Great Graphic Novels 2015 Noms: One-Off Fantasy/Magical Adventures

by Tessa

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.

singnoevil

Sing No Evil

JP Ahonen, writer

KP Alare, artist

Abrams

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.

Art Taste:

singnoevilpreview

giganticbeard

The Gigantic Beard that was Evil

Stephen Collins, writer and artist

Picador

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.

Art Taste:

The Gigantic Beard that was Evil

BUZZV1_-_4x6_COMP_FNL_WEB_large

Buzz!

Ananth Panagariya, writer

Tessa Stone, artist

Oni Press

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 WrongBuzz! 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.

Art Taste:

buzz_panels

breathofbones

Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem

Steve Niles and Matt Santoro, writers

Dave Wachter, artist

Dark Horse

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.

Art Taste:

bobtag1p3

lilychen

The Undertaking of Lily Chen

Danica Novgorodoff, writer and artist

First Second

Anticipation/Expectation level: High, because I read Slow Storm and Refresh, RefreshI 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.

Art Taste:

lilychen lilychen2

MoonheadCoverFull

Moonhead and the Music Machine

Andrew Rae, writer and artist

Nobrow Press

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!

Art Taste:

Moonhead_Page14-600x402

moonheadpreview

downsetfightcover

Down Set Fight!

Chad Bowers and Chris Sims, writers

Scott Kowalchuk, artist

Oni Press

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.

Art Taste:

pachyderms

BEAUT_DARK_cover-full

Beautiful Darkness

Fabien Vehlmann, writer

Kerascoët, artists

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.

Art Taste:

BEAUTIFUL-pg61-817c1

I’m Doing Backflips Over . . . Leverage!

A Review of Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen

Dutton Books (Penguin), 2011

Leverage Joshua C. Cohen

by REBECCA, December 24, 2012

characters

Danny: a small fry gymnast, he just wants to fly under the football bullies’ radar long enough to get a scholarship

Kurt: new to school and the football team, he uses his strength to protect him from his past

Studblatz, Miller, and Jankowski: football bullies who make life hell for pretty much everyone

Tina: was in the same youth facility as Kurt, she sticks up for the bullied and wants to support Kurt if he’ll let her

hook

Danny and Kurt should be enemies, according to Oregrove High’s social dynamics: Danny is a gymnast and Kurt is a football player, and the two do not mix except when the football players are kicking the gymnasts’ asses. But when three members of Kurt’s team take things way too far, Danny and Kurt form an alliance that might be the only way to survive.

worldview

John Orozco

gymnastics!

Danny is a talented gymnast, but is small for his age and tries to stay out of the path of the football team. When he sees the new kid walk into math class bulging with muscle, he thinks he’s found yet another bully. But Kurt isn’t at all what Danny expects: he’s grown his hair long to hide the gruesome scars that mar one side of his face, and he can hardly speak without stuttering. Both Danny and Kurt feel free and focused while they’re involved in sports, but helpless when they aren’t: for Danny, this helplessness is due to his size, and for Kurt it’s due to his stutter and his scars. Studblatz, Miller, and Jankowski are the three biggest, meanest football players at Oregrove High and they terrorize the gymnasts. When they begin a prank war and the gymnasts retaliate, they escalate their bullying to such a level that lives are in danger and Kurt is forced to choose sides.

People, I loved this book! It clocks in at over 400 pages, and yet I really didn’t want it to end. I finished it on Friday and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Leverage is a totally engrossing and totally horrifying story of the power dynamics among the athletes of Oregrove High. This isn’t simply a book about bullying, although it is that as well. It’s a complicated portrait of many different responses to differences in power (be they physical, mental, social, societal, etc.). Leverage is told in chapters alternating between Danny and Kurt’s points of view. Kurt, for me, was the more interesting character. Having been moved around a lot and suffered Friday Night Lightsabsolutely horrific abuse when he was younger, Kurt has built up his physical strength to ensure that he’ll never be at the mercy of anyone else (physically) ever again. The details of his past unfold slowly and subtly throughout the novel, alongside his feelings of intense frustration about his stutter and people’s perceptions of him because of it. I think Joshua C. Cohen made a really good choice to pair the revelation of Kurt’s abusive past with his physical and mental relationship with football, his teammates, and their actions. His character, of them all, feels incredibly well-developed and well-psychologized, without ever edging into the melodramatic.

Danny’s feelings are more straightforward—he’s afraid of being bullied, so he avoids it, even when that means not sticking up for someone else being bullied—but Cohen was smart again, I think, to avoid making Danny the scrappy hero:

“A new round of laughter erupts as dozens of football players’ fingers start pointing at Ronnie and me. We’re the smallest on the team and, they assume, the weakest. . . . Ronnie steps closer like he wants my company, but all I want is to get farther away from him. I hate him at that moment, hate feeling like they think we’re the same. We’re not the same. Ronnie’s a punk freshman who just started gymnastics. I’m aiming for state champion in high bar. I’m going to be a full-ride scholarship athlete one day. We’re not the same” (42-3).

