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Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg

Glass Town cover by Isabel Greenberg

Glass Town: The Imaginary World of the Brontës by Isabel Greenberg

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I am increasingly conscious that I am moving closer to the world of the Brontës, falling in love with it, and not being remotely mad about this, not at all. I would have fought against this a few years ago, I think, reading them as something distant from what they are. Something dull, something ‘bonnety’, something related to distant schooldays and the memories of tearing a text from limb to limb and leaving little to nothing left there to love, to lose onself in. But I have learnt how to read since then, and by ‘read’, I mean to read for myself. This isn’t about literacy nor the understanding of shapes and comprehension of words, it’s about reading. Selfishly, wholly. Completely. Reading not for the reaction of others but for the reaction of myself. And to trust in that. It’s something I took a while to figure out: my reading has validity. And also, that it doesn’t matter what route I take to get to a text. It just matters that I take it.

My route to the Brontës began with Emily and Wuthering Heights, and the slow realisation that I could not ignore storytelling as fierce as this. And so I worked my way into their world, reading books about them and books by them and books like Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg, books that are something so magical and wild and weird and delicious that they spill out of simple classifications and into something else entirely. Technically this is a graphic novel, a blend of fact and fiction, a story of the Brontë juvenilia and the stories held within, and it is that. But it’s something else entirely, and I think that something is magic.

Magic. We read it as one thing, but it’s so often another. Opening your eyes. Picking up a pen. Pulling a rabbit out of a hat. All magic, magic things but infinitely different. The act of conjuring. The act of making. The act of faith. A thousand different things in this world are magic and they are intoxicating, teasing, all-enveloping. Writing was the Brontës magic, a way to slide from one world into another, and the moors were their magic, a way to stand on the edge of the sky, and each other were their magic, these small potatoes in their cellar, these sisters.

I think that’s what happens here in Isabel Greenberg’s book, magic. Worlds slide into worlds, lives fold into each other, stories map landscapes, oceans are formed, stars are made, stories are told. Greenberg’s art borders on a spectral edge, capturing the tense edge of life on the edge of the moor, a life fighting against everything that happened, another world haunting the skies above Haworth, a castle in the sky built by words and stories and dreams.

The other great part of this book is Charlotte’s story. There are moments here that are intensely saddening, handled with a great and subtle restraint, and it is remarkable. I loved it. A lesson in dreams, a lesson in heartbreak, a lesson in imagination. A lesson in heartbreak, a lesson in love, a lesson in life. This book really is a stunning achievement.



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Walking Distance by Lizzy Stewart

Walking Distance

Walking Distance by Lizzy Stewart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Existing within the city – within the world – is often no simple nor straightforward thing, particularly for a woman and Walking Distance by Lizzy Stewart is no simple nor straightforward thing. It is a complex, challenging, reflexive, and occasionally deeply wonderful meditation on life within the city. On taking the streets that “would make your parents uneasy”. On taking up space. On being.

There’s a rich heritage to this sort of thing ranging from Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin through to A Room Of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, and, I think, those eternal stories see a young woman trying to figure out who she wishes to be in the world whilst the world threatens to move on without her. I’m trying not to say ‘things like Bridget Jones’ but I am essentially saying ‘things like Bridget Jones’. Some of the spreads where Stewart looks at herself as much as the world about her are precious moments of story where her lines and colours move as much as the text itself.

I think that notion of movement is key here; this is a comic that moves, whether that’s those delicious moments of abstraction that conjure stormy skies and the Thames in the same breadth, or a panel with a figure in the distant corners of a housing estate. A woman existing, with something she is moving from and something she is going to. A woman with story, whether that’s Meryl Streep or Nola Darling. I was intrigued to see how Stewart navigated her story; this is a text that could be read as being “of woman” (in those readings that we see so often and sometimes so reductively applied to women writing about womenish things…). Stewart works hard to question that kind of globalist reading, recognising that she can not speak for other women’s experiences within the city and only her own. And yet there’s a strength in that singularity, a fascination in it that the book almost seems shy or nervous of recognising.

I think what I’m reaching for her is the notion of an echo, a ripple. A pebble dropped in the middle of an ocean. An impact made. An articulation of a moment; a parallel found. A slight, slender thread in the messy, complicated dark. A story of the individual, but also a story of us, of all of us.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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The Dead Queen Detectives : The Crown Jewels by Bevis Musson

The Dead Queen Detectives : The Crown Jewels

The Dead Queen Detectives : The Crown Jewels by Bevis Musson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


One of the things I like to do is tweet about when I’m going to a comics convention and ask for advice on what to buy. I know what I like – feminist, girl-focused comics – and I know what I’d really want – a boarding school based comic that is good and does something akin to Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike for the genre – but I grant that sometimes we do not always get what we really want. However, I did get the creator of the Dead Queen Detectives tweeting me with the words “like the Four Marys” and that, my friends, was enough to send this to the top of my shopping list.

The Dead Queen Detectives : The Crown Jewels by Bevis Musson is a treat. It’s basically the Four Marys meets Corpse Talkt and I loved it. The Dead Queen Detectives are Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Anne and Queen Victoria. There are also the Dead Queens Detectives : International Queens who are Hatshepshut, Isabella, Catherine and Marie-Antoinette. And then, there’s also The Legion Of Substitute Dead Disputed Queen Detectives who are Boudicca, Empress Matilda, Lady Jane Grey and Mary Stuart. I mean, there’s a cast, right?

I had a few reservations about the font and lettering choices – the cover font doesn’t work for me at all on a thousand different levels, and it’s repeated within so I found that a tad problematic to work with. There were also a few moments in the text and captions that I felt could have benefited from being revisited and either tightened up or dropped. And yet, I massively enjoyed this and would go back to it in a heart-beat. I am here for comics doing intriguing, strange and delightful things and The Dead Queens is all that and more. It’s a fourth-wall breaking, deliciously anarchic thing and every now and then it absolutely shines.



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Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, a modern retelling of Little Women by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: A Graphic Novel: A Modern Retelling of Little Women by Rey Terciero front cover

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: A Graphic Novel: A Modern Retelling of Little Women by Rey Terciero

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this. So much. Little Women is one of those iconic texts and retellings of iconic texts can be challenging things. Do you stick with the iconic or do you go for something new? Do you retell texture or detail, sensation or sentence? It’s a balancing act and one that will never wholly reproduce the original. But it shouldn’t. Books – stories – life – they evolve. Words grow, words shift, words change, and that which broke our heart at age six can turn us into warriors at age thirty-six. Everything changes. Why should our stories be any different?

And so this is no perfect adaptation, because I think no adaptation can be perfect. It simply can’t. It’s never that original, it’s never that point in time, it’s never the moment when we pick up a book for the first time. It’s an echo, a memory, but in the hands of Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo, it’s perfect. I accept the flaws of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (and Peggy!) because it’s so utterly, utterly gorgeous. Yes, the chapters tend to devolve into vignettes, and plots are shifted and detail nuanced, but when it’s as beautiful and rich and lovely as this, I don’t care.

And it made me love Amy. So much. Amy! The actual worst becoming the actual best! Wonders will never cease. This is joyful, and I love it. We should not separate our stories from the world; we should take them and reshape them and make them parts of our lives. And we should give them such an ending as Terciero and Indigo give this book, one of heart, hope and utter, utter power.

