June: Neil Young’s Greendale by Joshua Dysart and Cliff Chiang

Neil Young’s Greendale is a graphic novel adaptation of the album of the same name by — you guessed it — Neil Young. If you’re a Neil Young fan and you’re reading this website, odds are you’ve already read this book. But if you’re not, it’s important to note that this graphic novel requires absolutely no knowledge of that album or of Neil Young in general. It only requires that you be a person who’s interested in the coming-of-age tale of a teenage girl tapping into previously-unknown power, brought to stunning life by Cliff Chiang’s art.
With this book, writer Joshua Dysart takes the basic ideas of Greendale, a concept album about the Iraq War, environmentalism, and a small California town’s reaction to it all, and turns it into a beautiful story about one 17-year-old girl, Sun Green, whose female family members have always held some amount of sway over the forces of nature. Sun is a girl who is deeply concerned about the world around her, an avowed pacifist and environmentalist who doesn’t understand, in 2003, why the whole planet seems to be going to hell. Meanwhile, things are spinning out of control within the small, close-knit circle of her family, and a mysterious devil presence is set on making them even worse. It’s up to Sun to realize exactly what kind of power she has and use it to combat those evils, both personal and global.
The book has a strong narrative, despite how meandering the original music is, and the people of Greendale, California all feel deeply real. The focus on matrilineal power is especially awesome, as Sun draws strength from her female ancestors, all of whom have distinct personalities. But the biggest highlight of the book is probably Chiang’s art, which is clean, soft, expressive, and simply gorgeous. The most mundane elements of the book shine under his pencils, and the fantastical elements positively sparkle. Even if this doesn’t sound like the book for you, I recommend flipping through it in a bookstore or a library just to check out the art.
But mostly I recommend this book to anyone who, like me, found themselves in high school in the harsh, confusing days of the early 2000s and wished they, like Sun Green, had the power to change the world.
Violence: A few moments of gun violence, including a murder and an attempted suicide, and a few scattered scenes of minor fantastical violence. But the protagonist’s pacifist beliefs mitigate the violence and definitively cast it in a negative light.
Sexualized Violence: None that I can recall. Even the devil character’s violence is completely nonsexual.
Gender: This is the story of a young woman coming of age and taking charge of her own inner power, as passed down matrilineally throughout her family’s history. It’s a profoundly feminist book about female agency.
The Bechdel-Wallace Test: The book absolutely passes, as Sun has conversations with various female relatives and a classmate with no reference to men whatsoever.
Minorities: Easily the weakest point in the book, especially given the California setting. This is largely because almost all of the characters are members of Sun’s (white) family, but all of the supporting characters are also white.
Parents May Wish to Be Aware: I would rate this book at least PG-13; there is definitely implied sex in addition to the aforementioned violence. But nothing is particularly graphic, and the moments of near-nudity are completely tasteful.
Review by Jennifer Margret Smith

May: Spider-Girl, by Paul Tobin, Clayton Henry, et al.

I don’t read Marvel. No particular reason, I’ve just always been a DC girl, and the thought of diving into another shared universe is a bit daunting. But I’m a sucker for plucky teen heroines, and after picking up the first issue of Spider-Girl on a friend’s recommendation, I was hooked.
Luckily, writer Paul Tobin makes it easier for newbies to jump on board. He skims over the details of the universe and the character’s backstory in a way that’s informative, not confusing, and more importantly, he wastes no time in making the reader care about Anya and her world. The first issue presented such a likable, engaging picture of our heroine, and sold me so well on her interpersonal relations, that when she suffered a major personal tragedy in the second issue, I cried all over the place.
Which is not to say that the series is a downer. On the contrary, Anya is a relatively upbeat, feisty kind of heroine, and the pages are crammed with Spider-banter. Tobin manages to hit an impressive balance between serious and often tragic themes and a genuinely fun read.
Oh, and hey, did I mention that Anya is Latina? And that she has several strong relationships with other women, including Sue Storm? Because those things are both awesome.
As for the art well, it’s a mixed bag. Regular penciller Clayton Henry has a clean, sleek style that works well with Tobin’s writing, but the series has been plagued by fill-ins some slapdash, some just not a good fit for the script. I’m not sure if this is cause or effect, but the series has unfortunately been cancelled and there are only two more issues left before it’s gone.
On the plus side, I’m definitely going to be picking up some of Anya’s back issues, and following her further adventures wherever they happen to take her. You’ll make a true believer of me yet, Marvel!

