Welcome to Marwencol by Mark Hogancamp and Chris Shellen. Princeton Architectural Press, 2016. 9781616894153. 278pp

Gene: Did you ever see a documentary called Marwencol?
Sarah: The name sounds familiar but I don’t think I did.
G: It’s about Mark Hogancamp. He’s had kind of a sad life. He was married, he was in the army. After he got out his wife divorced him and he became an alcoholic living in, I think, rural New York. He went out with some friends one night a while back and got totally plowed — his blood alcohol level was 3.0 or so after this incident. He was drinking boilermakers — whiskey and beer, whiskey and beer. And he admitted to some guys that he’s a cross dresser. After the bar closed down, these guys beat him so badly he was in a coma, unconscious, for 9 days. Lots of brain damage. It knocked him back decades. He had been an artist, he drew a lot, but when he woke up he had to relearn how to walk and talk and it was awful.
And so — I want to admit I’m doing a piss-poor job of summarizing his life, you should see the documentary — he got these 1/6 scale action figures and started taking photos of them. Outside the trailer where he lives he created a World War II era Belgian village he calls Marwencol. There’s a character that’s him, Hogey. There are Nazi SS characters who are stand-ins for the guys who beat him up. There’s a bar, Hogancamp always wanted to own a bar.
Continue reading “Belgium!”


Castle in the Stars Book One: The Space Race of 1869 by Alex Alice.  English translation by Anne and Owen Smith.  First Second, 2017.  9781626724938. 62pp.

This is going to sound very steampunky, but I want you to know up front that I don’t normally like steampunk. (Do I have something against brass and monocles? Maybe.) But this French graphic novel is so beautiful, and the story so well told, that I couldn’t put it down. A big part of what got me to pick it up in the first place is that it’s being published in the US as a full-sized hardcover album. That’s reason enough to pick it up — to encourage US publishers to put these books out as they originally appeared.  I want more!  (Thanks First Second!)

A year ago, against her husband’s advice (he’s an engineer), Seraphin’s mother flew her hydrogen-filled balloon to 11,000 meters in hopes of detecting aether. She didn’t survive the attempt. A year later a letter arrives from someone claiming to have discovered her logbook and asking Seraphin’s father to present himself in Bavaria. At the train station, Seraphin ends up going on the trip with his father when they’re forced to flee from armed Prussians who seem to know something about the notebook.  (Cue a crazy, Buster Keaton-esque sequence involving Seraphin, a hot air balloon, and a girl in a bathtub.) King Ludwig of Bavaria is in possession of the notebook, which speaks of the discovery of aether, its power, and Seraphin’s mother’s love for both him and her husband. Soon Seraphin’s father is working as engineer on a team designing an aether craft, at odds with the stuffy royal architect. But it’s clear not everyone wants them to succeed, and that the Prussians want to harness the power of aether to further their empire.

It all seems pretty serious, but there are enough lighthearted, action-packed moments to pull almost anyone through this beautiful graphic novel.

Always Be Prepared

Star Scouts by Mike Lawrence. First Second, 2017. 9781626722804. 185pp.

When Mabel (a blue alien, at least to us) tries to teleport a harmless alien (to her, it’s all relative) to her family’s spaceship as part of her homework, she accidentally gets Avani, a young girl who doesn’t enjoy being a part of Flower Scouts. Avani’s parents are hoping the group helps her make new friends — they just moved. But Avani is into things most of the other girls aren’t: rodeos, punk, and hip hop. But I digress.

Onboard the spaceship, with the help of a translating comm badge, Mabel and Avani hit it off. Mabel is a Junior Star Scout trying hard (and probably failing spectacularly) to finish up some awesome badges: piloting, jetpacks, lasers, collecting, xenoscatalogy. That all sounds awesome to Avani. She joins the troop and starts having secret off-planet adventures. She really wants to go to Camp Andromeda with the rest of the troop, but she needs her parents’ permission to go. Spoiler: she finds a way around this. I can’t wait for some parent to object to this book in their kid’s library because the main character lies to her parents. At Camp a rivalry develops between her group and a troop of toot breathers (aka methane breathers) that drives the second half of the book. Avani’s love of rodeo comes into play at the end.

It’s amazingly colorful and action packed, and there’s a sense of low-stakes, not quite life-or-death adventure that I think a lot of younger kids will love without getting too freaked out. This awesome graphic novel should be in every school and public library.

On The Road

On The Camino by Jason. Fantagraphics, 2017. 9781683960218. 186pp.

To mark his 50th birthday, Norwegian cartoonist Jason walked the Camino de Santiago from St. Jean Pied de Porte in France to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Along the way he stays at hostels, meets fellow pilgrims, and washes his socks and underwear quite a bit (it looks like he packed light). There’s lots of time for him to think and walk, and there’s also ridiculous moments, like a nice conversation in a restaurant suddenly interrupted by a cover of “Hotel California” played at full volume.

