark Horse, 2021 ISBN: 9781506722290
Publisher Age Rating: 16+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Raptor introduces the reader to two main characters who exist in parallel, but entwined universes; the mercenary Sokol, who lives and hunts mysterious beasts in a stark feudal landscape and Arthur, the author of supernatural tales who is a disturbed, grieving widower living in nineteenth century Wales. Arthur’s grief and interest in the supernatural leads him to an active interest in gothic spiritualism.
The character Sokol is a duality; both a human and a hawk, trapped between life and death, civilized life and animal instinct, and reality and fantasy. The resulting tale is a combination of monster-hunting adventures and historical fiction exploring the nature of grief, books, readers, and the intersection of boundaries. Sokol wears a hard mask throughout the novel, readers never see any facial engagement with him, especially as he finds an ancient coin which he quickly gives away and plays a large part in the overall action of the graphic novel. Arthur, on the other hand, is portrayed as a depressed young man, full of pain and despair with the loss of his young wife. Arthur’s brother attempts to help him by introducing him to a secret society filled with tarot cards and superstitions.
The two main personalities meet and interact through a manuscript written by Arthur about his apparently invented character, Sokol. Written changes to the manuscript are manifested by both characters as they begin to communicate across the borders between their two realities. This interaction helps Arthur handle the devastation felt by the death of his wife and allows Sokol to become more engaged with his world as well.
McKean created his sophisticated and haunting illustrations in ink and pencil, augmented with several painted pages, before scanning them to be shaped digitally. Sokol and his world are illustrated with thick lines, a liberal use of black ink and elaborate details in the feathers of the birds and cloth worn by the humans. The monsters are enormous, the trees (my favorite) are twisted, gnarled, and grotesque, and the buildings of the town are, in turn, earthy and medieval. Arthur’s story is created with a softer line, offering an abstract dreaminess to the story line and the characters with several instances of splashes of color. Arthur’s dreams, on the other hand, are completely loaded with color and conceptual images that are as breathtaking as they are beautiful. The lettering throughout is small and fairly translucent ensuring that the reader slow down to appreciate the text and the illustrations that surround it. This is a book that calls to be read and re-read again and again. The two intersecting story lines are opaque enough that each reading gives an additional glimpse into the two worlds and the characters but leaves additional questions and wonderment.
Recommended for collections that house his previous works as well as the Sandman series. The story line is complex but also accessible for older teens who appreciate stories that are slower in pace, beautifully illustrated, and open ended.
Raptor: A Sokol Graphic Novel Vol. By Dave McKean Dark Horse, 2021 ISBN: 9781506720630
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: British, Character Representation: Depression
A samurai epic of staggering proportions, the acclaimed Lone Wolf and Cub begins its second life at Dark Horse Manga with new, larger editions of over 700 pages, value priced. The brilliant storytelling of series creator Kazuo Koike and the groundbreaking cinematic visuals of Goseki Kojima create a graphic-fiction masterpiece of beauty, fury, and thematic power.
This title has not (yet) been reviewed by our staff, but it is a title that we highly recommend for the majority of libraries building collections for this age range.
Lone Wolf and Cub By Kazuo Koike ISBN: 9781616551346 Dark Horse, 2013 NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+) Volumes available: 12 (Series complete)
Akira is set in the post-apocalypse Neo-Tokyo of 2019, a vast metropolis built on the ashes of a Tokyo annihilated by an apocalyptic blast of unknown power that triggered World War III. The lives of two streetwise teenage friends, Tetsuo and Kaneda, change forever when dormant paranormal abilities begin to waken in Tetsuo, who becomes a target for a shadowy government operation, a group who will stop at nothing to prevent another catastrophe like that which leveled Tokyo. And at the core of their motivation is a raw, all-consuming fear: a fear of someone — or something — of unthinkably monstrous power known only as…Akira. And Akira is about to rise.
This title has not (yet) been reviewed by our staff, but it is a title that we highly recommend for the majority of libraries building collections for this age range.
Akira By Katsuhiro Otomo ISBN: 9781569714980 Dark Horse, 2000 NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+) Volumes available: 6 (Series complete)
Deep into the 21st century, the line between man and machine has been inexorably blurred as humans rely on the enhancement of mechanical implants and robots are upgraded with human tissue. In this rapidly converging landscape, cyborg super-agent Major Motoko Kusanagi is charged to track down the craftiest and most dangerous terrorists and cybercriminals, including “ghost hackers,” capable of exploiting the human/machine interface by re-programming human minds to become puppets to carry out their criminal ends. When Major Kusanagi tracks the cybertrail of one such master hacker, the Puppeteer, her quest leads her into a world beyond information and technology where the very nature of consciousness and the human soul are turned upside-down and inside-out.
Ghost in the Shell By Shirow Masamune ISBN: 9781593072285 Dark Horse, 2004 NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)