Thursday, September 09, 2021

A Month of Wednesdays: August 2021


Days of Love at Seagull Villa Vol. 1 (Seven Seas Entertainment) My search for a new yuri series to replace NTR and Citrus brought me to this relatively recent series from Kodama Naoko, the manga-ka responsible for the pretty charming 2019 I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up.

Quiet city girl Mayumi has just been left by her fiance, who was having an affair with her best friend...who is now pregnant with his child. Shortly after this personal tragedy, she find herself out in the country, looking forlornly out at the sea. In fact, she's looking so forlornly out at the sea that when Rin first sees her, she thinks she's about to jump, and she rushes out to stop her, grabbing her and, inadvertently, knocking them both into the sea.

As meet-cutes go, it's an effective one, demonstrating the two women's personalities—Mayumi quiet, thoughtful and melancholy, Rin impulsive, brash and up in Mayumi's business—and getting them naked in front of each other by page 20 (They have to take a warm bath in order to avoid catching a cold from their plunge into the sea, you see). 

Mayumi has come to the small, seaside town in order to escape her problems and start a new, completely different life, as a junior high teacher. She's staying at the titular villa, which, it turns out, is run by Rin, a younger woman with a little girl to raise, a neighbor girl to look after and her own personal tragedy to mourn, one that makes Mayumi's look enviable by comparison. 

It's a big adjustment for Mayumi, one both helped and hindered—but mostly helped—by the polar opposite Rin, with whom she shares a connection one assumes will turn to full-blown romance eventually. 

For now, the art is great, and Naoko's pacing of the two women's relationship, with several ups and downs, seems off to an intriguing start. 

Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon Vols. 1-2 (Seven Seas) Uno Hinako is deeply unhappy, although she hides it well at the office. She studies fashion and make-up and is always perfectly put together. She goes out to lunch every day with a group of friends. And she regularly dates cute guys, all of whom seem to fall for, although she doesn't return their feelings. What's wrong with her? 

Lots of things...and, maybe, nothing at all. Things begin to change for her when she happens upon Satou Asahi eating doughnuts on a bench one night. Asahi is her co-worker, and seems to be the opposite of Hinako at work, shy, quiet and keeping to herself; Hinako's friends think Asahi is mean and cold. The two have a conversation, that becomes a friendship that, it becomes clear to the reader pretty soon, is on its way to becoming something more, although neither of the participants seem particularly aware of the fact that they are falling in love (and/or that they are starring in a yuri romance, of course). 

Manga-ka Shio Usui presents a pair of refreshingly emotionally complex characters, each with their own issues—her parents dead, Asahi is devoted to caring for her younger sister, to the extent that she denies herself her own life—and each begin to have positive effects on one another.

In the second volume, Hinako meets a potential romantic rival in the form of an old friend of Asahi's, a friend who is in love with Asahi, but hasn't told her, confessing instead to Hinako. 

Like the best kinds of romances, it is perfectly clear that our leads are perfect for each other, and the major obstacle seems to be that neither of them realizes it. That, and the fact that they are both girls. Not only is neither of them out, but neither of them seems to have come to the realization that they prefer women to men either, although that would explain why Hinako can't bring herself to return the affection of any of the men she dates. 

I confess that it was the title that got me to pick up the first volume—what can I say, I like doughnuts—but it was the complexity of the characters, the charm of their relationship and the quality of the comic that got me to pick up the second volume...and will lead to my picking up the third, as well. 

Marvel Voices: Identity #1 (Marvel Entertainment) The temptation is to compare this book with March's DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration #1, as both share a pretty similar remit: They are each oversized one-shots from Big Two direct market publishers, in which creators of Asian descent tackle characters of Asian descent in short stories. 

The comparison is perhaps inevitable, although it doesn't favor this Marvel book. DC's book was bigger, featuring more creators and more characters of higher profiles, plus the introduction of a brand-new character co-created by Gene Luen Yang (in the form of The Monkey Prince).

But despite the similarities to Celebration (including the presence of Yang as a contributor), this is perhaps better understood as the latest installment of Marvel's Marvel Voices series, a series of one-shots featuring creators and characters from traditionally marginalized groups (Black, indigenous and  LGBTQ). Although I suppose the fact that they are all numbered as "#1" obscures that fact a bit.  

