Joe Hill’s Rain

Whenever a movie adaptation of a popular book comes out, some people will bombard their social media with angry posts proclaiming that this movie will fall way short of the book’s genius. It’s a popular and well-worn refrain to say that the book is always better than the movie and people could spend all day compiling examples that prove the validity of this statement, but is the same true for the visual medium of graphic novels? Graphic novels tell a story visually, just as a movie does, through the use of comic panels and word balloons, and may sometimes even utilize sound effects like POW!, but is the retelling of a story through a visual medium automatically a lesser representation of the original work? The graphic novel adaptation of Joe Hill’s Rain, adapted by writer David M. Booher and illustrated by Zoe Thorogood is evidence to the contrary. 

People who have read Joe Hill’s novella are familiar with the premise: One day, instead of water droplets falling from the sky, needle-like crystalline shards descend from the clouds, shredding any living thing that isn’t under cover. This day was supposed to be the best day of Honeysuckle Speck’s life, the day she moved in with her girlfriend Yolanda, but the rain came and punctured her happily ever after. After surviving the storm and burying her girlfriend, Honeysuckle goes on a quest that takes her outside of the city and under a sky that could any minute rain death upon her. 

Joe Hill’s original story does what great apocalypse stories do best: it makes clear the always-present danger of this new status quo while showing moments of humanity from its characters. Honeysuckle has already had so much taken away from her that she makes the perfect protagonist that could survive a rain of crystal nails. Booher’s story doesn’t miss any of these fundamentals that made the original work. There seem to be some changes here and there, but they also weren’t drastic enough to change the story’s overall tone and conflict. 

Does adding artwork to Hill’s tale add or subtract to what the original created? It’s one thing for Hill to describe with text what a rain of crystal nails would do to a human body, but Thorogood’s artwork shows how one can be visceral even without a slaughterhouse’s worth of blood. In apocalyptic television shows and movies like I am Legend and The Walking Dead, images of life after that apocalyptic event serve to constantly remind the viewer that the reliably civilized world these characters have occupied for a majority of their lives no longer exists, and Thorogood’s artwork is a constant reminder that every moment for Honeysuckle Speck and the other people occupying this universe is a fight to survive. 

It’s possible that Joe Hill-written graphic novels like Locke & Key and Basketful of Heads are already in a library’s collection, and this book could fit right alongside it, as well as find its way into a collection on its own merit. By reimagining Joe Hill’s story for a new medium, Booher and Thorogood not only create a harrowing, heartfelt apocalyptic tale; they have also created an example of how telling a story through a visual medium doesn’t diminish it.

Joe Hill’s Rain
By David M. Booher
Art by Zoe Thorogood
Abrams, 2022
ISBN: 9781534322691

Publisher Age Rating: 13 and up
Related media: Book to Comic

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

The Realist: Last Day on Earth

In the opening pages of The Realist, a young girl realizes that pet cats are not as compliant as stuffed animals and a high school boy experiences a class lecture from controversial Israeli professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz while simultaneously debating how to break up with his girlfriend. In this way, the commonplace and the existential entwine throughout the panels of this third collection of comics from Eisner winning cartoonist Asaf Hanuka.

Published by Archaia, The Realist: Last Day on Earth collects many of Hanuka’s weekly, autobiographical comic strips and cartoons, each delivered within a single page. The topics are wide ranging. As an Israeli artist grappling with life as a secular family amidst an often-religious society, Hanuka’s work deals a lot with politics, religion, and social issues. He recreates heated debates about Judaism with family members and displays consideration for the deeply engrained faith evident in the landscape around him, even as someone who does not necessarily believe the same. He reckons with a national situation rapidly changing, and often not for the better.

The collection never strays too far from the religious-political violence of Hanuka’s homeland, while some of his observations about modern politics find international relevance amidst the years of the Trump presidency and the coronavirus pandemic. Hanuka’s observations are sometimes precise and biting, other times esoteric, inviting deliberation rather than making a statement.

