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.

The Ink Panther

Panther by Brecht Evens. Translated by Laura Watkinson and Michele Hutchison. Drawn & Quarterly, 2016. 9781770462267. 120pp.

Gene: Evens is a Flemish graphic novelist, one of the two I’ve read books by, and he’s is the more upbeat. I love his The Making Of, which is the story of an artist who goes to a small town to help put together an art exhibition. Evens’ art, which I want to show you before starting to talk about this book, is see-through. He uses transparent inks or watercolors — I suspect he uses ink because I don’t see watercolor texture much, but that could just be the paper he uses.
Sarah: But yeah, you can see through things.
G: When I first looked at his art, it looked insane. It was visually difficult to make sense of, it was hard to tell what was happening. But then I fell in love with it. It adds a level that I don’t know how to explain, but it’s beautiful in the way it shows bits of a scene that would normally be hidden behind other bits.
The other thing that Evens does, each character has a different color. There are no word balloons in his comics —
S: Oh! Their words are spoken in a matching color.
G: So I love his art but it took me a few tries to fall in love with it. But when it clicks, you’ll agree he’s a genius.
This book is creepy as shit. There’s another book Drawn & Quarterly put out called Beautiful Darkness, which is all the little cartoony creatures that live in and around this little girl’s dead body in the woods (which isn’t overly emphasized or gory). Very strange but creepy, and it’s kind of a kids book about darker things, so it reminds me of this book.
So back to Panther. Here’s the girl Lucy trying to get her cat to cheer up.
S: The scene — things are see-through, so you see through her legs. It’s almost like a cutaway where things are still there. It’s this weird flattened almost Escher-esque feeling to tesselations and stairs.
G: You look at it and ask yourself, “What’s going on there?”
She goes to her room to cry alone for a bit and out of her drawer comes a magical panther.
S: It’s terrifying! It’s wearing a suit jacket and a bow tie.

Continue reading “The Ink Panther”


We Can Never Go Home Volume One: What We Do Is Secret by Josh Hood, Brian Level, Matthew Rosenberg, Patrick Kindlon, and Dylan Todd. Black Mask, 2015. 9781628750843. Originally published as We Can Never Go Home #1 – #5. Publisher’s Rating: M / Mature.

1989. Duncan is outside of the small town where he goes to high school, shooting his father’s pistol, when he comes across a truck in which Ben is groping Madison. Ben catches Duncan peering in the window, and in the course of trying to start a fight he throws Madison to the ground. Big mistake. Madison’s eyes glow and shoot lightning, and she uses super strength to toss him through the window of his truck. He calls her a freak and drives off. She threatens Duncan, making it clear he shouldn’t tell anyone about what happened. But on their long walk home she comes clean about her powers. (She’s adopted, has no idea where she got them, and does not want to be a superhero. She just wants to leave town. And then Duncan tells her his secret: he can kill people with his mind. (Really?))

It’s not too far to a scene of old fashioned high school bullying, Duncan giving Madison a mix tape, a somewhat accidental murder, and them going on the run together. The problem is they need some cash, so they start robbing drug dealers. The authorities are soon after them, and so are others interested in using their powers.

There’s a lot to love in the book, particularly the bit where Duncan tries to get Madison to buy superhero clothes at a costume shop. The pacing is great, the violence is realistic, and when others with powers finally show up, it’s weird. It’s a really enjoyable YA adventure that’s a readalike for They’re Not Like Us and the classic Teenagers from Mars.

“O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here!”

Phoebe and Her Unicorn in The Magic Storm by Dana Simpson. Amp Comics for Kids, 2017. 9781449483593. 157pp.

The backstory: Phoebe helped a unicorn, Marigold, stop looking at her reflection in a pond. Marigold granted her a wish. Phoebe wished that they’d be best friends, and they have been ever since.

Now disturbing magical forces are at work, and there’s extreme weather on the way. Her less than friendly rival (bully?) Dakota, Queen of the Goblins (or something), is a bit nasty to her at school. (They carry her to school on a litter while Phoebe rides Dakota.) But that’s balanced out by Phoebe’s friendship with Max, who loves science. Phoebe and Marigold will need both of them to deal with whatever is taking both heat and magic from the town.

The marketing blurb I received with my review copy says that it’s about discovering the importance of teamwork (and it is). But it’s also some of the most skillful, fun cartooning I’ve seen in a long time. Plus there’s some nice metallic foil on the cover that gives the title and the lightning bolt glow a shiny glow in the right light.

This is the first full-length Phoebe and Her Unicorn graphic novel.  If these look familiar, it’s probably because there have been five books so far that collect the comic strips.

“Well, Wendy said something about a shadow…”

Cast No Shadow by Nick Tapalansky and Anissa Espinosa. First Second, 2017. 9781596438774. 220pp.

Two things I immediately loved about this graphic novel: the ghostly “bees” (there are a few on the dedication page) and the grey tones done by Alex Eckman-Lawn, which reminded me of some of Andi Watson’s best black and white art.

Greg doesn’t cast a shadow. He’s missing his mom and is more than a little angry that his dad’s girlfriend, Ruth, is moving in. His best friend Layla is super tough, and tired of his moping. The town’s mayor is always trying new attractions to bring in tourists (the latest is The World’s Largest Hairball). They mayor’s son Jake is not Greg’s favorite person. Oh, and there’s a haunted house, the scene of several murders, where the ghosts mess with whoever messes with the house.

Greg and Layla go into the house where Greg finds out he can see the very cute ghost of a teenage girl who haunts the place. He more than kinda falls for her which is good because she hasn’t had anyone to talk to for a long while. But Layla has also fallen for Jake, which isn’t good. Plus Greg is being a jerk to Layla. And then his shadow suddenly shows up.

The book is way more romantic than harrowing, and seems to be part of a wave of middle grade graphic novels about mostly friendly ghosts. All in all it’s a bit of innocent fun which touches on bullying, dealing with the romantic lives of friends and parents, and embracing weirdness.

Guy Gardener

Taproot: A Story About A Gardener And A Ghost by Keezy Young. Roar Lion Forge, 2017. 9781941302460.

A sweet, LGBTQ-friendly graphic novel about a ghost named Blue and Hamal, the gardener who can see him (and other ghosts). There’s a spooky looking dark place ghosts can suddenly find themselves and a scythe-wielding being called a Reaper (who is after a necromancer in our world, and wants Blue’s help), but mostly this is a sweet romance with a lot of nice moments and great colors. It’s low-key enough for middle and high schools, though I think older students and adults with good taste will enjoy it the most.