As such, like previous Marvel Voices books,  it has a couple of prose components, in addition to the short comics stories. These include a lengthy introduction by cartoonist Rina Ayuyang (Blame This On The Boogie), a two-page interview with Larry Hama and three pages upon which each contributor answers the question, "What does identity mean to you?"

As for the comics, there are eight of these, starring characters as prominent as Shang-Chi and Ms. Marvel, as obscure as Silhouette from the New Warriors (and by "obscure" I mean "someone I've never heard of"), and everywhere in between. 

The stories I enjoyed the most were probably Christina Strain and Jason Loo's "That One Thing," starring the X-Men's Jubilee (featuring one totally kick-ass panel) and Greg Pak and Creees Lee's "Jimmy Woo 1959", although those are both characters I already have quite a deal of affection for. 

Ken Niimura's "Traditional Pink Sushi" starring the X-Men's Armor and The Silver Samurai is notable for how greatly Niimura's art differs from that of every one else who contributed to the book (or generally draws comics for Marvel), and there's some funny elements tot he story, which involves the difficulty of making sushi in the current mutant homeland of Krakoa. 

Maurene Goo and Lynne  Yoshi's "New York State of Mind" starring Brawn and Silk features a villain I've long been curious about—Marvel's Scarecrow—and Yoshi draws at least one really great panel of him thrusting his pitchfork at Silk (and there's one really great line in the form of "Sir, we are Asian American.")
Rounding out the book are Yang and Marcus To's "What Is Vs. What If", which seems like a pretty good introduction to what Yang is doing with his Shang-Chi comics; Sabir Pirzada and Mashal Ahmed's "Seeing Red" featuring Ms. Marvel and The Red Dagger; Alyssa Wong and Whilce Portacio's "Personal Heroes" starring new-ish character Wave (notable for its endearing insistence that Bishop is someone's favorite superhero); and, finally, Jeremy Holt and Alti Firmansyah's "Singular/Plural", in which Silhouette uses an off-brand Tinder to go on dates...and is perhaps notable for how there is nothing at all even vaguely superhero-related about the entire story, although she does mention the fact that she has superpowers in a passing line of narration.

As with the previous Marvel Voices anthologies I've read, this one is hit or miss, but well worth it if only to see lesser-seen Marvel characters and, especially, Marvel heroes drawn in different styles and written in different voices than one normally sees them.

Primitive Boyfriend Vol. 3
(Seven Seas Entertainment)
I borrowed the first two volumes in this three-volume series by Yoshineko Kitafuku (and wrote about them in last month's column). But the third wasn't available to borrow, which meant I would have to make a $12.99 investment if I wanted to see if Kamigome Mito would finally meet the man of her dreams in modern times, after having met him in two previous, prehistoric incarnations, as an Australpithecus garhi and an early Homo sapien.

Obviously the series proved engaging enough that I had to find out how it ended, and I made that investment...quite happily. For a third and final time Mito's patron goddess sends her back in time to meet her soulmate, and, unlike the first two times, Mito is pretty clear on what exactly is going on, and how to find the new version of her destined partner. 

This time she lands in the prehistoric Jomon period of Japan, well past the time that  humanity had developed clothes, tools, language and were domesticating animals and experimenting with agriculture. Though she finds the man with the appropriate birthmark almost immediately—Iresu, in this incarnation, who you can see on the cover—she finds the more developed society means more complex challenges to navigate, as she must ingratiate  herself not only with her mate, but also the rest of his village. 

It certainly helps that Mito is a farmgirl, and knows more about rice and its growing than your average time-travelling Japanese teenager would.

The premise of the series, as silly as it sounds, is that Mito was disappointed by the lack of macho manliness among the many eligible, potential boyfriends she was surrounded by at school, and thus the harvest goddess found the ultimately manly man for her...despite the fact that he seemed more ape than man at that point. 

Somewhat remarkably, it turns out that one of her many high school suitors does bear the birthmark that links him to her various primitive boyfriends, and, in this volume, she continues to evaluate those around her and, in a surprise to me, actually finds that one of them is the reincarnated version of Iresu and the others. 

Kitafuku seems to have run with the premise just far enough, as the relatively short, compact, and just-dense-enough series is incredibly satisfying. 

Though the book ends with a short time jump forward, in which we see Mito and her husband's life's work and meet their daughter, it's followed by a short bonus story in which Mito and her modern boyfriend go on a date to the movies, and she falls asleep, dreaming that all four of his incarnations are present at once, and they team up to rescue her from dinosaurs.  

