Read about the whys of this series here.
Possibly my favorite genre of comics, and one of the larger lists to be culled from the nominations this year – graphic works are suited for describing the fantastic if done well, and there’s a lot of fun and variety in these selections, so if yo u find your attention waning partway through, please take a break and come back to appreciate the back end of the list with fresh eyes.
Sing No Evil
JP Ahonen, writer
KP Alare, artist
Anticipation/Expectation level: Another one I’m on hold for – excited to read this! Although the comics I’ve read about people in bands are usually disappointing, this one looks like it could be fun.
The Gigantic Beard that was Evil
Stephen Collins, writer and artist
Anticipation/Expectation level: Based on the title, pretty high?
My Reality: It’s one of those gentle stunners of a book that is somewhere closer to adult picture book on the graphic novel spectrum. A fable-like story about an island named here where everything is in its place, surrounded by a sea that leads to There, an unknown place of frightening chaos. An inhabitant of the island has one hair on his chin that goes haywire, causing problems for all of the island’s society and culture.
The text is gentle, with a sure tone and an almost-rhyming feel. It is very rhythmic and I sang part of it to my cats as part of their integration therapy. The art is penciled, with a sense of lighting that adds to the otherworldliness and gravity of the story. Collins balances the softness of his pencils and the lulling of his words with the helplessness of the unknown that lurks beneath both. It is a treat.
Will teens like it?: Yes, it doesn’t have an immediate hook apart from the great title, but it’s not hard to get into and provides its own rewards.
Is it “great” for teens?: Yes – much like The Arrival, this is the kind of book that isn’t marketed towards teens but would be great to use in a book club, to introduce to an arts loving teenager or foist upon a book club with success, because there’s not really an impediment to getting something from it other than the thought that it might not be like what one is used to reading.
Ananth Panagariya, writer
Tessa Stone, artist
Anticipation/Expectation level: It looked fun, but I knew nothing of it going in. I like the name Tessa.
My Reality: Like Hicks’ and Shen’s Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, Buzz! is a solid entry into the teen high school slightly off adventure comic market. It’s easy to pick up off the shelf and recommend because it’s a new concept (underground spelling bees) running on standard tropes (outsiders who used to be insiders take on powerful conglomerate with the help of a talented newbie, betrayal from sort of within happens). And there’s nothing that is objectionable unless you object to a hint of magic. The action starts quickly and escalates quickly and the art is dynamic, hitting a spot between Faith Erin Hicks and Brian Lee O’Malley (as does the tone of the story). In short: fun.
For me, the action was a bit too quick and I never felt any resonance with the characters or their struggles, everyone was a bit too blithe. However, I don’t really count my feelings as meaning much because I’m not the ideal audience for this book. I don’t think it’s meant to be resonant, and I don’t think it has to be to be a successful comic. In fact, as a teen services librarian I wish for more of these fun, one-off books for my shelves.
Will teens like it?: Yes.
Is it “great” for teens?: Yes.
Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem
Steve Niles and Matt Santoro, writers
Dave Wachter, artist
Anticipation/Expectation level: I’v always been a fan of golems. I was interested to see what this book would do to distinguish itself in the saturated WWII market. (Pretty sure there are even already books about golems in WWII).
My Reality: A straightforward tale, as far as a tale about using a Golem against Nazis goes. A boy loses his father to World War… One, I think. Or two. Anyway, enough time that he grows up a bit in between. He’s waiting in a small village with his grandfather and other elderly people, all Jewish or mostly Jewish. He’s still waiting when a plane crashes outside of town. This is bad, because it is an Allied pilot who will bring scrutiny from Nazis. There is barely enough time to flee, so his grandfather entrusts him with the secret of golem-making, and makes a Golem.
In keeping with the folsky, mythical vibe of the Golem, the tale is focused on the elemental parts of the story: good over evil, nobility over greed, sons discovering their strength in the absence of fathers and father figures. The Golem itself is elemental: the protection of earth and faith. The historical detail of the story adds another layer of pathos and dignity. And the art is gorgeous: detailed, black and white with a nice flowing sense of space and shadow, highlighted by brushy washes of grey and black. Unfortunately, by focusing on the elemental parts of the story, the story ends up being kind of forgettable. It’s evocative during reading, but might fade from the mind over time, merging with other golems or other WWII tales.
Will teens like it?: I can see some teens liking it.
Is it “great” for teens?: It’s good. I don’t know if it crosses over to great. For teens. But I bet someone else could argue it.
