A Gorgeous, Creepy Graphic Story: Neil Gaiman & Colleen Doran – Snow, Glass, Apples

A few years ago, I read Neil Gaiman’s short story Snow, Glass, Apples and was completely blown away. It takes the Snow White fairy tale, tells it from the point of view of the evil (?) stepmother and turns it on its head in a unique, original way.

SNOW, GLASS, APPLES
by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran

Published by: Dark Horse, 2019
Hardcover: 64 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First line: I do not know what manner of thing she is.

A chilling fantasy retelling of the Snow White fairy tale by New York Times bestselling creators Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran!
A not-so-evil queen is terrified of her monstrous stepdaughter and determined to repel this creature and save her kingdom from a world where happy endings aren’t so happily ever after.
From the Hugo, Bram Stoker, Locus, World Fantasy, Nebula award-winning, and New York Timesbestselling writer Neil Gaiman (American Gods) comes this graphic novel adaptation by Colleen Doran (Troll Bridge)!

This is the story of a young woman who fell in love with a king. This king has a daughter, a young girl with hair as black as ebony, skin white as snow, and lips red as blood. You know how it goes. Except there is something off about this particular Snow White. I don’t think it’s a spoiler but just to be safe, I won’t tell you what’s up with Snow White. Let’s just say, she’s not the fairy tale princess you’d expect. And the evil queen is actually doing her best to protect her kingdom. Apples are involved as well as a super creepy twist on the prince who wakes up Snow White with a kiss. But that’s all best discovered for yourselves.

There are several things that made this story work so well for me. On the one hand, the way Gaiman incorporates all the beats of the original fairy tale into a story that is essentially the opposite of the Grimms’ tale. On the other hand, the art itself. It’s a matter of taste, of course, but I can hardly express how much I adored Colleen Doran’s drawing style. Inspired by Harry Clarke, the art is luscious and detailed and there’s plenty to discover. So I read this first for the story itself, following along where the author led me, and then went right back again just to look at the art on each page.

What I found really impressive was that the graphic novel works almost completely without the use of panels. Most pages are full-page artworks like the one above where smaller images blend into other small images. The way the pages are set up, however, makes the reading order totally intuitive. I always knew where the author, artist, and letterer wanted my eyes to go next. That’s something I didn’t expect at first glance, so now I am all the more impressed. I can’t explain why or how, but it works beautifully. And the pages are gorgeous to look at as complete pieces of art as well.

This is the kind of book you can read really quickly but it will stay with you long after you’re finished. Some lines in Gaiman’s story simply stick because they are so well written. With the graphic novel adaptation, the same thing goes for Doran’s images. I have read this book more than a week ago and yet I still vividly remember certain pictures. I had also forgotten just how dark the story goes at certain points and while it’s one thing to read about brutality, it’s quite another to see it depicted – even if it’s in an art style that’s not super realistic.

I should also mention that this is not a story for kids. When I say “twisted fairy tale” I don’t just mean that plot elements get twisted around. I mean actually twisted. There are dark scenes here, some truly disturbing things happen, and the ending is also not for the faint of heart. Although if you’ve read some fairy tales without the added sugar coating, you’ll know what you’re in for.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Pretty amazing!

V. E. Schwab & Andrea Olimpieri – The Steel Prince

I’ve only recently  finished the Shades of Magic trilogy with mixed feelings. The third book was fun to read, but the conclusion felt rather underwhelming to me. There is no denying, however, that V. E. Schwab has created an intriguing world of parallel Londons that I’ll gladly return to every chance I get. Thanks to the publisher for this Graphic Novel ARC which let me dive back into Red London for a while and see what happened before Kell, Rhy and Lila.

SHADES OF MAGIC VOL. 1: The Steel Prince 
by V. E. Schwab and Andrea Olimpieri

Published by: Titan Comics, 2019
Paperback: 112 pages
Series: Shades of Magic #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: Once, there were four worlds instead of one, set side by side like sheets of paper.

Delve into the thrilling, epic tale of the young and arrogant prince Maxim Maresh, long before he became the king of Red London and adoptive father to Kell, the lead of A Darker Shade of Magic!
The youthful Maresh is sent to a violent and unmanageable port city on the Blood Coast of Verose, on strict orders from his father, King Nokil Maresh, to cut his military teeth in this lawless landscape.
There, he encounters an unruly band of soldiers, a lawless landscape, and the intoxicatingly deadly presence of the newly returned pirate queen, Arisa…
Collects Shades of Magic: The Steel Prince #1-4.

First of all, let  me tell you that if you haven’t read the Shades of Magic trilogy by V.E. Schwab, go do that now. I don’t think reading this graphic novel prequel will make much sense or really work for you  if you aren’t already familiar with the (wonderful!) world the author created in her novels. There is a whole magic system here that is not explained in the graphic novel, there are power structures that should also be understood to some degree before reading it. So with that important piece of information out of the way, let’s talk about the graphic novel.

