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Graphic Novel Review: Saga Vol. 4

saga_tp_04I can’t even. How is it that this comic keeps getting better? I thought I loved it and then find there are new capacities to the love I can have for it. I don’t know how I’ll live until Vol. 5 comes out on September 15. Goddess give me strength. Image, give me a galley!

Spoilers ahead, good people!

Okay, so this volume focuses squarely on the challenges a family faces to stay together and stay close. The opening pages of Vol. 4 give an echo of the opening pages of Vol. 1. But instead of Alana giving birth to Hazel, we have Princess Robot giving birth to her son. Upon being told that she has a son, her screen shows an exploding star, a wonderful visualization of a new mother’s epiphany. Prince Robot IV is still missing, so her crocodile nurse presents the baby as Prince Robot IV. But Princess Robot is having none of it. She refuses to believe her husband is dead. She will hang on to her family until the end.

Likewise, Alana and Marco are beset from all sides by attacks on their family. In fact, Hazel heartbreakingly narrates that this is the story of how her parents split up. By this volume, I am heavily invested in Alana and Marco and their family. So each complication they faced wrenched my core. Vaughan handles the “mundane” challenges exceedingly well, and the cliches of drama are hung with a lampshade: Alana notes, as she takes the drug Fadeaway for the second time, “God, this is the first scene of every boring cautionary tale ever.” Yuma tells her not to believe everything she learned in school, but her drug use will be a catalyst for a major misstep, just not in the cliched way.split-up

Marco’s temptation towards infidelity comes in the form of another stay-at-home parent. She meets Marco and Hazel at the park and offers to teach dance lessons to Hazel. Marco’s not seeing much of Alana at this point, since she’s working for an entertainment that merges soap opera with superheroes in a virtual reality theater. Marco and the dance teacher bond, then maybe something more. I couldn’t help but label the woman as the purple harlot in my head. That’s not very gracious of me, but her threat to Alana and Marco really hit me in the core.

But the family is also still under attack from the war-oriented forces as well. Freelancers, Gwen, journalists, the warmongers themselves are all still tracking them, and its harder to be on the run while staying still. A new player in all of this is Dengo, a working class robot stiff, black and white with antenna to indicate his lower status in society. Dengo’s got a beef with the robot royals for class injustice. His four-year-old son Jokum died of a gut infection from bad drinking water. The doctors couldn’t do anything for a commoner without insurance, so Jokum died of uncontrollable diarrhea. Dengo notes this is almost comical, except that it’s absolutely horrific and happens with some frequency according to the funeral director. Dengo’s going to use the new princeling to change the fate of commoners. He kills the Princess and takes the princeling off planet. He’s a fascinating character, clearly sociopathic based on the trail of bodies he leaves, but also sympathetically motivated. A mind-blowing panel depicts him with a cartoon show on his screen to occupy the baby slung in a carrier across his chest while he holds a man’s decapitated head by the disembodied spine. Dengo seems like a monster, and yet his actions don’t seem very different from those of warmongers and soldiers. And, like many of the characters, he acts in the name of family.dengo

The art continues to wow. When Alana doses Fadeaway for the first time, the panels are used to show her transformation in perception. The robot’s screen images aptly encapsulate their thoughts and emotions–my favorite was when Princess Robot hears she has just birthed a son and an exploding star appears on her screen. Staples’ art is continually upping the effect of the narrative in beautiful, gruesome, and clever ways.

So now we have the complexities of family, marriage, war, class, vengance, and redemption. Plus unique vision, genre mash-up, and humor. Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples just keep making this title better and better. I can’t wait to devour Volume 5.

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A Personal (R)evolution Sparked by ‘Dietland’

dietlandcoverI read Sarai Walker’s Dietland earlier this summer, and even in the moment, I knew it had impacted me. But I didn’t realize how much. I wrote about some of these revelations in my review of the book, but it took some time to recognize just the difference this book made by shining a light into the dark corner of my denial and self-judgments. I honestly didn’t realize how much of my own body image and understanding of my body’s relationship with the world was similar to that of the fat protagonist, Plum.

Like Plum, I was hiding myself in my drab, completely-not-attention-grabbing clothing. Neutral earth tones, blacks and grays. Flavorless. Practical only. I was trying to blend into the walls (often also neutral in color). Don’t notice me, I was subtle saying. Don’t notice I’m fat.

The other side of that behavior was that I was secretly admiring flashier, more unique fashions and saying that after I lost the two sizes/20 lbs/extra flab I would be able to buy and wear with confidence. Those clothes that spoke to me, were full of flair and personality, were being put off to the day that my body would be worthy of looking at, that my outside would more closely match the skinny person within.

