The Motherless Oven : Rob Davis

The Motherless OvenThe Motherless Oven by Rob Davis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s hard to review this twisting, dark labyrinth of a book because reading it felt less like reading, and more like a theatrical experience. I’m conscious that that’s such a loose way to talk about reading for every text is full of theatre and experience, but something about The Motherless Oven leaves me a little bit lost for words. And so, because of this, I focus rather on the experience of reading it; of those sharp, acute panels and those moments where I really didn’t understand what was going on but could feel it somewhere within the pages, a lifeless heart, a contradiction, words pushing against each other with a story to be told but a story told in language that I did not and do not yet wholly understand.

It was complicated. Complex. Can I deliver an idea of the plot? Yes. Approximately. Like writing words with sand, I make a semblance of what it was and in that process make it into what it is not.

The world of The Motherless Oven is a world populated by machines and human children and when it rains, knives fly down from the sky and spike the ground. Scarper is facing his deathday. There’s a girl. A boy. Parents locked up in the shed and lions at the school gates. When Scarper’s father escapes the shed, it’s up to Scarper to get him back.

Like sand, this book, like sand running through a cupped palm.

Read The Motherless Oven for the panels where the girl stands in a knife-storm; a patio table as her umbrella, for the panels where the mothers look after the children, and for the moments where the text aches at the edge of its speech bubble and palpably seeks to be somewhere elsewhere in that moment. Read it for the reading. There are elements of 1984 in this for me, and of the Clockwork Orange and of Stand By Me. The darkest of moments, and the brightest. So often the same.

This book is locked to me and yet, somehow, so very open, all at once.

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Sisters : Raina Telgemeier

SistersSisters by Raina Telgemeier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Telgemeier’s work is a joy and this book is life-affirming. ‘Sisters’, a sequel to Smile details the great joy and pain that is sibling life. Raina has longed to be a big sister but, upon the arrival of Amara, she rapidly learns that things aren’t quite what she thought they would be. A younger brother, Will, also follows making Raina the big sister in a family that she desperately wanted but doesn’t quite know how to deal with now that it’s here.

Things come to a head on a road trip which sees the narrative shift between the present and past; a richly coloured lushness placed against sepia tinged frames, and it’s delicious. It really is. This is artwork that thrives and lives. I’d defy anybody not to laugh at some of the more emphatic panels which focus on Amara’s temper tantrums, and the subtle background work which hints at some discord between the parents is clever, delicate and sympathetically done. These are books that capture story and life and moments within their pages and it is quite fabulously done.

Telgemeier’s work came somewhat strangely into my life. I found my copy of Smile all by itself on a shelf in Asda and I snatched it up in a ‘wait, what’s this doing here’ sort of manner. And I’m so glad that I did. Telgemeier writes with such a genuine warmth, lightness and humour that I am rapidly in the process of devouring everything she’s ever done. I’ve just read The Baby-Sitters Club: Kristy’s Great Idea. It’s fabulous.

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Y : The Last Man : Brian K. Vaughan

Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1: Unmanned (Y: The Last Man, #1)Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1: Unmanned by Brian K. Vaughan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have a lot of time for Brian K. Vaughan.

It started with my discovery of Runaways, a series that rapidly came to encapsulate some of the best things about comics for me. And with Pride, I realised that I was in it for the long haul. I like what Brian K. Vaughan does. I like the art of his writing; the great soaring arcs of plot and of action that can be captured over ten issues or ten frames, the moments where everything seems to still and hinge upon a word, and those moments of writing that seems to almost split and bare a characers soul before me. I like that. I am, at times, rampantly jealous of that.

I’ve taken a long time to get round to Y:The Last Man. I’m not sure why. A little bit of it is due to the fact that I get a lot of my books from the public library and they’ve always been hard to get hold of. The comic books, I mean, not the libraries. Although in today’s climate – ? I digress. Suffice to say, though I have been aware of the series for a long time, I’ve only just got round to it.

And that pains me because this series, this book of such a simple premise – what happens if all the men on earth suddenly die? – is so very good. It is so good because there is a coda to that thesis statement and that is this: all the men on earth have died, save one. The last man. The eponymous Y – Yorick Brown. And his monkey, Ampersand. The two of them have, against all odds, survived whatever it was that has killed every other man on earth.

This volume follows Yorick as he tries to find his girlfriend, tries to escape the various authorities on his tale, and tries to figure out just what it means to be the last man.

What I love about this volume (and the great, wild arcs that develop from it) is the fact that Vaughan is unafraid to give us a problematic hero. (A Hero. Ha. Yorick’s sister is called Hero. Their father was really into Shakespeare.) Yorick is flawed. His life is not as it should be.

