Archive for Faith Erin Hicks

Autumn Wonders

Okay, I’m still in a mood to review some great Halloween stuff, and it’s way past time I reviewed some comics — and this one’s a bit off-beat, as far as Halloween comics go. Let’s take a look at Pumpkinheads, written by Rainbow Rowell and illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks.

From that title, you may be expecting something having to do with vengeance demons or gourd-headed scarecrows or something horrific like that. But that isn’t what we have here at all. Instead, it’s a story of a couple high school friends, Josiah and Deja, on one final hurrah before parting ways. The title comes from the setting: the world’s greatest pumpkin patch attraction on the last night of October.

Do we all know what a pumpkin patch is? This is a lo-fi local amusement attraction, usually found in New England and the American Midwest, based around autumn and the harvest. The central attraction is usually a corn maze with a few side attractions — a pumpkin cannon, a potato cannon, a few docile farm animals in a petting zoo, a small barrel train, and some concessions. You won’t find them run by giant entertainment corporations, although they can sometimes grow quite large and make a lot of money for the people running them. They don’t usually have a lot of Halloween content — they may have a haunted hayride and encourage trick-or-treaters, but the appeal is usually the corn maze and maybe the concessions. They’re not always called a pumpkin patch — but it’s called a pumpkin patch in this book, so we’ll stick with that for now.

Our lead characters are Josiah, a tall, shy white guy, and Deja, a shorter, outgoing black girl, on their last night working at DeKnock’s World Famous Pumpkin Patch and Autumn Jamboree. Every year, they’re best friends from September 1 to October 31, and then they barely see each other ’til next year. They work in the Succotash Hut every season, and Josiah is nearly always Employee of the Month. But they’re both seniors, and after tonight, they’ll never get to work together at the Patch again. And Josiah has maintained a years-long unrequited crush on Marcy, the cute girl from the Fudge Shoppe, and Deja is going to make sure he finally — finally! — talks to her. Will the ever-diligent Josiah agree to skip out on work and go wandering all over the park? Will they eat all the amazing concession food?

Verdict: A giant thumbs-up! I read this book at my local library, and I loved it so much, I had to order a copy of my own!

The book certainly isn’t plotless, but if you’re expecting an action-oriented plot, you’ll be disappointed. This is about two friends walking through an amazing autumn-based theme park and talking to each other about life, love, dating, and the future. There’s a kid who steals Deja’s caramel apple, and there’s a goat who runs amok — and that’s about it for the action. But again, there’s more to a good plotline than action, even in comics.

Can we talk about the art? If you read many Young Adult graphic novels, you’ll see Faith Erin Hicks a lot. She’s been doing lovable, expressive, emotive comic art for longer than the current YA comics boom has been going on, and she’s in great form here. Deja and Josiah both look like people you probably knew in high school, and the friends they see in the park all look unique and interesting. She’s a master of characterization, which is so important when you’ve got a comic based around people talking to each other — and when most of the characters are park employees wearing the same same work uniform.

The strongest element in the whole story is nostalgia, primarily for the kind of perfect, pure autumn that mostly exists in dreams. But here, we have lots of the classic signifiers of fall — autumn colors, scarecrows, corn stalks, hay bales, kids in costumes, lots and lots and lots of pumpkins — and you have it inside what may be the largest and coolest pumpkin patch ever. Among the attractions are a corn maze, a hayrack ride, a pumpkin slingshot, a pumpkin drop, Gourdy Golf (a few holes of gourd-themed miniature golf), the Tour de Pumpkin mini-train, Grandma’s Chicken Races, a petting zoo, pony rides, the Haunted Hacienda, and a concert stage featuring John Colorado Springs, the world’s foremost John Denver tribute band.

And then there’s the food. The food! My friends, come marvel at the amazing selection of fun fall foods offered at the various snack stands around the park. There’s the Fudge Shoppe and Pie Palace right next to the entrance, with Pappy’s Apples, selling caramel apples, a little ways down the way. Beyond that, there’s the Chili Fries Stand, the S’Mores Pit, and a cart selling apple cider slushes. After that, there’s the trademark-evading Freeto Pie Stop, then Josiah and Deja’s usual workplace, the bizarrely popular Succotash Hut, followed by the Kettle Corn Kettle, and finally, the Pumpkin Bomb Stand. What’s a Pumpkin Bomb? I won’t spoil the recipe here, but it’s something you’ll want to try for yourself after you read the book.

And again, don’t get this expecting anything to do with the 1988 horror movie with Lance Henriksen. That one is “Pumpkinhead” — singular. This one is “Pumpkinheads” — plural, and definitely not about vengeance demons.

