#MeToo, Box Brown, Comics for Choice, Babylon Berlin, Mean Girls, Manga Master Ito, Art/Life Advice | Graphic Novels Reviews

#MeToo stories have swamped the media lately, revelations long overdue. But this theme isn’t new to comics. Throughout its 1972–92 run, Wimmen’s Comix (LJ 5/15/16) included works about women subjected to harassment, exploitation, and rape. In 1995, Debbie Drechsler first published Daddy’s Girl (Fantagraphics), a trailblazing collection of semiautobiographical comics about abuse and father incest. That same year, Bryan Talbot released The Tale of One Bad Rat (Dark Horse), an inspirational fictional tale about childhood sexual abuse and recovery. Both won awards. Phoebe Gloeckner’s A Child’s Life and Other Stories (Frog Bks., 2000) describes the author’s sexual victimization as a teen by her alcoholic mother’s lovers.

By the mid-aughts, comics had acquired even more traction as a medium for serious storytelling. In 2008, Daddy’s Girl was reissued, and an Angoulême Prize winner about boy victims appeared: Why I Killed Peter (NBM), from the French team of Olivier Ka and Alfred. With recent reporting about crimes against both women and men (e.g., Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar, Jerry Sandusky), more cartoonists have added their voices. Maria Stoian’s Take It as a Compliment (Singing Dragon: Jessica Kingsley, 2015) relates 20 true accounts of violence and harassment and the devastating feelings of fear and betrayal that follow.

Becoming Unbecoming (Xpress Reviews 11/13/15) emerged from Una of northern England, who as a preteen survived predatory assault. In Lighter Than My Shadow (SLJ 8/17), Katie Green describes her history of eating disorders complicated by abuse from an “alternative treatment” therapist. For the just-released Speak: The Graphic Novel (Xpress Reviews 2/8/18), Emily Carroll has beautifully adapted Laurie Halse Anderson’s award-winning YA novel about a teen who is raped and finally finds her voice through art.

How to break the cycle? We can take inspiration from Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin’s National Book Award– winning March trilogy (LJ 7/13; Xpress 1/23/15; LJ 11/15/16) modeling successful protest. In August, Congressman Lewis will release Run (Comics Art: Abrams). And indeed, many more women now plan to run for office, from school board to the U.S. Senate. It will be not a sprint but a marathon.—MC

Brown, Box. Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman. First Second. Feb. 2018. 272p. bibliog. ISBN 9781626723160. pap. $19.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250304322. BIOG

Brown (Tetris: The Games People Play) presents an examination of the life and times of actor and comedian Andy Kaufman (1949–84), known for his regular appearances on Saturday Night Live and starring role in the TV sitcom Taxi. Brown dives especially deeply into Kaufman’s obsession with professional wrestling, providing a detailed history of how Kaufman and wrestling star Jerry Lawler worked together to promote a mutually beneficial public feud. Much attention is also paid to the comedian’s controversial turn toward challenging women to wrestling matches live on stage. Brown doesn’t quite delve into how troubling this behavior reads by today’s standards but does make it clear that Kaufman, who seemed to revel in playing a villain in order to grant his audience a joyful catharsis at his downfall, was a very complicated and contradictory figure. VERDICT While Brown’s focus on wrestling comes too much at the expense of other aspects of his subject’s life for this to be considered a definitive account, it’s a fun and informative read that fans of Kaufman, wrestling, and showbiz lore are sure to adore.—TB

Comics for Choice: Illustrated Abortion Stories, History, and Politics. Alternative. Feb. 2018. 300p. ed. by Hazel Newlevant & others. ISBN 9781681485980. pap. $25. COMICS

Sixty-plus women artists and authors contribute to this collection, many sharing personal experiences or those of family and friends. Others have served as abortion escorts—volunteers who help patients reach the clinic through groups of antiabortion activists—or as doulas, compassionate companions during the procedure. Some create poignant fiction or educate readers about the issue. In “The Right To Remain Unpregnant,” Sarah Mirk recounts getting a five- to ten-year IUD right after the 2016 election, figuring that the Trump administration would not just reduce access to abortion but also gut family planning coverage. Ironically, Mirk points out, state support for contraception nearly halved Colorado’s abortion rate during an experimental project and saved $60 million in Medicaid. The assorted black-and-white art reflects varying styles of artistry, and the mix enhances credibility. VERDICT The powerful and diverse testimonies in these 42 stories, many told here for the first time, bring nuance and complexity to the ongoing conversation and belong in all public, academic, and high school libraries.—MC

