Palimpsest: Documents from a Korean Adoption

A palimpsest is a document in which writing has been removed or replaced by new writing. This definition is at the forefront of Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom’s debut graphic memoir Palimpsest, and not only in title. Sjöblom explores her own adoption from Korea to Sweden, uncovering documents filled with half-truths and lies coming from individuals and agencies that seek to obfuscate her journey to discover her biological origins. At times maddening and endearing, Sjöblom’s story is a Sisyphean undertaking that navigates bureaucracy and exposes the shady roots of international adoption.

Adopted in 1979 to Swedish parents, Sjöblom recounts growing up in a society where she doesn’t quite fit in and where the narrative of international adoption confronts her at every turn, a narrative which espouses the virtues of Westerners “saving” vulnerable children. Without an origin beyond her adoption date, she takes pride in anything that has to do with Korea, like a shirt made in the country and the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. That pride is squashed by the xenophobia, racial slurs, and just plain meanness she encounters in adolescence, but it prompts her to seek out her origin. Unfortunately, after inquiring with the Korean adoption agency that sent her to Sweden, she is only met with minimal information and dead ends, at many points being told to drop her inquiries and “let the past be past.”

Obviously this is incredibly unfair, and thus began a years long investigation involving Internet message boards, multiple adoption agencies, orphanages, city archives, the police, and visiting Korea. Sjöblom recounts how the officials involved with her adoption are of no use in providing actual information and much of the legwork to seek out details falls to her and her husband. Through verbatim email exchanges and demanding lines of questioning Sjöblom excels creating an incredible sense of empathy. Her search for her biological parents and how her adoption came to be is frustrating, but the trail is rife with hints and just enough breadcrumbs to make this story an intriguing mystery to be unraveled. Sjöblom ultimately receives some closure, but it is filled with doubt and perhaps some misgivings. Upon finding her birth mother, Sjöblom writes “I just feel a big emptiness,” and throughout the book readers will encounter and connect with these same feelings of dissatisfaction: not in the book itself, but in the drama that is life, and through reading, Sjöblom’s life by proxy.

Visually, the book is nothing short of stunning, but in a plain and understated way. Using spare earthtones and a simple drawing style, Sjöblom’s art is muted in comparison to what’s at stake in the text. Tense emotional moments are not portrayed with anguished faces or images of dread. Instead, Sjöblom invokes feeling in quiet ways, like the reddish blush of a cheek with a single cartoonish teardrop. Her work is precise and delivers.

Palimpsest is an important book and given its perceived narrow interest, is one that libraries must consider adding to their collections, particularly for adults. This is a book primed to punch well above its weight. It is not a comic just for adoptees with similar stories. The book takes a broad stroke exposing the underbelly of semi-illegal international adoptions and the poor-by-design recordkeeping that leaves adoptees second guessing their true origins. Even more paramount is how it dismantles adoption myths of Western parents “saving” children from impoverished countries. While in some instances that story can be true, Sjöblom writes how with any adoption a family bond is broken, regardless of the new family connection that comes to be. When viewed through the lens of the current situation on the US-Mexico border, it puts the practice of child separation into an even more harrowing light. Timely and in fitting mode for telling this type of personal story, Palimpsest should be read by any person who considers themselves to be a kind and caring human.

Palimpsest: Documents from a Korean Adoption
By Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom
ISBN: 9781770463301
Drawn and Quarterly, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: Adult

The Worst Book Ever

This quirky graphic novel uses Gravel’s distinctive style to create a story within a story, but is it really The Worst Book Ever?

The first characters the reader meets are a red spider, black soot gremlin, and pink blob. Throughout the story, they make comments, criticize the author, and cheer on (or heckle) the characters. This starts on the title page, where the spider says “Interesting title choice, isn’t it?” The story, such as it is, begins on the left side of the page while the three characters comment on the right. It starts off reasonably enough, with “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…” but just when the readers are settling in for a fairy tale… things get a little… odd. The “very beautiful prinsess” and the “brave prinse” have been done so many times before! But possibly never looking so like hot dogs. Annoyed that they aren’t included in the story, the three commentators start critiquing the illustrations, counting typos, and complaining about crumbs. The author tries to regain their attention with grandiloquent words, potty humor, mindless violence, and even ads, but nothing works and finally, with a burst of cliches, the book ends.

