Maggie reviews Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky

the cover of Coming Back

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky is a rather lovely fantasy graphic novel about two women, Preet and Valissa, trying to come to terms with themselves and each other and the world they live in. It comes out on January 18th, and I’d like to thank Random House for providing The Lesbrary with an ARC for review. Preet and Valissa live in a small community where Preet uses her powerful magic to help everyone in the village. Her partner, Valissa, has no magic and runs the town library. One day, a mysterious mist enters the library from the depths, leading to town panic. They decide to send someone to investigate, and Valissa volunteers because the village needs Preet’s gift too much to lose her. Their separation leads both of them to actions they never would have taken had their lives not been disrupted, and forces them to examine themselves, their relationship, and their very view of the world.

I thought this was a very charming graphic novel with lots of interesting worldbuilding. The worldbuilding is more in the art than in the dialogue, so a slow and careful reading to really appreciate the art is rewarding as the detail unfolds. The way the characters interact with the world around them is interesting. It leads to many questions that do not always get answered, but it’s more fun to imagine the answers than if the story had been loaded down with heavy description boxes, which would disrupt the flow of the artwork. Why is the library built around a hole in the ground? We don’t know but I’m fascinated by the idea. I also always appreciate a story where the diversity and queerness is baked in. Valissa and Preet are clearly accepted as a couple within their village, and none of their conflict revolves around the fact that they’re both women. The village they come from is diverse and accepting, and they’re only concerned when Preet stops performing her duties. The wider world outside the village is also magical, full of people of different shapes and talents. It’s a soft, interesting world, drawn with care and whimsical detail.

Which is the other high point of this book. Jessi Zabarsky’s artwork is gorgeous, full of graceful movements and colorful accents. Personally, I found everyone’s outfits the most charming. Everyone looked soft and very cute. The movements around the magical talents were also well conveyed. The book relies more heavily on art than on dialogue boxes, and Zabarsky’s style holds up well. It’s a very restful read, and a sharp contrast from the busy action so popular in a lot of graphic novels and comic books now.

In conclusion Coming Back was a soft, delightful read. I greatly enjoyed both the artwork and the story. Valissa’s journey shows a lot of strength and courage, and Preet’s big emotions grabbed my heart. If you’re looking for a YA graphic novel for yourself or for a gift, this would be a great choice. Coming Back comes out on January 18, and it would make for a perfect cozy winter afternoon read. 

Kayla Bell reviews Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky

the cover of Coming Back

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

What a better way to start the new year than with a beautiful, evocative graphic novel that puts the relationship between two women, their family, and their society at the front and center of the narrative? Jessi Zabarsky’s new graphic novel, Coming Back, is all that and more. 

Preet and Valissa are partners that live in a magical society. Preet has magic and is a talented healer. Valissa doesn’t share Preet’s skill at magic but serves as a librarian, the keeper of their society’s histories and stories. After tragedy strikes the community, Valissa takes it upon herself to venture beyond the borders of their town and try to make things right. But she must take this long journey alone. Will Valissa and Preet’s love survive this trial, and what will they both learn during their time apart? 

One thing I loved about Coming Back, that so many graphic novels I’ve read don’t do, is how it often lets the art speak for itself. It’s the ultimate version of show, don’t tell: presenting the pictures and letting the readers formulate their own telling of the story. In addition to sparking the readers’ imaginations and allowing us to build a deeper bond to the story, it also allows us to appreciate the beautiful artwork. Coming Back’s minimalist, muted color palette and friendly art style worked really well for me, and I appreciated the opportunity to enjoy it fully. 

The only problem with the lack of telling in the story is that sometimes the plot can be a little bit hard to follow. For me, that was doubly true because the plot definitely didn’t go in the direction I was expecting. Personally, I would have appreciated a little bit more worldbuilding or exposition to fully understand the story. I think that would have made the ending of the story land better, as well. 

