The ecosystem of graphic novels is still proliferating – it might not have quite as many niches as pure-prose books do, but it’s getting there. We may see a day where any kind of book that exists in prose also exists in graphic form.
I Moved to Los Angeles to Work in Animation is a great example: I don’t think a book like this would have existed twenty years ago, and definitely not thirty. The title explains it perfectly: Natalie Nourigat  was a freelance artist and cartoonist in Portland (Oregon), and wanted a more stable career that used her art skills. So she researched the animation world, set her sights on a story artist job, eventually got one in LA, and created this book a few years later to describe the whole deal – job, move, career, LA, industry.
Books like that have been around in prose for a hundred years or more – some are personal, like Nourigat’s, and some are more general (How You Can Get a Job in Insurance in Hartford!). Nourigat is writing about an art career and speaking to other artists, though, so the graphic form works very well: she can convey not just the facts, but how she feels about LA and the animation industry through the body language and expressions of her avatar in the book, and her audience can see her examples of what storyboards look like and how they differ from comics.
This is a fairly dense book: it’s just under a hundred pages, but Nourigat uses a heavily captioned style to get in a lot of details and explanations. She has an upbeat, positive tone throughout, though she does also talk honestly about the downsides of LA life (heat, car culture, expense, a spread-out landscape that makes it more difficult to connect with people). The book mixes her personal story with more general information, though it’s almost all based in her personal experience – she did interview a group of other artists, though, and includes their thoughts, each as a separate three-page section, at the end.
Moved to LA is broken up into many shorter chapters on different aspects of her story and life in LA: perks, the moving itself, the job hunt, pros and cons of LA life, tips on getting a job, general questions – and she has running titles on her pages (I don’t think I’ve ever seen in this in a graphic novel before) to show which section you’re in, so it’s useful to leaf through and find specific advice.
I, personally, can’t draw. I’m also one of the Olds, deeply into a second non-art career, and firmly stuck on the other side of the country. So I can take no advice from this book myself – but I did enjoy Nourigat’s look at what her journey was like, and what it could be like for others who want to do something similar. It’s exciting to see that kind of energy and enthusiasm, especially when it’s aimed at making good stories and art.
So I recommend this primarily to people who might want to work in animation and/or move to LA. And maybe secondarily to people in other art-related fields, as a reality check about how their industries and locations work and compare.
 She does not present any credentials for her expertise other than the obvious “I got a job doing this, and I have kept that job and love it” one. She does talk about the differences between movie and TV animation (and that she’s on the movie side), but never says what studios she does or has worked for. But I see from her website
that she’s not just an individual-contributor storyboard artist, but currently Head of Story on an upcoming movie and her whole career to date has been at Walt Disney Features Animation – which is kind of a big deal, and a major “take this person seriously” credential.
This is the end. Well, sort of: there’s an unfinished last book called Tintin and Alph-Art, which is available in what I think is the form Herge left it (rather than completed by other hands). But this is definitely the last Tintin stories actually completed and published.
The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 7 collects books that cover almost two decades: The Castafiore Emerald (serialized 1961-62), Flight 714 to Sydney (66-67) and Tintin and the Picaros (75-76). Herge was clearly not devoting as much time to writing and drawing new albums in his fifties and sixties as he was as a younger man, but I suspect he was doing just as much “Tintin stuff,” only related to running a business empire: approving toy designs, meeting with movie people, arranging sublicenses, and all of the other things that are definitely work but don’t deliver any new material from a creative person.
Anyway, the three books are quite separate here, as you might guess from that sixteen-year span. So I guess I should treat them separately.
The Castafiore Emerald stands out as different from the rest of the series: it’s entirely set at Marlinspike, Captain Haddock’s ancestral pile, and it’s a mystery/farce rather than the series’ more usual adventure plot. I found the humor was not quite as juvenile as Herge sometimes gets – it’s still most based on how horrible Bianca Castafiore is and how much Haddock can’t stand her (and, secondarily, on how much of a blustery klutz he is), but that’s the story here, rather than random interjections. The story sees Haddock injure his foot, so he’s stuck in a wheelchair, right as Castafiore invites herself (and the inevitable accompanying media frenzy) to Marlinspike, leading first to worries about theft and then what seems to be an actual theft. It’s also got some good don’t-judge-people material, suitable for its young audience, though that thread is mostly background.
Flight 714 to Sydney is a more typical adventure story: Tintin and Haddock and Calculus are off to some international aviation symposium in Australia, get sidetracked by an eccentric rich guy, and then a villain strikes. There’s a lot of running around with guns after that, mostly serious, and a weird fantastic element that struck me as outside the usual style of the series and that largely serves to set up a deus ex machina ending in a book that didn’t need one. That one element aside, though, the adventure stuff is strong, and the comic relief mostly well-integrated into the actual story.
