Mallory Lass reviews Fearless Defenders by Cullen Bunn, illustrated by Will Sliney and Stephanie Hans.

Fearless Defenders Vols 1 and 2

As you may know from some of my earlier reviews, I am new-ish to comics and therefore discovering old gems all the time. Fearless Defenders (2013) is a 12 issue run that has been captured into two trade paperback volumes. Some of the individual issue covers are nothing short of amazing, including a romance novel themed one and a Sailor Moon themed one. This review contains minor spoilers about some characters sexualities, but hopefully without giving too much context, the stories will still feel fresh when you read them.

What I enjoyed most about this series is that it is fun and campy and unapologetically female fronted. The costumes are often over the top, the locales exotic (from the cosmos to the home of the Amazons), the character combinations bordering on weird, but somehow it all works perfectly. The Fearless Defenders is a group helmed by Valkyrie, and made up of a misfit group of fearsome ladies, with varying levels or superpowers and super abilities including the likes of Clea, Dani Moonstar, Hippolyta, and She-Hulk. Their objective is to grow their team and protect the universe from evil forces and the various brewing plots to bring down humanity.

There are two explicitly queer female characters in this run, and even though her sexuality is not really discussed in these pages, Valkyrie is canon bisexual and certainly can be read that way in Fearless Defenders. No coming out stories here, when romantic relationships between women come up, they just happen without any commentary, and that is a big plus for me. There is so much good banter, especially instigated by Misty Knight, a bionic private eye with a gorgeous afro, who happens to be one of my favorite characters from this series. She is best friends with lesbian Archeologist Annabelle Riggs and also ocasionally her contract employee.

Dr. Annabelle Riggs is a human (midgaurdian) about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. She is what I affectionately call “adorkable:” basically, if Daria and Lara Croft merged, you would get Annabelle. She has the cutest freckles and Rachel Maddow level cool glasses. Plus she is intelligent and kindhearted. There is no shortage of Misty giving her friend a hard time about her love life, and how much of a disaster gay she is. Annabelle is one of the throughlines of this series, and I think it is one made stronger by having a human to balance out all the superheroes.

The other queer character is baby gay Ren Kimura, and dancer who unexpectedly develops superpowers. Ren shows up in the back half of the series (or tpb Vol 2) and is new to this whole superhero thing. She is also a young adult trying to figure out her life while living with overbearing and conservative parents, so, highly relatable. In my opinion, her story doesn’t get enough air time, but it is still a nice ‘coming into adulthood’ journey. The ferocity with which she fights, all instinct, no training, is inspiring.

Another really cool thing about this series is that most of the villains are female, including the ring leader Caroline Le Fay. Many of the superheroes she recruits or hires to do her bidding are powerful ladies who chose the dark side, and I thought that was a really great contrast to our band of Defenders. I don’t see a lot of female v. female fights in comics, so if you are into that, this is the story for you.

If you want a diverse female centric run of comics with an enjoyable superhero storyline, this is definitely a series for you.

Danika reviews Heathen, Volume 1 by Natasha Alterici

Heathen Volume 1 by Natasha Alterici

I feel like Heathen is a book that lots of people are looking for, but they don’t know it’s an option. It’s about a lesbian viking taking on the patriarchy. Norse mythology with a queer lead! That’s what made me pick this up in the first place, but I mistakenly thought this would be incidentally queer: that the main character liked women, but it wouldn’t come up much. Instead, the basis of her arc is that she was banished from her community–and meant to be killed–for kissing a girl. Instead of feeling shame, she feels outrage at a system that punishes her for this. She decides to free Brynhild, a Valkyrie who is imprisoned in fire by Odin.

That’s only the beginning, though. This is a quest to take down the patriarchy, and along the way Aydis and her allies defend other outcasts. She also runs into some talking wolves and a talking horse as well as Freyja, goddess of love. Oh, and of course, she picks a fight with the most powerful enemy you can find in Norse mythology: Odin.

