Habibi by Craig Thompson

One of my favorite books of all time is Craig Thompson’s transcendent adolescent love story Blankets. I feel as though I have preached the gospel of that gorgeous graphic novel to thousands of friends, colleagues and students–probably until they were sick of hearing about it! Thompson’s latest opus is also about love, a fervent love between a girl and a boy that morphs several times during their lifetimes. When Dodola and Zam first meet in a slave market as children in a fantastical Middle Eastern world that includes both oil pipelines and medieval camel caravans, they are lost and afraid. After escaping the slavers and fleeing to the desert, they lead a charmed but lonely existence on a boat that has been mysteriously beached on miles of sand, where Dodola entertains Zam with stories of queens, heroes and warriors from the Quran and the Bible. At first Dodola acts as a mother to toddler Zam, though she is little more than a child herself. But as Zam grows, their relationship becomes more like that of squabbling siblings. Until the day that Zam witnesses the terrible thing that Dodola must trade away in exchange for their food from the brutish men in the caravans. He cannot forget what he has seen, and soon his feelings for Dodola begin to change into something lustful and wild that he doesn’t understand. So he runs away to the bustling city, searching for a way to relieve his forbidden thoughts, while Dodola is left frantically searching for him before she is stolen away by bandits and forced to become a member of the Sultan’s harem. Through their mutual trials and struggles, they never forget their life on the little boat and never stop looking for each other in the faces of strangers that pass by. It is many years before they meet again, and they each have been drastically changed by their circumstances. Will their hearts recognize each other? Is there a possibility that their love can survive under the harsh laws of a judgmental society that condemns them both? This lushly illustrated and deeply felt graphic novel is both hard to read and hard to stop reading. Thompson is clearly in love with Arabic script and design, which dance sinuously through the panels, and his interweaving of Christian and Arabic mythology, showing their ultimate similarities instead of their often harped upon differences is masterful. The story and art took Thompson six years to complete, and it shows on every dazzlingly detailed page. But while it is a beautifully rendered story of love, faith and perseverance, it is also a sad story of sexual abuse, dominance, misogyny and guilt that is probably best for older teens and the adults in their lives. Extraordinary.

Orcs: Forged for War by Stan Nicholls and Joe Flood

Oh, poor orcs. That Tolkien sure sealed their reputation as some of the biggest baddies of all time. But what if orcs aren’t actually that awful? What if they’ve just been…misunderstood all these years? Stan Nicholls has created a world called Maras-Dantia where warlike orcs may crack a few skulls and slice off a few appendages, but they do so only when they’ve been hired for a job. This time the big green guys, led by Captain Stryke, have been ordered to accompany a caravan of goblins who are on a secret mission concerning a mysterious new weapon for the bloodthirsty half-human, half-nyadd Queen Jennesta. However, they don’t get far before the orcs begin to smell something rotten in the state of Maras-Dantia. The goblins refuse to tell the orcs where they’re headed, they force them to do hard manual labor that is beneath them, and they put the orc troop in danger more than once buy ignoring blatant signs of trouble. Soon Stryke begins to suspect a double cross, but he’s bound to follow Jennesta’s command or suffer terrible consequences. The only thing left to do is fight like orcs, and keep each other safe from the goblins’ horrific secret weapon. This incredibly gory GN is an adaptation of Stan Nicholl’s Orcsnovels, which are pretty big in the UK. Friends, I give you fair warning, these are not for the quesy-stomached among you. Debut artist Joe Flood shows the orc’s battle scenes, that include multiple impalings and beheadings, up close and in full color. In addition, Queen Jennesta is a nasty of the highest order whose favorite snack is a still-beating heart that she pulls out of the chests of her petrified victims. But if you’re looking for a tip-top violent adventure outside of “been there, done that” video games and tediously long summer action movies, then ORCS is probably right up your alley. Enjoy! (just not while eating).

