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.

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.

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.

Yeah, no kidding, a giant flying bear.

Borne by Jeff Vandermeer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017. 9780374115241. 336pp.

Vandermeer’s books and stories are, in all senses of the word, weird. They’re also well written, pleasing on a sentence-to-sentence level, and they have a depth that pulls me in. But I’m not sure I could justify any of that in a coherent, English major way without rereading his books >7 times and talking about them for a quarter in a literature class, which is the only way I ever felt like I “got” a play by Shakespeare. (Don’t ask me which. I won’t tell you.) Anyway, Vandermeer’s books are high quality shit, dude.

This one takes place in a city  ruined by biotech produced by the Company. A lot of it has gone feral, including some terrifying creatures that were once children and a giant flying bear called Mord, the boss monster. Rachel is a scavenger, operating from a secret base with her biotech-building lover/partner Wick. One day she finds an anemone/squid-like thing, brings it home, and names it Borne. It starts to eat everything and grow and eventually (I don’t think this is much of a spoiler) to talk. She loves and raises it like a mother, but it learns and grows at a terrifying rate. The whole situation is spooky and strange and then starts to feel dangerous, though throughout it seems like Borne loves Rachel back.

It is the most vivid post-apocalyptic world I’ve read about in a long while. All of the praise on the cover of my galley copy is very vague, and I’m afraid I have to be, too. A more detailed description of what plot there is or the setting or the atmosphere would ruin the book for you. I’m already afraid I’ve said too much.

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!).

Do you make up these questions, Mr. Holden? Or do they write ’em down for you?

The Interview by Manuele Fior. Translated by Jamie Richards. Fantagraphics, 2017. 9781606999868. 176pp.

The most important thing about this graphic novel is that it’s absolutely beautiful. Fior’s colorful 5,000 km Per Second (sample pages), also a love story, had a similar wow factor, but this book’s black and white art is just as dazzling. Everything is soft. Maybe he used a combination of graphite and ink? But then at the end he thanks Ann-Lise Vernejoul for creating and conceiving of the special effects in the book, leaving me with no idea how the art was created. Anyway, who cares, right? The important thing is it works hand in hand with the story — it makes the protagonists’ breakup with his wife softer and conveys the affection they still have for each other, it seems to slow down the way he falls in love with one of his patients so that he doesn’t seem creepy, and it take the edge off the future, which isn’t very startling.

More on the plot: It’s 2048, in Italy’s Udine Province. Raniero is a psychiatrist. He lives in the country with his wife, who will soon leave him. And he still drives a gas powered car. All of this is important because he crashes his car one night and while wandering toward home through a field he sees some lights in the sky. The next day at work he interviews a new patient, Dora, who has similar hallucinations. But Dora believes they’re signals from an extraterrestrial civilization, and that she and Raniero have been chosen to receive them. Dora and her friends in The New Convention, which supports the idea of emotional and sexual non-exclusivity, seem to believe the world is evolving toward something new, while Raniero and his older friends’ world is falling apart, disunifying. It all turns out to be a complicated yet elegant backdrop for the end of a longterm relationship and the beginning of a new romance.

Can I rant about the art one more time? Particularly the night scenes? And the way he draws naked middle-aged people? (A strange wow, I know, but its not the kind of thing I see in comics much.) And my favorite moment of the book, when Fior draws a two page spread of absolutely black panels to great effect, their size and layout implying unseen action. I hope you like it as much I do. (Samples here, including an amazing page where Raniero goes face first into an the airbag during a car accident.)

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…

Real Life (Motor Girl Volume 1) by Terry Moore. Abstract Studio, 2017. 9781892597632. Contains Motor Girl #1 – #5.

I remember reading Angel & The Ape as a kid. Then Matt Fraction’s The Annotated Mantooth made me laugh aloud. (“What if James Bond was a gorilla and what if Ian Fleming was drunk the whole time he wrote From Russia With Love?”) And now this — Terry Moore, one of my favorite comics creators, writes about another strong woman with beautiful hair (Samantha) and her buddy, a talking gorilla (Mike).

In her three tours of duty, Samantha was captured, held, and beaten in Iraq for almost a year. Her injuries required nine weeks in rehab and a year in the hospital but all is not well. She’s got headaches. She’s given to rants. And she sees things no one else can see, like Mike, and maybe the aliens that are visiting the desert junkyard where she lives. (Or are they real?) Mr. Walden (a rich dude with nefarious plans) just offered Libby (the junkyard’s owner and a crazed version of Estelle Getty’s little old lady character on the Golden Girls) a bunch of money for the yard, but Libby leaves the final decision on the sale to Sam. Aliens visit. Thugs try to force the sale. And Sam shows everyone how tough she is, though her condition may be worse than she wants to admit.

I’ve loved everything Terry Moore has ever written, but I haven’t laughed this hard since Strangers in Paradise: High School.

Full disclosure: Terry once gave me a windup chicken that poops jelly beans, and he told me something like When I saw this I thought of you. So I owe him. But that’s not why I’m talking up this book.