A dare. A house rumored to be cursed. A doorway that leads… elsewhere. Six classmates. And the things that came back with them from the other side.
Daniel and Emily are tentative friends, both outsiders from the cool crowd at their school. As the story opens, a run-in with four of the popular kids raises tensions and the story soon reveals that each of the six has more going on at home than meets the eye. But it’s Halloween season, a time for fun and thrills. By chance, the six meet up at a ruined home that is the subject of dark rumors and vague fear among the citizens. Trash talking turns to challenges and the six step across that threshold in an effort to prove they are not afraid. But the door is a portal and what they find on the other side is the stuff of nightmares.
Dropped back into reality a short time later, each teenager finds themselves changed. Struggling to understand surprising new abilities and reckoning with the changes to their interpersonal dynamics, the experience is hard enough to process on its own. But something came back with them—something that has its sights set on one of their own, and it doesn’t plan to stop there. From rivals to allies, the lives of their town will soon rest in the hands of these six teens struggling to find their own places in the world.
From Seismic Press and AfterShock Comics, The Darkness We Brought Back is written by Alex Segura and Rex Ogle with art from Joe Eisma and Manuel Puppo. It’s an exciting premise billed as The Chronicles of Narnia meets Stranger Things. Unfortunately, superficial writing and flat characters leave the premise always struggling to find its footing, even until the very last pages. Each of the characters feels plucked from a standard YA school drama and the dialogue is always delivered in the most obvious terms. The plentiful conflicts and disagreements never offer any depth or carry any substantial weight. The insights we gain into these characters’ lives are only the most basic, and even character growth and shifting relationships happen largely in the margins of the story. From a group of young people grappling with coming of age, to a literal fight against a creature from another realm, the story feels largely like an outline of story beats committed to paper before having the chance to be fleshed out in any meaningful way.
The art, at least, is clean and easy to view, reminiscent at times of Paper Girls though with a wider color palate and a style seemingly aimed at a slightly younger readership. Eisma brings us through the bustling hallways of a school, across the threshold of a house barely left standing, into nightmare realms of another existence, and back again. For both the paranormal and the everyday, the art focuses the character emotions as well as the paranormal action that thrusts the story forward. All in all, the visuals are perfectly serviceable for the story being delivered.
AfterShock gives The Darkness We Brought Back an age rating of 13+ and this feels like a perfectly suitable age recommendation. There’s some language, violence, and frightening images throughout, as well as some more intense sequences over the course of the story, but none of this content is particularly lingered on or delivered in graphic detail.
In the end, this title lays out a stronger premise than it delivers. There are so many dynamics at play here that could have gone deeper, allowing the story to be more than a rehash of so many other YA dramas. However, if you have a readership starving for more paranormal YA content in the vein of Stranger Things, this title might be enough to meet that need, at least temporarily. If not, then consider spending your money elsewhere.
The Darkness We Brought Back By Alex Segura, Rex Ogle Art by Joe Eisma Seismic Press, 2023 ISBN: 9781956731279
Publisher Age Rating: 13+ NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Asking for help isn’t always easy … and what do you do when that help causes you to develop superpowers overnight? Welcome to Hannah’s world, told in Side Effects, a graphic novel by Ted Anderson with art by Tara O’Connor.
Hannah’s in her first year of college and things just don’t feel right. She’s overwhelmed, her roommate walked in on her crying, and she feels like such a failure she’s not sure she’ll make it through the semester. She doesn’t want to disappoint her parents and the pressure is getting to be too much. Hannah meets with Dr. Jacobs, the on-campus doctor, who prescribes her medication for her mental health. Despite not being fully on board, as she believes those pills can change your personality, she decides to take them anyway, just to see if they offer any help in dealing with her anxiety and depression. Suddenly, she feels almost superhuman as she develops different superpowers with each new medication! Are the meds really causing her to read people’s minds? How will these powers affect her relationship with Iz, the cute girl she’s been seeing?
Before the story even begins, Side Effects has a content warning, a helpful tool for readers to be aware of some of the more intense parts of the story. It is never graphic or explicit and no real medications are named. Hannah’s side effects, however, can be read as exaggerated versions of those found in real life medications. Her ability to shoot electricity from her hands? Similar to brain zaps. She experiences other realistic side effects, like dissociation and drowsiness. Readers who’ve dealt with the process of finding the right medication will find themselves understanding what Hannah is going through. Framing Hannah’s side effects as superpowers makes the book accessible for readers who might be tentative regarding their own mental health care. The focus on therapy, as well as medication, is appreciated.
O’Connor’s art is expressive; the character’s faces are excellent. The coloring, also done by O’Connor, matches the changing situations dynamically. The scenes of Hannah and her superpowers are very superhero comic like, just like she feels her life is turning into when she develops them.