Though the global is a constant theme in The Realist, there is plenty of space in these pages for the personal as well. As Hanuka relates to his wife and raises two children, there are plenty of anecdotes about domestic life. He ruminates on trading bus trips for riding a scooter. He considers family vacations and what his life might have been if he had lived in a different city, a different country—the course of everything else spinning out from there. In the midst of it all, Hanuka contemplates what it means to be an artist, to be a human, in a world where such things are not always easy, nor do they always make sense. The resulting collection is global and personal, widely human and intimately personal to the man himself.

Depicting all these things, Hanuka’s work is realistically stylized, moving between grayscale and a wide range of colors, between carefully detailed scenes and characters navigating an uncertain void of possibility. The consistency of the visuals speaks to the creator’s depth of experience, deploying humor and exaggeration alongside more somber emotions as the scene requires. There is a solemn angst, a grief, running through much of the book, and Hanuka captures this quietly across the expressions on his characters faces, across each gesture and the sometimes fantastical scenarios and scenes he imagines to explain the concepts he is seeking to capture on the page.

In the end, I recognize that I am not the target audience for Hanuka’s work. Some of what he delivers here resonates clearly, while much of it is interesting but always with a level of inescapable distance from the lived reality he is describing to my vastly different life on another portion of the globe. Some readers will no-doubt enjoy crossing that divide for a time; others may struggle to remain engaged.

Aside from the occasional panel, there isn’t much content here that one might deem inappropriate, but the majority of The Realist is clearly aimed at adult readers interested in delving into the socio-political themes of Hanuka’s work as well as the reflections of a man who has experienced decades of life as an artist, a father, a husband, and a political commentator. For readers who enjoy more literary comics such as those typical of Drawn & Quarterly, as well as international cartoonists such as Chabouté, this compilation could certainly be worth picking up. And for any comics collection looking to expand to more literary and international offerings, The Realist: Last Day on Earth is definitely worthy of consideration.

The Realist: Last Day on Earth
By Asaf Hanuka
Abrams, 2022
ISBN: 9781684158379

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation:  Israeli,

Tin Man

Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz is a story that is so firmly entrenched in our culture that the story can be brought to the forefront of anyone’s mind by simply mentioning “cowardly lion,” “flying monkeys,” or “tin woodsman.” To do an original story that heavily borrows from Baum’s universe is to invite one’s original story to be saddled with a Yellow Brick Road’s worth of baggage and expectations. In a world where “reimaginings” can turn off readers, it’s risky to relate your story to anything from Oz. Luckily, writer and illustrator Justin Madson avoids this in his work Tin Man by plunking a very familiar Tin Man in a very different Oz.

This Oz doesn’t have the glistening emerald spires; what it does have is an image very similar to small-town middle America, one that has very few opportunities for kids like Solar and Finn. Solar was once on her way to a promising career working on rockets, but after the death of her grandmother, she suddenly decides to stay in her hometown. Instead of helping her little brother Finn build his rocketship, she hangs out with a crowd of bad influences. Enter Campbell, a tin woodsman who leaves his forest after receiving a heart he got by mail. Campbell stays in Finn’s treehouse to learn how to be human, while Solar and Finn learn what they truly want out of life.

The cover of the book, from the image of a hand constructed of tin to the yellow brick background, is meant to invoke The Wizard of Oz, but any reader focusing on Baum’s story might miss what Madson’s story does right. There are a few nods here and there, such as Campbell actually meeting a woman named Dorothy, but Madson manages to create a wholly separate coming-of-age tale generously sprinkled with magical realism. Magical realism works when the magical elements are not substitutes for the emotion and conflict in a story. That is exemplified by Campbell learning the nuances of his new heart and learning his place in the world. This parallel, of course, is established among the brother and sister as well. .

