Nobody Likes You Greta Grump

Greta, a particularly unfriendly and uncooperative child, has turned away a string of pets that have been sent to cheer her up. Her parents are at their wits end trying to deal with her and haven’t slept in three days. Finally, a small tortoise named Nobody, the last available pet at the pet rental, is sent to her home.

“Nobody” is unfazed by Greta’s rude behavior and can dish out insults just as well as Greta can. His no-nonsense approach to Greta is disarming enough that she asks him to stay and opens up about how the other kids are mean to her at school and she feels different because she does not look like her adoptive parents.

Nobody takes Greta on various expeditions to unusual lands via his magical shell. He also helps her make a friendship with Gabby, another adopted child from her school, who has his own problems fitting in. Nobody shows the children they can fit in anywhere by literally getting them to fit into seemingly impossible spaces and figuratively helping them overcome their struggles getting along with other children. Together, Nobody, Greta, and Gabby help Friendlytown, which has become unfriendly. As the town is restored to its normal friendly self, Greta’s friendship with Gabby is cemented, and her once chaotic home becomes a harmonious place.

The book is both a Fairytale and an allegory in the vein of The Phantom Tollbooth, or Alice in Wonderland, with wordplay such as the name of the guide Nobody conveying part of the meaning. Other wordplay is used as the theme of “fitting in” is shown both literally and figuratively, too. Repeated throughout the story is the dichotomy between kindness and meanness, and the transformation of Friendlytown mirrors Greta’s own transformation. The fantasy worlds the characters visit are both enchanting and instructive to Greta, and to readers alike. The tale is simple enough for young middle grade readers to comprehend, yet complex enough for adults to enjoy pondering the symbolism and meaning.

The illustrations are fully-colored in warm, natural tones, and the facial features of the characters are particularly expressive. Characters show emotion and personality through light and shadow, as well as eyes and mouth. Panels are rectangular with varying numbers per page. The world from which Greta originates bears a resemblance to our own reality, yet has the appearance of otherness, as well. The clothing on all of the characters would fit better in the 40s or 50s. Even a gang of squirrels wears matching argyle sweater vests. The fantasy worlds, while different from Greta’s world in their inhabitants, are drawn in the same style and detail. The story is told almost entirely in speech bubbles, with little description apart from the spoken words, so the illustrations play a crucial role in the reader’s ability to comprehend the story.

Nobody Likes You, Greta Grump is a clever and winsome fable. The message about the importance of kindness is simple but profound. Greta learns that Nobody (the tortoise) does indeed like her, and she needs to show kindness to others in order to bring out their kindness in return. She learns that she can have friends if she learns to treat them nicely. However, she also sees that her parents have loved her unconditionally all along, even when she was being a grump. This graphic novel will appeal to young fans of fantasy and readers who are a bit more thoughtful in their graphic novel reading choices. With its strong message and aesthetic beauty, it will make an excellent addition to youth and school graphic novel collections.

Nobody Likes You Greta Grump Vol.
By Cathy Malkasian
Fantagraphics, 2021
ISBN: 9781683964056

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)

Beatnik Buenos Aires

Transporting the reader back to the arts scene of Argentina in the sixties, Fantagraphics’ translation of Beatnik Buenos Aires, by Diego Arandojo and Facundo Percio, is an atmospheric exploration of the interconnected lives and passions of the artists and dreamers searching for meaning in the smoky cafes and dim streets brimming with an energy only found after the sun has set.

With no central plot, Beatnik Buenos Aires weaves together anecdotes and episodes from the true lives of various artists, writers, and other creatives that lived and worked amidst an artistic landscape now sixty years past. In the opening note, Arandojo explains how the comic grew out of interviews and research that were part of his documentary on the same time period. While more an artistic exploration than a traditional nonfiction comic, the pages of this book are inhabited by very real people. In various chapters, they move from center stage to the background and then return, inviting the reader to sit alongside them in the cafes full of voices and poetry and debate about the meaning of art and life. In piecing together these separate stories, a greater whole takes shape, a whole that offers glimpses into who these people were, into the things that drove them so fiercely to create, to understand, to leave their mark on the world.