Side Effects is appropriate for an older teen audience and up. The book deals with some very heavy topics, including attempted and implied sexual misconduct from a professor, hence the appreciation for the content warning before the story begins. Anderson’s storytelling is easily readable, but late high school and early college readers will find more relatability to Hannah’s experiences. While it takes place in modern time, adult readers long out of college can enjoy the graphic novel, too.
Side Effects is a book about mental health acceptance and not being afraid to ask for help when you need it. It wants to break the stigma of mental health medications and does a good job of showing them in a realistic but not irresponsible way. There’s always a need for stories about mental illness that still have happy endings and Side Effects is a welcome addition to that world of graphic novels.
Side Effects By Ted Anderson Art by Tara O’Connor Seismic Press, 2022 ISBN: 9781956731088
Publisher Age Rating: 13-17 years old NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Ambiguous Mental Illness Character Representation: Lesbian, Anxiety, Depression
When the early European settlers journeyed overseas to America over 400 years ago, they brought more than just their hopes and dreams for a better life. They brought over something so terrifying and dark that no trace of it remains documented anywhere—neither in their memories nor in the pages of history books: They brought over their monsters. So begins the premise of The Lollipop Kids, a young adult graphic novel series dreamed up by the creative father-son team of Adam and Aidan Glass with artwork by Diego Yapur.
This first volume begins with a dyslexic fourteen-year-old named Nick, who recounts the present and flashbacks of the back story After his older sister Mia fails to come home one night, he scouts around Central Park in New York City the next day to find her. Life has never been the same since he, Mia, and their mom were robbed at gunpoint one evening, leaving him and his sister as sole survivors of the attack. While searching for Mia, an enormous werewolf leaps out of the bushes and prepares to pounce on him only to be subdued by a mysterious group of kids. Nick quickly learns that they belong to a secret society known as the Lollipop Kids—a magically armed team of youth descended from ancient times to guard Greenward Forrest where the monsters were imprisoned long ago, known today as Central Park. It turns out that centuries ago, the immigrants of old assumed the role of Sentinels to trap and lock away these monsters from ancient legend, myth, and folklore. The denizens of the dark and their leader placed a curse on the Sentinels, wiping out their memories when they reached adulthood, relegating the next generation of kids to carry on this sacred tradition, as these monsters have now sprung loose.
A bit heavy handed with filling in background information at times, the plot later turns to Nick’s unique perspective as he grapples with his dyslexia while absorbing an entirely foreign world steeped in dark fantasy and lore. The dark, misty background creates a supernatural ambience wrapped in mystery. Deep shades of blue and night scenes resonate with gothic flair, as do the monsters that occupy half to full-page panels, hearkening back to characters from Grimm’s fairy tales and the classic horror flicks produced by Universal Pictures.
Blending a mix of present-day New York City culture and vibes, mythic folklore, and supernatural intrigue, The Lollipop Kids unleashes a generous dose of enchantment and dark adventure from the compelling voice of a lone teenager. Character elements of disability and mixed race identity add an intersectional layer of diverse representation for teen graphic novel collections. The father-son team behind this series offers a fun spin on a reimagined mythology in a contemporary setting, paving the path for more fascinating adventures.
The Lollipop Kids, Volume One: Things That Go Bump in the Night By Adam Glass, Art by Diego Yapur Seismic Press, 2022 ISBN: 9781949028775
Publisher Age Rating: YA
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16) Character Representation: Black, Dyslexia,
As if starting sixth grade wasn’t scary enough, Whit Garcia, a soft-spoken photographer, discovers that his new school houses more than just defective metal detectors and spooky run-down buildings. After reluctantly joining the yearbook club made up of the school’s other resident weirdos, Whit and his crew are thrown into the midst of a supernatural mystery as the ghosts of missing children start appearing. And yet, their presence seems more like a warning than a haunting, harbingering a sinister threat that seeks to add to its collection of specters. With his camera and friends in tow, Whit must confront his fears to get to the bottom of this investigation, even the ones that aren’t about ghosts and ghouls.
Fearbook Club, with its colorful and endearing cast of outcasts, tells a meaningful story about what it’s like to be stuck in a constant cloud of fear. Author Richard Hamilton taps into the familiar perils of tweenhood, whether it be struggling to fit in, experiencing bullying, or trying to survive in a world where metal detectors on campus and combination fire/tornado/school shooter drills have become the norm. Balancing these domestic threats with the more supernatural ones leads the story to provide an interesting conversation on how fear has an influence on how these situations are approached and resolved with varying results. The blasé and ultimately ineffective methods the school uses to combat the fear of its threats is a stark contrast to how Whit and his friends handle their paranormal ones, as they get to the root of what causes their fear rather than simply acknowledging it. This distinction leads to a timely and needed message on how kids can properly recognize and process what terrifies them, leading to a greater preparedness in facing them.