Reading Danny’s character made me conscious of what has become one of the recurring character tropes of YA lit recently: the small or weak kid who stands up to enormous threats despite the near guarantee of being hurt. I mean, I knew that was common but, lest I ever forgot how much power recurring tropes have in the way I view the world, I have to admit that I found myself disliking Danny precisely because he didn’t conform to this brand of self-sacrificing heroism. In fact, I really had to check myself about that, since the last thing I believe I should be doing is blaming the victims of bullying for not being more “heroic”!

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

FootballI won’t say anything about the actual plot of Leverage because I don’t want to give anything away, but Cohen does a really amazing job tracking the way that the football players’ bullying amps up slowly, until it leads to an incident that is so far beyond bullying that it becomes something else. Cohen frames Studblatz, Miller, and Jankowski as creatures that are out of control—creatures whose monstrosity is inherently un-understandable even to themselves. And it’s there that Leverage really got me. Of course it’s useful to examine bullies’ behavior and try and understand what causes it in order to try and stop it (in real life). But Leverage seems to be operating from the more interesting worldview that bullying (in all its permutations) is a natural byproduct of a power differential and, therefore, takes place in almost every social interaction. Some of the gymnasts, including Danny, tease Ronnie for being religious and sincere, and later fail him in a really major way; the football players bully each other and tease Kurt for his stutter, his appearance, his lack of money; Miller’s father bullies him; the football players insult a girl because of her ethnicity; Tina threatens a football player, etc.

In its panoramic view of bullying, Leverage poses questions about aggressive behavior we might not be so keen to answer: Would I beat people up if I were physically stronger? How can we reward aggression in sports and not expect it to spill over into the athletes’ lives? How can we teach the distinction between culturally prized hyper-masculinity and unacceptable aggression? Do I blame the victims for being weaker, or different, or not fighting back? Would I risk my own safety to come to the aid of someone who’s going to be hurt no matter what?

superbowl-cat___02Leverage is also, I must not forget to mention, a sports book (obviously), and it has all the great stuff I love about sports books/movies: awesome action sequences (Cohen was a gymnast and the descriptions of doing tricks really ring true), glorious descriptions of overcoming pain, outrunning fear, and throwing yourself into the fray, and deep investigations of what it means for your body to be the instrument of your success. I love that the alliance between Danny and Kurt is between football and gymnastics: the extremely different types of athleticism and stamina that the sports value are reflected in the characters. Also, hi: gymnastics; get with the program!

Who are the monsters? Who are the victims? Who is implicated? Who is beyond reproach? Who enables? Who helps? Who harms? Who hides? How sure are we of the line between any of these? And how much can any of us outpace the assumptions that others inscribe on us? Leverage barrels straight at these questions and never flinches away from them. Although I found the ending predictable, it was predictable because it was inevitable, which feels better. I can’t wait to see what Joshua C. Cohen brings us next.

personal disclosure

Leverage Joshua C. Cohen

Leverage Joshua C. CohenI was reading Leverage first on a BoltBus and then on the New York subway and because of that could not help but be very, very aware that if you didn’t know this was a young adult book, or a sports book, then its cover really makes it look like it is about fisting. Which is fine, but still, I became slightly self-conscious. Anyhoo, I actually love this cover: it’s so simple and stripped down, and I love how the word LEVERAGE is colored so that RAGE is in red. I like it so much more than the paperback cover (right) but now wonder if they changed it because someone came in and said, hey, y’all, this is a young adult book so maybe we want to move away from the fisting?

readalikes

Girl in the Arena Lise Haines

Girl in the Arena by Lise Haines (2009). This compelling book explores a neo-gladatorial society, complete with its culture of violence, through the eyes of one girl who has to fight not only for her freedom but for her family as well.

Stick Andrew Smith

Stick by Andrew Smith (2011). When Stick’s abusive father finds out that his older brother, Bosten is gay, Bosten has to leave home for his safety. Stick sets off on a grueling road trip to find Bosten. My full review of Stick is HERE.

Stotan! Chris Crutcher

Stotan! by Chris Crutcher (1986). A Stotan is a cross between a Stoic and a Spartan, and their swim coach expects nothing less of them during the intense week-long training. During that week, four friends learn to push their bodies further than they ever thought they could go, and learn about each other in the process. A sporty classic!

procured from: the library

The Chocolate War, or why you shouldn’t make high school kids sell candy.

The Chocolate War

Robert Cormier

Pantheon Books, 1974

Characters
Jerry Renault, Our Hero
The Goober (Roland Goubert), Coward with a Heart of Gold
Archie Costello, Assignment Mastermind
Obie, Disgruntled Sidekick With His Own Plans
Emile Janza, Sociopath
Brother Leon, Probably Also a Sociopath
Brother Jacques (the Head), Deus Ex Machina
Brian Cochran, Reluctant Accountant
Carter, Nominal President of The Vigils

Hook
Jerry Renault dares to disturb the universe through an act of double civil disobedience! And pays the price.

Worldview
Nihilist. I think. Or Existentialist?

