17 Sep 14
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Review: Dear Amanda by Cathy G. Johnson

One of the great joys of SPX for me this year (despite not getting to be there) was to see great cartoonists be recognized through the Ignatz Awards. Cathy G. Johnson is the winner of this year’s Promising New Talent Ignatz award on a slate of really great cartoonists. Dear Amanda was a debut comic for the show.

Dear Amanda is a 48 page comic on grey paper printed in black risograph. Dear Amanda is a lesbian romance comic that features coworkers Belén and Ginette. Belén is studying Dutch and wants to move to Amsterdam and write. She’s using Ginette as the subject of her writing, but when Ginette discovers she is Belén’s “muse,” things change drastically.

Johnson’s cartooning is very organic with strong blacks and grays. Like some of the other comics I’ve reviewed over the past 3-6 months, Johnson is working in Dear Amanda with graphite, which gives the subject matter an immediacy and a passion. There are some absolutely stunning pages in this book - I’ve picked one of my favorites, but the last pages as well are beautiful to look at.

Through Dear Amanda, Johnson critiques the way that we look at people, use other people; sometimes without meaning harm, and sometimes ignoring the harm we cause. 

Belén’s writing exercises, the Dear Amanda letters, are a particularly interesting feature of the comic. Part of me feels that these are really Belén’s love letters to herself, exulting in the images and sounds of her relationship with Ginette, but not sharing in them. She catalogs and makes commentary. There’s a voyeurism in Belén’s writing that is strange and self-indulgent.

The letters are also a secret from Ginette. Dear Amanda reminded me that secrets are transformative in their very nature. We mold ourselves around these things, sometimes changing ourselves and our goals to protect them, and in doing so we put our needs or the service of that secret ahead of our relationships. 

Relationships are also transformative - and not always in a positive way. Yes, there is the joy of romance and sexuality, but ultimately, Belén is exploiting Ginette to write and be creative. There’s a darkness to Dear Amanda that spills out in the final act that hinges on this exploitation.

Ginette’s reaction to Belén’s writing is visceral one, and it strikes me that the words that Belén has put to page strip Ginette of her agency. That the last action of Dear Amanda is Ginette taking that agency back is encouraging.

Relationships are a place where we learn and grow - and if relationships are to last, we must learn and grow together. Recommended.

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Cathy G. Johnson is a cartoonist, illustrator, and educator. You can find more of her work at her website. Cathy’s tumblr is at cathyboy and you can find her on twitter at @cathyisgroovy.

12 Sep 14
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Review: Never Forgets by Yumi Sakugawa

Yumi Sakugawa took the internet by storm in 2012 with the crushingly adorable I Think I’m In Friend-Love With You, now a book from Adam’s Media, and I’ve been following her work recently, especially since her minicomic Never Forgets was nominated for an Ignatz. Sakugawa’s keen eye for isolation in a social media driven modern relationships has been a touchstone for her previous work, but it shows up here in a brand new way.

Never Forgets’ main character Ellie has recently undergone dramatic reconstructive plastic surgery. She meets up with a friend/fan Bri who only knows her through her pictures on Instagram. Bri idolizes Ellie for her transformation, fawns over her. Ellie has “carved herself down to her true essence,” but it’s not clear that her friends understand what kind of toll this transformation will exact. Bri’s glazed-over eyes, her uncomprehending stare as Ellie cries on the phone is telling.

Importantly, Ellie has had her surgery unbeknownst to her family, and breaks the news in a casual visit to her parent’s house. There’s this idea of pre/post that flows through the second half of Never Forgets when we find out that Ellie is an elephant. In a world of animals, this isn’t remarkable in itself, but the difference between what she looks like now and what she looked like before the surgery is striking.

Throughout Never Forgets,Sakugawa explores the disconnectedness of social media and how we crave attention. We see Ellie buy a coffee with a cute cat whipped topping which she’s sure to take a picture of but not to drink. Read closely, there’s mostly positive conversation on Ellie’s Instagram feed, but one “devil’s advocate” asks if she’s making the change because of social pressures from years of damaging media. It’s a reminder of the pervasive and destructive social norms that haunt us, that tell us we aren’t worthwhile, that we are never good enough.

