David Smith is a disgraced artist. Once a rising young star in the art world, he said the wrong thing about the wrong critic and suddenly his career was in the toilet. Now he’s washed up at twenty six and about to be evicted from his apartment. But just when he’s resorted to drinking his days away, Death shows up in the form of his former Uncle Harry and presents him with a proposition he can’t refuse: the ability to sculpt any material with his bare hands in exchange for (what else?) his life in 200 days. David has a little under seven months to make his mark on the world before he leaves it forever. But right away he runs into complications. First of all, there’s the little matter of his rent–he’s still jobless and broke. His landlord throws him out and confiscates all his new work. His phone is cut off. Then the very worst possible thing of all happens. David falls in love with an angel named Meg and the endless 200 days suddenly seem a lot shorter. Can David beat Death at his own game by finding a way to live forever through his artwork? Or will he die in obscurity, content that at least he was truly known and loved by one very special person? Since the “making a deal with Death” is a familiar story, you might think you know how this epic graphic novel ends. But you would be dead wrong. Scott McCloud‘s richly rewarding GN, with its timeless themes of life, death, love and art has the feel of an instant classic. The pale blue artwork is restrained, the panels are perfectly placed. The moment I finished it, I knew it would become a literary touchstone that I would return to again and again, like Craig Thompson’s Blankets, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or S.E. Hinton’s Tex. For anyone who’s ever wondered what they would sacrifice to fulfill their dreams or which dreams they would be willing to sacrifice for a beloved someone.
Ever since I read French Milk before taking my first trip to Paris, I have been utterly charmed by Lucy Knisley‘s delightful (and often delicious) graphic memoirs. Her latest effort, which chronicles her travels through Europe while on a book tour, does not disappoint, as it is filled with the quiet humor and delectable food descriptions I have come to expect from this intrepid young artist. In 2011, twenty-something Lucy was enjoying the first flushes of her success as a working cartoonist when she was invited to present at a comic festival in Norway. She decided to tie it into a visit with friends in Sweden and Germany, and then join her mother and her friends for a short vacation in France. Once she is overseas, Lucy is blindsided by an unexpected love affair in Stockholm while trying to decide where the next chapter of her life will lead. She finds herself discombobulated and questioning everything she thought she wanted as she teaches European school kids about comics, drives across France with her mother and samples every local delicacy that comes across her plate.While at a wine tasting, it is a bearded old sommelier who gives a name to the experiences Lucy is having: “L’Age License, as in: License to experience, mess up, license to fail, license to do…whatever, before you’re settled.” Lucy decides then and there she will do less worrying about the future and more enjoying of the present. Peppered with appetizing cuisine pictures and unexpectedly beautiful full color portraits of her friends and family, An Age of License is a lovely story about food and firsts. It is perfect for anyone at the start of their travels who wonders where their road will lead–or for those in the middle of their journey who would enjoy a wistful moment looking back.
Katie should be loving her life. She’s a hotshot young chef with her own restaurant (Seconds) and about to open a new one called Lucknow. There’s only one problem: her success has made her miserable. Lucknow is having construction issues. She doesn’t like the way the cutting edge chef she hired at Seconds is running her kitchen. (She also thinks it might have been a mistake to start “canoodling” with him.) But worst of all is when her hot ex-boyfriend Max shows up for dinner with a gorgeous girl on his arm. Suddenly Katie just wants to go back in time so she can make different choices: about Max, about Lucknow, about her life. That’s when a blond haired house sprite shows up in the middle of the night and leaves three things in Katie’s top dresser drawer: a notebook labeled “My Mistakes,” a red-capped mushroom and a instruction card that reads, “1. Write your mistake. 2. Ingest one mushroom. 3. Go to sleep. 4. Wake anew.” Katie follows the directions and to her delight, they work. And when she finds more mushrooms under the floorboards of her restaurant, she is thrilled. Now she can correct every mistake she’s ever made! It’s easy! When the house sprite returns and warns her that she is only entitled to one mushroom and one mushroom only, Katie refuses to listen. Be careful what you wish for, you just may get it. And Katie gets it until she can’t even remember why she wanted to change things in the first place. Maybe her life wasn’t so bad after all. But how can she ever get back to the way things were? This magically real stand alone graphic novel by the author of Scott Pilgrim reads like charming modern take on the Fisherman’s Wife. Both teens and twenty somethings will find many of Katie’s situations funny and familiar, especially when it comes to first loves, first jobs and first-time-out-on-your-own. A perfect gift for grads, first job seekers and anyone who’s ever wished they could change the past (which, let’s be frank, is ALL OF US.)
