Reading Time: 12 minutes
Today’s stack is an odd mixture: the only thing they really have in common is that they’re all comics that I’ve read in the past month or so. Some are a couple years old, and some are brand new; there are comics for kids and teens; it’s mostly fiction but there’s some non-fiction and some sort-of-fiction. If you enjoy comics, peruse the list: you’re sure to find something here to enjoy!
We’ll start with the kid-friendly books and work our way to the young adult titles.
This book is a celebration of the power of the imagination, brought to life by a bunch of kids using the magic of cardboard boxes (one of the best toys of all time). The Cardboard Kingdom is a series of vignettes about a neighborhood where sixteen kids spend the summer transforming themselves into a robot, a rogue, a scribe, a sorceress, and more. Each kid’s chosen role amplifies their personality, showing their true self in a fun way.
For instance, Sophie, who’s always being shushed for being too loud, whose grandma tells her that “nice girls are quiet and behaved,” is able to find her voice as Big Banshee, a Hulk-like beast who scares off a bully with her roar. Or Amanda the Mad Scientist, who incorporates her dad’s tales from the Dominican Republic into her monstrous mods for her friends. The illustrations usually depict the kids wearing their cardboard costumes, but occasionally switch to the way the kids see themselves.
There are good guys and bad guys in this enormous make-believe world, but all the kids are working together to create the story, and bringing in more kids throughout the chapters. Chad Sell worked with several other writers to flesh out the stories of the kids, and I love the way the cast is inclusive and diverse.
The epic (and hilarious) story of Cucumber and his friends continues (see my descriptions of book 1 and book 2). They’ve now arrived in the Melody Kingdom, just in time for Queen Cymbal’s birthday, but the Nightmare Knight’s minions are at it again. This time, it’s Noisemaster, a hip-hopping dude who has captured Princess Piano and is using her voice to charge up his Noise Blaster—when it reaches 100%, the Melody Kingdom will be silenced.
The party takes a detour via a bewitching play, we get some more mysterious behavior from the Nightmare Knight, and (spoiler) the good guys win again, though not without some difficulty. My kids and I have all been enjoying this series, which has a lot of silly humor and upends the “chosen hero” trope. Be sure to read the extras after the story, too: Q&As with the characters, concept art, and a bonus story.
Mickey’s always had trouble keeping up with his siblings. He tries his best, but he’s simply just not as good at sniffing things out… because he’s a kid, and his “siblings” are dogs. Mickey’s parents raise bloodhounds, and they’re raising Mickey as one, too. That leads to some difficulties when Mickey is finally old enough to go to school, and discovers that other kids and the teachers don’t really understand his behavior.
It’s a bizarre premise, but the story is fun and has some tender moments, particularly with Mickey’s grandparents, who have never understood his mom’s obsession with dogs and are constantly trying to get Mickey to be more normal. If your kids like dogs (or have always wanted to be a dog), they’ll probably enjoy this one.
The Bolton brothers are back with more Smash (see my mention of book 1 here), kid superhero (in training). Andrew is struggling to keep the city safe and pass fifth grade, but he’s not doing great with either. His powers keep conking out, and with all the crime-fighting he’s falling behind with both homework and sleep. On top of that, criminals are turning up with powerful gizmos—who’s supplying them?
We finally get a girl character in Jae Kim, a new student who’s just as crazy about the superhero Defender as Andrew is, and the two hit it off pretty well. I’ve got a feeling we’ll be seeing more of her as the series continues. And what of Magus, Andrew’s archnemesis? Well, he’s still trying to extract Smash’s powers for himself…
The Smash series is a fun read, mostly because of how inexperienced Andrew is with his powers. This time, they also threw a not-so-smart bad guy into the mix, which results in some chaotic humor.
And now, let’s look at some books for middle grade readers and up:
I came across this older title in my review pile—I’ve never actually read the first book in the series, and it’s surprising I hadn’t gotten rid of it because I usually just ignore any review copies of sequels if I’m not already familiar with the series. I decided to give it a shot before putting it in the “get rid of” pile, and I’m glad I did.
The Creeps are a group of four kids who (from what I could pick up) investigate the paranormal and aren’t very well-liked by the local law enforcement or other kids in school. There’s a hacker, a monster expert, an inventor, and a fashionista … who in this volume has been caught on video belting out her favorite song, and has now embarrassingly gone viral. The other big deal, though, is that there seem to be invisible trolls in town eating up humans. Of course, nobody believes that. What they do believe is everything they read on the Tattler, the town’s gossip site, which has been churning out … well, let’s call it fake news. It’s detailed and alarming and everyone’s on edge, which is just fine for the trolls, because it turns out they find stress hormones quite delicious.
