Written and Drawn by Various
Published by First Second
Reviewed by Marc Mason
On at least one occasion, if not more, I have chosen First Second Books as my “Publisher of the Year” when doing a year-end wrap-up. They do consistently high quality work in a variety of genres and by an amazing array of talents. I recently received a bunch of new books from them to check out, and guess what? Yep, they’re right there at the top again, because each one is a total winner.
Do you know a young girl with a budding interest in science? Then make sure to buy her a copy of PRIMATES by writer Jim Ottaviani and artist Maris Wicks. Ottaviani has long established himself as the master of science and comics combined, and this book falls right into his wheelhouse: it tells the stories of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas, three women who immersed themselves in the study of primate behavior. Recruited over a period of years by legendary anthropologist Louis Leakey, each of them would go on to become their own legend with their work in the field. Using research and extrapolation, the book takes you through the trials and travails these women faced in getting taken seriously, living in remote areas of Africa, and gaining the trust of the creatures they were studying. Wonderfully illustrated, PRIMATES grabs your interest quickly and never lets go, and the women all fascinate though they are each quite different from one another. I mentioned young girl readers at the top, but really, this book is for anyone who likes the subject matter or just good comics. An excellent piece of work.
Sticking with books that are good for all readers, ODD DUCK fits that description nicely. Two talents who have done excellent work on their own, writer Cecil Castellucci and artist Sara Varon, team up for this story, a deceptively simple one. Theodora, a duck who lives a well-ordered and controlled existence, gets a new neighbor in Chad. Chad is an iconoclast duck, doing things his own way and on his own terms. He is an agent of chaos in Theodora’s life, but as they get to know each other, the two find ways to break down the walls between them and grow a friendship. ODD DUCK could have come off as preachy, but instead it plays out as subtle, keeping a subtle distance from Theodora as she shifts her perceptions of Chad and of what “normal” really means. In doing so, several different metaphors shine through, allowing the reader to take from the story whatever they wish. These two creators work very well together; I hope they do so again.
The first volume of ASTRONAUT ACADEMY made my year-end top ten list, because writer/artist Dave Roman knows his craft like few others. He’s smart, inventive, and funny, and his books are absolutely perfect for kids (as well as adults). So it comes as no surprise that volume two, ASTRONAUT ACADEMY: RE-ENTRY, is more of the same. The same clever concepts. The same snappy dialogue. The same zippy plotting. The same nifty pages full of cute Easter eggs in the panels. The same grasp on how kids really think. The same vivid imagination. I went through three copies of volume one, as they kept disappearing into the hands of kids around me. After reading this one, I better start stocking up again.
Shifting to the teen reader, I was drawn to NOTHING CAN POSSIBLY GO WRONG by the presence of the talented Faith Erin Hicks. Her FRIENDS WITH BOYS and THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERHERO GIRL have been recent favorites of mine, so I was intrigued to see what would come from her adapting this story by writer Prudence Shen. The result: a terrific bit of fun. When the Robotics Club and the Cheerleading Squad vie for the same school funding, it leads to a brutal contest for student body president, a rash of vicious pranks, and the captain of the basketball team – a young man with ties to both groups – stuck in the middle. Throw in some quiet family drama, and you get a charming outcome. The characters are funny, the dialogue is terrific, the emotions are real, and the art is beautiful. The story takes you to some surprising places and is never too obvious, which is a real bonus, and it has a nice pace to it as well. Hicks is rapidly becoming a must-read creator.
Finally, if you’re looking at something just for the grown-ups, then Matt Kindt’s work is always a solid option. RED HANDED: THE FINE ART OF STRANGE CRIMES is what Kindt does best: complex plotting, complex characters, and complex storytelling. RED HANDED is: a crime story; a nod to classic Dick Tracy work; a multimedia project; a tale that bends your perception of time; a book you should read at least twice because it rewards that second glance. At heart, it tells you that it is a simple story: Detective Gould is the best law enforcement officer in the city, and he has never left a case unsolved. But as he solves a number of unusual cases throughout the book, it begins to reveal a wider tapestry, a fine web of details that show you a different beating heart in the pages. Kindt also uses newspapers, comic strips, and panels of pure darkness to relate the narrative as it progresses, each bit granting you a different piece of the grand design. No one else in comics does work like Matt Kindt, and I don’t think anyone else could. This is just excellent, excellent stuff.