Friday Recs: Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Monstress_Vol1-1This week’s rec comes in the form of a graphic novel. The book, Monstress is written by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda.

I know Marjorie Liu’s name from being a librarian, but I’ve never read any of her work until now. A friend of mine recommended this book to me and I’m so glad she did!

Monstress is, as described by the publisher Image Comics, as being set in alternate matriarchal 1900’s Asia. The world is full of magic, humans, animals who speak and people who are neither human nor animals, but something in between.

Maika is a war survivor and her story is that of survival and revenge. She wants vengeance and so she begins her journey by becoming a slave. Early on we realize that this won’t last and it doesn’t, Maika escapes, frees her fellow prisoners and begins her path of destruction. Along the way she steals part of an ancient mask that will change her and set people after her.

The first volume, Awakening, tells the story of Maika’s journey of vengeance, introduces us to other characters who will join Maika, and sets the stage for the long journey she has ahead of her. We also discover what happened to Maika during the war and who (or what) is trying to kill her.

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The story, which I have not done any sort of justice, is tremendous. Maika is a flawed character, but she is not bad. The people who live around who are flawed, the world they live in barely survived a war that was ended in a way that few truly understand. Maika’s world is not free of war, instead it’s again on the brink. When you close the back cover of Awakening, you wonder if perhaps Maika will be the one to prevent it — or will she start it?

Liu’s writing is strong, the plot intricate and engaging. But what really stands out for me is the artwork. Takeda’s illustrations are beautiful and bring the story alive more than I would have expected. Takeda is able to capture everything, from the anguish and pain that characters feel, to the anger and violence of those coming after Maika and the people around her.

Monstress is not without humor, though. There are moments, and characters, who lighten the mood. The lighthearted moments are few and far between, but they are skillfully added and feel very real. Even the darkest of stories needs a little bit of a pause sometimes.

From talking cats to, my favorite, Kippa who is a fox girl (she is seen below), the cast of Monstress is sweepingly broad and equally as beautiful and dangerous. I cannot recommend this book enough. It seems to be a good fit for teen readers who like graphic novels with strong female characters or any adult who enjoys well-written and illustrated graphic novels.

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I got my copy from the library, but you can get it from Image Comics or Amazon. Volume 2 comes out in July and I can’t wait.

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Reading Comics: The Beginnings

When I moved back home after I graduated from college (in 2000), I indulged myself. I got into NYSNC and the Backstreet Boys, I made friends with strangers on the internet* (some of them I’m still friends with to this day) and I read a lot of Robin comics. And then I stopped. I don’t know why. Maybe it was costing my unemployed self too much money, maybe I just stopped caring. I eventually moved out and in with my sister (in a larger city). We had no AC, so we went to bookstores (remember those?). She read books, I read Sandman. But that, too, stopped. I had a brief love affair with Prince of Tennis (I’m still occasionally plowing through those, though mostly online). But pretty much my comic and manga reading stopped. I moved near Detroit for library school and it was only in 2006 that I even broadened my fiction reading away from science fiction (and into Scandinavian mysteries and YA).

Once I became a librarian, I started to read more graphic novels. I mostly read things aimed at girls (Minx did a great collection of teen-focused female-centric graphic novels), but I sometimes read other things too. The Louvre collaborated with some French artists/authors and put out some graphic novels, so I read those. I read a couple of YA novel comic adaptations (rarely as good as books, though) and random things here or there. But I wasn’t a heavy graphic novel reader, mostly because I was too busy reading YA. A friend started recommending graphic novels to me in 2010, but again it was only an occasional thing. It wasn’t until the end of 2010 (with Locke & Key and Chew) that I started just looking things up on my own.  And then, suddenly, I was reading more. Maybe it coincided with my interest in kpop (though that was at the end of 2011), but I’ve been steadily reading more and more graphic novels.

I know, the subject of this post is comics and I promise I’ll get there, but let me talk about graphic novels. In the library world, we try to keep things simple. Not everyone agrees and some libraries have graphic novel collections, some have comics and some have manga — and some have all three. Over the years I’ve read all of the above, but never seriously and never regularly. But as 2011 went into 2012, I was doing both. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed manga and discovered a whole new world out there (what with my interest in jdramas and how many of them start as manga or are turned into manga after they’ve been aired). But not comics. Why? It’s complicated.