Violence: A pretty modest amount for a superhero book. Nothing gory.
Sexualized Violence: None.
Gender: Anya has several close female friends, Sue Storm is a mentor, and there are two recurring female villains.
The Bechdel-Wallace Test: I’m pretty sure every issue passes.
Minorities: Raina and her father are Hispanic, and her group of friends is multiethnic.
Parents May Wish to Be Aware: There is character death, but it’s handled tastefully. Audience is probably tweens and up.

  • Review by Jessica Plummer

November: Doctor Who: Oblivion, by Scott Gray and Martin Geraghty, Lee Sullivan, John Ross, Robin Smith & Adrian Salmon

The Eighth Doctor and Izzy Sinclair are back in a series of exciting adventures with intestinal jungles, Frida Kahlo, the Daleks… Wait, Izzy who? Well, herein lies a tale:
Doctor Who Magazine, the official, er, magazine, has been running Who strips since it was Doctor Who Weekly in 1979. When Paul McGann became the Doctor and there was no TV series or (at the start) book series using him, the Magazine leapt at the chance to have their ‘own’ Doctor to do things with. This is the third of four weighty graphic novels detailing his strip adventures, and the third with comic companion Izzy Sinclair, a teenaged sci-fi geek whose first response to the Tardis was disappointment that it wasn’t techy enough.
It’s also the first ever! run of DWM strips in colour, and the first strip of Oblivion is all about playing with that, as the Tardis is eaten by a huge outer-space snake robot who has a fleet of ships and feral, utterly implausible alien packs running around in its intestinal jungle. Scott Gray is a writer looking back to the 60s Who-related strips, the mad ones with Quarks wielding armies of robot maids and Giant Wasps and the Doctor meeting Father Christmas, as well as Silver Age Marvels. Like the best of such writers, he takes the visual splendour and madcap invention of those days and supports them with clever plotting, humour, and a lot of heart and emotion. Emotion, in fact, will play a large part: the seemingly harmless adventures and encounter with action-star fish-girl Destrii take a sharp, nasty turn near the end, and Izzy is left in a very dark place that the Doctor may not be able to solve. Not that this will stop him…
‘I’m not scared of monsters. They’re scared of me.’
While two trades come before this, Oblivion is very new reader friendly: an earlier character, Fey Truscott-Sade, may be the main point of confusion but all her details are explained in-strip (WW2 British spy, bonded with an alien superbeing) and is also the better collection: there’s one story running through the whole thing, overseen by one writer, with a firm and powerful ending. It also comes with an array of behind-the-scenes data on the writing and a nine-page strip where the Master battles Victorian literary supervillains in the Land of Fiction (no, really). It’s also got the strongest showing for female characters: Izzy and Fey both get a lot of meaty scenes and are distinct characters, and the supporting cast also includes historical artist Frida Kahlo in an important role.
And if you want more, Eccleston/Tennant era showrunner Russell T Davies was such a big fan of the Gray strips that he not only sent in fan-mail (one of them gets quoted in the backmatter), they were offered the chance to do the canonical regeneration into the Ninth Doctor, as detailed in the fourth trade. That’s right, this stuff is canon: so now you have to buy it, right?
Violence: Frequent, but sci-fi/fantasy violence (zapping rays and ‘splode) rather than anything graphic. Exceptions are a WW2 flashback, which implies real-world gun violence, and a combat scene in the final story Oblivion.
Sexualized Violence: The Doctor gets pinned down and kissed against his will by a female antagonist (mainly to piss him off)
Gender: Fairly mixed, with three leading female roles of different temperament; Frida Kahlo as an important supporting character in one serial; two female villains; female tertiary ally in the Dalek story; multiple female antagonists with differing agendas
The Bechdel-Wallace Test: Constantly passing: female characters talk about culture, home lives, reasons for exploration, dealing with disability, science experiments, threats, the monster plots…
Minorities: Half the strips involve human cast rather than aliens: one of these is set in Mexico with an entirely Mexican cast (bar the Doctor, Izzy, and the monsters); a human sub-base captain in the Dalek story is a black male, with several non-white crew; . Both Izzy and Fey are gay (Izzy closeted).
Parents May Wish to Be Aware: One or two swear words in the strips, some ruder; child abuse themes in the final strip (but in sci-fi/fantasy terms).
Review by Charles RB

