Freedom Hospital by Hamid Sulaiman

freedomhospitalFreedom Hospital: A Syrian Story
written and drawn by Hamid Sulaiman, 2016
translated by Francesca Barrie, 2017

This is a gorgeous graphic novel, with stark images that carry a lot of impact. The style matches the story too, in its stark contrast that still manages complex characters in a confusing state of social collapse.

There’s a cast of twelve main characters in and around the underground hospital Yasmine has set up to provide medical treatment to the resistance of the current regime. It’s not strictly non-fiction — Sulaiman took liberties with combining characters and stories, but it’s not really fiction either. It starts in spring 2012, and covers the year in four seasons with a short epilog set in spring 2013.

It’s not particularly long or technically hard to read, but it’s a hard subject and the characters are all complex and the situation even more so. And I keep on thinking about days later. One of the things that really struck me about it was the way Sulaiman created a background by the simple matter of, when there was a time cut between scenes, there’s a small line saying how many hours or days later it was, and how many people had died in that time.

“six days later: another 731 killed.”
“ten hours later: another 69 killed.”
“two weeks later: another 2,157 killed.”
“twelve days later: another 793 killed.”

And the people who survive carry on trying to do something: to win, to get noticed, to be saved, to survive…

Some of them do and some of them don’t, and everyone just keeps on trying to find some right thing to do, whether it’s to stay or leave or join one of the militias.

It’s heart breaking and wearying and shows just how easy it is to become accustomed to truly horrifying circumstances.

Small Press Expo, 2018

I’ve enjoyed going to Small Press Expo every year since I discovered it existed at all, but this is the first time I’ve gotten around to writing a review of it. I just buy too many awesome things to keep track of and then wait too long to read them all. So this year, I’m just going to review the ones I’ve finished.

 

OTPcoverimageOTP Book One
Written and Illustrated by Maki Naro
published by: Box Plot Comic

This is an educational pre-historical romance between a thrinaxodon and a broomistega and it is adorable! Oh my heart! I was lying on the floor cooing at this book as I read it. It’s more of a BroTP in my opinion, but that just makes it even better! Best friendship is the best.

I also find is darkly reassuring to hear about the Great Dying that involved ocean acidification wiping out nearly all sea life and the only known mass extinction of insects. Because the world continued on and life evolved new and different animals.

 

zenithcoverZenith
Written and Illustrated by Iasmin Omar Ata

This is described as “a post-apocalyptic adventure about the phases of the moon, islamic futures, and asserting your identity” but I read as more of a fantasy-world look at being bi-racial. In some ways it reminded me of that aspect from InuYasha, but with more detailed look at growing up among animals deities as a half-human.

Also, I love that apparently The Six Pleasures of Medieval Islam were drink, clothing, intercourse, scent, sound and food, with food being the greatest of them all. That seems accurate to me.

 

A Courtesan’s Tale
Written by: Lynn Novella
Published by: Pretty Dark Tales

First of all, this is a tiny book, with measurements of about 1.5” x 3” x 0.5” and is hand bound. Adorable! And Lynn Novella was at SPX creating more of these books as she sat at her stall. She’s also adorable. We agreed that clearly people needed books sized appropriately to be able to carry anywhere and everywhere, so you could always have a book on you at any given time.

It’s not a graphic novel, just text, but the story is awesome and adorable and hilarious in the way it interacts with the stereotypical fairytale by adding practical characters who aren’t putting up with any of this nonsense. And if you’re in a terribly dangerous situation… get out while the getting’s good.

 

maamoulCan These Cookies Stop Islamophobia?
Written and Illustrated by Marguerite Dabaie

I really wanted to buy this one, but the author was away from her stall when I first saw it and didn’t return in the time it took me to read it. By the time I returned, she’d left early.

But since I’d wound up reading the whole thing while standing there, I’m going to review it here, because it’s sweet and socially aware. Rather than a standard graphic novel, it’s more like an illustrated treatise, a combination of love story to the middle-eastern cookies ma’amoul and a discussion of how blindly fearful people in the west have gotten about a whole culture and language.

