Invader Zim: Best of Skool

Do you remember what it was like to be in elementary and middle school? I do. It’s frustrating! Trying to make friends, worrying about schoolwork, being called on by the teacher, worrying about whether you’re cool enough and if anyone is looking at you while you need to scratch “that place”. It’s one of the reasons I loved the original Invader Zim cartoon on Nickelodeon, created by Jhonen Vasquez which aired from 2001-2006. The Invader Zim comic was released as individual issues from July 8, 2015 – August 4, 2021. Zim is sent from his authoritarian home world to ours, to start his prison sentence with only a robot named Gir, disguised as the pet dog, to keep him company. Elementary school will not stop his plans for world domination, though, because, like most kids that age, it’s all about him. This series compiles the Invader Zim comic issues #15, 32, 37 and 45 by Oni Press into a Best of Skool trade paperback, released in November 2021.

Have I mentioned that I love creator Vasquez? He managed to capture perfectly my scary bitter 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Collins. (Though, to be fair, my mom said Mrs. Collins had a lot on her plate, so maybe that’s why she was so scary and mean.) I also loved art and English and hated PE and was the smart misfit. This Zim compilation has the two-level pop culture references that I remember, one level for the kids and one level for the adults. So, if you grew up in 2001-2006, you’ll enjoy reading this to your kids. If you get some of the other references, you’ll enjoy reading it with your grandkids! (“That’s a metaphor kids; Don’t think too much about it.”—HA!) The Skool is every bit as zany as Zim, with spontaneous moose, beavers, ham, and LOTS of slime! Zim has to figure out how to beat his archenemy Dib in the fitness challenge, give his presentation in front of an uncaring and insulting Mrs. Bitters, and care for an inanimate “baby” who turns out to be a lump of meat. But a bigger challenge is coming for Zim! (No, it’s not the chickens who don’t want Zim and the meat baby in their town). How will he deal with the big feelings of “squintz”?

This title is four complete story arcs, together in one trade paperback. You don’t need to have watched or read any other Invader Zim, but it might help to know the background. The title should go wherever you put comics for middle readers, about 7-13 years of age. There is nothing violent or of adult nature. There is a small amount of “cartoon violence” (like Looney Toons). The art mostly resembles the style of the animated cartoon, and even though there are five credited artists for the four compiled issues, the issues resemble each other in style. The panels vary in size, shape, and place on the page, with dark wide gutters, no gutters, or just manga-style speed lines, which keeps the action moving! There are lots of silly things crammed into each frame, and lots to look at. For instance, in the first chapter, the kids are making up stories to explain why Mrs. Bitters is late. One kid explains that she’s actually a “Queen Bug” that has invaded a bug home and taught the bugs how to take over the planet. The next frame is a living room with child bugs – one is sipping a fast food soda, one is doing math on a chalkboard, a couple are reading books and writing, and several are watching two sock puppets on TV. “And they also learned how to order Greezy’s Double Slammer Pizza with extra olives!” 😀

Even though I loved the comic, I would rate it an “optional” purchase for middle school libraries and public libraries.

Invader Zim: Best of Skool
By Eric Trueheart and Aaron Alexovich
Art by Warren Wucinich, Kate Sherron, and K.C. Green
Oni Press Lion Forge, 2021
ISBN: 9781620109168

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)

The Snowcat Prince

Syv is the youngest of seven snowcat princes and the most popular with the people of the realm. Since the people’s support determines the next king, his older brothers are worried. So they decide to send Syv on a quest: find the magical crown of the legendary snowcat Eldking that allows its wearer to defeat the wicked sandfoxes, who have used magic to warp and twist the natural world. Many snowcat princes have sought the crown, but none have returned. Still, armed with a map that his brothers claim shows the way to the crown, Syv is willing to try.

For all his bravery and good intentions, Syv is sheltered and inexperienced. Luckily, he soon stumbles upon a well-traveled companion: a rough-around-the-edges girl named Kit. As they follow the map, Syv discovers how badly the world has been corrupted by the foxes’ magic, which causes everything from extreme seasons to twisted wildlife. If he can just get the crown, he can fix it all.

Then Syv learns the devastating truth about Eldking. He can’t trust the legend, the map his brothers gave him, or maybe even his new friend Kit, who has been hiding a big secret. Can Syv still find a way to save the world?

Syv and Kit are both well-intentioned, but both naïve in their own ways. At first, Syv finds Kit obnoxiously uncouth and Kit finds him laughably ignorant of the world. But as they face warped wild animals and treacherous shape-shifters, the two grow to trust and value each other. Being the protagonist, Syv undergoes more personal growth and encounters more challenges, including deciding how to react when Kit’s secret comes to light. The young snowcat is devastated, but his good heart leads him to do the right thing when it matters most.

The setting draws inspiration from the author’s native Norway. The three lands Syv and Kit visit are depicted in a map at the back of the book. In the north, the snowcats lounge in their Halls of Gold; in the south, the sandfoxes have their Temple of Thorns. Humans occupy the middle, though they also make up most of the population of the north, supporting the snowcat princes with offerings. Both snowcats and sandfoxes have innate magical abilities, which are connected to aura, the magic of the land. Notes at the end of the book elaborate on this, as well as on the life cycles of snowcats and sandfoxes.

