First Second – Read About Comics http://www.readaboutcomics.com Where to find out what's really good. Mon, 16 Nov 2015 17:36:55 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.5.10 Relish: My Life in the Kitchen http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2013/06/17/relish/ Mon, 17 Jun 2013 13:00:27 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=2456 By Lucy Knisley176 pages, colorPublished by First Second Books

When I read Lucy Knisley’s travel/food memoir French Milk back in 2009, I closed out the review by saying, "Knisley is definitely a creator to watch; she’s on her way towards greatness." You might think this is me leading up to gloating that I was completely [...]]]> By Lucy Knisley
176 pages, color
Published by First Second Books

When I read Lucy Knisley’s travel/food memoir French Milk back in 2009, I closed out the review by saying, "Knisley is definitely a creator to watch; she’s on her way towards greatness." You might think this is me leading up to gloating that I was completely right, that Knisley’s new memoir Relish: My Life in the Kitchen—a book about growing up around food—in fact proves that earlier prediction. As it turns out? I am. Relish is one of those charming books that delivers everything it promises and more.

Relish opens with Knisley explaining that many of her strongest memories involve how foods taste. It’s a smart introduction, one that preps you for what’s to come in Relish. As we move through her life, one that is shaped in no small part thanks to two parents who are obsessed with food, the continual circling back to what she was eating and cooking and serving at that time period makes much more sense. In many ways, Relish is less a series of autobiographical stories about Knisley, and more about Knisley serving up a series of love letters to the craft of cooking and the joy of eating. It’s a smart tactic, because even if you can’t immediately relate to Knisley’s slightly peculiar life, those who love food will instantly gravitate to the pages of Relish and their gentle descriptions of the joy that food’s brought to Knisley.

Some of the stories are exactly what you might expect; a chapter on being out on a farm, a story about the love that cookies can bring, or Knisley’s first time actually working within the food industry. Don’t get me wrong, all those stories are charming and they grabbed my attention quickly. But it’s some of the stories that you wouldn’t expect that jump out at you. It’s rare that you’ll find a food memoir that devotes a chapter to the main character gleefully eating McDonald’s food while on vacation in Italy, for example, and continuing to extol the virtues of their french fries years later. Also of particular note is Knisley’s story of going to a remote part of Mexico with her mother, her mother’s best friend, and two other kids and discovering that no one cares if young children try and buy pornographic magazines. There are still hints of a food memory in that particular chapter, but it’s the backpack full of porn (and to a lesser extent, Knisley’s discovery that she’s hit a new stage in puberty) that steals the show. It’s told with a pleasant level of whimsy and humor that reinforces Knisley’s power as a storyteller. She’s able to find ways to always make her stories relatable and welcoming; in many ways, Relish lets you feel like you’re part of the gang and in on the adventure with Knisley and company.

Knisley’s art is, in a word, adorable. There’s something about her gentle rounded lines, her wide-eyed expressions, and those soft colors that make every page something you’d want to hug. And yet, it’s hard to not be taken by Knisley’s visuals here, one that just never fail to charm the reader. It goes without saying that she spends an especially large amount of time focusing on the way that the food looks in her drawings. My favorite part of the art, though, are the chapter breaks where Knisley always presents a new recipe in a visual manner. Gleeful chocolate chip cookies with smiles and arms running across the page never fail to delight, and there’s something about a drawing as simple as pouring soy sauce over a leg of lamb that still can’t help but but make your mouth water. Knisley’s drawings aren’t just technically strong, they’re also dripping with emotion, and it’s that combination that makes the book sing.

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen is a love song to all things food. Everything from fresh milk being turned into butter, to a bowl of Lucky Charms is touched on here, and it’s that omnivorous appetite that solidifies Relish into a winner. I was already a fan of Knisley’s before reading Relish, but now I’m even more so. If Knisley’s name is part of the byline, I’ll buy it, no questions asked. Highly recommended.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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Sumo http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2012/10/15/sumo/ Mon, 15 Oct 2012 13:00:08 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=2406

By Thien Pham112 pages, colorPublished by First Second Books

Thien Pham is one of those creators whose comics I’ve seen in small doses here and there over the years, primarily in mini-comic form. So with the release of Sumo, his first graphic novel as both writer and artist, I was eager to see just [...]]]>

By Thien Pham
112 pages, color
Published by First Second Books

Thien Pham is one of those creators whose comics I’ve seen in small doses here and there over the years, primarily in mini-comic form. So with the release of Sumo, his first graphic novel as both writer and artist, I was eager to see just what he’d turn out. His minis have always been pleasing but short, and the expanded page count had the potential to deliver something quite interesting. As it turns out, Sumo is a book that uses its page length perfectly.

