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You Died: An Anthology of the Afterlife

Anthology of comics about death and what comes afterwards

Content warning: death

I have read and supported a few books by Iron Circus (previously called IronSpike), including some that are quite racy! However, I heard about this book because one of my favourite webcomic artists had a comic in it. If you have never come across SE Case’s “Rigsby WI” slice of life, early 2000s, small town comic, then I strongly encourage you to check it out immediately. Anyway, when I checked out the Kickstarter I saw it was by a publisher I had backed before so I decided to back this one as well. When it arrived, I put it on my shelf for a bit and was delighted when I realised after going to bed one night that it glows in the dark.

Image is of “You Died: An Anthology of the Afterlife” edited by Andrea Purcell and Kel McDonald. The image is a photograph of the paperback book with the lights turned out, and all you can see is the glow-in-the-dark (phosphorescent) detailing of moths and fungi.

“You Died: An Anthology of the Afterlife” edited by Andrew Purcell and Kel McDonald is a collection of short comics about the possibilities of what happens during and after death. The book has a foreword by Caitlin Doughty, an advocate of death acceptance and the creator of the “Ask a Mortician” YouTube channel. There are 24 comics that each deal with death and dying in ways that are meant to be poignant, reassuring and even beautiful.

Image is of the book with the lights turned on. The cover has the title in stylised central alignment, surrounded by the black outline of a coffin. The cover is decorated with the moths and fungi that glow in the dark as well as a skeleton hugging its knees in the background and red flowers in the foreground.

This is a diverse collection of interpretations on the theme, which is reflective of the contributors. The comics broach the topic of death from a range of cultural perspectives. Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld by Ahueonao is a tongue-in-cheek Mesopotomian story about goddess Inanna, siblings and and the cyclic nature of life and death which I really enjoyed. Danielle Chuatico’s story All Souls Day is a heart-warming depiction of a Filipino tradition of packing a picnic and visiting the cemetery to share memories about cherished family members. I Promise by A. Shinozaki and Cheryl Young gently considers the difficulty in upholding someone’s wishes and traditions around death when rituals such as kotsuage are not permitted in Western countries. Bone Ink by Rhiannon Rasmussen-Smith and Grace P Fong is a beautifully illustrated comic mixing illusions with Chinese traditional painting and exploring the meaning of legacy.

There were also plenty of diverse relationships and I especially liked the signature honesty and rawness of remember by SE Case and coming to terms not with what you’re facing but with what you’re leaving behind. Arkou by Isabelle Melancon & Megan Lavey-Heaton with a queer twist on the stories of Ankou in Breton, Welsh and Cornish folklore. I’m a big fan of animal stories of course so I also liked the biological education of What Eats Us by Letty Wilson and the heart-rending concept of Herd by Shae Beagle. The Last Wreath by Juliette GMM Lopez was kind of delightfully surreal and Peat, Bone, Oak by Laura Ketcham was a really enlightening comic about bog people.

While there were certainly some standouts in this collection, I felt that there was a range of quality and impact in the comics and some stories worked better than others. There were a few science fiction/fantasy interpretations that I felt took the theme too abstractly, and quite a few comics that unfortunately just weren’t that memorable. I know the anthology was about the afterlife, but I think I had expected something a little more along the lines of Caitlin Doughty’s YouTube channel: a bit more matter of fact and tied a little more to the natural world.

A creative and contemplative collection, with a number of really strong comics that unfortunately outshone the others.

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Sweet Tooth

Graphic novel series about genetic mutation

Content warning: pandemic, gore

Keeping in theme with my recent run of books that have been adapted into TV series or films, I saw recently that this graphic novel series that I had read some (but not all) of had been adapted into a Netflix series and the trailer looked pretty awesome. I checked my shelf and I had 5 of the 6 volumes. I remembered when I had last tried to complete my series the volumes in these editions were out of print, and although I’d managed to find some secondhand, I still had one missing. After it finally arrived from eBay, I was ready to tackle this series from the beginning.

Image is of “Sweet Tooth” by Jeff Lemire. The paperback graphic novel is stacked on top of 5 other books and is resting on a wooden table. Two antlers are emerging from behind the books. The cover is of a stylised boy in a flannelette shirt with the ears and antlers of a deer eating a chocolate bar.

“Sweet Tooth” by Jeff Lemire is a speculative fiction graphic novel series about a young boy called Gus who lives in the woods with his father. Gus learns from an early age that he is different: a deer hybrid. His father teaches him never to leave the woods and to hide away from humans who will do him harm. However, when his father dies of a mysterious illness, Gus is left to fend from himself. When a man called Jeppard saves him from two hunters, Gus agrees to leave the woods with him to make his way to a safe haven known as the Preserve. However, outside turns out to be far, far more dangerous than even Gus’ father could have imagined and Gus must decide who he can trust to survive.

