Book Review: Superman Smashes The Klan by Gene Luen Yang & Gurihiru (2020)

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020

The Hero We Need

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Obvious trigger warning for racist violence.)

The year is 1946, and the Lee family – mom, dad, Roberta, and Tommy – has just moved from Chinatown to Metropolis, so that Mr. Lee can begin a new job as Chief Bacteriologist of the Health Department. Gregarious and handsome, Tommy fits right in, easily slipping into the spot of star pitcher at the Unity House. An aspiring journalist with a stomach made of jelly,* Roberta – birth name Lan-Shin – is immediately homesick for Chinatown, where she didn’t feel like such a “weirdo”.

And then her family is targeted by the local chapter of the Clan of the Fiery Red Cross, which lights a cross on the Lee’s front lawn and attempts to fire bomb their house. The Allies may have won World War II, and Superman literally just crushed the Nazi supersoldier Atom Man, but racism is still alive and thriving – and firmly entrenched in Metropolis’s social institutions.

Luckily, the Lees live right across the street from cub reporter Jimmy Olsen (who is obviously and adorably smitten with Roberta), and Superman and Lois Lane are pursuing the case, each in their own ways.

I’ve really been enjoying DC’s YA imprint, but Superman Smashes The Klan takes things to the next level. Based on a sixteen-part radio show that aired in 1946 called “The Clan of the Fiery Cross”**, the story expertly dovetails Roberta’s journey with that of her idol, Superman. At this point in his story, Clark Kent is thirty-something and has only been superheroing for ten years. As a kid growing up in Smallville, his differences were a source of shame: they marked him as different, a freak, nonhuman. Demonic, even. And so he learned to suppress and ignore his powers. It wasn’t until a circus tent that he, the Kents, and Lana Lang were sitting under caught fire that Clark used his super strength for good. After that, Mrs. Kent sewed Clark his iconic red cape and Superman was born.

Yet, even as Superman, Clark hides pieces of himself: he has super strength and super speed, yes, but he runs along phone lines rather than flying, because defying gravity would give him away as not entirely of this world. And his ruse works, a little too well: the story’s big bad, a grand Scorpion of the Klan, proudly claims Superman as the best of what the white race has to offer; irrefutable evidence of white superiority.

An honest-to-goodness alien from another world, created by two first-generation Jewish immigrants, Superman has always functioned as a stand-in for marginalized groups: refugees and immigrants of various races, religions, and ethnicities (depending on which group is currently being scapegoated). Superman is as American as apple pie and AK-47s, and he’s a legit alien. Yang masterfully underscores this aspect of Superman’s identity by enmeshing his story with Roberta’s. Both of these “weirdos” learn to embrace their differences, because it’s what makes them – and, indeed, the world – so damn special.

Yang’s story is also deeply steeped in history, in ways I wouldn’t have fully appreciated without reading his essay “Superman and Me” (it appears in pieces in the single issues, and as a whole in the TP). I especially loved the showdown between the scorpion and grand wizard, as the two clashed over the Clan’s true purpose.

This piece, in particular, seems especially relevant today.

* Roberta’s “gurgly stomach” is a mood.

** “To avoid getting sued by an organization that was legally recognized in several states, the show’s writers created a stand-in organization called The Clan of the Fiery Cross,” Yang explains in “Superman and Me.”

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: The Lost Carnival: A Dick Grayson Graphic Novel by Michael Moreci, Sas Milledge & Phil Hester (2020)

Tuesday, May 12th, 2020

The Night Circus meets Romeo and Juliet, in the YA DC ‘verse.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley.)

DC’s new line of YA and middle-grade graphic novels provide an excellent entry point into the publisher’s extensive catalog, and The Lost Carnival: A Dick Grayson Graphic Novel is no exception. I love comic books, but mostly stick to newer series/those based on other media I already love (think: Pretty Deadly / Firefly), since DC and Marvel’s decades-long history can be intimidating. (Where to start!?) Luckily, these are standalone stories that don’t require a whole lot of knowledge about the characters going in.

