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Mental illness is a fluorescent storm in the challenging Our Mother

Also reviewed: The Battles Of Bridget Lee and A Year Of Marvels: September

Our Mother by Luke Howard (Image: Retrofit Comics)
Our Mother by Luke Howard (Image: Retrofit Comics)

The cover of Luke Howard’s Our Mother (Retrofit Comics) features a woman’s face—the titular mother. Her head has been enlarged, but her features have remained at an otherwise-proportional size, almost as if something is growing inside of her, expanding, preparing to auto-evacuate at the expense of this woman’s life. Bolts of energy emanate from her head; fat droplets of rain (perhaps tears) flank her on both sides. Printed in a fluorescent pink ink, the woman’s brain shimmers: small and growing smaller, discharging a cacophonous storm, and appearing to exist on another plane of figuration, another plane of existence, the workings of which are inarticulable. Howard’s short comic concerns his engagement with mental illness, and he tells his story through artifice and metaphor, which the striking cover evinces.

He renders mental illness as a raging storm, one that makes you feel overstuffed and puny, one that alienates the body from itself, and this image—one of incongruity, complexity, and an elliptical affinity for appearance-disappearance-reappearance—girds Howard’s comic like scaffolding. It structures and mediates his telling, and it affects a dizzying sequence of vignettes that end as abruptly as they begin, colliding into the next one before doubling back on themselves.

The conceit is similar to that of Pixar’s Inside Out, but Howard’s metaphor lacks the cloying and reductive simplicity of the film and features the incompleteness and pervasive unknowability that makes a rendering of mental illness sensible without being insulting. In his first scene, a duo pays off a trench-coat-wearing stranger in a “mysterious alley” to depress their daughter: “It’s a family thing,” the mother says. Howard then cuts to the narrative that occupies the bulk of the comics, which concerns itself with a daughter trying to console her mother (who has inexplicably reverted to her childhood self). Sticking largely to alternating grids—or variations on one of two different grids—Howard’s work feels modular, and his clean lines and simple, geometric compositions convey an incredible sense of control. By applying this aesthetic to such an elliptical narrative, Howard cultivates the haze of a remembered childhood: There is an odd distance to the proceedings, and everything is weird, alien, new, confusing, and emotionally bigger than it otherwise might be.

Howard intercuts this narrative with other brief scenes of loss, disaffection, and ironic sacrifice, and he caps it off with a two-page dialogue between pasted-on portraits of himself as a child and photographs of his mother. Contrasting the more staid aesthetic to a rougher, more anxious one (built on a similarly rigid grid layout but featuring less precise lines that squiggle, whirl around, and break off from one another) and one composed of photographs, he interrupts the childlike and dreamy main thread. This bobbing and weaving—coupled with Our Mother’s brevity and odd levity (the last page is a full-page illustration of a hot dog farting)completes the metaphor of drawing depression. It’s odd and oddly structured, beginning and ending without explanation or consequence. It’s also bleakly funny and often poignant and deeply felt, challenging you to make sense of it in a way that can be related to others. [Shea Hennum]


Marvel has been getting a lot of publicity around the hiring of Roxane Gay and Yona Harvey for its upcoming World Of Wakanda series, but contrary to many news items published in the wake of the announcement, Gay and Harvey aren’t the first black women to write for Marvel Comics. Earlier this month, Marvel quietly released A Year Of Marvels: September, a digital comic written by cartoonist Nilah Magruder, the first black woman to write for the publisher. Magruder was awarded the first Dwayne McDuffie Award For Diversity for her webcomic M.F.K., and it’s wonderful to see a bigger publisher finally taking note of her talent.

A Year Of Marvels: September isn’t a high-profile release spinning out of a best-selling run like World Of Wakanda; it’s a silly, small-scale story about a talking squirrel and raccoon stopping a supervillain who has animated all the trees in Central Park. The Guardians Of The Galaxy’s Rocket comes to the aid of Squirrel Girl’s sidekick, Tippy Toe, when her fall store of nuts is threatened by Plantman’s plot, and together they take down their opponent in a lighthearted superhero adventure rooted in comics’ rich tradition of whimsical talking-animal stories. Magruder’s story fits firmly in the mold created by the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, opening with a warm tone, chipper sense of humor, and just a dash of edutainment, and Siya Oum’s bright, cartoony artwork heightens the script’s playfulness.

