If there was a list of rules for what not to do in a horror story, there would be a rule about not using a magical or cursed item, especially one that grants wishes (in such a list, that particular rule would be in the top twenty). To see why this is an important rule, read W. W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw” or simply think back to any story that involves wishes magically granted and see how well that works out for someone. Writer David M. Booher looks at the dangers of wishing through glasses colored with ‘80s nostalgia in his latest graphic collection Specs, which is illustrated by Chris Shehan.
In 1987, best friends Kenny and Ted were outcasts in their small Ohio town, but they could be outcasts together. Both were dreaming of a way out of their small town when Kenny receives a special pair of x-ray specs, which allows their wearer to wish for virtually anything. They both enjoy the sudden power they have until Kenny wishes for their bully to disappear. This poorly conceived wish leads to circumstances that threaten to pull the boys apart while giving the specs more opportunities for people to make terrible wishes.
The heart of Booher’s tale isn’t the evil x-ray specs but the relationship between the two protagonists and what makes them outcast. Kenny is struggling with how to come out to everyone, including his best friend Ted, and Ted, the only black kid attending their school who constantly faces the town’s prejudiced views. Having the wish-granting specs doesn’t help that situation, either; in fact, it only makes it worse. One moral of this story is the old adage about being careful what you wish for, but what Kenny and Ted learn through their own individual experiences helps this book stand out from other “bad wish” stories.
The x-ray specs, however, decide the overall tone of the book, along with Shehan’s artwork. Much of the composition and design choices are aesthetically similar to horror comics of earlier decades but in particular to Creepshow, an anthology comic series that had a resurgence thanks to the Creepshow movie by Stephen King and George Romero. The faces are realistic, especially when they are horrified, and the dead things in this book, of which there are a few, do indeed look dead. However, those expecting the violence of a Creepshow might be surprised. There are ghosts and there is the tiniest amount of blood, but there is actually little violence in this book. The scares it does provide are from the creepy atmosphere and the banal evil of the townspeople. Horror graphic novels might find their way into the adult collection but this title definitely skews young adult because of its protagonists and because of the issues the still-relevant social ills it discusses that don’t involve wish-granting specs.
Specs By David M. Booher Art by Chris Shehan BOOM! Studios, 2023 ISBN: 9781684159185
Publisher Age Rating: 13 years and up
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Gay, Character Representation: Gay,
Gen-X kids (who, of course, grew into Gen-X adults) remember coming home from school and watching the latest adventures of Transformers, G.I. Joe, or Thundercats, series that are still remembered fondly and that still have fans to this day. But what was happening to the brains of Gen-X as they watched these shows? Kids were made to believe that they could replicate the adventures of their favorite heroes. All it involved was getting all the figures, vehicles, and playsets featured on these series. Such is the premise of Brian “Box” Brown’s The He-Man Effect: How American Toymakers Sold You Your Childhood.
According to Brown, toy companies made sure that the toys Gen-X kids enjoyed were ingrained in their imaginations as children and even steeped in nostalgia as adults. This is due to a lot of factors, including president Ronald Reagan’s deregulation of children’s television in the ‘80s to the study of how propaganda can influence human emotion. Many of the television shows that kids enjoyed in the ‘80s and ‘90s were actually half-hour long television commercials.
The premise of Brown’s book sounds like something meant to leech the joy out of many Gen-X childhoods but Brown does manage to find a balance between professing his own love for these series while offering an unbalanced assessment. He brings in a lot of facts about the television landscape in the ‘80s, including how it became more of an advertising free-for-all compared to the ‘70s, and even the early days of propaganda techniques that were used by governments during wartime. However, there’s also very detailed histories on the many different action figures and toys that dotted the television and toy landscapes.
The book’s artwork isn’t dazzling, but it doesn’t need to be. Simple black and white drawn panels move Brown’s narrative of ‘80s television/toy advertising but doesn’t distract from all the information he presents. Those familiar with those toys will recognize their favorites like He-Man and Transformers in these drawings, but Brown’s simple pictures make sure that his overall premise remains informative.
This would be a good pick for any library’s adult graphic novel collection, but it really fits into its media studies collection because it explains how Gen-X kids, myself included, had indeed had our childhoods sold to us. Brown has come to terms with it, even explaining how he still fondly remembers the days he played with these toys, meaning it would also be a good read for Gen-X kids who want to learn how their favorite toys came to be.
The He-Man Effect How American Toymakers Sold You Your Childhood Vol. By Brian “Box” Brown MacMillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250261403
The name Emily Carroll might conjure up images from her well-received story collection Through the Woods. Critics have praised Carroll not only for her storytelling, but for her artistic style that plays around with composition and colors on the printed page. Carroll brings this unique brand of storytelling to create a profoundly disturbing haunted house story. A Guest in the House showcases Carroll’s signature style of telling a spooky story through a visual medium.