And then the last finished Tintin book, the one I could have read as a child of the appropriate age if Tintin was a thing in the USA in the mid-70s (it wasn’t), is Tintin and the Picaros, something of a greatest-hits compilation of the series. The fictional Latin American country of San Theodoros from The Broken Ear provides a venue and a big chunk of cast, one secondary villain returns from The Calculus Affair, and of course there’s the usual suspects of Tintin, Haddock, Castafiore, and the Thom(p)son twins. It has an odd anti-violence message from Tintin as part of his revolutionary plot, and that plot is fairly thin and mostly on rails.
I still think these omnibuses are a rotten way to present the Tintin books: they’re too physically small to read easily and the books are long and dense enough that they’d work better as individual albums. I expect the next big repackaging of Tintin will be back to the album format; every series gets packaged into omnibuses for a while and then broken back out again. If you have the inclination to read this series, I’d either wait for that switch or look for actual albums. (If you’re reading in a language other than English, the latter should be easier.)
As for me, I’m happy I read the series: it was a big hole in my comics cultural literacy. I didn’t love the Tintin books, but I didn’t expect to: they were made for European boys starting several decades before I was born, and I didn’t read them until I was middle-aged. But I can appreciate what they do well – I don’t think I’ve even mentioned Herge’s lovely line in any of these posts (maybe because of the horrible small size of these omnibuses, which does not display his art well at all) – and indulge the things they do to keep that young audience happy and engaged. I still don’t think I’d agree with the Tintin maximalists, but this is pretty good stuff. (See my posts
on the earlier books for more.)
We all live in the worlds we build for ourselves. For most of us, that’s deeply metaphorical. For people who tell stories for a living, well, it can be more complicated.
Take the Bronte family: the three sisters who lived into adulthood (Charlotte, Emily, Anne) all wrote novels, important books that are still read and studied today. Their brother, Branwell, was supposed to be the great genius of the family but never produced anything substantial – I’ve never studied the matter but I always got the sense that the expectations for Branwell were entirely because of his gender, and not due to any specific ability. But all four of them wrote, and they wrote together, or maybe just in and around each other’s stories, when they were children. They invented worlds, and peopled them, and squabbled over the people in those worlds, causing schisms and an inevitable split, with two of the four packing up their stories and heading off to a separate continent.
All this while they actually lived in that famous remote parsonage in Haworth: the four children, their parson father, a housekeeper. Probably seeing people from the village all the time, but the story of isolation avoids mentioning that. Definitely remote, definitely separated, definitely just with each other almost all the time.
So they lived in their invented world as much as the real one: it was as important – more important.
Isabel Greenberg’s third graphic novel Glass Town – her first to be set in the real world, not her invented EarlyEarth
– tells that story, in a fictionalized form. Charlotte is at the center, and she usually is in tellings like this: she was the one who survived the longest, after all. (She died at the age of 38: in most contexts, that wouldn’t count as very long at all.)
It opens with Charlotte in a field in 1849: she’s the last of the four left alive. And she’s met by one of her own characters, to tell her what has become of Glass Town, the city the four of them made, and of Angria, the country Glass Town sits in. (And to say nothing is known of Gondal, the land Emily and Anne created without the other two.) This is our frame story: he asks her to tell him the story they both know. And of course she does.
Greenberg says up front that this is a fictionalization – well, we know that as soon as a fictional character appears on the moors to talk to Charlotte – but that also means that any specific detail may be invented, or altered, or just never recorded in real history. So much of this could be true, or false, or somewhere in between. That’s not important, though: the story is important.
The story is mostly about the Glass Town characters, and their complicated grand-opera affairs: the dashing rogue Zamorna, his colorless wife and her scheming evil father, Zamorna’s real brother the gossip-merchant and foster brother the Black true king of this colonized land, and a few others. They’re all tied up in a knot, and their story is bound to end with violent conflict and death.
I don’t know if any of the Brontes ever wrote that ending. I don’t know if they wrote competing endings, but I suspect they at least talked about it. I don’t know if any of those potential endings exist. All I know is what Greenberg tells me here, in this version of their lives – how they battled over how the stories should go, with Charlotte and Branwell more warlike and Emily and Anne more domestic. That led to the split, as Greenberg tells it. But we now know basically nothing of Gondal, because none of those writings, except a few scraps of poetry, survived. So all we have is Glass Town, and the men maneuvering to kill each other over it.