Pham tells the story of Scott, a former football player who’s moved to Japan to become a sumo wrestler. With his blonde hair died black and given the name Hakugei for wrestling, outwardly Scott’s made a complete transformation as part of his new career. But inwardly, Scott is still struggling with his confidence and the emotional fallout from a relationship gone bad. It’s a simple story but in many ways that’s part of Sumo‘s appeal.

Pham’s story jumps back and forth between the present day and flashbacks to two earlier times; before he left the United States, and soon after his arrival in Japan. At first each of the two flashback settings appear when Scott’s own viewpoint has temporarily ended—getting knocked out during a practice, or taking a nap—but the second time through they act more as scene breaks. It’s a lot to be said for Pham that both methods work quite well; the early transitions ease the reader into the shift, the later ones just return when it feels natural to pick up with more information about those earlier times (and the relationships that ended and began for Scott). Pham makes sure his readers don’t get lost by performing a color shift on those pages; instead of the black-and-orange of the present day, we get black-and-blue for the US and black-and-green for Japan. It’s a simple but visually pleasing way to show the change in setting, and Pham uses it masterfully as part of the climax later in the comic.

The art in Sumo is very straightforward. Pham draws with just a handful of lines, and it’s a decision that feels absolutely right for this story. An over-rendered Sumo would take away from the quiet mood of the book, and he’s able to still bring across all the emotional heft of the story through his characters and their expressions. The motion is great; not just in the match, but also bits like the flick of a fishing line across the air that arcs across the page perfectly. I found myself entranced at times with some of the little details of the story, like how the lowest-ranked sumo trainees are the ones responsible for the food, or how Scott promptly had his hair dyed upon entering the school. Those are all moments that don’t draw any real attention to themselves (besides occurring), but in which you drink in the details through the art. The world of the sumo wrestler trainee is a foreign one to most Western audiences, and while reading Sumo isn’t a primer (and isn’t meant to be), it still gives you a glimpse into this new world. Even the lettering is handled gracefully, with just enough of a balloon rendered as you need for each individual panel and page.

What struck me the most about Sumo was the simple elegance of the graphic novel. It’s a quiet story that quietly builds to a crescendo; similar to the way that sumo wrestlers circle one another at first, Sumo does an almost graceful dance around the conclusion. You know that it’s all coming to a head when the match hits, and sure enough, that’s when everything comes fast and curious. Flashbacks hit left and right, Scott is losing chances to get that win he needs to stay in the program, and then that final moment appears… and the reader is left to slowly exhale. With the final pages providing a simple but beautiful closing image, it helped cement Sumo to me as a real gem. Whatever Pham’s next project is, I’m already lined up as a reader. Nicely done.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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Anya’s Ghost http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2012/07/02/anyas-ghost/ http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2012/07/02/anyas-ghost/#comments Mon, 02 Jul 2012 13:00:18 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=2319 By Vera Brosgol224 pages, two-colorPublished by First Second Books

With a lot of young-adult oriented books and graphic novels, you know exactly how they’re going to turn out as soon as you start reading. Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost deliberately flouts that predictability, thankfully; it’s a book that not only doesn’t treat its readers as stupid, [...]]]> By Vera Brosgol
224 pages, two-color
Published by First Second Books

With a lot of young-adult oriented books and graphic novels, you know exactly how they’re going to turn out as soon as you start reading. Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost deliberately flouts that predictability, thankfully; it’s a book that not only doesn’t treat its readers as stupid, but delights in providing logical yet surprising turns of events from start to finish, resulting in a graphic novel that entertains on a continual basis.

What struck me early on about Anya’s Ghost is that Brosgol seems to have almost drawn out an initial plot in a straight line, then created the narrative for Anya’s Ghost by zooming off in as many other directions as possible. As the story builds—meeting Anya and learning about her outsider status, her falling into a well and discovering a ghost inside, her eventual return to school with said ghost—there are numerous moments where it would be easy to go with a "safe" story. The ghost could become her best friend. Anya could spend the entire book inside the well. Anya at the end of the book could be the new most popular girl in school. Instead, though, Brosgol gives us something far more interesting, by showing us what really lies beneath the facade of each character inside Anya’s Ghost.

To me, that’s part of what can make a young adult graphic novel effective; rather than bash us over the head with a message, Brosgol shows but doesn’t tell. She leaves it to her readers with each revelation to put the mounting evidence together, that those whom Anya originally disses might not be so bad, while those that initially seem to be great are hiding something else. The best part in that realm is when Brosgol pulls the curtain off from the character of Elizabeth. It would be easy to bring her down by showing her to be a horrible person, but Brosgol doesn’t go for something so simplistic. Instead we get a much worse secret that she’s hiding, and it ultimately makes her a sympathetic (if slightly pathetic) character. In many ways Elizabeth is a warning for the route that Anya’s been encouraged to go down, and it’s a great way to make Anya’s Ghost interesting for all ages of readers. I suspect the older you are, the more of Brosgol’s subtleties you’ll notice.

