Strange Planet & Stranger Planet

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Lately I’ve needed light-hearted, wholesome books to read. Maybe it’s the continued pandemic, maybe it’s just seasonal depression, or maybe it’s just… everything. So, I reached for Nathan W. Pyle’s two books, Strange Planet and Stranger Planet. You may recognize these little aliens as they have been making the rounds on social media for a few years now. But if you have no idea what I am talking about, you can see many of his comics on his Instagram to get a feel for the style and humor in these collections.

Strange Planet and the sequel, Stranger Planet, do not follow a linear narrative. You also don’t even need to read the collections in order. (I actually read the second book first because that was the order they were available through my library.) Though some comics are related in content, for the most part each comic is four panels in length and makes some observation about human culture or just life itself. The aliens live in a world very much like ours, but they often point out how strange our customs are or discuss the emotional rigors of everyday situations very bluntly. I love how the aliens’ perspectives can make me view something I find normal about humanity in a different light. For example, they have very literal names for everyday objects. Tea is “hot leaf liquid,” an umbrella is a “sky shield,” and (my favorite) a cat is called “the vibrating creature.” The comics cover subjects like holiday traditions, growing up and raising kids, pets and pet antics, and just how strange life can be.

I wouldn’t say that many comics made me laugh out loud, but the collections made a smile and often warmed my heart. At around 150 pages each these are quick reads that cleansed my reading palate in between more strenuous novels. I gave both collections four out of five stars.

Locke and Key Vol. 1-3

Rating: 4 out of 5.

As 2020 comes to a close, I have found myself in a reading slump. I haven’t read a full novel in several months now. Luckily, I read a lot more during the spring and summer and had several reviews scheduled ahead throughout the year. This has been my worst reading year since I got back into reading in my 20’s, so as I struggle to meet my 50 book reading goal, I have turned to graphic novels. (If you’re struggling to read even 1, 2, or 3 books this year, I’m not putting you down of course. Everyone has different goals!) But that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I have been wanting to watch the Locke and Key series, but I wanted to read the graphic novels first, so it worked out.

Locke and Key is about the Locke family. After tragedy upends the family’s life, they move to an intricate New England manor called Keyhouse. The youngest son begins finding strange, magical keys throughout the manor, and what the family thinks is just a heinous crime turns out to have occult origins. The Locke kids must combat supernatural forces as well as the more normal trials of growing up and surviving trauma.

To begin, the series does deal with tough topics and disturbing scenes, like murder, alcoholism, and abuse. It is a horror graphic novel, though the kids are the main characters. Speaking of the kids, there are three Locke children, Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode. I’m usually not a fan of child characters, but I like this group. They all have well developed characterization. They feel like realistic children, but they aren’t grating or annoying. Tyler, the oldest, puts on a brave face and carries a lot of guilt and pain, but he is the rock of the family in a lot of ways. Kinsey is just becoming a teen and is struggling with fitting in and knowing herself on top of what her family has gone through. She would rather repress or remove her pain and fear than confront it, but I wouldn’t call her a coward. Bode, the youngest, still has childlike wonder and immerses himself in the mysteries of the house. He takes a lot of the craziness and dysfunction in stride, but his family doesn’t always listen or have time for him. Other characters, like their mother and uncle, are also fleshed out well and will likely continue to develop as the series progresses. I love good character development, and I think this series delivers.

Plot-wise, I found the first volume to be very cohesive and engaging. The next volumes meander a little, and I wasn’t sure where the series was going, but were enough twists and mysteries to keep me interested. The concept of the different magical keys is very interesting too. Some keys open doors where crossing the threshold turns one into a ghost, while others can open up a person’s mind. I wouldn’t say that the use of the keys made anything too convenient, and I don’t think (so far) that they are over used as a plot device, which was a concern of mine. By volume three I am wondering just how everything will come together in the end, but I trust Joe Hill as an author since I’ve loved several of his novels. I have high hopes for the series as a whole.

So, if you’re like me and need something quick, short, and satisfying to read, I would recommend this series. I don’t find it scary as much as sad or slightly disturbing or unsettling at times. Overall, I would rate the first three volumes four out of five stars. The overall plot could be tighter, but I still enjoy the side plots that develop the characters and expand the world. The artwork is also very colorful and creative, and I enjoy the art style more than many other graphic novels.

The Umbrella Academy Vol. 1-3

Rating: 2 out of 5.

