Comics of Note

The yearlong weekly series 52—set in a year in which Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman have vanished, and written by all-stars Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, and Geoff Johns—is off to a great start, setting up an intriguing set of interlocking stories that look to take full advantage of the DC Universe's depth, teaming characters in unexpected arrangements and playing off the emotional aftershocks of Infinite Crisis. Also off to a good start: Rucka's Checkmate, which deftly combines the two worlds he knows best, spies and superheroes… Both: B+

And if Infinite Crisis isn't enough for fans of universe-spanning crossovers, Marvel has responded with Civil War, a seven-issue series in which the issue of government-mandated superhero registration will tear apart the superhero community. Mark Millar scripts and Steve McNiven pencils; the first issue begins with a literal bang, followed by dialogue that suggests Millar won't shy away from the chance to tie the story into contemporary political hot-button issues… B+

Harvey Pekar's last book, The Quitter, was hard to get through because it was so one-note and redundant with his previous work; his latest, Ego & Hubris: The Michael Malice Story (Ballantine) is even harder to swallow, but it's also hard to put down. Another obsessively detailed American Splendor offshoot, Ego & Hubris presents a biography of a Pekar acquaintance, a hateful blowhard who touts his genius-level intellect and dismisses most of the world as inferior, deluded, or hypocritical. Pekar apparently finds Malice fascinating, and with good reason; he's something of a human cockroach, but he's certainly one of a kind, and his long anecdotal history of fighting back against a world of idiots seems angled to appeal to the hidden sociopath in everyone. Still, 150 pages of self-aggrandizing, vitriol, spite, and (inevitably) Ayn Rand boosterism gets awfully wearying… B-

Dan Slott has been making the Marvel universe a more entertaining place for a while now, most prominently with his She-Hulk revival. With Big Max (Mr. Comics), drawn by James Fry, he unveils an original creation that's just one layer of clever on top of another. The hero's a super-intelligent gorilla who hides his identity while delivering for Gorilla-Gram. It's mostly as fun as it sounds, sometimes even more fun, and perfect for kids, so long as they don't think too hard about Max's crush on a cute human friend… B

Maybe the best thing about the new Superman Returns movie is that it has DC Comics shaking loose some archival material, since page for page, no superhero is as entertaining. Aside from a pair of '90s stories that mix up the mythology for novelty's sake, the collection Superman: Daily Planet (DC) is a dish of pop-surrealist candy corn, compiling newspaper-themed stories from the pages of Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen and Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane. As far as the DC writers of the '50s and '60s were concerned, good journalism is all about "scoops," which Lois racked up on a daily basis, though almost always—the DC chauvinists were quick to point out—with the secret help of the guy in the cape… A-

Story-wise, the pat cautionary tales collected in Marvel Romance (Marvel) don't have much to offer outside of a peek at '60s teenage sociology. But Marvel's artists seemed to relish the opportunity to draw something besides monsters and superheroes, and the sense of design in these little six-pagers—in terms of women's fashion and page layout alike—is as dynamic as anything in Spider-Man or Fantastic Four. See especially Jim Steranko's snazzy linework on "My Heart Broke In Hollywood," which brings credit to the company's unofficial '60s motto: "Marvel Pop-Art Productions"… B+

Of all the EC Comics "usual gang of idiots," gagman extraordinaire Will Elder has had perhaps the longest and strongest post-Mad career; he's parlayed his fine draftsmanship and satirical sting into a lifetime of illustration gigs, most notably at Playboy. Fantagraphics' slim paperback Elder collection Chicken Fat: Drawings, Sketches, Cartoons & Doodles serves as a companion to the massive 2004 coffee-table book The Mad Playboy Of Art, as well as an insight into Elder's creative processes and comic gifts, plus an inadvertent study in how much he influenced Dan Clowes' sense of the grotesque… A-

Outside of R. Crumb's early big-footed schlubs, the defining image for Zap Comix and the whole underground-comics movement may be Victor Moscoso's "Mr. Peanut/Mr. Penis" cover for the gleefully vulgar Zap #4. The hardcover art book Sex, Rock & Optical Illusions (Fantagraphics) places Moscoso's knotty, surreal comics work alongside his vibrant, eye-bending album covers and posters for San Francisco rock clubs, making the case for the artist as the man who gave psychedelic music a physical shape… A-

Mutts cartoonist Patrick McDonnell follows up The Gift Of Nothing with his second children's book, Art (Little, Brown), an absolutely gorgeous salute to the accidental masterpieces that kids create, and the sense of pride that accompanies making something out of nothing—even if that something is just a scribble. It takes about a minute to read, but it could take a lifetime to absorb the elegance with which McDonnell converts playful doodling into something wonderfully compact and ordered… A

