In the first book of this series, Canto: If I Only Had a Heart, we learn Canto’s people are enslaved and their hearts are removed and replaced with clocks. They are not allowed to have names or love one another, but Canto has a name and he was given it by a girl who loved him. She tries to step between Canto and their slavers who beat her near death. Canto tries to offer his clock heart to save her, but the elder of their people cannot save her. The elder finally relents and tells Canto that the only way to save her is to trust a legend that says if her heart can be recovered it will replace the clock and she’ll live again. Canto’s story begins in earnest at this point and he sets out on an adventure the likes of which his people have never seen.
His people aren’t the only ones who have been subjugated in this world and Canto finds himself face to face with the person who controls all, the Shrouded Man. His plan is to free everyone from the shackles of hope and dreams. His story once ended in heartbreak and he won’t allow that to happen to the rest of the world. This is his twisted plan and Canto refuses to believe this is their fate. In the next two books, The Hollow Men and Lionhearted, Canto will make new friends, fight new enemies, face dangers untold and keep searching for a way to truly free his people. He’ll learn how closely his own life and fate are tied to the Shrouded Man and discover how truly large the world around them is.
Canto: Tales of the Unnamed World collects the stories Canto & the City of Giants and Canto: Tales of the Unnamed World and fills in the gaps between Canto II: The Hollow Men and Canto III: Lionhearted. The stories contained in this volume are great additions to the larger world Canto and his friends inhabit, but it needs to be noted that this is more a waypoint than another chapter. In this volume, Canto and his good friends Ritka and Falco find themselves heading towards the city of giants, Dis, to enlist their help fighting the Shrouded Man. The have captured a Misturian Witch and, like so many things in this world, she is more than they understand. In the second part of the book we see Canto, Ritka, and Falco on their way home to New Arcana when they find a mysterious bridge that wasn’t there on their way to Dis. Their way is blocked by the Bard, a Cheshire cat in motley, who demands from each of them a story he has never heard before. Canto eventually realizes this is Ragno, the trickster who had a run in with the Shrouded Man when he was merely a boy. The stories they tell him are written or illustrated by guest creators and while it’s a break from the main plot it is a fun and intriguing way to further fill out their world and lore.
The influence of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz can be felt throughout these books and movies like The Dark Crystal or The Neverending Story have also left an impression here. These stories are hopeful, fantastical, and at times hint at darkness. It’s not always easy or light, but the heroes push forward and have goodness at their core. For tiny tin knights, they have big personality and—pun intended—plenty of heart.
The art by Drew Zucker and guest artists also reflects these influences, as well as books like Elf Quest and Wynd. It isn’t overtly realistic, as it’s a very stylized world, but it will feel familiar. There are beasts of unusual anatomy, elves and giants aplenty, and an actual yellow brick road they travel. The color palette shifts with location to help give a sense of environment, at times dark and foreboding, at others bright and hopeful. It remains accessible to the intended audience while also presenting more challenging and dynamic layout than some comics for younger readers achieve. This helps drive the story forward and keeps the reader turning pages as the action escalates. The overall approach to the art really does present a good step-up for readers just getting into teen comics and getting ready for complex graphic storytelling.
For libraries looking for teen fantasy stories, these are well written and the world is fully realized. I would argue that advanced middle grade readers would enjoy these as a first step in what is categorized as Teen reading. I think the context and vocabulary of these stories are more preventative for younger readers than the content. There is no bad language here and, as it’s a fantasy world, the violence is usually in the name of self-defense and towards magical or fantastical/clockwork beasts. In terms of audience appeal, I haven’t read many graphic novels that leave the door as wide open for so many ages and interests. I realize this endorsement is asking you to buy four books altogether, but it is a great series that I think will find a lot of fans if given the chance.
Canto, vol 1: If I Only Had a Heart By David M. Booher Art by Drew Zucker IDW, 2020 ISBN: 9781684056217
Canto, vol 2: The Hollow Men By David M. Booher Art by Drew Zucker IDW, 2021 ISBN: 9781684058006
Canto: Tales of the Unnamed World By David M. Booher Art by Drew Zucker, Sebastian Piriz IDW, 2023 ISBN: 9781684059362
Canto, vol 3: Lionhearted By David M. Booher Art by Drew Zucker IDW, 2022 ISBN: 9781684058983
Publisher Age Rating: Teen NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)
It’s the end of one world and the start of a new one—and what do you know? The rich are still exploiting people.
