We Ride Titans

“It’s going to come at you fast, and you’re going to freeze.” For Kit Hobbs, fighting monsters is the family business. But facing unexpected responsibilities she didn’t want is only the beginning. It’s salvaging her family that’s truly going to be the challenge.

In a world where monstrous kaiju regularly attack cities, Nexus Command oversees a network of city defenders known as Titans, gigantic robots with human pilots who serve as the only line of defense between the kaiju and human civilization. When Kit’s father lost the use of his legs piloting a Titan, the job fell to his son—leaving Kit feeling discarded as second best and estranged from her family. However, when addiction and depression make Kit’s brother more of a liability than an asset, she is called back home, both to look after her brother and take his seat in the Titan for as long as she’s needed.

Remembering her training and fighting kaiju is hard enough, but there’s an unidentified Titan making appearances in Kit’s city, picking fights and disappearing without a trace, a Titan with no pilot. It’s one more problem to solve even as Kit fights for her life every time she climbs into the pilot’s seat. And that’s not even the biggest issue facing her. Family legacy is a heavy thing. The demands of the job haunt her parents, causing rifts between them and their children. The pressure and never-ending expectations drove Kit’s brother to the bottle and kept Kit from her family for years. And now, returning home and reopening old wounds is straining Kit’s relationship with her partner. Hoping for redemption is easy. Finding it is hard. And if Kit manages to survive the threats encroaching on her city, there are still years of trauma left to confront on the way to something resembling a happy ending.

Written by Tres Dan, We Ride Titans from Vault Comics searches for a balance between kaiju vs. mecha action and emotionally grounded family drama. The limited series delivers on its promise in the opening pages as Kit’s brother teeters on the edge of success and calamity in a fight against the newest monster. As the story continues, the action is intriguing, but it is the family moments which carry the most weight. The comic’s examination of family trauma and healing is strikingly relatable and delivered with empathy and nuance from all the various members of the family. With only 5 issues, the story does end up feeling rushed in places, especially the drama of the larger kaiju/Titan conflict. However, given the amount of space these creators have to work with, they do serve up some bold mecha action alongside strikingly tender family moments grounded in flawed characters who are worth spending time with.

Bringing the action and emotion to life, Sebastian Piriz captures the epic scale of the physical conflicts as well as the intimate moments of conversation, hurt, and beauty that continue to shape the lives of the characters. The action sequences are occasionally difficult to follow, but the range of gross monsters is fun to watch as they rampage across the page, and Piriz conveys the very human lives of these characters in engaging detail. In facial expressions and dynamic paneling, Piriz and the other artists work to convey the depth of the story with each new twist of the plot.

Vault does not provide a specific age rating for this title, but with sci-fi violence, strong language, and thematic elements, it’s a story aimed at older teens and adults. The creators organically include a good range of diversity in terms of race, sexuality, and disability, and the main setup of Titans fighting kaiju across cities is sure to have appeal to fans of anime and science fiction. With everything else this title does well, its greatest strength really is the character relationships and examination of family at the story’s center. For We Ride Titans, its greatest flaw is its brevity, but as it delivers on its epic premise and grounds everything in its characters and their complicated lives, there’s plenty here to enjoy for a wide range of readers.

We Ride Titans
By Tres Dean
Art by Sebastian Piriz
Vault, 2022
ISBN: 9781638491187

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation:  Argentinian
Character Representation: Black, Lesbian, Mobility Impairment,  Addiction

Resonant, Vols. 1 & 2

What if anger came not just as a feeling, but undeniable ‘waves’ of pure violence causing death and destruction in its wake? The complete series of Resonant presents a world years into these waves, with a unique take on the post-apocalypse genre. 

At just ten issues and only two volumes, one would think Resonant would be an easy skip. After all, by volume one’s end we have four storylines going on and not enough backstory on each to really know what to expect. However, the second volume presents more information on the wave and a sinister Stepford-ish cult that seems too good to be true. There is enough here to warrant a further look, despite its abrupt end.

