The Sigh

By Marjane Satrapi
56 pages, color
Published by Archaia

It would be a reasonable assumption to feel that Marjane Satrapi’s new book, The Sigh, is a comic. After all, she’s best known for her comic Persepolis (which was created into an excellent animated film), and has continued to work in that medium since then. The Sigh is an illustrated story book, though, showcasing her drawings but pairing it with prose instead of panels and sequential art storytelling. It’s a charming book, though, one that mixes elements from several different familiar fairy tales and turns them into a greater whole. The Sigh borrows the most from Beauty and the Beast, with the merchant promising to bring back presents for his daughter, and the mysterious castle with the secretive person inside. Almost immediately things change, though; Satrapi gives Rose (the Belle stand-in) an interest in botany as part of her request for a gift, and one gets the impression that this is going to be a smarter and slightly more daring take on the story.

As the book progresses, Satrapi throws in several curveballs that will no doubt surprise readers. In particular, there’s a casual attitude to slavery that might throw Western audiences for a loop, even as subtly reminds them that this is a book born not only out of fairy tales that we grew up with, but ones that Satrapi did as well. The Sigh becomes episodic in nature for the second half, but it’s to Satrapi’s credit that she also keeps it from going on for too long; by the time you see the pattern forming, she’s cut it off at the knees and moved on to the conclusion. Readers might be a little disappointed to not get a full graphic novel from Satrapi, but her art is still soft and charming—at times it looks almost like it was (expertly) drawn in crayons, which helps the fairy tale nature of the book—and in the end it’s satisfying in its own right. Satrapi takes the familiar and makes it just unfamiliar enough that it will have your attention from start to finish.

Purchase Links: | Powell’s Books


By Natsume Ono
248 pages, black and white
Published by Viz

Natsume Ono is a comic creator who, much to her credit, has no problem leaping from one subject to the next; one minute it’s samurai stories like House of Five Leaves, the next it’s romantic drama at a restaurant, or a young man trying to figure out questions of family and identity. I was delighted as a result to find out about Tesoro, a collection of Ono’s short stories. In doing so I found confirmation that while the plots are often different, there are definitely some threads that run through her works.

Ono writes a lot about loss and family. Missing parents are often elements in these shorts, and it’s to Ono’s credit that each character feels different in their own way, no matter what they’re going through similar to ones in different stories. Even when there’s no particular loss, like in "Froom Family," Ono still understands the hold that family members have on one another; there’s no way that young Nils could get the same amount of anguish from people that weren’t his sisters, able to get under his skin just so. Italy also crops up several times here, a favorite setting of Ono’s, but she often uses it as little more than a backdrop. Ono’s enchantment and fascination with the country none the less rubs off on the reader; I’d have expected to start groaning, "Oh no, not another story set in Italy" but instead I found myself hoping for one more glimpse. My favorite piece in the book, though, is probably "Three Short Stories About Bento." The three stories have little connection other than being about the Japanese lunch boxes, but each of them managed to both give a glimpse into Japanese culture and also bring their characters to life better than some full-length books I’ve read. Add in Ono’s trademark scratchy, loose-lined style, and you end up with a charming sampler from Ono. With 14 stories, even if you (like myself) find a small number to not quite be up to par, there’s more than enough here to keep you entertained for quite some time.

Purchase Links: | Powell’s Books

Bubbles & Gondola

By Renaud Dillies
80 pages, color
Published by NBM

Bubbles & Gondola is one of those graphic novels that fakes you out right from its cover, and never lets up in that sense until the book is over. Between the title and the glimpse of art, this looks to be an adorable (possibly children’s) book about a little mouse, perhaps named Bubbles or Gondola, and his exciting adventures. Readers might be a little startled, then, to instead find a graphic novel about a mouse named Charlie suffering from loneliness and depression while working as writer. Fortunately, once you get past the surprise, it’s a rather nice book.

There’s all sorts of imagery packed into Bubbles & Gondola, from the bird named Solitude that only Charlie the Mouse can see, to a climax at a masked-parade à la Carnival. Renaud Dillies, though, never lets up or stops impressing you as a reader. Some of the illustrations, like Charlie zooming on a little boat across the moon, are jaw-droppingly beautiful, and the masked-parade is full of great shapes and designs that you can stare at for hours. While Charlie himself comes off a bit of a sad sack early on, I found that by the midpoint of Bubbles & Gondola I’d genuinely come to care about him and his plight. This is a book that’s as much a treatise on what it’s like to be an artist (of any medium) as it is about the sapping nature of depression, and I think Dillies manages to get his points across strongly on both subjects. This was an unexpected little surprise; it’s not what you might think, but it turns out to be much better.

