The Backstagers by James Tynion IV, Rian Singh, and Andy Mientus

Today I’ve got something to recommend for lovers of both prose chapter books AND graphic novels! The Backstagers, by James Tynion IV and Rian Singh, started out as a young adult graphic novel series, but then was adapted into middle grade novels of the same name by Andy Mientus, and both give you an avenue into a tale of high school theater as a gateway into fantastical realms.

Here’s the basics: a boy named Jory transfers to an all-boys private high school, St. Genesius, and is pushed by his parents to join a club. First he considers joining drama club, only to discover that it’s much more exciting (and welcoming) being a backstager, the techs behind the scenes that make all the magic happen. Magic in this case is also meant literally: the backstage corridors lead into wild and unpredictable worlds of odd creatures, shifting passageways, and general mayhem. Jory jumps in feet-first and quickly bonds with the Backstagers crew: Hunter, Aziz, Sasha, Beckett, and two kindly senior stage managers. Together, it’s their job to keep the theater safe AND make sure the show goes on. It’s not an easy task, but the power of new friendship and budding romance is more than up to the challenge.

I started with the graphic novels, and I thought the art style was charming and the characters were diverse and full of personality. I’m very excited to read the prose novels and see this world fleshed out in more detail, with new adventures to experience. If you were a theater kid, have a devoted squad of friends, or loved either Stranger Things or Ouran High School Host Club, I recommend you try reading about The Backstagers (one way or another)!

Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu

Have you ever unexpectedly read a book in a day? You sit down with it, figuring you’ll just start it, and before you know it, you’re done? That happens to me a lot, especially with fiction and graphic novels, so I wasn’t too surprised when I read Check, Please! Book 1 by Ngozi Ukazu from cover to cover in an afternoon. If you need a quick and lighthearted read, then I can’t recommend this book enough.

Originally published in 2018, this upbeat story follows Eric Bittle, dubbed “Bitty” by his teammates, as he starts school at Samwell University as part of the men’s hockey team. He navigates a much more challenging atmosphere than he’s accustomed to, including hockey that includes violent physical ‘checking’, of which he is deathly afraid. Luckily, his teammates are true friends – utterly supportive, relentlessly funny, and deeply appreciative of Bitty’s skill as a baker. Over the course of his freshman and sophomore years at Samwell, Bitty finds his place on the team and forges a strong bond (and an equally strong crush) on team captain Jack. But what happens when Jack and the others graduate?

I found this book completely adorable, with an endearing art style and lovable characters. The immersion into Canadian hockey culture was fascinating, and I appreciated that Ukazu didn’t overwhelm the reader with too many details, giving just enough information to keep you engaged. I also really liked that the story was told in the form of Bitty’s video blog entries; this was a clever narrative tactic that worked perfectly for the graphic novel medium. However, I wasn’t always satisfied with how the scenes were fleshed out: a lot of backstories and events had to be inferred from context or brief mentions, or understood only after multiple throwaway lines. Especially in the case of romantic storylines, I just wanted more. Luckily, there was a lot of additional material after the story – bonus comics and Bitty’s Twitter feed – which helped add some details and context.

If you’re a graphic novel lover, reluctant reader, hockey fan, or are looking for a fluffy read about friendship, falling in love, and LOTS of baking, this book may be for you.

Invisible In-betweens: Gender Identity 201

Gender identity is a hot topic in politics and culture lately, and for good reason. More people than ever before are feeling comfortable expressing the true range of their gender identity, but that means a lot of new and unfamiliar concepts are coming into the mainstream. If you’re overwhelmed, worried, or confused about what it all means, that’s okay – we can help with that! Research has shown that reading books, especially fiction, about people different from you can help build your empathy and understanding for them. I’m a firm believer that if we could only understand each other better and have compassion for each other, the world would be a kinder place – so if you liked my previous recommendations (or if you missed them entirely) try one of these titles to build a better understanding of a complicated issue. My focus this time around is on the muddled, fluid, unclear in-between places where gender isn’t clear-cut.

  

For a comprehensive look at gender diversity, try They/Them/Their by Eris Young – available through interlibrary loan, it focuses mostly on gender diversity in the United Kingdom, but with applicable concepts for US audiences. What I especially like about this book is its careful discussion of various terms and their meanings, and its heavy use of first-person accounts describing real-life experiences. If you’re completely new to the world of gender diversity, this is a great place to start.

