The History of Science Fiction

Setting up the history of any subject as a novel carries various risks with it. Will the reader looking for history be turned off by the storytelling? Will those looking for a good narrative be disappointed by the way facts shape the story? Depicting this history in comic form adds to the difficulty. But maybe, just maybe, comics will make the material more accessible to people who wouldn’t read a history of science fiction in the first place. That is certainly the hope and desire of Xavier Dollo and Djibril Morissette-Phan as they try to tell The History of Science Fiction as a graphic novel.

The authors tell the story of science fiction in three parts. The overall story conceit is that in the future a few famous robots happen upon a museum of speculative fiction in all its forms and the museum host relays to them how science fiction developed as a genre up through the 19th century. This origin tale is the first section of this book and it is the best part. Each literary reference has its own picture that depicts either the author’s struggle or an image from the work, from Cyrano de Bergerac to Frankenstein to Conan the Barbarian. From there, Jules Verne and HG Wells get many pages devoted to their contributions as the images from their texts come to life in Morissette-Phan’s drawings. Edgar Rice Burroughs and HP Lovecraft follow suit. Other authors and the development of pulp magazines drive speculative storytelling ahead while the term “science fiction” is coined in 1929 by Hugo Gernsback. The reader gets a real feel for the creativity and ingenuity on display in early science fiction writing through the first part of this book.

It is at this point that we enter the golden age of science fiction and this history takes a troublesome turn. The robot narrators are nowhere to be seen. Instead, a conversation between famous authors like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Theodore Sturgeon, among others, begins. We see these authors as young men and then as elder statesmen of the genre talking around a dinner table. Gone are the comics depicting their stories. For the most part, we see comics of men talking about science fiction.

Once the golden age wraps up, we go back to our robot narrators and the “crossroads of sci-fi” in the final section of the book. From here, we get one long list of important sci-fi writers including a few women, but far too few POC or Black writers. A Tardis shows up to transport a new set of authors around as they talk about modern and British sci-fi before we land back with the robots for a quick wrap up.

While the history is interesting for a fan of the genre, and I discovered many stories that I would like to read (“Who Goes There” and “To Serve Man” among them), the authors give up the great advantage that sequential art affords them. The first third of this book effectively depicts what happens in a variety of stories with vibrant pictures and action. The author and artist know they could draw all the amazing images from the books, but they abandoned this style for an endless stream of talking heads in parts 2 and 3. All but one of the talking heads are white men, which only serves to highlight how badly this genre needed to change. The fact that they chose to mostly ignore the great advances women and people of color have made in science fiction recently is perplexing (N.K. Jemisin is barely mentioned). The artist does depict the various historical figures accurately and the color palette regularly changes which helps the pacing of the narrative.

Public libraries with adult graphic novel collections, particularly ones with a lot of nonfiction, will want to purchase this title as it is informative, despite its flaws. College libraries might take a look at it, too. That being said, I can’t help but think that an opportunity was squandered here.

The History of Science Fiction
By Xavier Dollo
Art by Djibril Morissette-Phan
Humanoids, 2021
ISBN: 9781643379142

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)

Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula

LugosiMost biographies, though classified as nonfiction, still have a narrative. Going beyond simply listing facts in chronological order, biographies will portray their subjects as protagonists in their own stories, having readers cheer for them as they overcome adversity or dread watching them succumb to the tragic flaws in their character. As promised by the title, Koren Shadmi’s Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula beautifully shows both the highs and lows of Lugosi’s life.

Shadmi begins his story with an older Lugosi checking himself into a clinic to treat his drug addiction. In the throes of withdrawal, Lugosi recalls his childhood in Hungary and how his ambition to be an actor was a disappointment to his family. After making his way to America while speaking little English, he eventually lands the part of the captivating vampire Count Dracula, first in the stage production and then in the movie. His portrayal of Dracula not only shapes the image of vampires for the American movie audience, but the role catapults him into the public consciousness. However, Dracula’s cape creates a long shadow that Lugosi could not escape. And soon, the money would run out, the women in his life would come and go, and he would align himself with the man many call the worst director of all time, Ed Wood. Lugosi died still trying to pursue a comeback that was always out of his reach.

