NEW FIRST SECOND
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by First Second
Reviewed by Marc Mason
‘Tis the season for high-profile and award quality books, so of course the gang at First Second is in the mix…
If back in January you were going to list the most anticipated books of the year, no question, BATTLING BOY would have been near the top of that list. BATTLING BOY marks the return of superstar writer/artist Paul Pope to shelves. It’s been a number of years since Pope delivered a book-length piece of work, and as you might guess, he does not disappoint. BATTLING BOY tells the story of a young demigod sent to earth to earn his stripes after the planet’s main protector, a man named Haggard West, is killed. His powers are rather unique; he arrives with a stack of t-shirts from which he draws skills and strength. For instance, when he puts on the Tyrannosaurus shirt, he gains that creature’s power and drive. This will all come in handy as he attempts to put an end to a wave of monsters that are trashing the city and stealing away with the local children. To tell you more would spoil the goodies that exist within. What I can tell you is that BATTLING BOY is vintage Pope; the art is visually stunning, each page bursting with energy and imagination. The plot and pacing are clever and move at a blistering pace, Pope engaging the reader at every possible moment and carrying them along with his fun. And that’s ultimately what BATTLING BOY is: an artist at his creative peak having all kinds of fun doing what he does best. What else could you want?
Speaking of huge talents delivering work after a lengthy period of time, writer/artist Gene Luen Yang has been working on the 2-graphic novel set BOXERS & SAINTS since 2006 (since he delivered the astonishing AMERICAN BORN CHINESE), and it is every bit as ambitious as you might guess. It is also a remarkable piece of storytelling. BOXERS tells the tale of Little Bao, a young man who sees China in peril; foreign mercenaries and missionaries are roaming the countryside, harming locals in their way. As they do, they attempt to convert the locals to Christianity, inciting what history calls the Boxer Rebellion, which Little Bao finds himself at the forefront of. Bao grows into the role, and as he does, he learns what most do: what he is doing is far more involved than he could have ever realized. War becomes especially tricky when those you are trying to fight for are instead gaining a new religion and lining up on the other side. At the same time, in SAINTS, a young girl who was never even given a proper name by her family finally acquires one when she makes friends with the foreigners and adopts their religion, becoming Vibiana. She, too, is drawn into the conflict, leaving her confused and torn between her country and those who have proven to actually care about her. The two volumes combine to create a truly epic tale, one where seeing both sides of the story adds a level of depth and complexity that few books have the courage to attempt. Yang’s work is powerful in every possible way, and he manages to both entertain and enlighten. This will likely walk away with a ton of awards next year, and deservedly so.
Yet as great as these books are, I think the most fun I’ve had reading a graphic novel lately came as I powered through THE CUTE GIRL NETWORK. Written by Greg Means and M.K. Reed and drawn by Joe Flood, the book has a charmingly simple premise: Jane, new to town, meets a slightly goofy guy named jack and starts to fall for him. However, the local friends she has made are appalled and fire up “The Network,” a sisterhood that covers each other’s backs by telling each other about bad dates and bad boyfriends… and Jack’s history with some of the girls in the network isn’t pretty. Torn between her growing attraction to Jack and the pressure coming at her from the girls, Jane must decide what she wants and who she trusts. Humor and angst follow. So much about this book just works; Jane and Jack feel like people you know, the dialogue is rich, the art is lively and detailed, and there are a number of quiet themes and lessons that the story lays out for the reader that make the experience feel richer. Indeed, if any one idea is prevalent here, it is that there are always two sides to a story (as Gene Yang reminds as above, as well) and it is important to consider them before making decisions that can harm people. It sneaks up on you, but this book is really, really good.
There you go: three (four, really) terrific graphic novels, each one an excellent candidate for a holiday gift, especially if you are considering introducing a non-comics reader to something within the medium.