Cooper, Dave. Mudbite. Fantagraphics. Mar. 2018. 72p. ISBN 9781683960874. $19.99. COMICS

After 15 years of working primarily in TV and fine art, multi-award-winning cartoonist Cooper (Bent) returns with a new volume presenting two original stories featuring alter ego Eddy Table. In “Bug Bite,” Eddy is vacationing in an unnamed European city with his wife and children, and a visit to a music store leads him to discover a mysterious tunnel filled with odd creatures. In “Mud River,” Eddy inadvertently injures an Amazonian woman while exploring a strange forest, and the two must flee ahead of a mudslide. These pieces aren’t big on plot. Instead, Cooper crafts creepily surreal explorations of his anxieties and various obsessions, especially his fixation on full-bodied, cartoonishly exaggerated women. The tales would almost be too uncomfortable to read if it weren’t for Cooper’s wild imagination and incredible talent as an illustrator. Combining influences from classic animation and ­Robert Crumb (as well as other underground cartoonists), these pages are as beautiful to behold as they are troublingly intense and dreamlike. VERDICT While certainly not for everyone, this volume makes up for the lack of new material from Cooper over the past decade. It will have old fans salivating and should create new devotees as well.—TB

Forsman, Charles. Slasher. Floating World. Jan. 2018. 128p. ISBN 9781942801849. pap. $14.95. SF

Christine is trapped in an awful job with a predatory boss and at the beck and call of her demanding alcoholic mother. When a burgeoning long-distance romance with the sickly star of a series of online fetish videos sets her on a course of sexual awakening, it’s not long before some repressed, and violent, urges within her emerge as well. Unsatisfied with living so far from the object of her desire, Christine sets out to find him, leaving a trail of horror in her wake matched only by the truly disturbing twist this story takes toward the end of her journey. ­Ignatz Award winner Forsman (I Am Not Okay with This) has an incredible knack for creating characters possessed and propelled by sinister impulses and somehow keeping them relatable even as their actions become increasingly alarming and the body count climbs ever higher. ­VERDICT A psychosexual thriller reminiscent of a more compassionate, yet maybe even more depraved, Brian De Palma at the height of his powers. Readers with dark tastes and strong stomachs will be desperate to catch up on the rest of the very prolific Forsman’s oeuvre.—TB

Gaffney, David (text) & Dan Berry (illus.). The Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head. Top Shelf: IDW. Jan. 2018. 120p. ISBN 9781603094153. pap. $19.99. F

In surreal visual metaphors that make narrative if not literal sense, Valerie creates scenarios about failed relationships and imagines conversations with ex-boyfriends in this ingenious debut from British fiction writer Gaffney (Sawn-Off Tales). For example, Valerie keeps her past flames in the basement, dragging them as zombies upstairs to her front room for socializing. Between times, she plays the melodeon and dates new men with odd social quirks. But then she meets Stanley, and they fall in love. Gaffney’s characters explore cockeyed yet beguiling ideas. Valerie imagines her melodeon’s squeals come from unhappy elves living inside the instrument and conjectures that the “frisson of recent sexual activity” might help sell a house. One of the boyfriends identifies the origin of a tarmac floor by licking it. Berry’s (24 by 7) simple watercolor art suggests that of Lucy ­Knisley but is rounder and more humorous and uses a colorful crayon style for flashbacks. VERDICT Blurring the boundaries between physical and mental realities, Valerie’s poignant romances open larger vistas where music and imagination offer wit and insight beyond the grayness of daily life. This will appeal to romance fans seeking more challenging fare.—MC

redstarHaven, Eric. Compulsive Comics: Existential Terror! Global Warming! A Vengeful God! Fantagraphics. Feb. 2018. 140p. ISBN 9781683960850. pap. $19.99. GRAPHIC NOVELS

