The Good Neighbors, Book One: Kin
Written by Holly Black; Illustrated by Ted Naifeh
I want to live in the worlds Ted Naifeh creates. His work on Courtney Crumrin, Death Jr., and Polly and the Pirates is playfully dark. Reading those books is like watching old Universal monster movies and Errol Flynn swashbucklers, only without any of the camp or silliness that later became associated with those things. All of the wonder; none of the absurdity. Anytime I see Naifeh’s name on a project, it immediately gets my attention.
I haven’t read The Spiderwick Chronicles, but I know enough about them to believe that writer Holly Black also has a huge, wonderful imagination. Teaming her up with Naifeh then makes so much sense, especially on a series of graphic novels about faeries. That so obviously plays to both of their strengths; of course I’m going to check it out.
I was surprised that The Good Neighbors is going to be a more sophisticated series than I expected. Black is known for her Young Adult books and Naifeh’s art, while not childish, certainly appeals to young people with its exaggerated simplicity. But the main characters in The Good Neighbors are college students, not pre-teens, and Naifeh’s work on it feels more mature too.
Maybe it’s because he’s drawing older, more complex characters than usual, but the cast of this book feels a lot more grounded than anything I’ve seen from Naifeh before. He also uses more shading than I remember him doing in the past, giving the book a murky, gray tone. Naifeh’s certainly done gloomy before, but it’s always been a fun sort of darkness. The Good Neighbors is bleak in comparison.
It’s the story of a young woman named Rue whose mother has recently disappeared. Her father’s acting strangely about it and he’s eventually arrested for suspicion of murder; not only of Rue’s mom, but also of a student at the university where he teaches. As she’s trying to deal with all of that, Rue also starts seeing things. People with pointed ears, wings, and animal-heads are all around her, though none of her friends can see them.
Black grounds the fantasy elements with a captivating, but seemingly mundane murder mystery and a cast of likeable characters who are caught up in it. Rue is obviously worried and troubled even though she tries so hard not to be. Her musician boyfriend Dale wants to be supportive, but has a hard time doing that when she starts talking about the creatures she’s seeing. Her best friend Lucy needs fleshing out a bit, but is interesting because of how tolerant she is of her boyfriend Justin and his shamelessly hitting on Rue. Justin’s obviously not a bad guy; he just doesn’t think. Together they’re a neat group and it’s refreshing to see a cast in a book for young people who are so comfortable with themselves and each other. Or at least as comfortable as they can be considering that one of them is possibly going insane with grief over her mom’s disappearance and her dad’s being implicated in two murders.
As miserable as the tone of The Good Neighbors can be at times, it’s lightened by the friendship and humor in the script and the beauty of Naifeh’s detailed, emotive pencils. There’s a serious story being told here that’s filled with a real sense of danger, but it’s not oppressive. It’s really very wonderful and a fine beginning to a promising series.
– Michael May
The Essential Batman Encyclopedia
by Robert Greenberger
I’m really torn on this book. On the one hand, the amount of effort and research Greenberger spent tracking down and writing just about every single character that’s ever appeared in a Batman comic or had Batman guest star in their comic or simply stood next to Batman in some multi-part crossover event and offer a few words of encouragement is sincerely admirable. On the other hand, I find myself wondering if that time had not been better spent doing something else, like picking flowers or spending time with family or reading the complete works or Tolstoy or researching the characters from just about any other work of serious literature. I mean, does it enrich my life in any way to know that Batman once helped save the people of the distant planet Zoron from the evil tyrant Chorn? Will my soul be uplifted upon reading about the exploits of the Dodo Man or KGBeast? Do I go to my grave content in the knowledge that there were not one but three villains named Blockbuster?
I know, I know, it’s just good superhero fun and I’m not playing fair. What can I say, the godhonest thoughts that went through my mind while reading this book were a) putting all this together is a really impressive feat; and b) if I honestly read every single entry in this book I will have squandered my time foolishly.
What a book like this really does underscore is just how convoluted Batman’s history — and, by extension the history of just about every major DC character — is, to the point where trying to keep track of all the loose ends seems like a mug’s game. Greenberger’s entries are full of notes about the Earth-1 character versus the Earth-2 or Earth-3 and how all those worlds died but then they came back again sorta and don’t get us started on those Elseworld sagas. To be honest, it gets a little overwhelming at times. For fans, this is a book taken off the shelf every now and again, and not read all the way through.
My only real honest gripe against the book is the use of art. I would have liked a bit less reliance on the old Who’s Who pin-ups (the original series) and art from the past few years and more covers and interior panels from the older Batman stories.
But that’s a slam against the book’s designer and not Greenberger, who, despite my complaints, writes clearly and informatively about Bruce Wayne’s universe. If you’re a serious Batman fan, the kind who has a room of their house devoted to the character, you’re going to want this book, if you haven’t bought it already. Myself, I found it made for an occasional handy reference or joke (heh, KGBeast), but I’d rather have read about the men who wrote and drew Batman. Or just read a really good Batman comic.
If I were 11 years old, I would have poured over a book like this like it held the secret to the universe. But I’m not 11, and I haven’t been for a long time.
Batman: Murder at Wayne Manor: An Interactive Mystery
Written by Duane Swierczynski, illustrated by David Lapham
Quirk Books, 72 pages, $24.95.
This is one of those “interactive” books that are all the rage now, where suddenly in the middle of the story you’ll be asked to pull a photo out of an envelope or unfold a letter that’s glued in the book or some such nonsense. I suppose this is all supposed to make the reader feel like they’re a participant in the unfolding mystery. (Can you discover the culprit before Batman does?) I just found myself annoyed at having one more piece of paper to unravel.
There’s not much of a plot (and what there is has been done before repeatedly) but I’ll summarize it anyway. An excavation at Wayne Manor turns up a decades-old dead body and the culprit may well be Wayne’s long-dead dad, Thomas. Could the Batman’s revered father have actually committed cold-blooded murder. If your answer to that question is anything other than “no,” you’ve never read a Batman comic before.
The real draw here is Swierczynski and Lapham. Unfortunately, neither of them bring their full game to the court. Swierczynski’s prose is laughably ham-fisted and the villains (yes, there are two of them) are telegraphed miles and miles away. Lapham’s illustrations, meanwhile, come off as stiff and awkward, showing little of the grace and characterization that typified books like Stray Bullets.
Unless you’re the type of person who has to have every single Bat-related piece of merchandise ever or majored in reverse oragami in college, you’ll get no enjoyment out of this book.
– Chris Mautner