Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Read: 5 September, 2018

This book is so many things. It’s the story of growing up during a war, of living under fundamentalism, of the immigrant experience, or family, of being punk in the ’80s – all together at the same time.

Satrapi’s consistent mouthiness is a joy to read. I also appreciated her vulnerability as she tells us about the time she falsely accused someone else of a crime to avoid being accused herself, or the time she bullied a boy for his father’s political activities. She talks about feeling ashamed of wanting sympathy for how hard it was for her to spend her teens along in Vienna while her family and childhood friends were living in a warzone.

The artwork is perfect. The black-on-white is deceptively simplistic, while conveying a great amount of expression.

Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

Read: 3 September, 2018

I really enjoyed this. It’s your normal coming-of-age story about going to camp for the first time and having trouble adjusting, but with the special twist of coming from an immigrant experience. Vera is a first generation Russian immigrant whose language is half in/half out, going through all those painful third culture kid problems.

I really enjoyed being able to share this with my son, who is a second generation immigrant. It’s hard to explain what being a third culture kid is like, but books like these really help.

Kim & Kim, vol. 1: “This Glamorous, High-Flying Rock Star Life” by Magdalene Visaggio, illustrated by Eva Cabrera

Read: 3 September, 2018

I’ve never read the Tank Girl comics, but I’ve always loved the movie (shut up, it’s awesome). I loved the sheer punk-ness of it – the over-the-top sass, the stuff that makes no sense but gets thrown in just because it’s cool, the colours, the joy of it.

Kim & Kim has that same energy. The Fighting Kims live in a grounded, real world (one Kim is humiliated by having to beg her parents to pay her rent when she fails yet again, while the other Kim is consistently misgendered by her father), yet they live big and loud. They are colourful, they love what they do, they are cartoonishly vibrant. It’s just a joy to read.

The story was okay. It bounced around a bit, and I was always feeling like I’d accidentally missed a page (the time jumping and narration really didn’t help). It felt a bit like just an excuse to show off these characters.

But the characters are fantastic, and the art style does them justice. While there are some printing issues (some of the panels look a little out of focus), I loved how expressive and colourful and cool the art is.

The Witcher, vol. 3: Curse of Crows by Paul Tobin (illustrated by Piotr Kowalski)

Read: 17 August, 2018

This is my favourite book of the lot.

I enjoy the random Witcher adventures – the monsters are interesting, I like the way Geralt interacts with people, and I always like the reveals at the very end that Geralt knew what was going on the whole time. But Geralt at his very best is Geralt when Ciri and Yennifer are around.

The artwork is also much better in this one, especially the backgrounds. The city shots, in particular, were gorgeous. Kowalski also did a good job of capturing the right body language and facial expressions to go along with Tobin’s writing.

As for Tobin’s writing, he’s once again managed to capture the characters’ personalities. This is especially impressive with the banter between Geralt and Yennifer, which rides such a very fine line – too affectionate and it isn’t them, but too teasing and it could come off as mean-spirited.

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The Witcher, vol. 2: Fox Children by Paul Tobin (illustrated by Joe Querio)

Read: August 6, 2018

As with House of Glass, I appreciate how well Tobin has managed to capture Geralt’s voice and the general tone of Witcher series.

The artwork, which disappointed me a bit in House of Glass, is still rather underwhelming. However, there is now a female character who actually wears clothing, so that’s at least a little improvement (have no fear – the central female character is still naked). This is authentic to CD Projekt Red’s vision of the series, so I can’t fault it for that, but it’d be nice to have a little more parity.

The story works, for the most part. I liked the ending twist, and I thought that that Tobin did a good job of building a paranoid atmosphere.

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The Witcher, vol. 1: House of Glass by Paul Tobin (illustrated by Joe Querio)

Read: 5 August, 2018

I wasn’t a huge fan of the artwork for this one. It felt a bit rough or lacking in detail, and there were several panels where I had a great deal of trouble figuring out what I was looking at. In particular, Vara’s body (her arms, especially) seemed all over the place, proportionally. It’s not bad art, per se, but it could have been a lot better.