The endpages are decorated with hot dogs in Gravel’s signature cartoon style. On the left-hand pages, which show the “story,” Gravel has drawn a “prinsess” with red, frog-like mouth, hot-dog shaped “prinse” and, prancing across several pages, an awkwardly-drawn red horse. As the critiquing spider says, “To be fair, horses are really hard to draw.” The commentators are set against a white background, but the fairy tale side has bland pink, yellow, and blue backgrounds and a simple frame.

The book is a tricky size, being slightly larger than the typical easy reader, but not the right size for a picture book. With a reading level and jokes that are more middle grade, or even older and at about 25 pages long, it’s hard to place on a library shelf. Readers will have to navigate lengthy words on one page, jokes about ads in children’s books on another, and complaints of the commentators about the author’s lack of skill with writing dialogue, things they are only likely to catch if they’re familiar with the basics of narratives and writing in general.

Some might use this book to discuss how a book is written or created, but the potty humor is apt to turn teachers off the title. This is a novelty that will amuse kids for a while and have a brief burst of popularity, but quickly be forgotten, along the lines of Proimos’ Knuckle and Potty Destroy Happy World and Scieszka’s Battle Bunny. Add to collections featuring books appealing to fluent but reluctant readers who are unwilling to read outside of Dav Pilkey’s oeuvre.

The Worst Book Ever
By Elise Gravel
ISBN: 9781770463639
Drawn and Quarterly, 2019
NFNT Age Recommendation: Picture Books (3-8), Easy Readers (5-9), Middle Grade (7-11)

Hot Comb

First, there’s Ebony’s desire for a perm. Then, there’s the process of begging her mom to allow her to get one, the long wait in the beauty salon once her mom finally concedes, the scorching pain of ammonia burning against her scalp, the slow process of letting the conditioner set under the dryer, and finally, the hair-do Ebony gets with her newly straightened hair. The rituals and rites of passage, the pleasures and pains, the microaggressions and empowerments bound up in black hair are the unifying principle of Hot Comb, Ebony Flowers’ debut graphic novel short story collection.

While some of the stories in Hot Comb seem more-or-less autobiographical (the main character in the titular short story, for example, shares the author’s name) and are loosely unified by frontispieces showing the same character under a progressively darkening raincloud, others stand alone.

One story shows a black woman facing a cross-examination from a white stranger as to why she’s wearing a headwrap. Another shows a Spanish man commenting at length about how much he ostensibly loves black women, but somehow managing only to objectify and exoticize their hair. Another shows three young women enjoying a day together in Luanda, Angola: doing hair, taking a trip out to the ocean, and stopping to pee on an old colonial mansion en route. The stories collected in Hot Comb are intimate, taking the reader into the heart of the characters’ days, their fluctuating emotions, and their complicated human interactions. At the same time, each story works both individually and collectively to make a larger commentary about the significant role hair plays in the lives of black women and how this significance intersects with issues of racism, colonialism, colorism, and misogyny.

Flowers’ drawing style is bold and expressive. The images are rendered all in black and white, with thick, dark lines and a great sense of gesture and motion. Hand-lettered dialogue effectively communicates the characters’ emotions, with letters growing thicker, darker, or curvier to indicate impatience, anger, or delight; cursive text is sometimes included to indicate non-dialogue narration. Full page illustrations recreating old advertisements for hair products targeted at black women are interspersed between each story, and these drawings add a sense of mingled nostalgia and political commentary all their own.

An exceptional debut, Hot Comb is essential for inclusion in all adult graphic novel collections for both its artistry and for the stories it tells.