Suicide Squad Case Files Vols. 1-2 (DC Comics) I think these books are a very, very good idea (although I'm not entirely sure why there are two of them instead of just a single, far bigger one). The Suicide Squad writer/director James Gunn cast a particularly wide net for characters to use in his film, putting together a fairly large ensemble of not only some fairly obscure characters from the deepest depths and dustiest of corners of the DC Comics character catalog, but also some just plain unlikely characters to appear in a DC movie of any kind. 

These collections serve the purpose of introducing each of the characters that comprise that cast—many of whom, it seemed pretty safe to assume from the earliest trailers, were there at all just be killed off—with those introductions often being quite literal. Most of these stories feature the very first appearances of the characters (among the rare exceptions are solo Amanda Waller and Captain Boomerang stories, from the pages of 201's Suicide Squad: Amanda Waller #1 and 1990's Suicide Squad #44, respectively). The results are interesting, to say the least, as they offer a pretty solid overview of DC Comics publishing (and the comics industry itself, from the Silver Age to the New 52 era, when Waller was redesigned to be briefly svelte and sexy for some goddam reason).

That Silver Age story is "The Bizarre Polka-Dot Man" from 1962's Detective Comics #300, in which Batman and Robin try to thwart the dot-themed crime spree of a the title character, who tears various polka-dots from his costume and throws them, at which point they turn into elaborate weapons or vehicles (This being the '60s, there's no effort by "Bob Kane", actually an uncredited writer that might be Bill Finger and artist Sheldon Moldoff, to explain how the seemingly magic polka-dots actually work). One could scarcely wish for a better example of a 1960s DC comic and, perhaps, the classic superhero comic, before the genre started to change in the next decade. 

From there we skip ahead to the 1980s, and see how superhero comics are changing, growing more sophisticated with storytelling, psychological content and experiments with sub-genre. 

There's 1984's Green Lantern #174, which shows little real change from 'Tec #300 (but does feature sharp Dave Gibbons art). That same year brought us Bloodsport's first appearance in John Byrne's Superman #4, in which the newly re-created  for the eighties Man of Steel faces a mass shooting-committing psychopath driven mad by the horrors of the Vietnam War (An instance from this comic is actually directly referenced in the film). 

There's 1985's The Fury of Firestorm #38, in which creators Gerry Conway and Rafael Kayanan offer a few minor tweaks to the familiar, even generic, superhero formula, including the high-concept of a single hero with two secret identities (and one of them a middle-aged man). There's 1986's Booster Gold #1, offering a comedic, sticom-like take on superheroics (this is the first appearance of the completely generic Blackguard, if you're wondering what it's doing here). Also from 1986 comes The Vigilante #36, in which  Paul Kupperberg, Denys Cowan and Kyle Baker tell a story dealing with international terrorism, over-boiled, film-inspired, gun-toting machismo and comic book mental illness (that's The Peacemaker introduction, by the way, offering a version of the character that's far crazier than the one in the film). 

There's 1987's Secret Origins #14, in which long-time Suicide Squad creators John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell tell the secret history of the team, which incorporates decades of old comics from various creators and titles into a single narrative in the then newly-established post-Crisis DC Universe continuity.  And then there's 1988's Detective Comics #585, in which the John Wagner/Alan Grant/ Norm Breyfogle/Steve Mitchell team introduce The Ratcatcher in a story illustrative how different Batman comics became in about 25 years (more violent, more realistic, more character-driven, but still interested in colorful characters and fantastic imagery). 

After that diverse and prolific decade of comics, we enter the 1990s, which are  represented by a trio of comics: 1990's Suicide Squad #44, featuring Captain Boomerang's origin, from a period in time when he was much more a Suicide Squad character than a Flash rogue (and, with the Secret Origin issue, one of the examples of the Ostrander, McDonnell and company comic to which the films owe their existence), 1994's Superboy #9, in which the extremely '90s version of the character encounters killing machine King Shark for the first time (although the version that appears in the film owes more to Gail Simone's version of him from Secret Six) and 1999's Batman/Harley Quinn #1, in which Paul Dini, Yvel Guichet and Aaron Sowd first introduce the Batman: The Animated Series character into the DC Universe proper.
New characters start to peter out after the millennium, at least as these collections show. Jeph Loeb, Dale Keown and Cam Smith's 2001 Superman #170 is a Krypto the Super-Dog story that just so happens to also be the first appearance of Mongal (like Blackguard in the Booster Gold comic, she's not so much a character as a necessary bit of plot mechanics in the comics). Gail Simone, Ed Benes and Alex Lei's 2003 Birds of Prey #58 is a Savant story, and shows Benes in a point of transition, from where his cheesecake-focused art ostensibly still served (or was at least compatible with) the story, BOP starring a Charlie's Angels-like team, before his later run on other comics would devolve into an obsession with drawing highly-sexualized imagery regardless of the script. 