As for the rest of Anya’s Ghost, I like how it manages to juggle multiple genres and moods. It’s a little bit of a horror, a little bit high school drama, a little bit family drama. None of the pieces ever overwhelm the book, but instead they all work together into a strong, unified whole. Even the weakest part of the book—the slightly stereotypical mother—has so much heart that it’s hard to stay annoyed with the character. And when the horror part of the story takes center stage, Brosgol makes it quite compelling. Anya’s plunge down the well is terrifying, and the big showdown at the end of the book has a great deal of tension. It helps that Brosgol’s art is so appealing; it’s a smooth, clean line and reminds of creators like Kean Soo. She’s able to bring so much to every panel—terror, excitement, attraction, rage—with a single expression. The motion in this book is great, too. Anya falling down the well is an obvious choice, but even little moments like Anya flipping the food into the air and onto the ground is perfect; you can see the arc of every single piece of food’s travel through the air, and it’s perfectly paced.

Anya’s Ghost may have come out a year ago, but it’s just as good now as it was then. My only regret is that it took me this long to finally read it. Brosgol’s an amazing talent, and I’m already more than ready for whatever follow-up we get next. Highly recommended.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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Marathon http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2012/06/08/marathon/ Fri, 08 Jun 2012 13:00:15 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=2297 Written by Boaz YakinArt by Joe Infurnari192 pages, sepia-tonePublished by First Second Books

It’s no secret that I’ve been a distance-runner for a little over a decade; I ran my first marathon in 2001, and have run 11 of the events (plus numerous half-marathons and shorter distance races, and more recently a handful of triathlons). [...]]]> Written by Boaz Yakin
Art by Joe Infurnari
192 pages, sepia-tone
Published by First Second Books

It’s no secret that I’ve been a distance-runner for a little over a decade; I ran my first marathon in 2001, and have run 11 of the events (plus numerous half-marathons and shorter distance races, and more recently a handful of triathlons). A comic about the origin of the marathon, as a result, should be the ultimate attraction to me as it mixes two of my obsessions. What I found in Marathon by Boaz Yakin and Joe Infurnari, though, was a graphic novel where one of the creators does all of the heavy lifting.

Marathon takes a classic story about the origin of the run from Marathon to Athens, one involving a runner named Eucles. While most people are more familiar with someone named Pheidippides, there’s debate on what his name was, depending on the historical document, and Yakin goes for the less-common Eucles. (There’s also some confusion, once again based on which document you read, on where exactly the messenger ran.) Here, though, Eucles first runs to Sparta to ask for assistance in stopping the Persian army, then heads from there to the battle of Marathon, and finally back to Athens; in the process, clocking over 300 miles.

And when it comes to running, trust me when I say that Infurnari is a great artist to tackle this graphic novel. I love what he does with his style here; it’s quite different than where I first encountered his drawings with Borrowed Time, but it’s no less enthralling. It’s a loose, almost jagged style here, light on backgrounds but heavy on detail. At a glance you might almost think that Marathon is a collection of sketches (once you look close you’ll realize just how much time and detail was put into Infurnari’s drawings), and I think that’s absolutely the right approach to take. Marathon is supposed to be a fast-paced book for most of its pages, and that frantic, dashed off look helps bring that idea to life. No matter what the writing is doing, Infurnari brings to mind the idea of a ticking clock; short of putting one in the corner like the television show 24, there’s no way Infurnari could have kept that ever-increasing deadline out of our mind. Eucles and company run and climb in ways that make you feel almost like you’re along side them, encouraging them on, and Marathon ends up looking quite handsome.

Unfortunately, Yakin’s script does not live up to the art that illustrates it. Yakin has written both comics and movies, but if I didn’t know better based on Marathon I’d have assumed it was only the latter. Marathon‘s script has to me all the hallmarks of a movie pitch; the wife of Eucles who waits for him to come home because they want to have a baby, the personal grudge that Eucles and enemy general Hippias carry for one another, or the way that the run from Marathon to Athens starts with a larger group that then has to go through multiple obstacles and attackers as the numbers get whittled down to just Eucles running on his own. It’s cheesy and full of cliché, and over and over again I found myself groaning. The initial point of no return is probably when Eucles’ wife has her own mini-run across the city in a moment that’s no doubt meant to be both inspiring and emblematic of Eucles’ own run, but instead feels forced and tacky. Instead of making Marathon full of rich characters alongside Eucles—something that I don’t think was necessary—it instead feels cheap and populated with stereotypes. Yakin’s had good scripts written in the past, but Marathon isn’t among that number.