This is an iconic story with a memorable artistic style. I really love stories with biopunk and genetic mutation themes and Lemire’s is a great idea. Although Gus is ostensibly the main character, the story is really about Jeppard, his past and the choices he makes moving forward. Gus spends a large proportion of the story static and in the same place, while we watch Jeppard grapple with his morals and decide whether he has anything left to live for. I think one of my favourite parts of the book was meeting the other hybrids and enjoying the diversity of animals and abilities they represented.

I think a really important thing to note about this book is how violent and gory it is, which at times does make it a bit difficult to read. Lemire doesn’t shy away from depicting physical violence and the effects of illness in acute graphic detail, and you should really bear this in mind prior to reading. The book could have gone one of two ways: science fiction or fantasy, and without giving too much away I was a bit disappointed that it ultimately wasn’t more of a science fiction story. I felt that would have been the stronger path and Lemire drew upon some particular cultures for inspiration, which has drawn some criticism (spoilers).

Even though this is ultimately a book review blog, I did want to note that since watching the Netflix adaptation, I think it is better than the graphic novels. Lemire has very few women in his story, the majority of whom are exploited sex workers or die from illness or childbirth, and there is not a lot of backstory for some of the characters such as the hybrid pig girl Wendy and the conflicted Dr Singh. I also felt that Gus himself received a lot more airtime and elements to his character hinted at in the story were really fleshed out in the show. By introducing some new characters and providing additional backstory, I felt that the TV series was a much more well-rounded story that showed more than one facet to life following a pandemic and, slightly disturbingly, incorporated elements of masks, isolation and santising that have become so commonplace for us now.

A thought-provoking series that, in my opinion, has been improved by the TV adaptation.

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(Adults Only) Whisper Grass

Short queer erotic graphic novel tie-in to roadtrip comic series

Content warning: sexual themes, drug use

After recently Marie Kondoing a significant amount of my house, and subsequently donating a LOT of books, I have had a bit more space to think about my remaining book collections including my graphic novels. I really enjoy graphic novels, and a lot of books in my collection are physical copies of a series that has become popular as a webcomic. I realised that I actually have some unfinished collections in some series, including a brilliant webcomic called “The Less than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal“. I recently ordered the third volume in the print edition (the webcomic is free to read online), and I had a little niggle in my memory that there had been a limited edition mini-comic that the author had released. I remember not being able to get one of the limited print copies, but a quick search through my files showed that I had managed to buy an eBook copy from the publisher. It is now December, and the clock is ticking to hit my reading goal for the year, so I thought I’d finally read this little comic.

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“Whisper Grass” by E. K. Weaver is an erotic graphic novel about two young men, TJ and Amal, who are on an road trip together after meeting in a bar. Amal has to make it across the country to his sister’s graduation after coming out to his traditional family, and TJ has offered to cover costs if Amal does the driving. Amal is a med student while TJ lives a rather itinerant lifestyle, however despite their differences, the two bond during their journey together. One evening, the pair stay at a motel room and after attempts to buy some drinks are unsuccessful, share a smoke of weed together instead.

This is a fun and warm vignette where a casual evening of Amal and TJ hanging out together becomes something more intimate. Weaver is very keen on characterisation and mood, so while this is an erotic comic, the focus is still very heavily on the emotional connection between the two characters. In the author’s own words, “Sometimes people ask me why most of the sex scenes in TJ and Amal fade to black, get cut short, or are off-camera entirely. The answer is showing those encounters wouldn’t have moved the plot forward, explored the characters’ personalities, or added any substance to the story. In short, those sex scenes were unnecessary. Here’s something unnecessary.” I think that the decision to offer this as a standalone comic separate to the main series was a good decision. Although it is perhaps a little unnecessary, this comic is full of tenderness, humour and enthusiastic consent and complements the main series really well.

If you, like me, fell in love with TJ and Amal, this is a light-hearted and enjoyable edition to a fantastic webcomic series that only adds to our understanding of these two complex characters.

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(Adults Only) Letters for Lucardo

Queer erotic graphic novel about vampires

Content warning: sexual themes

I really enjoy webcomics, which is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, incredible artists can enjoy complete creative freedom and publish beautifully illustrated long-form stories that readers can often enjoy for free. Sometimes these stories get picked up by publishers and turn into award winning books that you can buy. However, the downside is that without anything but positive feedback from fans, maintaining enthusiasm for webcomics can be difficult, and many that I have followed over the years have been discontinued. One such webcomic was called “Judecca”, an eerie, compelling comic about a sharkman, his roommate (a talking rabbit) and a girl with facial scars. Unfortunately, the author discontinued the comic and although you can find bits and pieces scattered around online, there doesn’t appear to be any archive anywhere. However, the author has started publishing graphic novels and although it’s not “Judecca”, I have been keen to check them out. I ordered a copy via a Kickstarter, but this one has been sitting on my shelf for a while. After Marie Kondoing my books recently, I decided to finally read it.