It’s difficult to tell a completely happy story about someone who died young a hundred and fifty years ago – not when you’re covering a lot of her life, anyway. Glass Town is a book about creation and destruction, about living in the real world vs. living in invented ones…but it tends to come down on the side of destruction and invented worlds, as one should probably expect from a creator of fiction.
As in her previous books, Greenberg has an almost faux-naif art style, full of stiff figures with simple features, just expressive enough for her purpose. (If they look a bit like cutout dolls, or perhaps more specifically lead soldiers, that’s not an accident.) It’s a style that may be off-putting to people who read a lot of traditional comics – superhero, manga or YA – since it comes from a more deliberate artistic tradition, one that is not aiming to render things the way they look to the viewer.
Glass Town, because of that hundred and fifty years, because of Greenberg’s art style and other choices, and because of the nature of Glass Town itself, is a bit chilly and detached – it’s not a warm, welcoming story, and never would have been. Any reader will need to be aware of that, before they make the trip: the people of Glass Town have their own concerns, and will have little time for you.
The personal is political. It always was, and always will be. When someone’s identity is a reason to suppress or attack them, from “will not replace us” to bathroom bills, it’s never just personal.
There’s a meme I’ve seen a number of times, about what is political – that arguments about taxes and land development and budgets are, but arguments about whether someone should be allowed to live are not. I want to agree with that, but, in the real world, arguments about people’s lives and existence are aligned with partisan politics. The people trying to de-humanize huge swaths of humanity know what they’re doing, and aren’t going to stop because the other side makes clever memes.
Nate Powell understands all of that. (Better than I do, I expect.) His 2021 book Save It For Later is explicitly about confronting the rising tide of fascism, authoritarianism, leader-principle, and white nationalism in the USA, placing those concerns in a parenting context: how do you talk to your children about fascists? How do you think about fascists to focus on what you can do, especially as one family in a deep-red state? And how do you survive when you’re surrounded by horrible, mean, vindictive people? (Who may not actually be fascists themselves, but are perfectly happy in their smug self-satisfaction to sign up for every last fascist ideal.)
My children were much older at the 2016 election: eighteen and fifteen. I was lucky: I didn’t need to explain that this was bad, that, as Powell put it, “the bad guy won.” Powell seems to have two kids like I do, but they were much younger – I think the older one was five on that horrible night. So the parenting piece was much larger for him.
He’d also just come off a big non-fiction graphic novel series with Congressman John Lewis, explicitly about protest and fighting against white supremacy. It’s called March: you may have heard of it. So this was important to Powell, and central to how he saw his life and work, in a way that it isn’t for most Americans.
Save It For Later collects seven essays in comics form, all on that same cluster of topics, created during 2019 and 2020. I’ve seen at least one of them before – I think on The Nib – so it’s possible they all appeared elsewhere first. But they clearly were designed to work together; they circle the same concerns and thoughts in a consistent way.
I’ve always loved Powell’s work, since I first saw his magisterial fiction graphic novel Swallow Me Whole. He particularly has a knack for black-background pages, with hand-lettered white type and splashes of light color for vignettes of activity. His comics pages often seem to be on the verge of apocalypse, personal or societal – that darkness sweeping in and inundating the pages, his energetic lettering, especially on sound effects, the tone of concern and fear and distress.
This is a book for an immediate moment. I hope it will seem strident or ridiculous in five years. (I bet Powell would, too.) It probably won’t, though: fascism doesn’t go away that quickly or that easily, and the “will not replace us” crowd is loud and central and has captured most of one of America’s major parties. What any one person can do during that moment is small and feels inadequate: vote, speak up, model good behavior, deflect as much anger from more vulnerable people as you can. And, most of all, think about those vulnerable people first: who are the fascists trying to hurt? How can you help to foil or counter or even just slow down those efforts?
Because the fascists are always out there. And they’re always focused on hurting people.
Sometimes you get into something it’s hard to get out of – now that sounds ominous, doesn’t it?
But all of life is a sequence of things you get into and can’t easily get out of: relationships, jobs, places to live, family. And fiction, especially fantasy fiction, can be metaphorical about those things, and not need to be tied down to dull reality.
So when I say that Kat Leyh’s graphic novel Thirsty Mermaids is about three young people who do something fairly dumb on short notice and without thinking it through, and end up deeply stuck in a place they don’t understand at all, you can see how that could go in a million different ways. In this case, it is fantasy. The title is not a metaphor: they are mermaids.
Or, actually, they were. That was the fairly dumb thing: transforming to human so they could get more booze in some unnamed tourist-y seaside town. (It’s hard to find alcoholic beverages underwater!) They know nothing about human society, as is traditional, so they’re in for some shocks both immediate (humans need to wear clothes!) and longer-term (capitalism! money! rent! jobs!).
