Review: The Cardboard Kingdom

You’re not going to want to miss The Cardboard Kingdomthe new anthology-style graphic novel by Chad Sell. The listed age recommendation for Middle Grade is 812, but I read the book with my six-year-old, and he was just as enthralled as I waswhich is no easy feat! We talk about acceptance a lot in our household, enough that my son has already got the “Yes, mom. I know.”/ eye roll combo down pat, but the lighthearted way The Cardboard Kingdom covers some heavy topics never provoked that reaction. The colors are bright, the endings are happy, and while not every kid achieves #UltimateGlory in the story, it does offer lots of authentic insight. I felt comfortable reading it with my child, both of us eagerly turning each page, anticipating each new adventure.

 

The book itself is made up of several vignettes, each highlighting a new or returning character and their journey into the “kingdom” (literally fabricated with cardboard) of neighborhood friendships and play. The book is diverse without resorting to tokenism, and each of us found more than one character to see bits of ourselves in. My son found a kindred spirit instantly in Jack, a young boy who chooses to dress up as a sorceress during imaginative play, and I felt more than a few heartstrings get tugged while reading about Big Banshee and The Gargoyle.

 

While the tenderly crafted stories are what made this book memorable for me, the art is an absolute joy to behold, effortlessly blending the running theme with the tone of the book, without ever weighting the story down, or taking it out of acceptability for child readership. Each character is lovingly illustrated, and the comic switches from real life to fantasy are just fun. I giggled. Out loud.

 

So if you’re looking to bring a little sweetness into your reading diet, or if you have a child in your life who’s maybe been feeling a little too shy, a little too loud, a little too weird, or just a little too different from everybody else, this is a diverse though never heavy handed look into what childhood could be like if we all taught our kids acceptance and that differences are what make us special. I’d say it’s suitable for ages 660, and if you have an old bigoted 65 year old aunt? Buy her a copy!

Interview: Mariko Tamaki

Mariko Tamaki is an artist and writer of mixed Japanese Canadian and Jewish Canadian descent, known for her graphic novels Skim and This One Summer (co-created with her cousin Jillian Tamaki). Recurring themes in her work include becoming, identity, and queerness. Since 2016, she’s been writing for both DC and Marvel  on comics like She-Hulk and Supergirl: Being Super, and her English language translation of the queer coming-of-age story Luisa: Now and Then (by French writer and illustrator Carole Maurel) was released today by Humanoids. This August, she’ll be joining Geeks OUT as a special guest at Flame Con, so we wanted to get to know her a bit better before then!

 

For several years, you’ve collaborated with your cousin, artist Jillian Tamaki, on books like Skim and This One Summer. What is the creative process like for you working with family? Are there any challenges that are unique to working with a familial relation?

 

I imagine pretty much all collaborations have unique elements. There is a part of our connection that is familial, in that we have very similar senses of humor, I think, and some very Tamaki sensibilities.  Mostly I, certainly, have always trusted Jillian to do her thing (which she does exceptionally well) and mostly our publisher has let us do things the way we need to do them, so that’s awesome.

 

Throughout much of your career, queerness has been a prominent (or at least recurring) theme of your work. As a queer woman yourself, how much of your own experiences do you incorporate into your fiction writing?

 

I’m not sure sometimes if I default to a queer experience because I am queer or if it is because I specifically want to see more queer content out there.  I think it’s always a little bit of both.  I try not to overthink it.  I try to write the story I want to write and see how that pans out.  Definitely if I am writing something that feels completely straight, I’ll sew some queerness in there, because queerness is always there. It’s like when you’re writing a cityscape, you need to write in the characters that would be there.  To me, not doing that is more of a choice.

 

My first introduction to your work was Skim, the graphic novel about a young girl named Kimberly Keiko Cameron, set against themes of first love, mental illness, and suicide. What was the creative inspiration behind this work?