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Three Sisters of Haworth : Girl Annual 5

The front cover of GIRL ANNUAL number 5
GIRL ANNUAL no. 5

This is GIRL. It was launched in 1951 as a sister title to EAGLE, and I have a lot of love for it. Comics of this period are endlessly fascinating in how they look outward; the world was there for the taking, and this was a generation that both would – and could – take full advantage of it.

Launched by Marcus Morris who, incidentally, turns out to have been responsible for launching the British version of COSMO (!), GIRL told the stories of girls and women who did great things. It was a mixture of comic, short-story, factual and ‘how to’ pieces, and was regularly collected in numbered editions. Number five, for example, includes such delightful things as ‘how to make a Tyrolean belt’, ‘Christmas in the Land of Pinatas and Posatas’ and my little heart exploding of joy.

As great at these are (and they are, trust me), it was Three Sisters of Haworth that caught my eye. The story is by Pamela Green and Kenneth Gravtt, and drawn by Eric Dadswell. I’m guessing you already know who the three sisters of Haworth are, but the subtitle will give it away if you don’t: The True Story of the Brontës  Who Wrote Some of Our Finest Literature. Note that our there. It’s often in the small detail that good work shows itself: these stories are collective. I’m part of it. You’re part of it.

Three Sisters of Haworth is a fairly standard recollection of the Brontës lives. It steps up, however, in the following panels:

A panel from THREE SISTERS OF HAWORTH where the sisters ask Emily Bronte what she shall call her new book.
Panel from THREE SISTERS OF HAWORTH
A panel from THREE SISTER OF HAWORTH with the speech "I shall call it 'Wuthering Heights'"
Panel from THREE SISTERS OF HAWORTH

How absolutely amazing is that? It’s so brilliant. It captures the spirit of Wuthering Heights (a book which I reviewed here) and also tells your young readers to fight for their dreams. I would frame it if I could. I probably will. It’s outstanding work.

If you’re interested, you can see a few more panels from the comic here, and if this sort of thing floats your boat, the annuals themselves are regularly available on the second hand market (and not for that much either!).

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To Kill A Mockingbird by Haper Lee, adapted and illustrated by Fred Fordham

To Kill a Mockingbird: A Graphic Novel by Fred Fordham front cover

To Kill a Mockingbird: A Graphic Novel by Fred Fordham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s kind of terrifying to adapt something because you’re not just adapting the thing in question. You’re trying to adapt the aura of it; some books have this indefinable something about them that you can’t ever pin down in words, but you know it’s there. And even little white girls growing up in rural North Yorkshire knew that there was a something about To Kill A Mockingbird. I cannot speak for the text itself, nor for its nuanced problems and challenges which better voices than I have elaborated on, nor for its cultural status, but I can speak for this adaptation itself. The care of it, the craft of it, and the curious way that it is neither graphic novel nor book but rather something in between.

I would call it more of an illustrated novel, rather than a graphic novel. The difference is fine, I know, and probably something I’d struggle to describe to you were I pushed, but it’s there. The lettering uses the same font throughout for example, a calm steady consistent font that doesn’t vary by character or panel. It gives the book a great sense of intimacy but also adds this strangely intriguing sense of remove. We see what we’re told to see, read what we’re told to read, and the text itself? Well, that felt distant – even now, even despite the great embedded cultural weight that To Kill A Mockingbird holds within the world. I find that intriguing; that a story so well known can still hide away, just a little, just enough.

This is a beautifully produced book and Fordham’s aesthetics here are wonderful. He draws a lot from the film (particularly, I thought, with his interpretation of Atticus), and situates him within a town full of quiet, soft colours. I rather loved his use of frames; a vast amount of his panels are un-edged, merging softly with the book itself and giving the whole page a sense of timelessness. Those that are framed are rare but potent, introducing a note of dynamism and sudden focus. It’s a quality piece of work. It is, however, a clear adaptation. It’s not a repurposing, nor a retelling, nor a questioning. It’s adapted. Deliberately. Carefully. Perhaps a little too carefully at points but again, understandably so.

It’s also important to note that stylistically I felt that it reached down towards the younger end of secondary but the text itself retains the use of the n- word and the themes located therein. It’s perhaps something then to read in company with the text itself, or rather with the facility to discuss and challenge and think about some of the content.

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El Deafo by Cece Bell

El Deafo by Cece Bell front cover

El Deafo by Cece Bell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes, due to library reservation queues and the like, it takes me a long time to get to a book. And that’s a good thing, because it tells me that it’s being talked about, that it’s being passed from hand to hand fever-quick and passion-bright, and sometimes it makes me nervous. I wonder whether these books that have had such buzz about them can live up to that noise; I ask myself if they can be all that I want them; I wonder whether they’re worth the wait. But every now and then I forget all of that because I’ve got an alert about a book that I put it on hold a long time ago, and now it’s finally here. And that moment will never not feel like Christmas.

And oh my friends, El Deafo is everything. It’s a treat; a fictionalised autobiography, drawing on the childhood experiences of Cece Bell herself, but allowing moments to merge together, and conversations and characters to be reshaped and remade for the story. It’s rendered in a softly beautiful palette of sun-soaked colour and rich, rounded lines that allow this story of childhood to almost fall off the page and into your heart. God, I sound like some hideous advert you have on channel 339402 but forgive me because it’s true. This is richness here, heartfelt and lovely and warm and honest storytelling. It is the story of Cece’s deafness, caused by an illness at age four, and it is so beautifully personal, funny and honest, that it’s difficult not to fall in love with it.

But I fell in love with it a little more once I read Bell’s potent afterword. She is, as she writes, “an expert on no ones deafness but my own” and provides some context on “what a deaf person might choose to do with his or her hearing loss”. It’s eloquent, calmly told truth, and something that underlines the great depth of El Deafo. This is a story of layers and texture, driven by Bell’s personal experience but also her recognition that “our differences are our superpowers.” A potent message for any age, but when it’s teamed with art this adorable and a story with this much heart, it’s almost irresistible.


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Alpha : Bessora, Barroux, (Sarah Ardizzone (trans.))

Alpha. Abidjan to Gare du NordAlpha. Abidjan to Gare du Nord by Bessora

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s difficult to know how to classify this raw and brilliant book, so perhaps I shall classify it as a story about people and leave it at that. I was lucky enough to interview Bessora, and her translator Sarah Ardizzone here and I’d urge you to check out their thoughts about Alpha. There is a lot of depth here and care, and it shines through to the final product; a graphic novel of unsparing, simple truth.

Alpha is trying to get from the Ivory Coast to the Gare Du Nord in Paris. His wife and child have made the journey before him, though he does not know whether they were successful. He does not know if they are even alive. Life isn’t easy like that. This book doesn’t give you the simple Hollywood narrative, it gives you something rawer than that. It gives you a burnt, bitter truth and makes the faceless known.

I heard Bessora speak about this book (a quote I include here in this article about children’s books featuring refugees) and her comment that “We are all somebodies, not nobodies” has stuck with me for months now. She is a precise and beautiful writer, and when her language works with Barroux’s simple and blunt artwork, Alpha comes to possess a fierce and unflinching beauty of its own. This is a powerful book. It might be too true for some.

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The Arrival : Shaun Tan

The ArrivalThe Arrival by Shaun Tan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It hit me recently that I’d never reviewed this, this story of eloquence and love and shadows, and that was something I had to make right. The Arrival holds a difficult place in my heart in that, I think, I read it too soon. Too blindly. Too hungry for words and language and precision. Reading can be selfish, sometimes. You can ache to remake the text in your vision, to dominate it with your perspective and views, and thus deny the value of the read itself. We read for others. We read for otherness, for voice, and for echoes to map our lives against, and sometimes I don’t do that. Sometimes I can get a little lost, and need to step back, and remind myself that this is not my story. I do not own this text. I am a reader. I own my reading of that, but I do not own the other.