My exposure to comics, prior to a few weeks ago was limited. Remember those Robin ones back in 2000? Yeah, I don’t either. I also picked up Marvel 1602, which I enjoyed without context. A patron tried to get me to read the Marvel Civil War series, but I wasn’t interested. Even after getting over my anti-RDJ bias and loving Iron Man, as well as the rest of the Marvel verse (though not Spider Man), I wasn’t really interested in comics. Hell, even when I was totally into the X-Men movies, I wasn’t interested in the comics. By the time I thought maybe I was, I felt it was too late. Comics are complicated and I’m a completionist. I need to read things in the right order and I need to read them from the beginning. You can’t necessarily do that with comics, there are too many story lines, too many back issues. I mean, maybe you could, but no one has that time or money — I certainly didn’t. So I quit again.

Until last week. I’d picked up the first volume of the Marvel comic Runaways a few weeks early and fallen in love. but after fighting with Wikipedia and library catalogs, I’d given up because I couldn’t figure out what to request next. Even though, prior to the second Captain America movie coming out, a friend had given me copies of some Cap comics. It wasn’t until a coworker of mine, at my new job, offered to loan me the first six Ms. Marvel issues that I thought about starting again. And start I did. I’ve since read the next two volumes in Runaways and I’m waiting on the remaining issues. And, after sorting out some confusing, I’ve also requested as much of the Young Avengers series as I can.

People often try to get me to like things. Sometimes it works (my return to loving kpop music was one of those things, thanks to my friend J) and sometimes it doesn’t or sometimes it just takes a long time. It took me four months to go through a music-related email from my friend A, because I just wasn’t ready. And the same applies to my interest in comics. I wanted to like comics, I wanted to love them, but every time I thought about reading those Captain America comics I have, it just made me tired. But now? Now I’m ready.

And that means I’m going to blog about it. You’re not going to find anything new here. You might not even find anything interesting, but it’s just a way for me to talk about getting into comics and what reading these means to me. I’ve always loved the medium, now I’m embracing it in all forms. I don’t necessarily know what I’m talking about; after all, I’m coming into this blind. The only history I have is through the movies — and that’s fine. It’s been several years since I really got a new fandom, so I’m ready. I hope y’all are ready for me.

This post is brought to you by this article from The Atlantic:  The Female Thor and the Female Comic-Book Reader

*My first foray into making friends on the internet was in the early 90s, in the pre-web days. I was on MUDs and MUSHs and my first internet friends were a boy from Iceland (we’re Facebook friends now) and another from Germany (I have no idea what happened to him, but I will always fondly remember Mark, because he used to send me letters at band camp). That was only the beginning, and even today, I’m still making friends with strangers on the internet.

Book Review: Kitaro by Shigeru Mizuki (translated by Jocelyne Allen)

1770461108.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_I can’t remember where I read about Kitaro, except that it was something that, as a fan of manga, I should read. Which meant that by the time I got the book (through ILL) and finally sat down to read it, I didn’t remember anything about it. That turned out to be a great thing. The book begins with a fantastic and informative introduction by Matt Alt (explaining about the author, the character sin the book, etc). He also shares that the book we have is actually a collection of Kitaro stories and not one long story. The only overarching theme is Kitaro himself and how he solves problems and saves people/the world.

Kitaro is what’s called a yokai (which Matt Alt explains) who is basically a supernatural being from Japanese folklore (you can read more on wikipedia). There are two types of yokai, good ones and bad ones. Kitaro, and his friends (though sometimes they cause mischief) are the good kind. And, of course, the yokai that Kitaro fight are the ones. One of the things I especially enjoyed about Kitaro was that at the end of the book there were two appendices. The first explains and translated different parts of some of the stories that weren’t translated within the comics themselves. The second was a glossary of the yokai that appear throughout the stories. Each part that needed to be defined was marked with an asterisk and a page number, making it easy to flip back and forth.

All of the stories were enjoyable and often humorous. Kitaro almost always comes to the aide of humans who have gotten themselves into trouble with the evil yokai — sometimes it’s the fault of the humans and other times it’s through no fault of their own (some of the yokai are sneaky). And Kitaro himself sometimes finds himself in trouble, he has friends who rescue him, but sometimes he depends on humans as well (in one of my favorite stories from the collection, Kitaro must be rescued, at least in part, by two humans).

The stories are easy to read and the book can be appreciated by readers of all ages (although there’s a tiny bit of nudity whenever Kitaro loses his vest). I really enjoyed this collection and the drawings that helped tell the stories of the yokai and Kitaro’s adventures.

Series Review: Children of the Sea – Daisuke Igarashi

Daisuke Igarashi’s Children of the Sea is a profoundly beautiful five volume manga series that I picked up on a whim (one of my libraries owns the first four, I was able to ILL the fifth). The covers intrigued me, as they are beautiful. In many ways, Children of the Sea is more art than manga. There’s a story, but I felt it was almost secondary to the artwork that fills the five volumes.

