The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe

August 7, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

universeThe Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe by Ryan North, et al.

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I’m not a fan of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, the series. The character I admire for all of her positive traits, and I endorse giving this book to young girls interested in comics so they can see what a female superhero can be, but for me, a forty-five year old male with no children, female or otherwise, it doesn’t quite ring my bell. It’s a shame, really, because for all the other childish things that appeal to me (The LEGO Movie, the Animaniacs, and almost everything Pixar has ever created), I expected this series to hit all the high notes.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe, though, surprised me. Maybe it’s because I had written off the series for not being my thing, and went into the graphic novel with lowered expectations, or maybe it’s because it’s a standalone work without the inherent baggage of ongoing titles, or maybe it’s just a better written work. Whatever the case, I found myself laughing more at the story than I did with the two collections I’ve read.

The characters are the same, their dynamics are the same, and the storyline is similar to what one would find in the series (only with a clone added into the mix). The running gags carry over from the main series (the Spider-Man theme song continues to make an appearance in one form or another), and the commentary along the bottoms of the pages is still there, but something about it clicked for a change. It’s not enough to convince me to keep reading it, but it was an improvement over the main series.

I’d still recommend this to younger readers, especially girls, but boys, too, so they can see there’s more to being a female superhero than skimpy outfits and assisting male superheroes. Adult readers, though, may have a harder time getting into it.

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The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel You Know It’s True

August 4, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

squirrel2The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel You Know It’s True by Ryan North, et al.

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I have a rule with ongoing graphic novel series: Read at least two collections before drawing a conclusion on how much I like them. The Unwritten had a bit of a boring start, but once it caught its groove, it surprised me with how much it could do. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl was a title I’d heard a lot about, all of it good, but Squirrel Power just didn’t quite do it for me. Squirrel You Know It’s True is more of the same style presented in the first collection, which is good or bad, depending on how much you liked the first one.

Look I get it: she’s a positive role model for young girls; she attempts diplomacy before violence (and usually succeeds at it); and her adventures are light enough for young readers, but not without serious consequences. If I had a young daughter, I would love for her to read these books. The thing is, I don’t, and there’s just not enough to the stories by itself to encourage me to keep reading it. I loved (and still love) Ambush Bug, the Animaniacs, and the Looney Tunes cartoons, so the loopy sense of humor the series has should have appealed to me, but somehow it was more ingratiating than funny. The Twitter exchanges were still the highlights for me, but overall, it didn’t quite hit my funny bone.

I’d recommend this series to readers with kids, but for adult readers, I’d suggest they pass on it. They don’t take long to read, so the investment of time is slim, but there are so many other good series written for adults that it doesn’t seem worth it to devote what short time it would take to read these books. I have another of her books to read (what can I say? They were on sale, and my expectations were high), but I don’t see myself adding it to my titles to follow.

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Stitches: A Memoir

August 3, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

stitchesStitches: A Memoir by David Small

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I stumbled across this book while browsing Goodreads one day. That’s nothing of note (a lot of the books that wind up on my to-read list come from there), but that particular day, I happened to be browsing the site after installing a browser extension that linked to my library. The summary and artwork both looked promising, and my local branch had a copy, so I gave it a test run, and what do you know? It works!

Stitches is a memoir of David Small’s early life. It’s a heavy story. Small’s parents were cold and distant, more interested in their own well-being than his own, and they often saw him as a burden more than anything else. His father, a radiographer, tries to cure Small’s pulmonary problems by dosing him with X-rays, so when he’s in his early teens and develops cancer, it’s not much of a surprise. Well, it’s not much of a surprise to his parents. It is to Small, because he goes into surgery expecting the doctors to remove what he’s been told is a sebaceous cyst, but when he wakes, he’s missing his thyroid and one of his vocal cords, and is effectively mute. It’s only then that he discovers he had cancer.

Dysfunctional families are the subject of many a memoir, so the memoir itself isn’t anything new, nor does it provide any particular insights into why families can be dysfunctional. What drew me to the story was the anecdote about his surgery and his ignorance of his own health, and once that point is passed in the story, it ceases to be as interesting. Small carries the story through to its conclusion, offering some small explanations for why his parents were like they were, and offering some small bit of closure to the relationship with his mother, but it doesn’t feel engaging. The story is compelling enough, and Small’s illustrations are evocative (there’s a break in the middle of the story where the style changes, and that change is used to great effect), but in the end, I couldn’t feel much more than pity for the author and his family, and I don’t feel that’s the appropriate emotional response for what happened to him.

Memoirs aren’t really my thing, but every so often a graphic memoir catches my attention enough to make me want to read it. Fun Home was another one I read and only just barely enjoyed, and Stitches is about the same for me. Part of it is they’re so one-sided; family dynamics, even in the healthiest families, are complicated, and it’s impossible to get the entire story of a family just by listening to one member. In his afterword, Small suggests that he did a lot of research into his family when writing the book, but it’s still a story told entirely from his viewpoint. I can’t help but feel we’re not getting the entire story, but maybe that’s the point of any memoir. Again, they’re not a genre I typically read.

