The Comics Alternative extends a warm welcome to Paul Lai, who has taken over from Andy Wolverton as co-host with Gwen Tarbox on the Young Readers show. Everyone at The Comics Alternative family will miss Andy’s wise and engaging reviews and perspectives on children’s and young adult comics.
In their first show together, Gwen and Paul discuss the newest volume in First Second Books’ Science Comics series, Falynn Christine Koch’s Bats: Learning to Fly, as well as Ru Xu’s fiction (“diesel-punk,” as Paul terms it) graphic novel NewsPrints, published by the GRAPHIX imprint at Scholastic Books.
Since its launch in 2016, the Science Comics series has included volumes on coral reefs, volcanoes, and dinosaurs. Geared towards upper elementary and middle school aged readers, Science Comics take advantage of the elements of visual storytelling to put forward scientific information. As the editors point out: “With the increasing ubiquity of visual information,” young readers need to “learn to process and respond to visual content, and comics are an incredibly effective medium for exploring visual literacy.” Regular listeners to the podcast may remember that Gwen and Andy reviewed Dinosaurs by M.K. Reed and Joe Flood in their March 2016 YR show, and many of the elements that they praised, including the accessibility of scientific information, as well as the use of humor, appear in Koch’s volume, as well.
Bats: Learning to Fly encourages young readers to understand the important role that bats play in the ecosystem, to overcome their fear of bats, and to learn how they can become involved in protecting and caring for bats. In addition to providing a great deal of information on various species of Bats, Koch creates a narrative in which a teenage girl, Sarah, volunteers at a bat rehabilitation center after her parents overreact to a bat and injure it. Lil’ Brown, as the bat is known, is both a character in that narrative and a narrative presence in his own right, as he directly addresses the reader at various points regarding his own anatomy and role in the ecosystem. As part of their discussion, Paul and Gwen consider how young readers might respond to the way information is imparted in the comic, and they look forward to Koch’s upcoming volume for the Science Comics series, Plagues: The Microscopic Battlefield, due out in August, 2017. Koch recently graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), and Gwen and Paul discuss how her precision drawings and humor-filled text combine to create a text that will delight readers, while encouraging them to appreciate how they can play a role in scientific study by volunteering to rehabilitate bats or building bat houses for their backyards.
Next, Gwen and Paul discuss another debut comic from a SCAD graduate. NewsPrints is written and drawn by Ru Xu, a comics creator who was born in Beijing, immigrated to Indianapolis as a young child, and has had a lifelong love of comics from a variety of traditions, including manga, European comics, and even superhero comics. NewsPrints takes place in a fictional diesel-punk world where the land of Nautilene is torn by war and a newspaper called The Bugle is the only media outlet left that is still reporting the truth. The protagonist, Blue, is a rare kind of newsboy in a society that counts on its newsboys to shout out the headlines and sell papers…and that’s because Blue is not a boy, but a girl, orphaned by the war and adopted by the family who owns the newspaper. Blue sets out to provide that one doesn’t have to be a boy to be vital in the news business, and along the way, readers are introduced to a cast of characters such as Jack, the eccentric and secretive inventor; Crow, a strange kid who remains wrapped in a scarf and in mysteries of his own; and Goldie, Blue’s loyal canary, who matches Blue’s welcoming of people and spirit of flight.
As part of their discussion, Paul and Gwen praise Xu’s mastery of many genres of comics, including her ability to meld various traditional forms into an entirely unique story world. Thus, while the text shares much in common with recent fantasy releases, including Faith Erin Hicks’ The Nameless City and Jorge Corona’s Feathers, NewsPrints stands on its own, with a vast, inviting story space and a focus on issues of truth and representation that are ever more a part of our own political and social climate. Paul praised Xu’s deft handling of interactions among characters, and Gwen expressed her admiration for Xu’s use of color and shading to help set the mood and to ease transitions across the comic. Given the book’s indeterminate ending, Paul and Gwen look forward to the series continuing into additional volumes, and they dwell on Xu’s treatment of gender and ethnicity in thoughtful ways.
Gwen and Andy both are astounded that the end of the year is almost upon them, and with that in mind, they’ve picked their favorite books of 2016 for young readers. The Two People with PhDs each picked five books in the children’s category and five books in the intermediate/young adult (YA) category, but something odd happened: their lists were almost identical!
In the children’s category, Gwen and Andy both chose the following four books, many of which they have already discussed on previous episodes.
Andy diverged by picking Bert’s Way Home, by John Martz (Koyama Press), the story of an orphan named Bert who’s no regular orphan, but an orphan of time and space, stranded on Earth after a cosmic accident.
Gwen’s final pick in this category was Blip! a TOON Level 1 book by Barnaby Richards about a robot whose vocabulary consists of only one word (“Blip”) as he tries to find his way through an unfamiliar planet.
In the Intermediate/YA category, Gwen and Andy also agree on their first four titles:
The two people with PhDs also had the great pleasure of interviewing Matt Phelan on the show last month. You can listen to that interview here.
Andy’s final choice was Mighty Jack, by Ben Hatke, a title previously discussed on the show back in August.