Though the story comes to a satisfying end, there are still aspects that come off somewhat underdeveloped or rushed. The comic has a steady pace until the last third, where a time skip leads a wonky, disrupted flow of events. A lot of off panel character development could have used focus to give a more well-rounded growth to the cast. That aside, Whit and his gang have a great collection of personalities that naturally bounce off of each other and form a tight bond over their shared weirdo status.
Artist Marco Matrone’s style thrives in this horrific setting, his use of dimmer colors and blurring effects in more suspenseful moments heightens the comic’s perfectly creepy atmosphere and overall gives a deeper feeling of unease. The designs of the ghosts are particularly inventive and frightening, their dark forms appear like they just walked out of the negative of a photograph. Even down to the character’s expressions, Matrone best utilizes each feature to convey the right amount of terror, concern, worry, as well as relief and contentment. For all the scarier moments of the comic, the art also brings out more emotion in its softer beats, as Whit and his friends sit under a bright pink sky at the end of a day where they have grown closer as friends, the mix of bright and dark hues more calming and comfortable than those seen before. It is a period of relief from the ominous presence that hangs over them while at school, and Malone graciously extends those feelings to the reader as well.
Those that are drawn to stories about a ragtag group of misfits going up against supernatural forces will no doubt fall in love with Fearbook Club. Think Ghostbusters meets Stranger Things with a Goosebumps vibe thrown in for good measure. While the comic has its fair share of scares, there is nothing overly disturbing that would unnerve seasoned horror lovers or those starting to dip their toes into the genre. The back of the comic states that it is intended for a young adult audience, but, due to its themes, setting, and moving afterward message from the author, I think it would appeal most to the middle school crowd or specifically kids ages 10-13. Librarians and educators who are interested in purchasing more horror titles, as well as those that exhibit impactful emotional storytelling, should consider purchasing this title.
Fearbook Club By Richard Hamilton Art by Marco Matrone Seismic Press, 2022 ISBN: 9781949028768
Publisher Age Rating: 13-16
NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13) Character Representation: Korean-American
Andy’s beloved dog Rocket has just passed away and finds himself on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge. It’s a land of plentiful treats and toys that would be any dog’s dream. But not all is quite right in these Forever Fields.
Rocket seems to be fading, and some frightening creatures lurk in the shadows. Meanwhile, Andy is at home preparing for high school orientation. He is having a hard time with Rocket’s passing. His family runs an animal shelter and cares for loads of pets, but Rocket was special. On his way to school, Andy is suddenly transported over the Rainbow Bridge. He finds Rocket who is now larger than Andy and can speak in human words. The two of them determine that Rocket must have some unfinished business which is why he is disappearing. Rocket recalls a sister from his litter and wonders what happened to her. Andy and Rocket, with help from some entertaining cat characters, go on a quest to find Rocket’s sister and defeat the dark wraithlike characters who haunt the Forever Fields. The story resolves with a victory, yet room for further adventures remain for a possible sequel.
The full-color illustrations are charming, with adorable dogs and cats who are larger than life. Andy is able to ride Rocket around the Forever Fields. The dog breeds are clearly recognizable (Rocket and his sister are corgis) and the characters have expressive faces. The setting is detailed with many humorous touches: tennis balls grow on trees, bones lie around everywhere, and there’s a water bowl large enough to swim in. The panels vary in size and shape and often reflect the mood of a page, becoming jagged on frightening or dramatic pages. Some dramatic scenes take up an entire page while most pages are broken into multiple panels.
At first, the idea of a book about a dead dog may be off putting. Some young readers avoid books with animals for fear that the animal will meet some misfortune. However, the fact that this dead dog can still go on adventures with his owner is actually an intriguing concept, especially since the ending of the book seems to indicate that they will continue to do so in the future. Rainbow Bridge presents the idea that pets don’t live forever and it is important to move on when they leave us, but it also honors the important role that animals play in our lives. Andy learns to forgive himself for not going with his family to the vet when Rocket needed to be euthanized. Good lessons are also presented through the animal shelter that Andy’s family operates. They do the best they can for every animal. The wraiths over the Rainbow Bridge are affected by the fact that they did not have loving humans on earth, a good reminder to readers that animals need to be protected.
Overall, this book is winsome with lovable characters and an exciting story. Young readers will enjoy the animal characters and find Andy a sympathetic protagonist. The positive messages about respect for animals and the place of pets in our lives are important and Andy experiences tremendous growth throughout the story. Rainbow Bridge makes a valuable addition to youth graphic novel collections.
Rainbow Bridge By Steve Orlando, Steve Foxe Art by Valentina Brancati, Manuel Puppo, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou Aftershock/Seismic Press, 2021 ISBN: 9781949028676