I really like the art, which has muted colours and a scratchy quality that makes it more dynamic. I’m not going to be able to explain it well, so just look at the page below for an idea of the style. My only qualm, and it’s a small one, is that Aydis and many other female characters are wearing very little clothing, especially considering that this scene takes place in winter. It is own voices lesbian representation, though, so I’m not going to get too hung up on clothing choices. This is a fun, feminist take on Norse mythology, and I’m looking forward to picking up volume 2!

Page from Heathen

Susan reviews A City Inside by Tillie Walden

A City Inside by Tillie Walden

Tillie Walden’s A City Inside is a short surreal book about a young woman growing into herself again and again.

As you’d expect from me reviewing Tillie Walden’s work, the art is beautiful; the protagonist’s various homes are especially well done, and the way that the art manages to tinge even the protagonist’s happier moments with melancholy is pleasingly visual. As with i love this part, the more surreal parts of the narrative are left for the reader to interpret as they will; the narrative is framed as someone telling the protagonist her own past and future, so the reader can take its accuracy and melancholy and hope as they will. And I did find it hopeful – even when the narrative takes the protagonist into an isolated city of herself, there is an underlying message of hope – it gifts her the hope of finding a place and a version of herself that she can live in and with, a future that she hasn’t seen yet and might not be able to, and that has value all of its own.

I found A City Inside to be a beautiful exploration of the different ways you can try for what you want (or what you think you should want), and the irreparable ways that these things sometimes contradict each other. I highly recommend it if you get the chance.

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 writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Danika reviews Moonstruck, Vol. 1: Magic to Brew

Moonstruck Vol 1

I adored this book when I started it. The pastel colours, the adorable art style, the world packed full of magical people of all varieties (living plants! ghosts! centaurs!), and the coffee shop setting. Then you get a f/f romance between two fat poc werewolves (Selena is Black and Julie is Latina)! It also has a nonbinary centaur character who uses they/them pronouns. I was gearing up for a five star rating.

Unfortunately, I ended up giving this one three stars, because I am conflicted about it. Although the plot pulled me through the story and I loved the aesthetics, the adorable relationship quickly devolves into something… icky. Selena is sometimes controlling and even insulting. Julie reacts with tears. They fight, multiple times, including physically (as werewolves). I fully admit that I prefer my romance fluffy and basically conflict-free, so I am bringing my own baggage into this, especially because I can feel so much empathy for Julie, who is a raw nerve of vulnerability and sensitivity.

I still want to continue with the series, because everything else was 5 stars for me, but because I was expected fluff, the downward spiral of the relationship really soured it for me. The book does address their dynamics and has some accountability, but it still didn’t seem to match the happy tone of the rest of the book. I’m interested to see if the next volume course corrects in that, or if I’ll have to accept that this one isn’t for me.

Danika reviews Princeless: Raven the Pirate Princess Vols. 1-3

Princeless: Raven the Pirate Princess Vol 1

I finally got around to reading Princeless: Raven the Pirate Princess, a comic series that’s been on my TBR ever since I heard of its existence. I’m kicking myself for not starting it sooner, because it’s just as awesome I was hoping. Raven is the daughter of a pirate captain, and she was supposed to inherit the title. Unfortunately, her brothers stole that from her. Now, she’s determined to put together her own crew, get a ship, and regain what’s rightfully hers.

This is a diverse, all-women pirate crew bent on revenge. There’s an f/f romance between Raven and another member of the crew, who was a childhood friend until Raven betrayed her. (Friends to Lovers to Enemies to Lovers?) I can’t help but compare this to Lumberjanes for a) the all-women group of adventurers and b) hijinks, but Raven the Pirate Princess seems to be aimed more at teens than middle grade. There is more violence than something like Lumberjanes, and the relationships are more complex.

My favourite thing about the three volumes I’ve read so far is that I feel like I’m really getting to know the entire crew, not just the five on the covers. They all have distinct personalities, and they have their own close friendships and rivals within the group. In addition to the racial diversity and multiple queer characters, there’s also a Deaf character who uses sign language. Although there is a lot of action, and the plot progresses quickly, I felt like there was still attention paid to establish each character.