Ultimately, when reading Marathon if you skim over the words and just focus on Infurnari’s art, you’ll be quite pleased. It’s a beautifully drawn book, and it’s a reminder to me that Infurnari is one of those comic artists whom I’ve always felt deserved a lot more attention. There’s no doubt in my mind that one day he will be a comic book superstar. Unfortunately, even though Infurnari is by far the hero of Marathon, I don’t think it’s going to be from this graphic novel. It looks fantastic, but the script just never quite gets there.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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Bloody Chester http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2012/05/23/bloody-chester/ Wed, 23 May 2012 13:00:40 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=2283 Written by J.T. PettyArt by Hilary Florido160 pages, colorPublished by First Second

One of the things that I appreciate about First Second’s graphic novel line is that they don’t seem to ever confine themselves to one specific genre or mood. It means that there’s room for books like Bloody Chester by J.T. Petty and Hilary [...]]]> Written by J.T. Petty
Art by Hilary Florido
160 pages, color
Published by First Second

One of the things that I appreciate about First Second’s graphic novel line is that they don’t seem to ever confine themselves to one specific genre or mood. It means that there’s room for books like Bloody Chester by J.T. Petty and Hilary Florido, a Western about a teen who agrees to go on a mission to burn down an abandoned town in order to break free from his tormentors, but finds just as many problems at his destination. It’s an odd little book, but one that grew on me the more I thought about it.

J.T. Petty’s plot for Bloody Chester is one that seems simple at first; Chester heads out to burn down a town so the ever-expanding railroad can place its tracks there, only to find that there are still three people living inside the town itself that refuse to leave. It’s a familiar plot that we’ve seen in all sorts of different mediums, and at first it’s straightforward. Chester has to convince them to leave before he torches the place, conflict ensues. But as Petty brings us deeper into Bloody Chester, the book starts turning in directions that aren’t lining up with expectations. There’s a plague that may or may not be real, mysterious deaths, and a fourth person hiding up in the mountains that might be hiding a treasure. And at the center of it all is Chester.

Chester is the character that entire plot rotates around, and he’s a bit of a mess. I don’t mean that in terms of Petty having problems with the character, but rather that Chester himself is in many ways one bad day from a complete and utter breakdown. We can see hints of this in the first pages of the book, as he takes physical and mental abuse from the other settlers in the town. It’s honestly more than a little disturbing to read those first ten pages, as he gets trounced, gets back to his feet, and then a few minutes later takes even more abuse. Heading out to burn down the supposedly abandoned town appears to be the first real break that he’s experienced, but even that turns out to be more trouble than originally promised. A lot of that has to do with his relationship with Caroline. I appreciated that this is anything but a typical love story; there’s certainly attraction on Chester’s part towards Caroline, but this isn’t simply a matter of there being friction between the two. Instead we get concrete disagreements on what the best plan of action is, and as a result their interactions become much more real and less of a fairy tale progression of events.

Florido’s art in Bloody Chester is clean cut with a rough film over it, in many ways the perfect description of Chester himself. I like Florido’s pages here; they’ve got a jagged edge with strong storytelling techniques from page to page. The early pages where Chester’s being tormented by the townspeople are strong in part because of the way that Florido draws Chester; his filthy clothes, that determined and dark look on his face, and horrible smiles on the part of everyone else as they seem him in his plight and refuse to help. Florido brings a lot of Petty’s script to life in ways that mean that Petty doesn’t need to use words to bring the ideas across. The final big sequence upon the rooftop in particular is powerful because of how much is left unsaid, both by Chester and the Indians down below. It’s a heart-stopping way to wrap up the book, and it’s a scene that stuck with me some time after I’d gotten to the last page.

Bloody Chester is an odd book that’s hard to categorize. It’s grim with no easy answers, and when the conclusion hits there are parts that are left deliberately up in the air, hanging overhead the characters. It’s hard to say who, if anyone, "won" when Bloody Chester ends, but perhaps that’s part of the point. Those looking for a cheerful book should probably go elsewhere (although the cover alone probably can warn them away). Those looking for something a little darker, though, will probably appreciate the skill and thought that goes into Bloody Chester.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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Moon Moth http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2012/03/30/moon-moth/ Fri, 30 Mar 2012 13:00:46 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=2194 Original short story by Jack VanceAdapted by Humayoun Ibrahim128 pages, colorPublished by First Second Books

Jack Vance is one of those authors who’s been successful in multiple genres (science-fiction, mystery, fantasy, autobiography) and doesn’t get half of the attention he deserves. With so much material published (there’s a 45-volume "integral edition" of his works out [...]]]> Original short story by Jack Vance
Adapted by Humayoun Ibrahim
128 pages, color
Published by First Second Books

Jack Vance is one of those authors who’s been successful in multiple genres (science-fiction, mystery, fantasy, autobiography) and doesn’t get half of the attention he deserves. With so much material published (there’s a 45-volume "integral edition" of his works out there, by way of example) it’s easy to have not read even a fraction of Vance’s writings, so hopefully The Moon Moth will help introduce a new audience to this author’s works. The original novella that The Moon Moth adapts was published half a century ago, but it says a lot about both Vance and adaptor Humayoun Ibrahim that it still feels fresh and original even now.

