Graphic Novels Reviews | November 15, 2013

Digital Comics in Libraries: Update Though formats and availability vary, comics industry watchers report exploding sales of digital comics. Likewise, libraries have noted increased digital lending—of text-only content, not comics and graphic novels. Do digital comics have a future in libraries? If so, publishers and library vendors must make more digital comics accessible to us.

Progress has been slow, but it’s picking up. Alexander Street Press offers 100,000-plus pages via its adults-only Underground and Independent Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels database [See Best Reference 2011, 3/1/12], but this well-reviewed, retrospective resource is suited mainly to academic libraries. Regarding current materials and public libraries, ebook provider Overdrive has been offering some 4,000 graphic novels from 120 publishers, with onetime purchase fees and single-reader circs similar to print book lending. Now available from digital comics distributor iVerse, Comics Plus: Library Edition features approximately 10,000 titles from almost 80 publishers. iVerse has partnered with library wholesaler Brodart, and this new product offers multiple, simultaneous circs plus fees tied to checkouts. Libraries pay only for what is read, and publishers receive royalties indefinitely. iVerse recently signed the Houston Public Library System (HPL), which joins a number of libraries already on board. Follett Library Resources has partnered with publishers including Top Shelf and Marvel and according to Follett’s Trudy Knudson is “…in search of more graphic novel and comic content on an ongoing basis.” Ingram offers DC Comics and Lerner titles and reports “active discussions” with additional publishers.

Some libraries are setting up independent ebook platforms, purchasing directly from publishers, distributors, and authors. Librarians involved in these independent ebook projects have told me that they are acquiring digital graphic novels from print publishers such as Lerner, as well as from individual creators. Image and Top Shelf make digital comics available for outright purchase, DRM-free, and both companies’ titles could wind up in these libraries, too. Good news: digital comics could attract numerous newcomers to comics—in libraries and otherwise. Bad news: you probably can’t find all the digital comics you want in one place, whether via a library or online. One potential group of new readers is library patrons who don’t read comics yet, ebook readers or not. Nonlibrary users already hooked on digital comics could likely be seduced into visiting libraries for more of their favorite reading. All comics in libraries enhance literacy as well as discoverability of new, appealing titles: a win-win for publishers, libraries, and readers.—M.C.

redstar Bagge, Peter (text & illus.). Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story. Drawn & Quarterly. 2013. 104p. notes. ISBN 9781770461260. $21.95. BIOG

Bagge (“Hate”) told website Comic Book Resources, “I’m shocked at how many people tell me they’d never heard of Margaret Sanger!” Yet Sanger (1879–1966), an American social reformer, helped revolutionize the modern world. Overcoming long-term opposition, she established the use of birth control in the United States, helped fund researchers Gregory Pincus and John Rock in developing the Pill, and founded the organizations that would later form the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The book’s title takes its name from Sanger’s own newsletter, which promoted the use of contraception. Educated as a nurse, Sanger loved as large as she lived; while being married twice and raising several children, she enjoyed liaisons with author H.G. Wells and pioneer sexologist Havelock Ellis, among others. Bagge’s rubbery, satirical art, here in color, works very well with this documentary biography, demonstrating how Sanger’s humanity, both her strengths and weaknesses, fueled her activism. His research is exemplified in 18 pages of notes, plus an afterword. VERDICT This excellent take on an almost forgotten trailblazer will appeal to teens through adults interested in sociosexual issues and woman leaders.—M.C.

redstar Carey, Mike (text) & Peter Gross & others (illus.). The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice. Vertigo. 2013. 160p. ISBN 9781401229764. $22.95; ebk. ISBN 9781401247409. F

After seven volumes of “The Unwritten,” the Eisner-nominated series about the entwined lives of fictional fantasy hero Tommy Taylor and his real-life counterpart, Carey reveals here the story behind the story: Tommy’s origin. Son of the most powerful mage in Albion, the infant Tommy survives the shipwreck that kills his parents and lives his youth at the Tulkinghorn Magical Academy—where he wishes to study magic but can only be a servant because he has no spark of magic within him. There’s an argument that this tale, which within its own fandom has Harry Potter–scale popularity, should have remained unwritten for fear that it could never live up to such billing. But Carey quashes such fears brilliantly with a narrative that, while decidedly Potteresque, is exciting and compelling in its own ways. Carey also reveals the metastory behind the metastory, showing Tommy’s coldly manipulative creator, author Wilson Taylor, plotting to bring reality and fiction together when his son Tom is born on the day the first Tommy Taylor book is published. VERDICT An indispensable volume for fans of this highly acclaimed series. A recommended stand-alone as a way into the series for new readers.—S.R.