I’ve been a fan of comics and graphic novels for a while now because the good ones manage to evoke as much emotion in the reader as a big fat novel can, all without much description but instead with pictures. That said, a good novel writer is not necessarily a good graphic novel writer because the two media are so different and you have to use different methods to get the story you want to tell across. While this was not a bad book, it was quite obvious that Schwab is more at home with prose. I enjoyed the story fine, but I just wanted a bit more. More of everything. More description, more world building, more character development, more magic, more intricate battles… It was all there to some degree but there was just never enough of it.

The story revolves around Maxim, Kell and Rhy’s father (or Kell’s adoptive father, if you want to be correct). In the novel trilogy, Maxim really got to shine in the third book, so I was eager to see what the king had been up to in his youth. The premise of the story is that the four Londons are separated, there are no Antari around, and the king is quite happy with this situation. Not so Maxim who is full of excitement and wants to save the world and make it better, but who is also impulsive and trusts too much in his own abilities.

Maxim was an intriguing character, especially compared to the older, wiser King Maxim we meet in the novels. He is easy to like because although he acts rashly sometimes, you know from the start that his heart is in the right place. The fact that he is amazing with his magic also doesn’t hurt.

Because Maxim’s father disapproves of his son’s efforts to find Antari magicians, he sends him away to Verose which – as you might expect – doesn’t go too smoothly. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but this is where Maxim meets Isra who faithful readers of Schwab’s books will recognise immediately. Seeing her former self was also a lot of fun, and I especially enjoyed the group dynamic between all the people Maxim meets. Naturally, there is an opponent that needs to be defeated and while I thought she was super cool as villains go, this was were the plot started losing me. The ending came way too quickly and felt sort of abrupt, particularly because the beginning took such care to introduce the world to the readers a bit and to show where Maxim is coming from.

Andrea Olimpieri’s art is beautiful, no doubt. I really liked how the characters were drawn but I had some problems with the action sequences and the magic. Arisa’s (the villain) magic looked absolutely stunning and managed to convey that sense of danger through art that I’m sure the characters felt whenever confronted with her. But the other types of magic didn’t really give me that sense of wonder that I want to feel when reading fantasy. The battle scenes – again, great ideas and great story telling as such – also suffered because of the medium chosen. You’d think any visual medium would be better suited for fast-paced action scenes than simple prose, but because comic books are comprised of still images, not moving ones, I think it’s incredibly hard to make fight scenes thrilling in them. For me, it didn’t really work in this book.

Overall, I enjoyed the read. I can’t say I fell into it the way I did with A Darker Shade of Magic, but it was time well spent. The ending rounds up the story nicely (if too quickly) but definitely leaves room for more of Maxim’s adventures. Even if this wasn’t one of my favorite graphic novels, I’ll probably check out whatever comes next because it’s a lovely world to escape to and there are so many details yet to explore. Maybe, if Schwab continues writing these, we’ll get to see Rhy’s birth and how Kell came into their lives. Here’s to hoping!

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Make sure to check out the other stops on the Steel Prince blog tour:

Ursula Vernon – Digger

I have made no secret of my love for T. Kingfisher and her utterly charming fairy tale retellings. But T. Kingfisher is a pseudonym for Ursula Vernon who – being the same actual person – writes tales just as charming and, it so happens, draws her own comics as well. She also seems to adore wombats which makes me adore her. The tale of digger is a big one and all the more praise to the author for making every page a pleasure.

DIGGER: The Complete Omnibus
by Ursula Vernon

Published by: Sofawolf Press, 2013
Hardcover: 823 pages
Collected Graphic Novel
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I’ve been digging for a long time.

Digger is a story about a wombat.
More specifically, it is a story by author and artist Ursula Vernon about a particularly no-nonsense wombat who finds herself stuck on the wrong end of a one-way tunnel in a strange land where nonsense seems to be the specialty. Now with the help of a talking statue of a god, an outcast hyena, a shadow-being of indeterminate origin, and an oracular slug she seeks to find out where she is and how to go about getting back to her Warren.
With an irreverent sense of humor and a fantasy protagonist with a healthy dose of skepticism, Digger rapidly gained a huge following of devoted fans eager for the twice a week updates of the webcomic for the duration of the comic’s run. Digger’s story is now complete. It has been compiled in six bound volumes, each including additional content not posted online.

Digger is a wombat who finds herself in a tunnel with no way back. So she does what any sensible wombat would do in her place – she digs on until she comes up somewhere. This somewhere, it turns out, is in a temple for a statue of the god Ganesh who is trying to help Digger find her way back home. But there is magic at play and things are not quite as simple as just digging another tunnel. So Digger explores her surroundings, meets many strange and amazing creatures – hyenas with war paint, a prophetic slug, a bunch of monks, some of whom may or may not be insane, and a weird little shadow creature whom Digger tries to teach about life and morals.

I really don’t want to tell you anything about the plot because it is just such a joy following Digger and seeing how things unravel around her. She is the same kind of practical, no-nonsense heroine that Ursula Vernon writes in her fairy tale retellings, and as such is easy to love. But Digger is also a badass with her pickaxe and her claws. You wouldn’t think the ability to dig tunnels could come in so handy sometimes.