Three sisters left alone for three days in a wintery cabin, each visited by a mysterious stranger who lures them into the snow. A beautiful young bride who makes a grisly discovery in the walls of her new husband’s grand house. A jealous man who commits murder in the dark of the forest and then is visited by the victim of his crime. These are a few of the deliciously creepy, folklore-gone-wrong stories written and illustrated by the incredibly talented Emily Carroll. Mostly inked in red, black and a chilly cobalt blue, these graphic vignettes about love, death and revenge ooze with tension until they quietly detonate, usually in a silent moment of terrifying realization or a shocking splatter of crimson blood. Though I have read through the collection over half a dozen times by now, I just can’t stop poring over the gorgeously gory pages in fear and fascination. This assemblage of gothic-themed dread is a boon to my YA horror peeps who are always looking for a good literary scare, and to any nervous reader who’s ever been convinced that they just missed being snatched on the way back to bed by the something that lives under it. Because as the fanged shadow warns Red Riding Hood at the end of her journey through the forest, “You must travel through these woods again & again…and you must be lucky to avoid the wolf every time…but the wolf only needs enough luck to find you ONCE.” Here’s hoping that the wolf never gets lucky and you relish these darkly delightful tales as much as I did. Want a taste of Emily Carroll’s disturbing visions? Read this interactive horror story and try not to shiver uncontrollably at the end.
Neil Gaiman‘s Newbery award winning novel about a boy being raised by ghosts and a kindly vampire guardian has been transformed into an edgier, sophisticated two-part comic that captivates and surprises on every page. Haven’t read the novel yet? No worries, you can easily pick up the full story from Russell’s lavish adaptation (He’s the same artist who created the Coraline GN). This time Russell invited a small army of talented illustrators to join him, and the results are phenomenal. I especially loved Tony Harris and Scott Hampton‘s version of The Hounds of God, which was my very favorite chapter from the novel and stars the stalwart, secret canine Miss Lupescu. The full color spreads bring the busy graveyard and surrounding community to glorious, riotous life and quickly help readers differentiate the living from the dead. The beautifully wrought Danse Macabre chapter that finishes off the first volume is not one you will forget anytime soon. Don’t wait too long to dig it up at a library or bookstore near you.
When Deshi Li’s irresponsible older brother Wei is killed in a tragic accident, his parents charge Deshi with finding him a corpse bride, a dead female body to accompany him into the afterlife. Stricken with grief and guilt, Deshi complies, hiring a black market body dealer named Song to help him secure a girl who’s not too long gone in her grave. But when the two men are startled at the graveyard and become separated, Deshi runs into Lily, a rural girl desperate to escape an arranged marriage who’s looking for a free ride to Beijing. The two team up on the road, and Deshi finds his thoughts going to dark places. Should he just murder Lily and take her body home to his parents? But how can he, when each day he delays killing her in sleep he falls deeper in love with her? Meanwhile, Lily’s father and crooked Song are hot on their trail, each hoping to exact their own special brand of revenge. This beautifully illustrated modern fable of love and death hooked me from the very first sentence with an original plot grown from the rich soil of Chinese folklore. Author illustrator Danica Novgorodoff (Refresh, Refresh) tells Deshi and Lily’s story through sparkling, darkly humorous dialogue and lavish watercolor panels that take your breath away with each turn of the page. You’ll want to hightail it to a library or bookstore near you ASAP in order to experience this fantastic journey for yourself.
