BOOK REVIEW: Ahiahia the Orphan by Levi Illuitok

Ahiahia the OrphanAhiahia the Orphan by Levi Illuitok
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: April 11, 2023

This is a brief and action-packed graphic novelization of a traditional story of the Inuit people of Kugaaruk. That said, it’s probably too brief and action-packed for its own good. The story revolves around a man, Ahiahia, who is orphaned when members of the tribe kill his parents, and then when he comes of age the same contingent have it out for him. While one can imagine any number of internecine conflicts that could lead to the murder of his parents, the fact that we have no clue of the attackers’ motivation makes the whole thing feel gratuitous.

Ahiahia’s grandmother takes the boy in and goes to great lengths to see that he will be safe in the face of whatever familial rivalry led to his parent’s murder. Her actions blend the magical with the practical (e.g. chanting incantations over the bow and arrows she makes for him.) For me, the moral of the story can be seen in this blending. We don’t know how much of Ahiahia’s successes are due to the practical versus the magical, but one feels they worked together and that one without the other would probably not have fared as well.

At the end, there’s a scene that may be disturbing for those who have strong feelings about patriarchal subjugation of women, but it’s hard to argue that it’s not authentic.

This is a very quick read and has sufficient action to keep it engaging. However, it can also feel a bit purposeless.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Dreaming, Vol. 1: Pathways & Emanations by Simon Spurrier

Pathways and Emanations (The Dreaming, #1)Pathways and Emanations by Simon Spurrier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This title is part of the “Sandman extended universe” that was spurred by the success of Neil Gaiman’s comic about the lord of dream realm –“the Dreaming” being said realm of dreams and nightmares. The Dreaming is usually presided over by Dream of the Endless, one of seven siblings commanding various domains. In this story, Dream is gone, no one knows where. Readers of Sandman will remember that in the original run Dream is kidnapped and imprisoned for 70 years. This isn’t the same disappearance (it’s not even the same “Dream,” but as he’s not a major figure in this book, there’s no need to elaborate.) While this may seem like a rehash, the Sandman story was focused on the character of Dream and mostly took place in our world, occasionally visiting the Dreaming as relevant to Dream’s story. This story is all about what happens within the Dreaming when the master is away, allowing decay, internal treachery, and the potential for invasion.

The story heavily focuses on three characters: Lucien, Mervyn, and Dora. One of the things this story does well is to build a tension between Lucien and Mervyn, a tension that is relatable and contributes substantially to the turmoil within the story. Lucien is ordinarily the librarian, and he’s a scholarly fellow who is an excellent librarian but is in over his head running the Dreaming (especially as he’s trying to keep it a secret that Dream has vanished so as to avoid panic or invite attacks.) Mervyn (Pumpkin-head) is like the head of maintenance, a blue-collar stiff who doesn’t know Dream is gone and thinks Lucien is making a powerplay and has bitten off more than he can chew. Dora is a mysterious rogue of a character who we don’t know much about other than that she’s not from the Dreaming (but lives there with Dream’s permission,) she’s quite powerful, and she does her own thing — which often runs her afoul of the staff of the Dreaming.

I felt this volume offered an entertaining story and resolved it nicely, while setting up for continued chaos in additional volumes. If you enjoyed the Sandman comics, this book is definitely worth a read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Swamp Thing, Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan

Swamp Thing by Brian K. Vaughan, Vol. 1Swamp Thing by Brian K. Vaughan, Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The first thing to be aware of is that the protagonist of this book is Tefé Holland, daughter of Swamp Thing, and the titular character is only in the book for a few frames of flashback. This has the advantage of making for a confused and tormented lead character, a sort of coming-of-age element. Tefé struggles with who she is, and this leads to some wonky behavior. At times, she doesn’t do what would be expected of a superhero, but at other times she does, and this makes her character feel constantly off-kilter. One doesn’t straight away develop an affinity for the character, or – if one does – it comes and goes as she responds to varied situations in various ways. However, this seems to be intentional, a reflection of the fact that she doesn’t know if she’s the protector of the plant world, of humanity, of both, or of neither. She’s at once a pretty and sweet young woman and a terrifying god-like Elemental. She has a couple of “sidekick” characters, Barnabas and Pilate that help lend humanity and provide contrast (given the hardcore nature of these two men, they tend to make Tefé seem even more extreme as they are the ones to talk her down.)

While the Swamp Thing and its extended character-verse is heavy with environmental message, the book is not written to bludgeon the reader with rebukes or preach to the choir. It keeps the lessons subtle enough that I didn’t feel the book swerving into preachy mode, and it remains entertaining throughout.