I especially enjoyed Digger’s relationships with the friends she finds along the way. Her goal is to somehow get back home, but because gods and magic and ancient myths are involved, she kind of has to save the world a little bit before going home. And although Digger doesn’t believe in gods, doesn’t think very highly of the monks she encounters, and definitely doesn’t agree with the dietary habits (especially the tea) of the hyena she meets, she’s a good sport and helps along. After all, while she’s stuck in a strange place, she may as well make herself useful.

The art, although all in black and white, is delightful. Digger and her companions come to life through simple lines but there is a lot of love for detail in the larger pieces. I discovered several fish with interesting headgear in the margins, who have no bearing on the plot whatsoever and seem to exist simply to delight the reader. I’m sure I haven’t caught all of these little easter eggs but I giggle every time I did.

At over 800 pages, Digger is a brick of a book, but I enjoyed every page. There are twists along the way, some of them heart-wrenching, others funny, and although the ending tore my heart out, the tone of the book overall is humerous. This was 800 pages of fun, with a lot of heart, the bravest (and coolest!) wombat I’ve ever read about, and despite some slower moving parts, it begs for a re-read. Ursula Vernon has created a memorable cast of characters, all of which kind of grow on you as you go along. You won’t even notice when it happens but suddenly, you care what happens to them which makes the ending all the more powerful. I absolutely loved it.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Marissa Meyer – Wires and Nerve

I have no idea why, as the publication date everywhere (including Amazon, where I bought this) is listed as January 31st, but my pre-ordered copy of the first Lunar Chronicles graphic novel arrived at my house on Monday and, naturally, I couldn’t keep my hands off if for a second. The short version is: This is just like the novels themselves, fluffy, sweet, not very deep, but a wonderful read to crawl inside and get lost in for an afternoon.

wires-and-nerveWIRES AND NERVES Vol. 1
by Marissa Meyer
art by Doug Holgate

Published by: Feiwel & Friends, 2017
Hardback: 238 pages
Series: Wires and Nerve #1, The Lunar Chronicles #5
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Once upon a time, there were nine unlikely heroes…

In her first graphic novel, #1 New York Times and USA Today bestseller Marissa Meyer follows Iko, the beloved android from the Lunar Chronicles, on a dangerous and romantic new adventure — with a little help from Cinder and the Lunar team.

In her first graphic novel, bestselling author Marissa Meyer extends the world of the Lunar Chronicles with a brand-new, action-packed story about Iko, the android with a heart of (mechanized) gold. When rogue packs of wolf-hybrid soldiers threaten the tenuous peace alliance between Earth and Luna, Iko takes it upon herself to hunt down the soldiers’ leader. She is soon working with a handsome royal guard who forces her to question everything she knows about love, loyalty, and her own humanity. With appearances by Cinder and the rest of the Rampion crew, this is a must-have for fans of the bestselling series.

divider1

There were a few things that Lunar Chronicle fans were still waiting for after the series ended. For one, some of the romances weren’t officially resolved. And Iko never got to be the center of the plot. Until now. Although all of our favorite heroes make an appearance, this is firmly Iko’s story. After the Revolution and Cinder’s ascension to the Lunar crown, Iko mostly helps her friend pick the right dress for the right occasion, but there is a lot of stuff still to do. Just because one evil queen was overthrown, the world doesn’t simply fix itself. And so starts Iko’s job as a secret agent.

We meet her right in the middle of some rogue wolf pack catching action and I knew I would adore this story as much as I did the novels. It doesn’t take long for Thorne and Cress to meet up with Iko, and from then on it’s a merry romp that alternates nicely between action scenes, slower, more exposition-heavy ones, romantic tension sub-plots, and adorably silly ones whenever Iko is in the same room as a frilly dress. If you’ve read The Lunar Chronicles you know exactly what I mean.

Although, information-wise, nothing much is added to what we already knew from the mail story, I really enjoyed getting some more background about Cinder’s struggle with being queen. This may bring us some slower pages where people talk a lot and explain stuff to each other but Marissa Meyer never forgets to add a bit of humor to keep things moving. If you’re worried that your favorite couple won’t be featured – don’t worry! Everyone makes an appearance, although to my utter delight, Cress and Thorne definitely took center stage. While it was wonderful seeing Cinder in her new position, she is on Luna and Kai is on Earth…

wires-and-nerve-cinder

My favorite parts (after seeing Cress and Thorne captaining the Rampion and just being wonderful) were the new romance that may happen for Iko. I even have a favorite page in which the author – and Iko – identify a romance trope and just roll with it. And it worked beautifully, both as the trope should and as a comment on its existence. That’s all I’m willing to say – you should all experience it spoiler-free and have as much fun as I did.