As the 1970’s are coming to a close, Margaret is in a post-college slump, trying to figure out where she fits in as a female pop culture cartoonist between the aging hippies and the new punkers. Then she stumbles into the Imperial Café, a diner full of sardonic waitresses, surly cooks and outsider customers that suddenly feels like home. “…I can tell there is something about this place. It feels like I am in a movie, a very interesting and exciting movie, an independent feature in which I play a smack but key role. I have to stay to find out how it’s going to end.” After telling a dirty joke that impresses the manager, Margaret scores a dishwashing job, new name (“Madge”) and a front row seat to the diner’s never ending drama. Customers and employees break up and make up, take drugs, get sober and then start all over again. Throughout the pale, aqua blue watercolor washed pages, Madge figures out the rules of adulthood, first by watching, and then by taking part in the noisy, vital, flamboyant life of the Imperial Café. I love slice of life stories that investigate a cross section of society in great detail, and this graphic memoir about the crazy, sexy petri dish of a busy diner is a great example. If you like OVER EASY, try these other great foodie fictions that are about way more than chopping and sauteeing: Last Night at the Lobster and Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe And for more on Mimi Pond, head over to this great interview at School Library Journal.
After Hank’s mother is attacked at gunpoint by a bank robber in 1940’s California, she becomes obsessed with one thing, and one thing only—that nineteen year old Hank become a superhero just like the Anchor of Justice who rescued her. Except Hank had been looking forward to taking over his father’s small Chinatown grocery store and living “a happy life, a fortunate life, filled with friends and Mahjong and maybe even a little whiskey.” But Hank’s bossy mother won’t relent, making him a green superhero suit, dubbing him The Golden Man of Bravery and setting him up with kung fu lessons with Uncle Wun Too. Soon Hank is getting into the swing of things, especially after his combat training starts to kick in. But when Mock Beak, the king of organized crime in Chinatown, threatens his father and Hank tries to intervene, the results are disastrous. Maybe he’s not cut out to be a superhero after all. It’s only after he’s visited by the kind and ancient spirit of Turtle that Hank discovers his true calling as Green Turtle, a Chinese superhero impervious to bullets and ready to take on the entire organized crime empire known as The Tong of Sticks. He just didn’t count on falling for his archenemy’s beautiful daughter… I absolutely adored this funny, big-hearted GN that melds fact, fiction and folklore into a delectable Turtle soup! The Shadow Hero is an inspired origin story based on the actual Green Turtle from the 1940’s who failed to take off because supposedly publishers at that time didn’t think that “a Chinese superhero would sell,” and wouldn’t let his creator Chu Hing give him Asian features. Click here to listen to author Gene Luen Yang explain the fascinating backstory behind Green Turtle and The Shadow Hero. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you July 2014.
Rose Wallace has been going with her family to their rented cabin at Awago Beach “Ever since…like…forever.” She anticipates this summer will be much like all the others spent swimming, biking and hanging out with her younger friend Windy. But this is the summer that Rose discovers the cheap thrill of horror movies, the ache of an unrequited crush and the weight of adult secrets. She longs to flirt with the gangly teenage clerk at the corner store who rents her and Windy The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but she’s too shy. She wants to shake her withdrawn mother out of her unrelenting sadness over an unspoken tragedy that happened last summer, but she’s too scared. She yearns to understand why she and Windy are growing apart, why the shabby town of Awago is so different from the rental houses by the beach, and why all the girls in horror movies seem to be so, well, stupid. She wants to know why this one summer is the summer when everything that used to be simple suddenly became complicated. This wistful, character driven GN, inked in a cool blue palatte, perfectly captures that transitional moment between chewing gum and trying cigarettes. Rose and Windy are both polar opposites and kindred spirits, clashing as Rose leans into adolescence and Windy leans back into childhood, but coming back together when the confusing world of parents and slasher movies becomes too much. This One Summer should be number one on your summer reading list.
Failin, Oregon, like every small town, has as many secrets as people. When lonely teens Anne and Lewis strike up an unlikely friendship, they have no idea that their innocent romance will end up bringing so many of the town’s secrets to light. Secrets about hoarder moms and absent dads. Secrets about lost belongings and found treasures. Secrets of past misunderstandings and future relationships. Each person in this intricate character-driven graphic novel will feel familiar as someone you know or love, and each one will lodge deeply in your heart. It’s hard to explain exactly how without giving it all away, but I can say that it reminded me of one of my favorite classics. Sara Ryan has always excelled at crafting fully rounded characters, and her first graphic novel is no exception. Her words are aided by the spot-on, realistically drawn art by Carla Speed McNeil. A well-told and astutely drawn story of fate and forgiveness.