It’s difficult to explain what makes ­Haven’s (Vague Tales) comics so appealing. They’re droll but also incredibly absurd. He can be silly on one page and massively grim on the next. A tale that begins set in a recognizably realistic universe might suddenly swerve into the fantastic; a story with a fantastic premise can twist toward verisimilitude for a few beats before careening dramatically in a direction ten times more bizarre. The short works collected here, all previously published in various anthologies, feature glaciologists, an awkward date with a woman only a few inches tall, an ancient war between lizards and mammals, and outlandish superhero parodies. “I Killed Dan Clowes” is a peculiar masterpiece of irreverence and self-deprecation, opening with the accidental murder of beloved cartoonist Dan Clowes (Patience) and getting stranger from panel to panel. VERDICT Combining the sky’s-the-limit outrageousness of golden age superhero comics with the hip sensibility of a modern indie cartoonist, these stories are ­delightful and unlike anything anyone else is producing. Not to be missed.—TB

Heshka, Ryan. Mean Girls Club: Pink Dawn. Nobrow. May 2018. 104p. ISBN 9781910620229. $20.95. f

Not snotty high schoolers per the Lindsay Lohan film, these very adult gals are out to break the power (and head) of corrupt Mayor Schlomo (who likes to peep under young girls’ skirts). Sweets, Wanda, Wendy, Pinky, Blacky, and McQualude all survived male exploitation, with heart-wrenching tales to tell. So when the lecherous mayor hires naive Roxy to betray the club, the ladies retaliate with guts and guns. Heshka’s (Welcome to Robot Town) heroines embody the hilariously extravagant curves of retropulp heroines, such as Will Eisner’s P’Gell from The Spirit or Al Capp’s ladies in Li’l Abner, plus stiletto heels and sass to match. The transgressive, more modern dialog and some of the character names play on slang for genitalia, e.g., “gun-toting gashes,” “poon-goons.” Stylized panel design and expertly selected pink/black colors emphasize the story’s brazen bawdiness. VERDICT This satisfying revenge comedy arrives at just the right time to appeal to readers hungry for payback against gropers and grabbers. Sexualized imagery, lampoonery of faux-­sanctimonious religion, and rowdy language; no actual nudity.—MC

redstarIto, Junji. Shiver: Junji Ito Selected Stories. Viz. Jan. 2018. 392p. ISBN 9781421596938. pap. $22.99; ebk. ISBN 9781974701261. Rated: T+. horror/manga

For close to three decades, Ito (Tomie; ­Dissolving Classroom) has been one of the most thrilling and innovative creators of horror manga in the world. This personally curated collection of nine favorite short stories produced over the span of his career serves as a superb introduction to his work. A recording of a recently deceased woman crooning becomes a source of obsession for anyone listening. A city is attacked by enormous, floating heads. A successful painter, shaken by an encounter with a mysterious young woman, commits an act of awful violence in an attempt to restore his confidence. Ito switches among Lovecraft-inspired investigations of cosmic menace, body horror in the manner of filmmaker David Cronenberg, and tales of terror emerging from the most mundane sources, reminiscent of Stephen King. But ultimately he’s unlike anyone else in his ability to create images that seem drawn from a highly specific, personal, and primordial well of utter darkness. Some ­horror creeps up on you, Ito’s leaps screaming at your face. VERDICT Ito is one of the few manga artists with total crossover appeal, making this collection an essential addition.—TB

Kutscher, Volker (text) & Arne Jysch (text & illus.). Babylon Berlin. Hard Case Crime/Titan Comics. Feb. 2018. 216p. tr. from German by Ivanka Hahnenberger. ISBN 9781785866357. $24.99. Mys

Meet flawed hero Gereon Rath, ambitious police officer in 1929 Weimar Germany. With the rise of Moscow-subsidized Communist groups on one side and growing Nazi control on the other, both the police and organized crime juggle friends, foes, and double agents in an uneasy social miasma. Transferred to Berlin after a mishap in Cologne, Rath settles into the vice unit under benevolent Bruno “Uncle” Wolter yet longs for a position in the homicide division. An unidentified—and tortured—body at the bottom of a canal offers opportunities for successful sleuthing since he recognizes the victim. But as Rath burrows further into his job and his investigation, he suspects far more serious corruption than he’s ever confronted. Additional missteps plus amatory adventures further complicate matters. Kutscher’s popular 2008 novel was made into a German TV series, now English-dubbed on Netflix. Jysch’s (Wave and Smile) able if considerably condensed black-and-white adaptation incorporates a classic period-detailed detective style, the characters fluidly animated almost like screen captures. VERDICT Lovers of crime comics will savor all the details of this complicated adult story with a trove of Russian gold as the prize.—MC