In Arca from IDW Publishing, climate change and calamity have driven the remnant of humanity from Earth. Aboard a ship known as the Arca, the survivors have set sail across the universe for a planet they call Eden where they will begin again. On the ship, humanity exists in three classes. Citizens are the rich and famous who enjoy lives of luxury. Helpers are the security personnel who ensure that life continues without disruption. And finally, we have the settlers. All settlers are under 18 years of age, a lower class who offer their lives to the day-to-day work of keeping the Arca running. They live in gratitude to the citizens who provide them with all they have and look forward to graduating at the age of 18 when they will leave behind their lives of service and relocate to a different part of the ship in anticipation of the eventual paradise they will discover on Eden.
Is it any surprise that not all is as it seems? When Effie, a young woman approaching her graduation, begins to ask questions, it sets off a chain reaction that will upset life on the Arca forever. Where are all those who have graduated in the past? How long has the Arca been traveling and when do they expect to arrive. Why does it feel as though every citizen is keeping secrets from Effie and her friends? Effie knows that there is something out there to be discovered, but even she cannot fathom just how much has been hidden from her—or how much it may cost to uncover the truth.
I’ll be honest, I was excited to read this one because I love a good sci-fi dystopian adventure. In the end, what I found in Arca was all very familiar. Writer Van Jensen takes on the always ambitious goal of creating an entire futuristic world in a matter of pages. Unfortunately, what we end up with as readers is a cast of very familiar characters who largely follow the archetypes we expect to see. From the sinister leader of the Arca to the brutish security guards, from the sympathetic citizen who takes Effie under his wing to Effie herself, we know these roles, and we know how this story is going to play out. Class conflict and exploitation are topics ripe for exploration, but in the end Arca feels rushed and underdeveloped as it skims over its own logical flaws and doesn’t attempt to put a particularly new spin on a familiar premise.
Accompanied by art from Jesse Lonergan, the art (at least in the advanced copy I read) transitions partway through the volume from full color to black and white with color accents. Straddling the line between realism and stylized cartoon imagery, the art progresses with a level of simplicity that nevertheless balances the current timeline with flashbacks, conveying the complexities of a sci-fi setting while keeping the reader grounded in the story at hand. With an eye for paneling and some moments of effective visuals, Lonergan’s art keeps the story moving forward from initial world building to dramatic finale.
IDW doesn’t appear to assign an age rating to Arca, but with occasional strong language and some violence, it feels geared toward older teens and adults. Additionally, there are a couple moments where some somewhat shocking mature themes appear in the story only to return to the background. This subject matter is not given a great deal of space in the story which keeps it limited on the page while also leaving open some complex questions that might have been better served with deeper analysis. Altogether, it’s a story that will be appreciated more by an older audience able to spend some time with the implications of the story beyond what is covered between the pages.
In the end, Arca might have some appeal to older readers who haven’t encountered this sort of story before or readers desperate for any piece of dystopian sci-fi media they can get their hands on. Beyond that, the comic is largely composed of underdeveloped echoes of other creators who have already told this story in more complex and entertaining ways. It wouldn’t be a bad addition to a genre comics collection, but there are better offerings available for those who are interested in this sort of story.
Arca By Van Jensen Art by Jesse Lonergan IDW, 2023 ISBN: 9781684059980
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Celebrity endorsements and a pandemic that forced many to stay indoors has helped the tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D) achieve a kind of resurgence. While enduring in an age of Xboxes and Playstations, its current popularity boost has created a smorgasbord of D&D tie-in media, even whole universes that exist under the D&D umbrella. One such universe doesn’t even use a dragon. The Ravenloft universe of D&D has its players typically fight vampires and werewolves rather than fire-breathing dragons, but this world does provide a lot of storytelling opportunities, as demonstrated in the book D&D: Ravenloft: Orphan of Agony Isle, written by Casey Gilly and illustrated by Bailey Underwood.
The opening of this story might be very familiar to some: a dark, foreboding castle; flashes of lightning, and a creation that has just awakened. However, it is not Dr. Frankenstein who has brought his creation to life. The doctor in question is Viktra Mordenheim and what has awakened has no memory of who she was before. She chooses the name Miranda, and she mostly obeys Dr. Mordenheim’s rules, particularly that she should stay on the castle grounds and never venture outside, but Miranda is desperate to learn more about her past, even if it could cost her the new life she was given.