It’s rare for me to watch TV series, but I fell head over heels for The Umbrella Academy on Netflix. I didn’t realize that it was adapted from a graphic novel until I finished season 1, so of course I had to go read the series after finishing season 2. I usually prefer to read the source material before watching an adaptation, but in this case I didn’t even know it existed. However, had I read the graphic novel series first, I might not have bothered to watch the TV show. I won’t spoil the series or the TV show, but I will compare aspects of the two in this review.

The premise of the graphic novel is that several children around the world were born with extraordinary powers, and a rich, eccentric man named Reginald Hargreeves was able to adopt and train seven of them to become a team of superheroes. However, over time, the children grew up and parted ways. The siblings reunite when Hargreeves dies to save the world again.

From the book to movie/TV show adaptions I’ve read and seen, generally the written material has more plot and character depth, while the film adaptions favor more action and often cut out some of the slow moments in the books. This wasn’t the case for the The Umbrella Academy. I love character development, and I love the characters on The Umbrella Academy TV show so, so much. They are funny, very flawed, and the siblings have complex relationships with each other. They have a lot of trauma, communication issues, and big egos. The graphic novel does not portray the siblings’ relationships and personalities well at all. There’s very little chemistry between them, the banter is stilted, and they just lack emotional depth. I only saw a few flashes of who the characters are in the show. For example, Luther’s, Allison’s, and Diego’s struggles are hinted at but not focused on in any depth. Vanya was very underdeveloped compared to her TV portrayal, Klaus and Five are nowhere near as interesting or charming, and other side characters from the show are either entirely absent or only mentioned in passing. The TV show utilized the characters, their personalities, powers, and backstories much more effectively.

My feelings for the plot are much of the same. The plot in the graphic novels is often unclear or shallow. I often wondered why we were fighting an enemy, and many aspects of the world went unexplained. I wasn’t sure what was happening or why, and the dialogue and illustrations didn’t clear up much of my confusion. I will say that the illustrations are nicely done, but the writing and perhaps how the panels themselves were planned out just didn’t work well for me.

The graphic novel has so many of interesting elements, characters, and ideas, but nothing really comes together well. When I watched The Umbrella Academy I thought the weakest point was the plot, because at times it was unclear or had moments that were too convenient and probably there just to move the plot along, but I actually have more respect for the show’s writers and the actors now. They were able to take the disjointed story and flat characters in the graphic novels and put together something that made much more sense and explored the characters and the setting in engaging detail.

So, unfortunately, I gave The Umbrella Academy‘s first volume 3/5, the second volume 2.5/5, and the third volume 2/5 stars. If you really love the show, it is interesting to see the source material, but it just doesn’t stand strongly on its own.

Monstress Vol. 1

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Humble Bundle had a sale a few weeks ago for Image comics. I paid ten dollars for thirty-six volumes of various series, including Monstress Vol. 1. The sale is over now, but I do highly recommend checking out Humble Bundle’s book or video game bundles in the future for cheap games and books!

Monstress is a gorgeous series. Artwork is a big factor in how much I like a graphic novel/series, and this series delivers. I cannot believe the amount of detail artist Sana Takeda puts into each scene. Monstress‘s plot is also quite intricate. Maika Halfwolf is our “monstress.” The story begins with her being held prisoner by a high-ranking woman in this 1900’s  matriarchal fantasy/steam punk universe. As bad as it may look for her, it is all part of Maika’s plan. She is looking for answers about the recent war, her mother, and the strange being she seems to be connected to, and the woman she believes can answer her questions is her captor. Throughout volume one, Maika struggles with her strange, possessive power while trying to keep her friends and what is left her family safe. Also, this looks like it will be a violent series, so if that is not your thing, you may want to steer clear of it.

Maybe that is not the best synopsis, but I’m still a little in the dark about what is going on too. The plot has a lot to it, and I felt like some of the details went over my head amid all the action. There’s quite a bit of action with big world-building details thrown in without too much context. The world in this series seems very interesting. There is some deep-seated fear and racism among the people who inhabit the world as well as some political conspiracies, maybe? Add to that a strange group of gods/monsters pulling strings behind the scenes. There are still many questions that need answers by the end of volume 1, but I felt satisfied with how it ended. The major arcs get tied up for the time being, but the final pages hint at more mysteries.

There are quite a few characters already introduced in the series, which was one of my issues with this volume. I wanted more time with all of the characters. It was hard to feel connected to some of them when they weren’t given enough “page-time.” The main character, Maika, is bit distant too, which doesn’t help my connection issue. She has a lot of depth, but it feels like she/the author is holding a lot of her personality back. Maika has a lot of trauma and anger that will probably be dealt with throughout the series, leading to her growth. The other two main protagonists are a little fox-tailed child and a talking cat. They give the dark tale some needed levity, and I am sure they will become more important later. (There is an entire race of talking, lore-centric, multi-tailed cats in this series, and that’s all I really needed to know to want to read this!)