Despite this, one of my favorite parts of the story was the worldbuilding we did get. Like I said before, Valissa is the keeper of their community’s histories. As a society where shapeshifting and magical rituals are commonplace, these stories are as interesting as you can imagine. In addition to being beautifully constructed and illustrated, they also serve as the lynchpin for the story. Coming Back’s main theme is tradition: what it means, what it becomes over time, and when it might be time to change it. While the story was relatively short, I think it did a great job of addressing these questions. 

I thought that the characters were a strong suit of this graphic novel. Each character is very unique and individual. Preet and Valissa are no exception. Each of their personalities and flaws were the heart of the narrative. I loved seeing two complex women navigate their relationship with each other and life’s challenges. The fact that both characters were able to grow and develop so much in such a short amount of time was a real achievement. 

Coming Back is an excellent, female-centered graphic novel that explores how people relate to each other, their family, and their history. It has an interesting, inviting art style and well-crafted characters. It releases on the 18th of this month. Thank you to the publisher for providing an advanced copy to review.

Sheila reviews Harley Quinn: The Animated Series: The Eat. Bang! Kill. Tour #1-2 by Tee Franklin, Max Sarin, and Marissa Louise

Harley Quinn The Eat. Bang! Kill. Tour #1 and 2 covers

Considering that I have viewed much of Harley Quinn’s comic, television, and film history from afar until recently (after watching Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, which I felt was one of the best bisexually-focused films I have ever seen. Watch it, and tell me I’m wrong, I dare you.), my thoughts on Harley, other characters, and the comic as a whole might be different than that of fans of The Animated Series show. 

For the past few years, I have seen Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy popping up across social media as examples of a canon sapphic relationship between two big characters in DC comics—one of these characters even big enough to warrant her own, aforementioned film. In the handful of films starring Margot Robbie as Harley, this relationship with Poison Ivy is not shown, mentioned, or even hinted at (though Robbie’s Harley is arguably still a queer character). I was excited after seeing previews of the first issue of this new comic series, which showed not only Poison Ivy in a wedding dress with Harley Quinn, but the two of them pictured in various stages of undress and romantic entanglements.

These images were present, alongside even more passionate moments, but I found myself disappointed by the actual story itself. I felt a little baited into thinking these comics would portray this relationship in a good light, without relationship drama destroying every good moment that Harley and Ivy have. Harley’s character is infantilized even more than in her other depictions across other forms of media, and Ivy spends half her time (the other taken up by seducing or being seduced by Harley) chastising Harley for…being the person and character that (I’m assuming a longtime friend and paramour of the villain would know) she has been all along. I want to be able to look at these characters—villains and antiheroes though they are—as a relationship that can last, and last in a healthy manner (especially considering the abuse Harley suffered at the hands of her longtime partner the Joker).

The art style of this work was lovely, and I think the background bits of the story bring up some interesting points (such as Batman swooping in to stop, not the villains, but Commissioner Gordon, who has gone overboard with his attempts to police Gotham). Part of me wants to see where this story goes, and hopes that this comic ends with Ivy and Harley happy together. I worry, though, that the other issues will be filled with more instances of Poison Ivy shitting on Harley, while still benefiting from the love and passion Harley feels for her. At the moment, the relationship is too unhealthy for me to root for, which frustrates me; I had hoped that this would be my first reading of their relationship in the comics, and that it would make me want to read more and give me a relationship to root for, not just an instance of an unhealthy queer relationship that might be passed off as good just for existing amongst so many other heterosexual relationships in comics.

Danika reviews When I Arrived at the Castle by Emily Carroll

When I Arrived at the Castle cover

I loved Emily Carroll’s previous book, Through the Woods, which is an unsettling and beautiful horror graphic novel, so I was excited to pick up her next book. When I found out it was a sapphic vampire horror erotica graphic novel, though, I couldn’t believe my luck.

Emily Carroll’s art style is gorgeous and compelling, and the black, white, and red colour scheme works so well in this. The story has a haunting, almost fairy tale feel that slips into the dreamlike. Do I completely understand what happened? No. But I was enthralled by this gory and sexy story. I really want to read more queer horror erotica. This, like Fist of the Spider Woman edited by Amber Dawn, is equal parts erotic and disturbing. There is plenty of gore and blood, but it’s juxtaposed with the sexiness, which just heightens that feeling of unease.