This book could initially be dismissed as heavily plagiarizing Frankenstein. However, the dynamic of Miranda and Viktra is just the wraparound story, and the majority of this collection features stories about other Ravenloft inhabitants encountering ghosts, sea monsters, and other creatures that stalk the night. These stories might vary in quality from one to another, but they all involve characters meeting gruesome ends, which brings to mind horror anthology films that also keep their individual terrifying tales tied together with a wraparound story.
The artwork itself is restrained, using a more spooky atmosphere rather than relying on visceral, full-on horror. The designs of the various characters even show a slight manga influence, which signals that the target audience of this book are young adults who are familiar with the world of Ravenloft and of D&D. There are characters that appear to resemble elves and halflings (or Hobbits, a term familiar with Lord of the Rings fans), meaning that Gilly and Underwood expect their audience to have at least a basic familiarity with the universe their characters occupy.
This book is definitely for a specific audience, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a niche one. There are plenty of people that, if they’re not currently playing D&D, then they remember playing the game and having fun, and there are still those who have fond memories of or wish to learn more about the Ravenloft setting. To see if this would be a good purchase for your library’s collection, look for signs in your own library. Does it have a Dungeons & Dragons group? Do you have the rulebooks and adventures for the game, and if so, how often do they check out? This book is a solid collection of creepy stories, but the entryway into them requires knowing something about the book’s dark and dreadful universe.
Dungeons & Dragons: Ravenloft: Orphan of Agony Isle By Casey Gilly Art by Bayleigh Underwood IDW, 2022 ISBN: 9781684059560
Related media: Game to Comic
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
The Girl and the Glim is a part-cute and part-grisly graphic novel about a young anxiety-ridden girl saving a small town from hidden monsters. In the first volume of this new series, the author and illustrator, India Swift, creates a world that both captures the awkward and nerve-wracking realities of starting a new middle school juxtaposed against other-worldly monsters.
The cover is a perfect description of the contents within. A cartoon illustration of a cute girl illustrated with purple highlights as she embraces a pale fluff, while a menacing tower of black spidery monsters hovers above her, ready to attack. The comic opens with Bridgette, a young girl with large eyes and a head full of hair, laying on a broken floor as a cloud of torn pictures swirls around her. Bridgette is scared about living in a new town and a new school away from her friends. She has daydreams of a strong confident girl who impresses all the other students at school, when in reality she stumbles, is awkward, and is laughed at by her classmates. Swift has created a very real character in Bridgette. Her emotions and ways of coping (or avoiding) will ring true with many readers.
The story continues in a typical new town/new school story, including moving boxes, busy parents, an empty house, and cringe-worthy encounters with other children at school. There is even an awkward meet-cute with a potential new friend in the neighborhood. Then the story begins to diverge into the paranormal.
It is a heartwarming coming of age story, about a young girl overcoming nervous anxiety in a new home with new people. However, those anxieties are manifested as monsters, and her newfound confidence comes as she fights back.
The illustrations are rich in color with strong lines and a level of detail that is common among middle-grade graphic novels and the cartoons those readers love. But this illustration style shifts when Bridgette falls down a steep hill behind the school. The color leaves the pages, and the illustrations become more chaotic, with much sharper angles and harsh black lines. A monster looms above her, well, not one monster, but a mountain of monstrous spiders with sharp teeth and spindly legs. These pages are filled with black and moments of angry red.
The power in comics comes from the marriage of illustration and text. The dynamic shift in tone through illustrations builds tension in a way that would be lost in another format. I found it to be beautifully executed in a way that adds just the right amount of horror for the young audience.
The book ends with some unanswered questions, and I am happily looking forward to the rest of the series to find out what happens. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I am confident it will be popular with upper elementary and middle school readers. Those readers navigating their own coming-of-age stories will find humor, comfort, and a thrilling story with The Girl and the Glim.
The book was originally self-published in 2017 and has been updated with additional pages in the current publication.