Hot Comb
By Ebony Flowers
ISBN: 9781770463486
Drawn & Quarterly, 2019
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)

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Character Traits: Black,
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, BIPOC Creator

Art Comic

There’s a kind of conflict between the representational art that drives the comics world and the world of “high art.” For decades the art world has worshiped at the altar of abstraction, much to the frustration of creators who want their work to directly reflect what they see in front of them. Similarly, creators who want to tell stories have felt stifled by art’s current atmosphere, which discourages artists from telling audiences what to think or how to feel. So, can a book attack the pretensions of the professional art world without becoming pretentious? Matthew Thurber’s Art Comic answers this question with a resounding “Why bother?”

Critics have met Art Comic with accolades. It even had a chapter included in The Best Comics of 2018 anthology. In a word cloud describing this book’s Internet reviews, “satire,” “hilarious,” and “merciless” would play starring roles. However, few critics have chosen to address the book’s many problems. Satire isn’t excused from basic rules of storytelling. Humor can have its own aesthetic, but any aesthetic needs to be chosen and executed with care. The book certainly has its funny points—the dead artist who eats the God of Art Heaven only to be applauded by his fellow artistes—but much of its humor feels unearned. Not only is there not much of a coherent story in Art Comic, there aren’t even many hints of a story worth telling.

Satire functions best when it comes from a place of love. This story demonstrates neither a love for art nor a love for comics. Thurber talks about real problems—hero worship, celebrity culture, commercialism, suppression of ideas and talent—in the art world without suggesting any improvements. It hits targets readily, but they’re all low-hanging fruit, ideas no one would openly defend.

There is a plot. In fact, there are many plots. An artist-turned-knight errant, questing like Quixote to destroy art’s vanities. A suicidal artist in an art-obsessed Heaven, outraged by the pointlessness of his posthumous creations. A black female art student who, finding no room for her religious beliefs in the secular art world, wanders the world in a boat, meeting pirates, serial killers, and the like. An evil cabal of vampires called The Group, sabotaging generation after generation of potentially great creators. Two human-appearing robots who constantly have sex. A group of porcine cartoons known as the Free Little Pigs, dedicated to bringing destruction to all commercial art. And then there’s Cupcake, possibly the main protagonist of this comics soup, obsessed with filmmaker/photographer/sculptor Matthew Barney, and apparently acting as Barney’s real life stunt double when the creator gets bored with his jet setting lifestyle. All of this adding up to one quintessential truth: too much chaos is boring. Art Comic’s people ricochet from plot point to plot point while in the background the two robots joylessly copulate. The best of them try to destroy art—all art—and have nothing to offer in its place.

The book’s visuals struggle as well. Thurber is a good, if straightforward, visual storyteller. That said, the book’s backgrounds vary between the lazy and the haphazard, with characters standing in monochromatic voids more often than not. Buildings are usually well-rendered, but the book’s sense of perspective is arbitrary, resulting in people with stunted legs looming larger than the buildings they’re rushing towards. The characters themselves are almost uniformly grotesque. It can be argued that this is an intentional choice, but in most comics characters are ugly for a reason; whether it’s Sluggo from Nancy or Tom Hart’s Hutch Owen, their appearance says something about them. Here each character, sympathetic or monstrous, is burdened with overdeveloped facial features and visible individual teeth in every panel. There’s no emotional expression in their faces or responses, or responses seem inhuman and unreal. All of these details taken in, as often as not the readers then have to watch these characters have sex. These visual problems combined with gratuitous sex and nudity throughout undermine any points that the text might be making about art, emotions, and depth. It forces a response the same way a crucifix immersed in urine does, but it’s equally trite and shallow.

For myself, I believe in the power of absurdity, of Dadaist comics and comics based on somnambulist fantasies. However, this is a book that combines the frustrations of a long, meandering dream where nothing is accomplished with undergraduate discussions about the interference of the marketplace and the purity of art. It concludes nothing, choosing self mockery as its easy way out. It commits only to the ideology of Cynicism. There may be genuine emotions somewhere in this book, but behind its multiple absurdist backdrops, curtains, and facades, they are only obscured and lost.

Art Comic’s prominence means public and academic librarians may want to purchase it, though unlike a lot of better books it doesn’t need the help. Issues of quality and gratuity may keep librarians from purchasing it. It is a stand-alone volume with no sequels currently planned. Its primary audience is adult, as its topic is unlikely to interest teens or younger readers, and it belongs firmly to Adult collections.

