Invader Zim: Best of Skool

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

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

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

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

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

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)

The Snowcat Prince

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
Series ISBNs and Order

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

Taproot: A Story About a Gardener and a Ghost

Blue is absolutely smitten with his best friend Hamal, a kind, soft spoken gardener with a heck of a green thumb. There’s just one problem: Blue is, well, kind of dead. Thankfully, Hamal also has the ability to see and communicate with ghosts, though lacking a physical form naturally prevents Blue from deepening his connection with Hamal. To make matters worse, something odd is happening to the local spirits who suddenly find themselves briefly flickering between a dark, decaying forest and the living world. To protect the one he loves, Blue must solve this mystery even if it costs him everything in the process. Keezy Young’s sweet, yet delightfully spooky romance, Taproot, presents a look into the delicate balance between life and death and all the love and sacrifices therein.

Taproot provides an engaging enough concept to pull readers into this mismatched couple’s story. Blue and Hamal’s dynamic is playful and endearing, but the story’s fast pace and short length prevents any sort of natural development of the relationship, the progression ultimately coming off as superficial and rushed. The overall story suffers from being somewhat frustratingly vague with certain scenes lacking a cohesive flow from one to another, all coming to an incredibly anticlimactic end.  Even the “One Year Later” segment feels tacked on, as it felt narratively needless other than to show the reader what the characters are doing after the main conclusion. Though epilogues can feel welcome in other literary scenarios, here it only adds to the slight disconnection between events. While a struggling read at times due to these elements, I can still appreciate the emphasis of queer joy and acceptance in this comic, which also features a refreshing multiracial cast and non-white leads.

Despite the somewhat underdeveloped narrative, Young manages to create an inviting, memorable world through richly illustrated landscapes and characters. The character designs immediately provide a good sense of personality, whether it’s found in Hamal’s rounded, gentle features or Blue’s angular, expressive face complete with a cheeky grin. Opting for a bluish green hue to distinguish the ghosts from the living adds more stylistic and visual intrigue as Young incorporates a good amount of framing to ensure they do not blend into the similarly colored, detailed backgrounds where Young shows off the natural wonders of this setting. Images of flora thriving around every corner exude a cozy, magical atmosphere, as we see the entire town covered in fluffy moss and colorful flowers. Even the mysterious forest has a gothic, ethereal charm to it, with its twisted, gnarled trees housing skulls and listless, chalky plant life. The environments function almost as characters in and of themselves, experiencing the same trials of life and death as our main characters, and are just as severely affected by its imbalances. Taproot’s visual style perfectly complements the tone and message of its story, marveling at the beauties of life while also stressing the inclusion of death and rebirth as a necessary part of it.

As a blend of a heartwarming queer romance with a paranormal edge, Taproot will interest fans of  Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper series and Suzanne Walker’s Mooncakes, both of which share friends-to-lovers relationships and distinctive styles that enhance their stories. Those looking for a quick, character driven comic may enjoy this title, though the lack of worldbuilding and disjointed plot threads may be a turn off for some readers. Young states that Taproot is intended for audiences of all ages, though it would likely appeal most to ages thirteen and up due to its romantic focus, as well as its more mature handling of the themes of life and death. This rereleased edition comes with a brand new cover, an afterword from Young, and backmatter material including original concept art. Librarians and educators looking to include more inclusive and diverse paranormal romances should consider purchasing this title.

Taproot: A Story About a Gardener and a Ghost
By Keezy Young
Oni Press Lion Forge, 2022
ISBN: 9781637150733

Publisher Age Rating: 12+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  Gay
Character Representation: Bisexual, Gay