Carroll’s story is told through the eyes of Abby, a woman who’s recently married into a new family, seemingly kind dentist David and his daughter Crystal. They have come to a new town for a fresh start, but the specter of Sheila, David’s first wife and Crystal’s mother looms heavily over the family, particularly Crystal and Abby. Crystal is missing her mother, even claiming that she still sees her. Abby, who has never really met Sheila, starts to see her too, leading Abby to question everything she knows about her family and about love.
Carroll has created a very compelling protagonist in Abby, a woman who seems unsure about being a new wife and stepmother. She also seems unsure about being in a relationship, spending a great deal of time in her head. Meanwhile, David seems to be a caring if absent male figure in the household, which naturally makes him a suspect in Sheila’s disappearance. Coupled with Crystal’s grieving, along with her own odd behavior, Abby very much seems like a woman who is completely unprepared for the fractures she starts to notice in her perfect family’s facade.
Letting readers inside Abby’s head allows Carroll’s artwork to shine. Abby’s world is one where her thoughts wander beyond the borders of panels, where vibrant colors invade the typically drab world she occupies with David and her family. The presence in the house is more than just a pale apparition; it often appears as something full of ethereal beauty, of colors that show up like blood on the printed page, and it also can also look anything but beautiful.
Carroll’s full-length story is a slow burn of a tale that finishes with a brutal gutpunch, meaning it fits into any adult graphic novel collection that needs some scary stories, but it is also an example for graphic novel creators of how colors and layout, how lights and darks, can create a story’s setting and tone.
A Guest in the House Vol. By Emily Carroll Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250255525
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: Lesbian,
In an age where computers can create comic panels that saturate the viewer’s eyeballs with color or render scenes that only existed within one’s imagination, a more simplistic art style can be seen as an artist doing the bare minimum of artwork. But that viewpoint completely ignores the story being told. One such example of a story buoyed by its minimalist artwork is Anthony Del Col and Fahmida Azim’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book I Escaped a Chinese Internment Camp.
This graphic novel tells the harrowing ordeal of Zumrat Dawut, a mother of three who is arrested and detained by the Chinese government simply for being Muslim. Tortured, beaten, and even sterilized, Dawut’s only recourse is to escape her captivity, and does so with the help of her husband. That escape, however, is hard earned, and readers will accompany Dawut throughout her harrowing time as a prisoner.
Perhaps most harrowing about this particular story is the fact that it’s true. The source material uses testimony Duwat herself gave to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Writer Del Col created a very clear character arc to Duwat’s story, beginning first by exposing her quiet life as a wife and mother before going into her nightmare. Readers are there for every beating, every degradation, every time her hope of someday leaving her cell is dashed. By the time Duwat is free, that freedom feels both well-earned and ephemeral, not sure that she is really safe until the final page is closed.
Azim’s artwork for this story is minimal, mostly in black and white, which makes sense, considering that Duwat is incarcerated. Life in prison is lacking in color and vibrance by design, so as to break a prisoner’s spirit. That lack of color eventually feels like a physical weight for the reader, who is forced to imagine what that experience is like for Duwat. Color only returns when Duwat, along with the reader, is assured of her freedom.
This novel is a great addition for librarians who want to show the capabilities of graphic novels to tell realistic, human stories. It doesn’t take place in space, or in medieval times, nor does it feature hyper-detailed human figures ready to leap off the page. It depicts the action without indulgence, shunning a color-saturated sheen for honest emotion. Patrons who love biographical works and the comic format, while able to appreciate a more serious tone in their stories, will find Duwat and her story worthy of triumphant cheers.
I Escaped a Chinese Internment Camp By Anthony Del Col Art by Fahmida Azim Lev Gleason, 2023 ISBN: 9781988247960
Publisher Age Rating: 12 years and up NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) , Character Representation: Chinese, Muslim
Communications technology has created a world where the concept of privacy has changed. There’s a distinct possibility that someone is looking at us right now. Our selfies and photographed memories are on social media for everyone to peruse. Sites like Youtube and Tiktok can capture snippets or whole moments, perhaps even the entirety of our lives. If there’s an anxiety that stems from our ever-changing society, then there’s bound to be a horror story inspired by it. Blink, by Christopher Sebela and Hayden Sherman, is a descent into an underground world where an all-seeing camera is both god and devil.