The plot as such isn’t super original, but our heroes have a nice new-ish threat to fight off and it gives them plenty of opportunity for doing what they do best: work as a team! When I started reading this, I kind of missed that it said “volume 1” right there on the spine, but the open ending didn’t feel too much like a cliff hanger. It was definitely a satisfying ending, although I am now painfully aware of how long I’ll have to wait for the sequel…

As this is a graphic novel, I want to say a little bit about the art. The style reminds me a bit of web comics you see and while this could have worked in a lavish, more detailed comic book style, I really enjoyed the simplicity of it. Not all characters look the way I want them to but they were all identifiable, they all look right and I felt that the artist managed to show their emotions really well, considering there isn’t a lot of detail. I also really loved the muted, blue color scheme and I honestly wouldn’t change this to full color if I could.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good fun!

divider1

Here’s a page from the book that gives you an idea of what our heroes look like:

wires-and-nerve-characters

Save

Save

Save

Save

Kurtis J. Wiebe – Rat Queens Volume 3: Demons

I remember when I discovered Rat Queens and fell in love with the comic so much, I read it twice in a row. The second volume went through a change of artist but still kept most of the humor, heart, and great friendships intact. This third volume is a complete disappointment and marks the spot where I’m only willing to try one more issue to see if the series is worth continuing. Yep… it was that bad.

rat queens demons

RAT QUEENS VOLUME 3: DEMONS
by Kurtis J. Wiebe

Artwork: Tess Fowler
Colors: Kelly Fitzpatrick
Letters: Ed Brisson

Published by: Image, 2016
Paperback: 160 pages
Series: Rat Queens #3
My rating: 4/10

Having survived the end of the world, the Queens follow Hannah back to where it all began: Mage University. A long perilous journey awaits the Rat Queens as they attempt to find out what happened to Hannah’s father while battling their own demons.

divider1

After some interesting revelations in the last collection, we don’t get a second of time to catch up. Our girls are on their way to Hannah’s old school… to do… something. Once they arrive, Hannah is confronted with her past – which is no surprise considering that people there know her from way back when. Conveniently, however, all the others are also haunted by their demons, which all show up sooner or later. Most of this felt incredibly cheap, like somebody desperately grasping for plot and drama in a comic series that used to be all about fun and games and swear words.

Apart from the thin plot, the writing was really bad this time. I sometimes felt like I’d skipped a page because the cuts between scenes were so sharp, the plot jumped around all over the place, and things that were supposed to have impact left me completely cold. Plus, there is nothing of these four girls’ shining wonderful characters coming through. Hannah seems like a different person, Betty gets some shitty backstory that nobody needed (but I guess everyone has to have a dark past, nobody can just be what they seem to be) and there is no banter between them going on.

The change of setting comes with a change of costumes, some of which look nice, but again gave me the feeling that I’m not dealing with the girls I fell in love with but four imposters standing in their place. I frequently caught myself thinking “That’s so not like Hannah” or “Vi would never wear this” and wondering very, very much what the point of this collection was.  The artist change (again!) did have positive aspects however. The characters’ faces look like themselves again, although in certain panels Tess Fowler turned up the cute to eleven. Hannah isn’t cute. She may be gorgeous but what’s with the Disney eyes? I do prefer her artwork greatly to Sejic, who made the Rat Queens look much too harsh and pointy. Wenn done, Tess Fowler – I’m so sorry you didn’t have a better story to work with.

rat queens demons panels

The plot isn’t really advanced all that much. It dwells on Hannah’s past and on who her parents are, there is no mention of Sawyer or indeed much recognition of the girl’s current home town and friends and foes and love interests. I honestly felt like in a TV show where I accidentally skipped an episode and then the current episode was choppy and jumped over important scenes. Also, with new actors who are trying to put their own spin on the characters… it was a jarring experience that alternately made me want to cry and throw the comic across the room.

Rat Queens is a comic that could have just rolled with what made it so great. Female friends fighting demons and orcs and goblins for money. Being foul-mouthed, drinking and partying, and bantering is what they do best. Now it’s all angsty and pseudo-dramatic, the girls fight and behave out of character, and it’s just missing that spark. But what Demons is missing the most is the thing that made me re-read the first collection right after finishing it: Fun! This was just no fun. It felt like work, trudging through page after page of blahblah with no substance, re-hashed jokes, and weird afterlife-y parallel worlds… I just don’t even care anymore.

I’ll give Kurtis J. Wiebe one more collection to change my mind, otherwise I’ll just re-read Sass & Sorcery, ignore all  new issues, and pretend this never happened.

MY RATING: 4/10 – Bad

divider1

 

Skottie Young – I Hate Fairyland: Madly Ever After

I love Fairyland! And Skottie Young’s art! So what could be better than a comic book set in Fairyland, drawn and written by Skottie Young? Not many things, I tell you. This bloody rampage through an enchanted world was so much fun, I still have a stomachache from laughing so hard.

i hate fairyland

I HATE FAIRYLAND Volume 1: Madly Ever After
by Skottie Young

Colorist: Jean-Francios Beaulieu
Letterer: Nate Piekos

Published by: Image Comics, 2016
Ebook: 138 pages
Series: I Hate Fairyland #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Once upon a time, there was a girl.

From superstar writer and artist Skottie Young (Rocket Raccoon, Wizard of OZ, Fortunately, The Milk), comes the first volume of an all-new series of adventure and mayhem. An Adventure Time/Alice in Wonderland-style epic that smashes it’s cute little face against grown-up, Tank Girl/Deadpool-esque violent madness. Follow Gert, a forty year old woman stuck in a six year olds body who has been stuck in the magical world of Fairyland for nearly thirty years. Join her and her giant battle-axe on a delightfully blood soaked journey to see who will survive the girl who HATES FAIRYLAND. Collecting Issues #1-5

divider1

Just look at the colors on that cover. Look at them. They are like colors from a dream, bright and rainbow-y, and they tell you exactly what you’re going to get from this comic book series. A beautifully colored story of a cute girl killing everything she comes across.

