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Good Comics For Kids
Inside Good Comics For Kids

Monthly-ish mini-reviews: ‘Crabapple Trouble’, ‘Daughters of Ys,’ and more

Crabapple Trouble
Writer/artist: Kaeti Vandorn
RH Graphic; $12.99

Callaway grows crabapples and, in the idiosyncratic little world that cartoonist Kaeti Vandorn builds in her graphic novel, Callaway also is a crabapple. Or, at least, she has a crabapple for a head. The characters that inhabit Vandorn’s all-ages book fall into two basic categories: They are either fruit and vegetable-headed “people,” with face-bearing heads made of whatever they grow floating necklessly just above the shoulders of their otherwise human bodies, or they are fairies, diminutive magical beings who fill the nearby forest.

When a poster for the Summertime Fair goes up announcing a produce competition, Callaway immediately begins to get stressed out about what she can contribute, how it might turn out, and what others might think of it—crabapples, after all, aren’t the most popular or predictable of fruits to work with.

When Callaway gets particularly stressed out, she quite literally loses her head. In the first instance, it pops off her body and rolls down a hill.

She gets help finding and reattaching her head, and keeping it screwed on in general, from Thistle, a friendly fairy who is something of an outlier among the fairies, the rest of whom think Thistle is a little too lazy and unconventional and is far too resistant to their advice (and they have a lot of it).

Callaway finds some peace in not thinking about her own contribution but helping others anyway she can, and in the end, she learns to not overthink things and to just be herself.

It’s a lesson Vandorn clearly intends her readers learn as well, given that the book ends with an author’s note under the definition for the word “awfulize,” which is “to imagine (something) to be as bad as it can possibly be.”  Other fun back-matter includes a guide to Callaway’s friends and neighbors, instructions on how to draw her, character sketches, and a four-page story about pumpkin-headed people that was a sort of precursor to Callaway’s story.

In both its inventive milieu and Vandorn’s soft, lush coloring, Crabapple Trouble is a rather unconventional-looking book, but its characters are easy to relate to, and its message is a rather important one, communicated in a nicely direct manner.

The Daughters of Ys
Writer: M.T. Anderson
Artist: Jo Rioux
First Second; $24.99

The ancient European legend of Ys, a rich and successful kingdom situated on the coast of Brittany, is reinvented for this compelling graphic novel by M.T. Anderson and Jo Rioux, which reads a bit like a darker, deeper YA Frozen.

In their version of the story, the kingdom of Ys is built by the magic of Malgven, an otherworldly sorceress that the dying king Gradion meets under strange circumstances and marries. Her powers not only save his life but also summon and tame a great sea monster and keep the sea at bay. The pair have two daughters, each of whom reacts quite differently to their mother’s death, which is seemingly due to over-exerting her magical abilities, and more differently still to how their father reacts to losing his wife.

It is here that Anderson’s version departs most sharply from its many precursors in literature, as usually Gradion has but one daughter, Dahut. By giving him a second daughter, Rozenn, Anderson and Rioux are able to avoid the straightforward demonization of a young woman inherent in the original story and also to craft a more complex and dramatic conflict.

Dahut wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps, having inherited both her powers and her ambition, and, like her mother, she begins to devote herself to the king and the kingdom. Rozenn, meanwhile, inherited her mother’s love of the natural world and spends as little time as possible within the city walls, thus leaving the perhaps-necessary, perhaps-not sins of rulership to her sister.

Rioux’s art is thrillingly suited to the reimagining of a semi-mythic medieval saga, with the shape of the character designs suggesting the art one might find on tapestries, illuminated Bible pages or scrolls, and even the sea monsters that cartographers used to draw in the corners of maps. The coloring too is of a muted palette, evocative of the sea and its creatures.

It’s a great work, but do be advised that it’s not for the youngest readers. There are a couple of sex scenes—more suggestive than graphic—and a few rather violent ones, but these too are softened by their staging. Still, the subject matter leans enough in the direction of the adult that parents of kids younger than teenagers might not be too happy to find this in their book bags.

Justice League Unlimited: Galactic Justice
Writers: Adam Beechen, James Peaty and Matt Wayne
Artists: Carlo Barberi, Ethen Beavers and Gordon Purcell
DC Comics; $9.99

This is a new collection of a half-dozen issues of the 2004-2008 Justice League Unlimited series, a comic book companion to the cartoon show of the same name. The premise of the show, and thus the comic, was that the original seven-hero League had expanded to include pretty much any DC hero the show’s producers wanted to use, with seemingly no one too obscure (hence the inclusion of Shining Knight and Vigilante, for example).

