I talk comics all the time with my friend Mel Schuit of the Let's Talk Picture Books blog. I respect her opinion, her taste, and her enthusiasm for comics. So when we got to talking about doing a collaboration between our blogs, I knew that comics would be at the heart of it.
Introducing READING COMICS WITH MEL AND MATTHEW, an ongoing series about new comics where we hand over our email conversations so you can see what two graphic novel enthusiasts are saying about new and up-and-coming comics. Up first, CLEM HETHERINGTON AND THE IRONWOOD RACE by Jen Breach and Douglas Holgate (Graphix). The book is aimed at readers ages 8-12, grades 3-7.
But before we get started...
WARNING: This blog post contains SPOILERS. Juicy ones. If that kind of stuff turns you off, read the book before reading further on this post.
MATTHEW: Hey, Mel!
I just got this one in the mail today and it looks awesome! I know nothing about the story, but I can see a kid driving a dragster, a robot companion, and a whole lot of mud and dust kicking up. Sounds awesome! Want to read it with me?
MEL: Oh my gosh, that DOES look awesome! I have a copy sitting on my nightstand as we speak! Moving it to the top of the list. Can't wait!
(24 hours later)
Okay, I'm 70 pages in and LOVING it. Are you?
I legit thought I had lost several pages because the story picks up immediately and the title page/copyright info isn't for 16 pages! I have to say, I'm normally a firm believer in "a story should start at the beginning," but I'm hoping the flash forward will be used as a solid storytelling device / be worth it. Haven't gotten far enough to know yet. I easily think the story could have started with her visiting the professor, but only time will tell!
What do you think about Digory? I'm surprised at how human he is. He's way past someone like C3PO who is very robotic and basically only programmed to respond to the situations around him. I can't help but hear his voice in a more robotic way, but I'm fascinated with him. What do you think his past is? Within the span of 70 pages we know that Clem grew up with him, but what does that mean? She keeps saying "our" family, so it makes me feel like maybe they were raised as siblings? But then again, Dig seems too protective to be a sibling. Maybe an older brother?
Also, were you surprised that Clem is a girl? Her gender isn't "revealed" until page 32 which I find fascinating.
She's very androgynous, which I find fascinating. Everyone else in this world seems very gendered, but then again I don't think we've met any other women, just Clem.
Again, only 70 pages in but I have more questions than when I started!!
MATTHEW: Excuse the pun, but I feel like this book has been running at a hundred miles per hour ever since I first picked it up. The opening was stunning and I totally loved being dropped into the action.
And racing through the desert with a robot sidekick while being chased in another, obviously more powerful vehicle commanded by a bunch of alien creatures? Let's just say I couldn't stop thinking about podracing in Episode 1 of Star Wars. (SIDENOTE: Is it just me, or was podracing one of the only redeeming qualities in that entire movie?). Regardless, I was in from the start. And then that title card dropped and suddenly we pick up in an academic hall staring at the nameplate on the door of a professor's office. I know I watch way too many movies, but I also know this won't be the last time I mention Indiana Jones in our conversation.
And that brings me to Clem being CLEMENTINE! I had no idea and I loved how much it took me by surprise. Because, seriously... why should that surprise me? Some of the best leads in kids comics today are girls. And they're leading some of the most badass plot lines. Zita (ZITA THE SPACEGIRL) saving the universe. Astrid (ROLLER GIRL) finding her home on the roller derby track. Rat (THE NAMELESS CITY) and the fate of an empire in her hands. Though I can't help but think Breach and Holgate were deliberately keeping her identity largely a secret from readers in the introduction. Masking her face in the helmet and googles drew my full attention to her eyes, full of fear and determination.
I'm reading an advanced reader copy (ARC), so everything I read after page 20 has been unfinished art. This has made the vehicle-heavy scenes a little tricky to navigate, but it also gave me an immediate appreciation for Holgate's line work. I'm not sure how far you've read, but there's this scene around page 53 that gives us a glimpse of what Digory means to Clem or, perhaps more so, how much Clem means to Digory. (NOTE: Image is from an uncorrected proof copy of the book.)
Just 50 pages in and my word was I feeling for those two. The embrace that ends the scene is one of my favorite compositions in the book so far.
That said, I kind of couldn't put the book down tonight. I ended up all the way on page 144, so I'll give you a minute to catch up. But let me just warn you that things get all sorts of Mad Max in the scenes to come. Buckle up!
MEL: Alright, Matthew, I'm done with the book. Let's do this!
You're right! Lots of great female leads in comic books these days (I have to add Avani from STARSCOUTS, Iko from WIRES AND NERVE, and Oona Lee from SAND WARRIOR to your list because I'm reading them now and they're fantastic!), and I love that the stories they lead are action-packed. I think you're right that Holgate
And speaking of leading ladies, the relationship development between Dig and Clem is just so touching. I loooove the fact that they are brother and sister. They've been raised together, so it's just a natural relationship for them. And the fact that one is human and the other is a robot/cyborg doesn't seem to have any influence on who is "better" at one thing or another: they each have their own strengths, and it seems that they're both considered equal in society. With so many anthropomorphic animals running around I was fully expecting "non-natural" creatures like robots to be second-class citizens, but (and we still have more to come so who knows, things could change!) so far there's no evidence that any species is considered less-than. I just love it. It also makes the world-building feel super organic.