In addition to adventure and heartbreak, there’s also a lot of satire, especially making feminist points. I also loved the references that I caught (Doctor Who, Avatar, a Kelly Sue DeConnick appearance). I preferred the art in the first volume (that’s what’s the cover), though, and I did take a while to get used to the art in the second volume. In the third volume, there’s a subplot that I don’t feel great about. [spoilers/content warning about race, highlight to read] A black woman (elf) is held captive and treated like an animal. One of the people imprisoning her (he is wearing a turban and has light skin) befriends her, and begins to argue for her to have more privileges (like a room to be locked in instead of a cage), but is still imprisoning her. They fall in love. He breaks her out. I feel uncomfortable with the prisoner-falls-in-love-with-her-captor story line no matter what the context, but having the black woman character treated as an animal and kept as a cage just adds to the grossness, and I don’t believe there are any black creators on the team. [end] There are a lot of diverse characters, which helps, but I did personally cringe at that point.

I do want to continue with the story, though, and I’m excited to see where it heads next!

Danika reviews Aquicorn Cove by Katie O’Neill

Aquicorn Cove by Katie O'Neill

I can’t get enough of Katie O’Neill’s artwork and stories. The illustrations are beautiful, captivating, and comforting. The pastel tones and softness of shapes matches the soothing tone of her narratives. In her author bio, she says that she writes “gentle fantasy stories,” and I think that’s the perfect description. This one definitely has a similar feel to The Tea Dragon Society: a sweet middle grade comic with a queer subplot.

There is a fantasy element to Aquicorn Cove, but fundamentally it’s about Lana and her father visiting to the seaside town she grew up in, before her mother passed away. They are staying with Lana’s aunt, helping to clean up after a storm damaged a lot of the town. Lana loves seeing her aunt and being back home, but her father is impatient to go back to the city–uncomfortable with the memories that haunt him here.

This is also a love letter to the ocean. Lana clearly loves being back by the water, and she nurtures a baby aquicorn she finds stranded in a tidal pool. The environmentalist message includes information at the back of the book about coral reefs and how we can take care of them.

The romance is between Lana’s aunt and an underwater woman creature (not a mermaid… she kind of reminds me of a Pokemon, but in a good way). In flashbacks, we see how they got closer, and then how they drifted apart. Their town depends on fishing, and it becomes a point of tension between them.

If you liked her other works, you’ll like this one, too. I’d especially recommend this to middle grade nature lovers, but anyone looking for a gentle fantasy story (especially with queer content) should appreciate this one.

Susan reviews My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2 by Nagata Kabi

My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2

My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2 is another set of autobiographical essays about Nagata Kabi’s life and depression. Where Volume 1 followed her attempts at independence and romantic intimacy while unpicking her relationship with her family, whereas volume 2 finds Nagata Kabi enjoying friendship and emotional intimacy, while her mental health takes a nosedive.

Just like with the first volume, My Solo Exchange Diary can be a rough read. Nagata Kabi is frank about her mental health and the setbacks she suffered – being equally unable to cope with living alone and living with her family, drinking, and voluntary hospitalisation – and that is often harrowing! Sometimes funny, but definitely hard sometimes. Her cartoony style still doesn’t soften any of the blows, and sometimes make it worse, but her art is clean and striking, so it works! (And just on a purely over-analysing level: I love that the cover is finally her reaching out to herself and talking, because I feel like that drawing alone represents so much growth in her attitude to herself and her own pain.)

I think what really struck me for the first time as I read this is that because of the format – a collected edition of visual essays that were originally serialised monthly – it’s actually really tense to read, because you don’t have the same reassurance that the creator must have been fine because they finished the book as you would in a more standard autobiography. It accounts for the significant shifts in tone and subject between the chapters, and the way that she is much more enthusiastic and loving about her family than she was in the first volume, even as she talks about the pain they have caused and still cause her. It makes sense, because My Solo Exchange Diary is very much about the ways that Nagata Kabi’s family hurt her, but still rallied around when she needed them, but it was a little surprising to read.