And that’s the sticking point. At the end of the comic, Ellie is hurt. Her parents are hurt. The silence is deafening. But Instagram can’t know and doesn’t care. It’s a cold reality. We are broken, breaking, and all too willing to find solace in a crowd that can tell us who we are, but can never actually know. Recommended.

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Yumi Sakugawa is an illustrator and comics creator based in Southern California. She blogs at acrosstheyumiverse. You can purchase her work from her website here.

Never Forgets has been nominated for the spx 2014 Ignatz “Best Minicomic” category. You can see all of the nominees at their website and vote for your favorite comics this weekend at the expo.

10 Sep 14
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Review: SF: Liquid Planet Beta-14 by Ryan Cecil Smith

Rarely do I use the word “joy” to describe a comic. Certainly there is satisfaction in reading a well-constructed comic, and there’s a certain joy in reading good literature, but rarely are comics joyful. The major exception is Ryan Cecil Smith’s SF series. I featured SF #3 in a write up earlier this year, and now Smith has released a new book in the series, SF: Liquid Planet Beta-14, which recently came in the mail.

SF: Liquid Planet Beta-14 is an 8cm x 11cm book with 43 single panel pages risographed in a faux-CMYK. The printing style using a large variety of risograph inks is indicative of Smith’s care and level of craft – it’s clear that Smith has spent a lot of time on the printing of this book, making sure everything worked out exactly right, and the result is stunning. Vibrant colors, really great registration, and an eye for the smallest details, as far down as printing on the packaging the book comes in.  I’m still trying to wrap my mind on how much time this book must have taken to get exactly right.

SF: Liquid Planet Beta-14 is a supplement to this year’s snazzy SF lapel pin, a metal and magenta cloisonné that you can wear to show your allegiance to the Space Fleet Scientific Foundation Special Forces (SFSFSF). This is the second lapel pin that Smith has made, and I love the idea of a physical reminder of the series that isn’t a comic book. It makes Smith’s comics feel more like a cultural institution, something you talk with friends about over a beer.

SF: Liquid Planet Beta-14 features one of SF’s more exotic characters Duke the Duck on a solo mission to Liquid Planet Beta-14 which the Space Fleet thinks has fallen under Pirate Nation influence. Duke attempts to fly his small spaceship to the surface without attracting pirate attention, and ends up in a tricky spot.

This is the world of science fiction at its most exuberant – Smith has a clear love for the genre. But in SF, the general tropes of science fiction are really the set upon which the emotions of shonen battle manga are at play. The ‘give it your best shot!’ ‘Never give up!’ and ‘Fight hard and make friends!’ attitude of series like Dragon Ball are really evident in the ebb and flow of Smith’s work, even if SF looks more like Star Wars than One Piece.

I think I’m reminded of these Japanese comics for multiple reasons, but the major comparator is how fun these comics are. SF shares in the soul of the Dragon Ball, Toriko, and One Piece, comics that care about craft and storytelling, but primarily about whether the reader is having fun.

SF: Liquid Planet Beta-14 is a great addition to the SF universe and a gorgeous comic book. More importantly, this latest release should be a nudge to read the rest of Smith’s SF line – SF#1-3 and various supplements are available at his website, and also likely available this weekend at SPX. If you are looking for fun comics, look no further.

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Ryan Cecil Smith can be found at screentonetv and on Twitter at @ryancecil. You can read an excerpt of SF: Liquid Planet Beta-14 at this link.

SF #3 is published by Koyama Press (koyamapress), and SF comics can be purchased at Smith’s website.

5 Sep 14
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Taiyo Matsumoto has a penchant for writing stories about children. He examines the world through a child’s eyes, a child’s hopes and dreams, and most importantly a child’s questions. Questions are how Matsumoto starts his latest English release, Sunny, published under Viz’s Sig IKKI line. Not with panoramas or images of far-fetched monsters like his earlier works, Tekkonkinkreet and GoGo Monster, but with questions. The difference sets the tone for a series that looks at Matsumoto’s own childhood.

