Short and Serial: Summer Comics

I am at the start of yet another summer of back to back summer school sessions. I teach writing online and in the summer, students are allowed to take a 15 week course in just 5 weeks. It’s crazy and I’m teaching two sessions that nearly overlap…

No, I’m not looking for sympathy, I’m letting you know that in times of extreme busy-ness, my reading list usually pares down to things like magazine and literary journals, rather than novels. However, in the last year I’ve gotten so much more into comics and they’re the perfect summer school balm to soothe my need for good storytelling, while providing a more substantial story arc.

I talked last week about Monstress, which I still absolutely recommend, but this week I’d like to tell you a little about the other comics I’ve been enjoying recently. While Monstress is written and illustrated by women, some of the following have male/female collaborations. To be honest, I’m not sure how that affects things in a larger sense. I’m not a wide comics reader, so I can’t speak to the issue on a larger level, but I have noticed that both Monstress and Pretty Deadly, which have women at the helm of the creative team both have a distinctly different vibe from other comics I’ve read. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the narration, art and story arcs overall have a slightly different vibe from comics I’ve read where men and women have collaborated.

Even in the case of Pretty Deadly vs. Bitch Planet, both written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, the narrative style feels distinct, and not just because they are different types of comics. Something about Bitch Planet, despite its overtly feminist themes feels more masculine than Pretty Deadly, with its mystical story arc and strange narrative style.

I know this is a less-than-well-supported assessment. In fact, it’s pure opinion, based on nothing but my feelings, but I do see a subtle difference in the ways the stories are told. Not that any are worth more than others, but after almost three years of reading nearly all fictional work written by women, there is an almost intangible way that women tell stories that differs from the way men do. I’d love it if someone else could speak to this in a more intelligent way!

Onto the recommendations:

Pretty Deadly, by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios

While Monstress is currently heading up my favorites list in the comics department, Pretty Deadly is a close, close second.

In Pretty Deadly:

Death’s daughter rides the wind on a horse made of smoke and her face bears the skull marks of her father. Her origin story is a tale of retribution as beautifully lush as it is unflinchingly savage.

Saga, by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples

I’ve loved Saga from the first issue. Fiona Staples brings amazing life to Brian Vaughn’s storytelling. Much like Monstress, Staples’ art is detailed in a way that is simply mind-blowing.

In Saga:

When two soldiers from opposite sides of a never-ending galactic war fall in love, they risk everything to bring a fragile new life into a dangerous old universe. Saga is the sweeping tale of one young family fighting to find their place in the worlds.

Bitch Planet, by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine DeLandro

I’ve just gotten started on Bitch Planet. And if I’m honest, I’m a little on the fence about it. One of the things that I love most about Monstress, Pretty Deadly and Saga are the beautiful art and I’m simply not as attracted to DeLandro’s style as I am to Takeda, Staples or Rios’. But I’m enjoying seeing where the story goes and I’d recommend giving it a read.

In a future just a few years down the road in the wrong direction, a woman’s failure to comply with her patriarchal overlords will result in exile to the meanest penal planet in the galaxy. When the newest crop of fresh femmes arrive, can they work together to stay alive or will hidden agendas, crooked guards, and the deadliest sport on (or off!) Earth take them to their maker?

Allison Carr Waechter is waiting for the rain so she doesn’t have to go water the garden. 


Monstress Continued

24426209Last year in November I raved about Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s brilliant first issue of Monstress. The series is through Issue 6 now and you’ll be able to buy the compiled Vol. 1 in July. It’s safe to say I was deeply intrigued after the deluxe first issue (it was 66 pages!), but now I am enthralled. Mostly, I know that folks who are already comics readers have either already picked up Monstress or have heard the buzz, so I’m really trying to reach our readers that maybe typically don’t read comics, but that tend to like the kinds of books that Nicola, Alyssa and I tend to recommend27279102.

Over the past few years I’ve grown to like comics more and more. I love art, I love stories, I love fantasy and sci-fi and comics often blend those qualities in brilliant ways that I adore. Still, I have a bit of a hard time getting into any series that’s just started because I lose focus early and forget what’s happened — this happens to me with books, movies, podcasts… I love a series, but I typically need something significant to dig my teeth into to really get into a series. Liu and Takeda gave me just that, and I am practically addicted to the story.

Monstress is about a young woman named Maika Halfwolf who has a mysterious and ancient monster living inside her body. It times of distress it often takes over and commits atrocities to protect her (and by extension, itself). Maika lives in a world where her kind, the Arcanics, are in an uneasy truce with a race of witches called the Cumaea. While the Cumaea view the Arcanics as a “race,” the term applies broadly to groups of magical creatures that can pass as human, part animal, or even all animal.