The art is vivid and appealing. The bright, saturated colors and Syv’s plush, cuddly character design could be at home on a Lisa Frank binder, while the sneering foxes and the sickly sludge of corrupted magic add an edge. In the book’s opening, when Syv’s father tells him the legend of the Eldking, the art supports the mythic tone with dramatic two-page spreads, larger than life characters, and geometric page borders framing the action. The style changes slightly once the main story begins, dropping the borders and splitting the pages into a variety of dynamic panel configurations for a more immediate, active feel. The bonus material at the end includes character sketches and alternate covers.

There is some danger and creepiness in this book: Syv uses his snowcat magic to fight, an aura-corrupted bear threatens a village and is shot by archers, and some sandfoxes menace Syv and Kit. These scenes are over fairly quickly, though, and there is no gory violence.

This lavishly-illustrated story has action, creative worldbuilding, and lots of heart. Hand it to fans of the Warriors series and other animal-centric fantasy.

The Snowcat Prince
By Dina Norlund
Oni Press Lion Forge, 2023
ISBN: 9781637151983

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
Series ISBNs and Order

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  Norwegian

My Life Among Humans

My Life Among Humans by Jed McGowan follows a lonely and misguided invading alien who tries to navigate a life hidden among humans. McGowan twists the typical alien invasion story and instead focuses on the perspective of the alien, a one-eyed bio-engineered creature with no body and 6 legs who also happens to be desperately lonely.

Alien invasions are a ubiquitous plot in popular media. These stories with strong themes of fear and suspicion are common in books, television, and film.  The majority of these focus on “the other,” a manifestation of societal fears of the unknown. Even in stories where the aliens are redeemed by the end, there are usually strong undercurrents of fear and suspicion before the final resolution. That exists in My Life Among Humans, however, it is not central to the story. Instead, rather than breaking down fear, McGowan’s plot builds empathy.

I’m a sucker for redemptive arcs and misguided innocence, and well, any story that flips conventional stories. I just really loved this book. The unnamed alien has been sent to earth and assigned to study humans. It begins by sending a spore into the mind of Will, a high school boy, to observe and record his every thought, movement and emotion. Then its daily observations are sent to “the manager” who merely states, “report received.” Every day follows the same pattern until the alien is eventually asked to observe more humans, and things begin to swerve from its established plan and mission.

The alien is lonely, desperate to please (or at least not upset) its manager, and tries hard to follow its instructions – to stay hidden and merely observe. But it is curious, and lonely, and is eventually caught by Will. Desperate to fix the situation, the alien, in a panic, discovers its ability to control Will, and by extension other humans. This leads to a cascading series of unfortunate events, where the alien is left trying to pick up the pieces and cover its tracks.

McGowan’s illustrations add emotional depth to this story. At first appearance, McGowan’s visual style doesn’t match my personal preferences. His hand-drawn illustrations are reminiscent of both vintage science fiction and early computer animation, appropriately connected to the visual style of many other alien stories. The real beauty in the illustrations is his ability to capture emotion. Illustrators rely heavily on facial expressions and body language to express emotion, however, this story has unique challenges. The alien has essentially no body or face, just one eye, and tentacle-like legs. Yet, the alien’s character is developed through its emotional responses. Its loneliness, fear, innocence, and curiosity are clearly evident in every panel.

McGowan also expertly illustrates the moments his human characters lose control of their bodies. Their emotions aren’t lacking, they have been lost, a loss that is felt in the illustrations.

Upon my reread of My Life Among Humans to write this review, I fell in love again. It has emotional weight, and after each read, I walked away with a warmed heart. I recommend it for adult and teen graphic novel collections. However, I also think this could be popular with middle-grade and younger teens. The story would be appropriate for younger audiences, and the illustration style would not feel overwhelming for those who are newly introduced to the format. I will purchase (and heavily recommend) it for my high school collection. I think the initial interest will be from younger high school readers but the story has heart and poses a number of interesting philosophical questions, which will appeal to older readers as well.

My Life Among Humans
By Jed McGowan
Oni Press, 2023
ISBN: 9781637151990

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)

Talli, Daughter of the Moon, Vol. 1

When Talli’s adoptive family finds themselves under attack, her father, Lord Borin, makes Talli leave with a faithful knight in order to keep her safe. Barely able to stay ahead of their pursuers, the two make their way to a small town with a market. In the market, they find an old man and his grandson selling allegedly magic items. The old man recognizes Talli for who she is and offers to get her out of town and somewhere safe. They must fight their pursuers, Lord Ulric’s forces led by Captain Nina, but eventually get free and make their way to safety, which is when Talli begins to learn of her origins as a Summoner. 

The line art is well done and shows a lot of little details and backgrounds. I had a personal issue in that the protagonist’s hair color is particularly important and it is white, but since all the art is black and white, this can only be picked up on by closely following the dialog. It seems like this was meant to be in full color but either never got colored or the publisher’s budget didn’t allow for a colorist. Either way I think that younger readers may have trouble with this important detail. 