The Undertaking of Lily Chen
Danica Novgorodoff, writer and artist
Anticipation/Expectation level: High, because I read Slow Storm and Refresh, Refresh. I loved those books and was excited to read a longer work with a more clearly defined plot from Novgorodoff.
My Reality: If The Undertaking of Lily Chen were a movie it would be a fast talking movie in the mold of 30s and 40s flicks and it would be a farce, only set in China and having to do with a less-loved son finding a corpse to bury with his dead, too-venerated older brother. It’s a strange mix but one that works – Novgorodoff is good at finding the groove in uneasiness.
The main story is a chase/road trip type format, with Deshi Li dealing with the abrupt and violent end of his brother (by his hands), his place within his family, and his desperation to find a corpse or someone to murder to become a corpse bride. He runs into Lily Chen, who is brassy and adventurous in contrast to Deshi’s sad and anxious mode. She is trying to get to Shanghai from the poor countryside by any means possible. She becomes Deshi’s target and companion. The story, as it is, is not the strongest part of the book. The central idea of the ghost marriage as an impetus is interesting, but not enough to sustain the whole book – that would fall on Deshi’s shoulders, and he never really proves himself as a main character. Lily, being the titular character and the more naturally active person, is compelling, but so concerned with her movement away from her past that it’s hard to admire more than her gumption.
What really pulls everything together is the art. Sweeping, melancholy vistas of mountains. Twlight and dawn-light. Out of body experiences. Novgorodoff mixes delicate watercolors with pen-line shadows and outlined characters, the exaggerated with the realistic, creating a world slightly beyond the real.
Will teens like it?: Yes. It’s intriguing and well-paced.
Is it “great” for teens?: Yes – the shortcomings of the characterization are balanced out by the art and themes that emerge near the end.
Moonhead and the Music Machine
Andrew Rae, writer and artist
Anticipation/Expectation level: I like Nobrow.
My Reality: This hit all the sweet spots for me. Palpable depictions of awkwardness that lead to heartwarming scenes of celebration of being weird. Joey Moonhead has a moon for a head. No one talks about it, but he and his family are the only ones who are visibly different from all the other humanoids. Joey is out of it and kind of shy, but he wants to build a music machine for a talent show. His first attempt is pitiful but he is discovered by a new friend – a ghost-person, dresssed in a sheet, who is kind of a musical genius, and he blows off his long time buddy to pursue the dream. I found it to be relatable, a story that has been told, but a heartfelt, personal take on it that works. Rae’s art is all clear lines with a great sense of storytelling beats through the pacing of the panels. And he draws great creatures.
Will teens like it?: Teens might think it’s too weird or off their usual path, but I bet they would like it if they gave it a chance. Or they might think its message is too simple.
Is it “great” for teens?: I think it’s great!
Down Set Fight!
Chad Bowers and Chris Sims, writers
Scott Kowalchuk, artist
Anticipation/Expectation level: Verging from neutral to vaguely wary about sports content.
My Reality: Down Set Fight! is unapologetically a book about fighting. To be specific, it’s about a football player who is most famous for fighting on field and has abandoned his career and aged into being a high school coach. Until mascots start seeking him out to fight him. (There’s also a back story with his sleazy dad.) The fun the writers had dreaming up the mascots is readily apparent, and although there’s a mystery element to the plot, it is really all about Chuck fighting mascots and figuring out why they want to fight him. It’s all done with a sense of whimsy and over-the-top violence that isn’t gruesome or realistic in anyway, and I admire that.
Will teens like it?: You could sell this to a teen.
Is it “great” for teens?: I don’t know if it’s great. I’m on the fence.
Fabien Vehlmann, writer
Drawn & Quarterly
Anticipation/Expectation level: Read a preview of this last year and really, really wanted to read it.
My Reality: Possibly one of the best books I’ve read, period. It is beautiful and terrible – terrible in the sense of being deeply frightening. Or maybe the right word is horror, or is there a word of witnessing the consequences of bad decisions or acts of god(s) and being struck by the impassive blankness of nature? It’s that. There are very visceral moments in here that will stay with a person.
So, the book is about these tiny fairy-ish people who emerge from the body of a dead girl in a forest. It’s not clear who they are or how they ended up in the body but they now have to survive in the forest. Some are oblivious to the dangers, some scheme to get power, some try to help out, some go out on their own. The team of Kerascoët is the perfect choice to illustrate this world, with their sure, delicate pen lines and richly colored, realistic backgrounds.
Why should I say more when you could be reading this book?
Will teens like it?: Yes. It might scar younger readers, but will also fascinate them.
Is it “great” for teens?: I mean… it’s great.