DeConnick & Co., Gaiman, Mizuki, Morrison, Smith/Winet, and others | Graphic Novels Reviews, January 1, 2016

Picturing mental illness “You could argue,” writes Slate.com words correspondent Katy Waldman, “that cartoonists are creating our culture’s best new representations of fragmented, hallucinatory, chaotic experience” (slate.com, 10/8/14). Cartoonists try to draw what disordered minds feel like, even if the map simplifies the territory.

For Cuckoo’s Madison Clell, multiple personality disorder resembles frenzied, sooty scrawls of faces and bodies. Bipolar disorder propels Ellen Forney, per Marbles (LJ 3/1/13), into “Club van Gogh” for crazy artists. In Polarity (Xpress Reviews, 2/28/14), Max Bemis/Jorge Coelho depict with arty psychedelia the manic creative superpowers of a bipolar painter. For depression, Matthew Johnstone’s Living with a Black Dog gives form to metaphor. Hannah Bradshaw’s Dark Early, Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, and Tracy White’s How I Made It to Eighteen also tackle the blues.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder in Ian Williams’s The Bad Doctor (LJ 5/15/15) ensnares all the sufferer’s must-dos with ethereal lassos, and appears in Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary as a repulsive, kaleidoscopic nightmare. Paul and Judy Karasik’s The Ride Together compares living with an autistic brother with wacky Bizarro Superman stories, and Keiko Tobe’s With the Light fills panels with clocks and spinning hoops to illustrate an autistic child’s fascination.

Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles (LJ 5/15/12) compares neurofibrillary tangles of Alzheimer’s disease with corkscrews of the author’s stricken mother’s hair, whereas Paco Roca’s Wrinkles (LJ 5/15/15) finds comedy amid tragedy in dementia. Youthful characters with complex disorders star in Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole and Elaine Will’s Look Straight Ahead.

As an overview, Darryl Cunningham’s Psychiatric Tales offers an easy-to-grasp introduction to “this most mysterious group of illnesses,” while Philippa Perry/Junko Graat’s Couch Fiction deconstructs the psychotherapy process. Cunningham spoke at the New York Comic Con’s panel, “A Force for Good: The Powerful Partnership Between Mental Health and Pop Culture.” He told about a young man with bipolar disorder who bought Psychiatric Tales for his parents “to convey to them that he was suffering from an actual illness.” For more comics about mental (and physical) health, see www.graphicmedicine.org.—MC

redstarDeConnick, Kelly Sue (text) & Valentine De Landro & Robert Wilson (illus.). Bitch Planet. Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine. Image. 2015. 136p. ISBN 9781632153661. pap. Rated: M. $9.99. SF

Paying tongue-in-cheek homage to lurid exploitation films, DeConnick (Pretty Deadly) introduces a Hunger Games element into a totalitarian world-state based on male supremacy. Officially the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, Bitch Planet is an off-world penal colony for women convicted of “non-compliance”—criminal and/or aesthetic. Shortly after newbies Kamau and Penny arrive, the state adds a team of women inmates to the popular and deadly Megaton world games. Kamau and her cohorts are promised freedom if they win—but is that the truth? The women prisoners are depicted as vivid, diverse, imperfect, strong, and often naked as they squabble, strategize, fight, and occasionally make sexual overtures to loved ones or to manipulate males in charge. The men are mostly corrupt oppressors but can be relatives, suckers, or potential allies. DeLandro’s (X-Factor) classic, semirealistic color art includes subtle visual jokes, flashbacks with a grainy feel, and bogus 1950s-style ads. VERDICT This adult drama offers heavy plot traction as well as food for thought, with twisting plot, superb characterizations, and excellent writing. Fans of Orange Is the New Black will enjoy this edgier, futuristic approach.—MC

redstarGaiman, Neil (text) & J.H. Williams III & Dave Stewart (illus.). The Sandman: Overture; The Deluxe Edition. DC. 2015. 224p. ISBN 9781401248963. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781401262976. FANTASY

gaiman.jpg122915In this irresistibly lavish volume, Gaiman, perhaps the premier mythmaker of our time, returns to the series that built his reputation, penning a Sandman prequel that will bring new shades of color to any future rereading of the beloved original. Morpheus (aka Dream, the personification of dreams) is summoned across the universe, where he finds that to redress a mistake he made in his youth, he must undertake a quest, with allies few and unlikely, to somehow prevent the death of everything. Master tale-spinner Gaiman takes readers on an extraordinary adventure, peopled by fan favorites from the original series (including Dream’s lovely sister Death) and remarkable new characters (including hitherto unrevealed members of Dream’s family), plus alien races of marvelous variety, sentient stars, and many alternate versions of Dream himself. All of this is depicted with astonishing and sumptuous splendor by Williams (Batwoman) and colorist Stewart. They employ a wide spectrum of art styles with masterly sophistication—often juxtaposing an array of styles in a single panel—giving the visuals an unparalleled textural richness. VERDICT An unmissable addition to one of comics’ greatest series.—SR