Shopping was often a psychological horror. An existential crisis wherein I had to repeatedly confront my naked and then poorly clothed image in the dressing room mirror. In response, I anticipated which clothes and sizes might fit and not make me look too bulbous but also gravitated towards baggier styles to keep myself from needing to go to The Plus-Sized Store. I put off shopping. Wanted to escape as soon as possible. The effect was that the excursions I took were less productive, all the more horrific. I finally started ordering clothes online, anticipating only the most middle of the road “sure things.”  And what I did find, I almost never loved. My clothing kept me publicly decent and appropriately warm. It never inspired joy in me.

I didn’t understand that I was sabotaging myself. In fact, I was a homeland terrorist. By “hiding” myself, I was subconsciously allowing more and more room for self-disapproval. I was ashamed of my body. And inauthentically separating “me” from “it.” But as Plum discovers in Dietland, her body was nothing but good to her.

There was a phantom woman in my mind that I was comparing myself to, and I had to force her from the dressing room. When she was gone, I looked at my body, the body that had kept me alive for nearly thirty years, without any serious health problems, the body that had taken me where I needed to go and protected me. I had never appreciated or loved the body that had done so much for me. I had thought of it as my enemy, as nothing more than a shell that enclosed my real self, but it wasn’t a shell. The body was me. This is your real life. You’re already living it. I removed the clothes and stood naked before the mirrors, turning this way and that. I was round and cute in a way I’d never seen before.  –Sarai Walker, Dietland

My own body, now even more divergent from the standard of thin beauty in society, had birthed two lovely boys, little miracles of the design of our bodies. To hate my body was absurd when it could do such marvelous things. Plum’s revelation became my revelation: This body is me. Why would I want to show it the least bit of disrespect? And this is my life. Every minute of it. Right now. Why would I want to wear clothes I don’t love? Why would I want to put off any bit of joy?

Although it seems trite for this to come down to clothes, that’s where I began my revolution. I googled how to shop, which sounds inordinately stupid, but I was clearly doing it wrong and knew no better way to right my behavior. I also sought the advice of a body divergent friend who I considered gorgeous and a paragon of good fashion.

She and I went shopping together. This time, I didn’t run from the colorful, flashy clothes. I picked out items I loved, many, many pieces. I filled the dressing room. I tried on clothes I would have previously disregarded due to my preconceptions of which cuts and sizes would or wouldn’t work on my body. I tried on lots of clothes, between 20 and 30 items, and I chose to buy only what I loved. Which of these would make me happy, bring me joy? I was surprised by how many there were. Teal skirt? Yes. Orange pants? Yes again. I even bought my first “little black dress.”

I was wearing bright colors, refusing to apologize for my size. The dress made me feel defiant. For the first time, I didn’t mind taking up space.  –Sarai Walker, Dietland

Then I went home and I cleared out my closet. I tried everything on. If it didn’t fit or didn’t spark some joy, it went into a 13 gallon garbage bag for donation. I sent away eight bags of clothes. My closet was left clean, organized, and filled only with things that pleased me to wear.

Sure, I’m fat. But that doesn’t make me worthless or even loathsome. I’m happily married. A mother of two wonderful little boys. A teacher who loves her job and her students. I don’t owe anyone a thin body, not even myself. The body I have has made me who I am. Is who I am.


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Comic Review: Star Wars (2015) #8

Star_Wars_8_CoverStar Wars #7 left us with a doozy of a plot twist in the appearance of Sana Solo, Han’s wife. So although I was pretty ready to abandon Star Wars with John Cassaday, that cliffhanger got me picking up #8. The continuation of the story doesn’t disappoint. And though I do miss Cassaday’s art, Stuart Immonen does right by the characters and keeps the world familiar.

Spoilers ahoy!

One of the great things about Jason Aaron’s writing of Star Wars is that he’s clearly having fun. On the opening pages of #8, Imperial ships fly above the planet where Han and Leia have found refuge and then complications. The captain of the fleet orders the TIE fighters to attack. Upon receiving the order, a pilot responds, “I love my job. Long live the Empire!” We wouldn’t need this nobody’s dialogue to finish the scene. The scene is there to progress the rising action coming down on our heroes. But the addition of it lightens an otherwise dour two pages filled with military language. Seeing the personal joy this TIE pilot has is also fun for the reader.

