A Doll’s House

Thornhill by Pam Smy. Roaring Brook Press, 2017. 9781626726543. 536pp.

In 2017, Ella and her family move into a new house. From her bedroom window, she can see an overgrown lot full of crows and spiders and whatnot plus a large abandoned building, a spooky old orphanage. One night the light in an upper floor window goes on. (Ella’s story is told in page after page of wordless, black and white and gray pictures.)

Diary entries from 1982 chronicle the life of a mute girl who takes refuge in the attic apartment of the orphanage where she lives. She comforts herself by making dolls, and one of the caregivers is kind to her. She’s trying to keep herself safe from the bully who torments her, but that’s difficult, and it will likely be impossible after the orphanage is shut down and they move on to a new home together.

Back in the present, Ella sees a girl in the window of the building, then in the abandoned lot. Creepy dolls figure in the story, as does the diary and a skeleton key.

The size of the book makes it look very intimidating, but lots of pages are the pictures that tell Ella’s story. I’d give it to any kid who liked Doll Bones or The Graveyard Book, or is looking to move on from the gotcha endings of the Goosebumps books I read long ago.

Gotham City’s Police Are Under Attack

Gotham Central Book 1 by Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, and Michael Lark. DC Comics, 2011. 9781401220372. 240pp. Contains Gotham Central #1 – #10.

Gene: Brubaker and Rucka are two of the best crime writers working in comics. They’ve both written superhero series as well. Rucka writes novels, too, mostly thrillers — I’m a huge fan. They did this series together back in 2004, and there are 4 or 5 books, about the regular cops in Gotham City (the place where Batman fights crime) having to deal with a world filled with super-powered villains.
What I remember most from the series is the first story. It’s either because it was first or it’s the best or both. Two detectives are investigating a kidnapping, and when they knock on the door, they accidentally find Mr. Freeze, the villain in a cryo-suit who also has freeze weapons. And Freeze freezes one cop solid and just kills him. It’s horrifying. But it shows how terrible this guy would be to normal people, in this world. He doesn’t kill the second cop because he wants him to suffer. Look, here’s the cop who survived. He’s got frostbite on his hands because they were frozen to his gun. And his partner was shattered after he was frozen. (We didn’t see that happen.)
Detectives Allen and Latoya are assigned to the case. And they have to interview the cop and hang out at the morgue. The survivor doesn’t want them to call Batman for help. He wants the cops to solve the case, because if they call Batman, it’s like giving up.
Sarah: I love that kind of story.
G: And then they find another guy murdered, frozen from the inside out.
Schwartzenegger played Mr. Freeze in the third Batman movie, and it was kind of silly instead of scary, very colorful. This is the opposite. The horror of what Freeze can do is laid bare as part of a police procedural.
S: Yeah.
G: The other book I’d compare it to is Bendis and Avon-Oeming’s Powers series, about detectives who investigate crimes committed by those with super-powers in a world where powers are outlawed. (I love this series so much, too.)
S: This seems even better to me.
G: It’s got a darker tone. It’s grittier.
And look, here when the detectives finally do call Batman, he’s just a shadow.
S: This book really looks good to me.
G: I hoped you’d like it because you’ve been reading so many mysteries. I was trying to figure out what books in my permanent collection you’d enjoy. I spent a bit of my weekend trying to convince my nephew, who was visiting from Davis, California, to read this, and I failed. So I’ve been trying to come up with a better pitch for next time he visits.
S: I always like those post-modern looks at superheroes. I really enjoyed The Regional Office Is Under Attack.
G: You want to borrow this?
S: Yeah!
G: Success.

i am not okay with summers

i am not okay with this by Charles Forsman. Fantagraphics, 2017. 9781683960621. 182pp.

“Dear Diary, Go Fuck Yourself.”