Gertrude is just your average, adorable little girl with green curls and a pink dress when the floor in her room swallows her up and drops her headfirst in Fairyland. In best Ozian tradition, she is welcomed by a ton of cute creatures and the Queen of Fairyland herself, Cloudia, whose hair is a cloud that changes with her mood – it’s awesome! Like any good fairytale, this one contains a quest. If Gert wants to get back home – and she really, REALLY does! – she needs to find a key to open the door to her world. She is given a companion guide and a map and off on her little feet she goes, to wander Fairyland and hunt that key.

Cut to 27 years and a billion side-quests later. Gertrude is a 37-year-old trapped in a 10-year-old’s body. And since she hasn’t found that key yet, her temper is… let’s say not so cute anymore. With Larry, her guide, she has been killing and maiming on every step of her journey. Disregarding the riddles and side-quests she is given, she simply hacks her way through enchanted forests, bogs of madness, hills made of snot, and zombie hordes. She even makes her very own shooting stars (not the nice kind).

The lovely setting and happy colors stand in stark contrast to what’s actually happening and how Gertrude talks. Okay, so swear words are changed into nice-sounding, child-friendly words (Fluff off) although I don’t see the point in such a blood-soaked comic. The gore may be literally sugarcoated but that doesn’t make Gert any less violent or foul-mouthed. I ADORE HER!

i hate fairyland slo-mo

But what makes this comic so much fun, other than Gert’s quick and bloody solutions to any problem, is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Villains bear such names as Darketh Deaddeath or Horribella. It’s fun and funny, especially when Skottie Young takes tropes from fairy tales and more modern tales in the same vein, and has Gertrude show them the finger. She does that. A lot. Sometimes with guns.

Gert’s relationship with Larry is also worth mentioning. Although they both pretty much hate each other, they’ve got some wonderful banter going and stick by each other’s side. Well, Larry has to, and I think that he secretly hopes with each new assassination attempt on Gertrude that is successful. However, things change when Queen Coudia lets a new girl enter Fairyland, who is now also hunting for the key. Suddenly, Gert has some motivation to get the fluff out of there and maybe take that adorable, cutesie, doe-eyed girl down in the process.

This is not a deep kind of comic series, so don’t expect any redeeming qualities in Gert’s character. But after the first issue, the series finds its pacing, sets up its jokes really well, and shows a girl straight out of a video game, just facing her enemies head-on and reducing them to nothing. Or sometimes cookie crumbs.
I wasn’t sure I’d like this because the story’s beginning feels incredibly rushed. But once established in Fairyland, I fell in love with this crazy story and its crazy eyeball-scorching colors, and most of all its badass antihero. Gert is the best!

I can’t wait for the next issues!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

divider1

i hate fairyland gert in action

Noelle Stevenson – Nimona

I read very few graphic novels in 2015. I believe that’s because so many great novels and novellas were published last year that I simply overlooked all the amazing graphic novels.  Apart from Saga‘s fifth volume, I read nothing. Until now. It’s Hugo nomination time and my graphic story ballot was terribly empty. I have a few graphic novels lined up to check out before nominating ends (Bitch Planet, Lumberjanes,…) but my first pick was already a great choice and made it onto my ballot.

nimonaNIMONA
by Noelle Stevenson

Published by: Harper Teen, 2015
Paperback: 266 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First line: What? Who are you? How did you get in here?

The graphic novel debut from rising star Noelle Stevenson, based on her beloved and critically acclaimed web comic, which Slate awarded its Cartoonist Studio Prize, calling it “a deadpan epic.”
Nemeses! Dragons! Science! Symbolism! All these and more await in this brilliantly subversive, sharply irreverent epic from Noelle Stevenson. Featuring an exclusive epilogue not seen in the web comic, along with bonus conceptual sketches and revised pages throughout, this gorgeous full-color graphic novel is perfect for the legions of fans of the web comic and is sure to win Noelle many new ones.
Nimona is an impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren’t the heroes everyone thinks they are.
But as small acts of mischief escalate into a vicious battle, Lord Blackheart realizes that Nimona’s powers are as murky and mysterious as her past. And her unpredictable wild side might be more dangerous than he is willing to admit.

divider1

Nimona was a surprise in many ways. Its beginning chapters are highly episodic as they tell how Nimona announces herself as the villain Blackheart’s new sidekick, as she turns his carefully laid plans upside down, as she disregards the implicit rules he plays by. Nimona’s modern language and her disregard for the trope-ridden world she resides in make her immediately endearing, and even the villain (who doesn’t really behave like a proper villain) Ballister Blackheart can’t help but like her.

