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First Second Books

Written and Drawn by Lat

A young boy named Mat has joined his family in leaving behind village life, moving to a Malaysian town and beginning anew. Now in a new school, he learns to navigate this fresh and exciting world, copes with his parents’ economic status, discovers literature and music, and meets the first girl to make his heart sing.

TOWN BOY is the sequel to KAMPUNG BOY, which garnered quite a bit of critical acclaim upon its release. Certainly, this is a well-crafted book; Lat is a terrific cartoonist, and his tale never strays far from feeling truthful in the telling. The friendship between Mat and his friend Frankie makes for a solid center throughout the book, and I appreciated the authenticity to the way the boys interacted and were portrayed. However, the one thing that never did quite happen was any sort of emotional engagement along the way. Lat never makes it feel as though there are any stakes in the story. This becomes especially distressing in a sequence late in the book as Frankie’s life takes a turn that sees him leaving the town. There’s no pain, no power to it, and Mat comes off as emotionally flat and uncaring that he’s about to lose his best friend.

With such a blunted impact, it’s difficult to offer anything but a middling recommendation for TOWN BOY. The talent at work here is excellent and undeniable, but the depth of storytelling comes up a bit short. As always, your mileage may vary.

Marc Mason

Written and Drawn by Nick Abadzis

Earlier this year, we saw FIRST IN SPACE, which told the story of the United States’ program training chimps for space flight. But Nick Abadzis takes the space animal phenomenon further with this wonderful biographical effort of the dog that the Soviets sent into space on Sputnik 2.

Actually, calling this a biography isn’t quite right. While much of Abadzis’ story is researched and based on fact, Laika’s own story is embellished, as far as her background is concerned, and that’s where the story derives its power and emotional heft. Laika’s given name throughout most of the story, before her flight, is Kudryavka, and her journey to becoming a national hero is a long one. It begins in an uncaring home, with an uncaring child that tries to kill her, to becoming a street stray, surviving on the kindness of strangers, to finding her way into the Russian space program and a date with destiny. It’s an epic tale, which really surprises and overwhelms; the last thing you’d expect, really.

There are humans in the story, too, some historical figures, some not. But each of their arcs revolves around Laika and her fated journey into space. It is known that she did not survive the trip, and was not meant to. But what was perhaps not as well known is the ultimate futility of her flight, and the lack of real results it produced beyond propaganda. LAIKA is a tragedy at its core, and rarely have I been so affected by the story of the life of an animal. Books like CHARLOTTE’S WEB have the added element of anthropomorphized characters, but Laika never speaks a word. Yet the way Abadzis depicts her is as communicative and powerful as anything you can imagine.

Really, just a wonderful graphic novel. Highly recommended.

Marc Mason

Written and Drawn by Grady Klein

On a strange island hidden from most of the outside world, strange things are afoot. The island’s Governor is getting a visitor: his father, a veteran of the Native American Wars, and the older man is trying to drum up support and belief in a continued war. In the meantime, the Governor’s daughter Birdy, a master if mischief, not only lives to defy her father and everyone else around, but also likes to dress up as a Native American girl. The island is also about to receive a visit from true outsiders, which is a rarity; these outsiders are entertainers, and their show promises to relieve the locals of their boredom, taste in entertainment, and common sense, unless Birdy can do something about it. Plus, there’s a local Native American fellow who wants his memory wiped, a gentle giant who isn’t so gentle when off his meds, and all sorts of other nonsense going on that I couldn’t begin to penetrate.

There’s no question in my mind that Klein is a gifted artist. His pages have a pop to them, and his dynamic use of angular-looking characters and vibrant colors is really amazing. Certainly, there’s nothing else quite like on the shelves right now. But… I was completely unable to penetrate the story and get involved.

The inside covers offer character synopses and an update about what happened in book one (which I have not read), but they didn’t help. There’s so much going on here, so many threads being woven together, that I wasn’t able to truly follow any of them. I’d start feeling like I had a solid grasp of what was going on, but then quickly find myself lost again. It got rather frustrating.

As a writer, I’ve written myself into exactly the same spot Klein does here. There’s at least one more volume coming, and he obviously has a larger plan and plot that he’s serving, and this middle chapter is a necessary step for getting there. But the risk you face is in running past the reader’s ability and willingness to stick it out and see the entire tapestry when it’s done. You can’t afford to overwhelm the reader’s comprehension as you pass towards the final act, and Klein does that here. He may recover nicely in volume three; the question is: will I?

Marc Mason

Written by Lewis Trondheim and Drawn by Fabrice Parme
Translated by Alexis Siegel

There are basically only three names that will make me sit up, take notice, and buy a comic or graphic novel without any questions, because I’m absolutely certain of the quality of their work: Kyle Baker, Warren Ellis… and Lewis Trondheim.

