Biography Review: Confessions of an Igloo Dweller

Confessions of an Igloo Dweller: The Story of the Man Who Brought Inuit Art to the Outside World by James Houston. McClelland & Stewart, 1995. 0771042728. 322pp with numerous illustrations by Houston.

My buddy Mac tells a lot of stories about working in Alaska, and after I gave him Michel Hellman’s graphic novel Nunavik (about his trip there from Montreal), Mac started trying to push his collection of James Houston books on me. I resisted because I don’t read many biographies. I shouldn’t have.

Houston lived in the Arctic from 1948 to 1962, working as an art buyer seeking to create a market for Inuit sculpture and an agent of the Canadian government. It sounds like the jobs were just an excuse — Houston was drawn to what is now Nunavut and its people, and I think he would have done anything to live there as a young man. His tales are roughly chronological, and include adventures he lived (the most harrowing of which was when his young wife had a problem with her appendix, and had to be taken by dogsled to get medical help that was days away) as well as traditional tales he was told. He makes life in the far north sound incredibly difficult, but his delight at living there with his family and friends is always clear. Bonus: Houston was an artist, and when called for, his spot illustrations clarify whatever he’s explaining to those of us not lucky enough to share his experiences.

Houston wrote other books about life in the arctic, many of them novels for young people. At the risk of creating a long wait for myself, many of his books can be borrowed for free from the Internet Archive if you set up a free account. 

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Graphic Novel Review: Sing No Evil

Sing No Evil by JP Ahonen & KP Alare. Translated from Finnish by JP Ahonen. Abrams ComicArts, 2014. 9781419713590. 181pp.

Aksel is the singer and lead guitarist for the avant-garde metal band Perkeros. After a terrible review of his singing and a decent review of the band’s music, Lily (keyboards) brings in Aydin, who she found working at Kebab Muftak. His voice is magical. As the band practices with its new member, Aksel touches the reality bending Universal Melody. The older dude in the band, Kervinin (bass) warns him about trying to control it. Lily comes to the conclusion that Aksel is holding the band back. Bear (drums) growls a lot and shows his teeth. (Yeah, a bear plays drums.) As Aksel tries to again find the magic he touched, it becomes clear that other musicians are already its power for evil, and that Lily is in danger.

The musical sequences are kinetic and richly colored. The writing and the rest of the art is superb too. The two creators are friends who met in elementary school in Finland, and their long friendship and experience with music really comes through.

Other graphic novels that feature music: The Complete Phonogram by Kieron Gillen and Jamie Mckelvie (music as magic), and Zviane’s For As Long As It Rains (amazing visual representations of music).

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Graphic Novel Review: One Dirty Tree

One Dirty Tree by Noah Van Sciver. Uncivilized Books, 2018. 9781941250273. 116pp.

This is cartoonist Van Sciver’s graphic memoir about growing up poor, the eighth of nine kids, in a house with a twisted dead oak tree in the front yard. His family’s Mormon household seems to have centered around religion and comics. His older siblings took time to torture him a bit (ghost stories!), and his father’s struggles with bipolar disorder affected everyone. Half of the book takes place in present day, contrasting Van Sciver’s early life with his current girlfriend, a woman who is clearly not cut out to date a working cartoonist. My favorite parts are the unexpected appearances of non-comic art, both the bits Van Sciver drew as a kid and two beautiful, more realistic drawings of his girlfriend that really made me feel his love for her.

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Graphic Novel Review: bad friends

bad friends by ancco. Translation by Janet Hong. Drawn & Quarterly, 2018 9781770463295. 173pp.

I always suspect there are great, gritty Korean comics out there, but too much of the time the only manwha I can find on the shelves in US bookstores look like standard anime. When I taught in South Korea I had almost no contact with the “bad” kids. Instead I was locked in a cycle of teaching academically oriented students and adults trying to improve their English. The only time I seemed to be able to talk to anyone whose life didn’t revolve at least partially around extracurricular tutoring was during shared taxi rides, and then only if they weren’t too shy to chat. On both counts it was great to read this beautifully rendered, dark graphic novel about less-than-successful high school students.

It opens with a flashback, to the narrator being beaten and thrown out of the house by her father. It’s a brutal, realistic scene, and violence seems to be an integral part of life at school and at home in the lives of the characters. Everything seems destined to get worse for the narrator and her friend after they run away from home and start working in a bar despite being underage. But it’s realistic and compelling, and evidences a high level of craft and artistry. You can see an excerpt at

If you like the sound of this, I also highly recommend Kang Doha’s The Great Catsby, which is available in English and was the basis for a Korean drama. It’s not quite as dark as bad friends, but on the plus side the characters are cats.

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Graphic Novel Review: Batman: The Dark Prince Charming

Batman: The Dark Prince Charming by Marini. DC Comics, 2018. 9781401283322. 144pp oversized hardcover, includes several pages of sketches. Contains #1 – #2 of the series.

The artistry of Italian comics artist Enrico Marini (The Scorpion) makes this hand-painted Batman story worth reading: the Joker’s hair glows, his smile is totally creepy, and Batman looks terrifying. The fight scenes are as kinetic as the Joker is psychotic, which is saying something here.

The plot points: the Joker is trying to acquire the perfect present for Harley Quinn’s birthday, Catwoman is stealing high-end jewelry, and a paternity suit has been filed against Bruce Wayne. It has all the usual murder and mayhem you’d expect plus a hilariously deadpan henchman and an amazing drag scene.

