Sanctuary, vol. 1: Fresh Meat

Sanctuary 1When a boorish male panda is found beaten to death the day after his much-touted arrival at a mysterious, isolated wildlife sanctuary, suspicion immediately falls on the new neighbors he went out of his way to offend. But as the lab-coated keepers investigate and the animals gossip amongst themselves, it quickly becomes clear that there’s more to this murder than petty vengeance—and more to the sanctuary than wildlife protection.

The artistic style of this sci-fi-tinged, conspiracy-laced murder mystery is very reminiscent of kid-oriented animated hits like The Lion King or Madagascar, but the dialogue and story quickly prove themselves to be cut from a darker, edgier cloth. There’s a disorienting yet satisfying contrast between the cute appearance of the animals, their quirky keepers, and the story’s snarky love triangles, disturbing science, and dangerous secrets. If mated gorillas joking about species preservation as best achieved by making out 24/7 doesn’t clue you in on the tone, the first exploding squirrel security test will—and it just gets darker and twistier from there. Interestingly, the book steers clear of anything particularly graphic, instead relying on subtle, cartoony, and/or off-panel violence, and the language is no stronger than an occasional “damn.” Sure, a sympathetically upset gorilla grabs a researcher by the face and flings her into the trees yards away, but the reader doesn’t see her land or realize she died as a result until another character mentions it later. It’s a clever tactic and fits the book’s overall theme: don’t be fooled by appearances.

This hardcover volume is comprised of seven chapters that were originally published digitally as individual installments. Strangely, each credits colorist Jordan Fong, despite the fact that there is no color artwork in the book, other than a touch of color on the front and back covers. It’s possible that this refers to the interior art’s heavy gradations, but the pages look more like black-and-white scans of color originals wherein different colors have resolved to near identical shades of grey, leaving some panels a bit dark and lacking in helpful contrast. However, I was unable to find any evidence online that the comic has ever been released with color art, so for the moment that point remains a mystery.

Although an Amazon.com reviewer, posting as author/artist Coughlin, comments that the book should be appropriate for ages 7+, I think that teens might be a more accurate target given its mature humor and dark themes. While volume one unravels the web of deception behind the rude panda’s demise, it also provides the underpinnings for more widespread repercussions, the details of which are only hinted before the final page. Readers interested in learning where it all goes from here will have to wait for volume two.

Sanctuary, vol. #1: Fresh Meat
by Stephen Coughlin
Art by Jordan Fong, Jef Bambas
ISBN: 9781593622527
SLG, 2013

Santa versus Dracula

santa versus draculaIt’s the happiest time of the year: Santa and his elves are in high gear preparing to bring joy to children all around the world, when an old enemy makes a surprise appearance. Now it’s a battle to the undeath as Dracula and his army of Twilight fan minions and classic monsters attack Santa and his jolly elves. But Santa has a few tricks up his sleeve—not to mention the recalled toys under his belt—and the outcome of this battle won’t be a sure thing for anyone.

It’s impossible not to draw comparisons to the Dreamworks film Rise of the Guardians, which featured holiday figures fighting back against the Bogeyman to protect the dreams of children everywhere. In this snarky, gory, pop culture-infused riff, Santa and his army must battle Dracula to prevent him from gaining the power to enter homes all over the world without permission. The elves release their inner Tolkien; the second Mrs. Claus—whom Santa met on a reality tv show after his first wife ran off with the Bogeyman—proves she’s not just a pretty face; and Frankenstein’s monster squares off against Frosty the Snowman.

Dejesus’ art has a slick, digital look with easily recognizable characters: a traditional plump Santa with rosy cheeks and a dramatic-looking Dracula, who is followed by his “brides” and bevies of pulchritudinous teen Twilight fans. There are a host of other characters, including a Christmas angel and a wolf-man who bears a surprising resemblance to Harry, the werewolf in Jill Thompson’s Scary Godmother. There isn’t much detail in the characters and setting, nor is there much emotional nuance or character development, but most of the characters die so quickly that there isn’t time to expand on them.

Santa versus Dracula isn’t quite a gorefest, but there’s plenty of blood and violence, usually inflicted with glee and silly references to pop culture; the Easter Bunny is beaten to a pulp early in the story and lots of vampires are bloodily dispatched. In fact, by the end of the story, there aren’t many characters left standing. There are no overt sexual references, but one wonders what Dracula is doing with all those scantily dressed vampire fans and there is commentary on Santa’s divorce and remarriage. Teens will probably find the humor and pop culture references hilarious. However, there are odd jumps in the story where the author tries to include moral asides about the characters protecting children a la Rise of the Guardians, and the longest speech in this vein comes from an alcoholic reindeer. Vague religious references to Santa, the Christmas angel Gloria, and the celebration of Jesus’ birth strike jarring notes in what is otherwise a light and silly take on various creatures of legend.

Publisher SLG isn’t distributed by Baker and Taylor, so most libraries won’t have access to this volume unless they use a different vendor or purchase graphic novels from Amazon. It’s a fun read, but not a necessary addition to a library collection.

Santa versus Dracula
by Ed Power
Art by Melissa Dejesus
ISBN: 9780988226319
SLG Publishing, 2013
Publisher Age Rating: 13+

Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer, vol. 3 – Of Wood and Blood (Parts 1 & 2)

pinocchio_of_wood_and_blood_dual_coverPlease note that Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer – Of Wood and Blood (the third and final chapter of the Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer trilogy) has been split into two separate books. ISBN codes for both volumes are included at the bottom of this review. Any complaints regarding how you cannot properly call something a trilogy if there are four parts should be addressed to the estate of Douglas Adams. They won’t actually do anything, but it might make you feel better and they could probably use the laugh.

Picking up directly after the stunning cliff-hanger ending of Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer and The Great Puppet Theater, this latest volume introduces even more complications into the life of everyone’s favorite little wooden boy. Shipwrecked and stranded, Pinocchio is without weapons and his allies in The Great Puppet Theater have been reduced in number. Worse yet, Sir Dante — the father of Pinocchio’s special lady friend Carlotta — turns up with murder on his mind. And that’s before he finds out that his daughter was abducted by vampires and taken as a gift to their dark lord on Pinocchio’s watch!

Pinocchio’s quest will take him across the Mediterranean Sea where he discovers a strange town where everything wooden is able to talk. By journey’s end he will uncover the strange truth behind his creation. Finally, he will confront the king of the vampires himself – Vlad The Impaler. Or as he is more commonly known, Count Dracul!

Van Jansen brings the epic of Pinocchio the Vampire Slayer to a spirited and fitting conclusion. I’ve mentioned in reviews of earlier volumes how much wit and humor Jensen has put into the writing of this series. This final chapter is no exception, despite the drama being more intense than in the earlier books in the series.

I must also praise Jansen’s scholarship and the research that went into the production of this series – a subject which he speaks upon in brief in the afterword. One may be forgiven for thinking that a series that involves a magical puppet killing vampires would not concern itself with realism. Yet Jansen made an effort to make sure that all the information regarding Vlad Tepes the Third put forth in this story was as historically accurate as possible. There’s also a fair bit of information about the historical methods for dealing with vampires that adds further detail to the story.

The artwork of Dusty Higgins continues to evolve and impress. The human figures in this volume look so different from the vampire and puppet characters one might think they were drawn by an entirely different artist. This differentiation does clarify things during the action sequences, particularly in the second half of the story which is almost entirely composed of battles and rescues. Higgins is a wonderfully visual storyteller and the story flows well from panel to panel, even in the sequences which demand an unusual panel layout across multiple pages.

Though this is the darkest chapter of Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer by far – depicting a human sacrifice among other generally disturbing imagery – the series continues to stick to its T for Teen rating. There is nothing in this volume that would be inappropriate or horrifying to your average 13-year-old. Indeed, they will probably appreciate the slapstick humor and innuendo of this series more than many adults.

Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer, vol. 3 – Of Wood and Blood  (Parts 1 & 2)
by Van Jensen
Art by Dusty Higgins
Part 1 ISBN: 9781593622398
Part 2 ISBN: 9781593622411
SLG Publishing, 2012
Publisher Age Rating: T (13+)

Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer, vol. 2 — Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer and the Great Puppet Theater

pinocchio_vampire_slayer_2For the benefit of those readers who had not had the good fortune to read the first volume of Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer (or those, like me, who hadn’t read the original book in a while) this second volume begins with a performance, staged by the titular Great Puppet Theater. They tell us the real story of Pinocchio and how he never became a real boy but did live happily ever after with his father, Gepetto. At least, he lived happily ever after until the night when vampires came to their home and killed the old toymaker. Thankfully, as a bloodless wooden puppet, Pinocchio was uniquely suited for the life of a vampire hunter. Aided by The Blue Fairy and Master Cherry (the carpenter who originally found the magic wood that Gepetto later shaped into a puppet), Pinocchio protects his home village from the vampire menace.

We soon meet The Great Puppet Theater in the flesh – er, wood – as the story begins in earnest. Made up of the other puppets made of living wood whom Pinocchio encountered in his original journeys, the troupe of wooden players have been seeking their lost brother since they, too, had had an encounter with vampires and since their master, the showman Fire-Eater, was killed. The troupe happens upon Carlotta, Pinocchio’s only friend, who has also been looking for Pinocchio ever since he and his entourage left their village in search of a mysterious Master Vampire that – legend has it – rules over all of the blood-sucking undead. Eventually family and friends are reunited and the quest continues, leading up to a stunning cliffhanger.

Fans of the first volume hoping for more of the same will not be disappointed, as this sequel features more of what makes this series so amusing – slapstick and sarcasm in equal measure, as Pinocchio throws out increasingly insulting lies in order to make his nose grow so he can break it off into a stake. Yet Van Jensen’s scripts continue to build beautifully upon the original premise, further fleshing out the world with the addition of The Great Puppet Theater and its colorful cast of characters. Based off the archetypes of both the Commedia dell’arte and classic Neapolitan puppetry, the stock personalities of the troupe’s members do not make their antics and arguments any less entertaining.

Dusty Higgins’ artwork has evolved along with Jensen’s scripts. I noted in my review of the first Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer that Higgins’ work resembled that of Jhonen Vasquez of Johnny The Homicidal Maniac fame. The puppets and vampires still sport a similarly stylized look, but there’s a subtle softness to Higgins’ human characters this time around. Indeed some of the panels featuring Caroltta are downright mangaesque.

If you own the first Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer book, you owe it to yourself to pick up this equally excellent sequel. And if you don’t own the first book, you should get it immediately along with the rest of this series. I consider this series a must-have for any serious Young Adult Graphic Novel collection.

Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer, vol. 2 — Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer and the Great Puppet Theater
by Van Jensen
Art by Dusty Higgins
ISBN: 9781593622039
SLG Publishing, 2010
Publisher Age Rating: (13+)

Strongman

StrongmanEl Tigre is not the hero he used to be. It’s been thirty years since his heyday, and he is a shadow of the great fighter that he used to be. He has run from Mexico, the country he loved and swore to protect, to become an alcoholic punching bag for amateur wrestlers. El Tigre was going to blearily continue down this path, until news brought to him by a desperate young woman stirs him out of his stupor and back into action.

This comic has every right to be amazing. It’s a redemption tale inter-cut with stories of the past, it has a unique premise, and great characters. But despite all of that, Strongman fell short of its promises. Take El Tigre, who doesn’t love a redemption tale? We’re ready for this man to remember the titan he was and stand up for the little man of the burrio again. As he finds his way toward that path, there is a great commitment to never allow Tigre to take off his luchador mask. Even as he’s wallowing in the middle of a trashed apartment, he is El Tigre. It’s a very striking image. However, when El Tigre takes to the streets, the comic goes easy on the reader. The most obvious problem is no one mentions that El Tigre is wearing a mask. People remark on his size, and poor state, but only two people in the comic seem to realize that the weirdest thing about El Tigre’s appearance is that in the middle of New York, this guy is walking around with a luchador’s mask on like it’s a baseball cap. I’m not holding a vendetta against masks, there are just no cues from the art or words as to whether or not the reader is supposed to feel this is intentional, or as misplaced as it feels.

