Western Comics: Capsule Reviews
As it turns out, I don’t have much to say about May’s offerings from the Big Two, so this column will focus on three four-star independent graphic novels I read in the past month — one recent release followed by two online recommendations.
T-Bird & Throttle vs. the Moon Men
Writer/Artist: Josh Howard
(How Rad Comics, Superhero)
A YouTube commentator I regularly follow has described this book as the anti-Watchmen, noting that it is a reconstruction (rather than a deconstruction) of the superhero. Said reviewer, in my view, got it exactly right. The first volume of T-Bird & Throttle opens with our protagonist living in disgrace, despised by a world that views men like T-Bird as fascistic, misogynistic, racist — basically any au courant insult you can imagine. But lest you think Josh Howard is simply out to satirize “wokeness,” it should also be noted that T-Bird’s past is not sinless — that, in fact, he does have one major skeleton in his closet for which he needs to atone. So while this story does have some pretty pointed things to say about the eagerness with which certain factions embrace misinformation and smear campaigns, its more important purpose is to tell a redemption story — a purpose it achieves with genuine heart.
Writer/Artist: Doug TenNapel
(Scholastic, Fantasy — Real World Setting, Young Adult)
Are you someone who absolutely adores books like The Velveteen Rabbit or The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane? Then this comic might be for you. The premise: an out-of-work widower, struggling to put together some semblance of a decent birthday celebration for his son, meets a weird salesman who sells him an enchanted cardboard box from which figures can be made and brought to life. From this box, father and son build a man who actually turns out to be a great protector and friend — something they end up needing when the neighborhood ne’er-do-well steals some of the magical cardboard and uses it to make a menacing army of monsters. As an adult reader, I was able to predict the progression of the story here fairly easily — and even foresaw the ending. Nonetheless, it still hit me hard in the feels. Why? Because throughout, TenNapel tackles his main characters’ background grief with touching sincerity and real human emotion. The depiction of the father’s difficulties in particular make Cardboard, in my view, an unquestionable winner.
The Shadow Hero
Writer: Gene Luen Yang
Artist: Sonny Liew
(First Second Books, Superhero/Historical)
As I hope I made clear a while back when I reviewed Superman Smashes the Klan, Gene Luen Yang knows how to write. And because he has that talent, he’s able to do “representation” right. He doesn’t lecture the reader, and he doesn’t stack the deck in favor of his specific view of the world. Instead, he channels his experiences as a Chinese American into stories that are creative, complex, and honest — stories like The Shadow Hero, in which Yang unearths a little-known Golden Age hero and gives him an interesting (and tragic) origin story rooted in the mid-20th-century Asian immigrant experience. The only complaint I have here? I would’ve liked to have seen just a little more acknowledgement of the father’s decency and bravery. That he asked the turtle spirit to keep him sober instantly inspires my fascination and sympathy — and puts the lie to the idea that he was a coward. But that bit of quibbling aside, this is an essential read for anyone looking for high-quality “diverse” titles that aren’t just thinly-disguised political tracts.
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