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.

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.)

All By Myself

Alone by Chabouté. Translated by Ivanka Hahnenberger. Gallery 13, 2017. 368pp. 9781501153327.

The English translation of Chabouté’s graphic novel adaptation of Moby Dick is amazing for its pacing, its artistry, and its sense of time and place. Alone is the story of a deformed man living alone in a remote lighthouse, separated from all humanity, his only contact with the outside world the boxes of supplies dropped off by fishermen (though they never see him). A new deckhand on the boat thinks the man must be unhappy, but his boss would rather not think about it. Inside the lighthouse, the man flips open a beat-up dictionary at random, reading definitions and imagining  the outside world. These short looks into his mind are brilliant, and form the heart of the book, telling as much about this lonely soul as the expressions on his face. And then the deckhand secretly initiates contact.

For such a long book, it really is a quick read, with long sections that are wordless. But I’ve found myself flipping it open again and again after finishing it the first time (or was it the second)?

A Beginner’s Field Guide to Korean Fairy Tale Characters

Where’s Halmoni? by Julie Kim. Little Bigfoot (Sasquatch Books), 2017. 9781632170774. 96pp.

“Halmoni” is Korean for grandma. My daughter’s halmoni became everyone’s halmoni; she lived with us in Seattle for over 13 years, from just after my daughter was born until she passed away a few years ago. So when I saw this book I pretty much had to buy it for my family. But it’s so beautiful it probably belongs on your shelf, or at least your library’s, too.

Two kids, Joon and his noona (a word that means “older sister,” but only for boys) arrive at their grandma’s house, but they can’t find her. They climb out the window and start following animal tracks only to find a Korean-speaking, chocolate-loving rabbit who they can’t quite understand. (The Korean text is in hangul throughout, but if you can’t read it there’s a “What did they say?” section at the back.) But they do understand the word for “tiger” that the rabbit says, and then it gives them a back scratcher and wanders off. They also meet goblins, the tiger, and a white-haired, nine-tailed fox with a secret.

Charlie and the Brain

Sparks! by Ian Boothby (author) and Nina Matsumoto (illustrator). Scholastic Graphix, 2018. 9781338029468. 190pp.

“I am a litter box and this is my story!”

That first line is one of the best of all time, though the AI litter box doesn’t just tell it’s own story, it also tells that of two cats, August (a genius inventor and its creator) and Charlie, the brave cat who helped August escape the lab where they were experimented on. Together they wear a robotic dog suit to perform heroic deeds around town and hide their identities. A local newscaster is suspicious of the dog — is it causing the trouble it’s solving? A very mean and smart “baby” out to conquer the world is trying to capture the cats. And there’s a chatty squirrel who may not be as friendly as he seems. It’s got the beauty and insanity of a great Saturday morning cartoon, and the heart of a wonderful story about friendship. Plus it’s fun. I’m shoving this into the faces of both my teenage daughter and my “stop trying to make me laugh” wife because I know they’ll love it, too.

Matsumoto and Boothby co-created a 2009 Eisner Award winning short, “Murder He Wrote,” which appeared in the comic book The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror #14. Boothby writes quite a bit for Matt Groening’s Bongo Comics line, as well as for TV. Matsumoto has done work for Bongo, wrote and illustrated Yōkaiden for Del Rey, and created the popular webcomic Saturnalia (which sadly no longer seems to be available online).

Got milk?

Confessions: a novel by Kanae Minato. Translated by Stephen Snyder. Mullholland Books (Little, Brown), 2014. 9780316200929. 234pp.

I’m going to try (and fail) to pitch this Japanese novel as well as Wes at Third Place Books pitched it to me.

It opens with a middle school teacher, Yuko Moriguchi, talking to her students. Her daughter, Manami, drowned in the school’s pool during a staff meeting, devastating her and the girl’s father. But it was not an accident. Her daughter was killed by two students, and the teacher knows exactly who they are. She talks about them in detail, and though she doesn’t use their names everyone listening can easily identify them. And then Moriguchi explains her revenge — she’s poisoning their milk with HIV+ blood.

That’s dark enough already, but it gets darker. The next four chapters, each narrated by a different character connected to Manami’s murder, explore the murderers’ lives before and after the killing, and show what happens because of their actions and Moriguchi’s revenge. It’s all wonderfully horrific. (I hear there’s a movie. I can’t wait to see it.)