What struck me about The Creeps is that the underlying theme, although used to tell a story about make-believe monsters, is pretty relevant now. The speed at which gossip and rumors travel, the way we are so quick to mock anyone who isn’t cynical and jaded, the way we can’t see how damaging our behaviors are to each other and even ourselves—all of these are what give the trolls power in the book, and it’s up to the Creeps to figure out how to save the town from themselves.
If you like monsters and Scooby gangs, this one’s for you.
Want more monster-hunting? Scarlett Hart isn’t old enough to be an official member of The Royal Academy for the Pursuit and Eradication of Zoological Eccentricities, but her late parents were both legendary monster hunters and she’s determined to be one too, with help from her loyal butler Napoleon White. The slimy Count Stankovic is determined to keep Scarlett out of the picture, even while more and more monsters start appearing: mummies at the theatre, a ghostly bishop in an abandoned hotel, living gargoyles at the cathedral. Scarlett is a little bit Batman, a little bit Lara Croft, and a little bit Buffy, but in the early 20th century. She’s got some fun gadgets, a mansion hideout (with butler), and is totally fearless.
It’s time for Prince Sebastian to find a bride, but he has a big secret: he likes to wear dresses. His secret is discovered by Frances, a dressmaker who wants to find success with her bold designs. And her designs are dazzling: when Sebastian becomes Lady Crystallia at night wearing Frances’ dresses, he soon becomes a fashion icon … but that means Frances can’t publicly claim credit for her designs, either.
The Prince and the Dressmaker is a love story, but it’s also a story about friendship and identity, struggles with family and expectations, art and creativity. Jen Wang’s illustrations are expressive—she can say so much just with the character’s faces and body language, and there are many pages where the illustrations do the talking, with no speech bubbles. It’s a beautiful and thought-provoking book.
Sithrah Book 2: Propositions and Book 3: The Symbol by Jason Brubaker
I’ve been backing Jason Brubaker’s Kickstarter campaigns for the Sithrah series, and I finally caught up with the next two volumes. Nirvana “Vonna” Page crash-landed in a plane with her dad, but there’s no sign of him anywhere. She’s met a mysterious guardian creature called Sithrah who is invisible to everyone else, and then met a young man named Dino who, it seems, has some troubles of his own that he’s trying to keep under wraps. Book 2 introduces us to Dino as a kid with a mysterious scene, and then he and Vonna meet up while hitching a ride to the plane’s crash site.
In Book 3, we meet Henry, an old farmer who owns the land where the plane crashed. He doesn’t seem too keen on Dino at first but softens up when he hears Vonna’s story. Henry and his wife Phoebe live on the edge of the desert, and there are some weird things living in the sand. It’s not clear where Dino is headed, but he and Vonna are in this thing together now.
I really like Brubaker’s illustrations, which veer between cartoony and impressionistic. The page layouts are dynamic, rarely using standard comic book panels, and there are longer sections of prose incorporated throughout as well. I have no idea where the story is going to go next, but I’m hooked. I backed the Kickstarter campaign for Book 4 back in February, so I’m looking forward to continuing the story when it’s delivered.
And now we’re headed into young adult territory…
Best friends Archie and Tristan team up to explain gender-neutral pronouns in this brief comics-style guide. There’s a very brief explanation of what it means to be non-binary and what it means to be cisgender, but most of the book focuses on how to use “they/them” and why it matters. Archie is non-binary (doesn’t really identify as male or female) and uses “they/them” pronouns; Tristan is cisgender (was assigned male at birth and identifies as male), and uses “he/him” pronouns.
I have to admit that I had a hard time switching to using “they/them” as a singular pronoun in places like my game reviews, where I was relaying instructions that could pertain to any player. I wanted to be gender neutral, but at the same time it felt strange to me to use “they” or “them” to refer to a single person. Well, there are a few different options for gender-neutral pronouns, but “they/them” has become one of the more commonly used versions, so that’s what I’ve started using in my writing. For individuals, though, it’s generally best to ask what they use—as the book suggests. There are other options, like “ze/hir,” but the book mentions them mostly in passing, because it’s primarily about teaching readers (especially cisgender readers) how to go about the business of using pronouns: how to ask somebody for their pronouns, how to respond if somebody tells you their pronouns, what to do if you mess up and use the wrong pronouns, and so forth.