Writer David Brian “DB” Andry starts with a familiar setting for post-apocalypse fans: a remote cabin in the woods with our main family hiding from those who would cause harm. Paxton, single father of three, must leave his eldest daughter and son in charge of the youngest as he goes out to get much-needed medicine. In true hero’s journey fashion, he is constantly waylaid by a strange group of blindfolded people roaming the countryside, a dictatorship island cult, and a very strange commune where the Wave seems non-existent. The b-plot, as it were, involves the eldest daughter and son exploring their identities in the absence of their father. For example, the daughter becomes the protector of the family during a wave, bear attack, and arrival of the blindfolded people. Much like Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, the origins of The Wave are not given, rather its effects on all of the characters and how they deal with it when it comes is the focus of the story. 

While I was along for the ride with Andry’s story, the art was a bit of a different story. The first volume of five issues features art by Alejandro Aragon. This artist also drew for BOOM! studio’s The Expanse, which I reviewed as well. While I can say I did like his art more here, it still suffered from some strange facial features and shapes, and again the art has a lot of black linework that just seems unnecessary. However, in issue 6 Skylar Patridge takes over art and I found it comparable to Cliff Chiang’s work on Paper Girls, with much more consistent and realistic faces and lighter touches on black inking throughout. 

Andry is a new name in comics, at least to those like me unfamiliar with the fledgling Vault Comics, which only launched in 2016. I have to admit this was my first title read from this publisher, but if it is indicative of their content, I would try out more titles! It was not long ago that BOOM! Comics was a new name in publishing, and Vault’s focus on Horror, Sci-Fi, and Fantasy comics could add diversity to an older teen, adult comic audience.

I would recommend this comic to older teens and adults, although I had a hard time finding the publisher’s recommended age rating. While its length may deter those who want something with longevity, it provides a quick and different look at the heavily populated world of post-apocalypse comics.

Resonant, Vols. 1 & 2
By DB Andry
Art by  Alejandro Aragon, Skylar Patridge
Vault, 2021
Vol 1 ISBN: 9781939424495
Vol 2 ISBN: 9781638490074

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

Heathen: The complete Series Omnibus Edition

Aydis is the finest hunter and warrior in her tribe. This is something of a problem as her people believe that the role of women is to marry early and start having children. (Preferably boy children, of course.) Her father was allowed to indulge her, however, up until she kissed another girl in the village. Aydis spared him the pain of marrying her off or killing her, however, declaring herself outlaw and leaving all she ever knew behind.

Now, Aydis is on a quest to build a better world, for she knows that the edicts that prohibit women from being warriors or loving other women were delivered from on high by the All-Father Odin. Thus she will free herself and other women like her, starting with the Valkyrie Brynhild, who defied Odin’s whim and was cursed to wait for a mortal to claim her as their bride.

Heathen offers a new view of Norse mythology, which, it must be admitted, is predominantly conveyed through masculine voices. This is largely due to what few stories of the Norse gods have survived to be passed down into the modern era. While the Vikings had a pantheon as rich as that of the Ancient Greeks, we know very little about deities like Eir the goddess of medicine and Saga, who is presumed to be the goddess of poetry because of her name. This is ironic given how relatively progressive their culture was regarding the rights of women.

In this, Heathen is not a historically accurate work. It does, however, take ample inspiration from the Völsunga saga, bringing in Brynhild and her would-be husband Sigurd as members of the ensemble, alongside the Norse gods. The script by Natasha Alterici puts a decidedly feminist spin on these sagas and characters.

Heathen’s portrayal of Freya is a fine example of this. In most of the surviving myths involving Freya, the Viking goddess of love and war is either reduced to the role of a bargaining chip in the games between the male gods and various giants who want her as their wife in exchange for some service or as a greedy harlot willing to prostitute herself for the sake of some fine dwarven jewelry. The Freya of Heathen is lusty and bisexual, as one might expect from a love goddess, but she is also a warrior who offers Aydis her support, even after Aydis rejects the offer of a place by her side.

The artwork by Alterici and, in the final four chapters, by Ashley Woods perfect suits the mood of the story. Rendered in muted earth tones with simple line work, the reader is reminded of the woodcuts that accompanied many classic manuscripts. In this, Heathen perfectly emulates the feeling of the old Norse sagas, presenting itself as some lost tale only recently unearthed. Fans of dark fantasy are sure to find it enthralling.