For Gwen’s final choice, she picked Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling, by Tony Cliff (First Second), a book previously discussed by Derek and Sean in its original webcomics format. This volume picks up where the first volume, 2013's Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, left off.
At the end of the show, Gwen mentioned a new all ages wordless comic that she learned about on Dr. Debbie Reese’s excellent American Indians in Children’s Literature blog, Jonathan Nelson’s The Wool of Jonesy: Part I, published by Native Realities Press. Here is the blurb from the publisher’s website:
Written and illustrated by Diné artist Jonathan Nelson, The Wool of Jonesy #1 tells the first story of Jonesy the Sheep and his adventures out on the rez. As Jonesy heads out to explore life after high school he finds himself discovering and dreaming. The wonderfully illustrated story gives young and old alike a simple and enchanting view of reservation life through the eyes of an amazing character!
Readers can check out Debbie Reese’s review.
Gwen and Andy hope that these titles might be considered for gift for the holiday season. You really can’t go wrong with any of these titles. We can’t wait to see what great comics are in store for us in 2017. You can be sure we’ll pass all the information along to you. Happy reading!
Gwen and Andy are back with something different for the Young Readers edition of The Comics Alternative: their very first publisher spotlight on First Second Books. The Two People with PhDs have looked at many First Second books in the past, but this time they’re looking at the publisher’s fall selections. (Since they covered Ben Hatke’s Mighty Jack in their August show, Gwen and Andy give it just a brief mention here, but you should definitely check it out!) They begin with Andy Hirsch’s Varmints, a wild adventure set in the Old West with sister and brother Opie and Ned, searching for the man who shot their ma. If you like Western stories filled with action, action, and more action, this is the book for you. (And don't miss the Comics Alternative interview with Andy Hirsch!)
Next, they turn to Quirk’s Quest: Into the Outlands by Robert Christie and Deborah Lang, an exploration adventure with the crew of the H.M.S. Gwaniimander under the command of Captain Quenterindy Quirk. Quirk’s voyage quickly meets with a near disaster as his crew discovers a land of deadly giants, a valley of weird creatures, and a sorceress who may or may not have the crew’s best interests in mind. Christie and Lang’s characters may look like something out of a Jim Henson production, but the world they’ve created is unique and compelling.
Eric Orchard’s Bera the One-Headed Troll is yet a different type of quest story, this one featuring the titular troll and her owl companion Winslowe as they discover an abandoned human baby on their pumpkin patch island. Everyone seems to want the child for their own nefarious purposes, but Bera is determined to keep the baby safe from mermaids, witches, and a creature called Cloote, the former head witch of the Troll King. Orchard’s wonderfully bizarre illustrations combine with masterful storytelling that’s filled with humor and depth.
Finally, the Two People with PhDs look at The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo by Drew Weing, the story of a young girl who’s a “monster mediator,” someone who patrols the streets of Echo City for trolls, ogres, and ghosts. And they’re all afraid of her! (Note: Sean and Derek discussed the online version of this series in the June webcomics episode.) Andy and Gwen both agree that Margo Maloo is a spectacular story, but it’s so much more. It’s also a book that works on multiple levels touching on the fears, prejudices, and anxieties of us all. First Second is a treasure trove of great books and Gwen and Andy hope that you’ll want to read them all!
This episode of the Young Readers show begins with a special feature: Andy and Gwen return to a comic that they reviewed for the August YR show, Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts. They present a revised review of that comic, based upon a number of issues that have been raised in the last month by scholars and librarians regarding cultural appropriation and Telgemeier’s status as an outsider writing about the California missions and about the Dia de los Muertos celebrations that are a common feature of Mexican and Mexican American cultural life. Although the two PhDs typically try to avoid spoilers in their reviews, in this case, they mention specific events in the comic, so if you would like to wait until you have read Ghosts to listen to this segment, know that it occurs between the time codes 6:02 and 30:26.
As part of revisiting their discussion of Ghosts, Gwen and Andy bring up a number of resources that readers may wish to consult regarding issues of cultural appropriation, including Dr. Debbie Reese’s blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature; Dr. Laura Jiménez’s blog, Booktoss; and the Reading While White blog that is the creation of a number of librarians who are “allies for racial diversity and inclusion in books for children and teens.”
During the regular review portion of the podcast, Andy and Gwen discuss The Backstagers #1, written by James Tynion IV, drawn by Rian Sygh, with color by Walter Baiamonte, and lettering by Jim Campbell. This exciting, fast-paced comic, published by BOOM! Studios, has a lot in common with another BOOM! Studio’s hit series, Lumberjanes, so whether one is a veteran of theater productions or just likes ensemble comics that feature an eclectic cast of characters, then The Backstagers will fill the bill. For his part, Andy applauds Tynion and Sygh’s depiction of the people who do all of the hard work behind the scenes of a theater production, often without acclaim, and Gwen gives the series praise for its inclusion of a number of gay characters who are part of the stage crew. The Backstagers also includes supernatural elements that would appeal to young readers who have an interest in science fiction characters and settings.