Tina’s tired of everyone constantly asking her what she IS, when she’s still figuring it out herself. It’s annoying that just because she’s Indian, people think she’s going to end up in an arranged marriage meditating on sacred cows with a dot on her forehead. She happens to BE a lot of things, and not all of them have to do with where her family is from. So she’s pretty excited when her English teacher Mr. Moosewood creates an elective called Existential Philosophy, which is all about learning how to BE. And not anything in particular, either–just yourself. Tina thinks she can handle that, especially after her best friend dumps her and she develops a crush on the cutest boy at her private school. Her world is suddenly shifting. If she can learn to answer the big life questions posed by her existential philosopher hero Jean-Paul Sartre, maybe everything will fall back into place. Including her first kiss, which is the big life question Tina is most interested in answering. Forget the meaning of her existence! What actually matters most is if she ever plants a juicy one on skater boy Neil Strumminger, will he kiss her back? And if so, will they be boyfriend/girlfriend? Mari Araki‘s sketchy black and white drawings that look like they would be right at home on the cover of your favorite notebook perfectly compliment Keshni Kashap’s angsty text. This witty graphic novel about a smart, funny Indian girl seeking the meaning of life in high school hallways and family dance parties will ring true for anyone who’s ever tried to peel off society’s slapped on labels.
There are two sides to every story, and stupendously talented author/artist Gene Luen Yang elevates that saying to a whole new level with Boxers & Saints. In this double volume, graphic novel masterpiece, two teenagers become caught up in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1898 on opposite sides, fighting to retain their identity and hold on to their hard won religious values.
Boxers tells the story of Little Bao, the youngest son in a motherless family of farmers from a poor village. When a Catholic missionary priest smashes the statue of one of his village’s gods in front of him, he is devastated, especially since the opera stories he sees during the spring fairs make him feel as though the ancient gods are his close friends and allies. As he grows into adulthood, he begins training with a kung fu master in order to join the rebellion against these foreigners who have their own army and refuse to respect the native Chinese ways. Soon he is heading up his own small army, each member fueled by the angry spirits of the old gods. But as the “Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fist” marches closer and closer to the capital of Peking to “eradicate the foreign devils” once and for all, Little Bao begins to question his rock solid faith as the number of bodies of innocent people build in his violent wake.
Saints tells the story of Four-Girl, a lonely child who is considered a bad luck devil by her family no matter how much she tries to win their approval. The only person who shows her kindness is the village acupuncturist, who is also a Christian. He tells her Bible stories that fire up her imagination, and she begins having recurring visions of Joan of Arc. Soon she decides to become baptized and join the church. She gets a new name, Vibiana, and leaves home to work at a Catholic orphanage, followed by her visions of Joan. When Little Bao’s army comes to her village’s doorstep, Vibiana decides that God is calling on her to be His warrior maiden like Joan of Arc. The tragic, unpredictable result of Little Bao and Vibiana’s final meeting will haunt you long after you close the covers on Saints.
The earthy/monotone palate of both volumes perfectly conveys the rural landscape and hardscrabble life of the peasants, only exploding into vibrant color when Little Bao’s pantheon of Chinese gods arrive on the scene, with their rainbow robes and elaborate masks, or Four-Girl’s golden vision of Joan of Arc shimmers between the trees outside her home. While this exceptional work will no doubt help gazillions of readers understand the complexity behind religious wars and personal freedoms, it can also be appreciated as a swiftly paced adventure peopled with men, women and gods who bring this fascinating period of Chinese history to bloody life. I was blown away by both the richly illustrated package and the timeless message. Read them in the order the title suggests, (first Boxers, then Saints) and then pass them along to everyone you know.