I really liked this first volume. Not quite a perfect five out of five, but I see a lot of potential, and I am very ready for volume two.

 

Platinum End Vol. 1

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If the names Tsugumi Ōba and Takeshi Obata sound familiar, you have probably read or heard of Death Note. I found out that the writer/illustrator duo had a few other series together, so I picked one that sounded interesting to me. For better of for worse, I will be comparing Death Note and Platinum End in this review. (No spoilers though, I promise!) This is partially because the author and illustrator are the same and partially because I reread Death Note a few weeks ago, and I loved it all over again.

Platinum End is, like Death Note, about supernatural beings and the gray areas of morality. Middle schooler Mirai isn’t too excited about going to high school. Along with the usual drama of being a teenager, he has to contend with his tragic past, his terrible home life, and his depression. He is so depressed, in fact, that he tries to kill himself. But, just as he jumps off a building to end his life, he is rescued by his guardian angel. Mirai and his angel soon find themselves in a life-or-death competition with other angel/human pairs.

This story gets dark quickly. Everything about this first volume goes extremely fast, which is something I disliked. I understand that the plot needs to get on track and grab the reader’s interest quickly, but it was a bit overwhelming. The rules of the competition are laid down in chunks that feel a little unnatural to the flow of the story. The violence is also pretty abrupt and a bit unexpected so early on. This series, despite staring a younger cast, also seems much more sexual than Death Note. I realize that I am judging an entire series against the first volume of a new series, but I am trying to keep in mind how Death Note‘s first volume felt as I write this.

I am debating whether to continue Platinum End or not. The art is really nice, of course, and I think the plot has the potential to get better. Mirai seems to be an interesting character with some depth already. He appears innocent and sweet, but I also think he has the potential to become corrupted by power. Mirai’s angel, Nasse, seems cute and innocent, but I sense some fanaticism at the very least from her. I am curious about where the plot and character development will go, but I just really hope the pacing slows down a bit. I also hope that the series deals with mental health in a positive way, but I am not sure if it will. Three out of five stars for this volume!

Chi’s Sweet Home

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It’s finals time and I’m wrapping up my first year of grad school and I am a bit stressed. I picked this up because look at that little cat face! I had heard of Chi’s Sweet Home before, but I put it on the list of things I will get to eventually. However, I saw this little face in the book store in the wrong section and had to give it a home.

Chi is a little lost kitten. She is separated from her mother and all alone. She is about to give up when she meets a family who takes her in. Unfortunately the apartment complex that they live in does not allow pets. Misadventures ensue as Chi grows up and learns about the human world while her humans try to keep her a secret.

This edition has full color illustrations in a cutesy manga/anime style. It’s also pretty large at about 500 pages. It was also a bit on the expensive side at $25. There really isn’t much of a plot to the series. It simply follows the day to day antics of a cute kitten and her family. Chi’s behavior is very true to real life cats and kittens so many of her adventures are easy to relate to if you’ve ever owned a cat. I smiled throughout the book. The illustrations are easy to follow and simply adorable. Chi’s thoughts and actions are funny even if her “baby-talk” voice might be a little annoying to some readers.

If you like cats, cute comics, and just want a few hours of smiles then I think Chi’s Sweet Home is a good choice. It won’t change the world with profound revelations, but it might make it a happier place for a little while.

Rat Queens, Vol 1: Sass & Sorcery

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Rat Queens (written by Kurtis J. Wiebe and illustrated by Roc Upchurch), like Saga, is another highly rated series. I’m not really finding hidden gems, I know, but I’ve only recently gotten into the graphic novel/comic scene. In classic role-playing game fashion the four kick-ass female leads are different races and classes. There’s Betty the Smidgen rogue, Hannah the Elf mage, Violet the Dwarf fighter, and Dee the Human cleric. They make up the Rat Queens, a mercenary troupe that is doing more harm than good for their city at the moment.

Plot-wise I like where the series is going. There is one major plot line which seems like it is going some place interesting by the end of this volume. What I really enjoyed were all the subplots though. Each of the women have their own issues, families, and relationships that they are dealing with on top of the trouble they are getting into. This of course leads me to the characters themselves. All of their separate plot lines make them very interesting. I feel like a couple of their personalities run together and feel a little trope-y in this one, but the volume is fairly short and is only the first so I hope they become more unique as time goes on. I definitely see their potential even now though.

Rat Queens is a funny, sexy, action packed adventure that I’d highly recommend to anyone who hasn’t already read it!