Caroll is a master of page design, and almost every spread is arranged differently: the view through a keyhole, an all-text page telling a story, a coffin illuminated in a ray of light. I’d want them framed and on my wall if there wasn’t the nightmare factor.

a page from When I Arrived at the Castle, showing two figures in the doorway of a room filled with two stories of red doors. The text reads: "Doors. Like a nest of ravenous baby birds, their mouths yawning from floor to ceiling. And I a worm, dangling from her beak."

I read this in October (I’m… a bit behind in reviews), and made for a perfect Halloween themed read, but for those of you who like to get creeped out all year round, definitely add this to your TBR.

This seems to be out of print, unfortunately, and pretty difficult to get your hands on. My library had it, luckily, but hopefully it gets reprinted soon, because I would love a copy for my permanent collection.

Til reviews Artie and the Wolf Moon by Olivia Stephens

Artie and the Wolf Moon cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Artie and the Wolf Moon is a graphic novel about middle schooler Artie, a budding photographer who discovers that her mom is a werewolf. Artie is a lonely kid. She’s one of the few students of color at her school, and she’s bullied by some of her classmates. When she shows signs that she, too, is a werewolf, her mom takes her to a whole community of wolves.

The book follows Artie’s development as a werewolf, learning her history both of her family and of werewolves in the United States, as well as her personal growth as she gains confidence, navigates new non-werewolf friendships, and falls blushing and stammering into a romance with her new friend Maya. It’s a tightly woven narrative with strong plot and character elements throughout, and it explores themes of community, grief, and growing up.

A good graphic novel strikes just the right balance between too much character content and too much action, and I thought Artie and the Wolf Moon absolutely nailed it. Artie stood out as an impulsive, stubborn, curious girl. She discovers the werewolves’ world as readers do. Scenes with Maya’s family and community overrun with a sense of acceptance and community. I felt how much happier Artie was, and werewolf shifting and lore felt like family activities–especially the way Artie was included even before she learned to control her shifting. There was a sense of adventure and even peril, but those felt secondary to a story about belonging.

The artwork suited the story well. The center of the story is Artie and her newfound community, and the images reflect that. Stephens creates simple backgrounds, setting the stage but focusing on the characters. I found it effective, especially with creating atmosphere. Werewolf-ness was represented by bright red lines, while vampires were jagged shadows. It gave the supernatural elements an otherworldly feeling.

This is a coming-of-age story, and Artie and Maya’s romance has the feeling of a first love: hesitant and shy and marked by a lot of blushing, and it develops over quiet moments they share. Their relationship is defined by this shared time and closeness. When Maya chooses to spend time with Artie alone, they climb a tree together in the sweetest single panel I have seen, possibly ever. It feels sincere, tender, and just right for a story about identity and belonging. It was soft and lovely. This is exactly the content I came here for.

The werewolves’ story ties into Black history in the United States. Mine is an outsider’s perspective here, but it’s an important part of the book and excluding it from the review would be disingenuous. The Mother Werewolf fled enslavement, and with Black werewolves and white vampires, generational conflicts between the two parallel racial violence and discrimination. One incident that stands out involves vampires forcing a werewolf family out of town. This is a scene that, portrayed in films, would have ensured one of the white characters stepped into an especially bright patch to be given identity, a particularly harsh contrast given how films’ lighting already favors lighter-skinned actors. Stephens chose to portray this scene without making the vampires more than blurred phantoms, no personhood for those mired in hate. When historical elements of violent discrimination were included, they kept the narrative centered on Black characters.

Artie and the Wolf Moon is a standout. Plot and exploration of this new world complement character growth, with each aspect given space to breathe. I appreciated moments when Artie was allowed to be frustrated or annoyed, not because the story needed it but because that’s part of growing up; I appreciated moments where characters are thrust into situations they’re not ready for because the story demands more. Supernatural elements are grounded in a palpable community setting. I enjoyed so much about reading this book.

