Brand New Year, Brand New Books!
The Comic-Con Graphic Novel Book Clubs sailed full-steam ahead into 2021 with a new selection of comics discussions.
The Balboa Park group’s January selection was Sara by Garth Ennis (writer) and Steve Epting (artist). Ryan led the in-depth discussion. Sara, a gritty, realistic war comic, is about a young Soviet woman with over 300 enemy kills on the Eastern Front of World War II, and how she copes with the murky, gray areas of loyalty, camaraderie, and duty.
Most of the members of the book cub gave Sara a 4-star rating (out of 5) during the Balboa Park Rating Roundtable. Members praised the “intimate” story of Sara and her female sniper comrades, the “off-the-beaten-path” war setting, and the “top-notch” art. Some members felt that the book could have used a touch of humor or warmth, was confusing at points due to time jumps, and some had a hard time relating to war stories in general.
The group discussed the role of female snipers in WWII, even digging up a photo of a group of female Soviet snipers with a strong resemblance to some of the characters. They talked about the role of Raisa, the political officer, and asked each other what it felt like not to be able to speak your mind for fear of repercussions. Other topics of conversation were how the book brought the reader into the world of the WWII sniper so successfully, and the impactful ending.
Members also stayed late to discuss Descender, Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire (writer) and Dustin Nguyen (artist) as part of the ongoing Descender read-through. Members gave Descender a 5-star rating (out of 5) during the Balboa Park Rating Roundtable. Coming in for praise was the elaborate but clear worldbuilding, the beautiful watercolor art of Dustin Nguyen, and the expansive, cinematic storytelling.
In February, the Balboa Park Book Club will be discussing The Banks, by Roxane Gay (writer) and Ming Doyle (artist). The Banks is a heist thriller about the most successful thieves in Chicago: The women of the Banks family.
For January, the Chula Vista group read and discussed Isola Vol. 1, created by Brenden Fletcher and Karl Kerschl with coloring by Msassyk and lettering by Aditya Bidikar. Set in another universe with both familiar animals (tigers) and otherworldly creatures, the story is simple: A woman is protecting a tiger from hunters and other strange beings as they travel to another land called Isola. Immediately the reader has questions: Who is the woman? Why does the tiger need to be protecting? How can Isola help them? As the story continues, some of those questions are answered, but by the book’s cliffhanger ending, it leaves the reader with more.
Compared to other titles that the group has read and discussed this was a quick read with minimal exposition. But for some members it required patience to understand the inner workings of this world and the motivations behind the characters. This is a book that, as Eric stated, “dropped you in the middle of the story” and enjoyable “if the breadcrumbs aren’t too far apart.” While some members enjoyed filling in the gaps as they read, others were uncomfortable without knowing the foundation of the story. Despite the feeling of being lost, the most members of the group enjoyed the dynamic between the two main characters, although the character Pring quickly became a favorite.
All can agree that the artwork was the highlight of the book. Tiffany thought the art was “stunning.” Monique thought the artwork and coloring was “brilliant and it gave the sense of an otherworld.” Eric thought that the artwork looked almost “animated.” For Matt, he let the “visuals guide the story,” and Jenna agreed stating that “the art told the story, almost more than the words.”
For February, the group will read and discuss Ms. Marvel Vol. 1 by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona.
The Downtown group started the New Year with a discussion about She-Hulk: Law and Disorder, Vol. 1 by Charles Soule and Javier Pulido, which focuses on Jen Walters’ career as a big, green attorney-at-law. The series was similar to the then very-popular Hawkeye revamp by Matt Fraction and David Aja, which showed the hero in more of his everyday life as opposed to being an Avenger 24/7. She-Hulk also showcases the mundane lives of superheroes and villains. Interest in the She-Hulk character is ramping up with a Disney+ series on the horizon, starring Tatiana Maslany, Tim Roth, and Mark Ruffalo.
The group, moderated by Roya (who is an attorney), enjoyed the legal aspect of the stories, including She-Hulk’s representing some prominent Marvel characters, and the situational humor. Writer Charles Soule is also an attorney, so he brought along his legal expertise to these stories. Most group members would like to read the next volume in the series, too.
In February the Downtown group will tackle the dystopian world of The Seeds by writer Ann Nocenti and artist David Aja.
The Encinitas group’s January selection was Tetris: The Games People Play, by Brian "Box" Brown. This non-fiction book explores several stories about the popular game, including background on the game's creator (Alexey Pajitnov, who created the game in his spare time while working for the Soviet government in the 1980s), rivalries between early gaming companies, and the psychology of gameplay.
Luke led the discussion. Karim and James both commented that the graphic novel format was an effective medium for non-fiction histories. Robin appreciated that the book was not just a history of Tetris, but also provided additional context on such topics as Nintendo and gaming consoles.
