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How many movies can you think of that start with opening text on the screen and are actually good? No cheating with search engines. I can only think of two: Star Wars (I’m counting the whole franchise here) and The Wizard of Oz. And depending on your tastes, Blade Runner.

Starting a story with an explanation almost always feels like a pre-apology. “Okay, this is going to be rough, folks, but just bear with me, hear me out, please don’t get mad, just give me a chance, I promise, I promise it’ll get good.” My favorite is the start of Zardoz, which foregoes text and instead throws a giant floating head up on the screen to explain the film's premise but only winds up making things worse. And then there’s the start of Lynch’s Dune, which starts with an actress giving you some info and fading out, then immediately fading back in and saying, “oh, I forgot to mention,” like fucking Columbo.

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Anyway, I bring all this up because I longed for an opening explanation for one of this week’s new comic books, a baffling book that felt like reading insider jokes in a stranger’s yearbook. And then there’s another new book that does a beautiful job of bringing the reader into a world that is likely to be far more unfamiliar, and yet with a few deft expository lines of dialogue is instantly gettable. A study in contrasts! Like comparing The Running Man to Brazil. Thanks as always to Phoenix for helping to comb through this week’s books!

MANU

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Here we have an absolutely perfect all-ages story about a young witchling who never quite fits in at a Roman Catholic school for magic users in the Dominican Republic. Our heroine Manu has always felt like an outcast — her carefree, rowdy magic always seems to get her in trouble, whether with the nuns or the other girls. She wants to be good, but her pure intentions clash with her independent spirit, which chafes under the strict rules of the school (to say nothing of the unwritten social rules that seem to come so naturally to everyone else). A chance encounter with a demon hints that there might be more to her powers than meets the eye, and before long it’s time for Manu to make a tough choice about what kind of person she’s going to grow up to be. Though the book is indicated for ages 8-12, it would make a lovely read-along activity for younger readers; and the insightful depiction of a melancholy outcast would be instantly relatable for teens and adults. The unique setting and characters are particularly appealing — how many books have you seen lately that blend Catholicism and Dominican magic traditions? — and the world created by author Kelly Fernández is immersive, playful, and kind. I would happily revisit this story (and any future installments, should we be so fortunate as to get a series). Books, at their best, feel like spending time with close friends; I’m happy to report that Manu is the best book I have read in quite some time.

Rating: 🥭🥭🥭🥭🥭 (5/5)

Author and illustrator: Kelly Fernández

NITA HAWES’ NIGHTMARE BLOG ISSUE #1

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Do not be fooled by the book’s goofy title, which radiates a certain Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace camp. This urban gothic-horror book is suitably atmospheric for Halloween, introducing an intriguing conflict between gory forces of darkness and a paranormal investigator plagued by metaphorical demons of her own. Something unspeakably evil is haunting Baltimore, and it’s (probably) up to Nita Hawes to get to the bottom of some gruesome slayings — but her mind is clearly distracted by her past failures to protect the ones she loved. It’s an engrossing setup, and it pains me to find some fault, but: The book’s frequent reliance on voiceover is often confusing to the point that I had to flip back a few pages to try to figure out exactly who is talking. Mystery voices drift over the panels, and I occasionally found myself wondering if they belong to characters we’re watching, characters we previously met, or strangers. But despite a little reader-confusion, Nina’s pain and strength make for an intriguing heroine; I’m similarly curious about a side character who laments that her commitment to justice for the dead has come to outweigh her concern for the living. There’s great depth here, and it’s worth flipping back a few pages every now and then to absorb.

Rating: 🩸🩸🩸🩸 (4/5)

Story: Rodeny Barnes. Layouts and art: Jason Shawn Alexander. Art: Patric Reynolds. Color: Luis NCT and Mar Sylvestre Galotto. Lettering: Marshall Dillon. Editor: Greg Tumbarello. Publishing coordinator: Nicole Palmquist. Logo and graphic design: Sherard Jackson and Jordan Butler. Covers: Well-Bee, Francisco Mattina, Jason Shawn Alexander, Patric Reynolds, and Luis NCT.

CROSS TO BEAR ISSUE #1

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You know, I generally consider it a red flag when a movie or comic begins with opening titles that explain the premise of what you’re about to see. But to be honest I wouldn’t have minded a little opening exposition here, because I can’t explain one goddamn thing that happens in this book. The premise seems sound: Jack the Ripper has escaped from Boston and is hiding out in the old west, where an ancient order of vigilantes is hunting him down. Okay! But I only know that’s the premise because, after reading the first issue, I went hunting for a press release to explain what I was supposed to have just seen. The experience is not unlike checking Twitter around 2am when England is awake and everyone’s talking about British politics that you know nothing about — who are these people, these issues, this drama? Whenever I see Brits fuming over Boris Johnson’s latest outrage, for a moment I feel as though it would be possible for me to get caught up on the situation if I really tried; but then I’m seldom persuaded that it’s worth the effort. Nice panel layouts, though.

Rating: 🕯️🕯️ (2/5)

Writer: Marko Stojanović. Artist: Siniša Banović. Colorist: Aljoša Tomić. Letterer: Taylor Esposito.

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ALSO: GORY SLASHERS, TEEN TIME WARRIORS, and POOP

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Lots to enjoy this week! House of Slaughter looks like a fun paranormal Twin-Peaks-y spinoff of Something is Killing the Children with a great main character design. Hello my Name is Poop is a young-reader book that is even more gross than the title suggests. The grim slasher story Maniac of New York has a paperback volume out, and I am still stunned that such a dark tale was written by Elliott Kalan. It’s a great time to pick up Paper Girls, a story of teen girls who deliver newspapers and fight time-travelers, now out in paperback. And there’s a new Gunslinger Spawn series, which I recommend only to existing Spawn fans and absolutely nobody else, because what kind of maniac would start reading at this point?