I wasn’t impressed with Stitches, but I admit I’m not the target audience. I liked Maus, but most other memoirs I’ve read have felt pointless and self-indulgent. Fans of memoirs, or fans of stories about terrible families, might enjoy it (is “enjoy” even the right word here?), but for the most part I didn’t get it.

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The Marvels

July 28, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

maRVELSThe Marvels by Brian Selznick

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Brian Selznick is a fantastic writer. The Invention of Hugo Cabret was so good, and Wonderstruck even better, that I bought a copy of The Marvels around when it was released. It took me a few years to get around to reading it, but I finally bumped it up my to-read list, and I’m pleased to say that it’s as moving a book as either of his first two books.

Selznick’s books are told equally in words and pictures, and The Marvels is no exception. What makes The Marvels different, though, is that the first half of the book is told 100% in pictures. Some of the illustrations have text, but for the most part, they’re wordless, and tell the story of a family who lives in the theater. The story goes back to a shipwreck in 1766 and takes us all the way through the early 1900s, showing the lives of a family who worked and were raised in the theater. Then, the story shifts to 1990, and is told 100% through narrative. Like any Selznick book, though, there’s a puzzle beneath the story, telling us more than we realized, and when the pieces all fall into place, the real story shines through.

Selznick creates his characters to be lively and engaging, even when they’re as unlikeable as Uncle Albert, and they’re what carry the story. Had the entire book been told with narrative and pictures interspersed, like he did with his previous two books, it could have become overly complicated — Selznick does tell the story of several generations of one family, after all — but the way he balances the two stories is perfect. In the end, the characters we’re meant to know the most about — Joseph, Albert, and Frankie — are the ones we grow to care about, and that they’re the ones whose lives are covered through the narrative isn’t a coincidence.

I don’t feel like The Marvels is quite as strong as Selznick’s other books (there seems to be a bit too much back-and-forth between Joseph and Albert that doesn’t go anywhere), but that’s not to say that I didn’t like it. It moved me as much as his other books did, enough so that I had to blink several times to be able to make out the words as I neared the end of the book. Anyone who read and enjoyed Selznick’s previous work should read The Marvels; it’s as brilliant as anything else he’s written.

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The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Power

July 27, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

squirrel1The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Power by Ryan North, et al.

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I’ve heard a lot about Squirrel Girl, all of it positive. I hear she’s a good role model for kids, especially young girls, and that she’s more inclined to solve problems with diplomacy than with punches. Plus, I hear there’s a loopy sense of humor to the books, so when I saw that these were on sale, I figured it was time for me to see what all the fuss was about.

The good news is I see all of the good I read about in other reviews; the bad news is I still couldn’t get that invested in it. I do think she serves as a strong role model, and it’s refreshing to see a female superhero who isn’t all about skimpy costumes and helping the male superheroes, but the tone of the book put me off. I grew up on Ambush Bug, so I was prepared for loopy and irreverent, but there was something about the characters that didn’t do it for me. Part of it, I think, is the feeling that these books are supposed to be part of official continuity. Continuity, to me, suggests a level of seriousness that doesn’t exist with this title. The fact that she couldn’t keep her secret identity secret (not that it’s broken in this book, but come on; it’s not going to last) opens up a vulnerability to all the characters who know her, and it all fell apart in my head.

There were parts of the story that made me laugh (the Twitter exchanges that started a couple of the issues cracked me up), but for the most part the humor grew tiresome. I gave up on trying to read all of the editorial comments that were at the bottom of each page, as they became distracting, slowed me down, took me away from the story, and in the end weren’t really worth the time. Plus, I was reading a digital copy of the book, and in order to read them all, I had to enlarge the page. It was too much effort for not a lot of gain.

My disappointment might lie with my expectations being too high, but I’m not feeling it so far. I still have a couple other collections to read (they were on sale, and I do still abide by my rule that I have to read at least two collections before drawing any conclusions on a title), but I’m not champing at the bit to get to them. I’ll get there when I get there. I can appreciate the title, and I would recommend it to readers looking for positive comics with a female lead, but so far it’s not going to be a go-to title for me.

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Saga: Volume Seven

July 14, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

saga7Saga: Volume Seven by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

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Saga is fantastic. It’s so good, it’s hard for me to be objective about it. I understand why people like it, and I understand why some people are put off by it, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s some of the best graphic storytelling out there.