Heathen is rated 16+ and I consider that rating to be a fair one. There is a fair bit of nudity and sexual content, particularly when Freya’s realm is revealed, and the story does not shy away from depicting the violence of Viking culture. The story also involves some frank discussion of religion that make it more suitable for older audiences that can fully appreciate the nuances of Aydis’ quest.

Heathen: The Complete Series Omnibus Edition
By Natasha Alterici
Art by Natasha Alterici, Ashley Woods
Vault, 2022
ISBN: 9781638490906

Publisher Age Rating: 16+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Queer
Character Representation: Lesbian

The Unfinished Corner

Middle schooler Miriam Feigenbaum is about to be an adult. Well, in the Jewish tradition, that is. Her Bat Mitzvah is quickly approaching, so she’s got a lot on her plate: practicing her Torah portion, attempting not to roll her eyes too hard at her Dad’s terrible jokes, party planning, and, oh yeah, getting sent on a surprise journey to finish the mythical Unfinished Corner—the one section that was left undone when the world was created, where it’s said everything evil and monstrous hides. Just completely regular things for a 12-year-old who isn’t even sure how she feels about being Jewish, right?

What was supposed to be a field trip for winners of the school art contest is suddenly the adventure of a lifetime for Miriam, her two best friends Avi and David, and their classmate/frenemy Judith, complete with shapeshifting buses, fantastical creatures, and a rabbi who might just be something more. As the intrepid tweens make their way across this mystical and mysterious land in search of the Unfinished Corner, they’ll find themselves delving deeper than ever into Jewish traditions, mythology, history, and lore, and maybe, just maybe, starting to figure out what being Jewish means to them. And if they’re lucky, Miriam might help them save the universe while they’re at it.

There has been an uptick of late in middle grade novels centering the mythology of historically underrepresented cultures, and The Unfinished Corner fits right in, with the graphic novel format making it even more accessible. Part coming of age story and part adventure yarn, author Dani Colman seamlessly weaves those aspects together with stories from the Jewish tradition that many readers may not be familiar with. Through conversations between our main four characters, as well as from folks they meet along their trek, stories and religious customs are explained in a way that feels casual and conversational; natural and not didactic, even when asterisks are employed to translate Hebrew terminology and phrases. 

As a non-Jewish reviewer, I cannot speak about the representation the book provides in the same way that a Jewish reviewer would be able to. I can, however, say that Dani Colman is a Jewish author, and lends at least her own lived experience to the voices of Miriam, Judith, Avi, David, and the cultural nuances they express throughout the book as they learn and grow together. So much Jewish literature for youth is focused on one specific period of history. It is incredibly refreshing to see instead a story where our main characters are just regular kids dealing with generic tween things like trying to figure out whether or not to wear makeup, drawing cool maps for role playing games, taking up a martial art to deal with bullies, and the way friendships grow and change, especially when you’re maybe hiding a pretty big secret. All while on an epic adventure, of course!

As always, when it comes to graphic novels, the stories would be mere shadows of themselves without the talented illustrators who bring the characters to life on the page. Rachel “Tuna” Petrovicz’s art style feels like watching an animated TV show or film; perfect for the wide range of events throughout the book, from action-packed demon fight scenes to the moments of goofiness, exaggerated expressions, and humor, and the quieter moments of deep frustration and generational anguish. Each character has a vivid, bright personality, and the diversity of backgrounds is made clear as well (Miriam and Avi are white, David seems to be coded as Black and possibly Iranian as well, given that he mentions speaking Farsi, and Judith seems to be coded as Latine and speaks Spanish). It’s an important visual reminder that there is not one specific way to be Jewish.

A recommended purchase for any library, The Unfinished Corner fills a much-needed gap in Jewish youth literature and is an at turns informative, funny, moving, and exciting graphic novel that will appeal to middle grade readers who are fans of friendship stories and anything under the Rick Riordan Presents imprint.

The Unfinished Corner 
By Dani Colman
Art by Rachel “Tuna” Petrovicz
Vault, 2021
ISBN: 9781638490111

Publisher Age Rating: 8-13

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

Barbaric, vol. 1: Murderable Offenses

Owen was a barbarian warrior. He knew the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on his palate, the hot embrace of white arms and the mad exultation of battle, when the blue blades flame and crimson. He lived. He loved. He slayed. And he was content. At least, he was content up until a trio of witches came and gave Owen a choice: a quick death and an eternity in a hellish realm populated by every enemy he’d ever killed, or a life on their terms. Owen chose life and has regretted it ever since.

