Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky: The Graphic Novel

After losing his best friend in a bus accident, Tristan is sent to stay with his grandparents for a month on their Alabama farm. The grief counselor thinks the fresh air and quiet will help Tristan process the trauma. Unfortunately, Gum Baby snatches the only thing Tristan has left of his friend, a journal of stories, and leads him on a chase that ends at a bottle tree. In his anger, Tristan punches one of the glass bottles which releases a haint (evil spirit) and tears a hole between his world and Gum Baby’s, called MidPass. 

In MidPass, Tristan meets more of the characters from his grandmother’s old stories; Brer Rabbit, John Henry, Brer Fox, and the People Who Could Fly. They work together to find the Story Box and replenish the stories to draw Anansi out to mend the hole between worlds. Along the way, Tristan meets the mysterious Uncle C, who also wants the stories to regain his strength. Tristan struggles with what being strong means and how to find his own strength. 

I knew about many of the legends mentioned in this story but not a lot of specifics. The adapter did a great job presenting enough information that the audience could follow along without drowning in the details. Honestly, I enjoyed learning about the stories from a culture I am less familiar with and appreciated that stories are presented as powerful as physical strength.  

Tristan does plenty of punching throughout the story as the title implies, which is showcased in full color. It was wonderful to see all the brown skin tones. The illustrations have enough details to convey what is happening in the story without making the art too heavy. And there are plenty of panels full of lighter colors to balance out the darker earthy backgrounds. 

Since this is from the Rick Riordan Presents lineup, it is marketed to readers between the ages of 8-12, and I agree with that assessment. There are some heavy subjects like grief, loss, and slavery; however, the story is not focused on those things. This would be an excellent addition to any graphic novel or general library collection. 

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky: The Graphic Novel
By Kwame Mbalia, and Robert Venditti
Art by Olivia Stephens
Rick Riordan Presents, 2022
ISBN: 9781368072809

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
Related media:  Book to Comic

NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  African-American,  Character Representation: African-American

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,

Wait Till Helen Comes

Critics of graphic novels will often say that reading graphic novels isn’t truly reading and nothing could be further from the truth. While there might not be as many words within a graphic novel, the pictures themselves are there to help tell a story. Much in the same way directors and cinematographers must think about lighting and composition when making a movie, so must the artist work together with the writer to help create the setting, the characters, and even events that help move the story along. Therefore, graphic novel adaptations of popular works are not a dumbed-down version of the story, but tells the story in a different way. This is the case for the graphic adaptation of Mary Downing Hahn’s Wait Till Helen Comes, illustrated by Meredith Laxton and Russ Badgett.

Those who remember Hahn’s tale of middle school hauntings and family drama will find the same story beats here. The story still follows siblings Molly and Michael, who are annoyed by their younger stepsister Heather who does everything she can to get Molly and Michael in trouble. The blended family move out to the country where, in the graveyard near their home, Heather discovers a grave belonging to a girl named Helen. She soon starts to threaten her step-siblings that they will be sorry because Helen is coming. Helen might not be as dead as Molly and Michael thought, and she seems to be willing to do whatever Heather asks.

Hahn’s stories are just the right fit for young readers who like just a little scary, even if adults might find it tiresome. There are elements of genuine spookiness and dramatic tension in this adaption by Scott Peterson, but adults especially might notice that there is no real sense that anything too terrible will happen. Sure, the blended family is a great source of conflict, particularly when Heather’s dad takes up for his daughter no matter what she does, but those dynamics aren’t the story’s focus; instead, it focuses on Molly, Heather, and Helen. Heather and Helen have a very parallel narrative while Molly, as the main protagonist, is the one who must develop some kind of sisterly bond with a sister she and the readers can barely tolerate. Adults might call this kind of story “Terror with Training Wheels,” but it’s perfect for kids who want a bit of terror beyond R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps.

The artwork by Laxton and Badgett isn’t spectacular splash pages and precariously placed panels. Instead it simply serves the purpose of moving the story along. Fans of Hahn’s original stories might like to see if their version of Molly fits into how she is drawn here, but they will also see Helen as a ghost who could easily be a living character painted white and having access to a fog machine. There are a few moments when Heather warns her older siblings that Helen is coming, and they can see her expression turn slightly sinister, but the artwork here isn’t designed to dazzle the reader.