What's Warren Ellis doing these days? Short answer: The same thing everyone else is doing, but better. At least most of the time. Lately, Ellis has been writing fantastic, brainy superhero comics (the Ultimate Galactus trilogy), fantastic, stupid superhero comics (Nextwave), and a first-rate police procedural (Fell). But his zombie comic Black Gas has been kind of a snore, and the barbarian book Wolfskin is going to have to get a lot better to live up to his reputation, unless entrail-eating, endless pages of wordless fight scenes, and dialogue like "We don't do guilt where I come from" is where he wants to take his writing… C

After months of media blitzing, the new publishing imprint First Second (a Henry Holt subsidiary) is finally launching with six simultaneous graphic-novel releases covering a broad range of styles and reading levels. The best and densest of the bunch is Joann Sfar's Vampire Loves, a fiddly, whispery, episodic story about a lovelorn vampire pursuing angsty romances with various people and supernatural creatures. Like Sfar's book The Rabbi's Cat, Vampire Loves takes a great many discursive twists into the lives of minor characters, and sticks to a tone rather than a storyline. Its pervasive melancholy is as absorbing as Sfar's tender, detailed portraits of odd creatures with inhuman bodies and oh-so-human emotions… A

As to the other First Second books:

• Sfar also contributes art to Emmanuel Guibert's Sardine In Outer Space, a collection of short, punchy adventures featuring a jolly space pirate, his cheeky niece Sardine, his archenemy Supermuscleman, and a whole lot of needy or threatening aliens. Intended for a younger audience, it's fast-paced, goofy, and harmlessly gory. The individual stories don't have much impact, but it's bright, enjoyable adventure reading for the younger set… B

• Sfar's sometime partner Lewis Trondheim heads in a radically different direction with A.L.I.E.E.E.N., purportedly a comic abandoned on Earth by aliens. Its wordless narratives and cute, simple, soft-edged art suggest a book for the very young, but its themes of mutilation, anguish, and destruction—including the tale of a city engulfed by one creature's endless flood of shit—set up a steady wave of queasy cognitive dissonance. Trondheim successfully and subtly develops the idea that extraterrestrials have suitably alien senses of what makes a story, but on this planet, it all just amounts to sick humor… C

• Eddie Campbell raises the bar with his entertaining but difficult The Fate Of The Artist, which alternates prose pieces, multi-panel stories, ersatz newspaper comics, and many other formats for a jumpy narrative collage purportedly about Campbell's disappearance, seemingly into his own work and his obscure obsessions. Exquisitely illustrated and endlessly experimental, it encourages a sort of detective's examination to puzzle out the thematic and stylistic connections, and while it ultimately reads as something halfway between a literary joke and a sketchbook collection, it's full of funny, sly, crafty, and clever moments that gain strength by going in a variety of directions… B+

• Jean-Philippe Stassen's hard-hitting Deogratias is far more streamlined and structured; its story takes place in mid-'90s Rwanda, where a disturbed boy intermittently sees himself as a dog, thanks to a horrifying history that emerges in bits and pieces. Deogratias is historically and culturally aware, but accessible and instructive even to those not familiar with Rwanda's history; Joe Sacco might produce this sort of book if he were more interested in fiction than reportage… B

• Billed as book one of a series, Grady Klein's The Lost Colony: The Snodgrass Conspiracy doesn't quite end on a cliffhanger, but it doesn't quite tell a complete story, either. A charming, wild, slightly baffling portrait of an island full of idiosyncratic individuals, it bounces between conversations and confrontations without quite cohering into a narrative. A sleazy slave trader, a couple of crafty kids, an easily distracted Chinese pharmacist, a puffed-up politician, some questionably real rock-beasties, and a rattletrap robot all figure prominently in a tale set in no particular time or place, and with no particular rules. Klein sometimes seems to be making it up as he goes along, but his blobby little people prove surprisingly appealing… B+

Whew. As widely ranging as First Second's launch titles are, they're still all distinctly arty. After working through a pile of them, some ambitious but still lowbrow goofery like Dark Horse's newly launched miniseries Archenemies is a terrific palate-cleanser. Drew Melbourne's sitcom-esque plot has two temperamental strangers—a geeky, grim, up-and-coming supervillain and a jock superhero—unwittingly sharing a rent-controlled NYC apartment. Their secret identities hate each other as much as their super-identities, they just haven't made the connection yet. The first of four issues packs a ton of story into a small space, as the pair clash publicly and privately, and even, in a weird adult twist, sexually. It isn't quite clear yet whether it's satirical, serious, or both, but it's attention-grabbing either way… A-

Not for the easily depressed or easily unnerved, Renée French's The Ticking (Top Shelf) follows up her book The Soap Lady with a similarly eerie story that feels like a sequel to David Lynch's Eraserhead. A deformed boy studies and illustrates grotesqueries as his ineffectual father ponders corrective surgery; French mostly presents her story in small illustrations centered on larger pages, using a fuzzy penciled technique reminiscent of Chris Van Allsburg at his most soft-focus. It's a strangely tender, gentle approach for such harsh content. B

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