What makes it work so well (and what makes any good story work so well) is the characters. Marko and Alana, our protagonists, embody the Romeo and Juliet characters, and once Hazel, their daughter, gets involved, they become that much more likeable. The antagonists (and there are several) are all out to kill them, for different reasons, but Vaughan gives them more traits than just being assassins. He makes them likeable in their own way, or at least sympathetic, and the interplay of all the characters across the comic make for some powerful storytelling.

Volume Seven continues with that trend, giving us more insight into the family dynamic of Marko and Alana and Hazel (and all who make up their extended family), giving us joy and happiness, sorrow and grief, and an ending that will break your heart. Vaughan continues to create worlds and beings that are original, and Staples continues drawing them in just the right way to inspire awe, fear, or wonder, depending on the context. The two work so well together that it’s impossible to imagine the series without both of them.

So, Saga. Check it out. You’ll know within just a few pages of Volume One whether it’s for you (yes, you’ll know), but if it is, then you have an astounding world ahead of you. It keeps getting better as the story progresses.

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Scooby Apocalypse: Volume 1

June 28, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

scoobyScooby Apocalypse: Volume 1 by Keith Giffen, et al.

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There were three reasons I had to read this book:

1. Keith Giffen. I’m a long-time fan of Ambush Bug.
2. J.M. DeMatteis. Two of my favorite comics are Brooklyn Dreams and Moonshadow.
3. Afterlife with Archie. It was much better than I expected it to be.

Scooby Apocalypse is another gritty horror reboot of a kids’ franchise, only it’s handled much less evenly than Afterlife with Archie. The writers of that title had an understanding of the characters they were writing, and maintained the characters while putting them into an unreal situation. Giffen and DeMatteis ignored the characters of the original cartoon, save for the high points (a talking dog; a hipster companion; Velma’s smarts), and went off in their own direction with the characters.

Velma is probably the biggest change, since she’s not that likable a character. She’s part of the science lab that’s caused the apocalypse of the title, but she’s cold, distant, and seemingly uncaring. Daphne is a TV reporter, working on a show about mysterious mysteries that airs on the Knitting Channel (?), and is a determined, upwardly-mobile personality. Scooby is a regular Great Dane turned into a cybernetically enhanced dog thanks to experiments in Velma’s lab. Shaggy is a dog trainer at the lab who takes a liking to Scooby because he’s considered a failure for not being as assertive as the other dogs. Fred … well, Fred may as well not even be there, for all he contributes to the story. And, true to the original show, the less said about Scrappy, the better.

It’s possible to take the characters and update them successfully without taking away from their characters; Scooby Doo on Zombie Island darkens the tone, advances the franchise, and tells a good story, all while staying true to the characters. Scooby Apocalypse, on the other hand, does none of these things. Even as it attempts to make the tone more serious, it does so in such a way as it’s easy to laugh at the attempt.

Speaking of laughter, the jokes here fell so flat as to be embarrassing. Shaggy still says “Zoinks!”, Velma still says “Jinkies!”, and Velma’s last name is still Dinkley, but these reveals are deliberately played for laughs, at the characters’ expense. The characters aren’t even friends, save for Shaggy and Scooby, which means it’s harder to sympathize with them as a group, especially when they don’t even trust each other.

A key element of the story in the book is how Daphne doesn’t trust Velma, since she was a part of the lab that released the plague that created all of the monsters. Velma insists that it wasn’t supposed to happen the way it did, and the two of them spar about this particular point for the entire. Dang. Book. We get it: We can’t trust Velma, because Daphne doesn’t. We don’t need it repeated to us every three pages or so. It became tiresome, especially when Daphne would begin to trust Velma, only to suddenly shift back to not trusting her after something else happened.

The artwork is fine, but I was disappointed to see a gratuitous panty shot in the comic. Yes, Velma’s skirt is pretty short, and yes, running from monsters means she’s less likely to worry about what’s showing than, say, surviving, but it’s not necessary to the story.

Stories about monsters and zombies are rarely subtle, but they can approach their subjects with a subtlety if done correctly. Scooby Apocalypse is not one of those stories. Despite the collection ending on a cliffhanger, I won’t pursue this title any further. I blame myself for getting suckered into the premise, but I blame Afterlife with Archie for starting this kids’-books-as-horror-comics trend.

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The Walking Dead, Volume 27: The Whisperer War

June 26, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

warThe Walking Dead, Volume 27: The Whisperer War by Robert Kirkman, et al.

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This is what I expect from The Walking Dead: action; zombies; fighting; drama; emotion; sacrifice. It’s part of the reason I like the comic more than the show. At the very least, the characters in the comic are consistent, and never forced into being what they need to be for the plot. Lately, the show has been so focused on Negan and his insanity that it’s lost sight of what makes the entire story interesting. Even the last collection felt underwhelming, for the same reason. Kirkman keeps the story on track, though, and reminds us that he still has it in him to write a good arc.