The remaining stories are both from 2014, and are culled from the somewhat flailing post-Flashpoint iteration of the team, when the book would see regular relaunches from different creative teams, each with different takes, and no real momentum ever accruing, to the extent that Ostrander and company's Suicide Squad is still the only one really worth reading. These are the previously-mentioned Amanda Waller special, in which "Ultimate Amanda Waller"  makes hard choices in order to save the highest number of people possible in a story by Jim Zub, Andrew Coehlo and Scott Hanna, and Matt Kindt and Patrick Zircher's Suicide Squad #25, which falls smack in the middle of the Forever Evil crossover event storyline, and doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but does feature The Thinker, in a form that resembles his design from the film, as opposed to his original 1940s look.

These comics are, obviously, all over the place, which is part of what makes the collection so winning. A surprising number of them stand all on their own, and a few are notably just part of a story, a story that is collected elsewhere (the various Suicide Squad stories, for example), or, at least, should be (DC's sitting on a lot of Peacemaker comics that could be made into decent collections). But as a seemingly-random swathe of several hundred pages of superhero universe comics, these were well worth the price of admission. 


The Girl With The Sanpaku Eyes Vol. 2 (Denpa) Amane Mizuno is the girl with the sanpaku eyes, although, as I wrote of the first volume in a previous installment of this column, "the girl with the crazy eyes" probably makes more sense to English readers. In Asian face-reading, if you can see the white of the eyes below the iris, it means one sort of imbalance, and if you can see the white of the eyes above the iris, it means another; in Amane's case, you can usually see the whites both above and below the tiny little lines or dots that manga-ka Shunsuke Sorato draws in her eyes, making her look more like a surprised snake than your typical romantic manga heroine.

Luckily for Amane—but, perhaps, unfortunately for readers, given the more comedic potential in a pretty school girl with the eyes of a psychotic—the object of her affection, desk neighbor Kato, isn't into face-reading at all, and seems as smitten with her as she is with him.

The result, then, is a fairly typical high school romance, with the two leads experiencing explosive emotions within as they navigate their normal day-to-day lives, their feelings registering outwardly with a lot of blushing, sweat drops, vibrating and the occasional burst of lines.

In this volume, Amane's friends conspire to help her get closer to Kato. The pair have exchanged numbers and can now text and talk on the phone, but her pals nominate her to star in the class play, a version of Momotaro (this column's first mention of Peach Boy this month!) in which the hero conquers the ogres not with violence, but with love, the play climaxing with a handshake between Peach Boy and the ogre, who is, of course, played by Kato—that's right, physical contact!

But if Amane had trouble saying good morning to Kato in the first volume, will she be able to perform a whole play opposite of him, and in front of everyone...?  Spoiler: Yes. 

I like Sorato's art quite a bit, particularly the drawings of sweaters and hearts, of which there are an awful lot. 

King In Black: Thunderbolts (Marvel Entertainment) I generally read all of Marvel's big, company-wide crossovers, at least in trade collection, not having missed one since...when did they start doing them again? House of X? Civil War? The Donny Cates-written, Venom-centric King In Black is the first one to fail to interest me in anyway. I'm...not sure why exactly that is. Maybe it's growing disinterest in the Marvel Universe as a setting, maybe it's part of my flagging excitement about super-comics in general, maybe it's the fact that I don't care all that much for Venom as a character or concept. 

The point of all that is that this is the first time I've read a tie-in to a big, company-wide crossover event series without actually reading the big, company-wide crossover event series itself. As to why I bothered, I like interior artist Juan Ferreyra, cover artist Kyle Hotz, and the make-up of this particular Thunderbolts team seemed interesting, including as it does Batroc The Leaper and not one, but two guys dressed like skeletons. 

