Graphic Novel Reviews | January 2014

Seven score and ten years ago, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, honoring the yet-unfinished struggle against slavery. Although memorialized in countless books and films, Lincoln has been depicted only sparingly in comics. To make up for the lack, a solid resource for those in middle school and up is the relatively brief graphic biography by Lewis Helfand and Manikandan: Abraham Lincoln: A New Birth of Freedom, which focuses primarily on Lincoln’s presidency and on slavery. Curiously, there is no illustrated work to date that portrays a broader view of his life struggles. As a tragic hero of impressive height and cragginess, with family and personal problems underlying his successes, Lincoln makes wonderful comics fodder. Cartoonist Noah Van Sciver has seen this potential: his quirky and oddly charming The Hypo (LJ 9/15/12) frames a younger Lincoln just beginning his political career and courting his future wife, Mary Todd. While struggling on both fronts, he suffered crippling depression. This fascinating adult story includes the unsavory details passed over in hagiographic profiles. Like Helfand and Manikandan’s biography, most other Lincoln comics center on his game-changing antislavery efforts. Two excellent titles focus on the Gettysburg Address: C.M. Butzer’s Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel (SLJ 11/1/08) uses the speech as a way to view the battle itself as well as Lincoln’s vision for a “new birth of freedom.” Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell’s The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation (LJ 7/13) focuses on how the address helps us understand U.S. history, economics, and politics from 1776 through today. More personal, Dwight Von Zimmerman & Wayne Vansant’s The Hammer and the Anvil: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the End of Slavery in America (LJ 11/15/12) offers twin biographies of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the brilliant abolitionist and former slave. Their commonalities and shortcomings show how social change may ferment at both the top and bottom of society. History buffs might appreciate William Walsh’s Abraham Lincoln and the London Punch, which reprints British cartoons published during the Civil War. Finally, two titles relate the tragedy of Lincoln’s assassination: Rick Geary’s The Murder of Abraham Lincoln, a true crime chronicle, with a map and a bibliography; and C.C. Colbert & Tanitoc’s Booth, a less historically rigorous work that unpacks the assassin’s life in a quasifictional drama of family rivalries and political conspiracies. Despite assassination, Lincoln lives on in text and visuals across media. We can hope for additional graphic narratives about his legacy.—M.C

Bollers, Karl (text) & Rick Leonardi & Larry Stroman (illus.). Watson and Holmes: A Study in Black. New Paradigm Studios. (Watson & Holmes, Bk. 1). 2013. 141p. ISBN 9781939516015. pap. $16.99. F

In recent video rebirths of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson, from the United States and the UK, the detective remains British. How better to make him truly American than to conjure him and his partner as African Americans from Harlem? Here, former parajumper medic “Jon” Watson, a hulking Afghanistan war vet, takes top billing; with his clinical and military skills, he complements his partner perfectly. Holmes, for his part, sports dreadlocks, a fedora, brilliant deduction ability (of course), and a photographic memory. He’s also an ex-computer programmer and is socially sensitive. In another remix, Inspector Lestrade becomes female: here the character appears as NYPD’s Lt. Leslie Stroud, who treats Holmes with grudging respect enlivened by flashes of humor. Mrs. Hudson (who runs a “vintage books and vinyl” shop), Mycroft, and the Irregulars also appear. The plot? A trauma patient in Watson’s ER, a young female hostage, and several brutal murders send the duo off on a trail complicated by gunplay and computer techno-nerderie. ­VERDICT This new vision works brilliantly, enhanced by dead-on art, fine writing, and moody coloring. Holmes fans and urban fiction buffs, mid-teen and up, should love it. Owing to a related Kickstarter campaign that raised double the target fundraising, additional volumes are planned.—M.C.

