BOOK REVIEW: Crueler than Dead, Vol. 1 by Tsukasa Saimura

Crueler than dead, vol.1 (Crueler than dead, #1)Crueler than dead, vol.1 by Tsukasa Saimura
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 12, 2021

A teenage girl regains consciousness in a bland institutional setting to discover that she has been part of medical experimentation. Her mission, should she choose to accept it, is to get a vile of vaccine tested on her and the young boy who will be her traveling companion (as well as, on a bunch of people who didn’t survive) to a stadium in the heart of a Tokyo, a city overrun by Zombies. This is a manga-style graphic novel (i.e. black-and-white panels read right to left.)

I found the work to be in the meaty middle among the vast Zombie subgenre – neither among the best nor the worst. What I think the book did well was set up stakes for intense action. They have to journey to the center of the world’s most populous city to the only un-Zombified people known to remain living. So, the stakes are the continued existence of our species. What the book doesn’t do so well is maintain pace and a clear narrative thread. Textless panels are used to make transitional jumps and it’s not clear to me that most readers will follow the flow smoothly.

If you enjoy Zombie stories and manga comics, you may want to look into this one. It has a video game like aesthetic and feel which may (or may not) appeal to gamers more than the average reader. If you find Zombies overplayed and are looking for only the best of the best in Zombie stories, you’re unlikely to find that here.

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BOOK REVIEW: 1000 Storms by Tony Sandoval

1000 Storms #11000 Storms #1 by Tony Sandoval
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: August 10, 2021

As in A Wrinkle in Time, a girl whose father disappeared under mysterious circumstances travels through a portal to a strange and menacing world of adventure. The art is beautiful and – where applicable – simultaneously grotesque, and I found the surreal aesthetic compelling. The protagonist is well-developed and interesting, being a seemingly orphaned girl, living with relatives, who likes to go off on her own adventures, and whose solitary nature encourages a reputation for oddity among her peers. Unlike A Wrinkle in Time, the protagonist’s motivation (other than getting out of the house and collecting peculiar things) is not so clear, and so the story feels like it stumbles toward an ex machina resolution. There’s plenty of engrossing action, but little sense of motivation or agency. It’s a coming-of-age story split between the real world and a kind of fairy story demon realm.

It’s a tad darker than the average down-the-rabbit-hole children’s story, but except for a couple frames it would be unobjectionable for the youth market. [That said, given what seems to be the youthful age of the characters, these frames (involving sexual exploration) seem awkward and out-of-place – though they definitely separate this graphic novel from Alice in Wonderland, A Wrinkle in Time, or other stories that share its subgenre and themes.]

This is an intriguing adventure story with a pleasing aesthetic, but I felt it could have been driven by the protagonist’s goals to a greater degree, rather than reacting to events unfolding around her. Though it’s occurred to me that what I really might have been missing was a greater sense of what her “opposition” was after.

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BOOK REVIEW: Stray Dogs by Tony Fleecs

Stray DogsStray Dogs by Tony Fleecs
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: September 21, 2021

Like Watership Down, this story is told about animals through the eyes of animals, but – in this case – it’s a house full of dogs. The story begins on a placid enough note. The one human character has a lot of dogs, but it’s not a crazy-cat-lady situation, the animals seem well cared for and the reader has a brief moment to see the man admiringly, as a dog-lover who cares for strays. But those feelings are short-lived. The newest dog, Sophie, begins to get memory flashes about her life before she moved into the house, and she faces an intense challenge in convincing the other dogs that all is not as it seems. The dogs like the man. He feeds them, and – as long as they behave – they have a pretty comfortable existence. Only gradually are we shown the man’s nefarious side, what happens when the dogs don’t behave.

This graphic novel has a simple but taught story arc, and is a visceral read. It does get dark, so one shouldn’t be lured by the cuteness factor into thinking that it’s some sort of lighthearted romp – it’s definitely not. If you’re alright with tragic scenes woven into what otherwise might seem Disney-like, you’ll probably find this book engrossing, but sensitive readers may find it a bit revolting.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Complete American Gods by Neil Gaiman; Adapted by P. Craig Russell

The Complete American Gods (Graphic Novel)The Complete American Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: September 28, 2021

This is the graphic novelization of Neil Gaiman’s brilliant story “American Gods.” The tale begins with the protagonist, Shadow Moon, being released a few days early from his prison sentence to attend the funeral of the wife whom he has been longing to see. On the flight home, he sits next to a gregarious man named Wednesday who offers him a job and who knows way too much about Shadow. While Shadow initially rejects the offer, Wednesday is relentless. When Shadow finally gives in, he’s introduced to a world where nothing is as it seems, a world of gods, demi-gods, and folklore heroes.