 

PREVIOUS YEARS:

I haven’t read the rest of my acquisitions from this year, so I’ll need to post on them individually as I get to them. But I also want to take a moment to go back to a couple of my all-time favorite acquisitions from years past:

The Rabbit Hero
Written and Illustrated by Tony Brandl

This doesn’t really have a plot, per se, just character who get their only summaries. The titular rabbit hero is the first to be introduced: “Once, not so long ago, there lived among us, a Rabbit Hero. He was strong, and very brave, of course, but mostly, he could jump.”

It’s a small book that has a fun binding and while there’s no plot, the character summaries and illustrations (with the rabbit hero either present or just out of frame with only his plaid scarf visible) provide such potential for interaction that it’s inspiring. The reader is left to imagine how the story goes.

 

kingdomofwenramenKingdom of Wenramen
Illustrated by Wendy Pham
published by Clandestine Republic

This is another book without plot or even words this time, just a series of images that create a whole world of magic and spirits and animals and food. The central theme is definitely food, ramen in particular.

They’re just beautiful illustrations that really supports the classic idiom “a picture is worth a thousand words” because there’s so much world building going on in these pictures as well as successfully conveying a sense memory of eating really good ramen. I bought this book before I’d ever actually had any restaurant ramen, and really enjoyed it then, but now that I know what good ramen tastes like, ooh, this is so good, but also makes me hungry.

Small Press Expo

Private I

By Emily Willis and Ann Uland

Private_IPrivate I is about a gay private detective in 1940s Pittsburgh who teams up with a wealthy young society lady to investigate her sister’s death. As Rebecca said, it is pretty much perfect for me! It is not the most polished in either writing or illustration, but that’s not really what the Small Press Expo is about. There are several actual small presses with a small line of carefully curated comics, but even more of the exhibitors are individual creators, who self-publish and offer the highest quality they can afford. What I got is a printed ‘zine’ style comic of Chapter 1 of a web comic, which I’m now very much looking forward to following.

Run With Your Demons

By Isabella Rotman

Run_with_Your_DemonsThis is a tiny little comic, about 6” x 6”, that is also a lovely webcomic. It is not so much a story as a bit of motivation on how to deal with all the negative voices in your head, but I really liked the unexpected nature of how Rotman represents internal voices vs. internal resilience.

Your Black Friend

By Ben Passmore

Your_Black_FriendRebecca and I attended a panel for the first time, one on reporting and journalism in a comic format. It was really interesting, and I heard later that it was one of the better panels. Ben Passmore was one of the panelists, talking about how he’s narrated his experiences in current civil rights protests. After the panel, I went to his table and picked up Your Black Friend, which is a short book sharing what he would like to be able to tell his white friend about his experience as a black man but doesn’t feeling comfortable saying. It is simply written and constructed, but extremely effective. 

The Nib 

At least two of the panelists also work for The Nib, which collects political and nonfiction comics, with a liberal bias, of course. I’ve talked about this before, but one of the things I really appreciate about nonfiction comics is that they can make topics accessible that normally seem too complicated or fraught. One of the panelists touched on this from the creator’s perspective, saying “If what I’ve written is too wordy, it is a sign that I don’t know it well enough to really explain it.”

Two Very Different Graphic Novels

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

By Neil Gaiman, Fábio Moon, and Gabriel Bá

How_to_Talk_to_GirlsI’d heard the title How to Talk to Girls at Parties around a bit, but it had sounded a little too pickup-artist-y for me. I hadn’t realized that it was a short story by Neil Gaiman, but I’ve lost some confidence in him lately. It’s a bummer, but many writers who were at the cutting edge of the feminist movement, pushing equal representation forward, have seemed to get stuck in their own hayday and been left behind by the advancing social mores.