Revenge of the Nerds meets Mean Girls in this high-sterically funny GN drawn by the author of The Adventures of Superhero Girl and Friends with Boys. Charlie is a basketball jock. Nate is a robotics nerd. But somehow they manage to be best friends–until Charlie’s ex-girlfriend Holly proposes using school funds earmarked for the robotics team to instead finance her cheerleading squad’s new uniforms. Furious, Nate decides to try and take over the student council by any means necessary so he can have some say in how the funds are allocated. This incites an all out war between the nerds and the cheerleaders that involves everything from a hijacked scoreboard to copious amounts of weed killer and places Charlie unhappily in the middle. And while it’s not fun being pulled between the two factions, at least it helps distract Charlie from the fact that his divorced parents are making him miserable. But when Nate discovers an original way to solve both funding problems (two words: Robot Rumble) Charlie finds himself in the unlikely role of peacemaker between his best friend and his ex-best girl. Can he find a way to broker peace between his parents as well? This story of high school high jinks crackles with energy fueled by Faith Erin Hicks‘ bold, blocky artwork and Prudence Shen’s chuckle making dialogue. The trash-talking alone at the Robot Rumble had me snorting in my subway seat. You’ll want to throw this in your beach bag pronto. (Want a sneak peek at the panels? Read the webcomic version here.)
I have been absolutely smitten with Lucy Knisley since reading her graphic travel memoir French Milk right before I went to Paris for the first time. That’s why I was thrilled to get my oven mitts on her new foodie autobio, Relish. In it, Knisley shares the luscious narratives of her upbringing (complete with to-die-for illustrated recipes) in a gritty 1970’s & 80’s New York City and rustic upstate Rhinebeck. Her stories of eating oysters at her uncle’s knee, running away from vindictive geese and chowing down French fries on the sly so as not to offend her gourmet parents are hilarious and delicious. But my two hands down favorite stories are when she chronicles eating her way through Mexico with her mom and best guy friend Drew while getting her first period at the most awkward of times, and the day when she helped her mom cater an event at DIA Beacon as a college student and came face to face with Richard Serra’s massive iron sculptures. By herself with the sculpture while the party goes on in another room, Knisley feels surprisingly blessed to be a waiter. “I could be alone, touching the cool metal of a famous and affecting work of art, a gift gained through circumstance. I thought of all the builders and guards and custodians who have had similar moments, and felt lucky to be a server.” (I’ve seen and been inside those sculptures and they are indeed awe inspiring.) And then there are the RECIPES. For perfect chocolate chip cookies, homemade pesto and my personal favorite, sautéed mushrooms. And those are just a very few mouthwatering examples. While it’s hard to know where to shelve Relish (living room bookcase or kitchen cupboard?) it’s not hard to enjoy each and every one of Knisley’s tasty anecdotes. Whether you’re a foodie or just a sucker for a good coming of age story, you’re going to savor every page of this yummy graphic memoir.
It’s hard work fighting evil. Just ask Superhero Girl, the under-appreciated star of Faith Erin Hick‘s tongue-in-cheek graphic novel. Superhero Girl has grown up in the caped shadow of her older brother Kevin, also a crusader for good. But needing to establish her own brand, Superhero Girl moves to a new city, finds a laid back roommate who takes her superheroing in stride and proceeds to get her crime fighting on. No job is too large or too small–Superhero Girl beats up baddies from outer space AND rescues little kitties from trees. But although her calling is fulfilling, being a super hero isn’t always rewarding. Vigilantism doesn’t pay the rent, and so like every other twenty something on her own, Superhero Girl must look for a REAL job. She also finds her dating life hindered by her secret identity. And when a wave of peace comes over the nighborhood she is sworn to defend, Superhero Girl finds herself taking up knitting (with disastrous results.) This snort-out-loud GN is charm on a stick. Hicks takes the superhero mythology we know so well from multiplex hours spent in the company of bat and spider men and turns it on its ear, to hugely hilarious affect. I couldn’t stop chuckling to myself, especially when Superhero Girl is accused of beating up an innocent looking hipster and no one will come to his defense because they “hate his stupid little weather-inappropriate scarf.” Hee hee! (Oh, hipster-bashing. I just can’t quit you.) Superhero Girl started life as a webcomic, which you can read here, but I heartily recommend getting the gorgeous full color GN from your local library, bookstore or comic book shop.