Good Reads from 2022

Big Press Graphic Novel:
Squire by Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas (HarperCollins Publishers)

Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas’s graphic novel Squire is a low fantasy coming-of-age story about teenage recruits to an imperial army supposedly intent on “preserving the peace” of an arid land inhabited by different ethnic groups. We see this world through the eyes of Aiza, a fourteen-year-old from a minority ethnicity who intends to become a knight in order to gain citizenship and thereby ameliorate the poverty of her marginalized community.

Aiza’s fellow knights-in-training are a fascinating cast of characters, especially her friend Husni, who would much prefer to be a historian than a soldier and occasionally threatens to steal the show with his witty sense of humor and expressive body language. When Aiza begins training with the grizzled retired knight Doruk, the delicate layers of the story begin to unpeel as Aiza’s dream of assimilation is shattered by the realities of a collapsing empire.

Nadia Shammas’s writing is powerful and nuanced, and Sara Alfageeh’s art builds a world beautifully inspired by our own. Adrienne Resha’s review of Squire on Women Write About Comics unpacks the historical and contemporary cultural references behind the Middle Eastern and Arab-American inspirations of the graphic novel, and you can check out a few preview pages on the artist’s website.

Small Press Comic Anthology:
Shades of Fear, edited by Ashanti Fortson & Allison O’Toole (Balustrade Press)

Ashanti Fortson and Allison O’Toole’s Shades of Fear anthology collects ten short horror comics themed according to the strong use of a single color. The artwork is nothing short of spectacular, offering the reader both dazzling beauty and horrific imagery. As befitting the rich banquets of color, many of the stories share the theme of being devoured, either metaphorically through toxic relationships and generational trauma – or quite literally.

My favorite piece is Mar Julia’s “Bellies,” a work of poetic yet intense body horror about an order of immortal priestesses who dine well so that they may endow themselves with the fortitude necessary to make appropriate sacrifices to a (mercifully) unseen deity. The narrative depth of every short comic in the anthology recalls the gothic masterpieces of Emily Carroll, and I’ve often found myself returning to Shades of Fear to dig deeper for creative inspiration and visceral chills.

Manga:
Robo Sapiens: Tales of Tomorrow by Toranosuke Shimada (Seven Seas)

Toranosuke Shimada’s Robo Sapiens: Tales of Tomorrow is a one-volume graphic novel that begins in the near future and spans many hundreds of years of cosmic time. The manga’s ambitious narrative is pieced together from smaller and more intimate stories about the lives of individual robots and their human companions. Shimada is not concerned with whether robots have sapience; rather, these stories take the dignity and legal rights of artificial intelligence for granted in order to ask questions about what personal happiness might look like should “humanity” be separated from its current embodiment.

Shimada’s artwork is deceptively simple and allows the reader ample space to appreciate the timelessness of each character’s story even as the world around them changes. Despite the gaps between chapters, I found it profoundly moving when the narrative threads began to connect toward the end of the manga. Robo Sapiens contains a number of subtle references to the pioneering work of Osamu Tezuka, but Shimada’s speculation on a posthuman future brings a fresh and nuanced perspective to familiar tropes.

Fiction:
Idol, Burning by Rin Usami (HarperCollins Publishers)

Rin Usami’s Idol, Burning is only 115 pages long, but it’s a whirlwind ride through the psychology of boy band fandom. The narrator is failing out of high school because the Japanese education system refuses to accommodate her learning style, and her world begins to fall apart when the pop star she idolizes becomes the target of social media discourse. Usami is unflinching in her portrayal of online fandom cultures, and she’s refreshingly honest about the adverse effects that flamewars can have on vulnerable people seeking support in fandom communities. It’s not always easy to read Idol, Burning, but I couldn’t put it down. 

The English translation of the book includes short essays by the author and her translator, as well as statements from the cover designer (surrealist photographer Delaney Allen) and the illustrator (comic artist Leslie Hung). The novel’s story stands on its own, but it’s a treat to read about the inspirations of the writers and artists who brought it to life.