        

If you’d like a book that helps you get used to hearing gender-neutral pronouns, and focuses on adventures and everyday activities of gender-diverse people, try one of these great titles. The Love Study is a light-hearted romance between a man with a fear of commitment and a genderqueer YouTuber. Finna by Nino Cipri is a funny sci-fi take on working retail, featuring Ava, an anxious girl, and her recent ex, genderqueer Jules. Mask of Shadows is the dark and exciting fantasy adventure of Sal, a genderfluid thief who takes the opportunity to audition to be an assassin for the queen, only to find themself falling in love with scribe Elise. Spin With Me is a sweet story of the mutual crush that blossoms between Essie, the reluctant new girl in town, and Ollie, a non-binary classmate passionate about LGBTQ advocacy.

 

For a meaningful memoir, try Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe and Identity by Corey Maison. I especially recommend Gender Queer if you’re not familiar with alternative pronouns: the author uses e/em/eir instead of he/him/his, she/her/hers, or they/them/theirs. These books are especially good for seeing life from a gender-diverse person’s perspective, because they detail the processes and emotions surrounding the authors’ quests to live authentically as themselves.

For a comics treatment, try Be Gay, Do Comics, edited by Matt Bors, and A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson. Be Gay, Do Comics is a massive anthology of comics describing the wide world of LGBTQ+ experience, including the spectrum of gender diversity and the struggle of pronouns. A Quick and Easy Guide is, well, exactly what it sounds like. If you’re confused by the singular they/them pronouns or aren’t really familiar with how it works, this is a good book to start with, not least because it includes perspectives from both inside and outside the non-binary gender experience. See also A Quick and Easy Guide to Queer and Trans Identities by Mady G and J.R. Zuckerberg.

 

Finally, make it manga (Japanese graphic novels) with My Androgynous Boyfriend by Tamekou, The Bride Was A Boy by Chii, and Love Me for What I Am by Kata Konayama. These beautifully and/or adorably illustrated graphic novels tell the story of gender-diverse people as they fit into (or stand out of) everyday society. In My Androgynous Boyfriend, an average girl dates a boy skilled in the arts of makeup, nails, hair, and fashion – and they navigate the response of society to his unconventional self-expression. In The Bride Was A Boy, a transgender bride shares her journey through transition into love and matrimony, with cute humor along the way. Finally, Love Me for What I Am focuses on a non-binary teen finding community and acceptance working at an unusual café.

Graphic Novels You May Have Missed

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Davenport Public Library has been intermittently closed for browsing. We are open at the moment and encourage you to “grab-and-go.” Checking out the New Shelves is a great way to find something to suit your immediate needs, but don’t neglect the stacks — that area of the library where items go to live after losing the New sticker. Here are some graphic novels that moved out of the New area while we were closed for browsing. Check them out! You just may find a hidden gem.

Big Black : Stand at Attica is a graphic novel memoir by Frank “Big Black” Smith about one of the bloodiest civil rights confrontations in American history. In 1971, prisoners at New York’s Attica State Prison rebel against the injustices of the prison system. This is a must-read if you are studying the history of systematic racism in America.

Clyde Fans, by a writer/artist simply known as Seth, is a picture novel that opens with an older gentleman starting his day while reminiscing about his younger years as a traveling fan salesman. Between the character’s nostalgic musings and the art deco look of the drawings, it’s hard to remember the opening scene takes place in 1997. The story follows a once-successful fan business through its decline as it’s unable to adapt to the changing conditions of the business, namely, air conditioning.

Downfall by Inio Asano is a manga graphic novel — it reads right to left and is translated from Japanese. After achieving success with his first manga series, the main character desperately tries to fill a void by re-creating that success, but he has no idea how. Several reviews warned this book is for mature audiences because of scenes of sexual violence.

These savage shores will appeal to vampire fans and history buffs. This graphic novel takes place in 1766 as the East India Company seeks to secure its future along the lucrative Silk Route. An English vampire sails aboard a company ship, hoping to make a home in this new found land. But he will soon find that the ground along the Indus is an ancient one with daemons and legends far older than himself.

In Upgrade Soul by Ezra Claytan Daniels, Hank and Molly Nonnar undergo an experimental rejuvenation procedure for their 45th wedding anniversary. Their hopes for youth are dashed when the couple is faced with the results: severely disfigured yet intellectually and physically superior duplicates of themselves. Can the original Hank and Molly coexist in the same world as their clones? Is a newer, better version of yourself still you?

Meanwhile, the Archie universe is alive and well. Archie is no longer just a romantically indecisive teen with a Jughead best friend. In Archie by Nike Spencer, the gang returns to Riverdale after a summer away and Archie has a secret girlfriend. Betty & Veronica : Senior Year by Jamie Lee Rotante focuses on BFFs Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge.  The two think they’ll be attending the same college in the fall but find out that their plans have changed, putting their friendship to the test. Finally, Archie vs. Predator II by Alex DeCampi takes on a science fiction plot as Predators on Mars plan to attack Betty, Veronica and Archie.