Shadmi’s portrayal of Lugosi reveals a deeply flawed but very charismatic person. Readers can see, through Shadmi’s dialogue and how he develops Lugosi as a character, why the actor was so well regarded in his performance as Dracula. This creates a likability in Lugosi even as readers observe his self-destructive behavior, from his addiction to morphine and methadone, to how he treated the many women in his life, to how he mismanaged his own finances. There are even some shocking scenes of drug use showing the tight grip Lugosi’s addiction had on him, but it does so in a way that highlights the very unglamorous side of drug addiction. Overall, Shadmi has depicted Lugosi as someone the reader will root for: a man determined to get back the fame he once had and to extricate himself from his addictions, even as door after door in Hollywood is slammed in his face.

The art style that Shadmi uses is black and white, much like the movies Lugosi is famous for, while making the characters seem vibrant and expressive. Shadmi’s skill for drawing faces means that readers will easily be able to tell the difference between Lugosi as a boy, a man, and an old man. Through Shadmi’s artwork, readers will also recognize many other famous faces Lugosi interacted with, including Boris Karloff, known to classic horror fans as the actor that brought Frankenstein’s monster to life and in many ways Lugosi’s rival. Shadmi is also not afraid to get surreal when, during Lugosi’s withdrawal, hallucinations of the people in his life appear to confront the actor with his failures. Shadmi also gives an understated but powerful visual representation of Lugosi indulging in his drug of choice.

Those librarians looking for something different for their biographies section should look at Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula. Even some teen librarians should check out this title because it serves as an excellent anti-drug message, as well as telling a sweet yet tragic tale. It stands out not just because it’s a graphic novel, but through images, dialogue, and a flawed-but-sympathetic protagonist, Shadmi creates a bittersweet tale of what happens when someone gets a taste of fame early in their career and spends the rest of their life trying to recapture it.

Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula
By Koren Shadmi
Humanoids, 2021
ISBN: 9781643376615

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

Shy Ninja

What if going to school, making new friends, and even just the idea of having to participate in a group activity made you feel so awful you wanted to disappear? What if it was much more comfortable to talk to the one friend you do have through a screen and not in person? 

Eleven year-old Rena Villanueva, who has social anxiety disorder, knows exactly what that feels like. She’d much rather hang out in her room playing video games and chatting online with her best friend, Sidney. But her mom and her therapist have other ideas (and the ultimatums to go with them), which is how she ends up a real student at the totally fake-sounding Watsonville Ninja School, suddenly the center of an ancient prophecy.

As she trains to become “The Ghost” with ninja master Dysart and her mom spends all her time creating a super advanced AI, Rena learns that things aren’t always what they seem, and that maybe she’s capable of more than she thinks.

Another girl capable of more than she thinks is Adara Sanchez, creator of Shy Ninja and teenage daughter of writer Ricardo Sanchez. In the graphic novel’s forward, readers will enjoy learning about how the original idea for the story came from a young teen riding in the back of her dad’s car on the way to San Diego Comic Con. Even better? The fact that none of Ricardo’s ideas were good enough for the editors he pitched them to, but Adara’s was (and yes, he immediately gave her credit after pitching it). It’s a sweet account of a father and daughter team working together to take a graphic novel from idea to page.

The Sanchez duo’s portrayal of Rena’s desire to stay in her safe bubble of video games and minimal social interactions where she can be her regular energetic, engaging self feels realistic and genuine, and the discomfort she feels when pressed by her therapist to push herself outside those boundaries feels truthful to the behavioral therapy experience, especially in treatment of anxiety disorders. Additionally, the juxtaposition between her friend Sidney’s unspecified physical medical condition that forces him to stay inside alone in an actual bubble and Rena’s wish to do the same for her mental health presents conflict between the two BFFs in a “grass is greener” way that will be relatable to kids and tweens dealing with their own mental health struggles.

On the topic of representation, for a story with some focus on ninja lore there seems to be very little Japanese representation outside of the historical stories Rena learns about. But there is some racial diversity in our central characters, as best friend Sidney is Black, and Rena herself is coded as Latinx, given her last name and her tan skin. 

And of course, Shy Ninja wouldn’t be the same without Arianna Florean’s vividly colored illustrations bringing an animated feel, absolutely perfect for showcasing the fast-paced action of Rena’s ninjutsu skills and daring missions. Florean’s emphasis on lively, exaggerated facial expressions add to the cartoony vibe, inviting readers to dive into a book that’s just a blast to look at as well as read.

It’s refreshing to see an uptick in middle grade content with mental illness representation as of late, and Shy Ninja does it well, creatively combining realism with chosen one prophecy tropes and adventure in its portrayal of social anxiety disorder. It would be a welcome addition to any library’s middle grade/tween collection, especially where slice of life stories featuring unsuspecting girls who are ready to maybe kick a little butt are popular.