Our Virgil in this digital underworld is Wren Booker, a journalist who spent her career chronicling the stories of others while knowing next to nothing about her own. Discovered at three years old covered in blood on New York’s streets, she only remembers fragments and nightmares that she can’t make sense of. Then she discovers the website showing several live feeds from an abandoned building, and she remembers a little more. Searching for answers, she breaks into the building to discover the bizarre social experiment known as Blink and the impact it’s had on her life.
Sebela’s story has the claustrophobic tension of looking over a rat’s shoulder as it navigates a maze while the promise of escape gets farther and farther away. Once Wren and her urban spelunker guide go beyond where sunlight can touch them, they enter a whole other world, one where creatures that can barely be called human thrive in the shadows, while all their actions are recorded by an all-seeing yet unfeeling eye. The book’s main theme, as well as the source of most of its terror, is the constant question of who is watching.
Sherman’s artwork really hammers this feeling home. Blink is found footage horror told through a print medium. Sherman relies on dizzying camera angles and distorted perspectives to give the entire project a funhouse feel. Not only is the reader watching Wren try to make it to daylight, they’re watching the underground world she is in unravel and mutate in ways that would make Escher dizzy. Sherman’s art, in fact, does the lionshare of moving the plot forward, or at least generating unease in the reader as they join in her descent.
Blink is an interesting take on found footage horror. It’s even an original one. That said, Blink might not be for everyone. Readers who might enjoy Wren’s trip into the digital underworld, captured in multiple angles, will be readers who don’t mind mind-bending, psychedelic visuals. Some readers will like how Blink explores our degradation of privacy along with our rigid views of reality as revealed through our senses. Others might get a headache.
Blink By Christopher Sebela Art by Hayden Sherman Oni Press, 2023 ISBN: 9781637152010
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
People love amusement parks, or at least enough people love them to make them a multimillion dollar business. What’s not to love? The gravity-defying rides! The thrilling attractions! The greasy food that will quickly leave your body thanks to the earlier mentioned gravity-defying rides! Horror fans, whether they hate or love amusement parks, should find something thrilling in Dark Ride, Vol. 1 by Joshua Williamson, along with art by Andrei Bressan and Adriano Lucas.
For fans of horror and amusement parks, Devil Land is the one-stop vacation spot. Picture an amusement park designed by Tim Burton but located in Freddy Krueger’s dreamland. This land that somehow combines a Tunnel of Love with buckets of blood is the brainchild of elusive genius Arthur Dante. Many feel Arthur is close to finally passing the keys to this malicious, magic kingdom to one of his children. Will it be divorced dad Samhein (or Sammy), desperate to prove to his father that he deserves to be in charge? Or party girl influencer Halloween (Hallie), able to be seen practically anytime she wants? When a worker disappears within the park, people start investigating and the park shows that it doesn’t have to amuse anyone.
This is volume one of the series, so writer Williamson (author of horror comics Ghosted and Nailbiter) spends most of this book setting up plot threads and introducing characters. From the sister investigating her brother’s disappearance to the Dante children themselves, particularly Samhain, Williamson shows a lot of surprising depth in the more down-to-earth sibling, showing him at least trying to be a good dad to his daughter but ultimately being distracted by the needs of the park. Setting up the more grounded characters is important if readers are going to explore a place like Devil Land alone.
Williamson may have had the contents of Devil Land in his head, but Bressan and Lucas’s art make them seem real. From the rides that look very close to medieval torture devices to mascots that look like they crawled off the shelf of an abandoned Hot Topic, Devil Land as a living, breathing, money-making amusement park is fully realized. Devil Land actually looks like a place gorehounds and amusement park enthusiasts will want to visit. They might even buy season passes.
Dark Ride as a series looks promising, especially for those librarians whose patrons love horror, particularly the kind of horror that’s more schlock than terrifying. However, it could be ready to deliver a different kind of horror once readers are fully strapped in and the ride really begins.
Dark Ride, Vol. 1 By Joshua Williamson Art by Andrew Bressen, Adriano Lucas Image, 2023 ISBN: 9781534325272
Publisher Age Rating: 16+ NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Most people have awkward phases growing up. These phases might manifest as feeling like a body you’ve lived in all your life has become something totally unrecognizable or the upending of your worldview as what you thought you knew about the world and yourself is suddenly proven wrong. Creator Sarah Myer knows about awkwardness, having been born in South Korea, was adopted by a white couple, and grew up in a rural community where she didn’t see a lot of people who looked like her. She literally illustrates these feelings of not fitting in, along with her evolving sexuality, in her autobiographical graphic novel Monstrous: A Transracial Adoption Story.