Will Eisner Week — March 1-7

The first week of March is Will Eisner Week to celebrate comics and graphic novel pioneer Will Eisner in conjunction with his March 6th birthday. While Eisner died in 2005, his influence lives on in the art, content and characters he created. Here are some items to get you started in a deep-dive of Will Eisner.

Start with Eisner’s ground-breaking character The Spirit. Introduced in 1940, masked criminologist Denny Colt — believed by many to be dead — secretly fights crime as The Spirit. From his home in Central City to the far-flung corners of the world and beyond, The Spirit attracts dangerous femmes fatale and wages a never-ending war against streetwise crooks and criminal master-minds with only quick wits, sharp humor and his two gloved fists. The 80th anniversary of The Spirit was celebrated with this all-new collection published in 2020.

A collection of four graphic novels originally published between 1987 and 2000, Will Eisner’s New York: Life in the Big City shows urban vitality through slice-of-life stories. We see boys fishing for treasures in a street grate, lonely shut-ins and nosy housewives, and the building of the subway system. Eisner made observations as he lived and worked in the city —  his genius was the transfer of those observations to printed page.

 

If you’re interested in learning about comics and graphic novels, Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel is a good bet. Part biography, part analysis of Eisner’s work and its impact, this book traces his evolution as an artist, showcasing both previously unpublished materials and famous work.

Celebrate Will Eisner Week, March 1-7, by indulging in your favorite comics or graphic novels. Bonus points if those materials tie back to Will Eisner himself. It’s the perfect excuse to try some of Eisner’s work and see how it has influenced modern storytelling, comics and graphic novels.

 

 

Cannabis : The Illegalization of Weed in America by Box Brown

I recently saw a local news story in which Illinois state senator Toi Hutchinson said that the legalization of cannabis in her state came as a result of the differing sides “hashing it out” to come to agreement. I don’t know whether or not the pun was intended, but as a librarian interested in languages, I appreciated it.

Soon after, I spotted the graphic novel Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America on display at the library and figured it would be a good way to better educate myself on the topic right at our doorstep. I was not disappointed. This graphic novel has four pages of sources cited at the end! It is equal parts interesting and informative.

It starts with what is known about early humans’ use of cannabis sativa from biology and mythology. It outlines how the plant has been cultivated for its various uses across the world (think: textiles & oils too). It traces the etymology of the many different words we use for it: hash, Mary Jane, reefer, weed, to name just a few. I learned that the word marijuana is believed to be derived from slang usage in Mexico near Catholic missionaries, where the priests condemned its use. Locals would tell the priest they were just spending time with Maria Juana!

The graphic novel delves into the “Reefer Madness” era during which commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry Anslinger worked to criminalize its use by making false, racist claims about its use and users. It discusses how cannabis has been regulated through legislation and how its reputation has been manipulated. The graphic novel concludes with present-day uses and a bibliography listing sixty sources readers can seek out for further learning on the subject.

I highly recommend this book and I look forward to reading Box Brown’s other titles, including Is This Guy for Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman and Tetris: The Games People Play.

You can also learn more on this topic from Illinois Policy, an independent organization that seeks to educate and engage Illinois citizens.

 

Relish by Lucy Knisley

Guest post by Teague

My daughter loves to read graphic novels and I am always on the hunt for new authors.  After stumbling across the amazingly hilarious Harry Potter book recap comics by Lucy Knisley, I knew I had found another gem.  While Knisley’s Harry Potter comics might be enjoyed by all ages, her books are geared toward adults.  I just finished reading Relish: My Life In the Kitchen, Knisley’s autobiographical account of her life as the daughter of a chef and gourmand.  Knisley entertains and educates as she tells tales of a life surrounded by food.  In between chapters, Knisley shares some of her favorite recipes or offers practical information about understanding certain cuisine.  My favorite is a Cheese Cheat Sheet.  As someone who adores cheese, but can only place it into two distinct categories (delicious and not delicious), this section was quite informative.

Many have a hard time seeing graphic novels as “real” literature or may feel that this genre isn’t for them.  I think that anyone who loves stories and loves to read will find a graphic novel to suit their interests.  The images in a graphic novel serve to reinforce the story, not replace it, and many of the stories told by these authors are simply magnificent.