Shy Ninja Vol.
By Adara Sanchez, Ricardo Sanchez,  ,
Art by  Arianna Florean
Humanoids Big, 2021
ISBN: 9781643378633

Publisher Age Rating: 8+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Creator Representation:  Latinx
Character Representation: Latinx,  Anxiety

Young Leonardo

Young Leonardo depicts the life of artist and thinker Leonardo da Vinci during his childhood, prior to beginning his formal art study under Andrea del Verrocchio. The plot is episodic, moving through a series of short vignettes of experiences in the young artist’s life.

While it may be impossible to document da Vinci’s childhood years with total certainty, the episodes are based on information from his many notebooks. Quotations from the artist are interspersed throughout the book. Through the series of lighthearted comics, we see Leonardo’s beginnings in art, as well as his curiosity about the world around him which manifested in inventions, scientific discoveries, and constant observation. Other character traits are also highlighted, such as da Vinci’s habit of working on many projects at once, often abandoning one to start another, and his style of drawing subjects realistically at a time when most patrons of the arts expected to be shown in a more flattering light. 

Young Leonardo does an excellent job showing the human side of the legendary artist. We see him deal with teasing and trouble fitting in from the neighborhood kids, at the same time dishing out some teasing of his own to his family members. His Nonna seems especially harried by Leonardo’s antics. While joking and playing like an ordinary child, Leonardo is forever engaged in lofty ambitions such as the pursuit of flight. Several of the vignettes show him testing a variety of wings he has constructed. Several comics show his other scholarly interests such as architecture and anatomy. 

The full-color artwork consists mainly of a traditional panel structure with between nine to twelve cells per page. Some pages lack borders around cells, and a few vignettes are wordless. Characters are drawn in a cartoonish style, only given four fingers per hand for example. However, astute readers will recognize the realism Augel brings to the book. Drawings from Leonardo da Vinci’s actual notebooks are woven into the story and appear throughout the book. Characters are included who match portraits sketched by da Vinci, and the entire da Vinci family is introduced in a pose reminiscent of The Last Supper. Most of the vignettes are comical with some tongue-in-cheek references along the way. One page sees Leonardo painting the borders around the cells, yet failing to finish them, a reference to the many projects he abandoned throughout his career. 

Endmatter includes biographical information which illuminates the main text, as well as activities the reader can try in order to practice one of da Vinci’s experiments, a vocabulary quiz, and a matching game. A teaching guide follows which includes additional background information, common core connections, and ideas for using the book within a classroom setting. There is much young readers can learn from the life of Leonardo da Vinci, and Young Leonardo presents these lessons well. Leonardo is a character who shows perseverance and grit, While he does abandon some projects, he never stops inventing and trying new ideas. He continues his pursuit of human flight despite setbacks. Even when others mock or question him, he continues to seek knowledge and to create. This book is a great tool for classroom instruction, and an enjoyable title for readers interested in history.

Young Leonardo
By William Augel
Art by  William Augel
Big, an imprint of Humanoids, 2020
ISBN: 9781643376417

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation: French,

Little Josephine: Memory in Pieces

In this touching and heartbreaking account of the effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease on both those who are living through it and those who are caring for them, readers will be moved to tears experiencing the life of Josephine and her visiting nurse and author Valérie Villieu. With beautiful and haunting illustrations by Raphaël Sarfati, and a translation from the French by Nanette McGuinness, this story of one woman’s quest to make a difference in a patient’s life will stick with readers long past the last page.

When Valérie first meets Josephine in her apartment in France, she finds a woman who is undergoing a major life transition, dealing with dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. Josephine is receiving care that is not supportive or encouraging during this time of intense and painful change. She often goes days without bathing, meals, or meaningful human interaction, and this has caused a rift in her ability to care for or even recognize herself as days turn into weeks, months, and years. Valérie must spend much time building a relationship with Josephine before she truly trusts her, but once the trust is established, their relationship and friendship represents a great change in Josephine’s life.