When we get back to the point of the cliffhanger–the reveal that Sana is Han’s wife–Aaron immediately gives us blustering, back-pedaling Han, a mirror of the greeting with Lando in The Empire Strikes Back. What I loved about the development of this story is how ambiguous the truth is. Sana insists they’re married, that he’s a con artist scamming her as he’s done to other women in the past. Han denies that the two are married, denies the long cons, while Sana sticks to her story and tells him the time to run the con is up. Since we see Han as a hero, we want to believe his side, but how truthful his denials are is questionable. Sana’s got her own plans for the Princess though and blows up their shuttle to keep them from escaping. She wants to sell Leia to the Empire.

To add to the twistiness of trust, Leia herself doesn’t know who to believe and ends up acting against Han to protect her freedom, figuring Han might be in cahoots with Sana. I love that Leia doesn’t wait for Han to try to rescue them from the situation, that she takes control of her own rescue.

Also enjoyable is Aaron’s peppering of diction from Empire to add weight to their meaning. Han, attempting to sweet-talk Sana into letting them go, admits he’s a “scoundrel”. For the reader, then, watching the scene in Empire where he tells Leia that she likes him because he’s a scoundrel has new resonance, now calling back to this encounter.

Meanwhile Luke’s looking for Jedi answers, dismayed that he nearly lost his life over a bunch of stupid stories. Oh, Luke, don’t you know stories are everything? I appreciate how spot on Luke’s character is to the timeline of the films. He’s got the naive cockiness of A New Hope, easily dismissive of Obi-Wan’s gift to him. But there’s a growing awareness of his limitations. He’s still uncomfortable in his Jedi knowledge, forming the path to who he is at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back.

Immonen doesn’t have the shadowy realism of Cassaday’s art, but his likenesses to Hamill, Fisher, and Ford are strong. The facial expressions and body language were frequently spot on to similar emotional moments from the films.

Immonen Pencils

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Comic Review: Runaways (2015) #1

runaways1coverThe new Runaways #1 came out June 17, but it wasn’t on my radar until two weeks ago. That’s when I read Lumberjanes Vol. 1 and started seeking out all the other things Noelle Stevenson has written. Many years ago, I ate up the original Runaways series run started by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona and continued for the stint by Joss Whedon. I lost track of it after that, but I continue to have a great fondness for it, so when I heard Stevenson was picking it up, I thought I’d check it out, ever hopeful.

Boy-howdy was I disappointed. I already knew that the Secret Wars Battleworld version of Runaways was vastly different than the original set-up. In fact, I knew that only one character overlapped–Molly, a pint-sized 12 year old with a super-strength mutation. But before we really get into it, here’s Marvel’s marketing description:

The best and brightest teens from all corners of Battleworld are chosen to attend a prestigious school on the planet’s capital! • But what does the new class do when they discover the school’s beloved headmaster is actually a diabolical super villain? RUN AWAY! • A SECRET WARS story like none other from the remarkable minds of Noelle Stevenson (LUMBERJANES) and Sanford Greene (UNCANNY AVENGERS)!

So, really, the whole set-up and character set is changed. I didn’t find it for the better. Though this is only issue #1, I found the characters’ introductions to be lackluster. The conceit of how they all come together is akin to The Breakfast Club–a bunch of students who otherwise don’t get along get in trouble with the school authorities and put in detention. Meanwhile, they’re all concerned about a skills test that will decide whether they can stay in the school or will be expelled.

The characters lacked any pizazz, depth, or uniqueness. Sure, they were delineated into different cliques by their clothes and interactions with each other, either positive or negative, but they largely all talked the same. I had been looking for the kind of quick-handed characterization of Lumberjanes with a touch of that wackiness. Perhaps that’s too much to expect from issue #1, but the characters left me so bleh I won’t be buying issue #2.

Furthermore, Sanford Greene’s art was fine but difficult to love. Close-ups had excessive etching, medium shots looked like Archie-style, and long shots looked like classic Annie.

However, there were glimpses of something better to come. I enjoyed the re-imagining of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters as Victor Von Doom’s Institute for Gifted Youths. With it came a frame composition that easily called to mind posters for Hitler Youth. And here’s where the playfulness can be seen. The Hitler Youth here become Doom Youth, which becomes doomed youth. runaways1detention

I also enjoyed seeing the larger picture of Battleworld through the description boxes for each character. Since I’m only reading A-Force and Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps, I don’t have a full sense of the different regions of Battleworld, but this gave me a taste. Initially I was thrown off by the voice in those info boxes. It was distinctively young sounding with a touch of snark. Of course, the final reveal of the book gives a name and face to these student notes.

Also laudable was depiction of non-cisgendered characters. Sanna is extremely masculine, so much so that I originally took her for a him. Pixie and Jubilee previously dated but are now just friends.

But it doesn’t add up to a story I’m interested in seeing the development of. If you’re reading the series and want to convince me of its merits in the coming issues, I’d be glad to be proven wrong on this title.

