Contest of Champions

The Champions’ Game: A True Story by Saul Ramierez (as told to John Seidlitz) Canter Press, 2017. 9780997740233

One way to write a good chess book is to put the game in the background and use characters and situations instead. Saul Ramirez, a rookie middle school teacher in over his head as a chess team coach in the U.S.’s poorest ZIP code, is a great real-life character. Thanks to his past as a scholastic chess player, he is both a neophyte and an expert who puts himself and his team into tense situations: State Championships, National Championships, fund-raisers, chaperoned trips. Each chapter, from the first (“Go Big or Go Home”) to the last (“Visualize Your Win”) is titled and themed after the lessons about the game and life Ramirez tried to teach to his players.

Playing chess is more than just learning the moves. Ramirez’s troops felt overwhelmed at their first tournaments when they saw other teams had uniforms. (Ramirez scrambled to get the team t-shirts for subsequent events.) Ramirez made a beginning chess coach error when he didn’t protest his players being paired against each other. If they hadn’t been beating one another, the Henderson Middle School kids could have packed the winner’s podium. But there was one mistake Ramirez avoided: he fought for his only female player’s right to compete at State and National events, despite the extra expense of added adult supervision and hotel rooms on road trips. He also made getting good grades a requirement for team participation.

The Champions’ Game is an emotional roller coaster related by someone who was in the front seat on the wild ride.

Thanks to Robert for this guest review.

Bald Outliers

Tsu & the Outliers by Eric Johnson. Uncivilized Books, 2018. 9781941250242. 112pp.

Tsu is a kid that never speaks, and he’s bullied by kids who call him a freak. And he’s got powers of some kind — he can either speak with or control a Sasquatch (who visually reminds me a bit of Swamp Thing). After an episode involving a crashed bus, two cryptid hunters (one is a monkey, the other is something stranger) are on his trail. It all gets weird and dangerous and action packed, and Tsu ends up the bait in a trap for his buddy.

The action sequences have a berserk energy that I really enjoyed, and I’m a fan of books like this that use only one color of ink on a page (though there are two on the cover). It’s weird and fun and a little bit groovy — everything I hope for in a small press graphic novel.

Bald Knobber: a graphic novella by Robert Sergel. Secret Acres, 2018. 9780999193518. 84pp.

Unless you’re a student of American history, you’re probably looking the cover and worrying about what sorts of sex sites you’ll pull up if you Google “bald knobber.” That’s what I thought, anyway, though the truth is weirder. The bald knobbers were a vigilante group in 1880s Mississippi who wore horned black hoods. And despite the weird headgear they were guys who mostly sided with the North during the Civil War, at least according to Wikipedia and a few other articles I read online.

If you want to know a little more about them, read this book. When Cole tells his classmates about a book he read over the summer, Bald Knobbers: Vigilantes of the Ozarks, he pulls on his own horned hood before reading his report. The report appears in title boxes as we see what happened to Cole over the summer, which starts him being shuttled between his separated parents, who are both seriously pissed off at each other. There’s also his mom’s live-in boyfriend Brad, who Cole doesn’t like, and an asshat of a neighborhood bully who talks crap about Cole’s mom while burning insects with a magnifying glass. You know: typical children of divorce stuff. (Or at least it’s all very close to what I remember from my childhood, except for the hood.) I won’t ruin Cole’s vigilante justice against Brad, but it’s hilarious. Things between Cole’s parents keep getting worse as the parallels between Cole’s story and the history of the Bald Knobbers becomes clear. The end of both stories kind of beautifully peters out, though things aren’t quite finished between Cole and the bully.

The book is full of black ink, like the fabulous Teenagers from Mars. It’s deadpan and sad and realistic, and Cole’s dad is something of an alcoholic, so I really appreciated the laughs it provides. Some teens will, I’m sure, love this book, but I unreservedly recommend it to adults whose parents were divorced when they were kids. In fact I think I’ll get my middle sister a copy for her birthday.

The Goonies Gone Bad

4 Kids Walk Into A Bank: A Torrid Tale of Child Crime by Matthew Rosenberg, Tyler Boss, and Thomas Mauer. Black Mask, 2017. 9781628751888. Contains # 1 – #5 of the series.