But does this basic approach make this graphic novel adaptation a bad one? To answer such a question, it’s important to ask why go through the trouble of adapting a well-known story into a graphic novel format. There are possibilities to experiment with how the story is told, or even how it’s portrayed. Different looks for Heather and Helen could have made the book even scarier, but that might distract from its purpose to introduce Hahn’s stories to fans of graphic novels. The book might not be breaking new ground in this story, but it is perhaps a less intimidating introduction to Hahn’s work and to juvenile horror in general. This adaptation of Wait Till Helen Comes is still asking young readers to process how the pictures and words tell a story, which may lead into a deeper appreciation of graphic novels and, in general, of reading.

Wait Till Helen Comes
By Mary Downing Hahn, Scott Peterson
Art by  Meredith Laxton, Russ Badgett
Harper Collins, 2022
ISBN: 9780358536901

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)

Jules Verne’s Lighhouse

Bringing Jules Verne’s work to the distant future, this story of secrets, trauma, and survival captures the spirit and adventure of classic literature while also embracing a new vision for a story many may not have encountered before now.

From Image Comics, Jules Verne’s Lighthouse adapts the early 20th century novel The Lighthouse at the End of the World into a sci-fi epic set in the far reaches of the galaxy in the year 2717. In a time where humans, aliens, and robots live and work together, a small band oversee the isolated, advanced supercomputer known as The Lighthouse, which guides interstellar ships safely through a series of wormholes on their journeys to outer reaches of space. However, when a violent band of pirates arrives at The Lighthouse and seizes control, military veteran Vasquez and her robot assistant Moses are the only ones to escape into the dangerous landscape around the installation. Cut off from help and low on resources, it falls to Vasquez to uncover the pirates’ reasons for seizing the facility and try to stop their plans before it’s too late—if she can face the demons of her own past and survive long enough to see the job done, that is.

Opening with Vasquez’s narration, this miniseries immediately captures something of the tone of the classic adventure novels that form its foundation. Though I have not read Verne’s original novel, many of the markers of its plot are alive and well in this adaptation from Hine and Haberlin. From the dramatic arrival of the pirates through Vasquez’s desperate struggles to escape and into the final confrontation, this comic is a classic conflict of wills and might as our beleaguered hero faces incredible odds and ever-increasing stakes. However, the creators do not tie themselves wholly to the source material. Making use of the sci-fi reimagining, they create and expanded world of inter-planetary conflict, factious alliances, and world-razing warfare. It is in this blending of traditional adventure and grand science fiction that the comic finds life beyond a simple retelling of Verne’s work.

Though some of the thematic work around race, trauma, and warfare doesn’t always have quite enough room to breathe over the course of five action-packed issues, the creators achieve a great deal of depth and complexity within this single volume. Though there are plenty of action sequences, the story does not shy away from the darkness of its heroes or the nuances of its villains. With bold twists and a larger world always creeping in at the edges of the narrative, Hine and Haberlin show that they understand the dual genres they are working in and strive to do justice to both.

Meanwhile, Haberlin’s artwork does a great deal to capture the reimagined world of this version of the story. Opening on The Lighthouse floating amidst a starry expanse dotted with wormholes, the beauty and isolation of the story are immediately clear. The art brings a roughness and realism to the pages while still bringing style to the realism, displaying both the grand and the personal in bold fashion. The paneling and art move the story along, delivering a quick pace, occasional humor, and moments of shock in just the right places. Personally, Moses’s perpetually awkward robot grin was a highlight of a consistently dependable visual style.

Image gives Jules Verne’s Lighthouse a Mature rating, and with strong language, violence, and some mature thematic material, it is definitely intended for older audiences, be they mature teens or adults. For any collection that prizes adventure stories as well as science fiction, this title is well worth adding to the shelves. While being a complex and exciting tale in its own right, it’s also a great way to introduce readers to a novel they might never have encountered before. For a miniseries with great ambitions—that are mostly achieved by the end—Jules Verne’s Lighthouse isn’t the most remarkable comic out there, but it’s certainly worth considering for a place on the shelves.

Jules Verne’s Lighthouse
By David Hine, Brian Haberlin,  ,
Art by  Brian Haberlin
Image, 2021
ISBN: 9781534319936

Publisher Age Rating: M
Related media:  Book to Comic

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Representation: Assumed Hispanic or Latine,  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder