Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening by Marjorie M. Liu (illustrated by Sana Takeda)

Read: 27 December, 2016

The summary describes the setting as “an alternate matriarchal 1900’s Asia.” Which… is better than any description I could come up with. Very little gets explained in this first volume.

Which is my main issue. While it could be argued that the storytelling dives right in without wasting a bunch of time on exposition, this left me with very little to latch on to. Things happened, characters acted, but I was just left feeling somewhat confused. I didn’t quite know what to make of them or what I was supposed to be feeling. I don’t need an infodump, but a little more context would have been nice. By the time I finally started feeling like I had a grasp on the world, the volume was over.

A lot of that is, I’m sure, in the nature of the serial storytelling common with comics. This is where I like graphic novels so much more – the story I pick up is complete, it has its arc, I don’t have to keep going through issues on blind faith that I will, at some point, figure out what the heck is going on.

But this is genre convention, so I supposed it isn’t really fair to judge Monstress for adhering to it. People who are more comfortable with serial comics will be fine, whereas people coming from a prose background, like myself, will likely struggle. Be warned.

The plot itself didn’t have much room to develop in such a short volume. It’s a fairly standard “ancient ones vs humans and oh yes the in between people”, with the twist that people can absorb an element from the ancient ones (and their mixed offspring) to gain power. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.

The matriarchy angle is interesting. There’s a particular joy to reading a comic where nearly all the characters are female, except for a handful of background characters who have very little dialogue. After so much media being the opposite, it was refreshing.

But it felt like it just wasn’t going quite far enough. It’s a matriarchy, but soldiers wear armour that accentuates their sexy at the expense of protection (boob armour! boob armour everywhere!). And while there are a few larger bodies, they are in the background. All the central adult characters are super models. It would have been nice to have a little more variety.

That said, the main character is an amputee, and that is just wonderful to see.

Where the series really sells itself is in the artwork. It’s sort of art nouveau inspired, and it is so gorgeous. Every single panel is rich with detail. From what I can judge of the first volume, it’s the artwork where this series is distinguishing itself. It’s the artwork that’s going to make people giving volume 2 a chance.

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Star Wars: Shattered Empire by Greg Rucka and illustrated by Marco Checchetto, Angel Unzueta, and Emilio Laiso

Read: 27 October, 2016

Taking place in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi, this graphic novel features Shara Bey, mother of Force Awaken‘s Poe Dameron, as she meets a number of the Star Wars universe’s big names.

I really can’t say that I loved Shattered Empire. The dialogue writing was passable, but not great. The artwork was fine, albeit a little showy, and lacked character. The plot writing was unfocused.

The artwork felt a little too polished, and it bordered on the uncanny valley with the characters from the movies – trying too hard to make them recognisable. In some portions, it actually looked like the scenes were made with 3D models and then sketched over. There’s a certain stiffness, an inorganic Barbie doll-ness, to that art style that kept popping up. I also found that the action sequences lacked clarity, so that I had to skip ahead to figure out what I was supposed to be seeing.

For the plot, each section of the book has Bey going off on a different adventure, each time with a different original cast member from the movies. The adventures themselves are interesting enough, but nothing ties them together, they don’t build toward anything.

My last complaint – and this is with the Star Wars universe more broadly – is with the focus on parentage. I would have enjoyed Shara Bey just fine as a character without her being the parent of another character. I could have enjoyed Poe Dameron just fine as a character without finding out that his parents were important people who got to meet Luke and Leia.

The parentage theme works with Anakin and Luke because that’s the story, “the sins of the father” and so forth. But there’s no reason to take it any further than that. We don’t need to find out that Anakin is actually the one who built C3PO, or that fan favourite Boba Fett’s father was actually the genetic pattern used for the clone army, or whatever is going on with Rey. These characters are all lovely and important on their own, without the need for intricate breeding certifications.

What I loved about this book, and about the expanding universe in general, is how diverse they make the universe feel. And by retconning women and POCs back into the events of the original trilogy, they let me feel, for the first time, like characters who look like me can really matter in this epic story. I’ve always loved Star Wars, but the new canon is the first time I’ve ever felt loved back by the franchise.