The Girl and the Glim, Vol. 1 By India Swift IDW, 2022 ISBN: 9781684057412
Publisher Age Rating: 9-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
There are three separate stories where monsters and humans collide in Godzilla: World of Monsters. The first story, “Gangsters & Goliaths,” written by John Leyman, follows a detective chased by the Yakuza. He was framed for killing his partner and fled to Monster Island. There he seeks the assistance of Mothra. This story is my least favorite of the bunch. I found the Detective’s motives and actions perplexing. Most of the human characters, no matter what their age, have wrinkly skin. The scenes on Monster Island are vibrant, featuring greens and orange colors. However, the sequences back in the city are in grays and browns, conveying that it’s under siege by gangsters and monsters.
I felt the complete opposite about the next story, “Cataclysm,” by Cullen Bunn. It opens up in red as if this is a city on fire and signifying the monster’s fury. This world is where the monsters have come and destroyed the world. The surviving humans believe that this is due to human sin and the monsters are punishment for it. They believe the only way to atone for their actions is to offer a human sacrifice. The human world is shown in yellow with scenes of destruction and decay. What I liked was the character development surrounding the grandfather character. He is given a back story, and we learn what “sin” the humans committed to bring about this cataclysm. The grandfather is bald on top with wisps of gray hair. In his eyes, you can see a person who wears the weariness and pain of the world on his face. This story has a satisfying ending and characters you care about. This story made the collection worth reading.
The final story, “Oblivion,” by Joshua Fialkov, tells the tale of time travelers from a parallel world who accidentally bring a monster back with them. They decide the only way to save their world is to find another monster to battle it and they may end up regretting that decision as the two monsters destroy everything in sight. The human characters wear colors like black or white, while the monsters are featured in colorful yellows and reds. The human characters aren’t drawn very realistically and look more cartoonish. There is more emphasis on the military and scientists than on everyday people. This story is very close to being one of my least favorites, as I didn’t find any of the human characters compelling. The one redeeming quality this story has is its ending, which will leave you feeling haunted about the decisions made to save humanity.
One thing across all three stories that I appreciated was the artwork and design of the monsters. As a Kaiju fan, I think they captured these creatures’ epicness, size, and scale. Their color hues make them stand out, and you can see the little details like their scales and spikes. Despite the monster artwork, the stories contained within the graphic novel are not as compelling. The stories assume that you are familiar with the monster verse and rarely name some of the classic monsters from the series. All of them make an appearance in these stories, and unless you have seen the 20 plus Godzilla films out there, you won’t know who’s who in this universe’s rogues gallery. Adults who grew up on the movies will enjoy this title. Those unfamiliar will find this a challenging read.
Godzilla: World of Monsters By John Layman, Cullen Bunn, Joshua Fialkov Art by Alberto Ponticelli, Dave Wachter, Brian Churilla IDW, 2021 ISBN: 9781684058303 Publisher Age Rating: T
Those that consider graphic novels as a medium strictly for the young cite the fact that it relies greatly on pictures as well as words to tell a story, but those people might not be aware of the multiple examples of graphic novels tackling adult themes. These examples use a combination of pictures and words to convey a multitude of stories from a variety of viewpoints, including those adults who are responsible for the care and feeding of one or multiple smaller humans. One story that explores the POV of parents in the Irish paranormal mystery Scarenthood written and drawn by Nick Roche.
The story features four parents in Ireland who meet because their kids go to the same preschool, but who end up bonding because of a supernatural mystery. The cast of this book features Cormac, the main protagonist who the reader watches slowly fall apart. There’s also Jen, whose husband spends months working away from home and who is on Jen’s nerves when he is home. Rounding out the foursome is acerbic Siobhan and conspiracy theorist Flynno, who has a significant connection to the supernatural disturbances at their kids’ school. What begins as a diversion for the three parents from their lives of carting children and packing lunches becomes a threat to their lives and the lives of their children.
As a parent myself, I found myself heavily involved in Roche’s story, particularly Cormac’s, the character that gets the most attention. The supernatural entity that he’d unwittingly released has latched onto this single dad, affecting not only his sanity but his ability to raise his daughter Scooper. Cormac’s descent into self-doubt is sure to garner a lot of sympathy from parents who might feel they are not being the best caregiver. Cormac’s slippage is, however, closely followed by his new friends and it is initially through their eyes that we see Cormac struggle. When they come together to help him, it is a moment that showcases and further solidifies their bond. Roche does an excellent job of fleshing out the secondary parental characters, particularly Jen and Flynno. When at home, Jen shows signs of stress at always having her well-intentioned husband underfoot when it comes to raising their daughter. Flynno could have come across as a boisterous, unlikable know-it-all but Roche avoids this by diving into his backstory and giving him moments that let his heart shine.