Excalibur: The Legend of King Arthur by Tony Lee & Sam Hart

In this lush, graphic novel retelling of the legend of King Arthur, all the familiar characters show up in glowing color on each paneled page: the boy king of myth, his advisor and mentor, Merlin, the loyal Lancelot and beautiful Guinevere, and of course, Arthur’s evil half sister Morgana and her son Mordred, the warrior fated to bring about the fall of Camelot. Who hasn’t seen or read some version of this classic tale, whether it was Disney’s innocent Sword in the Stone or Marion Zimmerman Bradley’s much sexier and way more feminist Mists of Avalon? What makes this adaptation stand out to me is the epic storytelling that feels almost Biblical in nature. As a big fan of the Arthurian legend, I feel like I’ve seen and heard it all when it comes to Excalibur, but Lee and Hart (the team that also created this classic graphic read) have rendered the myth to nearly Christ-like proportions. Arthur, who has pre-knowledge of his own death from the very first page (hmmmm), gathers a group of loyal men around him in a literal circle (knights of the round table or disciples?) and is eventually betrayed by those closest to him seems very Jesus Christ Superstar in these pages. He even rises again to rule in the fairy land of Avalon (i.e. heaven) and is finally reunited with his true love, Vivianne, aka The Lady of the Lake (or maybe Mary Magdalene?) Gorgeous from start to finish, this is one GN that you may want to own so you can page through it again and again. For a truly Holy Grail experience, pair it with Philip Reeve’s gritty Here Lies Arthur.

The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn & Brian Hurtt

sixth gun

In a violent, post-Civil War Old West, natty but naughty gunslinger Drake Sinclair is on the hunt for a mythical weapon that shows the future to it’s owner. It’s part of a scary set of six revolvers that some say were forged by the Devil himself, and belonged to a bloodthirsty Confederate general named Hume, now long in his grave. Each gun never has to be reloaded and each one has a sinister power: to strike with the force of a cannon, throw flames, spread disease, raise the dead and provide eternal youth. Sinclair knows that in order to stop Hume’s still living cronies, he will need to overpower them with Hume’s personal weapon, the sixth gun. But when he finally discovers the whereabouts of the prophecy gun, complications arise in the form of a beautiful young farm girl and the frightening fact that Hume is not exactly dead (not quite alive, either) and he will recover his property even if it means releasing hell on Earth to do it. Hume also knows a nasty little secret about Sinclair that could be the gunslinger’s undoing if it comes to light, so it’s even more important that Sinclair gets to the gun before Hume does. It’s a race to the bloody finish, and I was absolutely riveted to each and every full color page of this inventive GN. I’m particularly fond of westerns, and I’m really liking this trend of tucking a little fantasy and horror in between the saloons and gunfights (see also: Cowboys and Aliens and American Vampire). The Sixth Gun has all that and more, including a masterful sequence of panels that pits a zombie army against an army of golems. Brilliant! Brian Hurtt’s full color art is ripe and rich, with blood, bile and steel bursting off every page. A little gory and a lot exciting, The Sixth Gun serves up some hardcore graphic novel gun play.

Chew, Vol. 1: Taster’s Choice by John Layman & Rob Guillory

Special Agent Tony Chu is a cibopath: every time he eats something, he has a psychic vision of where that food came from, whether an orchard or slaughterhouse. As a result, he doesn’t tend to eat very much (except for beets, which as a vegetable seem to have zero background personality). His unfortunate mission? To chase down illegal chicken-traffickers for the Special Crimes Division of the US Food and Drug Administration (poultry have been outlawed since the bird flu that killed 23 million Americans three years ago) and, when necessary, chomp on the living or dead parts of criminals in order to find out their dirty little secrets. Along the way, he manages to lose his partner to a flying meat cleaver, nearly gets his brother killed, and draws the attention of some very nasty crime bosses who put a price on his head. All while being very, very hungry and never able to eat anything that doesn’t give him nightmares. You think your job is hard? Just try being Tony Chu for one day. This wholly original GN earned a rightful place on ALA’s 2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens list, and a permanent place in my heart for its black humor, snappy dialogue and utterly awesome grossness. This one has everything from projectile vomiting to hamburgers with human finger condiments. It’s not an overstatement to say you’ll laugh ’til you puke–or at least throw up a little in the back of your mouth.

Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel

When world-weary ghost wrangler Frank Gallows accidentally zaps terminally ill Garth Hale into the in-between dimension of Ghostopolis, the boy finds himself with a new lease on life—or death, as the case may be. As a human being in this spirit world, Garth discovers he has incredible powers that are capable of overthrowing Master Vaugner, the evil Goth dictator of Ghostopolis. But Garth just wants to get back home. Aided by Skinny, his skeletal Nightmare and the friendly ghost of his dead grandfather, Garth almost gets his wish when Frank Gallows and the beautiful ghost mechanic Claire Voyant show up with a machine that can zoom him back into the land of the living. But Vaugner isn’t letting Garth leave until he finds out the secret of his strength and takes it for himself. Soon Garth, Frank and Claire find themselves caught up in the midst of an epic battle for the heart and soul of Ghostopolis. Folks, this is one of those “kitchen sink” books (as in, author and illustrator Doug TenNapel threw in everything but the kitchen sink) that shouldn’t work but it does. There’s action, giant lightning bugs, adventure, a mysterious Tuskegee Airman named Joe, romance, the ghost of Benedict Arnold, side-splitting humor, and a farting werewolf. Somehow, it all comes together and makes perfect sense. I enjoyed every manic moment of it. Don’t believe me? Check it out for yourself—it should be widely available at your local library as it was one of ALA’s 2011 Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens. You’ll also want to be in the know before the planned feature film hits theaters!

American Vampire by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque & Stephen King

I thought I was done with the played out vampire genre, and then this beastly little beauty walked into my life. Creator Scott Snyder and the legendaryStephen King have penned a new breed of vampire, one who can walk in the sun and was born to wreak havoc from the day he was “born” by the rough rails of the Old West. Skinner Sweet (who Rafael Albuquerque has drawn to look like a bargain basement Brad Pitt from Legends of the Fall) was a notorious bank robber in the 1880’s who was known for his brutality and love of candy. But it was when he crossed paths with some pale European gentleman that he REALLY got fangerous. These dudes were businessmen vamps who tried to teach Sweet a lesson when he robbed their train, but they were the ones who ended up getting schooled when Sweet didn’t die. Instead, he evolved into something entirely new: an American Vampire, unique in his ability to feed in direct sunlight. Now it’s 1925 and Sweet has kept those old school vampires on the run for a few decades by popping up again every time they think they’ve buried him for good. And he’s added a new wrinkle: showgirl Pearl, who he has decided to turn into the second American vampire just for fun after she nearly dies from a night out with the European bloodsuckers. How will these two new creatures change the face of the young country? Only time will tell, and good thing these two have an eternity to find out! Now listen up, teen peeps. This horror comic, written for adults, is way more True Blood than Vampire Diaries. It’s graphic, gruesome and truly gory, not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. In other words, if the only vampire you’ve ever met is of the Edward Cullen variety, then Skinner Sweet is probably NOT for you. But if you’re looking for some scary sour to take the edge off all that stale Halloween candy sweet, then this insomnia-inducing, spooktacular GN might be just what the Dr. Frankenstein ordered.

Four Eyes, vol. 1: Forged in Flame by Joe Kelly and Max Fiumara

It’s 1934 in New York City. The country is in the grips of the worst economic depression anyone has ever seen, and everyone is out of work. Enrico’s family is lucky. His father has a steady job providing the city’s thriving illegal underground dragon fighting operation with eggs that trainers grow into dueling monsters for men to bet and lose their hard earned wages on. But when his father comes to a fiery end plying his dangerous trade, Enrico knows he must step up and become the head of his household. That means convincing organized crime boss Christoforo Boccioni that he can take his parent’s place as a stealth dragon egg stealer. Reluctantly, Boccioni lets Enrico take part in a hunt, which is both the most exhilarating and terrifying experience of his short life. He begins to understand his late father’s calling to the brutal business, and what he finds deep in the dragon’s lair has four eyes, two wings and will decide his destiny. This stunningly original GN had me mesmerized from the very first fiery page. I couldn’t have been more tickled by the idea of an alternative Depression-Era New York where instead of cock fights there were wyrm battles. Poor immigrants try to make a buck diving into caves looking for eggs, while rich men take their prizes and let them lose their lives to angry dragon mamas? I’m in! The inky black artwork, richly framed in flame red and deep methane blue, is lush, with several double page spreads that give a bloody panoramic view of the dragon fights and the nightmare descents into the caves. My only complaint is that this collection of issues 1-4 of Four Eyes is only the beginning of Enrico’s dark adventure. I can’t wait to see where the dragon fighting biz takes him next!

