Tuesday, December 12, 2023

A Month of Wednesdays: November 2023


Mabuhay! (Scholastic) Teenage JJ Bulan wants nothing more than to fit in and be popular at school, but instead he always feels like he's on the outside looking in, a fact he blames in part on his family and their Filipino heritage. It probably doesn't help that his parents fully embrace that heritage in their business, the food truck The Beautiful Pig, which JJ and his little sister Althea are guilt-forced to work; she giving away free samples, he wearing a pig mascot costume and dancing around with a sign.

As self-conscious as JJ is about all of the things that mark him as different from his peers, the siblings are about to learn that their family is far stranger than they ever suspected: It turns out their mom was raised by witches in the Philippines and can wield rather powerful magic herself...magic that they seem to have inherited.

On top of their regular, everyday teen problems—and, it should be said, these are compelling enough that the advent of the witches plot almost seems superfluous to the drama of the graphic novel—the kids are now being menaced by an ogre and witches at school, and find themselves allied with the characters from Filipino folklore stories that their mom had previously introduced them to in preachy, lesson-stories. 

Will they learn to embrace their heritage, and all that makes them unique, in time to save their family and the world from an ancient, folkloric evil? That's the crux of cartoonist Zacharay Sterling's winning Mabuhay!, which is a Filipino expression used as a greeting or to express well wishes, translating to something like "Long live!" 

It's one of the many terms that appear in footnotes throughout the book, and a glossary in the back, explaining the pronunciation and definition of the many Filipino terms and expressions that are sprinkled throughout Sterling's book. There's even a two-page, illustrated recipe in comics form, for one of the Bulans' signature Filipino dishes, chicken adobo.

In the author's note that follows the completion of the story, Sterling explains that though this isn't quite an autobiography, it is very much his story, and that, like JJ, he grew up devouring all sorts of media, but rarely finding himself or his family represented in any of it, that "when you grow up  noticing how little you or your family fits the mold of anything you see on a screen or a page, you can't help but feel left out."

With Mabuhay!, he corrects that lack of representation of Filipino kids and families in comics and media...well, he certainly doesn't solve the problem forever or anything, but he does make a great stride in the right direction, giving people like his family and his people a great work that reflects who they are.

Which isn't to say that this is a comic strictly for Filipinos; the story is one that should resonate with anyone who struggles growing up in the world with an immigrant our outsider identity, or even just doubts about themselves and their family and how or if they fit into the rest of the world.  Don't miss it. 

The Super Hero's Journey (Abrams ComicsArts) Here's something that super-comics could do with far more of: Something completely unexpected. The 112-page, storybook-sized hardcover is the work of Mutts cartoonist Patrick McDonnell, working with an unusual "collaboration" with Marvel Universe architects Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and others that samples and repurposes many panels of their original comics to tell a new story that is essentially a love-letter to the original, first-generation of the Marvel Universe.

When drawing the Marvel superheroes, as he does throughout the book, McDonnell, one of the most accomplished cartoonists whose work you're likely to still see in a newspaper comic strip, works in a style that differs sharply from that one may be familiar with from his work on Mutts and his several children's picture books. It looks like the work of a rather accomplished child-artist, someone who doesn't live and breathe post-Kirby action-adventure narratives trying his hand at capturing the style (In fact, McDonnell shares some of his own fan art from 1966 or so and it's remarkable the degree to which his new Marvel art echoes that of his childhood. 

His book opens with a biographical note, with a prologue set in Edison, New Jersey in 1966. In panels drawn in his normal style, McDonnell tells of he and his siblings' early experiences with Marvel Comics: "Reading those early Marvel comic books by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko was life-altering...I was transformed--  --AND TRANSPORTED. I WATCHED AND I MARVELED." These words of narration accompany images drawings by Kirby and Ditko, as the McDonnell-drawn McDonnell moves through a portal and seems absorbed into the world of classic Marvel comics, seemingly replaced by that cosmic reader stand-in, The Watcher. 

From there, a mini-Marvel saga begins, with panels from classic Marvel comics repurposed, with occasional bridges drawn by McDonnell, to introduce The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and The Hulk, each wrestling with negative thoughts, the sort of self-doubt and melodrama that differentiated the highly-emotional Marvel heroes from their stoic and staid DC rivals in the early and mid-sixties. 

Recontextualized and repurposed, it is clear that there's some sort of threat to the heroes and their world afoot, a threat perpetuated by one of comics' most iconic villains: Doctor Doom. In a McDonnel-created panel, inset against a Kirby image with Lee-written narration, Doom boasts: "I've harnessed the power of the Negative Zone and started spreading its negativity across the land, crushing the human spirit." 

