Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese was a remarkable graphic-novel debut blending Chinese history and mythology into a contemporary story about adolescent identity crisis, but Yang’s latest project flips that formula to bring a modern sensibility to a story of history of myth. Boxers and Saints (First Second) are two companion graphic novels detailing the Boxer Rebellion from two different angles; Boxers is an expansive story about one boy’s rise to a leadership role amongst the rebels, while Saints takes a look at how the conflict affects the life of a young girl who finds hope in Christianity. There’s no specific reading order, and the choice of which book is read first dramatically changes the context of the other. (Boxers spoils the ending of Saints, so I’d recommend reading Saints first.)
The dual-book format results in an incredibly deep examination of a dark period in China’s history, and Yang excels at highlighting the similarities between the two lead characters and their beliefs through two very different narratives. The coloring of each title immediately establishes the disparity between Boxers’lead Little Bao and Saints’Vibiana (née Four Girl): The former is fully colored to show the joy of Bao’s life as a young boy confident in his beliefs and accepted by his family, and thelatter is black-and-white to reflect the drained, sad life of a girl so unwanted that her family never gave her a proper name.
Color comes into Vibiana’s life via her mystical visions—first in the form of a demonic raccoon, then Joan Of Arc—and her hallucinations allow Yang to fold in Eastern history for an even more well-rounded story. Yang has been writing Dark Horse’s Avatar: The Last Airbender comics, and his clean, expressive artwork in these two graphic novels reveals an animation influence that brings the setting and the characters to vivid life. His style is simplistic, but impressively detailed, and he creates an immersive environment full of visually striking figures (especially when the opera gods are in play).
First Second has become one of the leading publishers for young-adult graphic novels, and this year has been particularly notable for edutainment titles, ranging from the biographical Primates: The Fearless Science Of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, And Birute Galdikas to the heist caper/history lesson Templar. There is something for everyone in Boxers and Saints, and while the subject matter gets very serious in both titles, Yang also understands the importance of humor. Whether it’s Vibiana’s comedic experience dealing with her first teenage crush or one of Bao’s friends confusing a prince’s bedpan for a food bowl, the humor not only provides contrast, it also helps ease the reader into the story through laughter. These are two tragedies, but Yang’s understanding of the lighter elements of the story makes the grave moments hit even harder. [OS]
Art Spiegelman has moved effortlessly between the fine art, literary, and comics worlds for so long now, it’s not anywhere near surprising that the Pulitzer-winning Maus creator recently opened Co-Mix, a retrospective gallery exhibit of his work, or that he continues to draw top cultural honors from around the world. What is surprising is that it’s taken until now for a book like Co-Mix (Drawn & Quarterly). An compendium of Spiegelman’s non-graphic-novel work from the ’60s forward, the book cobbles together every imaginable odd and end: his crude, counterculture fantasies; various commercial work, including book covers and infamous Topps collectible cards output such as Garbage Pail Kids; excerpts from his groundbreaking new-wave anthology Raw; single-page autobiographical stories, thumbnails and character designs for Maus; and even his 1980 mini comic Two-Fisted Painters Action Adventures, reproduced in its original, miniature form and bound into the larger tome.
The scope of Spiegelman’s talent is given dazzling, long-overdue context—both within his body of work and as measured against the broader cultural current. While his best-known work, Maus, is muted and monochrome, that sober vision of Spiegelman is balanced by copious demonstrations of his eye-gouging, full-color design sensibility and pop-art quirk. Some of the one-panel sketchbook gags are exercises in intellectual impishness and little else—and not particularly clever or insightful at that (the Kafka-lampooning “The Meta-Metamorphosis” being one of the most groan-inducingly obvious). But as part of the sprawling mosaic of Speigelman’s creative output, every scrap of ephemera and paraphernalia helps fill in the gaps of the oeuvre of one of the medium’s most towering presences. [JH]
Jonathan Hickman already has the apocalypse beat covered with his phenomenal Image series East Of West, but he teams with writer Mike Costa and artist Di Amorim to create a new end-of-the-world scenario. God Is Dead #1 (Avatar) sees the old gods of myth returning to claim Earth as their own, heralding their return with natural disasters that wipe out millions around the world. The first issue moves very quickly, setting up the global status quo and introducing the various gods and their human resistance (including analogues of Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking), but it suffers from a distinct lack of personality. The script is full of dramatic moments, but the lack of a personal connection with these characters diminishes the impact of an event like the president shooting himself in the head. Ultimately, the story is dragged down by the heavy ’90s influence in Amorim’s art, which looks like less-polished Dan Jurgens work. Like most Avatar titles, there’s a good amount of gratuitous tits and torture, which feels even more unnecessary when rendered in the generic Avatar house style. Both writers on this book have exhibited a talent for balancing character development and blockbuster action in past projects, but God Is Dead lacks the emotional hook to make readers care about the catastrophe… [OS]