Next, the two PhDs discuss Matt Phelan’s graphic novel, Snow White (Candlewick Press), an adaptation that is steeped in elements of film noir, and even silent film, while managing to comment on contemporary debates about the ethics of the pursuit of wealth. Set during the Great Depression, the evil queen becomes the Queen of Ziegfield Follies, and all of the energy and emotion of the era is expressed in Phelan’s exceptional watercolor panels that are intricately shaded and carefully colored. Andy discusses Phelan’s impressive career as an award-winning creator of such texts as The Storm in the Barn, which won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and he praises Phelan’s decision to allow the often sinister and gritty aspects that characterized eighteenth- and nineteenth-century folktale and fairytale variants to emerge in this version of Snow White. Although readers would not need to be familiar with the origin text, both Andy and Gwen agree that much of the power of the narrative comes from the way that Phelan translates familiar tropes such as the talking mirror into a Depression-era setting.
Although some kids may not be so excited to be heading back to school, Gwen and Andy (the Two People with PhDs) give young readers cause to rejoice this month with the upcoming release of two new graphic novels: Mighty Jack (First Second) by Ben Hatke and Ghosts (Graphix/Scholastic) by Raina Telgemeier.
Andy starts things off with Mighty Jack, the story of a kid named Jack who’s not having a very fun summer. To make ends meet, Jack’s single mom finds a second job, but that means Jack will have sole responsibility of keeping an eye on his autistic sister Maddy. Maddy never speaks, until one day at a flea market she shocks Jack by telling him that he must buy a box of seeds from a sketchy-looking man. Later, as Jack and Maddy plant a garden with their new seeds, weird, magical, and dangerous things begin to happen.
Next, Gwen introduces the highly-anticipated new book by Raina Telgemeier, Ghosts. It's the story of Catrina and her family as they move from Los Angeles to the Northern California coast, hoping the climate will agree with Cat’s sister Maya, who suffers from cystic fibrosis. Cat is shocked to discover that everyone in their new town seems obsessed with ghosts, even Maya. Cat just wishes they could just go back to L.A., but her parents -- and perhaps the ghosts -- have other plans.
Gwen and Andy point out elements common in both books: parental issues, sibling rivalries and bonding, freedom, danger, and fear of the unknown. Both books are multilayered, superbly told, and they should appeal equally to readers young and old (something of a rarity these days). Although their art styles are quite different, these two books demonstrate that Hatke and Telgemeier are both masterful storytellers. These creators are producing what are perhaps their best works. It’s an exciting time for comics readers of all ages, and these are two books to pick up with confidence.
This month, Andy and Gwen discuss a three graphic novels for young readers that are written by pairs of comics creators. Compass South (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) brings together Hope Larson (Chiggers; A Wrinkle in Time) with Rebecca Mock, a New York-based freelance illustrator, while the other two titles are written by Gene Luen Yang in collaboration with Mike Holmes on Secret Coders 2: Paths and Portals (First Second) and with Thien Pham on Level Up (Square Fish).
To begin the show, Gwen introduces readers to the premise of Larson and Mock’s exciting middle-grade graphic novel Compass South. Set in 1860, this fast-paced, colorful text follows the adventures of a pair of twelve-year-old redheaded twins, Alexander and Cleopatra Dodge. Orphaned as infants upon the death of their mother, the twins are transported to New York City to be raised by the kindly Mr. Dodge, a working class immigrant from Ireland who had once been in love with the twins’ mother. The children have received as an inheritance a pocket watch and a knife, and it turns out that these objects hold secret information that a corrupt pirate and his gang hope to uncover. When the twins’ father mysteriously disappears, Alex suggests that they travel to San Francisco and pose as the long lost children of a wealthy industrialist. In order to participate in the ruse, Cleopatra cuts her hair, dons boys’ clothes, and escapes with Alex to New Orleans. There, things become very complicated when they run into another set of redheaded twins, Silas and Edwin, who also plan to sail to San Francisco and present themselves to the industrialist. Chaos descends as the two pairs of twins are split up, and everyone from a street gang leader in New York and a violent, blood-thirsty pirate chase the children across the globe. Andy praises the novel for its character development and technical brilliance, and Gwen notes that the use of cross dressing allows Larson and Mock the ability to comment upon gendered expectations, both in the nineteenth century and today. Compass South ends on a cliffhanger that will be addressed in the second volume of the series, Knife’s Edge, coming out in 2017.
Next, Andy introduced Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes’s second volume in their Secret Coders series, a set of STEM-oriented graphic novel for middle grade readers. Set in the austere Stately Academy, Secret Coders 2: Paths and Portals takes up immediately where the initial volume ends, with friends Hopper, Eni, and Josh using the principles of coding to solve mysteries. Andy notes that readers will want to be sure to have read the first book before moving on to this second, but he explains that the effort will be rewarding. Secret Coders 2 is action-packed, filled with humor, and encourages young readers to learn more about coding. Gwen agrees, pointing out that even though a lot of instruction goes on in the text, Yang and Holmes present coding lessons as part of a well-integrated plot that follows the experiences of three highly developed protagonists. Gwen also encourages listeners to check out the Secret Coders blog for more information on coding for kids.