Valérie successfully finds Josephine a full-time caregiver who cares for her deeply, and her eating and bathing habits improve. Valérie and her partner work hard with the conservator to ensure that Josephine has money to buy clothing, food, and most importantly, a replacement for her glasses that had been broken for many months. As the book progresses through the years, readers see Josephine through Valérie’s eyes as she notices a slight and then more sudden decline into the disease. After a moment of fear when Josephine has disappeared, the decline happens much more rapidly until Josephine is placed in a facility that has the means to care for her full-time with constant supervision. Slowly, Valérie loses track of Josephine’s whereabouts until Josephine’s nephew calls with sad and surprising news.

This beautifully and creatively illustrated graphic novel shows Josephine and her disease in a way that is understandable and approachable. The pastel palette of watercolor pages contains a variety of different ways of telling Josephine’s story through art. A mixture of blank panels and full-page spreads mixed with photographs and brain images all lend themselves to the often turbulent and painful mix of emotions that Alzheimer’s can bring to both affected people and those who care for them. Raphaël’s illustrations bring life to all of the characters in Josephine’s circle of existence with Valérie providing commentary, context, and emotion to her explanation of the people, places, and things that factor into Josephine’s later years.

Little Josephine: Memory in Pieces is a rare book that brings readers along both Valérie and Josephine’s journeys into the next stages of their lives. The caring and wonderful relationship that Valérie built with Josephine is something to be revered and admired; this story gives it all the justice it deserves. Raphaël’s illustrations only make the story that much better by providing a sense of love and understanding through the thoughtful and warm illustrations throughout the book. This is a book that will touch readers and make everyone think about the elders in their lives and the state of elder care throughout the world.

Little Josephine: Memory in Pieces
By Valérie Villieu
Art by Raphaël Sarfati
Translation from the French by Nanette McGuinness
ISBN: 9781643375342
Humanoids, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 17+

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

Omni, Volume One

Doctor Cecelia Cobbina can process thoughts faster than the rest of us. After developing this power during an intense standoff with armed men while working in the Congo for Doctors Without Borders, Cecelia will analyse a situation and develop plans in a split second. She is the ultimate problem solver. So she commits to using this power to help others.

And there are ample opportunities for her to help. People are developing powers after being ‘ignited’. Some use these powers for good and others are lashing out with them. Cecelia travels around the country with her friend Mae looking for others who have been ‘ignited’. While Mae sees this as adventuring, Cecelia views what they do as a medical procedural. She knows something is wrong with their world and believes it is happening on a global scale. Once she understands it, she can help correct the problem.

Omni flirts with being a superhero book, but takes pains to say that it isn’t. Cecelia tells her partner there will be no capes and that she’s not that heroic. Eventually, they connect with a secretive group known as OMNI, who will provide much needed resources to help Cecelia continue her research. There is clearly much Cecelia needs to learn about OMNI as well.

The unique catch about Cecilia’s powers is that they are founded on Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. For those unfamiliar, this theory posits that people have nine different intelligences. Cecelia is attuned to all of them. This translates to the comic page by showing her thoughts in multiple colors that correspond to Gardner’s theories, for example: red text boxes are related to bodily-kinesthetic analysis while orange text boxes relate to verbal-linguistic analysis and so on. On the page, these text boxes of various colors are visually appealing and confusing. The reader is constantly trying to remember which color corresponds with which intelligence. Yet it makes more sense the longer you read the book.

Cecelia is an interesting main character. She comes across as the smartest person in the room much like Tony Stark or Reed Richards, yet being an African American woman injects more realism into the plot than you would have in a traditional superhero tale. When she is confronted with a police standoff, one of her intelligences cites statistics on police brutality concerning Black men and women and it informs her actions. The story relies heavily on her intellect and ability to reason with others to get them out of tough situations. If only reasoned speech was as effective in real life as it is depicted in this comic, our world would be a better place.

The artwork by Alitha Martinez tells the story effectively and is very reminiscent of a lot of art from 90s and early 2000 comic books. It is not as detailed as more high profile comic books being published these days, but it does what it needs to do.

Omni would be a good purchase for teen or adult graphic novel collections. It’s an early book from a new universe created by Mark Waid for Humanoids, which usually publishes European comics. It’s got a Black, queer main character, an experienced writer and a Black artist attached. Future stories have a Black writer stepping in to write as well. It deserves to have time to find an audience. I’m concerned that the multiple intelligences angle may drag down the storytelling in the long term as it will have to be explained frequently, but it is definitely a unique plot point and an arresting visual.