And so I came back to Shaun Tan, drawn in part by a political and pervasive rhetoric that seems to seek division where there is none to be found, but also because of the stillness of that front cover. It made me understand what I had done to this book before, and it make me realise how I needed to approach it now. I look at a lot of books as part of my job, and stillness is not something you see that often on a front cover. Yet, as I look at it now, I can see that it’s not still. That it’s a moment, an encounter, and this is a split second point between it. Stillness in movement; being able to capture that precise, delicate, beauty where the two of them meet eyes and properly see each other? Beautiful. Perhaps, too, the essence of this book. The encounter where things become Things, and Known, and Named.

So, the book itself. It is wordless, split into six “chapters”. I say “chapters”, because honestly, imposing an idea of sequence on this poetic narrative seems difficult. It is linear, but it’s also not; the story of people coming to a new land, forming connections, but also what came before and after, the stories that thread through us on a daily basis, the web of connection that is life, I suppose, just living and being and loving. Moments. Beats. The dance of your heart and the stillness that comes when you find home.

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Collecting Sticks : Joe Decie

Collecting SticksCollecting Sticks by Joe Decie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was at a conference the other day where talk turned to the idea of ‘kindness’ and how writing can give an opportunity for emotions to be expressed another way. To shine a light into the darkness. It’s a complex idea and one that I suspect I’m going to be unpicking for a while, but what stuck with me was that idea of kindness. I have been moving closer to it for a while now, seeking it particularly in the children’s books I work with but also elsewhere. That acknowledgement that the world is a complex and challenging and intimidating space and that we are just people trying to do our best in it. Kindness. It’s hard to find in a book, hard to consciously seek it, but when you find it, you find a fat and rich and genuine warmth that sings of love and hope and belief in people in all of their foolish and idiosyncratic ways. Kindness.

And so I came to Collecting Sticks by Joe Decie, a comic book that I’d seen reviewed elsewhere and ordered at the library as a consequence (reviews! they work! colour me stunned!). It is a beautiful, beautiful book and I loved it. It’s a slender, elegant visual note, rendered in a black and white wash and wry notes and asides towards the reader. It’s autobiographical, covering a glamping trip undertaken by Decie’s family, but rather deliciously global in the same way; Decie focuses on the moments at the heart of his panels and lets the white space of the page or the quietly focused background of the panel provide that universal backdrop that means these moments of family and conversation could, perhaps, be in your house right now. It’s delicately done and all rather wonderful.

Seek this out if you’re a little tired with the world, or if you’re looking for something to remind you of the intense potential of people. Collecting Sticks has such a delightful warm rhythm to it that it beats with family life, of closeness and of love. It’s eccentric, funny, and self-conscious, and it’s full of utterly delightful beats. And it is full of kindness. Warmth. Empathy. Love.

This is a beautiful, beautiful little book.

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The Pirates of Pangaea : Daniel Hartwell & Neill Cameron

The Pirates of Pangaea: Book 1 (The Phoenix Presents)The Pirates of Pangaea: Book 1 by Dan Hartwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Like H Rider Haggard. But with dinosaurs.”

That was how I described this dynamic and rather wonderful comic from the team of Daniel Hartwell and Neill Cameron; the Pirates of Pangaea gives us boy’s own adventures, cut from the pages of those delicious 1950s stories of derring do, mixes it up with a bit of H Rider Haggard, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and if that weren’t enough, there’s also dinosaurs.

I really liked this. I talk a lot in my reviews about books knowing the space within which they work and owning that space. Children’s literature, comics, young adult literature, everything I review, they all talk to each other. They all exist as part of this great dynamic system of expression; a stone thrown into the pond and the ripples rolling out a thousand fold. And that’s one aspect of what I mean when I talk about space; the dialogues between texts. The way one text finds an echo in another; the way one novel talks to that and vice-versa.

Another aspect of space, though,is the idea of the book itself. The page edge. The limit of the bookish space. The part where the book ends, practically. The page corner. The front cover. The part where the world stops being book and starts being something else. The sofa. The table. The floor. (Get your books up off the floor, please, thanks)

This part of space is particularly pertinent for picture books and comics because they can push all the way up to that edge. A novel will always have white space around the text due to typsetting, but visual media? It can push that edge. It can spill story all the way out and into the world, and this is where The Pirates of Pangaea shines. It’s a big book. It’s a big and storied and strong book; the story doesn’t just live within its pages, it’s everywhere. The visual coding of this book is so strong. I believed it. Boats ride on the back of dinosaurs, land-borne craft over the sea of green, people ride dinosaurs and I believed it. All of it.

It’s all true.

I spoke at the start of this review about the authorly echoes The Pirates of Pangaea stirred up in me; it’s a comic of finding yourself in a world where you have to, because there’s nobody else to do it for you. Sophie, one of the lead characters, is cut from a very distinct cloth; she’s brave, occasionally gobby, quick-witted and I rather love her.

There’s another fine detail of The Pirates of Pangaea that I want to highlight, as it speaks again to me of that great width of this comic, the way it exists in a space so much larger than it may seem to initially inhabit, and that detail comes at the little note at the start of each chapter. Each chapter’s introduced with a double sided page, coloured in that evocative note of antique and yellowing parchment, with a map on one side and a dinosaur on the other side. Each side is noted in pencil with little notes which speak of lived experience. This is clever, clever work; it’s not letting any part of the book-space go to waste, and it’s making every inch of it work for your narrative.

This is good, good stuff.

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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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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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Comics

Endangered and More Strange Stories : Art Heroes

I am going to be attending Thought Bubble soon. (Which is exciting, no? I do love me some conventions. Last time I attended one, aaages ago, my friend and I spoke to Paul Cornell and asked him to stop making stories which make us cry. We saw Paul leave shortly after. No connection, I promise you. Honest. Shut up. Stop looking at me like that).

Anyway. As part of my Thought Bubble prep, I’m re/reading some comics. It’s been a while since I’ve done comics on the blog so let’s sort that out with a look at Endangered and More Strange Stories from the Art Heroes team.

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Everything else

I did a guest post!

Hey look, I wrote a guest post for GN Yeah Yeah about the awesomeness that is the Angel and Faith comics. Go Look!

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Book Reviews Comics

Smile : Raina Telgemeier

Smile (Smile, #1)Smile by Raina Telgemeier

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There is very little about this adorable, funny and heartfelt coming of age comic that I did not love. Inspired by the authors own dental experiences, Raina goes through the most epic of toothly sagas after falling over and losing her two front teeth. We follow her throughout this journey, through retainers and braces and back again.

And it’s lovely. I would give this to everybody and anybody. Perfect for those who may need a little bit of reassurance to get through their visits to the dentists, perfect for those who feel like they don’t fit in and perfect for those who just love a good comic, Telgemeier’s book is full of warmth and love and the weirdest sort of pride in coming to terms with what happened to her.

Artistically, it’s a delight. Coloured in the richest of sunny hues, it’s set in the urban backdrop of San Francisco and the landscape is practically edible. There’s panels where Raina looks ruefully up at the innocent road sign and mutters about how much she’s really coming to hate this freeway exit, and others where she takes the new road to school. Each and every panel is so lovely, there’s very little else to say. I will note though that it’s not perhaps one of the most stylistically avant-garde of comics but it is is gorgeous and a perfect introduction to the medium, particularly for the younger reader.