Sunny is about a group of kids living at the Star Children’s Home. Each chapter of the comic asks a new question and each chapter is a moment in the lives of these children seen through a different character’s eyes. The connecting point is the Star Children’s Home, a sort of foster agency/orphanage and an old rusted out Datsun Sunny that the children nap, play, and dream in. For some, the Sunny is a place to escape, driving on the moon or playing outlaw like the brash, white-haired Harou. For others, it is a place to remember, driving back home to the family that abandoned you, like newcomer Sei.

Part of what makes Sunny so riveting is its true-to-life styling. Author Matsumoto is writing from experience as a child growing up in an orphanage. Whatever it is, Sunny feels like a combination confessional, re-imagining, and autobiography. Matsumoto uses this part of his life to explore the worries of children and the way they deal with them. The angers and quarrels of children are all there, with hogging toys and worrying about four-leaf clovers. The underlying questions about why the children are at the home, where their parents are, why some children look forward to visitation days and others dread them all dwell underneath the play and the boisterous energy. The combination of these questions and the children’s circumstances lends Sunny a melancholy that is pervasive.

Matsumoto’s sketchy artwork is complemented by earth tones and the coloring work of his wife, Saho Tono. The mix of sketchiness and painterly aesthetic makes the whole book a joy to look at. The art conveys just the right amount of detail and energy, while still maintaining a reminiscent quality. The use of watercolor with Matsumoto’s usual art and powerful lines bring a depth to Sunny that shows that despite his proven strength as a cartoonist, Matsumoto continues to grow and evolve.

Sunny is Matsumoto writing from a place we haven’t seen before despite using similar themes. While I’ve really enjoyed his previous work, none of it has resonated as well for me as Sunny has. Sunny is an expressive, beautiful, thought-provoking comic that deserves your attention. Recommended.

3 Sep 14
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Review: In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

“Anda’s Game” is a short story collected in a 2007 book by Cory Doctorow titled Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present, one of Doctorow’s books published under a creative common’s license. The license encourages remixing and sharing, provided proper credit is given and the same license is used on the derivative work. Doctorow and Wang have done something of the sort with In Real Life, a title from First Second Books due out October 14th – IRL is a retelling of Doctorow’s “Anda’s Game,” a story about gold farming, friendship, and labor rights.

Title character Anda is a girl who is wrapped up in gaming. She takes a game design class in high school. She plays games online. So when the leader of an all-women’s guild on the popular Coarsegold MMORPG comes to their school to promote playing games as a girl, Anda jumps into an imaginary world of dragons, pixies, beasts, and other fantastic creatures. She gets mixed up with an older girl who leads her towards slaughtering in-game gold farmers, players whose livelihood is wrapped up in performing menial game tasks and selling the in-game items for real money.  At first it’s literally all fun and games for Anda until she finds out these gold farmers are real people – people who play the game for work and for fun.

Unfortunately, the writing stays a bit too on message for my tastes –Anda learns not to be a bully and then helps the gold farmers organize a strike to reinstate her friend Raymond, a Chinese boy who gets sick after working to exhaustion. The writing is predictable and somewhat watered down – any nuance gets swept up in Doctorow’s breathless exhortation on the new and different world of the internet.

The allure of In Real Life is Jen Wang’s gorgeous cartooning. Wang shifts color palette based on the world Anda is in – teals, pinks, and splendid oranges fill the pages in the world of Coarsegold, while more muted greens, yellows, and earth tones make up Anda’s real world. Wang makes the strangeness of MMORPG fighting seem dynamic and fluid. More importantly, Wang makes Anda into a really wonderful character. Anda’s expressions and reactions work so well within Wang’s watercolor art. The character design is really top-notch.

While In Real Life isn’t the most nuanced portrayal of the economic and political forces of the internet, it does serve very well as a first lesson in the subject. Perhaps, importantly, the story works well as a comic as Wang’s beautiful art pulls a somewhat plodding script up by its bootstraps and makes it work better than it can by itself.

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Cory Doctorow is an activist and writer. He co-edits the website boingboing.

Jen Wang is a comics artist and illustrator. You can find more of Wang’s work here. Wang’s twitter handle is alooghobi. In Real Life is Wang’s second book with First Second (tumblr: firstsecondbooks) – the first, Koko Be Good, was published in 2010.

29 Aug 14

Pointers #1

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Everyone could use a little more “go and see” in their comics lives. We spend a lot of time wrapped up in what we’re interested in, so sometimes we miss new projects or comics. I thought I’d take a few seconds to point out some things you should have a gander at - new projects, ongoing comics, completed series, etc. 

Drew Green (Tumblr: drew-green) promised a new comic earlier this summer, and now Lotus for Help is up and running. I really like the first few pages, it’s a mashup comic that draws on a bunch of really popular yet dissonant sci-fi/fantasy tropes. For example, the three biggest characters thusfar (and Lotus for Help hasn’t been running that long) are a magical girl, a lady in a metroid/megaman style suit, and a wizard with the classic robe and wand. Definitely worth the read.

I’m really loving This TIme by Ian Chachere (tumblr: ianchachere) on Study Group (tumblr: study-group) . The limited palette really works for the comic, and Chachere has a unique eye for movement. I loved the woodcutting scene I pulled for the write up, such an inventive way to show the passage of time and effort. The comic updates on Sundays.

Now’s a good time to check out some of the nominees for the 2014 Ignatz Awards at spx! A great example is the group of artists nominated for Promising New Talent - many of them have giant swaths of work that is online.

Cathy G Johnson (tumblr: cathyboy) has a great collection of work available to read online, including her dark, challenging, and beautiful graphic novel Jeremiah, a comic I’m still reeling from, still thinking about.

Work by Daryl Seitchik (tumblr: darylseitchik)  is also available online. Missy is a combination of genuinely funny moments, bad-assery, and Missy #2, published by snakeoily, really blew me away.

Luke Howard (tumblr: andsoluke) has a really great comic, Trevor, available to read for free on his website. This was published by Dog City Press (tumblr: dogcitypress) in their Dog City anthology. 

Have a great holiday weekend, US readers! I’ll be back on Wednesday, so enjoy the Labor Day holiday!

27 Aug 14
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Manga is a tricky type of comic. There’s a higher barrier to entry due to the flipped pages, cultural cues that may not be easily understood or explained, and there’s a lot of chaff available on the market. It’s hard to know where to start.

Sequential State features manga I think are worth the effort for non-manga readers with a mix of information, a tiny bit of explanation, and some thoughts on why a book or series is good. Feel free to ask questions here or on twitter.

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Shimura Takako is a celebrated mangaka who is primarily known for her manga that feature LGBT topics. Adaptations of two of her comics, Aoi Hana and Wandering Son, have been made into television shows. While Aoi Hana was originally picked up for a digital release by JManga and then Digital Manga, Wandering Son was licensed for print release by Fantagraphics (tumblr: fantagraphics), and the first volume was published in 2011. 

Wandering Son is a slice of life story that features a pair of elementary school children Shuichi Nitori, “a boy who wants to be a girl,” and Yoshino Takatsuki, “a girl who wants to be a boy.”  The series follows the two as they go through the hardships of growing up feeling out of place.  There is a big group of students that they spend time with and grow to be friends with, and we as readers spend a lot of time in these characters heads.

Takako seems very interested in showing us the small moments, the details of these children’s lives, and how those small moments can have a huge emotional toll. When Shuichi’s older sister sees Shuichi wearing a dress or finds Shuichi’s wig. When Yoshino has to deal with menstruation. The teasing and bullying about being to girly or too manly. All of these small things build tensions that end in sometimes dramatic explosions.

Another big reason to read this comic is the strength of the illustration. Takako’s comics are beautiful, she has a knack for shading and motion that feel somewhat unique to her comics. Her linework has a delicate, gossamer feel. Wandering Son also has some of the best body language and expression drawing I’ve seen in a comic to date. I’ve picked a few pages above that I think show some of that off.

Clearly the themes and ideas that explored in Wandering Son have touched some critical nerves. Wandering Son has been recognized by the ALA’s Rainbow List for Children & Teens, YALSA’s 2012 Great Graphic Novels for Teens, and volume 1 of the series was nominated for an Eisner in 2012. There are currently 7 volumes in print.

25 Aug 14
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It’s hard to believe that SPX is only three weeks away! There are a lot of interesting books that are going to be debuting this Fall, and although I’m not going to be able to go to spx this year, here’s what I think you should look for (and what I’ll be looking to grab after the show).

1. Distance Mover by Patrick Kyle (tumblr: patrickkyleillustration) - Kyle’s work is challenging and beautiful. Distance Mover follows Mr. Earth and his protege Mendel as they travel around the world in the Distance Mover machine. Published by Koyama Press.

2. Dear Amanda by Cathy G. Johnson (tumblr: cathyboy) - Cathy is one of the five candidates for the Ignatz 2014 Promising New Talent award, and one look at her portfolio will give you a good idea why. Dear Amanda is about a writer named Belén and her romantic relationship with a co-worker. Self-published.

3. (In a Sense) Lost & Found by Roman Muradov (tumblr: bluebed) - I’ve only recently been introduced to Roman’s comics work via his Kickstarter for Yellow Zine #5, but I’ve seen his illustration work around for a few years. In this book from Nobrow Press (nobrowpress), Muradov explores the idea of innocence as a tangible object.

4. Rift: A Keepsakes Story by Carey Pietsch (tumblr: careydraws) - I absolutely loved Pietch’s Keepsakes, a mini I picked up at TCAF 2014. Rift seems to be a new episode in the same universe. I haven’t seen much in the way of an official announcement yet, but I’m sure that’s coming soon. Self-published.

5. Cat Dad, King of the Goblins by Britt Wilson (tumblr: brittwilson) - Britt’s work has an exuberance and energy that is infectious. Britt and John Marz are starting off Koyama Press’ kids line with two separate books, and this looks like a fun comic no matter what your age. Published by Koyama Press.

6. RAV 1st Collection by Mickey Zachilli - My first experience with Zachilli’s work is the Cool Dog sticker campaign from Kickstarter. Unfortunately I haven’t read any of RAV, but I’ve seen her* frenetic Comics Workbook work and comic comics reviews, which are great.  Published by Youth In Decline (tumblr: youthindecline).

*(thanks Simon for the info/correction, and sorry for being super rude)

7. Rough Age by Max de Radigues - de Radigues’ first longform work to be published in English. It appears to be a slice-of-life story about a group of teenagers. I absolutely loved his mini-comic Bastard which is currently being published in English by Oily Comics (tumblr: snakeoily). Published by One Percent Press (tumblr: onepercentpress).

8. The Hospital Suite by John Porcellino (tumblr: johnporcellino) - I met John briefly at SPACE 2014 and got to see first hand some of his famous King Cat comics and his work with Spit and a Half, his zine and comic distro. John’s memoir of a period of illness and his interactions with the medical community seem timely for me personally as I continue my career in the medical field. Published by Drawn and Quarterly (tumblr: drawnandquarterly).

As always, tell me what I missed! :) What other books are debuting at SPX that you want to pick up?

20 Aug 14
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Review: New Physics by Box Brown

I jumped into a lot of comics subscriptions this Spring. I wanted to get an idea of the current small press landscape, I wanted to push my own boundaries as a reader, and I wanted to read work from people I hadn’t seen before. One of those subscriptions is Yeah Dude Comics 2014 subscription from publisher Pat Aulisio, which has been a bit of a mixed bag for me. Certain work from the subscription like the comics of Laura Knetzger have been wonderful, while others have been less interesting. Box Brown’s New Physics is the latest book from the run.

New Physics is 20 pages of two-color risoprint comics in neon pink and black. 2014 is the year of the neon pink risograph comic, it seems. The comic is the story of Vern, a musician and social media mogul in the far future who slowly builds an audience and then converts it into a cult.  

One of New Physics’ strengths is Brown’s strong eye for page construction and paneling. Vern’s profile links up to the social helmets of new followers in one page. Other pages show websites and social media sharing; part of the comic is Vern’s personal journey, and the other part is the broadcast. Brown is able to tie all of this stuff up very cleanly.

We also get a look at social media through a different lens - Brown imagines how the already social connectivity we live in now will evolve over a few hundred years. It’s not insanity to think that religions could spring up inside social media. Different platforms tend to pull specific crowds of people into them, forming like-minded collectives. It’s a fascinating rabbit hole. Brown also gets to have a little fun with his instagram-like follower pictures and usernames.