Madson’s artwork also adds its own charm to this story. The lines and shapes are simple, almost like they could step from a children’s picture book, but the story they tell isn’t necessarily sheer whimsy. There are discussions of grief as well as the pain of not belonging, and the art adds the perfect kind of juxtaposition. Madson doesn’t need to depict the gloriously beautiful gleaming towers and dark forests where things worse than cowardly lions creep. His story is serviced by his rendition of a Midwestern town that has seen better days and that isn’t as hospitable to dreams as the place another Dorothy visited.

The book would make a fine addition to any Young Adult collection because it skirts the line between being born from a children’s classic and dealing with some serious themes. In collections that have lots of superheroes, space aliens, or Anime-inspired action, this coming-of-age tale can be a surprising breath of fresh air.

Tin Man
By Justin Madson
Abrams, 2022
ISBN: 9781419751042

Publisher Age Rating: 9 and up

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)

Dark Blood, Vol. 1

Superpowers, as depicted in fiction, are often a double-edged sword—there’s the freedom of flying like Superman or having enough strength to move the car that’s taking up your parking spot, but there’s also the inherent fear of others that comes with having abilities different from mainstream humanity. Add in the volatile component of racism and the superpower narrative can become quite explosive, as it does in Dark Blood, written by LaToya Morgan and illustrated by Walt Barna.

The book focuses on Avery Aldridge, a former Tuskegee airman living in 1950’s Alabama. He’s a veteran who fought in the war with the hope of making it back home to his family, but home means he and his family must endure the racism of the Deep South. While processing the trauma of war and the racism at home, he discovers that he can somehow move things with his mind. Many people, especially those who see Avery as less than them, will also be afraid of that power.

The superhero origin story is a popular trope and Morgan’s story offers an interesting take. There are multiple plotlines that run through this story, from Avery being trapped behind enemy lines to him being the victim of a racial attack that ultimately leads to him being on the run. The narrative jumps around a bit, but these stories are as vital to Avery’s superhero origin as a bite from a radioactive spider. Everything from the PTSD to how he is treated by the white people in his life all go into who he is and how he decides to use his gifts.

And when he starts using his powers in earnest, they are quite awe-inspiring, thanks to Barna’s use of dynamic POV angles that give a punch to the scenes of Avery fighting in the war as well as those showing him unleashing his powers. Where Barna really shines, though, is how he makes Avery’s telekinetic powers truly terrifying. Avery’s power builds from being able to lift small objects to stopping bullets, but it’s the characters’ body language, as illustrated by Barna, that really sells the power Avery has. From Avery’s tension-filled face as he uses his powers to people’s terrified reactions to them, readers can practically feel them thrumming off the page.

Some people dismiss superhero comics as straight-up revenge fantasies, as people gaining power to get back at those who slighted them. But the kinds of slights that Avery and his family must deal with go beyond what Peter Parker endured at high school or Clark Kent endured at the Daily Planet. More than just a story full of dynamic angles and fluttering capes, this tale is more of a character study of a man who suddenly gains great power and must decide how to use it. This book is sure to be a hit with superhero fans because of its many displays of awesome superpowers, but its social commentary is also an important message of how hard it is for the marginalized and disenfranchised to rise up, with or without phenomenal psychic powers.

Dark Blood, vol. 1
By LaToya Morgan
Art by Walt Barna
Abrams, 2022
ISBN: 9781684157112

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

M is for Monster

Shaken from the accidental death of her sister Maura, the grief-stricken Doctor Frances Ai vows to bring her back to life with all the scientific and magical power at her disposal. And it works. . . supposedly. The being that rises from the slab has no memory of Maura’s life, nor does she share any of her interests or quirks. This is someone entirely new, though Frances is willing to do anything to bring her sister fully back, even if that means taking the new being apart and trying again.

Fearing her own unmaking, the creation, who deems herself M, attempts to slip into Maura’s old life, aided by Maura’s spirit still wandering among the house’s mirrors, visible only to M. However, that life comes with Frances’ high expectations, ones that M has no interest in pursuing as she discovers her own passions and desires. Once masquerading as Maura starts taking its toll, M must decide who she wants to be, her own person or the pale shadow of someone else. Talia Dutton’s Frankenstein-inspired debut, M is for Monster, expertly navigates through the topics of grief, self-discovery, and the importance of self-expression, as M strives to become the most comfortable and authentic version of herself.