Arandojo’s writing is restrained, moving from dialogue and narration to poetic quotes and references to the existing work of the comic’s subjects. The Buenos Aires he captures is not always a place of beauty. Many of these artists struggle in darkness. A man seduced by a charismatic leader stands in front of an oncoming train. A boy’s piano playing serves as a source of both beauty and strife. The subjects of these stories are sex and violence, politics and passion. This is not an idealized view of the artistic process. Rather, it carries the reader into the tumult and conflicts that form the soil from which so much art has grown. Quiet, sometimes grim, tinged with social upheaval and glimpses of the unreal—Beatnik Buenos Aires seeks out the beating hearts amidst the successes, failures, and raw humanity of the people it explores.

Arandojo’s script is brought to marvelous life in Percio’s hazy charcoal artwork. The Argentina we encounter in these pages is a time past; it is almost a dream. Its subjects are all-too real, but their longings are mythic. Under cover of darkness, huddled together in shared isolation, adrift in a world they seek to understand—Percio’s characters live and love and fight under the dim lights of the cafes they call home.

As a comic, Beatnik Buenos Aires seems to have a simple goal—to capture some piece of a time that is past and the people who lived there. Its themes are as varied as its subjects, but the book and its creators do not set out with a message. They bear witness. And in the closing pages, as Arandojo provides some context for each chapter, the lives of these creatives are set down so that we might catch a glimpse through a window, or through the cigarette smoke of a noisy room—and in that glimpse, perhaps we see the world a little differently than we did before.

The publisher does not offer a specific age recommendation, but the book will appeal most to older readers. Generally subdued and occasionally bleak, Beatnik Buenos Aires does include strong moments of realistic sex, nudity, and violence. Combining this with the overall themes and content, the book aims comfortably at an adult audience with potential appeal to older teens.

In total, Beatnik Buenos Aires is a quiet book hovering at the edges of complex lives and big questions. With controlled writing and a strong artistic style, it’s a worthy read for any audience interested in artistic and cultural history, realistic stories, or comics operating with more traditionally literary sensibilities. Intriguing and well-delivered, it may lack the wide appeal of some other titles on the shelves, but for the right audience, it’s a book worth both reading and revisiting.

Beatnik Buenos Aires Vol.
By Diego Arandojo
Art by  Facundo Percio
Fantagraphics, 2021
ISBN: 9781683964032

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation:  Argentinian
Character Representation: Argentinian

It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be

Friendship comes in many sizes from acquaintances you’ve just met to those who know all of your inner secrets and then some. Some relationships are healthy while others are toxic. Healthy friendships provide safety and comfort, joy and happiness and that is what we all want in our lives: for those who are the closest to us to provide those very things that we want and need.

However, some relationships end not with a bang but with a whisper. Sometimes that whisper is so low, we cannot hear it.

“It’s Not What You Thought it Would Be” tells the story of two friends who share the most intimate moments of their lives and are stuck together like glue. But their lives change as one goes to university and the other does not, one moves away and the other stays in the same town they’ve lived in all their lives. There is no animosity or hatred between these two, just sadness and hurt on what may have happened to their very best friend.

This gorgeous book takes us through that process of coming together, separating, and reuniting. Each chapter is told in stand alone vignettes that, by their order in the book, paint a picture of decades of friendship in a swirl of crayon, charcoal, watercolors, and pencil. Each vignette takes on its own importance of medium with the colors and shading coming together and separating just as the friendships. In the final vignette, “The Wedding Guests,” Stewart is at her best by bringing together all of her mediums into one glorious vivid picture and the joy of the two friends being back together again.