So is this something you should read? My answer is a loud and enthusiastic yes, particularly if you enjoy great art, characterization, and dialogue, if you love everything having to do with late October and autumn in general, and if you love the idea of eating a lot of great fall food. Go pick it up, guys!

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The Unnamed Land

This is the first book in a series that’s been out for a while, but I only had a chance to get it recently when I found out the local library had it. So let’s take a look at The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks.

The setting is extremely important in this book. The City is a center for trade and commerce, a gateway to the rest of the world, one of the most important locations on this world. And there are frequent wars fought over it. Different nations take control over it every few years, and they always change the City’s name to something completely different. But the people who live in the City — not the visitors, not the conquerors — they never accept the new names. To the people who live there, it’s just the Nameless City, the greatest city in the world.

So we start out meeting Kai, a boy from the Dao nation, which currently rules the City. The Dao are warriors, but Kai really doesn’t care for fighting, just for books, which leaves him alienated from the other Dao boys. Kai is here to visit his father, General Andren, who serves the ruler, the General of All Blades. Andren loves the City and encourages Kai to explore his new home.

And then there’s Rat, a girl who lives on the street. She doesn’t like the Dao — or any of the other outsiders. She challenges Kai to a race over the City’s rooftops, and when he later begs her to teach him to run, in exchange for food from the palace, there’s the beginning of a friendship between the two kids.

But there are political intrigues going on behind the scenes that hold dangers for Kai, Rat, the people they love, and the entire City. Can they save the Nameless City and help bring its people stop hating each other?

Verdict: Thumbs up. Listen, Faith Erin Hicks is just the best. Do I need to say anything more in a review? She’s just the best.

Okay, I guess I do need to say a little more. I love the heck out of all these characters. Kai and Rat are brilliant and lovable and complex and precisely the kinds of heroes you need to anchor a book and series like this.

But there’s also Kai’s father, the drill sergeant Erzi, the unstoppably badass bodyguard Mura, and the General of All Blades — not a tyrant, like we expect, but a book-loving man willing to listen to strange ideas to improve the city he runs.

Hicks’ art has always been wonderful, but I feel like she really leveled up with this book. She creates a whole, massive city, intricately detailed — and as much time as Kai and Rat spend running over the rooftops, that means she had to draw so many of the City’s tiny roof tiles!

Her characters are always charismatic and fun, and with the City as a character just as important as the humans here, she makes almost every image of the City and its people just as appealing.

It’s a downright fantastic book, and you should absolutely go pick it up.

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Friends with Everyone


Friends with Boys

It’s been a while since I reviewed a graphic novel by Faith Erin Hicks — and luckily, I have one sitting right here that I can write about…

Maggie is the youngest kid in her family, preparing to start high school. She’s been home-schooled prior to this and doesn’t have a lot of friends — or really, any friends other than her older brothers. So while her brothers are as helpful as they can with trying to get her adjusted to the new world she’s stepping into, she still has a lot to figure out on her own. So she has to navigate the mean kids and the kids who ignore her and the two friendly punks — who her brothers are inexplicably hostile to.

And on top of that, Maggie is being haunted by a ghost that started following her around after she visited the cemetery.

Can Maggie make it through her first months in school? Can she make friends? Can she survive the mean kids on the volleyball team? Can she figure out how to put the ghost to rest?

Verdict: Thumbs up. It’s a charismatic, funny, wonderfully human book.

Do we even need to talk about the art? If you’ve ever seen Hicks’ work, you know her art is primo. Her art is always fun, and if you love her art, that may be enough reason all on its own for you to pick this up.

The story itself is nothing earthshattering — it’s just a story about a kid in school, her very normal friends, her very normal enemies, her very normal family, her very normal problems. And a slightly out-of-the-normal ghost. No one has to save the world — but a great story doesn’t require the world to get saved, right? It’s a normal story, and it drags you right in.

The characters really shine in this book. It’s easy to love these characters — not just because they’re drawn attractively, but because they’re depicted, both in art and writing, with such great clarity and style. They all feel like real people — might be because Hicks has a few similarities with Maggie, but it’s also because she’s a wonderful storyteller as well as a wonderful artist.

It’s a great comic — and hey, kudos to First Second Books, which is rapidly becoming one of my favorite comics publishers for all the amazing books they’ve put on the shelves. Anyway, go pick this one up, people.

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Robots and Cheerleaders and School Funding!


Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong

Here’s a nice, thick, but light-hearted graphic novel written by Prudence Shen and illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks.

Our lead character is Charlie, the captain of the high school basketball team, whose main interests outside of basketball involve not having terrible things happen to him. Unfortunately, he’s stuck between two opposing forces — his best friend Nate (and his cohorts in the robotics club) and his ex-girlfriend Holly (and her fellow cheerleaders). See, the robotics club wants funding to attend a robotics competition, and the cheerleaders want funding for new uniforms — and there’s not enough funding for both.