At first, Nimona is about the daily work of super villains. It turns out, there is a lot of waiting involved, which Nimona tries to make more pleasant by, you know, playing games with her boss or killing people, whichever requires less energy. Juxtaposing a kid with a proper bad guy who could have sprung from any old fantasy novel was fun enough and their dialogue is sometimes as hilariously funny as it is adorable. But the dynamics between the two shift throughout the story.

Both Nimona and Blackheart have a past and a backstory, and while we learn both of them pretty early on, there are layers in those backstories that aren’t revealed until later in the book. So, you may read about that one heist Nimona and Blackheart pull, full of epic battles and quippy banter, but it was the bigger story arc that intrigued me. Learning about Nimona especially made it interesting. But I also immediately had a soft spot or two for Blackheart and his arch-nemesis, the golden boy hero, Lord Goldenloi (yes, really).

nimona can i kill him now

What looks like a straight-forward subversion of character tropes and epic fantasy turns out to be much more complicated. And then, when you believe you’ve figured everything out, it gets even more complicated. Relationships aren’t black and white, and while there are truly bad guys in this story, it’s neither Blackheart nor Goldenloin. The problems between these two characters were another major driving force in the story, and I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of them. Flashbacks, flashforwards, I’ll take anything BlackLoins related.

Nimona herself keeps things lighthearted at the same time as lending everything a dramatic effect. She inserts herself into Blackheart’s life and becomes part apprentice, part sidekick, part surrogate daughter, and part friend. No matter how many times she trashes his place, you can just tell that he loves her in his own way, and it was that growing love between them that made the ending so powerful. Everything falls into place at the end. What distinguishes Blackheart from other people – apart from being a damn good guy for a villain – is that he just accepts Nimona and her shape-shifting powers. If he wants to help her, it is to actually help her, not change who she is.

Nimona takes you on a journey of emotions. It lures you into a false sense of safety by making you laugh – a lot. Then it peels back the layers of its main characters to make you care about all of them, and just when you find yourself super invested, it rips out your heart and leaves you in the corner, a whimpering puddle of feels. But, you know, in a good way. The story is self-contained but I really, really, really want a sequel or a spin-off with more adventures of Blackheart and his wild, pink-haired sidekick.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent!

If you’re unconvinced or you’re itching to read the book too (you should be!), you can check out the first three chapters here.

divider1

Second opinions:

Hubert & Kerascoët – Beauté (Beauty)

If you recall my reaction to the amazing graphic novel Beautiful Darkness, it will come as no surprise that I ended up with another Kerascoët-illustrated graphic novel. This one is an original fairy tale, no less, so I was sold pretty quickly.

beauteBEAUTÉ
by Hubert & Kerascoët

Published by: Dupuis, 2013
Hardcover: 160 pages
Series: Beauté #1-3
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Morue! Morue! Morue!

When the repulsively ugly Coddie unintentionally saves a fairy from a spell, she does not understand the poisonous nature of the wish granted her by the fairy. The village folk no longer see her as repulsive and stinking of fish—they now perceive her as magnetically beautiful—which does not help her in her village. A young local lord saves her, but it soon becomes apparent that Coddie’s destiny may be far greater than anyone ever imagined. Caustic and flamboyant, this fairy tale offers grownups an engrossing take on the nature of beauty.

divider1

Morue (Coddie in the English version) is quite ugly. She always smells of fish, as her job in the village is scaling fish and cleaning the house. Her ears stick out, her head is weirdly-shaped, her eyes are bulging. The ony person who is kind to her is Pierre, the chubby son of Morue’s employer. When her outsider status becomes too much to bear, Morue flees into the forest to cry and inadvertantly drops a tear on an ugly toad. Which – surprise! – turns out to be Mab, the fairy. She grants Morue one wish – and turns Morue beautiful. Well, sort of. Morue is still ugly, but everybody will perceive her as beautiful.

Beauté is, unsurprisingly, an exploration of beauty and what it means to have it or lack it. Morue goes from being mocked and ridiculed to being the center of everybody’s attention. She is so beautiful, however, that the fairy’s gift is more of a curse. Not only do all men suddenly want Morue, they are quite willing to be violent to get her. Morue falls in love with a lowly Duke, but thanks to Mab, is not satisfied with her life. After all, somebody as beautiful as Morue should at least be a queen!

Morue – who is later called Beauty – is an intriguing character. She starts out as a sympathetic heroine. A girl shunned for her looks, but with a kind heart and values that I could get behind as a reader. As things fall into her lap simply by virtue of being suddenly very beautiful, her character changes. She does make it to queendom and, at first, only wants her people to be happy. She wants to eradicate poverty (and tells her king to pass the appropriate law) but, one second later, runs off to try one of her 100 new dresses. She seems naive and childish at times, all while retaining some of her original character traits. I was glad that she had these flaws – vanity, distractedness, carelessness – because if her sudden change into the most beautiful woman in the land didn’t change her, the entire story would have lacked credibility.