Ibrahim quickly introduces us to the main character of Edwer Thissell, a human on the planet Sirene. A consular representative, Thissell is in way over his head on Sirene. Everyone there wears masks that help determine rank and social standing, and you sing rather than speak to one another, accompanied on one of a dozen different musical instruments, each of which has a specific purpose and social situation. It’s a confusing-at-best society, one that Thissell’s floundering in. Then, add a murderer that Thissell has to track down, but could be anyone thanks to the masks that are always worn, and things are rapidly shifting from bad to worse.

Having never read the original short story before, I found myself pleasantly surprised with how well The Moon Moth read as a graphic novel. So often the transition from prose to sequential art feels like you’re only getting half of a story, but Ibrahim has a deft hand in not making the reader feel lost. Ibrahim makes a lot of good decisions early on in his adaptation; the first thing we get, for example, is a two-page spread detailing eleven different instruments, giving their names and for many their social purpose. Because music is such an important part of The Moon Moth, this key early on helps guide us through what could otherwise be confusing. Ibrahim also assigns each instrument a specific visual for word balloons for the accompanying singing. It’s a clever way to bring something across to the reader in a visual manner that could have easily been clunky. You instantly understand when someone’s singing versus talking, and the shifting from one instrument to the next can be done without having to have characters hold up instruments or draw attention to them when the visual should be focusing on something else. And of course, The Moon Moth‘s usage of masks comes across effortlessly in a visual format; it’s the obvious easy transition from prose to illustration, but Ibrahim doesn’t take it for granted, designing each mask to look as extravagant or humble as the societal position that it’s supposed to designate.

The story itself in The Moon Moth is clever, telling a murder mystery on a world where everyone is in disguise. Vance and Ibrahim bring across the hopeless nature of Thissell’s task quickly, and watching him fumble through the process is entertaining in part because most of the roadblocks are ones created by Thissell himself. The resolution of how Thissell finds the murderer is a little underwhelming, but I think that’s because the interesting part is not in how Thissell finds the killer, but rather what happens next. The Moon Moth wraps everything up in such a satisfying manner—one that is foreshadowed yet still took me by surprise—that it was hard to keep from clapping with glee as it all fit together perfectly.

Ibrahim’s art in general is good, moving from one scene to the next in a careful manner. I like the clothing and masks that Ibrahim drapes the world of Sirene in, and as mentioned before, the word balloon borders are truly inspired. As much as I love the balloon borders, though, I do wish that someone else had done the actual lettering within them. The letters sometimes look a bit fuzzy and weak, and it occasionally distracts from all of the care that Ibrahim put in throughout the book. Still, it’s a minor flaw in an otherwise impressive adaptation.

Carlo Rotella from Boston College writes an introduction to The Moon Moth explaining the significance and stature of Vance, but after reading The Moon Moth I feel like readers will understand already that Vance is an excellent writer. This is a great introduction to Vance’s writing, and it’s making me want to deviate off of my planned reading list to explore some of Vance’s other works that I’ve yet to get around to. The Moon Moth might be Ibrahim’s first graphic novel, but I hope it’s not his last; he showed great skill in adapting Vance’s story, and I’m curious to see what he’ll do next.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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Baby’s in Black http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2012/03/23/babys-in-black/ http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2012/03/23/babys-in-black/#comments Fri, 23 Mar 2012 13:00:49 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=2196 By Arne Bellstorf208 pages, black and whitePublished by First Second Books

I’ll admit that before reading Baby’s in Black: Astrid Kirchherr, Stuart Sutcliffe, and The Beatles, I knew remarkably little about Stuart Sutcliffe, one of the early members of the Beatles. So it was with that in mind that I was eager to read Arne [...]]]> By Arne Bellstorf
208 pages, black and white
Published by First Second Books

I’ll admit that before reading Baby’s in Black: Astrid Kirchherr, Stuart Sutcliffe, and The Beatles, I knew remarkably little about Stuart Sutcliffe, one of the early members of the Beatles. So it was with that in mind that I was eager to read Arne Bellstorf’s biography of Sutcliffe and photographer Astrid Kirchherr’s life together, a glimpse into the early days when the Beatles were a five-piece band and playing in Germany. What I found was a book that answered a lot of questions, but ultimately left me feeling a little frustrated by what I had and hadn’t learned.

Despite the subtitle of Baby’s in Black, one thing should be made immediately clear: this isn’t a book about the Beatles, it’s about Kirchherr and Sutcliffe. Sure, the other members of the Beatles appear, but they’re at best secondary characters and bordering on background. (Pete Best is so rarely even mentioned that initially I found myself wondering if Best had even joined the band yet.) Once you get past that, though, you’ve got a charming love story, told from Kirchherr’s point of view. Because Baby’s in Black is exclusively from Kirchherr’s side, the book delves deep into her head about her confusion and attraction when it comes to Sutcliffe, as she tries to figure out who exactly this British rocker is. Bellstorf gets across how quickly Kirchherr falls for Sutcliffe, and I think that’s probably the most effective part of the book.

