Second looks

April 19, 2010

I thought I’d kick the week off with quick looks at a couple of second volumes of series that made promising first impressions. One is a shôjo title that’s off the beaten track (a male protagonist, no romantic plot elements, and a supernatural, episodic vibe), and the other is a josei series that plays around with that old shôjo spirit.

The second volume Yuki Midorikawa’s Natsume’s Book of Friends (Viz) has all of the charms and strengths of the first. All of the four stories are solid, and the art is still lovely and delicate, but there’s one chapter that really resonated with me.

In it, protagonist Natsume has an entirely unexpected experience. He meets an adult who can do the same things he does, namely see and communicate with supernatural creatures known as yôkai. Natsume has been steadfast, even a little paranoid, about keeping his abilities a secret. Experience has taught him that he’ll be ostracized if he reveals them, so finding another person like him is jolting. Natsume moves through phases of suspicion, curiosity, hope, disillusionment, and eventually acceptance and relief.

As a gay kid entering college, I felt something very similar to Natsume’s sense of isolation and strangeness. Mercifully, even in a small-town college in the Midwest, I managed to meet gay grown-ups who were living the kind of productive, happy lives I had only cautiously imagined. They had good jobs, and some of them had partners, and the fact that they were gay wasn’t a hindrance to any of that. Even if I didn’t end up liking all of them or finding them entirely admirable, the examples they provided were a tremendous comfort to me. Midorikawa captures that process and those feelings with accuracy and sensitivity. I have no idea what her intent or inspiration for the story were, but the argument she makes for the power of an adult role model is persuasive and moving, so much so that I think I’ll nominate it for the Great Graphic Novels for Teens list.

Another nice element of this series is the added value of the creator’s notes. These sidebars often run to the drippy and chatty, but Midorikawa makes good use of them. She talks about her process, the challenges of trying to craft stand-alone stories with recurring themes, and the hooks that she finds for herself that help characters and stories fall into place. She also explains her resistance to larger panels, and while I get it and think her compositions are often lovely, it would be nice to see the occasional blown-up spread.

The second volume of Yuki Yoshihara’s Butterflies, Flowers (Viz) settles into a pattern of mildly smutty silliness that I very much enjoyed. In the first volume, we met former rich girl Choko Kuze, whose family’s financial decline led her to the life of an office worker. She quickly discovered that her borderline-insane boss, Masayuki Domoto, used to be one of her family’s servants, and that his boyhood devotion still lurks within her demonic supervisor.

With the set-up out of the way, Yoshihara can really dive into the R-rated shôjo goofiness. Buttterflies, Flowers runs in a josei magazine (Shogakukan’s Petit Comic), but it has all of the mechanics of a high-school romance. The antics just have a slightly more adult flavor. Instead of a school festival, Choko must participate in a company competition for office newbies. Instead of a Domoto fan club full of sempai, there are senior office ladies to seethe with jealousy. And the question of sex is addressed a lot more frankly, though not with anything resembling seriousness.

There are some great bits amidst the generally okay bits, and it’s undeniably good natured. It’s not josei in the way that books like Bunny Drop or Suppli are, but it’s fun and does its best to make sex silly. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Just one more link

January 20, 2010

The American Library Association’s Young Adult Library Services Association has posted its 2010 list of Great Graphic Novels for Teens which, as you know, is something of an obsession of mine. Here are the Top 10.

Update: Just because I’m curious about these sorts of things, I broke down listings by publisher to see who got how many. Marvel scored the largest number of listings, divided about equally between their super-hero properties and their comics adaptations of other works of fiction. Viz came in second in terms of the number of recognized titles and actually had the largest number of books, by which I mean that multiple volumes of individual titles earned spaces on the list. If you add up all of its individual imprints, DC ranked next with seven titles and the same number of books, with three coming from its super-hero line and the remainder coming from imprints.