Maybe that’s it. Perhaps Y:The Last Man is about the nature of heroism and what that entails. Destiny, maybe, and the problem of great and world-shattering hope being put into the hands of those who aren’t quite ready for that yet. Humans, maybe. That’s the best way to describe it. This volume, and the series as a whole, colours the post-male world in shades of vivid and deep grey. Nothing is quite right any more. But then, what’s right? Why do we do what we do? Is this simply the world reasserting itself? Is this how it was always going to be? What would you do? What should Yorick do? How do you continue to live in a world where you’re the only one left?

Choose light. Choose dark. Choose rage. Choose hope. Choose to walk into tomorrow with your eyes wide-shut, or with your arms outstretched and ready to receive whatever may come. Just choose something. Something. Anything.

I love that Vaughan throws all that at us and asks us to consider what we’d do. And I love that he doesn’t make it clear. He doesn’t make it easy. He doesn’t make it right. Yorick makes decisions, foolish and blind, and – it’s true. To him. Maybe not to the ideals of what this world could be. But it’s his experience of that world, and Vaughan lets that happen in the right way. The complicated, contradictory and often foolish way.

This is storytelling, really, even the parts that made me feel uncomfortable and antagonistic towards the text. And don’t get me wrong, there are parts of this story which are deeply problematic – but they are problems of this story and they are integral to this story and this story is Yorick’s and so, to ignore these problems and to edit his storyline would pull the story far away from him and to a place that it should not be.

Y: The Last Man is a lesson in how to handle the light and dark, the madness of story and how to let it tell itself. It is a lesson in complexity and darkness and shadows and light, and it is is a lesson in a comic that is anthemic in scope and reach.

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Briony Hatch : Penelope & Ginny Skinner

Briony HatchBriony Hatch by Penelope Skinner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Briony Hatch is a slim graphic novel, coloured in black and whites and reminiscent of something doodled in pen and ink on the inside of an exercise book. It’s definitely a story of two halves; the intense teenage ennui of life and the struggle of Briony to figure out where she fits in, coupled with a rather intensely poignant (and sardonically true to life, oddly enough) tale of love and ghosts and regrets. Overlaying both stories is Briony’s devotion to the book series ‘Starling Black’ and her deep and pained reading of the final book in the series. Think Harry Potter and Fangirl and you’re about on point with that one.

The big key point about Briony Hatch is twofold (and I apologise now that I seem to be splitting everything about this review into bifold reasoning, but hey-ho, maybe it’s the weather or something) and the first is the art. Briony is very much herself, from her tumultous and haphazard hair through to the butterfly wing bulge of her stomach and her intense and scene-dominating eyes. It’s quite the thing to have all of this conveyed in black and white and it’s a little startling at first, but once you come to terms with it, it’s hard to not love it just a little bit.

The second bright strength of Briony Hatch rests in the humour. There are a few moments when Briony meanders off into daydreams, blurring her life with that of Starling Black, and when the daydreams become rather pleasurable,she comments: “This fantasy is better than I thought!” There’s a few other rather delicious asides throughout: “I am of the internet generation … So even though I’ve never had sex … My imagination is extremely graphic”

Where Briony Hatch does suffer though is with the lettering and stylistics of that lettering. It’s all delivered in a, whilst appropriate, personal and handwritten style that does fit but does, also, seem somehow jarring for the wider tones of the story engaged in in the second half. Whilst that is worth noting, it’s worth noting in the context of a story that’s rather deliciously unique and a little bit of a surprise and a lot of pleasure.

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Nancy Drew – Ghost In The Machinery : Stefan Petrucha & Sho Murase

Ghost in the Machinery (Nancy Drew: Girl Detective, #9)Ghost in the Machinery by Stefan Petrucha

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An odd thing this, but sort of madly appealing in a problematic sort of way; Ghost In The Machinery is an adventure “so big that it takes three graphic novels to tell the whole story”. Ghost In The Machinery is the first in the series and complete, after a fashion, though with several big over-arching gapes of plot that I presume lead into the next one.

It begins with Nancy, Bess and George camping out in the woods coincidentally on purpose to investigate strange lights in the woods. They investigate the lights and come across an old munitions factory which is due to be demolished the next day (explosives, naturally, we do need the dramatic here) and the lights lead inside. And so Nancy and her pals decide to investigate. As you do. I was mildly hysterical at this point, though I went on with it because it’s sort of hard not to. When a book, a comic, a play, whatever, starts with such headlong giddiness and sort of careens down the path of not giving one iota about it, you do tend to go along with it, even if it’s just out of a sense of delirious fascination as to where it goes next.