Masks aside, El Tigre is no Sherlock. When it comes to tracking down the criminal who is trafficking human body parts, Tigre has to find one bar (which he is told) and ask two people. The first person he didn’t even have to threaten, and the second that’s all he did. I’m not an expert in illegal pushing, but if that is all I had to do to find the head of a criminal operation? I’d be rethinking my employees.

The story continues like that. El Tigre is overwrought in his sense of justice. Its as if he flipped on a switch he forgot he had over the past 3 decades. He doesn’t carry a sense of gray into battle, there is just what is right, and what is wrong. He is full of all of the bad one-liners you would expect from a pro-wrestler, and delivers right in the face of the bad guy. Speaking of him, he is so decidedly evil, it stops being fun at some point. The comic started with a promise of exploring a unique character in a realistic setting. But Tigre becomes the epitome of all things good, and the bad guy is so ludicrously evil the reader has no hope of empathizing with him.

All of this is completely unfair to the reader. As these revelations are disappointing, different story points keep coming up that make the narrative potentially compelling. I can’t specify what happens without throwing out the baby and bath water, but there are about three different instances in the comic where I felt driven to read more because the author had tossed in an authentically interesting twist.

Out of everything, I certainly can’t complain about the art. It is rendered in grayscale, line and tone, and is completely serviceable. The book is only eight or nine inches high, and most pages have six or more panels on them, which keeps the art pretty small. That said, it is still very legible. It’s a shame that the art isn’t given more room to breathe, but it does make the reading face paced.

Strongman had the potential to hit on so many levels, it is frustrating to see it fall short. It feels as if you could rub out a couple word balloons and cut out some of the extra cheesiness to the story, it hit you right in the emotional gut. As it stands, it falls squarely in the middle of success, a rank that does not befit a grand character such as El Tigre.

Strongman
by Charles Soule
Art by Allan Gladfelter
ISBN: 978-159362152
SLG, 2009
Publisher Age Rating: OT (16 )

The Sisters’ Luck

The Sisters' LuckUmbra and Antumbra are twins, who together are nothing special, but apart they can cause happiness and pain, impart good luck or bad luck — in other words, complete opposites. After Umbra leaves, both she and her sister lead very different lives. Umbra is beautiful, living a luxurious life stealing good luck just by touching people. Antumbra lives in isolation, in constant fear of being touched because when that happens, the person inevitably dies. Death is the worst luck for anyone and Antumbra can impart that on someone with a simple touch. The only way they can live normal lives is if they live together, cancelling out each others powers, but Umbra wants nothing to do with her twin. When Antumbra seeks out Umbra in hopes to live an ordinary life, she is cast out and rejected by her sister. Unbeknownst to both of them, there are other powers at work. Sergio, also named Seis, is Umbra’s manager, and David, also named Seofon, rescues Anteumbra from certain death. They are brothers and Sergio is looking to use the twins’ powers to rule the world while David is trying to stop him. So begins the ultimate struggle of good vs. evil.

Wow, this story is intense and surprising. There are a few F words and gory moments that included blood, violence and gruesome death scenes. Although in black and white, the death scenes are striking and impactful. The black and white artwork is very sharp and vivid, depicting the scenes perfectly and the emotions flawlessly. There were some instances where color would have been appreciated, especially in describing David who is an Albino. The depiction of the sisters as complete opposites is just right and while the premise isn’t believable and the connection between the sisters and the larger picture isn’t flushed out, it’s still an enjoyable read that will captivate fans of manga. The story is unfinished; hopefully there will be a second volume.

The Sisters’ Luck
by Shari Chankhamma
ISBN: 9781593621902
SLG Publishing, 2010

Captain Longears

imgresCaptain Longears is a confused, imaginative little boy who always wears a hat with bunny ears. Together with his stuffed animal Captain Jam, he goes on Space Ninja adventures. At least, he used to, until Captain Big Nose went missing. Now, he and Captain Jam must try to find Captain Big Nose at Happy Land, where he used to take them every year, and save him.