For their final review, Andy and Gwen discusses Gene Luen Yang’s collaboration with illustrator Thien Pham on Level Up, a coming-of-age graphic novel that was first published in 2011. The reissued volume is printed on a heavy, glossy paper stock that serves as an excellent medium for Pham’s masterful watercolor illustrations. The story follows Dennis Ouyang, the child of Chinese immigrants, who struggles to reconcile his love of video games with his desire to fulfill his parents’ wishes that he become a gastroenterologist. Given that the comic takes Dennis from grade school through to medical school, Level Up will be of interest to a wide audience, from middle school readers up to adults. After Gwen provides young listeners with an enthralling description of gastroenterology, the two PhDs consider how Level Up incorporates Yang’s interest in faith and magical realism, as well as his interest in describing the immigrant experience.
On this special episode of the Young Readers edition of The Comics Alternative, Gwen and Andy take a look at the 2016 Eisner Award nominees and winners in each of the three young readers categories. The Two People with PhDs discuss not only the books and their creators, but also the categories themselves, the changes they’ve seen in those categories over the years, and changes they’d like to see in the future. Gwen and Andy know you’ll find some great books here and hope you’ll share your thoughts with them once you’ve read them. (You can find a complete list of all the Eisner Award winners here as well as the complete list of nominees here.)
In the lists below, the winner of the category is in bold face type.
Best Publication for Early Readers (up to age 8)
• Anna Banana and the Chocolate Explosion, by Dominque Roques and Alexis Dormal (First Second)
• Little Robot, by Ben Hatke (First Second)
• The Only Child, by Guojing (Schwartz & Wade)
• SheHeWe, by Lee Nordling and Meritxell Bosch (Lerner Graphic Universe)
• Written and Drawn by Henrietta, by Liniers (Ricardo Siri Linders, an Argentine creator) (TOON Books)
Best Publication for Kids (ages 9-12)
• Baba Yaga’s Assistant, by Marika McCoola and Emily Carroll (Candlewick)
• Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War, by Jessica Dee Humphreys, Michel Chikwanine, and Claudia Devila (Kids Can Press)
• Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor, by Nathan Hale (Abrams Amulet)
• Over the Garden Wall, by Pat McHale, Amalia Levari, and Jim Campbell (BOOM! Studios/KaBOOM!)
• Roller Girl, by Victoria Jamieson (Dial Books)
• Sunny Side Up, by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm (Scholastic Graphix)
Best Publication for Teens (ages 13-17)
• Awkward, by Svetlana Chmakova (Yen Press)
• Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, by Don Brown (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
• March: Book Two, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (Top Shelf/IDW)
• Moose, by Max de Radiguès (Conundrum)
• Oyster War, by Ben Towle (Oni)
• SuperMutant Magic Academy, by Jillian Tamaki (Drawn & Quarterly)
This month, Gwen and Andy take listeners on a worldwide tour featuring adventures of various cultures in three books: Musnet: The Mouse of Monet by Kickliy (Uncivilized Books/Odod), Anne Szabla’s Bird Boy Volume 1: The Sword of Mali Mahi (Dark Horse Books), and Poppy! and the Lost Lagoon by Matt Kindt and Brian Hurtt (Dark Horse Books).
Before they get to the books, Andy and Gwen both regret not being able to attend HeroesCon, but Gwen gives a brief (and very interesting) report from her recent experience at the Children’s Literature Association Conference in Columbus, Ohio. Who knows? Maybe the Two People with PhDs Talking about Comics for Young Readers will both be there next year?
Gwen and Andy are always excited to see more comics translated into English, and Kickliy’s Musnet: The Mouse of Monet is now available in French and English editions. Both enjoyed the leisurely storytelling and the wonderful use of color in this story of a mouse named Mus who longs to paint like a master artist. This first volume of a projected four-volume series introduces us to Mus’s world in Giverny, France, his teacher, his new friend Mya, and the world of painting. This book will appeal especially to young readers (ages 8 and up) who show an interest not just in painting, but in any of the arts. The look and pace of the book may take some getting used to for young readers, especially if this is their first venture into European comics, but the venture is certainly worth taking.
Next, Gwen and Andy discuss Bird Boy Volume 1: The Sword of Mali Mahi, which began (and continues) as a webcomic by Anne Szabla. This book (suggested for ages 8-12) contains familiar elements of quest/adventure stories, yet it has the feel of something both fresh and ancient. Szabla combines elements of myth and legend from a great many sources -- Mayan, Norse, Northwest Native American, etc. -- to tell the story of Bali, a 10-year-old boy desperate to prove his worth to his tribe despite being small in stature. Although considered too little to participate in an important coming-of-age ceremony, Bali takes matters into his own hands and discovers a dangerous secret that’s been kept hidden for ages.
Gwen and Andy love the story and can’t say enough about the fabulous art and use of color, yet they wish that the creator and publisher had given readers some information about the cultural influences reflected in the book. (Perhaps they will in the second volume, which comes out later this summer.) Still, Bird Boy is an exciting, unique new series that the two look forward to exploring further.
Finally, Gwen and Andy could not stop singing the praises of Poppy! and the Lost Lagoon by Matt Kindt and Brian Hurtt. Although suggested for ages 8-12, this is a book that can be enjoyed and appreciated by much older readers...even those with PhDs! Ten-year-old Poppy Pepperton and her legal guardian Colt Winchester are explorers working for a 4,000-year-old Egyptian pharaoh with the body of an eight-year-old boy. The pharaoh sends Poppy and Colt on an adventure that would make Indiana Jones think twice, a story filled with danger, mystery, riddles, puzzles, a flying carpet, a mummy head that talks, a creature called a gigantipus, and more!