If you are looking for other graphic novels to try, I suggest Maus by Art Spiegelman or the March books by John Lewis.  These are both very different from Relish and are examples of how unique each graphic novel is.  If you are interested in juvenile graphic novels for your child (or yourself!) to enjoy, I highly recommend Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet series, Cece Bell’s El Deafo, and anything by Raina Telegemeir-particularly Smile, Sisters, and her graphic take on an old favorite of mine, The Baby-sitters Club.  There are so many different types of graphic novels available that it was difficult to choose only a handful to mention.  I encourage you to read several different graphic novels to determine what you like.  Happy exploring!

Moonhead and the Music Machine by Andrew Rae

 I’m a sucker for fantastic  artwork and, lucky for me, Moonhead and the Music Machine is packed to the gills with gorgeousness. I want to buy individual prints of various scenes in this story and put them on my walls. Author and illustrator, Andrew Rae, is a seriously talented graphic designer who also does animation in addition to illustrating a number of comic books, graphic novels, and zines. You can check out his work at Moonhead Studios here! Moonhead t-shirts, anyone? Sign me up yesterday.

In terms of storyline, Moonhead and the Music Machine is a classic underdog tale in which Joey Moonhead, the main protagonist, must defy his bullies and wear his uniqueness (his strength) like a badge of honor.  Early on in the book, Joey attempts to engage with his parents who are both aloof and neglectful. Subsequently, he spends a lot of time alone in his room and his mind begins to wander, quite literally. The thing about Joey’s head is that it’s a giant moon that can detach and float through space independent of his body. Naturally, I think about how perhaps Joey’s moonhead is allegorical with daydreaming or even escapism, hallmark characteristics of being a young person who is discovering his or her own dreams and ambitions but who also experiences a fair amount of alienation (from parents, authorities, peers, etc). Initially, Joey’s wandering head tends to get him into trouble with parents, teachers, and friends.

That is, of course, until he learns how, with the help of willing adults and friends, to channel and harness his creative energy and embrace his individuality. Sockets, his best friend, is a big part of helping him navigate the hallways and social terrain of high school where Joey posits that that the adults are “training us to conform…to be factory workers!” Of course, Socket’s response, which is the other side of an age-old argument about education, maintains that “getting good grades” is one ticket to being able to determine your own path without being self-sacrificial. Joey & Sockets share a playful and sweet friendship in which they respect but still challenge each other’s opinions.

Enter music. Like many teens, Joey stumbles upon music in an organic way after having a parent-teacher conference that results in Joey’s finding a record player and a set of headphones. Whereas Joey’s head once levitated just above his body, ready at any moment to float away, it now was tethered to his record player by way of his headphones. Music is very “grounding” and facilitates connectivity unlike any other medium due to its accessibility and transcendence of time/space and language boundaries. To boot, I was overly excited about how Rae re-imagined classic album artwork design for album covers by musicians like David Bowie, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, and many others.

Once Joey is infected by the music bug, there is no going back. After taking interest in a music machine-building project, Joey meets the mysterious Ghost Boy and together they dazzle their classmates during a talent show after building a key-tar esque instrument (half-keyboard, half guitar) and bringing the house down. After their performance, Joey is overcome by the response of his peers who are inspired by the overall message Joey sends: to embrace and find strength in your individuality–in your moonhead. It may be important to note which of your friends stick by you even at your worst, when you don’t have anything of monetary or social value to offer aside from your friendship. They are the real deal, people. Read this graphic novel simply for the gorgeous artwork but find richness and multiple layers of meaning in its simplicity.

 

 

 

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michaelangelo, & Me by Ellen Forney

In the past few years, I think it’s safe to say I’m hooked on graphic novels! I don’t make it out of the library on most days without bringing at least 1 new title home to read (though I usually bring a bag-full!). Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michaelangelo, & Me initially jumped out at me, like so many graphic novels do, because of the colorful artwork on the cover; but Ellen Forney’s  frank, funny, and painful reckoning with the depression & mania that accompany Bipolar disorder is honest, brave, and thought-provoking.  For the skeptics who doubt that graphic novels can be emotionally complex & deeply moving, try reading Hole in the Heart: Bringing up Beth, a 2016 work of graphic medicine about raising a daughter with Down’s Syndrome.You won’t find a summary of Forney’s autobiographical memoir here: just read it for yourself.

I don’t know anyone who isn’t touched by mental illness in some capacity, either through personal experience or knowing or loving someone who struggles–often silently-with bipolar or another mental illness. Yet it’s still an elephant in the room or–if not an elephant–some other misunderstood creature who looks a lot like your neighbor, sister, boyfriend, or cousin. Forney’s autobiographical sketch even compares identifying people who suffer from bipolar with “outing” someone –the often intentionally cruel practice of shining a light in a calculated way in order to  “expose” someone as unusual or different.  But Marbles is a victory in the fight to de-bunk the myth that people with mental illness are certifiably “crazy”, “scary”, and “dangerous”. A graphic novel like Marbles  is another step in the right direction of normalizing and de-stigmatizing mental illness. These is a genuine, candid representation of mania and depression.