It turned out to be really good. I don't know what that says about King In Black in general—it didn't make me want to read the main series at all—but I suppose it's due to the relative simplicity of the premise of the event, one that seems like it's easy enough to tell tie-in stories around. As far as I can tell, Earth is on the brink of apocalypse, this time because some sort of symbiote god, the so-called king in black, has invaded Earth, bringing with him giant Venom-esque dragons and turning people into Venomized-zombies (Do I have that right?).

The Matthew Rosenberg-written Thunderbolts miniseries, which ran just three issues, has New York City Mayor (and former kingpin of crime) Wilson Fisk, gathering a group of disposable super-villains and coercing them into a suicide mission. If that sounds like vaguely familiar premise for a comic book, Rosenberg acknowledges it, when he has Mister Fear (the guy dressed like a skeleton who isn't Taskmaster) say "Fisk put us together for this?! The whole's suicide...We're a suicide team." (Fear similarly almost but not quite cites DC Comics IP when he reaches for a term to call a league devoted to the concept of justice and the female version of Wonder Man). 

The plot is pretty simple. Fisk wants to be seen doing something to help save the world, though he's not too terribly concerned how realistic his attempt is, given that he's confident that the superheroes will ultimately save the day as they always do (this isn't Fisk's first crossover event story, after all). He therefore assembles a team consisting of Taskmaster, Mister Fear, Batroc The Leaper and a couple of other villains who either die or quit almost immediately (I'm surprised The Rhino even made the cover, as  he quits directly after they encounter their first Venom dragon). 

So he sends his team, which he calls The Thunderbolts—"a name I own the copyright to", he says, speaking for Marvel—through the Venomized streets of New York to Ravencroft Asylum to consult Norman Osborn for a plan to take out the king in black, a patently ridiculous plan that Mister Fear and Batroc argue over whether is more like Weekend At Bernie's or Weekend At Bernie's 2

It basically amounts to moving a quartet of characters from Point A to Point B to Point C, with no real suspense or surprise regarding whether or not they will succeed in their mission (Obviously, the day isn't going to be saved in a tie-in, but in King In Black proper),  although Rosenberg does manage a bit of misdirection here and there, and some surprises in the way in which characters depart from the team (like The Rhino, a surprise I've already spoiled; sorry).

It's funny though, and in fact, Rosenberg seems to be writing a comedy more than an action-adventure sort of superhero comic. 

Ferreyra's art, which he colors himself, is as incredible as always, and he manages to tweak the designs of various characters to make them his own, and, in many cases, make them extremely cool. I've already pointed out the similarities on Taskmaster and Mister Fear, two guys with skull masks and hooded cloaks ("Still dressing like me, Mister Fear?" Taskmaster asks in the first panel featuring the two). Ferreyera disgtinguishes them by giving Taskmaster a new, sleek mask that is somewhat abstract in design and high-tech looking, while Fear's skull mask is somewhat bestial, suggestive of a Richard Corben-drawn baboon skull rather than a human skull.

He also manages to make Batroc, who is chosen in large part because he is a joke character, cool and handsome-looking.

I mentioned that there isn't a lot of suspense or surprise to the proceedings, but maybe I spoke too was surprisingly good. There's a panel that suggests that this new iteration of the Thunderbolts, the quartet who survives/doesn't quit the first issue, plus another four they pick up at Ravencroft, could be an ongoing concern, and I, personally, am all for it. As long as Rosenberg and Ferreyra are at the helm, of course. 

The trade paperback collection, somewhat randomly, includes the one-shot King In Black: Marauders #1, featuring one of the half-dozen X-Men teams, this being the one where...they are pirates? Kitty Pryde even wears a pirate coat, as she commands a big, fancy-looking yacht that Iceman, Bishop and Pyro-with-a-terrible-face-tattoo all sail upon...?

This one's y Gerry Duggan, Luke Ross and Carlos Lopez, and is perhaps odd in that  the entire story is a digression. The team is apparently on its way to New York to save Cyclops and Storm, who have both been...somehow taken over and redesigned by the King In Black. On the way, they hear a distress signal from a boat being attacked by Venom dragons, and leave their mission to save it. And, um, that's the whole story; as to their original mission, I guess it gets picked up on in King In Black proper, or perhaps another X-Men-related tie-in to the crossover event? 

I found it somewhat instructive that the King In Black status quo from a series I'm not reading was easier to follow along with than the X-Men status quo from that series I'm not reading. 

