Far Away Besides The Crystal Fountains

Rock Candy Mountain Volume 1 by Kyle Starks, colored by Chris Schweizer. Image, 2017. 9781534303171. Contains #1 – #4 of the series.

Starks’ hilariously violent graphic novel homage to 80s action films, Sexcastle, was one of my favorite books of 2014, and his follow-up was in the same vein and just as fun. His third creator-owned project is just as great.

It opens in 1948, with the Devil tearing up a hobo camp and all the men living there. (Starks has a real talent for making gruesome moments somehow fun, and Schweizer’s colors really add to that tone.) The Devil is looking for Jackson, who is elsewhere, jumping a train and helping out a young man returning to Kentucky after a run of bad luck in California. The pair soon run afoul of the hobo mafia’s boss, and Jackson has to show how good he is in a fight: “He’s got punch diarrhea and their faces are the toilet bowl.” Foul-mouthed government types are after him, too. Jackson’s motivation: he’s trying to get to Rock Candy Mountain. His secret: he traded his soul to the Devil. Complications abound, and so do hilarious and unexpected bits of dialogue.

Volume 2, which was just published, concludes the series.

You probably need to stretch, too.

Draw Stronger: Self Care for Cartoonists and Visual Artists by Kriota Willberg. Uncivilized Books, 2018. 9781941250235. 144p.

Most cartoonists I’ve worked with have experienced some kind of cartooning-related injury. Turns out drawing for hours on end, whether on a computer or desk or whatever, isn’t great for the body. This nonfiction graphic novel isn’t trying to replace a qualified healthcare provider for illustrators, but it does give a lot of useful advice for those who draw a lot (or, like me, spend all day hunched over a computer) and want to avoid pain and injury. After a discussion about not ignoring pain (a devious looking lightning bolt with evil eyebrows) and indications that it’s time to see a doctor (if your neck is tied in an actual knot, just call 9-1-1) there’s an explanation of repetitive stress injuries with an anatomy lesson. (Great, except that even thinking about my spine and how it moves always makes me queasy.) I desperately need to reread10 the section on posture, and I think we’d all be better off thinking and training like we’re athletes — changing how we work, getting enough rest, stretching, etc.

This is one of the more useful and approachable nonfiction comics I’ve read, and it’s right up there with Ellen Forney’s Rock Steady (which offers advice on living with bipolar, based on experience) in terms of its approach.

 

Slowed Trip

The Dangerous Journey by Tove Jansson. Drawn & Quarterly, 2018. 9781770463202.  32pp.
I’ve been working my way through the enormous and wonderful Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition for years. Jansson’s black and white comic strips are delightful, and so is this reprinted, retranslated full-color picture book, which is also set in Moominvalley.
Susanna wakes up, complains to her cat, and declares that she’s wild and crazy before wishing for a bit of craziness on the landscape. She gets her wish, which sends her lazy cat spitting into the sky. The forest where she plays is suddenly a swamp. Her reflection is…off. And the sky is red hot. This isn’t the sort of adventure she was looking for, but don’t worry, she soon meets some kind strangers, and everyone ends up fine in the end (even the cat).
Painted pictures tell the story, along with rhyming text underneath. Jansson’s characters are the star of the story, but her painting of an erupting volcano was particularly spectacular. No idea how faithful the translation is to the original text, but I found it delightful in the way it expressed Susanna’s character, and I even enjoyed its rhymes.

Slapped by Adam Smith

Landscape with Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson. Candlewick Press, 2017. 9780763687892.

After watching humans for decades, the aliens have landed. The Earth is now part of the Interspecies Co-Prosperity Alliance, trading the energy being harvested by the vuuv for advanced technology to solve the world’s problems. But the technology went to Earth’s big corporations, so you can only get it if you can afford it. Earth currencies are worth almost nothing in vuuv money, so only the privileged few  can have their diseases cured and live in beautiful floating cities.

Adam’s family is broke. His mom’s old job is done by a vuuv computer program and she’s spending every day looking for work. Even a job at a soup kiosk at the mall has an applicant line around the block, so they have to rent part of their house out to another family. Adam falls for the family’s daughter, Chloe, and they decide to make money from the vuuv by becoming stars in a 1950s-style dating reality show. They strap on sensors and look at sunsets together while the vuuv watch. (The vuuv don’t reproduce the same way humans do so it all seems exotic.) But the love and the money don’t last.

This book is not subtle: it’s about colonization and economic exploitation. The ideas in it would only be new and mind-blowing to young people. But the family’s financial hardships and indignities pile up gradually, building a claustrophobic feeling as the family loses the hope of making their own way out of poverty even as Adam refuses to compromise himself.

Last But Not You Know

The Penderwicks At Last by Jeanne Birdsall. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018. 9780385755665. 304pp.

When I’m not reading comics, I favor dark mysteries, science fiction on an epic scale, and heroic fantasy so violent that I can’t recommend it to many. And when I’m looking for books that meet these tastes, I seek out recommendations from folks who read widely in these genres. (“I read 300 fantasy novels a year and this was the best.”) But when I’m looking for books outside them, I want to find the books people read kind of in spite of how they can be easily described. (“I don’t like literary fiction, but I couldn’t put this down.”)

Well, I don’t read many kids chapter books, or books that paint a rosy picture of family life and childhood. But this is one of those, and it’s the book I most anticipated reading this year. It’s  the fifth book in the Penderwicks series, so minor spoilers ahead. Take it from an atypical recommender — start at the beginning and don’t stop until you’ve read them all.

This one focuses on Lydia, the youngest Penderwick sister. Her oldest sister Rosalind is getting married, and decides to have the ceremony at Arundel, the setting for the first book (where the four original Penderwick girls met now honorary Penderwick Jeffrey, who lived there with his mother, Mrs. Tifton, and her horrid then current husband). (Sorry for the long sentence. There’s just so much context here.) Lydia heads to Arundel early with Batty (now a young adult, still a singer), to start cleaning the place, and soon Jane (waitressing while working on her books) arrives to start making the dresses. It’s a great excuse to get everyone together, and to see them through young Lydia’s eyes as she explores Arundel (and the stories she’s heard about it) with her new friend, Alice. There’s lots in here about dealing with the pair’s annoying beloved older brothers, plus Mrs. Tifton is around, still intimidating and unpleasant to kids, still worried that her beloved Jeffrey (who now owns Arundel) is going to get sucked into marrying one of the Penderwicks.

This book contains more amazing dogs than have ever existed in my cat-centric world, plus one cool sheep. Give it to everyone you know, even the cat people.

A girl a girl a girl

Pemmican Wars (A Girl Called Echo Volume 1) by Katherena Vermette, Scott B. Henderson, and Donovan Yuciuk. Highwater Press, 2018. 9781553796787. 47pp.

Echo is a thirteen-year-old Métis girl living in a group home and attending a new school. In her history class she falls asleep and finds herself having a realistic dream about being in the North-Westernern Territory in 1814 and witnessing a buffalo hunt. The next day she falls asleep at home, and when she again finds herself in 1814 it’s clear she’s not dreaming — which gives her a chance to make a friend and learn about her people firsthand.

I know this sounds a little like an After School Special, but the book doesn’t overuse words, is well written, and both Henderson’s art and Yaciuk’s colors are top notch. There’s more to love here including a teacher who prefers they / them pronouns and a difficult conversation between Echo and her mom. A timeline of the Pemmican Wars, a recipe for pemmican, and a few verses by Pierre Falcon at the back make this a great title for libraries. (The next book is due out in September.)

I know this isn’t cheap, but this is exactly the type of high quality, small press graphic novel that deserve librarians’ professional support.