Porcellino, John. From Lone Mountain. Drawn & Quarterly. Mar. 2018. 304p. ISBN 9781770462953. pap. $22.95. literary

The typical story collected here goes something like this: a man walks down the street, thinking about nothing in particular. He notices something slightly irregular. Maybe it’s the way the sunlight reflects off a windowpane in the distance. He pauses, lost in reverie. The end. This, by the way, is a positive review, because Porcellino (Map of My Heart) is capable of imbuing a simple tale with real poignancy. Pared-down illustrations combine with koan-like text panels that narrate many of these pieces, adding to the growing sense, as the collection progresses, that ­Porcellino himself is afflicted with great tension and anxiety and desperately in need of the tranquil moments his work depicts. Gathering stories originally published in the series King Cat Comics and Stories (2003–07), this volume includes a mix of autobiographical tales covering childhood memories, reflections on marriage, and the death of Porcellino’s father, alongside illustrated ­poems, prose pieces, and more. VERDICT While this exquisite volume might not be the one that finally launches Porcellino into the pantheon beside Chris Ware and Lynda Barry, that he flies just a little under the radar is part of his charm.—TB

Smith, Niki. Crossplay. Iron Circus. May 2018. 144p. ISBN 9781945820144. pap. $15. EROTIC ROMANCE

“Crossplay” refers to cosplayers dressing as the other gender and here includes romantic possibilities. At Megacon, a group of cosplayer friends enlarge on their costumed roles to explore whom they might love and who they might be. When photographer Priya becomes attracted to Alexis, a young woman cosplaying a hot guy, Priya comes to recognize her same-sex attraction to Emi, who’s had a crush on her. The engaged heterosexuals Tommy and Sierra—who also cosplays as a male—incorporate the gender switch into amatory games. Another M/F couple cosplaying lesbian lovers pursues intimacy while costumed. Lee, transitioning to male in real life, gets teased genially about their (Lee’s preferred pronoun) deepening voice and gives a helping hand to Jillian in using a chest binder to appear male and in experimenting with her sexuality. Smith (contributor, Smut Peddler anthologies) works in a lovely manga-like style using black plus tones of rose: hot pink to the palest blush. VERDICT While appealing as sexually explicit romance, the rather spare story also models kindness and candidness in talking about love and sex. For adult manga fans welcoming erotic elements.—MC

redstarWul, Stefan (text) & Olivier Vatine (text & illus.) & Clem Robins (illus.). Niourk. Dark Horse. Feb. 2018. 176p. tr. from French by Brandon Kander & Diana Schutz. ISBN 9781506703695. $29.99. SF

In the far, far future, the oceans have mysteriously receded and the denizens of Earth have regressed into groups of primitive tribes foraging for survival. With resources rapidly dwindling, there is little hope until a lone child outcast ventures into a fabled city of the Gods and discovers technology far beyond his understanding. Convinced that he has been chosen to lead his people, and accompanied by a tame bear, the boy sets out on a quest toward a northern promised land known as New York. That’s when the gigantic, intelligent cephalopods arrive, and a little bit later, some robots. Based on the novel by French author Wul, the man behind the cult hit Fantastic Planet, and beautifully adapted by Vatine (Trio Grande: Adios Palomita), this epic and idiosyncratic adventure renders big ideas about the human capacity for compassion, cruelty, and survival. ­VERDICT Even the most widely read sf dystopia aficionado won’t see all the twists and turns. A total thrill from start to finish.—TB

Art/Life Advice

redstarThan, Gavin Aung. Creative Struggle: Illustrated Advice from Masters of Creativity. Andrews McMeel. Jan. 2018. 148p. ISBN 9781449487225. pap. $12.99. comicS