Komi Can't Communicate Vol. 14 (Viz Media) This volume contains what counts as a pretty dramatic development in the social and romantic lives of Komi's class at its climax, as gyaru Rumiko Manbagi admits to herself something that will have been apparent to readers since shortly after she was first introduced a few volumes ago—she has a crush on series hero Tadano, who seems pretty clearly destined for Komi (even if neither Tadano nor Komi can bring themselves to confess their feelings to one another).

More dramatically still, many other characters see Manbagi and Tadano having fun together at a summer festival, making the potential of a relationship between the two the topic of an entire chapter, as Tadano, Manbagi and Komi are all interrogated on the matter by various players. 

Despite the development, given the pace of manga-a Tomohito Oda's series and the relative guilelessness of Komi and Tadano, I don't suspect the development will alter the trajectory of Komi Can't Communicate too dramatically. 

Prior to the festival, this volume chronicles Komi and her brother's trip to visit their grandmother and cousin for Oban in the country (as well as brief glimpses of how the other characters celebrate Oban), Tadano teaching Komi how to ride a bike, the unspooling of the secret films that Najimi took of the test of courage/zombie prank and Tadano getting swept up into a meeting of the Riverside Dirty Mag Hunters Club. It also introduces a new younger sibling, Kitai's little sister Ai, in the volume's most frenetic story.

Peach Boy Riverside Vol. 1 (Kodansha Comics) This riff on Japan's popular legend of Momotaro, the famed oni-slayer born of a peach, stars Saltherine, a sheltered young princess who yearns to leave her kingdom and journey the world, though her attempts to do so are always thwarted—and good thing, too, as the countryside is filled with dangerous monsters. 

One day she meets a  travelling boy so beautiful she mistakes him for a girl, a boy who proves to be spectacularly effective at dispatching ogres, like the army of them that are marching on Saltherine's kingdom. The boy, who introduces himself as Mikoto, seems to be Momotaro himself...or, at least, the real version of the legendary character. 

After Mikoto saves the kingdom and returns to his wandering, Saltherine makes up her mind that she really will leave the kingdom, telling her father of her determination, chopping off her long pigtails with a knife and thus abandoning "her womanhood."

On the road, she meets an anthropomorphic rabbit "demihuman" named Frau, who is drawn to resemble a Japanese school girl with a somewhat cartoony rabbit's head. Despite the fact that such demihumans are apparently feared and hated in this world, Saltherine adopts and protects her as a friend.

This too is lucky for her, it turns out, as when ogres attack them, Frau risks her life to protect her. In a climactic reveal, however, we learn that Sally might not need protection, as a mere idle blow from her takes an ogre's arm clean off, and the narration portentously asks, "What if the peach that drifted to Japan...was only one...among many?"

In Peach Boy Riverside, then, creators Coolkyousinnjya and Johanne seem to be telling an original, action-packed fantasy adventure inspired by, and perhaps even very loosely based on, an age-old Asian story. Not a bad strategy, really; I mean, look what Akira Toriyama did with Journey to the West!

It can sometimes be difficult to judge  manga series by their first volumes, just as it can be difficult to judge western comics by their first issues—although, I would contend, ideally it shouldn't be—and this series seems particularly difficult to judge, as it's final pages include a revelation that transforms all that came before and suggest a new and unexpected direction for the series.

I would read a second volume, if only to see where it's going. 


The Accursed Vampire (HarperCollins) In my Good Comics For Kids review of Madeline McGrane's winning graphic novel, I referred to the stripped-down design of the main character Drago as a cross between Charlie Brown and Max Shreck's Nosferatu, but another way of putting it would be that they are a John Porcellino drawing in a Raina Telgemeier world, if that makes sense. This is a really great comic, and would likely have an entry on my best-of-the-year list, if I still had the memory and wherewithal for best-of-the-year lists. I pulled out some favorite panels to highlight on Twitter. 

The American Bison (First Second) Cartoonist Andy Hirsch's latest non-fiction comic for First Second could scarcely come at a better time. Within a week of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its dire report, the one referred to as a "code red for humanity", I read his book on the history of the bison in North America, from prehistoric times to the present. It was quite comforting to read a true story in which humanity fucked up the natural world almost as badly as they could, and enough people got together to do the right thing and save the day, maybe not bringing things back to the way they were or should be, but at least staving off the worst case scenario, and slowly starting to move things in the right direction. In that respect, it was an inspiring story, and it just so happened to drop at a time when we need all the inspiring stories we can get. 