God this comic is gorgeous. Utterly, vividly gorgeous. It made me laugh, it made me smile and it made me fall in love with the protagonist. Smile is one to discover.

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Book Reviews Comics

The Tentacles of Doom : Andi Watson

The Tentacles of Doom!. Andi WatsonThe Tentacles of Doom!. Andi Watson by Andi Watson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s something sort of relentlessly appealing about Gum Girl and it’s something you sort of have to accept. This collection of three short stories, the second in the series (the first being Catastrophe Calling) are very carefully crafted adventures of the titular Gum Girl. Despite my innate difficulties with the concept of somebody being called Gum Girl (surely, but surely it should be Choddy Chick, no? No?), I really enjoyed this.

It’s a vivid, vivacious and intensely bright collection of stories. Watson’s got a lovely sense of character to both his goodies, his baddies and the adults as well (which is quite the achievement in comics this brief). I really love the colours in this as well, the bubblegum candy brights are balanced nicely so that the pages remain eyecatching and yet not off-putting. What’s also interesting is that even in these brief and bright stories, there’s some very clear and strong storytelling. If anything it’s very precise bearing in mind the size of these panels and length of the stories, and it bears some weight to Watson’s abilities.

I could see this working nicely alongside Vern and Lettuce by Sarah McIntyre. Both titles have that sort of funny, nonchalant irreverence and appeal.

There’s an excellent piece here where Watson discusses more about his creative process (though it does include the mildest of spoilers for this series, it’s fascinating).

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Book Reviews Comics

I Kill Giants : Joe Kelly & JM Ken Niimura

I Kill GiantsI Kill Giants by Joe Kelly

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to precis a book like this without throwing immense spoilers around the room and pointing to said spoilers with neon flashing arrows. As a result of this, I hope you’ll forgive me for delivering a fairly bald synopsis albeit it one with a coda of ‘you really should read this’.

Barbara lives in a world where the fantastical and the real intertwine. She’s clearly struggling, locked in a world where the only friends she has are characters from her near obsessive interest in Dungeons and Dragons. And the other thing Barbara has is an interest in killing giants.

Kelly’s story is moving, harsh, and intensely funny at points. It’s one to go blind into in a way, though if you’re using or reccommending this professionally, I would suggest that you read it yourself in order to fully understand the thematic depth and elemental darkness present in this stunningly bold book.

Artistically it’s a vicious, intense ride. Coloured solely in black and white, starkly so at points, the dynamic Manga style allows for some stunning panels. Niimura’s splash pages are stunning, rarely not leaving you breathless. I had a great amount of love for his speech panels, bleeding storytelling with every stroke. There’s some stunning use of speech redactions in them, reinforcing the fact that this is Barbara’s story and some things are too hideous for her to be able to hear.

And now for that coda:

This book is Neil Gaiman meets Patrick Ness meets Molly from Runaways meets Ted Hughes. And if that does not make you pick up a copy, then I do not know what does.

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Book Reviews

The Savage : David Almond / Dave McKean

The SavageThe Savage by David Almond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The wild child phenomenon is something that’s been represented repeatedly in literature, perhaps most notably in the case of The Wild Boy of Aveyron. But it’s never been treated like this.

Almond and McKean have produced a strange, enthralling hybrid of a book. It’s not quite picture book, it’s not quite graphic novel, it’s a layer between the two – switching from one story to the other and then eventually, beautifully tightening the gaps between the two. I won’t attempt to write a synopsis of it, because I don’t think that would do it justice. What I will say is that it deals with themes of masculinity, bullying, and the real / fantasy world but do note that it’s definitely not one for younger children, as it contains scenes of physical violence and intense imagery. And what I will also say is that The Savage is one of those books to experience, and experience it you must.

It’s stunning. My love for David Almond grows with every book of his I read. What he does so very well is he writes the primal magic of childhood. Remember the days when snow was amazing and not something that made your commute impossible? Almond does. And here he produces something quite stunning, drawing in elements of the wild child myth but also moments reminiscent of The Lord of The Flies and even at points bits that made me think of Apocalypse Now.

The artwork is what completes this though. It’s similarly outstanding. McKean’s work is exuberant, viciously so. It revels in telling the story and it’s beautiful. Some of the moments where the Savage is exploring the town are full of a kinetic, primal energy that falls off the page. McKean’s sense of the visual, the construction of his images is superb. What’s particularly stunning is that the majority of these images are told in such a limited colour palette. We have forest scenes, coloured all in greens, shifting from light misty pale washes for the background, all the way down to dark, almost black shadows cast across peoples faces. And then, at night, the darkness is expressed in tones of blues, from light to dark, and then, when required, punching straight into great swathes of empty, page swallowing blacks.

This is outstanding in every way. I read. I cried. I gasped. And I fell in love with Almond. Again.

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Book Reviews Comics

Avengers vs X-Men : Brian Michael Bendis

Avengers vs. X-MenAvengers vs. X-Men by Brian Michael Bendis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Whilst doing my ritual X-Men and Avengers “Who’s Alive? Who’s Dead” Game proved somewhat easier in this book (basically everybody’s everything!), I remain somewhat disappointed at the final product.

The Phoenix is back. And I properly love the Phoenix and have done ever since the glory of the Claremont days. I even put up with the slightly rubbish moments the Phoenix had in Ultimate X-Men, just so I could get more of this ‘character’ that fascinated me. This time, she’s headed straight for Hope Summers as a host. Because of this, to go all Harry Hill, it’s one big fight in Marvel-land. The X-Men won’t let the Avengers take Hope, and the Avengers won’t let the X-Men keep Hope.

And the tragedy is that ‘fight’ pretty much sums this entire book. The level of actual character development remained minimal and in some cases, felt distinctly retrograde. Cyclops, so intriguing to me in Utopia, became so very flat and dull. He’s a character who borders on this at the best of times, and I didn’t connect with him in the slightest. Problem was that I also had a similar reaction to Captain America, leader of the other side – and when you’re struggling to empathise with two of your main characters, you’ve got a problem as a reader.

Artistically and structurally, it felt bizarrely balanced. There were moments which were superb, and others which felt like they were just rote panels on rote pages. Every now and then the artwork seemed to switch off simply to draw several Hulk Smash-esque panels that felt like they had very little to do with the story as a whole.

Hope is a character I find massively exciting. I was intensely disappointed in how she was used here and particularly annoyed with the ending involving her and one other mutant – both used in a fairly deus ex machina method.

Avengers vs X-Men is a comic that is nowhere near as good as it could be, and that’s a disservice to characters of this quality

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Book Reviews

A Family Secret : Eric Heuvel

A Family SecretA Family Secret by Eric Heuvel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up alongside The Search by the same author. Both books are published in collaboration with the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and focus on the Dutch during World War Two. Whilst I found the sister title a little structurally awkward, A Family Secret was rather stunning.

The grand dame of graphic novels featuring World War Two is pretty definitely Maus. Here’s what I thought of that. The Search and A Family Secret form a vital contribution to the field.

In A Family Secret, Helena tells her grandson Jeroen about her experiences during the war. It utilises what I would describe as a fairly Tintin-esque structure; solid panels with white gutter inbetween. It’s rare that the action deviates from this structure which, whilst isn’t the most avant-garde style, does lead to an easily accessible read. Lettering wise, it’s fairly linear and uniform, but as the angle this is taking is that of an educational comic, it’s something I can pass.

