August 18, 2022


Crabgrass: Comic Adventures. By Tauhid Bondia. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

Witchcraft Coloring Book. By Christina Haberkern. Plume. $15.

     Tauhid Bondia’s Crabgrass would be just another nostalgic comic strip about nine-year-old best friends and their shenanigans – drawn in a straightforward, rather simplistic style – except for one thing: one best friend, Kevin, is white, and the other, Miles, is black. Having established the premise, Bondia promptly downplays it, giving Kevin and Miles typical-for-old-fashioned-suburban-life adventures. He makes sure, however, that whenever trouble is made, Kevin is the troublemaker, and whenever accomplishments are accomplished, Miles accomplishes them. Kevin is one of four kids: he has a twin sister, Krystal; an older brother, Kyle; and a baby brother, Kody. He also has a far-from-perfect family life: his dad moves out in the course of Comic Adventures, and when Kevin is temporarily lost during an outdoor adventure, his mom, while smoking a cigarette in irritation, comments to Miles’ mom, “Sweetie, I’m a mother of four. Losing track of one is as close as I get to a vacation.” Miles, on the other hand, is an only child living with his happily married mother and father, and when Kevin at one point talks unhappily about his family situation, saying he wishes his dad could have been more like Miles’ dad, Miles is brought to tears: “Snif. My dad really is great! Snif.” Miles’ parents also get most of the good lines in the strip. For instance, when the boys say they wish they could be dogs instead of human kids, Bondia shows Miles’ parents looking out the window, with the father saying, “Any reason those weirdos are chasing cars on all fours?” And Miles’ mother replies, “If they’re not naked or bleeding, I just mind my business.” Miles’ mom also waxes hyper-emotional after the boys’ “lost” adventure: “Oh come here, my sweet baby! I don’t know what I’d do if anything ever happened to you!” Another example: Miles’ mom says at one point, “Sometimes I worry about that kid.” And his dad responds, “Me too. But then I just activate my goofy nonsense blocker and the feeling passes.” Crabgrass can be funny – that last bit of dialogue is a good example – but it seems important to Bondia to keep the black/white dynamic going throughout, establishing it as an important underlying element of Crabgrass. One example: Miles tells his mom that he and Kevin plan to dress as each other for Halloween, his mom finds that very funny, but then she rushes to the phone – and a final panel has Kevin’s mom screaming “STOP” at Kevin, who is in the process of painting his skin black. Another strip: Kevin falls into deep mud during the “lost adventure” with Miles, who of course stays completely clean and is annoyed at his sloppy, filthy friend. Trying to make amends, Kevin starts saying, “Check it out. My skin’s almost as brown as yo—” and gets interrupted angrily by Miles saying, “NOPE.” There are sweet elements in Crabgrass: Comic Adventures, and funny ones, and silly ones, and semi-serious ones – but would-be readers need to know that the “best friend” dynamic is only one theme here, and not always the one in the forefront.

     The black-and-white elements of Christina Haberkern’s Witchcraft Coloring Book have no racial overtones or implications, although the book does possess some societal references. As the title indicates, this is a coloring book – one of several created by Haberkern for adult colorists – and as such offers illustrations entirely in black-and-white that artistic readers of the book can transformatively color as they wish. This is, in addition, a book to be read as well as used for fanciful (or realistic) illustrative purposes. And that is where the societal implications come in. On some pages, Haberkern simply presents black-and-white versions of items associated with witchcraft and witches: a mystical card deck on one page, for instance, a coiled snake among flowers on another, an arcane star symbol on a third, a hand holding a wand on a fourth. Other pages focus on words and offer minimal background for coloring purposes: one says “Cast a Spell,” another “Tap into Your Power,” and still others sport quotations from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. But there are pages here to read and absorb in addition to coloring them, and it is those pages that offer some insight into societal attitudes toward and feelings about witchcraft – in the past and today. One page shows Professor Minerva McGonagall from the Harry Potter books and movies, with Haberkern discussing her “stern exterior with a strict penchant for following the rules.” One shows Willow Rosenberg, best friend of the title character in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. One gives Haberkern’s rendition of Morgan le Fey from the Arthurian legends. These entries give insight into fictional witches from various time periods – and Haberkern goes beyond that to include pages showing real-world witches, or at least real women accused of witchery. One page shows Moll Dyer, a 16th-century woman whose fate eventually inspired The Blair Witch Project. One shows La Voisin, a 17th-century French fortune teller accused in a scandal that claimed many lives among France’s aristocracy. One shows Tituba, the first woman accused during the Salem witch trials – who was eventually imprisoned, but not executed. Through these real-world witch-related stories, plus the wholly fictional ones, plus the pages offering lore and objects associated with witchcraft, Haberkern crafts an appealing book of witchery that actually looks just fine with its black-and-white illustrations – but also offers plenty of opportunities for artists with a penchant for the occult to indulge their sense of color and style on every page.

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