The Unsinkable Walker Bean by Aaron Renier

walker bean
Ahoy, maties! If you’re looking for a top notch adventure with despicable pirates, clever girls, courageous dudes, brave dogs, horrifying sea monsters and cursed skulls, well, you’ve come to the right place. Aaron Renier of Spiral-Bound fame has drawn and penned a gorgeous full-color GN that chronicles the tall tale of one Walker Bean, who is darned lucky to be unsinkable because he has an enormous talent for getting into trouble. It all starts when Walker’s beloved grandpa falls deathly ill. Turns out he set eyes on an enchanted skull that came from the deep underwater trench between the mysterious Mango Islands. The trench is home to the dreaded merwich sisters Tartessa and Remora, and the skull was part of their endless collection of bones of the dead who had the misfortune of meeting up with them. Anyone who dares look at the skull either sees the future, becomes fatally ill or both. Walker’s grandpa knows the only way to save himself and his seaside town is to get the bonehead back to its cave sweet cave. Because when he looked into the empty eye sockets, he also saw into his future. And what he saw was the two hideous sisters climbing out of their watery hole and coming to claim their property, destroying everything in their path. Walker’s dad, a navy officer, thinks it’s all bunk and wants to sell the valuable bone to the highest bidder. So Grandpa begs Walker to hide the skull and find a way to return it to its gruesome owners. Walker sets off, but is soon sidelined by everything from a boatload of pirates to a sassy sword wielding deckhand named Genoa who may be a girl but who can still kick his butt six ways to Sunday. It’s going to take all of Walker’s considerable powers of imagination to figure out a way to outsmart his father, save his grandpa and keep the merwitches down with the Titanic where they belong. Can he do it? Of course, because we already know from the title that Mr. Walker Bean is UNSINKABLE! Bespectacled Walker is a lovable nerd hero of the first order, with his journals full of invention ideas and his, well, less than “Situation” physique. This fast-paced, hyper-detailed action adventure is fun for the whole family. I mean it, I can seriously see both your bratty little sibs and your tyrannical parents trying to arm wrestle you for it, it’s just that entertaining. I couldn’t stop pouring over the intricately detailed panels, especially the double-paged spreads, which are eye-popping in color and scope and reminded me in the best possible way of one my most favorite childhood reads.  Soon to be sailing into a library or bookstore near you!

Scott Pilgrim: Precious Little Life, vol. 1 by Bryan Lee O’Malley

scott pilgrim
Before you tell me, I KNOW. I know Scott Pilgrim has been around since 2004 and I probably should have covered his precious little life before now. I know tons of you have already read all five volumes (#6 debuts July 2010) of his graphic novel adventures. But for those of you who haven’t yet met the sweetest slacker boy since Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, and want the skinny before Michael Cera makes him famous on the big screen, here ya go. Scott Pilgrim is a happy go lucky dude. He’s living in an apartment almost entirely furnished and kept up by his sardonic gay roommate Wallace Wells and playing gigs with his rock and roll band while waiting for the perfect job to find him. Oh yeah, and he’s dating a high schooler named Knives Chau, (she’s 17, he’s 23) who’s completely adorable and NOT the ninja assassin her name might imply. (BTW, if I even have to leave the country abruptly, I am TOTALLY changing my name to Knives. Don’t tell anyone, k?) Everything’s just peachy until he has a crazy dream about a roller-blading Amazon.com delivery girl and discovers that she’s not just a dream (as in, “Get out of my dreams and into my car”) but a real live girl named Ramona Flowers (My fav quote from the book? “I know, it’s so ‘Ramona Quimby, Age 8’ and yet…Flowers.”). Scott and Ramona feel an instant connection. But what about Knives? How can Scott bear to break her innocent little heart? Then there’s also the small matter of Ramona’s seven evil ex-boyfriends, who Scott will have to fight and conquer if he wants to date her. Sound complicated? It IS. And that’s JUST volume 1! I really dug O’Malley’s rough sketched big-eyed art, his completely realistic portrayal of Scott’s dating drama with both Knives and Ramona, and the hilarious shot of bizarre fantasy at the end as Scott takes on the first of Ramona’s evil ex’s, Matthew Patel and his host of flying demon fireball girls. But the part that warms my heart is how he thanks my fav indie comic girl Hope Larson in the front. Awww! Arm yourself with all 6 paperbacks now, so you’ll be ready to debate about whether the movie does Scott justice when it hits theaters August 2010.

Brain Camp by Susan Kim, Laurence Klavan and Faith Erin Hicks

Lucas is a long-haired slacker who breaks into cars for fun. Jenna is a drama geek in a family full of wanna-be doctors and lawyers. Both of them have been rejected from every summer program their parents tried to get them into. So when a tall, dark ugly stranger shows up with an offer to enroll Lucas and Jenna in a special summer camp “guaranteed to prepare any child for the SATs and beyond,” their parents jump at the chance to get their little losers off their hands. But from the minute they set foot in Camp Fielding, Lucas and Jenna know something is wrong with these smug smarty-pants. They seem to swing from deeply dim to blindingly brilliant, they don’t notice how gross the food is, and they are oddly excited by…Euclidean geometry. And what’s with all the dead baby birds on the ground and feathers floating around the cabins? There’s something fishy—or rather, birdy going on at Camp Fielding and Lucas and Jenna are determined to find out what it is—before they end up spouting facts as robotically and unemotionally as their weird bunkmates. I love a good urban legend, and this one has the creepy flavor of every story you’ve ever heard whispered late at night that starts with, “And this story is true, because it happened to my friend’s second cousin’s older brother.” Faith Erin Hicks’ kooky cool art reminds me of Hope Larson’s terrific Chiggers. But Brain Camp is a whole lot darker and deliciously gross. Reminiscent of those scary stories you like to share around the bonfire, you can’t go wrong with this sweetly sadistic summer camp chiller.

I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and illustrated by JM Ken Niimura

Barbara Thorson is not your average fifth grader. Oh, she may look like just another bespectacled, funny-hatted munchkin, but don’t get her mad because she just might smite you with her mighty hammer, Coveleski (named for an obscure left handed Phillies pitcher who single handedly defeated the New York Giants in a 1908 playoff race). Because Barbara, master D & D player and middle school bully buster, is also a secret giant slayer. Few people know about the spells she works in her room or the offerings she leaves on the beach near her Long Island home that keep her home and small town giant-free. But when a nosy school counselor, a well-meaning classmate and a preternaturally large stone cold bully named Taylor start poking around in Barbara’s business, all hell breaks loose and Barbara is forced to face a giant she’s been ignoring for a long time: her mother’s cancer. This b&w GN may be ABOUT a fifth grader, but it’s so not FOR a fifth grade reader. It’s for my middle and high school peeps who struggle against the giants of loneliness, fear, insecurity and pain everyday and don’t feel like they have anyone who will stand by their side and raise a sword. I loved Niimura’s scrappy, rough-hewn style and the ease in which he flips between Barbara’s real and imagined life. Bold, angry and surprisingly sweet, I Kill Giants is the perfect antidote for those days when you feel like the bad guys may be winning and you need a little lift by first lunch.

Zeus: King of the Gods by George O’Connor

Ever wonder how we got here? How the Earth was formed, how we human beans popped into existence? There are several versions of the creation myth–you can take your pick when it comes to explaining how we emerged from the Great Black Void: Christian, Hindu, Egyptian, Norse, the list could go on and on. But my favorite has got to be that wacky Greek version, so recently made popular by former middle school teacher Rick Riordan. But forget Percy Jackson, he’s just some johnny-come-lately compared to the dude who made the lightning in the first place, the very first international playboy and rebellious teenager, Zeus. Artist and author George O’Connor provides readers with a crash course in the Greek creation myth, which basically consists of Mother Earth and Father Sky giving birth to some big nasty gods, including Kronos, who wants to keep all the temporal goodies for himself. So every time his wife has a baby, he swallows it so it can’t grow up to challenge him. Eventually his wife gets sick of giving up her babies for dinner, so she hides one. Zeus is raised in secret by hot nymphs (which will explain his later lady-killer ways) and tricks his father into swallowing a poison plant which makes him vomit up all Zeus’s sibs, now fully grown and totally pissed off! What happens next is the story of how Zeus claims his father’s throne with the help of his super sibs (more about them later) and gets the lightning that Percy’s gotta find in couple thousand years. O’Connor’s hyper-kinetic art is old school comic book illustration, full of action, energy and bursts of color. For those of you also interested in more than just a good celestial butt-kicking, there’s also a helpful Greek god family tree in the front and some fun extras in the back, including minor god and goddess profiles and some cool websites you might want to visit. For more Greek superhero action, pair this GN with the new and improved Clash of the Titans.