The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 1 & 2

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The Wicked + The Divine has a great premise. Every ninety years twelve gods are reincarnated as pop stars. They inspire the pop culture of their time, have rabid fans, and scholars are devoted to studying them and their reemergence. They burn bright for two years and then… they die. Even though I heard mixed things about this series I couldn’t resist trying it for myself and even though it was not amazing I wasn’t disappointed either.

As I said, idea behind The Wicked + The Divine is great. I love seeing a collection of different gods and goddesses being pop icons. I love how the gods are interpreted to fit into a modern setting. The art is amazing and the character designs are to die for. There is so much I like about this series, but for me the problem is in the execution.

The first volume threw me into the middle of everything. I felt lost. I can appreciate an energetic start, but this was a little much. I didn’t know enough about the world or the characters to understand exactly what was going on or what/who the characters were talking about. Suddenly there are nine gods and many humans to keep track of and there was not enough time to get to know everyone and keep track of the fast pace of the plot and lore. The second volume seems a bit more smooth, but maybe by then I was just acquainted enough with things to handle it better.

If I could change the story-line just a bit I think it would flow better and be easier to get into. I would start much slower and at an earlier point- like when the gods are first starting to reemerge. Then perhaps follow them one by one as they discover their powers. It would be a little slower, but I think it would help introduce them and perhaps start building the drama between them at the same time so that it ramps up. At times the relationships between gods were hinted at, but I wanted to know more of their stories instead of being thrust into the middle of a conversation between them that I couldn’t follow. From what little I’ve read about it, the third volume apparently goes into more of the gods’ backstories.

I would recommend this series, but I would also warn that it is a bit confusing to begin with. I will be continuing on with it and I hope I will enjoy it more as time goes on.

Nimona & Lumberjanes Vol. 1

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Nimona (By Noelle Stevenson) and Lumberjanes Vol. 1 (By Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Brooke A. Allen (Illustrator), & Maarta Laiho) are two graphic novels so and fairly short so I thought I’d combine them into one review this week!

Nimona had me sold after the first two pages. Nimona is a shapeshifter who shows up on the villain, Lord Blackheart’s, front door. She wants to be his sidekick and help him defeat his nemesis, Sir Goldenloin. Nimona such a strong female character and she has faults! Blackheart was probably my favorite though. He was the “bad guy,” but he was adorably kind-hearted. I really loved this web comic turned graphic novel. The story begins and ends with this book so there’s (at least at the moment that I know of) no plans for a volume two. I loved this. It was cute, fun, funny, and a little sad. I would highly recommend this to anyone. I particularly liked the blend of science and technology with fantasy. For me this was definitely worth the hype.

Lumberjanes is about five girls who are attending summer camp together. They get into trouble often and get out of it by helping each other. Strange things are happening though. They are encountering three eyed animals, talking statues, and sea monsters. What’s going on? Well, to be honest volume one really doesn’t answer that question! There are a lot of weird happenings which spark a lot of questions, but there are very few answers. I think that it would be better if there was some bigger hints to overall plot in the first volume. The adventures they go on are fun, but it seems a little lacking on plot right now. I liked it though and it is 110% perfect for young middle school girls! It had a quirky vibe, some smart humor, and was just a lot of fun. The characters haven’t quite come into their own yet, but I see some development. I’d like to pick up the next volume before I really make a decision, but it is very charming for a first installment. It is a very “girl power,” pro-female book. Definitely pick it up for your preteen, tween, or teens!

Saga

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So. This is amazing. You’ve probably heard of Saga (written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples) and you’ve probably heard people rave about it. I’d heard it all too and I was reluctant to give it a go because of the hype. But I’m glad I did because for me it was really, really worth it.

I’d read Vaughan’s Pride of Baghdad a few years ago and really liked it so I was confident of the writing. Staples’ artwork looked beautiful from what I’d seen online and the first three volumes were 20$ all together on sale so I couldn’t argue with the price. So, here I am on the hype train. Chugga, chugga, choo, choo!

Anyway, the writing and characters are just spot on. They are witty, fun, and fresh. There’s a enough sassy women, legless floating ghostly teens, lie detecting cats, assassins, and cute goat boys to go around. If you’re not OK with some weirdness and nudity then you probably will be turned off by this series though. There’s some weird things… like TV headed robot people having sex and huge naked giants with large genitalia, but trust me it is all in good fun! It’s just so SO good. I’ve dropped extremely heavy hints about wanting the next volumes for Christmas. Now excuse me while tie my hands behind my back and try not buy them before the 25th.

Update: I failed. I bought volume four and five during a black Friday deal. And yes, the series is still awesome in case you were wondering.