M’s journey with forging her identity, Frances’s struggle with her grief and guilt, and Maura’s frustration of having to live vicariously through M give the story a resonating and relatable weight. Each character receives just enough focus for their arcs to develop and conclude satisfyingly, while also having their own moments to shine and make their mark on readers. M, with her hiccups of having to adjust to life in general, Frances’s overexuberance towards science, and Maura’s wit and dry attitude all add a lighter side to the story, allowing it to breathe in its more relaxed moments. Personally, I found myself invested the most in M’s progression, which naturally lends itself to a queer allegory. While not explicitly queer herself, M goes through many experiences that one does when first discovering that part of themselves: the uncomfortable nature of having to put on a persona to conform to others’ expectations, of trying to distance oneself from a past version of themselves, and finding oneself growing beyond the vision other people have of them. In the end, it becomes a lesson in allowing one to be themselves for their own benefit, something M tries to come to terms with over the course of the comic.

Along with this allegory, there is some LGBTQ+ representation in the form of Frances’s partner, Gin, who goes by they/them pronouns, and their neighbors who are in a sapphic relationship, all of which are normalized.

With a calm, cool palette of white and teal, the comic exudes a sense of thoughtfulness and reflection that distinguishes it from the more horror-based aspects of its story. It reminded me somewhat of Bloom, a comic that, while completely different in terms of plot, utilizes a similar coloring motif to enhance the mood and atmosphere of each panel. In Dutton’s work it serves as an emotional hook for the reader, pairing well with the paneling that becomes an additional storytelling device. There are multiple instances in which the layout of a scene provides subtle indications of developing character dynamics or adds subtext to the overall plot and character motivations. A spread that particularly stands out is a page of Frances and M conversing, with Maura appearing in a bubble to the side, slowing inching closer and closer with each panel as a result of her speaking through M, until she is completely between them with M uncomfortably pushed to the side as Maura’s influence becomes more prevalent. In a scene with no dialogue, it speaks volumes to M’s plight, perfectly summarizing the overall conflict of the story.

M is for Monster will no doubt please readers who enjoy engaging, emotional stories with an evocative art style and a smidge of the grotesque. Due to its more mature handling of these themes, this title is most suitable for audiences 14 and up. Librarians and educators who have a high circulation of character-driven and low sci-fi titles and aim to include more representative and diverse materials should consider purchasing this title.

M is for Monster
By Talia Dutton
Abrams, 2022
ISBN: 9781419762208

Publisher Age Rating: ages 13-17

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Chinese-American, Bisexual
Character Representation: Assumed Asian, Lesbian, Queer, Nonbinary

Dead Kings Have No Dreams

For many people, technology that was supposed to increase our opportunities to connect with people has done the exact opposite. With our ability to create whole virtual spaces that rival the beauty of our own reality, a world of pixels and programmed delights might seem like the better alternative to dreary, humdrum. But creator Valentín Ramón Menendez has taken this science fiction premise to some very bizarre extremes in his latest book, Dead Kings Have No Dreams.

The story takes place in a future where humanity is free to do whatever it wants to do. Androids are so prevalent that no one really has to work jobs anymore. With an abundance of free time, humans now take mind-altering drugs and dive deep into virtual worlds where exotic locations and fantasy fulfillment are just a headset away, while Only Human, an organization looking to move away from androids and a dependence on technology, wants to return to a simpler time. With all this societal upheaval going on, protagonist J still manages to meet Wendy, the love of his life. Things are going well for J until Wendy leaves him and thus begins J’s downward spiral that no amount of drugs or VR can halt.