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Nonfiction for Kids Review: Beavers

Beavers (The Superpower Field Guide series) by Rachel Paloquin, illustrated by Nicholas John Firth. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018. 9780544949874. 96pp including a glossary and a list of books for further reading.

Paloquin and Firth are determined to convince young readers that beavers are amazing (they convinced me), from how these rodents chew down trees (Superpower #1: Chainsaw Teeth) to their Unstoppable Fur (power #2, which is why beaver felt hats are so popular) to how they build their dams and survive the winter and etc. There are many details in this tidy package, all arranged in a format that’s a lot of fun and easy to follow.

The art is entirely enjoyable, and the entire tone of the book makes this a worthy next step up, reading level-wise, from Elise Gravel’s Disgusting Critters series. There’s even a bit of gross content (specifically Superpower #8: Turbocharged Superstink, plus an aside on why beavers eat their poop). Plus there’s this, from the colophon: “The illustrations in this book were produced using a mixture of black ink, pencil, and wax crayon on paper, in a technique known as preseparation. For printing purposes here, the artwork was colored digitally.” I love knowing how illustrations are made!

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Graphic Novel Review: The Black Monday Murders Volume 2

The Black Monday Murders Volume 2 by Jonathan Hickman (words), Tomm Coker (art).
Image, 2018. 9781534303720. Contains #5 – #8 of the series.

Jonathan Hickman’s comics are always masterpieces of pacing and planning. They’re worth reading for the blank pages alone, just to see how he uses them to break up the story. This series about dark, demon-worshiping capitalists who use black magic to manipulate the world economy is full of redacted documents and unsettling imagery, including a specialized font used to show that characters are speaking words of power.

In this second volume, the detective solves the mystery, an economist gets the interview of a lifetime, and an eternal magic battle takes place in the blink of the eye. If you don’t like horror graphic novels this is not the book for you, but then you probably knew that from the skull on the cover.

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Graphic Novel Review: Oprhans Vol. 1

Orphans Volume 1: The Beginning by Roberto Recchioni and Emiliano Mammucari. English translation by Elena Cecchini and Valeria Gobbato. Localization, layout, and editing by Mike Kennedy. Lion Forge, 2018. 9781942367178. 352pp.

This is the beginning of an ultra-long military science fiction graphic novel series, currently in its 5th “season” in Italy where it was first published in 2013. (This seems to be the first third of the 1,100 pages of the first “season” mentioned in the introduction.)

After Earth is attacked by an extraterrestrial energy weapon, orphaned children are trained to be soldiers. The first step is to see if they can pull together and survive in the wilderness. The second step is to submit them to brutal and unforgiving training. The third step is to turn them into superheroes. A montage of training flashbacks are interspersed with an attack on an alien world in the present-day, when the kids are in their early 20s. There is, as you’d imagine, a lot of violence.

I’m sure you’re already thinking of a lot of things this recalls: Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game, and (if you’re as old as me) so many less successful comic series and direct to VHS movies of the 1980s. This graphic novel is entertaining and readable, and the aliens have a compelling design. The action is easy to follow and I never felt bogged down trying to sort out details as everything is right on the page. This was exactly the light, fast-paced read I needed around the holidays.

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Graphic Novel Review: Making Friends

Making Friends coverMaking Friends by Kristen Gudsnuk. Scholastic Graphix, 2018. 9781338139228. 263pp.

7th grade sucks for Danny and she feels like she doesn’t have any friends and isn’t sure where she belongs. After watching Solar Sisters she draws the face of the blue-haired, misunderstood (aka evil) Prince Neptune in the sketchbook that she grabbed at her deceased great-aunt’s house, and his head pops from the page and comes to life. Prince Neptune refers to her as Princess Danielle, and is somewhat charming and snarky when he’s not feeding on her life energy or coaxing her toward being bad. Then Danny soon uses the magic of the book to draw a new best friend, and create a few magic items and cash. Nothing goes as expected and it would ruin everything to say more, though I want to add this: the few pages featuring a 1980s anti-bullying video had me rolling on the floor. Great book.

Making Friends 1 Making Friends 3

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Graphic Novel Review: The Old Guard Book One

The Old Guard Book One coverThe Old Guard Book One: Opening Fire written by Greg Rucka, art by Leandro Fernández, colors by Daniela Miwa. Image, 2017. 9781534302402. Contains #1 – #5. Publisher’s Rating: Mature Readers.

Andy is the oldest member and leader of a small mercenary team with a secret: they’re immortal. After trying to save a group of abducted schoolgirls, their secret is out, and they need to get the information back under their control. There’s one complication: they have to retrieve a new immortal, a young female Marine in Afghanistan who just “died” for the first time.

There’s a bit of romance, a fair helping of cynicism, and a whole lot of bullets. Is this all a bid to relaunch the Highlander franchise without the idiocy and the lightning of the Quickening? God I hope so. Rucka (Queen & Country, Gotham Central, many others) is one of my favorite comics writers because he delivers beats every page, issue, and book. Fernández’s art reminds me of Risso’s in 100 Bullets — it’s powerful, emotional, full of well-used black spaces, and really violent when it needs to be.

The Old Guard 1 The Old Guard 2

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