October: Octopus Pie, by Meredith Gran

The genius of Octopus Pie is Meredith Gran’s ability to lend humour to practically every panel and line of dialogue. Like Achewood or Scary Go Round, the strips avoid building to conventional punchlines, instead relying on a natural rhythm that makes this one of the most enjoyable webcomics around.
The comic centres on the life of Everest Ning, Eve to her friends: her room-mate Hanna, her job, her Brooklyn neighbourhood, her love life. Gran’s characters are carefully crafted and evoked in a way that makes them instantly seem familiar. It helps that her art is a clean, confident grayscale, walking a fine line between joyful cartoonishness and realism, veering one way or the other as the situation demands (her ability to draw a broad range of body types is particularly welcome).
The storylines are a blend of relationship drama, situational comedy and out-and-out surrealism, with the drama never totally devoid of humour and the comedy always rooted in emotional truth. A series in which Eve’s identity crisis is expressed through a Laser Tag battle between her Asian nerd friends and Hanna’s stoner pals is a particularly brilliant example of the storytelling skills on display. Everything about the strip feels modern and contemporary without being faddish or pop-culture-obsessed.
Octopus Pie has been running for over three years, giving it a healthy but not daunting backlog of material all still available free online (a print anthology has also recently come out). Now that it’s returned to a thrice-weekly update schedule, it’s time to put it on your reading lists.

Violence: occasional, cartoonish
Sexualized Violence: none
Gender: a mostly female cast
The Bechdel-Wallace Test: passes almost constantly
Minorities: main character is Chinese-American, generally diverse cast
Parents May Wish to Be Aware: occasional nudity and frequent casual swearing and drug use mean Octopus Pie may not be suitable for children.
Review by Sean Halsey

September: Madame Xanadu, by Matt Wagner et al.

Madame Xanadu is an ongoing Vertigo series written by Matt Wagner, who apparently knows quite a lot of my literary kinkshistory, mystery, myth. Art duties have rotated among several fine artists, colourists, and letterers, but this has only increased the series’ charm to me.
It’s a solid throughout, with the first volume (Disenchanted) depicting the origins of Madame Xanadu and her exploits in several time settingsCamelot, the court of Qublai Khan, the retinue of Marie Antoinettewhile showing her bumping into DC characters like the Martian Manhunter in his guise of John Jones. The second volume (Exodus Noir) is a tale of revenge, murder and the Spanish Inquisition. The third volume (Broken House of Cards) not yet in trade is sort of Mad Men meets Body Horror. But it’s the fourth that has captured my interest the most. More on that later.
From a writing perspective, the jumps in time afford an opportunity to show the world changingor not really changing, human nature being what it is. Madame Xanadu is no stranger to violence and betrayal, but for the immortal Madame Xanadu life always goes on anyway, no matter what she loses. Marie Antoinette’s court calls her the Madame de Xanadu for her time in Qublai Khan’s court as ‘the Western seer.’ Both these lives come crashing down, and she must start again. Wagner also has a sense of social context and sexual politics, and so his settings have a particular authenticityand Madame Xanadu, the outsider, stumbles trying to function when she doesn’t understand the rules.
A note: I must credit the top-notch art team. Amy Reeder Hadley’s manga-influenced style in Volume 1 grew on me quickly. It is executed with exceptional skill and professionalism throughouther very manga-inspired style does not rely on clichés or shortcuts, and is very accessible. Her character designs are distinct and quite charming, and her expressions, body language, storytelling, and layouts are superb. Getting your money’s worth, is what I’m sayingnovice comic artists, get a look inside. Richard Friend’s inks work in lively harmony with her lines, having a clean but dynamic and expressive quality. And of course, Guy Major on colours shows his typical skillI only wish the paper stock had been smoother and let his colours pop more.
Volume 2 has the excellent Mike Kaluta on art duties, with Dave Stewart on colours. It’s a credit to Kaluta and Wagner that there isn’t stylistic whiplash between storieswhile Kaluta’s art is completely different from Hadley’s, it is completely capable and effective in its own right. He has a beautiful, spooky quilled style. Stewart is handled the tricky challenge of rendering Kaluta’s linework without losing the linework itselfas Kaluta’s style is quite rendered and old school, Stewart had to be subtle in his use of colour to model, but he performed admirably. And I don’t want to forget the letterer, Jared K. Fletcher. Lettering is an underappreciated part of the process, and Fletcher’s work performs admirably. I especially like how he differentiates Madame Xanadu’s fairy-tongue from regular dialogue.
My greatest interestit’s a buy-on-sight title, but even sohas come about with the current Extra-Sensory storyline. First, it’s an anthology-style take, with Wagner writing around Madame Xanadu herself and focusing more on the problems of people who come to her for help, so there’s no continuity to worry about. Second, art duties are rotating through 5 female guest artists, whose styles are against totally different from Kaluta, Hadley and each other but nonetheless work. Third, it’s awesome. It’s like a marvellous platter of delicious story sashimi, being varied in mood, style, and subject. I have best enjoyed the most recent issue, the third in the chiefly for its art by Chrissie Zulloit reminds me of a mix of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo and Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, except spookier and sadder.