Purchase Links: | Powell’s Books

Twin Spica Vol. 5

By Kou Yaginuma
208 pages, black and white
Published by Vertical, Inc.

Since Vertical launched their English editions of Twin Spica last year, it’s been fun to receive a new installment every two months and watch the story unfold—in no small part because Kou Yaginuma has quietly been tweaking the story since those early chapters, adding and discarding elements as he sees fit. By this fifth volume, it’s juggling two related but tonally different storylines, one involving training for Japan’s astronaut program and a second one about memories of young love. The latter is aided by the ghost of "Mr. Lion," whom Yaginuma seems to be trying to keep relevant to the story by showing his past with Asumi’s classmate Marika. If we didn’t already have the storyline involving Marika’s health issues, this might have seemed more out of the blue, but instead it serves a purpose by giving us more information about this secretive character.

Still, the primary draw for me remains the training for space, and after meandering away from it for a while, the second half of the book is taken up primarily by a training exercise that the entire class goes on. It’s actually one of my favorite parts of the series to date, with what seems like a simple simulation suddenly turning into a much more challenging event. Child-sized Asumi is our main focus here, and I appreciate the fact that Yaginuma is able to cast doubt into the reader’s mind on if she’s really cut out to be an astronaut. Considering she’s our main character, the fact he can plant that doubt is a good one. His delicate art style assists in that manner; watching the battered Asumi stumble through the challenge wouldn’t be half as effective if she seemed buff and sturdy. With its twin love affairs of childhood romance and the yearning for space, Twin Spica continues to draw its readers in, and is worthy of staying on your radar. If you ever wanted to be an astronaut, you’ve got to read this series.

Purchase Links: | Powell’s Books

DC Comics: The 75th Anniversary Poster Book

Compiled by Robert Schnakenberg
208 pages, color
Published by Quirk Books

If you’re like me, you might have secretly hoped that Santa Claus would bring you Paul Levitz’s 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking coffee table book (suggested retail price: $200) and came up empty-handed. If that’s the case, I’m happy that there’s a much lower cost alternative available: the DC Comics: The 75th Anniversary Poster Book. Sure, it’s not quite the same thing, but there are some similarities. At its 11×15" dimensions, it’s going to look beautiful sitting on your coffee table, and it shows off 100 classic covers from the past 75 years, as well as providing commentary to explain either the significance of the cover, or some words about the artist. Needless to say, all of the obvious ones are there: Superman #1, Action Comics #1, Detective Comics #27, Flash Comics #1, Green Lantern #1, Adventure Comics #247, The Flash #123… but so many more are present, too.

I appreciate that the book goes for some of the more oddball comics early on, like Superman beating up a lion (Action Comics #27), a superhero baseball game (World’s Finest Comics #3), a Wonder Woman Christmas cover (Sensation Comics #38), Zebra Batman (Detective Comics #275), or ones you might have never even heard of (Mr. District Attorney #12 or Leave it to Binky #60). We’ve also got iconic covers like Joe Orlando’s beckoning hand on The House of Mystery #174, or the first Diana Prince: Wonder Woman cover (Wonder Woman #178). The commentary from Robert Schnakenberg is just a paragraph or so, but it’s still informative and fun reading. And of course, depending on when you first started reading comics, you’ll start seeing covers you’re familiar with (perhaps The Killing Joke, or Ronin #1, or if you’re even newer to comics there’s always Batman #608 and All-Star Superman #10) but at a larger size than you’re used to. Plus, of course, the pages are all detachable should you wish to make them into actual posters. Sure, it’s not Levitz’s coffee table book, but it’s a fun romp through DC’s history, and it’s nice to see covers like Hellblazer #1 alongside Superman #14. It’s a fun way to spend an afternoon, or even just flipping through during a commercial break.