Marvel – 10 titles, 10 books, 1 title in the Top 10
Viz Media – 9 titles, 15 books, 3 titles in the Top 10
Del Rey – 5 titles, 5 books
First Second – 4 titles, 6 books
Tokyopop – 4 titles, 5 books
Dark Horse – 4 titles, 4 books, 1 title in the Top 10
Yen Press – 3 titles, 5 books
DC Comics – 3 titles, 3 books
Cinebook – 2 titles, 3 books
IDW – 2 titles, 3 books
Candlewick – 2 titles, 2 books
DC/Vertigo – 2 titles, 2 books
Hill and Wang – 2 titles, 2 books
Oni Press – 2 titles, 2 books
Archaia Studios Press – 1 title, 1 book, 1 title in the Top 10
Bloomsbury – 1 title, 1 book
Bodega Distribution – 1 title, 1 book
BOOM! Studios – 1 title, 1 book
Classical Comics Ltd. – 1 title, 1 book
DC/CMX – 1 title, 1 book
DC/Zuda – 1 title, 1 book, 1 title in the Top 10
Disney Press – 1 title, 1 book
DMP – 1 title, 1 book
HarperCollins – 1 title, 1 book
Henry Holt – 1 title, 1 book
Image – 1 title, 1 book, 1 Top 10
Image/Shadowline – 1 title, 1 book
Pantheon Books – 1 title, 1 book, 1 title in the Top 10
Quirk Books – 1 title, 1 book
Simon & Schuster/Aladdin – 1 title, 1 book
SLG Publishing – 1 title, 1 book, 1 title in the Top 10
Top Shelf – 1 title, 1 book
Walker and Company – 1 title, 1 book

Time is running out

October 3, 2009

The list of nominations for the 2010 Great Graphic Novels for Teens has been updated over at the Young Adult Library Services Association’s site. October is the last month to nominate a title. Anyone can nominate a book, as long as they aren’t the creator or publisher of the work, and the book needs to have been first published between Sept. 1, 2008, and Dec. 31, 2009. Click here to nominate something. It’s easy!

From the stack: A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge

August 19, 2009

adIt’s impossible to capture the scale and scope of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina, and a smart creator wouldn’t even try. Josh Neufeld is a smart creator, and he’s a talented one, and I like the approach he takes to A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge (Random House). Instead of trying to capture everything, he focuses on the experiences of a handful people who lived through the storm and are muddling through its aftermath.

His subjects offer a socioeconomic mix, from upper to working class. Some of them stayed in New Orleans through the storm, and others watched it unfold from a distance. Again, I don’t think Neufeld is doing this to try and tell “the whole story” so much as to offer different vantage points on what the city and its residents endured.

There’s Denise, who has no means of evacuating, and she ends up at the convention center, waiting for help that seems unlikely ever to come. Abbas sticks around to protect his family’s convenience store. Twenty-something Leo and his girlfriend, Michelle, evacuate, as does young Kwame with his family. A doctor stays put, confident in the sturdiness of his historic home.

Neufeld refrains from imposing a narrative on these survivors, instead illustrating their individual stories and interspersing them as they chronologically unfolded. Their testimonies are all vivid and engrossing, and Neufeld renders them with detail and restraint. There’s terror, anger, and sadness, but there’s also perseverance and hope.

It’s a durable and valuable work, and Neufeld’s illustrations hold up to the content. Like Rick Geary of the Treasury of Victorian Murder series of books, Neufeld doesn’t illustrate for photo-realism. His style is still evident, though he’s scrupulous in rendering people and settings.

I remember text pieces in this vein from my newspaper days, when a sensible reporter would get out of the way and let people tell their stories. (As Neufeld is illustrating these stories instead of merely transcribing them, there’s obviously a higher degree of difficulty.) There seem to be fewer of those kinds of meaty, personal portraits that flesh out major events. I miss them, and I’m glad to see Neufeld translate some of that same journalistic spirit into comics form.

(This review is based on a black-and-white “advanced reader’s edition” provided by the publisher. It’s one of those books with a really interesting provenance, so I encourage you to go read Tom Spurgeon’s interview with Neufeld to find out more. I nominated this book for the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens list. Anyone can nominate a title, assuming they aren’t one of the book’s creators and/or don’t work for the publisher of the book being nominated. Creators and publishers can certainly nominate the work of others.)

From the stack: Johnny Hiro

July 23, 2009

For me, the cake of Fred Chao’s Johnny Hiro (AdHouse Books) is the relationship between the titular protagonist and his fetching girlfriend, Mayumi. As a bonus, Chao slathers plenty of icing on the cake.

untitledJohnny and Mayumi are young, in love, and living in New York City. That means they work too hard, live in a kind of crappy apartment, and never seem to have enough money at the end of the month. But they have each other and all of the affection, support and loyalty one could hope for; they also have cats. Those things go a long way to compensate for the overworked, underpaid grind.

They also have distractions. Johnny is sort of a mayhem magnet. Simple errands can thrust him into the thick of a swarm of knife-wielding kitchen ninjas. A night at the opera can end at sword-point, surrounded by laid-off IT guys who’ve taken up the way of the samurai to avenge their failed dot-com. Peaceful slumber can be disturbed by a hauntingly familiar, dauntingly large lizard that’s eye-level with their walk-up.