All of this to say that I probably wouldn’t have read this if not for the adaptation to graphic novel illustrated by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá, who paint gorgeous watercolor illustrations. Unfortunately in this case, their drawings of unworldly lovely young women only serve to underscore my central issue with the story.

Two teenage boys, one confident, one not, are looking for a party. The confident boy counsels his friend Enn (N for Neil, perhaps?) that he just needs to learn to talk to girls, perhaps just the first baby step in understanding that girls are individual people just like boys, but this story doesn’t get to that point. Instead it veers off into a very Gaiman-like mythos that is interesting and evocative, but seems to conclude that girls can be dangerously unknowable and foreign. Which isn’t great.

Trashed

By Derf Backderf

TrashedTrashed is pretty much the diametric opposite. You really couldn’t get much more mundane than this “ode to the crap job of all crap jobs,” to quote the front cover.

Backderf got really known for his autobiographical graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer, and this is a sequel of sorts, I guess. After high school, where he was casual friends with Jeffrey Dahmer, Backderf worked as a garbage man. Trashed is a fictionalized narrative, combining his own experiences with a great deal of research into the sanitation industry. It is a very funny, eye-opening look at a part of daily life that most of us pay as little attention to as possible.

Lore Olympus

By Rachel Smythe

Lore_OlympusI was about a 100 pages into Kinsey’s recommended Six of Crows last week when I was hospitalized for an emergency appendectomy. The surgery went well, but recovery has been slow. Between managing pain, digestion, and a slew of medications, my attention span was shot, and I had to put aside the gritty, fantasy heist story. I tried a couple of other books, but anything with a plot more involved than, like, solitaire, and I lost the thread.

Luckily, I ran across* the fluffiest of fluff, which made my final day in the hospital bearable! Lore Olympus is a weekly web comic that retells the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone in a modern setting. The art is incredibly lush, and the story reads like the most indulgent of fan-fiction. Is there an extremely wealthy but emotional distant man who falls uncontrollably in love with a manic pixie dream girl? Well, I mean, that’s just canon. Are there sumptuous parties in elaborate mansions? Check! Beautiful and improbable clothes? Check! An absurd amount of dogs? Check!

There’s 23 chapters up right now, and it updates on Sundays. Each chapter consists of a single scroll down panel with some really interesting vertical composition, which I found particularly easy to navigate on my phone in bed, making it the perfect companion for required bed rest.

*Via a Twitter thread on “middle school weird girls” and the subset of “the ancient mythology stans,” in which I full-on recognized myself.

Native Graphic Novel Anthologies

Writing a review of anthologies is sometimes tricky, because the contents can be so diverse and these three anthologies are even more so. But theme of them all is that they are stories about Native people and cultures, written and illustrated by Native people of North America.

DeerWoman-Anthology-FINAL-C_dragged_1024x1024Deer Woman
2017
Native Realities Press

Looking up Rebecca Roanhorse made me realize that I actually already owned an anthology that she had contributed to. I had kickstarted it some time back and received the book but not gotten around to actually reading it. This was a good reminder to do so.

It contains thirteen entries and while some felt like the work of practiced professionals many felt like the work of people still developing their crafts. A couple of the stories I didn’t find particularly interesting, but some of the other stories left me struggling not to cry as I read them. I’m not going to call out any particular entries though, because I expect which ones you connect with will vary depending on the reader.

The theme of this collection felt like a precursor or ancestor or possibly both, to the #MeToo movement. Deer Woman is apparently a traditional character who seduces and then kills men, and in this particular anthology is celebrated as a protector and source of consolation to women who have been attacked by men.

Native American women are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and the anthology both raises awareness of the issue and fund raises for a variety of resources:

MoonshotVolume1Moonshot Volume 1
2017
Alternate History Comics

Moonshot was another anthology I got via Kickstarter and hadn’t gotten around to reading until recently. Unlike Deer Woman, however, this is clearly the work of experienced writers and illustrators, including names that I recognized from other graphic novels.