Poppy! is truly a book of wonder, reflected not only in characters we quickly come to love and care about, but also in its fantastic art and glorious use of watercolor. And although Poppy! is an enormously entertaining book filled with humor, it also speaks to issues of the environment and the preservation of natural habitats without getting preachy or didactic. It’s pretty safe to say this is one of Gwen and Andy’s favorite books so far in 2016.
This month’s show includes a review of two recently released graphic novels, John Patrick Green’s Hippopotamister (First Second) and Steven T. Seagle and Jason Adam Katzenstein’s Camp Midnight (Image Comics), as well as interviews Andy conducted at the first-ever Anne Arundel County (Maryland) Public Library Comic Con, held on May 14. At this event, Andy had the chance to speak to a number of young readers, as well as their parents, about their favorite comics and about their own work as budding comics creators.
At the beginning of the podcast, Andy reads an email that comics writer Samuel Teer wrote to him and Gwen regarding their October 2015 review of Veda: Assembly Required (Dark Horse), an all-ages comic that he wrote in collaboration with artist Hyeondo Park and colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick. Samuel was kind enough to thank the two for their positive review of the book and mentioned that the two people with PhDs gave him some helpful suggestions for future works. (Glad to oblige, Samuel! Keep those great comics coming!)
First up in the review segment is Hippopotamister, a title that both Gwen and Andy can say three times fast and recommend three times over. This graphic novel for younger readers provides a humorous, carefully-crafted story about the way that two friends, Red Panda and Hippo, enter into the “human world” in order to find jobs, after their city zoo falls into disrepair. Red Panda, who leaves the enclosure first and returns with tales of his exciting forays into the world of work, encourages his friend to join him, but he cautions, “amongst the humans you can no longer be just a hippopotamus. You must become…HIPPOPOTAMISTER!” What follows is a tour through occupations that help Hippopotamister and Red Panda figure out their natural talents. Of course, complications arise on these friends’ paths to self-understanding and a regular paycheck, but both end up finding work that suits them well.
In addition to praising the color work of Cat Caro, Andy highlights one of the funniest splash pages in the comic that depicts Hippopotamister’s invention of a new hairstyle entitled “The Hippopompadour.” Gwen loves the whimsy of that scene and notes that, in addition to creating vibrant splash pages, Green excels at planting small details across the entire graphic novel that are clearly put there for the amusement of adult or middle grade readers. For instance, the restaurant where Red Panda and Hippopotamister try their hand at being sous chefs is called “Trattoria Della Bestia,” a name that draws a fine line between those animals that prepare the food versus those who serve as the meal. Andy and Gwen also point out the effectiveness of Green’s images in moving the narration along. As Andy puts it, a beginning reader could figure out the action of the story, even if s/he couldn’t read all of the words, yet the wordplay throughout the comic underscores the fine balance that Green achieves in his comics artistry.
Next, Gwen and Andy discuss Camp Midnight, a collaboration between longtime friends Steven T. Seagle, a TV writer/producer and comic-book author, and Jason Adam Katzenstein, a cartoonist whose work regularly appears in The New Yorker. Their colorful and sophisticated all-ages comic follows Skye Sullivan, a disgruntled tween, who boards the wrong bus and ends up at a summer camp where everyone but her new friend, Mia, sheds their daytime human exteriors in order to reveal their true monster identities. At first, Skye wants nothing more than to head back home, but she finds herself drawn to Griffin, a boy worthy of “cute guy alerts,” and she wants to figure out why Mia is also something of an outcast at Camp Midnight.
Both Gwen and Andy comment on the powerful, saturated colors employed throughout the comic, as well as the realistic depiction of all of the joys and pitfalls of living away from home with a group of kids who are all too eager to form cliques and exclude outsiders. Like Hippopotamister, Skye learns a great deal about herself and then uses that knowledge to help a good friend. Gwen and Andy highly recommend Camp Midnight to tweens and teens, alike, though adults may also enjoy the coy humor and fantastic line style that carries across the text.
This month on The Comics Alternative's Young Readers series, the Two Hep Cats with PhDs Talking about Comics review three new releases that are different in terms of setting and genre, but take on a common theme: the conflict that can occur when the inhabitants of a city or a region are confronted by outsiders who wish to stake their claim on the land itself or to alter the daily lives of the indigenous people who have lived there for a very long time.
Andy kicks off the show by introducing readers to another volume in Nathan Hale's popular historical fiction series for middle school readers, Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales. The newest installment, Alamo All-Stars, presents a gripping tale of the battles that ensue among a number of groups who vie to take possession of the landmass that would eventually become the US state of Texas. As with other volumes in the series, the text begins as Nathan Hale, the captured Revolutionary War spy, extends his life by entertaining those British soldiers who are ordered to hang him for treason against the king. As Andy points out, even though the Alamo All-Stars focuses most specifically on the events leading up to and just after the battle at the Alamo in 1836, readers are encouraged to compare 19th-century immigration debates that set off conflicts between the Mexican government and the US immigrants, known as Texians, to the debates that continue today in relation to Mexican immigration to the US. In addition to highlighting Hale's ability to put forward a complicated geopolitical conflict in ways that are engaging and even, at times, gently humorous, Andy and Gwen point to the useful resources for young readers, including a bibliography of history texts on Texas and Mexican history, and helpful resources for teachers and parents, including study guides that are available from Amulet Books' website.