Trigger warnings: the book includes instances of racism and bullying

Anke reviews Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

As we’re moving through autumn, Mooncakes is a warm cup of your favourite beverage in book form. If you are looking for a sweet, cozy and ultimately wholesome graphic novel to light up the darker season, you should turn to this adorable, modern-supernatural and intersectionally queer love story about family, belonging and taming one’s (very literal) demons. 

I’ve been in love with Mooncakes since its webcomic days on tumblr, since before it was published by Oni Press in 2019 in a revised version. Suzanne Walker, co-creator and writer of the story, has been a dear friend of mine since our shared fandom days. What’s stayed constant since then is her ability to completely ace the emotional beats of any story she chooses to tell, so naturally the same is true for Mooncakes. To match Suzanne Walker’s writing, Wendy Xu, illustrator and the other co-creator of Mooncakes, has brought the story to endearing, vibrant life and colour.

The story begins with a reunion: Chinese-American teenage witch Nova Huang, who works at her grandmothers’ café-and-magical-bookshop, encounters her childhood crush Tam Lang in the forest while investigating reports of strange goings-on one autumn night. Not only is Tam a werewolf, they are also fighting a demon designated to possess them by a creepy cult hoping to harness their little-explored but extremely powerful wolf magic. The story that unfolds features help from Nova’s grandmas Qiuli and Nechama (a married couple of Chinese-American and Jewish kickass old lady witches! Yes!), a bunch of black cats, enchanting forest spirits and emotional-support scientist Tatyana.

The sweet, uncomplicated romance between Nova and Tam, whose feelings rekindle as they collaborate to solve Tam’s demon problems, is a delight to watch. After a decade of missing each other, their budding relationship comes as a delightfully warm and sincere emotional backdrop that both heightens the stakes and adds depth to the story. Considering that the comic is rather short at 243 pages (and some bonus content), there is not much room for a complicated plot to top everything off, nor does there need to be. It’s all about the emotional and personal coming-of-age journeys of Nova and Tam, their shared affinity for magic, and how they come into their own during the events of the story. What endears the characters further to the reader is the fact that the intersectional representation that adds so much joy to the story is also intensely personal to the authors. 

In an article at Women Write About Comics, Walker describes Nova as an amalgamation between the two co-creators, explains how the story was always going to be queer, that Nova is bisexual and that Tam is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns (and it’s accepted by everyone in the story, including the creepy cultists). Nova’s hearing loss as a recurring motif of the story is treated with respect and finesse regarding characterization and worldbuilding, just as the comic as a whole expands on existing witch and werewolf lore in interesting ways. Magic, in Mooncakes, has no panacea to offer against disabilities, but they are accommodated rather than bypassed. Workarounds like nonverbal magic and an especially adapted wand let Nova practice witchcraft regardless of her hearing aids, a melding of tradition and innovation that reoccurs throughout the story and finds its echoes in other intersectional moments that always work toward the themes of family and belonging, growing roots and letting go. 

(Spoilers, highlight to read) Mooncakes concludes with an open but satisfying ending that should delight fanfiction writers everywhere with the potential it offers: Both Nova and Tam take steps into a self-determined adulthood, and we are assured that they will go there together. (end of spoilers)

Susan reviews My Alcoholic Escape From Reality by Nagata Kabi

My Alcoholic Escape From Reality cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Nagata Kabi is back with My Alcoholic Escape From Reality! The mangaka behind My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness and My Solo Exchange Diary returns with another memoir, this time about being hospitalised for acute pacreatis resulting from her alcoholism.