Jones, Joëlle (text) & Jamie S. Rich (illus.). Lady Killer. Vol. 1. Dark Horse. 2015. 136p. ISBN 9781616557577. pap. $17.99; ebk. ISBN 9781630082949. CRIME/mys

Taking off from Mad Men–inspired interest in 1960s gender roles, this series builds a noir thriller out of crinoline skirts and Stepford Wives–style suburban domesticity. What better camouflage for a hit man—er, woman? Housewife Josie Schuller maneuvers around a clueless husband, two kids, and a suspicious mother-in-law to stab, strangle, and clobber her targets on assignment and undercover. But her managers aren’t nice guys either, and she must team up with a reluctant sister-assassin to foil a hit on herself. Jones’s (Helheim) color art gleefully parodies period ads and media clichés, and the elegant pizzaz she gives the violence does much of the story’s heavy lifting. Josie has the eyelinered prettiness of a retro “stewardess” but with real strength, women’s clothes reek of glamour and tackiness, and men’s faces twist into smarmy exploiter masks. So far, the plot is fairly predictable and the characterizations unsurprising. However, a second story arc is beginning, which may reveal depths of, say, the German-speaking mother-in-law—who recognizes one of Josie’s coconspirators. VERDICT An engagingly bloody popcorn-muncher for Mad Men fans and friends, high school–aged and adult, with potential for deeper satire.—MC

Mizuki, Shigeru. Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler. Drawn & Quarterly. 2015. 296p. tr. from Japanese by Zack Davisson. maps. notes. ISBN 9781770462106. pap. $24.95. BIOG

The late Japanese superstar Mizuki (Showa), a World War II veteran who passed away November 30, is known for historical manga as well as stories about yokai—supernatural monsters. In 1971, he combined both interests to take artistic aim at the real-life Führer. Adolf Hitler emerges first as a failed art student and vagrant, despite grandiose fantasies. Numerous twists of circumstance later, the monster-in-training adopts visionary if deranged theories that appeal to his depression-beset countryfolk and develops into a persuasive orator. And with help from similarly minded men, he manages to ruin his country and much of the world. As in Showa, the art blends cartoony humans with photo-derived realistic settings, injecting sly humor at the ironies of history. Character cameos, maps, and copious notes provide help. VERDICT Mizuki shows Hitler as much a miserable human as he was monstrous, even as the narrative raises as many questions as it answers, despite its meatiness. A good jumping-off work for the history curious, teen and up.—MC

Moore, Don (text) & Austin Briggs (illus.). Flash Gordon. Vol. 4: The Storm Queen of Valkir. Titan. 2015. 224p. ISBN 9781782762867. GRAPHIC NOVELS

Much of the great appeal and influence of the classic Flash Gordon newspaper strip, begun in 1934, is owing to the masterful, dynamic illustration of its founding artist, Alex Raymond. Unusually, the strip has recently been collected in two simultaneous, competing reprint series, from Titan and IDW (a review of Titan’s Volume 1 [LJ 1/13; see ow.ly/VAEJu] compares them). The IDW series ends shortly after Raymond left the strip in 1944, yet Titan continues forward here with the remaining 1944–48 work of Raymond’s successor Briggs, most of it never before reprinted. The tyrant Ming has been overthrown, but Flash and his companions, Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov, battle Ming’s cruel son Kang and continue their adventures through the planet Mongo’s many exotic civilizations. Briggs’s work is less lush and polished than Raymond’s, and his human figure renderings, though fine, can’t match Raymond’s stellar example. The writing has declined as well, with repetitive situations and preposterously revealing character names (the evil Evila, the traitor Traito). Yet the stories still provide pulpy fun. VERDICT For collections in which classic comic strips or previous Flash Gordon volumes are popular.—SR

redstarMorrison, Grant (text) & Frank Quitely & others (illus.). The Multiversity: The Deluxe Edition. DC. 2015. 448p. ISBN 9781401256821. $49.99. FANTASY

multiversity.jpg123115In this brilliant, engrossing collection, multi–Eisner Award winner Morrison introduces the new “New 52,” DC’s revised multiverse of 52 connected universes, many of which include alternate versions of the company’s classic heroes. The framing story here brings together a black Superman, 1980s favorite Captain Carrot (an anthropomorphic superrabbit), and many others to battle the nightmarish Gentry, whose invasion threatens the multiverse. Some of the tales sandwiched within spotlight a trouble-free world full of aimless, decadent superbeings; a Nazi version of the Justice League; and a Watchmen-like take on the characters that inspired Watchmen itself. Morrison ramps up the metafictional ambitions he once showed in Animal Man to dizzying heights, with characters in one story reading the book’s other stories and a scenario something like Sesame Street’s “The Monster at the End of This Book.” And just think for a moment about the phrase, “the Gentrification of DC Comics.” He even suggests that reading endless superhero soap operas might be a waste of time. But when they’re this thoughtful, this satisfying in conception, and this much fun, that’s clearly untrue. VERDICT A supercool landmark metacomic.—SR

Smith, Joel (text) & Ryan Winet (illus.). The Parish: An Americorps Story. Beating Windward. Jan. 2016. 118p. ISBN 9781940761152. pap. $17.95. F