Now Owen is bound to an intelligent weapon, a magic axe named Axe, who will not shed blood unless wielded for the cause of good. To make matters worse, Axe is a mean drunk, who becomes intoxicated and surly after a good fight, and only Owen can seem to hear its voice. Thankfully, for the sake of Owen’s bloodlust, there’s no shortage of bad people who need killing and monsters that need slaying. Which is how Owen, reluctantly, comes to the aid of a good witch who needs help cleansing her temple.

As one might guess from the title, Barbaric is not a title for the faint of heart. It is bloody. It is vicious. At times, it is downright gruesome, nauseating, and to a certain class of people, outright offensive. It is also hilarious and easily the best satire of traditional sword-and-sorcery comics since the early days of Cerebus the Aardvark.

Michael Moreci treads well-traveled ground with his script, but puts a unique spin on material that might have otherwise proven tired or hackneyed. Other comedic fantasy series have tackled these story elements before, presenting their own sullen-browed, empty-headed, reluctant heroes with magic weapons that are smarter than they are. What marks Barbaric as unique is that Owen, for all his nasty and brutal ways, is far more than dumb muscle. It is not that he doesn’t understand the ways of civilized man. He just doesn’t have the patience to worry about morality and is content, to borrow a phrase from Robert E. Howard, to “let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion.” This makes it all the funnier when Axe speaks up to explain to Owen just why killing a man for stealing food to feed his family is not a killing offense, but enslaving children is.

The artwork by Nathan Gooden is appropriately visceral and gritty, given the subject matter. Despite this, there is surprisingly little of the excess one expects from fantasy comics aimed at adults. That is to say that Owen’s good-witch companion is respectably clad throughout the comic and there’s no forced-posed fan-service. The action sequences are well-blocked and the colors by Addison Duke suitably vivid.

Barbaric, vol. 1 is rated 17+ by Vault Comics and rightly so. There is nudity and sexual content in plenty. There is a healthy amount of profanity, blasphemy, and four-letter words. There are severed heads, severed limbs, one evil priest being cut in half and more blood and guts than a slasher-horror film festival. The prudish will not approve, but fans of dark fantasy will love it and eagerly anticipate Barbaric, vol. 2.

Barbaric, vol. 1: Murderable Offenses
By Michael Moreci
Art by Nathan Gooden
Vault, 2021
ISBN: 9781638490081
Publisher Age Rating: 17+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)

Vampire The Masquerade: Winter’s Teeth

Vampire: The Masquerade (or V:tM) is probably the most successful role-playing game in history, apart from Dungeons and Dragons. The first game made for what became known as the World of Darkness setting, V:tM cast players in the role of the titular blood-sucking monsters, who spend their nights struggling to survive the Machiavellian political structure maintained by the eldest vampires, control the dark hunger that animates their undead forms, and retain what little humanity they have left. Generally V:tM is not a game of heroes and bold deeds, and that is well reflected by the new tie-in comic book series from Vault Comics.

“Winter’s Teeth” spins two different stories set among the vampires of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The first is centered around Cecily Bain, a freelance troubleshooter who reluctantly works as the muscle of the leaders of the Camarilla—the vampiric society that runs the nightlife of the Twin Cities and enforces the Masquerade that hides the existence of vampires from humans. Pressured to further tie herself to the local Prince, Cecily decides to claim the rare privilege of being allowed a “childe” and adopts Alejandra; a fledgling vampire seemingly abandoned by her creator and, by the laws of the Camarilla, an outlaw with no right to an afterlife. Thus does Cecily introduce “Ali” (and us) to the World of Darkness, even as she begins investigating Ali’s origins and a plot to overthrow the Prince.

The second story, “The Anarch Tales,” centers around a found family of Anarchs; vampires who live outside the structure set up by the Camarilla, but still try to maintain the Masquerade and their humanity. The central character here is Colleen Pendergrass; a thin-blood vampire who can pass for human and survive the touch of the sun but lacks the specialized powers most vampires possess. Colleen’s family takes a courier job that takes them to the Twin Cities, with each chapter revealing the origins of each member of the family and how the curse of vampirism altered them differently.