The artwork hits the perfect balance for this kind of story. The characters do not look hyper-realistic; in some instances, they look like they could be part of a daily or monthly comic strip. In a story that is equal parts supernatural horror and comedy focusing on the mundane and mind-numbing aspects of parenting, the art style is a perfect fit. Indeed, the art and story, much like other great graphic novels, both work in harmony to tell a story with sympathetic characters facing down a mystical threat from Irish folklore that is worse than forgetting to pick up your child’s favorite cereal.
Scarenthood would be a great choice for libraries looking to fill their collection of horror graphic novels with something different, but this would also be a great choice for a library that has parents who wear t-shirts emblazoned with pictures of Frankenstein or The Lost Boys as they drop their little one off for storytime. Much like how parents are asked to maintain a delicate balance of being there for their small children while trying to carve out a life for themselves, Scarenthood maintains a balance of fun supernatural mystery and comedic look at the real-life funny-yet-frightening aspects of parenting.
Scarenthood By Nick Roche IDW, 2021 ISBN: 9781684058310
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: Irish Character Representation: Irish
A requirement for horror fiction is atmosphere, namely a foreboding atmosphere, and a main component in atmosphere is where the book is set. That setting may be dark, taking place at night or in places full of shadows, but it also should be isolated. An excellent horror setting is one that tells the reader that if, and inevitably when, whatever lurking evil decides to go hunting, there will be no escape for the protagonists. Whether it’s the top of a mountain during a snowstorm or the endless depths of outer space, the best horror settings will make sure protagonists have no way to call for help and that any help will be unable to reach them. One such setting is the sea, miles of endless blue as you float atop it, but a crushing darkness once you dive below its depths. Sea of Sorrows, written by Rich Douek and illustrated by Alex Cormack, uses the setting of this tale of underwater horror to great effect.
After the Great War, the North Atlantic is teeming with riches for willing and able salvage operations such as the men and women of the SS Vagabond. The crew soon learn of a sunken U-Boat full of gold, and that retrieving the gold could be quite risky. They may be no strangers to risk, but the sea has other dangers. Not only are tensions rising among the crew, there is also something beneath the waves, down in the dark, something hungry, something that has been waiting on them.
Douek’s plot is fairly by-the-numbers, with tension that deepens as the story progresses, and a powder keg of a ship with many crew members either pursuing their own agendas or struggling with their own traumas. There’s Nick, a war veteran who is already familiar with the cold embrace of death. There’s also Captain Harlow, who is doing his best to hold his splintering crew together. The mysterious Pfeifer, the benefactor who has given them the location of the ship, basically moves the plot along, even as the reader becomes more and more suspicious of his motives. Like any good crew, every character has their own specific job. The first mate Sofia, a woman who smokes, drinks, and even curses like a sailor, serves as the most likable character, almost in some areas of the story becoming the comic relief.
Alex Cormack’s artwork is what really brings the terror. Oddly angled POVs are used to create the feeling of a camera resting on a tossed ship’s deck. The color black is greatly used to represent the shadows where anything could be lurking, especially in the ocean’s depths where a creature waits for the crew. And what a creature it is, thanks to Cormack’s design. What could be a simply throwaway idea for a siren (perhaps a mermaid with fangs) becomes something truly monstrous as well as beautifully alien, perfect for a creature designed to lead men to their deaths.
Sea of Sorrows is a fun yet frightening trip on the High Seas that ends in its lowest depths, a dark carnival ride that fans of aquatic horror will really be into. Those librarians looking to build a horror graphic novel collection for their adult patrons should give Sea of Sorrows a look because it not only provides an entertaining story but it shows how the graphic medium can pull a reader deep into a story and maybe let them come up for air.
Sea of Sorrows By Rick Douek Art by Alex Cormack IDW, 2021 ISBN: 9781684057610
The beautifully illustrated comic biography, Marie Curie: A Quest for Light, shares the story of Curie’s life and Nobel Prize-winning scientific accomplishments.