Violence: Violence throughout, much of it mystical. Some gore.
Sexualized Violence: Rape is depicted in volume 1, references are made to the Jack the Ripper murders, and threats of rape are uttered by soldiers at a few points. It’s not clear about Marisol’s condition in volume 2.
Gender: Madame Xanadu is the central character, and interacts heavily with both men and women throughout.
Bachdel’s Law: Passes.
Minorities: Fewer than I’d like. Wagner’s multi-setting approach means there aren’t recurring characters of colour. In the Xanadu setting, the bulk of the characters are Chinese but the lens is an outsider position. Volume 2 deals with the Inquisition’s anti-homosexual agenda and displays lesbian characters sympathetically. The first in the Extra-Sensory series examines the experience of an African-American girl in the early Sixties.

  • Review by Winterbourne

August: Smile, by Raina Telgemeier

When Raina trips and knocks out her two front teeth, it sets off a long process of painful orthondontia and oral surgery. It couldn’t come at a worse time, since she’s just started middle school. Suddenly she’s dealing with cruel, catty friends, confusing new crushes, her own changing body, and friends who are growing up at different rates than she is plus a mouthful of metal on top of it.
I already knew Raina did a wonderful job of depicting tweenage growing pains, thanks to her fantastic work on the Baby-sitters Club graphic novels, but this autobiographical story is where she really shines. Her anxieties and confusion are so relatable it hurts (especially if, like me, you also did severe damage to your two front teeth as a kid and had a string of painful dental procedures as a result. I realize that’s not a common affliction). Everyone who’s ever been a pre-teen girl and probably a fair number of people who haven’t can probably find something of themselves in Raina’s hurt at being ostracized by her friends, or her difficulty grappling with awkward crushes, both as the crusher and crushee. And on the off chance that you can’t relate to any of that well, the writing is still compelling, funny, and heartbreaking, so it’s pretty much a win/win.
As always, I’m in love with Raina’s bright, cartoony, expressive art, which makes the gags ten times funnier while still bringing home Raina’s moments of isolation, and makes her ongoing dental nightmare horrible but not gruesome. I could look at this artwork for hours, even without dialogue.
Oh, and did I mention Raina’s circle of friends is noticeably multiethnic? Shocking but true!
Smile is a funny, painful read that really captures the angst of middle school without ever losing its optimism. I would recommend for it any girl struggling through her tween years or anyone else.

Violence: None, unless Raina’s accident at the beginning counts.
Sexualized Violence: None.
Gender: The female protagonist has a mother and a sister who play major roles, and a good-sized group of female friends.
The Bechdel-Wallace Test: Passes like the wind!
Minorities: Raina’s group of friends includes a wide spectrum of skin colors, which is refreshingly not an issue.
Parents May Wish to Be Aware: Some of the dental scenes are mildly gross and scary.

  • Review by Jessica Plummer
    Buy at Amazon.com

July: Skim, by Mariko Tamaki (author) and Jillian Tamaki (artist)

Kim is struggling with confusion, depression, occasional social rejection, and the exciting, frightening recognition of herself as a sexual being. Despite the many differences between myself and Skim‘s marvellous protagonist, I felt as if the book was often speaking directly to my own teenage experience.

KIMBERLY KEIKO CAMERON: This guy I don’t know suicided and everyone at my school is stupid and it’s hard to practice Wicca and I think I’m in love with my English teacher. She kissed me.
ME: Oh, honey.
KIM: Being sixteen is officially the worst thing I have ever been.
ME: God, it so was.

Kim is a pudgy Japanese-Canadian girl in a private school that, from her depressed viewpoint, appears to be overrun with popular skinny white girls. Her nickname of “Skim” is just one of the ways such girls delineate her difference from them.

Refreshingly, Kim doesn’t particularly want to be accepted by the cool kids, but she’s hardly happy to be on the outside. She’s hardly happy about anything.

After the suicide, the boy’s ex-girlfriend fell off the school roof, breaking both her arms – maybe on accident, maybe on purpose. Now the popular girls are frantically trying to pretend depression doesn’t happen, fighting back the spectre of mortality with relentless pep.

Kim is overwhelmed.

But she’s getting by.