So, anyway, Tooth, Pearl, and Eez had that awesome idea — they could get a lot more booze if they went on land, where the humans are, and then they could come back afterward to their regular awesome lives under the sea. And the night of drinking went well: they did find some clothing, which came with a card they used to buy drinks the whole night at a bar amusingly named the Thirsty Mermaid.
Sure, they ended up passed out in an alleyway, but that’s a thing that could easily happen to humans, too.
But then Eez, their witch, realized she had no magic as a human – which means she can’t turn them back.
Luckily, the bartender they drank with the previous night, Vivi de la Vega, is a soft touch. They end up crashing with her – the narrative wisely stays silent on whether she actually believes their drunken story about being mermaids – as Pearl and Tooth learn about human life and jobs, and Eez spends her days investigating human magic and figuring out how to get things back to normal.
Leyh isn’t emphasizing the drama here: their situation is serious, but only desperate for Eez, for reasons that the characters, and Leyh, will explicate as we get deeper into the book. Tooth and Pearl could fit in reasonably well on land: they’re loud and goofy and still deeply ignorant of human ways, but they have skills and their human bodies, if weird, work and are comfortable. Eez, on the other hand, finds human skin and the open air strange and disconcerting all the time, and it’s not going to get better.
So Leyh’s plot first throws them into possibly the most fish-out-of-water moment ever, then ambles around having them do fun clueless-about-human-life activities in this town that I keep wanting to say is Santa Barbara cosplaying as Key West, and then makes it clear that return is important.
Do they make it back? I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the ending.
Thirsty Mermaids was published by S&S’s Gallery 13 imprint, meaning that it was basically aimed at adults, unlike Leyh’s previous book Snapdragon. What that means is that there’s some incidental nudity – mermaids don’t wear clothes, remember! – that focus on alcohol as the source of and solution to all of life’s problems, and perhaps a quieter, more naturalistic story structure and a cast that have complicated depths like real adults. But it’s clearly another book by the same creator, with a lot of the same concerns and the same energy. So if you are a young reader who loved Snapdragon, or if you are in the business of getting reading materials to a young person who loved Snapdragon, I hope you are not shocked by a few cartoon boobs and, well, three very thirsty mermaids. This is a lovely, bright book full of fun moments, wonderful characters, and a deep concern for friendship and belonging.
I forget, between volumes, just how much work it is to read the small-format Tintin omnibuses. Herge worked for a much larger page-size, and took advantage of that: his pages typically have at least a dozen panels, and are packed with dialogue that these editions set in a slightly fussy italic pseudo-handwritten font. So I find myself peering much more closely than I expect, and sometimes needing to take off my glasses to focus on on panel in isolation.
They’re also fairly involved, intricate stories: each one is 64 pages long, and, again, those are big pages full of talking and action. Sure, the talking is often vaudeville-level humor and the action is early-blockbuster spy thriller, but there’s still a lot of it. And a little bit of the supposedly humorous secondary characters – Jolyon Wagg, who first appears in these stories, I am looking straight at you – goes very far, but we never get just a little bit of them.
So perhaps I’m happy to be getting close to the end with The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 6. There’s something melancholic about reading old adventures stories from other people’s childhoods to begin with, and I’ve read fifteen previous adventures even before I got to this point. (Obligatory links to volumes one
, and five
, each of which reprinted three books. The first two in the series, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo, are mildly suppressed these days for reasons of tendentiousness and/or racism.)
Tintin, who was set up to be a boy reporter early in the series but never even feints in the direction of filing a story or having any kind of stable job by this point in the series, first appeared in 1929 at the age of twelve and, in the manner of adventure-story protagonists, was still twelve when The Calculus Affair first appeared in serialized form from 1954-56. (The other two books collected here are The Red Sea Sharks from 1956-58 and Tintin in Tibet from 1958-1959; this appears to be the point where Herge stopped working on Tintin stories basically continuously, at the age of about fifty-three, and did just three more discrete tales over the next decade-and-a-half.)
The three stories here are all entirely separate, though they have the standard Tintin furniture: Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, those supposedly funny detectives, and so on and so on. Calculus and Red Sea are more-or-less spy thrillers: the first details a Cold War-ish battle between the standard two Herge fictional countries (Syldavia and Borduria) over a potential superweapon developed by guess-who, and the second is another one of Herge’s long-chain-of-coincidences plots that leads to Tintin foiling an operation to take African hajjis and sell them into slavery. (The book never uses the term “hajjis,” but they’re going to Mecca. Also, Herge’s drawing is a bit caricatured for the African characters, but he’s generally not racist in his depiction of them.)