Art Comic
By Matthew Thurber
ISBN: 9781770463004
Drawn and Quarterly, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: Adult

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Character Traits: Black, Lesbian

Yellow Yellow

Two evocative words mark Yellow Yellow’s opening page: “One day…”

This first ellipsis foreshadows more to come, as the following pages also feature minute collections of words bookended by those tempting dot-dot-dots. Eventually, these micro-phrases accumulate to establish Yellow Yellow’s first full sentence: “One day…I found….a yellow…hat.” Narrated by a child who the reader first encounters walking alone through the streets of a city, these simple words stands in direct contrast to accompanying illustrations that absolutely swarm around them.

Drawn with teeming detail in black ink (other than the sunshiny bright yellow of the hat, of course), the pictures show an urban landscape that is part familiar, part whimsical, part evidentiary of a bygone era, and part imaginative of a cityscape more elaborate and fantastical than could ever have truly existed. Strange sights abound: a large frog leaps along the sidewalk ridden by a miniature cowboy (frogboy?); a cobbler seen through a shop window repairs a giant’s shoes, two sets of massive toes visible over his shoulder; the city-dwellers’ faces are hairy and often scowling—one figure even features a hand coming out of his suit’s neck-hole, and carries his substitute head (a football wearing a mask) aloft in the palm of his hand.

Originally published in 1971, Stamaty’s illustrations of a young child walking alone through a metropolis bursting at the seams with grotesquery and populated with adults and children of varying degrees of strangeness might strike a modern adult reader as nostalgic, wishful, or even alarming. But the young finder of the yellow hat is never harmed while ambling through the city, blissfully unaware of all the sights passing by as the comically large hat slips down over their face. In fact, the yellow hat awakens a marvelous sense of joy and possibility in the child’s imagination, a sense echoed in the book’s art. Alongside a tale that is ultimately simple (the child finds and loves the yellow hat, meets its original owner and gives the hat up, and returns home to create a hand-made yellow hat), the profuse illustrations add an entrancing Where’s Waldo or I Spy dynamic.

Both seek-and-find and choose-your-own-adventure, Yellow Yellow could arguably be classified more as a picture book than graphic novel, and while not an addition essential to most collections, a strange and delicious book sure to delight readers of many ages nonetheless.

Yellow Yellow
By Frank Asch
Art by Mark Alan Stamaty
ISBN: 9781770463585
Drawn & Quarterly, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: 2-6

The Moomins and the Great Flood; The Dangerous Journey

It’s probably not a coincidence that the whimsical Moomins are seeing a resurgence in popularity. Their lighthearted world is a refreshing alternative to today’s turbulent times, just as it was back in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when Scandinavian author and illustrator Tove Jansson sought an escape from the emotional wear-and-tear of war.

Indeed, Moomin “fever” has been growing for some time, helped in part by the 2014 Drawn & Quarterly release of Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition. This complete collection of the Moomin comic strip sparked a new generation of fans, laying the groundwork for this year’s release of the first and last picture books chronicling the Moomins and their many (mis)adventures within a series that spanned decades.

The Moomins and the Great Flood (1945) and The Dangerous Journey (1970), are illustrated prose. Published for the first time in North America, they feature the quirky Moomins, creatures that resemble friendly hippos with large noses and rotund bodies. They are happy to call Moomin Valley home, a bucolic paradise within a magical world of colorful characters and fantastical journeys waiting to be had.

While each story within the series features a different exploit, overarching thematic ideas thread each tale together. Time and again, Jansson’s honest acknowledgement that life can be scary, lonely and downright tough, allows her characters to realize their inner strength by finding the joy in life, boldly facing the unknown, and overcoming adversity—with a little help from friends and family, of course. The result is a thoughtful, rich body of work that still devotes plenty of time to whimsy and fun.