Corey, Daniel (text) & Anthony Diecidue & others (illus.). Moriarty. Image. 2013. 272p. ISBN 9781607066859. $29.99. F

At Reichenbach Falls, Sherlock Holmes apparently dies, but Moriarty survives. Having lost his great antagonist, Moriarty loses interest in the criminal mastermind life and lays low until, on the eve of World War I, the government hires him to track down Holmes’s brother, Mycroft, who is missing. Moriarty uncovers a far-reaching and megalomaniacal plot involving a superscientific weapon, and, framed for murder by the plotters, he goes on the offensive, accompanied by a sexy female ninja assassin sidekick. That last detail is a clue that Corey has produced a story that is more like a Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law action movie than a reimagined Arthur Conan Doyle mystery and is all the worse for it. VERDICT Continuity problems abound in art and story, and Moriarty’s character arc is not compelling—his confusing motivations are couched in pseudoscientific babblings that don’t cohere. The shadowy, heavy-lined artwork is rough and unappealing—this isn’t a horror book, but it appears as such, and Moriarty often looks (and acts) like Wolverine: a mess. Important for the most enthusiastic completist of Holmesiana collectors only.—S.R.

Domingo, José (text & illus.). Adventures of a Japanese Business Man. Nobrow. 2013. 120p. ISBN 9781907704536. $29.99. HUMOR

Imagine the strange things that happen in manga, and then imagine them (and more) happening in the life of one unfortunate “salaryman.” Concatenating disasters unroll with rollicking spontaneity that is both fascinating and hilarious, as each adventure follows seamlessly but surprisingly from the last. Spanish artist Domingo (Cuimnh) created the wordless story one vignette at a time, deciding what came next based on the outcome of what came before, astonishing both himself and certainly the reader. On this fatal afternoon, a Japanese businessman barely escapes a yakuza (members of an organized crime cartel) shoot-out, then manages to dodge a falling giant sushi sign, only to inhale biotech fumes that turn him into a naked blue giant. Morphing back to normal size, he takes fresh clothes from a conveniently placed clothesline, then goes to the house to explain—but it’s filled with human corpses and body parts! And so it goes, until a doubled ending beguilingly ties up several loose ends from earlier in the story. VERDICT Winner of the Best Book Award at the 2012 Ficomic Festival in Barcelona, Spain, Domingo’s detailed and colorful satire excels as an exercise in storytelling and as a wild ride for adventurous readers; older teen and up.—M.C.

Manapul, Francis (text) & Brian Buccellato & others (illus.). The Flash. Vol. 2: Rogues Revolution. DC. (New 52). 2013. 176p. ISBN 9781401240318. $24.99; pap. ISBN 9781401242732. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9781401247300. SUPERHERO

The “New 52” reboots of Superman and Justice League successfully followed a pattern: open with action, bring new ideas to established characters, and gradually fill in background—an approach designed to interest new readers and intrigue old ones. The same pattern plays out here but with much less success. In this volume, the Flash (aka police scientist Barry Allen) learns something new about his powers, confronts a scientist who helped and then betrayed him, and reunites with the woman he loves, who thought him dead. But none of these scenes is satisfying, with Barry’s reaction to his girlfriend’s grief being particularly nonsensical. At least the power discovery involves a visit to a city of talking gorillas, which is some compensation. An encounter with the Rogues (Flash’s traditional supervillains) and a story exploring Barry’s motivations are both decent. VERDICT The artwork is fine, but major characters fail to act in emotionally convincing ways. This cannot be counted among the “New 52” successes.—S.R.

Mizuki, Shigeru (text & illus.). Kitaro. Drawn & Quarterly. 2013. 432p. tr. from Japanese by Jocelyne Allen. ISBN 9781770461109. pap. $26.95. F

Originally published in the late 1960s, Mizuki’s “Kitaro” series became immensely popular in Japan as horror/humor classics and spun off numerous videos and games. An introduction by Matt Alt (Yokai Attack!) describes Mizuki’s enduring legacy. Main character Kitaro looks like a cute little tyke, but he’s really a 350-year-old yokai: a supernatural spirit being. Missing an eye that acts as host to his yokai dad (currently reduced to the form of an anthropomorphic eyeball), Kitaro is quick to help whenever humankind and other yokai rub one another the wrong way. In adventures mischievous, inventive, and eerie, the eyeball father and son pair outwit a French vampire, help a village end a cat infestation, force a kid baseball team to return his magical bat, end a plague of vampire trees living on human blood, and drive off a bunch of Western yokai who want to rule the world. VERDICT While a bit grisly, Mizuki’s creation will appeal to tweens up through adults who enjoy spooky/goofy oddities.—M.C.