Despite the fact that Baby’s in Black takes place over just a few years, though, the book comes across as feeling compressed and truncated in parts. Kirchherr is probably best known for her photographing the group during the A Hard Day’s Night shoot, but that’s nowhere in the book. Even the one photography session she does with the band is glossed over, relegated to just a couple of pages and then quickly sliding past it. Doing some research it’s made clear that Kirchherr always preferred to be thought of as a friend of the Beatles rather than someone who had strictly a business relationship with them, and Bellstorf’s glossing over that aspect seems to be a direct result. But even then, it’s hard to feel Kirchherr’s relationship with anyone but Sutcliffe in Baby’s in Black; Lennon at least has a minor role, but the other members are in so little of the book that it feels a little disingenuous to even have Lennon and McCartney’s portraits on the cover. (At least Harrison and Best don’t appear there, because they’re at a "blink-and-you’ll-miss-them" level of involvement.) I feel like Baby’s in Black is only telling half of a story, and it’s frustrating because I’d have liked to see Bellstorf’s take on the rest of Kirchherr’s connection with the Beatles.

Bellstorf’s art in Baby’s in Black is drawn in soft, almost fuzzy lines. It’s an attractive initial look, reminding me of charcoal sketches but with just a tad more clarity. I love the shading that he applies to his art; instead of completely filling in his blacks, he leaves them at about 90%, with little peeks of white sneaking through the textured look. On the down side, a lot of the characters look awfully similar to one another in Baby’s in Black. There are some exceptions—Lennon in particular never looks like anyone but himself—but I feel like Bellstorf has a limited number of facial features that he can draw. Everyone except for Lennon has the same nose, for instance, and eyebrows are always thick and busy or pencil thin, with no in-betweens. Fortunately there isn’t a large cast for Baby’s in Black, but even then I felt like a little more differentiation would have been nice. Still, when it comes to backgrounds and setting the scene for Baby’s in Black, Bellstorf does a great job; I really felt like I was getting a small tour of Hamburg through the illustrations.

Baby’s in Black is ultimately a good book that I wish had been great. It’s got a good core story, but it left me wanting a lot more detail and information that wasn’t present. I feel like Bellstorf stuck rigidly to the one aspect of the Beatles’ time in Germany that he wanted to tell a story about (Kirchherr’s and Sutcliffe’s relationship), but even that gets skimmed over in places, especially towards the end. It’s a good start if you’re interested in the early days of the Beatles, but I can’t help but feel like it’s best looked at as a stepping stone to larger, more robust books on the subject. It’s good for what it is, though, and I’m definitely glad I read it.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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The Silence of Our Friends http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2012/03/05/the-silence-of-our-friends/ Mon, 05 Mar 2012 14:00:04 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=2164 Written by Mark Long and Jim DemonakosArt by Nate Powell208 pages, black and whitePublished by First Second Books

The retelling of events that you personally lived through is harder than it looks. Being there for what happened will automatically have a greater impact than hearing about it afterwards, and trying to bring that emotional connection [...]]]> Written by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos
Art by Nate Powell
208 pages, black and white
Published by First Second Books

The retelling of events that you personally lived through is harder than it looks. Being there for what happened will automatically have a greater impact than hearing about it afterwards, and trying to bring that emotional connection to a wider audience can be difficult. The Silence of Our Friends is based on Mark Long’s childhood in 1968 Houston, and the end result is an interesting story, but one that isn’t quite as engaging as I suspect it was for Long.

Long and co-author Jim Demonakos introduce us to a Houston that is racially divided on a grand scale. There’s no interactions between people of different skin colors, and to even talk about it is anathema. There’s a sequence early on where parents Jim and Patricia Long find themselves a little disturbed by the language their children use to describe African-American people, noting that it wasn’t like that when they’d lived in San Antonio. This is a time when people are openly distributing flyers for KKK rallies, and segregation is alive and well. It’s this aspect of The Silence of Our Friends that is probably the strongest in terms of the writing; it’s easy to feel the tension and general nastiness that hangs over the area.

Once the basic set-up is established, though, it’s hard to relate to either the Long family, or African-American professor Larry Thompson. The book goes through the motions of showing Jim and Larry’s slightly rocky relationship, but I never felt like I truly knew either of them, or felt like they were people that I personally was dying to see succeed. Obviously you want the racial tensions to go away and for Larry and Jim to get through the bad situation unscathed, but it’s in a slightly distant manner. This feels more like you’re watching a newscast about the main characters, rather than a documentary where you learn a lot about the people involved and learn to care about them. It’s frustrating, because the parts of the book where it feels slightly more human—seeing young Mark, Michelle, and Julie interact with the world around them—in some ways illustrates how much less developed Larry and Jim feel. Their reactions at times feel almost random because we haven’t gotten inside their heads or hearts the way that we do the children, and so while I was able to ultimately appreciate the story and this bit of history that few have heard of, I found myself just liking rather than loving the script.