The premise is simple, but magnificent. America is a hard land for gods. The country’s melting pot nature makes for so many old gods: Native American gods, Norse gods, African tribal gods, pagan gods, Hindu gods, Slavic gods, etc. Then there are the new gods like “technology” and “media.” Comparing the average American’s screen time versus time in church or in prayer, it’s not difficult to tell which side is winning the war for the affection and attention. Still, the new gods exist in an ephemeral landscape. So, Wednesday is going around trying to build support among old gods for a war between the old and new gods — no easy task as a self-confessed con man.

It’s been a while since I read the novel, but this adaptation felt true to my recollection of the original story. It seems closer to the original than, say, the Amazon Prime series (which I also enjoyed, but which often diverges, particularly to build out some of the secondary characters’ arcs.)

This is definitely worth a read, whether you’ve read the novel or not. The artwork was well-done, and I highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere Adapted by Mike Carey

Neil Gaiman's NeverwhereNeil Gaiman’s Neverwhere by Mike Carey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a graphic novelization of one of the greatest urban fantasy novels, ever. While it’s been a while since I read the novel, this adaptation felt true to my memories of the original (one of my all-time favorite novels.) Carey did make a perspective shift from the third-person in the book to first-person in the comic book, but, otherwise, the story is substantially unchanged.

The protagonist is Richard Mayhew, a seemingly preternaturally average middle-class Londoner. Mayhew is going about his life as a suit-and-tie office worker with a domineering fiancé when he almost literally stumbles across a wildly-dressed young woman on the sidewalk. Mayhew’s decision to help the young woman will force him to reckon with a London that exists in parallel to the one he knows, a London of Marquises and angels and monsters and magically-endowed thugs for hire – any (or all) of which may present hazards to his health and well-being. The young woman is the last remaining heir to an important aristocratic family of London Below, and her problems are more dire than being passed out on the sidewalk.

Despite having read the novel, I enjoyed the graphic novel immensely and found it well worth retaking this beautifully rendered trip through the looking-glass into the London that exists beyond our world. This hero’s journey offers a satisfying character arc and many turns and surprises. Even if you’ve read the novel, I’d recommend giving this adaptation a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & ClayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Escaping 1939 Prague, Joe Kavalier moves in with family in Brooklyn, becoming fast friends with his younger cousin, Sam Clay. Combining their talents, Joe as artist and Sam as writer, the young men create a number of popular comic book characters. For those unfamiliar with comic book history, a major stream running through this story involves the trials of “work for hire.” Because of the nature of comic book publishing, creative types tended to work on salary (giving the publisher all rights to whatever was created – e.g. TV shows, toys, etc.) Because of this, the creators of some of the most lucrative characters and stories received little credit or financial reward (relative to the profits.) While these artists / authors didn’t lose their shirt if a title failed, there’s something offensive about Corporations (or actors) shoveling in money from a franchise while the creator lives a dank suburban existence.

If it were just about the unfair lives of comic book creators, the book would be interesting — but not 600+ pages interesting. What makes this a compelling story is that each of the titular characters has a darker challenge with which to deal. For Joe, it is an obsession with bringing as much of his family to safety as he can, and coping with his rage against the Nazis. For Sam, it is the fact that he is a closeted and conflicted gay man in 1940’s and 50’s America. The driving question is whether the two men will be able to avail themselves of the tripartite support network (themselves, plus Rosa – Joe’s girlfriend,) or whether either (or both) will self-destruct because of an inability to do so.

This is a well-crafted novel and I highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Power Born of Dreams by Mohammad Sabaaneh

Power Born of Dreams: My Story is PalestinePower Born of Dreams: My Story is Palestine by Mohammad Sabaaneh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 7, 2021

This graphic novel reflects upon the Israel-Palestine conflict through the lens of the author’s (artist’s) time in prison. At first, I found the story to be an evocative personal account of life in prison, but as the story continued it felt progressively less personal and more propagandistic. The central theme is that Palestinians feel imprisoned by circumstance, regardless of whether they are actually in a jail or not.

Still, it’s not the kind of work that will constructively advance a dialogue. It will rub those who sympathize with Israel the wrong way because it’s far from an unbiased account of events, vilifying the Israelis while glorifying (or failing to acknowledge) the Palestinians who engage in violence. This bias is particularly notable in the back matter, which presents accounts that seem journalistic, but which selectively present information to make it appear that all fault lies exclusively on one side.