The Moomins and the Great Flood, translated by David McDuff, centers on Moominmamma and her son, Moomintroll, as they embark on a journey to find their wayward Moominpappa and build a new home before winter unleashes its fury. Along the way, they visit exotic places that include an ominous forest, a hidden treehouse filled with tasty treats, a turbulent sea, and a land where houses are made of gold. Jansson’s detailed approach allows these landscapes to become characters in their own right, and in one particularly sensorial scene, I could practically feel the earth slither and slide beneath my feet as “the black mud bubbled and whispered all around.”

The book also introduces readers to the cast of quirky creatures who populate the Moomin world. From the lovable “little creature” and heroic blue-haired girl to the dangerous serpent who gnashes at their heels, we learn there is both good and evil, love and animosity, in this surreal land. There’s also plenty who fall somewhere in between, including ant-lions, sea-trolls, hemulens and hattifatteners, to name just a few of the realm’s colorful creatures we chance to meet.

Throughout the story’s trials and tribulations, Moominmamma stands out as a pillar of strength who helps her loved ones discover the inner force necessary to face the many obstacles and uncertainties head on. Although quite different from book one, The Dangerous Journey, translated by Sophie Hannah, also centers upon the importance of personal strength, in this case that of a young girl itching for adventure.

Susanna, another female character with an admirable amount of grit, leaves behind her safe but mundane world after a mysterious pair of spectacles transports her to the unpredictable land of the Moomins. At first scared and uncertain, she learns to draw from her own reserves to ultimately carve out her own path in a place that can be pretty overwhelming. The captivating story also lets readers revisit favorite spaces and familiar faces within the series through a journey to reach Moomin Valley–no small task thanks to the many twists and turns that lie in wait for Susanna and her new-found friends. Throughout, Jansson takes on a more relaxed tone than her earlier work, playfully ignoring the constraints of formality to address the reader directly.

The text itself also undergoes a shift from the Flood’s richly descriptive prose to the Journey’s lighthearted rhyme scheme. Both make for great read-alouds, adding an auditory dimension that highlights the musicality and rhythmic nature of the words. And because the first book contains a lot of text and sophisticated vocabulary, kids also may benefit from a little extra help along the way.

Jansson’s clever wordplay and textual embellishments also should appeal to younger readers, whether it’s unscrambling intentionally jumbled phrases like “mightful fress,” or guessing what the various fonts associated with specific names are really saying about the characters they represent. Adults, too, will appreciate Jansson’s subtle humor, such as the Moomins’ aversion to central air systems, which make wood-burning stoves (prime real estate for Moomin housebuilding) increasingly difficult to find.

As for the illustrations, Jansson creates the kinds of pictures I would spend hours poring over as a child, discovering something new each time. The Moomins and the Great Flood’s combination of line art and sepia-toned watercolor offer detailed visual accounts of the story as it unfolds. Warm and inviting, these images provide us with a glimpse into Jansson’s vivid imagination, bringing the characters to life on the page. While the use of line is deceptively simple, it’s clear that eyes and nose alone effectively convey complex emotion that draws the reader in. Admittedly, there are times when these illustrations do not line up with the story, which can be a bit confusing and distracting.

Within The Dangerous Journey, the images are more prominent, dominating each page with their sweeping landscapes. The color palette is much more explosive, featuring bold reds, oranges and blues that seem a fitting nod to the ’70s more psychedelic side. Working in tandem with Susanne’s surreal adventure, the clamor and clash of colors highlight the loopy nature of her foray into Moomin Valley. The images themselves reveal how the world has quite literally been turned topsy-turvy since her arrival, with shockingly green blueberries and birds flying “back to front” making for a more tactile experience than the text alone provides. Scale also comes into play as Susanne’s varied size within the frame reflects her state of mind – from large-and-in-charge in her natural environment to small and more vulnerable as she encounters the unknown within the magical land’s diverse biomes.

Overall, the two books are great companion pieces. The first serves as an introduction to the Moomins with an overview and plenty of backstory that the latter builds from. Both also have a fairytale vibe, which Jansson cleverly manipulates by passing up run-of-the-mill princes and princesses in favor of “real” characters with flaws and insecurities. The result is effective, making the stories relatable and endearing in a way that overly idealized archetypes simply would not.