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The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar

Read: 23 October, 2016

The Rabbi’s Cat is a slow, meandering snapshot of life in an Algerian rabbi’s household, as narrated by his pet cat. The cat begins to speak, and so the rabbi must prepare him for his bar mitzvah. The family gets a visit from cousin Malka and his pet lion. The rabbi must pass a dictation test to determine his rabbinical placement. The rabbi’s daughter marries, and the whole household goes to Paris to meet her new in-laws. Things happen, the characters talk and feel and live, and issues are resolved after a fashion, enough to make way for the next. I wouldn’t be surprised if each chapter had originally been published serially.

I picked this book out at the library, knowing absolutely nothing about it, because the cover looked interesting. Unlike the last time I did this, this time was actually a very pleasant surprise.

The artwork is beautiful. It has a lot of character, and it shifts with mood to enhance the storytelling. As I’ve been trying to read some more superhero comics, which tend to favour a more “realistic” style (albeit with idealised bodies), this kind of expressive artwork has been missing.

I also found that the style reminded me a lot of the French comic books that I used to read as a child. I felt very vindicated when I found out that the artist does, in fact, belong to the French graphic novel tradition!

The story itself is delightful. Most of the characters are fairly archetypal, but we spend a lot of time getting into the rabbi’s head. He’s a complicated person who is seen wrestling with his faith. In the beginning, it’s more intellectual, as he tries to teach the cat in preparation for his bar mitzvah and they argue theology. Later, when his daughter marries and he feels abandoned, it brings his grief over his deceased wife back to the forefront. It’s very touching, often funny, and so very human.

The novel had a somewhat mythic feel to it, particularly where the animals were involved. It read a bit like a parable, making its Jewishness all the more palpable.

I really enjoyed this one. It was cute, and heartwarming, and entertaining. The cat was amusing, and the storytelling was very well adapted to its medium.

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I Was The Cat by Paul Tobin (illustrated by Benjamin Dewey)

Read: 15 October, 2016

I picked this up off the library shelf because I had some time to spare and it was a graphic novel (and therefore a fast read), and it had cats. SOLD!

Unfortunately, it left a lot to be desired. The story is about a blogger named Allison Breaking (so named so that she could pun her name – if it even counts as a pun – by calling her website ‘Breaking News’, uuuuugh), who is hired by a wealthy and mysterious person named Burma to ghostwrite his memoirs.Except that her new employer turns out to be a cat! Dun dun DUUUUN!

There are mostly two stories being told. In the first, we have Burma’s story of his previous lives. In the second, we have the present day story of Allison coming to terms with meeting a talking cat, and her discovery of his current plot for world domination.

First, the positives: The artwork is very good. It isn’t particularly stylized, but it’s solid and clear. I also enjoyed all the little easter eggs hidden throughout the images, like the Pulp Fiction assassins, or the random Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The problem is that the narrative felt very disjointed. The conceit of the nine lives could have been interesting, but ended up just being Burma listing off famous people he’s met. It doesn’t make much sense, either, except in a ‘how history tends to get taught in primary school’ sort of way. There’s no reason for Burma’s first life to be in ancient Egypt, but then not again until the Elizabethan era. After that, as we get into history that the readership knows more about, his lives seem to come fairly regularly. Why the gap, except to make some joke about the ancient Egyptians worshipping cats?

The world domination plot was rather disappointing, largely because it wasn’t adequately set up. The insider trying to warn off Allison doesn’t seem to care much whether she’s warned or not, and doesn’t really seem to be trying to accomplish anything in particular by revealing the plot to her in any case. And once he does manage to warn her, what does he say? He tells her not to worry about it. So that was plot time well spent…

And that really sums up the whole book for me: There are lots of ideas, mostly a mish-mash of pop culture references, all thrown in together, but none of them serve of purpose or lead to anything.

And did Burma’s evil plan remind anyone of the Leviathan plot from Supernatural?

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Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Emma Ríos

Read: 5 October, 2016

Bunny and Butterfly are talking about Death’s Daughter, Ginny – a reaper of vengeance. They say that when someone calls out to her by singing her son, she will appear to avenge them.

Pretty Deadly plunges straight into the story, which makes it rather confusing. Characters are thrown at the reader in quick succession – characters with traits or dialogue that make it seem like they might be interesting, like there might be something going on that I’d like to know about, but then the story just keeps moving on and the mystery is never acknowledged.