So Nate decides to run for student body president, and in retaliation, the cheerleaders register Charlie as a candidate, too. And from there, the campaign gets really ugly really fast, as both sides unleash a string of dirty tricks, most of which end up humiliating Charlie. After both sides end up defacing the football field, the principal declares that neither the robotics club nor the cheerleaders are going to get the funding they want. So what happens now? Both sides are going to have to team up to get the funding they want — with deadly robot warriors!

Wait, so it turns into a science fiction epic? No, not really, though the book jacket does kinda leave that impression. With the cheerleaders offering up some money to help out, the robotics club converts their robot — designed to compete in a standard autonomous robotics competition to demonstrate that the team is good at engineering and programming — into a fighting robot, designed to compete in remote-controlled robot fighting leagues, which have much different requirements. Like built-in chainsaws. Can Charlie, Nate, the robotics club, and the cheerleaders prevail? Can they get the funding they need to complete their projects? Can the survive the repercussions of ditching their families on Thanksgiving Day?

Verdict: Thumbs up. It’s a great, fun little story. It’s the type of thing that looks kinda light and airy — oh, just a high school story. But there’s also action, high drama, comedy, angst, conflict — and robots. Fighting robots! They could make this a movie, and it’d probably make scads of money.

The characterization is great, too. Sad sack Charlie, arrogant Nate, cold, steely Holly (the other cheerleaders take their cues from her), passionate, robot-loving Joanna, the pervy, hilarious twins, and even Charlie’s camping-obsessed father. Again, you put these people in a movie, and it’d be hilarious.

A lot of what I love about this book is how much it does seem like a movie. I kinda get the impression that Shen originally planned to make this a screenplay before opting to go the graphic novel route. I could be wrong, of course — but either way, there’s a great eye here for fast-moving, kinetic storytelling. And if I’m the first person to ever think of making this into a movie, and it eventually does hit the big screen, I want a percentage on points.

And of course, there’s the art. We’ve talked before about how awesome Faith Erin Hicks is, right? Awesome, charismatic, emotive artwork. She’s great at showing action, great at showing emotions, great at showing big, dramatic moments. She’s a fantastic cartoonist, and we should thank our lucky stars she’s getting as much work as she is.

This comic was a blast. Go pick it up.

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Superhero Girl vs. the World!


The Adventures of Superhero Girl

It’s always kind of a risky thing to recommend a book that collects all the episodes of a webcomic. Why should you buy a book when you can get the comics online for free? I reckon it’s a fair question. And we’ll get to it a bit later.

But first: This is Faith Erin Hicks’ tribute to the workaday college-age superhero, “The Adventures of Superhero Girl,” originally published online — but she’s put it on hiatus for now because she’s been getting a lot more work lately doing art for other comics. So Dark Horse put them all together in one nice hardcover collection for us.

Superhero Girl is a superhero — and a girl! We never learn her real name, but she patrols a smallish Canadian city fighting crime. She has fairly generic superhero powers — strength, invulnerability, laser vision, and super-jumping — but her costume is basically normal clothing with a cape and domino mask. She fights ninjas and giant monsters and the occasional supervillain. And she also tries to live a fairly normal life, with a roommate who’s irritated by her crimefighting, a nonexistent social life, and trips to the laundromat to wash her cape. She tends to forget to take off her mask, which makes her secret identity a bit of a non-secret.

So she rescues cats from trees — by uprooting the trees. She tangles with King Ninja, a hipster with a shrink ray, the Spectacle, the Marshmallow Menace, a bear with a monocle — and her nemesis, a guy who doesn’t believe she’s an actual superhero. And she also tangles with job hunting, knitting, sunburns, cape shrinkage, jealousy over her brother Kevin’s wildly over-the-top success as a hero, and much, much more.

Verdict: Thumbs up. It’s a charming, funny book with Hicks’ awesome, emotive artwork. You get superhero battles and everyday hijinx, all wonderfully funny and all really fun to read.

Why should you get the book instead of reading it all for free online? Well, there are a bunch of reasons, honestly. There’s a really keen introduction by Kurt Busiek. All the comics are in color, unlike the black-and-white art online. It’s a great way to support an awesome cartoonist. And it’s easier to read in book form than it is online. Especially if you’re reading it in the bathroom. And if you’re one of those weirdos who reads a tablet computer on the pot — please, just stop. You’re making the world a worse place.

The best reason? It’s fantastic art and storytelling, and these days, we all need more great art and storytelling.

It’s a fun book, and you should go pick it up.

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