For most of the book, J is a lovesick fool whose daydreams become more and more deranged as he, and subsequently the reader, tries to make sense of his life and this world. Much of the society he’s in treats his heartbreak like a defective program to be overwritten. Instead, Jay holds tightly to what he had with Wendy and there are some genuine sweet moments for this couple, even as their dialogue is filled with a sexual frankness that threatens to undermine that sweetness. The readers see J and Wendy’s relationship blossom and then fall apart amidst the inordinate amount of worldbuilding that Menendez attempts, leading to the love story being a rock in the churning maelstrom of digital delights and depressing landscapes.

Menendez’s artwork has a great deal of details that draw the eye, for better or worse. Instead of a future of gleaming glass spires, Menendez shows a dreary, sallow, neon-lit future that makes Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner look like Disneyworld. Within the aesthetic of the world, readers won’t have to wonder why J runs away from it and into the brighter virtual space. With a generous helping of grays and neon colors that seem glaring and artificial even on the page, Menendez gives J a future urban hellscape that can only suck the joy out of anyone who dares to try and find some happiness outside of virtual reality and mood-altering drugs.

Like how the story straddles the line between the colorful virtual world and the dreary dystopian future, the recommendation at the end of the review will have to be a split one. On the one hand, this book is obviously shocking. Definitely not for kids or even older teens, this book is full of depictions of nude, realistically imperfect bodies and talk of sexual situations spoken as casually as asking someone the time of day. There will be many moments where the reader’s eyes will widen in surprise as Menendez gets edgy, but this book also gets bogged down in its weirdness. The story offers a lot of twists and turns thanks to J himself being an unreliable narrator, but all these things don’t create the smoothest or most memorable narrative. Librarians with adult patrons who love science fiction, surreality, and bleakness might want to have Dead Kings Have No Dreams in their collection, but it also might prove too dense and off-putting for the casual science fiction fan.

Dead Kings Have No Dreams 
By Valentín Ramón Menendez
Abrams, 2022
ISBN: 9798411722338

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)

Bone Orchard Mythos: The Passageway

Comic book readers, notably horror comic book readers, might be familiar with Jeff Lemire, a writer of creepy, oddball tales that blend genres and shatter readers’ expectations. Those fans may also be familiar with Gideon Falls, a slow-burn fantastical horror story that pushes the boundaries of the graphic novel format. Paired with stunning images from Andrea Sorrentino that literally break the barriers of panel and page, Lemire’s labyrinthine story is a tightrope walk that the reader has to carefully navigate to reach the end. Now writer and artist are back with a story that shares a lot of its DNA with Gideon Falls, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Bone Orchard Mythos: The Passageway, while being a solidly disquieting tale, also promises to be the entry into a whole new horror universe.

The story finds geologist John Reed traveling to a remote island where lighthouse keeper Sally has discovered a mysterious hole that seems to go on forever. The darkness in that hole, however, might be more than just the physical kind. While staying on the island, John begins to have strange and surreal dreams, dreams of someone he’d lost long ago, or perhaps even prophetic dreams of what lies within that hole. What’s down there will draw John in, but he might not like what he finds.

One of Jeff Lemire’s greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to tell a story without relying on a lot of details and exposition. He often lets his panel layouts tell the story, showing characters standing alone on a beach to depict isolation or closeups of character’s faces to show whatever mood and emotion he’s trying to convey. There’s just enough dialogue to seem like natural conversation, but it also leaves the reader with the feeling that something is just not right. This is only compounded when the story delves into Reed’s disturbing dreams. Many comic writers will fill the pages with captions and dialogue balloons, but Lemire demonstrates a reserve that gradually and tortuously ratchets up the unease.

Andrea Sorrentino’s artwork, much like with Gideon Falls, complements Lemire’s storytelling approach very well. There are times where his realistic style, particularly how he draws expressions, convey the darkness inherent in this world, but when Sorrentino decides to take readers down the dark passageway, he really demonstrates his penchant for surreal horror. From his use of black and white images to close-ups that gradually pull back to reveal what the reader is actually seeing, Sorrentino’s bold images and eye-melting colors make the reader feel like they’re constantly on unsure narrative footing, but those images are also never boring.