Other similarities to Spider-Man aside – he’s got the beautiful girlfriend, the Manhattan setting, and the struggling 20-something thing down – Johnny isn’t exceptional or adventuresome. He’s tenacious, though, and he’s developed a resigned acceptance to the nuttiness. (He’s a little more prone to being starstruck, though, as evidenced by the eclectic celebrity cameos Chao throws into the mix.) I’m crazy about Mayumi; as Chao draws her, she’s lovely in the way real people are lovely as opposed to more conventional comic-book arm candy.

So basically, what we’re dealing with here is a loving, functional couple dealing with the occasional outburst of genre mash-up, based on whatever Chao pulls out of the pop-culture junk drawer. The results are generally terrifically entertaining, and I don’t think there are nearly enough loving, functional couples at the center of popular entertainments. It doesn’t always work perfectly; some of Chao’s pet pop culture isn’t always mine, and some of the celebrity cameos end up feeling a little strained. Overall, though, it’s crisp, warm-hearted, smart entertainment.

The book runs on affection – Johnny and Mayumi’s affection for each other, Chao’s affection for New York, and Chao’s affection for the sci-fi and fantasy tropes he folds into his stories. I’m still surprised (and disappointed) that this book didn’t survive in pamphlet form, but I’m thrilled that Chao and AdHouse provided a handsome collection of the published and unpublished issues of what was supposed to be a six-issue series.

(I periodically nominate something I’ve read for the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens list, and I did that with Johnny Hiro. Anyone can nominate a title here, provided they aren’t nominating their own work or something published by their employer.)

It’ll be here before you know it

March 5, 2009

It’s never too early to start thinking about next year’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens list. The first round of nominations has been posted at the Young Adult Library Services Association’s site, and this year’s chair, Eva Volin, notes that “anyone, as long as that person isn’t the creator or publisher of the work, can nominate a title for this list. The book needs to have been originally published between September 1, 2008 and December 31, 2009.” Here’s the form, so what are you waiting for?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to nominate Crogan’s Vengeance (Oni) before I forget.

From the comfort of my armchair

January 29, 2009

Over at Good Comics for Kids, Brigid Alverson has opened up discussion on the recently announced 2009 Great Graphic Novels for Teens list. Instead of clogging up the GC4K comments section, I’ll just jot down some of my impressions here:

It’s good to hear that the Young Adult Library Services Association will be expanding the creator credits. (Tom Spurgeon noted the shortcoming yesterday.) Now I’m thinking that I should always make a point of identifying the translators and adapters who work on manga when I write about it at length (as opposed to the kind of drive-by references that are to follow in this post), as they certainly play an essential creative role.

I agree with Dirk Deppey’s dismissal of Life Sucks (First Second). When I saw the list, I briefly toyed with the idea of re-reading the book to see if it was as slapdash and movie-pitch cynical as I remember, but I’d rather devote my time to reading books that might be good as opposed to re-evaluating ones that I already think are bad.

Normally, the inclusion of a Green Lantern comic written by Geoff Johns would make me scratch my head in bafflement, but I’ve seen so many unexpected people say nice things about the book that I might actually have to plop down with a copy at Barnes & Noble and see what all the fuss is about. I’m not so curious that I’d buy one, because Green Lantern always bored me to tears, and my memories of Johns will always be [Edited to note: incorrectly] defined by Identity Crisis and that issue of Avengers where Hank Pym went spelunking, but I’d browse the trades that made the list.

I think one of Brigid’s starter questions, “Why is there only one book from DC’s high-end teen imprint Minx on the list, when much-neglected CMX scored a number of hits?”, answers itself, though not in a particularly kindly manner for Minx, so I’ll just say that I’m happy for CMX, particularly Yuki Nakaji’s Venus in Love.

I love that Junji Ito’s Uzumaki (Viz) made the list. Older teens are still teens. And when you figure that teens are probably the primary audience for dreadful garbage like the Saw movie franchise, at least someone is trying to point them towards good violent horror.

Oh, how I love Osamu Tezuka’s Dororo (Vertical). I know it shouldn’t be, but it’s probably my favorite translated Tezuka manga.

I need to stop dragging my feet and get a copy of The War at Ellsmere (SLG) by Faith Erin Hicks.


January 28, 2009

The American Library Association’s Young Adult Library Services Association has released its 2009 Great Graphic Novels for Teens list, along with the Top Ten. The group recognized 53 titles total from 27 different publishers or imprints. The big winner was Viz, with 9 titles and 23 books recognized, though if you add up the entries from all of DC’s various imprints, it comes close with 9 titles and 14 books recognized. Viz dominated the Top Ten, with 3 titles earning recognition.