Piskor, Ed (text & illus.). Hip Hop Family Tree, 1970s–1981. Fantagraphics. Dec. 2013. 112p. discog. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781606996904. pap. $24.99. MUSIC

Piskor’s obsession with the cultural history of hip-hop combined with his mastery of facial detail honors the dozens of artists and supporting players who populated New York’s streets, clubs, and recording studios in the early 1970s and 80s. Hip-hop neophytes may find the relationships among the huge cast confusing, yet Piskor’s portrayal of a “history-through-connections” comes through clearly. To please beat-happy crowds, platter-jockeys playing pop music for parties began mix/mastering the instrumental “breaks.” Then emcees superimposed verbal showmanship and rhyming over the instrumentals. These innovations were slow to find backing in the recording industry—even some of the artists experimenting with this work thought its appeal came from live performances only. They were wrong. Here Piskor (Wizzywig) tells the tale in primary-color art reminiscent of 1970s comic books. VERDICT Piskor shows how the vitality of words and art have trumped violence and poverty, even if only sometimes. His gritty chronicle will spark debate among fans and help orient newcomers to hip-hop’s history. Salty language and sex references put this into adult collections.—M.C.

redstar Spiegelman, Art (text & illus.). Co-Mix: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics, and Scraps. Drawn & Quarterly. 2013. 120p. ed. by Tom Devlin & others. ISBN 9781770461147. $39.95. GRAPHIC ARTS

Prolific Spiegelman is represented in U.S. libraries largely by his Pulitizer Prize–winning graphic novel, Maus, and In the Shadow of No Towers. His adult-directed work includes a meaty corpus of underground strips (many collected in Breakdowns and Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@?*!) through numerous pieces for his comics magazine Raw, steamy illustrations for The Wild Party, iconoclastic New Yorker covers, and more. Based on a museum exhibit showing in Angoulême; Paris; Cologne; Vancouver, BC; and currently at the Jewish Museum in New York, this book pulls together the entire sweep of Spiegelman’s life work, punctuated by commentaries and guest essays. A delightful “Comics Supplement” section collects personal strips as well as tributes to Charles Schultz, Maurice Sendak, and the New York Public Library Picture Collection, all originally appearing in The New Yorker. VERDICT Spiegelman’s influence on graphic narrative cannot be overstated, and most libraries serving college-age readers and older should add this lavish and colorful retrospective to the graphic arts collection as well as to the graphic novels shelf. [For more on Art Spiegelman, see Jeet Heer’s In Love with Art: Françoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman on p. 90.—Ed.]—M.C.


Eisner, Will (text & illus.). Fagin the Jew: A Reinvention of Dickens’s Classic Character. Dark Horse. 2013. 136p. ed. by Diana Schutz. ISBN 9781616551261. $19.99; ebk. ISBN 9781621158035. F

First published in 2003, this compelling counternarrative is framed as Fagin’s apologia to Dickens and folds in plenty of historical background about Jews in Europe and England during the late 19th century. This new edition adds a foreword from writer Brian Michael Bendis, plus a meaty afterword by Canadian journalist Jeet Heer, with additional sources. Once chided for portraying a stereotypical African American, Ebony White, who was the sidekick to main character Denny Colt from The Spirit (1940), comics legend Eisner (A Contract with God) turned in later life to challenging stereotypes, here of the “evil Jew” Fagin in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Eisner’s reenvisioned character becomes somewhat like Oliver in that his impoverished background makes him more prone to fall into crime simply to survive. Fagin thereby becomes a more nuanced character with a streak of goodness while still part of a heart-jerking melodrama—though Eisner’s skill lies in his sepia brushwork more than in his words. ­VERDICT Several hundred U.S. libraries already own the earlier version of this classic of literary comics, which is excellent fodder for classrooms and discussion groups of tweens through adults. Larger libraries may want this expanded edition also, and libraries without the previous version should snap this up.—M.C.