Fans of urban fantasy will find the stories of Cecily, Ali, Colleen, and company enjoyable, as Tim Seeley, Blake Howard, and Tini Howard do a fantastic job of establishing them as relatable, if not entirely likable, protagonists. What’s even more amazing is how well they establish the Vampire: the Masquerade setting and utilize the terminology of the game mechanics naturally within the context of the story. Newcomers who can’t tell a Brujah from a Gangrel will have no trouble getting into the swing of things, as the central story has Cecily showing Ali the facts of unlife and The Anarch Tales explains the Sabbath (i.e., vampires who embrace their inhumanity and seek to overthrow the Camarilla) as well as the particulars of some of the bigger clans and their powers.

Despite being a solid primer for the game and including some character sheets and other materials for players, Winter’s Teeth is a comic book, first and foremost, and the artwork perfectly suits the setting. Devmalya Pramanik and Nathan Gooden capture the Gothic splendor and horror of vampiric unlife. What truly completes the art, however, is the color art of Addison Duke, who renders most of the comic in a washed-out palette that subtly hints at the faded glory of the older vampire aristocrats and the muted half-life experienced by most young vampires.

Vault Comics rates this series as 15+, but I would suggest that it is more appropriate for adult audiences. As one might expect from a story centered around vampires, this series does not skimp on the bloodshed and there are many disturbing images of people being cut, stabbed, beheaded, set on fire, buried alive, eviscerated, defenestrated, and undergoing nearly any sort of physical punishment you can imagine. There’s not much in the way of sexual content, apart from the Prince of St. Paul (a vampire named Samantha) painting in the nude and even then only her bare backside is shown. While this is tame by the standards of True Blood and other similar shows, the story is mature enough to be best appreciated by adult audiences rather than most older teens.

Vampire The Masquerade: Winter’s Teeth Vol. 01
By Tim Seeley, Blake Howard, Tini Howard
Art by  Devmalya Pramanik, Nathan Gooden, Addison Duke
Vault Comics, 2021
ISBN: 9781939424808

Title Details and Representation
Publisher Age Rating:  15+ Only
Series ISBNS and Order
Related media:  Game to Comic
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Representation: American,

No One’s Rose

“Solar punk,” an optimistic, greener version of the steampunk genre, tackles environmental and social issues when envisioning the future. In the future depicted in No One’s Rose, the environmental is the social, as humanity has holed up inside a biodome called The Green Zone, in an attempt to ride out the apocalyptic conditions raging outside. Two white-presenting siblings, Tenn and Seren, are involved with opposing factions within The Green Zone. Is life under protection of the ruling PELU (Post-Environmental-Liberation-Union) as safe as it really seems? How will each of them handle revelations to the contrary?

This self-contained volume collects five issues into a single trade. The first three issues are great at building up The Green Zone as a place full of lore and history, including class tensions and misinformation. Tenn and Seren are bright, observant, and want to help make society the best version of itself. Their methods, however, are polar opposites. Sister Tenn is on the socially stable path of helping a government laboratory research breakthroughs in plant health while brother Seren organizes public demonstrations against the ruling and upper classes. Conspiracies abound, as Tenn’s supervisors recognize her scientific talents as well as unique scapegoat position for their own misdeeds. Meanwhile, Seren’s black boyfriend with the dome’s security force is aiding an approaching coup.

Alberto Alburguerque’s illustrations and Raul Angulo’s colors fill each page with lush scenery. This almost-utopia is full of plants in all modes of life, from the enormous, bio-engineered tree that supports all life in the dome to vegetarian meals to agricultural portrayals. The relatively clean urban life of the upper and lower dome classes contrasts heavily against the dirty, violent outside world of mud, pollution, and lightning storms. The speculative sci-fi nature of the story leads to futuristic props such as multi-legged vehicles, plant-powered breathing masks, and hover carts. Layouts are similarly lush, with plenty of panels and dialogue/monologue bubbles to navigate in some sequences.