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“Letters for Lucardo” by Otava Heikkilä (the name is different because the author has transitioned since publication) is a graphic novel about the immortal son of a vampire lord called Lucardo who falls in love with a 61 year old human scribe called Ed. Shy and conscientious, Ed is shocked when Lucardo confesses his feelings but they quickly develop an intimate relationship. However, unspoken between them is Ed’s mortality and although Lucardo seems unconcerned by the future, Lord von Gishaupt has his own agenda.

This is an interesting story that explores the idea of queer relationship between two men of significantly different ages. Lucardo is 33, and visibly much younger and stronger than his partner Ed and Heikkilä gently explores some of the insecurities Ed feels about his trim but aging body. Heikkilä also explores enthusiastic consent and clear communication during sex, as well as how sex can involve negotiation, creativity and flexibility. In the years since I read “Judecca”, Heikkilä’s art style has continued to improve and his depiction of male bodies is refreshingly realistic, gentle and true to his artistic style.

I do have to say that when I picked the book up and opened it for the first time, I was disappointed that the illustrations are all in black and white. I totally understand the reason for this – expense and effort – but when you are expecting colour, black and white can be a bit of a let down. The other thing was that I felt that while the overarching story did have tension, there wasn’t quite as much worldbuilding, context and depth to the story as I would have liked. While I am often very happy with a story that focuses on relationships, I like a bit more drama.

An engaging and very inclusive graphic novel with some great illustrations and messages which could have used a little more colouring in, literally and figuratively.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Saga Volume 9

Epic fantasy and science fiction graphic novel series

I’ve been following this series pretty much as soon as it first came out. Even though I am certainly hooked, I have had some concerns for a while that the series has been getting a little stale. I chatted on my podcast some time ago that the author recently announced that the series would be going on hiatus for a year, and so I decided I’d stuck with it this long, I might as well read this last volume. Now, if you’re not up to date, I’d stop right here because this will be full of spoilers.

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“Saga Volume 9” by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples begins some time after the end of Volume 8. Hazel, her parents Marko and Alana, Sir Robot IV, his son Squire, the two journalists Upsher and Doff, Petrichor and Ghüs have left Ghüs’ tiny world with Ianthe with the The Will (now known as Billy) forcibly in tow hot on their heels. When Upsher and Doff offer Marko and Alana a chance at a completely new life, the offer is very tempting to others in the group. However, before long Ianthe and Billy have caught up with them and nothing is certain anymore.

“Saga” has been, well, a saga and there is no shortage of drama in this volume. Staples’ art is as mesmerising as ever, and the story continues to shock at every turn. However, I have to say that Hazel’s extremely melodramatic narration has really started to grind on me. There were some parts where I felt it matched the story and art really well, but generally I find it a bit ham-fisted. Vaughan is certainly fearless when it comes to nixing his characters, but in a similar way to the George R. R. Martin, there does get a point where too many of your favourite characters are gone and you just aren’t that invested in the ones left.

I really do think that a hiatus is a good idea. This book ends on a big twist and I’m just not sure where they are going to go from there. A break will hopefully let Vaughan recharge and come back with some fresh ideas to wrap up the series.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

Saga Volume 9

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Cottons: The Secret of the Wind

It’s no secret that I love rabbits. I was browsing the graphic novel section in a book store the other day and I saw this book and was immediately captivated by the artwork. I love graphic novels, and one of my all time favourite books is Watership Down, so a book featuring bunnies living in their own society had me hook, line and sinker.

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“Cottons: The Secret of the Wind” is a graphic novel written by Jim Pascoe and illustrated by Heidi Arnhold. The first in the series, the story follows a young brown rabbit called Bridgebelle who works in a carrot factory and who cares for her ailing aunty. Bridgebelle’s job is to help convert carrots into cha, the energy that powers the Vale of Industry. Although she dreams of being an artist, using cha to make beautiful objects called thokcha, she is tied to the factory in order to support her aunty. However when her friend Croquet goes missing and the foxes who covet the cha grow more bold and more dangerous, Bridgebelle’s abilities and her tragic past can no longer go ignored.

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This review is going to be full of rabbit photos.

This is a beautifully illustrated book with great character design and worldbuilding. Bridgebelle is an enigmatic, lonely young rabbit who is struggling to find her way in an increasingly dangerous world. I particularly liked the character Glee who seems particularly complex, and I enjoyed the worldbuilding and the steampunk vibe of the Vale of Industry. I also really liked Samiji, a brave and fiery young rabbit who joins the sect of rabbits who dedicate their life to windism. For a more detailed insight into the world of Lavender, there is a bit of a fictional overview of the history, society and culture at the back of the book.