Sarah Myer’s work isn’t so much about an awkward period in one’s life as it is about an awkward existence. People in her small town make unfair assumptions about her, many of them born from stereotypes. Unlike her adopted sister who seems to have no trouble fitting in, Sarah has always felt like an outsider. Art, as well as a love of anime, gives her an outlet and a way to connect with people, but she still has bouts of anger when she feels slighted. When Sarah acts out on these impulses, she feels like even more of an outsider.
Myer’s depiction of her childhood and adolescence is surprisingly raw and unflinching. Most would expect an autobiography to be more flattering to its subject, but Myer is willing to show all her flaws, such as an obsession with anime that sometimes alienates people and her tendency to angrily lash out at others. Rather than looking at her past through rose-colored glasses, Myer puts her past under a microscope for the reader while not alienating them. Though she reveals in great detail her feelings of not belonging, Myer presents her life’s experiences and discovering her sexuality in a way that’s relatable for people who also made emotionally painful but ultimately necessary discoveries about themselves.
One of the great aspects of the graphic novel medium is its ability to inject fantastic images into real-life stories through symbolism. The monstrous feelings of anger and isolation Myer feels manifests as something truly monstrous, a thing with sharp teeth and gleaming, reptilian eyes. When she finally confronts this monster, Myer showcases her love of anime with a battle worthy of Power Rangers or Ultraman. Myer also displays a deft touch with facial expressions to show those in her life expressing a range of emotions that isn’t often seen in a straight-up action title.
Those who might enjoy Monstrous, or those who might get the most benefit from it, are teens and adults coming to terms with who they are, whether it’s their bodies, their sexuality, or their own place in the world. The book ends on a high note that helps people who have at one time or another felt more than a little monstrous. It gives them hope.
Monstrous: A Transracial Adoption Story By Sarah Myer Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250268792
Publisher Age Rating: grade 10-12 NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Some people like their horror subtle: the creak of a floorboard, the howl of something in the distance, or a breath on the back of one’s neck. There’s also the kind of horror that doesn’t mind not just making readers nervous but leaving them nauseous. These works are often painted with the most vibrant, yet stomach-churning colors: blood red, intestine pink, and empty eye socket black. Some of Jonas Scharf’s artwork in Basilisk, Vol. 3 definitely fits into the latter category. Throughout the book, Scharf demonstrates how he has no qualms coloring with a gory palette. However, Cullen Bunn’s story helps keep the more insane elements grounded in a simply brutal revenge tale.
In volume 3, Hannah’s vengeance against the Chimera is nearly complete, but the battle has clearly cost her and those unfortunate enough to be around her when the Chimera or their faithful are near. Hannah and Regan, a Chimera whose gaze is lethal, are nearing the end of their individual journeys: Regan will soon find out about her missing memories and the Chimera’s true nature while Hannah will finally kill those who took everything from her. However, as members of the Chimera have died, their powers are split up among the survivors. This means that one person could end up with all five abilities to unleash upon the world
If volume 1 was about introducing readers to the terrifying Chimera, five people with terrifying powers related to the five senses, and volume 2 was about flipping readers’ expectations and setting up the conclusion, then volume 3 is the epic final battle that could potentially decide the fate of the world. Bunn’s final chapter reveals what the Chimera truly are, but it also keeps a tight focus on normal human Hannah and her quest to kill those who killed her family. The flashbacks Bunn peppers throughout this volume not only reveals why she attacks these beings with godlike powers, but Hannah’s tragic tale propels this story to its epic conclusion while its resolution might break readers’ hearts.
Scharf once again shows no hesitancy to display the visceral and sometimes explosive deaths throughout this book, but he also shows skills that have nothing to do with depicting what might be on a slaughterhouse’s floor. The book liberally switches between past and present and Scarf changes up his art style to clearly show where (or when) the story is taking place. This is a skill that goes beyond just drawing bodies in various states of death.
Now that the series has concluded, librarians might be tempted to get all three books in order to have the complete story, or they could wait to see if the publisher produces an omnibus or similar collection. Some factors that might influence this decision for librarians is if they have fans of gory horror among their patrons as well as patrons whose tastes oscillate between superheroes and horror.
Basilisk, vol. 3 By Cullen Bunn Art by Jonas Scharf BOOM! Studios, 2023 ISBN: 9781684158881
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Many are familiar with the adage about a spoonful of sugar helping medicine go down, especially those familiar with Disney’s Mary Poppins, but there is some truth to that statement when it comes to subjects that are either too dense to completely process or too terrifying to rationally contemplate. Such subjects can be made more palatable and/or digestible when put into a graphic novel format. Writers Sarah Kendzior and Andrea Chalupa use the graphic novel format effectively in their satirical guide to dictatorship, Dictatorship: It’s Easier Than You Think!