The authors, Frances Andreasen Østerfelt and Anja Cetti Andersen, both have a passion for science and for Marie Curie. Østerfelt is a dental scientist and Andersen works to make scientific information more accessible to others. Together they wrote and published this book as tribute to Curie. The book was originally published in Danish in 2018, and translated to English by Østerflet.
The text follows the life of Curie from her childhood as Marya Sklodowska, through her schooling, then later her scientific work, her Nobel Prizes, and her death. It is a dense amount of information for the format (a middle grade comic biography). The text and book would have benefited from focusing on one aspect of her life (such as her scientific work with radiation). Instead, the book places a focus on her life as a whole, and each chapter deals with a set time period covering her life from childhood through her scientific career. Of the 5 chapters, only the last two discuss her scientific work and her life at that time.
To be fair, Curie did have a fascinating life. A childhood in a politically unstable Poland and the early deaths of her mother and sister definitely affected her life and work as a scientist, but this would have been more effective to frame in the context of scientific work. Giving equal focus on all periods of her life makes for a drier read, aside from the compelling imagery from Anna Blaszczyk.
Readers can’t help but to follow the flow of Blaszczyk’s collage illustrations filled with rich textures and dark muted colors. Rather than illustrating a basic chronological story in a more traditional comic format, these images build mood and the emotions behind moment’s in Curie’s life. In one particularly moving spread after the death of her husband, Curie is lost in the background against a sea of black, with her two daughters in the foreground asking for their mother. On another page images of Curie’s father, who first ignited her passion for science, float in a cloud of smoke across the page. Blaszcyzk’s illustrations carry fear, love, curiosity, sadness, joy and more throughout the story of Curie’s life.
There are some moments with awkward wording that may be a product of translation from one language and culture to another. I did appreciate the authors’ frequent use of quotes from letters to and from Curie. These quotes helped readers to contextualize the importance of these moments for Curie. The authors, Østerfelt and Andersen, were also able to use their own scientific understanding to describe Curie’s work with radiation in an accessible way. Their descriptions of her experiments and findings would be understood by most audiences. They were also able to give the context of the Curies’ discovery against the backdrop of the scientific world at the time.
Marie Curie: A Quest for Light could find a fit in a public library children’s collection or elementary (maybe middle) school libraries, especially where comic biographies are popular. I have been fascinated by Marie Curie since I was a child. When I was in elementary school, I read every biography I could find about her life, and I would have adored this book, dense with her life’s story and filled with captivating illustrations. I would have loved and cherished this book in elementary school. So there is definitely an audience for this book, but I am not sure it is a wide one. There are stronger Marie Curie biographies for a middle grade audience and more compelling comic biographies. I do not recommend this as a first choice purchase.
Marie Curie: A Quest for Light By Frances Andreasen Østerfelt, Anja Cetti Andersen Art by Anna Blaszczyk IDW, 2021 ISBN: 9781684058372
Publisher Age Rating: 9-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11) Creator Representation: Danish Character Representation: Polish
This installment of the Dungeons & Dragons graphic novel series opens with a group of traveling miners caught in a blizzard in the Icewind Dale area when they are overcome by anger and start brawling, which ruins their cart and leads to the death of almost the entire party. The only survivor is the driver, Amos, and his leg was injured in the cart crash. Luckily, Runa, a nearby warrior, follows the wolves previously pulling the cart and arrives just in time to save Amos from a remorhaz that bursts out of the mountain and consumes the last of the cart and all of its contents. Runa finds herself facing the remorhaz alone while trying to keep Amos in one piece until she loses her ax in the beast’s eye and a passing dragonborn ranger named Saarvin, avails himself to save her life.
Runa decides to travel with Saarvin until she can repay the blood debt and save his life, so the three of them travel to Ten Towns to see if the local druid can heal Amos’ injured leg. Upon arrival to the town’s tavern, another brawl has broken out between two drunken humans over a bag of chardalyn, which introduces Patience the tiefling and her employer, Belvyre the druid. Amos convinces the party that they should look for the magic-filled lost city his miner companions were discussing in order to find plants that could survive the magical blizzard and help feed Ten Towns, which is almost out of food supplies.Along their travels, they must fight and defeat several frost giant skeletons, recover from a betrayal, overcome a confrontation with Runa’s family, and save a duergar army from a volcanic eruption.