27881799The Cumaea, as an organization, are a group of women who are endlessly savage in their acquisition of power. They are beautiful, highly educated and fantastic warriors, but are also vicious, conniving and violent. They have enslaved thousands of Arcanics for their own means, consuming them for 28695374power, using them for manual labor, or conducting heinous experiments on them. In Issues 1-4, we get a pretty good look at the Cumaea, but in Issues 5 and 6 we start to understand more about the “Courts” of the Arcanics, which aren’t seeming much better than the Cumaea, from Maika’s perspective.

I said in my first recommendation for Monstress that one of the most fascinating things about it was that its worldbuilding is primarily based on matriarchal structures, which has an interesting effect on how the story is told…. if only because it doesn’t seem to matter at all. There has been no sacrifice of power or violence to acquiesce to more “feminine” qualities. The female characters in these books are everything good, bad and the dozens of shades in between. It’s exactly these shades of grey that make the series being primarily populated by female characters so unique.

They way Monstress is paced feels a lot like reading a novel. Its themes of war between races (and some things about the “races” themselves) reminds me  of Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series. I think 29071035people who loved that series for its complexity will adore Monstress. In terms of aesthetics and worldbuilding, I think that people who typically enjoy manga-style artwork will be thrilled by Takeda’s intricate style.

I am consistently floored by how beautiful her work is and have read each issue several times just to look at the pictures again and again. Comic book covers are 29277177often more intricate or artistic versions of the art you can expect to see in the book (they’re meant to draw the reader in, like any book cover, after all!), but in this case, they are simply beautiful renditions of the heart of each issue’s primary conflict or theme. The images you can expect to see in the books themselves are just as stunning, frame by frame.

Overall, I realize this is just the beginning of what Takeda and Liu are trying to accomplish and that thought excites me more than what they’ve already put out. I expect that Maika will only become more complex, that her relationship with the mysterious Tuya will result in more surprises and I’m looking forward to seeing what becomes of a certain Lord Corvin in Issue 7.

I hope you’ll pick Monstress up if you haven’t, that you’ll pick it back up if you lost track of it and that you’ll love it no matter what.

Allison Carr Waechter’s summer school semester just started, so books with pictures are just the ticket. 


Literary Laughs

20695981I don’t know… Has January felt a little dark to you? Maybe it’s the holiday letdown, or the fact that Professor Snape and the Goblin King died within days of each other, but holy library card Wonder Woman, this has felt like a depressing month.

Between texts about our Neko Atsume cats, our darling contributor  Maria mentioned to me that Texts From Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg and Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton might cheer me up. And because Maria is almost always right about the things that will cheer me up, I bought them straightaway. Yes, you heard me right, without even looking at them I bought them, that’s how good Maria is at recommending things. I hope you have a Maria in your life.

The thing is, that like me, Maria has a little clutch of degrees in English literature. We’ve both spent a big chunk of life (and change) coming up with smart and serious thoughts about Literature (with a capital L). We can both tell you, that unless everyone’s had a couple, most of Literature isn’t super funny. It’s just not.

Except…. It is, kind of.

Ortberg and Beaton both get this, in spades. They see the humor in Cathy and Heathcliff, the laughs in Jane Eyre and The Odyssey alike. Both books feel like Beaton and Ortberg sat through all the same lit seminars we did and went home and snarked around about it. Man, I hope they’re friends. 23848561

I kind of want to tie these two books up with a ribbon and send them off to someone writing their dissertation in a dark little attic. That’s where people write dissertations, isn’t it? I think a little laughter about Circe sexting would do some dear PhD candidate good, so if you know one, maybe you should purchase this book for her.

Here’s the rundown:

Texts From Jane Eyre, by Mallory Ortberg is almost just exactly what you’d expect. Ortberg has delved deep into her imagination to give her readers a taste of what the text logs of literature’s favorite drama queens might be like. It had me in tears in certain chapters.

Step Aside, Pops, by Kate Beaton is a collection of comics. Beaton’s focus ranges wide, from Wuthering Heights to Superman, and all are equally funny, but I’ll admit that Beaton’s “Straw Feminists” had me rolling in chuckles. Beaton’s characters have fantastic faces and her sharp interpretation of literary relationships kept me smiling.

I think that if you haven’t been subjected to a concentrated curriculum of THE CLASSICS then the humor of these books might be a little lost on you — and that’s not a bad thing. I’m not sure I would have read much of any of the stuff referenced here if I didn’t have two degrees in English Lit. Both Texts From Jane Eyre and Step Aside, Pops are a lovely reward for my trouble.

Allison Carr Waechter has a coupla Lit degrees, a cat and big cuppa tea. It’s snowy in St. Louis and she’s ready for a nap. Happy January, y’all.