What sets No One’s Rose apart from other sci-fi tales about overthrowing a deceptive dystopia is that there are few genuine villains. There are genuine quality of life gaps between the classes, and the dome’s official leadership can be shady, but nobody wants the dome’s residents or its life-sustaining tree to die. The central conflicts are about how the dome can address its shrinking window of opportunity to either invent a new solution or migrate to a new location. An away mission takes characters to an offsite, agrarian town that represents an alternative, more adaptive mode of living. This idea-centric approach means a back half that can feel anticlimactic to anyone expecting a big, conclusive showdown against a clearly coded antagonist. It also means a constructive finale that emphasizes grassroots efforts and community support.

No One’s Rose is one of a kind among sci-fi graphic novels, or at least I haven’t read much else like it. Comics fans don’t often read a story that starts with disruptive protests and leads to conversations about non-human rights and fertilizing techniques. There’s plenty of visual sumptuousness to keep readers following along with all of the ideas presented. Where content matter is concerned, there are four-letter words, some guns and punching, and a bare butt, but they are not the core of the book. I would recommend this series for teens and up.

Additionally, I wrote about the storytelling techniques of the first issue for Comics Bookcase a while back. You can see more about how the book looks and works here.

No One’s Rose
By Zac Thompson and Emily Horn
Art by Alberto Alburquerque
ISBN: 9781939424747
Vault Comics, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Teen Plus (16+)
Series ISBNS and Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18)
Character Traits: Gay
Related to…: Book to Comic

Sera and the Royal Stars, Vol. 1

Princess Sera, traveling with her troops in a time of famine and civil war, is recruited by the Indo-Iranian deity Mitra to find and restore the Royal Stars. If she is unable to break the stars’ bonds, death will befall her kingdom of Parsa (Persia). The Bull, the Scorpion, the Fish, and other figures of ancient Persian mythology will join her journey to save Parsa from ultimate destruction and her traitorous uncle Shaheen’s machinations. Or, to hear Sera summarize her situation in the first chapter, “I had my heart replaced with a glowing rock. Then I rescued an ancient star being from a gang of lizard men. I can handle complicated.”

Audrey Mok and Raul Angulo have created an eye-catching monster. Sera & The Royal Stars is too beautiful to resist. Everyone has a symmetrical, expressive face. The outfits always have a flowing element to them, from sashes to hair to those large tassels that come out the back of soldiers’ helmets. Paneling constantly uses cause and effect: a shield is struck in one panel and cracks below in the next. Someone charges forward in one diagonal panel and is challenged by someone running up the opposite direction along the same line. The colors are so damn satisfying that, after originally reading this comic digitally, I also purchased physical issues to check if the uncanny warm/cool color balancing works on the printed page (it does). The use of realistic and supernatural settings, as well as day and night light sources, means a variety of colors for each location. Jim Campbell’s lettering is unobtrusive and allows the visuals to breathe as much as possible. This isn’t just eye candy, it’s a mouthful of your favorite full-sized candy on Halloween.

I am no expert on Persian mythology and cannot evaluate the accuracy or educational value of the figures portrayed; all the same, this is an attractive and compelling story that allows Sera ample opportunities to be strong, bold, stubborn, wistful, sad, assertive, amused, and confused. She must navigate family drama, especially her uncle’s power play for the throne. Supernatural norms emerge as she converses with royal stars and learns how they lost and could possibly regain their strength. The royal stars themselves act as mentors, instigators, teachers, and skilled defenders. Fire and ice magic bloom on the page. Punches, kicks, and blades create swooping lines and blur effects, though the violence is never gratuitous or gory. There is a water spirit who appears with an exposed (blue, translucent) breast on one page. Language is mild, with a couple of “dammits” and little else.

Hand this comic to fans of The Dragon Prince, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Yona of the Dawn, Blackbird, and anything else resembling a gorgeous fantasy adventure. Think of it as Monstress without the M rating and a must-have for your collection.

Sera and the Royal Stars, Vol. 1 
By Jon Tsuei
Art by Audrey Mok
ISBN: 9781939424570
Vault, 2020
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18)

Browse for more like this title
Character Traits: Persian
Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator
Related to…: Inspired by myth


“Which is betterthe sweet lie, or the bitter truth?”