The illustrations have a similar issue. While absolutely gorgeous, they are often a little too stylised, making the action difficult to follow. I sometimes couldn’t tell what was happening in a panel until I’d read a few more and could piece together what happened by its result.

The use of animals and animal-human hybrids gave the story a mythic feel, which I quite enjoyed.

Unfortunately, though the visuals and ideas were great, the execution just didn’t do it for me. There’s too much “mystery box-ing,” which leaves me feeling frustrated rather than intrigued.

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Avatar, The Last Airbender: The Rift by Gene Luen Yang

Read: 4 March, 2016

Aang tries to recapture the past by bringing his new Air Acolytes to a festival in honour of Yangchen, the previous Air Avatar. When they arrive, however, they find that the sacred meadow has been replaced by a factory co-owned by Toph’s father.

While the focus in The Search was tying up an Avatar plotline, both The Rift and The Promise seem to focus more on setting up the world of Legend of Korra. Here, we get to see more of how the four nations mingled, as the factory works through the cooperation of Earth, Fire, and Water benders.

The Rift also sets up how the world of Korra moved away from bending toward technology, creating an environment in which a figure like Amon could rise. It’s all very ambitious and, in my opinion, very well handled.

I think that where The Search fell a little flat for me is that Aang didn’t really have a central struggle. His search for balance – and the ways in which he is influenced by the friends (and even the enemies!) around him – has always been the source of the most compelling plotlines. Here, he is torn between his desire to preserve the past and the necessity of allowing the future to be. We see him decide what sort of Avatar he will be – the kind who will work to preserve the world in amber, or the kind who will nurture and guide the world as it grows. And that is good storytelling.

The side plot of Toph seeing her father was fine, but fairly bog-standard. He is initially stubborn, then she gets to show off how awesome she is, then he comes around and accepts her. That’s nice and all, but I’ve seen that a thousand times before. It only worked because I am already invested in Toph as a character and because it wasn’t the central storyline – which is why The Search didn’t work nearly as well.

I’ve just started re-watching Korra with my family (who haven’t seen it before), so I’m really excited to share these bridging stories with them!

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Avatar, The Last Airbender: The Search by Gene Luen Yang

Read: 2 March, 2016

In The Search, we follow Zuko’s quest to find out what happened to his mother. It’s a far more personal story than The Promise, and it doesn’t tackle issues of the same magnitude. Still, it was nice to see that plotline resolved.

Unfortunately, I found it rather disappointing. Much of the plot hinges on a letter in which Zuko’s mother confesses that Zuko is not actually the Fire Lord’s son. It would be strange for his mother to put something like that in a letter when she suspected that her husband was intercepting her mail, but it would have been forgiveable for the extremely compelling choices that would come from it. What would it mean for Zuko’s identity? For his loyalty and love for his father and sister? Would he have to suppress the information to remain Fire lord and keep Azula from the title? That’s all some pretty heavy stuff, stuff that is lightly touched upon as the friends carry out their search for Zuko’s mother. Unfortunately, it all turns out to have been fake.

You see, Zuko’s mother knew her mail was being intercepted so she lied about Zuko’s parentage because… Well, we’re never really given a reason. I suppose that’s fine since complicated people doing messy things is a big part of what the series is about, but that does seem rather beyond what might be expected.

But the bigger issue for me is that it takes a way a lot of what we knew about Zuko’s mother. In the show, she always seemed to be kind, wise, and loving. Her final act was to accept exile, and never seeing her children again, to save Zuko’s life. Now, however, we find out that she just had her memory erased and got to live with her true love and have a new family. I’m all for smashing up the Angel Of The Hearth narrative for mothers, but this isn’t how it’s done.

There’s plenty that I loved about the book. The artwork is great, the dialogue is pitch-perfect, and I’m always happy to revisit these characters. But there was just so much about this story that struck the wrong note for me, and so many opportunities for it to have been something far far better.

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Avatar, The Last Airbender: The Promise by Gene Luen Yang

Read: 1 March, 2016

Picking up where the series left off, Aang and his friends must decide what to do with the Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom.

The comic read just like the show. The artwork is very consistent with the show, and the dialogue is pitch perfect. Reading, I kept hearing the characters’ voices.

The story itself is as accessible and thought-provoking as the show. After a hundred years of colonization, Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom citizens have formed bonds with each other, focusing on Kori – who is both an earth bender and a Fire Nation citizen. Aang, Zuko, and King Kuei have to find some way to right the wrongs of invasion and colonization without tearing families and friendships apart.