It’s meant to be a practical guide, but it’s done with humor, and it’s a short enough book that it’s easy to suggest for anyone who doesn’t know what the big deal is about pronouns. I’m still learning myself, and I found it pretty handy!
Animus is an eerie book about a weird playground in a Japanese neighborhood. Hisao and Sayuri meet a masked kid who calls himself Toothless, and he understands how the playground works: the sandbox that shows you your greatest fears, the swings that let you enter another person’s dreams, the stone sculptures that serve as the playground’s ears.
Meanwhile, the police are struggling to crack a mystery: kids are disappearing at an alarming rate, and there’s no sign of any of them. When one of Hisao and Sayuri’s friends goes missing, they suspect it’s somehow connected to Toothless and the playground. Can they break the curse?
The author/illustrator Antoine Revoy grew up in Paris and Tokyo, and to me the illustrations look like manga, though I can also see elements of European comics there, too. The storytelling pace is different than what I’m used to in American comics, and Revoy allows a sense of unease and dread to build, usually without showing anything particularly frightening. It’s a ghost story, of sorts, and delightfully creepy.
The story of Spill Zone introduced us to Addison Merritt, who sneaks into the contaminated Zone to take photographs for an eccentric collector. When she accepts a lot of cash in exchange for one last trip—and retrieving a particular item—she emerges just a little bit different from when she entered.
In the second book, Addison meets Jae, a young man from North Korea who was also changed by that country’s own Spill Zone. The two of them have gained strange powers, and they’ll need them to stop the mysterious creature who is approaching the boundary to find his bride.
As I said about the first book, Spill Zone is sci-fi but just a little strange; things don’t follow the usual rules so you don’t quite know what to expect, but there are some rules that you gradually piece together as you go. It also reminds me a little bit of Annihilation: it’s a region filled with unnatural occurrences, one that is filled with unknown dangers but also weird beauty.
Scott Koblish is a cartoonist who, for some reason, likes to draw himself dying, over and over again. He falls off crumbling cliffs, gets abducted by aliens (and then shot down by the army), has skiing accidents, and is attacked by evil poodles. Oh, and there’s a darn cat that just keeps jumping up and knocking him over railings in various locations.
This one’s for fans of morbid humor. Koblish comes up with dozens of outlandish scenarios, each depicted in a series of four-panel strips (sometimes eight, if it’s a long story), and they’re pretty hilarious. If you liked that montage in Groundhog Day where Bill Murray tries to off himself to escape the time loop, this has a similar feel but with many, many more scenes.
After some encouragement from her boyfriend, Catana Chetwynd started creating comics online about their relationship, and they found an audience. Little Moments of Love is a small hardcover collection of those comics, which depict Catana as a tiny, round-headed doll (and her boyfriend as a much taller, round-headed bearded doll). The various comic strips chronicle funny little interactions, the way their relationship has settled in and gotten comfortable but is still exciting, the way introverts prefer to party, and so on. I’d give a warning that there’s some sex and nudity, but the art style is such that the most you see is a simple cartoon butt, so it’s probably safe for teens. It’s sappy and sweet, so if you like comics that make you go “awwwww” then this will be right up your alley.
Buni is a happy little bunny who is just about always upbeat and optimistic, even though the world around him is tragic and cruel. These mostly wordless comic strips show Buni haplessly making his way through life. The book is a collection of strips, so each one is a standalone gag, but there are some recurring characters, like Buni’s jailbird dad (who is not all rainbows and sunshine). Despite the cute style, there’s some more adult humor here and there throughout the book; I think the book’s okay for older teens and up. It’s an odd mix of cynicism and positivity, but you can laugh because Buni is clueless or laugh because he cheers you up.
My Current Stack
I did finish reading Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero (and it’s out in paperback now!), and mostly enjoyed it. It’s a fun kid-detectives-grown-up story, with a bit of Lovecraftian horror and plenty of cinematic action scenes. There were parts of it that I felt were really well-written, but I also found it odd when Cantero switched to a script-like format for dialogue, like he couldn’t be bothered to use prose. Still, the overarching mystery kept me engaged, and I enjoyed the twists and turns and unlikely escapes.
I also finally pulled the shrink wrap off my copy of The Art of Incredibles 2, which I’d been saving until after I saw the film. More on that one in a future post, but if you like The Incredibles, you’ll like getting a peek at the concept art.
Disclosure: I received review copies of these titles except where noted otherwise.