Jeff Parker showed a skill for bringing a classic pulp sensibility to modern superheroes in his Agents Of Atlas series for Marvel, and King’s Watch #1 (Dynamite) sees the writer going full pulp as he tackles three icons of the genre. A threat from another world has come to Earth, and the planet’s first line of defense comes courtesy of hotshot pilot Flash Gordon, jungle vigilante The Phantom, and Mandrake The Magician. Parker’s story could use more exposition to fill new readers in on these retro characters, but he provides a strong impression of the headstrong Flash and silent-but-deadly Phantom. (Mandrake, the least popular of the three, doesn’t do much in this issue.) Artist Marc Laming is an ideal fit for Parker’s story, with a style that falls somewhere between the styles of the writer’s Atlas collaborators Leonard Kirk and Gabriel Hardman. There’s an almost photorealistic attention to detail in Laming’s work, but it doesn’t come at the expense of dynamic action, as evidenced in Phantom’s breathtaking fight with a lizard monster. This first chapter builds a strong foundation for this five-issue miniseries, bringing these pulp characters into the present without losing the adventurous spirit of those original stories… [OS]
It’s rare that a comic strip from a local alt-weekly gets collected anywhere other than in a pile of old newspapers in the garage. But in the case of Amazing Facts & Beyond! With Leon Beyond (Uncivilized), the hardcover-omnibus treatment was totally called for. Written and illustrated alternately by Dan Zettwoch and Kevin Huizenga, the ongoing Amazing Facts has run in St. Louis’ Riverfront Times since 2008—and as this collection shows, the strip’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!-spoofing shtick has taken on a life of its own. “Meticulously un-researched” and starring the fictional know-it-all/know-nothing host Leon Beyond (who bears an intentional resemblance to the character Leon from the 1980 cult film Midnight Madness), Amazing Facts is a smorgasbord of social satire and gonzo surrealism masquerading as silly, fact-mangling mayhem. Zettwoch's and Huizenga’s sketchy, up-against-deadline artwork teems with itchy energy, and the jokes land solidly—but it really takes off when it enters the meta-zone and incorporates an ongoing storyline about how the strip itself is in danger of being axed by the Times. Here’s hoping this book helps keep such a grievous crime against graphic gag-mongering from coming to pass… [JH]
Having already appeared in various Valiant titles over the last year, Gilad Anni-Padda, the Eternal Warrior, is finally getting a title of his own courtesy of writer Greg Pak and artist Trevor Hairsine. Eternal Warrior #1 (Valiant) shows the immortal Gilad doing what he does best—depicting page after page of epic action between two warring armies—and it’s a stunning spectacle even if it could use more character development. This first issue puts Gilad, his son Mitu, and daughter Xaran in the middle of a battle against the mutated hordes of Nergal, Lord Of Darkness, and it’s the perfect story for Hairsine to illustrate, showcasing the artist’s talent for high-impact fight choreography and meticulously detailed musculature. Pak could provide more insight into the relationship between Gilad and his children, but the issue’s conclusion suggests that the dysfunctional-family dynamic will be further explored in the future. Granted, most people probably aren’t reading Eternal Warrior for the complex interpersonal relationships, and anyone looking for some gorgeously rendered comic-book action will find a lot to love in this first issue… [OS]
Joseph Remnant put himself on the map—with a little help from American Splendor—by illustrating Harvey Pekar’s posthumous 2012 book, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland. In it, Remnant showed himself to be an apt, yet not slavish, pupil of R. Crumb, whose shadowy, low-key early work on American Splendor helped set the tone for the entire series. Blindspot #3 (Kilgore) is the latest issue of Remnant’s own autobiographical comment, and there’s still a hint of Crumb-era American Splendor lurking in a panel here, a panel there. But taken as a whole, Blindspot is its own entity. These downbeat, understated stories come with a lining of amiable humor—wry observations about social-media addiction, the ethical choices involved in buying dinner, all those ostensibly artistic types who populate the coffee shops of America (Remnant included)—that achingly probe for deeper meaning in the prosaic. Remnant’s wedding of art and text has yet to fully take hold, but when clunky chunks of exposition are jettisoned in favor of quietude and atmosphere, Blindspot #3 darkly shines… [JH]
What happens when a superhero who gets his powers from alcohol and drugs goes to A.A.? Donny Cates, Mark Reznicek, and Geoff Shaw’s Buzzkill #1 (Dark Horse) answers that question with a fantastic debut issue that takes the superhero-as-addiction metaphor to another level, chronicling the origin story of an alcoholic whose blackouts result in millions of dollars’ worth of property damage. The scope of Cates and Reznicek’s story gradually increases, starting at a very personal level before expanding to incorporate the greater superhero universe created for this title. Cates’ script paints an evocative portrait of lead character Ruben, fully capturing the intensity of his internal conflict as he questions staying at the meeting. Even with a stereotypical teenage drunk-driving accident, the story never gets too heavy-handed, and the superhero angle results in a fascinating look at one man’s struggle with substance abuse. With a style similar to artists like Sean Murphy, Matteo Scalera, and Jeff Stokely, Shaw provides crisp, energetic artwork that admirably handles both the conversational A.A. scenes and the more fantastic superhero elements. The cliffhanger showcases Shaw’s imaginative designs for the costumed characters of this title, and it’s going to be a delight watching these figures come into play over the course of this four-issue miniseries. [OS]
Editor's note: The original edit of this story incorrectly credited Blindspot to Marvel, not Kilgore. The A.V. Club couldn't have been more wrong and regrets the error.