One of the defining themes in this work is the interplay between madness & creativity.  Would treatment of her newly-diagnosed illness hamper her creative energy? Would treatment change or dull her creative identity? It is certainly a terrifying thought to consider that medications may not only not work, but they may change an essential part of who you are–an essential part that you may not want to change.  Forney discovers, like so many others, that should she “join the ranks” of those artists who came before her who also suffered with bipolar disorder (historically referred to as manic depression), she would find herself in good company. Great company, even. Truth be told, there is such comfort to be found in placing yourself along a continuum–of knowing of the others who came before you.  Through the act of reading, Forney also found comfort, reprieve, and solidarity. An Unquiet Mind by Kay Jamison, for example, is a particular book that was mentioned within the pages of Marbles. Forney does not sugarcoat the profound sense of loneliness she felt as she cycled in and out of mania and depression.

This book will invite you to contemplate the controversial issues surrounding mental illness, including diagnosis (misdiagnosis is notoriously  a major cause of harm and medical error in the united states), medication, other modes of treatment (alternative & complementary therapies such as yoga).  A particularly intriguing insight related to Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), a treatment modality that enables people to improve their symptoms by recognizing and challenging or calling-out the negative self-talk cycles that are a cornerstone of mental illness. Although Forney didn’t delve particularly deeply into this aspect of the memoir, it is clearly an essential part of her road to finding balance and stability in her life (and ultimately even coming to terms with wanting to find balance in the first place).  Keep in mind, this graphic memoir never claims to offer medical advice but rather is the testament of the author.

Ultimately, this book highlights Forney’s experience living with bipolar illness in a way that is especially human: raw, passionate, sanguine, and vulnerable. I was heartened by the author’s resolve throughout and by the last page and I think you will be too.

 

 

 

 

 

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Volume 1: The Coulson Protocols

If you have watched any of the Avengers movies(or any recent superhero movie), then you’re probably familiar with S.H.I.E.L.D, aka  Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division. In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Volume 1: The Coulson Protocols, Agent Coulson leads Melinda May, Agents Fitz and Simmons, Mockingbird, Quake, and Deathlok, as they battle someone in an Iron Man suit(who is not Iron Man!), multiple people who want to take over the world, and, of course, the evil Hydra organization. Coulson’s old love interest, Lola – not to be confused with his car who just happens to have the same name, has come to the team’s attention after her name is found to be affiliated with the tech that the person in the Iron Man suit blew up the Pentagon to steal. As a result, Coulson goes to meet her to find out what she knows. It turns out that Lola manipulated their previous relationship in order to steal precious superhero information from Coulson. She’s a psychic and can read his mind!

Coulson, being the giant superhero geek that he is, created scenarios in his head about how to take down any of the Avengers and also any of the other superheroes/agents that he knows. Lola then read his mind and stole that information. Those scenarios are now called the Coulson Protocols and fake Iron Man stole them from the Pentagon. That information is now up for auction to the highest bidder and the team must do everything and anything in their power to get that highly sensitive intel back. They battle a massive Iron Man army, throw down with some Hydra bad guys, rub shoulders with Spider-Man, Captain America, Wolverine, and Tony Stark, and find themselves in a massive standoff with the New Avengers, all while trying to find the Coulson Protocols. Allegiances are tested and backstories are revealed as Coulson and his team work to save the world from a possible leak of this sensitive information.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Volume 1: The Coulson Protocols does a fairly good job introducing readers to who the agents are and how S.H.I.E.L.D. works. (I didn’t come into this graphic novel as a complete newbie, having watched the first season of the S.H.I.E.L.D. tv show many, many months ago, BUT I remember almost none of it, so don’t be afraid of reading this if you’re totally unfamiliar with any of the characters. You’ll be just fine.). Guggenheim also adds the characters’ names next to each throughout most of the comic, so you won’t have to flip back to the beginning to remember who’s who (That’s fantastic, btw, and way more graphic novel writers should take note). I thoroughly enjoyed this new graphic novel and can’t wait for the next volume to be released. In the mean time, I’ll have to settle for watching the two seasons of Marvel’s Agents of Shield that the library owns. Read this comic/watch the shows and let me know what you think!


Check out the television show, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (season 1 and season 2), to learn more about the characters and see more Agent Coulson. Click on the pictures below to