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.