Sydney’s best friend Dina is a senior. Her boyfriend Brad is an a-hole who calls Sydney a “lesbo” (she’s bi, but Brad isn’t the type of douchebag who gets subtlety). After the perpetually horny Sydney kisses Dina on the cheek, they’re on the outs. Sydney spends some time missing her dead, pot-head dad, and hanging out with a guy named Stan, his stoner friends, and a hot woman named Ryan who works at a mini mart. Sexual activity, drug use, physical violence, and more follows. Oh, and Sydney uses her superpower, making other people’s heads (mostly Brad’s) hurt.

It’s not a happy story, or an entirely realistic one, but I can tell you as the father of a 15-year-old who just spent every Saturday of a long high school wrestling season listening to teens at tournaments, everything about Sydney rang true.

Celebrated Summer by Charles Forsman. Fantagraphics, 2013. 781606996850. 67pp.

Just after graduating from high school, Mike and Wolf take acid and go for a walk in the woods. Neither feels much. They spontaneously decide to drive to the beach. Wolf can’t piss, and loses himself in a gas station restroom mirror. Buildings seem to dance by the side of the road. Mike worries that he needs to call his grandmother, who he lives with. In two brilliant, introspective, image-less pages, we enter Wolf’s mind and see what he really worries about and why he’s so awkward. In a longer, wordless sequence, Wolf plays video games in an arcade while he’s tripping. (In fact he’s so high that pixelated graphics become higher-res visual patterns.)

These graphic novels unfold in a straightforward, skillful way that’s easy to follow. They’re true blends of text and images — neither seems to be vying for attention most of the time, though text becomes the focus of some pages, and the images of others. Forsman’s strength is that he has absolute control over this balance. Plus, you know, he can see into the minds of socially awkward high teenagers, a type of telepathy that must be an exceedingly annoying superpower.

Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.

Aliens: Defiance Volume 1 by Brian Wood with art by Tristan Jones, Riccardo Burchielli, and Tony Brescini. Dark Horse, 2017. 9781506701264. Contains Aliens: Defiance #1 – #6 plus a short from 2016’s Free Comic Book Day.

PFC Zula Hendricks of the Colonial Marines boards a derelict ship in lunar space with a squad of heavily armed, humanoid security drones. (She’s been going through a course of reconstructive surgeries and physical therapy on the moon, and the rough ride is anything but soothing.) The ship’s crew is missing and, well, you know — the drones are soon fighting the long-headed, double-jawed aliens you’ve seen in the movies or just the trailers. After her suit’s helmet is cracked, one of the drones throws her into a stasis pod. She wakes up 27 days later: her legs barely work, the ship has been sterilized, and it’s left our solar system. One of the drones has gone rogue, is actively disobeying orders from its corporate masters, and has set them on a course to find more aliens. It also seems to be in charge, but since it’s not doing what it’s supposed to, that won’t last.

I know it sounds a lot like the original Alien movie, and that’s on purpose. Wood did the same thing with his run of Star Wars back when Dark Horse still had the license — he’s great at writing stories in existing universes that are well plotted, pleasing to longterm fans, and that stand alone. (His creator-owned comics series are great, too.) Hendricks is struggling to appear stronger than she is while fighting the xenomorphs, and she’s not the only strong woman in the story. The rebellious synthetic soldier’s idea of doing what’s right clearly doesn’t jibe with Hendricks’ (though she doesn’t quite know that). The book ends with a great setup for the second volume, which is also a great read.

Regrets, I Ate a Few

The Gallery of Regrettable Food by James Lileks. Crown Publishers, 2001. 0609607820.

Sarah: Part of the significance of this book, because there are plenty of people out there who make fun of the horrible illustrations in old cookbooks, is that James Lileks was one of the first. He was really early on the Internet scene, he has this wonderful website that he’s been working on since the nineties — it’s a great collection of weird old stuff. He’s also funny; he’ll comment on the pictures and not just say “oh, how disgusting!” He’s really amusing, and he’ll start bizarre mini-fictions that continue within and across his captions.
G: (looks at photo and laughs)
S: He talks about how his mom in, I think, 1962 was given a terrible promo cookbook from the North Dakota durum wheat growers… that was the start of his collection, when he found it in his mom’s closet, untouched, in the 90s.
He has a fictional recipe in there based on all the recipes in these books, where you carefully put one atom of chili powder in a dish with a pound of hamburger meat, 36 pounds of flavorless cheese… “if substituting spackle, crumble one yellow crayon for color,” one cup dusty crumbs from the toaster, three grains pepper, one pound salt, then that one atom of chili powder.
Continue reading “Regrets, I Ate a Few”