My Alcoholic Escape From Reality feels a lot more like a diary comic than any of her previous works. The art style hasn’t changed, although the monochrome colour scheme has shifted to orange now, but the manga as a whole feels tonally lighter and more consistent. I assume that this is a side-effect of it being written as one piece rather than a collection, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise. Despite the lighter tone, the frankness that she has in her previous books continues here. She is very open about her alcoholism and her depression, neither of which is resolved by the end of the book. She’s not a perfect patient by her own admission – she relapses, she gets angry about the restrictions on her life, she lies to her doctors – and she’s very explicit about her understanding of what would make a satisfying narrative about her experience and how it compares to what she’s living. They way Nagata Kabi personifies and visualises her conditions is more emotive than medical, which works great and stops the entire manga being medical professionals explaining things. There is still a lot of medical details involved – if you, like me, have no idea what pancreatis is, look forward to being educated! But the explanations aren’t overwhelming, which I appreciated.

One of the threads of My Alcoholic Escape From Reality is creating while dealing with not only serious medical conditions but also guilt about her work. She feels guilt for creating memoir at all, and for enjoying it when she knows how negatively her family feels about her work. (Her compromise seems to have been only involving them in the most surface-level scenes, rather than delving back into her feelings about them.) The realisations she goes through about her work and what it means to her to do that work is lovely to read.

My general recommendation for Nagata Kabi’s memoirs are that they’re good in the same way that Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette is good. They are both queer creators using their most raw edges and pain as entertainment, and cast an uncomfortable reflection back on the audience consuming that entertainment (… and the reviewer rating how well they depicted that pain, yes, please enjoy the mental knots I tie myself into). They are both funny and insightful, and that humour only makes their more serious points hit like a train. This ties into the point Nagata Kabi makes about narrative satisfaction – as a story, the most satisfying endings are the ones where she either relapses or recovers, and life isn’t that tidy; instead, it’s a narrative in progress, where she’s trying to be well and at least writing herself a smidge of hope for the future, and I respect that a lot.

If you want an untidy memoir told with Nagata Kabi’s usual bluntness and humour, I’d definitely recommend picking this up.

Content warnings: alcoholism, depression, hospitalisation and medical treatment

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn, illustrated by Claire Roe

Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Madison Jackson started as an intern at The Boston Lede, fetching coffee and grabbing quotes for senior writers. But she finds herself thrust into the spotlight when Dahlia Kennedy, a prominent socialite charged with a gruesome murder, latches onto her. Madison must decide how far she’s willing to go and how much to trust Dahlia to get her shot at becoming an ace reporter.

The story starts strong, pulling the reader in with the mystery. A constant back and forth of whether or not Dahlia actually committed the murder creates a palpable tension that moves the mystery forward. But about halfway through, the push and pull without any clear evolution in sight for the characters becomes tedious. After so much buildup on the mystery, when the truth comes to light, it’s more a relief than satisfying.

While the overall plot falls flat, Dunn does capture the newsroom politics well. It’s the nature of these dynamics that define Madison’s character development throughout the story. She starts as a typical, shy intern and it seems like she’s going to make a name for herself. But the path she takes to do that leads to selfish decisions that hurt others, making her a rather unlikeable character.

Unlikeability in a character isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but between her devolving character arc and the tiresome plot, it doesn’t leave much for the reader to root for. Especially because most of the characters are unlikeable. The diversity of supporting characters made the story feel real, but there was very little to like about most of them.

The artwork helps keep the story moving even after the pacing starts to fall short. Vibrant colors make every panel pop on its own. And yet it has a style that still feels very noir, keeping in line with the mystery genre.

Bury the Lede is a solid 3 stars because it did keep me entertained for the most part.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto, illustrated by Ann Xu

Shadow Life cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Kumiko, a 76-year-old widow, leaves the assisted living facility her adult daughters put her in because it just wasn’t for her. She wants to maintain whatever independence she can for as long as she can. She feels death coming for her, but it’s too soon. So, when death’s shadow tries to take her before her time, Kumiko fights back.

It’s so refreshing to see an older bisexual character. I have not come across many older characters in general, let alone queer ones, but maybe I’m not reading the right books. Regardless, Kumiko is a delightful main character. She’s quirky and saucy in a way that you can see how she charms some people and irritates others.