The depiction of her struggle with independence and her stay in hospital felt very relatable to me, especially in her reactions to being stuck in the hospital without being able to articulate her fear and despair at the idea of having to stay there for months on end. It doesn’t feel advisory or demonstrative, it’s not a “here is what staying in hospital for mental health reasons is like,” it’s just what it was like for her, and the ways in which it helped her and scared her.

Unsurprisingly, My Solo Exchange Diary is still hard and harrowing to read, but it feels more hopeful than the previous volume. Nagata Kabi specifically talks about her support network that cares for her, and there is an epilogue where she recognises that packaging her life in neat little chunks for an audience is maybe not the best choice for her right now, which I’m honestly in favour of because I’d rather she focus on her recovery. Seeing her asking how her future self was doing at the end of some of the chapters broke my heart a little, but gave me hope that she was going to be okay. … Especially because she FINALLY got the hug that she’s been waiting for, and I nearly cried for her.

[Caution warning: alcoholism, depression, hospitalisation, self-harm, suicide attempt]

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 writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Danika reviews Girl Town by Carolyn Nowak

Girl Town by Carolyn NowakWhat a weird and wonderful book. This a collection of comic short stories, which differ in characters and style, but have a similar vibe of women’s complicated relationships with each other, and a general sense of unease and yearning. With beginning lines like “I have lived with Ashley and Jolene since we all got kicked out of astronaut school for being too good-looking to be sent to space,” Girl Town wastes no time in introducing you to a world that’s one step out of sync with our own, while still seeming eerily familiar.

The first story follows two neighboring houses of women who are sparring with each. One house has a bacchanalia where they ritually burn the main character’s sock dog, while she looks on, enthralled. It includes the line “Her nipples rattled against the windowsill with an odious rhythm.” Have mentioned how unapologetically strange this book is?

My favourite story is the second: “Radishes.” It follows two girls at an outdoor market. They try on clothes and explore the stalls, but while Kelly prances around the stalls, delighting in spinning around in dresses and cuddling with a tiger, Beth hangs back slightly, perpetually embarrassed. She makes fun of herself for her armpit fat, her chin, and her clumsiness. The two of them stumble on a stall with fruit and vegetables with magical properties. When Kelly accidentally duplicates herself, she wants to take her doppelganger home to mess with her parents. When Beth follows suit, she accepts a hug from her other self and begins to sob, apologizing to her.

“Diana’s Electric Tongue” follows Diana, burnt from a breakup, who finds comfort in a robot boyfriend. “The Big Burning House” is a portion of a podcast about a movie no one has seen since it was aired a few times in the 90s. The hosts speculate excitedly, as they prepare to watch a recently-found copy of the tape. “Please Sleep Over” follows two women (a couple) house sitting at one’s parents’ house. We see glimpses of their stay, but the scene that sticks out to me is them lying together in bed as one says “My parents are good. They’re really good parents. They will always support my choices.” [Panel of silence] “I just wish they didn’t think I was so stupid,” she continues, beginning to cry. Her girlfriend replies with anger, “Shut up. Parents can go to hell. My parents are ‘good’ too. They can go to hell. No one knows what you’re capable of.”

Girl Town is a surreal and affecting read. I felt off-kilter while reading it, with the odd worlds and only brief glimpses into these lives, but the emotions rang true. I read this book because my coworker put it in my hands and said “I just read this and I think you’re really like it.” Not only am I glad to have had it put in my hands, I’m also flattered to be associated with a queer weirdo feelings comic like this one.

Susan reviews Sweet Blue Flowers Volume 2 by Takako Shimura

Sweet Blue Flowers Volume Two by Takako Shimura cover

Sweet Blue Flowers Volume Two by Takako Shimura expands Fumi and Akira’s worlds a little more; it covers the summer holiday and their move up to second year in school, with all the attendant new people that comes with it, as well as the fall-out from Fumi and Yasuko’s relationship ending.