Lizzy Stewart is best known for her three children’s books, her works in other books and zines, as well as her work a lecturer at Goldsmith College, London. Her experience with children’s books helps capture the spirit and mood of the friends’ earlier stories in It’s Not What You Thought it Would Be, diving deep into their relationship by the use of art, language, and medium. The earlier vignettes are in swatches of charcoal, much as a child who is learning to draw would use. Her use of crayon in later vignettes also strengthens her commitment to the mood of growing up, sometimes painful but often very joyous. 

In the the vignette, “Heavy Air,”  one of the best friends, with the help of her brother and neighborhood friends, puts together a house for a sick fox. In those moments, which as adults we would very likely dismiss, the friends experience the satisfaction of creating something beautiful and magical. The simplicity of the joy of nothingness is taken up again in the vignette, “The Dog Walk,” where we find our intrepid friends bemoaning the boredom of their day. When one gets the idea to climb up to the roof of one of their school buildings, followed by the other, they find that, while only their position has changed, their views of the world around them has expanded. They talk about life and how they think they are perceived by their classmates, which is cemented when a boy named Dan joins them. The mood is broken when Dan leaves and returns with a gang of other boys who want in on the magic of the roof. The friends are dismayed by the turn of events and leave, only to find that the magic they thought they gained and lost was in them all along. 

The book is rated 18+ but that rating seems a bit steep. Teens may find some joy and value in the unfolding story of two very best friends and how their lives intertwine and release over the years. It is not something that one of them did, rather it is the pains of growing up and moving on. This lesson can be felt even by those well into adulthood. Growing up may be painful, but it can be filled with joy and love with your very best friend who will always be with you.

It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be
By Lizzy Stewart
Fantagraphics, 2021
ISBN: 9781683964353

Publisher Age Rating: 18+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation:  British

Celestia

Celestia is an urban island of picturesque canals and carnival-masked gangsters that’s been cut off from a post-apocalyptic world. Years before, Celestia escaped the “Great Invasion,” a catastrophe whose contours parallel modern anxieties of climate apocalypse, but could stand in for any global upheaval.

Celestia follows Pierrot, an outcast trickster who takes his name and aesthetic from the tragic clown of commedia dell’arte, and Nora, a fellow runaway. The pair are being pursued by telepaths hoping to reshape Celestia by cultivating their powers. Together, Pierrot and Nora flee the island and set off on a journey of discovery through the wider world that Celestia has left behind. Pierrot and Nora are telepaths themselves, but their powers have only resulted in trauma and terror. Now, a series of uncanny encounters help to break down the psychological barriers they’ve erected around themselves, opening them to the possibility of human connection.

Funny, disturbing, and heartfelt, Celestia is, above all else, trippy as heck. This book reminded me of films by cult science fiction directors such as Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Terry Gilliam, which combine a weird aesthetic with impressionistic storytelling and leave you with the feeling that you’ve wandered into someone else’s dream.

With bold lines, painterly art, and panels that possess an epic, filmic quality, this book is a pleasure to read. Every page is gorgeous with light and color, giving the artwork a depth of emotion that I’ve rarely seen equaled in comics. The strong artwork grounds the evasive, unsettling text, whose story leaves us with nearly as many questions as it supplies answers.

Celestia’s tight focus on Pierrot’s psychological journey is accompanied by a purposeful lack of attention to story and supporting cast. We meet brutish criminals, creepy telepaths, and sexy ladies, characters who add atmosphere to the story, but no real substance. Conflicts are vague and resolved with a dreamlike logic. For the most part, I didn’t mind this approach to storytelling, but there are moments when the narrative’s lack of verisimilitude grates. A scene where Nora is attacked by a brothel worker is probably intended to depict Celestia as a place devoid of sexual intimacy, but comes off as a lazy caricature of sex workers as hypersexual deviants.

Celestia is necessarily a niche book, not to every reader’s taste, but sure to find an audience among fans of weird comics such as Fabien Vehlmann’s Beautiful Darkness and Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez’ Love and Rockets. Depictions of sex and nudity make it best for an adult audience.