The story was okay. It definitely felt like a Witcher story, just not one of the better ones. There’s some good mystery and ambience building up, until Geralt finds the right person to talk to and they just infodump what’s going on. Which a lot of Sapkowski’s stories also do, so points for keeping it authentic, but those aren’t the stories that I really like.

All that said, I did enjoy the writing. When Geralt speaks, he sounds like Geralt. His humour, his deadpan, the way he just goes along with what people saying – even while he knows that they are lying – just to see what will happen… that’s truly Geralt. Even the “twist” at the end that he had a good idea of what was going on the whole time, even while the reader was befuddled by the mystery, reads just like Sapkowski’s stories.

I also liked the way Geralt bantered with Vara. They had a good rapport, and it worked better than just having Geralt wandering around by himself for half the story.

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The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag

Read: 16 April, 2018

My kid is still an early reader, which means that he does best when there are pictures. Unfortunately, a lot of books for his reading level aren’t at his story level, so I’m always struggling to find things that will actually hold his interest while he practices his literacy. Turns out that graphic novels are perfect for this, because he can easily read books that are written for much older children, and therefore have more risque scares and complex plots.

The Witch Boy is exactly all of that.

The story is just scary enough to be a thrill, and I loved the message of being yourself – outside of social boxes like gender. This is a wholesome story to share with kids, and I loved the amount of representation the author was able to cram in.

Plus, we got a huge kick out of the fact that the main character is watching Steven Universe in one panel. My son literally squealed and ran the book over to show me when he caught that!

Having now read it myself as well, we’re both hoping that this will become a series.

Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Captain Phasma by Kelly Thompson, illustrated by Marco Checchetto

Read: 4 January, 2018

I don’t have a great track record with tie-in comics. I didn’t much like the Mass Effect one I read, and I really didn’t like the last Star Wars one. But this one was on sale for almost the exact amount I needed to get free shipping on an order, so I went for it…

And I actually liked it!

Like with most graphic novels, I was a little disappointed by how fast everything flew by. I wanted a little more time with the characters, more inner dialogue to help me get to know them better, but I think that’s just because novels are my home medium.

And yet, with the space Thompson had, she did a fantastic job of giving me a better sense of Phasma as a character. Phasma, who has been notoriously short-changed in the movies, deserves her own story, and this is a good start. Even better, there are scattered hints of more that have me excited to read the Phasma novel by Delilah Dawson and find out more.*

*Although the artistic choices in what appear to be a flashback have me a bit confused. The figures we see are all dark haired. And while we never see Phasma herself without her mask, the actor Gwendoline Christie is fair haired.

The story itself was a good one, and I loved that Phasma was amoral, rather than evil. She’s here to survive, and survive she will – no matter what. There was nuance there that we don’t often get to see in “dark protagonists” of any gender, but especially women.

Orange, The Complete Collection #2 by Ichigo Takano

Read: 10 September, 2017

Finally, the finale of the Orange story! Orange only takes up about 2/3rds of the book, with the remainder being a filler short story called Haruiro Astronaut (no, as far as I can tell, the name doesn’t make any sense).

First, for the ending of Orange: The story ends satisfyingly. It’s a little abrupt, but it works. It ends at the moment when Kakeru stops thinking about how much pain his death will spare others, and starts thinking of how much pain his death would cause others. He’s still depressed, he still has an awful lot to work through (and I really do hope that he changes his mind about seeking professional/medical help), but that one little change is a profound one.

We never do find out how the future is changed by Kakeru’s survival – will he and Naho end up together? What will happen to Suwa? Will the friends keep in touch? But, in a profound sense, none of that matters. The fact that Kakeru will be alive already changes everything. And the rest is just… life.