Copeland, Cynthia (text & illus.). Good Riddance: An Illustrated Memoir of Divorce. Abrams. 2013. 224p. ISBN 9781419706707. pap. $17.95; ebk. ISBN 9781613124581. MEMOIR

Cindy’s 18-year Norman Rockwell marriage disintegrates goodriddance013114into Jackson Pollock splatters when she discovers her husband’s lovey-dovey emails to another woman. This lightly fictionalized memoir tracks what comes next—the pain, confusion, and plain hard work of separating two married lives, complicated by Copeland’s self-image as a successful writer about families (Really Important Stuff My Kids Have Taught Me). A “nester,” Cindy values lists, order, and traditions, whereas her experimental chemist ex-husband loves spontaneity, risk taking, and nutty schemes. Yet after the couple split, their three children benefit from spending time with both parents, while Cindy and her ex pilot their now separate lives. It’s serious stuff—but the story is charming and often funny, enhanced by Copeland’s fine eye for humorous visual metaphors, such as imagining a board game version of a new boyfriend, and by her deceptively simple art (think cartoonists Cathy Guisewite or Roz Chast). VERDICT Copeland’s memoir won’t speak to those preferring realistic art or to aficionados of chainsaw-assisted divorce. But its lighter yet deeper approach will appeal to women readers, teen and up, and to men who may gain insights into their own coupledom problems by living through hers.—M.C.

Goldman, Seth & Barry Nalebuff (text) & Sungyoon Choi (illus.). Mission in a Bottle: The Honest Guide to Doing Business Differently–and Succeeding. Crown Business. 2013. 278p. ISBN 9780770437497. $23; ebk. ISBN 9780770437503. BUS

Honest Tea started out as a small mission-driven product line that wound up ten years later as favorites of President Barack Obama and TV personality Oprah ­Winfrey and then attracted a generous buyout from Coca-Cola. Company cofounders Goldman and Nalebuff here recount their nail-biting ride to success, while making the entertaining story sound like how their products are advertised: honest and a bit sweet. The chronology switchbacks can get confusing, and many anecdotes raise questions. Yet they provide a good picture of the hopes, grueling work, and chaos that come with starting a new business. Among their all-too-typical problems are deadbeat customers, subpar employees, the discovery of strange objects in the bottles, supply/demand imbalances, distributor uncertainties, and financial challenges. Solving one problem could easily create others, while solutions sometimes came from unexpected quarters. Throughout, artist Choi (American Widow) supplies simple and attractive two-color art that works well with the book’s message: Goldman and Nalebuff did so well largely because they believe in their products, which do respond to consumer desire for healthier organic beverages made through environmentally sustainable methods. ­VERDICT Honest Tea’s lessons—believe in your dreams, work hard, treat everyone honestly, and respect the environment—will benefit many readers, from business school students to retirees reinventing their future.—M.C.

Johns, Geoff (text) & Paul Pelletier & others (illus.). Aquaman: Throne of Atlantis. Vol. 3. DC. (New 52). 2013. 192p. ISBN 9781401243098. $24.99; pap. ISBN 9781401246952. $16.99. SUPERHERO

Aquaman has been one of the breakout successes of DC’s “New 52” initiative and rightfully so. DC veteran Johns has made the half-human, half-Atlantean hero into a compelling figure, admirable and powerful—haunted by guilt and torn between two worlds but determined to make a new life with his fiery-tempered lover, antagonist-turned-ally Mera. And the extraordinary work of penciller Ivan Reis and inker Joe Prado—intricately detailed, vividly expressive, and burst-off-the-page dynamic—epitomizes the idealized realism of modern superhero comics. This volume fills some holes in Aquaman’s backstory as former ruler of Atlantis but deals mostly with an attack on the United States by Atlantis’s current ruler, Aquaman’s half brother Orm, and for the first time in the series shows Aquaman fighting alongside Superman, Batman, and the rest of the Justice League. The only disappointments here are that Reis and Prado didn’t do all of the artwork and a slight air of editorial contrivance that hangs over the escalation and consequences of the Atlantis/surface world conflict. VERDICT DC is probably trying too hard to give its heroes tortured personal lives, but this is still a highly rewarding series for any superhero fan.—S.R.