Elysia Puente grapples with these options as she explores the New York City subway system during a Category 3 hurricane. She’s looking for her little brother, Angel, who called her in a moment of desperation. Even though they are both adult age, she sees herself as his protector and braves a series of supernatural challenges in search of her brother as well as the truth between them. Her complete story envelopes not only her and her brother, but an entire family history’s worth of deceit.

Submerged is a taut, imaginative look at family trauma through a series of lenses. Over the course of its four chapters, Elysia’s journey sees her gradually coming to terms with the impact her parents had on her and her brother. For example, at one point, Elysia runs past a couple of posters on the subway station wall: one saying ‘Don’t give up on yourselfSeek help,’ the other, ‘Judy’s PiesJust like mom’s!’ This background detail foreshadows the spectre of Elysia’s mother, a real piece of work. She always pushed a rigid standard of living on Elysia’s life to the point of abuse, followed by forcefully apologizing to the point of a different but equally harmful abuse. She hugs Elysia too tight when she’s a child and forces her to switch schools so that she can’t see her girlfriend. She argues with teenage Elysia to not go to college. The mother’s reasons are always presented as for the father’s sake, but she is still enforcing that dominance on her daughter.

The story is straightforward enough on its own, with Elysia witnessing flashbacks to her childhood that gradually build an overarching narrative with a couple of concluding twists. However, readers who engage with the mythological name-dropping and symbolism will have plenty to digest. True to Greek myth, Phlegethon Station is all fire and smoke, just like its Greek underworld namesake, the river of fire. News reports about the hurricane above reference areas of New York City being submerged in “the river,” begging comparisons to the River Styx and the passage of the dead to the afterlife. Elysia even uses tokens to get in and out of the subway system, and the train conductor is blind like Charon, the ferryman of myth. Parallels to Odysseus’s and Orpheus’s classic journeys abound for readers to recognize.

Elysia is an entertaining character to follow. As she witnesses memories of dramatic arguments with her family, she makes self-aware comments such as, ‘If I live through this I’m never having kids, I swear to god’ and ‘My therapist is going to have a field day with this.’ She and her family are bilingual, and the parents consider Elysia’s consistent use of English a sign of disrespect. Elysia’s preference for girls is treated more severely, almost like a betrayal. Elysia uses the word ‘dyke’ to describe how she thinks others see her, and graffiti in the station uses that word as well, reflecting the pain she is revisiting.

A number of lettering effects are employed throughout the story. Dotted word balloons are used to show whispering. Gray lettering conveys an echo. Spiky balloons broadcast phone messages. Big, bold, yellow letters are used for sound effects. A variety of coloring and layout effects are also used. For example, in a scene of tracks changing direction, the page layout turns sideways, though it presents no additional difficulties in reading the content. As the storm worsens near the end of the book, the gutters themselves become watery blue lines of water running along the page. While the station is often bathed in shadows and populated with colorful ghosts, the train cars that display Elysia’s flashbacks each use different palettes, including black outlines switching to light browns.

The story also addresses gender roles from Elysia and Angel’s points of view. Angel fights Elysia over a dinosaur toy in childhood, saying it’s for boys, then apologizes. Elysia always bears the nickname La Princesa from her father, a term of affection but also control. Their father’s criminal empire places uniquely violent burdens on Angel’s shoulders. As a young man, Angel wants to prove himself to his father and freaks out the first time Angel impulsively uses a gun to kill someonehe says it was an accident. Later on, when he is assigned a hit, he refuses to pull the trigger and says about it, ‘It felt good, okay? I felt like a goddamn man, for once in my life.’ Later on, Elysia reflects, ‘If I don’t let go of the anger and resentment about the past, I’ll never leave it behind.’ Escape from the supernatural subway is an exercise in reflection, confession, and ultimately forgiveness.

Submerged is an excellent graphic novel that fits in a number of categories, such as queer, Spanish-language, horror, magical realism, and crime. The horror/violent content is fairly mild, with some tears of blood here and stabbing a giant caterpillar with a sword there. Other mature content, such as alcohol consumption, multiple four-letter words, and the aforementioned homophobic slur, place this squarely in older teen and adult territory.