Purchase Links: | Powell’s Books


By Emi Lenox
400 pages, two-color
Published by Image Comics

Jumping into print with a 400-page reprint of your online diary comic is a rather brave proposition. A year’s worth of comics from Emi Lenox, EmiTown is a fun comic, but one that I think ultimately shines in part because you watch her progress over the course of those twelve months. When EmiTown opens, you end up with thin lines and a slightly scattered overall entry. It felt to me like it was a piece of paper that Lenox was trying to fill up, and does so with random moments and scenes shoved in to avoid a large void of white space. Her art style at this point feels slightly nebulous, too, with thin lines and an almost flat look to her pages.

I mention all of this because of the huge jump that the book takes the further in you read. Working every day on her diary comic meant that she quickly grew adept in telling vignettes from her life, and what started as an unmemorable comic rapidly became a lot of fun. Even when a page isn’t about a single event, Lenox still manages to make the update feel like one moment flowed into the next. Part of that may have to do with stronger layouts, but I think she also grew more adept as a writer. Her art is much stronger, too; there’s a confident and weightier line being used in her art, and she’s developed a stronger style that lifts the individual moments into something that moves easily from one moment to the next. She’s gotten great with both motion and also in guiding the reader’s eye; by the time we get an entry about dancing along to a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episode, she’s managed to draw a page that has no panel borders and still guides the reader easily from one moment to the next. EmiTown is a chance to watch the birth of a talented comic book creator unfold over the course of one year. Lenox is definitely a creator to watch out for.

Purchase Links: | Powell’s Books

Dungeon Monstres Vol. 3: Heartbreaker

Written by Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim
Art by Carlos Nine and Patrice Killoffer
96 pages, color
Published by NBM

Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim’s sprawling series Dungeon has always been all over the map, especially with all of its different sub-series (The Early Years exploring the past, Zenith the present, and Twilight the future, plus Parade set in the early days of Zenith), but the easiest one to jump into in many ways is probably Monstres. That’s because each story just focuses on a different monster or beast, telling their particular story whenever it might take place. This new collection of two of the Monstres volumes from France is all over the place, not only in setting but art style and writing to boot.

The first half, Heartbreaker, is set during The Early Years timeframe, taking supporting character Alexandra and showing us just how this beautiful assassin’s mind truly functions. It’s a slightly unpleasant story, with her continued captures and tortures not being a light or happy tale by any stretch of the imagination. It’s drawn by Carlos Nine, and I wish that he’d had the time to paint the interior like he did the book’s stunning cover. The interiors aren’t bad, but his loose lines and sketchy character designs just can’t compare to the cover and all of its beauty. Nine drawing Heartbreaker is an inspired choice, though; Alexandra spends much of the comic drugged by her enemies, and this slightly blurry, loose style is a great match. Readers of The Early Years definitely shouldn’t skip this volume, though; it ties closely into the main narrative, and Sfar and Trondheim provide a big surprise for readers of that series at Heartbreaker‘s conclusion.

The second half, The Depths, is drawn by Patrice Killoffer, whose precise and smooth ink line is a dramatic contrast to Nine’s work. And while the first half was grim in a hazy sort of way, there’s no escaping the sheer nastiness of this story when Killoffer draws its events. This is easily the most (deliberately) vile and horrible story in the Dungeon milieu to date, as the poor underwater creature Drowny goes through all sorts of nasty situations in order to survive when the Great Khan’s armies invade. There’s a huge amount of detail packed into every single panel, but be warned that you might not want to look too closely. This story is designed to repulse its reader, and at that it succeeds mightily. Dungeon Monstres Vol. 3: Heartbreaker seems to see just how low it can go, and while I applaud it for succeeding, it’s the one Dungeon book I can’t see myself wanting to ever re-read.

Purchase Links: | Powell’s Books

Sixth Gun #6

Written by Cullen Bunn
Art by Brian Hurtt
40 pages, color
Published by Oni Press

One of my absolute favorite new series this year is, easily, The Sixth Gun. Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt have, over the course of its first six issues, done exactly what I want in a new series: introduced the characters, provided a memorable setting, and thrown a lot of surprises at us. With The Sixth Gun #6, we’ve hit the conclusion of the first story, and if anything I love it more than ever. Part of the fun is its snappy concept, with six cursed revolvers each having a different power for whomever is unlucky enough to be its wielder. Enter poor Becky, whose father owned the deadly Sixth Gun, which gives its owners glimpses of the future, and which is being hunted down by the dangerous General Hume (despite being dead).