However, it also makes less developed characters, like Moominpappa, more glaringly weak. His reasons for abandoning his family are disappointingly vague, as is his overall presence among the more dynamic characters. In fact, the entire Moomin clan’s diminished role within The Dangerous Journey makes for a bit of a let-down, especially in light of the fact that this is our farewell to the storybook series.

These books would be a great addition to any children’s collection, and I see the potential for plenty of crossover recommendations. Since the Moomins span a wide range of formats and genres, from books, comics, film and television to opera and theater, young readers can explore the options, and perhaps discover a new favorite or two.

The Moomins and the Great Flood
by Tove Jansson
ISBN: 9781770463288
Drawn & Quarterly, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 9-12

The Dangerous Journey
by Tove Jansson
ISBN: 9781770463202
Drawn & Quarterly, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 9-12

Sabrina

Sabrina disappears, her sister Sandra grieves, and her boyfriend Teddy effectively checks out of the world. This is how Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina begins. Teddy then meets up with an old friend, Calvin, who takes him in, lets him sleep for days, and feeds him. When a graphic videotape of Sabrina’s violent end surfaces, it sends Teddy into a tailspin as he takes to heart more and more of the conspiracy theories he has been listening to on the radio. Calvin continues to work in his bland Air Force job while debating whether to stay and take a promotion or move so he can be with his daughter. Then, Calvin chases a cat. Yes, you read that right. He chases a cat. Put all together in these brief sentences, it sounds as if this graphic novel is quite boring, but that is not the case.

The pacing is slow and meticulous, yes. The artwork is neat and tidy with a very limited, dull color palette. But the entire novel is fraught with tension while somehow remaining devoid of emotion. It’s as if a wall exists between the reader and the characters. You can see their faces and their actions, but their expressions—nearly always the same from panel to panel, with tiny dots for eyes and thin lines for mouths and eyebrows—leave you wondering what they are thinking or feeling. You know the subject matter—kidnappings, brutal murders, and deep, unyielding grief and depression—should evoke big emotions in you and in the characters, but somehow all I was left with was a feeling of anxiety-riddled numbness. One notable exception to this are the panels with Sabrina’s sister Sandra. Her grief is palpable. The whole effect is chilling, and it is no surprise that this graphic novel was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

Drnaso uses a limited color palette of muted hues, mostly primary and secondary colors. There are a few notable exceptions. For instance, when Teddy dreams of his last night with Sabrina, Drnaso uses a black background and colored lines only (no fill-in). He uses this same method again at the end of the novel when Calvin is having a nightmare that mixes together everything he’s been through in the novel.

Drnaso keeps the panels uniform, multiple equally sized and shaped squares, for most of the novel, but occasionally he breaks things up with a half-page panel or a few larger panels next to smaller ones. There seems to be an occasional connection between the small panels containing banal statements and the larger panels dealing in some way with larger emotions.

As previously stated, this graphic novel, published in May of 2018, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It would make an excellent addition to any academic or public library. The nuanced, adult content makes this best-suited for adult graphic novel collections. Overall, a well-executed and timely graphic novel I would recommend to all adults.

Sabrina
By Nick Drnaso
ISBN: 9781770463165
Drawn and Quarterly, 2018
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)

Woman World

At the start of Woman World, a genetic defect wipes out all male humans within a few generations. Then a series of natural disasters devastates the planet. From the ashes rises a new civilization: one made up only of women.

Then: wacky hijinks!

Despite its grim beginnings, this is a silly, sometimes sweet look at a post-apocalyptic—and post-man—world. Here, a village bands together under a flag bearing an image of Beyoncé’s thighs. (As we later discover, the neighboring villages also chose parts of Beyoncé’s body as their standards.) Within that village live women of a variety of ages, races, and body types. There’s the grandmother who is the only one who can remember real live men, and her granddaughter who scavenges through the ruins for pieces of the old world. (Her most prized discovery: a DVD of Paul Blart: Mall Cop.) There are single women and women in relationships, women writing poetry and women who have decided to be naked all the time. Together, they live a cooperative, generally peaceful existence.