Eventually, the world turns on its heroes, and the heroes on each other, commencing a giant brawl that will involve them all (including late arrival, The Black Panther). It's up to Mr. Fantastic Reed Richards and The Watcher to try to figure out what's going on and counter it, even as the ante is upped by the imminent arrival of Galactus. After a brief detour into "The Romance Zone", where Reed finds Doom gradually appearing on the covers of titles like Teen-Age Romance and My Own Romance and realizes his archenemy is behind the mess. 

What can counter such negativity? What else but love, a superpower suggested in a quote by Kirby, and when the quote and koan-spouting Watcher and Reed manage to harness it and activate it, all is set right, but did it cost Reed his life?

He finds himself lying in the darkness, asking "What happened?", just as a dying soldier once asked Kirby in a war story he told. 

The story complete, an epilogue set in the present honors Kirby, Lee and Ditko...on a page alongside McDonnell's own parents, and updates us on the state of the settings of the prologue. It's an appropriate enough climax, "mushy", to use McDonnell—or was it Lee's, originally?—word, but, like every other page of the book, generated by the men who made Marvel, the men who are the true super heroes being lionized and glorified in the book more so than the big, strong men (and a couple of women) who make up the roster of tights-clad super-people in the drama. 

The book includes a pin-up of Reed, a letters column (in which letter hacks ask questions about the work a reader is likely to have, making the exercise a bit like a mini-interview with McDonnell about the work), an exhaustive sourcing of all of the images by Kirby, Ditko, Don Heck, Vince Colletta, Joe Sinnot and others that were used in the book, and a long list of all the quotes that are used during the book, some from Kirby and Lee, others from the likes of Eckhart Tolle, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Carl Jung, Marianne Williamson and the like. 

A love letter to the foundation of Marvel, and to the escapist power of comic books in general, it's an amazing work. 


The Accidental Warriors This self-published fantasy adventure from writer Karl Fields and artist David Velasquez finds two little kid friends on their way to martial arts class when they take a major detour—through a portal to another world, in an attempt to save their teacher's daughter from a reptillian monster man. There the pair soon becomes separated, and we follow Jalen as he tries to find his lost friend Ram, rescue their teacher's daughter and find a way back home. Along the way he meets all kinds of characters, including a riddle-telling anthropomorphic rabbit, a version of Norse god Loki and the leader of a tribe of young magic-users, and he must face such challenges as a hell modeled on a school where the bullies run things. Jalen and Ram are interesting characters to throw into your typical kids-in-another-world narrative, and Velasquez's art, brilliantly colored by Gio Wolf, is appealing. 

Godzilla: Monsters & Protectors—All Hail The King! (IDW Publishing) The continuation of Erik Burnham and Dan Schoening's kid-friendly Godzilla series finds three kings in conflict: King Ghidorah, King Caesar and, of course, Godzilla, the King of the Monsters. While hardly the publisher's best offering featuring Toho's characters and concepts—I can't get over just how unlikable our protagonist really is—it's still Godzilla, which, for me at least, means it's still of interest. More here

Monkey Prince Vol. 2: The Monkey King and I (DC Comics) I go on a bit too long about the nature of superhero comics crossovers in this review of the second half of Gene Luen Yang and Bernard Chang's overall well-done Monkey Prince limited series, the end of which is more or less scuttled by the intrusion of the Batman Vs. Robin/Lazarus Planet business. 

Star Wars: Tales From the Death Star (Dark Horse Books) The all-ages Star Wars comics have settled into their new-old home at Dark Horse, after years at IDW, and the annual tradition of spooky, "horror" stories set in the world has made the transition nicely, with writer Cavan Scott and a handful of artist collaborators presenting another tale in which a storyteller presents stories-within-the story, these all intended to scare a youngster out of a dangerous course of action: Visiting the ruins of one of the Empire's titular super-weapons. Scott certainly has the formula perfected at this point, and the comics run like clockwork. More here

Superman Vs. Meshi (DC) While it seems like it was just yesterday that I was introduced to my new favorite superhero comic, it was actually two whole months ago, in September, that I first learned of Superman's recent fascination with Japanese chain restaurants, and his habit of visiting them every chance he got. Now we've got another volume of The Man of Steel's culinary adventures, this one mostly focusing on his sharing meals with various peers. I can't emphasize enough just how fun these comics are (I mean, just dig that cover!). More here

Turtle Bread (Dark Horse) I had no idea who writer Kim-Joy was when I first picked this book up and read it, but she is apparently a celebrity baker that will be familiar to many of the people who read this comic. Knowing that she's a baker, reality show be-er on and cook book author actually makes her comics debut all the more impressive; it doesn't read like the work of an amateur at all, nor of a dilettante transitioning her fame to dabble in a "hot" publishing genre. Rather, it's a highly accomplished work, one that tells the compelling story of a young woman suffering from crushing social anxiety as she makes new friends at a baking club and begins to come out of her shell. A great deal of credit must certainly go to the artist, Alti Firmansyah, given that a long, important passage of the book is told silently. More here