Next, Gwen introduces Faith Erin Hicks's highly anticipated first volume in a fantasy graphic trilogy, The Nameless City, published by First Second and geared towards a middle-grade and high-school audience. The prologue introduces the reader to Daidu, a bustling city that sits in a strategic stretch of land that links a major river to the ocean. The narrator, a young explorer, notes that while "the City is named over and over" by conquering forces from the neighboring Dao, Laio, and Yisun Empires, no one has been able "to name it for long," so the indigenous people have chosen to call it the Nameless City and to call themselves "the nameless." As the story unfolds, Kai, the son of a prominent general from the Dao Empire, the city's current ruling power, travels to the Nameless City in order to train to become a warrior. However, Kai is more fascinated with books and learning and soon becomes acquainted with Rat, a homeless orphan whose parents were killed during the Dao conquest. Andy notes that while the friendship that grows between the characters might first appear to be right out of a clichéd "different side of the tracks" plot, Hicks's storytelling is far more sophisticated. As the narrative progresses, Rat and Kai learn from each other and join forces to encourage the city's rulers to see beyond their dismissive view of the indigenous culture. Both Andy and Gwen admire Jordie Bellaire's accomplished and effective work as colorist, and they point out Hicks's ability to depict characters in motion in ways that are both visually stunning and effective in moving the narrative along.
The show concludes with a review of the first volume of Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang's teen sci-fi series, Paper Girls, a collection of the first five issues of the Image Comics series. Set in 1988 on the day after Halloween, the story follows four twelve-year-old paper carriers who find themselves caught in the midst of what appears to be an alien invasion. Gwen praises the realism of the setting and the convincing portrayal of female adolescence as strengths of the series, and Andy emphasizes how the darker side of the 1980s emerges as the text unfolds. While some of the violence and language marks this as a series for older teens, the two PhDs suggest that these elements add verisimilitude to the text. They also advise parents that while there are other Vaughan texts, such as the Runaways series, that would be a good follow up for teen readers, there are other titles that Vaughan has written that are definitely more appropriate for an adult audience. Both Gwen and Andy highly recommend Paper Girls, Vol. 1 and are eager to see what happens next in the series.
This month, both Gwen and Andy are battling colds, so it’s “Two sick people with PhDs talking about comics for young readers!” But there’s nothing unhealthy about the three comics Gwen and Andy discuss on this month’s show: Royden Lepp's Rust: The Boy Soldier (Archaia/BOOM! Studios), Sara Varon's Sweaterweather and Other Short Stories (First Second), and MK Reed and Joe Flood's non-fiction book, Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers (First Second). They begin with Rust: The Boy Soldier, and they found it to be both an exciting adventure story set after a world war and an effective reflection on power, responsibility, and humanity. Jet is a young boy with a jetpack who saves a farm from a killer robot left over from a destructive world war, but the Taylor family -- whose farm Jet saved -- isn’t sure whether Jet is a friend or a foe. The book’s sepia-toned art recalls photographs from the early twentieth century, but its story is one that transcends time. Although an action/adventure book, Rust: The Boy Soldier also reflects on the concepts of war, responsibility, power, and humanity. The book actually serves as a prelude to the entire Rust series which currently includes Rust: A Visitor in the Field, Rust: Secrets of the Cell, Rust: Death of the Rocket Boy, and a yet-to-be-published fourth and final volume. Next, Gwen and Andy discuss how Sara Varon’s simple, approachable animal characters in Sweater Weather and Other Short Stories explore friendship, diversity, food, fun and more, all with a good-natured sense of humor and sophistication. While readers may be familiar with some of Varon’s other works, including Odd Duck, Robot Dreams, and Bake Sale, this time Varon gives some background on the creative process and her development as an artist. Gwen and Andy both think this book will not only entertain young readers, but may also inspire them to create their own comics. Finally, both of the folks with PhDs are very excited to discuss Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers, by MK Reed and Joe Flood. This is another book in First Second’s Get To Know Your Universe: Science Comics series. C’mon, everyone loves dinosaurs, and so will anyone who picks up this book. Gwen and Andy agree that Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers is a great non-fiction graphic novel that entertains and instructs. It can also be enjoyed by a wide range of ages, giving younger readers a great, fun look at dinosaurs, and providing older readers with the history of dinosaur research and discovery. This is a book that is bound to be explored many times by young readers, so maybe you’ll want to get two copies?
This month, Andy and Gwen discuss two recently released comics: Comics Squad #2: Lunch! (Random House), an anthology for younger readers, edited by Jennifer L. Holm, Matthew Holm, and Jarrett J. Krosoczka, and Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) a graphic memoir written by Özge Samanci, and designated as a comic for readers aged fourteen and up.