Here, Dick Grayson – the Robin to Bruce Wayne’s Batman – is a teenager living in modern day America. In keeping with the character’s original backstory, Dick comes from a family of acrobats; along with his parents, the Flying Graysons spend their summers traveling and performing with Haly’s Circus. Unlike the original incarnation, his parents are not mowed down by the mafia.

Rather, Dick is feeling somewhat alienated: bored by days that seem to blend into one another; unchallenged by the Flying Graysons’ predictable routine; and longing for a “normal” childhood. As if that’s not enough, the very fate of the circus rests on the Graysons’ (admittedly well-toned) shoulders: the circus is hemorrhaging customers, most notably to The Lost Carnival, a decadent affair that somewhat mysteriously threw down its stakes right across the way from Haly’s, seemingly overnight.

As tensions rise between the competing groups of carnies, Dick finds himself caught in the middle, torn between his family and the enthralling Luciana. Unlike his BFF Willow’s magic, Luciana’s powers seem to be the real (read: supernatural) deal: when her uncle calls forth menacing, Swamp Thing-like creatures, it’s up to Luciana to prevent them from escaping. The deeper Dick and Willow dive into the world of The Lost Carnival, the more bizarre things get. Can teenage love really conquer all? (Spoiler alert: No. No, it can’t.)

This is a really fun and surprisingly sweet story that’s an intoxicating blend of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Romeo and Juliet, and the DC ‘verse, with a YA spin. Even though the plot proved somewhat predictable, it’s still a fun ride. Dick is interesting enough, but it’s the supporting characters that really captured my imagination: Luciana, Willow, Quinn, and the employees at The Lost Carnival. And the carnival itself, naturally, which is all kind of magical and mystifying.

I devoured an ARC, so I’m not entirely sure what the finished art will look like – but what I saw was lovely indeed. The colors mostly alternate between a moody blue and glitzy gold-ish, occasionally coming together for that extra pop. Dick is a cutie, and the rep here is great. (You’ve got to love that there are not one, but two families of POC magicians.)

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: The Oracle Code by Marieke Nijkamp & Manuel Preitano (2020)

Thursday, March 19th, 2020

A thoughtful and engaging origin story for Barbara Gordon/Oracle.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for medical abuse. Caution: this review contains vague spoilers.)

Teenager Barbara Gordon – daughter of police commissioner James Gordon and hacker extraordinaire – is running toward the scene of a crime when she’s shot and paralyzed from the waist down. Six weeks into her recovery, Commissioner Gordon sends his daughter to the Arkham Center for Independence, where she’ll undergo physical and mental rehabilitation. Ghosted by her longtime friend Benjamin, Barbara is reluctant to get too close to anyone – everyone leaves you in the end, after all. Luckily, fellow classmates Yeong, Issy, and Jena refuse to let Barbara be, and an unexpected mystery further helps draw Barbara out of her shell.

The ACI is as creepy as it is opulent; at night, the halls echo with cryptic sounds and the shadows of residents who have long since disappeared. Jena, teller of ghost stories whispered in the wee hours of the night, begs Barbara for help finding her missing twin brother. Dr. Maxwell insists that Michael died in the fire that severely injured his sister, and that Jena’s mind is too fragile to accept the truth. Though she’s reluctant to get sucked into another mystery, Jenna’s sudden disappearance tips her hand. Friends are precious, and she’s not about to let another one slip through her fingers. Before you can say “Birds of Prey,” Barbara is brain-deep in a corporate conspiracy that involves child trafficking and human experimentation.

I’m really digging this new DC YA series; if anything, it provides a handy entry point into the DC ‘verse for newbies like myself. (I love comics, but the decades-long history of so many DC and Marvel characters can prove overwhelming. Mostly I just stick to newer series, like Sex Criminals, Pretty Deadly, Bitch Planet, and the like.) I was lucky enough to review Shadow of the Batgirl (in which an older Barbara Gordon plays a role as Cassandra Cain’s boss/mentor), and The Oracle Code lives up the expectations set by its predecessor.