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Audiobook Review: Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates read by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.

If Toni Morrison telling you it’s required reading on the cover doesn’t convince you to check it out, there’s probably very little I can say to persuade you. But I’ll try. Because you really do need to read, or listen, to this book.

There is nothing extreme in this statement.

The central tenet of the book, that black bodies are a commodity consumed by America, was sort of already familiar. One of my mentors’ theses investigated the use of black bodies in advertising. My first words to my children after expressions of love were a concise lecture about privilege.

Even so, I know nothing. In this epistolic memoir, Coates discusses the condition of living with a black body, in a place dedicated to its destruction, with his son. We’re allowed to listen in, to intercept the letter, and reflect.

Coates is an incredible writer, direct and poetic at the same time. And he’s a compelling speaker, passionate and composed. But I think the real success of the book is that he’s not trying to convince the reader, or his son. He’s telling is story. Leaving it open to question and interpretation. We can respond, but we can’t interrupt.

He says he’s given up on trying to change the dreamers, white folks committed to the imaginary American ideal. They have to change themselves. He advocates instead for Samori’s, for our, conscious awareness of the reality of the situation. Without filters, without illusions.

This is a relatively short book, whether you read its one hundred and seventy six pages or listen for a little over three and a half hours. It’s a small time commitment, but occasionally an overwhelming emotional one. There are moments where I had to pause, literally, and take a step back.

It’s full of revelations about education, grief, and fatherhood. One of the most complicated involves an adult white woman shoving his young son outside a movie theater. Parents react viscerally to that sort of thing even by proxy. Coates’ frank relation of his options incrementally collapsing is heartbreaking. I’m still struggling with it.

I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay.

Take whatever opportunity you can to engage with this book. Listen to it if at all possible. The author’s strong yet soft voice says as much as the words themselves. The recording is clear and balanced. You can listen to it on your device’s onboard speaker amid moderate noise without distraction.

Recommended for fans of Notes of a Native Son, Teaching to Transgress, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

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Book Review: Fool’s Quest

Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb (Book II of the Fitz and the Fool Trilogy)

Fool's Quest by Robin Hobb

The harrowing adventures of FitzChivalry Farseer and his enigmatic friend the Fool continue in Robin Hobb’s triumphant follow-up to Fool’s Assassin. But Fool’s Quest is more than just a sequel. With the artistry and imagination her fans have come to expect, Hobb builds masterfully on all that has gone before, revealing devastating secrets and shocking conspiracies that cast a dark shadow over the history of Fitz and his world—a shadow that now stretches to darken all future hope.

Long ago, Fitz and the Fool changed the world, bringing back the magic of dragons and securing both the Farseer succession and the stability of the kingdom. Or so they thought. But now the Fool is near death, maimed by mysterious pale-skinned figures whose plans for world domination hinge upon the powers the Fool may share with Fitz’s own daughter.

Distracted by the Fool’s perilous health, and swept up against his will in the intrigues of the royal court, Fitz lets down his guard . . . and in a horrible instant, his world is undone and his beloved daughter stolen away by those who would use her as they had once sought to use the Fool—as a weapon.

But FitzChivalry Farseer is not without weapons of his own. An ancient magic still lives in his veins. And though he may have let his skills as royal assassin diminish over the years, such things, once learned, are not so easily forgotten.

Now enemies and friends alike are about to learn that nothing is more dangerous than a man who has nothing left to lose.

One of the first galleys I read was Fool’s Assassin. It was also the first Robin Hobb book I read. In a sense, it changed my life. In my review, I went on at length about my reading habits.

When I was younger, I often thought that I had to read an author’s entire catalog in order to get a sense of why they were popular, what had made them great, and how they had evolved. I took a chance reading Robin Hobb’s latest series without foreknowledge and it paid off. I managed to put off exploring her back catalog before this book was in my hands and I’m stupidly glad.

Whatever Hobb has already been, by chapter eight it was clear that she’s now master of your heart. If that ever wasn’t true, I don’t need to know. I’m not worried, really, but I’m finishing this trilogy before stepping backward. When you tear up about characters you barely know when you’re not even through a quarter of the book, you know you’re in good hands.

The first book explored the hero’s struggle to enjoy life following the epic adventure, following saving the world. This one delves into the price of success, the cost of failure, atonement, and belonging. When his old life crashes into his collapsing new one, we see what bends and what breaks.

How do you balance old responsibilities with new ones? What are your obligations to the various roles you play? How do you accept your grown children as superiors? Even as equals? What are you willing to risk? For whom?