This graphic novel was not what I thought it was going to be. Based on the funny title and the brightly-colored cover, I was expecting something along the lines of “Adventure Time” or “Astronaut Academy”, a fun, quirky, and hilarious story about two friends trying to save the world/princess/etc. Instead, I found myself reading an insightful, emotional story about a lonely little boy with a whole lot of imagination. The book goes back and forth from Captain Longears’ view of the world and reality. He sees monsters and goblins, when really it is an adult trying to help him or just someone passing by eating an ice cream.

Despite the inventive plotline, I had some trouble with the overall book. While the artwork in the first few pages showed me I was in a magical place with the use of swirling lines and spirals, it does not for the rest of the book. The use of black and white simple, cartoony art is effective for telling the “real” part of the story, but I found myself confused in a few places about whether what was happening was real or not. By the end of the book, things become more clear concerning the action, but the muddling in the middle was really confusing. It would have been helpful if there had been some differentiation, such as wavy panel lines or something to make things more clear.

Though Captain Big Nose’s identity is supposed to be a mystery, it was very obvious who he was supposed to represent. We never find out why he is gone. I have my theories, but the story gives conflicting answers. The story moved very slowly for me, but showed some very real, raw emotions. By the end of the book, I really felt for Captain Longears and desperately wanted to help him.

The story was a great idea, but it could have been carried out more effectively on the page. Based on my own confusion and the depth of emotions the story elicits, it read more adult to me, than the 10 and up suggested by the publisher. It is very clear that this is Thung’s first graphic novel, but I definitely think she is someone to watch.

Captain Longears
by Diana Thung
ISBN: 978159362187
SLG Publishing, 2010
Publisher Age Rating: Ages 10 and up

Animal Crackers

animal_crackers
   
Many people first encountered Gene Luen Yang with his Printz award-winning title American Born Chinese. Now we have the opportunity to read his earlier works in a collection titled Animal Crackers. Combining three titles, Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks, Sammy Baker and the M.A.C., and Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order, Animal Crackers is like a peek into a formative process that would emerge full-blown in Yang’s later works.

In Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks, the titular character is, to put it bluntly, a bully. He’s a tall, overweight ox of a teen and knows he’s not the brightest kid on his block. His friend Devon gets him to do most of the heavy-lifting in the pranks they play on the geeks of their school, choosing one freshman and proclaiming him King of the Geeks. But that’s not the first thing we see. Instead on the opening page we’re greeted an odd caption in Gordon’s words: “A couple of nights ago, I had a dream that my nose was pregnant.” along with an accompanying splash page of Gordon with a definite bulge in his nose. This surreal touch sets the tone for the entire book.

Eventually Gordon’s nightmare becomes reality and there’s that bulge in Gordon’s nose as he wakes up one Sunday. A voice from his nose tells him that there’s no cause to worry and to find out what’s going on all he has to do is to plug the coaxial cable from his TV into his nostril. (Do NOT try this at home!) Then he finds out from a little robot in the teeny ship inside his nose that he’s one of many unknowing people who are used to gather data in order to save the human race. The solution to Gordon’s problem? Simple. He just has to connect his nose with another data-collector. And who else would it be but the newly-crowned Geek King, Miles Tanner. The data transfer doesn’t go as expected, and suddenly the memories and feelings of Miles are implanted in Gordon. The effects change his whole attitude and launch both Gordon and Miles on a journey of self-discovery.

The second story featuring Sammy Baker highlights an incident referred to in the first story with a silly tale about bakery products gone bad, but the payoff would be in the last tale in the volume. Again the main character, Loyola, finds herself dreaming odd dreams. These dreams lead her to a mystery man who calls himself Saint Danger. He is the leader of the San Peligran Order, the very same secret society that Gordon found out is trying to save humanity. In Saint Danger, Loyola finds someone with an ideal, a vision for humanity that’s very attractive to her. Especially when contrasted with the rest of her life where Gordon, the big lug, is sweet on her.

