“Parable of the Sower,” by Octavia Butler, adapted by Damian Duffy and John Jennings

“Parable of the Sower,” by Octavia Butler. Adapted by Damian Duffy and John Jennings. Abrams Comics Arts, January 2020. 266 pp. Paperback, $24.99. Recommended for ages 15 and up.

Thanks to Fables Books, 215 South Main Street in downtown Goshen, Indiana, for providing Commons Comics with books to review.

COVID-19 UPDATE: Fables is back open! Please enter through the back and follow store guidelines. High risk customers can still make browsing appointments before or after hours, and all customers can continue to order online at fablesbooks.com, over the phone 574-534-1984, or via email fablesbooks@gmail.com.

In the intricately imagined worlds of the late science fiction writer Octavia Butler, apocalypse is nothing new, whether triggered by aliens, viruses, or disintegrating social and political structures. Butler isn’t for everyone. She was the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur “genius” grant, yet some have found her work too stylistically direct, too political, or both. As the years have passed since the publication of her 1993 novel “Parable of the Sower,” however, she’s looking more and more like a prophet.

Yet Butler, who died in 2006, refused that role. In a 1998 address at MIT, she called “Parable of the Talents,” the sequel to “Sower,” “a cautionary tale, although people have told me it was prophecy. All I have to say to that is: I certainly hope not.”

Lauren Olamina, the teen protagonist of “Parable of the Sower,” is a reluctant prophet herself. The story is told from Olamina’s journals, part of which sound like any literary-minded teen’s journal might in the face of apocalypse—Anne Frank’s diary comes to mind—but part of which also records a new gospel Olamina has named “Earthseed,” which she feels driven to set to paper as the world around her becomes increasingly violent, desperate, and unpredictable.

I won’t pull any punches: Butler’s story is largely bleak, and writer Damian Duffy and artist John Jennings’s adaptation sometimes proves gruesome. If you’re in a fragile emotional state about the world right now, I recommend you put this book aside for another time. As Jennings himself put it in a recent interview in “Publisher’s Weekly,” “Parable of the Sower” “outhungers ‘Hunger Games’; that’s ‘Little Bo Peep’ compared to this.”

That said, Duffy and Jennings, who won an Eisner award in 2018 for their graphic novel adaptation of Butler’s novel “Kindred,” have created the most beautiful apocalypse I’ve ever seen:

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“The Man Without Talent,” by Yoshiharu Tsuge

“The Man Without Talent,” by Yoshiharu Tsuge. New York Review Comics, February 2020. 240 pp. Paperback, $22.95. Adult.

Thanks to Fables Books, 215 South Main Street in downtown Goshen, Indiana, for providing Commons Comics with books to review.

COVID-19 UPDATE: Please help your local small businesses stay afloat! At the time of this post (Tuesday 3/24), you can still order books from Fables and arrange to pick them up curbside or have them delivered. Contact the store at fablesbooks@gmail.com or call (574) 534-1984 to order.

If you can afford it right now, you can also support Fables and Goshen’s other downtown small businesses by ordering gift certificates from them now, and then going on a big spree later on, when we’re all allowed out of the house again.

Note: New York Review Comics sent me a free copy of this book.

Contrary to the title of “The Man Without Talent,” Sukezo Sukegawa, the book’s main character, is exceptionally talented. His problem—which becomes the problem of his wife and young son as well—is that he insists on starting his own business in an entirely different field. If Suzeko lacks talent, it’s as an entrepreneur, not an artist. He and his family live in poverty as he tries and mostly fails to sell attractive found stones, old cameras, and other assorted junk. When he visits his local bookstore, however, the bookseller practically begs him to write more comics. His wife does too—not out of love for his comics, but out of desperation.

Witnessing Sukegawa and his family negotiate his aimlessness can be, at times, sad and frustrating. This guy is maddening: he refuses to act as the “hero” of the story, which likewise refuses the narrative a standard trajectory.

Part of the story’s point, however, as you soon figure out, is the failures of its inert protagonist—although, fortunately, there’s also more to the book than that. Much like the work of Frank SantoroSeth, or John Porcellino, “The Man Without Talent” will slow you down as it repeatedly rejects your expectations—you can’t speed from one plot milestone to the next. Once you give in and let the book shift you into a lower gear, however, the level of detail in the landscape is a reward in itself:

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“Hot Comb,” by Ebony Flowers

 

“Hot Comb” by Ebony Flowers. Drawn and Quarterly, June 18, 2019. 184 pp. Paperback, $22.95. Teen to adult.

Thanks to Fables Books, 215 South Main Street in downtown Goshen, Indiana, for providing Commons Comics with books to review. Visit the store or contact them at fablesbooks@gmail.com to find or order this or any book reviewed on this blog.

Quick note about upcoming workshops with comics artists I’ve reviewed: Frank Santoro, whose “Pittsburgh” I reviewed last month, will be giving a one-day free workshop in that city in March. And across the pond, Gabrielle Bell, whose “Everything Is Flammable” I reviewed in 2017, will be teaching a workshop in the French Pyrenees in June. That one’s not free, but surprisingly affordable given the setting, and scholarships are available.

 

With her debut “Hot Comb” topping “best of 2019” lists at outlets from “The Guardian” and “Publishers Weekly” to “Forbes,” you might think that Ebony Flowers must have been a kid prodigy doodling incessantly, making zines, and setting her sights on becoming a cartoonist. The real story is that she drew her first comic only eight years ago, in 2012, when she signed up on a whim for a class taught by comics grande dame Lynda Barry.

Flowers had just landed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to pursue a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction, and signed up for Barry’s class on a whim. She ended up writing and publishing sections of her dissertation in comics form. She now calls herself “cartoonist, ethnographer, teacher” on her website.

“Hot Comb,” a collection of short stories with a good dose of autobiographical content, reads nothing like a dissertation. As you might guess, all of the stories center on hair. “It’s hard for me to disentangle my experience as a black woman . . . in America from my experience with hair,” Flowers explained to the “Chicago Tribune.” The stories address stereotypes, microaggressions, and structural racism, but also joy, self-love, and the way hair can help forge positive bonds between women of color, especially black women.

Flowers especially highlights that positive-negative tension in the segues between her stories, where she inks one-page parodies of the hair care advertisements that used to fascinate her as a child:

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