 

I just pictured this character one day who had a broken arm because she had tripped over a candleholder that was part of her Wiccan altar.  I was sitting on the bus and I just had that image so clearly I was like, “I bet that’s a book.” Once I started writing it everything sort of just fell into place. I’d always wanted to use my experience in a private all girls school for something, so this seemed like that place to do it.

 

There’s a recurring theme in your stories of characters coming-of-age stories. Why do you gravitated toward this particular narrative?

 

I don’t necessarily mean to write “coming-of-age” stories. I am interested in the mechanics, the experiences, that go into the things we take for granted, like identity, like being a girl or boy or neither, like being smart or funny.  All that stuff.  We are all always becoming the things we are.  That doesn’t stop when you turn 20, but it’s incredibly potent when you’re a teenager.  And potency makes for good stories.  So there you are.

 

What is the most significant way your more personal work differs from your work on comics like She-Hulk?

 

Generally, until I wrote She-Hulk, very few of my characters were green or grey. Also, writing for superhero comics, you’re writing into a world, you’’re writing against the backdrop of a genre, which is sort of always there no matter what you’re writing.  So it affects what you write in a myriad of little ways.  It’s a challenge, but it’s a good challenge.  I want my mainstream comics work to feel like it’s coming from me, but I also want it to be a part of the larger whole of mainstream comics.

 

Do you have any favorite queer authors or books you can recommend?

 

Right now I’m recommending Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters.  I know Maurice Vellekoop is working on a graphic memoir to that will be published by Pantheon Books.  I have seen bits of it and it is amazing.  I loved Molly Ostertag’s Witch Boy and I’m thoroughly enjoying Moonstuck series by Grace Ellis and Shae Beagle.  I could go on.

 

Do you have any new ideas or projects for us to look forward to?

 

I have a book coming out in 2019 with Rosemary Valero-O’Connell called Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me.  I’m working with Juan Cabal on X-23 for Marvel.  I have a Harley Quinn graphic novel with DC Ink with Steve Pugh called Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass.  My third book with Abrams for our Lumberjanes series with Brooklyn Allen is called The Good Egg and I am so excited for people to read it.  And I’m currently writing a YA murder mystery, but I’m not sure what the title will be yet, so look out for that.

Review: Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles #1

It’s 1953. The U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities is running full steam on their public interrogations of “subversives and deviants.” Snagglepuss is a successful Broadway playwright with a secret. This is how the stage is set in the latest Hanna Barbera Beyond title Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepus Chronicles. Writer Mark Russell is at the helm following his recent success with the Flintstones reboot, and he is joined by artist Mike Feehan. This is the first of a six-issue limited series.

Issue #1 opens with a human couple (Alice and Henry) out on a date. They talk like people do in 1950s sitcoms, with exclamations like “Hot Spaghetti!” and “Oh, Crumbs!” All we really know about them is that they’re excited for the show they’re about to see. While seemingly disconnected from the larger plot, the issue continually circles back to their story and uses it as the framework for the first issue. Spliced in between their small scenes is the meat of the story.

Snagglepuss and his wife, Lila Lion, attend the closing night of his play “My Heart is a Kennel of Thieves.” There, he talks confidently to the press, and leaves after the show receiving a thunder of applause. In the car, he congratulates Lila on her performance for the press, and once she is dropped off, he orders the driver to take him to the Village. As Snagglepuss himself says: “You can only know a man by seeing the parts he doesn’t show you.”

When he enters Stonewall, we are introduced to his partner Pablo. With the TV playing live coverage of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the background, Pablo tells Snagglepuss of his escape from Cuba. When Snagglepuss attempts to dismiss such a police state happening in America, Pablo calls him out on his wishful thinking before delivering, what is perhaps the most pointed line in the entire issue: “Every nation is a monster in the making. And monsters will come for you whether you believe in them or not.”