This is flat out the funniest book I’ve read this year. It evokes 80s nostalgia for me the way Paper Girls does. Everything from the color to the pacing to the lettering combines with the art and design to make for a pitch perfect graphic novel. And it’s a crime story starring four pre-teens. Most chapters of the book open with some kind of role-play: literal D&D-type stuff, video games, toys. I wish I could go back in time and buy this as it came out in individual issues, because the covers (which I saw in the gallery in the back) are brilliant.

Paige (a foul mouthed, tough tomboy), Pat (a tall, awkward nerd), Berger (once you know he named his role-playing character Crotch the Sticky you know everything about him), and Walter (a shy scientist type) are heading out for ice cream with Paige’s dad after a role-playing catastrophe when four bad guys arrive at the door. Paige insults them and gets punched. Berger shoots an orc warlord into a dude’s eye. And then Paige’s dad pulls out the shotgun to make them to leave. That’s not the end of it, though. The kids find out Paige’s dad does know the guys, despite his denials, and that he owes them, so he’s going to help them rob a bank. To save her dad, Paige convinces her friends that they need to rob it first.

Most of the humor is in the conversations the kids have, and my favorite parts are when they’re talking at night via CB radio. (They even manage to pull a local pervert, who goes by the handle Doctor Gloryhole, into their heist.) There are Tarantino-esque moments, like when Paige sets a guy on fire, and everyone supplies their share of laughs, including a nearly silent foreign exchange student. Does the heist go as planned? No. Do people get shot? Yep. Will angry parents protest outside your library if their kids bring this book home? Only if they read it closely. And I hope they do — I’d love to see this book get all of the publicity it deserves.

The Better To Eat You With, Ma Dear.

Scales & Scoundrels Volume 1: Into The Dragon’s Maw by Sebastian Girner and Galaad. Image, 2018. 9781534304826. Originally published in Scales & Scoundrels #1-#5. Publisher’s Rating: Rated E / Everyone.

This lighthearted, all-ages fantasy graphic novel reminded me of the fun moments in Scott Chantler’s Three Thieves series and the humor in Eric Colossal’s Rutabaga the Adventure Chef books. Galaad’s art and his bright colors in particular add to the tone. And it pretty much had to be fun — Girner also wrote the epic Shirtless Bear Fighter last year, which is the funniest bit of superhero(ish) nonsense I’ve read in a long time. (Bears are attacking civilization and the world needs a hero who’s got both an amazing backstory and a bearskin-covered jet (and whose junk is pixelated when he’s also pantsless, so the book is safe for kids to read). Had me in tears.)

Scales & Scoundrels starts out when a treasure hunter named Luvander is in trouble for cheating at cards. Her escape hints that she may be an urden (dragon). Then she helps out three folks who become her traveling companions: a prince, his shadow, and their dwarven guide. Soon they’re all heading underground into the Dened Lewen in search of treasure. What they find there is stranger and freakier than they expect (and is fodder for a lot more great art).

Sometimes a fantasy is all you need

Sex Fantasy by Sophia Foster-Dimino. Koyama Press, 2017. 9781927668467. Lots of pages.

I love this book so much!

It is square-ish, if not perfectly square, and it fits in your hand. It seems to have been originally published as 10 minicomics of the same title. (There are a few issues and other things by Foster-Domino available digitally.) Each issue (chapter?) is quite different from the others but each page features just a single comics panel.

“Issue 1” is a first person narration by a person (male? female? both? (both because at one point they say they’re Ranma!)) telling about and showing all of the things they do for those they’re obsessed with. Simple sentences and drawings add up to a view into the mind of someone super complicated. (And, you know, way over-obsessed.)

Issue 4” is a tear-inducing conversation. “Issue 5” is another conversation between two women talking about their childhoods and art. “Issue 7” has a surprise I’m still pondering. And you should find out about the other issues yourself, both because I don’t know how to do this book justice and because it’s so quick to experience.

I hope your local library has a copy (mine does), or you know someone who will lend you theirs, or that this sounds so compelling you’ll buy one of your own.

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.

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.