Celestia
By Manuele Fior
Fantagraphics, 2021
ISBN: 9781683964384

Publisher Age Rating: 18

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation:  Italian

The Thud

After his mother suffers a stroke, Noel leaves Berlin to live in a somewhat isolated town in a rural area in Germany. As he gets to know his housemates and quirky neighbors he starts to ease into his new life. The book is made up of short episodes and, while there are continuing plotlines, it’s mostly a slice of life story. What sets it apart is that Noel is neurodivergent, as are most of the citizens at Neuerkerode, an inclusive village that houses 800 people with developmental and intellectual disabilities and over 500 staff members. Mikaël Ross accepted the opportunity to produce a graphic novel honoring the real life 150 year history of Neuerkerode’s mission, spending lengthy visits learning about the village and its citizens. This edition by Fantagraphics has been translated from German by Nika Knight. 

The Thud is told from Noel’s perspective, occasionally with brief narration by him. There are no labels or diagnoses talked about when it comes to Noel and the other citizens. Even the phrases “developmental disabilities” and “intellectual disabilities” only ever appear on the inside of the book jacket. The characters are presented entirely through their interactions and behavior. It’s not always clear who are citizens and who are staff (I’m still not sure about the man in the police rain jacket), speaking directly to the inclusive intentions of the village. The diversity of the citizens encompasses many types of physical and mental ability. In the beginning, Noel is seen needing his mother’s guidance in social situations and his movement into care at Neuerkode is murky. Valentin, one of Noel’s housemates, has a fascination and encyclopedic knowledge of dates—births and deaths of everyone from Princess Di to his beloved cat Fluffy IV, and an intense need to stick to schedules. Alice, who pops up a lot, is shown having a seizure at one point, bringing back Noel’s trauma from hearing his mother fall to the ground in the start of the story. One of the highlights of the type of care offered by the village is supposed to be social freedom, which is the central element to the episodes in the book. The staff mostly intervenes when injuries happen from out of control actions or the citizens find themselves too far afield. 

The characters and antics in The Thud are charming and engaging. Noel looks for love and rock and roll (the real Neuerkode is currently home to three bands). He contemplates what it means for something to die and to lose someone. There’s not a lot of depth in many of the side characters, just comments or short conversations. In an article for Der Tagesspiegal, Ross talks about how probing interviews with citizens didn’t get him very far in his research stage, but hanging around the public areas did, as they would come up to him and offer up far more. Reading the book feels like people watching. This is a limitation on its depiction of the citizens in that it feels respectful and realistic, but remains on the surface. At the same time, Ross doesn’t impose the many problematic tropes that often exist in fiction about neurodiverse characters by neurotypical writers. The lack of labels and diagnoses works to present the characters as people rather than examples; it never feels as though Ross is saying “this is what a person with autism is like,” preserving the actual diversity of neurodiversity.

There’s positivity and community exhibited in the book, but Ross doesn’t engage with any of the controversies surrounding communities that separate people from the rest of society. The whirlwind of Noel’s move from Berlin to Neuerkode does retain the confusion and fear that comes from having a major life decision carried out without your input, but Ross doesn’t editorialize further than that. Working for the foundation that supports Neuerkode doesn’t stop him from shining a brief light on a dark chapter when Noel speaks with an older citizen. Irma tells him the story of the Nazis who were placed in charge of the village and hiding from them when they came to take the inhabitants to their deaths. 

The art and style are emotionally intense. The sketchy art blends realistic features and cartoonish expressions. It is very European, but not in a way that is inaccessible to an American audience. The colored pencil palette is dramatic, keyed to characters’ reactions as well as moody environments. A standout is the scene in the disco where a dense mottled rainbow of thick distinct lines provide the sonic and socially charged backdrop for Noel and his crush. The draftsmanship of many of the establishing backgrounds makes me wonder about the documentary angle of the book—would I recognize them if I were to visit Neuerkode? Aside from a handful of expertly employed splash pages, the panel structure is simple and straightforward. Ross uses speech bubbles to punch up the dialog, jagged lines and irregular outlines conveying the volume and energy of the speaker. This physicality of the dialog really helps bring the characters to life. 