In the first few scenes, the seeds of the forthcoming conflict are planted. Snagglepuss is shown as a confident writer at the peak of his fame. His sharp wit and careful planning have yet to fail him. The anxieties of the outside world have yet to catch him off guard. But will his wits be enough for when the House Committee begins to take aim at him? Will they find a way to expose his secret and end his career? If the final page is any hint, they are certainly going to try.

Exit Stage Left is a thoroughly researched story set in America’s past, but it provides a biting social commentary of both our history and our present. The Alice and Henry scenes touch on the conviction and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Snagglepuss himself channels the late Tennessee Williams, while his novelist friend Huckleberry Hound is modeled after William Faulkner. He is also revealed to be friends with playwright Lillian Hellman, as well as writer Dorothy Parker of Algonquin Round Table and Hollywood Blacklist infamy. Even Gigi Allen, the villain introduced at the end of the issue, appears to be ironically named after the controversial American singer GG Allin–but I’m only speculating on that one.

Taking a 1950s cartoon and reinterpreting it through a modern lens, with both past and present political anxieties on full display, is bound to produce some bizarre results. Russell and Feehan manage to weave together both the familiar and the weird, and present a world that is equal parts subversive, unique, and cohesive. This first issue is perfectly paced, giving just the right amount of brewing conflict and character development to whet our appetites for the rest of the series.

The Snagglepuss Chronicles #1 is available in comic book shops today!

Extracting Beauty from the Darkest of Places

Seven years ago, I started working on a comic book with my good friend Reed Olsen. It would go on to become the series Dream Crasher, which we are now self-publishing through Kickstarter. Dream Crasher is a 12-chapter story about a group of children who survive a bizarre cataclysmic event and find themselves navigating a strange new world filled with angry ghosts, strange beasts made from human parts, and interdimensional parasites that feed on their dreams. At its core, Dream Crasher is also a story about overcoming trauma, the fight for autonomy, and creating a world where we all have a chance to define our own destiny.

One year into our new comic creating process, Reed and I were on fire. Kickstarter was just beginning to reveal itself as an vehicle for indie comics. Chapter one was drawn and painted, and the work on chapter two had already begun. I had found my voice in writing, and had found a brilliant creative partner in Reed. We had momentum. I was excited for what the future held.

Running parallel to all of this, I found myself very much in love for the first time in my life. Blair changed my jaded views on that four letter word. He challenged me to be a better person. He made me smile every time he laughed at his own jokes. He gave me confidence in the creative choices I was making. He was also a talented writer and musician in his own right, and he encouraged me on this project when it was still in its early stages. To say my life was perfect would be a lie, but I was the happiest I had been in a long time.

All of this changed when Blair died in the summer of 2011. My whole world fell to pieces. The unexpected trauma, the weight of the grief, and the subsequent depression and healing all took their toll in various ways. I’ve written extensively about the grief and the healing over the years since. This tragedy permeated every aspect of my life, and the still-unnamed Dream Crasher was no exception. Comics were put on hold. I scribbled ideas in notebooks and thought about the project from time to time, but in the end it took more than six months before I sat down to work again. And even then, the work was slow. It took another year after that before I finished the script for the third chapter. It felt like starting from scratch and learning how to write again. In hindsight, this was in no small part due to a fresh perspective I had on my main character, Amalie.

I had been following Kurt Vonnegut’s sixth rule to a T. I was being a sadist and making awful things happen to my main character, but I hadn’t given a second thought to how it was affecting her. I hadn’t thought about how she processed the world around her, or who she was because of it. Through my own grief, I suddenly understood her on a whole new level. In many ways, Amalie is a representation of how strong I wish I could be. She’s lost everything she once held dear but has never given in to despair. She’s not unshakeable–she’s persistent. She’s not fearless–she’s brave. She’s a survivor in every sense of the word.

