A few years after I graduated from high school, I came back as a saboteur.
I’d been hired as a substitute teacher, a job that provided an intense sensation of whiplash: My first assignment was to take the place of a gym teacher in a department that was responsible for a sizable share of my teen misery; my second was to become a literature teacher in a department that was my primary refuge from that misery.
That’s when I discovered that for some incomprehensible reason, the regular Reading Class teacher had limited reading options to only a handful approved books, many of which were tattered 15-year-old copies about '80s pop stars. Can you believe a surly teen of 2002 was not enthusiastic about spending 45 minutes reading about the formation of The Buggles?
When I asked them what they would want to read instead, they were surprisingly prepared: One had an issue of Car & Driver he wanted to sulk behind; another carried that week’s TV Guide; and several had comic books in their bags.
To their shock, I let them read what they wanted, and hoped that they could unlearn at least some of the lessons they’d absorbed from their regular teacher: Reading is boring, and entertaining books are not real literature.
I think about that class during weeks like this, when we are spoiled for choice by more excellent new comic book releases than I know what to do with. A visual adaptation of a Nnedi Okorafor short story; an anthology of stories by women about reproductive choice; a swashbuckling tale that looks like a pirate adventure but is also secretly about navigating family dynamics — it makes me want to go back to that high school and wave comics around shouting, “This is what good reading looks like!”
Anyway. Thanks to Phoenix for helping to pick out this week’s books, and also no thanks for throwing me into this crisis of having to choose which ones to talk about first!
Let’s start with an excellent all-ages romp, suitable for ages 7 and up — and I do mean up, as the story is delightsome to kids, teens, and adults. This is a fantasy tale featuring the monsters that are usually unnamed enemies. Here, orcs are our heroes, and we join two sisters hunting treasure with a motley crew of burly friends. Author Christine Larsen does a wonderful job of establishing distinct characters within the clan — a welcome departure from the cannon-fodder vibe most fantasy affords them — as well as orc culture and lore. And wonderfully, this is a comic where the comedy actually lands, rather than overdoing each joke as so many titles aimed at youngsters seem to do. Without actually saying so, this book seems like a successful rebuke of the uncomfortable racialized tropes that have wrecked the fantasy genre for decades. When authors paint entire races with so broad a brush as to ignore each person’s distinct character, their stories and readers suffer. Orcs! is an utter success.
A mysterious one-eyed cat brings a moody middle-school outcast together with a teenager in a rock band in this charming coming-of-age and becoming-friends story.
Jo’s a lonely kid who wishes she could make friends; Rus is a teenager whose cool attitude masks his anxiety about what awaits him after high school. When Jo rescues a trapped cat, she’s led to the junkyard owned by Rus’ family, and from there a pleasant friendship blossoms. Rus prepares Jo to make friends and feel more comfortable in her own skin, and Jo helps Rus plan for the future. That, alas, is where things stumble a bit in the book: Rus’ problems are unexpectedly solved not by his own actions, but by a random bit of good luck that seems to come out of nowhere. It’s … not the best storytelling. However! The development of their friendship throughout the story is quite lovely, and the pain of adolescence has seldom been so relatable. Don’t let the hasty ending distract from what makes Jo & Rus a gem — a story of unlikely friends who are more than the sum of their parts.
You ever just have a feeling that something’s going to be good? Not only is issue #1 of Radiant Black very good on its own, but there’s some industry trends that have me thinking the story is going to develop in a particularly intriguing direction. Let’s start with the details of the book: Radiant Black introduces us to Nathan Burnett, a miserable writer unable to hack it in Los Angeles who is forced to move back to the town where he grew up in Illinois. (Speaking as a writer who has lived in Los Angeles, this seems to me like an upgrade in quality of life, but Nathan isn’t thrilled.) He’s commiserating with a childhood friend when he stumbles upon a weird black-hole singularity that imbues him with superpowers — and unfortunately, those powers were not meant for him, and their creators want them back.
Okay, great — a promising setup for a superhero story. But there’s more working in the series’ favor: Image Comics has been conspicuously retaining a lot of top-tier superhero talent lately, and they’ve mustered a significant media push for this book in particular. Rumor has it that we’re looking at more than just a single superhero origin, but could instead soon see the spinning up an entire new superhero universe. Getting in on Radiant Black now seems like good sense to me; not just because the book is a pleasure to read, but because it feels like there’s so much more waiting in the wings.
ALSO: CRITICAL ROLE, LADY PIRATES, AND ABORTION
There’s so much more to read this week! Consider After the Rain, an adaptation of Nnedi Okorafor’s short story On the Road, set in a Nigerian town where strange elemental forces are at work. There’s Comics for Choice, a fantastic project that gathers tons of stories about abortions to raise money for the National Network of Abortion Funds (you can read it for free and donate here). Tell no Tales is a very charming take on the lives of lady pirates, written by the wonderful Sam Maggs. Sugartown is a cute depiction of the lives & complications of a polyamorous couple. If you’re looking for stories of fearless lady gamers, take a peek at Chainmail Bikini, an anthology about women who are passionate about tabletop and videogames. And finally there’s Vox Machina: Origins for backstory on the super popular Critical Role characters.
Whewwwwww that’s a lot. Do not waste your time with reading that bores you when there is so much excitement to be grabbed in your grubby disgusting hands! Go read a comic! And if it makes you feel better, that’s an order from a teacher.