The title of the collection pretty much summarizes the events. Rick and his gang go up against the Whisperers and their horde. They’re a spooky bunch, with some effective tactics, and the story is creepy, not just because of the zombies, but because there’s actually something to fear with the Whisperers. Security and humanity are at risk here, much more than they were when Rick and Co. went up against Negan, Inc.

Speaking of Negan, he’s back, as we already knew from the previous collection, and maybe he’s up to something, and maybe he’s not. Either way, we see a side of him not seen before. Kirkman actually gives us a moment where we sympathize with him, after presenting him to us in such a way as to make us want to see him dead up until now. It doesn’t change a thing about his character, but it tells us more about him than we already knew.

The Whisperer War is The Walking Dead back on track. I can’t help but think how much better the show would be if they would just stick to the characters as the comic presents them. At least we still have the comic, going strong, to let us see the potential behind the show.

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Darth Vader: Vader

June 21, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

vaderDarth Vader: Vader by Kieron Gillen, et al.

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I’ve heard a lot of good things about this title, enough so that I bought the first two volumes when I found them on sale for Kindle. I wasn’t expecting them to be Watchmen-level good, but I figured they might be entertaining. What I didn’t take into account is the main character being Darth Vader, stone-cold killer and all-around totally unlikable dude. Considering this arc takes place between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, I should have realized there wasn’t going to be much sympathy for the character here.

The first volume follows Vader shortly after the destruction of the Death Star, when he has to face Sidious and own up to his failings. He’s sent on a task to meet with Jabba the Hutt, and while there, he arranges for two bounty hunters to do some work for him: one to find out who it was who destroyed the Death Star; and the other to find the identity of the person who may serve as Vader’s replacement (and since the Star Wars universe is lousy with recurring characters, of course one of the bounty hunters is Boba Fett).

There’s not a lot of tension to the story, since it’s hard for us to care about either Vader or Sidious. We see the beginnings of Vader’s feelings toward Sidious, as he feels betrayed when a potential replacement comes into the picture, but even that isn’t enough to make us sympathetic to him. Gillen brings in a secondary character through a chatty archaeologist who pilots Vader around the galaxy, and I couldn’t understand why she hooked up with him. Vader has no love for history as it happened, so why would an archaeologist choose to help him? It might have been different if she had been forced, but she seems cool with helping him, just because he’s on the winning side. Plus, when she’s introduced, she appears to be a carbon copy of Indiana Jones, right down to her dialogue.

It might have been a better read if the artwork had supported the story, but for all the action the story has, the artwork feels static. It’s clear, and shows what happens, but it doesn’t feel like there’s any motion from panel to panel. Instead, it feels like we’re reading dialogue over snapshots of action. I’m not sure what it is about the art that makes it feel this way, but it’s the first comic I’ve read that does.

I’ll go ahead and finish volume two of the series (I already bought it, and it only took an hour to read this one), but I don’t expect much from it, and I don’t expect it will inspire me to read the other two volumes. I’m not sure what it is I’m missing, but it’s far from the story the reviews led me to believe it would be.

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HiLo: The Great Big Boom

June 8, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

boomHiLo: The Great Big Boom by Judd Winick

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I’m a Judd Winick fanboy. I’ve been one since discovering Frumpy the Clown, which pointed me to Barry Ween and Pedro and Me, and then on to HiLo. It’s hard to be objective, though it doesn’t stop me from being critical when I feel it’s appropriate. The Great Big Boom is the continuation of the story of HiLo (and D.J. and Gina).

At the end of Saving the Whole Wide World, Gina got sucked into a portal, her destination unknown to either D.J. or HiLo. It was a tragic ending, and it reminded me a bit of Sara’s story in Barry Ween. I was hoping that Winick would take the story in a different direction, and while he does (I figure Sara’s end would be a bit too dark for the HiLo story), he still borrows from it. I guess I understand that — Barry Ween is an esoteric title, so few people reading the series would know it — but I wish he had gone with a new story. Saying that, though, I should point out that this isn’t just a re-tread of Barry Ween; it’s its own story, just with a few familiar details.

And what a story it is! HiLo learns more about his past here, and we get to see more of the playful banter between him, D.J., and Gina. We also meet a slew of new characters, since the portal they have to enter to save Gina takes them to a completely new world. I felt like the story strayed from its roots by going to the new world, but that’s not to say the story lacks its trademark charm. It’s impossible not to like the main characters, not just because of the way Winick writes them, but also in the way he draws them. He captures the comic and the serious with equal efficiency, and uses them to their strongest effect.

HiLo is an excellent series for kids, but I would recommend it for adults, too. If your tastes run like I do, where you can appreciate something as heavy as Geek Love and something as light as The Mud Flat Olympics, you’ll love the series. Plus, its main characters are people of color, which is still rare enough to treasure in this genre. Do yourself a favor and read these, if you haven’t already. Heck, if you have, go back and re-read them; they’re good enough to read multiple times!

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