In addition to referencing things like recharging stations (PAGE 164), the book visually introduces us to all of the characters organically, too (PAGE 74-75).
It's a crazy world with Mad-Max-Star-Wars vehicle racing and it's filled with a multitude of species. So while we get this spread to sort of take in this moment It's never pedantic, which makes for the best kind of world-building.
Also, the mechanic! How did I not see him coming?? There were so many hints AND this book is the first in a series. Of course they have to add a mechanic into the mix. I'm excited to see more of him in book 2 for sure.
And while the racing reminds me a lot of podracing in Star Wars (heck yes, that was by far the best part of that movie), I'm also having some very strong Mad Max moments, too. All the weaponry on the cars, the violent driving, even the way the characters look really remind me of Mad Max. It has that post-dystopia feel and the illegality of the race definitely adds to it. I can even hear the loud rock music!
Okay, lastly, the ending: did it feel a wee bit sudden? That it turns out, all along, Kilburn murdered her parents? And they way he reveals it is very blasé: I killed your parents, but it was an accident, so it's okay. I'm hoping we get more of this dynamic (ie Kilburn isn't dead) in the second book so we can get more from Kilburn (by way of motivation and character development). All that said, though, it was like a punch to the gut that Clem let the Crocs take Kilburn away, knowing that he would probably be murdered. Especially after you see that she'd do anything for Digory (when he has the bomb in his chest). I did not see it coming at all, and I was very pleasantly surprised by it. I thought it exposed her character very well, and I genuinely look forward to seeing what she does (more importantly, what's she's capable of doing) as the series continues.
This was such a great choice for a book, Matthew! Well done!
MATTHEW: I finished the book, too! What a ride!
Gotta talk about Diggory. You mentioned the observation about robots not being second-class citizens in this world. I saw that as well and couldn't help to think why non of the other racers had a problem with Clem bringing on a robot. Clearly they do not see Dig as a threat to their success (and as a reader we soon realize that Clem is the real threat, after all). And with everyone attacking one another left and right and trying to dismantle their opponents vehicles, I actually love how we get this moment toward the end of the story where a driver on an opposing team reminds us that "The race is the race. It's not personal." (page 201).
As I'm writing you this I have not yet seen the book in full color beyond the first 20 pages and yet I feel like I've also seen what a great and diverse world these characters are inhabiting. I'm just blown away by the line work and by how well the text is working with the art. Breach and Holgate have written a cohesive story with enough dialogue to give us a sense of the characters and enough art to give a voice to the unforgiving landscape as well. And that camera work! I love how we see the shots zoom tight on the characters when we're in dialogue and then pull way, way back to remind us just how desolate and area in which they're racing. I think for me that's why I never saw the mechanic coming. Such an obvious character to include (and one I'll really look forward to seeing in future books), and yet the desolation really had me feeling like Clem and Dig were on their own. I'm glad I was wrong.
I love that you could hear the loud rock music while you were reading this! That's perfect! For me, it was all engines. Growling and sputtering and intimidating the heck out of me. Breach and Holgate sure stacked the competition high against our protagonists and I think that made the ending all the more satisfying.
So here's the thing about the fast-ending conclusion to me. I kinda liked it. The action was out in the field. Why waste time pulling the rug out from under us? But what a jerk, that Kilburn! And what a jerk move he played on Digory. Still, her choice to take the artifacts over his life was surprising and, quite frankly, badass. If the sequels keep up like this I'm going to be pushing Clem Hetherington into students' hands left and right.
MEL: Agreed about Dig. I think they don't immediately see him as a threat to their success because this civilization has evolved far beyond "human vs machine." In this world, humans and machines are of equal status and like you said, that "The race is the race" comment just further proves that: humans and machines need each other to survive in this world.
Yes! So you're seeing things very differently than I am. I can never help myself when it comes to graphic novels, I just love seeing them in color. But then again, there are books like Jeff Smith's BONE, which I've only experienced in black and white, and I have to say, you really do get a much better sense of the line work and inking skills. It's wonderful that you refer to the "camera work," which I think is very telling of just how similar this book (and graphic novels in general) can be to all those movies we mentioned. We feel like we're right there in the action, and, like with movies and prose novels, we're given a very distinct perspective as an observer. It'd be easy to get lost or confused in Clem about the sequence of action moments because there's so much happening, and all we have to rely on is what the creators provide for us in series of panes. But Breach and Holgate nail it, using tight frames to make everything feel full of adrenaline, and helping readers follow the story from panel to panel by hitting key moments in the action sequences. So so good.
Now that I've had time to process, I totally agree with you about the ending. Why waste time? What I'm craving, I think, is just more of Clem and Kilburn-the-Jerk's dynamic, so here's hoping I'll get it! Regardless of what happens in the next books, though, the one thing I absolutely cannot wait for is more Clem. Think of the growth she experienced in this book and what that means for the sequels in terms of her badassery. It's going to be epic!!
MATTHEW: Agreed! An awesome book and (hopefully) just the start to an even bigger story!
Thanks for reading with me, Mel!
CLEM HETHERINGTON AND THE IRONWOOD RACE by Jen Breach and Douglas Holgate
publishes on February 27, 2018 from Graphix and is available for pre-order right now.
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