“I can’t do this—I’m a failure—I’m so depressed,” moans many a scientist, writer, or artist. But so lamented the world’s great creators, reports Than (webcomic Zen Pencils) in this puckish ennui disrupter. Albert Einstein, Frida Kahlo, John Coltrane, Mary ­Shelley, Stephen King, and ten more leading lights of history all doubted their own abilities and endured plenty of setbacks. Yet all developed and honed their persistence until—after much toil—genius art and science emerged. For each famous creator, a short graphic narrative dramatizes inspirational quotes about an ultimately triumphant challenge. Than then adds his own commentary. Several graphic “creative pep talks” pop up as intermezzos offering tips from Than and several other writers. The winsomely satirical art follows in the tradition of Kate Beaton’s Hark a Vagrant or Fred Van Lente’s Action Philosophers, with broad color schemes lending individuality to the selections, all taken from Than’s popular Zen Pencils blog. ­VERDICT These vignettes will bring entertainment and dam-busting inspiration to tweens through retired folks seeking self-reinvention. A solid choice for classroom use, too.—MC

redstarWillberg, Kriota. Draw Stronger: Self-Care for Cartoonists & Other Visual Artists. Uncivilized. Apr. 2018. 144p. ISBN 9781941250235. pap. $16.95. COMICS/self-help

Torn muscles, ruptured discs, swollen hands, ­intractable pain. If you’re thinking sports stars, think again—cartoonists and visual artists can have these injuries as well. Do see a medical professional, advises Willberg (contributor, Comics for Choice, among others), and recognize pain as your frenemy. Combining and expanding content from previously published minicomics, the author points out that one’s drawing instrument is not just one’s hand but entire body. Describing numerous possible injuries, she urges sufferers to think and live like a “cartoonist athlete” and prescribes plenty of basic exercises plus pain management strategies. Her tan and rust-peach art varies appropriately from simply drawn humans in various predicaments to more detailed musculoskeletal anatomy. Willberg’s credits include work as a dance choreographer, massage therapist, health science educator, and the first artist in residence at the New York Academy of Medicine Library. VERDICT Willberg’s straightforward yet lighthearted delivery makes her advice enjoyable and easy to follow. This lively self-care guide should wake up artists, amateur and pro, and also apply to anyone who sits at the ­computer all day.—MC

Additional Graphic Novels

Irvine, Alex (text) & Tomm Coker & C.P. Smith (illus.). The Comic Book Story of Baseball: The Heroes, Hustlers, and History-Making Swings (and Misses) of America’s National Pastime. Ten Speed: Crown. May 2018. 176p. index. ISBN 9780399578946. pap. $18.99; ebk. ISBN 9780399578953. SPORTS

A high percentage of the history of baseball in this country is legendary, to the point of being mythological. Award-winning novelist and game writer ­Irvine (Avengers Alliance; The Narrows; Buyout) does not claw the truth out of these ­fanciful backstories but rather exposes them gently like peeling back the horsehide covering of a baseball to show the substantial layers of fact. This ambitious work, a clear labor of love, conveys well the eccentricities, politics, evolution, graft, and critical timing found in this supposed National Pastime. The panels of snapshot art, logos, and portraits are laid out like a fine museum display with an easy narrative spiking at all the great and bizarre moments vital to this convoluted chronicle. Verdict Marvel comics veterans Coker and Smith deliver powerful graphics, tinted lightly with color for a marvelous vintage effect, while Irvine orchestrates a brief, masterly overview of this morale-boosting sport. Fans of any age will love.—Russell Miller, formerly with Prescott P.L., AZ

Major, Caitlin (text) & Kelly Bastow (illus.). Manfried the Man. Quirk. May 2018. 224p. ISBN 9781683690153. pap. $14.99. GRAPHIC NOVELS

This work offers a unique premise: What if cats were humanlike, and cats, as they are now, were replaced by humans? Steve Catson is having a difficult time doing, well, anything. Somewhat of a shiftless layabout who only takes pleasure in his human pet, Manfried, Steve finally is pushed to be more when Manfried unexpectedly gets out of the house. Writer Major (Home Sick; Peach Plum Pear) is often hilarious, while artist Bastow (The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy; Lumberjanes) simply but clearly shows a world that’s so absurd yet doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. While the book is a little too long, it is effective in demonstrating the bond between caretaker and pet. Manfried’s “Hey!” is the equivalent of “meow,” and the communications between Manfried and Steve, including hugs, is relatable to every cat owner. Both are put in situations they are uncomfortable with, and that growth and resilience only amplifies their bond. Verdict A delightful twist on the human/cat relationship. For fans of felines, stories of discovery, and the film Homeward Bound.— Ryan Claringbole, Wisconsin Dept. of Pub. ­Instruction, Madison

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). Tom Batten is a writer and teacher whose work has appeared in the Guardian and The New Yorker. He lives in Virginia

 

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