Mary Elizabeth noted that one of the distinctive elements of the appeal of Tetris was that it was accessible to non-gamers, and was not intimidating. Jon agreed, and thought that puzzle-type games like Tetris are an international language, speaking to players worldwide across various cultures.
Luke enjoyed the dark comedy in the stories of Soviet bureaucracy in the 1980s. Marina was intrigued by the contrast between the idealism of the game's creator, and the crass commercial conflicts between various corporations trying to profit from the game's appeal. The book also provided an opportunity for members to share personal reminiscences of youthful experiences with Nintendo and other gaming platforms.
In February, the Encinitas book club will discuss Invisible Kingdom Vol. 1, by G. Willow Wilson and Christian Ward.
Escondido Group 1 explored the world of Chronicles of Hate, Chapters 1 and 2, by Adrian Smith. Sophia moderated the discussion of this dark and detailed fantasy epic that features a lowly and downtrodden hero named Worm. In this war-torn and wasted world, man has evolved into many ghastly forms and has torn down the harmony and power of nature and all life. An abused slave of Tyrant and his terrible army, modest Worm secretly steals away a map to aid the personification of Mother Nature who is also held captive. He escapes Tyrant’s stronghold in pursuit of the items Mother Nature needs to be freed, and is compelled forward with the help of other besieged peoples. But even though he has been chosen, his quest is harrowing and seemingly impossible against the beasts and warlords of this hopeless reality.
Worm reminded Nicole and other members of the hobbits and their struggles in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. She questioned why it’s always the small and powerless person who has to be chosen. Indeed, Worm is probably the most powerless character in his world, but he fights on. Vince said this graphic novel is a great example of the power of “show, don’t tell” for narratives, as it relies on painstakingly detailed (but almost silent) panels throughout. Chris loved the highly detailed black and white world and artwork. The downside of the printed version was that the dark values and low contrast of art made it harder to understand and enjoy. Like the recent trend of dark scenes in cinema, we had trouble distinguishing some of the details of each scene and differences between the characters. Sophia said that she didn’t even realize Worm had three legs until she saw the illustration on the back of the book set against a red background. The group was relieved that the digital version alleviated much of the issue with readability.
Escondido Group 1 will discuss Spy x Family, Vol. 1, by Tatsuya Endo in February.
Escondido 2’s January selection was Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio written and illustrated by Derf Backderf.
On May 4, 1970, Kent State University students Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder were killed and nine others were wounded by the Ohio National Guard during a peace rally to oppose the expansion of the Vietnam War into neutral Cambodia. A few days before this tragedy, Derf Backderf, at 10 years old, witnessed the Ohio National Guard in his hometown of Richfield, Ohio (about 20 miles from Kent, Ohio). His graphic novel presents a highly detailed and thoroughly researched account of the Kent State shooting, including events that lead up to the peace rally, the lives of the students who were killed, and the questionable actions and decisions by leaders of the National Guard, town and state government, university police, and student organizations.
While most of the book club members knew about this significant event in our country’s history, this was the first time some of the younger members had heard of this tragedy. Some book club members were reluctant to read this book given the topic, but shared appreciation and great praise of the book. The members discussed potential ways the book could be used in an educational setting.
Coincidentally, Escondido 2 met to discuss this graphic novel on January 6, 2021, the day of the Capitol Building protests. Members discussed how that day’s events and the events in the book were eerily similar in intensity and gravity.
For February, Escondido 2 will be reading Planetary Book One by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday.
This month, the La Jolla club selected a couple of science fiction books that provided dramatically different art styles and stories that easily had the readers looking for more. Umbrella Academy Vol. 1: Apocalypse Suite and Descender Vol. 2: Machine Moon both featured ensemble casts and both dealt with questionable parents, limb replacement, and robots.
Descender was selected as the “ongoing” read of the month and some in the club found this second installment to be an easier read than the first. Written by Jeff Lemire and illustrated by Dustin Nguyen, this Image Comics publication won Nguyen the 2016 Eisner Award for Best Painter/ Multimedia Artist and a look at any of the beautiful watercolor pages easily shows why.
A couple of members of the club reread the first volume of the series to freshen their memories, but regardless, everyone felt the universe was well-established which allowed this book to focus on characters, new races, and some surprises that were sprinkled throughout the story. There was a general consensus that the relationships between the characters made this volume more engaging than the first, and while some readers found the scene changes among the various planets a bit confusing, others enjoyed meeting all the organizations that make up the universe of Descender.
An interesting aspect was brought to light when we compared the various formats of the novel. Most people were reading in digital format and found the experience enjoyable and straight forward while those who were reading the trade found that some of the panels were split across pages and the table of contents that everyone liked was actually on the same spread as the final cliffhanger. But ... speaking of the cliffhanger, everyone agreed that we had to keep this series on our ongoing list.