This graphic novel is done in Jason’s usual deadpan style. Every page is a 2 x 2 panel grid featuring people drawn as anthropomorphic animals. I love that it’s black and white — his drawings are marvelous, and somehow the lack of color makes me enjoy them more. And the story makes me feel closer to him — on trips alone, I’m notorious (at least in my own mind) for not talking much with other people and just walking from one place to the next.

Did this make me want to walk the Camino? No. Or at least, if I ever do, I won’t stay in hostels because of the bedbugs. When Jason mentioned them I shuddered.

Cricket Bat Girl

Motor Crush Volume 1 by Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, Babs Tarr. Image, 2017. 9781534301894. Publisher’s Rating: Teen Plus / T+. Contains Motor Crush #1 – #5.

Short pitch: Slick, colorful, LGBTQ-friendly futuristic motorcycle racing story by the creative team behind the best Batgirl series ever.

Motorcycle racer Domino Swift has a big World Grand Prix race coming up. She’s being hounded for interviews by a floating robot/camera that looks like a cat. Competitors who want an extra edge put an illegal chemical called Crush in their tanks to make their bikes go faster. If they’re caught they’re thrown out of the league. Domino secretly competes in violent illegal street races to win a supply of Crush. (Her weapon of choice: a nail-studded cricket bat.) But Domino doesn’t need the Crush for her bike, she needs it for her inhaler.

After her stash of Crush goes missing, Domino tries to steal what she needs, leading to a spectacular chase (one of many). Her bike is wrecked, so she turns to her pink-haired former girlfriend and ace mechanic, Lola. Lola has problems, though — when she left racing, she took out a loan that she can’t pay back, and now she’s in trouble with all the wrong people. To make everything right Domino bets the only thing she has on her next race: herself.

Yeah, no kidding, a giant flying bear.

Borne by Jeff Vandermeer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017. 9780374115241. 336pp.

Vandermeer’s books and stories are, in all senses of the word, weird. They’re also well written, pleasing on a sentence-to-sentence level, and they have a depth that pulls me in. But I’m not sure I could justify any of that in a coherent, English major way without rereading his books >7 times and talking about them for a quarter in a literature class, which is the only way I ever felt like I “got” a play by Shakespeare. (Don’t ask me which. I won’t tell you.) Anyway, Vandermeer’s books are high quality shit, dude.

This one takes place in a city  ruined by biotech produced by the Company. A lot of it has gone feral, including some terrifying creatures that were once children and a giant flying bear called Mord, the boss monster. Rachel is a scavenger, operating from a secret base with her biotech-building lover/partner Wick. One day she finds an anemone/squid-like thing, brings it home, and names it Borne. It starts to eat everything and grow and eventually (I don’t think this is much of a spoiler) to talk. She loves and raises it like a mother, but it learns and grows at a terrifying rate. The whole situation is spooky and strange and then starts to feel dangerous, though throughout it seems like Borne loves Rachel back.

It is the most vivid post-apocalyptic world I’ve read about in a long while. All of the praise on the cover of my galley copy is very vague, and I’m afraid I have to be, too. A more detailed description of what plot there is or the setting or the atmosphere would ruin the book for you. I’m already afraid I’ve said too much.

“Scared is what you’re feeling. Brave is what you’re doing.”

Brave by Svetlana Chmakova. Yen Press, 2017. 9780316363174. 248pp. Publisher’s Rating: A All Ages.

I’ve been a fan of Chmakova’s comics since reading Dramacon, a series about a young comics creator which I highly recommend. This is a sequel of sorts to (or at least a book set in the same universe as) Awkard, set at the same school. Some of the characters from that book may be in this one, too. (Hard for me to remember. I’m getting old.)

Jensen wants to become an astronaut and save the world, which is good because he’s on the lookout for danger everywhere. He seems most obsessed with sunspots and the coming zombie apocalypse, though he admits Berrybrook Middle School is also dangerous. He has friends in Art Club, he’s being bullied by two boys, and he’s desperate to impress the kids who run the school newspapers so they’ll publish his article on sunspots. Except… well, if you asked Jensen, he wouldn’t say he’s being bullied. His Art Club friends don’t treat him very well. When he does get to help out at the newspaper, he’s assigned busywork. The one bright spot seems to be Jorge, a jock in Jensen’s English class who volunteers to work on a presentation with him (and sticks up for him a bit).

It’s a bit sad and wonderful and not too after school special-ly. Jensen starts to see that the way he’s being treated isn’t right, stands up for himself, and looks for friends and a place to belong. He’s a good dude. A lot of the kids who’ve been a little nasty to him are good kids, too. (Not the bullies, not really, but you may have some sympathy for one of them by the end of the story.)

Chmakova’s manga-inspired art and storytelling has always wowed me. She uses the best aspects of manga storytelling to bring her characters to life, using their expressions to give them a rich emotional life. Both Awkward and Brave are subtly but beautifully colored, too. If you put them in front of upper elementary and middle school readers they’ll jump off your shelves.