Zine:
Haunts by Kaylee Rowena

I recently had the pleasure of flipping through Kaylee Rowena’s zine Haunts, which collects the American comic artist’s illustrations of haunted houses. I especially appreciate the epilogue, which takes the form of a short essay about houses and hauntings and memory. It’s a fantastic piece of writing, and Rowena acknowledges the influence of a YouTube video called “Control, Anatomy, and the Legacy of the Haunted House” by the video game critic Jacob Geller

This video discusses the trope of the haunted house through the two games mentioned in the title, but it has deeper cultural resonance and doesn’t require any prior knowledge. It’s also my favorite type of video essay: it’s only twenty minutes long, it has subtitles, and it’s not necessary to watch the video footage if you just want to listen to the audio. I’ve been feeling a bit more homebound since the weather has gotten colder, and the combination of Rowena’s colorful art and Geller’s video essay have helped me appreciate the magic and mystery of walls that continue upright and doors that remain sensibly shut.

Video Game:
Stray, developed by BlueTwelve Studio and published by Annapurna Interactive

You may have seen your favorite artists posting tributes to the game Stray, which was released in July by Annapurna Interactive, a publisher that specializes in unique and stylish narrative games. The game’s website describes it as “a third-person cat adventure game set amidst the detailed, neon-lit alleys of a decaying cybercity,” but really it’s about hope and friendship. The story is divided into twelve chapters that alternate between nonviolent 3D platforming segments and more text-based exploration segments, the combination of which provide a fun and interesting mix of narrative elements. Stray is accessible to a diverse range of gamers, and the rich and detailed visual splendor of the posthuman cityscape will be a delight to fans of cyberpunk comics and manga.

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All of these mini-reviews were originally published as part of the monthly “WWACommendations” roundtables on the website Women Write About Comics. You can find these posts on the WWAC website (here) and follow WWAC on Twitter (here).

Space Trash Review on WWAC

My review of the first volume of Jenn Woodall’s lunarpunk graphic novel Space Trash has just been published on the website Women Write About Comics. Here’s an excerpt…

Una, Yuki, and Stab are three lowkey troublemakers who share a dorm room and dye each other’s hair while watching each other’s backs. The three young women mostly play by the rules until they’re challenged by a rival girl gang, the Trash Queens. Their brawl is broken up by the school’s robotic disciplinary wardens, which causes the two gangs to realize that they share something in common: a burning desire to upend a system that doesn’t serve their best interests.

You can read the full review (here), and you can follow Jenn Woodall on Twitter (here). Once again, I have nothing but gratitude and admiration for my brilliant editor, who brought a number of interesting parallels to my attention as I was thinking about how to approach this book.

You Died Anthology Review on WWAC

My review of the Eisner Award winning comic anthology You Died: An Anthology of the Afterlife has just been published on the website Women Write About Comics. Here’s an excerpt…

Despite the success of the death positivity movement, death remains a difficult subject for many people. You Died: An Anthology of the Afterlife understands this tension and respects both the critical importance of the topic and the feelings of the reader. As befits the theme of positivity, the anthology’s tone is gentle and uplifting. With its range of unique and beautiful art styles and its entertaining yet contemplative stories, You Died celebrates a diversity of lives in its embrace of a fascinating array of afterlives.

You can read the full review (here). Although my review ended up being entirely positive, there were a few aspects of certain pieces in the anthology that didn’t initially land with me. As always, I extend my thanks to my brilliant editor, who helped me see these comics and this fantastic anthology in a different light.

Fruiting Bodies Review on WWAC

I recently had the honor of writing a review of Ashley Robin Franklin’s graphic novella Fruiting Bodies for the website Women Write About Comics. Here’s an excerpt:

Franklin joins Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Jeff Vandermeer in the pantheon of contemporary writers and artists who have celebrated the uncanny invisible world that stretches deep below our feet and proliferates in the warmth of our bodies. Classical botanical horror has its roots in concerns over cultural hybridization, but Fruiting Bodies resists the genre’s Victorian anxieties in favor of a probing exploration of the primal fears surrounding the collapse of bodily autonomy. In the end, Franklin suggests, human social distinctions of gender and sexuality are meaningless to a natural world that devours everyone equally.

You can read the full review (here), and you can find the book’s page on Silver Sprocket’s website (here). You can follow Ashley Robin Franklin on Instagram (here), and I also recommend checking out her other short comics on her Etsy store (here). As always, I want to acknowledge the good work of my patient and brilliant editor, whom you can follow on Twitter (here).