Berkeley graduate Leo joins AmeriCorps to escape working for his dad in finance. Indeed, every one of his fellow corps-mates “was running from or to something”—and helping New Orleans’ St. Bernard Parish rebuild after Hurricane Katrina became for most only an interlude of escapism, identity crises, and libido politics. But driven partly by his crush on a committed corps mate, Leo resigns his amorphous role as writer for the camp newspaper and takes leadership of a rebuilding team: “We all grow up sometime.” Smith, who teaches writing at the University of Arizona, bases the story on his actual AmeriCorps service. Winet’s constrained minimalist art uses forbidding high contrast blacks to suggest the limited options of both flood victims and the too-aimless corps-mates whose sense of “self” and “service” are mostly at cross-purposes. Cleverly, the drawings are enhanced by color simulations of water damage. VERDICT Crisis brings out not just heroes and victims but also frustrated hangers-on, tripped up by anomie and poor direction. A good wake-up for do-gooder wannabes, adult and teen. Beating Windward Press is donating $1 per copy sold to the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity.—MC

Thompson, Hunter S. (text) & Troy Little (text & illus.). Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. Top Shelf. 2015. 169p. ISBN 9781603093750. $24.99. F

Take one gonzo journalist, his lusty attorney, and a large red convertible loaded with booze and pharmaceuticals and point them to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race and an antidrug convention. Thompson’s manic satire on the American Dream—seen as mindless consumer hedonism—applies just as well today as in its original post-1960s context. Little’s (Angora Napkin) visualization of this manic road trip comes off as more accessible and engaging than Ralph Steadman’s original illustrations while preserving much of Thompson’s personality. It’s also flat-out hilarious. Polka dot pterodactyl-bats dive bomb the speeding car, casino furniture bends dizzyingly, and boozed-up reptiles munch on blasé starlets. Inevitably, aficionados of the semifictional novel will find favorite riffs missing, although Little has retained the overall narrative and Thompson’s trademark prose: chaotic, intense intellectual cynicism spiked with obscenities. VERDICT Approved by Thompson’s estate, Little’s madcap portrayal goes a tad light on the darker side of Thompson’s indictment, while offering his incisive, corrosive critique to a new generation. Best for older teens and adults. See also Will Bingley and Anthony Hope-Smith’s Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson.—MC

Walker, D.C. (text) & Bruno Oliveira (illus.). When the River Rises. Mastermind. 2015. 170p. ISBN 9781942734048. pap. $19.99; ebk. ISBN 9781942734079. F

When Hurricane Katrina floods New Orleans, the youngsters at the St. Bernard Parish Juvenile Detention Center are moved into the adult-custody New Orleans Parish Prison to find safety (everyone thinks) from the rising waters. Then the flood breaks into the adult prison and it’s every man for himself when the correctional staff loses control. Inmate Russ discovers that his estranged teen son, Sydquan, has come in with the St. Bernard boys, and the two form a wary bond to break out and find family. To survive they must navigate the toxic waters and get past hostile inmates young and old, trigger-happy guards, and greedy bounty hunters. Walker (Last Confession) writes appropriately edgy, regional dialog for his all-too-realistic characters, while Oliveira’s (Fallout) stark black-and-white linework and silhouettes build tension with just enough detail. VERDICT A poignant father-son drama imagined as part of a real prison break, the story highlights the humanity of inmates, guards, and citizens—and how some choose to do the right thing in the wrongest of times. Older teens and up owing to plenty of cursing and gun violence.—MC

redstarWright, Aneurin (text & illus.). Things To Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park…When You’re 29 and Unemployed. Pennsylvania State Univ. (Graphic Medicine). 2015. 320p. ISBN 9780271071121. pap. $32.95. MEMOIR

When Wright’s emphysema-ravaged father, Neil, tells his son he’s been certified for hospice, the at-loose-ends animator signs on as caregiver. Neither estranged father, nor disaffected son is prepared for what’s coming, but they reconcile and become closer over the older man’s final months. Their shared journey incorporates pill counting, medical checks, supportive but draining interactions with health care workers and family members, ruminations on death, and Neil’s increasingly difficult breathing despite his oxygen cannula. The meaty black, blue, and red art pictures Wright as a Minotaur and the crusty Neil as a rhino, mixing wrenching fantasies and memories in with the quite detailed care chronicle. Characters—including other symbolic creatures—may transform according to Wright’s feelings or free-fall when terrified, while evocative speech balloons convey gasping and intoxication. VERDICT Supplying useful information about end-stage emphysema as well as an emotional induction into grief, this original and devastating memoir of love and loss illustrates the value of hospice and presents caring for others as a sort of tragicomic “Olympic sport.” Highly valuable for those facing illness in the family, caregivers, and anyone aspiring to live with empathy.—MC

Martha Cornog is a longtime reviewer for LJ and, with Timothy Perper, edited Graphic Novels Beyond the Basics: Insights and Issues for Libraries (Libraries Unlimited, 2009). Steve Raiteri is Audio-visual Librarian at the Greene County Public Library, Xenia, OH, where he started the graphic novel collection in 1996

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