Tibet is an odder book: Tintin has a prophetic dream about Chang, a boy of about the same age he met way back in the book The Blue Lotus, who has not been mentioned since, and who has supposedly just died in a plane crash in the Himalayas. Tintin is sure Chang is not dead, and has various omens that he is correct; the story is driven entirely by the boy’s pigheadedness and insistence on finding Chang. Oh, and there’s a Yeti in it, but mostly as a background character. It gets cited as a book about the power of friendship, but no real-world friendship I’m aware of includes ESP powers to infallibly rescue one another from far-away continents, so I’m a bit dubious.
Herge is still really good at adventure-story hugger-mugger; he throws additional complications in as well as anyone in the world. And his comic relief, though very hokey, is generally at least moderately amusing. (And that’s good, because these books are roughly forty percent comic relief by volume.) As I’ve said before, this is not exactly my thing, because I am an adult and because I grew up a generation or two later, but this is still really solid work and would probably be nearly as appealing to young people these days.
I don’t have tags for either video games or sharecropping, since I don’t read enough books in either category to make those useful, but this book would have both of those tags, if they existed. I’m also not 100% sure the “for kids” applies: the CIP data on the copyright page says these books are “Ages 8+,” but so are a lot of other things. The Minecraft graphic novels are at least not not for kids, if that makes sense.
Most people will be reading this book, and the burst of other Minecraft graphic novels that Dark Horse has been publishing under an arrangement with Mojang over the past couple of years, because they like the video game Minecraft: maybe the building/crafting elements, maybe the grinding/fighting mobs elements, maybe something social about being on a server with friends. But I only played Minecraft a very little bit myself, way back near the beginning, so I’m one of the few people here because I’m following Kristen Gudsnuk’s career.
(Sidebar 1: said career consisting, as far as I’ve seen, of the awesome Henchgirl graphic novel, mostly for adults, and two books in the Making Friends series for middle-grader readers. Those also contain awesomeness, but said awesomeness is more finely tailored to an audience of tween girls. A third Making Friends book has just been published; I haven’t seen it yet. I recommend adults start with Henchgirl: as previously mentioned, it is awesome, and I will keep saying so until everyone admits it.)
(Sidebar 2: I think I liked what I played of Minecraft. It’s just that I think I want to play building/crafting sims – I spent decades thinking I really really wanted to play Sim City or Sim Universe or whatever, but never got around to any of them, and did buy The Sims but left it moldering in my Steam folder after setting up two separate households in one evening – but, on the evidence, I actually want to do some crafting/building in my RPGs, as evidenced by nearly 3k hours in Fallout 4 to date. So nothing against Minecraft, and I may get back to it someday. But I bet it’s totally different than my vague memory.)
I say that to orient you the reader: the Minecraft stuff here is vaguely familiar to me, and I have definitely played other video games. But I may misunderstand some pretty basic stuff, and I apologize ahead of time if I do.
Anyway, Kristen Gudsnuk, of previous awesome comics fame, is in the middle of a trilogy of short graphic novels set in the world of Minecraft, the popular video game. I recently read the first two: as far as I can see, the third is not yet scheduled to be published, but my guess is that it should hit in mid-2022. The series is called Minecraft: Wither Without You, and Volume One was published in April of 2020 and Volume Two followed this May.
So this is an incomplete story, obviously. It’s set-up and middle, but the ending is not available yet. But each of the two books to date has an arc of its own – as all trilogies should – so I think I can say coherent things about the two of them.
We’re in a fantasy world that will be very familiar to Minecraft players and deeply weird to anyone else: the world is made of blocky elements than can be mined for materials used to build other things, and monsters run around randomly. Some of the people are rounded, but most of the villagers (whisper NPCs whisper) are blocky just like their world and creatures. Adventurers fight monsters to save villages, but even more so to get experience orbs and rare materials and probably some valuables the monsters have themselves.
Cahira and Orion are twin teenage monster hunters, traveling with their mentor/teacher Senan the Thorough to learn the ways of monster hunting and get epic loot along the way. In the first book, a Wither – a big nasty flying monster – attacks them when they trigger a trap in some monster-filled castle they’re exploring. It swallows Senan, and the twins chase it across the landscape, thinking they can save their mentor from its belly if they can do it quickly enough.
They are correct, though they need the help of Atria, a teen girl they meet along the way: she’s been cursed to attract monsters, and ends up both luring the Wither to them and figuring out what the Wither really wants.