The Sixth Gun has a little bit of everything for the reader. We’ve got mystical creations, a dreaded seal threatening to be breached, some nasty surprises, and a whole lot of action. Even if you’ve correctly guessed that The Sixth Gun #6 won’t culminate in the end of the world (but just think about the wait for issue #7 would be like), there’s more than enough to keep you guessing from start to finish, and gruesome and inventive use for one of the cursed guns that everyone’s trying to get their hands on. Becky and Drake continue to be strong leads for the comic, and having Brian Hurtt’s always-stunning art tackling the visuals is an added bonus. With each new issue of The Sixth Gun, I fall a little more in love with the series. If you’re a fan of adventure, horror, westerns, or just good comics in general, trust me: you must buy this comic.

Purchase Links: | Powell’s Books

Unwritten #8

Written by Mike Carey
Art by Peter Gross
32 pages, color
Published by Vertigo/DC Comics

So often, a new title starts with so much promise and then slowly drains it away. With The Unwritten, it’s refreshing to have a series where the first issue made me eager for more, and has continued to build on that momentum in great leaps and bounds. I’ve enjoyed how Mike Carey’s scripts not only are about the mysterious world of books and what lies beyond them, but about the effect these characters have on the real world as public opinion goes into an uproar over the real-life Tom Taylor’s actions. Here, though, The Unwritten takes a side trip into two children and how their obsession over the Tommy Taylor novels affects them. It’s a smart way to show off not only the moment of obsession, but just how powerful these books are to their readership. In another writer’s hands an interlude showing why Tom Taylor’s current nemesis (Governor Chadron, the head of the prison) hates Tom so much might have felt like it was cheating, giving such an aside to a minor character. With Carey, though, it actually feels like an integral part of the story, seeing just how Chadron’s two children are affected by the imprisonment of Taylor.

It’s also nice to see that even when given nothing fantastical to drawn, Peter Gross is able to deliver in spades. Sure, some scenes set in the prison play to what you’d expect from Gross’s art; lots of stonework and sharply constructed buildings, even amidst doom and gloom. I like the quieter moments that Gross draws here, though; Cosi at the therapist gives her a strange mix of resignation and faith about her, and watching Chadron interact with his children makes him feel that much more human as you see the conflict play out on his face. If you aren’t reading The Unwritten, the first collection is due out in early January 2010 and it’s well worth your while. Easily one of the best new series of 2009. Check it out.

Purchase Links: | Powell’s Books

Dark X-Men #2

Written by Paul Cornell
Penciled by Leonard Kirk
Inked by Jay Leisten
32 pages, color
Published by Marvel Comics

Having greatly enjoyed Paul Cornell, Leonard Kirk, and Jay Leisten’s collaboration on the short-lived Captain Britain and MI-13 series, it was nice to see the proverbial band get back together for Dark X-Men. What seemed like a shameless attempt to try and mix two best-selling words at Marvel ("Dark" and "X-Men") has turned out to be a pleasant surprise, almost a cross between Suicide Squad and Thunderbolts. Cornell mixes the pitiable, pathetic, and putrid characters into a dysfunctional team that in just two issues is on the verge of exploding, but in such a way that you can’t automatically assume that either they’ll get solidly back together at the conclusion, or lie scattered about in ruins. It’s strange and unpredictable, and Cornell’s clearly having a blast with the book.

Kirk and Leisten’s art is almost as I remembered it, but with some slight changes. On the bright side, they’ve still got a solid sense of layout and basic character structure. I like how Kirk never loses track of these being both superbeings and every-day people, giving them full wardrobes and every day objects. On the other hand, the number of old-looking, wrinkly faces in Dark X-Men is a little odd. I don’t recall Mimic looking like he’s in his mid-50s, so I’m not sure what’s going on here. Still, Kirk and Leisten nail the really important scenes, like a massive brain composed of the bodies of psychics, or Omega’s momentary anguish as he wonders if he’ll remember his new-found resolve.

If you’re like me, you’ve gotten sick and tired of all the various "Dark" titles being published at Marvel and are eager to see them all go away. That said? If there’s still a group of characters to return to, more Dark X-Men would be a treat if it’s Cornell, Kirk, and Leisten on board. This is more than a simple, one-note concept in their hands.