What makes this book unique (I think, let me know if I’ve missed a title), is how it treats the concept of collaboration. Helena’s father is a collaborator. There’s a twist in his tale that I won’t spoil but it did take me genuinely by surprise. Heuvel doesn’t stint on his depiction of this, and what’s almost more (interesting? horrendous?) is what occurs on the sidelines of Helena’s story. There’s one sequence where she is going through Amsterdam and we witness an unnamed woman who has her hair publically shaved and the swastika painted on her forehead. It’s a brief but vicious sequence and one more chilling in how it is so briefly and matter of factly presented.

This is a vital book, and one that provides a unique perspective and angle on events that many of us may think we already know. What’s also unique about this is how it treats some fairly dark topics, such as ‘sleeping with the enemy’, being a Prisoner of War, and collaboration, and it would be a useful book to use in discussions around this topic.

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Book Reviews Comics

The Walking Dead (Volume One – Days Gone By) : Robert Kirkman & Tony Moor

The Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone ByeThe Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye by Robert Kirkman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I came to this series after getting hooked on the TV adaptation. I’d heard of it, watched it fly off the shelves in my library, but never really connected with it. The stunning cinematography in the show and reading that a lot of this was directly from the comic book finally convinced me, and I’ve never looked back.

This is a series about growth, about survival, and about (ironically) living and it’s all set up so beautifully in this opening book. Kirkman writes in his introduction to the book about wanting his zombie series to question the fabric of society we live in, to explore how people deal with the extreme and how the extreme changes people. He makes no bones about the bigness of this series and that’s something rather brilliant.

Days Gone Bye then is the setup volume to the saga. It’s full of an almost effortless poetry that brings our key character into the centre of events. Rick Grimes. He’s the fulcrum of our series, our everyday cop forced to deal with events he can’t even initially begin to comprehend.

It’s a bloody, poignant, pained, vicious story with an emotional heart to it right from the first frames. Tony Moore’s art is very, very luscious. Coloured in greyscale, it’s a book that revels in shadows and light. There’s panels where you can see people breathe, their breath puffing out into the coldness of the night, and it’s moments like that are stunning. The difference between the dead and the living is explored in a thousand subtle ways and it’s when we get characters flirting with the edge of life, that’s when things get really interesting.

Moore allows space in his work which in turn allows the novel to really (no pun intended) breathe. The scenes of Rick in the hospital for example are superb. There’s so much in this, a dynamism to even the stillest of panels that makes this book epic.

Kirkman creates world here, and he does it very very well with what feels like an effortless glee. It’s the textual equivalent of an arthouse zombie movie done on a massive budget with an seemingly unlimited scope. It’s really, really unbelievable stuff.

I am not one for horror but I am one for this book. It’s a series that has, inevitably due to the subject matter, violent content but it’s not a series that *is* solely centred on this content. If you’re sharing this book with others, I would suggest that you read it first (there is some distinctly adult content) and make sure you critically assess the suitablity of it for your particular context.

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Comics

Maus : Art Spiegelman

The Complete MausThe Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With books like Maus, that have become epochal, it is sometimes hard to know where to begin. So this review shall begin at the beginning; at the start of things, where my knowledge of comics was that of the 90s X Men cartoon and my knowledge of World War Two was classroom bound and black and white.

Maus was the book that told me: This is comics. This is comics, tackling the awful, the hideous and the disturbing with a skill that could be rarely achieved in another art form. This is comics, drawing visual metaphors and pen strokes that combine to create an allusory whole. This is comics: where a construction of lines, shadows, and shape, can be greatness.

It’s always the little details that get to me in stories of great pain and tragedy. Sometimes numbers become too big. Sometimes they’re just numbers and we forget that they were people once. The great power of Spiegelman’s narrative is to not forget the people at the centre of this immense, horrific story. His characters, despite their outward forced similarities as dog – cat – mouse, are resolutely individuals. And that’s one of the utter strengths of Maus. Just by drawing and writing people as, well, people, Spiegelman skewers any ‘logic’ to classifying people by their racial identity. His truth comes from his quietly magisterial art and the animal masks sit uneasily on his characters.

Aesthetically and conceptually, it’s a tour-de-force. Spiegelman affixes each of his characters with an ‘animal’ identity drawn from their race. Americans are dogs, Jews are Mice, and Nazis are cats. Speigelman engages with his book, exploring his own sense of self and guilt to immense effect (his sessions with his psychiatrist are stunning).

It’s a book that was, and remains, a game-changing experience both on a personal and conceptual level. Maus is an unforgettable encounter.

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Vern and Lettuce : Sarah McIntyre

If you’ve not discovered the utter, and continual, joys of the DFC Library then now’s the time to do so. Every title I’ve picked up from their imprint has been uniformly outstanding – and I’m so pleased that Sarah McIntyre’s ‘Vern and Lettuce’ compilation is another one to add to that list.

Lettuce the rabbit, and Vern the sheep, are best friends and live in Pickle Rye. This book (ISBN: 0385619073) is a collection of strips originally published in a weekly comic format. Each page is one individual story until you start to get into the book and then McIntyre starts developing the stories over the weeks and really kicks into gear with her characters. This is a really lovely, and actually quite interesting reader experience. It teaches the reader the concept of episodic fiction but also the idea of overarching narrative and as such could be the basis of some useful teaching. Plus it would be good to share with reluctant readers as the root of any good sequential episodic art is the urge to read the next installment – and that’s something McIntyre is really very, very good at handling.

Like I said on Twitter, any comic that involves a raisins = rabbit poo joke is fine by me. Raisins are *clearly* the food of the devil and must be treated thus. But that’s the hallmark of McIntyre’s clever and funny book. It’s full of some gorgeous wordplay that appeals both to the adult and child. And I loved the calmness of the artwork. It’s sort of Cath Kidston meets the WI meets Aardman Animation. Basically it’s cute, without being sickly, but with a core of something very solid  in it (seriously, have you seen the WI recently? Those ladies = awesome, and not just in the cake department).

From the anarchic, yet adorable, baby rabbits, through to Vern occasionally shearing himself to make a jumper, there’s a lot to love about this series. And this page in particular was one of my favourites. Superb. A really highly recommended book.

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Book Reviews Comics

Beowulf : Gareth Hinds

BeowulfBeowulf by Gareth Hinds

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book. Oh this glorious, and gorgeous, and breath-taking book.

Based on the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, this graphic novel adaptation by Gareth Hinds. is stunning. I’ve not read the original poem so cannot comment on the translation of the narrative, or its adherence to the original. What I can comment on is the savage beauty of some of these frames.

I’m a fan of Hinds. I adored his version of the Odyssey – visually it was stunning but stumbled in the lettering department. If it weren’t for the lettering, that book would be perfect for me. To be frank, even with the lettering, it’s not far off. I was therefore fascinated to see what he did with Beowulf.

It’s darker. Harder. Braver, almost, with how it mutates form and frame and narrative to suit the moment. And oh there are some stunning moments. I was particularly in love with how Hinds managed the battles. There’s several long pages without dialogue. The framing device of the poem is abandoned. All we have is the visual; the stark, bloody, superhuman violence of a battle. It’s amazing. I commented on Twitter that this book bordered on audible. You can hear these fights. You can hear the grunts and the punches and the wheezing gasps for air. These aren’t theatrical fights. They feel real. This book feels so very real.