Means, Greg & MK Reed (text) & Joe Flood (illus.). The Cute Girl Network. First Second. 2013. 176p. ISBN 9781596437517. pap. $17.99. F

thecutegirlnetwork013114Jane works in a skateboard shop, rides a mean board herself, and curses out dickheads who try to insult their way into her pants. Naturally, when the local single women’s network disses her new boyfriend Jack, she’s not going to lie down and whimper. Now, Jack does have rough edges—a past littered with dating disasters and a minimalist career manning a soup truck. Will the network’s pride and prejudice swamp their romance? This frisky romantic comedy serves up chuckles and OMGs as male vs. female stereotypes all come up for skewering, from clueless boys with one-track minds to snarky little girls hipped on Disney princesses. Throughout, however, the love-struck couple as well as their concerned roommates and frenemies all come through in three dimensions. VERDICT While the outcome is predictable, getting there is all the fun—who wouldn’t cheer for a couple who goes to a vending machine junkyard on the first date? The snappy dialog is very well matched by Flood’s blocky, black-and-white art. An appealing treat for high schoolers and up who like urban relationship drama with a message. Note some inexplicit sex and plenty of slang.—M.C.

Ryan, Sara (text) & Carla Speed McNeil (illus.). Bad Houses. Dark Horse. 2013. 160p. ISBN 9781595829931. pap. $19.99; ebk. ISBN 9781621158295. F

Badhouses013114In the hard-up town of Failin, OR, Lewis lives and works with his mother running estate sales, and chafes at her uptightness. At one sale, he meets Anne, who has two secrets: she shoplifts, and her mother, an assisted-living nurse, is a hoarder. This fine book is the story of Lewis and Anne’s romance, but it’s also a tale about a community’s history, both ancient and recent, that describes how some of the unhappy adults in the duo’s lives (including a cranky antiques dealer and an unemployed machinist) got that way and what some of them do about it. Writer Ryan deftly brings together the text’s many strands and shows a fine ear for dialog; artist McNeil’s accomplished, naturalistic cartooning fits the narrative well. Ryan also employs an effective storytelling tactic much neglected among contemporary comics scripters: narration, which she uses primarily to illuminate the characters’ inner states, engendering reader sympathy for even the most difficult of them and lending the book an uncommon and welcome thoughtfulness. VERDICT By turns sweet and sad, tragic and hopeful, this small-town drama will both break hearts and win them.—S.R.

Stossel, Sage (text & illus.). Starling. InkLit: Penguin. 2013. 208p. ISBN 9780425266311. pap. $17.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101616437. F

If Jane Austen had written this—and in an alternative universe, she could have—it might be called “Capes and Coffeebreaks.” Spitfire marketing ace Amy is heading up the corporate ladder. But she moonlights as a secret superhero named Starling, and disappearing unexpectedly for vigilante assignments leads management to think she’s doing drugs in the bathroom. The delightfully complicated and cannily crafted plot interweaves Amy’s romantic uncertainties—should she fall for the former boyfriend from high school or the pro wrestler who runs a gambling den?—with her super heroic adventures zapping bad guys, her slacker brother’s escapades, her pet-hoarding mother’s foibles, cutthroat office politics instigated by her incompetent but calculating colleague Jason, and the ereader marketing project that involves the former boyfriend’s awesome girlfriend. Writer and artist Stossel (contributing editor, cartoonist, The Atlantic) uses a simple, loose style of line and color that fits Amy’s unpredictable predicaments. VERDICT This whimsical romantic comedy injects welcome humor into the superhero genre that will especially appeal to women, older teen and up, as a pleasant antidote to the “having it all” blues and will probably appeal more broadly to fans of Dilbert, too. —M.C.