In his own writing, Blair had a knack for extracting beauty from the darkest of places. His example inspired me to do the same. I began to think of this bleak new world as less of a graveyard and more like fertile soil. I realized that it’s not a story about the world that’s been destroyed, but rather the new one that is taking its place. It’s about the children who have an opportunity to shape it and truly make it their own. As dismal as the world can seem sometimes, there are still dreams worth fighting for. Beneath its dystopian exterior, Dream Crasher is a story about finding the last bit of light in a world that’s gone dark and protecting it with every fiber of our being. Even when the powers that be are stacked against us. Even when the cause seems hopeless.

As devastating as Blair’s death was, I didn’t let it stop me. That in and of itself is a cause worth celebrating. Reed and I both had numerous opportunities to put this project down and quietly walk away from it, and no one would have thought less of us for doing so. We didn’t. I’m grateful to say that, in the face obstacles we never could have anticipated, we persisted.

Today, we are on the cusp of completing the first arc of the series. That first arc, which parallels my own story of grief, captures the resilience of a character who has outgrown my original idea of her. A character who grew and inspired me in ways I never expected. I have never worked harder on any single piece of art, and I couldn’t be more excited to share it with the world. Like many up-and-coming creators, we have launched a Kickstarter Campaign. With it, we hope to raise funds to cover the cost of printing, lettering, and designing the book itself. We’re offering a variety of rewards to any backers, ranging from digital chapters for as little as $4, the physical book for $25, and several pieces of original artwork from the series for $100. We’re off to solid start. and we’ve already made it farther than seemed possible just a few years ago. The campaign runs until October 6, 2017.

Photo Credit: Blaise Allen.

Review: Letters for Lucardo

Iron Circus Comics has been steadily publishing a slew of critically-acclaimed anthologies and graphic novels primarily created by women that focus on queer themes. Among their titles are the collected print edition of the acclaimed webcomic The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal and the sex-positive “by women for everyone” erotica collection Smut Peddler. Their latest, Letters For Lucardo by writer and artist Noora Heikkila, was [successfully Kickstarted last fall and began shipping this spring. It tells the story of an interracial, inter-generational queer Vampire/Human couple, and does so with the tenderness its subjects deserve.

I’ll be the first to admit that vampires are not what drew me to backing this Kickstarter. While it isn’t a subgenre I read regularly, it didn’t deter me either. I didn’t realize there were vampires in it at all until after the book arrived. Though the vampire mythos is impossible to miss once you start reading, the word vampire (to my knowledge) is never spoken. Instead, what we get is a fully realized world in its own right, distinct from the well-known genre tropes. The religion centered around the Silent Lord and ruled by the Night Court is as creepy as it is fascinating. What really drives the plot, however, are the two central characters Ed and Lucardo.

Ed is a 61-year-old scribe working for the Night Court, of which Lucardo is a member. Lucardo hails from a powerful family of ageless aristocrats, and develops strong feelings for Ed in spite of his family’s misgivings. While this is erotica, and the sexual tension is present right from the first scene, the story takes its time to build up to the sex scenes. Each one is approached with a mix of tenderness and raw primal force that is often brought out by love and mutual attraction. It’s through these scenes that we see both characters at their most vulnerable. They help set the tone for dramatic turns outside of the bedroom, making them all the more resonant and powerful.

At its core, this is a story about loving someone in spite of societal boundaries. While the world that Ed and Lucardo live in is not a direct parallel to ours, they experience many struggles resembling those interracial queer couples face. Lucardo’s place on the Night Court grants him a life of privilege unlike anything that Ed has ever known. He starts out largely oblivious to Ed’s struggles, only to realize through the cruel pranks of his siblings and disrespect paid by his father, just how powerful those societal pressures can be. Without dropping any spoilers, it is these very pressures that come to a head and leave the reader eagerly anticipating Book 2.

The physical copy of the book is available now for pre-order, and digital copy can be purchased now from the Iron Circus Store. You can also check out a 10-page preview on the Iron Circus Tumblr.”