I enjoyed this volume. It can feel a little disjointed and might read more smoothly for someone who’d read previous Swamp Thing series, but with attentive reading, one can certainly follow the action. (Another potential advantage of it focusing on the daughter character.) [FYI- This is the third of seven series.]

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BOOK REVIEW: Killadelphia Deluxe Edition, Book One by Rodney Barnes

Killadelphia Deluxe Edition, Book One (Killadelphia, 1)Killadelphia Deluxe Edition, Book One by Rodney Barnes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: November 22, 2022

Just when you think the vampire subgenre has been done to death, a graphic novel comes along that grabs one’s attention and reignites one’s affinity for the trope. As the title suggests, one of the ways that this book establishes itself as something different is to lean into setting, a setting with a unique heritage but no particular connection to vampires, in this case Philadelphia. The book takes cross-genre to the extremes, involving not only speculative fiction / horror but, also, historical fiction and detective fiction.

Killadelphia doesn’t do anything groundbreaking, but it does an exemplary job with an assortment of common tropes and plot devices. Like Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the book mashes up vampires and historical figures, but – in this case – Barnes goes more obscure by using John and Abagail Adams. The book also plays on the dysfunctional father / son relationship as source of tension and character growth. In this case, James Sangster Jr. comes to Philly due to the untimely death of his father, James Sangster Sr., but the father’s death turns out to be more of an undeath, the detective having been caught up in an investigation that led him into a den of vampires. This ultimately plays into a reluctant team up as the Philly vampire scene goes epidemic.

There’s some ancillary material with this deluxe edition, most notably a werewolf comic that takes place in the same universe, called Elysium Gardens. [Otherwise, it’s the usual alternate cover art and author exposition type stuff.]

I enjoyed Killadelphia and would put it in the upper echelon of vampire-inspired graphic novels that I’ve seen of late.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Voices of Water by Tiziano Sclavi

The Voices of WaterThe Voices of Water by Tiziano Sclavi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: November 22, 2022

As the title suggests, this graphic novel is about a guy who hears voices, voices that he most often can’t quite make out, but only in the presence of moving water – i.e. rain, the shower, a sink, etc. Though the reader may read it more as a series of short fiction chapters with a vague vein of interconnectedness. A choice was made to keep the text sparse and to let the imagery do the heavy lifting. I’m not sure it worked out as well as intended, though there is wide variation throughout the book. There are a few chapters that can be read as clear and evocative standalone stories (e.g. “Revenge,” “In a Better World,” and “A Day of the Week: Tuesday,”) but there are others that leave one wondering whether one grasped what was intended (if anything was intended.)

The art is line-drawn (penciled style) monochrome. It works well for the tone of the book, and many of the frames feature old town European architecture that is both attractive and establishes an interesting setting.

This one is definitely high on atmospherics and feels a little disjoint because it’s not always clear that the protagonist, Stavros, is in the vicinity of the action, and – therefore – how the overarching narrative ties together. Overall, I think it works, and I’m glad I read it.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Closet, Vol. 1 by James Tynion IV

The ClosetThe Closet by James Tynion IV
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: October 18, 2022

The protagonist, Thom, is a stay-at-home dad whose four-year-old is having nightmares of a monster that resides in the closet and sits on his chest in the manner Fuseli’s “The Nightmare.” Thom is both someone that you want to shake and / or slap, and – yet, at the same time – he is every single one of us at some point in our lives. (i.e. He is completely overwhelmed and stuck in a fantasy that he can dig out from under the rubble of past mistakes and be born anew, and the fact that he can’t ever be free of the past and always has to deal with momentary reality just adds to his anger and frustration.) The thing is, Thom isn’t a bad guy, but you still want to slap him. That’s what I call excellent character development.

I don’t know where the overarching story is going, and don’t even know whether it’s truly speculative fiction or rather domestic realism, but I know it draws one in and is evocative.

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BOOK REVIEW: Slumber, Vol. 1 by Tyler Burton Smith

Slumber, Volume 1Slumber, Volume 1 by Tyler Burton Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: October 18, 2022

Stetson is a “dream eater.” She makes her living by entering the dreaming mind of clients and “killing” their nightmares. When a series of mysterious and highly irregular murders happen in the real world, the police develop a hunch that Stetson might be involved, or – at a minimum – know something they don’t. And it soon becomes clear that it’s not just a job for her; there’s some sort of personal stakes or vendetta driving her.