The book’s sales pitch begins with questions like, “Do you crave the power to shape the world in your image?” and “Can you tell lies without blinking an eye?” Once the readers are drawn in with those questions, the actual book, along with its game-show-host-looking narrator, explains just how to be a dictator based on examples from the past and the present. The easy to follow instructions the book lays out how to take complete control of a country or nation and thoroughly crush any resistance, at least that’s what the book professes to do.
Much like Machiavelli’s The Prince, Kendzior and Chalupa’s guidebook is satire, not as a guidebook but as a critical dissection of how dictators operate. Its chapters are organized as a step-by-step guide to dictatorship that illustrates its points with many detailed examples from Adolf Hitler to Kim Jong Un and everyone in between. The book also details some of the horrific, murderous practices these men used to stay in power. Depicting the details of these atrocities might be off-putting in a more academic text, but framing it in a satirical how-to guide makes it more palatable without making it less powerful. Indeed, the narrator’s flippant discussion of these events helps hammer home its point about how the outlandish behavior of many of these dictators distracts from the horrors they commit.
The narrator, drawn by artist Kasia Babis, is a spaghetti-limbed, rubber-faced cartoon host in a gaudy suit. He acts as both ringmaster and tour guide through this cavalcade of history’s most reviled dictators. From history’s most notorious dictators to more modern examples seen in today’s headlines, no dictator is safe from his acerbic wit and he constantly lets readers in on the joke with knowing, conspiratorial leers in their direction. There are also many of the same caricature versions of these dictators who interact with this host with the kinetic energy of a sketch comedy show, even as the humor skews to some dark places.
That energy, and the book’s overall presentation, makes it perfect for adult graphic novel collections in need of relevant nonfiction, especially since the influence of many of these dictators, past and present, can still be seen today. This book also teaches its subject matter in a way that’s not didactic and dry. Yes, the book shows some dictators have already seen their regimes and their cults of personality collapse, but this satirical guidebook to dictatorship is ultimately a warning to anyone and everyone that can allow bad people to gain power. There’s even a part in the book where the host, discussing who and what he is, shows the reader a mirror, which is a strong message to convey in a graphical format.
Dictatorship: It’s Easier Than You Think! By Sarah Kendzior, Andrea Chalupa, Art by Kasia Babis Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250781000
People around the Appalachian area of the United States are familiar with the Mothman, but as the supernatural linchpin in a horror story, he can seem rather one-dimensional: red eyes, flapping wings, might have something to do with UFOs. It takes a brave soul to tackle the Mothman, but Heath Amodio and Cullen Bunn have added more to the Mothman mythos by taking it out of the mountains and closer to natural and man-made disasters in Hustle & Heart: Foretold.
The story, created by Bunn and written by Amodio, follows recently widowed history professor Derek Flynn, who has a habit of disappearing for days at a time only to appear at the sight of natural disasters. This has naturally vexed his daughter Casey while also making him a person of interest to the US government who want to know why he is at the scene of all these disasters. Derek himself would like some answers and, with only his daughter and therapist wanting to help him, he must stay one step ahead of the FBI and a cult that believes that Derek is somehow a chosen one. Also, there’s a weird flying creature to which Derek is strangely connected and he might not like the answers he receives.
A lot of this book is about laying down the foundation of this universe. Why is Derek waking up next to these disasters? What is his relationship with his still living daughter who he has basically abandoned? What happened to his wife? And what happened between him and his therapist? These questions are subtly answered, but readers might finish this particular book with more questions than when they went in, which could be both good and bad. It’s good if a story with few details revealed tantalizes readers so they read the next issue, but bad if it ultimately frustrates them and they simply move on to another story in their TBR pile.
A minimalist approach works best with the Mothman in this story. Angelo Razzano’s illustrations of the Mothman, mostly indistinct, winged shapes and large red eyes, serve to add the appropriate level of mystique to the character and makes sense for how he actually plays into the tale’s events. This especially works as the realism in Razzano’s faces, not only looking distinct from one another but showing a wide range of emotions, creates a more solid reality of which the Mothman is not a part.
Foretold is a good beginning to a story, with emphasis on the word “beginning.” The way it ends might make readers want to read more, but it also might leave them far from being satisfied. Yes, it’s a different and interesting take on the Mothman that veers into the superheroic as well as the supernatural, but librarians might want to wait for an omnibus or more volumes to the story before diving into the weirdness.
Hustle and Heart: Foretold By Heath Amodio Art by Angelo Razzano Oni Press, 2023 ISBN: 9781637150993
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)