What was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?
There’s no way that The Chocolate War is not a Message Book. I hate to say it, because message books get a bad rap.  But, like any category of book, there are good and bad examples.  And, can I just say that most books have a message somewhere in there.  But what makes a message book a Message Book is that the entire plot is dedicated to delivering a viewpoint on the world. Each cog in the well-oiled plot machine spins just to give life to a philosophical or social problem. The trick is to do this AND get a book that’s not totally didactic with cardboard characters spouting dialogue straight from afterschool specials out of it. Or some God-Narrator who tells you what you’re supposed to be figuring out for yourself.

So, what’s the message in the Chocolate War? I think the best thing about it is that it doesn’t sum up its message in one phrase (a la Jack Black at the end of King King).  In fact, you have to figure it out for yourself. It’s a message book with a personal message for you.  So maybe I should call it an Ethical Dilemma book. But that’s not as catchy.  I see the Chocolate War as an essentially existential dilemma.

Intention Achievement

The intention of the book is to present a real life example of a real-life high school Sisyphus for the reader to mull over.  Here’s a shortish summary (there are many characters, which is why this isn’t shorter): Jerry Renault goes to Trinity High. I’m assuming it’s a Jesuit school because it’s run by Brothers, but it could just be Catholic.  Anyway. Jerry’s a freshman and he’s going out for the football team.  The first chapter of the book kind of sums up Jerry’s character for us.  Let me quote the first line: “They murdered him.” Jerry’s getting his tuchus kicked up and down the field, but he doesn’t quit. Huh. Could that be foreshadowing?

In the second chapter we learn that Trinity High has a not so secret secret society called the Vigils.  Their main thing is making non-Vigils do elaborate pranks.  It’s sort of hazing, I guess, because some of the kids who do the pranks eventually get into the Vigils and go on to force other kids to do pranks.  Archie Costello is the Prankmaster, although he’s not the President of the Vigils, and his second in command is Obie. Obie hates Archie. Archie decides to assign Jerry a task, even though Jerry’s mom has just died. Archie doesn’t give a shit. He’s going to assign Jerry something to do with chocolates.

There’s a big chocolate sale at the school every year as a fundraiser. This year the Head of the school, Brother Jacques, is sick, so Brother Leon is in charge of the chocolates and the school. Brother Leon lives for Trinity, and he has a habit of messing with students mentally to get them to understand that their loyalty to Trinity is super-important. This year he bought double the amount of chocolates and he’s going to sell them for double the price and tell the kids that they have to bring in double the quota.  Even though this is all strictly “voluntary”.  And he asks Archie for the support of the Vigils. In so many words.

So, here comes Jerry. Jerry is assigned to refuse to sell chocolates for ten school days. One would think it’s not a big deal.  But it causes unbelievable tension. It makes Brother Leon apoplectic. It puts pressure on the Vigils because they were supposed to support the sale in the first place. It makes other kids uncomfortable because they’re out there trying to sell the stupid chocolates and Jerry isn’t.

And then Jerry won’t stop refusing to sell chocolates.  He realizes it’s absurd –or, he doesn’t realize anything at first. He just knows he’s doing it.  He has to.

Here’s our dilemma!  And here’s where I really connect with the book. Jerry is restless. Hippies call him a sub-human because he’s living a square life.  He has a poster in his locker that quotes T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (not that Jerry knows this): Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?  He does. Almost just because. Which reminds me of what Camus thinks about Sisyphus:

“Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is,as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth…. All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained [in his rock]. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing….The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

photo by flickr user cdrummbks

I’m not going to reveal what happens to Jerry. I’m just going to say that it’s his choice. And it’s our choice to imagine if his choice gives him any happiness, idealistic or otherwise. (Or I could read Beyond the Chocolate War and see if there are more answers there).

I’ll just say that I really identify with his stubbornness.  I’ll admit that the events of the book might be a little unrealistic and I found myself questioning their plausibility, but then I would often admit that the okay of authority figures, whether heads of schools or secret societies, often sanctions the most unreasonable behavior.  It can be very hard to talk to parents when you’re an adolescent.  In the end I’d say that it wasn’t too hard to believe in the situation.

Readalikes

I’ve got a classic and and upcoming readalike for this book:

The Wave by Todd Strasser. Same old-fashioned language.  Same treatment of a school-wide phenomenon.  But this time… with Nazis.

The List by Siobhan Vivian.  Multiple viewpoints. Divisive list. Dare I say… a message book?  When it comes out in April you can decide for yourself. You can also check out our interview of Siobhan Vivian here!

Disclosures and Digressions

a. I know Siobhan Vivian and I love her lots. As a person.  And  a writer.
b. We had fundraisers something like the chocolate sale at my middle school, so I can identify with the feeling of being emotionally manipulated into becoming a mini-salesperson — at my school they hired people to come in and do a presentation and show you how many AWESOME prizes you could win at what SALES LEVEL.  And then I’d go home and not sell anything.  On the other hand, I won a prize for most Girl Scout Cookies sold one year.  But that was because my dad did the selling.  This isn’t so much a personal disclosure as a nearly meaningless digression.

c. There’s a sequel to The Chocolate War called Beyond the Chocolate War. Is that where they got Beyond Thunderdome from???

I got my copy from: the library

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