First up, the two PhDs share reminiscences about their own hijinx at the lunch table when they were in elementary school, and as Andy points out, the short comics collected in Comics Squad #2: Lunch! cover a veritable smorgasbord of subjects, from the anxiety that new kids feel about walking into the school cafeteria for the first time to a non-fiction comic about the way that a particular food item enabled US soldiers to win an important battle during World War II. The eight stories collected in the anthology are relatively short, making them ideal for reluctant readers or for readers who are new to comics. In fact, Andy and Gwen both enjoy Jason Shiga’s “The Case of the Missing Science Project” because of its interactive nature: panels in the story are connected by a series of orange arrows, and depending upon the choices that readers make, the story plays out differently. Gwen notes that the instructions could help young readers learn about panel placement, and Andy is amazed at the technical skill necessary for Shiga to present a variety of stories in such a small space. Along those same lines, Andy draws listeners’ attention to a couple of features at the end of the book: a template for drawing one’s own comic and a lesson on how to draw the Holms’ popular character, Babymouse. Both Gwen and Andy enjoy the humor and variety of Comics Squad #2: Lunch! and they inform readers about the previous volume in the series: Comics Squad #1: Recess!, as well as the popular Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics (Abrams), edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, another anthology that young readers might want to check out.
Next, Gwen and Andy turn to Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey, a graphic memoir by Özge Samanci, an artist and assistant professor at Northwestern University, who describes her upbringing in Izmir, Turkey, on the Aegean Sea during the 1980s and 1990s, during a time of political and social upheaval. Samanci attempts to please her parents, her teachers, and her friends by following the approved social script of getting excellent marks on her exams, enrolling in a university major such as engineering, and settling down to raise a family. However, as with most free spirits, Samanci learns that if she wishes to be happy, she must step out of her comfort zone and pursue her dreams. Published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, Samanci’s comic has been designated for readers aged 14 and above. However, Gwen explains that while Dare to Disappoint contains some allusions to violence and sexuality, for the most part, the memoir focuses on the cultural, familial, and intellectual influences that combine to form Samanci’s path to becoming an artist.
Both Gwen and Andy praise the artistry of the text, noting that although Samanci studied the comics form for years, and has been publishing comics online since 2006, she resists the traditional waffle pattern that characterizes many contemporary graphic novels. She uses a number of techniques, especially collage and the judicious use of color and sightlines, to create a highly readable and visually gorgeous comic.
Gwen observes that one of the central characters in Dare to Disappoint is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic in the 1920s, whose emphasis on secular democracy, combined with paternalism, made him a national hero whose portrait was prominently displayed in every public building and in every home during Samanci’s youth. Just as young Marjane Satrapi engages in conversations with God in Persepolis, Ôzge confides her worries and desires to a portrait of Atatürk, and to give the reader a sense for how influential his presence is to the school children of her generation, Samanci recounts the excitement she feels when her sister gives her a large ruler that includes cut-outs of a number of shapes, enabling her to draw, as she says, “a perfect circle, triangle, square, and…Ataturk!” (40). Not surprisingly, the profile of Atatürk is the first one in a series of rows of cutouts, and as young Özge writes, “If you are going to draw Atatuürk, you have to draw him right. Otherwise, you are in deep trouble (40).
In a recent interview on the PBS program Chicago Tonight, Samanci pointed out that the cutout of Atatürk served an important purpose for the entire graphic memoir. She says, “I’m dealing with this cookie cutter educational system that traps people into a box which leads to occupations that they don’t care about. So it’s a beautiful metaphor for the [theme of] the book.”
Both Gwen and Andy note that Dare to Disappoint treated many of the universal conflicts that young people face as they come of age, while also providing a window on a fascinating time in Turkish history. They recommend Samanci’s text to teens and to adults as an engaging and aesthetically-sophisticated comic. However, they both also agreed that the first half of the memoir, which focuses on Özge’s early childhood, could make an interesting read for parents to share with younger readers.
Gwen and Andy are back in 2016 with three new graphic novels for young readers. The two people with PhDs first discuss Feathers, by Jorge Corona with Jen Hickman (Archaia/BOOM! Studios), a title about a strange boy with feathers named Poe who watches over the Maze, a large city consisting of the poor and disenfranchised, and whose children are actually called Mice. In the center of the city, enclosed within a great wall, live the wealthy and cultured, including a young girl named Bianca, who longs for adventure and discovery within the Maze. But there’s a mysterious evil presence at work in the Maze, something that neither Poe nor Bianca knows about. Corona himself has said, “If you think about it, Feathers is like Spider-Man in a Dickensian world.” Gwen and Andy both commented that Feathers is an engaging story with a European feel.