Her story, told in three volumes, reads more like a slow descent into hell. I came to expect a fairy beauty pagetale, and the style and story elements are all there. Princes, dukes, warring kingdoms, a beautiful queen… except things decidedly don’t follow any other fairy tale tropes. The body count is ridiculously high, Morue suffers for her beauty (and I don’t mean plucking her eyebrows or going through a daily beauty regimen), and things generally don’t turn out for the better. This twisted tale turns dark really quickly and reaches its high point in the third volume. People die left and right, Morue reaches the depth of her descent and wants nothing more than to be ugly again…

While the focus is on Morue’s story, there are side characters whose role in the big picture should not be underestimated. They, too, are influenced by beauty (or its absence) in their daily lives. The king’s sister, for example, is considered quite ugly and doesn’t expect to ever be married. But just as Morue has to realise that her beauty is a curse, her sister-in-law Claudine finds out that being unattractive doesn’t keep you from leading a happy life filled with love.

Much like in Jolies ténèbres, it struck me how much the authors let the pictures talk rather than use a lot of words. Most comics and graphic novels I read tend to have quite a bit of dialogue and explanatory text accompanying each panel. Here, the words are sparse, many panels stand alone without any text, so all you have (and all you need) is the artwork and the characters’ expressions to tell the story. This is surely a matter of taste but I was quite happy looking at the pictures and being told a story non-verbally. On a side-note: I noticed while Googling that the comic books are actually in full color, while my collected edition is kept in only black, white, and a golden-ish brown. I really liked the clean triple-color version but it’s interesting to check out some of the fully colored pages as well. Depending on your taste, you may want to buy the three volumes individually.

beaute banner

The art is simple, almost cartoonish at times, but the contrast between Morue as she is and Morue as she is perceived is striking. I’m not sure a more detailed style would work for this kind of story. Just like in Jolies ténèbres, the strength of the graphic novel is how much style and content differ from each other, how they should clash, but somehow don’t. This exploration of beauty, its power to free someone at the same time as corrupting them, was enjoyable to read, in a macabre sort of way. I adored the ideas, I liked Morue’s character development, I loved how high the stakes actually were. But the pacing was off in certain parts (court life, for instance, was quite boring and drawn out too long) and the story almost too bleak.

I did like the nod to other cultures in the epilogue. Morue-as-Beauty is the perfect woman – judging from a very narrow, western beauty standard. The epilogue acknowledges that and ends the book on a funny note. All things considered, I would recommend this novel, but it didn’t impress me as much as Beautiful Darkness.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

divider1

Second opinions:

Kurtis J. Wiebe, Roc Upchurch, Stjepan Šejić – Rat Queens Volume 2: The Far Reaching Tentacles of N’rygoth

I’ve been waiting so long for this. Re-reading the first volume was entertainment enough for a while but I am so glad I finally got to join the Queens for another adventure. They are as kick-ass as ever and even though the art has changed, the story is still superbly funny.

Rat Queens 2RAT QUEENS: THE FAR-REACHING TENTACLES OF N’RYGOTH
by Kurtis J. Wiebe

Illustrated by: Roc Upchurch, Stjepan Šejić
Published by: Image Comics, 2015
Paperback: 128 pages
Series: Rat Queens #2
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Damn it, Sawyer!

This booze-soaked second volume of RAT QUEENS reveals a growing menace within the very walls of Palisade. And while Dee may have run from her past, the bloated, blood-feasting sky god N’rygoth never really lets his children stray too far.

Collects RAT QUEENS #6-10

divider1

While readers had to wait quite a while to find out what the Rat Queens did after saving Palisade from a bunch of monsters, only one night has passed in their world. If you remember, there was a party, and we begin this second collected volume with its aftermath. More precisely, we see who exactly every one of the girls wakes up to the next morning.

The story is pretty simple this time. Big Bad threatening the city and everyone who lives in it, the Rat Queens come to the rescue and get in quite a bit of danger. All the while, they retain their snarky, no-nonsense policy of awesome. The tone is probably what I love best about this. Neither of the girls has trouble cursing or calling genitals by their name (sometimes even referring to actual genitals).

Not only the dialogue is snappy and unafraid, the pictures follow suit. Unlike in TV-land, where people have sex while wearing all their underwear, the Rat Queens appear appropriately naked when things get steamy. I love how this story doesn’t focus on sex but rather shows it as an integral part in everyone’s lives. Violet, Dee, Hannah, and Betty have bigger fish to fry but hey, when they get the chance to sleep with someone they like, they’ll fucking take it! After all, they never know if they’ll survive the next adventure. Betty also still happily tries any new drug she finds and the effects are hilarious.

rat queens and their weapons

What makes this book especially interesting are the tentacle-induced flashbacks. We know Violet shaves her beard but now we actually get to see why she started. Man, I wish my hair looked as good as Vi’s beard… A glimpse into Hannah’s past was even more intriguing but this is getting close to spoiler territory. Let’s just say, I was surprised and not surprised at the same time and I’m not quite sure how to feel about the revelations yet. But Rat Queens being what it is, the comic never takes itself too seriously, so I shouldn’t either.