It is interesting that one of the character development and plot points is that the female protagonist has a monthly period. Normally, this natural bodily function is ignored or only mentioned to invoke fear or disdain. Blood letting is part of the (not well described) magic system that Talli starts to learn about on her journey. Unfortunately, because of this, although Talli is viewed as powerful, people are also immediately scared of her as well. 

This book would be best suited for a collection aimed at younger teens (13-15). It isn’t a necessity but would help fill out a collection. 

Talli, Daughter of the Moon, Vol. 1
By Sourya Hollendonner
Oni Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781637150825

Publisher Age Rating: grades 7-9

NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  French, Laotian

Gender Queer: A Memoir

Gender Queer Deluxe EditionGender Queer: A Memoir begins with an arresting image. As a student, Maia Kobabe, who uses e/em/eir pronouns, taped over two pages of eir sketchbook with blank pieces of paper. The pages concealed an autobiographical comic about gender created for a school assignment, a topic that filled Kobabe with discomfort. In the opening of Gender Queer, we’re shown the censored pages—then, with an immensely satisfying “RIPPP!”, Kobabe tears away the paper, revealing the title page of Gender Queer itself.

Gender Queer is the self-portrait of a queer artist developing the confidence to tell eir story, in eir own words and on eir own terms. Narrating Kobabe’s gender journey from early childhood to the present, this graphic memoir chronicles eir efforts to build a life that affirms every piece of eir identity. There isn’t a single pivotal coming-out scene; instead, Kobabe embarks on a slow, continuous project of self-expression and self-knowledge, with results as precise and dazzling as the constellations that decorate the cover of this deluxe edition.

Maia Kobabe’s story begins with a California childhood spent catching snakes, making art, and feeling completely out of step with eir peers. A series of early crushes helps Maia to realize e’s bisexual, but this doesn’t explain the deeper discomfort e feels with eir body and assigned gender. Confused and discouraged, Maia catches hold of a pair of lifelines—coming to books as a late reader, and joining a Queer Straight Alliance at eir high school. Discovering stories that reflect eir own experiences, e begins to feel less alone.

Entering adulthood, Maia finds a word—genderqueer—that reflects the complexity of eir experiences. Just as important, e continues to collect touchstones that affirm eir sense of self instead of eroding it. There’s the first time e listens to David Bowie; the male figure skating costume that fills em with gender euphoria; the queer fan fiction that sparks eir sense of the erotic, yet ultimately makes em realize that e prefers reading about romance to experiencing it firsthand. Kobabe’s sophisticated artwork explodes to life in these moments, expressive full-color panels featuring inventive imagery such as Maia’s gender leafing out like a young seedling, or Bowie’s music as a full-body, cosmic experience (complete with rocketship). 

Yet as Maia pieces together identity labels—nonbinary, mostly asexual, queer—and builds a network of supportive friends and family, the obstacles grow. Maia knows that as long as e minimizes eir gender, eir relationships and sense of self will suffer. But loved ones offer pushback when e tries to explain nonbinary identities; Pap smears are a source of trauma that medical professionals rarely take seriously; and everyday interactions come with a cost: Maia must stand up for emself, over and over, just to feel comfortable in eir own skin. This is the Maia who censored eir own sketchbook, and at the close of the memoir, this self-effacement is still palpable. Now a working artist, e hesitates over whether to share eir pronouns with students. “I think I’m carrying more fear than I need,” e realizes.

If Gender Queer is an act of bravery, it’s also a funny, sophisticated, deeply relatable coming-of-age story about charting your way alongside books and best friends into adulthood. Accessible but never didactic, Kobabe’s deft storytelling and polished, appealing artwork excels at communicating with a broad readership. For a queer and trans audience that has rarely encountered nonfiction centering nonbinary experiences, Kobabe’s memoir delivers affirmation, while for readers who are new to learning about queer identities, it educates and invites empathy. Gender Queer is also smart about the way it presents sexual material; this book doesn’t shy from frank discussions of sexuality, masturbation, and sexual health, but the content is contextualized in a way that is sensitive to the needs of younger readers, and Kobabe takes care to avoid explicit sexual depictions of underage characters.

The 2022 deluxe edition collects process pieces and select issues of the original Genderqueer comic strips, providing a snapshot of Kobabe’s creative process. An introduction by She-Ra and the Princesses of Power creator ND Stevenson reflects on the impact of Gender Queer since its initial publication in 2019. Stevenson writes about the book’s significance to himself and queer loved ones, as well as, briefly, those who have sought to remove it from public schools and libraries in “a last, desperate attempt to hammer an infinitely complex world into a small, unthreatening shape.”

Maia Kobabe’s introspective, joyful memoir is an important contribution to comics literature. It is highly recommended for any library collection serving adult and older teen readers.

Gender Queer: A Memoir, Deluxe Edition
By Maia Kobabe
Oni Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781637150726

Publisher Age Rating: 18+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation:  Asexual, Bisexual, Queer, Genderqueer, Nonbinary