The art continues to be very cute, especially with the addition of new students to the established friendship groups! The kids look believably young, which is adorable, and I really appreciate that! (It can be a little confusing to keep track of who’s related to who, however, which I’m not sure is a fault of the art.) And it continues to have more realistic reactions to things than I expect from manga – Fumi is completely understandably upset with Yasuko, and the ways it manifests feel sadly plausible (such as her need to prove herself in Sugimoto’s shadow)! Akira’s confusion about sexuality and relationships also feels completely genuine, considering her age! I like that a book whose drama hinges entirely on relationships makes it clear that Akira not knowing how she feels about them is fine! (It also specifically discusses the different expectations the girls have for relationships, which is a lot more frank than I expected Sweet Blue Flowers to be, especially considering the girls’ ages. It’s probably good that it is frank, because yay for modelling discussions? But also: wow, I did not see that coming.) And on the topic of realism: the “obligatory clueless person putting their foot in it” in this volume is played by a first year who is Earnestly Concerned about her unmarried sister and the friend she lives with. The scene where she’s trying to talk about it to Fumi, who visibly has no idea how to react or what she can reveal about her own queerness was hard to read, but it felt really familiar.

The side-stories in this book are a little more central and tied into the main plot than in volume one; there’s a relationship that actually lasts into adulthood, there’s more unfortunate teenage crushes, and there’s something of a train-wreck relationship that everyone involved acknowledges is a bad idea. I like that it shows a variety of relationships – there’s healthy and unhealthy relationships, reciprocated feelings and not, and seeing Sweet Blue Flowers show so many different ways relationships can work out makes me really happy!

In conclusion, it’s still a good series and I really need to know where it’s going next, because I just want all of these girls to be happy!

[Caution warnings: mentions of incest]

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 writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews Sweet Blue Flowers by Takako Shimura

Sweet Blue Flowers Vol 1 by Takako Shimura cover

Sweet Blue Flowers Volume 1 is the latest series from Takako Shimura, the creator of the excellent Wandering Son. Sweet Blue Flowers follows Fumi and Akira, former childhood friends who are reunited when Akira rescues them from gropers on the train to high school, as the girls have to reckon with their own romantic entanglements and those of their friends.

The art is incredibly cute, as you could probably expect from Takako Shimura; it’s spare but emotive, and all of the teenage characters actually look like believable teenagers! They behave like them too – the thing that I like the most about Sweet Blue Flowers is that all of the characters have realistically complicated and messy relationships for high school students. There are crushes that don’t lead anywhere! There are break-ups at the worst possible times and in the worst possible ways! There are friends trying to choose between supporting a friend who was rejected by her crush, and the friend who got asked out instead! There are miscommunications and active choices against communicating that might be frustrating in another setting, but because it’s a high school, it all makes perfect sense to me. It’s delicious in its drama and the recognisable (and surprisingly realistic for a manga) responses all of the characters have to it.

It’s also possibly the first manga I’ve seen where there’s actual coming out scenes to someone who isn’t the inevitable love interest! I liked the different reactions to people coming out – Akira’s immediate response to Fumi coming out is to ask how she can support her and what she needs, which is the purest and sweetest thing in the entire manga, especially because when Fumi tells her, she actually goes through with it! I absolutely need more friendships like that in my media. And the flip side is that when Fumi’s girlfriend comes out to her family (and by extension, outs Fumi), their reaction is to treat it as a joke, or ask invasive questions. Both of them are believable, and neither of them are a thing that I’ve seen represented in manga before despite experiencing both in real life!

My only concerns about representation is whether Yasuko’s character is going to play into biphobic stereotypes in the future for reasons that are entirely spoilery (I’m happy to give details in the comments!), and whether the feelings these girls have get dismissed as pashes or pretend relationships. I have faith in Takako Shimura that they won’t do either of these things, because their depictions of queer characters are generally kind! I am hoping that there is an accounting for Fumi’s crush on her cousin, and how many of her tangled feelings about her queerness are because of that relationship.

In conclusion: I really recommend Sweet Blue Flowers. It’s cute and emotional, and is a marginally more realistic depiction of teenage romantic drama than I expect from manga!

[CW: sexual harrassment from strangers on trains, mentions of emotional incest, outing]

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 writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.