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!

You Are Not Here by Samantha Schutz

you are not here
In this heart-breaking verse novel, Annaleah is devastated when she gets the call that her sometime boyfriend Brian collapsed on the basketball court at the park and died. Just like that, Brian is gone. The situation feels surreal and Annaleah is in a state of shock. “It was absurd/that I had dirty laundry/and that Brian/was dead.” She goes to his funeral, even though she’s never met his parents and doesn’t know his friends. Now Annaleah has to manage all the conflicting feelings she had for the boy she only dated for three months and who she was never really sure of. Of course she feels grief at all the things they will never do together: “I will never/take a trip with you./I will never/dance with you at prom./I will never/know if we had a future/beyond this summer./ I will never/know if you would have said,/‘I love you.’” But she also realizes that their short relationship was far from perfect. “I wonder what it would have felt like/to have a relationship with Brian/where I wasn’t always questioning/and worrying/and feeling so alone.” After spending the summer visiting Brian’s grave, nursing her sorrow and avoiding her friends, Annaleah begins to wonder who she is without Brian’s grief to bear. “Feeling sad/has kept me busy–/it’s been my job./And if I come here less,/what will I have?” But then she meets quirky Ethan at the pizza joint where she works and finds out a secret about Brian that casts their brief relationship in a whole new light. Can Annaleah put the past and Brian’s ghost behind her? Or will she allow the memory of her lost love to destroy her ability to make any new ones? Samantha Schutz’s second book is a sad yet interesting look at the phenomenon of grieving over a relationship that never really was. 1 weepie.

Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel

half brother
It’s 1973 and Ben Tomlin is thirteen-years-old when his parents bring home his new baby brother, Zan. Like most babies, Zan needs baby food and diapers, and can throw a serious tantrum when things don’t go his way. But unlike most babies, Zan’s tantrums can be epic and may involve biting that requires stitches. Because Ben’s new little brother isn’t a human baby but a baby chimpanzee. Ben’s parents are behavioral scientists trying to discover if human/chimp communication is possible through the use of American Sign Language. To test their hypothesis, they will cross-foster a chimp in their human family, raising him as their own and teaching him sign language. There’s only one problem. No one asked Ben if he wanted a half-chimp brother. At first he’s just creeped out by the whole idea, but then Zan begins to win him over with his ridiculous antics, sweet personality and voracious ability to learn. Soon it really IS like Zan is just another member of the family, albeit a messy, loud, needy one. So when the experiment takes a unexpected turn and Zan’s continued placement in his home is questioned, Ben isn’t able to turn off his feelings for the chimp like his rational, science-minded dad. He’ll do whatever it takes to protect his little brother—even if it means breaking the law or tearing his family apart.

What’s so gor-ge-oso about this book is how Kenneth Oppel parallels Zan’s physical and mental development with the growth of Ben’s emotional maturity. As Zan is taught to be human, Ben begins to see how adolescence and high school are very much like a wild jungle, where he will have to learn how to be a dominant male (making many hilarious mistakes along the way) if he wants to survive. And as Zan begins to act out against his human family, making his chimp side known, Ben begins to chafe against the absolute rules of his strict father, making his emerging young manhood known. Everyone in the novel is a fully realized character, from Ben and Zan, to Peter, the hippie grad student who Zan loves best and Ben’s mom, a scientist with a soft heart who provides the book’s emotional and moral center. You guys, I just cried through the whole second half of this book, it was so moving. (That may want to make you read it more or less, depending on whether or not you are as big of a mush as me:) I couldn’t believe how attached I grew to these fictional characters. I didn’t want the story to end, and wanted to understand where Oppel’s inspiration came from. So I did a little digging and think that Oppel probably based Zan’s story on this true story of a chimp named Washoe who was cross fostered and taught ASL in the late 1960’s. If given even half a chance, this fantastically crafted tale of what it means to be human will swing into your heart to stay.