The storyline is engaging enough, but it’s really the characters who stand out here. YA author Marieke Nijkamp – who identifies as queer, non-binary, and disabled – writes Barbara, Yeong, Issy, and Jena with compassion and care. There’s a great exchange between the eeeevil scientists and the margnalized teens in which the teens challenge their doctors’ assessment of them as “broken” people in need of “fixing.” (Is there a white savior analog that can be applied to the ableds? If so, this is a prime example of IT.) Hopefully you’ll also catch how the doctors try to gaslight Barbara when she starts sniffing around, insisting that she believe them instead of her own two eyes and ginormous brain.

Barbara’s squad – as well as the residents and staff at ACI – is diverse as heck and thus reflective of reality, which I appreciate. And the brief few panels of wheelchair basketball are great.

And now I shall go back to counting the days until Superman Smashes the Klan (Gene Luen Yang) and Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed (Laurie Halse Anderson) hit the shelves!

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Shadow of the Batgirl by Sarah Kuhn & Nicole Goux (2020)

Thursday, February 6th, 2020

Find out how Cassandra Cain got her wings.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley.)

— 3.5 stars —

Let me preface this review by saying that, although I love comic books, I mostly stick to one-offs, new series, or adaptations of stories I love in other mediums. DC and Marvel, with their long-running series, can be rather intimidating – where’s the best place to jump in? But I simply could not resist DC’s new line of YA graphic novels, penned by some of my YA favorites.

Anyway, that’s just a roundabout way of saying that I come into this with little background about the characters, save for what I’ve picked up from tv and movie and pop culture in general.

Shadow of the Batgirl focuses on Cassandra Cain, daughter of notorious crime kingpin and all-around baddie, David Cain. Raised by dad and trained to be an assassin, Cassandra goes rogue when she tries – and fails – to kill a man. With his (would be) dying breath, her mark whispers a single word that plucks a long-buried chord of empathy in Cassandra: “daughter.” Terrified of what punishment surely awaits, Cassandra seeks refuge in the stacks of the Gotham Public Library.

There, Cassandra learns to speak, read, and write – by spying on the kids’ storytime lessons held by librarian Barbara Gordon and, later, volunteering as her intern. Barbara has developed an app called Oracle to help her track the recent crime wave in Gotham, while Cassandra helps her investigate Batgirl’s exploits…and mysterious disappearance. She cultivates a found family there in the stacks: delightfully nerdy and welcoming Barbara; Jacqueline “Jackie” Fujikawa Yoneyama, she of impeccable style and delicious noodles; and Erik, a romantic at heart who wants to be seen as more than just a jock.

Cassandra wants desperately to be something other her father’s weapon, to forge her own path in life and, perhaps, fight for the people and city she loves, just as Batgirl did. But how can she keep everyone safe when her father is wreaking havoc across the city?

Shadow of the Batgirl is an enjoyable and heartwarming origin story for Cassandra Cain/ Batgirl/ Kasumi/ Black Bat/ Orphan. Written by Sarah Kuhn – who also pens the popular Heroine Complex series – the Asian rep in this story is great. In addition to Cassandra, there’s also the awesomely flamboyant Jackie, as well as Blasian jock with a heart of gold Erik, with whom Cassandra strikes up a tentative friendship – and romance (which is no less sweet for its inevitability). I really love these two together – and Cassandra with anyone, really – since she has an endearing, socially awkward Bones thing going on.

I mostly liked the artwork, too; my only complaint is that Cassandra looks awfully young in some panels – others, not – giving it a bit of an uneven feeling. Barbara is adorable, with her oversized glasses, and Jackie is a legit badass who I’d love to have as an adopted grandmother. Erik is swoon-worthy, natch, and the scenes where he and Cassandra geek out over books are the best.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)