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I think some of the things that felt a little underdone were the foxes as antagonists and the concept of cha. Cha seems to at once be a power source, a material for making art, a narcotic and a potential weapon. I’m not always into high fantasy with super complex magic systems, but I did feel a little like cha needed a bit more explanation or at least something to pique the interest of the reader and make them curious to read more. There was some of that detail in the section at the back, but I think I would have liked it woven into the story a little more. I also didn’t quite get how the foxes could be so malignant and powerful, yet not be able to simply walk in and take over the factory.

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Ori’s review was not as glowing as mine

A beautifully rendered story that perhaps leaves the reader with more questions than answers, I will be keeping an eye out for the second volume.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

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Saga Volume 8

I’ve been reading the “Saga” series for some time now, and have been reviewing them as they come out on this blog. If you’re not up to date, you might want to go back a step or two so you aren’t dealing with spoilers.

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“Saga Volume 8” by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples picks up where the previous volume of the graphic novel series left off. Hazel’s mother Alana, who is pregnant with a second forbidden mixed-race baby that has died in utero, visits a town on a remote planet called Abortion Town with Prince Robot IV pretending that the child is theirs. When they are refused entry, Alana and Marko have to put their faith in the “doctor” in the Badlands who may be able to help.

I’ve said in previous reviews that I’ve been enjoying these comics a bit less, and I think part of the problem is that each one has a lot of hard-hitting social issues that are tackled but there isn’t a lot of overarching narrative. I felt like this one tackled the tricky issues of abortion and transgender identity in an interesting way. As always, the animal side-kicks are on point. However, it’s really hard to see where this is going. Are we just going to be following Hazel’s entire childhood, or are we going to actually get to Hazel as an adult? Is this a comment on the broader socio-political issues of Alana and Marko’s respective planets?

Am I enjoying this as much as I did at the beginning? No, honestly, I’m not. Will I keep reading them? Definitely yes.

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Priya’s Mirror

Last year I reviewed the incredible free online graphic novel “Priya’s Shakti“. An empowering story about an Indian woman who, after being raped, becomes a hero, its creators have just released the second installment of Priya’s story: “Priya’s Mirror“.

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With the blessing of goddess Parvarti and a tiger sidekick to boot, rape survivor Priya has been travelling India inspiring other women. While resting on her journey, Priya is approached by a man who asks for her help. The man is in love with a woman who has a beautiful voice but who is also the victim of an acid attack. She is trapped in a castle with other women scarred from acid attacks, and it is going to take Priya’s gumption with Parvarti’s help to break these women and their demonic captor free from their self-made prisons.

This graphic novel is so necessary. Drawing on elements of faith and fantasy, Priya tackles a social issue that is as much about reducing stigma as it is prevention. Acid attacks are a horrific example of gender violence and Priya’s story shows that part of the solution lies in empowering the women who are victims of these attacks and tacking back the self esteem the perpetrators tried to steal. In this beautiful illustrated and digital format where modern meets traditional, Priya’s stories are very appealing to a wide audience. The comic is free to download as well which makes it available to everyone, regardless of their socio-economic background.

If you have a spare 10 minutes, I would definitely recommend you read this comic. Stigma and shame are still rife when in comes to gender-based violence and fuel beliefs that women are somehow to blame. Stories like this one are essential to continuing the fight to empower women and to make our world a safer, better place.

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Eagerness and Desire

I have been following this phenomenal and gritty webcomic called “Judecca” for years now. I also follow updates of the authors on tumblr. While their main project is “Judecca”, every now and then they post up some of their other projects, and that’s how I got reminded of the fantastic little collection called “Eagerness and Desire”.

I had in fact bought the PDF version of “Eagerness and Desire” about a year ago and had promptly forgotten all about it when I saw something posted about it. It jogged something in my memory, I did a quick search in my email inbox and ‘lo and behold: there it was. I had a happy little PDF of it sitting right there, ready to be read.

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“Eagerness & Desire”, by Noora Heikkilä, is a collection of three short comics about love, sex and dating. The first follows the escapades of a very cute and very forward waitress. The second is about three women who summon a demon and have a blast with him. The third is about a couple, life and death.

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I really love Heikkilä’s work. “Eagerness and Desire” is a great example of the feminist, sex-positive and body-positive messages that she embeds in her work. She’s a fantastic artist with a really edgy, messy, watercolour style that has just improved and improved over the years I’ve been following her work.

If you have $5 and you’re willing to throw it at a great artist and a really adorable, entertaining read in PDF format, “Eagerness and Desire” is just a mouse-click away.

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