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.

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.

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.

Stay gold, Ponyboy

Midas Flesh Vol. 1 by Ryan North, illustrated by Shelly Paroline and Braden Lamb. Boom Box, 2014. 9781608864553.

In great speculative fiction, there are rules for magic and advanced science. Zombies infect you with a bite and are killed by destroying the brain. Vampires can’t survive sunlight. Don’t cross the streams. In Midas Flesh, the rules are about the Midas touch: King Midas wished that everything he touched turned to gold, so everything he touches and everything that is touching something he is touching turns to gold. Moments after his wish is granted, the entire Earth and everyone on it has turned to gold. Midas dies (the air in his lungs changes to flakes of gold) but his body is preserved: no bacteria can consume him.

An advanced spacefaring Federation finds our dead planet and determines that there’s no way to explore it without being turned to gold. The planet is erased from every map, and everyone with knowledge of it is sworn to secrecy. Generations later, two women and one small sentient dinosaur find speculation about this strange planet, then set out to find whatever advanced super-weapon destroyed it. (They want to use it to free their home planets from subjugation by the Federation.)

Ryan North’s dialogue is funny and snappy, the action is fast, the stakes are high, and the well-crafted rules create a fascinating world for characters that I liked immediately. I’m a big fan: I highly recommend his ongoing webcomic Dinosaur Comics, his reboot of Marvel’s Squirrel Girl, and his choose-your-own-adventure versions of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet (review coming soon!).

No secret: I love books about sandwiches

The Sandwich Thief by André Marois, illustrated by Patrick Doyon. Chronicle Books, 2016. 9781452146591.

Marin’s parents are foodies and cooking maniacs. After being made fun of in the school cafeteria, Marin convinced them to only make him simple lunches, so his parents pick out delicious ingredients for his plain-looking sandwiches. Marin’s mom even makes her own mayonnaise. But now someone is stealing his sandwiches and leaving him hungry. Marin quickly makes a list of suspects and begins an investigation.

The book is a great combination of a humorous, realistic school story (Marin is horrified by the overworked principal’s lunch — a limp store-bought burrito he keeps in his desk drawer) and kid-style exaggeration (Marin’s mom buys special bread at a secret bakery run by kung fu monks). The illustrations are drawn with shapes and lines that show motion and character really well. They’re sometimes regular illustrations of the text and are sometimes mixed with the text like a comic. All give depth to a simple story showing a school that’s falling apart, students with big personalities, and a hundred other tiny details of Marin’s world.