Skim is a beautiful, beautiful book, with stark, delicate art perfectly conveying Kim’s emotional complexity and her changing relationships. The wonderful two-page spread of Kim and Ms. Archer kissing is especially good, but Tamaki’s art also conveys smaller moments of wordless action and communication with grace.

Wisely, dialogue does not overwhelm the silences which convey tension or adoration. When words do appear, the language reads as authentically teenaged, sometimes meandering inarticulately around a point, and sometimes diving to the heart of the matter with devastating directness. Kim’s thoughtful, metaphoric diary entries are a particular highlight.

For a book that deals uncompromisingly with the darkness adults would often like to pretend doesn’t genuinely afflict teenagers, Skimis also cautiously optimistic. The story doesn’t end with everything perkily fine and dandy for Kim, but offers realistic hope that, eventually, she’ll be as okay as people get.

Basically, I want to thrust this book into the hand of every teenage girl, in the hope that it might speak to them as it did to me.

Violence: Suicide, and a fair amount of non-physical, psychological bullying.

Sexualised Violence: None.

Gender: Most of the characters are female.

The Bechdel-Wallace Test: Absolutely passes.

Minorities: Kim is one of a few Asian-Canadian characters – this is explicitly dealt with as part of her isolation, rather than being overlooked by the creators. Her relationship with her teacher is sensitively portrayed, as is her depression, which receives no magical cure.

June: Judge Dredd: The Pit, by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, Colin MacNeil, Lee Sullivan, and Alex Ronald

“Dumping ground for every misfit and foul-up in Mega-City One… and that’s just the Judges!” So proclaimed the cover of 2000 AD Prog 970 when the story started, and it’s a pretty good summary. Poor Dredd has been sent to take over ‘the Pit’ and clean it up, following the suspicious death of the last Sector Chief – but both the corrupt Judges and the all-powerful Frendz mob are ready to push back hard. What he needs is a few good Judges to help him out, but what he’s getting are men and women with all sorts of problems lurking just under the surface: affairs, nerves, aggression, the odd serial killer…

At the time, this was a departure for the strip. There’d been long, long stories before, but this was the first of the “mega-epics” to be a Marvel/DC style soap opera. The large supporting cast get just as much time in the spotlight as Dredd, their problems are mostly ‘domestic’ in nature, and their subplots stretch out through the story. Wagner lets us get to know his cast of Judges before, inevitably, the twists start and everything becomes extremely violent indeed. The story is extremely well structured, starting off slow and quickly escalating, juggling lots of subplots and concepts; then it slows down to set up a calmer status quo so it can blow it all up in the final, explosive siege of Traffic Substation Alamo. (“Just a minor problem,” barks Dredd as the whole building is on fire…)

This also serves as a good, entry-level story for the strip. Dredd’s first bit of dialogue is “You may have heard of me”, and if you have heard the basics – toughest cop in a dystopian future dictatorship – you don’t need to know anything else. How Dredd’s world works and the tone of the strip – quickly switching from being serious to black humour to absurdity – is fed to you.

The one problem is the art: while all four of the artists are doing good work, their styles are quite different and at times the story will switch artist between cliff-hangers. It can get jarring. This is also a story from the mid-90s, when early Photoshop effects could first be put into art, and boy are they at times. The primary artist, however, is Carlos Ezquerra and even the odd dodgy effect is not enough to stop him being a brilliant artist. His attention to detail – the scenery, the background characters with their distinctive looks and expressions – never comes at the expense of kinetic, exciting action scenes.

And if that’s not enough for you, the head of organised crime is a beatnik. (“Judges! Bummer!”)

Violence: Quite a lot: fists, blunt instruments, blades, firearms of various types, and explosions. Blood is constant. (Hey, it’s Judge Dredd)

Sexualised Violence: Judge DeMarco is captured and menaced, but the situation is not sexualised.

Gender: Three of the main supporting cast (DeMarco, Garcia, and Calisto) are women, with distinct looks (uniforms aside) and personalities. Female Judges (straight and corrupt), civilians, and background criminals are repeatedly present. Two mid-ranking admin figures and deceased Sector Chief Rohan are all women (and a middle-aged one in Rohan’s case).

The Bechdel-Wallace Test: Passes, though scenes are only occasional.

Minorities: Supporting characters Giant, Egan, Guthrie, Hoffa, Struthers, Patel, and Patel’s father (Dr Chuck Patel) are all non-white. Judge Garcia is possibly intended to be Hispanic. There are numerous non-white Judges, civilians and villains in the background.

– Review by Charles Ellis