The Origin of a Warrior: Monstress #1

Monstress_01-1_362_557_s_c1Typically, if I were going to recommend a comic to you, I’d want to read more than the first issue. But when I picked up Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress, I knew I’d recommend it to you straightaway. Reading it reminded me of the first issue of Pretty Deadly. I salivated over the images and the story wouldn’t leave me alone — poking at me through the days and weeks that followed. I’ve only had a handful of hours with Monstress and I find myself wanting to dive back in, over and over.

It’s always been a little hard for me to get into comics because of their serial nature and the difficulty I have in grasping “what’s this about?” in such a short amount of time. I love the idea of a visual medium, but not getting enough information to pull together a full picture pretty quickly has always been the barrier to my enjoyment and further ardor for comics. I read what there is and lose interest in the time between issues. Monstress really gives you a potent bang for your buck in a 66 page first issue, which lets us into a complex, war torn, steampunk fantasy.

So what is Monstress about? Well, Image says it’s:

Steampunk meets Kaiju in this original fantasy epic for mature readers, as young Maika risks everything to control her psychic link with a monster of tremendous power, placing her in the center of a devastating war between human and otherworldly forces.

So that gives us something and I suppose it’s accurate enough, if a little vague. In a much better description of what Monstress is “about,” Karen Rought from Hypable sums it up as:

Monstress is the first issue in a comic book series about magic, slavery, revenge, and the darkness within. Taking place in the early 1900s in an alternate universe, the world is overrun with Leviathans possessing supernatural powers many people would love to get their hands on. Maika, our hero, bonds with one of these monsters, making her a target for those who want that power for themselves. But that bond comes at a terrible price, and her newfound power could either save humanity…or end it. Monstress…is about women of all shapes, sizes, and dispositions. Some of them are slaves, and some are the slave-drivers. Some are consumed by monsters, while some of them are the monsters.

So that definitely gives us more about what the series’ content will be about, though we don’t get all that information in issue 1. If we’re just focusing on what the story is about, I like what Marjorie Liu in her interview with Rought says the takeaway is best:

Monstress is the origin story of a warrior woman. It’s a story about what it takes to put yourself back together again after surviving a really horrible experience. It’s also a book about what it means to be a monster. Who exactly is the monster in this book? What is monstrousness? I hope that when people read this, not only do they just enjoy the story, but maybe they think about these things.

Knowing all that, here’s what I liked best about Monstress so far and why I’ll be itching ’til December 2nd, when issue 2 is released:

It’s all about women. Women are the drivers of the action. Women are in charge of everything. Women are the protagonists and antagonists. Everyone has amazing, amazing hair. And there’s cats. Talking cats.

I could stop there, but I won’t. I can see that I’ll grow to care for Maika, but right now, she’s new and has gotten herself into a lot of trouble. As the story opens, we see that Maika has intentionally sold herself into slavery in order to gain access to a foe. She’s subverted the slave trade to enter the cloister of a group of witch-nuns, who are on the one hand, completely badass. They’re scientists and wielders of what seem to be considerable magics. On the other hand, they’re chopping up their enemies (the Arcanics, of whom Maika herself identifies with) and eating them for power, so that’s pretty awful.

It’s easy to see why Maika probably wants them all dead, but we soon learn that while she’s definitely on the side of “burn them all” — her mission at the cloister is much more personal. Since the first issue was pretty action-packed, I don’t feel as though I’ve had time to properly get to know Maika. She’s rash and brave, but also clearly has kindness in her. I’m looking forward to understanding her better in further issues. As far as the writing goes, it’s clear that Liu has built an incredibly complex world, where cultures and races have clashed for eons and a war has ravaged both sides.

Lots of seeds are sewn that open up a first chapter you won’t want to put down, but that’s not what will catapult you straight into love with Maika and her world, that’s all due to Takeda’s beautifully rendered illustrations. Takeda’s attention to color and detail are phenomenal. If you love steampunk and are a fan of manga/anime, I think you’ll be pleased at Takeda’s contribution to the worldbuilding effort. As a lover of fantasy, this is one area where graphic novels and comics just blow me away, it’s not that I don’t love imagining things myself, but sometimes it’s wonderful to actually see what the monsters look like, or the city at dawn (both awesome views you’ll get, by the way, in Monstress).

Some warnings: 

Don’t be fooled, if you’re not a comics reader, this ain’t for kids. Monstress is pretty “adult” in terms of violence, but it falls under my barometer of “if you can make it through an episode of Game of Thrones without puking, you’re good to go.” Unlike Game of Thrones, which doesn’t do much to condemn violence against women these days, Liu and Takeda are obviously offering up a condemnation of the atrocities of war, and the dark side of humanity, in general.