As usual, there’s a terrific breadth of material on display, from romance to biography to history mystery to super-heroes to slice-of-life to fantasy and so on. Here’s the breakdown of entries by publisher/imprint:

Viz: 9 titles, 23 books, 3 titles in the Top Ten

Marvel: 5 titles, 7 books

CMX: 3 titles, 6 books
Tokyopop: 3 titles, 4 books
Hill and Wang: 3 titles, 3 books
Image: 3 titles, 3 books

Go! Comi: 2 titles, 4 books, 1 title in the Top Ten
Vertical: 2 titles, 4 books
DC: 2 titles, 3 books
Yen Press: 2 titles, 3 books
Dark Horse Comics: 2 titles, 2 books, 1 title in the Top Ten
Vertigo: 2 titles, 2 books, 1 title in the Top Ten

DrMaster: 1 title, 2 books
Oni Press: 1 title, 2 books
Wildstorm: 1 title, 2 books
Cinco Puntos Press: 1 title, 1 book, 1 title in the Top Ten
First Second: 1 title, 1 book, 1 title in the Top Ten
Groundwood Books: 1 title, 1 book, 1 title in the Top Ten
Red Five Comics: 1 title, 1 book, 1 title in the Top Ten
Abstract Studio: 1 title, 1 book
Bloomsbury: 1 title, 1 book
Cellar Door: 1 title, 1 book
Graphix: 1 title, 1 book
Minx: 1 title, 1 book
Riverhead Trade: 1 title, 1 book
Slave Labor Graphics: 1 title, 1 book
Villard: 1 title, 1 book

And the nominees are…

December 2, 2008

The Young Adult Library Services Association has posted the final roster of nominees for the 2009 list of Great Graphic Novels for Teens. It’s a really eclectic list with wealth shared among a whole bunch of publishers and categories, so go take a look, and then we can start a pool on which books will make the final cut.

From the stack: Crogan’s Vengeance

November 25, 2008

It’s never easy to blend instruction or a morality play into an adventure narrative (or any kind of narrative), but someone at Oni Press has a knack for finding properties that do that well. James Vining’s First in Space and Scott Chantler’s Northwest Passage both managed to be simultaneously entertaining and educational, and now Chris Schweizer’s Crogan’s Vengeance pulls off the same trick.

When Eric Crogan gets into some minor, modern-day mischief, his father plucks a story from the family tree to reinforce the importance of making good choices in bad situations. Dad starts with “Catfoot” Crogan, a young sailor who found himself mixed up in piracy and politics in the very early 1700s.

Catfoot isn’t particularly ambitious, but he has a good skill set for seafaring. Too bad his unstable, sadistic captain takes an immediate loathing to the lad. When pirates set upon the ship, the crew is forced to choose between defending themselves (and almost certainly dying) or throwing in with their attackers. They choose the latter in the first of several junctions where Schweizer pits pragmatism against morality.

It’s both fortunate and unfortunate that Catfoot is a natural strategist. His plans put him in good stead with his new captain, but they inspire lethal jealousy from other superiors. And while Captain Cane would rather intimidate a ship into surrendering its cargo, he won’t scruple to murder an entire crew if they don’t play along. Cane has his own moral code about piracy, and while Catfoot isn’t persuaded by it, he knows it’s better than the bloodthirsty approach of Cane’s second-in-command, D’Or.

So what’s a basically decent quasi-pirate to do when Schweizer presents him with an even higher-stakes impasse? The fun is in finding out, and I won’t spoil it, but I will say that Schweizer has a real feel for the tone of morally murky subjects. His assessment of pirate life is frank (though not graphic) but not preachy or overstated. He never romanticizes the pirates’ criminality, but he acknowledges that degrees of depravity that can exist within a criminal subculture. And he argues persuasively that decency can survive in that subculture and emerge as something unique and purposeful.

It’s a great-looking book. Schweizer’s engaging, energetic cartoons keep the story moving along very nicely. There’s a lot of chatter, which is necessary if Schweizer is to describe the pirate milieu in a useful way, but varied page layouts and good pacing keep the talky bits from stalling the action. In fact, they’re an essential part of the action. Keith Wood’s design for the hard-cover presentation is very handsome, giving off a classic vibe that isn’t stodgy.

I suspect that it’s the kind of book librarians will love, sturdy, smart and snappy. Better still, Schweizer promises fifteen more looks into the sprawling Crogan clan, from explorers to escape artists to secret agents. (It would be nice if the Crogans had some noteworthy women on the family tree, but you can’t have everything.)

(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)