In Woman World, men are remembered with a fond wistfulness, a lost part of human culture. But women don’t spend too much time missing or wondering about them: they’re busy living their lives. (That said, a lot of the jokes do involve people making incorrect assumptions about what the old world was like.)

The stakes are generally low in this slice-of-life comic. Conflicts arise from arguments, anxiety, and the occasional unrequited love. There is also concern about the future of the human race: surviving sperm banks are an option for women who want to have children, but they won’t last forever, and other methods are still experimental. But in the meantime, everyday concerns revolve mostly around relationships, romantic or platonic.

The book Woman World is a print collection of the popular Instagram webcomic of the same name. The art is grayscale, with a few full-color pages sprinkled through the book. There are usually three to five panels per page. Some pages can stand alone as one-off jokes, while others are part of continuing plot arcs. The characters’ faces are simple but expressive, while their distinctive body shapes, hairstyles, and outfits make them easy to tell apart. Shading indicates different skin and hair colors. One character has a prosthetic leg, and one has surgical scars; some have piercings or wrinkles or other visible differences that make them easy to distinguish while also making the world of the comic richer and more interesting.

As far as content, there is no violence and no on-page sex, just some kissing. There is frequent nudity, but it is never sexualized, and no genitals are drawn in, just triangles that are understood to be pubic hair. A small number of swear words appear, generally as part of a joke.

Woman World may portray a post-apocalyptic civilization roughing it in the wilderness among the ruins of our world, but it’s actually a rather relaxing read. The characters usually mean well, and no one gets hurt. Just women of all kinds supporting each other and going about their business, with some jokes thrown in. Hand it to anyone looking for a gently funny stand-alone read.

Woman World
by Aminder Dhaliwal
ISBN: 9781770463356
Drawn & Quarterly, 2018

The Strange

Put this graphic novel on the top of your reading pile for books on immigrant experiences. Call up your book club and make sure this book makes this year’s list. Stock up on copies of this book to give out to friends and strangers. Jérôme Ruillier’s graphic novel, The Strange, is a fictionalized account of an immigrant’s experience trying to create a new life for his family, surviving in a country where most people see immigrants as statistics at best and criminals at worst. It is a timely and timeless story that is all too relevant.

The Strange is set in a non-specific country with a main character, “The Strange,” who is fleeing from an unnamed country with hopes of creating a better life for his wife and children. The Strange doesn’t know the country’s language but must navigate finding a job, a place to live, and food. He is lonely, afraid, tired, and sick, and he depends on the kindness of strangers for basic necessities. But not all strangers are kind; in fact, few are. Some pretend not to notice him, while others take advantage of him, feel threatened by him, and report him. This is a story of many downs with few ups, based on the true experiences of immigrants.

By referring to the main character as “The Strange” and other immigrants as “stranges,” Ruillier draws attention to our tendency to label the unknown: immigrants, aliens, foreigners, illegals, etc. By labeling this demographic, we are identifying them as “other,” rather than recognizing our shared experiences. Much of what Ruilliers portrays in the story are emotions that are common to anyone—fear, loneliness, shame, and cowardice—interspersed with occasional hope, bravery, and compassion. By relying on a third-person narrative, Ruillier further emphasizes that immigrants aren’t always given a voice. It also shows that each of us is responsible for how we interact with others, and that indifference can be just as harmful as explicit xenophobia.

Ruillier uses colored pencil drawings and a limited color palette to allow the art to become a backdrop and the story to become the focus. With rough sketches of buildings, streets, and characters rather than intricate penned and colored details, the reader spends more time following the story than getting drawn into the minutiae of the art. Ruillier also uses anthropomorphism to portray his characters, which removes the necessity to depict otherness through outward aesthetics.

This graphic novel is not rated. The content is suitable for middle grade readers and up, but older teens and adults will likely get the most out of the sophisticated storytelling. It would be an ideal graphic novel for a library book club and perfect for a display on immigrant experiences. It’s an important addition to a library’s graphic novel collection, both for validating the experiences of immigrants and for offering insight and awareness to “natives.” For a wonderful read-alike, look up The Arrival, Shaun Tan’s wordless graphic novel on an immigrant experience.

