August 28, 2020

Review: The Flapper Queens

The Flapper Queens
Edited by Trina Robbins
Available now from Fantagraphics
Review copy

The Flapper Queens: Women Cartoonists of the Jazz Age is a gorgeous volume that presents the 1920's art within as it was meant to be seen: oversized and in color. (Excepting the black & white strips, of course.) The art within is gorgeously reproduced, although sometimes the text is a little blurred or placed on a dark background, which I suspect is an artifact of the sources.

This anthology includes selections from Nell Brinkley, Eleanor Schorer, Edith Stevens, Ethel Hays (with Gladys Parker, who took over her Flapper Fanny strip), Fay King, and Virginia Huget. There's also brief coverage of the Annibelle strips by Dorothy Urfer and Virginia Krausmann, which isn't listed in the table of contents.

While I appreciate getting to see this art so beautifully presented, Trina Robbins has never been the best anthologist. Her introductions are brief (a paragraph to a few pages of text) and lack analysis. Some of the artists have five times the amount of work represented as others. I had no clue why until the write-up on Virginia Huget mentioned she was one of the three flapper queens. So Nell Brinkley, Ethel Hays, and Virginia Huget are the eponymous queens, based on my observations, but there's no indication why the other women artists were chosen for inclusion with them. 

Since Trina Robbins has published two previous volumes on Nell Brinkley, it is no surprise that Brinkley gets the most coverage. (Both as a singular artist and in the outro discussing the end of the flapper comics trend.) However, this was a chance for her to showcase other artists as well. Much of the Brinkley material was previously printed in her 2009 volume The Brinkley Girls. It is now out of print, to my knowledge, but still available in the way high-quality material for the other artists isn't.

Also, the comics are presented in a baffling order. I understand keeping each strip by an artist collected together, but the dates are printed on them and many are not presented chronologically. If there is a different significance to the order, it is not given and I cannot ascertain it. There's also no given reasoning for why the strips reproduced within The Flapper Queens were chosen to represent each of the artists. Are these strips considered their best? (By who?) Where they chosen randomly? Maybe.

(There is also one error where Fay Kings "Preserve Your Own Personality, Says Fay King" is printed on both page 110 and 113.)

I also felt that historical context could make this a more valuable volume for readers interested in these cartoonists. Some of the humor eluded me, especially that of Virginia Huget. There are also periodic appearances by racial caricatures and stereotypes, most often in Nell Brinkley's The Fortunes of Flossie strip, which could have been contextualized.

I appreciate the work Trina Robbins has done to preserve the history of women in comics and present their art to new audiences, but I am often disappointed by her work as an anthologist.

At the same time at all, I am not disappointed at all to see the work of these artists beautifully presented. The fashion! The cars! The pretty, wild girls! If you like comics history, or simply looking into the past, then this is a wonderful, beautiful volume.

August 22, 2020

Review: Still Life Las Vegas

Still Life Las Vegas
Illustrated by Sungyoon Choi
Available now from St. Martin's Press
Review copy

Voice actor James Sie's debut novel starts out strong, with a woman pushed to her limit, driving anywhere and lightening the car as she goes including tossing out a car seat. This woman is Emily Stahl, musician, mother, carer to her depressed husband. The child who normally would occupy that car seat is Walter Stahl.

Still Life Las Vegas alternates between their points of view (Walter in the past, Emily in the present) and Walter's father's point of view (also in the past) and comics (drawn by Walter) telling the story of Emily as told to him by his father. Walter lives in Las Vegas, where his father moved him while trying to find Emily. Now seventeen, Walter is driven to chase down the secrets of his mother's history. A chance meeting with a living statue in the Venetian hotel, Chrysto, also puts him on the path to discovering his sexuality.

I loved both narrators. They're both searching for direction, albeit in very different ways. The interstitial comics are great too, Sungyoon Choi's art a beautiful accompaniment to James Sie's words. It's also provides a clear division between what Walter has been told versus Emily's actual words.