I got hooked on this book. The art is colorful and fun and plays well with the imaginative and amusing dream world. The story was well-crafted and offered a satisfying and pleasurable read. If you’re into surreal speculative fiction that deals in dreams and nightmares, it’s worth looking into this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Golem of Venice Beach Vol. 1 by Chanan Beizer

The Golem of Venice BeachThe Golem of Venice Beach by Chanan Beizer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: November 15, 2022

The title is the premise. The Golem of Prague is now living in Venice Beach, CA. However, the protagonist is a human hipster with a sunglass kiosk near the beach named Jake. Jake is a secular Jew with a penchant for all manner of drugs who falls in love with a neighbor who is some sort of chosen one for a Santa Muerte cult that’s protected by some drug-dealing gangbangers. The connection to the Golem is that Jake’s bloodline is protected by the Golem.

This is one of those titles that’s hard to rate. The art is well done. The character development is great. And it’s a compelling premise. (Though I think we may be experiencing a Golem zeitgeist as this is the second or third Golem story I’ve read recently. But, it could also be an anecdotal coincidence.) That all sound pretty good, but I have no idea whether the story is any good because it’s one of those one-story-arc-split-over-two volumes, and so the resolution-to-cliffhanger ratio is not good. [i.e. It ends all cliffhanger and with nothing having been resolved.] To be fair, the last line does promise to conclude the story in the second (next) volume. (i.e. As opposed to: “We’ll see if it’s popular and then string it out until there’s no hope of tying up all the loose ends.”) So, I guess it comes down to whether you’re a trusting soul. I don’t think I’ve read this author previously, and thus have no basis for drawing a conclusion.

So, my recommendation is…


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BOOK REVIEW: War & Peace: The Graphic Novel Adapted by Alexandr Poltorak [from the work by Leo Tolstoy]

War and Peace: The Graphic NovelWar and Peace: The Graphic Novel by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: September 27, 2022

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Ambitious. Many readers will feel it’s overly ambitious or even impossibly ambitious. It’s not just the challenge of capturing a sprawling 1,220-page tome in a 220-page graphic novel. Tolstoy’s work has a vast cast of characters and captures a broad set of both fictional and factual events whose broad contours are determined by Napoleon’s wars in Europe, culminating in his adventures into Russia. (In other words, the narrative arc wasn’t organized in such a manner as to be readily compressible, but to capture real world events.)

I must make a confession. Usually, when I’m reviewing a graphic novel adaptation of a work of literature, I’ve read the source material. In this case, I haven’t, and so I may not be the best person to comment on how accurately Poltorak and Chukhrai condense events. I can say that the pacing of the book – particularly in the latter half – is a bit like taking in the world through the window of a speeding train. Of the two most important characters, this is particularly true of the experience of Prince Andrew, whose major moments are “blink and you’ll miss them.” Pierre’s arc seems to be covered in greater detail, though still at breakneck pacing.

Given all that, many people will say to themselves: “Realistically, I am never going to read a 1000+ page novel about the experience of Russian aristocratic families leading up to and during the Napoleonic French invasion, even if it has love triangles, conniving inheritance disputes, and plenty of good ole family dysfunction.” The early part of the book is mostly rich people sitting around at soirees discussing war (in peace) as they live out their various familial and romantic dramas. If you’re that person, this graphic novel maybe the perfect solution for you, and I’d recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Little Monsters, Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire

Little Monsters, Vol. 1Little Monsters, Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: October 11, 2022

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It’s vampiric Lord of the Flies in a dystopian wasteland. Checks a lot of boxes. To begin on a positive note, I loved the character development in this book. Each of the kids is distinct and one rapidly develops an affinity for some of them and a distrust of others. Long story short, you want to know what happens to these kids, and why they’re in the situation in which they find themselves.

What I didn’t like is what I call the “resolution to hook” ratio. When something is written with serialization in mind, it’s a challenge to provide a satisfying story arc. There’s an incentive to end with a big hook, so as to draw readers farther down the line, and often the whole climax-resolution-conclusion bit is skipped or glossed over. Often, this leaves no (or a weak) resolution, such that reading the volume doesn’t scratch the itch that good stories do. Steamrolling through the end of the story arc to end on a cliffhanger may attract some continuing readers, but for those of us wary of the sunk cost fallacy (giving into an investment made with the assumption that it will eventually turn out positively,) it’s a sign to move on to the next story. (Lest one be Lost-ed – i.e. to be drawn in by a brilliant and inventive story only to see it become increasingly muddled, ultimately to end in a sad crash landing.)

The art is somewhat crudely rendered, but I suspect that was a conscious choice to achieve the desired atmospherics. And, I think it worked. The art clearly conveys the action.

If you have faith that you’ll eventually get that narrative itch scratched, you may want to check this one out. It does have a lot of potential. For my part, I’m once bitten, twice shy.


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