There are a few things that have bugged me about the series. The first is, of course, Naho’s naivete. I realize that it’s meant to be the character flaw that she needs to overcome, but it just boggles the mind sometimes. How can she keep being shocked that Kakeru likes her when the letters have already told her, multiple times, that he does? Maybe it’s just a translation issue, or maybe it’s some cultural shorthand that I’m not getting, but it’s frustrating.

Given that mental illness is such a key part of the story, I wish that it were more responsibly handled. Only one character (Kakeru’s grandmother) brings up the idea that Kakeru might seek professional help. He gets angry, the issue is dropped, it’s never brought up again. I wish that, just once, his illness could be identified (especially since he seems to share it with his deceased mother). And while I’m not sure how well it would have worked with the story the author wanted to tell, I wish that treatment had been brought up in a better way. I wish that the recommendation to seek professional help had been echoed by Kakeru’s friends as well. I wish that it hadn’t just been dismissed as if it were a humiliating thing to do.

Lastly, part of me is rather uncomfortable with the way the whole friend group tip-toes on egg shells around Kakeru. His feelings are front and centre. And while it’s not like it’s his fault, all his friends act like victims of abuse around him. Their lives are utterly focused on him – on making sure that he’s always happy, on making sure that they never say anything that might set him off. Sure, they are getting good life experiences too, but that’s incidental. Everything they do, they do for him. I’m not sure how responsible it is to present a love story and model of friendship like that.

Especially in light of Harairu Astronaut. That story is kinda terrible. There’s an interesting story in between the lines about how the two sisters view their relationship, and the one sister’s fear of hurting men’s feelings leading her to agree to date anyone who will ask (a habit that is clearly presented as destructive).

It’s just that all the men in the story are absolutely trash. Yui is abusive – he orders everyone around, tells them what to do, demands that the women feed him, etc. Tatsuaki is a stalker. Natsuki is okay, but even he is forceful in his own way (and his arc seems to be to learn to be more forceful, rather than it being Yui’s arc to be less).

But there’s some odd sexual dynamics in the story that I wish were explored a little more. I’m not sure whether Yui and Natsuki are meant to be more than friends, but they do seem like it at times. There also seem to be hints that the twins would be open to being in a poly relationship with Yui together. And the final scene has Chiki holding Tatsuaki’s hand while Tatsuaki holds Natsuki’s hand.

Mostly, I feel a bit out of my depth with Haruiro Astronaut. I can’t tell whether the subtext I’m reading into it is meant to be there or not, and I feel like there is more going on than what I’m able to perceive.

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Orange, The Complete Collection #1 by Ichigo Takano

Read: 29 August, 2017

I picked up this book without realising that it was only the first volume. This, combined with the fact that the story really does seem on track to wrap up by the end, resulted in a very frustrated reader. But the next book is at least out already, so I haven’t fallen for that trap again.

This is a story about choices. The main character receives a letter from her future self warning her that one of her friends will die, and providing her with instructions to prevent that from happening. But while Future-Naho may believe that she has an accurate grasp of all the causal chains, there’s much that she can’t know even from her vantage point. Especially once the story starts to unfold differently as Naho makes different choices, and Future-Naho’s experiences become less and less accurate.

It’s a concept that’s certainly been done before (I grew up on Quantum Leap, and other shows like Early Edition have covered similar ground), so the story swims or sinks on the strength of its characters.

And I have to say that it does a pretty good job. Naho’s self-conscious naivete can be a bit annoying at times (especially when she keeps misunderstanding Kakeru’s expressions of love despite already knowing that he likes her!), but she has enough going for her not to cross the line into being unlikable. And whatever her flaws, they’re overshadowed by the interactions between the six friends.

The last thing I want to touch on is the pacing. I often complain that graphic novels move too fast – they race through plot beats without giving me enough time to really absorb the implications, or to get a sense of the characters by letting me see them to react to events. But Orange is a slow burn. Each event in the story is savoured, and the narrative meanders through the story at a leisurely pace. Characters have a chance to show me who they are, and their relationships have a chance to grow. It’s really quite refreshing!

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