In this second volume, Fitz and the Fool confront their pasts and one another as their situation changes drastically around them from day to day. The trauma of those last steps along the hero’s journey gets a touching treatment as they awkwardly negotiate an experience that, while shared, is nonetheless necessarily personal. Solitary. Theirs is an enduring love, but one that is also endured.

Again I was awed by the dedication to the lived experience of the characters. Realizations that were obvious in the first novel elude the consciousness of the protagonists until well into this one. But it’s real. For good reason. Hobb’s like some Hitchcock of the intersection of emotion and intellect at war with one another. Instead of deriding their blindness, I empathized with it. Of course they don’t know. How could they?

Fool’s Quest is at once a culmination of the series so far and a clarion call. Everything comes together. Longtime readers will note characters and references from every book. Folks like me will gradually develop a sense of history and relationships. When things fall apart, everyone will experience the import.

Fool’s Assassin and Fool’s Quest are a great place to enter fantasy for readers of drama, romance, and, well, pretty much anything else. Robin Hobb isn’t afraid to simply let her characters be human. These stories are about people. People probably a lot like you. In a wonderful magical setting.

Recommended for fans of Roland Deschain, Unforgiven, and Captain America.

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Comic Review: Rat Queens #11

Michael and I had been reading Rat Queens in TPB until now. This time, up-to-date with the narrative and back into buying single issues, Rat Queens is now on our pull list. Because, honestly, its one of the most fun and interesting comics out there, like if Jem and the Holograms is a little too slight for you but Bitch Planet’s too heavy. Get thee some Rat Queens.

For those of you oblivious to the conceit, Rat Queens follows the hack and slash exploits of a four-woman D&D-style adventuring party. There’s a dwarven fighter, a halfling rogue, a human cleric, and an elven mage. And if you haven’t caught up with issue #11, I suggest checking out our earlier reviews on Volumes 1 and 2 and coming back.

Spoilers ahead!

RatQueens 11 cover

First issues, whether of as series or merely a new arc, need to juggle a handful of requirements to keep readers coming back. First, the issue needs to grab a readers attention, often by establishing a new conflict in medias res. Here we see an elf named Gerard in front of a hooded council. We understand that they are opposed, the council and this man, each having an opinion on what is best for the arcane university. Gerard’s daughter (Hannah we later figure out!) apparently brought devastation on the university, and this is part of the recovery effort. Exposition aside, the issue kicks the action in the pants, with each side making an attack. The council tries to arrest Gerard while he pulls a wand from his sleeve and portals in a mob of students. An arcane battle breaks out full of the colors of the magical elements.

ratqueens 11 pg 1

Next, re-establish the characters. The issue jumps to a goblin settlement on a snowy mountain. Our Rat Queens are caged within, and Smidgeon (halfling) thief Betty is commenting on the quality prep work the goblin chef is doing in anticipation of cooking them. In the few panels that follow, the characters get brought back to focus for us. Betty especially gets shown to be the peppy rogue that she is, brilliantly hiding her poison amongst her candy (and drugs?) As these four thwart their captors, their relationship and commitment to each other gets re-established. The end of the issue has them verbalizing their support for Hannah’s quest to find out what happened to her dad, bringing a circular closure to the issue.


Third, build on to our understanding of the characters. The main focus for this issue is Hannah. We find out more about her time at arcane university, get a glimpse of her relationships to other students, and meet her dad. Secondary focus goes to Betty who gets to be the hero of the goblin escape and also gets ambushed in the surprise cliff-hanger. The assassin, another Smidgeon, calls her Petunia, last of the Five Monkeys. As a cliff-hanger, its meant to leave us with anxiety and questions. It succeeds.

This leads directly into the final requirement–get the reader to buy the next issue. Will I want to know more about the arcane university Hannah’s dad led a rebellion in? Absolutely. Do I want to know how Betty dispatches her assassin and who the Five Monkeys are? Totally.

This issue, besides starting a new narrative arch, introduces a new artist, Tess Fowler. Fowler is the third artist on Rat Queens, and each change has required an adjustment period for me. Fowler’s version of the characters doesn’t make any drastic changes, but there’s something slightly less edgy about their rendering. I found this especially true with Hannah, who appears softer and more traditionally beautiful. Previously she’d been more angular and awkward in her height. However, there are panels I just adore that show Fowler’s got the right idea. After the Queens get to the tavern to celebrate their escape, Violet talks briefly about Dave, her orc beau. A bluebird appears in her beard, a direct reference to Orc Dave’s frequently birded appearance. Speaking of Violet’s beard, it’s a nice touch to show the time the women have been away by the unkemptness of Violet’s beard.


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