This graphic novel ties in with the recently released D&D Icewind Dale adventure from Wizards of the Coast and does a good job of providing a sense of the terrifying creatures and icy conditions players could encounter were they to travel through the area. Overall, the story makes sense and follows a typical adventure path as the party forms and moves deeper into the dungeon. The side characters brought some extra worldbuilding even though they felt like forgettable non-player characters (NPCs). The main characters stayed pretty flat throughout the story with the exception of Amos, who exemplifies the bad guy with a heart of gold trope. Seasoned Dungeons & Dragons players will catch the Easter eggs sprinkled throughout, but new readers will still be able to enjoy the story as well.
The colored art does a great job of adding atmosphere to the story and identifying our main characters in a blizzard of snowy white and gray. It is highly detailed with a care for shading to add extra depth, which helps immerse the reader in a fantasy world. I particularly loved the facial expressions that conveyed a wide range of emotions from anger to sulking to big-bellied laughter. Although this would not be a core title to include in an average graphic novel collection, if you have a population interested in gaming in general, or D&D specifically, this title would do well. Be aware that there is violence and blood depicted throughout, so it’s probably for teens or older readers.
Dungeons & Dragons: At The Spine of the World By AJ Mendez, Aimee Garcia Art by Martin Coccolo IDW, 2021 ISBN: 9781684057917
Related media: Game to Comic
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Latinx, Uruguayan Character Representation: Black
This is the final volume in the saga of Middlewest, a story that follows a young boy named Abel who lives with his father in a strange, magical, American Midwest-type area called Middlewest. Abel’s mother left the family and the grief, plus latent anger issues, has turned Abel’s father into an abusive, belligerent man. One day, his anger is too much to control, and Abel’s father turns into a monster that resembles a giant tornado. Abel runs away from the monster and decides to try to find his mother. He finds a place among a traveling group of circus performers, but the latent magical ability that rested in his father is awoken in Abel as well. He leaves the circus group in hopes of finding answers about this destructive power.
At the end of volume two, Abel is kidnapped by Raider, a powerful and corrupt farmer, and volume three opens up with him being forced to work on a farm that grows the explosive but valuable fuel source for the world’s combustion engines. As friends struggle to find a way to rescue Able and the other kid-workers from Raider’s grasp, Abel is promoted to group leader and Abel decides to use his new status to plan an escape for his small group of kid-workers.
This ending for this pretty intricate series feels a little bit rushed and there are a lot of story elements left unanswered. It feels very much like there could have been more volumes and more world building with explanations of how the magic is all working, especially the different storms that afflict Abel’s family. There are some pieces, especially surrounding the character Maggie, that are completely unexplained, yet the characters seem know what’s going on and who she is, like it’s something the reader should know. There’s no falling action at all. The climax happens, then the resolution is almost the next page. The resolution of the conflict with Abel’s father is also really quick and a little dissatisfying. Abel’s father has spent two volumes searching for Abel, but within a few panels of some strong words from Abel, he is convinced to see things Abel’s way and gives up what he has been fighting for this whole series.
All this complaining is to say that Young has created a rich world that I wanted to spend more time in. Most of the characters were deep, complex creatures that I could have easily followed for a few more volumes. The whole series has a running theme of “adults are terrible humans,” and it seems they are made this way because of the harshness of Middlewest itself. So, how are readers of this adult fantasy series supposed to leave satisfied when Abel’s father, the standard-bearer in the theme of “adults are trash,” is barely made to change and see the error of his ways? Maggie and Jeb are the decent adults in the story and they are sort of left on the sidelines at the end. There are so many things in this series that are fantastic, but the ending could really use some more room to breathe.
Corona’s illustrations and coloring throughout this series have been a high point. Much of Middlewest is a raw, natural landscape, and these illustrations are lush and vivid. In the wintery world where Abel’s grandfather is hiding out, the snowy landscape makes you feel chilly as Abel gets deeper in. Mike Huddleston’s covers are beautiful works of art, layered with details and richly colored. The illustrations of this series are definitely a highlight of the whole work.
Despite the rushed ending, this is still a stellar series with some really great characters. Image rates this title for Mature audiences, but this could easily be part of high school collections. There is some adult language, a bit of violence, and some dark moments, including child abuse, that are shown on the page.
Middlewest, vol. 3 By Skottie Young Art by Jorge Corona Image Comics, 2020 ISBN: 9781534315983 Publisher Age Rating: Mature
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)