Meanwhile, Aang is dealing with the responsibility of being the last Air Nomad, and how his identity as an Air Nomad can come into conflict with his duties as the Avatar. This is complicated when members of the Aang Fan Club decide to start copying Air Nomad culture, and even give themselves tattoos. This brings the issue of cultural appropriation into the broader discussion of colonization, and have I mentioned that this is a kids’ show?

Thought-provoking and staying away from simple answers, The Promise is a wonderful addition to the Avatar canon. It also helped me to understand a little more of the background that went into The Legend of Korra, and how the world came to be that way.

I doubt that the comic would hold much interest for a reader who hasn’t watched the show, but I couldn’t recommend it enough for fans of the series.

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American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Read: 8 February, 2016

American Born Chinese tries to capture the experience of being a third culture kid, particularly one who visibly stands out from the culture that surrounds them. The story is told in three separate narratives that don’t seem to have anything to do with each other until the very end, where they all collide and it turns out that they were all part of the same story from the beginning.

The story is one of shame, of trying to change in order to fit in, and of the feelings of anger toward others who are the same but don’t seem to experience the same shame.

The story was quite well told, and I found it easy to grasp the main character’s pain and the reasons for his lashing out. The artwork meshed well with the story, though I didn’t find it particularly appealing on its own.

I was glad that the focus was on the inner struggle, and included the lashing out that is so often a part of that. It would have been easy to make Jin more perfect, to make the story all about the things done to him (like the bullying that features prominently near the beginning of his story). But instead, the story looks at his experiences and his reactions, and we see him turn around almost immediately and say terrible things to someone else.

Jin’s behaviour is frequently atrocious, but it does feel real, and I found that I could easily empathize (especially as a third cutlure kid myself – though without the added ethnic component) with what he was going through.

I think the book would be best for kids around grade 7-10, particularly as part of a larger discussion on the immigrant experience. I also think that people who grew up as third culture kids might benefit from the book, if only as a cathartic “yes! That’s what I felt like!” sort of experience.

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Wheel of Time Graphic Novel: The Eye Of The World, vols. 1-3, by Robert Jordan, adapted by Chuck Dixon, art by Chase Conley

Read: 3 August, 2015

I took all the Wheel of Time-related graphic novels out from the library and brought them along on vacation. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that The Eye of the World comes in six volumes, and only brought the three my library has. I got to the end of the third pretty certain that a good chunk was missing and, sure enough, I’m only halfway through. Still, I figured I’d better write a review, since I don’t know when I’ll be able to get my hands on the next three volumes.

I was quite surprised by how much of the first novel’s plot I could remember. The middle books, particularly around where it became obvious that Jordan had completely dropped the reigns of the plot, are a blur, but I had distinct memories of everything covered in the graphic novels. I’ve found the same thing with A Song of Ice and Fire – where the first book is also quite well plotted, with a much tighter storyline than later books. In both cases, I feel like the authors started off with a very clear idea of a beginning, and then much vaguer notes for the rest of the series. It’s a shame.

Regarding the graphic novels specifically, I found the text to be much better than what I saw in the New Spring graphic novel. It was much easier to follow what was going on, and I think I would have been able to read it even if I hadn’t read the book first. I’m not sure how much of that is a real difference in quality and how much is just because the plot of Eye of the World is so much more action-oriented, relying less on narrative (and therefore more easily exportable to a visual medium), though.

The artwork was a little disappointing, though. The images looked messy, for lack of a better word – like coloured sketches. This meant that it was often difficult to tell one character apart from another – particularly in the beginning. Some of that might have been intentional, to show how ordinary the three Ta’veren are at the start of the story, but I don’t feel like that came through very well.

There were also quite a few consistency issues, particularly with Moiraine’s forehead pendant (which changed shape and style frequently from panel to panel).

Generally, though, I thought it was fine. It was certainly readable. I’m just scratching me head over who the intended audience might be for these. There isn’t really a lot of added value for someone who has already read the novels, and I’m not sure how well someone who hasn’t read the novels would be able to follow along with the graphic novel version. It seems a bit superfluous. Or perhaps they are looking for people like me, who are at the end of the novels and want a refresher on the series without having to tackle the doorstopper tomes for a second time.

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