And I love his style throughout. The characters are drawn in an almost wood-cut effect. It feels almost grainy, like looking at sepia tinged film. There’s also an interesting allusion to the Bayeux Tapestry in the way some of these scenes are staged. This is bold, historic and viscerally visual storytelling that is, to be frank, epic.

This is what I feel a graphic novel adaptation of a classic should be. Don’t dumb it down. Don’t force the story to fit a context that it doesn’t. Don’t force your art to be something it isn’t. Hinds has gone right to the heart of this book – his book – and produced something really rather outstanding.

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Overviews

Les Bandes Dessinées

Bandes Dessinées (BDs) are a staple of my French holidays. Ever since childhood, I remember walking past the rows and rows of graphic novels in the supermarket. And the thing that got me was that they were just so simply *there*.  Not tucked away in some specialist little shop, or hidden ashamedly round the back of a pillar, or rammed onto a tiny shelf. They were just there. Quite content and proud and ridiculously exciting.

Reading books like this is total detective based fun. My French is wobbly (I can feed and water myself but tenses and more elaborate structures are way out of my ken) but I managed to work out so much from these books. Graphic novels have the intense joy of being read visually as well as textually so even if you just pick out the pictures you get a story. I’m really sad these sort of books weren’t used in my French lessons – I’d have died of happiness if they were. So take a risk! Pick one of them up! If I’d never have badgered my mum to let me have a gorgeous book about unicorns, I’d never have learnt the French word for unicorn* – and that’s a life-skill in itself!

On my most recent holiday to visit family I took the opportunity to pick up a few more titles. I admit there was a point when I stood in the middle of the aisle and shrieked something along the lines of “ONE EURO EACH? COR WHAT A DEAL!” and um maybe elbowed an innocent or two out of the way in my raptures.

And here’s what I found.

Le Missionaire. Number One: Messages by Buscaglia and Crippa I struggle to coherently formulate my love for this book. It starts with an Apocalypse Now-esque flashback of a scarred war veteran who ends up working with the Vatican in order to confirm the legitimacy of miracles. There are nuns (NUNS WITH SECRETS), mysterious villages and some superbly moody artwork. Brilliant.

Quartier M : Fêlures (1/3) – Par Benjo, Zano et Stéphane Beauverger – Ed. Dupuis

Quartier M : Book 1/3 Felures by Benjo, Zano, Beauverger. This is a dystopian vision of the future drawn in a stunningly evocative manner. It’s quite laconic in places both visually and textually. Essentially (and my French got very iffy on this one), there’s a suburb where the adults are all amnesiacs and as a result of this the kids are running the joint. There’s a more coherent precis available here but even with my wobbly French I fell in love with the relationship between the two central children and the West Side Story-esque interplay between the gangs.

Néfésis, Tome 1 : Résurrections

Nefesis: Tome 1: Resurrections by Camboni and Filippi. Of all the books I picked up, this was the one I struggled with the most. I *think* this book is about a female scholar of Egyptian artefacts who turns into something like Catwoman on an evening. Amazing no? Or at least it would have been if I could have coped with the awful stylised lettering. Not one that I’ll be coming back to.

Aldebaran, tome 1 : La catastrophe

Les Mondes D’Aldebaran 1: La Catastrophe by Leo. OH MY GOD THIS BOOK. Of all of the books I read, this by far won the THIS IS A LITTLE BIT BONKERS prize. Essentially what happens here is that we’re on an alien planet (detailed geographical notes available on the inner covers) and it’s all going a little pear-shaped. The sea is solidifying, amazing whale-slug things are being found on shore, and the planet is having a major freak out session. This book is amazing and nuts and sort of spectacular.

Alpha, Tome 1 : L'échange

Alpha: L’Echange by Jigounov / Renard. This is a more traditional (I say traditional, none of these books are really traditional, they’re all brilliant) crime book. My French got a bit patchy in it again so my precis is going to be a little iffy. Essentially there’s this guy, he has something some other guys want so they kidnap him and for some reason there’s a parallel plot of a foxy Russian lady doing the sights of Paris (the Louvre etc) with some other bloke who thinks she’s all innocent but she’s not she’s got SECRETS.

La dernière Reine, Tome 1 : Le cobra du Nil

La Derniere Reine: Tome 1 Le Cobra Du Nul  by Weber / Caracuzzo. Okay, so in a haul of a couple of books I got dystopia, hard science fiction, alternative history, and crime. This book is all about Egypt and taught me how to say “Get out of the way, my boss the King is coming through and you really should make space” (“Faites place! Faites place!” *evil glare at the poor people*).

*licorne. La. Because everything in French that’s pretty is feminine (according to my dad).
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Book Reviews Comics

Charm School – Advice For The Thoroughly Modern Girl

Charm School Advice For The Thoroughly Modern GirlCharm School Advice For The Thoroughly Modern Girl by Lara Maiklem

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh how I love this book let me count the ways. Split into three parts, it’s a collection of comic strips from the 1950s magazine for girls called, um, ‘Girl’. What Girl did was it published a series of ‘picture-strips’ in the following subjects: ‘How to make the very best of yourself’, ‘I want to be … Essential careers advice for the modern girl’ and ‘Concerning you : correct behaviour for every situation”. This book is a collection of the best strips from each area.

And it’s glorious.

In the charm school section, we learn the necessity of buying stockings that are half an inch longer than your big toe and how Daphne can face the future ‘without a care in the world’ once she sorts out her fine and dry skin by having a diet full of ‘cod-live oil capsules, citrus fruits and as much butter as possible’.

The careers section includes guides to being a nanny, a riding teacher and in a spectacularly lovely 1950s reflection of THE FUTURE, a plastics designer. Each of these guides are a whole little story in six panels; Virginia, Ruby or Anita take up their chosen career (usually with great success, there’s not much failure going on here!) and the last couple of panels, in a sort of brilliant manner, in every piece coolly recounts their current salary earnings and potential to develop further.

The final section of the book is ‘Concerning You’. These little strips are practical guides to life and include such glories as ‘Clothes for the plump girl’ and ‘clothes for the too thin girl’. The latter has a particularly glorious panel that reads ‘Avoid fitting coatts, pretty though they are. Look for one that falls straight from the shoulders. I suggest a double-breasted style with big pockets’. The accompanying illustration is amazing. It’s a thin blonde girl, swamped in something that can only be described as a flashers mac.

This book is beautiful. It’s fascinating in a historical, sort of anthropological point of view. These were popular culture, albeit popular culture for a specific demographic of society. I love for example how even though the careers guides become increasingly extreme (I want to be a demonstrator! I want to be an air stewardess!), there’s always the calming presence of the career girl’s parents in the comic. And I love the piece in the Charm School section about Mary and her friend Joan who has come to stay. This is an epic two parter: ‘Meet Mary – her father is a dentist and she knows how very important it is to take care of her teeth. When her friend Joan came to stay for a week she was able to teach her a lot – how chewing tough foods hardens the gums against diseas and eating fruit and salads helps to keep down decay’. This goes over two separate comics to ensure that Joan learns the error of her ways!

And now, I’ll take a leaf out of the guide to being a good guest and finish this review here. For: ‘when it is time to leave, don’t linger awkwardly in the doorway. You will only be a hindrance to your hostess. Say your thanks and goodbyes – and go!”