There are pages where Oum’s art looks a bit rushed, but she’s changing her aesthetic for this story, moving toward a less fussy, animation-styled look that works for the mood of Magruder’s story and the specific format of an “Infinite Comic.” Marvel’s Infinite Comics don’t get as much attention as they should, and without any sort of digital sales numbers, it’s hard to gauge whether or not readers are checking out books like A Year Of Marvels, which has featured very solid creative teams telling short stories that take advantage of the digital format in different, exciting ways. Layout artists Reilly Brown, Yves Bigerel, and Geoffo (who has laid out most of the months, including September) are pushing themselves to find new ways to layer information and dynamically move the action with each swipe, and they’re using technology to change the visual language of comics with their work.

While there are Infinite Comics geared toward adults, it’s a format that is especially well-suited for younger readers, and these could be great tools for parents with children just starting to read. Kids have a magnetic attraction to electronic devices, and Infinite Comics presents smaller bits of information at a time to make the stories easier to follow. Those dynamic layouts make reading feel like a more interactive experience, engaging young readers more aggressively than a printed page. A Year Of Marvels: September is a book that adults can enjoy (especially Squirrel Girl fans), but Magruder and Oum are also making a strong effort to appeal to children, and parents looking for new reading material for their kids would do well to check out the valuable resource of Marvel’s Infinite Comics. [Oliver Sava]


One of the best parts of following a comic creator over the course of years is watching their style grow and evolve, especially when they push their skills in new and interesting ways. It’s even more gratifying with creators who both write and do art for their stories, as the scope and breadth of their work change on the page and between the lines. After the sweeping success of Nanjing: The Burning City last year, Ethan Young was going to have to push hard to move to new heights. Just as Nanjing built on his years of experience with Tails, his semi-autobiographical webcomic, The Battles Of Bridget Lee: Invasion Of Farfall (Dark Horse) builds on Nanjing and the lessons Young learned there.

It’s impossible not to see similarities between Nanjing and Bridget Lee: They both confront the horrors of war on personal and social levels. But they are ambitious in very different ways, and it goes to show how skillful Young has grown in the years since he started out. Where Nanjing depicted the historical invasion of Nanjing by Japanese forces during World War II, Bridget Lee is set in a fictional future where humans have spent years combatting an alien invasion. The titular Bridget Lee is a medic tasked with protecting the elderly and the (mostly) female orphans deemed useless by the resistance forces who are still fighting off the invasion. She’s gruff and taciturn, but it’s easy to see how deeply she cares about the people around her. This might be the biggest difference between Nanjing and Bridget Lee: The former is driven by fear and terror, the latter by compassion and bravery.

While Nanjing was ambitious in its intimacy and almost claustrophobic cruelty and violence, Bridget Lee is just as ambitious in its kindness and clarity. Although Young’s art style is nearly identical, the scope of the contents of each panel are grandiose, filled with futuristic tech and large crowds. Bridget Lee is also done in full color, adding depth and texture in striking ways. Young already had a great handle on how to use light and shadow to tell a story, but the addition of color really amplifies his talents and the impact the panels have.

There are parts of Bridget Lee that feel familiar, but certainly not trite or tired. It’s Alien meets Starship Troopers, with a steady undercurrent of Ballad Of Mulan that informs every page. It offers up the very best of both science fiction and YA fiction, showing a world with serious stakes and violence where integrity and bravery triumph over what stands in the way of the protagonist and the family she’s chosen. The title implies that Bridget Lee may have a series, and all the better for it. Young has already proven adept at managing nuanced characters and moral ambiguity in times of profound violence and loss, and new stories in this world would be most welcome. [Caitlin Rosberg]


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