In the endnote, Liu says, “… the root of my desire…was to tell a story of what it means to be a survivor. A survivor not just of a cataclysmic war, but of racial conflict and its antecedent: hatred. And to confront the question: how does one whom history has made a monster, escape her monstrosity? How does one overcome the monstrousness of others without succumbing to a rising monstrousness within?” These are palpably pertinent questions for our times and the work that Liu and Takeda do in just this one issue calls these questions forth with both beauty and a strong dose of the grotesque.

Monstress is thoughtful in a way I’m coming to expect from women in comics and I can’t wait for you to read it. Plus, I mentioned talking cats, right? If that doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will. You can follow Monstress on Tumblr, if you like. Lots of beautiful updates!

Allison Carr Waechter scandalously enjoyed her Issue 1 of Monstress on a giant computer screen and urges you to do the same, if you’d like to flout convention. (You can select to read a comic frame by frame, scrutinizing every little pixel, art darlings! Go for it!)


Down a Darker Path: The Comics of Emily Carroll

91bldT8CbtL81gs3Mk0AALIt’s almost Halloween and I think we’re all looking for something a little scary to read. How about something downright terrifying? If you’re looking for something that will get under your skin and give you chills, something to only read in the daytime, then I suggest the work of Emily Carroll.

Carroll’s work has largely been in the realm of webcomics, which is fantastic for you (and me too!) because right after you read this, you can skip over to her website and get going. Carroll’s illustrations have an almost delicate quality; it’s similar to the work of Edward Gorey. They’re gorgeous and almost all of her comics have a fairytale-like quality to them.

I can almost guarantee that if you like Angela Carter or any of the other dark fairytale adaptations that I’ve recommended here in the past few months, that you’ll like Carroll’s work. In addition to her collection of webcomics, Carroll has a “real” book out, though you could always do what I did and buy the digital version, which seemed fitting after reading the webcomics.

Through the Woods is mostly new tales, conjured up from Carroll’s brain for the printed page. The exception is “His Face All Red”, which I strongly suggest you read in its webcomic version first to catch the original movement of the frames, which is much creepier than in the book. The other tales are new, though the prequel to “The Nesting Place” is one of Carroll’s webcomics, “All Along the Wall.”

Because the comics are so short, I almost don’t want to tell you what they’re “about.” Because short form horror depends so much on novelty, it seems wrong to give too much away. I’ve included some of the pages from Through the Woods at the bottom of this post so you can see Carroll’s beautiful work — I’m hoping it’ll draw you in and that you’ll click over to her website and enjoy a taste of her storytelling, before checking Through the Woods out from your library or buying it.

My recommendation would be to start with the webcomics. Many are interactive (like “Margot’s Room,” where clicking on objects will reveal a larger story. Others are somewhat less interactive for the reader, but Carroll’s use of scrolling up and down and left and right all add to an immersive experience that is difficult to come by in a book.

Through the Woods is worth it though. Carroll clearly knows how good horror should be constructed in a highly visual medium like comics and her page turns are well timed and the stories are well paced. However, while all of this is well and good, and obviously attractive to me as someone who likes scary fairy tales, this is only the tip of what make these stories so interesting.

Overall, what I like best is Carroll’s use of the unknown, the pauses, the gaps, and loose ends. Many of her stories don’t tie up nicely. It’s rare for Carroll’s stories to have a pat ending where the reader gets to know “what happened.” Many have classic horror endings, where one storyline is tied up nicely, but it’s obvious that another horror is lurking around the bend, and those are satisfying. However, my favorites are when Carroll gives us the puzzle pieces, but it’s clear that some are missing. Whatever our imaginations conjure up is most definitely more terrifying than any “answer” Carroll could give us.

This is the genius behind these short pieces, they engage our imaginations so deeply that we’re left thinking about the missing pieces of the plot, or the open endings for days. I also like that Carroll delves into scary territory that isn’t totally reliant on gore. I mean sure, there’s some gros s stuff, “Out of Skin” for instance, is a little more gory that I typically prefer, but Carroll’s ethereal illustrations render it palatable. The “scare” in most of these tales is visceral, but also psychological, and the double-down is really effective.

I’m always in for suspenseful stories, but I’m kind of a lightweight when it comes to horror, so coming from me, this is a big deal! Again, this reminds me most of Angela Carter’s work in The Bloody Chamber. It’s horrific, but it’s also beautiful. The balance is what makes it work for me, I think. This idea that horror and beauty so often go hand in hand is something I think women understand especially well. So please, go check out Emily Carroll’s beautiful webcomics and should you be further motivated, Through the Woods is available now.

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From “Our Neighbor’s House” in Through the Woods

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From “A Lady’s Hands Are Cold” in Through the Woods

Allison Carr Waechter is ready for the thinning of the veil. See you all on Halloween, you beautiful wraiths!