To be fair, the author spent time in jail for (as best I could learn from the internet) what sounded like consorting with unsavory characters. [Which reeks of Soviet-style “justice,” but the book doesn’t really delve into the reason for his imprisonment, and – even if it did – I’m not sure that I’d trust that it’s the complete truth – given the way the general narrative is presented. So, I couldn’t tell you whether the author is an artist wrongly imprisoned for expressing himself, or whether he did something that was truly and legitimately seditious.]

The art is linocut to create a chiaroscuro effect (i.e. white lines, black background) and is stylistically interesting.

I enjoyed the art and found this to be an interesting read, but I wouldn’t recommend readers take it at face value as a fair account of the conflict, but rather as one man’s personal message about the conflict.

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BOOK REVIEW: Punderworld, Vol. 1 by Linda Sejic

Punderworld, Volume 1Punderworld, Volume 1 by Linda Šejić
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: August 25, 2021

Punderworld is a disneyfied telling of the love story of Persephone and Hades from Greek Mythology. I mean that in two ways. First, the art seemed stylistically reminiscent [to my neophyte eye] of a movie like “Frozen” (all the people are preternaturally good-looking / charisma-laden and even the Underworld has the sort of charm that makes it seem like it would be a nice place to visit.) The other sense in which it reminded me of a Disney story is that, while it comes from Greek Mythology, it is written and drawn to maximize resonance with a present-day American reader, and would probably be fundamentally unrecognizable to an ancient Greek even if translated into ancient Greek. (As the “Aladdin” animated movie would not resonate with an Arab viewership as much as it would Americans.) Punderworld could also be thought of as a Rom-Com of the star couple of the Underworld. [I assume the title is a “Branjelina”-like meet cute confection of a word.]

The story dragged a bit in the first half, but made good in the second, and I ended up enjoying the book more than I expected to. If you’re up for a disney-esque telling of this ancient Greek love story, give it a look.


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BOOK REVIEW: Nightmare in Savannah by Lela Gwenn

Nightmare in SavannahNightmare in Savannah by Lela Gwenn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: November 9, 2021

Like New Orleans, Savannah is one of the few American cities that can pull off Old World occult-centered stories in a way that is on par with Prague or Budapest. While this is a fine story, I was underwhelmed at the degree to which it harnessed the promise of that setting. Mostly, the story plays out as teenage drama that could take place anywhere in America, with the novel addition of fairies [as opposed to the overplayed vampires or zombies.] I will say the book does a better job of getting mileage out of Fairy folklore than it does out of Savannah’s spook factor. These are not Peter Pan’s Fairies.

If you are looking for something akin to “Mean Girls” with less comedy, more angst, and a supernatural element, this book is definitely worth checking out. However, if the title “Nightmare in Savannah” has you expecting a deeply disturbing work of gothic horror, this is probably not the one for you.

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BOOK REVIEW: Seven Shakespeares, Vol. 1 by Harold Sakuishi

Seven Shakespeares Vol. 1 (comiXology Originals)Seven Shakespeares Vol. 1 by Harold Sakuishi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The title and premise of this manga-style historical fiction graphic novel are presumably influenced by Gilbert Slater’s 1931 work that proposed that William Shakespeare as poet / playwright is a myth and that, in actuality, seven different writers produced the canon attributed to Shakespeare. While there remains disagreement and speculation about precisely what was composed by Shakespeare – as opposed to either being heavily co-authored or exploiting his name recognition – I don’t believe this extreme expression of the idea is so popular anymore.

But it doesn’t really matter for the purpose of this story because Sakuishi’s work suggests some truly outlandish, if intriguing, origins of the Shakespeare canon. In the case of this first volume, it is an adorable young Chinese witch (for lack of a better term,) Li, who goes from learning English via crude a pointing-out-concrete-nouns approach to penning sonnets that will be considered some of the best poetry humanity has ever known, and she does so over a period of weeks.

The volume includes light supernatural elements – either that or superstitious people in conjunction with unseen and / or unbelievable activities. So, it’s a cross-genre work. Most of the story revolves around a Chinese community who feel beleaguered by the gods or fates, and who attempt to sacrifice Li to appease said deities.

I found the premise to be intriguing. The art was cleanly rendered in the manga style. The story didn’t feel quite as clean, with some events feeling random and inorganic. If you’re looking to get some lightly dramatized historical fiction, you’d probably feel this is a bit fanciful, but if you’re down for the story’s exaggerated nature, it’s a compelling tale.


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