Arat queens violet is awesomenother thing any careful reader will notice is the change of art mid-volume. I missed this bit of news when it happened, but Google tells me Roc Upchurch was arrested for domestic violence and Kurtis Wiebe decided to continue the series with a different artist. Stjepan Šejić does a fantastic job, although the change is quite visible. Having fallen in love with the art as much as the story, I felt a certain stubbornness and refusal to like new things. I didn’t want a different Hannah. I wanted my Hannah (if you can’t tell, Hannah is my favorite). But I must also pay all sorts of respect to Šejić who not only kept the characters reconisably the same while making them his own, but also for improving some of them. It may be due to the story line or the art or both, but Violet was the star of this volume in my eyes. The picture on the right is too perfect for words and describes Violet better than any piece of prose could.  And since Šejić kept Sawyer just the way I like him, I am now okay with him taking over the series.

Despite the revealing (sometimes literally) flashbacks, there is clearly still a lot to discover. Secrets want to be let out, backstories want to be told, romances want to develop (or break apart), the city needs to be re-built (only to be wrecked again, I’m sure). I sincerely hope the next volume won’t be quite so long in the making because I still can’t get enough of the Rat Queens. May they fight, may they drink, may they fuck, and may they curse Gary to their heart’s desire. I’ll be right there, following them.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

divider1Second opinions:

Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët – Jolies ténèbres (Beautiful Darkness)

It’s no secret that I love the French and the way they treat comic books. This graphic novel kept being recommended to me by various engines (Goodreads, Amazon) until I couldn’t ignore it anymore. After browsing a few reviews, I was sold. Don’t let the cute art fool you, this is one hell of a dark story!

jolies tenebres

JOLIES TÉNÈBRES
by Fabien Vehlmann

English title: Beautiful Darkness
Published by: Dupuis, 20019
Hardcover: 96 pages
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: He’s coming! He’s coming!

Kerascoët’s and Fabien Vehlmann’s unsettling and gorgeous anti-fairy tale is a searing condemnation of our vast capacity for evil writ tiny. Join princess Aurora and her friends as they journey to civilization’s heart of darkness in a bleak allegory about surviving the human experience.  The sweet faces and bright leaves of Kerascoët’s delicate watercolors serve to highlight the evil that dwells beneath Vehlmann’s story as pettiness, greed, and jealousy take over.  Beautiful Darkness is a harrowing look behind the routine politeness and meaningless kindness of civilized society.

divider1

beautiful darkness“Anti-fairytale” is the most accurate description I can think of, so well done, blurb-writers.  With a cover like that (or the English one, pictured on the right), and warnings about this story’s darkness, it isn’t hard to imagine that the larger of the two characters pictured is probably a human body. This suspicion turns into fact after only a handful of pages – and that’s when the real horror begins.

Aurore had just invited Hector for tea when suddenly reddish goo drops down on them and Aurore barely makes it out of her home – the now dead girl’s body –  onto dry land. She ends up next to the corpse of her former apartment (if you can call it that) along with many of her friends and acquaintances, all of whom look like dolls and puppets and things from a child’s toy collection – or a child’s imagination… Together, they try to build up their civilization from scratch, collecting food, building shacks, and keeping good manners alive.

All of this sounds very cute and the drawings and colors give the same impression. The decision to write a story in such stark contrast to its art was a brilliant one if you ask me, as it hits all the more home when these creatures cannibalize each other, send someone to certain death, or watch others succumb to illness without so much as batting an eye. To give you but one example of the seriously dark twists, have a look at this hungry ballerina trying to get some food by pretending to be a baby bird:

jolies tenebres birds

There are scenes far worse than this, believe me. As the young girl’s corpse decays and the seasons change, fewer and fewer of the little pixies are left. But this isn’t merely a collection of cute little creatures dying left and right (though it is that too), it’s the story of Aurore, the good-hearted girl at the center of everything. Despite her best efforts to build a society, to keep everyone fed, to be fair, and to establish friendly relations with the neighbouring woodland creatures, she has to learn that life sometimes just sucks and stabs you in the back whenever you’re not looking.

Starting as a lovely, innocent, even naive young girl, she ends up as a princess of revenge. Although I liked her best of all, the other  characters are worth mentioning too. Take the guy who seems to do lots of work but secretly “delegates” every job to some other poor soul. Or the pretty princess whose selfishness threatens to kill half the population. Or the disfigured cast-out whose fate just makes me want to cry. Also, the baby everybody seems to have forgotten. The birds, hedgehogs, bats, and ants are the opposite of what you’d find in a Disney movie. Not only do they refuse to sing, they will gladly gobble you up if you cross their path. Not to forget about other human-sized folk that might live nearby… The characters in this story show just how quickly people are willing to turn on each other in a difficult situation, how fast we devolve to base survival insticts, how easily we’re willing to kill.

jolies tenebres aurore

Beautiful Darkness can be read as a series of terrible events, or as the brutal coming-of-age tale of one young fairy tale creature. An interesting theory is that the dead girl’s personality literally spilled out of her after dying, and that the little pixies represent aspects of who the girl was – her naive dreams, her romantic hopes, her secret cruelties… But whether you read it in little chunks or devour the entire book in one sitting (I dare you not to!), it is exactly the anti-fairytale it promised to be. And as I still tremble with horror, I already catch myself eyeing the book to pick it up and give it another go.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Absolutely excellent!

divider1Second opinions: