Dragon Hoops

dragon hoopsDragon Hoops follows two fascinating narratives.  It’s the tale of a storied high school’s quest for a state championship and the author’s own journey as a graphic novelist.

Bishop O’Dowd High School, located in Oakland, CA, is renowned for its strong athletic program. Gene Luen Yang taught computer science at O’Dowd, while balancing a demanding career as a graphic novel creator. Yang had just wrapped up one project and was in the market for his next book idea.  He was a self-admitted lifelong hater of sports, but he couldn’t ignore his students’ excitement about the Dragons upcoming basketball season. His curiosity led him to sit down with basketball coach Lou Richie.  Before long, Yang had his next project.

The narrative includes details on the history of the men’s and women’s games, including how they were impacted by racism and sexism. For example, there was so much concern about the effects of basketball on their “womanhood,” women were not allowed to run the full length of the court until 1971. Profiles of the diverse team members and Coach Richie, himself an alum of O’Dowd and its basketball team, enrich the story. Some difficult history in the program is handled thoughtfully.

Yang elevates an already powerful story by weaving his own journey with sports and his career as a graphic novelist into the narrative.  The concept of taking steps – taking risks – is a recurring theme.

Yang’s art brings the story to life with depictions of the basketball games which are so compelling you feel as if you’re there, watching. He uses a full range of colors, which are muted in historical sections and more vibrant in the time of the story. You don’t have to love basketball to love this book. Find Dragon Hoops at your local bookstore or comic book shop.

The Banks

thebanksRoxane Gay, essayist and author of Hunger, Bad Feminist, and Difficult Women, has also written comics. She started with World of Wakanda, a Black Panther spinoff, and recently returned to comic writing with The Banks. This is the story of three generations of African American women holding down the family business.  Matriarch Clara Banks and her daughter Cora are the best thieves in Chicago. Granddaughter Celia angrily rejects the family’s criminal enterprise and goes into investment banking. Celia is a spoiled diva but she’s smart. An infuriating incident at her firm makes her realize her mother and grandmother’s skills are exactly what she needs to set things right. Although Gay’s narrative has all of the best elements of a heist story – a complex plan, threats arising from an old grudge, detectives closing in on them, surprising twists and lots of tension – the family dynamics are what set it apart. The intergenerational bickering among the three hard-headed women adds humor and gives a fresh spin to a familiar plot. Artist Ming Doyle’s bold, realistic style is just right for this story. She uses an expansive palette to bring the characters to life and illuminate the many changes in time, place and mood. With equal parts competitiveness, cooperation and grudging respect, the three women come together and do what they do best.

Find The Banks at your local comic book store.

 

 

They Called Us Enemy

42527866Good stories always stand on their own, but some stories resonate even more if they are particularly timely.  Actor and activist George Takei’s graphic memoir of his experience during World War 2 is one of those stories, given the disgraceful events happening in America right now at our Southern border.

They Called Us Enemy tells the story of Takei’s childhood as one of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry who were taken from their homes and forced into concentration camps. He was 5 years old when his family was first relocated. His parents tried to protect him from the reality of what was going on, so in his young mind this started out as an adventure.

Through his experience, we see what life was like in the camps and the different ways it affected people. Among many disturbing things, he reveals how children internalized what was going on around them, no matter how hard adults tried to shield them. They acted out “Japs vs. Americans,” shouted “die Japanese cowards” and fought for a turn to play the Americans. What damage did this do to the young people in these camps?  What does this say about the damage being done today to children being held at our nation’s borders?

Obviously, it was no better for the adults. The harsh living conditions, constant questioning of their loyalties and repeatedly being set against one another made for a bleak existence.

Takei’s story covers that time through current day, reflecting back on the grave injustice done, the generational impact and how some of the same things are occurring again.  Harmony Becker’s black and white, manga influenced art does a masterful job of communicating Takei’s innocence without downplaying the horrors around him. Unlike many families, Takei’s was willing to talk about it when he was older, helping him fully understand the bigger picture of what he and Japanese Americans suffered through. This led to Takei’s vocal social justice activism, which continues to this day.

This difficult, inspiring story is a good reminder that if we aren’t vigilant, the worst of history will repeat itself.

Find They Called Us Enemy at your local bookstore or comic book shop.

Hot Comb

For Black women, hair can be a political issue.

41940338Hot Comb contains a collection of comics centered on the ways hair choices impact how Black women are seen by themselves and by society. The comics also show how, between mothers and daughters or among friends, hair can be both a way to bond or a source of conflict. Black women’s hair is a complicated issue. In the dominant culture, natural hairstyles have been criticized, and in Black culture straightened hair can be judged. Is it wrong to want to wear your hair the way it grows out of your head? Is choosing to straighten hair problematic? Although it’s good to see these experiences represented, being reminded of the conflicts is also a bit painful. Regardless, many Black women will recognize the scenarios: spending long days in the salon, the “can I touch your hair” issue, keeping your head above water while swimming, or pondering having hair that’s natural, straight, or something else entirely.

The narrative successfully weaves hair issues into a variety of “just another day” vignettes. The black and white art is realistic, but stylized in a way that supports the stories well. It’s at its best in pages replicating ads for wigs and hair products that used to be found in Black magazines. They add depth to the stories and will no doubt bring back memories for many readers. This book is geared to adults but since hair questions for Black women begin in childhood, the stories will also resonate with teens. In the end, it’s a reminder for Black women to get through the hair journey and embrace wherever we land.

Find Hot Comb at your local independent bookstore or comic book shop.

If The Dress Fits…

Being true to yourself is easier said than done.

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In this lovely graphic novel, Frances, an aspiring designer makes an outrageous dress for a young woman attending a prince’s ball. The prince is captivated, not by the princess but by the dress.  Prince Sebastian is gender fluid, some days feeling fine in traditionally male clothing, other days loving wearing his mother’s dresses and feeling like a princess. Frances dreams of creating costumes for the Paris ballet and loves designing with drama. Prince Sebastian secretly employs Frances as his seamstress, and together they create Lady Crystallia, Sebastian’s alter ego who soon becomes the fashion icon for the young women of Paris. Secrets like this are hard to protect, especially when Sebastian’s parents have been presenting him with princess after princess, pushing him to get married. At the same time Frances grows frustrated because she cannot be recognized for her work. Eventually they both have to make some difficult decisions in order to move ahead. Jen Wang’s illustrations, in both style and tone, beautifully express the delight, drama and sadness the characters experience. Each chapter is introduced with an illustration of a pattern piece, a nice touch. Overall, this is a moving exploration of balancing what others expect of you with your own dreams. I was surprised to hear some “gatekeepers” saying this graphic novel is for high schoolers. The story is fine for middle schoolers; in fact, it’s important for them to see stories like this. They are in the midst of figuring out who they are, and seeing different ways of being helps sort out the confusion that comes with this journey.

The Prince and The Dressmaker, Jen Wang, First Second

Love and Soul reaping

Did I mention I also love comics and graphic novels?

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Kim Reaper: Grim Beginnings is a sweet, queer love story that manages to be funny and creepy at the same time. Becka has been crushing on Kim and one day decides to ask her out. As Becka approaches her, Kim disappears through a portal, which Becka is then sucked into. She lands in a house and discovers Kim at her part time job – she’s a grim reaper. Understandably Becka is freaked out so Kim calmly explains she’s not a murderer, she just shepherds souls into the afterlife.  Kim is still new at the job and is only allowed to harvest animal souls; things get complicated when she decides to harvest a human, and has to face the consequences. Kim and Becka have a sweet relationship; Kim introduces Becka to the cool things about being a reaper and Becka shows Kim how much fun it is to work in a bakery.  They do their best to grow their relationship in the midst of reapings, possessions, zombie uprisings and dealing with Kim’s reaper bosses. They have their ups and downs but they come through for each other. The colorful art’s somewhat whimsical style supports the story well, easily being both charming and disturbing. The narrative around the relationship keeps the focus where it belongs – on the relationship itself, not their sexuality or culture. We get to see how two people can enjoy a life together – even if that life involves soul harvesting.

Kim Reaper: Grim Beginnings, Sarah Graley, Oni Press