However, I felt that Still Life Las Vegas didn't quite live up to the strength of its opening. I felt Emily had reason to run from the very beginning, but the story keeps adding new layers of sadness to her past and reveals a horror that I think was gratuitous, not adding to the plot or being explored with the weight it deserved. As the story goes on, Walter also has to deal with the unfortunate truth as well as a betrayal.

Still Life Las Vegas is an engrossing bildungsroman, but ultimately too depressing for me. Still, I'm a little sad that James Sie has yet to write a second novel. I think he has a knack for description and character and I'd like to see what he'd write with more polish.

August 9, 2020

Review: From Where I Watch You

From Where I Watch You
Available now from Soho Teen
Review copy

From Where I Watch You was Shannon Grogan's debut (and so far only) novel. I think it is an ambitious novel with lots of promise, but that Grogan didn't quite have the experience to bring all the storylines together naturally.

Kara McKinley is a star baker. Only 16, she's in the running for a baking competition that would get her a scholarship to culinary school in another state. She wants to escape from her home and the shadow of her older sister's death at college, and her mom's resulting holy roller ways. She also wants to escape her stalker, whose notes are becoming increasingly threatening.
Those plot drivers are covered by the blurb. What isn't covered is that From Where I Watch You details Kara and her sister Kellan's history between the present chapters, building up the reason why Kara isn't sorry her sister is dead. Kellan's betrayal is horrible, but I'm not sure what happened to Kara fits the rest of the novel. It is a heavy subject to add to a book, and I'm not sure there was enough room to give it proper weight. There could have been tension between the sisters without it.

Kara is also hallucinating her dead sister. Oh, and falling in love with Charlie, who is finally noticing her now that he works in her mother's cafe and who might be homeless. There's a lot going on, and I feel like paring down a few of the minor plots would have helped From Where I Watch You hit harder, particularly the reveal at the end.

As it was, it felt like there was barely time for the mystery. Kara never tells anyone who might help her and never does much to solve it. In the end, the stalker has to reveal himself, which felt anti-climatic to me.

August 1, 2020

Review: Earth Flight

Earth Flight
The third novel in the Earth Girl trilogy
Available now from Pyr
Review copy

When I picked up Earth Flight, I didn't realize it was the final novel in a trilogy. This did leave me lost at some points as Earth Flight is heavy on the future slang and such, but I also enjoyed piecing the worldbuilding together. Janet Edwards doesn't leave new readers too lost, however. There's exposition about what happened in previous novels.

In the future Earth of this trilogy, most humans can portal to other worlds. Those that have an immune system that doesn't allow them to portal are discriminated against. Jarra hid her condition, got caught, but still saved the world and is now a celebrity. Earth Flight tackles what happens after the unlikely hero has saved the world, a plot that seems obvious but that I haven't seen too often.

Jarra's clan are now prepared to adopt her, but not everyone wants someone with her condition to be officially recognized as a clan member. She and her boyfriend are going to get married, which also results in prejudicial objections. Fantastic prejudice can be a way to get out of writing about real prejudice, but I feel like Edwards does a good job in showing how many avenues of life prejudice can affect. Even as a hero, Jarra can't just get married if she wants to. While I didn't have much of an opinion on Jarra's boyfriend Fian (I think he did more in previous books?), I liked what Edwards showed of their relationship and how they work together as a team.

There is an action story to go along with the political plot, involving an alien probe and a scramble to figure out how to get Jarra into space if she can't portal. The action keeps the story moving along nicely.

Earth Flight feels like a throwback to seventies science fiction juveniles, but with a female character front and center and none of the casual misogyny common to that era of science fiction. That old-fashioned approach helps Earth Flight stand out from the current crop of novels. There's not much psychological depth, but there is fun worldbuilding and a cracking, straight-ahead adventure story.

I'll probably not go back and pick up the first two books, but I thought Earth Flight was a fun afternoon read.


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