The Strange
by Jérôme Ruillier
Translated by Helge Dascher
ISBN: 9781770463172
Drawn & Quarterly, 2018

Coyote Doggirl

Coyote Doggirl is just what she sounds like—a girl who is part coyote and part dog with a take-no-shit attitude towards life. She’s bright pink and makes her own clothes and tack from leather that she tans herself. Solitary, but not unfriendly, Coyote prefers the company of her horse Red, living a life of one-sided conversations and taking trips into town only when necessary. However, something has disrupted her simple life and has her on the run from three men who are ceaselessly pursuing her. Just as it seems that she’s losing them, Coyote is struck by arrows and separated from Red. A group of Native American wolves pick her up and allow her to rest and recover with them, not out of kindness, but because they are quite impressed with her handmade leather crop top. While Coyote becomes friends with the wolves, she still seeks to be reunited with Red, knowing that she must also face her pursuers in order to return to her peaceful life.

Coyote Doggirl is a Western of sorts, but if you’re unfamiliar with Lisa Hanawalt’s style then you have no idea what kind of strange adventure you’re in for. While Coyote Doggirl doesn’t have a very involved plot, the events are revealed in an intriguing way that keeps the reader’s interest. For me, the primary joy in Coyote Doggirl is in the time spent with such a likable character. Coyote is an impish and somewhat immature character who rides horses freely and with exuberance. She doesn’t need stirrups or spurs; it’s clear that for her, riding is more of a partnership or a performance than an act of discipline or training. She performs acrobatics while riding, jumps off a horse’s back into a river, lies down across a horse’s back while throwing her middle fingers in the air. Coyote is the kind of person who laughs at a joke long after it’s told, so you can tell she’s still thinking about it. She may dwell on things but doesn’t let them get to her, keeping a fairly positive attitude. Her worst enemy is potentially boredom. Semi-serious scenes are punctuated with humor to keep the mood light. In a scene where one might expect soothing or reassuring words from a wolf to Coyote, the wolf says instead, “Do not be a bitch.”

Hanawalt’s art style is iconic—folks familiar with her previous works such as My Dirty Dumb Eyes, Hot Dog Taste Test, and her designs for BoJack Horseman will see the similar anthropomorphic animal characters in Coyote Doggirl. Fans may also notice the resemblance between a scene of Coyote riding Red and the striking final spread in the story “Caballos Con Carne,” which appeared in Hot Dog Taste Test and is also free to read on Hanawalt’s website. The art is watercolor and ink with that Lisa Hanawalt twist in execution—well-defined butts, tongues sticking out, and a highly expressive protagonist. Her color palette aptly captures Coyote’s fresh and adventurous mood, and wonderfully sets the tone for this modern Western adventure. The endpapers of the book are fantastic; you won’t want to cover up a single inch with processing labels or barcodes. The front half provides a map contextualizing where Coyote lives and the extent of her travels. The back half shows her atop Red, presumably riding towards her future—though this is cleverly concealed by a paper sleeve around the back cover which hosts the summary, blurbs, and ISBN.

I’m a sucker for attention to detail and Hanawalt provides. She always sneaks something into the verso of the title page. In a previous book she asks, “does anybody read all of this? Who are you?” The copyright statement for Coyote Doggirl makes it clear that “we will have no bilkers, scoundrels, varmints, bunkos, flannel-mouthed coffee boilers, owl hoots, nor skinflints ’round here neither.” If you’re one of the above, then this might not be the book for you after all.

While Coyote’s character will surely be popular with teens, librarians wishing to shelve this book should be aware of the following “adult” content: some violence, swearing, sexual content (Coyote dreams of making a “pleasure” saddle with various dildos attached), and dirty humor (in one scene Coyote draws a horse with prominent genitals to make some kids laugh, which she sheepishly censors when an adult shows up).

Coyote Doggirl
by Lisa Hanawalt
ISBN: 9781770463257
Drawn & Quarterly, 2018