By Vita Ayala
Art by Lisa Sterle
ISBN: 9781939424426
Vault, 2019

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

The Treasured Thief

The-Treasure-Thief-CoverA beautiful princess has traveled to Memphis, the grand capital of ancient Egypt, seeking a husband. She asks each of her suitors the same questions – what is the cleverest thing you’ve ever done, and what is the wickedest? But it isn’t until the sun is setting that a mysterious stranger appears at her tent, offering a tale that may just win the princess’s heart and provide the answers she was seeking.

The Treasured Thief is a retelling of an Egyptian myth known as the “Treasure Thief” – clever wordplay, right? To sum up Campfire’s version, the pharaoh tasks his master builder to create a mighty vault for the wealth of Egypt. The builder did so, but Pharaoh failed to do a background check – this man owed a great sum of money and built a secret passage into the vault. Savagely beaten by the men he owed, the builder confessed to his sons about the debt and the passageway. His sons break into the Great Vault and steal enough treasure to pay off the family’s obligations and bury their father. But they continue to find reasons to return for more, until Pharaoh finally notices that his wealth is diminishing. Thus begins a series of traps set by the pharaoh in an attempt to catch the treasure thief, leading to a story of sacrifice, cunning, and devotion.

I was unfamiliar with the myth of the “Treasure Thief” before reading this book. I enjoyed the overall story – Akhenta, the youngest son of the master builder and titular character, is well-meaning and clever, overcoming great obstacles. However, while I am no expert when it comes to Egyptian history or politics, it felt like the tale had been altered to fit in a few modern beliefs. For example, Akhenta’s older brother spends a scene lamenting that it’s not fair that only the rich can secure a place in the afterlife. “It does not fit in with the notion of just and loving gods. It seems like a ploy of the rich to keep the poor in check!” I haven’t ever heard the Egyptian pantheon referred to as just and loving gods. Author Ryan Foley gives the thieving sons something of a Robin Hood quality – they steal from the rich pharaoh in order to pay their father’s debts and keep their mother and sisters from becoming slaves. I did a little research on the original myth and there’s no mention of a debt or noble reasons for stealing. Instead, the builder is simply greedy and dies (of natural causes) before he can take advantage of his treachery, but not before imparting this knowledge to his greedy, quick-witted sons.

Foley and Nagar don’t shy away from showing slavery or violence, but continue to comment on it through their characters. For example, as Akhenta relates his tale to the princess, he tells her about his shame that Egypt uses slaves. The dialogue is stilted and awkward, often taking the reader out of the story. The writing takes an interesting myth and drains it of most of its charm and character.

Sachin Nagar’s artwork for The Treasured Thief matches the dialogue for awkwardness. I was reminded of several animated features from the late ’90s and early ’00s – The Prince of Egypt, The Emperor’s New Groove, and The Road to El Dorado – because of the character design. Character proportions are distractingly off; the flowing, rounded lines of chests, arms, and legs end in ridiculously tiny wrists and wide floppy hands attached to claw-like fingers. Many of the faces suffer from lazy eye, with pupils pointing opposite directions. Several images are reused, giving a déjà vu effect to certain panels (I’m sure I’ve already seen the pharaoh smirking this way… oh yeah, 16 pages earlier and with a slight change in clothing color). Nagar’s brief biography describes him as using his technological skills when obtaining his diploma in animation and this use of technology is reflected in the art of The Treasured Thief. Many of the backgrounds look like flat computer animation. The sound effects are blandly pasted on the page. Objects in motion are painfully blurred out of focus. The only pop comes from the vivid colors – perhaps the best part of the art style. Having seen some of Nagar’s work on the award-winning Ravana, I’m puzzled as to how the same artist is responsible for both works.

As with other Campfire graphic novels, they include a collection of related true stories at the end of the book. This section is titled “Sticky Fingers: All About Thieves.” Brief, interesting paragraphs about the theft of the Mona Lisa, D.B. Cooper’s robbery, and the history of priest holes are featured. However, Foley’s stiff writing continues throughout this section. When describing the mystery surrounding D.B. Cooper’s identity, he writes “Nobody knows till today, and the search is still going on.”

The Treasured Thief
by Ryan Foley
Art by Sachin Nagar
ISBN: 9789380741116
Campfire, 2011