All through these stories there are ridiculous situations that both hide and pose serious questions. Aimed at a teen audience, Yang’s black and white artwork is deceptively simple and lend a lightheartedness to these tales. At times the book seems slightly forced and over-the-top, reminding us that this is the author’s early work. But the kernels of self-exploration and growth are there, themes that Yang brings together deftly his later titles.

Another thing that will be of interest is the bonus material at the back of the book, including early sketches as well as a short comic that tells how Yang put the story together and got it published. For those looking to make their own graphic novels, it’s a great look into the process. All in all Animal Crackers will appeal both to fans of Yang’s other titles as well as teens who want to read something that’s easy to get through and still make you think.

Animal Crackers
by Gene Luen Yang
ISBN: 9781593621834
SLG Publishing, 2010
Publisher Age Rating: Teen

Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer, vol. 1

It was, perhaps, inevitable that the trend of combining classical literature with monsters begun by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies would eventually find its way into the worlds of graphic novels and fairy tales. This is the only logical reason I can think of for a book like Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer existing. But sometimes Logic must take a back-seat to Awesome and this little graphic novel is nothing if not awesome.

We know from the beginning that this is not going to be a Bowdlerized Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. A brief comic at the start summarizes the original, darker Pinocchio stories by Carlo Collodi, informing us that things did not end Happily Ever After. Now, Pinocchio is older and somewhat wiser, fighting to avenge the death of his father Geppetto at the hands of the vampires who have secretly taken over the village of Nasolungo.

A writer could just play off of the amusing title and trust the story to sell itself but thankfully author Van Jensen is better than that. Oh, we get vampire-slaying in spades, as Pinocchio tells lies and breaks his own nose in order to give himself stakes but there’s more to it than that. There is a mystery, as the vampires work toward an unknown goal under a shadowy leader. There is drama, as Pinocchio weighs his desire to be a real boy and seek love with a real girl against his responsibilities as a hero. And yes, there is even slapstick comedy as that poor cricket, who tried to steer Pinocchio down the straight and narrow path, returns as a ghost only to experience more abuse.

The art by Dusty Higgins is perfectly stylized for this story. This book has some of the best use of shadow I’ve seen in a story printed in gray scale, avoiding the trap so many horror books fall into obscuring the original pencils in inks. With the blocky characters and cartoonish expressions, Higgins’ work is reminiscent, though distinctive, from the work of another artist famous who once worked for Slave Labor Graphics – Jhonen Vasquez of Johnny The Homicidal Maniac fame.

This book, which was already named one of the Top Ten Graphic Novels for Teens by YALSA is a must-have for any public library graphic novel collection. There’s nothing here the 12 And Up crowd can’t handle though I would advise being careful to make sure this doesn’t accidentally get shelved in the children’s section because of the title. Promote this book to your Hot Topic teens and tweens as well as all fans of Fables and Tim Burton’s films. And I suppose it should go without saying that any Buffy fans among your patrons will be equally amused by this book.

Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer, vol. 1
Written by Van Jansen; Art by Dusty Higgins
ISBN: 9781593621766
SLG Publishing, 2009

Birdhouse

An elderly king removed from the world of commoners. A palace cook roped into playing assassin. A princess confined to her rooms. A royal fiancé trapped between his duty to his king and that which he owes to his future bride. All of these collide in a story that is part fairy-tale, part contemporary dysfunctional family.

White’s debut graphic novel is quiet and methodical, but almost too much so at times. He does an excellent job of setting up a feeling of claustrophobia, though. All of his characters are trapped in some way, locked into lives they don’t like and can’t seem to change. In one scene, the king makes his future son-in-law Wilson promise to never leave him, “Promise you’ll stay here and protect me forever.” Readers can see the reluctance on Wilson’s face and understand that he feels as though he has no other option but to stay and serve, his own personal interests shoved to the side. But Wilson is the easiest character to read. Others are harder to identify with, especially the princess….

This review was originally posted at Good Comics for Kids. Please visit the original post to see the rest of the review.

Birdhouse
Vernon White
ISBN: 978-1-59362-185-8
SLG Publishing, February 2010