Only Power Remains

Only Power Remains is an Ocarina of Time fancomic that explores the backstory of Ganondorf, the iconic villain of the Legend of Zelda games. According to the series lore, Ganondorf was the only male child born to the Gerudo, and otherwise all-female society living in the desert at the border of the kingdom of Hyrule. Through a series of connected scenes, Only Power Remains investigates how Ganondorf grew from a strong-willed boy to a power-hungry warlord.

This comic is a fascinating and insightful exploration of Ganondorf’s backstory that rings true to the Legend of Zelda canon while still being accessible to casual fans of the series. It also stands on its own as a cohesive story, and I would happily recommend it to curious readers who may not be familiar with the details of the Zelda games. Louisa Roy’s writing is sharp and original, and her vibrant and expressive art does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of introducing and developing established characters.

In her extensive “Author Notes” at the end of the zine, Roy explains that she especially enjoyed drawing Ganondorf’s childhood interactions with a merchant in Hyrule Castle Town. The merchant is disrespectful during their first meeting, as he sees Ganondorf as nothing more than a bratty kid. Ganondorf therefore learns the Hylian language spoken by the merchant in order to come back a year later and verbally cut him down before taking what he wants from his stock of musical instruments. Without becoming too political, Roy conveys the tensions of cultural differences, and there’s a certain charm in watching Ganondorf slice through the Gordian knot of xenophobic stereotypes.

The supporting cast receives a similar level of nuance and sympathy, especially Nabooru, a Gerudo leader who eventually rebels against Ganondorf. With Nabooru, as with Ganondorf, the reader is given a sense that the tragic story of the Gerudo could have gone a different way had circumstances been even slightly different. The comic ventures into many unexplored corners of Hyrule during its journey, but the artist’s design work is brilliant and remains faithful both to the world of the games and to their real-life cultural influences.

Only Power Remains is far from the first Legend of Zelda fancomic created by Louisa Roy, who has published a number of zines featuring side stories that allow the minor characters in the games to shine in their own heroic (or antiheroic) light. The publication quality of these comic zines is consistently excellent, from the layout to the lettering to the cover design. You can follow the artist as @om_nom_berries on Twitter and @om-nom-berries on Tumblr, and you can find her comics on her website (here) and browse through her zines on Etsy (here). If you’re interested in Only Power Remains, you can check out the listing is (here).

Vision

In nineteenth-century London, Eleanor lives in her deceased parents’ house with her brother Robert and his wife Cora, who is bedridden with a vague illness. Eleanor was previously engaged, but her fiancé died after enlisting in military service. Having become an unmarried woman of a certain age, Eleanor spends her days caring for her sister-in-law. At night, however, she engages in sexual fantasies in front of her mirror, which she imagines as speaking to her in the voice of an unseen lover.

This situation might continue indefinitely were it not for the romantic attentions of a certain Doctor Bishop, who treats Eleanor’s cataracts and prescribes Laudanum to calm Cora’s nerves. Bishop is affectionate and well-meaning, but Eleanor is a quiet storm of resentment and repressed sexuality whose veneer of quiet virtue and good sense is one the verge of cracking.

Vision is a brilliantly written and gorgeously drawn graphic novella that explores the subtleties of how trapped and lonely people isolate themselves while simultaneously seeking connection, but it’s also a sharp and disturbing story about sex and death. The death is understated and phantasmal, while Eleanor’s sexuality and desire is on open display. Each of the erotic scenes is mirrored by a grotesque reflection, such as when the imagery of Eleanor’s self-pleasure with a candle is reflected in an extended scene depicting her eye surgery. Julia Gfrörer’s linework is delicate yet expressive, granting her characters warmth and personality while occasionally portraying them as eerily inhuman.

Eleanor’s story becomes stranger as various small mysteries and imbalances accumulate into an ever more fragmented portrait of a haunted household. The climax is shocking but perhaps not unexpected, and far more questions are raised than could ever be answered. The absence of clear explanations and justifications is part of the appeal of the narrative conclusion, however, while gradual shifts in the ink style contribute to an encroaching sense of dread – and curiosity.

Vision was published by Fantagraphics Books in September 2020. You can read more about the book on the press’s website (here), and you can order a copy from the Julia Gfrörer’s store on Etsy via its listing (here). Gfrörer’s two previous graphic novel publications with Fantagraphics, as well as her zines, are also listed on Etsy, and each is as creepy and fascinating as the next.