Love in the Time of Snow

Red Winter by Anneli Furmark. Translated by Hanna Strömberg. Drawn & Quarterly, 2018. 9781770463066. 168pp.

Sweden, sometime in the late 1970s. Unhappy mother of two (and Social Democrat) Siv is having a very loving affair with a politically active young Communist, Ulrik. He’d just as soon Siv tell her husband about them and move in, but she’s worried everyone will hate her. Her daughter Marita knows her secret (she’s reading her mom’s journal), and her son Peter may just have seen Siv and her lover together. As the affair continues there are small, subtle consequences for everyone. I felt the most for young Marita, who seems the most innocent and impacted, but who is also the only one who reaches out to a friend for what she needs.

Supporting the quiet, conversational tone of the book, Furmak’s art had a sense of being wonderfully hand-crafted and heartfelt. It makes the story feel important and true because of the time spent making it. The often icy blue and white outdoor scenes, and the glowing electric bulbs inside were a wonderful way to express the climate. I’d just reread Leiber and Rucka’s Whiteout, set in the Antarctic, and it was great to see a different yet no less effective way to bring me into a story in a cold, icy place I’m personally unfamiliar with.

“It is my business to know what other people don’t know.”

Maggy Garrison 1. Give Us A Smile, Maggy by Lewis Trondheim and Stéphanie Oiry. Europe Comics, 2017. Translation: Emma Wilson. 54pp.

Maggy Garrison 2. The Man In My Bed by Lewis Trondheim and Stéphanie Oiry. Europe Comics, 2017. Translation: Emma Wilson. 56pp.

Maggy Garrison 3. Shame It Had To End This Way Lewis Trondheim and Stéphanie Oiry. Europe Comics, 2017. Translation: Emma Wilson. 56pp.

Maggy arrives for work, for her first day helping Anthony Wight, Private Investigator, around the office. She tries to put on a happy face but finds her new boss passed out on his desk. She takes an angry phone message, and talks to a little neighbor lady looking for Rodgrigo, a canary who Wight is supposed to be looking for. And then her boss dismisses her for the day. But Maggy is on the job. She finds a way to “solve the case” and make the old lady happy, and make a little money in the process. And even if the job doesn’t pay well, it’s giving her the chance to smoke a few of her boss’s cigarettes.

She arrives for work on her fifth day to find Wight being loaded into an ambulance, and meets a cop she becomes friendly with. In a bar they check out men and Maggy solves another small mystery. And then she runs afoul of some very shady people over some coupons in her boss’s wallet. She’s soon unemployed but having drinks with one of the goons sent to intimidate her. And being double-crossed over a significant amount of cash. It’s more of a crime saga than a mystery, and throughout it all Maggy is just so smart and calm and ordinary that I loved this way more than I normally enjoy stories of reluctant and unlikely amateur detectives.

I’m really excited that Europe Comics is translating some great graphic novels and making them available for the English-speaking market digitally. The digital editions offer me a great chance to save some shelf space and justify the huge, high-resolution tablet my tired eyes need to read these at their best. (They look great on my laptop, but my 12.9″ iPad Pro makes them sing.)

If you’ve been following my reviews for a while, you know Trondheim is my favorite cartoonist. Other than certain volumes of the Dungeon series, I haven’t read much of what he’s written for other artists to draw, and this is delightful. Oiry’s art really serves the story, and her use of color is notably great without being distracting — I stopped several times in each book just to look at the colors she used. (I particularly liked the endpapers, a two-page image of Maggy standing atop a map of part of London.)