There are thirteen stories in Volume 1 and they are all beautiful. Some of them I was clearly within the intended or at least expected audience. A few of them felt like they were written for a native audience: there were expectations of shared background knowledge with the author that I didn’t have, but that’s not a bad thing. Picking up information from context is how most learning takes place. I was surprised that there weren’t more that felt like that. And sadly, one felt a bit like a standard comic book plot that I’ve seen many times, but with native American names attached to the protagonists and villains.

MOONSHOT-VOLUME-2-COVERMoonshot Volume 2
2017
Alternate History Comics

I was really impressed by volume 1, but I like volume 2 even more. It’s still the same high quality of art and stories, but this time it’s focused its theme to presenting the native cultures as modern living people and communities.

I’m reminded of how some people think that as a Quaker, I should be wearing long dresses and bonnets like the Amish do. But the Quaker tenet is for simplicity. So in an era where all women wore dresses, mostly adorned with ruffles and ribbons, Quaker women wore simple dresses. In the modern era, the tenet of simplicity is achieved by wearing jeans and t-shirts. The appearance is very different but the intent remains the same.

This volume tells historic stories of Native tribes, but shows how they live on in the Native people today. They don’t necessarily have the same appearance as they did three hundred years ago, but they have the same meaning.

Showing the traditional stories into the modern era gives them a strong impact. They don’t have the separation that comes from looking at events and interactions in the past. These are all stories happening now, trying to find light in darkness, bravery in fear, and struggling to protect Mother Earth and sacred waters from uncaring corporations. Also, this book made me cry.

All three of these anthologies are well worth reading. And you can be certain that I’ll be hoping for and keeping an eye out for a future Moonshot Volume 3.

 

Small Press Expo

Rebecca and I look forward to the Small Press Expo all year, where independently published artists and writers sell their comic books and graphic novels. Each year, we assure each other that we are going to post a review on the blog about all of our excellent purchases, but each year, we get home exhausted, and stretch the reading out over several months, and never quite get around to putting together a cohesive review. But this year will be different!

…Okay, so SPX was a few weeks months ago, but we’ve still got a couple of great finds to share with you!

The Shadow Hero

By Gene Luen Yang (author) and Sonny Liew (artist)

Shadow_HeroI picked up this graphic novel almost immediately upon entering the floor, and it turned out to be my favorite purchase. The author and artist are both Asian Americans, who had discovered a very short run of what was likely the first Asian American superhero, the Green Turtle. They elaborate more on the source material in the back of the book, but the short version is that it was written by a Chinese American author during World War II, showing allied China defending American against Japanese agents. The Green Turtle himself is kept very mysterious in the original books, and is never given any sort of backstory, which Yang and Liew decide to correct in their update.

The update works brilliantly! The plot is very clever, characters are all so wonderful, and the dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny. I was giggling through the whole thing, much to Rebecca’s amusement and exasperation. (When she read it, she laughed, too, but also said that it might hit her second-hand-embarrassment squick a bit much for her to fully enjoy.)

Innsmouth

By Megan James

InnsmouthInnsmouth was a close second, though only the first three issues were available (the fourth one has come out in the time it took me to actually post this review), of what will hopefully be a long-running series. (The only drawback to the independent publishing is, who knows how long there will be funding for any given project. If only I were a millionaire!)

It takes place in the fictional town of Innsmouth, MA, made famous by Lovecraft in his stories. In this narrative, Innsmouth is a fairly normal New England town, with a small university, and a religious cult that worships Cthulhu, which pretty much everyone tries to tolerate by ignoring.

You can read the first issue online, introducing Randolph Higgle, who is a junior acolyte of the cult, basically doing door-to-door evangelizing, until he is forced into more responsibility than he can handle and he goes to outside help for advice. The author comments that she always loved the Lovecraft stories, while pretty much despising the man himself, so it is her ambition to capture as much of a the gloomy fun as possible without any of the racism and other bigotry.