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Pride of Baghdad : Brian K Vaughan & Niko Henrichon

Pride of BaghdadPride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Have I told you how much I love Pride? I fell in love with Brian K Vaughan after discovering Runaways (which I blogged about here) and first discovered Pride on a day when the rains opened and I sheltered in a library in Maidenhead.

And I discovered a very, very good book that moved me to tears and laughter and heartbreak all in one sitting.

The eponymous Pride of Baghdad (oh there are levels we can read that title at, so many levels) is Zill, lion of the Baghdad Zoo, and his lionesses Safa and Noor and her cub Ali. Their life changes forever when the sky erupts with bombs and naturally, inevitably, some of them fall on the zoo and free the animals inside. We follow the Pride on their exploration of Baghdad, through good times and the bad, through to a, well, a climax of intense proportions set up against the blood red evening sky.

This book is beautiful, and heartfelt, and something so very special. The artwork (Niko Henrichon, playing a blinder) is dynamic, bold and yet curiously lyrical all at the same time. Some of the big splash pages are full of poetic staging set against the most destructive of backgrounds. There’s a lot going on here and it’s worthwhile taking a moment or two to let the images sink in.

Naturally there’s an element of commentary on the nature of war and the invasion of Iraq but it’s one that I felt didn’t overshadow the book. The ending, which I won’t spoil here, is achingly painful and poignant to read and one that will – and should incite discussion. The main narrative itself has some very hard moments which are painful – and upsetting to read. There’s an implication of repeated rape at one point (over a one page spread) and the eventual antagonist in the book is a defiantly terrifying character. It’s vital to remember that a vast part of this book is allegorical in nature and can be read on so many levels.

I read this, whilst the rain pounded down outside in one of those viciously emphatic downpours that the UK is prone too, and I didn’t move for the entire afternoon. This book held me.

It still does.

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Angel & Faith – Live Through This : Christos N. Gage, Rebekah Isaacs

Angel & Faith: Live through This (Angel & Faith, #1-5)Angel & Faith: Live through This by Christos N. Gage

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Being in a post season eight funk, I approached this book with some trepidation. Angel coming to terms with his actions? Great. Whatever.

And then Faith told Angel: “Y’know what? Your whole Twilight phase makes about as much sense as a David Lynch movie”

THAT’S MY GIRL.

God I love Faith and I love her so much in this book. She’s written and drawn so well. She’s always been one of those characters that said more in her body language than she’d ever say out loud. Isaacs catches her dynamism perfectly and there’s moments where Faith doesn’t say anything verbally but says a whole world of stuff physically. It may just be in the tilt of a chin, or the widening of an eye, but it’s there and it’s beautifully done.

This book is really good. The dynamic between Faith and Angel, one of hard-won trust from soldiers who have seen their darkness, is brilliantly judged. There’s a faith (sorry) that should either one of them go off the rails, the other one will pull them back and there’s an understanding that they will do whatever it takes.

I thought I was struggling with the Buffy comics. I was, just because I wasn’t reading the right ones. I don’t quite get current Buffy. I get current Faith. I love her humour, and her nuances and the way she can’t quite believe that she’s somehow turned out to be the grown up. This book is so very very good.

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Comics

Runaways (a love letter)

Dear Runaways,
May I tell you a secret?

I still love you.

Gert. Nico. Karolina. Molly. Mighty Molly Hayes with your hat of awesome. I still love you. All of you. My beautiful, brilliant, bad-as-hell Runaways.

When I saw that the second round of the Women Write About Comics blog carnival was Favourite Stories Starring Women, I knew it had to be about you. In a way, my comics love begins and ends with you. There’s a dalliance with Ms Marvel, a lovely dalliance that primarily began and ended with (ohgodshehassuchlovelylovelyhair) but it comes back to you. My Runaways. Always.

You’re currently lost in limbo, abandoned somewhere between guest appearances and the dark corners of Hiatus-Land. But you were good, once. You were so damn good.

Karolina Dean

When the quirky girl discovered she could fly, when the youngest kid found out she was a super-strong mutant , the witch got her powers when she got cut (or had her period) and when the fat chick got her dinosaur, I knew I had my series. Simple as.

You never forget your first love.

This is what made comics brilliant to me. Your story, such a simple one, such an elegant hook of ‘parents truly are evil’, had me. (“They f*ck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean it but they do / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you” – Larkin).

Runaways had me at Pet Dinosaur. Runaways had me at “Try Not To Die”. Runaways had me, to be somewhat cliched, at hello.

The representation of the female characters in Runaways blew me away. Still does.  I’m sorry, but I’ll be ignoring the covers and the subtle, and the none too subtle, moments of Gert-slimming, as these are just extraneous paratexts in my eyes. They’re not my story. Not today. Today is about you.

Forget vampires, forget time-travelling bad guys, forget duplicitous boy-crushes; these women were ultimately defined by each other. They weren’t defined by some big bad of the week or even by their clothing (there’s no typical superhero garb to be had here). They wore hippie-chic, casual-urban, or hipster-goth twists on street clothes. Practical yes, but still resolutely sharp, sexy and so viscerally teen (and oh! Molly’s hat!), Spandex and overtly superhero outfits were adult. They were symbols of the establishment that the Runaways had stepped away from. Superhero names were adopted, yes, but ultimately discarded or used in with wry humour at their arch metatextual nature.

This team did things their own way.

Cover to Runaways vol. 1 #15 Art by Jo Chen.

And then … somehow … it all got a little lost.

The mad, glorious heights that the Runaways had scaled suddenly stopped. I love Whedon and I will do so forever but his issues of Runaways were stuttering. Short, sharp stutters in a series that had been previously so full of brilliance that they had made me gibber at Brian K Vaughan when I met him at a convention. I had meant to ask him to sign my issues in a nicely coherent manner, but instead I just went “BBeudhcCouldYouSignThesePleaseThankyouMurbeleBleh”

What went wrong, I think, lay in the shift of focus. It continued after the Whedon issues. It continued and became so awfully pronounced.  The Runaways (and I’m suddenly deeply aware of the irony here) began to fit in. These women became less. Just … less. Their differences, their strengths, their Gert – it was all gone.  It was diluted as the game-changing original issues were stretched far beyond the limits of credulity and believability. These teens needed to be lonely, brilliant, moody wanderers. These women didn’t fit in. The world of rules, of adulthood and responsibility, wasn’t theirs. They were teenagers; mad, confused, emotional teenagers living a sort of Kerouacian dream that I could never have dreamt of experiencing (but God, I wanted to read it so bad).

My Runaways never came back.

I stuck with the series through to the Immonen issues and to the eventual hiatus(ness…ness?) but it all fell flat. Flat and a little pat. This wasn’t the team I loved anymore. Though I adore Xavin, and Chase, and Victor, and Klara, (and in a different way, the machiavellian Alex)  none of them ever got to me as much as the original Nico-Karolina-Gert-Molly quartet.

These women were different. They had periods (periods! the realisation women had periods! I still can’t get over how revolutionary this was!). They worried about love. They had good days and bad days. They fought. They laughed. They lived. They remain one of the most inspirational groups of fictional women I’ve ever met. Shit happens. Shit of the shittiest kind happens, but you deal. You deal with it and you come through it and you come through it strong if you just have faith in who and what you are. You may be a screw-up, an abandoned kid, a runaway, but your power comes when you admit it. And the more … ‘corporate’ … the Runaways became, the more I lost the original heart of this team that had captured me whole.