More successful from start to finish is Nate Powell’s art. I’ve enjoyed his art on graphic novels like Swallow Me Whole and Any Empire, and he’s just as strong here. The kids in particular are remarkably expressive, and I love the way that we first meet Mark and Michelle; the way that Michelle is being tugged on by Mark as she tries to tell on him has an energy about it that feels remarkably real. The adults look good too, and scenes like the riot or the police station have a great level of detail and variety in how the people look. In many ways, I think it’s Powell’s art that transports you to 1968 Houston, providing us with the visuals to help fill in the gaps.

The Silence of Our Friends is a good book that I wish had been a great book. It ultimately couldn’t draw me into the story as much as I feel it needed to, and while I’m glad and pleased that I read it, it’s a book that won’t be as memorable as other biographical/historical comics I’ve read over the years. Still, it’s a nice debut from Long and Demonakos, and Powell’s art is as great as ever. If this trio ever worked on a second graphic novel, I’d be interested to see what they’ve learned from this and where they went from here. This is good for those interested in the struggle for racial equality, but it doesn’t hold as much of a universal appeal as it could have.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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Friends With Boys http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2012/02/06/friends-with-boys/ Mon, 06 Feb 2012 14:00:56 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=2123 By Faith Erin Hicks224 pages, black and whitePublished by First Second Books

I think most comic book readers have at least one creator whose works they’ve kept meaning to try out, but never gotten around to. Some of us even have lists; one of the people on mine for a while now has been Faith [...]]]> By Faith Erin Hicks
224 pages, black and white
Published by First Second Books

I think most comic book readers have at least one creator whose works they’ve kept meaning to try out, but never gotten around to. Some of us even have lists; one of the people on mine for a while now has been Faith Erin Hicks. I’ve heard good things about her past books (writing and drawing Zombies Calling and The War at Ellsmere, and illustrating Brain Camp), and so with Friends With Boys due to be released just around the corner, now seemed a good a time as any to finally give Hicks a whirl. Fortunately, this is one of those situations where it was worth the wait.

Friends With Boys is a slightly odd book when you stop to think about it. On the surface, it’s got two different stories going on. There’s our main character Maggie, who after being home schooled for her mother for eight years, is about to enter high school where the only people she knows are her three older brothers. If that’s not bad enough, the only woman in her life (her mother) has just abandoned the family and gone to parts unknown. Meanwhile, there’s a secondary storyline, involving Maggie being haunted by a ghost from the local cemetery. And at a glance, the two really don’t have that much in common.

I think it was once I hit the halfway point of Friends With Boys that it hit me that this wasn’t a book with two major stories; rather, it’s a book with one story about Maggie trying to find her way in the world, and that some of the finer details (like the ghost in the cemetery) are just that. Looking at it on that level helps focus the book; it makes Maggie’s struggles to fit into high school and her budding friendship with Lucy and Alistair more interesting once you stop waiting for it to get sidelined by the ghost. That’s not to say that the part involving the ghost doesn’t intersect with the rest of the book, but it’s not a primary thrust of the overall story. And at that point, I felt like the book really began to sing. Alistair recounting how he shifted from being part of the cool kids to an outcast is a great anecdote in its own right, but Hicks tells it with such emotion that it feels like you’re actually living the moment through Alistair. It’s the part in the book where you’ll start caring about Alistair, too; in recounting his greatest betrayal of Lucy and his attempts since then to make it up to her, it shows a shift in conscience that you’ll wish more people in real life could have, too.

Maggie herself, though, is the star of Friends With Boys and I think Hicks makes her a likable main character. In some ways she initially reminded me a bit of Sarah Oleksyk’s protagonist from Ivy, but the big difference between Maggie and Ivy is that Maggie manages to make the right decisions in life. She stands up for herself, but privately admits her fears and indecision even while she puts on a good game face in public. And when the story with the ghost shows back up, to me it becomes important in that we see how Maggie has grown throughout Friends With Boys; she’s shifted from running away from or trying to ignore the ghost, to actively trying to address its presence and try to put it to rest. The rest of the supporting cast of Friends With Boys pale a bit in comparison to Maggie and Alistair; twin brothers Lloyd and Zander in particular feel a tiny bit underdeveloped for when they’re suddenly involved in the resolution, but ultimately I’d rather have had more pages of Maggie and Alistair than giving some of that space away for their own plot.