I love the parallels that Brown draws between the New Physics cult and the non-denominational mega churches that collect thousands upon thousands of parishioners and put ATMs in the back of the sanctuary. There’s this theme of monetization that runs through parts of the comic - buy the NewPhysics™ Torso Reimaginer, get the hat and T-shirt. Buy your salvation, fools.

New Physics is compelling and cynical view of tomorrow from a cartoonist you should be paying attention to. Recommended.

——

Notes: Again, apologies from pulling images off the internet for this review - my scanner can’t handle neon colors very well, they all end up washed out. Because of this, there are some color discrepancies between the images as posted and the final comic d/t the riso print.

Box Brown (tumblr: boxbrowncomics) is cartoonist and publisher with Retrofit Comics (tumblr: retrofitcomics) His recent graphic novel, Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, a biography of the legendary wrestler, was published by firstsecondbooksYou can get a copy of New Physics at Box’s website.

New Physics is published by Pat Aulisio (tumblr: yeahdudecomics). You can see more of the comics published by Pat on his website.

18 Aug 14
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Review: It Never Happened Again by Sam Alden

Earlier this year I did a review/thoughts piece on Sam’s Wicked Chicken Queen from Retrofit. I was thoroughly impressed with Alden’s mastery of graphite and the thoughtfulness of the book. Uncivilized Press has recently released a book with two collected stories, “Hawaii 1997” and “Anime,” the first of which was published on Alden’s tumblr account prior to collection, and the second of which is a brand new story.

I don’t generally make too many comments about a book’s production, but Uncivilized Books has put together a really nice paperback for It Never Happened Again with spot-gloss, lovely contrasting colors, and high quality paper.

In “Hawaii 1997” we see a young Alden exploring Hawaii and a moment of his life that seems both surreal and life-altering. The story shows Sam meeting a girl around his age while on vacation. There is some horsing around and the play of shadow stomping, and a chase scene that allows Alden to work with shadow and texture. The comic flows really well from page to page, much better than it did on screen, and ends with a punch in the gut.

 “Anime” shows a young woman, Janet, who feels very uncomfortable in her own skin. She calls herself Kiki after a character from a Studio Ghibli film and is planning a trip to Japan with a friend. She believes that this trip is going to change her, and that “once I get over there things will just be so much easier for me,” ignoring the finite length of her trip. But what she finds is another foreignness, a more palpable, direct foreignness, than the one she faces at home. Challenged expectations are key to “Anime,” and it’s hard to tell what will happen to Janet in the end. Alden lets his protagonist walk away from the reader as she moves through Japan’s crowded streets. It’s clear she’s just as alone in her land of fable as she is at home.

Alden has a habit of letting his panels go a long way before words are spoken. I find myself thinking about the story in terms of what I see and how I feel while pouring over these quiet moments. I think that is what makes Alden’s stinger endings work so well. The flow of It Never Happened Again lends itself to wandering, and Alden seems to know when to make the wandering stop.

In some ways, the protagonist of both stories is trying to grapple with the world in a way that makes sense, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. There’s also a sense of trying to push away things, Janet pushing away her father and her given name for something that she feels strongly about, Sam pushing away from his family, his small rebellion of going out when everyone else is asleep on vacation. How the push changes both characters is an essential part of the collection.

Perhaps it is a loss of innocence that makes these comics so compelling– both protagonists have a sense of vulnerability that is showcased throughout the narrative. Sam and Janet both lose a piece of their innocence in their respective stories. Or, viewed another way, the idea of the personal dream plays heavily in It Never Happened Again; the construction of a dream in “Hawaii 1997” and the implosion of one in “Anime.” These dreams and their potential consequences make the characters in Alden’s stories more real and makes the telling more visceral. 

The idea of something never happening again, the sense of being in a specific place and time, is key to the development of both of the stories in the collection, and a key to their success. In their own separate ways, these stories show that moment and its aftermath. In It Never Happened Again, Alden has tied together two very different stories and made them resonate. Recommended.

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Sam Alden blogs at gingerlandcomics and will have work in the upcoming anthology Subcultures. Uncivilized Books can be found at their website and tumblr uncivilizr. You can buy a copy of It Never Happened Again at this link.