So thank you, thank you Brian K Vaughan for creating a team full of brilliant, wondrous women. I’ll remember the good times.  I’ll remember the moments when they were survivors. I’ll remember the moments when you realise that with characters who are this brave and bold and strong, you can change the world.

And, as for the bad times, I’ll paraphrase a certain Joss Whedon.  The biggest threat to the Runaways was the world – both inside the narrative and outside of it. The hardest thing that the Runways ever had to do was to live in it.

Recommended issues: Runaways #1-#24, Brian K Vaughan

all images are copyright: marvel comics

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Book Reviews Comics

Gingerbread Girl : Paul Tobin, Colleen Coover

Gingerbread GirlGingerbread Girl by Paul Tobin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gingerbread Girl. I’d seen a few pages of it before and always meant to read this. I was, I admit, heavily attracted by the Vertigo-esque cover design. I remembered Gingerbread Girl existed when I saw that there’d been a review posted on Twitter by the excellent @sarangacomics. I love these moments where a book (and somewhat appropriately for this one) lurks in your head and you can’t forget it. The moment I read the review, I remembered the dreamy richness of those preview pages and I went back to it.

Gingerbread Girl is beautiful. It’s odd, elegiac and incredibly moving towards the end. Narrated by a shifting pattern of characters, it tells the story of Annah who believes she has a sister. However simple a statement this may seem, you swiftly come to realise that it’s not. Not in the slightest. Gingerbread Girl tells the story of the fluid, mad and heartbreakingly lovely life of Annah and those who love / live / interact with her.

The art is warm, sensual and deceptively simple. It’s drawn in a very matter-of-fact style that is, when the narrative demands it, very archly aware of the fact that it’s a comic book. There’s some lovely notes of metatextuality in it that are particularly welcome and cleverly handled.

I’m still a little teary from reading this. Such a mad little unexpected gem of a book.

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Comics Everything else

X23 #1 just blew my mind

(Please note: some of the content / images of what I’m about to link to and discuss may prove upsetting).

Language is an amazing thing. I’ve read books which can slice you open; knives ripping inside your head to let the emotion spill out. And it blows my mind each and every time I read a word that can punch straight through my defenses and leave me weeping, my fingers tight-clutching the page and unable to let go.

I’ve not had that experience very much with comic books.Language describes emotion. A picture can describe emotion. But the combination of the two, when done poorly, can totally neuter an emotional reaction. It’s hard to have a reaction that is “yours” when the Artist, the Inker, The Writer, the Publisher, the X, the Y, the Z have all had it before you.

But then there’s sometimes a comic which changes your perception and blows your mind. The history of X23, Laura Kinney, is on Wikipedia in greater depth than I’m ever going to be able to achieve so I encourage you to have a quick look over it before continuing.

This is a messed up kid, that much is clear. She’s lived a life worse than anybody could envisage and she’s lived it a thousand times already. And now she works under the tutelage of Wolverine, perhaps the one man who could possibly understand a breath of what she’s gone through and what she continues to go through today.

I’ve never ever witnessed a comic where the artwork is so beautifully and so brilliantly heartbreaking. The pages bleed; a red, raw tempest of awful memories torn and fragmented and whirling around her head. The writing is sharp, stilted, pained, and so tight it makes me furious with envy. It’s mindblowing to read and perhaps one of the best representations of a troubled adolescent I’ve ever read.

X23 #1 (available for free online from the Marvel Digital Comics thingimajig). It’s not an easy read but it’s most definitely worth it. I can’t get it out of my head.

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Book Reviews Comics

The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels : Danny Fingeroth

The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels (Rough Guide Reference)The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels by Danny Fingeroth

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Whilst there’s no doubt that The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels is well researched and covers certain angles of the comic book industry in great depth, I found it distinctly less exciting than I’d hoped.

There’s something awkward about reviewing a primarily visual medium in text. Whilst I understand that, what with copyright issues and budgetary constraints, it’s unlikely to have much in the way of illustrative examples, I felt that the absence of them negated the impact of the actually kind of interesting reviews.

I also had a bit of an issue (no pun intended) with the book focusing primarily on independent creator / writers / artists. Academic interest to this area is well overdue and I reacted well to that. However a “Rough Guide” by nature suggests a comprehensive approach, and to near wholly disregard the superhero genre created an awkward absence in the book. Whatever your feelings may be about this canon of comic book literature, you can’t deny that superhero comics redefined and continue to define ‘comics’ to a great section of the world and not including biographies on Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee et al in the “Icon” section felt like a missed opportunity.

And do be warned, due to the lack of illustrative content, there’s a whole host of adjectives thrown in to try and pep up a relatively dry text. Fingeroth works hard to describe a comic book well but there’s only so much “brilliant” and “striking” a reader can take.

This book could have been very very good. It has the bones of something brilliant (see, it’s catching). It’s just not there yet. If you’re new to the world of comics and want to learn more about the medium, I’d suggest Scott McCloud’s seminal Understanding Comics and also a trip to the art section of your local bookstore instead of this.

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Comics Everything else

Amanda Waller : before & after

My second post in my series of graphic novel related issues makes me sad. I’ve spoken before about my confusion over how women are represented in comics: Fat is a graphic issue and it’s something that I still have issues with. And Amanda Waller’s redesign (reboot? I’m genuinely not sure what to call it) has depressed me.

She’s gone from fat to farcical (L-R). And she’s also forgotten how to dress.

(image from here)

I want my niece to read comics which feature women of all shapes and sizes. I don’t want her to think that the only acceptable body shape is slim and big breasted. I want her to be able to meet characters like Gert from Runaways and think (as I did) that there’s a girl here who represents me. Right now, when I look at the above image, all I have is alienation.

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Comics Everything else

Moments like this make me love comics

Check this out. It’s ‘The Waiting Room’ by Sarah Glidden. This blew my mind a little bit. I love the artwork. The quietness of the watercolours make each panel into a curious mixture of dreams and reality. There’s such a harmony to this; the characters complement the words and the words complement the characters so beautifully. Like I said in the title, moments like this, where you see a panel, note the curve of a brow, or the soft lush colour of a cheek, and get pulled into a narrative you’d never normally read, it’s moments like this that make me fall in love with comics all over again.

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Book Reviews Comics

Water Baby : Ross Campbell (or, how good the Minx line could have been)

The more I discover of the range of titles published by Minx, the sadly now departed “teen girls” line from DC, the more I think how awesome it could have been. If only, if only ….

Water Baby by Ross Campbell (writer / artist) is the latest title that I’ve finally managed to get hold of. It tells the story of Brody and her life after a shark attack.

The art is what makes this book sing. The visual phrasing in the scenes with the shark are incredible. I love graphic novels but it’s very rare I get a visceral sense of fluidity in them. I’m used to seeing a snapshot of a moment, a still in a frame, but here it’s different. The shark circles swimmers in one frame. The gutter between the frames gives you a moment to pause, to breathe, to prepare yourself for the inevitable. You know she’s going to get hurt. You know because she’s got a missing leg on the front cover. You know the moment that she enters the water, her body whole and strong, you just know that this moment can’t last because she has to lose her leg. It’s an incredibly (and somewhat appropriately) visceral reading experience.

It’s not a perfect book though. There are sections which could have done with some strong editing and a little bit of a firm talking to. Some elements of the plot seem rushed and don’t fit together. The balance is a little off in these areas as well.

But whenever it goes back to the shark, the dark shadowy presence at the spine of the book, the shape that haunts Brody throughout, this book is outstanding. Genuinely so.