Review of the Day: Sci-Fu by Yehudi Mercado
Not too long I attended a local comic convention in the Chicago area call C2E2. I’d been to the New York Comic Con once or twice, but that was small potatoes compared to this extravaganza. While there I had the chance to see something that a lot of librarians miss: Comics in their natural element. Comics from big publishers. Comics from small publishers. Independent artists. And, naturally, panels panels panels. On one such panel I saw publisher Charlie “Spike” Trotman of Iron Circus Comics speak about the disconnect between comic creators and libraries. As she pointed out, a lot of librarians are unaware of the vast number of comics available out there and a lot of comic creators are aware of the distinct advantages that come from getting your work in libraries. She was entirely correct on that front. Comics for kids have never been more popular than they are today, but the output available from the standard children’s presses is far outstripped by the need. Add in the fact that 90% of what you find is by white creators, featuring white characters and you’ve got yourself a disconnect. While all these thoughts percolated in my head, I heard about Sci-Fu, a book that falls right smack dab into the shouldn’t-work-but-it-does school of thought. It’s not a book that’s going to correct the schism between what’s available and what libraries provide, but it’s a pretty little babystep in the right direction.
As a kid, Wax can probably be best summed up as a boy with modest dreams. He only wants to be the greatest DJ the world has ever known. He only wants to have Pirate Polly, that incredibly cool girl down the street, as a girlfriend. He only wants to write rhymes that impress beyond measure. But Wax is just a normal kid with a best friend, little sister, and uncle. It’s the 1980s in Brooklyn and nothing out of this world has ever happened to him. Nothing, that is, until an evil alien robot hears his record scratching and interprets the sound as an intergalactic challenge. Now Wax has discovered that he, his family, and Pirate Polly have all been transported to the world of Discopia where he has very little time to master the music/kung-fu art of Sci-Fu before the baddies take him down for good.
I’m an adult that pretends that she can read a book like a kid. Until I had kids I think I honestly believed that I could read with a child’s eye. But you forget, as you age, what it’s actually like for a kid to encounter a book that’s entirely new. I come at every book with a wealth of knowledge about what’s come before, what it might be referencing, and how it compares to other books in the same genre. A lot of a time a kid doesn’t have access to that information. They’re meeting these books on their own terms, and their interpretations are vastly different from my own. It can be near impossible to actually put yourself into their shoes . . . unless you’re dealing with a book like Sci-Fu. People often talk about what happens when a white reader encounters something that is Not For Them and how discombobulated they become. That’s not wrong. I acknowledge freely that I waltz into the reading of a lot of children’s books with a sense of ownership. That’s why Sci-Fu instantly befuddled me. This book is loaded down with references that I am simply not getting. Hip-hop references. Graffiti references. Kung Fu references. Heck, from what I understand the whole first chapter is filled with visual references to Beastie Boys songs. As I read, I realized I had to let a lot of this stuff just slip past my head. It was oddly freeing, knowing as I did that I didn’t need to get any of those references to enjoy the book. After all, a strong work doesn’t need nudges and winks to its adult gatekeepers to stand on its own. Just strong storytelling and killer art.
Which isn’t to say I didn’t do my homework after reading this book. In interviews, Mr. Mercado has mentioned that the hip-hop influences on this book included Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Run DMC, and A Tribe Called Quest. Kung Fu? That’s all about the Jackie Chan. One interviewer mentioned that what the artist does in this book isn’t just referencing hip-hop and Kung Fu but “sampling” them, as you would a beat or musical through line. I liked that link he made between comics and music. It’s something that’s been explored far more on the adult side of graphic literature, but deserves some serious thought here. Mr. Mercado even went so far as to create a Spotify playlist for this book. Now it looks like I’ll have to start calling books “must reads” alongside their “must listen” playlists.
For years authors of books for kids have raided their own childhoods for their writing. Nostalgia is only a part of the reason. For many, the mantra to “write what you know” is easier when you can time travel to a point in your own past when your emotions were at their keenest and clearest. These days, however, there’s yet another reason. Set a book before the 90s and you’ve the additional advantage of telling your tale before the electronic revolution. Mobile phones and the internet are plot busters, plain and simple. That said, I think Mr. Mercado selected 80s Brooklyn as much for its place in history and the romanticism that goes with that as he did plot conveniences. And anyway, I’ve seen books that tried to make it out like scratching and flattops are contemporary, and they never go well. This book, frankly, makes more sense.
But is it any good? Actually, yes. It’s a lot of fun. I think I heard a librarian somewhere claim that the rhymes (and there are a lot of them) don’t always scan on the page, but I reject that idea outright. The scansion was never a problem, as far as I could tell. I like Mercado’s rhymes, almost as much as I like his art. True, it’s busy. If you’re a fan of pure esthetics and clean lines against single color backgrounds, this is not the book for you. Visually, the story is trying to land as much pop, vitality, energy, wit, and sheer eyeball jarring magnificence in each panel as possible without distracting the young reader away from the storyline. The end result can sometimes be a little uneven, with certain fast sequences coming across as more coherent than others, but it’s never boring and it’s impossible to ignore.
In an interview, Yehudi Mercado mentioned that he’d encountered two different instances where famous DJs mentioned a link between their scratching and extraterrestrials. That’s one of those weird facts that leads artists to books like this one. Now don’t go handing this book to someone you’re trying to convert to loving comics. I’ll tell you right now, due to the complexity of the material, this is best suited for those folks that have loved comics for years and are interested in trying something new. Brown kids on graphic novel covers are rare in libraries, and black kids, sad to say, are almost unheard of, even in 2018. Seriously, walk over to any library’s comic book section and grab me three books there with black boys on their covers. This book steps into that gap with a love and affection for music and Kung Fu that few would be able to match, creating something wholly, incredibly, entirely new. Long story short: A must have for libraries nationwide.
On shelves now.
Source: Book checked out of the library for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and June Jo Lee, ill. Man One
- When the Beat Was Born: DJ Cool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill, ill. Theodore Taylor III
- Lowriders to the Center of the Earth by Cathy Camper, ill. Raul the Third
Curious about the musical influenced found within these pages? Go to Spotify and look up “Sci-Fu”. There you’ll find a playlist that includes everything from “Teenage Love” by Slick Rick to Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend”.
I confess it. I gained a lot of understanding out of this video when I watched it after reading the book.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
SLJ Blog Network