Tarantino, Quentin (text) & R.M. Guéra & others (illus.). Django Unchained. Vertigo. 2013. 264p. adpt. by Reginald Hudlin. ISBN 9781401241933. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781401247096. F

What could be more compelling or more—sad to say—American than a freed slave packing serious heat to save his wife from an evil plantation owner? In the antebellum South, slaves Django and wife Broomhilda are separated under brutal conditions. In Texas, Django is bought by German bounty hunter King Schultz, who agrees to free him if he helps Schultz find several wanted men. Django proves willing and talented at bounty hunting, so Schultz helps him track down his lost Broomhilda and, no surprise, kick slave-owner butt. Hudlin’s first-rate adaptation includes super dialog and is based on Tarantino’s original script rather than the 2012 film itself and supplies more backstory on Broomhilda, especially. Multiple artists shared creation of the visuals, and their styles do not always mesh smoothly. But artists Guéra, Denys Cowan, and Jason Latour show especially good work. ­VERDICT This Blaxploitation-tinged “spaghetti Southern” packs a satisfying punch, with well-contextualized savagery evoking actual American history even if not all details are 100 percent period authentic. Fans of action/adventure and Western fiction should enjoy the story, whether they have seen the film or not. With plenty of violence and sex; for older teens and up.—M.C.

redstarTiwary, Vivek (text) & Andrew C. Robinson & others (illus.). The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story. Dark Horse. 2013. 144p. ed. by Philip Simon. ISBN 9781616552565. $19.99; ebk. ISBN 9781621157786. BIOG

thefifthbeattle013114While various Fab Four collaborators have been dubbed the “fifth Beatle,” Paul McCartney bestowed that distinction upon Brian Epstein in a 1997 BBC interview. As the band’s legendary manager, Epstein hauled the rambunctious Liverpooligans out of their Merseyside basement gigs, reworked their image, and pushed them onto the world’s stages and into a record contract. While he was inexperienced with managing musicians, Epstein did have contacts in the recording industry plus plenty of chutzpah and flair. He was both Jewish and gay, the first stigmatized and the second illegal in England then, even as his outsider background lent him skills that served the Beatles well. Fascinated by Epstein for more than 20 years, award-winning producer Tiwary supplemented his research by interviewing people who knew the man. The masterly, bittersweet account enjoys wonderful multimedia art from Robinson (Dusty Star; King Conan) and Kyle Baker (Plastic Man; Nat Turner) that captures the exuberance and longings of the 1960s. VERDICT A must for music collections as well adult graphic novel sections, Epstein’s story will appeal to Beatles fans and pop culture watchers, teen and up. Note strong language and a few episodes of inexplicit gay sex.—M.C.

Zahler, Thomas F. (text & illus.). Love and Capes. Vol. 4: What To Expect. IDW. 2013. 148p. ISBN 9781613775868. pap. $19.99; ebk. ISBN 9781623022488. F

Billed as “the heroically super situation comedy,” this series goes light on super heroics and heavy on relationships. In previous volumes, sassy bookstore owner Abby Tennyson marries accountant Mark Spencer, whose alter ego is The Crusader. So Abby must deal with Mark’s other life and his superpowers, while Mark must adapt to Abby’s normalcy. Now Abby is joyfully pregnant, and the nine-month countdown begins. Zahler maintains his usual high humor quotient while keeping the story’s underside serious and injecting inventive plot twists. When Abby asks Dr. Karma to find her a woman ob-gyn, he recruits a top-notch female version of himself from a parallel reality. In the seventh month, as Abby’s dragging with bloat and discomfort, a rogue tiki spell switches her body with Mark’s, so he gets to experience pregnancy—and a few terrifying moments—while she gets a break. Meanwhile, Mark’s partner Paul, aka Darkblade, and Paul’s sweetie Amazonia face painful dilemmas. VERDICT Zahler’s characterizations and writing are first-rate, and his blocky, slightly retro art suits the story. This smart and funny series will appeal to superhero fans, high schoolers and up, as well as those not into superheroes.—M.C.

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