With concepts like robot rights, nature vs. nurture, and where do robots go when they die, this volume really sparked some lively discussions and I can easily say that we all enjoyed the book.
Umbrella Academy was our new series entry of the month and the club was glad to have such a well scripted and illustrated book to add to our ongoing reading. Winner of the 2008 Eisner Award for Best Finite Series/ Limited Series, the six-issue Dark Horse Comics collection was written by Gerard Way and drawn by Gabriel Ba, and made some of the members of the club wonder at the fact that a musician (Way is lead singer of My Chemical Romance) displayed the tools required to write such a well-developed comic. Regardless of his full time job, this was an enjoyable read.
In a similar fashion to Descender we found ourselves discussing how the children in the Academy were raised and how their environment seemed to create a scenario where many of the relationships between the kids were strained.
One interesting facet was that some of the group had seen the TV show and were coming into the read with knowledge ahead of time. Most thought this was beneficial. Everyone enjoyed the art and found the many Easter Eggs detailed and critical to understanding the story but at the same time they seemed to lead to events that were outside the scope of the story. The group felt it would be interesting to follow some of these side stories and hoped that future releases might go in those directions.
With robots, chimpanzees, time travel, and world destruction, we enjoyed the story and art to the extent that we are looking forward to reading the next installment.
Next month the La Jolla Club looks at Something is Killing the Children volume 2 by James Tynion IV, Werther Dell'Edera, and Miguel Muerto and Lady Killer Vol. 1 by Joelle Jones and Jamie S. Rich.
North Park started the new year by reading the first comic adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic and perennially challenged 1969 anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death by Ryan North and Albert Monteys. Slaughterhouse-Five is the satirical life story of Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran who becomes unstuck in time and jumps in and out of different parts of his life, including the war and especially the bombing of Dresden, being abducted by aliens and put in a zoo alongside a sex worker, and his life as a successful optometrist until his assassination. The story is told through his jumps in time and isn’t structured sequentially.
While some members had already read Slaughterhouse-Five previously (with one member mentioning she even had a tattoo of one of the book’s illustrations), this was some members’ first time reading it and Kurt Vonnegut. Everyone agreed that a graphic novel was maybe the best way to adapt this story, with its use of the gutters between comic panels as time jumps that worked organically within Billy’s affliction of being unstuck in time. Some members felt the comic was a good supplement to Vonnegut’s book while others found the comic more engaging. One member thought that the story would be heavy, being an adaptation of a classic book, but was pleasantly surprised at how funny it was. We had several different takeaways regarding the meaning of the story, from an absurdist look at PTSD to an examination of free will, and discussed how much of an anti-war effect the story has now compared to when it was originally published.
Everyone loved Albert Monteys’ style and art within the book. His characters are slightly cartoonish while his backgrounds are detailed and lush and this unpretentious style complemented Vonnegut’s unpretentious story. Members also enjoyed the shifts in art style at certain parts of the story. When fictional author Kilgore Trout’s comics are described within the book, Monteys switches to an old ‘50s era style with simulated Ben-Day dot colors and brown-tinted pages. And when Billy watches an old WWII movie in reverse, Monteys presents the movie as a storyboard to better convey that backwards motion. We closed our discussion with a question: If you had a choice between nothing at the end of your life or constantly bouncing around your life reliving every moment forever, which would you choose? Though most members would follow in Billy’s footsteps, some members chose an end.
In a stunning reversal from this month North Park is attempting to reestablish free will by voting for our next several months’ worth of comics, which are a mystery to those of us still stuck in time.
(The Comic-Con Graphic Novel Book Clubs welcome our newest group from Oceanside!)
The Oceanside group selected The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman as our January 2021 discussion topic. We all consider this graphic memoir a “gamechanger” in the graphic novel field. Maus won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, it is discussed in scholarly journals, and it’s studied in universities to this day. The Complete Maus was originally published in serial form in RAW magazine back in 1980-1991, and one of our members even owned these publications and showed them off to the group! Graphic memoirs were not common in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, but Spiegelman proved that memoirs, even ones with such heart wrenching stories, when done well, would find their audience.
Our group spent time discussing what we each believed the message behind The Complete Maus was and what takeaways a reader could gain. We believe there is much to learn from Art’s father and how he survived the Holocaust and lived his life. One thought is that no matter what your situation is, you can either go along with it or you can position yourself in the best way possible, always seeking ways to benefit you and your loved ones. Art’s father was ingenious and quick thinking, and that, along with a whole lot of luck, was key to his survival. It also shows the importance of networking and relationships with others. We discussed the use of animals in the story (in Maus, Spiegelman portrays the Nazis as cats and the Jews as rodents). Ultimately, this is a story about how Art’s father became the man he was at the end of his life. We appreciated the honesty of showing his failures as well as his strengths.
In February, the Oceanside Club will be reading a silent comic, The Longest Day of the Future by Lucas Varela.