Next, Gwen and Andy discuss The Only Child (Penguin Random House), the first graphic novel by Guojing, an illustrator who studied fine art at the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts in China. Gwen set up the story by reading from Guojing’s author’s note that explains the inspiration for her text: “The story in this book is fantasy, but reflects the very real feelings of isolation and loneliness I experienced growing up in the 1980s under the one-child policy in China.” Guojing goes on to say that though she often stayed with her grandmother when her parents had to work late, she was also often alone, as were almost all of the children she knew. Guojing recounts an experience she had that inspired some of the action of The Only Child. She writes,
Once, when I was six years old, my father put me on a bus to grandmother’s house before he left for work. I fell asleep, and when I woke, the bus was almost empty. I panicked and ran off. There was no one to help me, so I started walking. I cried as I walked, following the electric lines of the bus. Luckily, I found my way back to a road that looked familiar and eventually reached my grandmother’s house three hours later. As I’ve grown, I’ve realized that it is easy to become lost, but if I look hard enough, there is always a path -- like the electric bus lines -- guiding the way back home.
The Only Child is a silent, or wordless, comic, drawn in hues of gray, black, and white, with panels that are foregrounded against a light brown background. Both Gwen and Andy note that the text is reminiscent of Shaun Tan’s extremely popular and influential comic, The Arrival. However, whereas Tan’s text was primarily focalized through an immigrant adult and the other adult immigrants whom he meets, The Only Child focuses on a young child, a girl who appears to be five or six years old. The opening pages demonstrate that while the girl has many toys and an active imagination, she quickly tires of doing things on her own.
Gwen explains how The Only Child includes a classic plot structure in children’s literature: the home-away-home pattern, in which a young child feels discontented, leaves home in order to pursue adventure, but quickly realizes that she is homesick and attempts to get back. The film version of The Wizard of Oz is one such text that our listeners may know well, but many others will undoubtedly come to mind. This plot structure is meant to instruct children that they need to create a balance between independence and dependence, something that Guojing emphasizes in her text.
Andy and Gwen cannot say enough about the beauty, artistry, and depth of Guojing’s debut graphic novel The Only Child. This text is geared towards young readers, but would be a fine addition to anyone’s comics collection.
The final book discussed is a fun, carefree ride called Teen Dog by Australian creator Jake Lawrence (BOOM! Box). Teen Dog -- a book about a super-cool dog who loves life and pizza -- remind Gwen of several John Hughes films from the 1980s and for Andy brought to mind a kinder, gentler Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Both feel that Teen Dog is a great read for reluctant readers with its early short chapters and engaging, colorful illustrations.
To end the show, Gwen and Andy discuss the exciting news that comics creator Gene Luen Yang has been awarded one of the highest honors in the literary world when he was named National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for 2016. This honor is given out annually by the Children’s Book Council, the Every Child a Reader (ECAR) initiative, and the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. Yang has chosen “Reading Without Walls” as the theme for this year, and in his acceptance speech, he asked young readers to read outside their comfort zones, noting
Books can be ambassadors for you, too. Books can help you understand people from other cultures, religions, and ways of living. Books can help you understand topics that you find intimating. Find a book with someone on the cover who doesn’t look like you or live like you. Find a book about a topic that you don’t know much about. Find a book that’s in a format you’ve never tried before: a graphic novel, a words-only novel, or a novel in verse. Read without walls and see what happens.
Andy, Gwen, and everyone at The Comics Alternative extends their congratulations to Gene Luen Yang. To learn more about his comics, including American Born Chinese, The Shadow Hero, Boxers & Saints, Secret Coders (with Mike Holmes), and to read his acceptance speech in its entirety, visit his website.
As the end of 2015 draws near and the holiday shopping season is in full swing, Andy and Gwen have drawn up their lists of their favorite comics for young readers released during the last year. Although their choices run the gamut from texts for early readers up through to texts for teens, every text mentioned creates a fine balance between serious subject matter and engaging artwork and writing. Many of these comics would be great choices for parents and kids to read together.
Books that both Gwen and Andy Selected:
Andy and Gwen alternate leading discussion for each book and finish up by discussing two books that made both of their lists.
Gwen and Andy are back this month to discuss two new graphic novels for young readers. First up, they discuss Monster (Amistad/Harper Collins), a book for teens by Walter Dean Myers, adapted by Guy A. Sims and with art by Dawud Anyabwile. Based on the multi-award-winning young adult novel by Myers, the graphic novel version of Monster chronicles the tension-filled trial of Steve Harmon, a African American teen being tried as an accessory to the murder of a convenience store clerk. Gwen and Andy both agree that Anyabwile’s stunning black-and-white art delivers a powerfully effective treatment of this famous novel and in some ways enhances an already stunning look at how society looks at race and identity. Next, the two people with PhDs look at a book for younger readers, Barry Deutsch's Hereville: How Mirka Caught a Fish (Amulet/Abrams). If the title sounds familiar, that's because How Mirka Caught a Fish is actually the third book in the Hereville series, following How Mirka Got Her Sword and How Mirka Met a Meteorite. But no worries! Gwen and Andy give you just enough info about the first two books to bring you up to speed without giving away any major spoilers. Mirka is an 11-year-old orthodox Jewish girl who has adventures fighting trolls, encountering meteors, and even time-traveling, and as much as Gwen and Andy like the first two volumes, they think this third may be the best of the bunch. And while Monster and the Hereville books may appear to be vastly different, Gwen and Andy find that they share some interesting similarities.
As an added bonus, Gwen and Andy also discuss four additional current titles that listeners will want to check out. (But you’ll have to listen to the podcast to find out what those books are!)