The organizing principle for this collection is hinted at in the subtitle, with each of the short, stand-alone stories taking place either in outer space or featuring alien characters on Earth. Therefore Martian Manhunter and Green Lantern John Stewart probably get more panel-time than anyone, even their far more popular peers Superman and Batman.

Some Leaguers visit Adam Strange on Rann, in a story that becomes a meditation on what it takes to be a hero. Martian Manhunter takes on psychic giant starfish Starro, reflecting on the importance of family in the process. Superman disappears into the Phantom Zone, and when his allies come to rescue him, he’s reminded that everyone needs help sometimes. And so on.

Each story generally manages to include some sort of message, although they are all rather subtly conveyed, and never heavy-handed. As was the case with the cartoon, the writers choose characters from the furthest corners of the DC Universe. In two cases, the writers even manage to build entire stories around such characters. There’s Space Cabbie, a minor character from DC’s 1950s sci-fi comics, who here has an unexpected team-up with Superman, and Green Lantern G’Nort, a dog-like alien from the 1980s humorous era of Justice League comics who got his job through nepotism, and who here gets the opportunity to prove his worth.

Although there are three different artists drawing the stories within, the artwork is quite consistent, owing to the fact that the artists stick so closely to the Bruce Timm and company designs of the characters from the TV show and the various cartoons that preceded it. Ironically, the most dramatic visual departure is that seen on Ben Caldwell’s cover, which is more stylized than that of any of the three interior artists.

Despite the relative age of the stories, they all hold up remarkably well, and they don’t seem the least bit dated—a testament to the cartoon producers’ talent at teasing out the most essential versions of the characters used and the comics creators’ efforts to tell simple, straight forward, evergreen tales more concerned with theme than characterization than any sort of ongoing, plot-obsessed soap opera.

Marvel Action: Captain Marvel: A.I.M. Small
Writer: Sam Maggs
Artist: Sweeney Boo
IDW Publishing; $9.99

In this second collection of IDW’s all-ages comics starring Captain Marvel, writer Sam Maggs and artist Sweeney Boo take Carol Danvers out of her element in an interesting and unexpected way: By putting her in The Unstoppable Wasp’s element.

Nadia Van Dyne is the teenage super-genius who escaped from a Russian mad science operation and now superheroes using the name and super-powers of her step-mother, the original Wasp. She carried her own excellent but short-lived ongoing series at Marvel for a while, which this story arc honors to a rather surprising degree, given that these sorts of kid-friendly comics are so often set up so as to be distinct from publisher’s more “official,” in-universe stories.

Carol, in her role as a mentor to young heroes, is helping teach Nadia how to drive, when things go as predictably awry as they usually do for superheroes trying to engage in mundane, everyday activities. The mad scientists of Advanced Idea Mechanics (A.I.M.) attack the pair, ultimately hitting them with a shrink ray that reduces them both to Wasp’s size. This presents an unexpected problem because, having been shrunk by someone else,  Wasp can’t seem to un-shrink either of them.

Suddenly tiny, unable to use her now dangerously unstable powers, and in completely unfamiliar territory, the take-charge Carol has to learn that sometimes part of leading is knowing when to follow. After a quick consult with the girls of G.I.R.L. (Genius In Action Research Labs) , which Nadia founded to encourage her fellow young female super-geniuses, and a visit to Nadia’s own, personal microscopic lab (both elements introduced in Unstoppable Wasp), the two heroes eventually infiltrate A.I.M.’s HQ, Carol donning Janet Van Dyne’s original Wasp costume for the occasion.

Maggs has Danvers narrate the adventure, and I was pleasantly surprised by the degree to which she was able to replicate many of the charms of The Unstoppable Wasp while still making Carol sound and feel like Carol and also adhering to the particular emphases of the Marvel Action line’s version of the Marvel Universe.

Boo, for her part, has a perfect style for the line’s remit, balancing the look of the Marvel Universe with lighter, brighter, more drawn-looking artwork that is enormously appealing. It seems a strange thing to say, but it’s true nonetheless: These days, some of the best Marvel comics are published by IDW.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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