Once again, the amazing Frenchman has delivered on that faith, as TINY TYRANT gets translated for English-speaking audiences. And while Trondheim doesn’t provide the art for this little gem, his writing skills have never been called into question, as this book provides laughs o’plenty and loads of fun for readers of all ages. The set-up: King Ethelbert is the monarch of Portocristo… and he’s also just about the most spoiled rotten six-year old kid you can imagine. He always gets his way, no matter how insanely goofy his demands may be, or what the cost will be to those around him. Only the quick thinking of his advisors keeps the kingdom standing, as they cleverly maneuver the boy-king into eventually letting go of bad ideas or putting things back in proper order. Of course, disaster usually has to strike first.

Take the time that he order all the kingdom’s children shipped off to nowhere, to be replaced by robot duplicates of himself (so that all parents could have perfect children, of course), or his decision to test his new royal bodyguard by putting out a contract on his own life. Trondheim finds more and more ludicrous ways for the young boy to misbehave, but they all work to perfection, aided and abetted by Parme’s amazing art. The book is not only put together with amazing production quality, but it looks like the best cartoon you’ve seen in recent memory.

There’s not a single thing to complain about when discussing TINY TYRANT. I enjoyed it. A ten-year old could enjoy it. Both sexes would enjoy it. As usual, Lewis Trondheim is as good as comics get. Pick this up and see why.

Marc Mason

Written and Drawn by Gipi
Translated by Spectrum

Italian comics legend Gipi first came to my attention through his work published in Fantagraphics’ Ignatz line. Both THE INNOCENTS and THEY FOUND THE CAR stood out for me as a reader, showcasing exquisite art and rich characters, so when I saw that this amazing creator had a full-length graphic novel coming out this spring, I was excited by the prospect of seeing how well he worked with a larger canvas in front of him. And as anticipated, GARAGE BAND lives up to that promise.

Giuliano’s father is perhaps a bit more indulgent than most; when many parents would discourage their children from getting involved with the music scene, he instead allows his son’s band to use an old garage for a practice facility. But this access is a double-edged sword for the four young men looking to make it big; it will only serve to exacerbate their insecurities about class, their inability to figure out what kind of men they hope to be, and in one’s case, to accelerate his tendency for violence and Nazi-worshipping behavior.

Adolescence is the time in which we form our identity and moral code, and Gipi digs deep into each boy’s character and begins molding them in naturalistic fashion. It is through their interactions with one another and the outside world that we begin to get a fuller picture of who they are; is Alex an Nazi at heart, or is his fascination merely an expression of rebellion against his father’s mysterious past? Is Giuliano a fully ethical person, or will he let his judgment get overridden by groupthink? How can four people of decent intelligence suddenly decide that theft is acceptable?

GARAGE BAND is a terrific character piece, gorgeously rendered on the page, and subtly written. Dialogue never intrudes on the body language and facial gestures that are propelling the story forward on the page. Intelligent and challenging, this is a class-A graphic novel. Seek it out.

Marc Mason

Written by Joann Sfar and Drawn by Emmanuel Guibert
Translated by Alexis Siegel

Love stories don’t come much stranger or more charming than THE PROFESSOR’S DAUGHTER, a delightful European import from two A-level creators. Set in 19th century London, the book details the unlikely romance between Lillian, the daughter of an Egyptologist and the mummy of Imhotep IV, who has awoken after 3o centuries of sleep to experience life again. Unfortunately, Lillian’s father doesn’t quite approve of the pairing of his daughter and the bandage-wrapped fellow whom he has considered one of his most prized possessions. But love must find a way, so the duo works and schemes to be together, though murder, society, and a second risen mummy will do their best to derail the uniting of two kindred hearts.

It would be painfully easy for THE PROFESSOR’S DAUGHTER to go awry on the reader; the description itself shows that the tale has absurdist roots. But Sfar and Guibert refuse to give in to any impulses that would emotionally remove the tale from the readers’ hearts, and instead plow ahead and keep the story grounded. Yes, things do become increasingly strange, but each odd bit only serves to reinforce just how much the two mean to one another, and how much they will sacrifice in the name of love and caring. Without that genuine spirit guiding the plot, the book would fail, no matter how lovely it might look.

And lovely it is. Guibert’s work is astounding, his palette creating a vivid world for the lovers to navigate. There’s no hint of exaggeration or grandiosity on the page, simply panel after stunning panel of beautiful strokes that feel real and full of mood. Taken alongside Sfar’s script, which is full of tender and truthful dialogue, you have an amazing collaboration, and one that took far too long to reach our shores. This will be hard to keep off the top ten list at the end of the year.

Marc Mason

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