The second book begins with our four heroes seeing that same Wither fly over, which it should definitely not be doing given the end of book one. (Trying to be at leas slightly vague here.) They’re on their way to Whitestone City to resupply after their epic battle, and they decide to also consult the great sorcerer Lucasta while they’re in town.
Unfortunately, Lucasta is also Senan’s great rival, so there’s some tension there. She also farms monsters, and is most interested in setting Atria up in a room with some monster death-traps to harvest their stuff – which is not the most pleasant thing for Atria. And there’s a self-proclaimed great monster hunter, Elvicks, in Whitestone, and his arrogance and attempted thievery leads to a zombie infestation, as it sometimes does.
So most of the back end of book two is devoted to getting rid of the zombies and working out the other problems. But they all end the book newly geared up and ready to go out and stop that Wither…which I presume they will do in the final book.
These are both fun and zippy in Gudsnuk’s usual style: her people have big emotions and reactions, which is excellent for slightly goofy melodrama where the reader knows it will all end well eventually. You probably do need to be a fan of Minecraft or Gudsnukto want to read them, unless you’ve got a thing for books-based-on-video games. (And maybe you do: I don’t judge.) But both of these books are very good at what they set out to do, and what they set out to do is be vaguely positive but silly entertainment.
Names come with expectations. If a biker gang has members named Trash, Jocko, Bonecrusher, and Fluffy, you’re going to expect there’s a story there. And if the names are references, you’ll already have preconceptions based on the originals.
So when a major character is named “Sherlock Frankenstein,” you’re going to expect a detective who is a monster – or, maybe, if you’re more of a purist, a detective who creates monsters. If you’re told this Sherlock Frankenstein is a villain, that might be a little confusing at first, particularly the “Sherlock” bit, but you assume the creators know what they’re doing.
Until you realize they mean “Sherlock” in the kid-insult sense: this guy is kinda smart, but it implies no more than that. And they mean “Frankenstein” at about the same level: it sounds cool, and he’s old, like the Frankenstein story. Both words here signify “vaguely 19th century dude,” and the man with those names is a tinkerer-type supervillain with a silly circa-1900 origin (hero! villain! random transatlantic journey! long years as an always-failing villain! hero once more many decades later!) and no motivation other than “a sad thing happened to me, and so therefore the world is horrible and I will make it worse.”
Well, that’s disappointing. But superhero comics traffic in disappointment as much as they do in punching: it’s in the top five ingredients on the label. So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that “Sherlock Frankenstein” is much duller and more generic than his name implied. That’s how superhero comics work.
And then we come to Sherlock’s big story: Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil! You can’t even say it out loud without adding a “bwa-ha-ha!” on the end! Surely this will be an epic story of villainy (presumably thwarted, but maybe not if he’s the title character) full of epic battles with do-gooders and prominently featuring the battle aftermath we see on the cover. If we like superhero stories – and why the hell else would we be reading Sherlock Fucking Frankenstein and the Motherfucking Legion of Evil if we don’t? – we’re keyed up for it.
Reader: that scene appears nowhere in the book. There isn’t a plotline that could lead to that scene. It presumably depicts some old battle of Sherlock against whatever the hell the WWII superhero team is called in this universe, in which some other superhero then came in from off the cover to save the day, hurrah! It’s purely a bait-and-switch, which sadly is also in the top five label ingredients of superhero comics. 
No, Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil (bwa-ha-ha!) is actually a story that would more honestly be titled Black Hammer II: Lucy’s Quest or something along those lines. It is a sidebar to the main Black Hammer storyline – this phrasing implies there is a main Black Hammer storyline, and I’ve seen very little evidence of that in the firsttwo
volumes, but I’m willing to be generous – in which Sherlock is the McGuffin, not the main character. He’s the guy the narrative circles, and eventually shows up onstage at the end for an extended talking-heads sequence, but engages in exactly zero world-conquering plots and at no time uses an insectoid mechanized thing to defeat Golden Gail and whoever the hell the rest of the people on the cover are.
In the main Black Hammer story, a small band of heroes were transported to a farm on the outskirts of a rural town – which itself is in a pocket universe or something, so they can’t get out – a decade ago, after defeating not-Darkseid in the not-Crisis. The hero actually named Black Hammer was physically disassembled attempting to cross that pocket-universe border and get back to Spiral City, main venue for all the punching. Everyone in Spiral City believes all of the heroes were killed in “the event,” but the rest of the main cast is sure only Black Hammer is dead. (And we the readers realize he’s only as dead as any superhero character ever is: until his triumphant return.)