Those familiar with Gideon Falls and Jeff Lemire’s horror work in general should expect to see the same tropes here: the gradual unraveling of a mystery, the mind-bending use of colors and panels, and the slowest turning of screws. Librarians who have adult patrons who love Gideon Falls should definitely add this to their collection. The story might not be for everyone, however. It’s not the kind of rip-roaring, blood-soaked horror that some horror fans prefer, but if The Bone Orchard Mythos: The Passageway is any indication, it could be the kind of graphic and literary dark ride that stays with readers long after they’re back in the real world.

Bone Orchard Mythos: The Passageway
By Jeff Lemire
Art by Andrea Sorrentino
Image, 2022
ISBN: 9781534322240

Publisher Age Rating: 16 years and up

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

The Gold Lion: And the Tournament of Sentinels

A faraway land, warring kingdoms, and brave warriors: fans of fantasy are likely familiar with this setting. Insert into this setting the trope of a young warrior who has the weight of responsibility thrust on him and you have the situation of young Kayeer Rushmal. From the shadow of his brother to a role as his country’s newest protector, Kayeer rises to serve as the protagonist/warrior philosopher in the debut story from artist and writer Kia Ahankoob, The Gold Lion: and the Tournament of Sentinels.

Kayeeer’s nation is but one of eight different nations, each based on different real-world cultures and all fighting for dominance. After years of fighting and no one gaining the upper hand, all the nations decide to hold a martial arts tournament. Each nation picks a representative, a sentinel, to enter the tournament and the winner’s nation will rule the world. All the sentinels own a magical ring given to each nation by the Myriad, that world’s Supreme Being. Each ring has different magical abilities; some rings allow for flight while others allow the wearer to form their body into literal stabbing and bludgeoning weapons. The sentinels must use their ring’s unique magical abilities and their own martial prowess until there is only one winner, and his or her country will rule all the nations.

Kayeer serves the book well as a protagonist who acts as the reader’s entry into this world. He has just inherited the role of Gold Lion, his nation’s sentinel, from his brother and must also overcome his own doubts as well as the other sentinels. Adding to his ordeal is the pressure put upon him by his nation’s ruler as well as the fact that his former lover is also in the tournament. Kayeer’s polar opposite and main antagonist is the Black Eagle, who not only killed Kayeer’s brother but who also believes wholeheartedly in his mission. Ahankoob has created, in the Black Eagle, an antagonist with more than one dimension. The Black Eagle is not specifically evil, but he is fiercely patriotic and believes in the superiority of his nation. If this was simply a fantasy novel, then it could have been a really solid fantasy story.

But Ahankoob’s artwork seems ill-equipped to get into what is an important part of the book: the actual combat. A simplistic art style doesn’t automatically bring down the aesthetic of a graphic novel, but the art here has trouble depicting the actual combat between the Sentinels. These are people whose rings give them power of elements like water and earth, as well as electricity and even time, but the fights themselves don’t come off as very dynamic. There are panels where punches are being thrown and some powers are used, but library patrons have access to manga and a myriad of superhero movies (not to mention the comics that originated them). Compared to those, the fight scenes in Gold Lion seem particularly flat. What’s worse is that the lack of punch in these action scenes leave the powers of the rings themselves ill-defined. Some, like earth and fire, are obvious, but ring powers like the vision ring seem to be rather nebulous and confusing.

There’s a good story here in The Gold Lion: and the Tournament of Sentinels, but the book doesn’t ultimately live up to its potential. If there is any kind of tournament, in a graphic novel format, there should be action, perhaps a few dynamic camera angles that border on the cinematic, or closeups that show the damage fist, foot, and magic can do to the human form, elements which this book sadly lacks. The characters in this book are fully fleshed-out and readers should be able to root for them, but they cannot hope to compete against much more action-oriented titles that librarians can get for their collections.

The Gold Lion: And the Tournament of Sentinels
By Kia Ahankoob
Abrams, 2022
ISBN: 9788985172607

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