Balloonpunk

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.

Ordinary Heroes

Something Terrible by Dean Trippe. Iron Circus Comics, 2016. 9780989020756. 32pp.

Trippe tells the story of something terrible that happened to him in his childhood in crisp and expressive four-panel pages that are nearly wordless. The sexual abuse he suffered is indicated in only two frames: in one showing him and his abuser as shadows, and in another with his underwear on the floor, the threats he heard written underneath — “If you tell anyone, I’ll kill your family.” He goes to the police and endures a court case, but his true turning point is watching a Batman movie that shows the hero’s origins in a terrible childhood loss. Trippe sees that he can turn his pain into a way to become a hero. He still struggles as an adult, especially with the fear (constantly reinforced by TV police dramas) that he’ll end up abusing someone, which he depicts as holding an imaginary gun to his head. He eventually finds a way to live his life as his own sort of hero, including an epilogue on how hard it was to have to repeat his story so many times after its initial publication. The story is brief and tremendously powerful. Trippe wrote it primarily for people who had been abused, but I think his message about the power of fiction will speak to others as well.

Sweet and Dandy

We Are Dandy: The Elegant Gentleman Around the World by Nathaniel Adams and Rose Callahan. Gestalten Verlag, 2016. 9783899556674.

Mix one part men’s suits, one part vintage shop, one part avant-garde fashion, one part time traveler, and a liberal splash of big personality and you have a dandy. I feel like any of these fellows could be a Time Lord. If they aren’t too cool to go to the public library, the staff definitely have given them nicknames. Everybody who lives on their streets knows them by sight. “Hey, it’s that guy!”

The photographs are really fun. I appreciate that the “around the world” in the title includes dandies from outside the usual fashion centers of London/Paris/Tokyo/New York. The dandies from Johannesburg are really cool: their looks are sleeker and more form-fitting, looking modern without being busy. The American and European dandies used more accessories and had more theatrical looks. The Japanese dandies combined suits with modern casual or traditional Japanese clothing. Some dandies were photographed in their homes. As you might expect, their home decorations are just as eye-catching as their clothing, though I’ll admit to looking askance at the guy with three shelves of books color-coordinated with his wall — buying books solely for the sake of interior decoration just seems wrong.

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.

Medicine and Myth

Malignant Metaphor: Confronting Cancer Myths by Alanna Mitchell. ECW Press, 2015. 9781770412682. 208pp.

Alanna Mitchell’s brother-in-law was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. His extended family rallied around him and Mitchell, because of her background as a science writer, was put in charge of investigating his treatment options to determine whether they were helpful, did more harm than good, or were pure fantasy. In the process she found that people think about cancer in really odd ways.

People are afraid of cancer in ways that have little to do with the reality of the disease. They think it’s inescapable and happening more and more, but when rates are adjusted for a larger population and longer lifespans the rate of cancer is staying about the same and may even be dropping in the US and other western countries. Cancer is much more treatable than it used to be, and more people are surviving it. The general public thinks cancer is preventable, caused by lifestyle choices, diet, or maybe even one’s mood and outlook on life. Sometimes this idea drives people to try to live healthier lives, but other times it can be cruel: people blame those who get cancer or think that they somehow deserve it. Mitchell found that only a few things clearly cause cancer, like smoking, radiation, asbestos, benzene, and HPV. The majority of cancers are caused by some random cell mutation — we don’t yet understand the how or the why.

Mitchell writes clearly and compassionately about the history of these frightening and contradictory ideas and how they affect the ways we respond to the disease and the people who have it. She looks at it as a metaphor for how we feel about ourselves and our relationship to the natural world. And she explores how the war metaphor (battling cancer, winning against cancer) can be counter-productive.

Then her daughter is diagnosed with a completely treatable cancer and, even though Mitchell had read mountains of research dispelling the myths, she immediately panics and begins blaming herself. She spends the last portion of the book examining the emotional impact of cancer. It can feel safer to blame ourselves than to admit that the process is usually random and completely out of our control.

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.