It's also, by the way, a perhaps counterintuitively fun, even occasionally funny book, owing a to Hirsch's great cartooning skills, and his way with a buffalo's expression. It's well worth spending some time with, whether you're in the young target audience or not. 

Justice League Unlimited: Girl Power (DC Comics) It can sometimes be hard to believe, but the comics industry really is changing for the better in some small ways. For example, take Justice League Unlimited: Girl Power, a 150-page trade paperback collecting stories for young readers featuring female protagonists. I find it all but impossible to imagine such a book being created today, in the year 2021, and not featuring a single female writer or artist. Yet the writers and artists of the book's half-dozen or so stories are, indeed, all male (Sure, the collection was put together and released this year, but the stories within were all originally created and published in various serial comic books between 1998 and 2008). 

So hey, that's something! It feels weird and wrong to have a bunch of dudes telling the stories of girls and young women in this book, and you could bet that were it commissioned today, it would be chock-full of female writers and artists, right?

Anyway, as to the quality of the stories, they are all pretty good. The two shorts from Steve Vance, John Delaney and Ron Boyd's Adventures in the DC Universe aren't their best work from the series, as those were originally back-ups to longer, better stories, and Dan Raspler's story about Queen from the Royal Flush Gang trying to go straight feels remarkably, oddly gritty for the Justice League cartoon universe, but these are all pretty good comics, offering done-in-ones starring Zatanna, Gypsy, Mary Marvel, Steel II and others.

For older readers like, um, me, it offers the same pleasures that the previous collections in the series have, like seeing a wide variety of entries from DC's character catalog appearing in roles big and small, as well as seeing how the writers and artists adapt older, bigger stories for a new audience (Like, for example, seeing how the crossover story arc of the Millennium Giants that ended the Electric Blue era of Superman of the late '90s gets smooshed down into a 22-page Natasha Irons story). 

And, as I said on Twitter, I hope that the inclusion of the Adventures in the DC Universe stories here doesn't preclude a complete collection of that series (and its annual!), which was awesome, and which I would love to be able to read in collected form some day


The Suicide Squad
The climax of 2016's Suicide Squad involved a giant column of light shooting up into the sky that had something to do with the demon brother of Cara Delevigne's Enchantress character. The climax of this summer's sequel The Suicide Squad involved Starro the Conqueror, the giant alien starfish from the Justice League's first appearance, 1960's The Brave and The Bold # 28. That alone should tell you quite a bit about what an improvement the film is, as well as its tone. 

I mention Starro right at the outset not simply because it's such a clear demonstration of the differences between the two Suicide Squads, because the idea of pitting the titular super-team against him seems to have been one of the earliest decisions that writer/director James Gunn made, or at least one of the earlier ones: At least two of the characters that appear in the film (and one of the running gags) are pretty clearly just there because of their role in defeating a seemingly invincible giant starfish monster (I suppose it helps that one of those character had no prior affiliation with any comic book iteration of the Suicide Squad at all).

Also pretty clear? Will Smith was at least hoped to return to his role as Deadshot; Idris Elba's Bloodsport is basically just Deadshot from the first film, with a different name and a slight accent; even the leverage that Viola Davis' Amanda Waller exerts over him to get him to reluctantly join the mission is similar to what she used on Deadshot, and would/could have continued to use in this one.

There are actually two Squads in the film, with one put together just to be killed off in the opening scenes, and are used as a distraction by Waller to get the film's "real" Squad into their position (You can probably guess which supervillain belongs on which team from the trailers alone, although it's worth noting that there are some genuine surprises among the many, many, many deaths of named characters in this film). The strategy does more than allow Gunn to use twice as many obscure and/or unlikely DC supervillains, it also demonstrates that no character is safe from a sudden, gory death, and it's incredibly effective; there are points where I was certain characters were about to die and they survived, and characters I was pretty confident would survive who are killed off. 

Despite toying with the structure of the film, and a few fun time-jumps, the plot is fairly simple. Waller sends two squads to the South American island nation of Corto Maltese amidst political upheaval. Their goal is to obliterate all signs of The Thinker Peter Capaldi's "Project Starfish" from within the fortress Valhalla. It's up to Bloodsport and Joel Kinnaman's Colonel Rick Flag to lead Harley Quinn, Peacemaker, The Polka-Dot Man, King Shark and Ratcatcher 2 deep into enemy territory, undercover and up against an army and, ultimately, a giant starfish. 