Children of the SeaThe story centers on Ruka, a middle-grade Japanese girl who lives with her mother, after her parents separated. But everything in her world is not as it seems. In the first volume, we learn that when she was younger, Ruka saw a fish turn into light and vanish (which sets up the supernatural/fantasy elements that are elegantly woven into the story). This event changes Ruka’s life, though she doesn’t realize this until later. Ruka’s relationship with her parents is tenuous, like any teenager and near the beginning of the novel, she runs away and ends up meeting a boy named Umi. Though they go their separate ways, their paths are destined to meet again, and they do — but this time at the aquarium where Ruka’s father works.

Umi, and his brother Sora, sense something special about Ruka and the three of them become friends. The five volumes are filled with their adventures and artwork that wouldn’t look out of place in a Studio Ghibli production.  Interspersed through the five volumes are stories about these children of the sea and how they have changed people’s lives (I promise, you’ll want to read to find out more) as well as how the sea as a whole has changed the lives of the characters within the manga.

I loved this series because the characters are likable and the artwork is breathtaking. The ending was satisfying, if a little heartbreaking, but at it’s heart, Children of the Sea is a coming of age manga. Everyone grows up, but people also grow together. Igarashi also emphasizes the importance of relationships (friends and family) as well as the need to take care of our waters. Although the setting is like our world and the characters are diverse (from all over the world), he brings them together in a beautiful and thoughtful way.

This manga is not for everyone, especially people who crave a lot of action. But if you’re looking for something beautiful, something that will comfort you, Children of the Sea might be exactly what you need. You don’t need to be interested in manga or comics/graphic novels in order to enjoy this journey or the art that brings it to life.

Book Review: The Color of Earth trilogy by Kim Dong Hwa

It’s because of my interest in Asian culture that I picked The Color of Earth up in the first place. I like graphic novels, but I don’t love them, it was both the reviews (which are very positive)  and the fact that the author’s Korean (Kim Dong Hwa) that convinced me to give this series a try. I fell in love with The Color of Earth almost immediately, and did the same with the subsequent books of the series.

The drawings are simple, they’re not quite the same style of manga that you might expect from an Asian artist. Nor are they in color, like the covers of the books. Instead, the reader (aka me) supplies the colors to the black and white drawings. What makes this possible is the fact that Kim Dong Hwa’s drawings are exceptionally elegant. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, after all. The story’s set in rural Korea and the main character is a young woman. I almost expected something completely different, since it’s a coming of age story about a girl and the author’s a man. But Kim’s story and drawings were just about perfect.

The story follows Ehwa and her mother. The Color of Earth begins with Ehwa as a young girl and follows her through her tweens (The Color of Water) as she approaches womanhood (The Color of Heaven). Kim’s story flows evenly throughout all three volumes and isn’t just limited to Ehwa’s story. There are several characters who appear in all three volumes, including Ehwa’s mother and the man she ultimately falls in love with, a young Monk who Ehwa befriends, as well as Ehwa’s best friend. All of the characters throughout the three volumes, including the villagers from Ehwa’s home and the people who eat at her mother’s restaurant, have several dimensions, even  though they may appear only briefly.

Ehwa’s life is not without conflict, both from her mother and other people in her life. She and her best friend don’t always see eye to eye and there’s a brief incident where an old man tries to buy Ehwa from her mother as his young wife (it’s both just as vile as you’d expect, and not nearly as disturbing, possibly because Kim’s writing/drawings are just that good). But at the heart of the story is Ehwa. We watch her grow from age seven (I think?) to her mid-teens (16/17, I believe). She gets her love story — and it’s a wonderful thread, especially in the last volume. Her mother also gets a love story and both come to satisfying conclusions at the end of the series.

But what I really loved about this series was the relationship between Ehwa and her mother. As someone who has a very up front relationship with her parents (and knows plenty of people who do not), it was refreshing to read a young adult book/series that in some ways mirrored my relationship with my parents. I can talk quite frankly with my parents about most things and Kim wrote Ehwa’s relationship with her mother the same. There might be incidents where Ehwa doesn’t want to talk to her mother, but eventually they figure each other out and Ehwa’s mother has no problems telling things as they are.

Recommend? Definitely. The story, the art and the translations are fantastic. If there’s a word/phrase that doesn’t translate well into English, usually there’s a footnote explaining what’s going on — which is quite helpful. This series is appropriate for teens and adults, as as well as more mature tweens. There is discussion/depictions of sex (it is a coming of age story, after all) as well as nudity, but it fits seamlessly into the context, and as always, Kim’s drawings are more art than anything else. Even if you don’t really like graphic novels, give The Color of Earth trilogy a try. It might not turn you into a fan, but you won’t regret the time you spent.