Calamity Jack by Shannon and Dean Hale, illustrated by Nathan Hale

calamity jack
The crackerjack team of Hale, Hale & Hale are back with another rootin’ tootin’ graphic adventure of that wild girl Rapunzel and her trouble-making friends. This volume covers the back-story of ‘Punzie’s scheming sidekick, Jack. Before he met Rapunzel out west, Jack made his living swindling chumps in the big city with his partner Prudence, a stylish pixie with a serious attitude and an addiction to fancy hats. He was forced to skip town after a problematic beanstalk, a golden-egg laying goose and an angry giant named Blunderboar made it unsafe to return home to his hand-wringing, bakery-owning mama. After hightailing it west and meeting Rapunzel, Jack knows it’s time to head back home and make things right. Except in his absence, the fearsome giant Blunderboar has set up a corrupt shadow government and taken Jack’s mother prisoner in order to force her to bake his human-bone meal bread. Now Jack and Rapunzel must team up with Prudence and verbose muckraking journalist Frederick Sparksmith III to uncover Blunderboar’s citywide scheme and prove to the people once and for all what a, well, BOAR Blunderboar really is! All the while, Jack is trying to work up the courage to tell Rapunzel how he really feels about her. But will silver-tongued Frederick sway her heart instead? This action-packed sequel is every bit as entertaining as its predecessor, and then some. Jack’s big city, in contrast to Rapunzel’s Wild West, is a bustling technological marvel, which adds a little steam punk to the whole whimsical affair. The imaginative team of Hale to the 3rd power envisions their fantastical teeming urbanity as a magnet for diverse immigrants of every color and creed; from Native and African Americans to fairies and porcine half-men. Thanks to Nathan Hale’s meticulous attention to detail, each full color panel is a little work of art. This GN was so much fun that just writing this review makes me want to read it again! Batten down the hatches and tie up the dirigibles–this is one wild ride.

Gunnerkrigg Court, volume 1: Orientation by Thomas Siddell

gunnerkrig court
Following in the fantasy footsteps of Harry Potter and The Wizards of Waverly Place, Gunnerkrigg Court is a funny, off-kilter graphic novel that chronicles the educational adventures of Antimony Carver, a precocious and rather dry seventh grader. Needless to say, the Court is NOT like other institutes of higher learning. Within days of joining the student body, fiery-haired Antimony befriends a Minotaur (“I prefer to be called Basil”), discovers one of her teachers is really a knight, and traps a deadly demon in her stuffed animal. She navigates the peculiar corridors of the Court with her best friend Kat, and together they deal with everything from old-fashioned ghosts and talking shadows to scarlet-eyed mean girls and lovelorn bird boys. When faced with an insurmountable problem, Antimony is never at loss for a solution, whether that involves quickly constructing a winged robot to run an important errand, or blowing up a death ray created by armless space aliens, even though “I can’t help but wonder how creatures without arms could make such a device and tie my friends up.” All the while, Antimony keeps trying to uncover the mysterious origins of her parents, who were former students of Gunnerkrigg Court. But as her mother has died and her father has disappeared, answers are in short supply. While volume one ends with even more questions, this collection of Thomas Siddell’s original webcomic still turns the tired old “magic school” premise on its ear with it’s bizarre manga-esque-looking characters and oddball humor. And I’m not the only one who was wooed by the weirdness: Neil Gaiman called Gunnerkrigg Court his “favorite webcomic” while ALA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens committee named it to their 2010 Top Ten list.