Omni, Volume One
By Devin Grayson
Art by Alitha E. Martinez
ISBN: 9781643376196
Humaniods, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: (Teen 13+)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Black Lesbian
Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator

The Sunken Tower

Some days really do go from bad to worse. When Digby, a young kid living on his own after the death of his mom, wakes to find crows have torn apart his bag and eaten the last of his food, he sets off to forage some sustenance however he can. Little does he expect that he’ll be captured in the process, imprisoned deep underground, and forced to fight for his life alongside two fellow captives to free himself and his new friends from a worm-worshiping death cult!

Set in a fantasy kingdom inflected with medieval aesthetics and populated by diverse kinds of people—talking worms, humanoids, Frankenstein’s monster-types with bolts for ears, and everything in between—The Sunken Tower jumps into action right away. When Digby, depicted with sallow skin, grayish hair, and carrying a precious book of spells given to him by his mother, is captured by the red-cloaked members of the Blood Death Cult and separated from his book, all hope seems lost. Thankfully, it’s not long before he meets the inhabitants of the next cell over: the powerfully strong and jovial Iana and her partner Crina, who is petite, quick-witted, and entirely depicted in shades of pink and purple. Working together, the three use Iana’s strength, Crina’s planning skills, and Digby’s magical ability to escape the Blood Death Cult, whose members are a nice balance of goofy, scary, and gross.

With its speedy plot and expressive, richly-hued illustrations full of interesting creatures, this fast-paced story is perfect for elementary-aged readers who enjoyed Zita the Spacegirl or the Amulet series. The death cult members who serve as the story’s antagonists are pleasantly disgusting, but rendered not-too-scary through a well-deployed sense of humor, and the ultimate triumph of the friends is certainly satisfying for young readers hungry to see good taking down evil. The inclusion of queer couple Iana and Crina is gracefully done, and the way the two generously take Digby under their wing is a subtle but sweet look at chosen family.

A quick and pleasurable read for graphic novel devotees that could also easily hook in more reluctant readers with its combination of humor and fast-moving plot, The Sunken Tower is one worth adding to all collections.

The Sunken Tower
By Tait Howard
ISBN: 9781620106877
Oni Press, Inc, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Character Traits: Queer

Luisa: Now and Then

If given the chance, what would you say to your future self? Or your past self? Would teenage you be happy with what adult you has accomplished? In Luisa: Now and Then, originally by French artist Carole Maurel, and translated by Nanette McGuinness and adapted by Mariko Tamaki, these hypothetical questions become real life for Luisa Arambol.

One evening in the 1990s, 15-year-old Luisa falls asleep while on her way home, only to wake up and find herself in 2013. She has the wrong money, doesn’t know how to get home, and has no idea how she ended up in Paris instead of her small French suburb.

With the help of a kind woman named Sasha, Luisa tries to figure out what has happened. As she regroups in Sasha’s apartment, it is discovered that another Luisa Arambol happens to live next door. Slowly, the two Luisas realize they are actually the same person, just decades apart.

With a touch of magical realism, Luisa: Now and Then explores real life issues and dilemmas including identity, sexuality, and friendship. Both Luisas are struggling with the same things, mostly their sexuality and their relationship with family. They also believe they have everything figured out, when actually they have only figured out how to repress their feelings and desires.

A weird thing happens as they spend time together, though. Gradually, each starts to act like the other Luisa. Older Luisa starts to be immature, energetic, and dramatic. Young Luisa is calm, rational, and easy-going. Add in Sasha and the feelings both Luisas have towards her and things start to get complicated. It’s an interesting take on an old trope. Maurel’s illustrations are beautiful. Her use of color particularly enhances the story. Flashbacks to the 1990s are in a slight sepia tones and whenever the Luisas touch, splashes of maroon and orange explode on the page. It’s unique, but effective.

The heart of the story is Luisa, both versions, finding herself. She has a romantic moment with another girl as a teenager and you can tell that she has been running from that the rest of her life. We get to watch as Luisa stands up to her mom and admits who she is—a person who can fall in love with other women. She’s messy and confused, but lovable and relatable. It’s a story of self-discovery and self-acceptance all wrapped in a colorful, enjoyable graphic novel.

Luisa: Now and Then was published by Life Drawn, which is a new imprint from the European publisher Humanoids. Life Drawn focuses on personal stories instead of Humanoids’ usual sci-fi and fantasy. With wide crossover appeal, Luisa’s story will be enjoyed by teens and adults alike.

Luisa: Now and Then
by Carole Maurel, Mariko Tamaki
Art by Carole Maurel
ISBN: 9781594656439
Humanoids – Life Drawn, 2018