It's surprisingly good.

I've tried to avoid spoilers, even though the movie has been out about a month so far, but I have two fan-ish observations I want to make. First, Calendar Man makes a brief cameo (Making this both the Polka-Dot Man and Calendar Man's second feature film appearance, following The Lego Batman Movie); he's just seen among the prison population of Belle Reeve and he's identifiable by his Long Halloween-style tattoos, a look I'm not particularly fond of. Still, it was nice to be able to be sitting in a movie theater and say to myself, "Hey, Calendar Man!"

Second, they did Jai Courtney's Captain Boomerang dirty...again. If you've read John Ostrander and company's original Suicide Squad comics, it's pretty clear that Boomerang is one of the main characters, and yet they squandered him in two films now...and it doesn't look like he'll be in a third one.  

The Secret Life of Trees author Peter Wohllenben's new book The Heartbeat of Trees (Greystone Books; 2021) is basically the same as  his previous books in terms of structure, voice and, of course, subject. That's a good thing, considering the quality of his previous books. Secret Life changed the way I thought about trees, to the point that I can no longer walk past them on the street without thinking of them as weird, practically alien entities, rather than just part of the background. This book only reinforces that. More here

The end pages of Brook Wilensky-Lanford's Paradise Lust: Searching For The Garden of Eden (Grove Press; 2011) feature a world map, noting the exact location of the Garden of Eden on it. Or the Gardens of Eden, I should say, as there are of 17 of them on the map. The premise of the book is that at various points throughout history, different men—and they are all, coincidentally or not, men—have imagined they have found or could find the mythical garden, and have located it in various places around the world. 

Each thoroughly, remarkably researched chapter follows one such man and quest to find Eden, or prove that they have found it. Surprisingly, not one but two different men have sited Eden as within Ohio. 

The first, mentioned in passing in the chapter of Boston University President (and Paradise Found! author)William Fairfield Warren, who said the Garden was at the North Pole; Boston University philologist George C. Allen agreed that it was at the North Pole, but, Wilensky-Lanford writes, "He claimed that the North Pole moves entirely around the world every 25,000 years, so 'careful mathematical computations bring the original paradise where Ohio now is."

The second was Reverend Edmund Landon West of Adams County, who believed the mysterious Serpent Mound in southern Ohio was erected to tell an earthform version of the story near Eden which was, of course, just nearby. 

After all the wild tales of Edens in the North Pole, Florida and all over the Middle East, all proposed and pursued by a variety of men, from simple armchair scholars to religious activists to adventurers, it actually comes as a dramatic surprise when the "real" Eden is eventually located and quite convincingly argued near the book. Doing so also reveals what the real original sin actually was: Agriculture. It was when humanity assumed the ability to plant their own food and thus control the environment that our downfall actually began, though it took many of hundreds of thousands of years to get us to the point of crisis that we are now at, where the ability to shape the world itself now threatens our ability to live on it. 

I can't recommend this book highly enough. 

Lord Dunsany's 1924 The King of Elfland's Daughter seems to be quite well-suited to an audiobook adaptation, which is how I encountered the fantasy. Dunsany's narration lends itself towards the poetic, and repeats phrases in full throughout—like "the fields we know" to refer to the human world, for example, or the title character's palace "that may be told of only in song"—that help give the entire novel something of a lyrical quality.

An extended examination and extrapolation of the concept that time moves differently in the realm of fairies then in the real world, the fairly loosely-plotted book features several quests that don't necessarily cohere, but are nevertheless charming and disarmingly emotionally potent. 

In the small kingdom of Erl, which it will eventually be revealed there's a good reason you've never heard of, the king sends his son Alveric from the fields we know to Elfland, there to secure as his wife the Princess Lirazel. Aided by a witch-forged magic sword, he survives the dangers and brings the Princess back. They are happily married and produce a son...or, at least, they are happily-ish married, as the elven woman never quite completely assimilates, and fails to ever take seriously the concerns of mortals, like religion and various customs. Her father, a powerful wizard, can't relinquish her to the mortal world, and eventually succeeds in bringing her back, leading Alveric on a second, fruitless quest for the now receded Elfland, and their son Orion to seek her in the forest, but to find hunting instead.

It's a really beautiful book that I do no justice in discussing with these few poor words.  

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