And so I did, and so it does go to places quite surprising and a bit quantum-leap(y) at points (and a few that were maybe more – wait, what, did I miss a page or two?), but it still managed to retain a certain sense of dynamism about it that kept me interested. A lot of that is due to the art, the ferocious vividness of Nancy; the smart panels which balanced out each other on the page (2:2, 3:3 etc, providing a sense of continuity and equality, but also warning you about the visual highlights yet to come, which will deviate from this rhythm).

So: to sum? There’s a lot at fault with this comic really but a lot that’s good with it as well; that sort of crazy adherence to the source text’s eccentricities, the character of Nancy herself remains an intense joy and she’s rendered here with brilliant and intense effect, and, you know, there’s a bit with a tank. Bits with a tank are always good.

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Corpse Talk : Adam T Murphy

Corpse Talk (Season 1)Corpse Talk by Murphy, Adam

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Corpse Talk is lovely. That’s an odd thing to say about a series of comics situated around the idea of the creator, Adam Murphy, interviewing various corpses that have been dug up. The corpses are all famous people such as Marie Antoinette, Henry VII, Nikola Tesla.

And it is lovely. It’s anarchic and wicked and pulls us straight into history. One of my favourite books ever is a book we’ve had in our household for a long time and it tells key points from history but in strip comics. It’s a brilliant book because of its simplicity and the fact that you get to see that these people are like you. They walk, they talk, and in the case of the comic talking about the Good Samaritan, have LOVELY horses. But I digress. Suffice to say, spinning history into comics is a good thing. It’s an accessible thing but it’s also a question of engagement. It’s about breaking down this idea that a topic is stiff and foreign and it’s about saying that it is actually something that matters and here’s a way for you to hook into these thousand and million year old stories.

Corpse Talk does all that and more. Each entry in the series, usually a page long but stretching into the odd double page spread the further you get into the collection, starts with Adam introducing the corpse and them waving to camera. So, for example, we get Mary Shelley doing a Gothic fonted Hello whilst in the background Adam holds his head and goes “You’re not going to talk like that all the time are you?” (Glorious. Witty and funny and proper dead (badumtish) good).

He then interviews each corpse about their life and so we have some flashback panels, where we get to see what the corpse actually looked like in real life. His corpse Einstein is perfect, corpsified and gross (tm Firefly) everywhere but his shock of wild white hair remains intact. There’s care taken with all the other characters too and each of their strips are introduced with a little headstone that differs according to each character. Mary Shelley has a little neckscrew working through hers (Frankenstein) which just made me have a intense moment of joy.

It’s a book of detail, really, of careful and clever and witty construction, that rewards rereads and spending time with. And his iteration of Marie Curie (and the pay off to her interview) is possibly the most brilliant thing I have read in comics for a while.

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Atomic Sheep : Sally Jane Thompson

Atomic SheepAtomic Sheep by Sally Jane Thompson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This quiet graphic novel is a rather beautiful thing. I came across it after tweeting that I was visiting Thought Bubble and if you were writing comics which feature boarding schools then I’d be really interested to see them. Because, and I grant this might come as a little bit of a surprise to those of you who know me, I rather love the genre and I don’t read enough of it in comic form. So after tweeting that, Sally Jane Thompson replied and mentioned Atomic Sheep to me and, as they say in all cliche-ridden things, the rest is history.

Told in a gorgeously soft pallet of autumnal browns and muted subtle tones, Atomic Sheep covers Tamrika’s first term at boarding school. Tammy is literally and metaphorically trying to find her creative voice. She wants to get better at her art and ends up forming an art group at her new school. It’s through this club and her relationships with her slightly scary roommate that Tammy starts to come to terms with both where she is and who she is.

Atomic Sheep is a very subtly lovely book. It’s not one of the bash, kapow, thwock sort of books and if you’re expecting overt and dramatic action, I’d suggest that you look elsewhere. What Atomic Sheep does is concern itself with the moments of growth and change that Tammy goes through during her first term. There are some beautiful little moments that she has and I loved how Thompson handled that. She’s got a lovely metatextual touch where the speech bubbles overlap in arguments or fall blank or just simply *sigh*. It’s gorgeous to read. It makes you so content as a reader, really, to experience this sort of enfolding of a story. It’s palpably lovely. And I’m conscious that I’m overusing ‘lovely’ in this review but really, it is. It is.


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