Comics of note

Neil Gaiman's much-heralded return to comics for the Marvel-Universe-in-Elizabethan-times series 1602 turned out to be a series of clever reinventions in search of a compelling story. And installment #1 of his six-part Eternals (Marvel), which reprises a late-period Jack Kirby creation involving immortal beings and their influence on humanity, suffers from a sluggish pace, while a badly set up late-issue twist doesn't bode well for the storytelling. Still, always-great artist John Romita Jr. outdoes himself on every page, and the mythic themes are so close to what Gaiman does best, it would be a surprise if the series doesn't rally… B-

One of the strongest ongoing series to come out of DC's Vertigo line in some time, DMZ takes place in a near-future Manhattan that's become a theoretical neutral turf in a still-ongoing second American Civil War. Writer/artist Brian Wood and artist Riccardo Burchielli hit their inexperienced reporter protagonist with a battery of sub-Third World squalid situations. DMZ: On The Ground collects the series' first six issues, all plausibly grounded in an America that's turned into the kind of danger zone most of us like to think we'll never experience… A-

Stephen Notley only produces one Bob The Angry Flower strip per week—they're available online, but the measured pace means it's always far too long between print collections. The long-awaited Dog Killer (Tachyon) is a whole new chance to revel in Notley's fevered, nihilistic madness—virtually every strip is a bizarre standalone in which an anthropomorphic, amoral flower named Bob does something that makes almost no sense, from facing a wendigo that's actually a lollipop to turning The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe's Mr. Beaver over to the White Witch. Notley's expressive, explosive art is generally black-and-white, but this collection features a full-color extended story called "Pure Action," in which Bob fights a hoversled duel with an angry bear, among other things. B

Since its 2000 inception, Fred Gallagher's web comic Megatokyo has gone from a gag-oriented cult hit to a sophisticated, dense running story, and its publishing pattern has commensurately increased in profile: The first collection came out via the tiny indie Studio Ironcat, Gallagher jumped to Dark Horse for the second and third, and now Megatokyo 4 is out via DC Comics' WildStorm imprint. The latest book is complicated enough to require a thorough grounding in the series' backstory (fortunately, all the strips are still accessible online at megatokyo.com): It follows two American geeks who traveled to Japan on impulse, couldn't afford to return, and are now completely enmeshed in the lives of a former anime idol, an up-and-coming voice actress, a cute girl robot, a guardian-angel cadre that includes a guardian hamster, and many more characters, some outsized and some understated. Gallagher's manga-influenced pencil art gets more involved and beautiful with every book, and his demented version of Tokyo, where the police control crowds with rented Godzillas, ninjas abound, and anime fanboys do the craziest things, is a terrific counterpoint to his melancholy look at love and friendship… A-

Comics fans likely won't recognize most of the contributors of Flight Volume 3 (Ballantine), though they're billed as "today's hottest illustrators," but the names barely matter compared to the eye-popping, breathtakingly vivid art. The hefty 350-page anthology collects mini-stories from a double dozen artists and animators; their contributions lean heavily toward edgy but adorable fairy tales that should immediately strike home for fans of Neil Gaiman, Charles De Lint, or Charles Vess. The wonderful images beg for poster treatment, but the rich coloring is even more impressive… A

For American alt-comics devotees, Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian's "Monsieur Jean" has been a reliable presence in Drawn & Quarterly anthologies over the last 10 years. By releasing Get A Life, a compendium of the first three M. Jean graphic albums, the company has done a favor for all those trying to get a handle on the character's history. Much remains the same with M. Jean in these early stories, in that he's still a not-that-famous Parisian author dealing with ex-girlfriends and unfortunate loyalties, but at the beginning, Dupuy & Berberian were still feeling their way between slapstick and poignancy, and by the end of the book, they've figured out how to convey the way their hero's life—like everyone's—is a string of happy and sad surprises… A-

Simultaneous with the release of Get A Life, D&Q is putting out a domestic edition of Dupuy & Berberian's Maybe Later, a cartoon journal the pair kept during the two-year creation of the third M. Jean album. It's more than a little self-indulgent, but it does help clarify the nature of the pair's unusual collaboration—they work together on the words and the pictures—and how much of their own arrested adolescence they've imparted to their signature character… B-

After Walt Kelly quit his job as an in-betweener in the Disney animation factory, but before he began his reputation-making stint as the creator of the comic strip Pogo, he spent about a decade as a comic-book writer/artist, working on licensed characters. For Dell Comics, throughout the mid-'40s, Kelly wrote and drew the comic-book adventures of MGM's "Our Gang," whose series of two-reelers was then coming to an end. The eight full-color stories in Fantagraphics' initial collection. Our Gang: 1942-1943 feature some common-to-the-period racial stereotyping and war boosterism, but even though the kids seem to end every adventure by buying a bond or contributing to a scrap-metal drive, the adventures still have the do-it-yourself, kid-culture appeal of the original shorts… B+

It's been more than a decade since Fantagraphics published the third volume of Jules Feiffer's collected works, but now that the company is flush with Complete Peanuts money, it's apparently ready to resume the series with volume four, Passionella And Other Stories. Compiled from the playlets and whimsical cartoon short stories that Feiffer submitted to national magazines in the late '50s and early '60s, Passionella catches the artist in full satirical flower, mocking method actors, Playboy philosophers, nationalist sports fans, and satirists themselves. Even in his earliest work, Feiffer wasn't exactly subtle, but his brightly minimalist line drawings and cutting remarks—like "The very best blacklisted screenwriters were flown in from England to do the scenario!"—provide a nice contrast to the sledgehammer realism that passed for serious art in that era… A-

The short stories in Megan Kelso's collection The Squirrel Mother (Fantagraphics) tend to run only a few pages, without much of a direct narrative, but their economy of design and vivid sense of place leave haunting impressions of people dwelling in half-remembered moments. Even Kelso's swing at American history—a trilogy of tales about Alexander Hamilton—is less about biography than about what we take away from biography. And in the book's long centerpiece story, "Meow Face," Kelso has her heroine dance around the recollection of an ugly family incident in ways that demand—and reward—an immediate second reading… A-

South African cartoonist Joe Daly seems to have internalized the full history of alternative comix, and in his story collection Scrublands (Fantagraphics), he produces archly funny, unsettlingly surreal pages that recall R. Crumb, Dan Clowes, and Jim Woodring. Daly gets quick laughs out of a strip that considers the perspective of the microorganisms that live in Bruce Springsteen's scalp, and from one in which an artist's roommate gets so enamored of a sculpture-in-progress that he decides to have sex with it. But Daly also repeatedly returns to themes of birth and abandonment, grounding his underground sensibility in a specific, somewhat scary place… B+

DC Comics' ongoing multi-stage plan to re-make its "universe" into something that looks like its old universe—only with more issue #1s to collect—continues with the 80-page, one-buck loss-leader Brave New World, a haphazardly organized sampler of six new series. Of these, the most intriguing look to be Omac (written by Bruce Jones, apparently recycling his own '70s-styled fugitive plots from The Hulk), Martian Manhunter (yet another attempt to make the alien more "alien," though well-executed in the setup) and The All-New Atom (a wiggy science-warrior take on the character, graced with the increasingly eccentric art of John Byrne). The rest look like the usual soon-to-be-in-the-quarter-bin superhero slop, dressed up with varying degrees of "edge." C-