Black Hammer had a young daughter when he “died,” Lucy Weber. In the Black Hammer comics, we saw her, now a reporter in her early ’20s, do the spunky-reporter thing, find a way into the pocket universe, and take up her father’s hammer to become what has not yet been inevitably named Black Hammer II . None of that is surprising or new.
This Sherlock Frankenstein series tells more of Lucy’s story: some of the things she did to learn about her father’s life before the final success we’ve already seen. Yes: it’s yet another fucking flashback. At this point, the entire Black Hammer saga is a loose tapestry of flashbacks held together by the thinnest possible “present-day” (probably actually mid-90s) story.
I’m half-expecting the gang will never leave the pocket universe, that every Black Hammer story will flash back more and more to tell smaller and smaller stories about things we really don’t care about. How Abraham Slam found boots that are comfortable and long-lasting! Barbalien’s first epic love story on earth in the 1950s! Talky-Walky’s brief spin-off, The League of Super-Robots! Mildly Unsettling Tales, hosted by Madame Dragonfly! All of them with titles that imply much more action and punching than we actually get.
Look: Jeff Lemire is an excellent writer. His people talk like human beings and have understandable motivations, which is rare in comics about punching. But this whole Black Hammer thing is a two-finger exercise that he seems to be doing in his sleep. There is nothing surprising or new or exciting about any of it; it doesn’t even have the usual energy and forward momentum that’s one of the major draws of the superhero comic.
It all also looks very nice: for this story, David Rubin provides full art and colors, and his dynamic layouts mostly hide the fact that this is a superhero story entirely about people talking to each other.
But I just don’t get it. I gather the appeal here is the “superhero universe” thing, to see Lemire spin out more variations on (mostly) DC Comics history, but there’s a gigantic actual DC Comics universe out there, with probably thousands of issues of comics (admittedly, written and drawn much more for socially maladjusted pre-teens of the 1970s, but with stories that actually go places and include vastly more of the punching that superhero fans crave) that people could be reading instead.
And naming this Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil instead of Black Hammer, Vol. 3 leaves a bad taste in my mouth. This is not a standalone, it’s not about Sherlock, and he’s nothing like what “Sherlock Frankenstein” would imply to begin with. Frankly, it all feels like Lemire is trying to build an entire superhero universe out of the avoidance of finishing a single story.
But maybe it’s just that I don’t get how superhero universes work these days. Maybe this is all the point. It’s confusing, it doesn’t go anywhere, the character names are deliberately misleading, you have to follow the thinnest thread of story through a dozen books with confusing and changing titles, and you never get the big scene on the cover. Maybe Lemire is either just really good at doing what usually takes a whole Big Two bureaucracy or the whole thing is a deeply meta piss-take.
I doubt it. But maybe.
 What are the other two ingredients in the top five, you ask? Let’s say “silly costumes” and “problematic social attitudes,” today. I reserve the right to pick five entirely different ones tomorrow. Well, except for punching. Punching is like sugar in kid’s cereal: people who know better will always point out how unhealthy it is, but it’s the whole point of the thing.
 I think she will actually be the third, but I’m calling her Black Hammer II in all my Black Hammer posts because otherwise it’s just too damn silly and confusing. (Although “too damn silly and confusing” is roughly my take on nearly all superhero comics nearly all of the time.)
I could pretend that I did it on purpose: that I skipped The Hidden Witch because this book is newer, maybe as some kind of comment on how commercial fiction, especially for younger readers, is so trope-ridden and bend-over-backward accessible that any reader can jump in anywhere and figure out everything important.
I could. But I shouldn’t: it’s not true. So I won’t.
I did read The Witch Boy, the first book in this series of graphic novels by Molly Knox Ostertag (who also, apropos of nothing, is the artist of the great Strong Female Protagonist series). But I missed the second one, and maybe got The Midwinter Witch from the library thinking it was the second one. (I had them in the wrong order in my list there, so that’s my excuse.) Whatever: I read book one three years ago, and now I read book three.
There are secret families of magical people – large, extended clans spread across the world, several families, each with slightly different traditions and skills and abilities. As far as we’ve seen, they’re almost entirely good, nurturing people, though, like anyone else, they can be close-minded and unwilling to want change. 
Aster is a boy, and in his family, boys are typically shifters – they transform into animals – and girls are witches, casting spells. In Witch Boy, Aster was able to show that typically does not mean must always be, and was able to start training publicly as a witch.
I think Hidden introduced Ariel, a girl about the same age – maybe ten? I’m not clear how old these kids are, but they feel early-middle-schoolish, just prior to the pairing up and worrying-about-sex years – who has witchy abilities, but was adopted, so her heritage was somewhat unknown. Ariel is now part of the same cluster of kids that learn magic (and maybe other things? there may be a Hogwarts-education issue in this world as well) in a homeschooling environment, along with Aster.