A Junior Library Guild selection, Fantagraphics bills The Thud as a YA graphic novel. There’s a stylized naked statue of a woman and a hilarious episode where Noel and Valentin are introduced to a pornographic DVD (the cover is shown featuring a topless woman) with the tv off panel, otherwise no nudity or sex. The general plotline of just trying to get along with the bunch of people you’ve found yourself surrounded by will speak to teens and adults, too. I recommend this for all collections that serve adults and teens. Neurodiverse readers may recognize aspects of themselves in the characters and neurotypical readers may experience some empathic breaking down of expectations of people they perceive as different.

The Thud
By Mikael Ross
Fantagraphics, 2021
ISBN: 9781683964063

Publisher Age Rating: age 13-18

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation:  German
Character Representation: Neurodivergent

The Grande Odalisque

The Grande Odalisque opens with Carole and Alex mid-heist, busy stealing a painting from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris under the cover of night. What seems like a familiar story of elegant thieves takes a turn right away when Alex loses focus as her boyfriend breaks up with her via text message, missing her cue, and Carole has to fight off security guards and a guard dog. Still, after they pull it off, the women are offered a bigger job from their armless underworld contact Durieux, stealing a painting from the Louvre. Thus begins the  adventure that will consume the rest of the book as it bounces around the globe.

Carole brings more talent on to the team in the way of Sam, a motorcycle-driving “ChessBoxing” champion (it’s exactly what it sounds like, a combination of chess and boxing) who lost her girlfriend in a car crash the year before. The last fact is really just mentioned to soften Alex up to Sam joining the team, as Alex doesn’t think they need help. The group also enlists the aid of Clarence, son of the French ambassador to Mexico who is an arms dealer and drug smuggler. He will ultimately help them with their plan to steal “The Grande Odalisque” by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, but not before he gets himself kidnapped in Mexico by drug cartel that has a price on his head and the women having to save him.

Award winning French author/illustrator duo Jérôme Mulot and Florent Ruppert team up with Bastien Vivès (an Angouleme prize winner himself) for this book, splitting writing and illustrating credit equally between them. The artistic style in this book is one that relies on disjointed pencil lines and a watercolor softened approach. It’s sparse in details, and faces are very loosely constructed; so while it is clearly an artistic choice, it doesn’t always aid the storytelling. There are some reality-bending moments that you’d expect from something like a Fast and Furious movie where suddenly the laws of physics don’t matter and logic is tossed out the window. This book aspires to be a sexy, fast-paced thrilling adventure, but it doesn’t always stick the landing.

The storytelling comes in waves as some pages are wordless and others drive exposition right at you. For as light and witty as parts of this book try to be, there is plenty of violence from start to finish and some rather somber moments throughout. This isn’t a realistic book by any stretch, but there are some absolute leaps in logic that pulled me out of the story. If the art was more detailed, I think the authors may have had an easier time convincing me to follow the story. This book felt like it was straddling a line poorly as it aspired to be a high-impact, blockbuster crime story, but wrapped in the trappings of a low budget, independent art project about relationships. Those two things felt completely at odds throughout the reading.

Fantagraphics has previously published work by Mulot and Ruppert and has a back catalog of translated foreign titles. They aren’t afraid to take a big swing when it comes to publishing books that are underground or risqué. This book isn’t necessarily pushing the boundaries of taste (even if there is mild nudity and some coarse language), but has an unsettled feeling to it. The women feel like they are being written by men and without much nuance. Characters’ motivations are convenient for the story if they exist at all.

Libraries considering adding this title should keep it with their adult graphic novels or 18+ section. If you don’t have a big community of readers asking for European comics, it is okay to pass on this one.

The Grande Odalisque
By Jérôme Mulot, Florent Ruppert, Bastien Vivès
Fantagraphics, 2020
ISBN: 9781683964025

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation:  French
Character Representation: Bisexual, Lesbian,