Hicks’ art is that slightly blocky, stripped down style that’s been on the rise in the last decade, and it looks great here. Right off the bat Hicks establishes her style when we see Daniel dragging brothers Lloyd and Zander across the hallway; it’s a little silly, a little cartoonish, and a lot of fun. It’s Maggie’s run through the cemetery, though, that helps solidify what’s good about Hicks’ art. She packs a lot of emotion into her art; not just in the expressions on people’s faces (which are lively and help nail the tenor of a scene), but even in the backgrounds. You get just the right mood looking at the tilted headstones, or the nearby homes. It helps you get a sense of the kind of neighborhood we’re looking at, and the world in which Maggie lives.

Friends With Boys is a coming-of-age story where the main character deals with both the very real (bullies and cliques) and the fantastical (being haunted by a ghost), and deals with them all with equal aplomb. It’s a charming little story that carries just the right emotional wallop when you’re least expecting it. The charm is good for the overall impression, but it’s those emotional gut punches that make me want to read more from Hicks. She’s definitely a cartoonist whose comics I should have read sooner. I won’t make that mistake again.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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Feynman http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2011/10/26/feynman/ Wed, 26 Oct 2011 13:00:00 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=1917 Written by Jim OttavianiArt by Leland Myrick272 pages, colorPublished by First Second Books

I’ll admit right off the bat that I had no idea who Richard Feynman was a month ago. Feynman tells the story of the Nobel Prize winning physicist who not only worked on the Manhattan Project but had a lot to do [...]]]> Written by Jim Ottaviani
Art by Leland Myrick
272 pages, color
Published by First Second Books

I’ll admit right off the bat that I had no idea who Richard Feynman was a month ago. Feynman tells the story of the Nobel Prize winning physicist who not only worked on the Manhattan Project but had a lot to do with quantum electrodynamics and was kind of a big deal. This hardly sells the idea of reading a biography of the man, though. More importantly, Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick’s book tells the story of an eccentric genius who was one of the odder people you’d meet, and in a good way. Reading Feynman did what few other books about scientists have done for me; it made me think, "I wish I’d met this guy."

From the moment we meet Feynman here, you can tell he’s a very different kind of guy. Ottaviani opens the book with a lecture Feynman is giving to college students, and as he throws away the idea that all physics work similarly (and that the theory is due to most physicists having a limited amount of imagination), he’s swinging a bowling ball back and forth across the stage, narrowly avoiding being hit. Showy? At a glance, yes. But as you start reading more and more of Feynman, you rapidly realize that it’s not a show. This is how the man’s brain operates; swinging a bowling ball while calling your peers unimaginative is par for the course for Feynman, and that’s part of what makes him such an entertaining subject to read about.

Feynman’s two autobiographies were reportedly told slightly out of order, and Ottaviani replicates that feel in his book about the man. While it primarily moves from childhood to near the end of his life, Ottaviani skips around on occasion, telling the story in an almost conversational manner. Scenes are short and jump to somewhere else with no warning, often in the middle of a page. It took me a little bit of time to get used to this less-structured storytelling, but it was around a quarter of the way through the book it suddenly clicked that Ottaviani was writing Feynman in the same manner that Feynman’s own brain worked, leaping from topic to topic with no warning.

Ottaviani tells not only of Feynman’s great discoveries and moments in life—working on the atomic bomb, solving the mystery behind the Challenger space shuttle disaster, revolutionizing physics—but of his more quirky moments. Sure, some of them cast him merely as a goofball, like how Feynman figured out a way to crack 1940s safes while working on the atomic bomb, until finally the military ordered that if Feynman visited your office, you had to change the combination of your safe. But this is also a book which brings up how Feynman would maneuver himself into long "working" vacations that involved hanging out on the beach, or the fact that he was a major horndog. It’s not digging up any dirt, since Feynman himself included these moments in his autobiographies. But more importantly, Ottaviani by choosing to include them (since obviously much would have to be left out) helps present a more well-rounded portrait of this strange man, and in doing so helps explain to us why he’s such a fascinating person as not only a scientist but as an individual.

Myrick’s art is light and fun, similar to Feynman himself. It’s a simple style, a squiggle of lines to create an entire person. With its bright colors that pop off the page, there’s a certain sense of joy that radiates from the graphic novel. In later parts of the book, Myrick pulls off some nice tricks with form too, like creating people out of a series of 1s and 0s, or illustrating a great deal of Feynman’s diagrams. The one thing I found a little frustrating at times is that Myrick has a limited number of faces that he draws; there are far too many times where I found myself looking for hair style or color to tell characters apart. Fortunately, then I’d turn the page and he’d have little autumn leaves wafting down in the middle of a scene, and I’d be enchanted by the art all over again.

Feynman is a fun book, that rare sort of biography where even if you have no interest in the subject, it will ultimately draw you in through sheer fun. For a person that I’d never heard of before, I’m totally taken by Feynman thanks to Ottaviani and Myrick. Ottaviani’s always been someone who keep an eye on with his books on scientists, and this is another reminder of how he’s managed to carve a name for himself in the comics industry. Definitely check it out.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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