This book is about the runup to the big Midwinter Festival, in which Aster’s family (Vanisen) gathers together for a combination family reunion and competition. The shifters (just the kids, as far as I can see) compete in one contest, the witches in another. And the drama in this book is about whether Aster and Ariel will compete.
Aster wants to compete: wants to be seen as what he is. Ariel is reticent: she’s good at magic, but not good at family, and this is all really new to her. Aster’s mother Holly wants Aster to take a pass this year (for what seem to be mostly not-making-waves reasons) and Ariel to compete (since that would help cement her place in the larger family).
Meanwhile, Ariel is having dreams of a powerful older witch who claims to be a living real relative of hers, and trying to drag her into a very different, much nastier kind of magic.
Who! Will! Win!
This is a YA graphic novel series, so obviously it all turns out fine in the end, with all of the good people hugging and being friendly, and everyone winning to at least some degree. I tend to prefer stories with slightly harder choices, but this is fun and positive and affirming: I expect it, and the whole series, are big confidence-builders for all sorts of kids who are odd in one way or another, particularly those whose oddities run up against the gender norms in their families.
 This has been a series for pre-sex kids so far, so how people pair up isn’t as clear. I’m hoping there are pan-family gatherings at least partially for teens to meet and match with each other, or else each family is going to get really unpleasant genetically.
Lewis Trondheim has done a lot of comics, in lots of different styles and modes. The ones that come closest to major US comics genres – funny books for kids, dark fantasy adventure
, autobio stories
– have been the most likely to be published well on my side of the Atlantic and to succeed here. The rest…well, publishers keep trying, but some things haven’t really clicked yet.
His first big popular series in his native France, nearly thirty ago now, was Les formidables aventures de Lapinot, a loose series of ten books which all had the same “characters” (anthropomorphic animals, in roughly the same roles in the story and with roughly the same personalities) in which those “characters” often played different roles, as if they were actors cast in movies with each other a lot or the members of a repertory theater company.
Some time ago, Fantagraphics published two of the books in that series – Harum Scarum and The Hoodoodad – in paperbacks matching the size of the original French albums. Both were part of the contemporary “plotline” (as I recall, they didn’t really connect with each other), and I read and enjoyed them quite a while after it was clear Fanta wasn’t going to make what they called “The Spiffy Adventures of McConey” happen.
Well, time marches on, and publishers are enthusiastic about books for a living, so Europe Comics (a newer publisher of graphic novels) jumped in and published three McConey books in digital formats in 2018: Slalom, and Gloomtown, and The Hoodoodad (again). They have slightly modified the series title – Lapinot/McConey is now having “marvelous” rather than “spiffy” adventures, perhaps because it is no longer the late ’90s – and seem to be be planning to do the whole series in initial-publication order, if everything goes to plan.
(Note: there’s been no sign of the remaining seven books in the three years since this first batch, so my guess is that the plan is just as busted as last time. Maybe the next attempt will start from the other end, and translate some different books.)
Gloomtown was published in French as Blacktown, which title gives different expectations in English these days than I gather it did in French in 1995. It’s a Western; McConey (who I don’t think ever gets a name in this book; he’s just “the stranger”) is an Easterner, on the run from a vicious gang for reasons we don’t know as the book opens. He lands in a small town, expecting to spend the night and get out quickly the next morning.
But the town is corrupt and the requisite Old Prospector type has just wandered into town with a big bag of gold, so McConey gets caught up in a battle to find and control the vein of gold somewhere nearby, plus being assumed to be a criminal just because he’s a stranger, plus the subsequent arrival of the very angry ex-Rex Logan Gang. (Logan being ex is the main reason for their anger, at least towards McConey.)
This is an album, so it all has to happen and hit a moderately happy ending in 48 pages, and it does — luckily, being an album, they’re large pages, so Trondheim has room for a lot of dialogue and action and takes advantage of that space. Complications pile on complications, characters race around town and outskirts at high speed, often pursued by each other or by bullets, and more than one character meets a sudden unexpected death.
The tone is similar to Dungeon: not 100% serious, but mostly straight. Trondheim likes to use genre tropes while winking a bit about them at the reader, as if to explain that he likes them, and is happy to exploit them, but doesn’t believe in them.
So I still think the McConey books are fun, and will read as many of them as I can get my hands on. But I do see why they’ve been a harder sell in the USA: Americans, as a class, are allergic to irony, and there’s no throughline of a larger McConey story to keep a reader coming back for the next one.