The story focuses mostly on Kumiko’s battle with the shadow of Death that has come to take her away. But threaded throughout you also get a glimpse of her relationship with her daughters in the present and flashbacks of her time with her husband, who died in a car accident. For anyone who’s dealt with being a caretaker of an older parent or grandparent, it’s easy to understand the daughters’ perspective, seeing how easily frustrated she is by Kumiko. But in telling the story from Kumiko’s point of view, Goto brings a lot of empathy for the parent’s point of view. Kumiko simply wants to live her life, even if she will start needing more help and supervision soon.

As Kumiko battles Death’s shadow, we get a fun cast of characters that include a surly vacuum storekeeper and her sweet neighbor that looks out for her. She is also reunited with her old flame, Alice. It’s here that the story reveals her bisexuality and it’s even revealed to her daughters. Her eldest is taken by surprise but they don’t make a big deal out of her sexuality itself, so much as the fact that she never told them. Kumiko asserts that it wasn’t something she hid, she just never talked about her past relationships.

I’m not usually captivated by black and white comics, but in this case, it works. And most of the graphic novel takes place through the panel artwork with very little dialogue. In fact, there’s one moment that stands out to convey and affirm Kumiko’s identity as a Japanese Canadian woman. There’s a panel that includes dialogue in Japanese characters and provides no translation. It’s a moment where the reader is made an outsider in the way that people marginalized by white, English-speaking cultures are usually othered. Even though I have no idea what words were spoken there, I didn’t need to. It didn’t detract from the overall story.

No spoilers for how it ends, but all in all, a bewitching tale with fun characters you feel invested in.

Danika reviews The Secret To Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Fun Home is one of my favourite books, which will come as a surprise to absolutely no one. It’s a deeply introspective graphic memoir about books, coming out, and lesbian books. What’s not to like? While Fun Home is suffused with literature references, though, Are You My Mother? is equally concerned with psychoanalysis, which was a lot harder for me to relate to. In Bechdel’s newest graphic novel, she examines her life-long love affair with various exercise phases with references to transcendentalists and Buddhism.

There’s something comforting and familiar to me about reading an Alison Bechdel book. Her thoughtful introspection and constant ruminating about how best to live in this world feels like a mind I can relate to. While her previous graphic memoirs focused on her father and her mother, this one takes a long range look at exercise as a coping mechanism through her whole life, separated into decades. As a child, she saw an ad in a comic book that promised the “secret to superhuman strength.” It turned out to only be an inaccessible Jiu Jitsu pamphlet, but she continues to look for this secret her whole life: through running, karate, skiing, cycling, yoga, and more–always in the hopes of escaping the inevitable conclusion that she is interdependent and mortal.

Alongside this journey of physical transformation–always looking for more strength and inexhaustible endurance–Bechdel also goes on a spiritual exploration of the self. She tries to grapple with this question by looking at artists and writers through history, including Jack Kerouac, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Perhaps the appeal of these exercise regiments, though, is that she can track notable changes, while the psychological and spiritual journey feels more like one step forward and two steps back. In one striking panel, Bechdel realizes she only though she’d been dealing well with her father’s death because she hadn’t dealt with it at all; she hadn’t allowed herself to feel anything. She approaches fitness and her work with the same intensity, damaging her body and her relationships in the process.

Aside from following the fitness fads Bechdel has participated in over the years, this is primarily a story about yearning, a striving for transcendence, for finding the secret to living well. It’s about not just physical strength, but also the emotional endurance necessary to be human. It’s about looking for the secret of how to best live–so there’s no real neat conclusion possible. This is a story still in progress.

I didn’t feel the same way about The Secret To Superhuman Strength as Fun Home, but that’s an impossible hurdle to clear. I did connect more to this than Are You My Mother?, despite being as far from a fitness fan as possible. I also appreciated being to able to get a wider scope of Bechdel’s life, including how the publication of her graphic memoirs (especially Fun Home) changed her everyday reality. It’s at times painful to read, because I feel so much sympathy for her, but that just shows how effective it is.